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Of Your Making

Chapter Text

October 1, 1956

 

The minutes inched by.

Tom had never enjoyed waiting and every second that passed was a test to his resolve. He could still feel the locket’s golden chain slip from his fingers. Yesterday Hepzibah Smith had finally revealed her treasures to him and already it felt like a year ago. The urge to take the locket and cup right there and then burned hot in his blood, but that would have been foolish. He had not pandered to the old lady for eight years to fail thanks to impatience and recklessness.

Tomorrow, Tom told himself, smoothing the front of his black suit and calming his composure.

It was good that Burke had sent him to the latest Cremp Auction. Tom needed something to distract himself with and who knew? Perhaps luck would continue to shine upon him and he would find another hard-sought relic to add to his collection.

“Tom! I’m so happy you made it!”

He turned and found himself facing Sebastian Cremp’s assistant: short, with no chin to speak of, Rosalyn Kurk beamed behind her thick, square-rimmed glasses. She was the one in charge of organizing the artifacts for auction. Tom had met her on numerous occasions, and with each, she clutched her clipboard to her chest, radiating excitement.

“Mr. Burke and Mr. Borgin were intrigued by Cremp’s letter,” said Tom. Glancing around the crowded auction hall, he added, “For Cremp to invite so many there must be something truly spectacular.”

Rosalyn’s eyes danced. She pushed her glasses more securely up her nose. “Spectacular is one way of putting it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the auction goes on for an extra hour.”

This did not amuse Tom. Cremp’s auctions already had a tendency to overrun themselves.

“I wouldn’t mind giving you a preview,” Rosalyn suggested, blushing to her roots.

Tom feigned surprise, but the slick smile he sent her was nothing of the kind.

“Rosalyn, I don’t want to risk your job.”

“We’ll be quick.” And mimicking Hepzibah, she said, “I know how much you value magic for magic’s sake. Everyone else just wants to add to their collection. Out of all the people here, you should be the one to see it up close.”

Tom’s interest rose. Was the sword of Gryffindor nestled away behind the stage?

“Lead the way.”

Rosalyn’s pink cheeks turned magenta. She led him through the waiting crowd until they reached a side door. She opened it with a quick tap of her wand and hurried into a narrow, dark hallway. A short trek and they emerged into Cremp’s holding area. Tonight’s auction spread out before him on a labyrinth of shelving. Almost immediately, Tom recognized half a dozen magical artifacts. As Rosalyn’s heels click-clacked to a shelf, his eyes scanned the items, but he was disappointed. There was nothing here that once belonged to Gryffindor. 

“Here you go,” Rosalyn said breathlessly. “Take a look at this.”

She carried in her hands a disk burnished a fine gold. It looked perfectly unremarkable, but Tom recognized it at once.

“The Carcerem,” he said, surprised and fascinated.

Rosalyn bounced on her toes. “I knew you’d know it!”

Out of all the magical artifacts, the Carcerem was perhaps the most shrouded in mystery, its history more legend than fact. All studies of it had been short-winded. Thefts, and even principle scholars vanishing without a trace, had only added to its dark glamor. The Carcerem itself had disappeared from wizard eyes nearly a century ago.

The power it must hold.

Tom’s finger was against the golden disk before his brain caught up with his actions. At once, the Carcerem woke, opening like a flower in Rosalyn’s hands.

Startled, Rosalyn nearly dropped it. “I’ve never seen it open! Not even Sebastian could get it to and he put it through so many tests.”

Tom ignored her, too busy reading the fine etchings ringing its inner circle. The runes were archaic, in a language even he was not fully fluent in, but the few he knew were enough to have him jerking his hand away.

“Are you hurt?” asked Rosalyn, concerned.

“It is nothing,” said Tom, rubbing his forefinger and thumb together. The tip of his finger was tender, as if it had been pricked with a thorn, but there was no mark. No blood.

“Are you sure?” Rosalyn pressed. “You’re awfully pale.”

“I assure you, I’m perfectly well. We should return. Our absence might be noticed.”

Rosalyn gasped. “You’re right! The auction will start any minute!” She hurried away, putting the Carcerem back in its place and Tom released the breath he’d been holding.

He did not understand how, but he felt that when he’d touched the metal shell, the Carcerem had done more than simply unfurl its petals: it had opened its eye and looked at him. Looked into his very soul.

The philosopher, Nicolas Flamel, wrote perhaps the most famous of observations: Behold the Carcerem with great caution. The witness will find himself witnessed.

Tom returned to the gathering, feeling unusually unsettled. Almost vulnerable. He squashed the feelings. He was not like other wizards. He was set above and soon everyone in this cramped, musty hall would know his great and terrible power. The Carcerem was nothing to him. He was not vulnerable to anything or anyone. His Horcruxes saw to that.

The Carcerem made its appearance, the entire hall clamoring with excitement, but Tom did not raise his hand to bid for Borgin and Burke. His mind was occupied with far greater ambitions. Hepzibah would soon have an unexpected visit.

 


 

May 2, 1998

 

Severus Snape entered the headmaster’s office, locking the door behind him with a soft tap of his wand. For the barest slip of a moment, he allowed his facade to fall away. He regretted it immediately.

“Severus, what has happened?” Dumbledore asked from his portrait over the desk.

Severus pushed himself off the door and withdrew the sealed box he carried.

“I just confiscated this from Gregory Goyle.”

He placed the small box on the desk and gave it a tap. It opened and up rose a perfectly smooth golden disk. Severus had never seen it before in his life, but the magic radiating from it had caught his notice — a chaotic, churning energy. An electrical storm barely contained. He wouldn’t necessarily classify it as Dark, but it most certainly warranted caution and most certainly was not something a student should be within five yards of, much less stashed away in his bag.

Dumbledore inhaled sharply.

Severus looked up quickly. “You know what this is?”

“I do,” said Dumbledore. His eyes were latched onto the disk. “And you must remove it from the castle immediately.”

In all the years Severus had known Dumbledore, he’d only seen the man truly frightened a handful of times. This was one of them. He did not know what this device was or what it did, but he accepted that it could not be here.

Severus lowered the disk back into its box, the latch clicking shut once more.

“Where do you suggest I—”

A searing pain cut him off. Severus doubled up, clutching his left forearm, right where the Dark Mark was inked into his skin. With a grimace, he looked up at Dumbledore’s ashen face.

“That will have to wait, Albus,” he said grimly. “Potter’s here.”

Chapter Text

Harry heard the waves first. He felt the sand, rough against his cheek, second. The burning in his throat came third. He lifted his head and his lungs heaved up … salt water? Confused, Harry squinted against the sun’s glare. His glasses were gone, but he found them resting beside his hand. He put them on just as a wave rolled over him.

“What the—” His voice came out as a croak, his throat searing as badly as if he’d swallowed the ocean.

He rose on shaking legs, confusion increasing with each passing second. He stood on a stretch of empty beach, which was impossible because he had been at Hogwarts just seconds ago. He had been in the Headmaster’s office, dueling—

Harry froze.

He wasn’t alone.

Narrowing his eyes against the salt smudges clouding his glasses, Harry saw another form farther down the beach.

“Ron? Hermione?”

No response. The form did not move. Harry staggered toward it, his legs like jelly. The all too familiar itch of fear covered his skin. He closed the short distance, his trainers sinking and slipping in wet sand. As he neared the person, he knew it was neither Ron nor Hermione. And when he dropped to his knees, and with great trepidation rolled the figure over, he knew in his gut who it was before the man’s face was revealed.

Harry’s brain disengaged, because this was absurd. This was insane.

Dark haired and pale and completely unconscious was Tom Riddle.

It was the fresh crash of a wave that brought Harry back to his senses. Shaking salt water from his eyes, he realized he’d tumbled over — a haste of trying to scamper away from a far too human Voldemort, tugging his wand from his pocket as he did.

For the second time, everything seemed to freeze, all surroundings blackening as his attention zoomed in on another impossibility. The wand. The hawthorn wand clutched in his fist was nothing more than a stick. Panic crawled up Harry’s throat. The wand was still. Lifeless. Empty.

It fell from Harry’s fingers as he yanked at his shirt. He pulled open the mokeskin pouch that hung around his neck and fished out his own wand. Nearly snapped in half, the thinnest fibers of wood and phoenix feather barely kept it together. Harry held the holly inches from his nose and felt that he cradled something dead.

“No.”

His wand didn’t simply feel broken. It didn’t feel like a wand at all. A spell rested on the tip of his tongue, but Harry could not bring himself to utter it. Dread encased his heart, flooding his chest as a terrifying thought came: magic was gone.

But magic couldn’t be gone. Harry barely noticed the next gush of ocean water knocking against his shins, threatening to carry the hawthorn away as he stared down at the holly. Magic was behind this. Magic had done this.

Whatever this was.

Harry shut his eyes. Think. There had to be a logical explanation. He’d been at Hogwarts — he was certain of that. Hagrid had carried him out of the Forbidden Forest. Neville had defied Voldemort, killing Nagini with a single great swipe of Gryffindor’s sword. Chaos erupted. Under the Invisibility Cloak, Harry had darted through the fight. He’d revealed himself. With everyone watching, he’d faced Voldemort in the Great Hall, his wand hand steady as he waited with baited breath for the Killing Curse to come, but Voldemort, red eyes wide with fury and fear, had done the opposite. He’d fled, taking Harry momentarily by surprise, but only for a second. Up the marble staircase, down the Charms Corridor, Harry followed — the whole school rushing behind him — until Voldemort was cornered in the Headmaster’s office. Even the portraits had followed. From his painting above the desk, Dumbledore shouted something in warning as —

Harry opened his eyes and looked down at his right wrist, noticing the burn there for the first time. He remembered very clearly Voldemort sending the cabinet that usually held the Pensieve right at him. There’d been no time to jump clear; he had shouted ‘Confringo!’ and the cabinet exploded, showering the office with wooden splinters. Harry remembered lifting his arm to protect himself and … and…

And he’d come to half-submerged in ocean water? On a beach he’d never seen before in a place that seemed miles from Hogwarts with a Tom Riddle dressed in Voldemort’s robes, looking as young as he had when he worked for Borgin and Burkes? Had the blast addled his brain? Was he actually wandering around the mental ward of St. Mungo’s and this was all a highly vivid hallucination?

Or…

Harry took in the burn on the inside of his wrist. He couldn’t make out the mark in detail, but it looked like a half-moon, the skin around it angry and inflamed.

With conscious effort, Harry tamped down the panic threatening to unhinge him. There must have been something within the cabinet that hadn’t reacted well to being blown up. He needed help. He needed to find Ron and Hermione.

“Ron! Hermione!”

Harry turned on the spot as seagulls soared overhead. They had to be here. They’d been right behind him when he’d charged up the Headmaster’s staircase.

A flash of white caught Harry’s attention. On a hilltop, past a stand of thick trees, was a house. It had spires and turrets that looked startlingly like Hogwarts, but it was far too small. A manor house, perhaps. Certainly not a castle. Its white stone gleamed in the sunlight. It amazed him that he hadn’t noticed it before and his heart leapt at the sight. Ron and Hermione would have seen it. They’d be there. Harry scooped up the hawthorn from the sand and had taken five steps toward the trees when he stopped.

Voldemort.

He had not moved, still lying unconscious on the sand. Harry watched as the encroaching tide sent its next surge up his body. Was he dead?

And what if he wasn’t?

Harry stowed the wands back away. Grimacing, he reached out a hand to Voldemort’s throat. He felt for a pulse and found one.

How? How was this happening? How could Voldemort now look like Tom Riddle? Or was this really Riddle from the past? Could there have been a time turner hidden away in that cabinet? But that was wrong. Hermione had said every last one had been destroyed in their fifth year and regardless, a time turner would not explain why there was suddenly no magic. Whatever this was … this was sorcery Harry had never encountered before.

Voldemort didn’t look like he’d be coming around any time soon. Would he before the tide swept him away?

Leave him.

Walk away. Walk away and find Ron and Hermione.

And if Voldemort woke? Wouldn’t it be better to have him where Harry could keep an eye on him?

Mouth twisted in disgust, Harry took Voldemort beneath the armpits and heaved him upright. A wave of déjà vu rolled over him: fifteen and staggering under the weight of Dudley after a dementor attack. Harry’s shoulder and back buckled under Voldemort’s limp weight. He gritted his teeth and started toward the trees.

 


 

 

The house was unlocked. The front doors — oak and tall and strangely like Hogwarts — swung open effortlessly under his hand. The entrance hall was spacious and unoccupied.

Harry tried to shout ‘hello’ but was too short of breath to speak. Voldemort was still unconscious and he was like a sack of bricks. The trek up the hill through the trees had felt endless. Legs wobbling, Harry stumbled inside and the door swung shut behind him. To the left was an archway and Harry spied a handsome fireplace and a cluster of cushioned armchairs. He carried Voldemort into the room and deposited him in a heap on the floor. The moment Harry was rid of his load he nearly tumbled over again, his legs giving out from exhaustion. But Harry had to find rope. He had to tie Voldemort up. He could wake any moment.

Harry lurched toward a cabinet and opened drawers, growling in frustration as he found nothing but knickknacks and jewelry boxes. He shoved a glass paperweight out of the way; it fell to the floor and rolled across the room. In a side drawer he spotted a salmon pink silk scarf, neatly folded beside a pair of old-fashioned women’s gloves. It looked like the sort of thing Aunt Petunia would wear. Harry snatched the scarf up and hurried back to Voldemort.

He was amazed and utterly grateful that Voldemort was still out cold. Harry pushed him into a slumped sitting position against an armchair, and using the scarf, tied his hands together behind his back. Harry’s breath came up short. He hesitated, and then reached for Voldemort’s left wrist. On the pale skin was a burn.

Harry snatched his hand back and moved away. What did it mean? Why did they both have the same mark? He had to get out of here. He had to get back to Hogwarts.

“Hello?” Harry shouted into the dark entrance hall. “Is anyone here?”

The house was silent.

But someone must live here, Harry reasoned. The house was furnished, belongings cluttering side tables. An umbrella stood in a … troll leg.

Harry blinked his eyes hard. It looked just like the one Tonks tripped over every time she’d entered Grimmauld Place. Such decor was clearly more popular than Harry had first thought.

The owners must have gone out. Surely they’d be back soon. Harry hoped they weren’t Voldemort supporters. That was the last thing he needed.

“Potter?”

Harry spun around, his wand jumping into his hand, even though it was useless and why, why, why was it useless?

Voldemort blinked slowly at him, giving his head a little shake. “What —” He stilled. His eyes grew wide and incredulous. They were transfixed three feet to Harry’s left where a life-sized mirror rested against the wall.

Harry looked at the mirror too and did a double take, not due to Voldemort’s reflection but because of the mirror itself. It was the Mirror of Erised. Harry would recognize it anywhere. The gold filigree, the clawed feet, the runes etched along its frame. What was it doing here? Harry stumbled to it, the better to see it.

“What is this?” Voldemort demanded. His voice, Harry noticed, shook. “What have you done?”

It was the same. It had to be. Harry knew Dumbledore had removed the mirror from Hogwarts. He must have brought it here. Though Harry was still totally confused, the fear that had been threatening to choke him dissipated. Dumbledore had moved the mirror here — wherever here was. A triumphant grin spread across Harry’s face. This house belonged to wizards who knew Dumbledore.

“Potter!”

Harry’s eyes flew to the fireplace. He ran to it. Behind him came the sounds of Voldemort struggling with his bonds, but Harry ignored him. He’d found what he was looking for: a little tin box on the mantel. He clicked it open and inside was floo powder. With complete confidence, Harry showered the empty fireplace.

Nothing happened.

Frowning, Harry tried again. The green powder settled on the cold brickwork, as unimpressive as glitter.

Potter.

Harry shut his eyes. This was a dream. A dream. He’d wake up any second in the tent and tell Hermione and Ron all about it.

“What did you do, Potter?”

Harry’s eyes snapped open.

“Me?” he said, rounding on Voldemort. “What did you do?”

Voldemort glared at him with such blistering hatred, Harry was surprised he was not engulfed in flames. He gripped the hawthorn, as useless as it was, and the rage on Voldemort’s face shifted to surprise. His eyes — so unnervingly human now — flickered around the room. He actually swiveled around to look behind him, as if Harry was nothing more than a statue.

Harry felt a jab of annoyance.

“Impossible,” Voldemort breathed.

“What is?” Harry demanded, wanting Voldemort to face him. “Where are we? What is this?”

A flash of blinding light cut him off. He gasped and threw up his arms to shield himself from the burning glow … or was it his wrist that was on fire? The light grew until it was unbearable —

It stopped. Shaking, Harry lowered his arms and looked up. On the ceiling was a golden disk. As Harry watched, it began to move. Triangles peeled away, like the petals of a flower. Where the flower’s center should have been was a long, jagged line that ran from one edge of the circle to the other. The line split, forming two half-moons that slowly rotated around each other while the petals gently turned in the opposite direction. Runes of glistening gold spiraled outward across the rest of the ceiling like rings in a pond. It was beautiful and strangely mechanical. It was the sort of thing Luna would paint.

The Carcerem.”

Harry looked back at Voldemort and what he saw made him far more worried than anything he’d yet encountered: Voldemort was frightened.

“The what?” said Harry.

Voldemort did not shift his gaze from the golden flower above them. Feverishly, his eyes darted over the runes. When he finally lowered his eyes, he looked nauseous.

“These bonds are unnecessary, Potter.”

Harry let out a snort of a laugh. “Sorry if I don’t take your word on that.”

“Unnecessary,” Voldemort continued, his cold voice at odds with his words, “as I have no intention of harming you.”

Harry blinked. Out of everything Voldemort could have said, Harry never would have bet on such a statement. Perhaps he really was dreaming.

“We are in the Carcerem,” Voldemort explained, “an ancient artifact that’s sole purpose is to contain the two most volatile forces near it within itself. It must have been in that cabinet,” he cursed.

Harry’s heart thundered. “What do you mean contain?”

“We were dueling. The Carcerem was present in the room. We activated it and have been sucked inside.” Voldemort jerked his head upward at the revolving flower. “The Carcerem creates a pocket universe, separate from our time and space. We cannot break out of it. Only it can release us and only when we—” Voldemort’s mouth twisted with revulsion. He did not go on.

“When we what?” asked Harry, taking a step forward.

Voldemort looked deadly. “When we resolve our differences.”

Harry stared and then a wild laugh escaped him. It sounded hysterical to his own ears, but Harry couldn’t stop. He doubled up, hands on his knees.

“Are you done?” said Voldemort, unamused.

Harry regained himself, though he was still short of breath. Wiping a tear away, he said, “I don’t know what you’ve got to gain by this, but you can stop, right now.”

Voldemort’s eyes flashed. “This is not a game, boy! There is nothing that I would love more than to kill you here and now, but I cannot. Not if I wish to leave the Carcerem.” His eyes darted back up to the ceiling. “It’s all there, Potter,” he spat, sounding suddenly like Snape. “Or did you never bother to learn ancient runes?”

The barb stung sharper than Harry would have expected.

“Look around you!” Voldemort insisted. “There is not a trace of magic here, save for that monstrosity on the ceiling. That wand you’re holding is nothing more than a bit of bark. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

Harry’s face flushed, but he did not lower the wand. “This doesn’t make any sense. I’ve never heard of the Carcerem.”

“That,” said Voldemort, voice dripping with disdain, “is not saying much.”

Harry felt his ears burn. “You did this! This is some last ditch effort to save yourself. You’ve … fiddled with my mind. I’m imagining all of this!”

For one of the few times ever, Voldemort was speechless.

“Give me a reason!” Harry raged. Rays of deep red streamed through the windows, signaling night’s approach. They weren’t bothering to keep their voices down. Someone should have come in by now. A suspicion that he could no longer ignore was taking root in his heart: there was no one here. “Give me a reason to believe you.”

Voldemort’s gaze was hard and steady, as unwavering as an adder’s. “I have attempted to murder you by my own hand no less than five times. I have destroyed your family. I have cursed your life. With every breath I still possess, I will dismantle you until there is nothing left. It is a promise and Lord Voldemort always fulfills his promises. So know, Harry Potter, that when I say you are now vital to me alive, I mean it.”

Harry re-gripped his wand, searching Voldemort’s face. “What do you see in the mirror?”

“Excuse me?” Voldemort sneered.

“You heard me. What do you see in the mirror?”

The expression Voldemort sent him would have withered a giant. “Myself. As I was in 1956, the day I came into contact with the Carcerem at an auction. It seems that in the creation of our prison, it reverted my body back to that day. Perhaps the Carcerem has been impaired. If my recollection is true, and it was in that cabinet, it got blown up.”

Something cold slithered into Harry’s stomach.

“Damaged enough that it may not let us out?” he asked.

“Impossible to know,” said Voldemort, not looking remotely pleased.

“What did you mean when you said you couldn’t kill me if you wished to leave?”

“That’s how the Carcerem works,” said Voldemort, growing impatient. “Two enter and two leave. It has been used on numerous occasions to try to force an armistice. If one of us were to kill the other while inside the Carcerem, the victor remains trapped within it forever.”

“So … so we’re just supposed to trust each other?” said Harry in disbelief.

Voldemort’s mouth curled into a ghost of his old smile, villainous and deadly. “Shall we make terms? I will, however, need my arms free in order to shake on it.”

Harry didn’t want to believe this. Voldemort was a liar and a manipulator. He’d say anything to free himself. But Harry could not ignore the facts. His wand did not function. The floo powder was void. The mirror did not show Voldemort his heart’s desire: victorious and immortal. Seemingly against his will, Harry’s eyes traveled the room and once he began to truly look, the oddities glared obvious. It was a poor mashing of the Gryffindor and Slytherin common rooms, the wall paper and rug a clash of silver green and golden red. The armchair Voldemort was bound to was Harry’s favorite, one from the set he and Ron and Hermione always chose by the fireplace. The couch, however, was the one located in the Slytherin common room. Harry remembered it from Second Year. The candle holders around the walls were all in the form of serpents. Harry’s stomach jolted. On a table was Ron’s Wizards Chess set, the pieces immobile … and further away, tucked beside one of the high-arched windows was clearly Oliver Wood’s model of the Quidditch field. In the dwindling light streaming through the window, Harry caught the glint of wires supporting the brooms. It looked like a Muggle’s toy. What he’d taken as a paperweight Harry now realized with a start, was Neville’s Rememberall.

This was madness.

This was insanity.

“You know a way out?” Harry asked Voldemort, his mouth dry. “Of the Carcerem?”

“No,” said Voldemort. “But release me, and I will find one.”

Every instinct screamed at him not to, but Harry walked across the room and freed his enemy.

Chapter Text

“Tell me everything that’s happened since we’ve arrived.”

Voldemort stood and Harry quickly backed away.

“We were on a beach.”

“Beach?” Voldemort turned toward one of the tall windows. They were just like the ones in the Gryffindor common room. Exactly the same. Right down to the rearing lions etched in the glass.

“I spotted the house and—”

“Carried me,” Voldemort finished, cutting his eyes to Harry. “You have my gratitude.”

Harry ground his jaw. The dying rays of the sun flashed upon Voldemort’s teeth as he grinned.

Bastard.

Voldemort stepped away from the window. As his thirty year-old version, he was just as tall as ever. “And did you see anything else. Anyone?”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “No. And you gave the impression that we’re the only ones here. Two enter and all that.”

“On that regard, yes. We are the only two wizards, but you would be a fool to assume that nothing else exists in the Carcerem.” Voldemort finally noticed the burn on his wrist. He inspected it.

“I have one too.”

Voldemort quirked an eyebrow at him. “Interesting. Why would it need to link us?”

The bile rose again. There was nothing Harry wanted less than to be tied to Voldemort. He had spent nearly his entire life being wound tight to the Dark Lord and now, just when he thought he’d been rid of the monster, something else wrapped them back together.

“You said that we have to get along in order to leave. Maybe this is its way of keeping track of our, I don’t know … emotional state.”

Even as he said it, Harry thought it sounded like idiocy, but to his surprise, Voldemort considered him.

“Perhaps.” The man crossed the room toward one of the snake-shaped candle brackets. Something shifted on his face that almost looked nostalgic before he lifted the candle from its holder, picked a match from a holster mounted beside it, and struck it on the underside. Without another word, Voldemort, with his lit candle, left the room.

Harry, taken aback by the abrupt departure, hurried after him. He found him in the entrance hall, clearly trying to decide which direction to explore first.

“Why do you look this way?” Harry asked. “Why did the Carcerem change your appearance?”

Voldemort made up his mind. He moved up the staircase, which, now that Harry focused on it, looked very much like the one in Grimmauld Place, and as Voldemort’s candle traveled upward, its light flickered over a series of heads mounted to the wall.

Voldemort paused. “My, my, Potter. Such company you keep.”

Harry bristled. “They’re in my godfather’s house and you haven’t answered my question.”

“Because I see no reason to,” Voldemort sneered. He continued upward.

“Don’t play games with me, Tom.”

Voldemort jerked to a stop. Slowly, he turned, his back ramrod stiff.

“Use that name again, boy and—”

“You’ll what?” Harry demanded. “You’ll do what to me, exactly?”

He could feel the rage radiating off Voldemort and was deeply grateful he was no longer a Horcrux. His scar would have been agony.

“Perhaps it would be best,” said Voldemort in a voice of forced calm, “if we separated, for both our well-beings.” He did not wait for a response, spinning on the step and marching upward, the darkness swallowing him up.

Harry let him go. He was too busy reeling.

It was true. All of it. Though he clearly longed to, Voldemort had not attacked him for using his given name. They were trapped and, according to Voldemort, the only way out was to … get along? The very idea was lunacy. But at least he had a consolation. He needn’t fear Voldemort killing him in his sleep. Harry didn’t understand this Carcerem, but he was positive now that Voldemort would not harm him. Not if he wished to escape.

With no interest in following Voldemort, Harry returned to the common room and lit his own candle. Sunset was quickly fading, twilight casting the house in deep shadow. On the other side of the entrance hall was a door and Harry turned the handle. Cautiously, he peered inside and nearly dropped his light. It was a kitchen, and more specifically, it was Aunt Petunia’s. The flowered wall paper, the rose-colored curtains over the windows, even the table and chairs. But there were significant alterations. The lighting was not electric, but more candles and oil-fed lamps. The television was missing, along with the blender and dishwasher. Harry opened a few cabinets and found Aunt Petunia’s fine china that she only used for special occasions along with mugs and plates and a full set of silverware. Dudley’s championship heavyweight mug sat beside cups and saucers. It felt as if the Dursleys would tromp in at any moment. Deeply unnerved, Harry returned to the hall.

The Carcerem seemed to have built itself around his memories, but not just his, Harry realized as he moved down a stretch of corridor and entered what looked like a workshop. It was plain and sparsely decorated, the paneling of the walls a dark wood. A strong smell of dust and candle wax hung in the air. Shelves ran along the walls, loaded down with all sorts of strange bottles that put him in mind of Snape’s office. Where there was space, there were books. Harry lifted his candle and read half a dozen spines before he turned away, sickened. None of these books would have been at Hogwarts. Not even in the Restricted Section. This room was Voldemort’s. There was something Borgin and Burkes about it. Maybe it was the clutter or the collection of oddly shaped skulls behind a glass cabinet. The tiny room felt suddenly claustrophobic and Harry quickly left it, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Onward he went. Moving up a different set of stairs than the ones Voldemort had mounted. The house was bizarrely large, especially for just two people. Harry knew that he would never spend time in half the rooms he passed. Parlors, sitting rooms, what looked like a very exotic gambling den, and even the Defense Against Dark Arts classroom. Amazed, Harry entered it, staring at the skeleton of a thestral that hung from the ceiling, which had not been there in his time. The glass tank Lupin had kept a grindylow for study was set under a window and in the teacher’s desk Harry found a thick stack of signed Gilderoy Lockhart photographs, all perfectly frozen in wide, toothy grins.

Through the house he went. As he explored, he met ghosts from his past and ghosts that did not belong to him. The first bedroom he found had him looking about in puzzlement before dawning recollection came: the orphanage. The slate-gray walls, the wardrobe, the rod-iron bed … Tom Riddle’s bedroom. Why the Carcerem had latched onto certain memories for its house, Harry could only guess, but he knew Voldemort would not be pleased. He moved further down the hallway, expecting another bedroom, but when he turned the next knob he came to he found himself back in Grimmauld Place. It was the bathroom he’d shared with Ron. Harry set down his candle and sat on the edge of the claw-footed tub. He stared at his trainers, caked with sand and damp with salt water. In a wave, his exhaustion crashed over him. It was crippling. He sagged. When was the last time he’d slept? The last time he’d eaten? Harry pressed his palms to his eyes, blocking out the flickering candle.

Shell Cottage.

They had only left for Gringotts yesterday. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Harry had never felt such debilitating weariness. He honestly thought that if he closed his eyes, if he let his body go limp, he’d never wake again.

Dumbledore’s face bloomed out of the darkness. And then Ron’s. Hermione’s.

Ginny.

Harry’s eyes snapped open. He gave himself a shake. He couldn’t give up. Not now. Not after all he’d been through. Not after dying.

He reached a hand out for the bath’s tap and felt the first surge of relief as water gushed into the tub.

 


 

 The bath rejuvenated him, especially so as the hot water did not work. He returned to the bedroom down the hall and found clothes in the wardrobe, all resoundingly Muggle. Warily, he eyed the gray bed. He did not fancy the idea of sleeping here. Perhaps it what the familiar red and gold, but Harry felt that the first room he’d found in this house was the safest. He got lost a few times, but eventually Harry made his way back to the entrance hall.

He lit all the candles there, as well as the ones in the common room. Voldemort was nowhere to be seen. Harry sat on the couch, suddenly full of tension. His eyes found the Mirror of Erised and if he hadn’t already been convinced, what he saw would have done it. Frightened, thin, and far too pale, his reflection was alone. His mother and father did not stand behind him.

Harry looked away. He stood, the exhaustion from before replaced with nervous energy. He could not settle. He crossed the hall back into the kitchen, lighting every candle and lamp he came across. The light helped. It was childish, he knew, but their glow made him feel safer. He searched the cupboards, pulling out pots and pans. He opened what had always been the pantry and instead found stone steps leading downward. An oil lamp in hand, Harry descended the stairs to find a cellar of monstrous proportions. Astounded, Harry’s lamp illuminated sacks of flour and potatoes, stocked shelves of canned vegetables, honey and jam. It was a maze. He turned and spotted more bottles of wine than anyone could possibly drink, all thick with dust. A different turn and he stood in a chamber with stacks and stacks of firewood. Intricate piping ran along the ceiling from a large metal box set in the center of the room. A boiler, Harry realized, delighted. He needn’t dread cold baths after all.

Down another long trek of steps and Harry’s arms crossed against a frigid, biting cold. Seconds later, he stepped into what was quite literally an ice box. Large crates sat between thick blocks of ice. He heaved one open and found cuts of meat.

He would question these finds later. Grabbing what looked like a pack of sausages, he hurried back up the stairs.

 

xXx

 

Voldemort stood before a mirror, glaring at the face he now wore. He’d forgotten his eyes used to be gray. He’d forgotten many things. His lips were full again, his nose long and sharp. His hair was blacker than fresh ink, a coy curl falling over his brow. He looked nothing like Voldemort.

In the mirror, Tom Riddle’s lips twisted in disgust.

Why do you look this way?

Why, indeed.

He needed answers. His knowledge of the Carcerem was limited. The glowing runes on the ceiling a floor below had not divulged near enough.

Voldemort commenced his search, shutting doors almost as quickly as he opened them. He needed information, not Quidditch paraphernalia. Left, right, straight, right, dead end. He doubled back and at the end of a stretch of corridor, he finally found what he sought: a library that could have been scooped up from Hogwarts.

For a moment, Voldemort had to close his eyes. Memories were funny things. Some barely elicited a response while others had his knees giving out. Salazar, it was as if he were eleven again, stepping into this Goliath of knowledge for the first time. It was in this labyrinth that he’d chosen his destiny. It was among these volumes that he’d made plans to fortify himself against the greatest of weaknesses. It was here that he’d first discovered Horcruxes.

They came in a flood.

Locket, ring, cup, diary, diadem.

Nagini.

Gone. His anchors to this world, eradicated by a child.

How? How had Potter known everything?

The rage was sudden and blazing. If magic had still been at his disposal, it would have laid everything to waste. Instead, he ripped and tore, curtains and portraits shredding beneath his hands. Books flew across the room. Something shattered. He snatched up a poker. Wooden shelves splintered under his blows and all the while it wasn’t enough — not nearly enough. He wanted to maim. Death wasn’t a severe enough punishment for Potter. Not anymore. Voldemort had finally learned that lesson. Death was an end and Potter’s punishment could never end. Dumbledore had been right, all along: there are things worse than death. Potter would suffer a thousand times over for what he had done to Lord Voldemort. He would bleed. He would beg. He would watch as Voldemort killed every one of his loved ones. And then, maybe then, it would be enough.

 

xXx

 

The pan of sausages sizzled. A pot of boiling water sent steam into the air. Harry felt a great triumph as he dumped potatoes into the bubbling pot with a splash. The oven had been an unexpected challenge. For a full five minutes, Harry stared at it before it dawned on him that the oven was wood-fired. After another trip down the cellar steps for wood and a furious test of patience to get the fire hot enough, Harry would soon have dinner.

A loud crash had his head whipping upward. He picked up the chopping knife from the counter and moved into the hall as thuds issued from up the dark stairwell.

“Voldemort?”

A commotion raged overhead — glass shattering, the sounds of a chair thrown against a wall. As if Harry had been waiting for something like this all along, he rushed upward, knife at the ready. He followed the sounds until he came upon a library. It looked like a hurricane had blasted through. Books, glass, and wood were scattered in all directions. Voldemort stood in the middle of it all.

“What is it?” Harry demanded. His eyes darted around the demolished room, poised for someone or something to jump out at him, but Voldemort was alone. “What’s wrong?”

 Breathing heavy, Voldemort turned, a poker in his hand. One look told Harry everything. Nothing had attacked Voldemort. Harry knew the look in his eyes. It was the same lethal glaze that filled his nightmares.

But instead of advancing, instead of lifting up the poker and taking a swing at Harry, Voldemort let it slip from his fingers. It fell with a thud. His face was whiter than chalk, sweat plastering hair to his forehead. Without warning, Voldemort’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and Harry darted forward just in time, grabbing him before he hit the floor.

Chapter Text

Sunlight, bright and blinding, stabbed Harry’s eyes. Grimacing, he shifted more out of the glaring beam that streamed through the window. He would have to fix those curtains. He wondered if the Carcerem had tucked away needle and thread somewhere. Aunt Petunia had never been much of a mender, but Harry could imagine that sock donning would have been a common occurrence in the orphanage. The lack of magic in this new world was distinctly annoying.

He sat slouched against one of the library’s walls, staring with unfocused eyes at the dark expanse beneath a table. He was so light-headed on lack of sleep that, for now, his was content for his mind to be numb.

Riddle slumbered, lying on the same stretch of floor where he had collapsed hours before.

Harry had done a lot of thinking through the night and though his brain felt ransacked, he knew one thing. He would never call Riddle Voldemort ever again. His parents’ murderer did not get to pretend to be a self-proclaimed god any longer.

Dragging Riddle down the hall and lifting him into a bed was out of the question. Harry doubted he had the strength even if he wanted to, so on the library floor he left him, eventually (and with much scowling) covering the man with a blanket when he noticed him shivering. He did not look well.

What happens if he dies in his sleep?

Never would Harry believe such worries would plague him, but Harry knew with a sureness in his gut that he could not let Riddle die. There was too much about this world that he did not understand. The urge to kick Riddle awake and force him to explain was far too tempting.

Harry had kept himself busy through the night. After he saw to Riddle, he returned to the kitchen to find the sausages burnt and the potatoes water-logged. He scarfed it all down anyway. Searching for a broom, he found one in a cupboard.

When he’d opened its narrow door, his breath was sucked from his lungs. He took a step back and nearly laughed out loud. A cupboard under the stairs? His cupboard? It was like stepping back in time. The old, small mattress was there along with his collection of toy dinosaurs precariously balanced on brushes and paint cans.  On the pillow was his moth-eaten stuffed bear. Jesus. He’d forgotten all about that bear. He reached out and picked it up, and as he did so, his eyes landed upon one item that did not belong. Leaning next to a mop and gleaming as brightly as the day he’d unwrapped it was his Firebolt. Grinning at the return of his trusted broom and grinning at the image of Ron’s horror-stricken face if he knew Harry was using a Firebolt to sweep up messes, he closed the cupboard door and headed back up the stairs. He cleaned up the broken glass and righted chairs. And then, as Riddle slept, his chest barely rising and falling, Harry propped the Firebolt against a lamp and pulled books off shelves.

The night waned and the piles grew. Harry felt fourteen again, frantically searching for a magical way to survive underwater, except this time it was to escape a magical prison. Just when he thought there was no point in continuing, that there wasn’t a book on the Carcerem, he found it: a nondescript, black, leather tome with the same golden sun-like flower that was on the ceiling engraved on its front. Harry hastily opened it. A single inscription was on the first page: factura tua.

Of your making.

Frowning in puzzlement, Harry turned the page and was met with a list. Page after page, names were jotted down in a neat script. He scanned them. Some jumped out at him —  Morgana, Edgar Stroulger, Amarillo Lestoat. What did an evil sorceress, the inventor of the sneakoscope, and a world famous vampire have in common? It felt like the opening line of a bad joke. He flipped pages, expecting something other than this strange and unnerving tally of names. He noticed that most were in pairs, but a few stood alone on their line.

He turned another page and the list ended part way down. His eyes caught his own next to another: Tom Marvolo Riddle.

The sun’s beam crept back to Harry’s face, jerking him out of his stupor. He shifted another inch to the left. He could go sit on the opposite wall, free of pestering sunlight, but he couldn’t muster up the energy. The book of names rested beside him on the floor, where he’d dropped it hours ago. He rubbed the inside of his wrist. The burn had healed, replaced by a thin, black tattoo of a jagged half-moon. It was the same half-moon that rotated around its mirrored self down below. Though he had not looked again at Riddle’s wrist, he was sure their marks were identical.

Harry let his head fall back against the wall. This wasn’t supposed to have happened. He had won. He had been so close to it all being over.

Dumbledore had known. Dumbledore had shouted something to him when Riddle sent that cabinet hurtling at his head. Why had Dumbledore allowed such a horrible device to be in Hogwarts?

But it wasn’t Dumbledore’s office, a voice reminded him. It had been Snape’s.

Had Snape planned on using it on Riddle? A last ditch resort in case Harry failed?

But that wasn’t how the Carcerem worked. It required two. Unless Riddle was wrong.

Harry’s eyes shifted back to the sleeping form. He was a very silent sleeper, Tom Riddle. He didn’t even roll about. He was still flat on his back, exactly as Harry had left him. Harry moved onto his hands and knees and crawled to him. He felt his forehead — feverish, clammy.

Harry rocked back onto his heels. What was he going to do? Hermione would know exactly what to do, or she’d have at least half a dozen suggestions and another half a dozen book references. There would have been something packed away in her beaded hand bag. Ron would have made it his duty to lift their spirits with rounds of tea, pointing out that at least Riddle was unconscious. “Can’t kill us that way.”

Harry choked on a laugh that sounded more like a sob.

Riddle shifted. Harry tensed, but he did not reach for the knife that lay beside the book. Riddle could have attacked him with the poker, but he hadn’t. Riddle could have jumped him the moment Harry untied him, but he hadn’t. For the first time in his life, Harry didn’t need to protect himself against Riddle.

Slowly, the man opened his eyes and the sight of gray instead of crimson startled Harry. He wondered how many times it would take before it didn’t.

“Do tell me,” Riddle croaked, “why I am on the floor.”

“You were ill,” Harry explained. “I wasn’t up for moving you again.” A pause, then: “You’re heavy.”

A weak snort of amusement escaped Riddle and then he winced. He rose onto his elbows, his arms shaking with the effort. Harry studied him.

“You seem to have been more affected by the transport into the Carcerem than I was.”

Riddle ignored him, focused on sitting up.

“Do you think it has something to do with the fact that you’re thirty now?” Harry continued. “Do you think it has something to do with the fact that your soul is mangled?”

Riddle’s lips thinned. Harry couldn’t decide whether it was out of anger toward his physical weakness or that Harry had mentioned the Horcruxes. Both, probably.

When Riddle still did not speak, Harry said, “Tell me about the Carcerem.”

“I already have.” There was bite in Riddle’s voice.

“A magical artifact trapped us inside a prison, built on our memories, designed to only release us if we come to terms?”

Riddle made a grunt of acknowledgment, scooting his back against the wall. Sweat beaded on his brow.

“But that doesn’t explain why you’re different.”

“I assure you,” said Riddle icily, “I’m not.”

“You’re ill,” Harry stated. “I doubt you could stand. That is not how you were at Hogwarts. Something’s wrong and if you don’t start talking—”

“Why should I?” Riddle snapped, the little patience he’d cultivated withering. “Discussing my current state does not help our situation.”

“I think it has everything to do with it,” Harry disagreed. He tossed the black, leather book at Riddle. “It’s the only thing I’ve found so far that has any mention of the Carcerem. It’s a list of names and we’re on it, but my ink is far fresher than yours. You said you first came across the Carcerem in the fifties. I think it’s remembered you, Tom. I think it’s had your name jotted down for a long time.”

If Riddle noticed his given name, he did not show it. He stared at the book, his long fingers trailing down the list, turning pages. Harry suspected Riddle recognized more of the names than he did. He was still disturbed to have found Godric Gryffindor’s name there. Luckily, he had not been paired.

“How does the Carcerem choose its victims?” Harry asked.

“By touch,” said Riddle, still studying the list.

“And you touched it anyway?” Harry was amazed that Tom Riddle, of all people, would do something so stupid.

“It was not a conscious decision,” said Riddle, his glare cutting. “I did not realize I’d done it until after the fact.”

“It acts as a lure?” Harry was both fascinated and sickened. “But it can’t just attract everyone. It would have sucked up half the population.”

“The Carcerem is attuned to a very particular person,” Riddle replied. “Those with either great power or ambition. Attributes, in short, that make leaders.”

“And murderers.”

Riddle shot him a sideways look. Though there was a distinctly ashen cast to his skin, the corner of his mouth lifted. “What makes a man different from the rest? The willingness to do what must be done.”

Harry refused to be the first to drop his gaze and Riddle, still wearing that light smirk, turned back to his book.

“Legend speaks of a witch who was witness to a fight between two families,” he said with the air of a professor lecturing a class. “Generation after generation, the feud raged, reaching near warlike proportions, until one day the two opposing head of houses laid down their wands. To onlookers, the change of heart was swift and sudden, without any forewarning. One moment, they were dueling, the next they were not.

“The witch,” Riddle continued, “is credited with the creation of the Carcerem. Whether true or false, the Carcerem has long been regarded as charm-work of the most intricate and powerful. That in of itself would have caused enough interest to study it, but it has been the tales of the survivors … the few who have returned from within the Carcerem that have kept its shrouded history alive.”

“And the wizards returned because they made amends with each other?” said Harry, wanting this to be very clear. “Enemies forgiving each other. That’s how it works?”

“As the story goes, yes.”

“That’s never going to happen.”

“I quite agree,” said Riddle.

“So what do we do?”

“We find another way.” Riddle snapped the book shut. He reached up and grabbed hold of the table beside him and with a grimace, pulled himself to his feet.

Harry scrambled upright. “You think there’s another way out?”

“There’s always another way out. You merely have to be willing to find it.”

“You mean cheat the Carcerem?” said Harry. “Like how you tried to cheat death with your Horcruxes? Hate to be the bearer of bad news but that didn’t turn out well for you.”

There was no denying Horcruxes were a sore subject. A tick formed in Riddle’s jaw. His hands balled into fists, perhaps to keep them from wrapping around Harry’s throat.

“That you lack what is required is blatantly clear,” Riddle snarled. “Be useful and stay out of my way.”

Harry forced back the urge to storm after Riddle. He let the man go, walking with a tender, careful step out of the library. He looked like he was in pain. Harry hoped it was excruciating. As much as he denied it, Harry was sure Riddle’s current state had something to do with his shredded soul. But what did it matter whether Riddle agreed with him?

And just like that, the anger left, replaced with misery. Harry suddenly felt ancient. He felt that he’d been running for years — for a lifetime. He had reached the end of the road, only to find it littered with broken glass and hopelessness. To come back from death … to survive countless horrors … for what? Trapped with his worst enemy for company? Why hadn’t someone destroyed the Carcerem? Why had they allowed such a terrible device to continue? He left the library and instead of returning to the common room, he turned right, heading to the bedroom at the end of the hall. Not caring that the bed was from Riddle’s memory, Harry sank on top of it face first. He was asleep in seconds.

 


 

 

Harry rolled over and blinked his eyes at a white-washed ceiling. Groggy, he sat up. For a moment he didn’t understand where he was. This wasn’t Grimmauld Place.

A weight settled in his stomach.

Right.

Harry slipped off the bed, his ears attuned to any noise, but he heard only the silence of an empty house and birdsong outside his window. It was still light out; he must not have slept that long or perhaps he had slumbered through an entire day. It was impossible to know. He had not spotted a single clock in his earlier exploration of the house and this stripped bedroom was no different. Barefoot, he treaded down the hall, casting a glance into the library as he passed. Riddle was not there.

Nor was he in the kitchen or common room. To say that Harry was relieved was an understatement. He knew they would cross paths again eventually, but every hour – every minute – where they didn’t was a blessing. Harry rebuilt the fire in the oven and brewed himself a cup of tea. The dishes he’d made were still there, heaped in the sink, bits of mashed potato dried onto the porcelain. On the table was a half empty jar of jam. Riddle had been here. Cradling his cup, Harry headed outside. Now that he wasn’t carrying a limp body, he took in his surroundings more closely. The front porch opened onto a sweeping yard of soft grass. A dirt path meandered from the porch steps down to a thick set of trees. It was this path that led down to the beach and Harry took it. Before he reached the tree line, he turned to look back at the house. From the beach it had looked like a small castle, and in a way, he supposed it still did, but one a child might draw, a strange mixture of manor, farmhouse and castle: a higglety pigglety country home with the Hogwarts Owlery tacked on top. If he’d been in a lighter mood, he would have found it funny.

The beach was beautiful. White sand, warm under his toes, stretched left and right. He stood still for a moment, letting the waves wash over his feet and the wind brush back his fringe from his forehead, before choosing a direction and setting off. Before receiving his Hogwarts letter, the Dursleys once bemoaned not taking a trip to some southern island, blaming the extra cost of raising Harry for not allowing them to travel as they would like, but Harry knew better. The trip had been too expensive for them to stomach. The pamphlets, though, had looked like this. Deep, blue ocean water with beaches meticulously photographed to not include wandering tourists. It was peaceful, he supposed. Peaceful and lonely.

The beach curved and Harry found a boathouse next to a cove. Inside it were fishing poles and traps. A small row boat. A dock extended out into the calm, crystal clear water. He sat on the edge, his feet lazily floating, his empty tea cup still cradled in his hands.

They were gone.

Ron. Hermione. Ginny. Neville. Luna. He would never see them again.

In death, Harry had been full of serenity, a calmness that he now tried to bring back, but something had taken root in his chest, twisting his heart into a tight knot. Grief. The agony in his chest was grief. Without Riddle there, the war was over. His friends were safe, but Harry felt their loss as if they were dead.

Against his bidding, more faces emerged — Lupin, Tonks, Fred, Colin, Snape — God, he’d been so wrong about Snape. He turned his face upward and blinked away the tears, grinning at the expression Snape would have if he knew Harry was crying about him.

 


 

 

The bedroom past the library became Harry’s and he made conscious efforts to uplift the drab interior. He set Neville’s Rememberall on his bedside table. It was a nice thing to wake up to, the morning sun making the colored smoke shimmer and sparkle, throwing dancing lights upon the wall. He found a Gryffindor banner in a trunk and nailed it above the headboard. It wasn’t much, but the splash of color helped.

Harry soon found himself back in the library, hunting for cookbooks. If the Carcerem was in fact his new home, he wouldn’t survive on the three dishes he knew how to make. He found a small collection. Most belonged to Aunt Petunia, but Harry recognized a handful from the Weasley kitchen. As fond as he was of Mrs. Weasley’s cooking, Harry didn’t think instructions such as with a downward swirling motion, add one cup gravy (nv).

Even if Harry knew how to conjure gravy it wouldn’t do him much good here. With a rather forlorn expression, he put Five Minute Feasts back and tromped down the stairs with Aunt Petunia’s books under one arm.

On the third day, he found the well, which was quite lucky as that morning no water poured from the tap. It was a hand pump located beside a glass-roofed greenhouse. A pipe ran from the pump to a large container, and it was this container that supplied the house’s water. Harry relished the exertion and made it a promise to pump the handle every day so the water barrel was always full.

He made many new promises.

The furnace and oven would be well stoked throughout the day, the coals making the morning fire quicker to start.

He made sure to walk along the beach to the boathouse twice, once after breakfast and once in the afternoon. Otherwise, he risked sitting at a window, staring at nothing, for too long. It was on these walks that he found chickens roaming free. He tracked down their nests and lifted a few eggs every morning.

Riddle came and went. Harry heard doors swing open and shut, heard his feet travel up the stairs, the bath filling with water. How very amusing that with so many useless rooms stacked one on top of the other, the Carcerem had only gifted them one bathroom to share. Miraculously, Harry and Riddle never crossed paths. Harry didn’t know what the man was doing, and he didn’t care. He did know that Riddle was still, in fact, alive. Signs of his presence could be found all over the house — candles burning in the workshop Harry explored on his first day, dirty plates left in the sink. He heard noises in the night. Bangs and thuds. Sharp whacks on the walls. Harry had the feeling Riddle was searching for hidden passages. Or perhaps he thought a clue to their escape was hidden under the floorboards. One late afternoon, as Harry watched the sun set from the Owlery, which housed bats instead of owls, he spotted Riddle for the first time since their talk in the library, walking with a purposeful stride into some shrubbery.

The next morning Harry diverted from his meticulously structured schedule. He rose at dawn, walking without pause or hesitation on a trail he’d found that led to a hilltop meadow. The view there was stunning — an endless, shimmering ocean. On his way to the top, birds exploded from a hedgerow, twittering past him. Harry smiled, thinking of Hermione shooting a flock of canaries at Ron. When he reached the meadow, he plucked three flowers, chose a spot and lowered to his knees.

The wind was strong up here, the crash of the waves down below as steady as a heartbeat. He kept a firm hold on the flowers, the wind threatening to snatch them away.

“I won’t give up,” he promised as he sun broke the horizon, bathing everything in peach and gold. “I know you’d be worried about that, so I want you to know I’m going to keep living. I’m going to make this work. Somehow. But to do that, I’ve got to let you go. I can’t —” He swallowed, a lump obstructing his throat. The wind calmed for a moment and the flowers seemed to turn their heads toward his voice. “I can’t do that while still hoping …” He broke off again, the words unbearable, his eyes stinging. The wind returned. It whipped his hair and tugged at the flowers.

“I’ll never forget you. Any of you,” Harry whispered. He opened his hand and for a fraction of a second, the flowers stayed in his palm, before they were gone, swept away on a swift gust. 

 


 

 

Trumpets and saxophones filled the kitchen and Celestina Warbeck’s voice soared above it all. Harry still felt raw inside, but the singing sorceress was so outrageous that it was proving difficult to keep a stupid grin from teasing his face. He’d stumbled upon the stack of records and wind-up gramophone while looking through an old-fashioned drawing room. Harry didn’t remember the Weasleys owning a gramophone, only a wireless, but the possibility of it belonging to Riddle was more laughable than A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love.

The band reached a pitch and the banshees joined in.

 

Oh, come and stir her cauldron

And if you do it right

She'll boil you up some hot, strong love

To keep you warm tonight!

 

“What, in the name of Merlin, are you listening to?”

Harry jumped and nearly dropped his stirring spoon. He whirled around and found himself in the company of Riddle. It had been a week (or had it been more … it was getting hard to keep track) since they’d last traded words and here he was, standing in the kitchen doorway, a shovel and oil lamp in hand. Harry hastily turned off the gramophone.

“Music,” said Harry.

Riddle eyed the contraption contemptuously. “Is that what that was?”

Much to Harry’s consternation, Riddle put his shovel against the counter and sat down at the kitchen table. “Onion?” he inquired, straightening his sweater. He had removed his robes, donning the Muggle clothing the Carcerem had supplied.

“Hopefully. I’ve never been good at cooking.”

“Luckily you have all the time in the world,” said Riddle, his smile as falsely cheerful as his voice.

“I guess,” Harry replied slowly. He didn’t know how to handle a Riddle who sat at kitchen tables and made strange chitchat. He felt like the man was a ticking bomb. Harry preferred it when they pretended the other didn’t exist. “Any progress on that escape plan?” he asked, turning back to his soup.

Riddle propped his elbows onto the table, interlacing his fingers and resting his chin upon them. “Yes and no. I found a crypt.”

“A crypt?” said Harry, turning back around. “How is that helpful?”

“Helpful in that there were plenty more runes. Unhelpful in that they said much the same thing as the ones on the ceiling.” Riddle spotted the bread on the table. “It’s burnt.”

“You don’t have to eat it,” said Harry waspishly.

Instead of jabbing back, as Harry expected, Riddle’s eyes glittered with a strange mirth. “Knife? Though a hacksaw may be better suited.”

Riddle wasn’t serious about eating with him. Was he?

“Where did you even find that contraption?” asked Riddle, jerking his head at the gramophone balanced on the counter.

“In the drawing room,” said Harry, checking Aunt Petunia’s recipe.

“Drawing room?”

Something in Riddle’s voice made Harry look around.

“Yeah. Practically at the other end of the house.”

Riddle eyed the gramophone with a sharpness that had not been there before. He stood and left and Harry, curious, followed, but rather quickly it was Harry who was leading the way.

“Here,” he said, stepping aside.

Riddle entered, looking about the room with an intensity that unnerved Harry. He halted before a long, highly polished dining table. High-backed chairs with plush cushions ringed it. Harry wondered if Riddle was breathing, he stood so still. And then he released a soft laugh.

“Do you know what this room is, Potter?”

“No,” said Harry. There was a distinct chill in the air. Foreboding pooled in his gut.

“This is the room where I killed my father. He sat there.” Riddle pointed to the chair on the left. “My grandfather was here. My grandmother there. They were so startled to see me. Quite the unpleasant surprise guest, I was. My father looked positively faint.”

Harry remained silent, standing by the doorway. Riddle studied the room with a delight that turned his stomach. He laughed, the sound sending the hairs on Harry’s arms on end. Harry took a half step back, wanting to leave but worried of attracting Riddle’s attention.

“And the gramophone was there!” said Riddle, excited. He gestured toward the side table where Harry had found it earlier that day. “It was playing when I murdered them, but I didn’t recognize the piece then — not until years later. Mozart.”

Harry could see it unfold before him. Sixteen and burning with revenge, Riddle breaking into his grandparent’s house, striding through it until he found them. His grandfather rising to his feet, demanding to know what Riddle was doing there …

“You found the recording with it?” Riddle asked.

“There wasn’t anything classical,” said Harry quietly.

Riddle laughed again, wild and ecstatic. It bounced off the walls.

“How perfect,” he said, facing Harry, his grin terrifying. “My grandmother’s carefully curated collection replaced with Celestina Warbeck.”

 

Chapter Text

Harry retreated from the drawing room, fighting the urge to look over his shoulder to see whether Riddle followed. He hurried into the kitchen and reached for the lock — there was no way in hell he was letting Riddle eat with him.

But Harry came up short. There was no bolt to latch, no key to turn.

Ice slipped down his spine as something dawned on him. Since entering the house, he hadn’t seen a single lock anywhere, not even fasteners on the windows. The entire house was open. Harry couldn’t keep Riddle out, even if he tried.

Riddle could come and go as he pleased. He could plant himself in Harry’s presence like a black cloud whenever he wanted. The thought made Harry feel even more trapped, the house suddenly small, the island tiny. His isolation hit him stronger than ever before.

On the stove, the soup bubbled, the candles flickered, and Harry felt the heavy weight of despair settle over him like a cloak.

He had not realized how much strength he’d been using to keep his head afloat. He’d been willing himself, day in and day out, to not think about the Carcerem. Stay busy. Build fires. Pump the well. Walk to the Owlery. Walk to the boathouse. Survive and don’t look. Survive and don’t think. Survive and don’t feel.

Survive, yes. But live? This didn’t feel like living. Already his promise to his friends that morning was dissolving into meaningless words. Keep living? How did someone keep living when there was nothing to live for? Harry had thought the task of killing Voldemort would be his greatest challenge. He’d been wrong. Making a home with the man was a mountain Harry could not fathom conquering.

A glint of gold caught his eye, drawing his attention like a lighthouse in the darkest of nights. Had the Carcerem conjured a Snitch for him to help pass the time?

But it wasn’t a Snitch. It was a doorknob. Harry frowned at it in confusion. There were only two doors in the kitchen, the one that opened onto the entrance hall and the one that led to the cellar. This door beside the breadbox was new.

Harry hesitated. He didn’t trust the Carcerem, but anything it conjured might hold answers. Riddle was murderous and mad, but clever. If he believed there was another way out of the Carcerem, then maybe Harry should be trying just as hard to find it. Find it before Riddle did and keep it from him. Hermione had been the one to point out his saving-people tendency. Well, just because he was trapped inside a magical artifact didn’t mean he had to stop looking out for them. They were safe as long as Riddle was here. Harry put his hand on the golden knob and gave it a turn.

He stepped into a walk-in pantry with beans and spices and liquorice wands.

“Harry, could you get me the cinnamon?”

Harry jerked around so fast he nearly fell over. He grabbed hold of a shelf to keep his balance. He knew that voice, though he’d only heard it a handful of times.

“Harry?”

A woman with long, dark red hair appeared around the door frame. Her green eyes gazed at him expectantly.

“What?” Harry croaked.

“The cinnamon,” said his mother. “For the pudding. Hurry, I have to keep stirring — oh, damn!” She disappeared from sight and Harry, heart in his throat, rushed after her.

The kitchen was not Aunt Petunia’s. It was cozy and welcoming with a vase of blue flowers on the windowsill and mud-caked rain boots by the door. His mother jabbed her wand at a pot on the stove. The spoon that had stopped stirring quickly started up again. The distinct smell of burnt milk permeated the room.

His mother let out a great puff of air, pushing her hair from her face. “Ah, well,” she said, giving Harry an exasperated smile. “Won’t be the first time the pudding’s a bit off.”

Harry’s heart was too swollen to speak.

 


 

There were so many people crammed around the dining table that Harry didn’t understand how everyone could fit: all the Weasleys, Hermione, Hagrid, Sirius, Lupin and Tonks with a wriggling baby giggling in her lap. Perhaps the room had been magically enlarged. Or maybe logic didn’t matter wherever this was.

It was a going away party for Harry, Ron and Hermione. They were starting their final year at Hogwarts, apparently. It took a while for Harry to catch on to this, but no one else noticed that he was slow on the uptake. No one took any mind to how little he spoke and how much he stared. Harry watched them all, drinking them in. His mother and father sat to the left, next to each other. His father had a habit of leaning in close whenever she spoke, his food forgotten whenever he looked at her. Sirius was laughing, the sound booming over them all. He was more whole and healthy than Harry had ever seen him. Gone were the traces of Azkaban. He was bright-eyed and handsome and cracking more jokes than Fred and George. Fred — alive and exuberant Fred. Even Lupin looked far less worn than he had ever been in Harry’s memory. Tonks was in a heated competition with baby Teddy on who could transfigure their nose best, much to the amusement of the right side of the table. Harry watched it all, his heart so flooded with happiness it physically hurt.

As his mother levitated the pudding to the table, Harry’s eyes caught a figure standing in the back garden through the windows lining the wall. His spoon slipped from his fingers.

“Harry, what is it?” Ginny asked. Her hand covered his wrist.

“Nothing,” said Harry quickly. “Only Hedwig. I’ll go and make sure she can get in.” It was a feeble excuse, and had this been real, it wouldn’t have held water, but no one at the table tried to stop Harry as he walked out the back door.

The garden was just as Harry would imagine it to be, softly lit with fairy lights, flower beds overflowing with cabbage-sized blooms, frogs croaking wetly in the underbrush, a garden gnome darting out of sight. It was perfect, save for the man under the apple tree.

“You’re not allowed here,” said Harry firmly.

“Funny,” said Riddle, clasping his hands behind his back. “I was about to say the same thing to you.” He tilted his head, peering over Harry’s shoulder into the house. “You’ve had your fun. Time to go.”

“Go?” said Harry, wishing the apple tree was a Venomous Tentacula. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You will,” Riddle ordered sharply. “And if you do not come to your senses soon, this Strangleweed will kill you.”

“Strangle-what?” Harry spat.

Strangleweed,” Riddle said clearly, closing the distance between them with a few long-legged strides. “A parasitic vine that is currently wrapped so snug about you that you cannot move. It has clouded you in a numbing haze that causes an intense dream-like state. It does this,” Riddle continued coldly, never shifting his eyes from Harry, “so that it may eat you without interference.” Riddle jabbed Harry’s chest. “Do you feel that? Right there? That burning behind your ribs? That sharp pain whenever you try to draw a deep breath? That, Potter, is the Strangleweed’s needle-like tooth. It has pierced your heart and soon it will drain you dry.”

Harry swallowed. “You’re lying. You’re always lying.”

“Yes,” Riddle agreed. “But not about this. You need to wake up now, Potter.”

Harry shook his head.

One of Riddle’s eyebrows rose. “No?”

“No,” Harry said with force. He spun on his heel, heading back to the house.

“They are dead, Harry. I saw to that.”

Harry jerked to a halt. His clenched fists shook.

“Is the only way to get you to come to your senses is for me to do it again?” Riddle asked. “Because I will most happily do so. I’ve been longing to murder something.”

Harry wheeled around.

“You’ve taken everything! Let me have this one thing!”

Riddle was unmoved. “I can’t do that.”

Why?

Riddle’s eyes flashed.

“Because,” he said in a voice of pure venom, “your death belongs to me. I am the only one who is allowed to take it. No one else. Certainly not a plant. That pleasure is mine and mine alone.”

Harry had never been so furious in his life.

“You’re insane.” Not trusting himself, he turned his back on Riddle, walking as quickly back to the house as he could.

“And yet it is you who lives in a fantasy,” Riddle replied.

Harry swung back around. “How are you even here?” he snarled.

Riddle’s mouth twisted in dislike. “You’re the host, Potter. The only way to break the Strangleweed’s hold is for the host to wake up. I touched the vine to be taken into your dream as well. To save you,” Riddle added with a sneer.

“Bad gamble on your part.”

The barest hint of fear finally crossed Riddle’s face. “You are dying, Potter.”

“And you’ll be next,” said Harry, lightly. “All in all, a good day.”

The alarm was vivid now. Riddle strode forward. He grabbed Harry by the arm. “Die here and there is no hope of returning to your friends. To the people who are still alive.”

Harry’s voice was steady. “We can’t return. And even if we could, I wouldn’t let you. While we’re here, they’re safe. You can’t hurt them ever again. I’m making sure of that. You’ve lost, Tom. Get used to it.”

Riddle’s grip tightened to the point it bruised. He pulled Harry closer.   

“And the people who died for you?” he whispered, eyes like shards of ice. “The people who shielded you? Is this gratitude you show them or selfishness?”

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

Harry tried to yank his arm free, but Riddle’s hold was like iron.

I’m going to keep living. I won’t give up.

You wonderful boy.

You’ve been so brave.

His mother’s face glowed before him, full of kindness and love. His mother. His mother was dead. His mother had come to him when he’d needed her most, on a lonely, terrifying walk through a dark forest. It wasn’t right to live with a pretend version of her, a version that couldn’t ever possibly come close to the real, radiant Lily Potter.

It wasn’t right to her.

It wasn’t right to them.

This was an illusion. A lie. And as badly, as desperately as he wanted it, it was not real.

The agony in his chest was unendurable. A twisting, horrible, bone-crushing pain that was so deeply rooted Harry feared he would never be rid of it. He couldn’t see. He didn’t know where he started and where he ended. All he knew were the fingers — strong, unbreakable fingers — wrapped around his own. He squeezed back. If those fingers let go, he’d be lost in this abyss of misery forever.

Harry’s eyes flew open as a high-pitched scream filled his ears. He was covered in golden vines and they were shrieking as they released him, recoiling as if his flesh scorched their leaves. Harry had not imagined the hand; Riddle held him fast. With a forceful yank, he half-dragged, half-pulled Harry to his feet. They were over the threshold. They were back in Aunt Petunia’s kitchen. Riddle pushed him clear and Harry crashed to the floor. He rolled over onto his back and watched as Riddle held the door shut. It trembled and shook against him. The golden doorknob jerked wildly like someone on the other side was trying to force their way to them. Riddle gritted his teeth and pushed all his weight against the door—

It stilled. The rattling doorknob quieted. Riddle released a breath, a curl of hair on his forehead damp with sweat. Slowly, he removed his hands from it and took a step back. Harry tried to rise to his feet, but his knees were shaking too badly to support his weight.

“How did that — how did that happen?” he asked. “That door wasn’t there before.”

“It seems,” said Riddle, panting slightly, “that the Carcerem disapproves of our agreement to not kill each other.”

That had Harry scrambling to his feet. He held onto the back of a chair to steady himself. “What? But wasn’t that its point? That we don’t kill each other?”

“Kill each other? That was our agreement. The Carcerem wants us to act. The crypt I found was full of tombs and they were labeled meticulously with many of the names on the list you found. It appears that the Carcerem will not allow us to simply co-exist.”

“So it’s going to test us?” said Harry, horrified. “It wants to see if one of us lets the other die? Do you think if we pass enough tests, it will let us go?”

Riddle’s face was expressionless. “I suppose that all depends on how determined you are in sacrificing yourself. If given the choice, would you choose to stay here and rot just to spite me?”

“For every innocent life saved,” said Harry with conviction, “it’ll be worth it.”

There was no time to react. In a flash, Riddle was on him, pinning him to the wall, a hand on his throat.

Do not forget who I am, little boy,” Riddle hissed, nose inches from Harry’s own. “Only one wizard in all my days has ever made me pause and he has never been you. I have cut down more witches and wizards than you can possibly imagine. I did not suffer thirteen years of exile to simply lay to waste here. You will help me escape.”

“Why’s — that?” Harry gasped, clawing at Riddle’s hand.

There was murder in Riddle’s eyes. Violence in his smile. “Because while we are here, I will keep saving you. The Carcerem knows how its prisoners tick. You, Harry, would rather stay trapped here forever to keep me from escaping, so it knows that temping you to attack me is unlikely. But …” He squeezed Harry’s throat so tight, stars burst in Harry’s vision. Riddle leaned closer and whispered in his ear, “I have a weakness. I need you alive. Two enter. Two leave. So I will save you from the Carcerem’s pitfalls. I will steer you clear of its traps. And when I find the way off this god-forsaken island I will drag you along with me and kill you as I have dreamed of doing since the day you were born.”

Chapter Text

Harry couldn’t sleep. The mattress’ cotton stuffing felt like it had been replaced with rocks. The more he tossed and turned, the more aware he became of the ache in his chest. It was a gnawing hunger. He could only think of the golden doorknob and what lay behind it. Where everything he’d ever wanted waited.

It does not due to dwell on dreams…

Harry rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, thinking of Dumbledore and how very similar they were. They both longed with a painful desperation a thing they could never have. The desire to reunite with his family had finally killed Dumbledore. Harry must not let the same thing happen to him. He put a hand over his heart and tried to rub the ache away, but it continued to build until Harry was gritting his teeth. To help distract himself, he named every Quidditch player he could think of and then every magical beast … every plant … every potion …

 


 

A piercing slant of sunlight woke Harry. Groaning, he stumbled out of bed and to the bathroom. When he finally dressed and shuffled into the kitchen, he thought that his sleep-exhausted brain was conjuring tricks. Riddle sat at the table, a pot of tea set on a cozy beside him. His long legs were crossed with one elbow propped on the table, a hand tucked under his chin as he read a book. The sight was sickeningly domestic. Harry’s fingers itched to snatch up the teapot and smash it on top of Riddle’s head. Instead, he crossed the kitchen and grabbed a skillet for scrambling eggs.

He tried not to look, but the golden doorknob winked in the corner of his eye. The glint was like food to a starving man and his head turned toward it. The door was boarded up. Riddle had been busy through the night. It was such a secure job that even Uncle Vernon would have been proud.

Grimacing, Harry turned back to his skillet. He should be grateful, but instead disappointment pooled in his gut.

“How is your heart?”

Harry paused in cracking eggs.

“Fine,” he said. He cracked another.

The sound of a chair scraping against the floor made Harry stiffen, but he did not turn around.

 Ignore him. Ignore him.

He added a third egg to the pan and pushed them around with a spoon. A pale, long fingered hand slipped around his chest. Harry gripped the spoon so hard his knuckles turned white. He kept his eyes on his breakfast.

“No pain?” Riddle asked. Fingers pressed firmly against Harry’s chest, right over his heart. “Don’t lie to me, Harry.”

“I’m fine.

Harry could practically feel Riddle’s smirk. “You are at a disadvantage in that I know a great deal more about the after effects of Strangleweed than you do. Take a deep breath.”

“Are you my healer now?” Harry snarled.

Riddle’s voice was light against his ear. “Today, yes.”

Knowing Riddle wouldn’t go away until he adhered, Harry filled his lungs. He stuttered as a needle-sharp pain stabbed behind his ribs. He clutched the counter. The room spun. He squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.

Hands gripped him by the shoulders and Harry was pushed into a chair.

“Breathe, Potter.”

Slowly, Harry recovered himself.

“Is this … normal?” he asked, shaking.

Riddle straightened and removed the skillet from the heat. He scraped the eggs onto a plate and put it in front of Harry before returning to his seat and pouring himself another cup of tea. Harry stared.

“Yes,” said Riddle, who did not look as if he’d done anything out of character. “Strangleweed venom is extremely potent. You were lucky I found you so quickly. The longer in the Strangleweed’s clutches, the longer it takes to extract the toxins. I expect you’ll be back to normal in a day.” And with that, Riddle returned to reading his book.

Harry looked down at his plate. He wasn’t remotely hungry, but he kept his eyes focused on the congealed eggs so he wouldn’t look at the door. The golden doorknob was a glaring eye upon his back. Like an itch he could not scratch, a voice in the back of his mind urged him to get up, to yank the boards free.

 Harry’s head jerked up as Riddle pushed the pot toward him.

“Tea?” he offered, that infuriating smirk back as his eyes lingered on Harry’s neck where the bruises he’d left last night were clearly visible. “You seem to be a bit hoarse. Sore throat?”

Harry’s face burned. He stood so quickly, the chair toppled over backward. He was out of the kitchen and through the front door. There would be no co-existing if Harry threw a punch. They’d kill each other and maybe that was what the Carcerem wanted after all, because learning to live with Riddle was inconceivable. Harry was forced to stop, clutching a tree for support as his heart struggled to keep up, each inhale making him wince.

The sound of the front door swinging shut froze the little air in his lungs. He looked over his shoulder and saw Riddle, book tucked under one arm, stroll down the front steps toward him at a sedate, leisurely pace. He really wasn’t going to leave him alone.

Harry jerked back into motion. He walked down to the beach as quickly as he could, and all the while, Riddle followed.

Harry couldn’t do this. He was barely getting by before. The prospect of Riddle haunting his every step was too much. The sand slid under Harry’s feet as he neared the boathouse and he knew without looking that Riddle followed like a damned shadow.

Ignore him. Ignore him. He will get bored with you.

More out of needing something to steady his hands, Harry grabbed a fishing pole and settled on the edge of the dock. He’d never fished the Muggle way before in his life. He had no idea if he was doing it right, but none of that mattered. It would be dull and monotonous, exactly the sort of thing Riddle would hate.

 

xXx

 

The boy was … fishing. Voldemort snorted and settled upon a sandy dune, far enough away from Potter to keep from having to speak to him. Close enough to leap into action, should the need arise.

Voldemort opened his book, A Study of Artifacts by Lauritz Peck. The Carcerem was mentioned, of course, but Voldemort found Peck’s discussion unenlightening. There was nothing that could explain why he was in his thirty year-old body, nothing except conjecture. No one had traveled as far as he into the depths of magical exploration. No one had ever created six Horcruxes. Somehow, the Carcerem had not deemed his body fit. Perhaps Potter was right. Perhaps his body would not have survived the Carcerem’s transport and so it had wrapped him in the memory of the Tom Riddle who had foolishly touched its casing all those years ago.

He was … getting used to his younger self. That wretched weakness that had plagued him like a bout of flu was gone. An odd rawness deep inside him, however, remained. At times, it made slumber difficult. Voldemort snorted again. Sleep. He hadn’t needed to sleep or eat for over twenty years. The gnawing emptiness in his stomach had alarmed him on the first morning in the Carcerem. At first, he truly did not known what the sensation was and then he was frantic, tearing through the kitchen. He found a jar of jam and a box of biscuits. He’d nearly retched afterward.

It was then, pale and sweaty, trembling on the kitchen floor, that he saw them: runes. Runes written on a tile tucked underneath a breadbox.

Northwest, they had read.

After a quick study of the sun, Voldemort had traveled northwest through the house, coming upon a bedroom on the ground floor. The moment he opened the door, his mouth twisted in revulsion. The one place he swore he would never return, back like mold.

He patrolled the floorboards of his old bedroom, dragging the bed and bedside table from the wall, but it was only after tossing every bit of clothing from the wardrobe that he found it: another rune scratched into the wood. It too was a coordinate. South.

He inspected every room he passed, finally returning to the entrance hall.

As he passed the stairwell, he noticed a door beneath it. He opened it and found a cupboard, packed with common Muggle cleaning supplies, but also — and highly strange — a makeshift bed. For a moment, Voldemort forgot why he’d opened the cupboard door in the first place, too busy taking in what was clearly the sleeping area for a small child.

Potter?

It must have belonged to Potter. Everything in the Carcerem came from the two of them, but Voldemort had a difficult time believing it was true. Harry Potter, the Chosen One, the boy who lived, the Golden Child of the Wizarding World, squashed into a cupboard and he still advocated for Muggles?

Shaking his head in bewilderment, Voldemort searched the items, causing spiders to scurrying out of sight. He picked up a worn out trainer and turned it over. On the underside was another rune along with a name written in a child’s untidy scrawl: Harry.

Perhaps it was the sight of his own childhood bedroom, but the scribble on this secondhand pair of shoes made Voldemort’s heart curl with unwelcome memories. Names written on shoes and the insides of shirt collars was a common practice in the orphanage, especially as they all wore the same uniform. The similarities between he and Potter struck Voldemort with unexpected strength. Both half-bloods, both orphans, both dark-haired and pale, and now that he saw the evidence, both unwanted.

He stuffed the shoe away, suddenly furious. He detested this place. He detested that the Carcerem scooped out their secrets and laid them bare.

 Voldemort shut the cupboard door and prowled the house. Each new rune led him to another and another, until he was digging beneath a yew tree. The shovel hit something hard, the sharp ting of metal against metal sounding in the looming twilight. He dropped to his knees, brushed the dirt away, and revealed a hidden door. Voldemort pulled on the iron ring, picked up his lantern and descended a ladder. He knew it was a crypt the moment his feet hit the bottom. The stench of death had him covering his nose. His heart betrayed him, beating loud and furious in his ears, but Voldemort continued past the seemingly endless rows of caskets. The lantern light splashed upon a wall and Voldemort stood before the largest collection of runes he’d yet found. One look and he knew that this was all the information the Carcerem was going to grant him. Fear forgotten, he had set to work.

The salty, ocean wind shifted, ruffling the pages of his book and Voldemort was brought back to the present. His hand curled into a fist, the jagged half-moon tattoo just visible on the inside of his wrist.

The runes in the crypt had been of the same long-forgotten language as all the others. He had only been able to decipher half, but what he learned was enough. The Carcerem was indeed an impatient jailer. There was a time limit to how long it would allow them to work through their differences on their own. And if they failed … if they could not forgive …

Voldemort had seen the two empty caskets waiting for them.

How much time would the Carcerem gift them? They’d already been inside it a week. What would happen when time ran out? Would the island collapse in on itself? Would they be flung into nothingness, spiraling into a black void? Ripped apart? Crushed? Suffocated? Voldemort’s nostrils widened as he took a deep, steadying breath. For his life to be in the hands of anyone was unacceptable. For it to be Potter’s hands sent his blood thrumming with murder. His fingers flexed, longing to wrap around Potter’s throat and finish what they’d started. Potter bruised beautifully.

Long, steady breaths.

This was just another test of his strength and Lord Voldemort was always up for a challenge. He hadn’t needed to charm anyone in a very long time and charming Harry Potter would be the greatest challenge of his life.

But Potter was a social creature. Show him kindness, show him companionship and he would mold to fit Voldemort’s needs like all the other pathetic people who had done so before him. It would take time and care. Subtlety. Patience.

Hoodwink Potter and he would hoodwink the Carcerem. It was as simple as that.

 

xXx

 

Harry’s shoulders would not unclench, no matter how hard he tried. A quick glance told him that yes, Riddle remained, a black blot on a picturesque beach. Coming to terms that this plan was not working, Harry began to reel in his line — he’d rather sit in his bedroom, surely Riddle wouldn’t follow him there — when the pole gave a sharp jerk. Startled, and utterly surprised, Harry found himself with a large, flapping blue fish.

Back at the house, Harry stared at it for a full minute before Riddle, with a soft, impatient sigh, took a knife and sliced open its belly.

“Let’s not pretend that you are ignorant of my childhood,” Riddle said, rinsing the fish in cold water. “I’m sure Dumbledore told you as much as he could about my upbringing before I killed him.”

“You didn’t kill him,” said Harry. “His death had nothing to do with you.”

“That’s right,” said Riddle, feigning surprise. “According to you Dumbledore planned it with Severus.”

Harry held Riddle’s gaze. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be good at spotting lies. So tell me, Tom, am I?”

The smirk turned sour. Riddle shook his hands clean and grabbed a towel. “A shilling a fish,” he said as if the conversation had never diverted. “I got quite good at gutting.”

“You worked in a fish shop?”

“I worked in many places,” said Riddle. “Do you intend to cook it or shall I?”

 


 

Harry ate his lunch in silence, refusing point blank to admit that it was the best fried fish he’d ever eaten. He rather regretted scarfing it down as quickly as he did, but he wasn’t going to spend any more time with Riddle than he had to. Riddle seemed to know exactly what Harry was up to, but ate his lunch without comment, though his eyes gleamed in amusement.

Finished, Harry washed his plate and left with Riddle still eating, fully intending to head back outside. There was a thick wooded area he had yet to explore. Perhaps he could lose Riddle there.

But Harry stopped on the front steps. It was raining. Glaring, he shut the door. He had no intention of returning to the kitchen, and regardless of what he’d thought earlier, he didn’t want to spend the rest of the day cooped up in his gloomy bedroom. Making up his mind, Harry headed down a long stretch of hallway to a side door that opened out into a small courtyard, nestled up against the north side of the house. Lowering his head against the deluge, Harry sprinted across the brickwork and entered the greenhouse.

For a moment, he closed his eyes, letting the sound of pelting rain on the glass roof fill his ears. It was easy to imagine he was back in the Hogwarts greenhouses: the sticky humidity, the smell of fresh dirt. The homesickness hit hard and strong. Harry allowed the feeling to come. He let it have its say, before opening his eyes and moving toward a slightly warped wooden shelf. There he found an extensive collection of seed packets (pumpkins, beans, squash, celery, tomatoes). Did the Carcerem have seasons? Well, it hardly mattered either way. He chose a handful of packs and picked up a trowel.

 


 

The rain did not stop and Harry lost track of time. He was covered in dirt and his back ached from planting the long, raised beds, but he was immensely pleased with himself. Wiping his hands on his jeans, Harry made to head back to the house, intending to wash up before starting dinner, when something made him pause.

The greenhouse already had some items growing in it: the thick, gelatinous stems of a bubotuber wiggling all on their own, fluffy-tufted plants in pots that reminded Harry vividly of mandrakes and …

He inspected a lacy, weed-like plant growing in a corner. They had studied it both in Potions and Herbology.

Hemlock.

The leaves when chopped would look just like parsley. The roots he could steep with tea leaves. Riddle would be dead by morning.

Do it, a voice hissed in Harry’s ear. End it.

The bruises on his neck seemed more tender than ever. The memory of Riddle’s breath against his ear — do no forget who I am, little boy — was so fresh it made Harry shudder.

One dose — one snip — one cup of tea and this nightmare would all be over. His parents would be avenged.

Harry’s fingers grasped a stem.

Do it. End it.

“Harry?”

He spun around, hiding the plant behind his back. Riddle had found him.

“Dinner’s nearly ready, if you intend on eating.”

“What?” said Harry, blankly.

“Dinner,” Riddle repeated, as if he spoke to someone foreign. He turned and left, not bothering to get confirmation.

Behind his back, Harry’s wrist gave a sharp twist and he returned to the house, stuffing a leafy stem in his pocket as he went.

 


 

Harry washed up and entered the kitchen. The smell of chicken and spices made his stomach growl. Riddle was nowhere to be seen. He moved quickly to the stove and lifted the pot’s lid. What was the best way to make sure Riddle ate the hemlock? The sound of footsteps on the cellar stairs had Harry hastily putting the lid back on and taking a step away from the stove just as Riddle emerged, carrying a bottle of wine.

“Do you drink?” he asked, rummaging through a drawer for a corkscrew.

Harry blinked at Riddle. Riddle rolled his eyes. He poured two glasses and pushed one into Harry’s startled hand, set his own on the kitchen table and departed once again, this time toward the common room. He was gone only seconds, returning with Ron’s chess board. He put it on the table, settled in the same chair he’d sat in at breakfast and lunch, took a sip of wine and began setting up the board.

He couldn’t possibly be doing what Harry thought he was.

Riddle, who had finished putting the pieces in their places, shifted a pawn and said, “Your move.”

“You want to play chess?”

“Obviously,” said Riddle.

Harry hesitated and then, taking himself by surprise, joined Riddle at the table and moved his own pawn. Harry had barely removed his hand before Riddle swiftly shifted a knight into play.

 


 

Riddle won the first two and lost the third, startling Harry as much as Riddle, which seemed, bizarrely, to only energize the man more. Another bottle of wine was opened. The chicken was a heap of picked over bones. The sound of rain continued to patter against the darkened window. In the corner, the golden doorknob’s glow was dull and sullen, ignored and forgotten. Harry had no idea what time it was. He was light-headed on wine, the chess pieces blurring in and out of focus. 

As Riddle topped up their glasses once more Harry was confident that this was some sort of plan. But strangely enough — and perhaps it was due to the alcohol coursing through his veins — he was not particularly bothered by Riddle’s nefarious motives. Instead, he leaned forward and said, “If I win, I’m turning on the banshees.”

“That,” Riddle stated, “is not going to happen.”

Harry grinned. “Sure about that?”

“Positive,” Riddle breathed. He moved his bishop and Harry grimaced.

“Do you find it odd,” Harry asked, shifting his knight to block Riddle’s bishop, “that the cellar is packed with enough food to feed an army and yet we have to collect eggs? I mean, there’s cream down there. And butter. But not eggs?”

“It wouldn’t do to have us starve,” said Riddle, considering his next move.

“But why not have a constant supply of eggs downstairs?” Harry argued. “How does that make any sense? Not to mention the wine. There’s got to be a hundred bottles down there.”

“Bless Salazar,” Riddle muttered, not taking his eyes from the board. “But it is probably best not to dwell on the Carcerem’s logic,” he added, moving his queen and putting Harry in check once again.

Harry captured the queen with his knight.

“Is that your way of saying that you don’t have a clue?” Harry smirked.

Riddle looked up from the board. His eyes seized Harry so suddenly and swiftly that Harry’s breath was stolen. Riddle’s gaze was piercing. Unrelenting. Scorching and frigid at the same time.

“I don’t have a clue,” he answered softly.

A gentle tap of marble against marble had Harry’s eyes darting back down to the board.

Son of a—

“No banshees then?” said Riddle with a smirk of his own.

 


 

It wasn’t until later, much later, that Harry stumbled up to his bedroom. Undressing, his hand found something in his pocket. Frowning, he pulled out a wilted, bruised stem. His vision was a haze of wine, but his brain snapped back into focus. He had forgotten about it. The alcohol and the chess had swept it away.

For a very long time Harry stood still, goosebumps rising on his bare skin from the chilled room, before he opened the mokeskin pouch around his neck and added the hemlock to the contents within.

Riddle thought Harry wouldn’t kill him. Not when the alternative was to live in permanent isolation for the rest of his life. He thought Harry would wish for companionship over solitude, even if it was with his worst enemy. And maybe Riddle was right, thought Harry as he punched his pillow into a more comfortable position.

Or maybe he was wrong.

Chapter Text

They fell into a routine. Riddle, who always rose before Harry, was in the kitchen or common room, usually a book in hand and a freshly brewed pot of tea at the ready. Harry cooked bacon and fried eggs. When he felt adventurous, he made omelets. Riddle joined him on his morning and afternoon walks around the island. Sometimes he helped Harry collect eggs. Sometimes he chatted. More often than not, they walked in silence. 

Riddle always had a book. He seemed, like Hermione, to be able to read a new one every day. It was lucky, Harry supposed, that the library was so packed with volumes, but it surprised him when on their usual trip down to the boathouse he glanced down at the one Riddle carried and noticed the title: Hamlet.

“There’s Shakespeare in the library?” Harry said, startled.

Riddle lifted an eyebrow. “There’s also The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle.

A surprised laugh escaped Harry.

“Really?” His mind flooded with a vision of Ron’s bedroom at the Burrow, a stack of comics beside a tank full of frog spawn. He grinned in fondness at the memory. “They’re rather good.”

Riddle rolled his eyes.

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a Shakespeare fan,” said Harry.

Riddle was quiet as the boathouse loomed in the distance. Tiny crabs scuttled from their path. The wind died down, blocked by the protective outcropping of the cove.

“They took us to see a play in the park,” Riddle spoke suddenly. “It captivated me.”

The admission felt strangely intimate. Harry couldn’t believe Lord Voldemort would admit to admiring the works of a Muggle. The silence stretched, growing uncomfortable.

“There’s also,” Riddle added in a dry tone, “a vast collection of works by one Gilderoy Lockhart.”

Harry really did laugh then. It shot across the beach, loud and clear. Riddle stared at him.

“I don’t recommend them,” said Harry. “Total rot.”

“I gathered as much,” said Riddle. His eyes lingered longer than usual on Harry, and Harry, growing uncomfortable again, quickened his pace to the boathouse.

 


 

The Carcerem was not logical, but perhaps it had its reasons for the choices it made. Hunting for eggs got Harry out of the house. Tending the oven and boiler kept him focused throughout the day. It kept him busy. Distracted. He could not dwell on the life he had been ripped away from if his mind was occupied.

Caring for the vegetable plot in the greenhouse became another daily chore, and one he found he looked forward to every morning. Harry discovered that just because he and Riddle could not wield magic did not mean it wasn’t present. A day after sowing his seeds, sprouts lifted their heads out of the dirt. Another day went by, and they doubled in size. Harry wouldn’t be surprised if the pumpkins reached the gargantuan mass they did in Hagrid’s back garden.

 


 

Harry shifted the ladder to another branch. Beside the greenhouse were a cluster of apple trees. The overgrown orchard reminded Harry vividly of the garden in front of Luna’s house. It even included a lush bush of dirigible plums which he had yet to touch. Nothing against Luna, but his confidence in the Lovegoods’ taste in food was severely lacking after that cup of gurdyroot tea. He clambered up the ladder, rustled through the foliage and plucked another apple, his basket nearly full. He wondered if pies were as hard to get right as bread. He had yet to bake an edible loaf, each as charred as the last.

“Potter.”

Harry turned on his ladder. Riddle stood behind him on the grassy patch between the greenhouse and the water pump. He carried two swords.

“What are those for?” asked Harry, eying Riddle warily. For the past week and a half Riddle had been particularly pleasant. He hadn’t even said anything about Harry’s latest disastrous bread attempt, so burnt it required a hammer to break into. Riddle had been so pleasant, in fact, that Harry was growing nervous. The calm before the storm.

“Practice.”

Harry climbed down from the ladder. “Practice for what?”

“Your dueling skills are sub-par, at best. Time to change that.” Riddle tossed one of the swords at him. Startled, Harry barely managed to catch it.

“Excuse me?” said Harry, bristling. “I duel just fine.”

“Luck will only get you so far.”

Harry snorted. “I’ve survived you and your Death Eaters more times than I can count. I’d call that more than luck.”

“You aren’t skill-less,” Riddle conceded. “And you have excellent reflexes, but can you tell me with absolute certainty how you would fare in a duel against me with wands that actually fought each other?”

Annoyed, Harry didn’t reply.

Sensing his advantage Riddle closed the distance between them. “You wouldn’t last five minutes.”

“There you go again,” said Harry, refusing to be intimidated. “Underestimating me.”

Riddle’s mouth twitched in amusement. His eyes darted to the sword in Harry’s hand. “Prove it.”

There was no way in hell Harry was letting Riddle near him with a sword.

“I thought we were talking about dueling with wands,” said Harry. “A sword isn’t a wand.”

“True,” Riddle agreed. “But much is the same. The footwork. The agility. The balance. Knowing when to strike and when to divert. Magic is not the backbone of dueling, Harry. But, you make an excellent point. We will discuss what spells you would have used if this were a proper wizard’s duel. But I’m getting ahead of myself,” said Riddle, ignoring Harry’s stunned expression. “Today will be basic movements. Hold up your sword.”

Harry didn’t.

“Training me to be better at fighting you seems counterproductive to me.”

“On the contrary, when I kill you I want it to be the most talked of duel of wizard kind. Simply striking you down won’t satisfy me anymore. I can’t have you letting me down,” he added with a light playfulness. “Raise your sword.”

“How do you even know how to sword fight?” Harry demanded, still refusing to follow Riddle’s orders. “Why would Lord Voldemort know something so Muggle?”

Some of the humor slipped from Riddle’s face. “Let me train you,” he said softly, “and I’ll tell you.”

“It’s a sword,” said Harry, brandishing it to help drive home the glaring problem. “You could cut my head off!”

Riddle pinched the bridge of his nose, as if praying for patience. “How difficult is this to comprehend? It does me no good to kill you here. But even if I were going to these swords would be highly inefficient as they are blunt. We’ll use live swords,” he added, smiling rather nastily, “later. Now, for the last time, raise your weapon.”

Arrogant prick, but Harry lifted the sword. Riddle marched to him, grabbed his hand and readjusted his grip.

“We’ll start with fundamentals,” he said. “Repeat after me.”

 


 

Harry had never been so sore in his life. Not even Oliver’s overzealous Quidditch practices came close to how he felt the next morning. Every inch of him ached. Riddle had put him through a rigorous sequence: footwork, parries, strikes. Over and over and over again. Harry’s arm quivered like jelly by the end of it. The prospect of starting and tending the fires for the day only made him want to disappear beneath the covers and never get out of bed again, but with a groan, he managed to roll out of the bed and shuffle down the stairs. As expected, Riddle was already in the kitchen looking as refreshed as ever. The fires could wait. Harry slumped into a chair.

“So,” said Harry, covering up a wince. “What got you into sword fighting?”

“A sorceress in the Khangai Mountains,” said Riddle, lazily turning a page in his latest book. “She was a master of the dark arts that I wished to study, most especially possession.” Riddle’s eyes met his and the air seemed to chill. “But she would only take me as a student if I also studied sword fighting from the monks who lived in the mountains.”

“Why?” said Harry, who couldn’t help but feel such a demand was absurd.

“Because she knew I hated all things Muggle,” Riddle replied. “And she enjoyed making me do things I detested. They say there have only been three Seers in the last century. She was one of them.”

The chill increased, slipping down his spine. “Was?”

The tease of murder was back in Riddle’s smile. “She had a rather unfortunate encounter with a viper, but not before she told me that one day I would appreciate my training with the monks as much as my studies with her. I didn’t believe her at the time. We’ll take your lessons down to the beach,” he said, returning his attention to his book. “The sand will help strengthen your feet.”

 

xXx

 

It would be a shame to kill Potter, but kill him, he would.

Above all else, Voldemort prized magic and the skill and dedication to wield it. Potter had it all. With a change in ideology, he would have made an excellent Death Eater. The boy possessed a fierce grace that only appeared during their lessons. Doing anything else, Potter turned into a fumbling klutz, dropping spoons and tripping over rocks. But when he sensed danger, a switch flipped in Potter’s brain. His eyes focused with the intensity of a hawk, his whole body finely tuned to spring into action or dive for cover.

It fascinated Voldemort. Training with the monks had never been as enjoyable as sparring with Potter. Every time he knocked him down, Potter scrambled back up, more determined. If only their wands were not silent, Voldemort would show Potter what duels could really be.

But the boy couldn’t get too good. Voldemort lunged forward, darting his sword under Potter’s and with a swift upward strike, the sword was knocked from Potter’s hand. He froze as Voldemort’s blade swept up and rested against his neck. He let it linger a breath longer than was customary, before lowering the weapon and taking a step back.

“That will do for today.”

Potter released a sigh of relief. He doubled up, hands on his knees, sweat dampening his fringe.

Voldemort stabbed the tip of his sword into the sand. “Take mine with you,” he commanded.

“Aren’t you coming?” asked Potter.

“In a minute.” And then he added, teasing, “Can you not make it back to the house without an escort?”

Potter glared and snatched up both swords. “See you,” he said shortly.

Voldemort chuckled as he watched Potter go. Riling the boy up was far too enjoyable.

He knew Potter was sore and his mood testy because of it. Voldemort’s own muscles were pleasantly tender. There was a Biloba tree on the edge of a thick wooded area past the boathouse. Voldemort had spied it on their daily walks. He could steep the leaves. The flavor was nothing to write home about, but the infusion would help their muscles recuperate faster.

The sun hung low in the sky, the last rays bleeding across the horizon. Voldemort entered the wood, his eyes struggling for a moment to adjust to the gloom. He strode to the Biloba and began picking the fan-like leaves. There had been one in the forest in Albania. Over those unending thirteen years, it became a safe haven. A base. He slipped through the branches, a bodiless phantom, and watched for passing wizards…

But no one came, save for a gullible wizard and a banished rat. All his servants who’d spoken of loyalty — all traitorous cowards.

Voldemort shook his head, trying to rid himself of the memories. He was free of that place. But the more Voldemort pushed the past away, the more the forest closed in around him. Mist creeped around tree trunks, its tendrils covering the ground, inching toward him. With each beat of his heart, the forest grew darker. This had been his hell. Unable to die. Unable to live. He’d been a half-life, a half-creature. Every moment, every breath, an agony. Every moment, every breath, a furious promise to survive. To return. To punish those who’d disavowed him.

But he was unprotected now. His heart was just as mortal as the next. The leaves fell from his fingers, terror stilling the organ in his chest. It wasn’t just the Biloba tree that was similar, he realized, but the entire forest. It was his. The gnarled branches twisted upward, blocking out the sky, the mist crawled up his legs, but he would not be trapped here. He had conquered this hell. He would never be lost to it again. He spun on the spot and all air was sucked from his lungs. Death stood before him. Towering, hooded, a long wicked scythe in one skeletal hand.

“No.” Voldemort scrambled backward. He tripped and fell. “No.

Death paid his pleas no mind. It swung up its weapon —

A flash of metal. A clang of steel. Potter swiped at Death and the entity retreated. The boy grabbed Voldemort, trying to pull him to his feet, but Voldemort could not move, terror seizing him like a poison. Furious, Potter shouted something, but Voldemort could not hear him over the blood pounding in his ears. Instead, he jerked on the boy’s arm for Death was coming back, only it was different now. It had grown even taller, its hooded robes more tattered, the hem dissolving into smoke. The bone-numbing cold washed over Voldemort before he realized Death had become a dementor, save for its hands. Each finger was the curve of a scythe. Potter whirled around. He held his sword at the ready, but his arms shook. He backed away. The dementor lunged and the boy blocked its blows. He was forced back against a tree, barely holding back the dementor’s attack. A vicious slash and the dementor overpowered him; the sword clattered across the ground. In a flash, it was upon Potter. It reached back its hand, blades glinting in the dying rays of the sun —

Potter flung up his arms to protect himself and a blinding, white light erupted, flooding the forest. The air hummed with energy. Potter’s magic — pure and untamed — crashed over Voldemort. The dementor shrieked, the blinding whiteness carrying it away like a surge of ocean water. The light receded; the forest turned as dark as night, and as it did, Voldemort could hear again. Potter was screaming.

Voldemort scrambled to his feet. “Potter?”

The boy was on the ground, his hands clamped tight over his ears. He rolled and shrieked as if he were under the Cruciatus Curse. Voldemort made to grab him — to shake him back to reality — when he saw the blood. One of the dementor’s blows had made contact. Potter’s front was saturated in red.

 

xXx

 

The steady fall of rain woke Harry. His glasses were gone and though the room was blurred, he knew at once that the bed he rested in was not his. Blinking, he tried to focus on the figure sitting in a chair, staring out the window. He made to sit up and a pained gasp escaped him.

Riddle’s head snapped around. “Lie back down.”

Harry quickly complied. His left side was on fire. He pinched his eyes shut, willing himself not to throw up. The bed dipped and Harry’s eyes flew back open. Riddle sat beside him. He pulled Harry’s glasses from his pocket and slid them into place, startling Harry, before moving his attention to the bandage wrapped around Harry’s stomach. Without a word, Riddle began to undo it.

Harry’s heart gave a sickening lurch as the wound was revealed. Three deep gashes glistened with fresh blood, running from his ribs to his belly button. They were stitched shut, the skin puckered and red. Wishing he hadn’t looked, Harry focused on the ceiling. Riddle shifted on the bed. There was a clink of glass, a stopper popping free and fingers gently spread a cooling salve over the wound, numbing Harry’s torn flesh.

“Arch your back,” Riddle said softly.

Harry did so, not taking his eyes from the crack in the ceiling that mirrored the one in his own bedroom. Riddle’s arms dipped behind him, encasing his middle in a fresh bandage.

“Do you remember what happened?” Riddle asked.

Harry blinked quickly, wondering if this was a trick question. He remembered a great deal and he wasn’t entirely sure what was real and what had been a dream. His mother screaming in his ears so loudly he thought he’d go deaf, a blinding white light — and the pad of a thumb rubbing circles against the skin behind his ear … the warmth and stability of a body against his own … a voice murmuring assurances. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.

We were attacked,” said Harry, still refusing to look anywhere else but the ceiling. He wished Riddle would return to his chair. The man sat so close the side of his hip touched Harry’s. He could feel Riddle’s eyes upon him and against his will, Harry’s cheeks grew hot.

“You did magic,” said Riddle. The strangeness in his voice finally caused Harry to look at him. He had often felt x-rayed by Dumbledore, but the way Riddle stared at him made Harry feel dissected.

“I couldn’t have.”

“You did.” Never lowering his gaze, Riddle pulled a wand from his pocket. Harry recognized it at once: the Elder Wand. Riddle’s long fingers caressed the wood, as if making up his mind, and then he held it out.

Harry stared at the man, stunned. Heart in his throat, he took it, but the moment his fingertips touched the smooth surface, he knew there had been no change. Heart sinking, Harry passed it back.

“I don’t feel anything.”

Riddle took the wand, frowning. “The boggart turned into a dementor when it saw you and only magic can ward off a dementor.”

“Except that it wasn’t a dementor,” Harry pointed out. “It was a boggart.”

“Did that feel like a normal boggart to you?” Riddle asked. “I am hardly ever affected by dementors, and yet I felt that I’d been plunged into the Arctic. You,” said Riddle, his gaze unrelenting, “were beside yourself. It was all I could do to get you back to the house.”

I’ve got you. I’ve got you.

Harry swallowed, the uncomfortable heat rising up his neck.

Riddle was right. He had faced boggart-dementors and though they were horrible, the real creature was always worse. What Harry had faced in the woods had been astronomically more awful — not even when he’d been surrounded by a hundred dementors in his third year had the damage been so severe. Harry thought he was going mad with the pain of it.

“The Carcerem makes its own rules, remember,” Riddle continued. “But it knew that to conjure a dementor meant that one of us had to be given back his magic. The gift, apparently, was short-lived.”

“Your boggart … it looked like —”

“Death?” Riddle supplied. His expression was composed, but his spine became a fraction more rigid.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Harry.

“I’m not ashamed,” said Riddle.

Harry’s eyebrows rose and Riddle, with an irritable jerk of his shoulders, said, “It is an annoyance that will be rectified.”

Did Riddle mean what Harry thought he meant?

“You can’t make more Horcruxes.”

It was Riddle’s turn to look unimpressed.

“You can’t!” Furious, Harry tried to rise onto his forearms, but Riddle pushed him back down. “Don’t you get it? They don’t work. They fool you into thinking you’re invincible, but you aren’t. Your soul’s already shredded. It can’t take much more!”

“What do you know of it?” Riddle glowered, his voice hard. “Just because you destroyed them does not make you an expert.”

“Maybe not, but I’m expert at what’s in your chest,” Harry fired back. “I’ve seen what your soul looks like. I’ve seen what’s in store for you and if you don’t—”

“Seen?” Riddle interrupted, his eyes narrowing. “What do you mean, seen?”

Harry’s mouth went dry. This was it. This would be the greatest test to Riddle’s word yet.

“When I was a baby and you tried to kill me — when the killing curse backfired and ripped you from your body — a shard of your soul broke off without you realizing. It latched onto the only living person in the room.”

Riddle’s eyes widened, staring at Harry as if he’d never seen him before.

“Impossible.”

“I spoke Parseltongue. I could jump in and out of your mind. I felt your emotions as if they were my own. My scar always hurt when you were around. That wasn’t my doing. That was the bit of your soul trapped inside me.”

Riddle shook his head. He was on his feet, backing away. Though he looked nothing like Voldemort, his expression was just the same as when Harry had risen from the dead in the Great Hall: shell-shocked, frightened, and utterly confused. For the first time, Harry wanted Riddle to understand. To really understand. Riddle couldn’t make the same mistakes. It made Harry sick to his stomach just considering it.

“When you killed me in the Forbidden Forest—”

You did not die!” Riddle roared.

“I did,” said Harry softly. “I really did and I saw the bit of soul that had been in me. It was horrible. You think your exile was agony? What I witnessed was torture. You’ve tortured your own soul. You’ve mutilated it. Can you feel what’s left of it? How much more do you think you can shave off before you realize you haven’t strengthened yourself. You’ve cursed yourself.”

Without warning, Riddle grabbed the bedside table and threw it across the room. Harry flinched and before he could shout out after him, Riddle had gone.

 

xXx

 

Voldemort didn’t know where he was going; only that he had to get away from Potter.

Potter and his damn, honest eyes.

Those eyes had been huge in the Forbidden Forest. At the time it struck him as strange that the boy did not lift his wand to defend himself. He had expected Potter to fight him, as he always did, but quietly he’d stood, waiting for the Dark Lord to finish it. And all the while — all the while — Potter had known the truth.

Voldemort’s hands sought out anything they could reach — chairs, tables, decanters. They were all upended and flung. He was a tornado. He was a hurricane. And it wasn’t enough. No amount of destruction could compare to what had been lost.

The rawness in his chest made Voldemort double up. He clutched the table for support, but collapsed to the ground. He knew what this feeling was now. It had been so long ago since he’d made his first Horcrux that he had not recognized the burning that scorched his insides. He always thought it was the exertion of the ritual, but now he knew the truth.

Voldemort could feel it. He could feel his soul. He gritted his teeth, his nails biting into the skin over his heart as the burning reached a peak. He just wanted it to stop. He’d do anything to make it stop.

A hand, soft and trembling, touched his shoulder and a blessed coolness spread over the gashes in his soul. Voldemort looked up through stinging eyes. Potter, shaking and pale, crouched before him. The boy was not using magic, Voldemort knew this, but there was no mistake that the ache in his chest was easing, calming. There was something about Potter that … soothed it.

“You’re not alone,” Harry whispered. “I’m just as frightened as you are. We can do this. Together.”

Do what, Voldemort wondered. Survive? Die?

He nodded anyway. Harry smiled and the coolness spreading through Voldemort’s heart warmed like the rays of the morning sun. Whatever this was, Voldemort didn’t want it to stop. He leaned into Harry’s touch, but Harry stumbled backward, his face suddenly very white.

“Harry?” Voldemort grabbed him. His eyes darted down to the red stain blooming across the fresh bandage. Voldemort cursed. “Imbecile.

A low chuckle escaped Harry and Voldemort felt that warmth again, but this warmth did not scorch. It caressed.

“Two peas in a pod,” Harry said weakly, “aren’t we?”

 What was this feeling and why was Harry causing it? Harry didn’t seem to think he was doing anything strange. Voldemort hoisted him to his feet, pulling an arm over his shoulders. Together they slowly shuffled back down the hall to his room. Harry had turned distinctly green by the time Voldemort lowered him into the bed. After administering a fresh bandage and checking that the stitches had not ripped too badly, Voldemort collapsed into the chair he’d dragged from the common room, exhausted and strangely agitated. He couldn’t stop looking at Harry. Now that they no longer touched, the burn in his chest returned, sharper and harsher than before. Voldemort clutched the arms of the chair in a stranglehold to keep from slipping into the bed and—

“I’d offer to go to my room,” said Harry, his breathing strained, his eyes pinched shut, “but I don’t think I’d make it up the stairs. You can have it.”

“I’m fine here.”

Harry looked at him, frowning in bewilderment. “Sleeping in chairs isn’t comfortable and you’re hurt too.”

“The boggart did not wound me.”

Harry released an annoyed breath. “You can stop lying to me, Tom. I know something’s wrong.”

Voldemort grimaced. Five minutes ago he’d wanted to get as far away as possible from Harry. Now he could only think of getting closer. “You’re the one who’s likely to bleed to death. I assure you whatever … issues I’m having are manageable.”

Harry’s frown deepened, as if he were struggling with something, and then to Voldemort’s surprise, he said, “There’s room for both of us.”

Voldemort gawked. Harry grew more nettled. “If that thing comes back, it won’t do us any good if you’re not rested. One of us has to fight it and it sure as hell won’t be me.”

Voldemort decided not to point out that they had only come across the boggart in the woods and were unlikely to meet it elsewhere. He extinguished the lamps and climbed into the bed, Harry shifting slightly to give him more space. They both stared at the ceiling. Voldemort was grateful it still rained. The heavy pattering on the window masked the uneasy silence between them. He was grateful it was dark. He didn’t want Harry to see how his hands were balled into fists to keep himself from grabbing Harry’s arm.

Eventually, the tension radiating from the other side of the bed softened. When Voldemort was confident Harry was asleep, he unfurled his left hand, inching it closer to Harry’s. Their wrists touched. Voldemort waited, holding his breath, but Harry did not wake. He interlaced their fingers. Like a balm the gentle comfort spread from his palm, up his arm and to his heart, filling his chest cavity and Voldemort finally breathed. He could just make out the fine outline of Harry’s face, but he didn’t dare move closer. Terror and excitement coursed through him, electric in their intensity. Just when he thought he knew all there was to know about the boy, he was thrown a wrench. Harry Potter was filled with peculiarities and Voldemort would learn them all.

Chapter Text

“Harry, you need to wake up now.”

Riddle shook his shoulder and Harry grimaced.

“You need to eat,” Riddle insisted.

Harry opened his eyes and found Riddle leaning over him. He helped him sit up and put a breakfast tray on Harry’s lap — a thin bowl of broth and a few crackers.

Harry felt groggy. Disoriented. He groped for his glasses. “What time is it?”

“You mean what day?” Riddle corrected. Instead of moving to the chair, as Harry expected, he sat at the foot of the bed, his back resting against the wrought iron frame. “You slept all of yesterday.”

“I did?”

“We’ll need to change your dressings again. Eat.”

Harry eyed the thin broth. It was a pale lemon color. He scooped up a spoonful and gagged.

Eat it,” Riddle ordered. “You have an infection. The broth will help.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, not entirely grateful.

Riddle’s lips twitched, almost as if he held back a laugh. “You’ll be pleased to know that I haven’t come across our boggart since the attack. And your peas are setting. Why you grew peas,” he muttered.

Harry forced down another disgusting mouthful. “What? You don’t like peas?”

“No,” said Riddle. “I considered uprooting them.”

“Oi!”

“Don’t worry, Potter. They’re perfectly all right.” He sounded that he regretted the leniency.

There was something different about Riddle. Harry cut glances at him, trying to pinpoint what it was. He wore the same color scheme he always did: black. His posture was lazy and casual, arms crossed loosely, one long leg dangling over the side of the bed, the other bent at the knee. Harry kept his left foot very still, waiting for Riddle to notice that they were touching and move.

“And you?” Harry asked. “How are you?”

The discussion of Horcruxes, the demolished drawing room, Riddle crouched on the floor, clutching his chest with the look of someone who intended to rip it open hung in the air between them.

“Better,” said Riddle.

He knew he treaded on thin ice, but Harry wanted to know if Riddle was going to collapse again. The episodes seemed to come about when he was deeply distressed. “Do you know what’s wrong?”

“Yes,” said Riddle and Harry knew the topic was over. “You’ll be wanting this back.” Riddle dug into his pocket and pulled out Harry’s mokeskin pouch.

Harry quickly looked down at his bare chest. He hadn’t noticed it was gone.

“Mokeskin,” Riddle observed. He tossed it lightly in the air. “What have you got hiding in here?” he asked, that teasing glint returning to his eyes.

Harry expected Riddle to keep it or demand he open it, but Riddle did neither. He leaned forward and set it on the breakfast tray. Harry fingered the slick fur. It was the only thing within the Carcerem that had kept its magical properties and maybe, thought Harry, that was for a reason. There were no locks in the house. No protection. No privacy. Save for this. On a level, Harry knew it was silly to keep it hidden. The pouch did not contain anything life-shattering. He had already revealed to Riddle the greatest secret of all, but still. Sharing the contents of the pouch felt far more intimate than the truth that he had been a Horcrux. It felt … it felt like an olive branch. It felt more like a truce than any of their previous agreements. It felt like a line in the sand and once crossed, everything would change.

Did he want everything to change?

Harry worked his fingers inside the drawstring opening and passed it back. Riddle raised his eyebrows. He took it. Harry settled back onto the pillows, releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Riddle held Harry’s gaze. Did he feel the same shift, Harry wondered. As if the world had tilted a bit more on its axis.

Thin fingers slipped inside and pulled forth the Marauder’s Map, but to Riddle it appeared as nothing more than a very old, spare bit of parchment. He turned it over quizzically and set it aside, before lifting from the bag’s confines a shard of broken glass.

“Are you a collector of trash, Harry?” Riddle asked, placing it on the map.

“No,” said Harry softly.

Next came his mother’s letter. Riddle did not read it, much to Harry’s relief. He did, however, pause over the photograph. The Carcerem did not allow the picture’s contents to move. Frozen in place, Harry the baby was transfixed in exultant joy on a speeding broomstick, his father’s rushing legs right behind him, ready to scoop him out of harm’s way before he knocked into anything. Along the right hand side was the tip of a cat’s tail, fleeing the scene. Riddle set it with the other items without comment. But when he pulled out Harry’s broken wand, his gray eyes widened. Riddle stared at it, cradling it like a dead bird, the vibrant red of the phoenix feather all the more dazzling in the sunlight hitting it through the window.

“When did this happen?”

Harry quirked his head curiously at the anger in Riddle’s voice.

“Christmas,” he answered.

Riddle searched his face, clearly trying to recall what had transpired at Christmas and Harry had to admit that it was a while ago.

“Bathilda,” he clarified, his voice small but steady.

Comprehension came over Riddle. “I was not aware—”

“That my wand got snapped? No. I kept that quiet.”

“Is there any way to repair it?”

“No,” said Harry. And then he frowned, feeling again that there was something very strange about Riddle and this entire conversation. “Why do you care?”

Riddle’s face closed off. “I don’t,” he said, suddenly brusque. “I told you to eat all of that.”

“I would if it tasted good.”

Riddle’s nostrils flared. Harry noticed it happened when he was particularly annoyed. Instead of jabbing back, however, he dug inside the pouch and pulled out a very withered stem of —

“Hemlock,” Riddle breathed. “You picked some after all.”

“You knew I had?” said Harry, surprised.

“I saw the plant,” said Riddle with a careless shrug. “I assumed you’d be tempted. We weren’t exactly getting along.”

The unspoken admission rang like a gong to Harry — We weren’t getting along then, but now…

Riddle didn’t seem to notice that he’d implied anything staggering. He twirled the stem between forefinger and thumb. “What stopped you?” he asked, curiously.

Harry didn’t answer right away. Absentmindedly, he rubbed the inside of his wrist, where the jagged half-moon was etched on his skin. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

The strangeness in Riddle’s voice, in his countenance, was in his eyes now. It made them too dominating. Harry dropped his gaze to his half-eaten soup, crumbling the crackers on top in a hope of making it somewhat palatable.

 


 

Harry’s wounds kept him bedridden for a week. He expected Riddle — no, Tom, Harry reminded himself firmly — to take the bedroom upstairs, but he never did, and Harry, who’d been the one to insist that he stay that first night, felt that he could not suddenly boot the man out. He made no comment, therefore, every time the lamps were extinguished and the mattress dipped, each so scooted to their respected sides of the bed that they risked rolling off.

Tom was a surprisingly dedicated caregiver. The man who had been Voldemort and then Riddle had shifted yet again. The person who now kept him company, playing cards and discussing spell craft when he could be doing anything else … the person who cooked Harry peas one night … the person who even, after losing a dare, put on Celestina Warbeck — that person was someone new.

He’s after something.

But what? What could Tom possibly want so badly that he would put up with A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love? The face he’d made when he realized Harry had won the hand and the bet made Harry laugh so hard he thought he’d ripped open his stitches. An odd flush spread over Tom’s hollow cheeks and he clicked on the gramophone without a word.

He wants you to forgive him. He’s playing nice to win you over.

From years ago the memory of a sixteen year old Riddle standing over an unconscious Ginny bloomed in Harry’s mind. I was patient … I was sympathetic, I was kind. Ginny simply loved me.

Did Tom think he was an idiot?

Harry could answer that immediately: of course he did. Harry considered calling Tom out for it, but what good would that really do? Make him combative again? It was far nicer having a friendly Tom around (even if his motives were suspect) rather than a prickly or murderous Tom. This friendliness might all be part of a great plan to escape the Carcerem, but Harry knew it was a lost cause. He could co-exist with Tom. He even, at times, found his company enjoyable. But forgiveness? Forgiveness for the lives he’d destroyed, for the families he had torn apart? Harry would never forget. He would never forgive. But he could live out the rest of his life with Tom for company. He could do that.

 


 

“Your hand. What happened to it?”

Harry looked up from the cutting board. He was strong enough now to leave the bed for short bursts. He sat at the kitchen table, chopping and peeling potatoes as Tom seared garlic-seasoned strips of beef. It smelled like heaven and Harry was delighted to have finally gotten his appetite back.

“The scars,” Tom clarified at Harry’s blank expression.

The words carved years ago onto the back of Harry’s hand seemed to tingle. He didn’t feel much like sharing, but Tom was like a dog with a bone when he wanted information.

“My fifth year Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher didn’t like me telling everyone that you’d returned, so she put me in detention. She thought that if I wrote enough lines, the message would sink in.”

The meat popped and crackled.

“Lines,” Tom repeated.

Harry nodded, focused on his potatoes.

“Dumbledore allowed this?”

Harry looked up. “I didn’t tell him.”

Tom was actually startled. “Why not?”

Harry put down his knife and ran his hand through his hair, feeling suddenly tired. “Because I was fifteen and an idiot. Because the entire Wizarding World thought I was a lying, attention-seeking brat. Because I couldn’t do anything to stop you. I was angry and frustrated and scared and I just wanted to beat her on my own. Beat someone. That’s why.”

“Who is she?”

Harry met Tom’s eyes, a prickling of unease trailing down his spine from the delicate venom in Tom’s voice.

“No one you know.”

“You dealt with her?”

“No,” said Harry, feeling the tension in the room increase. Danger coiled around Tom and Harry didn’t understand why. “Not really.”

“Why not?”

“It just didn’t work out that way. But if there’s any justice in the world the Ministry’s probably dealt with her by now. She was in charge of imprisoning Muggle-borns.”

“Umbridge?”

Harry brightened. “Yeah. I didn’t think you bothered acquainting yourself with your underlings.”

“Word got back to me that she was quite skilled at the job.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Harry muttered. The lightness of his mood had come and gone with the snap of a finger. He wished they were talking about something else.

“One of your companions was Muggle-born, correct?”

Harry’s shoulders stiffened. “Is. And yes. Why?”

Tom shrugged and removed the last of the beef from the skillet. He added the onions Harry had already sliced. “You hardly ever speak of her.”

“Why would I talk about her to you? Why would you care?”

“So defensive,” said Tom, taking a sip of wine. “I’m merely curious.”

“Curious?” said Harry, not believing it for a second. “Really? You want to know about my friends?”

“You’ve always been surrounded by others,” said Tom. “Breaking into the Hall of Prophecy, for instance, you brought along a posse of teenagers. And there was a rumor that you were not alone when you fought through the enchantments guarding the sorcerer’s stone, though you were alone when you faced me. When you vanished last year, Severus insisted you would have company. A group of Hogwarts students were captured in Malfoy Manor before that house elf broke them out. Were they your companions?”

Why was Tom so fixated on this? Was it out of a need for retribution?

“I’m tired,” said Harry, rising to his feet and abandoning two potatoes still in need of peeling. “I’m gonna go lie down.”

He crossed the hall to the common room and stretched out on the couch that had been plucked straight from Slytherin. The Carcerem slowly continued its choreographed dance, ring after ring, petal after petal, runes spiraling out like sparks from a firecracker. The movements never ceased, nor did they speed or slow. It was calming to watch and he took long, steadying breaths to quiet the anger that had flared so suddenly. They hadn’t had a fight in a long time, and though it hadn’t even really been an argument, Harry felt just the same as if it had been. Slowly, the tension unknotted. His eyes slipped out of focus, the gold turning to stars, as sleep took him.

He rested on his back on the Hogwarts grounds, under the giant oak beside the lake. The air smelt of spring. Ginny leaned over him, threading her fingers through his hair. Harry reached up to pull her closer, to kiss her, but something stilled his hand. That same odd feverishness that plagued Tom was in her eyes. The movements of her hand turned insistent, harsher, the nails biting into his scalp —

Harry shifted on the couch. He opened his eyes. Tom stood over him.

“Dinner’s ready,” he said.

Grimacing, Harry rose onto his elbows and Tom held out his hand. I can manage, Harry wanted to snap, but the danger he had sensed in the kitchen remained, tightly wrapped around Tom’s shoulders. Harry took the offered hand and followed him back to the kitchen, feeling a wariness he had not experienced since the early days in their prison. 

 

xXx

 

The darkness was impenetrable and endless. Voldemort ran blindly, his bare feet freezing. He expected to bounce off something — a tree, a person, a monster, but there was no one, a sea of nothingness. He heard only his ragged breathing and the slap slap slap of feet against hard ground. He was alone. Completely alone. Never had he thought isolation would strike such terror within him. He was like a wild beast who must keep running or … or …

Whether he fled something or raced to something, Voldemort did not know. Only that he must keep running. If he stopped the darkness would swallow him. The freezing air would choke his lungs. He would be lost in this horrific void forever—

His legs seized up; he crashed to the ground, heaving and gasping.

Get up!

His heart pounded in his ears. Unprotected. Vulnerable. Mortal, mortal, mortal.

But he couldn’t stand. The cold sensed his weakness and pounced, numbing his limbs, freezing his mind. The cold turned into hands. Arms. Putrid and rotting. They pulled him down, deeper into the darkness. They were the pudgy, ring-clad fingers of Hepzibah, the dirt-caked nails of a tramp, the wizened and spotted arms of an old woman — Bathilda Bagshot. More and more. The arms were like vines and he knew them all. Muggles he’d filled his underground lake with, his father, the Potters, Severus. There were hundreds of them and they pulled him down, down —

A pinprick of light caught Voldemort’s eye. Warmth flooded through his frozen heart, lurching it back into life. Harry —

Voldemort jerked awake, covered in sweat. His hand shot out beside him, groping the bed for —

Harry was not there. The boy had returned to his own room at the top of the stairs yesterday. Voldemort released a long, shaky exhale, half relieved Harry was not present, half wishing he was. His hand curled into the sheets, his mind conjuring up possible reasons to get Harry back in his bed, but each was feebler than the last.

You want him.

Want him? Voldemort scoffed. He did not want him. Lord Voldemort did not need anyone. If he wanted anything it was Potter’s peculiar warmth that eased the constant burning in his chest.

He was not attached to Potter.

 

xXx

 

Tom deemed him fit enough to walk down to the boathouse and Harry was ecstatic. The gashes in his side were knitting together nicely. Tom inspected them closely before agreeing to the short outing.

Harry relished the fresh air. He’d been cooped up inside too long. The sky was cloudless, the sun pleasantly warm on his face.

“When can we start training?” Harry asked as he dug his toes into the sand.

“When you’re healed.”

“I am healed. Mostly,” Harry added at Tom’s raised eyebrow.

“I’m going swimming,” Tom announced. “You’re not coming. Your bandages can’t get wet.”

“I wasn’t going—” Harry was cut off by Tom whipping off his shirt and tossing it in his face. Next went his trousers, revealing swimming trunks underneath.

“Don’t wander off,” Tom ordered before strolling down the boardwalk and diving into the water.

Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

Harry flicked a bit of dried seaweed out of the way and sat on the sand, pulling a copy of Hogwarts, A History from his pocket, the salty ocean wind ruffling his hair. When he’d spotted the book in the library he’d felt such a rush of nostalgia that for a moment he seriously believed he would turn and find Hermione and Ron sitting at one of the tables. Ron would be leaning back in his chair, lazily sucking on a sugar quill. Hermione would be rolling her eyes at something he’d said, half exasperated, half amused. Harry turned to the spot he’d left off at, imagining the look on Ron’s face if he saw him reading the book they always teased Hermione about.

“Potter!”

Harry looked up. Tom’s head bobbed above the water’s surface.

“Get a bucket,” he shouted. “And a knife.”

“Why?” Harry called back.

“Oysters.” And he dove back into the water.

After a swift search of the boathouse, Harry found a bucket and a flat-bladed knife. Tom treaded water at the boardwalk, waiting for him.

“These do?” Harry asked, passing them over.

Tom flashed him a grin and with a deep inhale, disappeared again.

Four dives later and Harry was having more fun than he’d had in a long time. After an in-depth tutorial on shucking, Tom retreated into the house in search for a bottle of wine and Harry sat cross-legged on the front porch, prying open oysters as a fresh round of rain rolled in. Quite suddenly, he found himself thinking of Ginny. He wondered what she was doing at this very moment. How much time had passed? Did it move at the same pace here in the Carcerem as outside of it? Was Kreacher back at Grimmauld Place? Harry hoped the elf wasn’t alone. As much as Kreacher would argue against it, he needed company. Maybe Ron and Hermione paid him visits. Hermione would.

“Something wrong?” Tom asked.

Harry jerked out of his musings and took the glass Tom held out for him.

“No,” said Harry and it was true. For the first time, thinking of his friends did not make his chest so tight with loss that he couldn’t breathe. He pictured them happy, perhaps gathered for a feast at the Burrow with no war to ruin their spirits. Dumbledore’s portrait would have told them everything about where Harry and Voldemort had vanished, Harry was sure of that. He hoped Dumbledore had been able to give them some sort of comfort that he would be all right. Dumbledore knew Voldemort as well as Harry did: the Dark Lord valued his own life enough to not risk the chance of escape by harming Harry. “I was just wondering what everyone else was up to. None of them will guess what I’m doing.”

“I imagine not,” Tom agreed, sitting opposite and pulling his own bucket close.

“I just wish I could give them some sort of message that everything’s okay.”

“You can’t.”

“I know I can’t,” said Harry, “but I still wish I could. They’ll be doing everything they can to get me out.”

“Their efforts will be in vain.”

“You don’t know my friends,” said Harry with a smile. “That won’t stop them.”

 

xXx

 

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Voldemort suppressed the urge to snap. Barely.

Yes,” he repeated for what felt like the fifth time. “And if you ask me again I will take these scissors and —”

“Okay. Okay,” said Harry quickly. The boy was on his back on the drawing room table.

“Don’t move.”

Harry took a steadying breath and laid still. His t-shirt rested on the seat of a chair where he’d plopped it before climbing onto the tabletop. It wasn’t fear that he would injury Harry that made Voldemort’s pulse quicken, but the unavoidable fact that there was no way of doing this without touching him. Voldemort took in the expanse of skin before him.

Do it quickly.

With surgical precision, he set to work, refusing to acknowledge the waves of warmth that surged through his chest and pooled in his gut as his fingers brushed against Harry’s stomach. Though the boy remained still and silent, his skin quivered wherever Voldemort made contact. He kept his eyes fixed on the chandelier overhead, and therefore, did not see how Voldemort’s eyes trailed up his chest, along his collarbone, his neck.

“Done,” Voldemort announced with a final snip, the last of the stitches pulling free. His voice sounded hoarser than he liked.

At once, Harry’s eyes shot down to his stomach. He sat up, running his hands over the same stretch of skin Voldemort’s fingers had slipped over. The gashes had healed well. The three long scars were faint, and perhaps in time, might fade completely.

Voldemort set down his scissors and took a step back. When it came to Harry, distance was safer.

“Thanks,” Harry said, delighted.

Voldemort nodded stiffly and tossed him his shirt.

 


 

They surrounded him. In the impenetrable darkness they glowed, an army of ghosts, their eyes blazing. Voldemort could not escape. He crouched like a child as his victims grew taller and taller. They stretched upward and Voldemort sunk lower, the ground literally pulling away from him so that he found himself in a pit. With their unblinking stares, the murdered lifted their arms. They opened their fists. Dirt, cold and heavy, fell on his head.

“Stop!” Voldemort screamed. His hands scraped at the pit’s walls, but he was too deep. He could not climb out. The dirt piled up around his feet, his ankles. “I command you—

But they did not fear Voldemort. Threats were nothing to the dead. Dirt rained down, blinding him. It was past his knees — up to his chest. His nails broke off as he clawed the wall, trying to lift himself out, but the dirt was cement.

STOP!

The dirt was to his chin. Voldemort tilted his head as far back as he could, trying to breathe. They would be the last thing he ever saw, the blazing, pitiless stares of the dead.

“Hey! Hey!

Voldemort’s eyes flew open. Hands were on his shoulders, pressing him down. He swung up his arm and Harry grabbed it before he made contact.

“Watch it!” Harry yelled, angry. He released him and Voldemort scrambled upright. Light flooded the room. Harry had turned up one of the lamps. Voldemort focused on steadying his heart. He was shaking, trembling uncontrollably and Harry could see it all. Voldemort refused to meet his gaze, but he felt Harry hover by the bed. He bit back the urge to lash out. Try as he might, the tremors continued to rake through him. He curled his hands into fists, the nails cutting into his palms. He could still taste the dirt in his mouth. Feel it in his nostrils.

“Bad dream?” Harry asked.

Heat flared up Voldemort’s neck. “It’s none of your business.”

“You woke me up, so I’d say it is,” Harry countered. “You were screaming bloody murder.”

“I’m fine, Potter!”

A beat. A pause.

“Okay.” Harry turned for the door. He was leaving and Voldemort could still feel the suffocating mass of dirt —

“Wait!”

Harry stopped and turned, his arms crossed.

Voldemort closed his eyes. Something inside him shriveled with shame as he whispered, “Stay. Please.”

He imagined Harry’s eyebrows lifting. He imagined Harry snorting in derision and striding away.

The bed dipped.

“Okay,” Harry said again, softer. He pulled the covers back. “Do you want the light off?”

Voldemort was speechless. He couldn’t believe Harry was here. He was back. Next to him. He gave the barest shake of his head.

“Okay,” Harry repeated. He slipped under the covers and gazed up at the ceiling. Not entirely confident that this wasn’t another spiraling dream of madness, Voldemort laid down, a breath of space between them.

“I have nightmares, too,” Harry admitted quietly. “About you, mostly. So I know when it’s a bad one. And … if you want to talk abou—”

“I don’t.”

“But if you do,” said Harry, turning his head and looking him straight in the eye. “Just know that I get it. If you ever want to, you can talk to me.”

An emotion he did not understand blocked Voldemort’s windpipe, stifling his voice.

Harry took off his glasses and put them on the repaired bedside table. He shimmied more under the blankets. “’Night, Tom,” he whispered.

Voldemort watched, stunned, as Harry curled on his side and closed his eyes, appearing to all the world that this was perfectly normal.

Chapter Text

With the suddenness of a snapping finger Harry woke and his entire body went rigid. He and Tom were a tangle of limbs. Harry stopped breathing, terrified to move. Wide-eyed, he took stock of the situation. He was on his side, an arm pinned between their bodies while Tom’s was draped around his waist. One of Tom’s legs rested between his own, bent slightly at the knee. Harry was completely nestled up against the man, his face tucked against Tom’s chest, Tom’s chin pressed against the top of his head.

How — had — this — happened?

Face screwed up, Harry carefully eased his legs free. Moving slowly, he slipped away, wincing when the bed creaked. Tom shifted and Harry froze. An eternity hung in the air, but Tom simply sank more into the pillow and slept on. Harry snatched up his glasses and tiptoed from the room, finally releasing a shaky exhale when he made it to the safety of the hall. He collapsed against the wall, feeling that his escape was as monumental as slipping past a dragon.

But Tom could wake at any moment. He fled to the kitchen, down the cellar steps, and into the boiler room, trying to make sense of how he’d found himself wrapped around Tom Riddle.

At what point in the night had that happened? Had Tom known?

He couldn’t have, Harry reasoned, his face burning. He would have strangled me.

The boiler gave a loud clunk and Harry jumped.

Calm down, mate. The voice sounded like Ron.

Hands shaking, Harry loaded the boiler with kindling and struck a match.

“That’s what you get for helping,” he grumbled, watching smoke curl around the strips of wood. “Things get even more fucked up.”

But what else should he have done? For a moment, Harry had seriously believed Tom was being murdered, the way he was screaming. Of course Harry had gone to him.

Stay. Please.

Harry hadn’t expected that. He’d only wanted Tom to calm down. Bad things happened when the man got too upset. The decision to stay had taken himself by surprise as much as it had Tom, but what else was he supposed to have done? Harry knew fear. Intimately. And Tom had been terrified.

Harry groaned, pushing his glasses up and rubbing his eyes. The man was going to be a nightmare. There was no way in hell he would let a moment of weakness slide by. So much for friendly Tom. He wondered how many steps a single night had flung them. Back to furious Tom? Silent Tom? Picturing-your-neck-snapped-Tom? Harry stuffed more logs of wood into the furnace, preparing himself for the frigidness that was sure to greet him.

But when Harry left the boiler and cautiously entered the kitchen, Tom was nowhere to be seen. Relieved, Harry made himself breakfast and ate his crumpets on the porch front steps, watching a pair of hens search for crickets in the front yard. He heard movement down the hall as he cleared away his mess and swiftly slipped up the stairs, wanting to maintain a safe distance between them. If Tom wished to interact, Harry would let him be the one to instigate it.

He spent the morning curled up in a corner in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom reading and Tom did not appear. A soft drizzle began to fall and soon turned into a dreary downpour, removing any plans of venturing outside. Growing restless, Harry considered visiting the Owlery. The bats that lived in the rafters weren’t quite the same company as the Hogwarts owls, but Harry found their soft squeaks oddly comforting. He put away Hogwarts, A History and left his old classroom, taking the only route to the tower. All the while, he kept his eyes peeled for Tom, but the man was steering as clear of Harry as Harry was doing to him.

He turned a corner and entered his favorite hall in the house. He called it the Gallery for it contained nothing but pictures. The giant painting of the bowl of fruit that opened to the Hogwarts kitchens was there. The Fat Lady, the trolls learning ballet, even the grassy field with Sir Cadogan and his gray pony — the Carcerem had packed as many portraits as it possibly could into this single stretch of hall, even the ones he didn’t particularly care for, like Phineas Nigellus and Sirius’ mother and quite a few he’d never seen before in his life, ones he was sure belonged entirely to Tom. Not a single picture moved. Harry paused before the Fat Lady. He found it amazing that he had strode in and out of it for six years and never took the time to look at it. Really look. It was a lovely piece of work and intricately detailed. Set in a garden, she took center stage in her voluminous pink gown, but Harry was more interested in what was happening in the background. Behind the Fat Lady, along a hedgerow was a small hound-like dog in hot pursuit of a vibrant blue rabbit. Someone on the other side of the hedge had lost their grip on a cluster of color-changing balloons, trapped forever in a half-way transition of blue to yellow. They floated upward as an outstretched hand fruitlessly snatched for the strings. The skirt and feet of a young girl were just in the frame. Harry wondered if she belonged to the portrait or if she had been dashing through it at the time the Carcerem plucked it from Harry’s memory. There was a half-eaten box of chocolate cauldrons left behind the fleeing girl. Perhaps she had dropped —

Harry started.

There was something new, something he’d never seen before. Amazed, he stepped closer. In the right hand corner, almost tucked out of sight behind the Fat Lady’s billowing pink skirt was a small, crouched figure. It looked completely out of place. At first, Harry thought it was another dog, except it didn’t look like a dog. Bleached-white and oddly misshapen with long, thin arms and a bony back, it stood on two scrawny legs. Its arms were so long that they dragged on the ground. The thing looked half-starved. He could see each of its ribs, its stomach a sunken cavity. Harry stepped closer, wondering what it could be.

It jerked around.

With a startled cry, Harry jumped backward. It moved. How could it move? Nothing moved in the pictures or paintings within the Carcerem. The thing’s face was a white smear with two empty sockets for eyes and a gaping, toothless mouth. It cocked its head, its far too long arms twitching. The empty eye sockets grew larger — two bottomless black holes expanding out of proportion with the rest of its face. Harry didn’t understand how it could see him, but he knew it did. As he watched, it staggered toward him, lifting a long, spindly arm. Though tiny in the portrait, it felt monstrous. Giant. Unending. Harry was frozen to the spot, pinned in place, like a petrified butterfly on a cork board. 

A hand closed around his arm and he was yanked backward so violently he nearly tumbled to the ground. Tom pushed him behind him. In his other hand he gripped a sword. One look and Harry knew it was not the one they used for training, but what Tom called a live blade.

“What is it?” Tom demanded, after his eyes swept the empty hall.

“N-nothing,” said Harry.

Livid, Tom spun around to face him and Harry took a hasty step back.

Lie again.

“It’s nothing!” Harry insisted, though his heart was frantic. “Just a trick of the light. I thought I saw something, that’s all.”

Tom was not swayed. “You thought you saw what?”

“In the portrait,” said Harry, brandishing toward the Fat Lady. “I thought I saw a … thing.”

“A thing?”

Harry reddened. “It doesn’t matter. It’s not there.” And it wasn’t. The creature was gone.

Tom turned to the portrait; his eyes scanned it.

“What did it look like?”

“Like …” Harry bit his tongue. At Tom’s furious scowl, he blurted, “A bit like you did. Before. But different.”

“What do you mean different?”

“Its eyes weren’t red; it didn’t even have eyes. I don’t think you should touch it!” Harry said quickly as Tom moved closer to the painting.

“I’m not,” said Tom, acidly. His fingers hovered over the canvas. Lips pursed, he let his arm fall. “There’s no magic here.”

“Like I said, it was just a trick of the light.”

“Then why are you frightened?”

Harry bristled. “I’m not frightened.”

“Yes, you are.” Tom propped his sword against the wall and put his hands on either side of painting’s frame. With a grunt, he lifted it up off its hanger.

“What’re you doing?” asked Harry, startled.

“Putting this where I can keep an eye on it,” Tom answered. He strode past Harry with it. “Bring the sword.”

Harry had already snatched it up and was two steps behind him. “I’m telling you, you’re making a fuss out of nothing.”

“Says the one who’s still lying,” Tom retorted.

Harry followed Tom all the way back to the common room. He leaned the life-sized painting beside the Mirror of Erised, opposite the couch.

“I’m not ly—”

Tom silenced him with a glare.

“Setting aside whether I saw something or not,” Harry said instead, “it’s in a painting. It can’t hurt us.”

“You’re growing lazy, Harry,” said Tom softly. He took the sword back and sat on the couch, his eyes fixed upon the Fat Lady. “The Carcerem makes its own rules, remember? Who’s to say that paintings can’t step down from their canvases if they want to?”

Harry’s blood went cold. If what he’d seen was real … It had frightened him. There had been something empty about it, but at the same time a desperate hunger. A ravenous, gasping black hole —

Harry shivered and Tom’s eyes cut to him.

“Describe it,” he ordered. “In detail.”

Harry ran a hand through his hair, making it even more unkempt. “It was small. It was even smaller next to the Fat Lady.”

“So it looked as I had before my resurrection?”

“No,” said Harry, shaking his head. “It looked more as you did as Voldemort. Skeletal and bone-white, but it was weak, like it could barely stand and the way it moved … it was like it didn’t know how to. Like it was off balance.” Harry fumbled, searching for the right words. “Like a puppet on strings. It had a jerky, disjointed way of moving. And it didn’t have a face.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed. “Like a dementor?”

“Sort of. Do you know what it is?”

“No,” said Tom. He rose and pushed the sword into Harry’s startled hand. “Keep an eye on it.”

“Where are you —”

But Tom had already left. Harry didn’t have to wait long before he’d returned, carrying a large armload of books. Harry recognized the top two as volumes that were in Tom’s workshop. He passed Harry half a dozen.

“Help me look.”

Harry would have preferred to clean the Owlery of bat droppings, but he sat cross-legged on the floor and opened one. It was a history of magical achievements and discoveries of the 15th century. Harry thumbed to the section on magical creatures and found himself facing, not so much a discussion of beasts, but rather what a wizard could do with them. The author seemed to have a particular fondness for turning things inside out.

“I don’t think it’s in here,” said Harry with a queasy stomach.

“Look anyway,” said Tom, riffling through his own book. “A great deal was discovered in the 15th century.”

“Really?” said Harry, turning a page on a diagram detailing how to merge a goat with a rooster. “And here I was thinking it was just about torture.”

Tom gave a soft snort that sounded more like a laugh. For a moment, their eyes met and the night before hung between them. His neck grew hot and Harry quickly dropped his gaze, scanning another page.

Twelve books later, Harry’s brain felt much the same as it used to on exam nights: that he’d beaten it against a wall.

“There’s nothing here,” he grumbled, rubbing his temples.

Tom snapped his own book shut and tossed it aside. “It must be. Everything inside the Carcerem comes from our memories. One of us has come across this creature.”

“The cellar didn’t come from our memories,” Harry pointed out. “Or the water pump.”

“The cellar’s from Hogwarts,” said Tom. “You didn’t think the elves conjured all of that food, did you? And the water pump’s the same from the orphanage.”

“Oh,” said Harry. “Well, that was definitely the first time I’ve come across that thing, so it must have come from you. I would have remembered it.”

Aggravated, Tom paced the room.

“What if it only exists in the Carcerem?” Harry suggested. “Maybe it has its own monster.”

“Why appear now? We’ve been here for months. And why were you threatened by it?”

“Excuse me?”

“What you described to me did not sound particularly dangerous. Disturbing, perhaps, but not dangerous. You mentioned no teeth, no fangs, no claws. You described it as small and malnourished.”

How was it possible that Tom could make him feel like a first year being called out in class?

“I just knew,” said Harry.

How?

“I don’t know how!” said Harry, defensive. “When it looked at me—”

“You said it didn’t have eyes.”

“I know that!” Harry snapped. “Sorry,” he said when Tom raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “I don’t know how, but I knew it could see me. Sense me. It was like it latched on to me and when it did I felt like I was … prey.”

Silence stretched between them. Finally, Tom spoke.

“It can’t only exist in the Carcerem. It would have been mentioned in the autobiographical accounts.”

“What do we do in the meantime?” asked Harry, shooting a glance over his shoulder at the Fat Lady. “Always be on watch?” He hoped not.

A line appeared between Tom’s eyebrows. “No. And it isn’t reasonable to carry it around with us wherever we go.”

“So what do we do?”

“Burn it.”

What?” Harry scrambled to his feet. “Why? It’s gone.”

“That does not mean that it will not return.”

“So your solution is to destroy the painting?” said Harry, furious.

“As there is no other option, yes.”

“We could lock it away somewhere. Barricade a room — there are plenty to pick from. We don’t even know what it is.”

“Exactly.” Tom’s heated glare was unrelenting. “We don’t know what it is. Therefore we do not know how to fight it. I am not risking an unknown entity gaining access just because you are sentimental.”

“And you’re being irrational!” Harry shouted back. “The moment you’re threatened you stop thinking!”

Tom looked like Harry had slapped him. “What did you say?

The danger in the room was like static electricity, but Harry held his ground. “There’s a library upstairs that we haven’t gone through yet and, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s raining.”

Harry had almost forgotten the look of murderous intent, but it was there on Tom’s face, as vivid as ever. He advanced, steps light, voice deadly.

“When have I ever acted without planning?” he demanded. “When have I ever let emotions cloud my judgment?”

“Plans don’t make you rational,” Harry disagreed. “You weren’t rational when you chose to attack me as a baby instead of waiting until Neville and I were older and choosing then. You let your fear get the better of you, just like you are now.”

Tom’s hands balled into fists and for a moment Harry thought he was going to attack him, but instead he said in a voice of forced calm, “We look until the weather breaks and if the creature’s identity is still a mystery we burn them all. Agreed?”

Harry didn’t want to, but he knew he wouldn’t get a better extension. Grim-faced, he nodded.

 

xXx

 

The Fat Lady was moved yet again. She now rested against a window in the library. The rain turned the room chilly and gloomy. As Harry went straight to the closest shelf, Voldemort lit a candelabra set on a center table to help illuminate the dim area.  He cut his eyes down to his left wrist and rubbed it ruefully. The skin around the jagged half-moon looked perfectly normal, but it was still tender. Two hours ago, it had burned as if someone held a fire iron against it. And with the pain came the unshakable certainty that Harry was in danger. That had never happened before. What would cause the mark to behave differently now? Voldemort had not felt so much as a twinge when the Strangleweed ensnared the boy months ago. It had been dumb luck that he found him when he had, choosing for once to seek Harry out instead of ignoring him. So what was different about this latest threat that caused the tattoo to burn with warning? Did it act as a guide to their progress? From the very first night on the island, Harry’s musing of whether it was a way for the Carcerem to keep track of their relationship returned to him. He’d thought it ridiculous at the time, but he himself had used marks to communicate with his Death Eaters. Was it a stretch for such a brand to keep track of emotional states?

Voldemort’s eyes shifted to Harry. He still couldn’t believe the boy had stayed with him last night. The memory caused a mixture of sensations to writhe in his gut: revulsion and fury that Harry had seen him so shaken; delight and relief that Harry had climbed up beside him … had not pulled away when Voldemort pressed closer when the boy fell asleep, desperate for more of that magnificent warmth that soothed his soul … that sense of wholeness.

Did these strange feelings stem from the soul he had inadvertently placed within Harry? But the Horcrux was destroyed, the soul piece gone. He should not have any such connection with Harry now.

As he watched Harry pull books off shelves, the urge to stride to him and take his hand in his hit him with such intensity that Voldemort moved forward without realizing. He crossed the room — he reached out his hand —

Harry turned to him and pushed five books into his arms. “I think we should start with magical beasts and move on from there. It didn’t look like something that lived in water, but I couldn’t really tell for sure. We shouldn’t rule it out.”

Voldemort gripped the books, grateful that his hands were occupied. Nightmares Harry seemed to understand, but Voldemort doubted he would be quite so complacent about being manhandled without reason.

Harry dropped his own collection of heavy books onto the table, making the candles flicker, pulled up a chair and began scanning indexes. Voldemort purposely chose the chair farthest away.

 


 

There were no clocks in the Carcerem. Voldemort had no idea how long they spent pouring over texts, only that he was nearing the end of his tether. They had made quite the mess. Tomes deemed unhelpful were splayed on the floor, their pages ruffled and the spines cracked open. Harry sat with both hands in his hair. From all the times he had had run his fingers through it, it practically stood on end.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “How can it not be here? It has to be here.”

Voldemort too found it suspicious. He was positive he’d never come across anything close to the creature Harry described in all his years. The fact that it had moved in an unmoving painting was enough cause for alarm. Throughout the perusal of books, he’d kept one eye on the Fat Lady, expecting to see the thing appear, but the Gryffindor House portrait remained unchanged.

The rain stopped and Voldemort allowed the search to continue for another three books before shutting his closed. Harry’s head jerked up at the sound.

“We haven’t looked through all of them!” he said at once. “We can still—”

“No. I’ve held up my end, now it’s time for you to do the same.”

“But—”

No.” Voldemort rose. He crossed the room to the painting and lifted it for what he hoped was the last time. “I’m building the fire. Start taking down the others.” His voice was sharp and unwavering. “Hide any of them and you will regret it.”

He could tell from the tensing of Harry’s jaw that he minded a great deal, but Voldemort was done playing nice. The mark on his wrist hadn’t burned for nothing. It was a warning. He hadn’t gotten this far to be doomed to life imprisonment by a portrait.

Voldemort didn’t expect Harry to participate, even though he’d ordered him to. The boy had no stomach. He held onto such idiotic sentimentalities. The bonfire crackled, sparks shooting into the purple sky, the rain clouds parting enough to let the setting sun’s orange rays hit the house’s tower. Voldemort had built it on the grassy knoll beside the greenhouse. It was nearly hot enough. The bang of a door swinging shut had him turning. Harry approached, walking lopsided from the weight of another life-sized portrait. In the light of the fire and dwindling daylight, Voldemort recognized it as the one that hid the entry to the Hogwarts kitchens. Harry set it on the grass beside the Fat Lady and without a word, headed back to the house. Voldemort watched him go in mild surprise before turning back to the fire and throwing another log into the blaze.

 


 

Voldemort wiped sweat form his brow and added three more paintings. It would take ages to burn them all; there were at least a hundred crammed into that hall, not to mention every other room in the bloody house. The stack behind him grew into a mountain as Harry brought him what felt like an endless supply. The fire was a towering, spitting inferno, sparks shooting into the night sky. The door swung shut yet again, announcing Harry’s return. Voldemort watched him cross the grass, carrying a cluster of paintings no bigger than stamps.

“The dancing troll one is all that’s left,” he said, sounding exhausted. “It’s too big for me to carry.”

Voldemort dried his sweating palms on his trousers. He was sure he was a soot-smeared mess.

“Good.”

As he bent down to pick up another from the mound, he caught the look on Harry’s face, illuminated in the firelight.

“They’re only paintings, Harry.”

“No,” said Harry, not taking his eyes off the crackling blaze. “They’re memories.”

Chapter Text

Harry’s lungs were just as scorched and smoke-clogged as when he’d been trapped in the Room of Requirement with Fiendfyre. He could have left overseeing the bonfire to Tom, but it didn’t feel right. He knew destroying the paintings was necessary. Each time he thought of that strange creature with its empty eyes and grasping, twitching fingers he felt like he’d been doused in ice water. Tom was right: they didn’t know whether it could step down from a canvas and lurch down the halls. It wasn’t worth the risk in finding out. Monsters in the Carcerem were more potent and dangerous than any Harry had encountered before, but all the same, the empty walls and bare patches made his heart ache.

Stupid, he told himself, wiping his face free of sweat and reaching for another portrait, the blazing fire so hot he could have been inches from the sun. Stupid to mourn a painting. Stupid to feel as if another part of his life had been ripped away.

All night the pair of them worked, not sharing so much as two words. The bats swooped back to their tower, bringing the dawn along with them. They added the final portrait (Sir Cadogan and his pony) as the sun rose into the sky. Through the thick, hazy smoke it glared like a sickly yellow pustule in need of lancing.  It wasn’t until late that afternoon that the roaring fire subdued enough to leave it safely. By the next morning, it would be a smoldering mass of ashes.

Harry was exhausted and ravenous (they had eaten little while tending the blaze, grabbing quickly fixed snacks and a few cups of tea) and he was sure Tom was just the same. They were both caked with soot and sweat. Though his stomach craved a hearty meal, Harry couldn’t bring himself to cook. There were still a few boiled eggs left over from their speedy lunch. It wouldn’t be satisfying, but it was all he was up for.

“I’m going in,” he told him.

It wasn’t often that Tom was so unkempt. He’d removed his shirt when the fire reached its blistering peak and had not bothered to put it back on. His hair was frizzed and wildly curled and yet still retained a regal flair. In fact, Tom was just as imposing and handsome while covered in grime. Harry’s stomach twisted with annoyance and — he was rather ashamed to admit it — envy.

Hands on hips, Tom gave a short nod.

“Yell if you need anything.” But Harry knew he wouldn’t.

After his meager dinner, he dragged himself up the stairs. He paused by the library and groaned. He’d forgotten how much of a mess they’d made. Books littered the entire floor. Had it really only been yesterday that he’d woken in Tom’s arms? The strange creature had chased it entirely from his mind but as he stood in the dim hallway that morning returned with razor sharpness. Shivering, Harry hurried to the bathroom and turned on the tap, hoping the water would wash away the memory of skin on skin as easily as it did soot.

 


 

He woke disoriented, feeling that he’d only slept seconds. The weak light of morning illuminated his drab room. Rising onto his elbows, Harry wondered if he could find paint somewhere. The orphanage gray was getting to him. He didn’t bother dressing, pulling his dressing gown over his boxer shorts and shuffling down the stairs, the aroma of bacon leading him on.

Tom looked up the moment he entered. His eyes widened slightly, trailing over him. “Morning,” he said.

Harry was too groggy to be embarrassed. He took his seat at the kitchen table and pulled the skillet of crispy bacon and browned sausages toward him. It was rare for Tom to cook breakfast, usually leaving the job to Harry.

Waking slowly, Harry eyed Tom across the table. “You look like you’re in a good mood.”

“Immensely,” said Tom. “Nothing like another threat thwarted to start the day. We’ll begin training this —”

Harry, who had taken a bite of sausage, choked.

“No way,” he said, shaking his head. “Not today.”

“What else do you have to do?”

Was Tom inhuman? He looked downright sprightly, as if he hadn’t spent a backbreaking day and night tending a furious inferno.

“I was thinking about sleeping,” Harry deadpanned.

Tom rolled his eyes. “I thought teenagers were supposed to be energetic.”

“Hey, I was the one carrying all those portraits,” Harry pointed out.

“Are you saying you would have burned them on your own,” asked Tom, leaning back and crossing his arms, his eyes gleaming in amusement.

Harry bit his tongue. Tom laughed.

“Eat. I’ll be on the beach.”

By the time he’d finished his breakfast and changed clothes, Harry finally felt awake. The moment he stepped onto the front porch, he was hit with the stench of charcoal. He walked around the house and came upon the large bed of ashes. Metal and gold frames littered the area like skeletons. Harry turned to the beach, scowling. Tom’s overzealousness might have saved them from the Carcerem’s latest danger, but that didn’t mean Harry had to like it. Rolling his shoulders, he stepped onto the path that led down to the ocean. He would get the best of Tom this time.

 


 

He didn’t. Try as he might, he never got past Tom’s defenses.

“You favor your right side too much,” Tom told him as Harry retrieved his fallen sword yet again. “You’re leaving yourself open. You’re smaller. Use that to your advantage.”

 Why, Harry wanted to say. Why was it so important to Tom that Harry learned to fight as well as he did? Harry didn’t believe any of that battle-to-rival-all-battles rot. Tom played dirty. If he wanted Harry dead, he wouldn’t beat around the bush ever again. The man had finally learned that lesson. Harry doubted he’d even bother to have witnesses. All he’d need was Harry’s head on a spike. But Harry took his stance in the ring Tom had drawn in the sand without comment.

 


 

They were gifted a stretch of sunny skies that tanned Harry’s shoulders and arms and made sweat run down his back while he tended the vegetables in the greenhouse. He was right to have feared planting the pumpkin seeds, a spontaneous what-the-hell decision shortly before the boggart attack. One morning, he walked in to find the greenhouse completely taken over, great orange jack-o-lantern boulders peaking up through the foliage. He spent three days harvesting, stacking the pumpkins around the house’s back door and then uprooting the vines, making room for cucumbers, more tomatoes, pole beans and, after noticing how Tom always chose the strawberry jam, a patch of the red fruit.

“What are you going to do with all those?” Tom asked, spotting the pumpkin mountain.

Harry shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”

‘Something’ became four monumental attempts at soufflé before Harry settled on a sunny patch of grass and carved half a dozen. Seasons did not exist in the Carcerem, or if they did, the current one was lasting a very long time, but that was no reason to not make one if he wanted to. A night of candle-filled pumpkins would be fun.

Tom did not join him in his Halloween inspired activities, but he brought him tea and watched his progress.

“Is that a cat?” he asked.

Harry paused in his cutting. “It’s an owl.”

“Ah.”

“Those are the wings.”

Tom cocked his head to the side. “And where is the head?”

“Piss off,” Harry said with a laugh, flicking pumpkin seeds at him.

The pumpkins glowed around the house for half a week before they began to rot. Perhaps it was the fact that his wounds had healed or that his lopsided creations added a touch of whimsy to the house, but Harry felt light on his feet. He knew it wasn’t true, but somehow he felt that they had reached the other side. The ashes from the burn pile blew away and Harry liked to think that the danger had flown with them. He didn’t say any of this to Tom. Tom would have rolled his eyes and pointed out how utterly moronic such thinking was.

And Harry knew such thinking was dangerous in and of itself. Nearly seven years in the wizarding world had taught him to never let his guard down, but he savored this unexpected spell of calm all the same. He would hold onto this feather of tranquility until the wind chose to whip up and carry it away.

 


 

Unlike Harry, Tom did not brown like a nut; instead the sun kissed him a light, honey gold that Harry imagined only the Greek Gods could have achieved. Nor, Harry noticed with that familiar twinge of envy, did he get sun-burnt, even when he removed his shirt when their spars grew fierce and the sun blistered hot overhead. Harry tried to picture Tom with the flu or hives. Splattered with dragon pox. Surely he’d gotten sick sometime while at Hogwarts. It was impossible not to. Harry bit back a laugh, envisioning steam pouring out of Tom’s ears from the winter rounds of Pepper Up potion.

Tom’s eyes narrowed. He shifted to the right, dodging Harry’s thrust. With the quick strike of a cobra, he darted forward. Harry barely whipped up his sword in time to block the blow.

“Am I boring you?” Tom asked.

“No,” Harry grunted, his arms quivering with the effort to hold Tom back. “Just wondering if you’ve ever had the flu.”

That surprised Tom. “Why in the world—”

Utilizing Tom’s weight, Harry jumped to the left; their blades slithered apart. Tom overbalanced. He raised his sword, but Harry had already moved. With a swift swipe, Harry’s blade slipped past Tom’s and came to a rest at his neck.

Gotcha,” Harry breathed.

Tom froze and then a smile, wide and shark-like spread over his face.

“Excellent, Harry.”

Harry couldn’t keep the stupid grin off his face. He lowered his sword and stepped back.

Twirling his own weapon, Tom moved back to his starting place.

“Now do it again,” he said softly.

 

xXx

 

Voldemort sat on the couch in the common room, a book open in his hands. Harry was in the kitchen. He could hear him moving about across the hall. To an outsider, Voldemort appeared to be engrossed in his reading, but he was not taking in a word of it, too busy replaying their latest session. Harry came alive when he dueled. He had improved immensely. He was a natural. The last few sessions had become true challenges for Voldemort and he relished it. It really was enraging that the Carcerem would not gift them magic for a day. The spells he could teach Harry …

“YES!”

Voldemort looked up from his book. He rose and crossed the entrance hall. Speckled with flour, Harry stood in the center of the kitchen with a loaf of bread hoisted above his head, golden-brown and perfect.

Voldemort leaned against the door frame. “About time.”

“Says the bloke who never bothered to try,” said Harry, though he was grinning more broadly than Voldemort had ever seen him. He set it on the table. “I’m not waiting until dinner. Get the butter for me?”

Voldemort pushed off the frame. As he passed Harry, he paused. Reaching out a hand, he brushed away a streak of flour from Harry’s cheek. Harry stiffened, his eyes widening behind those comical glasses. Voldemort watched as a curious blush spread over Harry’s face. He hastily wiped his cheek on his sleeve and Voldemort, with a slip of a smile, descended the cellar steps.

 

xXx

 

Harry knew something was wrong the moment he entered the kitchen next morning, but it wasn’t until after lunch, as he loaded the boiler with fresh wood that he realized what it was: Tom had put cream out. Tom never put cream in his tea, but Harry did. The tromp down to the ice box was second nature by now, but he hadn’t needed to today for the jug was already on the table, waiting for him. If someone else had done it, perhaps Harry wouldn’t have felt immediately on edge, but this was Tom. Such a simple act was loaded with implications.

Tom had shifted yet again. If the man wasn’t so fond of snakes, Harry would call him a chameleon. He had always been quiet and he had always stared, but now the silences — the gazes — felt different. They felt dangerous in an unfamiliar way. Harry, who’d found himself relaxing around him, grew tense whenever the man was near. He wondered if Tom’s strange behavior had anything to do with the uncomfortable night they had shared weeks ago — a night they both pointedly refused to bring up. If Tom continued to have nightmares, he kept them to himself. Harry had not been woken since, but sometimes he lay in bed pondering what he would do if Tom did. Would he go to him, like he had that time? Would Tom do the same for him if Harry got lost in one of his own hellish dreams? Before, he would have known the answer. Now he wasn’t so sure.

Tom seemed to find excuses to touch him. Though there was plenty of room in the kitchen, their elbows brushed more often than not as they prepared meals. Their duels grew discomforting. But touch was necessary for dueling, just as it was for dancing. It was natural — it was normal — for goosebumps to rise where the pads of Tom’s fingers pressed against his skin when he corrected his movements. It was normal.

But was it normal that Harry noticed the soft curve of Tom’s mouth? The sharp line of his jaw? That his eyes were the perfect mixture of gray and blue? Was it normal that while struggling to find sleep, Harry’s mind conjured visions of bare skin, wet and glistening from swims in the cove? Was it normal that his fingers itched to run through Tom’s hair, longing to muss the lazy, wayward curls into something not fit for royalty? On the occasions when they both lounged in the common room by the crackling fire, reading or playing chess, Harry caught himself stealing glances. Tom had a habit of tapping his middle finger against his book while he read. He furrowed his brow when he thought, a thin line appearing between them. Sometimes he bit his bottom lip.

The days ebbed and flowed like the tide and with each new dawn Harry felt the unsettled atmosphere grow. Wherever Tom was, the walls closed in. Meals became as tortuously awkward as dueling. No matter where Harry put his feet, he somehow always found himself bumping up against him under the kitchen table. The damn tent had felt more spacious than this monster of a manor house. And all the while, Tom stared. Stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. Harry began to wonder if the man was planning his murder again, the intensity of his gazes became so extreme.

“What?” Harry blurted over his plate, finally having enough. “Do I have something on me?”

Tom didn’t blink. It was unnerving how long he could go without doing it. The tingling in the air — like static electricity — hung about them. Tom didn’t speak.

“You okay?” Harry asked, wondering if he had even heard him. “Tom?”

A faint shiver traveled over Tom. He blinked then, quick and rapid.

“Yes, Harry,” Tom answered quietly. “I’m perfectly well.”

 

xXx

 

When had he become Tom?

Instead of fury, when had his given name sent sparks of something shooting down his spine? When had it become a goal to make Harry laugh, the sound as intoxicating as wine?

When had Potter become Harry?

He couldn’t remember.

The warmth that spread from Harry’s skin had become an addiction. He knew he shouldn’t. He knew Harry noticed, but he couldn’t stop. He didn’t want to stop. Simple touches — the bumping of fingers when passing the salt … brushing a fallen leaf from Harry’s hair — were quickly becoming not enough, the biting, blistering ache in his chest demanding more.

He had always taken. Through force or flattery, he always got what he wanted. So if he wanted Harry, why did he stay rooted in his seat when the boy, stretching, rose for bed? Why did he not grab him by the wrist and … and …

And what?

What do you want, Tom?

He felt overwhelmed. That same buzzing energy that sent his blood pounding when he did magic was with him whenever he thought of Harry … whenever he looked at Harry. When had that happened?

What do you want, Tom?

Harry paused in the entryway. He looked over his shoulder. “’Night,” he said quietly. He did not wait for a reply, leaving the common room and heading up the stairs. Tom closed his eyes and counted each step. Each creak of floorboard.

What do you want?

He knew exactly what he wanted and it was too terrifying to utter in the safety of his own mind.

 

xXx

 

The moon was so full and bright it was like being back on Privet Drive with the lamppost outside his window. Harry couldn’t sleep. He could blame it on the moonlight shining on his pillow, but he knew that wasn’t the reason. He hadn’t felt so on-edge in a long time. He knew, deep in his bones, that something wasn’t right.

But the portraits were gone. That creature — whether dead or barred from the Carcerem — could not attack them. The boggart had not been seen in ages. While cooking, Harry barely even noticed the nailed-shut door with its golden doorknob. There was no reason for this agitation. And yet…

Harry got out of bed. Tossing and turning wasn’t doing him any good. He tugged on a t-shirt and slipped down the dark stairwell. He’d make himself a mug of hot chocolate and sit in front of the fire until his nerves settled. It would be a bed of glowing coals by now, but that sounded pleasant to Harry. It put him in mind of Hogwarts when he and Ron and Hermione stayed up too late on Christmas, eating cream-filled chocolates and scheming of ways to get Malfoy expelled, each as ridiculous as the last.

The kitchen was dark, but Harry knew his way around it. He rustled the coals in the stove and added a fresh log. The stove top was still warm from dinner. It wouldn’t take long to heat a pot of milk.

“I’m sorry.”

Startled, Harry whirled around. Tom stood in the doorway, his form just visible in the dark. His voice had been so soft that Harry wasn’t sure he’d heard him.

“What?”

Tom entered the kitchen. “I’m sorry I took them from you,” he said, softer still. “I’m sorry I cannot bring them back. But if I hadn’t—” He stepped right before Harry. “If I hadn’t,” he whispered, “I never would have known you.”

Harry swallowed around his suddenly dry mouth.

“That’s a horrible thing to say.”

“Yes,” Tom agreed. “It is.”

Without warning, Tom’s lips were against his, soft as petals at first and then pressing harder. Growing insistent.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated between kisses, their lips brushing, their breath mingling. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

With each utterance the kisses grew in intensity, as if Tom was trying to draw out Harry’s forgiveness through his mouth. Harry’s head swam. His fingers clutched Tom’s sweater, not shoving him away, but drawing him closer. He was pushed back against the sink. Tom’s hands slid down his waist.

Not here, he wanted to say. Not here in Aunt Petunia’s kitchen.

 

xXx

 

Harry pulled free of their kiss and Tom pushed him more firmly against the sink, their bodies flush. He’d never let Harry go. Never. Not even if Harry told him to stop. Tom felt out of control, his whole body quivering, wanting, needing. They’d fallen over the precipice. There was no going back now. He attacked Harry’s neck, tasting his skin, making Harry’s breath hitch. His hand traveled further down to Harry’s hip, his fingers slipping inside the waist band of his boxers.

Harry grabbed the wandering hand, fingers closing around the wrist, and Tom steeled himself. What he wanted he got. He would face the consequences of his actions later, but Harry whispered a single breathless word that froze Tom’s brain.

“Upstairs.”

Blinking like a niffler caught in a miner’s light, Tom stood stock still. Clutching his hand, Harry led him out of the kitchen, up the staircase with its mounted heads, past the library and into the bedroom at the end of the hall.

Harry’s room.

He took in the Gryffindor house banner draped above the headboard before he found Harry’s lips again. Needing more contact, he pushed up Harry’s shirt and in reply Harry lifted his arms. The moment the fabric was free, their mouths crashed together again. It was enraging to have to pull away to undress. Buttons and zippers. Tom yanked his sweater over his head as Harry undid his belt buckle. Off, off, off! Clothes scattered until there was nothing but skin. Glorious, smooth, tingling skin.

They fell into bed, coiling around each other like snakes. Hips. Legs. Tongues. Tom’s fingers wrapped around Harry’s cock and he swallowed Harry’s startled gasp. Every sharp intake of breath — every moan — was like drink to Tom. He had wanted to kill him, had spent years imagining ways to do it: hanging, slit throat, suffocation. Even as Lord Voldemort, when he’d been trapped without a body, when he’d traveled farther than anyone into the depths of magic, his past betrayed him, his mind turning Muggle.

They were all outrageous to him now. Harry groaned, his back arching up into him, his fingers twisting the sheets, as Tom finally eased inside him. Knives and poisons … Avada Kedavra … Kill Harry? Kill this?

The room was so hot Tom was sure he’d burst into flame. They moved together, awkward at first before finding a rhythm, their bodies slick with sweat. Harry clung to him, clutching him so tight Tom felt scratches appear on his back, but he didn’t care. Not when he was so wrapped up inside Harry. Not when Harry was gasping, arching …

Harry came down from his high and Tom watched in open fascination, memorizing every rapid rise and fall of his chest, the hollow of his throat. A tear quivered on the dark lashes. Tom captured it with his lips. Slowly, he trailed kisses across his jaw, down his neck, his chest, his stomach, leaving goosebumps in his wake, every quiver of Harry’s skin delighting him.

As if a feather teased the inside of Tom’s wrist, the half-moon tattoo shivered and a smile, sharp and broad, spread over his face. Placing his lips to Harry’s navel, he hid his grin from sight.

Chapter Text

Harry woke. The soft, diffused glow of predawn was just bright enough for him to make out Tom’s blurred shape beside him. Harry stared at the outline of his face, his arm, his bare shoulder, before gently rising. He slipped on his glasses, donned some clothes from the floor and quietly left the room, easing the door shut behind him.

His mind was blank. Shock, he deduced as he exited the house, crisp morning air hitting his face. He was in shock.

He felt that he’d fallen into a dream. A spell. Any moment, he or Tom would shatter it, would realize the night’s frenzy was due to some poisonous pollen and return to the safety of their separate corners.

Without a destination in mind, Harry made his way around the house and into the orchard, the dew-covered grass chilling his toes. He took stock of himself. There was a tenderness deep inside him that brought with it memories of Tom’s fingers and then cock touching him … slipping inside him … moving against a part of him that made fireworks explode. At the time, Harry had felt that Tom had dipped his other hand straight through his chest cavity, taking hold of his heart and clenching it so he could not breathe, could not think, could only feel.

His whole body tingled with the ghosts of Tom’s kisses. He had placed them everywhere — ankles, knees, the line of his spine, each knuckle of each finger. Harry never would have believed Tom Riddle would be so very good at kissing.

He had been overwhelmed. Overpowered. Barely staying afloat as sensation after sensation rendered him breathless. His voice deserted him completely when Tom flashed a wicked grin, that mouth descending down onto his —

Harry clutched the orchard wall for stability, legs quivering.

Get a grip, Potter.

Hands on knees, Harry focused on breathing. How had this happened? How had he spiraled into the tornado that was Tom Riddle?

Fingers tugging. Heart racing. “Upstairs.”

Harry was shaken. The more he looked upon the actions of last night, the more terrified he became. Why, a voice shrieked inside his head. Why? Harry had no answer for it. He was fifteen again, trembling before the Wizengamot except it was himself who glared down upon him from the raised benches. Himself demanding an answer. He wished for the stunned numbness to return. He wished to forget, but the tenderness inside him wouldn’t let him. Now that he’d noticed it, he felt that he would never be rid of it, every shift, every movement a reminder of what he’d done. What he’d let be done to him. What Tom had done.

Tom.

The stares. The silences. The sly touches that lingered on the skin long after fingers moved away. The banter that now didn’t resemble banter at all but flirting. How long had Tom wanted him that way? When had it begun? When, in the deep recesses of Harry’s own mind, had a matched longing sparked into life? A longing he would have sworn had never existed and yet the moment Tom’s lips were against his Harry melted, a door opening inside him, releasing a person Harry did not recognize, a person who’d taken charge of his mind and body with a euphoric, drawn out yes.

He’d moaned.

He’d clung.

He’d kissed and kissed and kissed.

Harry blushed down to his roots. Memories flooded him, demanding attention. He stumbled back against the garden wall as if they were physical fingers, poking and prodding. But Harry didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to think about why or how or with whom it had been with. He turned to the beach.

A walk was all he needed. A walk would put this insanity to rights.

 


 

Two circuits of the island and Harry was no less wired. This was how he felt after a hard-won Quidditch match – heart pumping, blood electric, fingertips tingling. But instead of a death-defying dive, it was Tom who kept him from settling.

The wind on the beach tore at him. Harry sought sanctuary in the boathouse. He sat, watching the sunrise color the open water in ripples of magenta and not taking in any of it, too consumed with how Tom’s lips felt against his own.

If Harry could have sprung up a tent and camped out on the beach, he would have. His stomach gave a traitorous grumble and he knew he couldn’t put off the encounter any longer. There was no hiding from Tom forever. Not on such a small island. Not in a house without locks.

When Harry entered, he lingered in the doorway, listening intently. No sounds of movement greeted him. The lamps and candles in the entrance hall, kitchen and common room remained unlit. He saw to the boiler and when it was blisteringly hot, he cautiously climbed the stairs, holding his breath. When he reached his bedroom, he paused; the door was still shut.

Harry felt sick with nerves. Why had he let it happen? Why had he pulled Tom close instead of push him away? Why hadn’t he been revolted? Horrified?

Upstairs.

Harry shivered.

One kiss. One kiss had turned into a thousand.

Maybe Tom would pretend it had never happened, Harry thought as he shut himself into the bathroom, the possibility both attractive and sour. He had no idea what he would be like now. The man Harry thought he’d known so very well was suddenly a stranger. Lord Voldemort would never have looked at Harry the way Tom had last night. He never would have kissed him and Harry …

Harry had kissed back. He wanted to laugh and rage at the same time. He didn’t even know himself. If he’d been told a month ago that he’d happily snog Tom Riddle, he’d have punched the messenger in the face.

A moment of insanity. That’s all it was.

As steam rose from the tub and he slipped into the water, Harry decided that he very much wanted them both to forget the entire night. Didn’t that sort of thing happen all the time in movies and books? He’d spied enough daytime dramas at the Dursleys during summer break to know that people were constantly falling in each other’s beds and then striding off without a second thought the moment the sun rose. People had sex. No big deal.

He was now someone who’d had sex.

With Tom.

He’d had sex with Tom.

Perhaps if he repeated the fact often enough, he’d accept it and forget it. Just like a startled fall from a well-practiced Quidditch maneuver, mistakes happen; dust yourself off and move on. Move on. There wouldn’t be any more training sessions, that was for damn sure. No more late night chess matches in front of the fire with a half-finished bottle of wine, either. No more meandering walks around the island. No more swims in the cove. No more chats. They would go back to cool indifference. That was safe. That was —

A soft knock sounded on the door and Harry’s head jerked around.

“May I come in?” Tom asked through the wood.

Harry blinked like an owl, his throat suddenly constricted. “Why?”

“I wish to see you.”

Harry shut his eyes and counted to ten.

“Please,” Tom said softly.

Harry stared up at the crown molding. The elephant in the room wasn’t going away.

Get it over with, a voice urged him. Bite the bullet. Yank off the band aid.

The quicker he faced this the quicker he would move on and the quicker a night of the most incredible, mind blowing sensations would fade away like a shirt left out in the sun, colors bleached to a dingy, washed out hue. 

Harry took a shuddering breath.

“Okay.”

Tom entered. He wore Harry’s dressing gown. He undid the cord and let it slither from his shoulders, pooling around his ankles. Harry averted his eyes, his neck growing hot. More memories flashed, causing his stomach to flip – lying together, legs entangled; Tom watching silently as Harry’s fingers explored his collarbone before, hesitantly, reaching up and running through his hair. He’d been right. The curls had felt like silk.

Tell him. Tell him it was a mistake.

But Harry could not unstick his throat. The bath water sloshed as Tom stepped in. There was just enough room in the tub for the both of them. With Tom at the opposite end, Harry didn’t know where to put his feet. The awkwardness was not helped by how Tom stared. Harry wanted to shrink. He wanted to dissolve into nothing.

“Say something,” he blurted, unable to stand the silence.

Tom was perfectly composed, but the intensity of his eyes was scorching.

“Did I hurt you?”

Already flushed, Harry went beet red.

“No,” he said a little too quickly. “I’m fine.”

But he wasn’t fine. He was so very far from fine. None of this was fine.

Just as he was trying to rally his courage to convince Tom that they should forget last night, Tom leaned forward and hooked his hands behind each of Harry’s knees. Gently, he pulled Harry to him until Harry sat in his lap, straddling his hips. Harry stopped breathing. In the bright light of the bathroom this felt far more intimate than any of the activities they had done in his dark bedroom. He could see each tiny speck of blue in Tom’s storm-cloud eyes.

“Did I hurt you?” he repeated.

Harry shook his head. “No,” he said, meaning it this time.

“You will tell me if I do.”

Harry stared, thinking of all the times Tom had hurt him. Physically, mentally, emotionally. All the man ever did was hurt him. But not last night. Tom had touched him with the delicateness of handling blown glass.

Around the lump in his throat, Harry replied, “Same goes for you.”

Slowly, Tom smiled. It made the hollows of his cheeks even more pronounced. It made him even more beautiful.

“Okay,” he said against Harry’s lips.

By the time they drew apart, the water had grown quite cool.

 

xXx

 

The hours muddled together in a pleasant laziness. Tom had never been lazy. He’d never, not for a single day in his life, allowed himself to relax so fully. The idea of spending the whole day in bed with Harry was so tempting Tom contemplated how he might achieve it. But Harry, curse him, was too set on his chores. The furnace was tended to, tomatoes and carrots harvested, a fresh batch of dough proofing on the kitchen table.

And all Tom wanted to do was push Harry up against the wall.

As Harry thought of more activities to fill the day (topping up the oil in the lamps, cleaning the Owlery, choosing the most labor intensive, complicated recipe in his Aunt’s cookbook for dinner), Tom began to wonder if Harry was purposefully busying himself to keep that very thing from happening. He didn’t shy away from Tom, but the moment a stolen kiss grew too intense, Harry pulled away, mumbling something about the boiler and disappearing down the cellar steps.

Tom let him go. In the solitude of the common room, he inspected the mark on his wrist. The burn in his chest returned without Harry’s touch to soothe it, and Tom focused instead on the gentle warmth radiating from the tattoo. It had bloomed into life during the night and all day it remained. Was this another sign that luck was turning his way? He glanced upward. The gleaming, golden design on the ceiling turned and swirled just as smoothly as ever, but did it feel different? Was there a new hum to it, deeper than before? Was it just his imagination or were the two rotating halves closer together?

Harry must have forgiven him. Surely he wouldn’t have welcomed him into his bed if he hadn’t. Tom covered the tattoo with his hand, hiding it from sight, the lightness of his mood dampening somewhat. He had not forgiven the boy. It didn’t matter what delicious sounds Harry made in the night, Lord Voldemort did not forgive. He did not forget.

But if he did…

If he did then they would return. His army was in tatters, his Death Eaters in shambles, but that was merely a setback. He would rebuild.

And Harry?

Harry wouldn’t like it, of course, but he would see in time that Tom was right. Muggles were a danger to wizarding society. Why must wizards hide in the dark while their inferior cousins lounge in the sunlight? Why must the strong bow down to the weak?

The plan was vivid in its details. The moment the Carcerem released them, he would flee with Harry. Malfoy Manor was compromised but Tom had a safe house no one knew about, the location hidden from even his most loyal of followers. He would tuck Harry away there. He would teach him — he would show him — that he was right. And with Harry by his side no one would stand in their way.

Patience, he told himself. Harry was a wild thing, flighty and wary with a will far too stubborn. With care and time, Harry would be his, utterly and completely. 

 


 

The lamb was excellent, but Tom was too preoccupied with watching Harry to pay it much notice. Night fell outside the window. They tidied up. Tom topped up their wine glasses and they retired to the common room as they always did. Harry headed to his usual armchair by the fire, but Tom took him by the hand, directing him instead to the couch without a word.

Harry immediately retreated behind a book — Quidditch Through the Ages. They would need to discuss his reading choices. Tom flipped open his own, but it wasn’t long before he abandoned it in favor of kissing Harry. All those years at Hogwarts and walking the streets of London where couples materialized out of thin air, wrapped around each other, snogging and groping. When the Muggle war ended, the entire city turned into a cesspool of them. And here he was, stretched out on a couch with Harry beneath him. He couldn’t go ten minutes without tasting those lips. Harry was magnificent and he told him so.

That beautiful blush spread over Harry’s cheeks again. “Awkward, you mean. You’re the one with the looks. You could compete with Fleur.”

“Who’s Fleur?” Tom asked, his tongue teasing a spot beneath Harry’s ear. “Your Muggle-born friend?”

Harry laughed; the vibration made Tom’s lips tingle. He rose onto his forearms, staring down at him. Salazar, he was stunning.

“They really never told you who they are?” said Harry. “Snape or Malfoy? They knew, you know.”

Tom tucked a wayward lock of hair behind Harry’s ear. Their night together had turned it even more rumpled and after the hour in the bath, it became a goal to dishevel it even further.  Harry’s eyes were brighter than emeralds, almost electric. They were an impossible color. How had he never noticed that before?

“To be honest, I never really cared about your companions. It’s always been about you. Only you.”

A stillness came over Harry. In the fireplace, a log popped.

“Hermione,” he said. “Their names are Hermione and Ron.”

“The Weasley boy? He had spattergroit.”

Harry grinned. Tom fought the urge to take it for himself.

“That was what you were supposed to think. They transfigured the ghoul that lives in their attic—”

“A ghoul?”

“Yeah. Put him in Ron’s pajamas and everything. He was really excited. The ghoul, I mean.”

“Clever,” Tom conceded. “Spattergroit’s highly contagious. And the fungus disfigures a person to extreme proportions.”

“Ron was pretty proud of it,” said Harry, who couldn’t seem to stop grinning now that he’d begun. “He was the one who taught me chess. He’d give you a run for your money. Hermione’s awful at it. Incredible at everything else, but awful at chess. Ron and I always felt it was good for her.”

“And they’ve been with you? Through everything?”

“I’d go to the end of the world for them,” said Harry. “And they’d do the same for me.”

Tom continued to run his fingers through Harry’s hair; only a spell would have stilled his hand. When Harry had done the same to him in the night, his heart had quite literally quivered.

“Perhaps I should have made it a point to find out more about them,” he admitted. “You surround yourself with such loyalty. That’s a powerful force to underestimate.” He was thinking of the battle, when Harry had played dead and the entire castle refused to join him, regardless of the powers Lord Voldemort could gift. The loyalty Harry inspired would assist him immensely when they returned.

Harry’s eyebrows knitted slightly. “It’s called friendship, Tom. You should try it.”

Tom smirked. He kissed him, running his tongue along Harry’s bottom lip, biting it gently.

“Or,” he whispered, moving his hips just so, “I can see how many times I can make you shiver.”

 

xXx

 

What am I doing?

He shouldn’t be doing this. He didn’t want to do this.

Did he?

Day in and day out, Harry kept asking himself why, but the moment Tom wrapped his arms around his waist, the answer diverted. When Tom placed open mouthed kisses along his neck, rational thought sprouted wings. Harry was confident that today would be their last and yet he found himself entangled again and again, another morning leading to another night, another night leading to another morning.

What am I doing? What am I doing?

But there was no space left in his brain when Tom’s hands moved up under his shirt or slipped into his jeans … when his tongue did the most extraordinary things. Lips and teeth. Hips moving with minds of their own. Harry craved Tom. The man was a drug. Harry could not form a coherent thought in the rushing high that was Tom. It was only afterward, when Harry lay awake at night, Tom spooned up against him, that rational thought returned, carrying self-disgust in its beak.

Am I … in love with Tom?

No, Harry thought harshly. Emphatically.

Then what was this? Harry had never been in a relationship that was purely physical. Ron had. An image of Ron and Lavender leapt into Harry’s brain. Was that what he and Tom were? Two hot-blooded addicts who, after having the first hit, couldn’t keep their hands off each other?

Tom shifted behind him, the arm draped around Harry’s middle drawing him closer. His nose nuzzled the nape of Harry’s neck and that feeling that his insides had been replaced with butterflies returned. Whenever Tom looked at him, whenever Tom touched him, whenever Tom said his name, they were there, turning him into a blushing, stammering idiot.

This was so … domestic. This was what couples did. Boyfriends. Girlfriends.

Lovers.

Rational Thought cawed sharply.

He isn’t Voldemort anymore, Harry argued. He’s changed.

Rational Thought ruffled its feathers and gave Harry one beady eye. Like a television that he could not turn off, Harry saw them all over again. His mother. His father. Sirius, Lupin, Tonks, Fred, Dumbledore, Snape, Moody, Colin. Neville’s parents tortured into insanity. All acts traced back to the man whose breath was soft against Harry’s neck.

This was wrong. This was so horribly wrong.

But Harry didn’t want it to stop. He didn’t want this — he shut his eyes, finally admitting it to himself – he didn’t want this pleasure to stop. But pretending Tom and Voldemort were not the same person was not helping Harry eradicate the guilt that ate at him day in and day out. It did not rid him of the feeling that he was letting everyone down. Or worse, spitting on their graves. He wished he could talk to Dumbledore. Dumbledore would know the turmoil that twisted Harry’s insides more than anyone. How many nights had Dumbledore laid awake, asking himself these same questions?

Unable to stand it anymore, Harry sat up, his legs dangling over the side of the bed. The movement jostled Tom awake.

“Harry?”

He gripped the edge of the mattress. The springs creaked slightly as Tom shifted behind him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”

Harry could feel Tom’s smile as he placed a kiss on his shoulder. “You’re usually better at lying.”

Eyes squeezed shut, Harry whispered, “We have to stop.”

Tom stilled and then arms encircled Harry. In one slow, fluid motion, he ran his tongue up Harry’s neck. Harry’s whole body quivered, electricity shooting down his spine.

“I will,” Tom said softly in his ear, “when you mean it.”

Harry’s nails bit into the bed. “I do.”

Tom chuckled and the sound went straight to the pit of his stomach.

“So many lies, Harry. Come back to bed,” he coaxed. “You can tell me how much you hate me in the morning.”

Harry allowed himself to be drawn back under the sheets, a new, aggravated, nettled feeling joining the plethora of others in his chest. He didn’t love Tom … but did he hate him?

He hated what Tom had done. He hated what he stood for.

But did he still hate him? Did he feel hatred toward this man who’d knocked him off the pier that morning in a rare fit of playfulness? Spitting water, Harry had yanked Tom in after him and they’d tackled each other, their laughter scaring the seagulls away. In those moments it was hard to spot Voldemort’s shadow in Tom’s face.

Beneath the self-disgust, the guilt, the confusion — beneath the should nots and the how could yous — rested happiness.

For the first time since being trapped in the Carcerem, Harry was happy. The past was the past. There was nothing he could do about it, but the future was an endless sea of possibilities. He and Tom had been handed a new life — a fresh start — so why was Harry so frightened to take it?

He tucked himself under Tom’s chin and asked himself a new question.

Why not happiness?

Chapter Text

Harry set the pace, slow and tantalizing.

The island was theirs and yet they’d never done more than kiss outside in the sunlight. Even when they stripped down after sparring matches, diving into the ocean to cool off, did they ever go this far. Now, Tom was flat on his back in a grassy field, the smell of summer and Harry all around him. With a surge of surprise, he realized the meadow was from his past, not Harry’s. It was the grassy hilltop the orphans crossed on the way down to the beach when they went to the country. He had made friends with snakes on those occasions, purposefully lagging behind the group to have whispered conversations. They were the ones who’d told him of the cave tucked from sight down below, where the cliffs shirred off sharply. What a wonderful day that had been.

Freak, Amy Benson had called him. Nutter. Lunatic.

But after a trip into the cave, Amy and Dennis never called him such names again. Devil, Amy had whispered once when they’d passed in the orphanage and he had smiled at her over his shoulder.

Tom knew there was no such thing as a saint, just as there was no such thing as a devil, but he was still startled by how utterly devilish Harry could be. The grin he gave Tom as he rocked back and forth achingly slowly would have made Lucifer blush. Tom couldn’t stand it. He sat up, making grasshoppers spring in surprise, and took that grin for himself. If he could bottle Harry’s kisses, he would. They’d be more sought after than Liquid Luck, more potent than Amortentia.

Harry’s hips ground against him and Tom relished that Harry was his. Mine, he mouthed along Harry’s throat. He had finally captured Harry and it was unlike anything he’d ever dreamed. It still unnerved him to think of all the times he’d come close to killing him. Harry threw his head back, eyes closed in ecstasy, his pace quickening. Tom met each grind with a thrust. He wanted to see those eyes — there was nothing more stunning. Easily, he dominated, pinning Harry to the ground and Harry wrapped his legs around him, drawing Tom closer.

Their kiss seared. Tom never wanted it to end. It was dizzying. It was all consuming.

It was Fiendfyre and magic and his.

 

xXx

 

Tom rolled off him, sprawling on his back in the grass and Harry focused on getting his breath back. How was it that every time he thought he had Tom breathless, the man turned the tables, leaving Harry a trembling mess, each jerk of Tom’s hips making stars burst behind his eyelids? It wasn’t fair, he thought, rather petulant. Tom’s perfection was getting out of hand. For Tom Riddle, a man who knew nothing of love to be a master of pleasure was ridiculous.

It was so easy to feel like a fumbling idiot next to Tom. Inexperienced. Clumsy. Awkward. Every inch a seventeen year-old with only two short lived relationships to his name. With a start, as Harry watched a cloud twist into a seahorse, he realized Tom was number three and dear Merlin, what a three he was.

An arm snaked around Harry, drawing him close until his head rested on Tom’s chest. Tom might have been far calmer on the outside, but his heart betrayed him. It was rapid under Harry’s ear.

He listened to that heartbeat as fingers carded through his hair. Harry didn’t even mind that he was out in the open, completely naked, their clothes strewn around them, a wayward chicken clucking somewhere in the tall grass. That would change later. Maybe while he tied up the tomatoes their afternoon romp in the meadow would come back to him in full color and he’d blush more violently than a nun, shaken and astounded that he’d been the one to instigate it. He interlaced their fingers, making Tom pause on their walk. He unbuttoned Tom’s shirt. He bit Tom’s earlobe, whispering all the things he wanted the two of them to do, right then and there.

Harry swallowed, a fresh breeze cooling his flushed skin. Seagulls dived overhead. The crashing of waves was subtle from up here on the hilltop, tucked away in a bed of sweet-smelling wildflowers. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. This was what people thought when they spoke of paradise. A paradise inside a prison.

“If the Carcerem released us, what would you do?”

Tom’s fingers stilled in his hair. His silence was all the answer Harry needed. He rose onto his palms, glaring down at Tom, suddenly frustrated.

“There’s nothing wrong with Muggles.”

Tom rested an arm behind his head and rolled his eyes.

“There isn’t,” Harry insisted. “What threat are they to you? They can’t even do magic.”

“And yet it is our kind who is shunned.”

“We’re not shunned,” said Harry, confused by the wording. “The Statute of Secrecy was our choice. Muggles didn’t force that on us.”

“Muggles had everything to do with it,” Tom disagreed. “Our entire existence revolves around keeping Muggles happy.”

“That’s a bit dramatic.”

Tom sat up. “There is only one all-wizarding village in Great Britain. One. Wizards must either live in isolation or pretend to be Muggles. Why?”

“It’s better that way,” said Harry, remembering asking Hagrid a very similar question. “Yes, it’s annoying to keep everything hidden, but things would get out of hand otherwise.”

“Exactly,” said Tom. “Muggles want conformity. Any outliers are threats that they medicate into submission or lock away. Before I knew of Hogwarts I was waiting day and night for the doctors to put me in an asylum, all because I was different. You, of all people, should know that. Or did you enjoy having a cupboard for a bedroom?”

Harry flinched as if Tom had slapped him. A door slamming shut — a key turning— only spiders for company. It had never been brought up — not once — but of course Tom had found the cupboard. Of course he’d put two and two together. But the Dursleys did not speak for all Muggles, just as Tom Riddle did not speak for all wizards.

“We need better ways to help children in anti-magic homes,” said Harry, refusing to take the bait. “We can work on that.”

Tom leaned back on his hands and laughed coldly. “You’re so naive.”

“Subjugating Muggles is not the solution!”

“And what would they do to us if they found out we exist?” Tom asked. “Do you honestly believe that if given the chance they wouldn’t try to kill us? Dissect us? Use us? We are different. We are born different. We are greater than they will ever be and yet we hide away, cloister ourselves to our secret corners of the globe and fret when a broomstick flies off course. Muggles destroy what they do not understand and covet what they cannot have. I am striking before they do.”

“And the Muggle-borns?” asked Harry, his anger rising regardless of his efforts to remain calm.

“I have nothing against Muggle-borns,” Tom replied.

It was Harry’s turn to let out a harsh laugh. “Are you kidding me? Have you already forgotten the Muggle-born Registration Act?”

Tom’s lips thinned.

“Some practices can be reviewed,” he conceded. “If they pledge their loyalty—”

“To murder and vilify their friends and families?” Harry finished hotly. “If they agree to that, they can live? They can keep their wands? They can still be witches and wizards? That’s what you mean?”

Tom’s back was rigid. “I stand for magic, Harry. I always have.”

“Yeah, well” — Harry pushed to his feet and snatched up his clothes — “maybe magic doesn’t need your help. Maybe” — Harry yanked up his jeans and pulled on his shirt — “your sort of help isn’t help at all!”

Tom remained sitting. He did not try to stop Harry when he turned on his heel and marched away. He did not shout after him. Harry stormed down the slope to the beach, the ocean suddenly as furious as he was.

What were you expecting? You’re in a relationship with a tyrant, he berated himself, or had you forgotten that?

Harry was too angry to return to the house. He cut a trench in the sand, pacing up and down it until the tide surged forward, forcing his retreat. The sun was a blood red eye on the horizon, elongating his shadow to needle-thinness.

Harry let the door swing shut behind him. The lamps and candles in the entrance hall fluttered from the disturbance. He didn’t hear sounds from the kitchen.

Good, he thought when he found the room empty. He hoped it stayed that way.

 


 

An hour later, Harry was still stewing. Twilight fell and Tom had not appeared. The entire house was silent as the grave and when a rain storm started up, Harry began to wonder if Tom was in fact still outside instead of sulking in a room upstairs as he’d originally thought. Dinner was ready, an uninspired amalgamation of over-cooked pasta and watery tomatoes, lumps of rubbery fish speckled throughout. Harry served up a plateful, took his place at the table and moodily stabbed a noodle.

He was not going to go looking for Tom. If he wanted to catch his death in a monsoon, that was his choice.

Bitterly, Harry dropped his fork with a clatter and ran a hand through his hair. Why had he brought it up? Discussing Muggles with Tom was pointless. For months the entire subject had been carefully skated around. Harry ate two more mouthfuls, forcing himself to swallow, feeling both angry and miserable. Yes, it would be wonderful to not hide yourself for who you are. Yes, they spent an exorbitant amount of time and energy keeping Muggles in the dark, but Muggles could not fight magic. By choosing to separate, witches and wizards were actually choosing to protect Muggles from the dangers that went along with the wizarding world, dangers Muggles had no hope of handling. How easily Tom could have taken over — wiped out or enslaved every Muggle on the planet — if witches and wizards had not stood in the line of fire and said no

Maybe, one day, they’d be able to openly walk side by side with Muggles. Harry imagined an earth where no barriers kept the two worlds apart — Muggles turning onto Diagon Alley as easily as he was able to turn onto a London street. It was a beautiful picture, and maybe such a feat could happen. But it would not come from people like Tom who were too easily controlled by their fear and hatred. Not even from people like Harry who still found the wizarding world a spectacle, a marvelous escape from the suffocation of people like the Durselys and who felt, even at this very moment, a selfish urge to keep the wonders to himself. Such a feat required far more level headed, brave individuals than Harry or Tom would ever be.

The rain turned into hammers against the windowpanes, and snapping, Harry stood, kicking his chair out of the way as he stomped out of the kitchen. If he got a cold, hunting Tom down —

Harry jerked to a stop. Against a backdrop of rain, Tom stood in the doorway, drenched, his button-down shirt and trousers plastered to his skin. Harry could see every contour of his body. He was paler than usual, something his tousled, wet hair and hollow cheeks only made all the more heart stopping.

Harry crossed his arms, fortifying himself. “Got lost?”

A ghost of a smile appeared on Tom’s lips. “In a way.”

“Dinner’s ready. Head’s up, it’s disgusting.”

It might have been his imagination, but he thought the smile grew by a fraction.

“I’ll change.”

Tom left pools of water in his wake as he traveled down the hallway to his bedroom.

 


 

The silence between them was thicker than bubotuber pus and just as unpleasant. Harry kept his eyes downcast, focused on pushing his pasta around his plate. When Tom finally set his fork down, Harry leapt to his feet, busying himself with filling the sink. He wanted this horrible mess of a day over with. They had fucked three times since morning and those glorious hours couldn’t have felt more removed.

The rustle of feathers — the flash of a beak. Rational Thought clattered up onto the drying rack.

Don’t you mean, made love?

Harry squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he could go back to before.

But before when?

Before they’d argued?

Before they’d kissed?

Before they could go an hour without trading barbs?

Before the Carcerem?

“I thought you were exaggerating,” said Tom behind him. “But that was foul. How did you manage it?”

“It’s a talent,” said Harry shortly, scraping his half-eaten plate into a bucket for the compost.

“I will not harm your friends.”

Harry turned off the tap. He turned. “Excuse me?”

“Hermione and Ron. If the Carcerem released us today, right now, I give you my word that I will never harm them or their families.”

“Hermione’s Muggle-born.”

“And a commendable witch, from what you’ve told me.”

“Ron’s entire family are blood traitors.”

“Let me clarify.” Tom stood. He walked around the table, closing the distance between them. “I spoke out of turn earlier. I do not approve of Muggles. There are too many glaring examples to pretend that they are harmless to wizarding kind — to all of us, but” — Tom stopped before him; the back of his fingers ran whisper-soft up Harry’s arm — “you care for them. Fool-hardy and downright imbecilic …” He stopped, took a steadying breath and tried again in a calmer tone. “You care for them and I give you my word that those you care for need never fear me.” 

“And the others?” Harry asked. “Everyone else?”

“You don’t need to worry about everyone else. You’ve done enough of that.”

Harry was incredulous. “What?

“Harry—”

“Let me get this straight. You want me to … to … be happy in a little bubble with my friends while you continue your mission to root out every Muggle and claim world domination?”

Harry could tell that Tom was using every ounce of patience.

“With time,” he said, “you’ll see that I’m right.”

“But you’re not!” Harry roared. “Jesus.” He pushed past Tom, worried that if he didn’t get some distance, he’d throw a punch. “God, this is so fucked up. You’re talking about enslavement! I saw that statue you fixed up in the Ministry. I know exactly what you want your world to be and it’s wrong, Tom.”

“Harry—”

Don’t! Just don’t. You don’t care about anyone or anything except yourself and it was my fault that I thought that maybe — just maybe — you’d started to.”

“I care about you.”

“No you don’t!” Harry shouted so loud his voice bounced off the linoleum floor. “If you cared about me — if you knew me at all you’d know I’d never stand aside while you torture –”

“They are Muggles,” Tom exploded, patience snapping. “You’re so blinded by—”

“By what?” Harry snarled, shaking all over. “Do tell me Tom, just what could have possibly made me blinded toward Muggles? Could it have been the fact that — I don’t know — you murdered my Muggle-born mother?”

“I’ve apologized for that,” said Tom quietly.

“Oh, and you think that fixes it?” said Harry, feigning surprise. “You think saying sorry changes any of that?”

“Of course not,” said Tom, quieter still.

“We never should have done this. What I was thinking?” Harry asked himself wildly, stepping further away. “God, what was I thinking?”

Lips and teeth.

Legs and hips.

Fingers and toes.

He knew every inch of Tom. How each morning he woke leisurely, rolling onto his back and stretching as luxuriously as a cat. How he smiled, slow and teasing.

Tom grabbed his arm. Harry jerked away, but Tom redoubled his hold. Harry fought, a strange semblance of the wrestling match they’d done earlier that morning in bed, but so different.

So, so different.

“Let me go!” Harry shouted.

“Not until you hear me out.”

Tom’s arms were a straitjacket. He was taller. He was stronger. He pinned Harry against the wall. Harry tried to stomp his feet.

“Harry—”

“Get off!”

“Har—”

Tom cut off sharply, his eyes suddenly wide. He released Harry, looking down at his left wrist, staring at it, frozen.

No,” he whispered, horrified.

All the anger — all the fight — left Harry in an instant.

“What is it?” he said at once.      

“We’re out of time,” Tom whispered.

He rushed past Harry and Harry, utterly confused, followed him into the entrance hall. Tom opened the front door and a sound that Harry could only describe as the roar of a dragon reached his ears. He was beside Tom in seconds.

“What is that?”

It was too dark to see. The rain pounded the grass flat, but that roaring noise rose above it, surging louder.

“The ocean.” And not even a second after Tom had spoken, a horrible splintering sound — like trees being snapped in half — reverberated up the hill. “It’s rising.” Tom slammed the door shut.

“Rising?” said Harry, startled. “Like a tsunami?”

Tom grabbed him by the shoulders, spinning him around so they were face to face.

“You have to forgive me. Now.”

“W-what?”

Harry had never seen Tom so tense.

“Remember the crypt I told you about and the runes I found there? What I didn’t bother to mention was that the Carcerem is not eternal,” he said, speaking fast. “We are only given a certain amount of time to work out our differences, I just didn’t know for how long.”

The roaring grew louder. Tom yanked him into the common room, pulling him under the emblem on the ceiling, but it wasn’t the same. It continued to move like clockwork, but the gold was tarnishing, the petals curling in on themselves. Hairline cracks spider-webbed from its center to each corner of the room. As Harry watched, chips of paint drifted to the floor like snowflakes.

“You know how this works, Harry!” said Tom, urgent. “Forgive me and we leave! That’s all you have to do.”

Harry pulled himself free. “Just slow down a minute!”

“There isn’t time!”

“We don’t know that!” Harry shouted. “This might just be another test.”

Tom stilled. “You’re wrist … you don’t feel —”

The ground shook with the violence of an earthquake. Harry just managed to grab the sofa and Tom clutched the door frame for support. Next thing Harry knew, he was knocked head over heels as a surge of ocean water smashed through the front door, flooding the ground floor in a single wave. Sputtering and hacking, Harry scrambled upright. The water was up to his hips. The room was upended. Cushions bumped against his back. Seaweed wrapped around his legs. 

Tom shook hair from his eyes. “We will be dead in an hour,” he told him through gritted teeth, “unless you swallow your pride—”

My pride? What about you?”

Tom stared at him, fury and fear vanishing.

“I have forgiven you.”

Stunned, Harry was too slow to react. With an ear-splitting crack, the ceiling broke; great chunks of wood and plaster fell around them. Harry covered his head. He was knocked off his feet again. When he broke the surface, he could no longer touch the floor, the ceiling far closer than usual.

“Tom!”

A beam had fallen between them. Harry swam to it, trying to see past it, pushing floating cushions out of the way. He clambered over it.

“Tom!”

Climbing over the beam, he kicked out, swimming to the doorway where Tom had been standing. Tom broke the surface, coughing, but almost at once he began to sink. Blood — thick and vibrant — covered half his face. He’d been hit by the beam.

Harry reached him just before he disappeared back underwater. “Tom! Tom, can you hear me?” Harry kicked to stay afloat, the water up to his chin. Tom’s eyes were half-closed. He slipped from Harry’s grip—

No.” Harry redoubled his hold. He had to get to higher ground. “Tom, you’ve got to stay awake. We’ve got to swim up the stairs. Okay? Do you hear me? Swim, Tom.

A house elf’s head from the hall slowly sailed past them, its large snout like a shark’s fin. Tom’s head lolled to the side, his eyes drifting in and out of focus. Harry’s legs burned with the effort of keeping them both above water. If he could get them to the Owlery … but then what? Would the water keep rising until it swallowed everything?

“Harry,” Tom mumbled. Blood was like an overturned inkwell, spreading around them, clouding the water. His weight was too much. Harry lost his hold.

He dove. Scooping his arms under Tom’s armpits, he kicked with everything he had, back up to the surface, but almost immediately Tom’s dead weight threatened to drag him back down. The salt water burned Harry’s eyes.

I have forgiven you.

How could Tom have said that? Tom would never forgive him. It was impossible. Lord Voldemort did not forgive. It was just more trickery. More manipulation. Saying things he thought Harry wanted to hear.

But if he had…

If he really had…

Fleetingly, Harry realized he’d succeeded in making it up the stairs. Or perhaps the water had pushed them there. They were in the library; books upon books crowded them and still the water rose. With the last of his strength, Harry kicked toward a bookshelf, pinning Tom to the ladder they used to reach the upper shelves, their heads nearly brushing the ceiling.

You’ve been so brave…

You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man…

I care about you.

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and rested his forehead against Tom’s. How fitting that after months of peace the world ended on the coat-tails of a fight. With his fingers barely keeping their hold on the ladder, Harry pressed a kiss to Tom’s hair, salt and blood ruining how sweet-smelling it always was. Tom would be horrified if Harry ever told him, but the feather-soft curls reminded him of jasmine. He buried his face in the black strands and whispered, “I forgive you.

His legs gave out, his fingers lost their purchase. Harry slipped beneath the surface, his lungs filling with water—

And his eyes snapped open. He wasn’t drowning. He was dirty and sweaty and smelling of brimstone. He clutched a wand and it vibrated with magic beneath his fingers. Voices shouted behind him and he didn’t need to turn to know they belonged to Ron and Hermione. The remnants of an exploded cabinet littered the headmaster’s floor and there, standing not four feet from him—

Dressed in the long, black robes of Lord Voldemort, his wand still raised in the air from sending the cabinet flying, stood Tom, young and uninjured, human and utterly stunned.

“What the hell?” Ron yelled, startled.

Harry reacted in an instant.

“Protego!”

A shield erupted around him and Tom. Ron’s spell ricocheted off it. Armando Dippet dived for cover with a yelp as it blasted a whole in his portrait.

“Harry!” Hermione cried. “What are you—”

Harry ignored her, pointing his wand at the door behind them.

“Colloportus!”

The only entrance sealed just as a muffled oof sounded as someone ran into it. The handle rattled, but the door remained shut.

He’d wanted to see them so badly, but now Ron and Hermione stared at him as if they did not recognize him.

“I know this doesn’t make any sense,” said Harry, speaking quickly, “but I need you to trust me.”

“Harry—”

“What—”

Please!

Speechless and confused, they nodded uncertain, lowering their wands slightly. Harry rounded on Tom. He had no idea why the gleaming red eyes or slits for nostrils had not returned, but that was a question for another day.

“You have to go.”

It was obvious that Tom was just as startled as everyone else in the room, but he snapped back to focus with the speed of a lightning strike. “Come with me.”

Someone pounded on the door. His spell would not hold much longer.

“I can’t,” Harry whispered.

The handle jostled violently in its holder.

“Why won’t it open?” someone shouted.

McGonagall’s voice was muffled through the wood. “Out of the way, Finnigan!”

“They will kill you,” said Harry, urgent. “You have to go. Please, go.”

Tom’s eyes, usually so cold — so hard — were wide open.

“Harry—”

Please.

With a grimace that made Harry think he was in pain, Tom pointed his wand at a window. It shattered. With one fleeting look back, he hoisted himself onto the windowsill and leapt into the air. Harry ran to it just in time to see him fly like smoke on the wind, soaring over the Forbidden Forest.

The door finally banged open and half a dozen people, McGonagall and Neville at the lead, barreled into the office.

“Where is he, Potter?” cried McGonagall.

Ron and Hermione still stood to one side. They looked at him. The portraits were silent. Even Phineas Nigellus.

Harry swallowed. “He escaped.”

McGonagall swore, spotting the shattered window.

“Search the grounds! We may still catch him before he reaches the gates.”

As one, they surged back down the spiral staircase. In their wake, the office was deathly silent. Not a single portrait moved. Every eye was on him. Licking his dry lips, Harry kicked pieces of wood from the floor, searching.

“Harry,” Hermione said nervously. “Harry, what’s going on?”

He found it. The Carcerem was open. It resembled a lotus flower as it slowly curled its petals closed, finally forming a smooth, golden disk, no larger than a tea saucer. Bunching his singed sleeve over his hand, he picked it up from the floor, setting it on the headmaster’s desk. He looked up and met Dumbledore’s eyes. Those eyes did not shine with warmth. They were filled with tears.

“I have a lot to explain,” said Harry, speaking to the portrait. “I’d like your help.”

Dumbledore nodded.

“Seriously,” said Ron, alarmed. “What’s going on?”

Harry turned to them. He hesitated and then with a wave of his wand, a chair and ottoman righted themselves.

“You’re going to need to sit for this,” said Harry, feeling that he’d lived a lifetime. “It’s a long story.”

Chapter Text

May 2, 1998

 

The castle halls were empty. Though under the Invisibility Cloak, Harry did not bother to lighten his tread and his footsteps reverberated in the deserted corridors, causing the portraits that were still intact to turn their heads curiously. Everyone was in the Great Hall, eating, celebrating and mourning. After Harry explained to Ron and Hermione as best he could what had transpired within the Carcerem, they joined the rest of the school. Harry’s heart had tightened the moment he set foot inside the hall, every face turning toward him, but only one person stood out.

Ginny. She looked exactly as he remembered her, as if he’d only been gone for a day rather than months. She had run to him. Had thrown her arms around him before he’d even taken a step. He’d hugged her back. Tongue-tied, he tried to put as much feeling as he could into the embrace, every unspoken apology for being with Tom.

Harry came upon the stone gargoyle that guarded the headmaster’s office. Voldemort had blasted it away when Harry chased him into the office. Now it lay on its side. He pulled the Cloak off his head.

“May I go up?” Harry asked it.

“Suit yourself,” the gargoyle replied weakly.

“McGonagall will be over soon,” Harry assured it and the gargoyle gave a glum shrug.

The headmaster and headmistress portraits were all vacant. All save for—

“I am so sorry, Harry,” said Dumbledore.

Harry sat in the vacant chair before the desk. The Cloak slid off his shoulders, pooling in his lap.

“Why was it here?” Harry asked.

“Severus confiscated it at a most untimely hour. He was going to remove it from the castle but the battle began before he could. He stored it in the cabinet, without any way of knowing the two of you would find yourselves fighting between it.”

“Tom touched it when he worked for Borgin and Burkes,” said Harry.

Dumbledore sighed. “Out of all the wizards and witches in this world, I knew Tom Riddle would have come across the Carcerem at some point. It is both ancient enough and powerful enough to have attracted his attention. When Severus revealed it …” Dumbledore’s cheeks paled. “When the two of you entered the office—”

“There was no way you could have warned me. There wasn’t time,” said Harry, wanting this to be very clear. “It’s not your fault.”

Dumbledore’s smile was watery. “They handled it well,” he observed.

Harry knew he spoke of Ron and Hermione. There had been questions — many of them — and Harry knew there would still be more to come. He was amazed, and rather dazed, that they had not only let him explain, but had not charged from the room or (in Ron’s case) punched him in the face.

“Better than I would have,” said Harry. “I think they’re in shock.” Harry wiped his nose on his sleeve. It still smelt of smoke. “I’m in shock.”

“I believe you can count Tom in on that as well,” said Dumbledore lightly. 

The words were out of him in a rush. The only glaring bit that he’d kept from everyone, finally spilled over. “We were intimate.”

“I know.”

Harry looked up.

“You … know?”

“Harry, the way Tom looked at you told me that.”

Harry went red.

“Were you forced?”

Harry shook his head. “It was always consensual.” His face burned hotter. “I don’t even know how it happened. It just … did.”

“And now?”

“I —” Harry looked down at his hands, fingers convulsing on the Cloak. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered. “Everything was so clear before and … Kingsley’s asked me to head a team to track him down and I — I don’t know what I’d do if I … if I met him again. I don’t …”

“Harry, you have achieved something I wrote off long ago. You have not only shown Voldemort love and forgiveness, but proved that such magic is far greater than any power he has ever known. Lord Voldemort has never known love, has never believed in its strength, and you’ve shown him otherwise.”

A lump formed in Harry’s throat. Tactfully, Dumbledore watched the morning rays stream through the window, allowing Harry to recover himself.

“So you don’t think he’ll attack again?” he finally asked.

“Of that, I cannot say. Tom has always been ambitious. To assume he will be content as things are is—”

“Stupid.”

“Unlikely,” Dumbledore said with a small smile. “He will resurface, of that I am confident, but his goals may be far different than before. I think you should tell Kingsley,” Dumbledore added suddenly.

Harry’s head whipped up. “What? Tell him? Everything?”

“Everything. Including your relationship. I understand why you wish to keep it to yourself, but he is a wizard you need on your side. Kingsley has already accepted the Minister position.”

“He has?” said Harry, taken aback.

“You must have just missed each other. He left not ten minutes before you arrived.”

“Professor, I can’t tell him. I let Voldemort go.”

“You let a radically changed man go,” Dumbledore corrected. “The man who emerged from the Carcerem is not the man who entered it and the same is true for you. That is how the Carcerem works. You cannot leave unless you forgive. Unless you are remorseful. Tom is no less dangerous, but he is not the same. Tell Kingsley. He may not agree with your choices, but he will listen.”

It was only then that Harry realized the Carcerem was gone from the desk.

“Kingsley took it,” said Harry, looking up at Dumbledore. “Didn’t he?”

“He recognized it immediately. It is a highly classified artifact. And yes, I informed him it had recently been activated, but not by who.” The twinkle returned to Dumbledore’s eyes.

“There’s something that I don’t understand,” said Harry. “Tom still looks like Tom. Like how he did within the Carcerem. Why didn’t it change him back when we left it? Why did it change him in the first place?”

Dumbledore’s brow furrowed slightly. “It could be that the effort of containing two such powerful wizards as yourselves — oh, yes, Harry, you are exceptionally strong,” Dumbledore added at Harry’s startled look. “It could be that both the effort in trapping you and the explosion did damage to the Carcerem.”

“You don’t sound convinced,” said Harry.

“I find it more likely that the Carcerem did not fully recognize the Tom Riddle who stood before it in this office. The soul was the same, but greatly damaged. What you must remember, Harry, is that the Carcerem’s purpose is to heal.”

Harry snorted.

“I’m sure it didn’t feel like that most of the time,” Dumbledore amended gently. “Whether Tom’s soul was too weak — too tattered — to survive within the Carcerem as it was, we may never know, but it chose to revert him back into the form when it had first encountered him. Tom Riddle experimented on himself in ways no other wizard has. Things do not behave normally around him.”

“Do you think the Carcerem healed him?” asked Harry. “Healed his soul, I mean? You think it’s … whole again?”

“Only Tom can answer that, but I think it may be possible, or perhaps it began the process. It would explain why the Carcerem returned him in the form it deemed correct and not as Lord Voldemort.”

Harry stared at Dumbledore. “He’s thirty.”

“Would you rather he wasn’t?”

Harry blanched and Dumbledore chuckled. For a moment, they sat in silence, the morning sunlight bouncing off the broken glass on the floor from the window Tom had shattered. Where was he now, Harry wondered. What was he planning?

Come with me.

Harry got to his feet. “I think I’m going to go to bed, sir. If anything happens—”

“Do not fear, Harry. If anything should arise, we will see to it.”

Harry disappeared again under his Invisibility Cloak, wanting nothing more than a hot bath and a long, uneventful slumber. The corridor outside the Headmaster’s office was still empty. He wondered if the Fat Lady would let him in without a password, just this once.

Come with me.

Harry drew the Cloak firmly about him, letting the memory wash over him, letting himself recall what it felt like to drown in Tom’s eyes.

It’s over now, he told himself. You made your choice. It’s done.

But for a heartbeat Harry had wanted to slip his hand in Tom’s and say okay.

Chapter Text

August 1, 1998

 

The phone box’s door folded back on itself and Tom stepped onto the polished wooden floor of the Atrium. Being a Sunday the Atrium was sparse with Ministry workers, but the floos still whooshed into life every so often. His colossal monument to magic was gone, the Fountain of Magical Brethren once again in its place. The steady splash of water was louder than usual in the quiet chamber. He had expected as much, but the sight still caused his lips to tighten.

Tom smoothed the front of his suit, a simple black two piece, and reminded himself of why he was here. He had far more important matters than silly statues. The click of his shoes sounded through the spacious welcoming hall as he made his way to the visitor’s desk.

The wizard on staff gave him a rather grumpy scowl when Tom stepped before him. He put down his magazine, Which Broomstick, and grunted, “Wand.”

Tom pulled from his pocket his wand and with a smile, bypassed the wizard’s waiting hand, placing it directly on the scale set on the desk. “I am here to speak with the Minister.”

He clasped his hands behind his back and began to count.

One, two…

The scale vibrated. A slip of paper slithered from a slot at the bottom.

…three, four…

The sour-faced wizard tore it off and read the wand’s details.

Five.

Blood drained from the wizard’s face so fast Tom was impressed he remained on his feet. His horrified eyes latched onto Tom, taking him in fully for the first time. He staggered to the right and slammed his palm down on a purple button that was half hidden by Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum wrappers.

At once, a blaring, ear-splitting, screeching wail sounded through the Atrium. Fumbling with his robes, the wizard pointed his wand at Tom, shaking from head to foot.

“Stay right where you are!”

The smile never left Tom’s lips. As the Aurors on duty rushed into the Atrium, circling the desk, Tom raised his arms, placing his hands behind his head.

“Your minister,” he repeated calmly. “I’ve come a long way.”

 

xXx

 

“Harry, dear. I’m sorry, but you have a floo-call.”

Harry grunted into his pillow. Blearily, he peered at Mrs. Weasley.

“What?”

“It’s Kingsley,” said Mrs. Weasley apologetically. “He’s very insistent.”

God, what time was it? Harry rubbed sleep from his eyes. He’d stayed up too late. That was the last time he ever tried going head to head with the Weasleys when it came to Firewhisky.

“I’ll be right down,” he mumbled and Mrs. Weasley departed.

He sat up. He’d been gifted Bill’s old room for the night. Its original owner had been absent long enough that whatever decor Bill had given it in his youth had long ago been exchanged for something more along the lines of ‘guest’. A vase of sunflowers stood on the windowsill and the bedspread was a cheerful buttercup yellow — nothing Harry imagined the teenage Bill would have put up with. After a swift search of the floor, Harry pulled on his sweater, zipped up his jeans, worked his feet into his trainers and staggered down the stairs, still half asleep. It appeared that only he and Mrs. Weasley were up. Not even Mr. Weasley had yet risen.

In the kitchen, Mrs. Weasley stood anxiously to one side of the fireplace. Kingsley Shacklebolt’s bald head was in the crackling flames. At the sight of the grim expression on his face, Harry’s mind woke with a jolt. Kingsley had only looked so severe during the war.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked at once.

“I need you in cell three,” said Kingsley. “It’s him.” Without a goodbye, he vanished.

Harry felt that a bucket of ice water had been plunged over his head. There was only one him. Mrs. Weasley stepped forward.

“What is it, Harry? What’s happening?”

Three months since the war and still she was on edge. Could Harry blame her? She had not come out of it unscathed. It didn’t help that Rita Skeeter enjoyed nothing more than to remind the wizarding public three times a week that You-Know-Who was still at large.

“I have to go. I’m sorry. I’ll come back for my stuff later. Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’ve—”

“Got to go, I understand,” said Mrs. Weasley. “I’ll tell the others.”

Grateful, Harry took a pinch of floo powder, flung it into the fire, and in a burst of green flames, shot to the Ministry. The moment he stumbled out of the fireplace he was surrounded by his colleagues. The Atrium was in lock-down. The siren blared so loudly, Harry screwed up his eyes. He was amazed he’d made it through the floo in time before they’d been sealed.

“Harry!” Eddie Parker cried.

“Will someone turn that blasted thing off?” Tilly Shipling roared.

“The Minister contacted me,” Harry shouted over the alarm. “He wants me in cell—”

“Three!” Eddie bellowed back. “Yeah. Come on.”

Harry followed Eddie through the Atrium. The few Ministry employees and visitors present were clustered in tight knit pockets, nervously waiting for the okay that all was safe. As the grills clanged shut and the elevator descended, the alarm diminished somewhat.

“It’s him?” Harry asked swiftly. “Voldemort?”

A shudder ran through Eddie at the name. He shook his head, his ginger curls bouncing. “Nah. Some other bloke. But he had his wand, all right. Why, I have no idea. The guy could be under the Imperius Curse. Could be a Death Eater. Merlin knows what’s going on.”

“What do you mean, his wand?” Harry asked sharply.

“His wand was weighed. He weighed it himself.”

Harry blinked, nonplussed. “He … what?”

“Yeah.” Eddie looked just as dumbfounded. “That’s what doesn’t make any since. Why stop at the weighing station? According to Eric, the bloke marched right up to him and put it smack down on the scale, merry as you like. Didn’t act at all that he had You-Know-Who’s wand.”

“What did he do?” Harry asked, his mouth very dry. “The bloke?”

“Surrendered,” said Eddie. “I was one of the first to the Atrium — you know I’ve been trying to finish that damn report. I heard the alarm and got down as quick as I could. He just stood there, asking to see the Minister. D’you think … d’you think this bloke might have” — Eddie lowered his voice even though they were the only two in the lift — “killed You-Know-Who?”

Harry didn’t reply, but he felt thoroughly ill. The elevator jerked to a stop and Harry didn’t wait for the grills to slide fully open; he squeezed through them, Eddie right behind him. The Interrogation Cells were on the same level as the Courtrooms, but in the opposite direction. Their footsteps rang loud and sharp in the stone corridor.

“Potter. About time.” Head Auror Gawain Robards marched toward them from the end of the corridor. The man had a face like a bullmastiff, along with the short temperament of one whose tail had been caught in a door jamb once too often. “That will be all Parker.”

Eddie nodded and returned back to the elevator, but not before Harry saw the look of disappointment on his face.

“This way,” said Robards.

“You’re sure it’s him?” Harry asked, quickening his pace to walk alongside his boss.

Robards’ eyes cut to him. “You tell me.”

They turned a corner and were barred by Alice Vablatsky and Gifford Ketteridge, two of the highest Aurors in the department. Behind them, next to a glass window set in the wall, stood Kingsley.

“Sorry Harry,” Gifford apologized.

Harry didn’t mind. He knew the procedure. He stood still as Gifford ran a Secrecy Sensor down his front and back.

“He’s clean.”

Alice and Gifford stepped aside, taking their posts at the end of the corridor. Harry hurried to the window. He stared, transfixed, through the glass. On the other side sat a man who had plagued him, day and night, for three months.

Tom.

“Well?” Robards demanded on his other side.

Mouth too dry to speak, Harry nodded. He looked just the same. Haughty, straight-backed, and beautiful.

He didn’t understand it. Why was Tom here? Why appear now after months of hiding? And to walk straight into the Ministry?

“He wants something,” said Harry. “He wouldn’t risk coming here if he didn’t think he’d get something.”

“You, apparently,” said Robards.

“What?” said Harry.

“He won’t speak to anyone unless it’s you,” Kingsley explained.

Harry stepped closer to the glass. Tom couldn’t see him as it was charmed to be tinted within the cell, but Harry had the feeling that Tom knew he was there. He stared straight at him, never blinking, never shifting.

“Then let’s see what he has to say,” said Harry.

He didn’t miss the look Kingsley and Robards shared.

“I can handle this,” Harry told them.

It was a testament to their respect that they did not argue, but the tension between them did not lessen. Instead it prickled like a porcupine’s quills. Harry turned the doorknob and entered the cell. Three months of separation. Three months without a word, without a glance, and the moment Tom’s eyes traveled over him — head to foot — Harry felt that three months had been three minutes.

“Harry,” said Tom, smiling in greeting. “You look well.”

Amazing how his voice sounded exactly true to Harry’s memory. He supposed it shouldn’t surprise him. Not really. Not when that voice played in his head every night.

Harry drew out the chair across from him and sat. “Peace does that to people.”

Amusement shined in Tom’s eyes.

“What are you doing here, Tom?” Harry asked, crossing his arms and keeping his guard up.

Tom flicked a bit of dust off the tabletop. His wrists were bound in handcuffs.

“Archibald Blane. The Tebo Cult. Malodora Somnolens.”

Harry knew those names. Though he had only been on the force since mid-May, he was very well acquainted with the Aurors’ most wanted list. 

“What do they have to do with anything?”

“I know where they are,” said Tom. “I have come to give testimony. In exchange for my information, I will be granted clemency.”

The door banged open. Robards charged into the cell, Kingsley right behind him.

“What the hell are you playing?” Robards shouted.

Tom acted as if no one had entered the cell, still speaking directly to Harry. “You will provide a written statement clearing me of all charges.”

“Like hell!”

Auror Robards.”

Robards, his hands clutched into fists, took a step away from the table as Kingsley stepped forward.

“I will not pardon you, Tom Riddle.” His eyes were hard, but his voice was calm.

Tom’s gaze finally left Harry, shifting up to Kingsley.

“Mrunog Gudar will be most disappointed to hear that. He was just recently abducted by the Tebo for his audacious public speeches regarding wand rights for goblins. And then there are the six missing witch cases that you’ve never been able to stick on Kenneth Meadow. He’s so very good at hiding the bodies, isn’t he?”

“And you know where they are, do you?” Robards snarled.

“Yes,” said Tom, pleasantly. “I do.”

“He probably did them in on your orders!” Robards seethed.

Tom chuckled. “Meadows is not one of mine.”

“Then how do you know where the bodies are?” Harry asked. “If they aren’t your Death Eaters — Meadows, the Tebo — how do you have information on them?”

“Because information is power. Secrets are currency. I’ve always made it my priority to know the little things people don’t want to share. So do you want to play with me, Minister, or is another goblin’s head not worth your notice?”

Kingsley was silent. Robards was so furious he was redder than a radish.

“I can give you one of the most zealous anti-creature groups right now,” said Tom softly. “I hold the keys to every hideout of twenty of the most sought after witches and wizards of the last decade. I know their alliances. I know their weak spots. All I ask in return is my name cleared and a spot on your force.”

Even Robards was stunned speechless, but not for long.

You?” he sputtered. “An Auror?

“Give me my documents,” said Tom. “Agree to my demands, and you will be praised as the greatest force against the Dark Arts the wizarding world has ever seen.”

“Or how about I throw your ass in Azkaban?” Robards hissed.

Tom looked upon him with amusement. “You won’t.”

“Oh?” said Robards, bristling. “Why won’t I?”

“Because along with the very public discovery of Mrunog’s mutilated body, the Daily Prophet will receive a scorching letter, detailing how the Minister of Magic himself turned away invaluable information that would have saved Mrunog’s life. The goblins will not stand for that. Relations are strained to the breaking point what with that trouble over Gringotts. They do hold grudges, don’t they? Just think, to be the Minister who saw the end of the Second Wizarding War, only to ferry in another.” The corners of Tom’s mouth lifted. “What a pity.”

 “You want to help us catch dark wizards?” said Harry, feeling that he’d spiraled into some other dimension.

“Clearing the field, are you?” Robards growled.

Tom smirked. “No need to clear it when it’s already mine.”

“Then why?” Harry demanded.

Tom’s eyes latched onto his, his gaze piercing. “I would think that would be obvious, Harry.”

Harry’s breath froze in his lungs. For a moment, it was as if there was no one else in the room with them, but the moment was gone as quickly as it had come. Tom turned back to Kingsley, business-like and crisp.

“There are rules in order to have my information,” he stated. “The first is that I will only work with Harry. He and I will be partners. I know it isn’t exactly your method, but I’m sure you can finagle whatever reasons you need to appease the rest of your Aurors. The second,” he continued as Robards turned a shade of puce to rival Uncle Vernon, “is that I will go by Thomas Thorne. A select handful of Death Eaters knew my given name, but not my face. I have a birth certificate for your files.”

“You’re one pompous bastard,” Robards snarled. “Like hell we’ll do any of the sort.”

“Have it your way,” said Tom with a breezy shrug. “I’ve never cared much for goblins either.”

Harry jumped to his feet, but Kingsley beat him to Robards, sidestepping in front of the Auror before he could reach Tom.

“Outside,” Kingsley ordered. “Both of you.”

The moment Kingsley shut the cell’s door, Robards was on him.

“You can’t possibly be considering—”

“I am,” said Kingsley. “When a life is on the line, always.”

“Do we know that Mrunog’s missing?” asked Harry.

Robards snapped his fingers, getting Alice and Gifford’s attention. They hurried to them.

“Sir?” said Alice.

“Mrunog Gudar. A threat’s been made on his life.”

“Nothing new there,” Gifford muttered.

Robards glowered. “Check it out. I want to know where he is. And I want to know now.”

“On it, sir.”

They departed.

“And if he’s not home?” asked Harry.

“No need to go there yet,” said Robards. He fished out what looked like a large galleon from his pocket. “Not until they send word. Won’t take more than five minutes.”

It was the longest five minutes of Harry’s life. They stood silent, watching the coin on Robards’ palm. It was a new addition to the Auror department and one Harry had suggested. The galleons Hermione had charmed to communicate meeting times during their fifth year had been given an upgrade. With a tap of a wand, the serial numbers transformed into a short message. It had doubled efficiency.

“Ah ha! Now we’ll see,” said Robards as the coin glowed a brilliant red.

Harry and Kingsley peered down at the message on the coin’s face.

House empty. Signs of struggle.

“They could have taken him anywhere,” said Harry.

Robards flung the coin at the window. It pinged down the corridor.

“He’s done this on purpose!” Robards roared.

“Of course he has,” said Kingsley grimly.

“He’s probably the one who set it up!”

“Regardless,” said Kingsley, “there’s only one choice.”

“But Minister—”

Kingsley ignored Robards. All his focus was on Harry. “Do you agree?”

Harry looked from the Minister to his head of department.

“At the Ministry I’ll be able to keep an eye on him. If he’s planning another takeover, it won’t slip past me.”

“You honestly believe he will not kill you?” asked Kingsley.

Harry took a deep breath. “Yes.”

Though Harry had never expected Tom to do something like this he knew Tom would never try to kill him again.

“But more importantly,” Harry insisted, “we have to. Mrunog’s life’s in danger. Tom doesn’t bluff.”

“You don’t know that,” said Robards.

“You don’t know Tom,” said Harry. “But whether you believe me or not doesn’t matter. We don’t have time to check his story. We don’t have time to risk it. If Mrunog’s murdered — if it comes out that we knew about it before it happened with time to act —”

Robards’ fingers rubbed his forehead. “We’re making a deal with the devil,” he growled.

Harry kept his mouth shut. He knew such deals only too well and how they turned everything upside down.

“Then it is agreed,” said Kingsley, grave and resolute. He waved his wand and a sheaf of parchment with the official Ministry stamp appeared before him. “Gawain, get your team ready. The moment Riddle reveals Mrunog’s location I want them Apparating. Harry, if you’d join me? I need you to be a witness.”

Robards was already halfway down the hall, his robes billowing. Harry took a great, shuddering inhale, as if he were about to dive into the deepest depths of the ocean. He nodded and Kingsley, with parchment in hand, opened the cell door.

 

xXx

 

Salazar, this was difficult.

The moment Harry stepped into the holding cell Tom’s fingers itched to wrap around his wrists and pull him flush, to bury themselves in his hair, to trace the outline of his face, his lips. The effort to keep himself relaxed and indifferent was more than Tom had expected. Harry was not in uniform, but that did not surprise him. The boy had not been given weekend duty. Favoritism or not, the department wouldn’t make their Chosen One work on his birthday. Not when it was a time witches and wizards around the globe celebrated. Imagine the bad press if it got out.

For three months, Tom had become quite the subscriber. Harry was everywhere. From the Daily Prophet to the Australian gossip columns, he was mentioned five times a week. His picture — even the worst, most blurred snaps — were showcased center stage. Tom collected them all.

When the door opened again and Harry returned with only Shacklebolt, Tom could not keep the grin of victory from his face.

“Have you changed your mind, Minister?” he asked.

Harry shot him a warning glare, but Tom felt nothing but delight. Shacklebolt sat in the vacant chair and Harry stood in the opposite corner.

“I agree to discussing terms, but first I want to know where Mrunog Gudar is being held.”

“Afraid not, Minister,” Tom replied coolly. “I need your word that I will not be locked in Azkaban the moment I give him up. In writing. Seeing as the Tebo do not linger, we had best be quick.”

Tom had always made it a priority to know the Aurors in the department. Kingsley Shacklebolt was not a man to be trifled with, though his easy-going friendliness could fool a person into thinking otherwise. He did not look remotely friendly now. He looked, actually, that he very much wanted to bash Tom’s head into the table. Tom watched in satisfaction as Shacklebolt pulled out a quill from inside his robes, conjured an inkwell and set to work.

The minutes ticked on. They went back and forth with the pardon and all the while, Tom kept Harry in the corner of his eye. The boy was agitated, shifting from foot to foot as Tom took his time looking over their latest revision. Incredible what could be accomplished when necks were on the line. Tom was quite satisfied. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. No sentence, his entire criminal history wiped clean as if it had never happened. And in turn, Lord Voldemort was no more. Tom could never resurface as the Dark Lord ever again, nor could he have any contact with his Death Eaters without Harry, Shacklebolt, or Robards present. If he did, the contract would quite literally blast him right off his feet, numbing his magic long enough that Tom would wish he'd been splinched instead.

“Due note, Riddle, that any crime you commit now will be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Shacklebolt.

“With great enthusiasm, I imagine,” said Tom. “Shall we sign?”

Shacklebolt did not pass him the quill.

“Mrunog,” he growled.

“Oh, yes! Nearly slipped my mind. 74th Westmore Road, Blifton.”

Shacklebolt turned to Harry, but he had already pulled out a coin from his jeans and was tapping his wand against it. Curious, Tom watched as a second later the coin glowed red in Harry’s palm. Something must have appeared on its face, for he looked up at Shacklebolt and nodded.

The Minster held out the quill and Tom took it, but Shacklebolt did not relax his grip.

“If you hurt him,” he whispered in a voice of cold iron, “I will lock you in Azkaban myself.”

“A threat I do not doubt,” Tom replied softly.

Shacklebolt let Tom take the quill and he signed his name with a flourish.

“Harry,” Shacklebolt said. “I need your signature, too.”

Harry, who had kept to the shadows, moved forward. Tom held out the quill for him and Harry took it without hesitation. Quickly, he scratched his name beside WITNESS and gave it back to the Minister. He did not meet Tom’s gaze. 

 Shacklebolt sealed the order with a wave of his wand and then, with a tap on the cuffs binding Tom’s hands, they uncoiled onto the tabletop.

Tom rubbed his wrists. “My wand?”

The Minister’s nostrils flared, but he dug into his pocket and extracted the yew, handing it over.

“I want that information, Riddle,” said Shacklebolt, conjuring another sheaf of parchment.  

“Perhaps we should move to a more hospital environment?” Tom suggested. “Seeing as we’re all colleagues. This cell is highly unfavorable.”

 

xXx

 

The lights swung overhead as the lift rose upward and Harry pinched his thigh. He felt that he’d been hit over the head by an ogre’s club. Had Mrs. Weasley really woken him or was he in fact having the most unsettling, bizarre dream of his life?

Partners? With Tom?

Jesus.

While in the elevator, Harry made sure to keep Kingsley between them. He tried not to, but Tom could have been made of gold for how his eyes kept shooting to him. The sharpness of his shoulders, the line of his back, the gentle curve of his – Harry jerked his eyes away and listened to the cool voice of the operator announce the stop.

“Level one, Minister of Magic and Support Staff.”

As the lift doors opened and Kingsley led the way to his office, Harry’s eyes darted at Tom again and this time Tom returned it, the small smile of amusement back on his lips. Blushing, Harry hurried after Kingsley, Tom trailing after them at a leisurely pace.

Harry had to hand it to Kingsley as the Minster conjured a teapot and refreshments, offering them to Tom and himself while they sat in armchairs in his office. He looked far calmer than Harry was.

“This list,” Kingsley pressed.

Tom took his time stirring his tea. He set down the spoon, crossed a long leg over one knee, settled back in his chair and began. The carriage clock on the desk steadily ticked on as Tom gave them everything. He handed over the most dangerous and vicious witches and wizards that were still at large without the slightest hesitation. Some were known Death Eaters who had fled after the war, but most were independent criminals who’d dodged Azkaban for years and Tom knew them all, right down to their preferred jar of jam. It was disturbing and dizzying. The Wizengamot would be packed for months with trial work, possibly years.

 The coin in Harry’s pocket burned. He pulled it out and read Robards’ new message.

“They have Mrunog,” he told Kingsley. “He’s uninjured. They’re bringing the Tebo in.”

Onward they went, Tom speaking and Harry writing as quickly as he could. Kingsley refreshed their teapot. He conjured a fresh plate of biscuits. The entire Law Enforcement Wing would be in a frenzy. Harry could picture the Daily Prophet’s headline: Mass Arrests of Most Dangerous.

When they finally finished, Harry’s hand was cramping. His stomach gnawed with hunger, demanding something with more sustenance than biscuits. He glanced at the clock and received a shock. It was half-past two. Even Tom looked slightly less smooth.

“Thank you for your testimony, Mr. Riddle,” said Kingsley, looking over Harry’s copious notes. “If you are up for it, we should discuss your cover story.”

“My father is Lester Thorne,” said Tom, stretching out his leg. “He met my mother, Aleska Istrefi, while traveling in Albania. One thing led to another. I studied magic at home and received my diploma in criminal study. I have the papers, if you would like to see.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Kingsley quietly.

“Early this morning I accosted a suspicious vagabond who, I discovered, was in possession of Lord Voldemort’s wand,” Tom continued casually. “I recognized it immediately and Apparated straight here. When conversations spread to my current state of employment, I was offered a job within the department, which I accepted.”

Tom really was a pompous bastard.

“Harry,” said Kingsley, without shifting his glare from Tom, “could you deliver these papers to Robards for me?”

Harry stood so quickly, he might have been sprung from his chair. He snatched up the stack and crossed the room to the door at top speed.

 

xXx

 

Tom’s lips thinned in annoyance as he watched Harry flee the room like a graphorn was on his tail. Shacklebolt sat at his desk, his stare fierce.

“This isn’t a game, Riddle. You have agreed to work for the Ministry and I fully expect you to do just that. You come into the office on time. You work the cases Robards assigns you. Harry is an excellent Auror and has the potential to go very far. You will not drag him down.”

“What makes you think I have any intention of ‘dragging him down?’” Tom asked. “Has it not been made clear enough, Minister, that I want nothing but the best for Harry?”

Shacklebolt held his gaze. “What you consider the best, Riddle, is not something I would brag about.” His eyes hardened. “I know exactly why you’re doing this. I know what you’ve been through. What both of you have been through.”

 Tom sat back in his chair, his hands casually clasped in his lap. “And how quickly did it take you to wheedle our adventures in the Carcerem out of Harry?”

“I didn’t,” said Shacklebolt. “He told me.”

Tom was surprised. Harry was the sort who kept his cards close to his chest. They were alike in that regard. But he supposed Harry had had his reasons for confiding in Shacklebolt. He knew the Minister recognized him for who he really was the moment the man appeared in the Atrium. He had not, however, expected Robards to know.

“He told me everything,” Shacklebolt continued, the slightest emphasis on the word telling Tom ‘everything’ meant quite literally everything. “And I just have one question.”

“Really?” said Tom, his coolness dissolving slightly in a wave of testiness. “And what’s that?”

“What if he doesn’t want you back?”

 

xXx

 

The department was buzzing with Aurors bursting through the double doors every few seconds. Robards had called an emergency meeting and Harry squeezed himself between Alice and Maybelle Wildsmith. Not making eye contact with anyone, he passed Robards Tom’s information. The man hardly paused in his orders, but he gave Harry a nod all the same.

Harry felt that he should stay and help with the arrests, but he didn’t want to leave Tom and Kingsley alone too long.

He slipped out of the crowded department without anyone noticing. Another ride upward and he was hurrying down the carpeted top floor to the Minister’s office yet again. He knocked on the door and did not bother waiting for an invitation to enter. However, the moment he stepped into the office, he froze.

“Where’s Tom?” Harry asked at once.

Kingsley turned from the window. It showed a dazzling view of snow-topped mountains. Chile, Kingsley had told him days before.

“He left,” said Kingsley. “He gave us his testimony. There was no reason for him to stay.”

Harry couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t even considered that Tom would just up and leave, but then … what had he expected? For Tom to wait for him?

“I’m going to have maintenance see to your cubicle in the morning,” Kingsley continued. “It will take them some time to expand it to fit two desks, so if you need anything from it, you might want to grab it now.”

“I don’t need anything,” said Harry, stuck on imagining his small workstation now shared with Tom. “I should get back to Robards, then.”

“You should go home.”

“Robards called everyone in. They’re starting the arrests today.”

“And he does not need you,” said Kingsley firmly. “You have enough on your plate. Go home. Get some rest. You’re going to need it. Robards won’t disagree. That’s an order, Harry.”

At Kingsley’s words Harry felt such relief he literally thought a weight had been removed from his shoulders. He was exhausted. He was mentally scattered. He felt jumbled and chaotic.

Once more, he returned to the lift. As it rattled down to the Atrium, a numbing stillness came over him — his brain putting up its walls, protecting itself from the shock that was Tom. 

He Apparated home and was startled by how warm it was. It was a gorgeous summer day. A real treat. He’d planned on spending it lounging in his back garden, maybe spreading fresh mulch on the vegetable beds and planting the flutterby bush Neville had given him for his birthday.

Merlin. Yesterday he’d turned eighteen. Reeling from the realization, Harry turned up the path to his cottage and stopped abruptly. Tom stood at his fence. Steadying himself, Harry continued up the path.

“I was surprised to learn that you’d moved,” said Tom, conversationally.

Harry tapped the lock on the gate. It swung open. “Grimmauld Place is too big for me. Tea?”

Tom pushed off from the fence and followed him into the cottage. It was the same one he, Ron and Hermione had passed on their way to the Lovegoods back during the Christmas holiday to ask about Deathly Hallows. It had been abandoned then, and it had remained so for the two and a half months after the war. When Kreacher passed away two weeks ago, Harry inquired into the cottage’s owners, learning that the Fawcetts — its previous owners — had fled to Indonesia during the war, decided they preferred it there, and intended to stay. The transaction was done in mere minutes over a floo-call. An owl delivered the deeds and Harry’s Gringotts vault was now emptier than usual. He was delighted with the place. Casual and homey — the exact sort of wizarding home he’d always dreamed of. No screaming portraits, no doxy infested curtains, no depressing family tapestries with names blasted out. The Burrow was nestled in the valley below and Luna’s house was just a few miles away to the north. Harry couldn’t imagine anywhere he’d rather be.

Or at least, it would be perfect once he finished moving in and renovating. Harry, who’d never thought he owned much of anything, discovered that he possessed quite a bit — or rather, that his friends were far too energetic in gifting him all sorts of house-warming presents. Half-emptied boxes littered the floor. The kitchen was in total disarray with Harry ripping down the prancing hippogriff wallpaper and painting the walls a light cream color instead.

Both of Tom’s eyebrows rose as he took in the cluttered family room.

“This is your home?”

“Yeah. Well, as of three days ago,” said Harry, walking into the kitchen and searching for the kettle. Failing, he put a pot on the stove, lit the burner with his wand and began the hunt for teabags. Tom followed and Harry made sure to keep the kitchen table firmly between them.

“So,” said Harry, putting two mugs on the table. “You want to be an Auror. Isn’t it funny how you think you know someone?” He found the canister of teabags and set it down on the table with more force than necessary.

“Why are you angry?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Harry sarcastically as the water reached a boil. He hadn’t realized how angry he was until he’d spotted Tom leaning against his garden fence. The shock — the numbness — dispersed like fog on a furious wind. He splashed water into the mugs, not caring that copious amounts spilled onto the table. “It’s been three months of radio silence, my life has just finally gotten back to normal, and you decide to stroll in. What’s not to love about that?”

“I wanted to come earlier.”

“That’s not the point,” Harry snapped, which was a lie. A total, complete lie. Every day he thought he was done thinking of Tom meant a night where he could do nothing but. Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. He was furious with himself by how he held on. By how he couldn’t quit Tom and here he was, flesh and bone, standing in his cluttered kitchen with dancing hippogriffs half peeled from the walls as if he’d never been gone.

Tom stared at him with the same scorching gaze that haunted Harry’s dreams. He stepped around the table and Harry, in turn, moved two steps backward.

“I wanted to come earlier,” Tom repeated softly, “but I feared how you would react. I came to the funeral.”

“Which one?” Harry asked bitterly.

“The Weasley boy. Fred, I believe.”

Harry’s throat tightened. He’d felt that someone had been watching him from behind the graveyard’s trees, but he’d put it down to paranoia. The press had been everywhere right after the war, Rita Skeeter even more of a nightmare than usual. Everyone wanted to know what Harry was going to do. Do you know You-Know-Who’s whereabouts? Do you have any leads? Will you fight him again?

“You were there?”

“My Disillusionment Charm is very good. I … needed to see you. Even if we didn’t speak. Even if we stood yards apart.”

“That was over two months ago,” said Harry, forcing himself to remain calm, but inside he was raging. “What did you think you’d achieve by coming here?” he demanded. With each word his composure splintered, his voice rising in volume. “Did you think that if you gave me enough time to sort out my feelings that we’d go back to how things were?”

Tom’s expression was unreadable, but his eyes were too bright. Too dominating.

“Nothing has changed how I feel about you,” he said softly.

“This isn’t the Carcerem!” Harry shouted.

“Why does that matter?”

Harry fumbled. “Because —”

Because why? he thought wildly as Tom looked at him expectantly. Because why?

“Because that was then and this is now,” Harry said stubbornly. “Three months is a long time and I don’t know if I —”

Harry cut off as Tom took a sharp step forward, making him back into the wall.

“You don’t know if you what?” Tom asked quietly, his eyes dangerous.

“I don’t know if I feel the same,” Harry finished just as quietly. “But force me into anything and I’ll let you know exactly how I feel.”

“Who said anything about force?” Tom asked.

The front door opened and closed. Harry’s head whipped around.

“Harry? You here?”

It was Ron.

“Harry?”

With Hermione.

“Your friends?” asked Tom.

Harry pushed past him and rushed into the living room.

“Harry,” said Ron. “Where’d you run off to? Mum said Kingsley floo-called. Did something hap—”

He broke off. His eyes widened. He took a startled step backward and Hermione clutched his arm, alarm all over her face. Harry didn’t have to turn to know that Tom had moved into their line of sight.

“What’s — what’s he doing here?” Ron demanded.

Tom leaned casually against the kitchen doorway. “Do you wish to tell them, or shall I?”

Glaring at Tom, Harry pushed Ron and Hermione into the corner by the fireplace.

“He showed up at the Ministry this morning,” he told them in an undertone. “He made a deal with Kingsley.”

“A deal?” said Hermione sharply. “What kind of deal?”

“One where he’s now our informant,” said Harry stiffly. “And works with me.”

“Bollocks,” said Ron at once.

“Harry, that is extremely dangerous,” said Hermione in a strained whisper.

“There was no way around it,” Harry hissed. “Mrunog Gudar had been kidnapped and Tom knew by whom. You know how furious the goblins have been since we demolished half of Gringotts. If he’d been killed it would have been the tipping point. He gave us all twenty names off the most wanted list. Robards is out arresting them right now. You’re probably going to get called in any second,” he added. Hermione was the newest associate in the ranks of Ministry lawyers. “No one was going to turn that down.” As he spoke, Harry felt sick to his stomach. “He’s cast aside Voldemort and sworn to never reform the Death Eaters. If he does — if we get wind of it — he’s sent straight to Azkaban.”

Ron stared at him as if Ginny’s pet Pygmy Puff, Arnold, sat on the top of his head. Hermione looked at him with mounting concern.

“But why come back now? It’s been three months.”

“He’s planning something,” said Ron darkly. “We can’t trust him.”

“You trusted me before,” said Harry quietly, reminding them of the morning when he and Tom had returned from the Carcerem.

Ron blinked rapidly. Hermione’s concern did not fade, though she chewed her bottom lip, far more torn.

“You haven’t told them,” said Tom from the doorway.

Harry ground his teeth, wishing Tom would read his mind and shut up.

“Not specifically, no,” said Harry brusquely.

“Told us what?” Ron asked immediately.

Tom frowned at Harry with an annoyance he rarely wore, which Harry didn’t understand because why would Tom care whether they knew about—

“We had sex,” said Tom bluntly, speaking directly to Ron and Hermione. “Often.”

Harry felt as if the air had been sucked from the room.

“Well,” said Tom, brushing off the front of his suit. “It seems that you have much to discuss.” His smile was pleasant. “I’ll show myself out.”

“Where are you going?”

Tom ignored him, though he paused at the door. “Green suits you,” he said, his eyes lingering on him. “You should wear it more often.”

Harry blushed, noticing for the first time the color of the sweater he’d pulled over his head that morning. Tom departed, the door swinging shut behind him, leaving Harry feeling that a great, towering wave had just crashed over them all.

Bracing himself, he turned.

Hermione’s hands were over her mouth. Ron wore the same stunned expression of one clobbered by a bludger.

“You—”

Hermione lowered her hands. “Oh, Harry.”

“You—” Ron seemed to have lost the ability of speech. “You and —”

“Yeah,” said Harry.

“When?” Hermione whispered.

“Why?” Ron cried.

Harry rubbed the back of his neck, wishing he could skip ahead to next year.

“We just did,” he said, weakly. “We … things were different in the Carcerem. We were different. We looked out for each other. And …”

“And?” Ron prompted.

Harry swallowed. God, this was awkward.

“We became allies. Friends, almost. Eventually we … cared for each other.” 

Ron sat down heavily.

“I didn’t mean for it happen,” Harry told them. “I hated myself when it started. I tried to stop.”

Hermione took Harry by the arm and pulled him onto the sofa.

“Harry,” she asked seriously, “were you in love with him?”

Harry’s face burned.

“W-what?” he sputtered. “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Hermione did not look convinced.

Yes,” said Harry firmly.

“I’m not asking whether you’re in love with him now. I’m asking if you were in love with him then. You forgave each other. That’s what you and Dumbledore said. That was the only way the Carcerem would free you. So did you feel more than forgiveness?”

If Harry could have become any hotter, he would have self-combusted. He looked to Ron, wanting to share the look of exasperation they so often did when Hermione went too far out on a limb, but Ron was frowning, considering her words.

“He’s given up his pure-blood mania, then?” asked Ron. “Absolutely? One hundred percent?”

Harry nodded. “He signed an official document. He works for the Ministry now.”

“For how long?”

“Forever,” said Harry. It hadn’t hit him at the time, but now, he found the realization that Tom had chained himself to the Auror Department — to the Ministry — for the rest of his days staggering.

“And why did he do that?” Hermione asked again.

“I don’t know,” said Harry, shifting uncomfortably on the couch.

“I think you do. Lord Voldemort would not have given up his crusade just because of a tryst. That sort of change happens because of something far deeper. How do you feel about him?” she repeated, determined to get an answer.

“I — I’m not sure,” he finally admitted.

Ron and Hermione exchanged a look that told Harry they didn’t believe him one bit.

“It’s complicated,” Harry said, instead. Which was true. Nothing had ever become more complicated than he and Tom. Even within the Carcerem. Nothing had been simple.

“Do you trust him?” Hermione asked.

And again, Harry wasn’t entirely sure. But he knew one thing for certain.

“He won’t hurt me and he won’t hurt any of you. I’m positive of that. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep our eyes on him. He’s not exactly … predictable anymore.”

“We’ll help you on that front,” said Ron with a hint of his former bravado. “Can’t have our rehabilitating Dark Lord go spell happy around the Muggles.”

“So you’re not upset with me?” Harry asked, nervously.

“To be honest,” said Hermione, “when you told us about the Carcerem, we felt that you were leaving something out. The way he looked at you in Dumbledore’s office … Well, it wasn’t the expression I would have expected from Lord Voldemort. And when you and Ginny didn’t get back together, Ron and I wondered if it had anything to do with what happened inside that artifact. Are you going to be okay with this?” she asked quietly. “Working with him?”

To be perfectly frank, Harry had no idea.

“I’m the best one for the job,” he said, and no other statement had ever been truer. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else to handle him.”

Chapter Text

Harry stepped out of the floo, braced for the whirlwind that was sure to greet him. One glance told him the events of yesterday had spread throughout the entire Ministry. Busy as always with early morning workers arriving, there was a different sort of hectic energy in the Atrium. Harry wondered if the Daily Prophet had gotten news of the arrests yet. He no longer took the paper, finding it caused more headaches than not. He joined the queue to the lifts, keeping his head down.

“Harry!”

He looked around. Eddie wove through the line to him. At twenty-four, Eddie had been the youngest Auror on the force until Harry joined. On Harry’s very first day they’d bonded. Eddie could have held a grudge, pointing out the special treatment Harry received. To enter the Auror Department fresh out of school, without even graduating or studying for the required three years afterward … but he hadn’t. He’d welcomed Harry with brotherly enthusiasm.

“Long night?” Harry asked, noticing the circles under Eddie’s eyes.

Eddie released a low whistle. “You have no idea. I got off five hours ago. Robards has us on rotations. Who’d you get?”

“I, uh—”

“He was saddled with me.”

Harry tensed. He turned and found Tom standing behind him with that teasing glint in his eyes. He held out his hand. Eddie gawked at him.

“But weren’t you —”

“Taken in for questioning?” said Tom, brightly. “Very much so, but we’ve cleared all that up. I was happy to be of service to the Ministry. I know how much the Dark Lord hangs over all of you. I hope the recovery of his wand will aid in finding him.”

“You —” People shuffled around them as the lifts opened. “You found his wand?”

“All a chance of luck,” said Tom casually. “Harry was kind enough to help me through the paperwork. Did he not tell you? I’m the newest Auror. Transferred from the Albanian Corps. Thomas Thorne.”

“Oh.” Eddie, though still thrown, was quickly recovering. He shook Tom’s hand with enthusiasm. “We all thought—”

“That I’d been put under the Imperius Curse?” said Tom. “Or that I was a Death Eater?”

Eddie laughed. “Blimey, you had us panicking. How’d you find his —”

“We’re holding up the line,” Harry interrupted. He gave Tom a pointed look that Tom returned with amusement.

They filed into the lift. Harry was pressed to the back, sandwiched between a big-bellied wizard with a large briefcase and Tom. He tried to shift more out of the way and his arm brushed against Tom’s side.

Upward the lift jangled and Eddie never stopped in his energetic questioning, wanting to hear every detail about Tom’s procure of You-Know-Who’s wand.

“Where d’you reckon he is now?” Eddie asked as the lift doors opened. A pair of witches disembarked as a host of purple, paper airplanes zoomed in.

“Underground, most likely,” said Tom smoothly. “I can imagine he would have numerous hiding locations.”

“He can’t be careful forever. We’ll get him, won’t we, Harry?” said Eddie, energized. “He’s already lost his wand — who does that?”

Against Harry, Tom’s hand twitched and Harry felt Tom’s playfulness shift to one of warning.

The cool female voice announced their floor, the golden grills opened and Harry grabbed Tom’s wrist, pulling him from the elevator. Luckily, there was so much activity in the corridor with Aurors rushing back to the lifts that Harry and Tom were able to separate from Eddie easily.

If the corridor outside the department was chaotic, it was nothing compared to the stretch of offices. The air was filled with more Ministry-stamped airplanes than Harry had ever seen. Aurors darted in and out of each other’s cubicles as they organized themselves for attack. In the midst of it all — and looking very out of place — was Reg Cattermole, wearing the navy blue of the Magical Maintenance division. After joining the Aurors, Harry had been relieved and delighted to find the small wizard back at work with his wife and children perfectly fine.

Reg spotted him.

“I’ll have your office expanded soon, Mr. Potter.”

“Thanks, Reg.”

There was a bang like a firecracker and everyone stilled, turning to the far end of the room. Robards lowered his wand.

“I know we’re busy so I’ll only take up a moment,” Robards said, his rough voice carrying through the silence. “We’ve got a new member. Thomas Thorne.”

Heads turned, searching for the new face. Harry felt an awkward heat rise up his neck, but next to him, Tom exuded nothing but calm confidence.

“Some of you might recognize him from duty yesterday,” Robards continued, not sparing Tom a glance. “He’s brought us You-Know-Who’s wand all the way from Albania, which apparently, You-Know-Who’s fled to yet again.”

A ripple ran through the crowd. The Aurors took Tom in with greater interest.

“He’s agreed to work with us, so I expect you to give him a warm welcome,” Robards finished dryly. “Now get back to work. I want the rest of those scumbags brought in by tea time.”

As the department jerked back into motion, Robards caught Harry’s eye. Harry, taking the hint hissed to Tom, “I’ll be right back,” and followed Robards into his office. The noise from the room softened somewhat behind the door.

“I need you taking over the Aurum’s patrol.”

“What?” said Harry startled. “Why?”

“Because Maureen’s breathing down my neck, practically having a litter of crups, so I’m sending my best man over.”

Harry knew Robards well enough to not take his praise seriously.

“I should be helping with the arrests.”

“You are helping,” said Robards, sitting heavily at his desk. “You’re helping me keep Riddle in line. I don’t trust him as far as I can spit.”

Harry wanted to argue, but it was clear Robards’ mind was made up. He exited the office, expecting to find Tom waiting for him on the other side, but the man was nowhere in sight. Frustration rising, Harry wove through the crowd, finally finding him beside the large bulletin board listing open cases. Maybelle Wildsmith stood beside him, talking. As Harry watched, Maybelle stepped closer to Tom, laughing at something he’d said.

Harry stormed toward them.

“Hi, Maybelle,” he said with false cheerfulness. “How’s the case going?”

“Swimmingly,” she answered. “Just waiting for the all clear from the justice wing. You know how pesky they are about warrants.” She cut her eyes back to Tom, grinning as if they were sharing a joke.

Harry bristled.

“Speaking of cases, we have one,” he said, looking directly at Tom. “We should go.”

“I’d be happy to give you a tour of the Ministry when you get back,” said Maybelle.

Harry wanted to vomit. If he watched her flirt with Tom any longer, he was sure he would. He exited at top speed, telling himself that he didn’t care if Tom followed or not.

Tom did, but at a far more sedate pace, eventually stepping up beside him as Harry waited with an impatiently tapping foot for the elevator to return.

“So,” said Tom pleasantly, “what is our first job?”

“The Aurum.”

Tom’s eyebrows rose. “The museum?”

“There’s a big showing tonight. The museum’s worried about art thieves.” It was difficult to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “We’re patrol duty.”

“Do Aurors usually guard artwork?” Tom asked. “I would have put that more in line with Security Trolls.”

“I don’t know,” said Harry, irritably. “You’d have to ask Robards.”

“Is this tetchy mood a new acquirement? I don’t recall you being so temperamental in the morning.”

Long, languid wake-ups tangled in Tom’s embrace … goosebumps erupting under wandering fingers and questing lips.

“It’s Monday,” said Harry shortly, as if this explained everything.

 

xXx

 

There was something to be said about anonymity. Blending into the background had its merits. He could watch Harry far better that way.

How everyone stared at Harry. The simple trek up to the Auror Department had proved that. Wizards and witches turned their heads when he appeared, their shoulders and backs straightening without conscious thought. And Harry, so very curiously, kept his head down. Whether it was out of habit or purpose, Tom couldn’t decide.

The witch — Maybelle Wildsmith — had been very forthcoming about the Ministry’s opinion of Harry.

“Oh, he’s excellent,” she’d told him. “He’s going to be head one day. We all know it.”

But did Harry know it?

The lift rattled downward and Tom studied him openly, even as Harry stubbornly refused to shift his eyes from the memos flapping around the light fixture on the ceiling.

“You have quite the reputation.”

Harry looked at him then.

“Youngest Auror in history. Four high profile arrests in just under three months.”

“Not to mention the whole Chosen-One-Boy-Who-Lived-Savior thing,” said Harry, unsmiling.

“Oh, no,” Tom agreed softly, “can’t forget that.”

Harry snorted. The lift jerked to a stop and they squeezed their way out as another wave of employees entered. Harry stopped by the Fountain of Magical Brethren and took Tom’s arm. A shot like an electric bolt sizzled through him at the contact and then Tom was compressed, squeezed through a tiny tube.

A blink later and he stood in a back alley. Tom could just make out the bustling end of the street – London cabs and peddling cyclists shooting past, pedestrians talking on their phones, the smell of greasy pub fare. Harry quickly released him and stepped up to the Aurum’s back door, lime green paint peeling away into rust. Tom knew the front of the museum was charmed into the face of a boring office building, only leaping into its true stature of grandeur the moment a person of magic stepped over the invisible line separating Muggles from wizards. Harry knocked sharply. It opened and a house elf dressed in a golden-threaded tunic peered up at them.

“Aurors Harry Potter and Thomas Thorne to see Maureen Spear. Patrol for the Aurum.”

The elf nodded, its large ears flapping, and stepped aside to let them enter. Tom had only visited the Aurum on one occasion, a short browse during the summer before his seventh year at Hogwarts. He’d found the art on display uninspiring.

They followed the elf through the back entrance, passing through a small kitchen, before entering the Aurum’s gleaming ground floor. At the top of a wide, sweeping marble staircase, a fleet of bronze flying horses swooped down to land in an artful arraignment, their nostrils snorting and wings rustling. The elf barely paid the horses a glance, leading them up the stairs and making a sharp turn to the left. As they followed the elf, Tom noticed that Harry’s chilly aloofness from before vanished. The boy took in the museum with the wide-open expression of someone who’d never stepped foot in the Aurum before, slowing down to watch a collection of primitive wizarding statues. Only their top halves were carved from the black stone, their lower sections still large chunks of rock. Two of the statues were in a heated argument, but as they had no mouths they instead angrily jabbed and swung their arms, trying to knock the other off its pedestal.

“Mistress,” squeaked the elf, “the Aurors are here.”

“About time.” A dark-haired witch in form-fitting robes of burgundy turned, glanced at them and did a double take. “Harry Potter?” High heels clattering, she rushed across the marble floor and took one of Harry’s hands into her own. “What an honor. I had no idea they would send you! Oh, this is just wonderful!”

Harry’s smile was fixed. “How can we be of assistance?”

“It’s all very straight forward. Please, come with me.”

 She escorted them up another sweeping staircase and into a tower room. A red rope barred entry. She flicked her wand and it slithered back, allowing them access.

“As you can see, there’s only the one entrance. I thought that if you both stood on either side, it would discourage the Collector enough.”

“The Collector?” Harry asked.

“That’s who I’m expecting,” said Spear. “He’s a known thief of the —”

“Elladora Works.” Tom stepped further into the room and took in the stained glass pieces circling the room.

“I’ve been trying for ages to let the family allow me to show them,” said Spear. “The Collector has preyed upon the Works for over thirty years. They were forced into locking them up. Can you imagine?”

“How long will they be visible to the public?” Tom asked.

“Only tonight. From seven to midnight. Feel free to make yourselves comfortable. There’s coffee and snacks in the foyer downstairs — just no eating or drinking anywhere else, please.”

The elf had returned.

“Mistress, the security trolls have arrived.”

“Excellent,” said Spear crisply. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“You called it,” said Harry, watching her go. “If there was room, I wouldn’t be surprised if she rented a dragon.” He turned back to the Works, studying them curiously. “Do you know this Collector?”

“No,” said Tom. “But it’s common knowledge the Elladora Works were sealed away fifteen years ago when three highly prized pieces were stolen, all apparently by the same man.”

“Or witch,” Harry suggested.

“Or witch,” Tom conceded. “Do you like them?” He had the feeling Harry had never heard of the highly prized collection.

Harry cocked his head, taking in the closest piece. “What’s it supposed to be of?”

“Elladora believed she could see beyond our world. Each window represents a glimpse — a wrinkle — into another dimension.”

Harry’s gaze sharpened and Tom knew exactly what he was thinking. He stepped closer and whispered in his ear, “Spot the Carcerem anywhere?”

“Are they real?” Harry asked.

“No way of knowing for sure,” Tom admitted, “but regardless, they are rather hypnotic.”

Each window of stained glass was painstakingly arraigned to form swirling patterns of vibrant colors. The one before them was a creation of pinks, blues, and flecks of white. In constant movement, the colored glass coiled into tight circles, like whirlpools, spinning faster and faster and then dispersing into a shower of glinting gold before being tugged into a neighboring spiral. Harry moved away, taking in each monstrous piece. They towered — each at least nine feet tall. He stopped before the only one that was void of movement or color. Each glass shard was jet black.

“Nothingness,” Tom read off the plaque beside the Work. He gazed at it, but finding that he preferred looking at Harry, turned his attention to the young man beside him. Tom frowned, noticing Harry’s expression. It wasn’t quite fear, but it was close.

“Harry?”

Harry jerked, tearing his gaze from the piece. “What?”

Tom studied him. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” said Harry quickly. “I think I’ll go get one of those coffees. Want one?”

Tom shook his head. Harry departed, the cord slithering out of the way for him and then snapping back into place. With a more suspicious eye, Tom turned his scrutiny back to the window. Nothingness. The longer Tom stared at it, the more he felt himself falling into it. A world of black … running in blind terror … skeletal hands grabbing his ankles … sinking lower and lower into a bottomless pit.

Tom jolted back to his senses. He took a step back. Perhaps a cup of coffee wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

 

xXx

 

The coffee was vile, but Harry didn’t care. He downed it in one go. When he’d looked into that work of stained glass he’d felt that it … that it looked back at him. None of the other swirling, splotched, speckled pieces had given him such a bone-chilling reaction. If those really were windows into other worlds, Harry didn’t want to be anywhere near that one.

Absentmindedly, he rubbed the inside of his wrist on the place where the Carcerem’s mark used to be. The jagged half-moon tattoo was no longer present and the quick glance at Tom’s wrists while in the holding cell confirmed that his too had been erased. The tattoo had never bothered him while inside the Carcerem, but for the last three months Harry had been plagued by an insistent itch. It started the morning after the Carcerem freed them. Harry had sat on his four-poster bed in the Gryffindor dorm, scratching his wrist raw, but the itch only grew worse until an image flared in his mind of Tom’s mouth soothing the angry skin and the irritation stopped.

Startled and disturbed, Harry stared at his wrist and then, curious, he lifted his shirt, inspecting his stomach. The three, long, white scars the boggart had given him remained. Harry ran his fingers over the slightly raised skin, remembering how Tom’s fingers had slipped over the torn flesh, numbing the pain twice a day with cooling ointment that he made fresh every morning in his workshop. Why would the Carcerem leave these marks and take away the other? Why had the image of Tom made the irritation vanish?

Unsettled by these questions, Harry tried not to think of Tom. But the itch would return without warning — shopping in Diagon Alley, filing paperwork at the office, getting a pint with Ron and Hermione — and he would think of Tom and the crazed sensation would fade away to nothing. Or maybe it was the other way round? Maybe it was the constant struggle to forget Tom — to push him from his mind — that brought about the unbearable itch. Maybe it was a side effect from being inside the Carcerem.

His birthday had been the most recent episode, sending him dashing into the privacy of the bathroom, his wrist so itchy he could have rubbed it with poison ivy. He lasted a full minute before giving in. Tom bloomed in his mind’s eye, pressing up against him, fingers lifting his chin upward. Harry’s stomach swooped, his heart shivered and the itch quieted.

Glaring, Harry set his used coffee cup in the dirty dish tray, stuffing his fists into his pockets. He had a feeling that the itch would not bother him ever again.

Happy now? Harry thought sourly, imagining the Carcerem’s smooth golden disk gleaming smugly. He’s back. No forgetting him now. As if I ever could, he added.

Harry desperately wanted to leave. Though he’d stated to Kingsley otherwise, he longed to barricade himself in his house and never go out again. But if he left now, he knew it would come back to haunt him. Maureen Spear expected her guards to be present until the Aurum was locked up tight at the end of the showing. He would have to pass the time until then. He tapped a quick message on his galleon, letting Hermione and Ron know that he’d be far too late to join them for dinner tonight.

 The Elladora exhibit was closed off, but the rest of the Aurum was not. Harry joined a shuffling group of African tourists into a room across the entrance hall. He’d never been in a museum before. Though he couldn’t speak for Muggle ones, he assumed they would not have a gallery of singing skeletons nor bronze horses that, when they grew bored, swooped through doorways, nearly knocking visitors over. He was quite amused by a selection of simple paintings, all of which featured noses and nothing else. Half wondering if Snape had posed for one, Harry settled onto a bench.

Eventually Tom found him. He joined him on the bench and though there was a good two feet between them, it felt like no distance at all. Harry clutched his hands in his lap, desperately searching his mind for small talk. He turned, half considering commenting on the weather —

Tom was reading a book.

Harry nearly laughed. Of course the man had a book stashed away. Harry faced the noses again, feeling suddenly inexplicably relieved, as if everything was back to normal. Or as normal as things could get when you were Harry Potter.

Beside him, Tom turned a page. “So?” he asked softly.

“So what?”

“How did they take it?”

One of the portraits scratched her nose.

“They’re cool with it.”

Tom blinked. He looked up from his book. “Are they?”

“Yep.”

A pause.

“You have surprisingly understanding friends.”

Harry grinned. “Yeah.” Then the subtext caught up to him and he took a swift scoot down the bench just as Tom edged closer. More out of a desire to cover up the awkwardness, Harry blurted, “They want to have dinner.”

“Your friends.”

Harry nodded. “They suggested the Royal Hag. It’s good. Ron loves it because everything they offer is practically half a cow.”

Tom did not move his eyes from Harry.

“And what do they expect to gain from this dinner?”

Harry wished Tom would stop staring at him. The back of his neck grew warm.

“I don’t know. Meet you, I suppose. You just dropped a bombshell on them. They’re curious and a bit worried, to be honest. Why did you tell them?” Harry demanded.

“Why didn’t you tell them?”

“I asked first.”

The corner of Tom’s mouth lifted into a half smirk. “I’m trying something new. No secrets.”

A startled laugh escaped Harry. A scandalized wizard shushed him.

“Really?” said Harry, trying to regain his composure. “And how’s that going for you?”

“Surprisingly freeing. For instance, those paintings are ghastly, the Danishes are stale, and I very much want to kiss you.”

Harry’s mouth was suddenly dry. “One of those is an opinion, you know.”

Tom sat far too close. The room, the meandering wizards and witches, all seemed to fall away. There was only Tom.

With a light shrug, Tom broke eye contact and returned to his book.

“Do they serve lamb?” he asked casually, as if he had no idea that he’d made Harry’s lungs struggle for oxygen. “I’ve been in the mood.”

   


 

Seven o’clock neared and Maureen Spear became as intense as a dragon with day-old hatchlings. Harry, who’d taken up his post on the right hand side of the exhibit door, spotted her dashing up and down the stairs, checking that the security trolls were still in their places and then rushing back up to the tower room to make sure that he and Tom had not vanished. Her high heels echoed off the walls like gunfire. The noise caused the flying horses to stomp their bronze hooves in agitation.

Harry cut his eyes to Tom. He was composed. Unruffled. Cool as a cucumber. Not giving the slightest indication that he might be imagining pushing Harry up against the wall and —

Harry stopped that train of thought with a screech of brakes. He was not going to lose his senses again. This was not the Carcerem. Being in a relationship with Tom was not smart. Or remotely healthy.

The commotion downstairs increased, voices rising in volume as the viewing hour inched closer. Harry caught Tom’s eye. Neither one of them knew what this Collector looked like, as the thief had never been aprehended. Harry had been surprised to learn that Tom was just as much in the dark as he was and he still couldn’t quite believe it.

“You really don’t know what he looks like?” Harry pressed. “I thought you knew everyone.”

Tom lifted a sardonic eyebrow. “My apologies for disappointing you.”

Maureen Spear’s high laugh carried up the stairs and a second later a great sound of feet moved upward. She was at the front of the pack, breathless and flushed with excitement. Harry shot a quick glance at the crowd behind her. He and Tom may not be art fans, but it appeared that half of wizarding world was.

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I present for the first time in fifteen years, the Elladora Works.”

Spear waved her wand and the red cord tying off the tower vanished. A procession of witches and wizards dressed to the nines entered with oohs and ahhs. Harry shifted slightly more out of the way, keeping his head down and his eyes peeled. He had no idea what he was looking for. Surely the Collector wouldn’t stride up to a window and pry it off its stand.

“Harry! I didn’t know you were a fan!”

Harry did a double-take. “Luna?”

He hadn’t seen her since the Battle of Hogwarts. He’d expected to run into her when he’d moved into the cottage three hills over from her house, but the Lovegoods had been nowhere to be found. And here she stood, dressed in glittering robes of peacock purple. Her wavy, blonde hair was pinned back by a matching feather. She could have strolled right out of the 1920s. Without her necklace of butterbeer caps and radish earrings, Harry almost didn’t recognize her.  Beside Luna stood a tall, young man that Harry had never seen before. He was slightly slump-shouldered, his hair a brownish ginger.

“I’m on duty,” Harry explained. “What are you doing here?”

“The Elladora Works!” Luna breathed, ecstatic. “I’ve always wanted to see them and then Rolf got us tickets at the last minute.”

The man smiled rather awkwardly, but was pleased all the same. “It was nothing.”

“It wasn’t,” Luna insisted. “It was a great lot. Oh, Harry, this is Rolf Scamander.”

The name rang a bell.

“Are you related to Newt Scamander?” Harry asked, shaking his hand.

“He was my grandfather,” said Rolf.

“How’d you two meet?”

“I was studying the Selma in Norway and Luna and her father happened to be staying at the same inn,” Rolf explained.

“We were looking for the Crumple-Horned Snorkack,” said Luna. “It enjoys the mountain air in the summer.”

Harry grinned and glanced at Rolf, who, though a little pinker, beamed all the more fondly at Luna.

“Don’t let me hold you up,” said Harry. “Nice to meet you.”

The tower quickly became so crowded that Harry wouldn’t even know if someone sneezed, let alone attempt to steal one of the Works. There wasn’t enough space within the tower to allow everyone to enter at once, so Spear had them view the Works in timed groups. The line looked just the same to Harry as it did two hours ago. He spotted half a dozen other faces he recognized: Ernie Macmillan along with who looked to be his parents and Ron’s great Aunt Muriel. He would have liked to say hello to Ernie, but he very much wanted to remain unnoticed by Muriel. He tactfully side-stepped around a cluster of witches when she entered, banging people’s shins with her cane to make them move out of her way.

“My deepest apologies,” Spear called over the crowd, her voice magically magnified, “but I must insist that you only spend half an hour viewing the collection. There are refreshments in the foyer down below. Ah — Miss Skeeter.”

Harry’s stomach plummeted just as Rita Skeeter and her pouchy photographer stepped into view.

“Would you like to view the Works before our interview?” Spear asked, smoothing down her hair and eying the camera clutched in the wizard’s hands.

“Yes,” said Skeeter. “That would be lovely.”

A witch with a beehive headdress moved out of the way, and Skeeter’s gaze latched onto Harry.

“Harry Potter!” Skeeter was before him in seconds, her alligator-skin handbag clasped in her crimson-talon hands. “What a surprise. I wouldn’t have expected you here, what with all the shocking arrests taking place at the Ministry. Practically every witch and wizard on the most wanted list is being scooped up. There must have been a most significant leak. How unfortunate that You-Know-Who still remains at large.”

Harry remained stubbornly silent.

Skeeter pressed onward. “For all those witches and wizards to be uprooted like mandrakes … someone knew the most wanted quite intimately. I wonder what allowances the Ministry passed along to receive such information.”

“You’ll have to take that up with Robards,” said Harry curtly.

“Where’s the fun in that, Harry?” Skeeter purred, her teeth glistening in a wide grin. “Why don’t you guest star on my program? The public simply craves you. The daring adventures of Harry Potter; his arduous transition from student to working man; his quest for love. Harry, we’d break the WWN.”

“I’d rather wrestle an ogre,” Harry stated. “Could you move on? You’re holding up the line.”

Not bothered in the slightest, Skeeter smirked. She gave him a wink and sauntered into the crowd. Rita Skeeter’s recent foray into radio had proved successful, much to Harry’s annoyance. He had not listened to a single second of her show, Skewered by Skeeter, but he could easily imagine it.

A body suddenly pressed up against his back. He stiffened as Tom breathed in his ear, “The wizard beside the walrus mustache. He hasn’t moved from that piece for the last ten minutes.”

It took a moment before Harry spotted who Tom spoke of. A man in a low-brimmed hat and dark robes stood with his back to them, his hands at his sides as he studied what looked to Harry like a sunset in a blender.

“So he likes it,” Harry muttered back.

“I know the look of someone who’s up to something,” Tom disagreed in a low tone. “And he’s oozing it.”

“I’ll check it out,” said Harry. “Man the entrance—”

BANG!

Harry ducked. The tower was suddenly filled with thick smoke. People screamed. At once, bodies jostled him as those in the tower rushed the only exit. A hand closed around his wrist and Tom yanked him out of the way of the stampede.

“Protego!” Harry shouted, shielding the exit and trapping the last ten-odd people inside the tower.

Tom twirled his wand and the air cleared as if a vacuum had sucked up all the smoke. The man Tom had pointed out stood in the center of the room, stuffing something into his pocket. A stand was empty behind him.

“Don’t move!” Harry shouted, but the wizard slashed his wand violently upward.

Harry and Tom dove out of the way just as something red hot licked Harry’s side. A witch screamed.

“Go!” Harry told them, lifting his barrier.

They fled, all save Ernie. A second later Luna and Rolf appeared at the top of the stairs. They’d heard the commotion from down below. Their wands were at the ready.

The Collector took a step back, wand darting from face to face.

“You’re outnumbered,” said Harry. “Drop your wand.”

 Face twisted into a snarl, the Collector jerked his wrist and a burst of wind so ferocious barreled over them that they were sent flying. Luna, Rolf and Ernie tumbled straight out of the room; Tom, his teeth gritted, protected his face against the onslaught with a raised arm, and Harry crashed right into one of the stained glass windows.

Except, he didn’t crash into it. He continued to fall, straight through it like an ant falling through the delicate skin of a soap bubble. His breath caught as he landed hard on his back. Dazed, he sat up and found himself looking through misted glass.

He could see into the tower room. The wind whirled as violently as a tornado, but it was muffled. The shouts from Tom, Luna, Rolf and Ernie sounded far away and distorted as if Harry was underwater. Everything, Harry noticed was strangely hazed and moving far too slowly. He could see colors that had not been there seconds before. The wind was a violet blue, furious and blistering, the wizard standing in its heart a sickly orange. In slow motion, Tom lifted his wand, casting a spell and Harry was frozen by the thick cloud of black that surrounded his slender frame. Harry could taste Tom’s magic on his tongue; it crackled — electricity after a lightning strike.

Something moved behind Harry. He turned on his knees and stared into impenetrable darkness. He knew immediately what Work he’d fallen into.

Nothingness.

“Lumos,” he whispered. The beam cast light on nothing, but Harry could hear something shifting about. Or did he feel it?

Without warning, Harry’s wand jerked like a fishing pole with its line snagged; something had attached itself to the beam of light, but he couldn’t see what it was. There was nothing there. As if the beam were a straw, Harry felt his magic drain away. Drain from his very heart. He gripped both hands onto the hawthorn, his arms shaking with the effort to break the connection and with an almighty yank, he broke free, tumbling over backward out of the window and onto hard marble.

Chapter Text

Everything was a blur; the floor tipped beneath him. Harry felt that he’d stepped off a spinning top. Someone helped him sit up. He thought it was Luna. People were shouting, but he couldn’t make sense of it through the ringing of his ears. The wind, he noticed, had gone.

“The window,” he murmured. He tried to rise, but he was so weak; his legs and arms shook with the effort.

A hand was suddenly on Harry’s other arm. Pale, slender fingers stood out against the black of his robes.

“Harry, look at me.”

Harry tried to focus, but Tom’s face kept shifting in and out. He was going to be sick. What was wrong with him?

The blinding flash of a camera and the loud, abrasive voice of Rita Skeeter made Harry cringe. And then the gruff voice of a man joined the confusion in Harry’s head.

“What is this? What’s happened?”

Robards was here? Someone had called Robards?

“Harry!” Luna cried as he vomited all over the floor, the world spiraling around him.

 


 

Harry came to slowly. He was tucked into bed. It was night outside his window. Blinking, he looked around.

“Hey,” said Ron.

“Ron?” Harry sat up, groggy. “What are you doing here?”

“Keeping an eye on you.” He rose from the chair he’d been sitting in, putting the Daily Prophet aside. Harry spotted the sport’s page. He rubbed his eyes and reached for his glasses.

“What a disaster. What time is it?”

“Almost ten. You okay, mate?” Ron asked. He eyed him critically.

Harry nodded slowly. His head pounded. He felt sick. “I think so.”

“Riddle said you were mostly fine,” said Ron, though he sounded like he didn’t believe Tom for a second. “That you just needed rest.”

“Tom was here?”

“He called us — Hermione and me.”

Harry was startled that Tom would do such a thing. That he’d even consider it.

“Where is Hermione?” Harry asked, realizing that she wasn’t in the room.

“At the Ministry. With all the arrests the Aurors are making the entire law department is pulling everyone onto overtime. So what happened?” Ron asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Didn’t Tom tell you?”

“Only that a lunatic let loose a tornado and that you had some kind of fit after banging your head.”

Harry bristled. “I didn’t have a fit. I fell into a stained glass window — one of those Elladora Work things.” And he told Ron everything. About being slammed against one of the art pieces and instead of crashing back to the floor, continuing to fall until he landed in a world made of nothing but darkness. How he had felt that he wasn’t alone within it and that whatever it was had latched onto his magic, drinking it up like a straw.

Ron looked horrified. “He didn’t say anything about that. Riddle didn’t see you disappear?”

“There was a tornado,” Harry pointed out. With annoyance, he rubbed the tender bump on his head from where he’d hit the marble floor. “But that Work’s dangerous. They have to know.” He swung his legs out of bed.

“Woah!” Ron jumped up. “You’re supposed to stay put. Riddle was very specific—”

“You’re listening to him, then?”

Ron’s ears burned red.

“If you want to go head to head with him, fine by me,” said Ron shortly. “Just tell him it was your choice.”

Harry grinned and pulled on his robes.

 

xXx

 

Tom had not been so close to shaking Harry senseless in a long time, but when he saw him walk into the department, he was sorely tempted. The boy was dead on his feet.

What are you doing here?” he hissed, grabbing Harry by the arm.

The department was not empty, even well past office hours, but the Aurors on staff were too focused on their arrests to notice their golden boy in an argument with his brand new partner.

“That stained glass thing — Nothingness. I fell into it.”

“You what?”

“There was something inside it,” said Harry. “I need to talk to Robards. We have to make sure no one goes near it.”

“You fell into it?”

Yes,” Harry snapped, impatient. “And when I cast Lumos—”

“Potter. I thought you were recuperating.”

They both turned. Robards marched up to them.

“I’m fine,” said Harry.

Robards’ eyebrows constricted into a single line. “You don’t look it.”

“I’m only here to tell you that the Elladora Work is dangerous.”

“The one the thief tried to nab?”

Harry shook his head. Every second he stood, he grew paler.

“Maybe they’re all dangerous, I don’t know. I fell into the one called Nothingness.”

“Fell?” said Robards, eyes darting from Harry to Tom and back again. “What d’you mean fell?”

“I’d tell you if you two would shut up for two seconds and let me explain!” Harry exploded. “Sir,” he added apologetically, glancing at Robards.

Robards’ lips thinned. “My office.”

 


 

Tom listened to Harry detail what happened within the Elladora Work and he could only think of one thing: Harry had been in danger and he hadn’t known it.

He had not seen Harry vanish, too busy dealing with that idiot thief. After casting the counter jinx and binding the Collector in ropes, he had turned to find Harry on the ground, winded but fine. A swift diagnostic spell told him Harry suffered from magical strain, which had struck Tom as odd at the time. Harry hadn’t attempted any spells out of his comfort zone.

Frowning, Tom ran his fingers on the inside of his left wrist where the Carcerem’s tattoo used to be. It had taken, it seemed, the useful ability to sense Harry in threat of his life along with it. This was most displeasing as no one ever found himself in more dangerous predicaments than Harry Potter.

“You didn’t see what it was?” Robards asked.

“No,” Harry replied. “I couldn’t see anything.”

Tom wondered if he would ever meet anyone more stubborn than Harry. He was practically sagging in his chair. He never should have gotten out of bed. Tom told Weasley—

“I wasn’t aware the Elladora Works were permeable,” said Robards.

“They aren’t,” said Tom. “Or at least, they haven’t been.”

“Where are they being held?” Harry asked.

“The” — Robards consulted his notes — “Gaze of Veeshu — that’s the one the Collector was after — is in our possession. It will be sent to the Zabinis tomorrow.”

“Zabini?” Harry sat up straighter.

Robards glanced up from his notes. “They are the owners of the Elladora Works. After the attack, Spear returned the rest of the collection to them.”

“Including Nothingness?” said Harry, growing upset. “It’s dangerous.”

“Your account is disturbing, but nothing that would warrant the Ministry’s involvement. Not without evidence that the Work in question is a Dark object. As it stands, we would require the Zabinis’ consent to study the piece.”

“So we don’t do anything?” said Harry, incredulous.

“Until we are given probably cause or you convince them to pass it over to our curse testers I’m afraid so. If it’s at all reassuring, Camila Zabini will probably not showcase the Elladora Works again. She’s very protective of her great grandmother’s art, apparently. They’re back under lock and key.” Robards’ hard eyes softened a fraction as he studied Harry. “Do you need to go to St Mungo’s?”

Harry shook his head. “I’m okay. Just tired.”

“I’ll take you back,” said Tom, rising to his feet.

It was a sign of just how exhausted Harry was that he did not argue. By the time they’d reached the lifts, Harry was leaning heavily against him.

“I told that Weasley boy that you were to stay put,” Tom grumbled.

“He said you’d point that out,” Harry murmured. His eyes drifted shut. “And you should know — with us being partners and all — I never stay put.”

Tom snorted, but he felt fondness rather than irritation. He wrapped his arm more securely around Harry, the boy’s perpetually messy hair tickling his chin. The lifts opened, they descended down to the Atrium and Tom helped him to the nearest floo.

It was one of the problems with the floo-network: only one could travel at a time. Tom sent Harry on his way and quickly followed, barely appearing in time to snatch at his robes before he toppled over sideways.

“Sorry,” Harry mumbled, giving his head a little shake. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“A hefty amount of magic’s been sucked out of you, that’s what’s wrong,” said Tom. What if Harry hadn’t broken the connection when he had? Would he have been drained dry?

“But it was only seconds,” Harry argued, his speech beginning to slur. If Tom didn’t get him into bed soon, he’d have to carry him.

He maneuvered him past the couch and into the single bedroom — Tom’s bedroom. He had not directed the floo to Harry’s cottage, but to his rooms at the Cornithia, a stately all-wizarding hotel outside Yorkshire. Weasley had already let Tom down. Clearly he was the only person who could make sure Harry stayed in bed, even if it meant locking the door.

Harry was too dazed to notice that the bed Tom deposited him on was not his own. Tom didn’t even think he was aware of anything anymore as he pulled off Harry’s shoes and tugged off his outer robes.

That was as far as he went. It was clear Harry was not as comfortable with intimacy as he’d been before. By the time Tom pulled the blankets over him, Harry was fast asleep.

For a moment Tom stood there, watching Harry’s chest rise and fall.

“Nox,” he whispered.

The lights winked from their bulbs and he departed, shutting the door softly behind him.

Salazar, he wanted him. He had not expected Harry to be so uncomfortable around him. Angry, yes. Aloof, possibly. But to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge his own feelings when they were so clearly etched all over his face … Tom had not missed how his eyes dilated, how his breath quickened, how his cheeks darkened when they sat beside each other in the Aurum. He wanted Tom just as much as Tom wanted him and yet Harry retreated.

Gritting his teeth, Tom leaned against the door, willing away his desire, but it only grew, spreading through his bloodstream into every inch of his being like a poison. Like a drug. Losing the fight, he slipped his hand into his trousers, thinking of Harry lying in his bed and all the things they could do to each other.

 

xXx

 

Harry was warm and comfortable. He rolled onto his back, stretching. Leisurely, he opened his eyes.

And froze.

This wasn’t his bedroom. This wasn’t even his house or Hermione’s flat or the spare room at the loft apartment Ron and George shared over Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. He sat bolt upright. In quick succession, he noticed he was still in the same clothes as yesterday. His shoes were tucked at the foot of the bed, his glasses and wand were on the nightstand, and his Ministry robes were draped over the back of a chair.

Where was he? And how had he gotten here?

He remembered trouble at the Aurum and speaking with Robards, but all that came after was a blur.

Ears attuned for any noise, Harry slipped out of the bed, putting on his glasses and snatching up his wand. He inched to the bedroom door, wand at the ready. The hinges were silent as he edged the door open, glancing around a spacious, clean-lined sitting room.

“Tea?”

Harry spun around. Tom raised an eyebrow at the wand pointed at his chest. Embarrassed, Harry quickly lowered it.

“What?” he asked.

“Tea.” Tom put the cup in Harry’s hands and moved to sit on a couch. By a spread of bay windows, Harry spotted a breakfast tray, laden with a bowl of fruit and a silver platter of pastries.

“Where are we?”

“The Cornithia,” Tom answered, opening the Daily Prophet.

“Isn’t that upscale?”

Tom didn’t spare him a glance. “How are you feeling?”

“Better. Loads better, actually. So is this where you’re staying?” Had he slept in Tom’s bed? Had Tom slept with him? Harry felt himself reddening. “I, erm, don’t remember much—”

“You were past your tether,” Tom agreed. He finally looked up at him. “Happy to be of service.”

But he didn’t look particularly happy. Had something happened between them in the night? And why had Tom even brought him here? Why hadn’t he sent him back to Ron? To Hermione? Harry wished he could remember more of last night. Surely they hadn’t done anything. He had a sudden image of himself wrapping his arms around Tom’s neck, drawing their mouths close. If he’d done that he’d remember, wouldn’t he? Harry considered asking, but almost immediately lost his nerve.

He set down his untouched tea, the awkwardness in the room growing thicker by the second.

“I — I should go. Thanks for letting me crash here.”

Tom made a sound of agreement behind his newspaper. Harry moved to the fireplace.

“Harry.”

He turned. Tom held a slender box out for him.

“Happy belated birthday.”

Harry stared. He returned to the couch and took the box, both curious and wary. Tom watched him expectantly, the paper draped across one knee.

Harry opened it and nestled in a bed of black velvet was—

“The Elder Wand?” Harry looked at Tom, shocked. “You’re giving it to me?”

“By all rights, it’s yours,” Tom stated. “And I prefer mine anyway.”

“You’re giving this to me?” Harry repeated. “The most powerful wand there is?”

“Keep going on about it and I’ll take it back,” said Tom, suddenly waspish.

Harry beamed. “Thanks.”

Tom was rarely caught off guard, but Harry’s thanks had him blinking like an owl. Harry gazed down at the wand tucked inside the box, amazed that Tom had given it up.

I prefer mine, anyway.

Harry stilled, an idea sparking into life …

He dug at the collar of his shirt and pulled out the mokeskin pouch hidden beneath it. Fingers trembling, he fished out his broken wand and set it on the coffee table. Holding his breath, he pressed the Elder Wand’s tip to the snapped wood.

Reparo.”

The two halves melded together seamlessly. Harry picked it up. It radiated warmth, flowing up his arm and swirling in his chest, spreading through him like an old friend’s embrace. Like the kiss of the sun. He sent the fruit bowl afloat, made his shoes tap dance from the bedroom, and for the hell of it, turned the couch’s white upholstery into a brilliant red and gold plaid. Tom’s expression was unamused and grinning so wide his face hurt, Harry changed it back.

“This is — this is —” There weren’t words to describe his happiness, but Tom didn’t seem to need to hear them. There was softness in his gaze as he watched Harry delight in the return of his wand.

“As commendable as your old wand is,” Tom began, “you do intend to—”

“Nope,” said Harry, stashing the Elder Wand in his pouch.

Some of the softness hardened. “You control the most powerful wand in history and you intend to keep it as a backup?”

“Like you said,” said Harry, beaming. “I prefer my own.”

“But—”

“Thanks for looking after me last night,” he said again. “I hope I wasn’t a total idiot.”

“You were fine,” said Tom, “but—”

“I guess I’ll see you at the Ministry.” Harry toed on his shoes and strode to the fireplace. “It’s not mandatory, but Robards likes us showing up by nine.”

Harry laughed at the look on Tom’s face, which, as he was currently enveloped in green flames and swallowed a great deal of ash, was not the wisest. He tumbled out of his own fireplace a whirlwind ride later, coughing.

“Where have you been?”

Harry looked around. From the kitchen, Ron stormed into the sitting room. He looked livid.

“I was with Tom,” Harry replied. “Didn’t he—”

Ron’s eyebrows disappeared into his fringe.

“Oh, you were with Tom. Doing what?” he demanded sharply.

“We weren’t doing anything,” said Harry, annoyed, though uncertainty pooled in his gut.

“And yet you two just decided to spend the night together.”

“It wasn’t like that,” said Harry, hating the blush that crept up his neck. “I wasn’t well. He took me to his flat to look after me.”

“Because no one else could look after you? You were well enough to run to the Ministry when I said you weren’t, but if Tom says you should stay with him—”

Harry frowned, trying to understand where all this aggression was coming from. “I thought you were okay with this.”

Ron looked close to punching him.

Okay?” he roared. “You think I’m okay with Lord Voldemort prancing around like he’s normal? Like he isn’t a mass murderer who killed your parents?”

Harry flinched.

“Or who started a war that killed Fred?”

“Ron—”

“Can’t you see how he’s taking everything?” Ron shouted over him. “One day back and he’s got you wrapped around his finger! Oh, Tom. I’ll do whatever you say, Tom.

“I’m not—”

Ron snatched up his coat. He plowed past Harry to the door.

“And the worst thing is that you don’t even see it,” Ron snarled.

The door banged shut behind him.

 


 

Nine in the morning and already Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes was packed. Harry squirmed through the noisy shop, full of the customary bangs and whistles and odd smells, looking for Ron, but he came upon a different red-head.

“Harry,” George welcomed in happy surprise. “What’re you doing here?”

The guilt already in Harry’s stomach welled up as he looked at George. Though Ron had said the Auror program just wasn’t his speed, that he didn’t fancy the scars that went along with the job, that he wanted ‘just two minutes’ without a Dark wizard trying to do him in, Harry knew better. He wanted to make sure George got out of bed every morning. He wanted to make sure he ate.

“I’m looking for Ron,” he said. “Is he here?”

“In the back,” said George. “May want to steer clear, though. He’s acting like a gnome pissed in his boots.”

Harry laughed feebly and headed to the back of the shop. Pulling a star-speckled curtain aside, he stepped into the storage room. He heard rustling further down. Turning a corner, he found Ron digging through a box labeled with a crooked stamp: Anti-Gravity Hats.

Ron heard him approach and a hat slipped from the box. It floated upward until it bobbed against the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” said Harry. “I should have told you and Hermione everything from the start. I should have told you about …” he made an awkward hand motion. “Me and Tom.”

Ron didn’t say anything.

Harry swallowed.

“I was scared how you’d react. I was scared to admit that I let it happen. That I wanted it,” he added quietly, keeping his eyes on Ron’s left knee. “Kingsley told me that the Unspeakables think the Carcerem was in use for possibly half a year, but to everyone else it was like a second passed. It was hard for me to wrap my head around. One minute, we’d said our peace and the next we’re back in the middle of a war. I — I just wanted things to go back to normal, but things can’t go back to how they were. I know that.”

Another hat slipped from the crate, joining its companion on the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” said Harry, looking Ron in the face. “Tom and I had months to work through things, but you haven’t. And it’s rotten of me to just expect you to and I get it if you can’t. Most people wouldn’t.”

“I don’t want him taking over again.”

“He won’t,” said Harry firmly. “I won’t let him. Kingsley and Robards won’t let him. And I know for a fact that you and Hermione won’t let him. Just because I forgave him does not mean that I approve of what he did. It does not mean that I don’t care about all the people he took from us. I can’t go back and make none of it happen, but I can make sure it never happens again. I don’t know if Tom actually wants to be good — I doubt it, but he’s here. He’s trying. If he’s willing to give being decent a shot then I’m not going to turn him away.”

“And if he can’t be decent?” Ron asked. “If he attacks someone?”

“Then I’ll arrest him,” said Harry, without hesitation.

Ron’s arms remained crossed. He chewed the inside of his cheek, but quietly he said, “Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” And Harry could tell that he meant it. Ron ran a hand through his hair. “I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. I shouldn’t have blown up like that. I know you’re not an idiot. He just scares me, you know.”

Harry nodded. He did know. “You want some help with those?”

Ron looked up. Half a dozen hats bobbed overhead. “Sure.”

As they made the hats float back to them, Ron said, “So, you like blokes. Have you always?”

“I don’t think so,” Harry said after careful consideration. “And I don’t know if I like blokes.”

Ron looked at him funny.

“But you and Riddle—”

“That was different,” said Harry. “That was …”

Harry couldn’t think exactly what it was.

“But you had sex, right?” Ron questioned. “You slept together?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, focused on stuffing a rebellious top hat back into the box.

“So it was experimental?”

No, it hadn’t felt experimental. I had felt natural and perfect. Harry paled. Oh, Merlin — maybe he really was.

“Would you be okay with it?” he asked Ron. “If I did like men?”

“Yeah,” said Ron, finally cracking a grin. “Yeah, I’m cool with it. Just maybe next time don’t pick a psychopath?” he suggested, hopeful.

“Yeah,” said Harry, grinning now as well. “Sounds good.”

“Hey—” For the first time, Ron spotted Harry’s wand. “That’s your—”

Harry let the lamps shine on the wood. He still couldn’t believe that the holly was repaired and Harry told Ron how it had happened.

Ron was floored. “He gave you the Elder Wand?”

“Yep.”

“The Deathstick? The Unbeatable Wand? He just passed it over?”

Harry nodded.

“Blimey. Things really did get serious in the Carcerem.”

“Yeah,” said Harry softly. “Things really did.”

 

xXx

 

Tom was bored out of his mind. He thought Aurors were more exciting than this. Chair balanced on its back legs, he watched Harry work. The cubicle had been expanded, making enough room for another desk and filing cabinet. Harry’s side of the rectangle was cluttered, lopsided pictures on the wall, all waving and beaming, papers stacked on the desk’s corners, a spare scarf left on a hook, a potted plant set in the corner. Periodically the bush released a heavy sigh that told Tom he wasn’t the only one dying from lack of stimulation. At least he had an attractive view. Harry had a habit of rubbing his left ear while he worked. Tom imagined his teeth biting the lobe, his tongue swiping the sensitive skin beneath.

“Are we going to stay here all day?” he asked, crossing his ankles on the desk.

“Unless we get called out for something, yes,” Harry replied, not looking up from his scribbling.

Tom let the chair fall back onto four legs with a bang. Harry flinched, shooting Tom a glare that quickly morphed into confusion when Tom stood.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Didn’t you know?” Tom replied. “Maybelle’s taking me on a tour.”

“Maybelle’s on a case.”

“Not anymore. I would ask you, but since you’re so busy with paperwork…”

Harry’s jaw tightened. “You don’t need a tour of the Ministry. I bet you know the building inside and out.”

“True, but the newly appointed Thomas Thorne hasn’t had the pleasure. It would be strange if I didn’t pretend otherwise.”

Harry’s lips were a thin line.

Right on cue, Wildsmith’s golden head popped into the cubicle’s opening. She beamed at Tom.

“Ready?”

“Yes,” said Tom, giving her a wider smile than he normally would have done, “only Harry was just suggesting that he take me instead.”

“Oh.” A faint blush spread across Wildsmith’s cheeks. “Oh, right, yeah. You two are partners. I just thought…”

Harry was rooted in his chair.

“The more the merrier,” said Tom. “Come along with us.”

“Oh, no,” said Wildsmith, retreating just as Tom expected she would. “I’ll let Harry take care of it. I should really finish my report, anyway. Another time? Maybe we could get a coffee?”

Tom didn’t reply, but he bestowed her his most winning smile.

She slipped away and Tom turned, gazing at Harry expectantly. “Now you have to take me.”

“Seriously?” said Harry. “You’re flirting with her?”

“Does that bother you?”

“No,” said Harry at once.

How beautifully uncomfortable Harry looked when he lied. Tom smirked and leaned against the cubicle opening, the day suddenly far more interesting.

Chapter Text

Regardless of the victorious smirk on Tom’s lips as they strolled through the Ministry, the tour turned out to be good for Harry. He was sick of the tension radiating between them in his — their — shared cubicle. The tiny space amplified it to near unbearable proportions. Every shift, every sound of movement from Tom’s side of the office made Harry’s heart pound. He felt braced for impact. Poised for flight. Sitting rigid on the edge of his chair, he kept his head down, scribbling Merlin knew what onto a memo that he’d already forgotten who for, too busy half wishing Tom would stride across the four feet separating their desks and do something. So getting out of the office was a blessing. By moving about, by introducing Tom to fellow employees, Harry kept the nerves at bay.

Mostly.

I very much want to kiss you.

Try as he might, he couldn’t keep Tom’s announcement out of his head. He really had to deal with this and yet the mere thought of broaching the topic made Harry sick to his stomach, so when Eddie hailed them on level three (Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes), Harry enthusiastically welcomed the distraction. A moment later, however, as Eddie passed him that morning’s Daily Prophet with a grim ‘you should see this’ expression, the enthusiasm withered away.

Though Rita Skeeter had turned her ambitions to radio and book publishing, she could have fooled anyone into thinking she’d taken up her old post at the Prophet as the article on the front page was little more than her account of the attempted robbery.

“I’ve been a lifelong admirer of the Elladora Works,” Rita Skeeter reveals to me as we wait in the Aurum’s tearoom for confirmation that the career criminal known only as the Collector has indeed been apprehended. “They are very fragile, irreplaceable pieces. I do hope the Aurors are careful.”

It took just another line for ‘the Aurors’ to be listed by name and by the end of the article Rita Skeeter had managed to suggest suspicions as to why two Aurors (one of which being utterly unknown) were now partners, as Aurors “strictly work alone.”

Does this radical change have something to do with the overhaul of arrests seen in the last two days? Is Minister Shacklebolt making even more changes to the structure of our tried and true law enforcement? Why was the Chosen One on guard duty instead of bringing in the dangerous Dark wizards he swore he’d protect us from?

Harry stopped reading, feeling that if he continued he’d hit his head against the wall. He passed it back to Eddie, wondering how much longer it would be before the Prophet got wind that the ‘unknown’ Auror had brought in Voldemort’s wand. Not long, judging by how the other Aurors could talk about anything else when Tom was present.

“I heard a rumor that she’s planning another book,” Eddie admitted with the tone of someone who felt that it was better to get unpleasant news out in the open rather than let them fester. “Might be another biography.”

Harry groaned. “Who’s the lucky bastard?”

Eddie looked at him pointedly.

“Ah.”

“It might not be that bad.”

“It’s Skeeter writing about me,” Harry disagreed. “It’ll be bad.”

Sympathetic, Eddie clapped Harry on the shoulder, said farewell and headed back to the Auror Department.

“I would think by now you’d be indifferent to what the press says about you,” said Tom.

Nettled, Harry stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, you’d think.”

Tom’s gaze was far too understanding and far too soft. Suddenly Harry realized how close they were standing without Eddie there. 

Tell him, Harry urged. Tell him it’s over.

“Erm, Tom.”

“Yes?”

Merlin, he’d forgotten how stunning Tom’s eyes were. He cleared his throat.

“Listen, there’s something I need to —” But a warmth against his knuckles cut him off. He pulled the Ministry coin from his pocket just as Tom fished out his own, which Robards had recently issued to him.

“We have a case,” said Harry, reading the message curled on its edge.

 

xXx

 

Someone was dead.

Finally.

They Apparated to a small playhouse in Appleby. Obliviators were already on the scene, carding off the theater’s front steps and keeping the curious Muggles at bay. They were dressed as standard police officers though one had forgotten the proper garments, instead donning a flower-patterned uniform with a beaver-fur hat. Tom and Harry were shown inside, where a cluster of actors in costume were cloistered around the stage. The body — a man in the classic regal attire of the 17th century — lay sprawled on the floor.

“Harry! Thank goodness!” A short, tiny man scurried across the stage toward them.

“Professor Flitwick?” said Harry, taken aback. “What are you doing here?”

“I spend my summers in Appleby,” said Flitwick. “I’m the director of the theater.”

“Oh.”

It was obvious that Harry found the reality that his former professors did not live day in and day out in their Hogwarts quarters jarring.

“Did you witness the death?” Tom asked.

“Yes,” said Flitwick. “We were rehearsing the second act of the Warlock’s Hairy Heart when poor Hector collapsed. There was nothing any of us could do. He was gone in seconds.”

Behind Flitwick, half in shadow, a woman released a sob. Another older woman wrapped an arm around the girl’s quaking shoulders.

“Maybe it would be better if everyone went to their dressing rooms,” Harry suggested to Flitwick, also noticing the strained actors.

Flitwick nodded, just as pale as the body they stood over. “I’ll see to it.”

As the tiny professor shuffled the actors and stagehands off the set, Harry bent down closer to the body. Tom eyed the corpse from above. He was just a few years older than Harry. Twenty-two, possibly twenty-four. His nut brown hair was slicked back with oil. Whether that was his own personal taste or a requirement for the role, Tom could only guess. The man had fallen forward, resting on his stomach, and the bit of face Tom could see was contorted. Whatever had done him in had not been gentle.

“Was Hector suffering from anything?” Harry asked when Flitwick returned.

“No,” said Flitwick. “He was a healthy, strapping young man. I don’t understand how this could have happened.”

“So no illnesses?”

“He didn’t so much as have a cough. If he suffered from something, he kept it very well hidden.”

Tom squatted down beside Harry. He peered closely at the man’s fingertips. They had a very faint blue cast to them and his skin was already ice cold.

“How long ago did he collapse?” Tom asked.

“Not but five minutes ago.”

“You may want to make sure no one leaves the theater,” Tom advised. “Your lead man was murdered.”

“Good gracious,” Flitwick breathed.

“Why do you say that?” Harry asked sharply.

Tom pulled out his wand and transfigured a button from Hector’s costume into a needle. He pricked the man’s index finger. Harry bent closer. His eyes widened behind his glasses as he watched the bead of blood well up and turn instantly, vibrantly blue.

“He’s far too cold, too quickly,” Tom explained. “In another five minutes, he’ll be stiff as a board. It’s common side effects of Runespoor venom.”

Flitwick covered his mouth.

“Runespoor?” said Harry. “You’re confident it can’t be anything else?”

“Highly unlikely.”

“But he wasn’t attacked,” said Flitwick in a strangled whisper. “There isn’t a Runespoor in the theater.”

Tom pulled up one of Hector’s sleeves.

“What are you looking for?” Harry asked.

“I’m trying to see if he was … ah, yes. Here we are.”

Beneath the man’s right ear was a small bruise.

“This was where our murderer injected him. It wouldn’t take much venom to do the job.” Tom peered closer to the bruise. “He was pricked with something small.”

“Like a needle?” Harry suggested, looking pointedly at the one Tom had transfigured.

“Possibly. He probably didn’t even notice it. Might have thought it was a bug bite. The venom acts quickly so whoever pricked him did so in the last twenty minutes, I’d wager.”

If anything, Flitwick grew even more ashen.

Harry released a low breath. “Okay. Stay with the body. I’m going to tell the Obliviators that they can transport him to the morgue. Professor, if you’d make sure no one leaves, we need to question everyone who was here.”

“Whatever you need, Harry,” said Flitwick at once. “Oh, poor Lenora.”

“Lenora?”

“They’ve been engaged for three years. This will crush her.”

“Is Lenora here?” Harry asked.

“No, she owns the bookshop around the corner, but I saw her on the street this morning. She often walks – walked – with Hector to the theater on her way to open her shop. Oh, good gracious. This is terrible. If you don’t mind, I’d like to be with you when you tell her. She was in my house.”

 


 

Harry was surprisingly skilled at coaxing information from people. Nearly as good as Tom was. He was patient. Understanding. Consoling. One might even go so far as to think he cared for these strangers. Tom found it all highly amusing. Perhaps being an Auror wouldn’t be as dull as he’d originally feared.

Unfortunately, regardless of their efforts, no one in the theater seemed glaringly guilty. Hector Sparrow himself appeared perfectly normal, a shoe salesman with a thirst for the theater.

“That makes ten out of ten,” Harry sighed after their latest witness, the sobbing young woman from the stage, departed. “Everyone loved Hector.”

Tom watched the woman shuffle down the hall, barely able to see straight through her tears. “Perhaps too much,” he muttered.

“You’d say that,” said Harry, rather shrewdly.

“I’m only pointing out that she seemed far more disturbed than anyone else.”

“Her friend just died in front of her! Of course she’s upset.”

Tom shrugged. “It seemed excessive to me.”

Harry opened his mouth, and then seeming to decide against it, turned for the door.

“Come one. We need to go see that fiancée.”

Outside on the street, Flitwick hurried them to a small bookshop round the bend. Though the village was stagnantly Muggle, the store had a section in the backroom that housed all manner of magical volumes. It was there, crammed around a tiny table overloaded with boxes of books and precariously balanced tea cups, that Harry broke the news.

Tom studied the young woman closely. He always enjoyed analyzing faces, even as a very young child. It was the same morbid fascination he felt while watching someone twitch and flail under the Cruciatus Curse. Or a spider trying to crawl away with broken legs. They were all specimens to study.

“Hector?” the girl — Lenora Ruffing — whispered. She was a slip of a thing. Pale and mousy. Her second-hand skirt had been re-hemmed rather clumsily. Magic too had been used to whiten the lackluster grayness of her blouse from one too many washings, but the spell was fading quickly. Upon their entry, she had hastily lifted a pea-green coat off one of the chairs, making room for them to sit. The cuffs, Tom had noticed, were unraveling, the pearl buttons down the front winking rather forlornly.

“We’re very sorry for your loss,” Harry murmured.

Tom barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. Worried he might lose the fight, he shifted his attention to the box of books by his elbow.

“When was the last time you saw Hector?”

Flitwick conjured a handkerchief for Ruffing. She buried her nose in it.

“This morning. We — we walked to the playhouse together. I wished him good luck and I opened the shop.”

“Was Hector having any troubles? Any difficulties at work? An upset customer?”

Ruffing shook her head.

“No one wanted to hurt Hector,” she choked. “Everyone l-loved him. He was — he was wonderful.”

Tom put the book he’d pulled from the box back with a louder thump than was warranted. Harry shot him an annoyed scowl.

“We’ll keep you informed,” Harry told her. “Thank you for your time. Professor?”

“I will stay with Lenora,” said Flitwick, patting the girl on the hand and refilling the teapot with a point of his wand.

Back on the street, Tom put his hands in his pockets. His robes had been transfigured into a long, black overcoat, same as Harry's. Policy, apparently, for duty in Muggle areas.

“She’s lying,” he stated.

“Is that just your suspicions or do you have a reason for thinking that?”

Tom smiled. “You know my talents at spotting liars and she was far from honest.”

“Well, get used to it,” said Harry, unmoved. “Hungry?”

Startling Tom, Harry crossed the street toward a sandwich shop. He followed.

“Excuse me?” Tom asked, stepping into the deli after Harry, a bell announcing their entrance. “What do you mean by that?”

“Everyone lies to Aurors,” said Harry. “Well, not everyone,” he amended. “But most people fib about something. It’s natural. We’re asking all sorts of questions and eventually we get to one that they really don’t want to answer. So they lie. If you’re going to get all ruffled every time someone’s dishonest you’re not going to last very long.”

Tom wasn’t ruffled. “If you knew she wasn’t being honest, why didn’t you question her further?” he demanded as the line shifted forward.

“Which sounds better? The Cornish beef or the tomato and bacon? Ooh, they have prawn!” Harry spotted Tom’s glare. “I don’t know if Lenora’s lying about anything. You said that. But if she is, we’ll figure it out. What we need is more of a picture of Hector’s life. We need a look inside his flat.”

 

xXx

 

“I was not aware shoe salesmen made the sort of money to afford this level of decor,” Tom observed.

It was strange. Hector’s flat was nice, far nicer than Harry knew Hector Sparrow should be able to afford on just the pension of a clerk. Though not a connoisseur of the arts, Harry could tell that the giant pieces on the walls would have cost a hefty sum.

In the kitchen Tom let out a low whistle. “Our dead man had taste. I count five bottles of goblin-made wine. Top vintages.”

“How much do they cost?”

“Two hundred galleons. Each.”

“Two hundred galleons?” Harry sputtered. “For a bottle of wine?”

Tom lifted one. “Shall I open it?”

“How in the world was he affording that?” Harry wondered.

“Clearly he was getting funds from other means.”

“No one’s mentioned him doing anything other than sell shoes. What sort of side job would put that kind of gold in his pock—”

Harry froze at the kitchen window. The flat was on the second story and the kitchen overlooked a back alley. Half hidden behind a trash bin was a stooped figure dressed in patched robes. He had long, scraggly hair.

“Dung,” Harry breathed.

“Pardon?”

Harry didn’t wait to explain. He darted out of the flat, speeding down the stairs, taking them two at a time. He blew out of the apartment’s back door and into the back alley. Mundungus spotted him, released an alarmed shout and made to Apparate away, but Harry already had his wand out.

“Stupefy!”

Mundungus collapsed, banging head first into the trash bin, sending a terrified cat racing for cover.

Back in Hector’s kitchen, Harry deposited Mundungus in a heap.

“And who is this?” Tom asked coolly.

“Mundungus Fletcher,” said Harry, panting slightly. “A smuggler.” He pointed his wand at Mundungus’ chest. “Rennervate.”

Mundungus stirred. Grunting, his hang-dog eyes opened and for a moment he peered up at Harry and Tom slightly out of focus. And this his gaze sharpened. His blood-shot eyes darted from Harry’s wand to Tom to Harry’s wand again.

“Wha’s this?” he demanded. “Wha’ right you got kidnappin’ me?”

“I wouldn’t need to kidnap you if you didn’t always try to turn tail,” Harry pointed out. “Why were you lurking outside this flat?”

“I wasn’t lurkin’— ”

Bang!

A shot like a starting pistol ricocheted through the flat. Mundungus screamed, cowering with his arms over his head.

“You were saying?” said Tom lazily, his wand held loose in one hand, a small, smoking hole in the wall next to Mundungus’ left ear.

“You crazy?” Mundungus bellowed. “Threatenin’ me? That’s against the law, that is!”

Tom shifted his wand to point at Mundungus’ kneecap. Terrified, Mundungus pulled his knees into his chest, wrapping his arms protectively around them.

“I was lookin’ for Hector, all right!”

“Why did you want to see Hector?” Harry asked.

“Cuz ’e stood me up! I thought ’e might have gotten another contact, the bleedin’ dodger.”

“Contact? You were providing goods to Hector?”

Mundungus shook his head, his long, scraggly hair whipping. “’E supplied me. ’E gave me the eggs and I passed ’em along.”

“What eggs?” Tom asked.

“Runespoor eggs! Hector’s breedin’ ’em.”

That explained the cash flow. Runespoor eggs were a hot item on the black market. But the snakes weren’t in the flat. Tom would have heard them.

“Was it you, then?” Tom asked, casually moving his wand to point at Mundungus’ temple. “Did you get tired of being the middle man? Thought it was time to have a bigger slice of the pie?”

“Wha’s ’e talkin’ ’bout?” Mundungus demanded to Harry.

“Hector’s dead, Dung.”

Mundungus’ mouth fell open.

“From Runespoor poisoning,” Tom added.

At that, Mundungus’ mouth snapped shut. His eyes bulged.

“Oh, no! You ain’t pinning this on me! I had nothing to do with no poisoning! I got stood up. We was supposed to meet in the park and when ’e didn’t show, I came here! I don’t know nothing about no snake poison.”

“Do you know where he keeps the snakes?” Harry asked.

Mundungus shook his head again. “Kept it secret. But I followed ’im one time to London. Lost ’im outside one of them underground stations.”

 


 

“Okay. Dung said Hector vanished somewhere around here.”

They had left Hector’s flat, Apparating to Elephant and Castle. It was growing late in the day and the flow of people coming in and out of the Tube station was thick with the evening commute.

“Do you hear them?” Harry asked Tom. “The Runespoors?”

“No one would be able to hear anything over this traffic,” said Tom sourly. He stepped up to the brick wall and ran his hand over the mortar, frowning. Men with briefcases, university students with school bags and middle-aged women with their groceries banged into Harry as they entered and exited the Tube’s entrance, many shooting Harry annoyed expressions.

“About Dung,” said Harry, edging a bit more out of the walking path. “I appreciate your help, but you really shouldn’t threaten to blow up people’s kneecaps.”

“I never threatened to do any such thing,” Tom disagreed, still running his fingers over the wall. “If he happened to think that I would do something like that, that was entirely his own doing.”

“You blew a hole in the wall and then pointed at his knee,” Harry stated dryly. “What would anyone think?”

“We can discuss our different methods of interrogation later. For now, we have a Runespoor to collect.”

Harry stepped closer. “You found the entrance?”

Tom fished out his wand and tapped it against a brick. A stretch of wall the size of a door shimmered into life. Nervously, Harry glanced over his shoulder at the passing Muggles, but they didn’t seem to notice the sudden haziness of the brick wall. Tom strode straight through the wall and Harry hurried after him.

The noise of the busy street vanished. They found themselves in a sealed room that put Harry in mind of both the reptile house at the London zoo and a laboratory. An enormous glass cage took up nearly the entire space and inside it, its coils gently draped over a thick log was a Runespoor. Gleaming red and black stripes, three heads, and over six feet long, the snake was a formidable creature. At their arrival, the heads turned. Harry stepped closer and found that the cage was enchanted just like Hermione’s beaded handbag and his own mokeskin pouch: it was far larger inside the cage.

A string of strange, unsettling hisses issued from Tom and Harry found himself staring as he spoke to the Runespoor. The heads rose, three tongues flicking the air. Unnerved by the noise, Harry tapped a message to the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures onto his Ministry coin and then set to searching the room for clues. There were tools set out on a worktable to collect, store, and package the eggs. Harry found a stash of them in a wooden, padded box. Along a shelf stood a line of small, clear bottles. He picked one up, tipping it in the light. If he had to guess, he’d say each contained venom. There was a vacant spot in the middle of the line.

“It didn’t happen to see the person who took one of these vials?” Harry asked, hopeful.

“Unfortunately she’s been in a haze of daydreams for the last two days and the only person she’s ever seen in here before the two of us was Sparrow. She’s wondering when he’ll be back.”

“Break it to her gently?” Harry suggested.

Tom rolled his eyes, but turned back to the watching snake. His voice, Harry noticed, was lower and softer than before. Though he no longer understood Parseltongue — another unexpected blessing from no longer being a Horcrux — he could guess Tom’s words. The giant snake shrunk in on itself. The sudden arrival of the Regulation Official forced Harry’s attention away.

“Rolf?” he said, startled as the ginger-haired man appeared through the wall. He carried a rather battered briefcase.

“Harry,” Rolf greeted warmly. “Nice to see you again.”

“What are you doing here?”

“It’s mandatory in the Regulation Department of Magical Creatures that a magizoologist steps in for a few months every year,” Rolf explained. “I was asked if I could.” He spotted the Runespoor and approached the cage.

“She’s distressed,” Tom explained. “She had a bond with her previous owner. I just informed her we found him dead this morning.”

“You speak Parseltongue?”

Much to Harry’s surprise, Rolf was not remotely alarmed to learn such a thing. Instead, he was exicted.

“I speak it, too,” Rolf continued brightly. “Not as well as I’d like. Bugger to get a hold of. I always confuse my ‘y’s and ‘k’s.”

Harry bit back on the laugh threatening to escape at Tom’s flat expression.

“Perhaps I should assist you,” said Tom.

As they discussed the best way to coax the Runespoor from her cage, Harry turned his attention back to his search. Much to his frustration, the room appeared clean. He lowered down onto his hands and knees and peered under the worktable.

“We just need to get her inside the briefcase,” Rolf explained. “There’s a good forest spot in there that she’ll enjoy until I’m able to get her back to Africa.”

“Lumos,” Harry whispered, pointing his wand in the shadows under the table. Something glinted. He reached and picked up a small, pearl button.

“Are you comfortable joining me inside the cage?” Rolf asked Tom. “She seems to like you. She might be more willing to listen to you.”

Harry fingered the button. It tugged at his memory. He’d seen one like it recently …

He rose in time to see the Runespoor slither into the open briefcase. As regulated as Undetectable Extension Charms were supposed to be, Harry was relieved that no one present cared all that much. Between the Runespoor’s cage, his own mokeskin pouch, and now Rolf’s briefcase, they stacked up quite the list of fines.

The tip of the Runespoor’s tail vanished inside the briefcase, Rolf clicked the lid closed and Tom stepped out of the cage.

“What?” Tom asked, noticing Harry watching him.

“Look what I found.”

Tom plucked the button from Harry’s fingers.

“Seem familiar to you?” Harry asked.

“Very much so,” said Tom softly, rolling the button between his ring finger and thumb. “I told you she was lying.”

“No need to gloat,” said Harry, putting the button away in his pocket. He gave Rolf a wave, letting him know they were heading off. “If we hurry, we might get back to her shop before closing time.”

 

xXx

 

Lenora Ruffing was indeed in the process of locking up her bookstore when Tom and Harry appeared behind her.

“Miss Ruffing, may we have a word?” Harry asked. “There’s been a development.”

Ruffing had the same wide-eyed look of someone whose hand had been caught in the cookie jar. Her throat constricted as she swallowed.

“Of course,” she said, unlocking the door and showing them back inside. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”

“We had an unexpected lead,” Harry explained. “Did you know that Hector was selling Runespoor eggs on the black market?”

Three quick blinks.

“No,” said Ruffing.

Tom crossed his arms and leaned against a bookshelf, settling in to count the lies.

“I find that difficult to believe,” said Harry quietly, “as this was under a worktable in the safe room where he kept the snake.”

Ruffing turned the color of milk at the sight of the pearl button resting in Harry’s palm.

“One’s missing from your coat,” Harry pointed out as she convulsively gripped the neat line of buttons.

Tom’s eyes traveled over her shabby, home-mended clothing. “Hector wasn’t much of a sharer, was he? All that gold. That fancy apartment. And here you are running a second-hand bookshop.”

Ruffing’s eyes snapped to him.

Money? I don’t care about money. I’ve known about Hector’s snake for months.”

Tom cocked his head, his interest rising, but she mistook his expression.

“We were engaged!” Ruffing shouted. “And he was — he was —” She squeezed her eyes shut and Tom wondered if she was about to be ill. “I went to the playhouse yesterday to surprise him. Freida was in his dressing room. They were …”

Tom caught Harry’s eye. Freida, the sobbing actress.

“They weren’t rehearsing their scene?” Harry asked carefully.

Ruffing let out a shriek of a laugh. “Rehearsing? Three years we’ve been engaged but Hector kept putting it off, saying that we needed to wait until he got enough gold stored away that we’d live like kings, but I kept telling him I didn’t care about that. I just wanted —” She broke off, her hands over her mouth. “Three years of my life waiting for him and he threw it back in my face like it was nothing,” she whispered fiercely. She glared at them, her pale eyes wild with hurt. “Wouldn’t you have done the same?” she demanded. “Wouldn’t anyone?”

Harry didn’t answer. He pointed his wand at her wrists, binding them in the same silver cord Tom himself had been chained in. Gently, he took her by the arm and walked her out of the shop. 

Chapter Text

Harry didn’t know how he made it through the week, but Friday had come.

“Do you think it was an accident that her head was transfigured into a shark’s or have we found a murderer with a trade mark?” Tom asked with mild interest.

“God, I hope not,” Harry groaned.

He had not had such an exhaustive week being an Auror since he’d first joined. Five days and he and Tom had already caught an art thief, pulled the plug on a flourishing black market business, solved three murders, successfully maneuvered a tricky hostage situation, and foiled a kidnapping attempt of a high ranking foreign diplomat. He looked down at the witch’s prone body. The back alley behind Praedico Predico and Twinkles Telescopes was littered with garbage and smelled strongly of fish, something Harry suspected came from Praedico as the shop’s front advertised fish good luck amulets. Though, to be fair, it might also be coming from their dead witch and her unfortunate transformation.

“It looks more like a mugging gone wrong to me,” said Harry. “Her purse is missing. Along with any jewelry.”

“She may not have worn jewelry,” Tom pointed out.

“Or she might have fought her mugger. The curses backfired. She got a shark head—”

“He got elephant ears?” Tom suggested lightly.

A mediwizard named Gulliver Stump sidled up to Harry. “You done with her?”

“Yeah. How’s Stew’s line up?”

Gulliver conjured a stretcher. “The way he tells it, he’s more backed up than a werewolf’s shower drain.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” said Harry grimly.

As Gulliver saw to the body, Harry and Tom exited the carded off nook and stepped back into Diagon Alley.

“How do you feel about seven tonight for dinner with Ron and Hermione?” Harry asked.

Tom eyed Harry curiously. “You were serious about that?”

Harry sidestepped a muddy pool.

“Yeah.”

They are, he added silently to himself. Quite honestly, every time Harry pictured the ‘dinner’ his insides were replaced with snakes. He had hoped Hermione and Ron would forget about it, but they had not. Just that morning, Hermione sent a sharp-tongued note zooming into his cubicle, reminding Harry to confirm the time.

“Seven’s fine,” said Tom with humor in his eyes.

“Great,” said Harry, his stomach writhing.

 


 

Harry never would have believed that he could work with Tom, but there was no denying that they made a good team. Tom had that aura about him. That presence that demanded attention and respect. He possessed the sort of looks that caused double-takes. The other Aurors were openly curious about the quiet new addition who radiated confidence and authority. If Robards didn’t know who he was dealing with, Harry was sure he would have been tempted to make Tom the new face of the department. Everyone was talking about the handsome, talented arrival who’d made more collars in his first week than anyone.

The attention amused Tom. It did not amuse Harry.

It wasn’t just good looks that caused people to surround Tom. He had a grace and an easy confidence. Tom made it so you wanted to like him. You wanted to be near him. Please him. Be noticed by him. Harry overheard people in the canteen who’d never spoken a word to Tom, telling others of how the man preferred the strawberry scones over the lemon and that they were saving them special for him. Harry was witness, for the first time, how laughably easy he had established a following on his rise to power. One lazy grin and the tearoom was putty in his hands.

Tom was like Devil’s Snare. So distracted by the sweet-smelling flowers, you didn’t notice the bone-crushing tendrils sneaking around your chest until it was too late.

Where Voldemort had been monstrous, Tom was charismatic.

Where Voldemort had been violent, Tom was kind.

But where there was Voldemort, there was Tom, for Harry knew — on an intimate level — that they were one and the same and always would be. Try as Harry might to wish that this Tom was different, Harry knew better. The glint of murder was always there, like sleep in the corner of his eye. He grew far too excited when a death landed on their desk. The violence in the curve of his mouth was harder to spot than it used to be, but sometimes it lingered just long enough for Harry to recognize it.

There had always been something rotten in Tom Riddle. The birth of Horcruxes had spread it, magnified it, until only madness remained. The Carcerem might have stitched his soul back together — Harry hadn’t found a good opportunity, or nerve, to ask whether it had — but that did not make Tom good. It did not make Tom safe. He was Devil’s Snare that had yet to be trodden on. He was the viper, contentedly warming itself in the sun until someone foolishly prodded it with a stick.  

Tom was like all things dangerous: lethal without proper care and protection. 

 


 

Ron checked his watch for the fifth time in two minutes.

“He’s late.”

“He’ll show,” Harry assured him, hoping fervently at the same time that he would be proven wrong.

It was obvious that Ron and Hermione were nervous. Hermione glanced over her shoulder at the pub’s door so many times that Harry considered offering to change seats with her so she’d have a clear view. The tension at their table was so thick they’d already ordered drinks and finished them, but Harry would have bet every galleon in his money pouch that neither of them was as apprehensive as he was.

“I’ll get us another round,” said Harry. He slipped off the bench and headed to the bar before they could say otherwise.

The Royal Hag was the newest pub in Hogsmeade, smaller than the Leaky Cauldron and cleaner than the Hog’s Head. At five past seven, it was packed. They’d been lucky to get a booth. After elbowing his way to the bartender, Harry, balancing three pints, weaved his way back to their table.

He came up short.

Tom had arrived. He sat opposite Ron and Hermione, lounging with the ease of a politician. Hermione had a forced smile on her face and Ron looked like he’d overdosed on U-No-Poo. Tom looked utterly content.

The urge to flee to the bathroom and lock himself inside was so tempting Harry very nearly considered doing it, but he swallowed his nerves and squared his shoulders. Ron and Hermione were going to great lengths to ‘be okay’ with Tom. Fortifying himself, Harry walked toward their booth.

“Brilliant,” said Ron with relief the moment Harry appeared. He grabbed his pint and passed Hermione her daisywood cider.

Clutching his own stout in his fist like a grenade, Harry slid onto the bench next to Tom, keeping a good eight inches between them.

“So,” said Hermione, breaking the uneasy silence. “Your week’s been busy.”

“So has yours,” said Tom. “Six cases tried and still time to set up a proposal for house elf representation. Impressive.”

Hermione looked mildly flattered. “Well, it is my main project,” she said. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d approve.”

“There were a lot of things I didn’t approve of,” said Tom lightly.

Though Tom did not look at him, Harry felt himself growing hot around the collar.

“It will be difficult, though,” he continued. “Not many witches and wizards are willing to share their rights.”

“That doesn’t make it not worth fighting for,” said Hermione stoutly.

“How many donors do you have?”

Hermione’s back straightened. “Twenty-five.”

“You’ll need more. Much more. House elf rights will require massive support to go up against the Wizengamot. A well-chosen event with a famous face would triple your funds, easily. The wizarding community always enjoys a party. You’d be willing to help, wouldn’t you, Harry?”

Harry, who had been gaping at Tom in open disbelief, snapped his jaw shut the moment he turned to him.

“What sort of event?” asked Hermione delicately, a hint of interest in her voice.

Tom shrugged. “The press can’t get enough of Harry. I imagine anything he attended or was a part of would bring monumental interest. Tie it to your cause and you’ll have enough funds to move forward with a strong enough campaign to build up your base.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harry, unsticking his tongue. “What are we talking about?”

“House elf rights, Harry,” said Tom, the barest gleam of tease in his eyes. “Do keep up.”

“But what would be best?” asked Hermione, who seemed unable to let the topic fade away. “Purchase a ticket for …” She cast around for ideas. “A Quidditch match? I might be able to get Victor—”

“Anything else?” asked Ron at once.

Hermione scowled at him.

“I was thinking something more along the lines of a duel,” said Tom casually. “Dueling tournaments are quite popular. The Savior of the Wizarding World against—”

“Against who?” asked Harry. “You?”

The mood shifted in the blink of an eye. Hermione and Ron sat rigid across the table, watching them with apprehension.

“We would put on quite the show,” said Tom. “But if you’d rather someone else…”

“Harry,” Hermione said rather tentatively. “It would help. A lot. A tournament or event of some kind. I’m not saying it should be a duel,” she added quickly, glaring at Tom.

“Come on, Harry,” Tom coaxed, his eyes locked onto his. “A bit of friendly sport. It will be like all those spars in the Carcerem.”

“You two dueled?” said Ron, startled. “You said you couldn’t perform magic in the Carcerem.”

“We used swords,” said Harry.

If anything, this made Ron and Hermione look even more alarmed.

Harry crossed his arms. “You just want me to use the Elder Wand.”

Tom shrugged innocently.

“You’ll participate in a mock duel with me for the benefit of house elves?” said Harry. “You?”

“Why not?”

Harry held back a snort. Barely. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Though she’d initially been against a duel, Hermione’s face glowed, proving just how much she needed the extra help.

“But,” said Harry, “I’m using my wand. The holly.”

The smirk vanished from Tom’s face. His voice hardened. “Need I remind you that we can’t duel with that wand?”

“Actually, I think you might be able to,” said Hermione.

Harry and Tom looked at her so quickly that she turned pink.

“After the war I did some research,” Hermione explained. “Wand lore is complicated and there’s still a great deal that isn’t understood.”

Even Ron stared at her.

“And?” Ron pressed.

Hermione twisted her fingers in her napkin, clearly regretting speaking.

“Wands that share cores usually don’t behave properly against each other, but wands adapt. They are an extension of the wizard that they choose. They learn from the wizard, just as the wizard learns from them. You two both had your wands while in the Carcerem, a magical artifact designed to make amends. To heal. To build understanding and alliances. I’m just wondering if your wands might also not be as antagonistic toward each other now as they once were.”

They gawked at her.

“It’s just a thought,” she said in a small voice, growing pinker.

In one smooth movement, Tom pulled out his wand.

Ron shouted, “Oi!”, Hermione flinched, and Harry froze. But Tom did not cast a spell. He opened his palm, letting the yew lie flat. Not quite sure why he was doing it, Harry pulled out his own. He mimicked Tom, placing his hand palm up next to Tom’s. Their wands touched and Harry felt a vibration run up his arm, settling in the center of his chest. Warmth bloomed, filling Harry with a sense of wholeness. Phoenix song — haunting and beautiful — soared into the air. The pub’s chatter faltered for a moment as diners looked about curiously for what was making the noise. Light glowed from the wands’ tips and then faded gently, the phoenix song with it, but that sense of connection remained.

Something was blocking Harry’s throat. He didn’t understand why the fact that their wands welcomed each other made his chest ache. From the brightness in Tom’s eyes, Harry knew he felt the same.

“How about I order?” Ron asked loudly.

Harry grinned, putting his wand back in his pocket. 

“Wine?” he asked Tom as Ron scrambled out of the booth to the bar.

“You know what I like,” said Tom. Though his eyes were almost feverish, his voice was as composed as ever.

Fighting back the blush that threatened to spread over his face, Harry followed Ron. Yes, he knew exactly what Tom liked. He’d spotted one of Tom’s favorites written on the blackboard behind the bar when he’d ordered the first round of drinks. The cellar in the Carcerem had been well stocked with it.

 

xXx

 

Hogsmeade. Even with the new shops and pubs, it was just the same as when Tom had been at school. It even smelt the same, the night air as crisp and clean as any in Tom’s memory. They had finished dinner and were meandering their way down the street. Harry’s pace was slower, allowing Weasley and Granger to move on ahead of them. Tom watched as they bumped shoulders and Weasley wrapped his arm around her. Acutely aware of the sound of Harry’s footsteps beside him, Tom slid his hands into his robe pockets to keep from risking his arm brushing up against Harry. To keep himself from entwining their fingers.

“Thank you.”

Tom glanced at him. Harry was not wearing wizarding robes, but Muggle jeans and a button-down shirt. Tom noticed that Harry often chose Muggle attire when he wasn’t working and Tom had to admit that robes hid a great deal.

“For what?” he asked.

“For trying. You didn’t have to try to get along with them, but it means a lot to me that you are.”

Didn’t Harry understand yet? Tom would do anything for him.

They reached the crest of a hill and Hogwarts came into view, perched atop its mountain. The sight of it had Tom pausing. Even in the darkness, he could see that its shape was not right. Three towers were missing, blasted down. In the daylight it must look a sagging mockery of its former self.

Harry cut his eyes to him.

“They’ve been working on it round the clock all summer. McGonagall’s confident it’ll be good as new in time for the Welcoming Feast.”

“Good,” said Tom.

It had pained him more than anyone would ever know that Hogwarts had stood in the line of fire. He had taken no pleasure in tearing down the one place that had ever been home.

 

xXx

 

“Harry, are you sure you’re okay with this?”

Hermione had been changing her mind about the fundraiser all weekend. It was Sunday afternoon. She and Ron were once again in his kitchen, helping him with the finishing touches.

“Yeah, mate,” said Ron. He pointed his wand at the last strips of wallpaper he’d ripped down. They wadded up into a ball and hopped into a trash bag. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Because it’s Tom?” Harry asked.

“Well, yes,” said Hermione.

Harry directed the paint roller up the final stretch of wall, being careful to not let it hit the ceiling.

“Do you think he’s going to try to hurt me?” he asked them calmly.

He glanced over his shoulder in time to see them exchange worried looks.

“I don’t know how else to tell you,” Harry said, feeling rather exasperated. “He doesn’t want to kill me.”

“It’s not killing you that we’re worried about,” said Hermione quietly.

Harry lowered his wand and the paint roller paused, hovering in midair and dripping paint onto the old sheet he’d stretched out on the floor. “Then what is it?”

Hermione chewed on her bottom lip. Ron wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“What?” said Harry.

“Where’s he been all this time?” Hermione said in a rush. “When Voldemort fled Hogwarts, everyone was looking for him and they never found so much of a trace for three months.”

“He’s good at hiding,” said Harry. “So were we.”

“Exactly,” said Hermione, strained. “What’s to stop him from … from …”

“Snatching you and doing a runner?” Ron finished bluntly. “He could lock you up somewhere. Somewhere that we’d never find you.”

Harry took them both in.

“He could have done that ages ago,” he said softly. “He’s had ample opportunities all week. I know you don’t trust him. Honestly, I’d feel just the same if this was all swapped.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Hermione whispered.

“Try,” said Harry simply. “All we can do is try, just as he’s doing.”

 An awkward silence hung between them, but it was broken by Crookshanks who batted at a strip of wallpaper that dangled out of the trash bag. His claw caught the plastic and the bag upended over his head. He shrieked and bolted from the kitchen, a bit of wallpaper stuck to his bottle-brush tail.

“Oh, Crookshanks!” Hermione sighed as Harry and Ron roared with laughter.

“As long as we’re not inviting him to Christmas,” said Ron as he helped Harry stuff the trash back into the bag. “There’s only so much I can take.”

Harry’s laugh turned slightly hysterical. Christmas with Tom at the Burrow?

“That’s more than anyone should take,” he replied.

 


 

With Ron and Hermione’s help, and then with the arrival of Ginny and Luna after lunch, the kitchen was finished. The dishes were finally put in their proper places, the cupboards and pantry were fully stocked, and all trash and packing paper were stuffed in the bin out back. Tired, yet satisfied, Harry collapsed onto the couch later that night after they’d all departed. He stretched, relishing his newly conquered space.

They’d gotten Chinese from the village. Ron could never get a handle on the chopsticks and it made for great entertainment, not that Harry was much better. He picked up a container of lo mein, picking at the bits of chicken they’d missed, suddenly no longer feeling quite so content.

Though he’d reassured Ron and Hermione, the truth of the matter was that Harry was concerned. Why hadn’t Tom just scooped him up and tucked him away in some secret hideaway? The fact that he hadn’t … that he was playing at being normal — at being nice — said something that made Harry squirm with discomfort. If Tom had returned with the intent to force Harry back to him, that would have been different. Expected, even. The fact that he hadn’t … that he happily and comfortably chose to mold his life around Harry’s …

That was huge.

That was terrifying.

Did Tom … love him?

God, no. Merlin, no.

Tom didn’t love. Tom dominated. Tom controlled. Tom was obsessed with Harry — he always had been. Obsession had nothing to do with love.

Groaning, Harry rubbed his temples. He couldn’t lead Tom on, not when Tom was trying so hard to be decent. He had to tell him. He had to clear the air. He had to let him know that what had transpired in the Carcerem wasn’t coming back.

Tom was the most intoxicating of wines.

He was Devil’s Snare.

He was dangerous and overwhelming and so, so tempting.

Harry couldn’t fall into that pit again. If he did, he’d never climb back out.

 

xXx

 

Harry was late. Tom released a sharp exhale through his nostrils, his thumb tapping against the desk as he counted the seconds. The minutes.

“Sorry,” Harry gasped, rushing into their office. “I forgot to set my alarm.”

“Perhaps you need someone to set it for you?” Tom suggested.

Harry busily cleared his throat. The color in his cheeks from running down the corridor intensified slightly.

“I got my house finished,” he said brightly, sitting at his desk.

“Congratulations.”

“Have we gotten a report from Stew about our shark-head victim?” Harry asked, sorting through the heap of Ministry memos that had landed on his desk.

“Our vampire moves to his own drum,” Tom stated.

Stew, as everyone called him, was the Ministry’s lead mortician. Harry had introduced Tom to him on his third day as an Auror. Sickly pale, emaciated, and yet exceedingly cheerful, Stew had shaken hands with him so energetically that Tom had wondered if Harry was playing a prank on him. Vampires were better represented than most others on the Wizengamot and in the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures Department, but they tended to keep to themselves. To have one work for the Ministry was rare.

A tap on the wall made them both look round. Eddie Parker stood in their cubicle’s opening.

“Morning,” he said, beaming at them and holding two steaming teas.

“Thank you!” Harry moaned, taking one. “You’re a lifesaver.”

Parker laughed a little too loudly.

“What’s this about you starting a dueling tournament?” he asked Harry. “Why wasn’t I invited?”

Harry choked on his tea. Moping up the front of his robes, he said, “Where did you—”

“Percy just told me.”

“A dueling tournament?” Maybelle popped her head over the cubicle wall that separated their offices. “I want in! Are you participating, Tom?”

“It’s just a little thing,” said Harry quickly. “It’s for Hermione.”

“For her house elf legislation?” asked Maybelle with interest.

“It’s a fundraiser.”

“Then count me in! How’s it work? How many have signed up?”

“Erm … us four,” said Harry.

“Well, it won’t be much of a tournament if only four people are participating,” she sniffed. “Leave it to me!” And she vanished back into her cubicle.

“I guess I should get to work,” said Parker, giving them both an awkward smile and departing for his own desk.

Tom studied Harry.

“Parker wants you. And by want, I am being indelicate.”

Harry stared at him for a full second and then he burst into laughter.

“Are you mental? Eddie’s a friend.”

“A friend who brings you tea every morning even when you already have a cup? A friend who stands just a bit too close? A friend who can’t keep his eyes off you?”

“He’s very welcoming,” Harry said weakly.

Snorting derisively, Tom crossed his arms. “If you can’t see it, you’re blinder than a bat in a chimney.”

“Because there is nothing,” Harry replied with annoyance. “And it’s not like you can talk. Half the women here want to date you.”

Was that jealousy Tom sensed? There was a significant rigidity to Harry’s shoulders as he returned to sorting through his memos.

“How about we talk about something important?” Harry suggested waspishly. “Like who’s funneling those shipments of cursed teeth.”

 

xXx

 

Throughout the week Harry continued to run into people who voiced interest in the tournament. It reminded him of Dumbledore’s Army when word spread faster than Dragon Pox.

“It’s for the house elf legislation,” he reminded each of them, but he was beginning to suspect that the pool of interest had spread to such a depth that Harry could have said it was for teaching ogres ballroom dancing and they wouldn’t have batted an eye. It was all about beating the Chosen One in front of a sold out crowd. If Harry had had any doubts that that was the main motivation, Cormac McLaggen made it very clear by the end of the week.

“Better have Granger book the mediwizards,” he’d told Harry. “Hate to have the Ministry’s poster boy too battered for the presses.”

Harry ground his jaw as McLaggen swaggered away, most likely back to level seven and the Broomstick Regulation Control where he’d recently been hired.

“Not a friend of yours?” Tom asked.

“If I do get beat,” Harry said, turning to Tom, “knock him out for me.”

Tom smirked. “The only person who’s going to beat you is me.”

“Oh, you think so?”

“I know so.”

Harry stopped himself before the teasing escalated to flirting.

Tell him. Tell him now.

Harry opened his mouth, trying to wrangle the words, but a shout and a loud bang tore his attention away. Seconds later, he and Tom jumped out of the way as a fire-breathing sheep barreled past them. Three Ministry wizards, Rolf included, charged after it as it raced down the hall to the elevators.

Heaving, Rolf skidded to a stop next to them.

“Hey — Luna told me — that — you’re organizing — a — dueling — tournament?”

“You want in too?” said Harry.

“Merlin, no,” said Rolf, laughing, clutching a stitch in his side. “I just don’t want to miss it. I’m heading out to Burkina Faso tonight to relocate our Runespoor. Wanted to make sure I got back in time.”

“It’s not for another week and a half. The twenty-fourth.”

“Excellent.”

A scream and a loud terrified baaaa sounded down the hall. With a wave, Rolf was off again, his robes billowing behind him.

 


 

As the end of August steadily approached, Harry learned how their small fundraiser had morphed into a monstrous extravaganza.

“I had to ask Kingsley for help,” Hermione told him over their lunch break outside Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor. Tom had elected not to join them. “It’s gotten too big.”

“Where are they locating it?” Ron asked.

“Dartmoor,” said Hermione. “Same as the Quidditch World Cup in our fourth year.”

“And Kingsley’s okay with this?” Harry asked.

“When I told him what it was for, he was delighted.”

“Did you happen to mention that Riddle’s participating?” Ron asked with the air of someone cradling a ticking bomb.

Hermione squirmed on her stool. “Not exactly. But I imagine he knows. A duel that practically half the Ministry is throwing their hats into — of course he suspects Riddle and Harry will be in the middle.”

“I still can’t believe that Robards is okay with it,” said Ron.

“What’s he going to do?” said Harry. “He can’t order Tom or me not to participate. It would look strange to the others. Maybe if he’d gotten wind of it before the entire department heard about it…”

“Sorry,” Hermione apologized for the tenth time. “I told Percy because he’s been helping me a lot with drafting my legislation and I didn’t know he’d tell his whole division and I didn’t know they’d tell—”

“You don’t need to apologize, Hermione. It’s okay. You’re going to get all the funds you need to finally put house elf rights center stage.”

Hermione beamed. “If you’re really okay with it —” She pulled a small box from her pocket, tapped it with her wand and it expanded to its full size. Ron quickly moved his bowl of ice cream out of danger of being knocked from the table. She dug inside it, extracting a thick roll of bright red tickets.

“I was wondering if George would be okay with us setting up a table in front of his shop tomorrow after work and maybe he’d be willing to sell the extras that we don’t?” she asked.

“You know he will,” said Ron.

“And I made fliers.” She passed them both a thick stack advertising the tournament. “I was thinking we could spend the rest of our break asking shopkeepers if they’d be willing to put up a few signs for a free ticket.”

Ron picked one up. “Spew’s hit the big leagues.”

It proved how much of a good mood Hermione was in that she laughed. “Harry, do you have time to help? Harry?”

“What? Yeah. Yeah, I’ve got time,” Harry replied, his attention jerking back to them. He picked up one of the stacks, but his eyes glanced back up the street where he thought he’d spotted Gregory Goyle standing next to a stack of wire rodent cages outside Boogermongers, staring at him. Then again, maybe it hadn’t been Goyle. He’d come and gone in a flash.

 


 

The tournament was tomorrow and Harry couldn’t sleep.

Nerves. That’s all this was, which was stupid because he was an excellent dueler. It wasn’t that he or anyone else would be in danger. Not really.

A lip-less mouth curved into a pitiless smile. Red eyes gleamed in the darkness.

Bow to death, Harry.

Furious with himself, Harry kicked the sheets off. He sat up.

The tournament would be no different than all the times he and Tom had trained in the Carcerem, so why had his nightmares returned? Tom wasn’t his enemy anymore. He was his …

His what, exactly? Friend? Ally? Partner?

If that was so, then why was he returning to the graveyard the moment he closed his eyes? As much as Harry wanted to believe he was over it, he was only fooling himself. Wounds healed, but the memory never faded.

 

xXx

 

The knock on his door made Tom pause. The Cornithia, known for protecting their guests’ privacy, blocked Apparition, save for a tucked away chamber next to the reception hall, which meant that guests either had to be given the flat’s number directly by the occupant in order to use the room’s floo or be escorted up by one of the house elves. Tom set down his book and looked over his shoulder. As popular as he’d made sure to make Auror Thomas Thorne be, he had kept his address to himself. No one would appear at his door and certainly not at five minutes to midnight. He stood, crossed the ivory carpet, and peered through the peep hole.

Slightly surprised and highly curious, Tom opened the door.

“Harry.” And then noticing the barely contained agitation radiating from Harry’s thin frame: “What’s wrong?”

Harry didn’t look him in the eye.

“I’m worried about tomorrow,” he said quietly.

Performance anxiety? Would wonders never cease?

“May I offer you a drink?” Tom asked.

For a moment, Harry looked like he was about to say no, but then he stepped forward and entered the flat.

“If you’re worried that you won’t make it to the final round, you can stop that right here and now,” said Tom. He lifted a decanter and poured a generous measure of Firewhisky into two tumblers. He held the glass out for Harry, meeting his gaze and holding it. “You were trained by the best.”

Harry’s jaw clenched. He was the first to look away.

Tom narrowed his eyes, watching Harry more closely.

“What’s wrong?” he asked again.

Harry sat on the edge of the couch, running his hands over his thighs, his agitation increasing palpably.

“Do you ever feel like you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole?” he asked.

“Not usually, no.”

Harry let out a pained laugh. “Course you don’t.”

“Harry, what—”

“I can’t do this!” Harry exploded, jumping to his feet. “I can’t keep acting like everything’s fine and normal when it’s not. What are we?”

Tom stared. For one of the few times in his life, his mind was blank. Distantly, he realized that with each time, Harry was the one who caused it.

“What are we?” Harry repeated and when Tom still did not answer, he raged, “You’re my scar! Every time I think I’m past it, I look at you and am reminded of everything. The battle, the graveyard — every nightmare’s back as if they’d never stopped.”

The bed dipping as Harry slipped under the covers beside him … a lamp flickering enough light upon his face to make his green eyes glow: I have nightmares, too … About you, mostly…

Something cold and unwelcome grew in Tom’s chest. He didn’t want to play any part in Harry’s nightmares. Not anymore.

“We don’t have to participate in the duel,” he said softly. “I don’t have to.”

Harry’s eyes pinched shut. “That’s not what I want … I want …” In a near whisper he said, “I don’t want to feel this anymore, but it’s never going to go away, is it?”

Guilt? Regret? Slowly, Tom was beginning to understand that no, perhaps such feelings never did. Ever since the Carcerem, Tom found himself feeling things that he wished to never feel again, but the lock had been broken. The ugly truths had been let loose to play. It was time to learn to live with them.

He held out the tumbler again, and this time Harry took it. They both sat, Harry staring at his shoes and Tom gazing at the black sky outside the windows.

“I am yours,” Tom said, breaking the silence. He half turned on the couch and Harry looked up. “I am yours and you are mine. If I am your scar, then you are my blood. Scars show our ability to overcome and blood links us all. From the beginning to the end, through every twist and turn of our existence, in this lifetime and the next — that is what we are.”

Chapter Text

Granger was quite the organizer. In less than a month, she had taken Tom’s suggestion and built a Colosseum from it with Harry the gladiator at center stage. The tournament was all anyone could talk about, appearing daily on the wireless and Daily Prophet. Tom was not remotely nervous, but he understood how the constant blaring from every corner of the country had chiseled away at Harry as he was the main topic on everyone’s lips, regardless of the house elves Granger kept reminding everyone of whenever she was interviewed by the presses. He wondered if Harry would have agreed to blatantly promote his name for anyone other than Granger or Weasley. He suspected not. It was obvious Harry found his fame discomforting, disliking how people inevitably stared at his scar whenever they met him for the first time. It amused Tom how Harry sometimes forgot his fame. While walking down Diagon Alley, the boy would be genuinely startled when he spotted his own face splashed across a newsstand or would fumble and blush when stopped without warning by a father and his beaming young son, asking for an autograph.

Though most of the witches and wizards who’d signed up to compete in the tournament were Aurors who had sparred with Harry in mandatory training sessions, a scattering of other departments had thrown their hats into the ring to ‘take Potter down a notch.’ The leader of this particular little group was a blond-haired, square-jawed wizard named Cormac McLaggen. He was a year older than Harry and it was clear the two had history. Tom was quite looking forward to watching Harry flatten the oaf.

The flap of the holding tent opened and Weasley appeared. His eyes scanned the crowd of contestants waiting for the starting gong, before he hurried over to Tom.

“Have you seen Harry?” he asked, tense.

“No,” said Tom, eying the slip of stadium visible through the gap in the tent’s mouth. The benches stacked around a raised platform were as packed as a Warbeck concert and just as loud.

Agitated, Weasley checked his watch.

“Got cold feet, has he?” McLaggen said loud enough for everyone in the tent to hear.

“Shut your mouth,” Weasley barked.

Snickering, McLaggen turned back to his group of lackeys.

Weasley’s eyes cut to Tom.

Did he say he wasn’t showing?” he asked in an undertone.

“He gave me every impression that he would,” said Tom. Harry had left him shortly after their talk last night. He’d looked slightly less tense, but no less pale. But now Tom wondered if he should have stopped by Harry’s cottage before Apparating to the forest.

“It’s not like him to be so late,” said Weasley, nettled, glancing at his watch again.

Weasley made to leave the tent, but was blocked by Granger, rushing in through the gap.

“Where’s Harry?” she demanded in a strangled voice. “I can’t hold it off any longer.”

On cue, the loud voice of an announcer sounded through the stadium. An upsurge of cheers greeted his words.

“Where is he?” Granger repeated wildly, her bushy hair falling out of its clasp.

“I’ll run over to his place,” said Weasley. “See what’s up.”

“And our first contestants are—” the announcer said over the shouts outside. Granger and Weasley both departed without another word to Tom.

 


 

Eddie Parker was far more aggressive in his spellwork than Tom had anticipated, but Tom was quicker.

“Expelliarmus!”

Parker’s wand flew from his hand to the delight of the crowd. Smirking, Tom tossed it back.

“You’re incredible!” Parker cried, panting. “How’d you get so good?”

“Practice,” said Tom casually.

Parker laughed. “All the practice in the world wouldn’t make me as good as you.”

Tom couldn’t stop the smirk from growing further. They walked down the steps from the platform together to the whoops of the crowd. Already, he’d gained a following, the stands chanting Thorne! Thorne!

“I don’t think anyone can beat you,” Parker continued.

But Tom had stopped listening. Granger and Weasley stood beside the holding tent, speaking to Robards and Shacklebolt. He made his way to them as Parker joined his fellow Aurors who had already been bested.

Granger spotted him first and the expression on her face had him pausing.

“Harry’s missing,” she told him.

“What?”

“He’s nowhere. He’s not home. He’s not at Grimmauld Place. He’s not at the Ministry. He’s not with Andromeda. No one’s seen him.”

“There are no signs of a struggle at his cottage?” asked Shacklebolt sharply.

Weasley shook his head. “It’s like he’s vanished.”

Suddenly, all eyes were on Tom. He kept his voice composed, but fury licked his insides. 

“As enjoyable as it has been to beat your Aurors, I assure you, if I’d taken Harry anywhere I wouldn’t still be here.”

“He’s been kidnapped, hasn’t he?” said Granger, terrified.

“When was the last time any of you saw or heard from Potter?” Robards asked as McLaggen and Maybelle stepped onto the platform and took their positions. “You weren’t expecting him earlier to help with setting up?”

Granger shook her head. “He wanted to, but what with all the press, we decided it would be better for him to come an hour before the start, like everyone else. Ron and I haven’t seen him since lunch yesterday.”

“He came to the Cornithia last night,” said Tom, “and left half-past midnight.”

“Why?” Robards asked, his eyes narrowing.

“He wanted to talk.”

“Talk? About what?”

“About the weather,” said Tom coolly.

Robards ground his jaw.

“So it’s just your word, then,” said Robards, taking a step closer. “What have you done, Riddle?”

“I don’t believe Tom took Harry, Gawain,” said Shacklebolt firmly. “But if someone did, we don’t have time to waste. Have any of our pardoned Death Eaters been behaving strangely?”

“None worth causing an alarm,” Robards admitted. “If Potter was snatched by one of them, it’s not the ones we’re tracking.”

“Check them out anyway,” Shacklebolt ordered. “We need information.”

“Malfoy,” said Weasley at once. “Malfoy would know if something’s going on.”

“Be quick,” Shacklebolt urged as Maybelle sent McLaggen flying ten feet to the delighted groans of the crowd. “I want word the moment you have it.”

 


 

Tom Apparated before the gates of Malfoy Manor. A second later, Granger, Weasley and Robards cracked into existence behind him. The lock sealing the gate twitched into life.

“Who is calling?” it asked.

Robards stepped forward. “Open this gate right now, Malfoy. I’m not in a kidding mood.”

There was pause and then the lock sprang open. The tall, wrought-iron gate swung inward. They marched down the pebbled drive, flanked on either side by trimmed hedges. Lucius and Narcissa were waiting for them on the front steps of their white bricked house. Tom had not seen them in person since the Battle of Hogwarts, but he’d followed the press clippings. Even with his greater aspirations, it took a massive deal of restraint not to murder them in their beds for all the spilling they’d done to save their skins from Azkaban. If he learned that they’d played a hand in Harry’s disappearance…

“Where’s Potter?” Robards demanded.

“Not here,” said Lucius with a disdainful sniff. “Why are you asking?”

“Because he’s missing,” said Robards, watching the Malfoys for a guilty twitch. “I wondered whether you knew anything about that.”

Lucius’ lip curled.

“I do not. Though I’m not surprised. Isn’t the boy always going missing?”

“Dad? Mum?” Drawn out by the noise, Draco peered around the front door. “What’s going on?”

“Go back inside, Draco,” said Narcissa sharply.

“Why?” Tom asked.

He knew that Lucius nor Narcissa nor Draco recognized him in this body, but there was a glimmer — just the faintest hint of fear in Lucius’ eyes when he met Tom’s gaze that made Tom wonder if he saw the shadow of his former Lord standing before him.

“Why should Draco leave?” Tom expanded, clasping his hands behind his back. “Does he know something?”

Draco looked even more confused.

“Of course he doesn’t know anything!” said Lucius. “None of us do! I will be filing a complaint, Robards.”

“Know what?” Draco asked. Narcissa grabbed him by the arm, attempting to pull him back inside, but Weasley shouted, “Harry’s missing!” and Draco stilled on the threshold.

“And so you come to my door, insinuating that me or my family had a hand in it?” raged Lucius. “We have been cleared, Robards. You have no right—”

“Missing?” Fear spread over Draco’s face.

“If you know something, boy —” Robards growled.

“He doesn’t!” seethed Lucius, furious. “Draco, go back inside—”

“Draco, please!” Granger cried.

Draco swallowed, looking terrified. “I didn’t think they’d do it.”

“They?” Robards pressed.

A tremor shook Draco’s hands and Lucius and Narcissa no longer looked angry, but worried.

“Draco,” said Narcissa, “please tell me you don’t know anything about this.”

Draco licked his lips. “It’s Theodore and Gregory. They’ve” — he nervously cut his eyes to his mother and father before looking at Robards — “they’ve been talking about paying Potter back, but I thought it was just talk. I didn’t think they’d actually—”

But Tom and the others were already running back to the gate.

“I’ll head to Goyle’s,” said Robards as they rushed to the Apparition point. “Go to Nott’s.”

 


 

Unlike Malfoy Manor, the Nott House was located in London in a high-gated neighborhood, protected by a host of anti-Muggle wards and charms, but to Tom the townhouse was crystal clear. Its door stood wide open.

They entered with wands drawn and Tom knew instantly that Harry had been here. Upended furniture, holes blasted in the walls — a fight had taken place.

“Where is everyone?” Weasley whispered.

Granger dove down a hallway, searching rooms and Weasley followed Tom as he entered a side sitting room and then kitchen. Tom’s neck prickled with unease. The house was dead silent.

“Ron!” Granger screamed. “Ron, get up here now!”

They hurried out of the kitchen. Following her voice, they found her on the second floor.

“What is it?” Weasley demanded, pushing past Tom. “What—”

Weasley gasped and for the first time in his life, Tom swayed on the spot, clutching the door frame for support.

The room was small, its furnishings pushed against the walls to make more space. In the center, still wet and glistening, were long streaks of blood made by the thrashing of limbs. A scarlet handprint was pressed into the floor.

“Where is he?” Granger cried. “Where is he?”

Tom’s brain lurched back into action. “He must have escaped and the others followed.” For the first time in his life, Harry wriggling free of capture did not upset him. It did quite the opposite.

Weasley’s freckles stood out in sharp relief on his white face. “If this is his blood, he hasn’t gotten far.”

Tom spun on his heel, charging down the stairs and bursting back out of the house, looking up and down the quiet, neighborly street. No one was out. Not even a dog walker.

“There — right there!” Weasley shouted, pointing to the sidewalk. “Blood!”

But the trail ended at the end of the lane.

“He couldn’t have Apparated, could he?” said Granger.

Tom rotated on the spot, gripping his wand. It was useless to him. All the magic in the world — every spell at his disposal — useless.

“He might have,” Weasley babbled. “We should go to Mungo’s —”

But he cut off, letting out a startled exclamation at the same time as Granger. They both dug into their pockets and extracted a very similar galleon to the one Robards had given Tom on his first day in the department. They read the message etched on its face.

“King George Hospital!” they said together.

“How do you know?” Tom asked at once.

“It’s from Dean,” said Granger. “He was in our year. His mother’s a nurse and a patient just came in who has a lightning bolt scar.”

 

xXx

 

He was burning alive. The whip had stopped, but the flames continued, tearing through his every cell. If he still wore his glasses, they weren’t doing him any good. His vision was misted over with pain. He lay on a gurney, moving quickly down a florescent-lit hallway. Someone — an elderly couple? — had seen him stumble on the street, had put him in their car. People were all around him, shouting, running, but it was just noise to Harry.

The stretcher stopped. Hands gripped the edges of the sheet he lay upon and with a heave, he was lifted onto a bed, and still the fire continued. Blazing. Searing. Consuming. Let him turn to ash. Let him die. Let it end. Please, please let it end.

Everything was white. The walls. The lights. The doctors and nurses bending over him. It was like dying all over again, except death had been painless. Death had been a blessing.

The doctor’s and nurses’ heads jerked upward, looking at something Harry couldn’t see.

“You can’t come in here!”

Stupefy!

He felt that he stood at the end of a very long tunnel, watching events unfold from far away, the voices and actions muffled and distant. Contorted and confused. The doctor fell, the nurses scattered and Harry watched it all with the same detachment of someone viewing an uninteresting television program. His mind slipped further away. Had the nurses given him something? Or had his heart finally grown too tired?

A face bloomed into focus above him. Not a doctor. Not a nurse.

“You’re going to be all right, Harry. I’m getting you out of here.”

Tom’s fingers were gentle, but they trembled against his cheek. The haze clouding Harry’s eyes made it seem that a halo surrounded Tom’s head. It struck him as funny. Tom? An angel?

Ron’s and Hermione’s faces appeared on either side of Tom, staring down at him with horror.

“Oh my god, Harry—”

“We have to get him to St. Mungo’s!”

Tom’s fingers left his cheek. His hands slid underneath him and Harry was lifted from the cot. He screamed so loudly he felt his vocal cords rip. Tom’s touch was agony, but Tom didn’t lower him back down. Tom didn’t release him. It was like he was a Horcrux again, every nerve ending severed. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. His mind disengaged and he was swallowed by darkness.

 

xXx

 

The waiting room on the fourth floor of St. Mungo’s was more crowded than usual with witches and wizards appearing by the minute as word spread that Harry was fighting for his life. Tom stood at the farthest wall from the doorway before a stretch of windows. It had been mid-afternoon when he’d carried Harry into the hospital. Now it was evening, the sky a blaze of color from the setting sun.

“Any news?”

Tom saw Minerva McGonagall’s reflection in the window. Behind her stood Filius Flitwick, Pomona Sprout, Poppy Pomfrey and Rubeus Hagrid. Hagrid was bent double to keep his head from scraping the ceiling.

“None yet,” said Granger.

Behind Granger were tight-knit clusters of Harry’s year mates. Tom had caught one of their names — Dean Thomas. If Harry survived, Tom would repay that boy’s Muggle mother tenfold. Shacklebolt had already come and gone, seeking news like everyone else and then departing to deal with the reporters swarming the hospital.

Tom’s jaw clenched. He focused on the skyscrapers before him. He shouldn’t be here. Waiting and waiting and waiting. His fingers twitched to grasp his wand and Apparate away and find the scum who’d had the audacity to lay a finger upon Harry. He shouldn’t have let Granger and Weasley stand in his way.

Four hours ago, after depositing Harry to the Healers, Tom had turned on his heel and was inches from the door when Granger and Weasley stepped before him, blocking his path.

“Get out of my way.”

 The entire reception area was in chaos — witches and wizards who’d been waiting in line horrified by the state of Harry. The witch at the front desk kept calling for order. No one listened to her. No one noticed the lethal waves radiating from Tom.

“No,” said Weasley.

“Boy, I have no interest in hurting you, but if you do not step aside—”

“Harry believes you’ve changed,” said Granger fiercely. “Don’t prove him wrong. Stay here. Leave tracking down Goyle and Nott to Robards. Do this right.”

The sounds of a chair crunching under Hagrid’s weight caused a momentary distraction for those gathered, letting them, for a split-second, forget that Harry barely clung to life in a room somewhere down the ward. A red-haired, balding man hurriedly repaired the seat as Hagrid, apologizing, clambered back to his feet. He was Arthur Weasley, Ron’s father. Six seats down sat Andromeda Tonks, bouncing the werewolf’s son on her knee, trying to appear cheerful but her smiles were too tight — a woman struggling not to cry. Luna Lovegood and Rolf sat next to her, holding hands and saying little. Next to them, with his head in his hands, staring at his feet, was Neville Longbottom. He was surrounded by Harry’s loved ones. He was surrounded by his enemies.

Don’t die. Don’t die. Don’t you fucking dare die.

Tom imagined grabbing Harry’s soul tight in his fists and holding him down, tethering him to the earth.

“Here.”

Tom’s eyes jerked to the right at Granger’s quiet voice. Her eyes were bloodshot. She held out a cup of tea. He sensed more than saw Weasley sit in the chair just to his left.

Tom’s hands and clothes were clean due to a simple spell, but he could still feel Harry’s blood on them. His hand shook as he took the offered cup. He stared at the long, pale fingers as if they belonged to someone else. He did not shake. He was above such reactions. Such emotions. Or so he used to be. Like a windstorm, Harry upended everything. Without Harry …

Without Harry what was the point in anything?

Granger and Weasley did not speak, but they stayed, Granger standing with him at the windows, Weasley sitting in the chair by his side. He wondered if they were acting as guardians for the rest of the grieving visitors in case Tom sought to expel some of the fear and pain tearing through his soul, but deep down, Tom knew that was not the case. They had seen him. They had seen him the way Harry had seen him, straight through his carefully crafted armor of cold indifference to the quaking, terrified child within.

A commotion behind them had Tom turning. Robards marched into the waiting room. He looked worn and almost shrunken inside his heavy robes. At once, he was surrounded.

“We got Goyle,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear. “But Nott made a run for it. He’s got relatives in Germany. I’ve contacted the German Patrol. They’ve agreed to keep an eye out for him in case he pops up.”

“Bastards,” Weasley spat under his breath.

Spotting them, Robards made his way to the windows. “Any hideaways Nott might use?” he asked Tom quietly.

“Edgar had an unplottable house in Wales, but it was destroyed by a chimera over a decade ago. He never bothered to rebuild.”

“Theodore might have, though,” said Robards. From his inside pocket he pulled out a map. “Give me a ballpark estimate?”

Unplottable properties were unplottable for a reason, but Tom was able to narrow down the location to a small circle near the coast.

“I never visited,” Tom told him, regretting the decision.

“Never you mind,” said Robards, rolling up the map and putting it away. “I don’t think Goyle was the mastermind behind the attack. Moment we got him, he spilled faster than a leaky cauldron. Said Nott was the instigator. Apparently, Goyle was under the impression they’d just scare Potter. Beat him up a bit, but Nott pulled out a fire whip the family had been keeping in storage.”

Furious, Weasley leapt to his feet. Tom felt bile rise up his throat. Harry had been a mess. Flesh ripped and torn. Burned. A fire whip. He himself had never bothered with torture equipment. The Cruciatus Curse had always been sufficient. Eloquent. But if you wanted things to get messy … if you wanted to paint the floors and walls with blood … if you wanted to have a bit of extra fun … a fire whip would be a most excellent choice.

“Goyle told us that Potter grabbed hold of the whip,” Robards continued. “Gave it a yank and overpowered Nott, startling the hell out of them both.” He sniffed, sounding suddenly that he had a head-cold, his hard-lined face a grimace. “That boy’s got more guts than my entire department. You let me know the moment he’s in the clear,” he said, looking them each in the eyes. “You let me know.”

Granger nodded, tears falling in rivets down her cheeks.

“Goyle had this.” Robards held out Harry’s wand. Fleetingly, Tom registered surprise that Robards would pass it to him and not Granger or Weasley. He took it, holding it gently.

With another fierce glare, Robards departed, ten Aurors in tow.

 


 

“What?” Harry asked. The small smile grew on his lips. He thought Tom was teasing him, but Tom wasn’t doing anything of the sort. They were lying in the grass under the apple tree. Harry smelt of dirt and basil. He’d been working in his greenhouse all morning, picking tomatoes and Tom, missing him, had sat under the tree, watching and waiting for him to reappear.

“Nothing,” Tom replied, staring down at him. Slowly, he traced his thumb along Harry’s bottom lip, mesmerized by how the sunlight filtering through the leaves danced upon Harry’s face.

Harry’s smile turned knowing and once upon a time, that look would have sparked annoyance and even anger in Tom, but not now. Harry settled more comfortably in the grass.

“Do you know how to make a treacle tart?”

Tom’s thumb stilled in its movements. “Why in the world would you think I’d know how to make treacle tart?” he replied. “Do I look like someone who would know how to make treacle tart?”

Harry laughed and Tom’s stomach swooped as if he’d missed a step going down stairs.

“Just figured I’d ask. You know pretty much everything else.”

I know nothing, he wanted to say. Every second with Harry was new and terrifying and mind altering.

“It can’t be harder than bread, can it?” Harry considered, watching the leaves overhead flutter in the breeze. “I just need to make a crust. How hard could that be?”

“None of those cookbooks have pies?” Tom asked.

“No,” said Harry, sounding thoroughly flummoxed. “Nothing but puddings and cakes. Do you know how to you make a crust?”

Tom lowered down onto his side and kissed Harry’s cheek, tasting the sweet salt of his skin that he’d been craving ever since they’d parted at breakfast. Ever since Harry snatched up an apple from the table, flashed him a smile, and departed with a casual Later!

“I never worked in a bakery, Harry.”

“Well, you should have,” said Harry lightly. “It would have come in handy.”

“I’ll remember that next time,” Tom whispered, turning Harry’s face more toward him and kissing him on the mouth.

“Tom — Tom!

Tom jerked awake. He was slumped in a chair. He’d fallen asleep. He straightened as Granger released his shoulder. A Healer entered the waiting room and the entire floor rose to its feet, Tom included. For a moment the Healer seemed to hesitate, wondering who to address her news, before deciding to speak to the group at large.

“We’ve stabilized him.”

Wonderful, glorious relief. The entire room breathed.

“We’ve induced him into a dreamless sleep,” the Healer continued. “I can allow two visitors at this time.”

“You two go ahead,” said Molly Weasley to her son and Granger. “We’ll wait here.”

Granger and Weasley looked at each other.

“Would it be too much to add a third?” Granger asked the Healer. She glanced at Tom. “It’s important.”

Chapter Text

Harry felt that he rose up from a very deep lake, his mind muddled and groggy. His whole body was so numb he wondered if he still had one. He heard people talking in low tones, but their words made no sense. The room was blurry. Someone had removed his glasses.

Harry!” Hermione cried, but softly, as if they were all back in the Hogwarts library, except they weren’t. They were … puzzled, Harry cast his eyes about the white-washed room.

“Where …” His voice came out as a croak. How had he lost his voice? He cleared it, trying again. “Where —”

“We’re in St. Mungo’s,” said Hermione gently. She and Ron had scrambled from their chairs. They stood at his bed. “How much do you remember about yesterday?” she asked with trepidation.

“Yesterday?”

Ron shot a nervous glance at Hermione. “It’s the potions,” he said in an undertone. And then, looking back at Harry: “Mate, you were attacked.”

“But you’re going to be okay,” Hermione said swiftly. “Healer Trimurti says you’re doing really well. She doesn’t even think you’ll have much scaring.”

Scaring?

A whip made of fire striking down across his back, his stomach, his legs. A burning, unending agony that sunk deep into his flesh. Into his very bones.

The numbness shifted like fog thinning over the sun and Harry felt it. The blistering and scorching. He looked down at his hands. They were heavily bandaged. His arms, his chest — he could feel thick wrappings everywhere.

Harry swallowed thickly. “Nott and Goyle.”

“Robards got Goyle,” Ron told him. “But they’re still looking for Nott.”

“Are you thirsty?” asked Hermione. “Do you think you could eat something?”

Harry shook his head and regretted the action. The room spun and he quickly closed his eyes.

“You sure about that?” A tease colored Ron’s voice. “Because you’ve got nearly half of Honeydukes here.”

For the first time Harry took in the bedside table. It was so packed with treats and get well cards that he was amazed the small table was still standing.

“And then there’s a mince pie from Mum,” said Ron, picking up a basket from beside the chair he’d been sitting in. “In case you don’t happen to want cream-filled chocolates or liquorice wands or ice mice.”

A smile tugged at Harry’s lips and then he remembered what else yesterday had been.

“Your tournament!” he groaned. “Dammit.”

“Don’t you dare beat yourself up about that,” said Hermione firmly. Her gaze softened. “It actually turned out better than I expected. I’ve only had a few Howlers, demanding reimbursement, but most have been sending get well wishes all day. People are so upset that you were attacked.”

She glanced across the room. Nudging Ron, she said, “We’ll tell Healer Trimurti that you’re awake. She’ll want to know.”

Ron looked like he wanted to stay and help Harry explore his get well gifts, but he too looked where Hermione had. “Yeah. Be back in a jiff, Harry. Okay?”

Puzzled, Harry looked around. Arms crossed, leaning against the doorway, stood Tom. He shifted slightly to let Hermione and Ron pass and then he entered, closing the door behind him and sitting in Ron’s chair.

Harry cleared his throat again. “See my glasses anywhere?”

Tom found them beneath a heap of chocolate frogs.

“What time is it?”

“Little past noon. Water?”

With Tom’s help, he sat up and drank a cupful. Some of the grogginess lessened. He wondered if that meant the pain would return in full force.

“Robards retrieved your wand,” said Tom. He held it out to him, but Harry, sinking back onto the pillows, shook his head.

“Hold onto it for me? I don’t think I’ll be using it any time soon.”

Something flickered across Tom’s face, but he slipped it back into his pocket.

“You’ll be out of here before you know it,” he told him, a strange formalness to his voice that Harry had not heard in a long time. Harry watched as Tom recrossed his legs, one black-shoed foot tapping … as he picked up a chocolate frog packet, turning it in his fingers. Tom was agitated. He wouldn’t meet Harry’s eyes. Suddenly, Harry understood.

“This isn’t your fault.”

Tom released a harsh laugh. “Isn’t it?”

“You weren’t the one holding that whip. Nott was. This was Nott’s doing. It was his choice.”

“A choice he never would have made if it had not been for me,” said Tom in a bitter rush. “If not for what I started.”

“Beating yourself up for the past won’t do anyone any good,” Harry countered.

“And the future?” Tom asked bluntly. “You are not worried about a future that includes me?”

Harry held his gaze. “No. I’m not.”

Tom was startled. He clearly had not expected Harry to say such a thing. His eyes grew far too bright, the storm-cloud gray lightening to silver, and Harry felt that the room had suddenly grown warm. Awkwardly, he cleared his throat.

“Since we’re on the subject about the past, I wanted to say sorry for what I said before the tournament. I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have put that on you.”

“You’re not the one who should apologize,” Tom replied, again with a harshness that was not directed at Harry, but at himself. “I pushed you into participating without once considering the memories it would bring up. You had every right to say exactly what you did.”

The uncomfortable heat that had flared up his neck vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving him unnaturally cold. He was exhausted, limbs dragged down with a weariness he suspected was only partially caused by Nott’s whip.

“I’m tired of living in the past.”

“I believe we both are,” Tom agreed.

 


 

Harry stayed at St Mungo’s. Hermione returned to work and Ron popped in during the joke shop’s slower hours of mid-morning. Tom would close his book or roll up the paper and depart when they arrived, giving Ron his chair, almost as if they were changing shifts. How casually they did it unnerved Harry. He had wanted them to all get along, but he found it difficult not to stare when one evening, Tom and Ron began a game of chess. Hermione sat on his bed and passed him an egg roll. He’d missed the little restaurant in Ottery St Catchpole. The food at Mungo’s was all right, he supposed, but there were only so many dry roast beef sandwiches he could stomach.

“He was petrified,” she told him quietly.

“What?” said Harry.

Hermione jerked her head toward Tom. He and Ron were both so absorbed with the board that Harry was sure they weren’t paying him and Hermione the slightest attention.

“I think he’d go to the end of the world for you.”

Her words triggered a memory. Lying on a couch, Tom’s weight pleasant and heavy on top of him. Harry had said words just like that, speaking of Hermione and Ron. Against all odds, Tom had joined their ranks.

Hermione cut her eyes at Harry. “So?” she asked, leading.

“So what?” he said, dipping the last bit of egg roll in mustard.

“So … what about you two?”

Harry stilled.

“There’s nothing.”

Hermione raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

Pinking slightly, Harry inspected the contents of another container, even though he knew it was empty.

He wants to,” he finally mumbled. He didn’t think there was any need to clarify what he meant by ‘want to’.

“And you?” Hermione asked.

Harry fiddled with the empty carton. “Things got so intense when we were…”

“Together?” Hermione supplied lightly.

“Yeah,” said Harry quietly. “Honestly, I like where we are now. There’s breathing room.”

Hermione looked across the room, watching Tom as he ordered another piece in Ron’s way. Her gaze was open, for the first time lacking the concern and worry Tom’s presence usually sparked. “I can see that.”

 


 

The window showed a brilliant sunny day and Harry was desperate to be gone from his hospital bed. For over a week he’d been cooped up.

“It won’t be much longer,” Ginny assured him. “Trimurti thinks you’ll be fully healed in a few more days.”

“A few more days isn’t today,” Harry grumbled, petulant. “And I’m missing your send off.”

“That’s why I’m here,” said Ginny warmly.

The rebuilding efforts over the summer had paid off. Hogwarts was ready to open her doors. September 1st was tomorrow and Ginny, along with Luna, would be boarding the Hogwarts Express for their final year. Harry had been looking forward to seeing the scarlet train again.

“Do me a favor and don’t get yourself killed,” said Ginny. “I’d really like my last year to be uneventful and you are not starting if off well.”

“What? Are you saying you didn’t enjoy this?” said Harry.

“No,” Ginny replied. “Not at all.”

“Well, dang,” Harry cursed, feigning disappointment. “And I’d had something big planned.”

Ginny laughed. She shifted closer to him, sitting more comfortably on the bed and fished out another handful of Every-Flavor Beans. She was the only one with him. With frantic last minute purchases from school-age children, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes was swamped and Hermione was once again working through her lunch hour with S.P.E.W efforts. Even with the handful of disgruntled viewers demanding their money back when the tournament had abruptly ended, the ticket sales had proved fruitful. Harry had not seen her so energized about her project since they were fourteen.

Ginny poked around the sack, searching for a specific flavor. “Your partner’s cute,” she said casually. “Is he seeing anyone? Unless that would be weird,” she quickly amended, seeing the expression on his face.

Weird didn’t even come close.

“Don’t you think he’s a bit old for you?” said Harry.

“Careful,” Ginny warned. “One more comment like that and I’ll start calling you Mum.”

Harry’s face burned.

“If it bothers you, I won’t ask him,” said Ginny.

“It doesn’t—”

“Yeah, it does.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I’ve got to get going. Don’t you forget to write.”

“You know I won’t.”

With a wink, a smile and another quick scoop of beans, she left the room.

 

xXx

 

The girl stepped into the hall and nearly ran into him. “Oh. Hi!”

“Hello,” said Tom.

“Harry’s awake.” She glanced down at the plastic bag Tom carried. Lunch from that repugnant Muggle shack Harry enjoyed so much. “We haven’t really been introduced. I’m Ginny. Ron’s sister.”

She held out her hand. It took all of Tom’s restraint not to crush her fingers. He had seen everything through the small window set in the door. How she perched herself on the bed, smiling and giggling and leaning so close she was practically in Harry’s lap. How Harry had blushed. How she’d kissed him.

“Thomas Thorne.”

The handshake ended.

“I shouldn’t let Harry’s lunch get cold. Nice to meet you, Tom.”

Her red hair fanning out behind her, she strolled out of the ward, her trainers squeaking against the wooden flooring. Tom clenched his jaw and marched into the room.

“Hi,” Harry greeted. He sat up straighter, an incredulous grin blooming into life at the sight of the bag in Tom’s hand. “You ordered from the Golden Dragon?”

“And it will never happen again.” Tom handed Harry his lunch and sat in his usual chair by the bed.

“You okay?” Harry asked. “You look a little preoccupied.”

Preoccupied? Why, yes, one would appear preoccupied when one was imagining ripping apart Ginny Weasley, limb by limb.

“I’m perfectly fine,” said Tom.

“How goes the manhunt?” asked Harry, taking a swallow of soup.

“Nott isn’t at the former summer home his father once owned. Signs are pointing more toward Germany. He might have been spotted in Bavaria this morning. Parker, Shipling and Ketteridge have been dispatched to follow up on it.”

“Not you?” asked Harry.

“I don’t think I should allow myself to be within a yard of Nott,” Tom stated. “Not if I want to continue being clear of Azkaban.”

A slow smile grew on Harry’s face. Tom wondered if he’d passed some sort of test.

 


 

Three days later and Harry was given a full bill of health. Though it was nearing four in the afternoon, he still chose to return to the office instead of heading straight to his cottage, something no one would have called him out for. Tom watched as Harry was surrounded and thumped on the back the moment he stepped into the Auror Department. It was impressive how effortlessly Harry slipped back into his daily routine. He had nearly died — Tom doubted that even Harry knew how close he’d come — and yet, he sat himself back at his desk, let out a heavy groan at the stack of memos piled high, mumbled something about tea and went in search for one.

Harry never once mentioned Ginny Weasley or the kiss she’d given him.

Since witnessing ‘the moment’ Tom had learned a great deal about the girl: youngest and only daughter of the Weasley clan, a gifted Quidditch player, an above average student. She had participated in the battle, though Tom could barely recall her. That, however, was not surprising. He’d been rather focused on Harry rising from the dead at the time. In her first year at Hogwarts, she had succumbed to the charms of his diary. Tom knew all about the little stunt Lucius had pulled, but he had not connected that the girl his Horcrux had possessed was the same one who tucked a stray bit of hair behind Harry’s ear with the ease of someone who’d done it a hundred times before.

They had dated. It had taken no time at all to find that out once he started looking. They had dated.

“But not anymore,” his gossiper had told him. “At least, I don’t think so.”

Tom was sure they weren’t. If they were still together, the Daily Prophet or Witch Weekly would have splattered itself with headlines.

But none of this changed the fact that Harry had been with someone else. He’d let someone else touch him. Kiss him. Once the idea slithered into his head, Tom found it impossible to banish, picturing the two of them lounging on a sunny patch of grass on the Hogwarts grounds. They had both been on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. How many practices had run late into the night? How many sessions had been just between the two of them? How many isolated corridors had they hid in — Tom knew them all.

He had never let anyone touch him the way he allowed Harry to. Sex — a necessary tool, utilized when charm alone could not sway, but he’d hated every second of it. As Lord Voldemort, he’d shed the skin of his past, and with it, any reason to debase himself ever again.

Until Harry.

Constantly surprised in the Carcerem, intimacy had never been disgusting or vile with Harry. Not once. It had only ever been pleasure. Pure, endless, spine-tingling pleasure. The idea — the mere possibility — that Harry could receive such sensations from anyone else made Tom’s blood boil.

The Prophecy.

Shared souls.

The Carcerem.

Fate wrapped them together, again and again. He and Harry were meant. They were destined. Tom would never let anyone take his place beside Harry. Just let them try.

 

xXx

 

Harry returned from the tearoom just as Tom was leaving the Auror department.

“Something up?” he asked.

“We’ve been summoned.”

“By who?”

“Stew.”

“Stew?” said Harry, dumbfounded. “Really?”

“He asked specifically for us.”

“It’s not another shark head, is it?” Harry moaned. Harry had been right all along on that front. It had been a badly executed mugging. He and Tom had tracked down the culprit two days later, nursing a poorly healed stinging hex over a pint.

“Only one way to find out,” said Tom, winding his arm through Harry’s and leading him to the lifts at the end of the corridor.

 


 

The entrance to the Ministry’s mortuary was a vandalized storage container in a lonely and isolated junkyard. On the door’s face was a spray-painted buxom brunette.

“Not particularly tasteful,” Tom noted the first time Harry had brought him to it.

“Tasteful isn’t something Stew strives for,” Harry had explained. “Before I think it was just a big, purple M, but when Stew took over as Head, he felt it needed a change.”

Now, as the rain-heavy sky overhead grew darker, Harry glanced about for any scavenging Muggles and whispered, “Auror Harry Potter.”

The brunette’s eyes shifted to him and gave him a cheeky wink. The container door creaked open and Harry and Tom entered a long, clinically clean and glitteringly white hallway. At the end of the corridor were three doors. They took the one in the middle, Stew’s. The white walls, floors and ceiling made Harry feel immediately claustrophobic. A body was lying on a hovering stretcher in the middle of the room. Along one wall were numerous little doors where more bodies on stretchers were tucked away. The room was unbearably cold.

“Fellas!”

“Hey Stew.”

Stew, as he preferred to be called, was a vampire, one of only a few who worked for the Ministry. He had all the characteristic signs: hooded gaze, emaciated frame, sickly pallor. Like always, he sucked on a blood-flavored lollipop.

“Out of the hospital!” Stew cried ecstatic. “Just in time for my welcome back gift. She rolled in a few hours ago. A dog walker found her. I’ve never seen anything like it. See if the Ministry’s top boys can figure her out. I’ve got six sickles and a coupon for Madam Malkin’s that you can, so don’t let me down.”

“We’ll try,” said Harry, amused in spite of himself.

With the air of a magician about to reveal the climax of a trick, Stew open one of the small doors and pulled out a body. Harry didn’t notice anything strange about her. Save for the fact that she was dead, she looked perfectly normal. Peaceful, even. Puzzled, he looked at Tom and paused at the expression of astonishment on his face.

“How…” Tom breathed.

“I know, right?” said Stew, excited.

“And she isn’t a Squib?” Tom asked.

“Nope. I pulled her records. You’re looking at one Josephine Laurent, graduate of Beauxbatons Academy with honors, wand alder and unicorn hair, ten and a quarter inches.”

Tom bent closer to the body. “Incredible.”

“Erm, what’s incredible?” asked Harry.

“Her magic’s gone,” said Tom.

“Of course her magic’s gone,” said Harry. “She’s dead.”

“Magic doesn’t leave. Not all of it. Not even in death,” said Tom. “Traces remain forever. They are a part of our cell structure — our very bones. Even when the body decomposes, threads of our magical signature still remain in the dust. Which is why this is impossible. This woman has been drained completely. There is nothing. Not a speck of magic. Can you not feel it?”

Harry had never been able to sense magic the way Tom and Dumbledore did, like plucking at invisible spider threads. The closest he’d ever come to experiencing anything remotely like it had been when he’d fallen inside one of the Elladora Works and seen magic like colored smoke. Sometimes when he closed his eyes at night, he could still taste Tom’s magic on his tongue like the buzz in the air after a lightning strike.

“So, how did it happen?” Harry asked.

Stew popped his lollipop back in his mouth. “You tell me.”

“Was the fact that she was drained of magic what killed her? Would that kill a magical person?” he asked, looking from Tom to Stew.

“Hard to tell,” Stew admitted. “The Unspeakables might know more on the subject, but I’ve never heard of a magical being from birth suddenly not having magic. Can we survive if our magic is entirely removed? I don’t know. I’ve checked for lingering traces from the attacker. There aren’t any. No spell damage. No wounds. No markings of any kind. I can’t tell you with certainty what killed her. Without breadcrumbs, I don’t have a trail.”

And neither do we, thought Harry.

“Where was her body found?” asked Tom.

 


 

They Apparated to a stretch of moor. Harry turned in a circle, the wind whipping his robes and hair, a light mist speckling his glasses. He spotted the hazy outline of a house very far in the distance, a blot on the horizon.

“Do you see the marker?” he asked Tom.

Tom scrutinized the overgrowth, his eyes narrowed against the wind. “There,” he pointed.

Just visible, poking up above the battered heather was a small purple flag with two golden Ms. They made their way to it. The tall grass was tamped down, as if someone had been lying on their side.

“Stew thinks she’s been dead for at least fourteen hours.”

“Puts time of death sometime late last night,” said Tom. “So what was our Josephine doing out on an unpopulated stretch of moor in the middle of the night?”

“Maybe her landlady will know,” said Harry. After Stew, they’d returned to the Ministry to track down Laurent’s next of kin, but the only name listed for any emergency contact on her Apparition license was Essie Page, who happened to be the owner of the house Josephine had been renting a room out of. A floo call revealed Page was out of town, visiting family and would not be back until next Tuesday. Harry had scribbled a quick note and sent it by owl.

Tom crouched down, inspecting the bent grass where Josephine had been found. He pulled out his wand and traced it lightly over the space.

“Nothing. There was no duel here.”

“Maybe she was attacked somewhere else and dumped here?” Harry suggested.

They choose to separate and search for clues. The grass came up to Harry’s knees and soon his robes grew damp. He walked, eyes scanning the ground — for what, he had no idea. He moved down a sloping hill toward a small copse of trees. He stopped, spotting something in the grass. Poking the blades aside, he revealed a bowtruckle. It was dead.

The crunching of leaves had Harry looking up. Someone was moving in the thicket. He pulled out his wand and slowly crept closer.

“Hello?” he called.

“Harry?”

Rolf?

A ginger head popped into sight around a tree trunk. “You’re out of Mungo’s!” Rolf cried. He and Luna had visited often, always with a plate of homemade cookies, which, to Harry’s relief did not contain any Gurdyroots.

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Released this afternoon.”

“And already back to work,” said Rolf with a laugh.

“I like working,” Harry shrugged. “What are you doing here?”

“The bowtruckles in this area are dying,” Rolf explained. “I’m trying to figure out why. You?”

“There was a body found up on the hilltop,” said Harry, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.

“A body?” said Rolf, startled. “When?”

“Today.”

“Merlin,” Rolf gasped. “What happened?”

“Don’t know. We haven’t seen anything like it. All her magic’s gone.”

Rolf’s eyes sharped. “All of it?”

“Yeah,” said Harry as the wind whipped harder, making the trees bend double. “You know about this?”

“No,” said Rolf slowly, “I don’t know what can remove all of a person’s magic, just as I don’t know what can do the same to a bowtruckle.”

At Harry’s look of confusion, Rolf continued. “We’ve been getting complaints in this area over the last month. Mrs. Bligh’s prized puffskeins dead overnight. The grindylows in the marsh all found washed up on the bank. I came out here to look around and found half a dozen dead bowtruckles and an entire clan of doxies demolished. None of them had a mark on them, but they were all sucked dry of magic.”

The wind turned fierce, whistling across the open moor. Harry heard Tom shouting in the distance for him.

Rolf glared upward at the darkening sky. “I’m going to look around a bit more, but it doesn’t seem like I’ll be finding much in a storm.”

“You’ll let me know if you do find anything?” Harry asked. “It sounds like we might be after the same thing. Be careful.”

Rolf nodded and ducked back under the canopy and Harry, jogging, met Tom back at the crest of the hill.

“Find anything?” he panted as rain began to fall in earnest.

“No.” Tom looked highly annoyed. “You?”

“Yeah. Rolf. I ran into him in a patch of trees on the other side of the moor.” And Harry told him all about the dead bowtruckles and puffskeins.

“They were drained of magic too?” said Tom, frowning.

Harry nodded.

Tom pointed his wand upward and a see-through umbrella unfurled over their heads. It was large enough for the both of them, but Harry still took a half step closer to get more out of the rain.

“It seems our mystery entity has moved to larger prey,” Tom observed.

Harry agreed. Clearly whatever had been draining bowtruckles and grindylows had stumbled upon Josephine or she had stumbled upon it.

“You have no idea what it could be?” Harry asked.

“I do know of one account that rings a bell.”

“Really?” said Harry, surprised. “Who’s?”

“Yours.”

Harry blinked. “Mine?”

“You said when you fell into Nothingness that something within it latched onto your magic. That is consumed your magic.”

“But that was in a mosaic,” Harry argued. “A stained glass window.”

“Which you entered and left,” Tom pointed out. “Perhaps it did the same.”

“But surely the Zabinis would have noticed if something strolled out of one of their prized Elladora Works,” said Harry.

Tom shrugged. “Or they may be trying to deal with it themselves. If it got out that the Elladora Works were actually Dark Objects, they would be confiscated and their name irreparably stained.”

“Looks like we need to pay the Zabinis a visit,” said Harry.

“We could, but I doubt they’d let us browse the Works,” said Tom. “Not without a warrant.”

“Then how are we supposed to find out if something really has come out of Nothingness?” said Harry, annoyed. “Break into their house?”

Tom’s eyes glittered. “Perhaps nothing quite so extreme, but it will take finesse. Regardless, not tonight.”

Harry knew Tom was right. It was late and appearing at the Zabini’s door with nothing but accusations and speculations would get them nowhere. He wasn’t exactly on the friendliest of terms with Blaise and he suspected that Mrs. Zabini would be much the same. Smooth talking was in order and Tom was the best candidate for the job.

“My place?” Harry suggested as the rain grew heavier.

Tom looked surprised, but he made no argument against it. With a sharp turn and a crack, Harry Disapparated, reappearing outside his garden gate.

In the rain.

“Is all of Britain in a monsoon?” he grumbled.

“Apparently,” said Tom, appearing beside him.

They hurried up the garden path. Inside, Harry pointed his wand at the fireplace. Flames burst into life, warming him instantly. He pulled off his outer robe and hung it on a hook by the door.

“Ron and Hermione are out of town tonight. They’re visiting her parents, so I was wondering if you’d be okay with having dinner. We could cook. Like we used to. I’ve been eating too much takeout.”

Again, Tom was taken aback, but he shouldered off his own robe, placing it next to Harry’s.

 

xXx

 

This was unexpected.

Tom glanced sideways, watching Harry slice mushrooms. He’d rolled up his sleeves. It was the same green sweater he’d worn when he’d stepped through the holding cell’s door a month ago and quite literally snatched the breath from Tom’s lungs. He watched Harry’s hands, recalling how torn apart they’d been from the fire whip. Healer Trimurti had done a stunning job. There was not a blemish on the skin — or, more accurately, nothing new had been added. The scars left from Umbridge remained. Tom had traced his lips over those etched words on many an occasion.

Quite suddenly, his brain flooded with memories. He and Harry cooking. A bottle of half-drunk wine on the counter. A fire crackling, spilling warmth onto a soft rug. Rain drumming against the windows. How this night mirrored so many before it.

It was the Carcerem, all over again.

“I really hope it doesn’t attack anyone tonight,” said Harry tersely. “I hate this. I hate knowing something is out there and no one else does.”

“Danger surrounds us constantly, Harry. You cannot shield everyone.”

Still slicing, Harry grumbled, “But I still wish I cou —ah! Dammit!

He dropped the knife and grabbed his finger.

“What did I tell you?” said Tom. “Danger everywhere.”

Harry glared at him. “Shut it.”

Smirking, Tom took hold of his hand, inspecting the wound. “You could chop with magic.”

“Lousy at it.”

Tom snorted in amusement. He pressed his wand tip to the cut. The skin knitted back together.

“Good as new,” he said, wiping blood away with his thumb.

Harry grinned. Their eyes met. They stood so close. Close enough to —

Blushing, Harry pulled away. “Sorry,” he grimaced. “I — there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

Harry’s grimace deepened. He rubbed his forehead.

“I want to be friends.”

For a moment, the rain against the window grew louder in the silence that fell.

“Friends?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

Harry looked thrown. “That’s it. I just want to be friends.”

“You just want to be friends?” Tom repeated.

Harry nodded.

“Bullshit.”

Blinking in surprise, Harry said, “Excuse me?”

“You’re actually going to stand there and lie to me?” Tom hissed. “Me?”

“I’m not—”

“Yes, you are. And you’re going to stop right now. I know exactly how you feel and there is nothing just friends about it.”

Harry was stubbornly mute. Tom barely kept himself from grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him.

“This is guilt,” he spat, disgusted. “You feel guilty.”

“I don’t.”

Bullshit.” A fury he hadn’t felt in ages made the very air sizzle. On the kitchen table, their wine glasses rattled. “You felt guilty in the Carcerem. That was why you wanted to end it then and it’s why you want to end it now!”

There was no anger in Harry’s face. Only sadness. A sadness Tom had never seen before.

“It has ended.”

Chapter Text

The alarm on the bedside table woke him and for one blissful second, Harry did not recall last night and then it spread over him like a long, dark shadow. Tom had looked so furious, Harry had thought he might curse him, but instead, he’d stormed out of the house, banging the door shut, making the windowpanes rattle, dinner half cooked.

Harry sat up with the weariness of an old man. He stared at his feet. With a groan, he hid his face in his hands.

God, what a mess. He should have told Tom from the start. The moment he agreed to work for the Ministry Harry should have said right then and there: I don’t love you.

Harry grimaced, his fingers digging into his scalp. Lies, lies, and more lies.

I love you.

I love you and I can’t see straight.

I love you and I lose myself.

I love you and I’m terrified.

But he couldn’t say that. Not aloud. Not to Tom.

This was for the best. Even though it hurt like a knife twisting in his chest, it was for the best. He just had to make Tom see that.

With a deep breath, Harry stood and prepared for his day.

 


 

The line to the lifts stretched out longer than usual. Someone had dropped a box of snitches in one of the elevators and it was taking an exorbitant amount of time to snatch them back. When Harry finally hurried past the lopsided sign reading Auror Department, he still hadn’t figured out what he was going to say. He blew into their cubicle, but stumbled to a stop, looking around, perplexed. Tom wasn’t at his desk.

“Hey, Alice,” Harry asked, turning as she walked past, “where’s Tom?”

Alice looked up from the report she was reading, so long that it cascaded onto the floor and trailed along behind her.

“I thought I saw him heading to the interview rooms.”

“Thanks.”

Puzzled, but not deterred, Harry rushed back into the corridor. Instead of turning to the lifts at the left, he turned right, moving down a stretch of hall that the Aurors used for lighter, not so intimidating questioning. Harry found him in the fourth room.

Tom was not alone. He sat opposite a middle-aged woman. Tom’s eyes cut to him and the frigidness in his gaze made Harry balk, feeling that he’d stepped inside a freezer.

“Harry,” said Tom coolly. Flippantly. Utterly indifferent. He turned back to the woman, who was clearly Essie Page, Josephine’s landlady. “You were saying?”

“I don’t know why she would have put me down as her contact. Wouldn’t her family—”

“She had no immediate relations,” Tom informed her. “Only a distant cousin who has not spoken to her in ten years.”

“Poor girl,” said Mrs. Page, tearful. “I can’t believe this happened.”

Harry pulled out the chair next to Tom and Tom didn’t so much as pay him the slightest notice. It was going to be a very long day.

“Do you have any idea why Miss Laurent would have been out on those moors at night?” Tom asked.

“She was an astronomer,” said Mrs. Page. “She wrote for the Star Scholar — that philosopher magazine. She went out on the moors to study the constellations. It’s normal — was normal for her to spend all night — I’m sorry —” Mrs. Page dissolved into tears.

Harry conjured a box of tissues and pushed them toward her.

“Thank you,” she hiccupped.

“Did she ever mention seeing anyone or anything odd on the moors?” Harry asked.

Mrs. Page shook her head. “Never. It’s always quiet out there. This is … this is all so horrible.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Page,” said Tom. “I appreciate you coming in.”

Nodding and still clutching the tissue to her face, she rose and shuffled from the room. Tom stood and headed for the door. Harry jumped to his feet.

“Tom.”

He stopped. He did not turn around.

“Can we talk?” Harry asked.

“That depends,” said Tom, his voice delicate, but glacial. “Do you have anything new to say?”

Harry hesitated, silent, a beat too long.

“Then no.” And Tom departed.

 


 

Harry entered Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, dodging a gang of rowdy children and their harassed looking mother. Though after five on a Friday, there were still plenty of browsers in the shop. George, reloading a display of fake wands, spotted Harry. He released a low whistle.

“You look like you’ve been run over by a hippogriff. Bad day?”

“Bad doesn’t come close,” said Harry. “Ron in?”

“He and Hermione are upstairs. Better knock before you go in,” he advised with a suggestive waggle of his eyebrows.

A weak chuckle escaped Harry and he moved to the back of the shop where there was a half-hidden staircase. On the landing he gave the door on the right a soft tap. Hermione opened it.

“Harry!” she cried, ecstatic. She embraced him in a tight hug. “I looked for you at the Ministry, but Eddie’d said you’d already left. I’m sorry we had dinner plans when you got released. We wanted to be here, but we’ve been putting off Mum and Dad for ages.”

“It’s okay,” Harry assured her, stepping inside the flat. Ron had decorated it quite spectacularly with his personal style: jumpers flopped on backs of chairs, candy wrappers and joke shop prototypes littered about on tabletops, and a large, vibrant orange poster over the sofa of the Chudley Cannon’s double CCs and speeding cannon ball.

“Butterbeer?” Ron asked, just as delighted as Hermione that Harry was out of St Mungo’s.

“I think I need something stronger,” said Harry, collapsing onto the sofa. Almost immediately, Crookshanks appeared, leaping lightly onto his legs and purring loudly.

Hermione sat beside him. “What’s wrong?”

Harry ran a hand through his hair, upending it even more.

“I told him.”

Hermione’s eyes widened.

“Told who what?” said Ron blankly.

“Harry told Tom that he doesn’t want to be romantically involved,” said Hermione. “Didn’t you?” she asked, addressing Harry.

“I didn’t use those words exactly,” said Harry, nettled, “but yeah.”

Ron skipped the butterbeer and passed him a Murderous Monk ale. “How’d he take that?”

Harry snorted over his bottle. “As well as a blast-ended skrewt being shoved inside a crate and told to hibernate.”

“So not well, then.”

“When was this?” asked Hermione.

“Last night. Gave me the cold shoulder all day. He won’t even look at me, let alone talk to me.”

“But he’s still here?” asked Hermione swiftly. “He’s still working for the Ministry?”

“He made a deal with them. Of course he’s still working for them. If not he’d —”

“Be arrested?” Hermione supplied, crossing her arms, unimpressed. “As far as I’m concerned Tom Riddle has been dodging Azkaban since he was sixteen. If he didn’t want to remain at the Ministry, he wouldn’t be there.”

“So you think he’ll get over it?” Harry asked, growing suddenly hopeful.

Hermione chewed her lip. “I don’t know. Do you think you’re the only person he’s been in a relationship with?”

“No,” said Harry at once. There was no way the things Tom had done to him were first tries. Tom was talented, but no one was that talented. Harry had been the one to fumble, once so spectacularly that Tom had actually laughed, but instead of embarrassing Harry, the sound had steadied him — relaxed him — and he’d ended up flat on the common room floor, in a delirious haze from the best sex of his life.

“I mean a relationship he cared about?” Hermione clarified, bringing Harry back to the present. “Are you his first lov—”

At the warning look from Harry and the sound of revulsion from Ron, she rolled her eyes, rephrasing.

“Sorry. Are you the first person he’s had feelings for?”

Harry shifted uncomfortably on the couch. He suspected he knew the answer to that question and it didn’t make any of this easier.

“The point is,” he said, diverting the entire topic, “he just needs time to adjust. It’s Friday. I’ll give him space. He’ll calm down. He can’t stay mad at me forever.”

Ron and Hermione didn’t look so sure.

 


 

 

Harry’s hopes that Tom would have cooled off over the weekend were severely misplaced. The lift grates peeled back and Harry spotted Tom in the hall, speaking to Maybelle. The glare he shot him was as cutting as a dagger and Harry seriously considered taking the lift back down to the Atrium and working their case files from home. Tom’s gazes hadn’t been so steely since the first few months in the Carcerem.

“You getting out or not?” a disgruntled wizard grumbled.

“Sorry,” Harry mumbled, stepping out just as Tom pushed off from the wall and disappeared into the Auror Department. It looked that Tom would need much more time than a few days.

At least he’s not throwing curses, Harry reassured himself.

Squaring his shoulders, Harry entered their shared cubicle only for Tom to push past him, leaving again.

“Where’re you going?”

“I have an invitation to meet with Camila Zabini,” said Tom with that same frosty aloofness that used to dominate their conversations before everything had changed.

“She’s letting us look at the Works?”

“Did I say that?” said Tom coldly.

“Sorry,” said Harry, keeping his tone level with supreme effort. “I just assumed—”

But Tom had already turned and walked away. He did not hold the lift for Harry, watching uncaring as Harry barely made it, slipping in before the doors clanged shut.

 

xXx

 

Tom couldn’t decide whether he wanted to throttle Harry or kiss him until he bruised. Both were appealing. It was a good thing there were witnesses in the lift. They Apparated without a word to each other to the Zabini property, a stately house in northern York.

“Do us both a favor and keep your mouth shut,” said Tom, ringing the doorbell.

Harry’s eyes darkened, insulted. The furious expression only made Tom’s blood burn hotter.

The door opened. An elegant and ravishing black woman stood before them.

“Mr. Thorne,” Mrs. Zabini greeted. She extended her hand to him. Tom kissed it. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Harry stiffen. Mrs. Zabini’s dark eyes shifted to Harry. A slight sneer touched her ruby lips. “I was unaware he would be joining,” she said, speaking to Tom as if Harry was a hat stand.

“He insisted on coming,” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Harry, curtly, his smile fixed. “Seeing as we’re partners.”

Mrs. Zabini stepped aside, allowing them entrance. “Do come in. May I offer refreshments?”

“No, thank—” Harry began.

“Yes,” said Tom. “That would be most welcome.”

Beaming, Mrs. Zabini escorted them into a parlor, her fine robes fluttering along the polished floor. A tall, black boy sat in a winged armchair. He looked up from the Daily Prophet as they entered. Tom had never bothered with the Zabinis. They were pure-blood supporters, but they lacked true conviction to be in his tightly controlled group of Death Eaters, though there had been hopes for Blaise. He’d shown excellent possibilities.

Unlike his mother, Blaise’s eyes only roved over Tom once before shifting to Harry. Mrs. Zabini did not notice the expression of cold calculation on her son’s face, busy pouring Tom a glass of wine.

“Your reputation precedes itself,” she said, handing it to him. “Why, in just a month, the name of a man no one has heard of is on the lips of every witch and wizard in the country.”

“You are too kind,” said Tom.

“Thorne. Are you related to Seveste Thorne, the late poet?”

“Unfortunately no.”

“Pity,” said Mrs. Zabini, though her almond eyes gleamed. “I’m organizing a reading of some of his more amorous collections. I imagine your voice would turn them to chocolate on the tongue.”

Harry loudly cleared his throat. “Mrs. Zabini, we were hoping if we would be allowed to view the Elladora Works.”

Mrs. Zabini’s eyes, so inviting when looking at Tom, turned loathsome while taking in Harry, like he was a slug she wished to squash under her heel.

“Harry and I have a disagreement,” Tom cut in smoothly, “that we hope you will help us clear up. He believes that the Elladora Works were created using common glass of the age, but I state that the great artist created her own with the secret addition of crushed salt beetles to enhance the intricate colors and patterns. As guards to the Works, we were unable to admire them fully.”

Mrs. Zabini softened.

“Of course. Who am I to keep my great grandmother’s art from the man who saved them? Follow me.”

 

xXx

 

Harry appreciated Tom’s ability to get them in the same room as the Works, but did he have to rub it in so much? Did he have to let her wind her arm through his and whisper Merlin knows what in his ear as they were led down a set of stairs? Blaise, silent and bored, chose to join them, walking sedately beside Harry and Harry wondered if flirting with strangers was such a regular occurrence that Blaise had grown impervious to being embarrassed by his mother’s actions. For once, Harry wished that he could appear so indifferent.

Tom and Mrs. Zabini stopped before a stretch of stone wall. She tapped her wand on a brick and a doorway appeared. Harry and Blaise followed them inside. The room reminded him intensely of a Gringotts vault, artifacts and treasures stacked from floor to ceiling on sturdy shelves. In the center of the room stood the seven remaining Elladora Works. Though Harry spotted half a dozen highly dangerous and Dark objects without even taking a step further, he kept it to himself. The mosaics were more important.

Tom and Mrs. Zabini stood before a piece of vibrant gold, the glass cut to mimic splashes and splotches. They darted about like goldfish in a red sea.

“You are quite correct,” said Mrs. Zabini. “Most people don’t think of salt beetles.”

“I am nothing like most people,” Tom smiled. He cut Harry a smug, sideways glance. “It appears you owe me ten galleons.”

“Funny,” Harry replied. “I don’t remember betting you anything.”

The giggle Mrs. Zabini released — how she gave Tom’s arm a slight squeeze — made Harry want to do something he would severely regret. So he turned his back to them and took in Nothingness. The stained glass window appeared just the same as the first time he’d seen it: black on black on black. The way the light fell upon the sharp shards of arraigned glass gave Harry a strong sense of vertigo, as if he stood on the edge of an abyss. How could he tell if the thing inside had left?

Keeping his voice as light as possible, Harry asked, “Have you noticed anything strange about the Elladora Works since recovering them from the museum? Any damage?”

“None. All thanks to Thomas Thorne,” Mrs. Zabini cooed.

To a layman’s eye it would be hard to spot, but Harry recognized the rigidity in Tom shoulders, the warning in his gaze: he detested every second of Mrs. Zabini’s fawning.

Petty delight swelled inside Harry.

Serve you right, he thought. 

“So you haven’t noticed anything strange?” Harry pressed.

“Mother and I have been overseas since the Works were returned,” Blaise replied. “We only returned last night, in time to receive Mr. Thorne’s letter.” His dark eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking?”

“Just standard follow up,” said Harry, glancing over his shoulder at the collection of heirlooms stacked around them. He felt the tale-tell sensation on the back of his neck that someone was watching, which was strange as they were quite alone. Perhaps the Zabinis had a house elf.

“Well, you’ve seen them,” said Mrs. Zabini. “Blaise will show you out, Potter.” She pulled Tom closer, her smile radiant. “Mr. Thorne, I must learn more about you. You are more mystery than man.”

The pettiness turned bitter. Harry could not think of any excuse to stay. Nothingness was perfectly normal and he was not about to attempt to stroll into it to make sure whether some magic-draining entity still resided within it. He was sure the Zabinis would hex him before he’d even touched the glass.

“You coming?” he asked Tom.

“Later,” said Tom, speaking as if Harry was a child who lingered about adults longer than was wanted.

Fine, thought Harry, grinding his jaw. What did he care if Tom lounged about with Camila Zabini, drinking wine and eating strawberries and god knows what? They could sleep together for all he cared.

He made to follow Blaise back to the stairs when something in the corner of his eye caught his notice. He reacted without thought.

“Stupefy!”

A brilliant red beam shot from his wand, but the creature hardly slowed. It rushed him, knocking a suit of armor out of its way with a clatter. Blaise shouted in shock and Harry barely jumped clear in time as the thing barreled past. It whirled around and Mrs. Zabini screamed.

Harry recognized it at once, though it had looked very different on that day in the Carcerem when he had spotted it crouched half hidden behind the Fat Lady’s voluminous pink gown. It was no longer stunted and malnourished. Its skeleton had filled out. It had grown. It towered at eight feet, its long arms nearly reaching the ground. A line of razor-sharp spines protruded from its back. The eyes were still missing — two sunken pits in its horrific face, but Harry felt just as he had in the Carcerem: it could see him. Its gaping, formless mouth expanded, a gasping black hole.

“What the hell is that?” Blaise shouted.

The room was too small for it. Heirlooms crashed to the floor as its hand shot out for Harry.

A blast of electricity had Harry whipping up a shield. Crackling lightning in long, furious ropes shot from Tom’s wand, encircling the creature.

With a jerk of his wand, Harry expanded the shield to the rest of the room, protecting the other objects from Tom’s spell. Behind him, he saw Blaise grab hold of his mother and hurry her up the stairs. The door at the top of the steps clanged shut.

The creature did not advance. Surrounded by Tom’s rings of lightning, it studied them with an almost detached curiosity. It lifted one of its impossibly long fingers and touched one. At once, the crackling white lightning vanished, smoke curling in the air in wisps.

“What —” Tom raised his wand as the creature did the same, pointing its hand at them, each finger like a spear.

“DUCK!” Harry roared, tackling Tom just as a ball of energy shot toward them, booming like a bomb. They crashed into one of the shelves. Harry felt his shield vanish as the hair on the top of his head singed. His ears rang. Bits of wood and pottery showered down around them. The air blazed with heat. Already, a fire spread, latching onto whatever bits of wood and cloth it could.

Aquamenti!

Under Harry’s spell, the fire subdued. He whirled around, but the creature had vanished.

Why had it gone?

Where had it gone to?

 

xXx

 

Artifacts fell around him. An urn broke, covering him in dust, filling his nostrils, stinging his eyes, clouding his mind. He smelled smoke. Distantly, he heard someone shout a spell. It was a very familiar voice, but he couldn’t place it. Shakily, he rose to his feet, glass crunching under his shoes. Where was he? It looked as if an explosion had taken place. This was not the cellar in Malfoy Manor.

“Tom, you okay?”

His eyes widened. He took in the black-haired youth before him, scrambling toward him over a toppled wardrobe.

Potter.

Voldemort’s lips twisted into a snarl. “Avada —”

Potter froze. His eyes grew huge behind his glasses. He dove behind a statue, the Killing Curse nearly grazing his side.

Tom!” Potter shouted, furious.

Voldemort felt a rage unlike any other. He whipped up his wand and sent it slashing to the ground. The entire floor shook, the stone work cracking and bucking upward as a shock wave traveled straight toward Potter. But again, he leapt out of the way.

“Expelliarmus!”

“Crucio!”

The spells ricocheted.

How dare Potter call him by that vile name. He would string him up and peel his skin from his bones. He raised his wand, but Potter attacked in a frenzy and though Voldemort blocked them all, he was forced backward. He stepped on something that rolled beneath his foot and he jerked, momentarily losing his balance. For one split second, Potter relaxed his barrage, but a second was all Voldemort needed. With a vicious strike, a glistening rope whipped from his wand, wrapped around Potter’s leg and with a cry of surprise, Potter crashed to the ground. Victory pumping through his veins, he aimed for Potter’s heart —

“Expelliarmus!” Potter shouted again and Voldemort’s wand shot from his hand.

A snarl escaped him, but no mind — no mind — he had the boy. He lunged, grappling for Potter’s wand. A stunner missed his face by inches. Sinking his nails into Potter’s wrist, he tore his wand free. It clattered across the floor. Voldemort didn’t care how Muggle this was — pinning Potter to the ground with legs and wrapping both hands around his throat. What did it matter how he killed the boy as long as it happened? As long as the bane of his existence finally ceased to breathe?

Potter tried to throw him off but Voldemort was too heavy. His fingers clawed at Voldemort’s hands.

“Tom — you’re under — a — spell,” Potter gasped.

Say that name again,” Voldemort snarled, squeezing harder.

Potter’s nails scratched deep enough to make blood well, but Voldemort did not slacken his grip.

“Re-remember,” Potter wheezed, “when — you — kissed me. Remember — when we — made — love.”

With the violence of an electric shock, Tom returned to himself. He jerked backward, releasing Harry, and Harry curled onto his side, clutching his throat, heaving. A great clatter sounded behind them, but Tom could not take his eyes off Harry, too stunned and horrified by what he’d nearly done.

“Harry!”

Granger? Why was Granger here?

She ran down the stairs, Blaise Zabini at her heels, nearly tripping over the destruction of the room.

“Harry — what—”

“We’re — okay —” Harry rasped as Granger helped him to his feet. “We were attacked by something, but it’s — gone now.”

“What in the name of Salazar was that thing?” Zabini demanded.

Harry didn’t meet Zabini’s eyes. “I — I don’t know. But we should quarantine the area.”

A new, agonized scream had them all turning, pointing their wands. It was Camila Zabini. She stood partway down the stairs, her hands over her mouth.

“The Elladora Works!” she shrieked. “What have you done?”

Where the seven remaining pieces had stood was a mess of splintered wood and powdered glass.

Chapter Text

There wasn’t a chamber in the Zabini house that anyone would describe as small. The sitting room they stood in was gargantuan, but it felt as tiny as the cubicle he shared with Harry at the Ministry and not because there were many people in it. Only Granger, Shacklebolt and Robards were present, listening to Harry explain what had transpired down below. As the cellar swarmed with Ministry officials, the Zabinis were in some other part of the house, close enough that Tom could still hear Camila raging at whichever Auror had been tasked with keeping her out of the way.

Tom stood as far away from Harry as he could without leaving the room. A chasm had appeared between them and it grew with each passing second. The faint shadow of a bruise colored Harry’s neck. Tom wanted to curse off his own fingers at the sight of it.

Egyptian Ash. There had been Egyptian Ash in that urn.

A highly potent compound that removed inhibitions and enhanced emotions to astronomical levels, it used to be a common ingredient in Amortentia before the ash was discovered to be exceedingly toxic to those who consumed too much of it.

He had been covered in an ingredient to the most powerful love potion known to wizard kind and what had he done? He had forgotten everything. He had seen Harry and forgotten everything. With the snap of a finger, Lord Voldemort returned with death and vengeance bleeding his vision red.

Remember when we made love.

Tom wanted to curl in on himself. He wanted to vanish. He wanted to stride across the plush carpet and kiss Harry in front of everyone.

Shag. Fuck. Sex. All crude words to describe something that had never been crude. Even now the heat of lust was coiled in his gut — it never left, not since it flared into life when Harry woke him from a nightmare in the Carcerem, sliding into bed beside him rather than leave him alone. But it wasn’t just lust he felt, Tom finally realized. Far deeper, the root of it all was love.

He loved Harry.

Finally he understood what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him.

As he watched Harry tell the others of the monster in the cellar, that old ache in his chest that he hadn’t felt since leaving the Carcerem returned. All along, it had been love. Tom knew he would never stop feeling it, even if he could rip out his heart and lock it in a box like that foolish warlock in the fairytale. It had taken root inside him. Without his knowing, it had ensnared him. It had infected him. There was no purging it now.

But Harry did not want him that way. Not anymore. Perhaps that was Tom’s fault. Perhaps if he had said that one monstrous word from the beginning he never would have stopped saying it, but would they still have ended up here? An argument — a fight — and a bruise purpling Harry’s cream-colored skin?

You are volatile, Tom Riddle. You are an insecure, hot tempered bastard who would do anything, anything for just a glance, just a touch — say the word, Harry, say the word and I will give you the stars; I will kiss constellations onto your skin. Just stay with me.

The days in the Carcerem were gone. If he had known how fleeting they would be, that they would turn to smoke and vanish on the wind, he would have caught hold of the truth sooner. He would have recognized it from the first thundering of his heart when Harry had turned to him that night, saying so softly — so softly — okay.

Lovers. Harry did not wish to be his lover anymore. But if Harry could forgive him for yet another horrible wrong … if he once again offered the hand of friendship …

Can you do that, Tom? Can you stand beside him — wanting him, needing him, loving him — and never have him?

 

xXx

 

“You think it came out of one of the Elladora Works?” said Kingsley. “This creature that attacked you?”

“Did you actually see it come out of one of them?” asked Hermione.

“No,” Harry admitted. “But I think it’s been outside of it for a while.”

“But you said you didn’t see what was inside Nothingness when you fell into it,” Robards reminded him.

“True,” Harry conceded. “But I have seen this thing before.” He glanced at Tom. The man stood in the corner beside a bookcase, half shrouded in shadow, as far removed from the rest of them as possible. He had not spoken a word since Harry’d called for backup. Harry wanted all of this chatter over with so he and Tom could talk. He’d never seen him so pale. Not even when he’d learned the truth about accidentally turning Harry into a Horcrux.

“In the Carcerem,” he said, speaking more to Tom than to others. “In a painting.”

Tom, who had been avoiding his gaze, looked up at Harry’s words, his eyes latching onto his.

“You described it as small,” said Tom.

“Paintings can be misleading,” Harry shrugged. “Their subjects aren’t exactly true to scale.”

“You saw this creature in the Carcerem?” said Kingsley sharply, looking at the both of them.

“I did,” said Harry. “Tom didn’t.”

“But subjects can’t just emerge out of paintings like that,” said Hermione. “They only exist in art form.”

“The Elladora Works are windows into other dimensions,” said Harry. “And the Carcerem literally creates its own world in a separate plane from ours. What if this thing is not a bit of rabid artwork at all, but a creature from a different universe and somehow it can travel from one dimension to another?”

“But if that was the case,” said Hermione, “it would have already entered our world before now. If something could actually travel from dimension to dimension, we would have already met it, surely.”

“Maybe not if it wasn’t strong enough. When I saw it in the Carcerem it was stunted. Starved. Barely alive. And it wasn’t abiding by the Carcerem’s rules. It could move inside the painting when nothing else could. Neither Tom nor I had ever seen it before and the Carcerem is built entirely on memories. It didn’t belong there. And when I fell into Nothingness, it felt like something was eating my magic.”

“Josephine Laurent,” Tom whispered.

“She was drained completely of magic,” Harry went on. “So have a number of magical creatures in this area. When we fought it just now, none of our spells affected it. It absorbed the spells. I think … I think it could only travel partway. It’s like it’s able to stand at entrances to other dimensions, but is unable to step through on its own, not until it got enough energy from me when I encountered it inside Nothingness.”

“Are you telling me that we have an unknown creature from an alternate universe that consumes magic?” Robards asked.

“I think so.”

Robards looked ashen. Kingsley took a moment to ground himself before turning to the head Auror.

“I want everyone here to know what they are dealing with. No one attacks it until we understand more. I’m bringing in Braff.”

Harry paled. Braff was the head Unspeakable. Four months ago he’d taken charge of the Carcerem and Harry knew for a fact that the man was highly curious as to the identity of the pair who’d last activated it. When Harry joined the Aurors, Braff had taken pains to introduce himself. Though Harry hadn’t liked him at all, it was the feeling that Braff suspected he had been inside the Carcerem that made him choose to always walk down a different hall if he saw Braff coming.

“Do we have to?” Harry asked.

“Parallel dimensions, pocket universes — this is just one of the many mysteries Unspeakables study. Yes, we need him.”

Kingsley left.

Hermione appeared at Harry’s side.

“I was in a floo-call with Ron when Blaise interrupted. He’s probably worried.”

“It’s okay,” said Harry. “We’ve got this.” Then the oddity struck him. “Why did Zabini call you?”

Hermione looked suddenly uncomfortable. She shot a quick glance to make sure the others weren’t listening and said in a rush, “He’s one of my biggest donors.”

What?” Harry gasped. “For spew?”

Hermione nodded. “Please don’t tell anyone. It will only embarrass him.”

Harry was stunned. Blaise Zabini, standing up for house elf rights?

“I think he feels guilty that he didn’t help the rest of us during the battle,” Hermione explained, correctly guessing his bafflement. “You know, how the Slytherins all wanted to hand you over? I think this is his way at trying to make up for that.”

He’d had no idea.

“Secret’s safe with me,” Harry promised.

Hermione looked relieved, but she suddenly frowned with fresh concern.

“You’re neck,” she said, noticing the marks there.

“It’s nothing,” said Harry hastily. “A lot of stuff was flying around down there. I got banged up.”

The need to hurry back to Ron had her accepting Harry’s story quicker than she normally would have. She gave him a swift hug, told him to be careful, and hurried from the room.

 


 

“We have no idea if this thing can make itself invisible or whether it can Apparate,” said Robards, ten minutes later on the Zabini front steps to the host of witches and wizards gathered. “We have reason to believe that it is highly dangerous and should be treated with extreme caution. We also suspect that spells do not work properly against it. If you come across it, signal. Do not attempt to engage. Stay in pairs.”

The wizards around Harry set off, fanning out across the sweeping highlands that surrounded the Zabini property. Harry spotted Tom amongst them. He hurried after him at a run.

“Tom!”

Tom did not slow, nor did he turn around.

“Hey. Hey—” Harry grabbed his arm, holding him back. “Can we talk?”

The closest wizards were half a yard away. It was just as windy as the day when they’d searched for clues regarding Josephine Laurent. No one would overhear their conversation.

“Are you okay?” Harry asked.

Tom stared at him as if Harry had uttered the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. “Am I okay?” He looked pointedly at Harry’s throat. “You are the one who I just nearly killed.” He tried to yank his arm free, but Harry held on.

“Hey — Look at me. Look at me. You stopped. There was a time not so long ago when you wouldn’t have. What happened down there was not your fault. I know you didn’t mean to do any of it. We’re good,” Harry said, earnestly. “You got that?”

Tom did not reply, but with a small jerk of his head, he nodded. Harry released his arm, but Tom didn’t move off to follow the rest of the search party. Instead, he took a step closer.

“Your neck,” he said softly, lifting his wand.

Harry stood still, letting Tom heal the damage his hands had caused. If an Auror looked their way just then, they’d find the pair of them strange, each standing so still, nearly nose to nose. Tom’s fingers ghosted over the skin, inspecting it and then he stepped back, clearing his throat, looking suddenly awkward, a sight that was so wrong on him.

Without a word they joined the search party. Harry kept his wand at the ready, one eye peeled for the creature, the other on Tom. He had no idea what to do if it attacked again. It puzzled him that the thing had fled when it clearly held the upper hand. The idea that it could make itself invisible had him turning, looking over his shoulder, a prickling of unease making the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

His throat no longer hurt, but it was scratchy and uncomfortable. As much as he knew Tom regretted his actions, Harry couldn’t help but notice how determined history was to repeat itself. He had nearly crushed Harry’s windpipe once before on a terrible night in the Carcerem. Not even twenty minutes ago, the murderous rage of Lord Voldemort had distorted Tom’s handsome face. Were they doomed to live in Voldemort’s shadow forever?

No, Harry thought firmly. Not if he could help it.

 


 

The search was fruitless. The creature was nowhere to be found though they stayed out long into the night. Harry was exhausted. At the crack of dawn, he stumbled into his cottage only to be met by Ron and Hermione, both worn with worry.

“Where have you been?” Hermione demanded.

“The highlands and then the moors and then a forest or two,” said Harry. He collapsed onto his couch, rubbing his eyes.

“Did you find it?”

“No. It’s completely vanished.”

“Maybe it went back into that mosaic — Nothingness,” Ron suggested. Hermione had clearly told him everything. “After it attacked you and Riddle.”

Harry shook his head. A headache throbbed behind his temples. “The Elladora Works — all of them — were destroyed in the attack. There’s no putting them back together.”

“What does Braff think?” Hermione asked, delicately.

“That we’re a bungling mess of morons, like always,” Harry grumbled. “He wanted to view my memory of the attack.”

“Well that makes sense,” Ron pointed out. “You and Riddle are the only ones who’ve seen it.”

Harry glared. “I refused.”

“What? Why?” said Hermione, startled.

“Because Braff and everyone else with top clearance would have seen Tom attack me shortly after the monster left.”

What?

Hermione’s eyes zeroed in on his neck. “You said—” she began, hotly.

“We crashed into something. He was covered in this weird dust. It did something to him. It was like he lost his short-term memory. He thought he was Voldemort again. He acted like we were back at war. But he stopped,” Harry said, firmly. “He came out of it. No one got hurt. But Braff wouldn’t understand and if it got out that Tom’s Voldemort—”

“No,” Ron agreed, tense. “That wouldn’t go over well.”

“What did Braff do when you refused?” Hermione asked.

Harry snorted. “Said he didn’t care how many dark lords I saved the world from, that I should damn well do what he said or else I might not be working at the Ministry much longer.”

Hermione looked scandalized.

Ron’s lips twisted in disgust. “Someone needs to remind Braff that he isn’t Minister.”

“What about Tom?” Hermione asked. “Has Braff gone after him too?”

“Yep. He’s with him right now. When I turned Braff down, Tom offered. They were heading down to his office when I left.”

Hermione and Ron were floored.

“I doubt the memory Tom gives him will be the real one,” Harry told them. “I think he could pull off a fake memory to fool anyone, save Dumbledore.”

“And how is Tom?” Hermione asked carefully, again glancing at his throat though the bruises were gone.

If he was honest with himself, Harry didn’t like that Tom had agreed to see Braff fresh off the attack and after a day and night long search. Tom was still avoiding Harry’s eyes. Unwanted yet undeniable, Harry felt that something had shifted between them. It made Harry worried. He wanted to go to the Cornithia and speak to Tom, but he suspected that might not be the wisest choice. Something was telling him to give Tom space.

“He’s been better.”

 

xXx

 

“Thank you for agreeing to assist me in our investigation,” said Braff, not sounding remotely thankful. “As your partner seems to have more pressing matters.”

Tom let Braff’s disgruntlement hang in the air of his stuffy office. From a very early age, Tom had found it interesting to study people’s emotions. It was useful data to file away. What made someone reckless? What made someone short-sighted? By the time he was seven, Tom had mastered the subtle art of manipulation by the simple, quiet study of reading faces and Braff was ripe for the plucking.

Harry was not loved by everyone. Tom knew that quite intimately as he’d spent a great portion of his life positively loathing Harry Potter, but it did surprise him that an Unspeakable would hold such a bitter grudge. Since working with Harry, there had been zero mention of the Department of Mysteries, though the way Harry reacted when Shacklebolt brought up Braff’s name …

Tom’s eyes casually swept the office again, now with greater interest.

Ah.

The smooth, flat golden disk of the Carcerem sat upon the top shelf in a large glass cabinet. So that was where it had gone off to. Tom doubted that Braff knew Harry had been inside it, but perhaps he suspected … or perhaps simply being an unpleasant man in the basement while the young, shining savior of the wizarding world bypassed all standard requirements for enlisting in the Aurors grated a bit too much. How amusing. To hold a grudge against Harry for no better reason than his skill at being a wizard.

“Name?” Braff grunted.

“Thomas Thorne.”

“If you will sign here and place the memory of your encounter with the creature in the Pensieve,” said Braff, shoving a sheet of parchment toward him.

Tom complied. Smiling pleasantly, he placed his wand tip to his temple and dropped a silvery strand into the waiting basin.

 

xXx

 

The days eased by. Summer released its last, great huff and October brought a brisk chill to the air that had Harry walking at a quicker pace to the village grocery and Burrow.

The monster had not been found. Harry didn’t understand why it had vanished so completely. If they were right and it consumed magic, then why would it stop? The morgue was on high alert to identify bodies with similar signs of Josephine Laurent, but Stew and his coworkers had been silent for over four weeks. Even Rolf had not found an increase in dead magical creatures in the sweeping highlands and surrounding moors. Perhaps the monster was like a bear and, after filling its belly, was settling in some cave somewhere for a nice long hibernation.

Harry wanted to believe this. He really did, regardless of how Hermione lifted an eyebrow every time he brought up the monster’s absence. The problem was he didn’t.

It might have been from being on the run for a year or being blessed with a life that attracted trouble, but Harry kept feeling that something was watching him.

After work one day, he brought it up with Tom. Like Hermione, he was unimpressed.

“Harry, there’s always someone watching you.”

“That’s a bit extreme.”

Tom looked pointedly over Harry’s shoulder. He turned and spotted two witches staring at him. They giggled at each other the moment he saw them. Tom lifted the books he’d purchased from the counter and strolled out of Flourish and Blotts with an expression of ‘you were saying?’

“I know what I’m talking about,” Harry argued, catching up with him on the street. “Something isn’t right.”

“So what are you planning on doing with our invisible creature that no one — not the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures or the Department of Mysteries or the Auror Department — has been able to find?”

“I don’t know,” Harry grumbled, disgruntled. “That’s why I’m asking you.”

“You flatter me.”

“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that it just disappeared?” Harry persisted as they entered Knockturn Alley and headed toward a potion shop that Tom insisted was the only one worth visiting. The bell over the door jingled as they entered.

“Odd, yes, but it’s not keeping me up at night. Get the flobberworm mucus for me.”

“What are you making?” Harry asked, searching the shelf for the vial as Tom loaded a sack with lavender.

“An experiment.” With a smirk, he added, “You can be my test subject.”

Harry laughed dryly. “No thanks.”

He passed Tom a small bottle and watched him weave through the store to the counter. They had not spoken again about his near strangulation since that windswept day on the grounds outside the Zabini house and Harry was relieved for it. He’d meant what he’d said to Tom at the hospital: he was tired of living in the past. Though he suspected that Tom was still shaken by what he’d done, Harry was delighted that the frigidness Tom had been carrying around was gone. If he was still angry at Harry for turning him down, he kept it to himself. He was back to his charming, wry-humored self. A part of Harry felt nervous … that at any moment the easy-going friendship they’d found would upend again, but for now, he would take what he could.

“Why are you so cheerful?” Tom asked, spotting the smile on Harry’s face when he returned, his goods shrunk and stored in his robe pocket.

“Nothing,” said Harry, feeling suddenly light as a feather.

As they left Knockturn Alley, all worries of monsters momentarily escaped him.

 

xXx

 

Tom funneled the fresh potion into a slender bottle. If Harry chose to visit, he would not notice it, assuming it to be liquor tucked away with all the others in Tom’s cabinet.

First the Muggles. Now this. The slope he’d stepped on was far slicker than he’d initially thought. All the plans. All the plotting. What he wanted he got. But not this time.

Not this time.

Tom filled a small glass with the potion. Dreamless Sleep.

The nights were torment. Endless hours alone in his apartment with nothing to do but drink and remember: Harry’s back arching, his breath hot on Tom’s neck … Come morning, Tom was hungover from misery and Firewhisky, blinking and blinded by the radiance of Harry, the loss a hundred times worse, like a wound he kept ripping open again and again. He could leave; pack his bags and be gone. A new identity, a freshly transfigured face – no one would find him.

But Harry…

To never see Harry again? To never hear his voice, smell his scent, witness his lopsided grin? That was punishment Tom would never survive.

But he couldn’t keep bleeding. If he didn’t do something to staunch the flow, ease the pain, dampen the longing, he would do something he’d regret. Something that even Harry would never forgive him for.

Cup in hand, he entered his bedroom. The lights vanished from their bulbs with a flick of his wand. He undressed and slipped under the sheets, swallowing the potion in one go and settling back onto the pillows, waiting to be whisked away to a place where no visions of Harry would threaten to arise.

But as he waited — in the short few heartbeats before the potion ensnared him — he remembered. The smell of salt ocean and sweet grass … Harry’s tongue in his mouth … Harry’s weight shifting downward, placing kisses on his stomach, his thighs … those green eyes gazing at him with such blistering heat Tom felt himself being undone.

On his next exhale, the potion claimed him and he knew no more.

Chapter Text

Hermione looked up as Harry entered her office. “Hello. What are you doing all the way over here?”

The Law and Justice Department was on the same floor as the Auror headquarters, but on the opposite end of the Ministry. Hermione’s small office was so packed with books that it was difficult to find a place to stand, let alone sit.

“I needed a walk.”

“You and Tom having problems?” she asked, shifting a stack of notes on her desk in search of something. “I thought you two were getting along again.”

“We were — we are.”

Hermione paused in her hunt.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Harry, honestly.

For the first time since the war, everything was absolutely okay. There hadn’t been a single attack, Kingsley had somehow managed to smooth everything over with the Zabinis and he and Tom were good again.

Hermione folded her arms, studying him. “So why do I get the feeling that you don’t believe that?”

Harry stared at her for a full second and then blurted, “Because something bad always happens.”

“Maybe not this time.”

“You know me,” Harry replied flatly. “When has that ever been the case?”

Hermione smiled at him fondly and returned to her search.

“What are you looking for?”

“A toxicology report. I could have sworn I got it—”

A knock on the door had them both looking around.

“Hey, Eddie.”

“Hi,” said Eddie brightly. He held out a folder to Hermione. “You asked for this?”

“Yes!” she cried in relief. “Thank you. I was going crazy trying to find it.” She flipped it open.

Eddie turned to Harry. “You going to the party?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Harry admitted. The upcoming Ministry Halloween Party was not at the forefront of his mind.

“You should,” said Hermione without looking up from her report. “Ron and I are.”

“You are?” said Harry.

Hermione nodded. “Ron’s looking forward to finally putting faces to all the names he keeps hearing.”

“I don’t know,” said Harry. “I’m not really a party person.”

Eddie looked surprised. “Oh, I just assumed because Tom’s going that you would be too. You two do everything together.”

Harry stood straighter. “Tom’s going?”

Tom was going to the Ministry Halloween Party? Tom?

“Yeah. I saw him ask Maybelle. He didn’t say anything?”

“No.” Harry could feel Hermione’s eyes on him. He cleared his throat and, as casually as he could, exited, feeling a sudden burning urge to kick something. Fully intending on questioning Tom, Harry marched back to the department, but the moment he walked into their cubicle, he found Tom in the act of pulling on the cloak he wore for travel and an entirely different question sprang from Harry’s mouth.

 “Where are you going?”

“Denmark.” Tom wrapped a scarf around his neck. “There might be a lead on Nott and I know a few sources there that could be of assistance.”

“Okay,” said Harry, reaching for his own scarf hanging on a hook over the wastepaper basket.

“I’m going alone.”

“What? Why?”

“Because these sources would sniff you out in a heartbeat, even if you were transfigured. I’ll be quicker than anyone else. I know what questions to ask and how to ask them. Robards agrees.”

“Oh.” The fact that Robards was on Tom’s side did not lighten Harry’s mood. He found himself wondering whether Tom would have sought him out to tell him he was leaving or whether he would have just left a three word note on his desk. It bothered Harry that he didn’t know the answer. “When do you think you’ll be back?”

“Hard to tell.”

“In time for the Halloween party?” Harry asked.

Tom looked at him oddly.

“I know you asked Maybelle,” Harry clarified.

The corner of Tom’s mouth twitched upward. “Word travels fast in these parts.”

“Word travels fast when the messenger’s Eddie.”

Tom pushed his desk draw shut, locking it with a tap of his wand. “My sources are particularly suspicious individuals and they’re already going to be hesitant toward me as they don’t know me in this form, so I won’t be able to floo-call or send owl post while I’m there.”

Harry nodded, wondering why this news made his chest constrict.  “Be careful,” he said. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”

Tom’s smile was a flash. As he walked past him out of their cubicle, his hand brushed Harry’s. It was swift — just a bump of knuckles against knuckles — and the urge to reach out and grab Tom’s hand caught Harry completely off guard. Tom didn’t seem to notice that they’d touched. He continued walking, exiting the department and heading for the lifts without a single glance back.

 


 

It was the longest twelve days of Harry’s life. He knew he was driving Hermione and Ron crazy, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Twelve days,” he ranted in Ron’s flat. “What’s he been doing for twelve days?”

“I don’t know,” said Ron dully. “Working?” He was testing a fresh batch of trick wands. He gave one a wave. With a loud squeal, it turned into a rubber pig. He added it to the growing stack of farm animals on the floor. “Maybe those sources are giving him the run around. Who d’you reckon they are?”

“People that Tom Riddle knows?” said Hermione darkly, looking up from her book. “No one I’d want to meet.”

Even though Tom had stated he wouldn’t get in touch, Harry kept his window open, but the only feathery visitors who came were from Ginny and then, on Halloween morning, a free sample advertisement of Mrs. Skower’s All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover.

 


 

Under different circumstances Harry wouldn’t have gone to the Ministry party. It was the sort of event he tended to avoid, but Tom might be there, so Harry put on his dress robes, stepped into his fireplace and zoomed to the Ministry in a swirl of ash and smoke.

Packed and noisy, the Atrium seemed half its normal size. Harry felt intensely out of place. A stage had been erected in one corner and a band of tuxedo-wearing wizards played an upbeat two-step. Trays loaded with wine and finger food floated lazily on their own through the crowd. Before joining the Aurors, Harry hadn’t been aware that the Ministry held yearly parties: Halloween, Christmas, New Years. Nearly everyone was there. Harry even spotted Unspeakable Braff in a tacky, orange bow tie, eating fistfuls of nuts.

Harry scanned the crowd, but he didn’t see Tom. What if something had happened?

“Harry, you came!” Eddie greeted warmly.

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Have you seen Tom?”

“Can’t say I have. Want a drink?”

“Butterbeer’s fine,” said Harry, already wishing that he hadn’t bothered to come and formulating possible excuses to depart. As Eddie passed him one from a tray, Harry spotted Ron’s flaming red hair.

“Thanks,” said Harry. “I just spotted someone. I’ll see you.”

Something shifted on Eddie’s face. Was it annoyance? But he let Harry leave without comment. After slowly making his way along the edge of the crowd — the center being devoted to dancing — Harry reached Ron and Hermione. They both held drinks and were laughing at something Rolf had just said.

“You decided to come after all!” Hermione rejoiced, seeing him.

“Yeah.”

“Rolf was just telling us about the time a crate load of invisible toads escaped in his flat,” said Ron, snickering.

“Complete nightmare,” said Rolf with a shiver. “Kept finding them in my sheets.”

“You know, that’s a great idea for the joke shop,” said Ron. “Have you met my brother, George?”

Only half listening, Harry’s eyes scanned the crowd for a tall, black haired figure. His heart jumped. Tom stood along the opposite wall, near the Fountain of Magical Brethren. He mumbled something to the others and took off, weaving his way across the room.

Tom spotted him as he drew near.

“You’re back!” said Harry. At once, he scanned him for signs of injury, but Tom was as smooth and put together as ever. Perhaps it was the long time without seeing him, but Harry felt he looked more handsome than usual.

“Just in time to change,” said Tom.

“Did you find out anything?”

Tom drank from his wine glass.

“Nott was most certainly there, posing as someone else under Polyjuice Potion, but he’d moved out by the time I’d tracked down the hotel. He could be anywhere now.”

“I’m not worried,” said Harry. “We’ll catch him.”

“If only I’d made him a Death Eater, this all would be far easier,” Tom grumbled. “Which of course I have no intention of doing,” he clarified. “To anyone. Ever again.”

Harry couldn’t stop grinning. He felt light and bright, as if he’d swallowed sunshine. The fact that Maybelle was nowhere to be seen only intensified the glow in his chest.

“Where’s Maybelle?” Harry asked casually.

“Powdering her nose, or something like that.”

“So, are you two together?” Harry asked.

Tom looked at him as if he’d uttered a bad joke.

“No.”

“Oh.” The warm bubble of happiness doubled in size. “Because you know it’s fine.”

“I know it’s fine,” said Tom. “Did Eddie convince you to come?” he asked, suddenly brisk.

Harry nodded.

“You should dance with him.”

Harry, having just taken a slug of butterbeer, choked. “I don’t dance.”

Tom looked at him curiously. “You did with me.”

And just like that, the Atrium dissolved away and Harry was back in the Carcerem: Tom’s arms wrapping around him, pulling him flush, their steps moving in time to the gramophone, Harry laughing at his own awkwardness.

His voice sounded far away to his own ears. “You got me drunk.”

“Then maybe you should trade that out for something stronger,” Tom suggested. He exchanged Harry’s butterbeer for a glass of Champagne. With a smile, Tom crossed the floor toward Maybelle, who’d just reappeared. He said something to her that made her laugh; the sound carried all the way to Harry. And as Tom pulled her onto the dance floor, one arm snaking around her waist, the glowing bubble in Harry’s chest turned to lead and then, a moment later, he felt that he’d been slapped.

What was he doing?

He’d ended it with Tom. What was he doing feeling …

Jealous.

“Everything okay?”

Harry turned. Again, Eddie had found him. Maybe Tom was right. Maybe Eddie did like him that way and all this time Harry had misread it. As he took in Eddie’s freckled, boyish face, Harry wondered if he really was attracted to men after all. Or if he’d only ever been attracted to one.

“Yeah. Yeah, everything’s fine,” Harry replied. “Listen, Eddie, I hope this doesn’t come across as weird, but I’m not looking for … that is …”

Merlin, how did he find himself in these situations? As he tried to come up with the right words, a figure appeared in the crowd behind Eddie’s shoulder. A person who looked an awful lot like—

“Harry!” Eddie shouted from the crowd, pale faced and terrified. “That’s not me! It’s—”

 The Champagne glass shattered on the floor as Harry’s hand plunged into his robes, but the impersonator was quicker. He grabbed Harry, twisting one of his arms behind his back, spinning him around so Harry’s back was against his chest. Something flashed and Harry found a knife pressed to his throat.

Nott?” Harry gasped.

“You’re not getting away this time,” Nott breathed in his ear.

The band abruptly halted. Alarmed, the crowd backed away, giving Nott and Harry a pocket of space as Tom, Maybelle, Ron, Hermione, the real Eddie and half a dozen others swarmed closer, Kingsley and Robards amongst them, their wands all trained on the little bit of Nott they could see around Harry.

“It’s Nott, sir!” Eddie said. “He jumped me in my flat.”

“Drop the knife, Nott!” Kingsley ordered.

“There’s no way you’re getting out of here, son,” said Robards.

“That isn’t how I see it,” said Nott as the guests scattered, rushing the floos. The rest fanned out, trying to get a straight shot at Nott. “How I see it is that you’re going to step aside and let me and Potter take a walk. Unless you don’t mind me cutting his throat here and now?”

“Killing me is not going to get your father out of Azkaban,” Harry snarled.

“I’m not going to kill you, Potter,” Nott whispered in his ear. “I’m going to take you to the Dark Lord and let him do it. He’ll rise again with me by his side and he’ll tear that prison to the ground.”

Harry’s eyes cut to Tom.

“Voldemort’s gone, Nott,” Harry said through clenched teeth.

Nott laughed in his ear. “The Dark Lord isn’t dead, Potter. You haven’t beaten him.”

“Then where is he?” Harry demanded as the knife’s edge dug into his throat. Nott dragged him backward as Tom and the others pressed forward. “Where’s he been all this time? He’s done, Nott. He’s finished. He’s left you and —”

Harry inhaled sharply as Nott pressed the knife against his neck with such force that he felt blood trickle down.

“The Dark Lord is not a deserter,” Nott hissed. “You shut your filthy mouth.”

“Look at the facts, Nott,” Harry continued harshly, wildly. He had to keep Nott distracted. Eddie, Robards, Ron, Hermione and Maybelle shifted around his left while Tom slipped nearer the splashing fountain to the right. “He ran away from the battle. He hasn’t been seen in six months.”

The knife in Nott’s hand trembled with fury, but Harry bit back against the pain. As long as Nott was fixated on him—

“Stop right there!” Nott shouted. Ron and Hermione froze. The entire Atrium was nearly empty, glasses and napkins scattered like confetti on the floor, instruments left abandoned on the stage. “Move any closer —”

“This isn’t the way, Nott,” Robards growled.

Out of the corner of Harry’s eye, he saw Tom raise his wand, pointing it at Nott from around the fountain. He had a clear shot, but something shimmered behind Tom, drawing Harry’s attention. Something winked into focus. A bone-white, monstrous creature with sightless, empty sockets for eyes.

“Look out!” Harry shouted. Tom turned and the monster, now as tall as a giant, leapt clean over him, over the fountain, straight at Harry.

Terrified, Nott screamed, releasing Harry and scrambling backward. Too distracted by the sudden appearance of the monster, no one stopped Nott from vanishing into the nearest floo. Harry extracted his wand from his pocket just in time –

“Protego!

A glistening shield erupted around him seconds before the monster made contact. It hit Harry’s barrier and his wand hand shook from the impact. The monster opened its formless, gaping mouth wide and placed a massive hand upon the shield, the three-foot long spines along is back standing on end. At once, Harry felt his shield weaken, the magic draining away. Gritting his teeth, he redoubled his efforts, gripping his wand with both hands and focusing everything he had to keep the barrier up. Fleetingly, Harry saw the others attack the creature, but it paid them no attention. They were like gnats to it. The monster rested its other long-fingered hand upon the shield and Harry felt every bone in his body shudder under the weight. A hoarse, rattling sound came from its mouth that reminded Harry of a dementor, but worse. A hundred times worse. Pinpricks of light appeared in the creature’s empty eye sockets. They latched onto Harry, sucking him in. His wand shuddered. The shield flickered —

The monster’s weight suddenly vanished. The shield collapsed and Harry crashed to the floor, his legs giving out.

“Harry!” Hermione shouted, rushing to him. “Harry, are you all right?”

“What … what …” Through a haze of exhaustion, Harry stared up at the creature, not understanding why it had stopped its attack. But then his brain caught up with his eyes. A new shield had sprung up, this one encircling the monster like a bubble. On the polished wooden floor were golden tiles that Harry had never seen before. They glowed with a faint blue light. The creature touched the barrier and the tiles turned a brighter blue. The bubble glistened. It retracted its hand as if burned.

Ron and Rolf helped him stand. His legs shook.

“What is that thing?” Rolf gasped.

“What’s been eating your bowtruckles,” said Harry.

Rolf’s eyes were huge as he took in the creature.

“That’s what attacked you in Blaise’s house?” said Hermione, horrified.

Harry nodded.

“Everyone get back!”

Braff marched forward, his face livid. He looked laughably minuscule beside the monster.

“What are they?” Kingsley asked, pointing at the glowing tiles. “How are they keeping it at bay?”

“Jaspis,” Braff explained. “It’s the only thing that keeps these things quiet. Lucky I decided to put them in my pocket tonight.”

“You know what that thing is?” Harry asked.

Braff glared at him. “Oh, I know exactly what it is. We’ve had one before. Was a lot smaller, mind, but just as lethal. Recognized it at once from Thorne’s memory. Good thing someone decided to share,” he added acidly.

Tom stepped around the creature, studying it. “It’s grown.”

“They do that,” Braff growled. “The more they eat, the bigger they get. We call them Light Leeches. They’re like black holes. We’ve sensed their presence in our work with portals and dimensions, but the first time we made contact with one was fifteen years ago. Stumbled through a portal we’d managed to locate. Runt of a thing. Barely bigger than a house elf. But it didn’t take long before it starting eating any bit of magic it could get its grubby hands on.”

“Incredible,” Rolf whispered. He released Harry and took a step closer. The Leech did not touch the barrier again. It merely stood and watched them all with that same tilted head of curiosity, but its eyes … its sightless eyes never shifted from Harry.

Why, Harry wondered. Why do you want me?

“How did you get rid of it?” asked Robards.

“Forced it back through the portal it came in through,” said Braff. “Which is why it’s not the best of news that those Elladora Works got blasted to bits.”

“But you just said you study portals,” said Ron. “You can open one and push this one through!”

“Do you see how big this mother is?” barked Braff, jabbing an angry thumb over his shoulder. “Even if I found a portal big enough to suck it in, I wouldn’t risk it. The bigger entryways are, the more activity they have. Doors open both ways, boy. Something even worse might come through.”

“So we keep it contained?” said Tom.

“The jaspis tiles will keep it locked up,” Braff assured them. “Without a food source, it’ll start to weaken. When it shrinks down again, I’ll deal with it.”

“Can we move it?” asked Kingsley.

Braff shook his head “Afraid not, Minister. If I shift a tile, the cage breaks. It has to stay here.”

“In the Atrium?” said Rolf. “For how long?”

“Like I said, I’ve never seen one this big before. Might be days. Might be weeks. What I want to know,” said Braff, turning and looking right at Harry, “is why, in a room full of witches and wizards, did it go for you, Potter? It did just the same in the Zabini cellar. They don’t latch onto one food source like that.”

“I told you how Potter fell into one of the Elladora Works,” said Robards. “That’s where he met it.”

“You sure?” said Braff. “You sure that was the first time?”

“I don’t make a habit of falling into artwork, Braff,” Harry snapped.

“What about artifacts?” asked Braff silkily. “Because there’s one in my office that’s got your name all over it.”

“The Carcerem was discovered by Professor Snape,” said Kingsley sharply. “He confiscated it from a student as I have already told you, Braff.”

“That artifact had been activated,” said Braff stubbornly. “Activated at Hogwarts on the same day You-Know-Who fled. I don’t believe in coincidences. Not when it comes to you, Potter. Light Leeches! Dimensional prisons landing on my desk! You-Know-Who vanishing without a trace!”

Behind Braff, Tom was very still.

“Why haven’t you joined the team tasked with tracking down You-Know-Who?” Braff demanded, advancing on Harry. “You don’t seem remotely interested in whether he’s arrested or not.”

“Braff,” said Kingsley in warning.

Braff ignored him.

“Two people went into the Carcerem during the battle — I know that for a fact, Potter. It doesn’t take a genius to guess who the Carcerem would deem the most volatile pair on the grounds.”

“Braff!”

“Did you let You-Know-Who go, Potter?” Braff snarled, inches from Harry’s face. “Have you been keeping him safe all this time? Because if you have, you’re as much of a traitor as —”

Unspeakable Braff!” Kingsley’s voice was like a whip.

A sneer that would have made Snape proud twisted Braff’s lips. He turned away from Harry, addressing Kingsley.

“The Ministry should be put on lock down while the Leech is here, Minister. My team will see to guarding it.”

“You will have whatever resources you need,” said Kingsley, though he looked upon Braff with extreme dislike. He turned to Harry who was still half supported by Ron. “Do you need to see a Healer?”

Harry shook his head.

“Go home,” Kingsley ordered. “We’ll see to this.”

Chapter Text

Ron, Hermione and Tom would not hear of Harry being alone, and he was grateful. Even after a long bath, he could still feel the Leech’s gaze like oil residue on his skin. An exhaustion unlike any other plagued him. He nearly fell asleep in the tub, his eyes as heavy as sand bags.

Harry’s house contained only one guest room, which Ron and Hermione claimed at once. That left Tom on the couch. Much to Harry’s surprise, he did not voice a complaint, but then again, as Harry crawled into bed that night, Tom had most likely already transfigured it.

Though tired beyond reason, the moment his head hit the pillow, his brain lurched into action, agitated and frightened, Braff’s damning speech playing on repeat. What if he found out the truth? What if Tom’s identity was unearthed? Would the Ministry’s clearance hold against the tsunami of rage that was sure to follow? The dementors had been removed from Azkaban, a highly charged motion that Kingsley had pushed through shortly after the war, but if Tom was arrested would the dementors be brought back? Would the Wizengamot sentence him to a kiss? Would Harry be able to stop it? Would he be able to make the wizarding world see what he now saw? What Ron and Hermione and Kingsley and Robards now saw? That Tom was Tom. Arrogant and controlling and at times emotionally detached, but not evil. Not a monster. Not Voldemort.

Voldemort had been a choice, a choice Tom purposefully opted, day after day, not to repeat.

Sleep eventually came, but fretfully. Harry jerked from one dream to the next: faceless wizards and witches sending Tom to the dementors; Braff raging, “Take them both, the traitor!” Arms grabbed Harry and Braff smiled, his orange bow tie spinning round and round; his smile kept growing until it was a giant, gaping mouth. His eyes sunk away into his skull and Harry could do nothing as the Leech descended upon him, swallowing him whole.

 


 

The fact that the Ministry was hastily relocated overnight to an abandoned factory outside of London caused massive headaches for everyone involved. The Daily Prophet scrambled to catch up. Nott’s attack during the Halloween Party was on the front page the next morning, but all witnesses had fled before the Leech’s arrival and much to the Prophet’s frustration, the Ministry maintained a very tight lip as to why the building was in sudden lock down.

“No change yet, I’m afraid,” Rolf told them over lunch. He’d been allowed to stay and study the Leech. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I wish I could tell Luna about it, but it’s ‘classified’. Braff pretty much threatened Azkaban if I so much as sneeze.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she already knows about them,” said Ron, taking a large bite of ham sandwich. “With all the things she believes in, this one would fit right in.”

“How many of these Light Leeches do you think there are?” Hermione wondered.

“Dunno,” said Ron. “The way Braff was going on, he made it seem like they can’t die. Just shrink ’em down to size and shove ’em back through wherever the hell they came from. I hate the bastard, but that’s the sort of logic I’m good with.”

Though Harry did not say it, as Rolf was present, he felt confident that this Leech was the same one who’d stumbled toward him in the Carcerem, shrunken and starved, grasping and aching. What might have happened on that day if Tom hadn’t appeared when he had? What if he hadn’t been there to yank Harry back? What if Harry had reached out a curious hand and touched the Fat Lady’s frozen portrait, touched fingertip to fingertip the creature on the other side? Would it have reached straight through the canvas, wrapped its spindly fingers around Harry’s wrist and tugged him inside the portrait with it? Would it have been able to enter the Carcerem just as Tom had initially feared? The same fear that had made them burn every painting within the prison, just to make sure that very thing did not happen?

He had no proof, of course. No solid reason to aid him in this theory that the two Leeches were in fact one in the same. Only his gut. Perhaps there were hundreds of them. Millions. But somehow Harry didn’t think so. Something told him that it was a creature entirely separate from everything else — unique and alone — and for some reason, out of every being in the multiverse, it had latched onto Harry. He shivered. He didn’t like having a target on his back.

“Harry?” said Hermione, noticing his discomfort. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, quickly masking his unpleasant train of thought and jumping to a different topic. “Does Robards want me back yet?” he asked Rolf. The coin in his pocket had been cold all morning.

Rolf grimaced at Harry apologetically. “They really want you to stay put, Harry. Sorry.”

“But they have it contained,” Harry argued. “It’s locked up. What’s the harm in me going back to work?”

“Harry, you were nearly killed twice in less than ten minutes,” said Hermione hotly. “Robards wouldn’t clear you for duty after that, even without Nott running loose and a highly dangerous creature after your magic. And did you sleep at all last night? You look terrible.”

“Yeah, mate,” said Ron. “We know Nott’s got a supply of Polyjuice Potion.”

“Not to mention the fact that he successfully captured an Auror and impersonated him,” Hermione continued, unrelenting. “He’s willing to take extreme risks to get hold of you. Anyone who would attempt murdering you in the midst of a crowd of Ministry officials has nothing to lose.”

“So I’m supposed to stay cooped up until Nott’s finally caught or the Leech is sent back where it came from?” said Harry furious.

“Yes,” said Hermione, pleased he’d caught on.

“That’s ridiculous! If I’d stayed boarded up every time someone tried to do me in —”

“For once in your life, Harry, would you let other people handle this?” Hermione raged.

“Do you agree with them?” Harry demanded, addressing Tom, but any hope he had an ally dissolved as Tom turned from the window that overlooked the back garden.

“You have not recovered from the Leech’s attack. Until you have, leaving the house would be idiocy.” And he returned to gazing out the window.

Rolf awkwardly cleared his throat.

“I’d better be getting back,” he said, leaving the last of his sandwich but plucking a pickle form the jar. “Thanks for lunch.”

Harry rose. He was so annoyed with the lot of them that he had no interest in keeping them company. “I’ll see you out.”

But the moment they reached the front door, Harry grabbed Rolf’s elbow.

“Do you think you could get hold of a few documents — studies, reports — about portals or Leeches?” he asked in an undertone.

Rolf blinked in surprise and then frowned in disapproval.

“Come on, Rolf,” Harry pleaded. “I’m not going to go chasing after the thing, but if something like this happens again, I want to know more about what I’m dealing with. Braff certainly isn’t going to share.”

“You think that might happen?” Rolf asked.

“Better to be prepared than ignorant.”

Rolf’s eyes searched Harry. “Hermione’s right, you know. You look like shit.”

“I feel like it,” Harry agreed.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Rolf. “No promises.”

“Thank you,” said Harry, grateful.

Rolf nodded. He walked out of the house, down the garden path and with a sharp crack, Apparated away.

 


 

Harry suspected that even when he did get back to full health, no one would let him leave the house until either Nott or the Leech had been dealt with. The Ministry was strained, forced to operate in an unsuitable environment, much to the confusion and frustration of its employees and officials. As Rolf had said, the Leech was confidential information. If Harry was Nott and looking for the perfect opportunity to strike, it would be now with everyone thoroughly off kilter.

But that was neither here nor there. Another day passed and Harry was little better than before, hit with spells of fatigue so great, he could barely go fifteen minutes standing.

“I don’t get it,” he grumbled to Hermione and Ron as he lay limp on the couch. “Last time I was fine overnight.”

“Last time you were only with that thing for a few seconds,” Hermione pointed out, “and this time it was much larger. You were doing everything you could to keep your shield up.”

“How fast do you think it can drain someone?” Ron asked, trying to appear nonchalant, but failing. “If it touched you?”

Harry remembered the sensation of magic being sucked from his wand. From his very being. He sank more into the couch.

“Not long,” he said.

 


 

It was unsettling to be under the same roof, day after day, with Tom. Like an upended bucket of worms, Harry’s mind teamed with memories, déjà vu striking again and again. Though they sat next to each other at meals, chatting politely and passing the time as they waited for word that the Leech was gone or that Nott had been arrested, they hardly made eye contact. An undeniable strain had appeared between them. Or maybe there was nothing wrong. Maybe Harry, unable to relax, was the one who kept imagining the unspoken tension. He kept trying to think of something to say, something to help return them to their easy-going camaraderie, but whenever he tried he pictured Tom and Maybelle and his insides felt that they’d been scooped out.

Harry believed Tom when he said he felt nothing toward her, but what if that changed? What if when all of this was over – the Leech gone and Braff’s accusations swept under the rug – what if he found someone? What if there was a day when Tom chose to be with someone?

Whenever this thought occurred, Harry always removed himself from Tom’s presence, vanishing into his bedroom and not reappearing again for hours.

 


 

An owl tapped on Harry’s bedroom window late at night, a bundle of journals clamped in its beak, but that was the only contact he received from Rolf. Four days since the lock down and Kingsley and Robards still remained mute, and Harry, desperate for some sense of normality, managed to convince Ron and Hermione that all three of them did not have to keep watch over him twenty-four-seven.

“You can still go to work,” he pointed out. “I’m a lot better now.”

“I don’t know,” said Hermione, biting her lip. “I’m just not comfortable leaving you alone.”

“I won’t be alone,” Harry assured her. “I’m talking to you two about this because I know Tom would laugh in my face.”

“It would be helpful to be in the office,” Hermione agreed, eying the folders she’d snatched from her office before it had been quarantined. “Just for a few hours,” she added, apologetically.

“There’s been a giant surge in purchases for our Defense line,” Ron admitted. “What with the Ministry going dark, it’s gotten a lot of people worried. George could do with another hand.”

“Go,” Harry urged. “I’m fine, really.”

“You’re sure?” said Hermione. “But we’ll be back for dinner, okay? And we’re staying the night.”

But with Ron and Hermione no longer there filling up conversation, Harry grew tenser. Suddenly, he didn’t know how to be in the same room with Tom. If Tom noticed Harry’s agitation, he kept it to himself, browsing Harry’s bookcase or scanning the windows for approaching wizards.

It was a relief when Ron and Hermione returned that evening, only allowed entrance once Tom made sure it was them. That nervous agitation never dissipating, Harry had fallen into his old habit of cooking and he’d spent much of the day in the kitchen making a god awful mess – kneading bread, concocting a vegetable soup, marinating chicken breasts. Partway through making the spinach filling it dawned on him that this entire dinner had been a frequent one in the Carcerem, Tom even once going so far as to request it. That had been right before the first time they’d slept together. Right before restlessness had driven Harry out of his bedroom, unable to sleep, unable to name what it was he wanted until Tom pushed him against the sink and with a single kiss, made everything clear.

“This is delicious, Harry!” Hermione praised. “Even better than last time.”

“Yeah,” said Ron. “You could beat Mum at this. But where’re the peas?”

“Tom hates peas,” said Harry.

Ron snorted, but at Tom’s flat glare, quickly turned his attention to his plate.

“Just don’t ask him to cook pasta,” Tom said, buttering a roll.

For the first time in four days, their eyes met.

“Why?” asked Ron.

It was like pulling away from a magnet, but Harry broke the connection.

“I can’t get the sauces right. They’re always watery or burnt.”

Under the table, Tom’s foot rested an inch from his own. Just one shift to the left and they’d touch.

 


 

They cleaned up dinner and Harry, desperate to stay busy, made a pot of hot chocolate. He hadn’t felt so out of sorts in a long time, not since August when Tom had marched back into his life. It’s just him being here, he told himself. Soon everything would go back to the way it was before. Surely it wouldn’t take much longer for the Leech to shrink down to a manageable size. And Nott … there was no way he’d be able to dodge the Aurors. The entire force was looking for him.

Rain rolled in as they all sat around the fireplace, drinking their cocoas, but instead of being calmed, Harry felt even more disturbed, as if everything had turned upside down. Tom Riddle was sitting in his family room, drinking hot chocolate and discussing which Quidditch teams had the best chances of winning the league.

“You don’t follow Quidditch,” said Harry, wondering just how more surreal this night could become.

“I don’t,” Tom agreed, “and yet…”

“The Cannons are going to make it this year,” said Ron with conviction. “They’ve recruited that new chaser — Bonnie Johnston.”

Tom looked as if Ron was joking. “You support the Cannons?”

“Yeah,” said Ron, stoutly.

“They will never win the league.”

“Any more cocoa?” Hermione asked, overly brightly as Ron’s jaw tightened and his ears pinked.

It was near midnight when Ron and Hermione said their good nights, retreating to the guest room. Harry put the mugs in the sink, telling himself he would clean them in the morning. On his way to the stairs he paused in the family room. Tom had moved to the couch. He’d stripped off his sweater, a simple button-down shirt underneath.

“If you’d rather sleep in a bed, you can spend the night back at your hotel,” said Harry. “Ron and Hermione are here in case anything happens.”

Tom’s glare was steel.

“Or not,” Harry backtracked.

“I can make it comfortable enough,” Tom replied.

“Right.” Harry swung his arms awkwardly. “Well, night, then.” He turned for the stairs and Tom’s voice was a caress.

“Good night, Harry.”

Harry hesitated, one foot on the bottom step, one hand clutching the banister. Did Tom feel it? This unrelenting heat between them? This prickling on the skin like static?

He pushed the feelings down into the pit of his stomach. Without looking back, he climbed the stairs, entered his room and shut the door, leaning up against it. Taking deep, steadying breaths, he closed his eyes. Just a few more days. Just a few more days and then …

They would go back to work.

Together.

Harry’s hands covered his face. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t keep this up. But he had to. He had to because —

Because why?

Harry tried to bring back his reasons, but they slithered from his reach. They’d been good, solid reasons. Hadn’t they?

A small tap on his door made him freeze. Heart pounding, he opened it, already knowing who he would find on the other side. Tom did not speak. He simply stared at him.

Tell him to go, a voice said urgently in his head. Tell him.

Tom raised a hand, placing the pad of his thumb against Harry’s bottom lip, the rest tucking under his chin. A shiver ran down Harry’s spine. Their eyes locked and Harry’s rules crashed around his ears. He didn’t know who moved first. Perhaps they moved at the same time. They kissed and it felt like two pieces fitting perfectly back together. Two steps backward and Tom prodded the door shut with his foot. Two kisses and Harry steered Tom to the edge of the bed. The backs of his legs hit the mattress and he sat. Harry clambered up on top of him, his knees straddling Tom’s hips. Three kisses. Tom’s hands slid down his back, coming to a rest on his thighs. Four kisses. Five. Harry pulled off his shirt and fumbled with his jeans, noticing for the first time how badly his fingers shook. In the low light of the room, Tom saw the tremors. Long arms scooped him up, turning him, and Harry found himself on his back, Tom looming above him. He removed his own shirt and a breath later, so was everything else.

Harry couldn’t speak. His heart pounded so loud he was sure Hermione and Ron would hear and come barging in, worried a stampede was on the way. Tom slipped Harry’s glasses from his face and placed them on the night table. His lips pressed whisper-soft against the lightning bolt scar, his eyelids, the bridge of his nose, before returning to Harry’s mouth. Had they ever kissed so deeply? Their mouths never parting, Tom's hands moved down Harry’s sides. He rolled up his hips, allowing Tom to work his pants down. Wriggling his legs, Harry finally freed himself.

Lack of oxygen had him breaking the kiss, but Harry had hardly taken a shaky inhale before Tom moved, their erections grinding together in a fashion that made Harry’s toes curl. His legs fell open. He lifted his hips upward, wanting more of that friction, but Tom’s hand pushed down on his pelvis, stilling him.

“Do you want this?” he whispered.

Harry was flushed. Already a thin sheen of sweat covered his skin. Arousal coursed through him, but he forced himself to be immobile.

“Because if we do this,” Tom continued, his eyes so dilated they appeared black, “there’s no going back to being colleagues or acquaintances or friends or whatever the hell we’ve been trying to be. I won’t go back to that. I want to kiss you whenever the urge strikes. I want you beside me in bed every night. I want everyone to know you’re mine. So do you want this?”

Harry took Tom’s face in his hands, his thumbs tracing the sharp lines of his cheekbones.

“Yes,” he answered. “I want this. I want you.”

 

xXx

 

Tom drifted out of slumber, savoring the feeling of Harry’s sheets against his skin. Without opening his eyes, he reached out one arm to pull Harry close.

His hand found nothing. He opened his eyes, blinking away grains of sleep.

“Harry?”

He was alone.

Tom dressed and as he descended the stairs he heard voices issuing from the kitchen. Granger and Weasley were at the circular table, tucking into breakfast. Harry stood against the sink, cradling a cup of tea. They all looked around the moment he entered. He had a feeling Granger wished him good morning, but all his attention was on Harry. Tom didn’t realize the tension he carried in his gut until Harry smiled at him. It was small — so small — and yet warmer than the summer sun.

“Tea?” Harry asked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

Still with that gentle air, as Weasley and Granger chatted, Harry poured him a cup from the pot set on the table. He passed it to him and their hands lingered against each other before Harry moved away, pulling out a chair. Tom sat beside him.

Though he’d told Harry he wanted everyone to know they were together, as he watched Harry scoop eggs onto his plate, Tom was struck with a powerful urge to keep it secret. Protect it. He wanted to lock it away, preserved and untainted by any outward opinion, only seen and touched and cherished by the two of them.

“Jam?”

Tom blinked, his mind jerking back into focus.

How was it possible for a face — for a voice — to be everything?

“Jam,” Harry repeated, offering the jar.

Did Harry have the faintest idea what his quiet smiles and soft eyes were doing to him? He took the jar and feeling his own secretive smile play on his lips, reached for the toast.

A rapid knock on the front door had Harry turning. “Wonder who that is?” he said, frowning. He made to rise, but Weasley jumped up.

“I’ll get it!”

Harry rolled his eyes. “I really don’t think Nott’s going to knock,” he said in annoyance as Weasley disappeared into the family room. They heard the door open, Weasley’s voice of concern and then Rolf appeared in the kitchen, disheveled and short of breath.

“Braff’s dead,” he cried. “The Leech broke free. It’s escaped!”

Chapter Text

“Rolf, start from the beginning,” Granger urged.

They had moved into the family room. Rolf sat on the couch, a fresh cup of tea in his shaking hands.

“I don’t know how it happened. One minute everything was fine. We were running the standard diagnostics on the Leech and next thing I know all hell’s broken loose. It’s fast. It’s so fast. I barely got out.”

“I thought it was contained,” said Harry. “The tiles.”

Rolf took a gulp of tea. “It smashed right through the cage. Braff was saying it wasn’t weakening like he expected it to. I think the tiles couldn’t stand up against it for so long. It’s too strong.”

A chill pooled in Tom’s gut.

“So it could be anywhere?” said Weasley, ashen. “And the only thing with any chance of holding it back doesn’t work long enough to do any good?”

Rolf nodded. He swallowed more tea.

“We have to open a portal,” said Harry.

Tom looked at him sharply.

“Say what?” said Weasley.

“You heard Braff,” Granger flared. “We might get more trouble than we already have!”

“And it’s not like we even know how to open one,” said Weasley.

“It’s a variation of Alohomora,” said Harry.

Silence fell so severely that the drips from the leaking faucet in the kitchen could be heard.

“How do you know that?” said Granger, startled.

Tom was wondering the same.

Harry and Rolf’s eyes met.

“Stay here.” Harry left the room, mounting the stairs two at a time. A few seconds later, he returned, a stack of notebooks in his hands. He put them on the coffee table.

Granger picked the top one up. She flipped open the cover.

“These are from the Unspeakable Vaults.” Her eyes latched onto Harry, suddenly furious. “You stole—”

“Actually, it was me,” said Rolf, raising his hand.

This did not soothe Granger.

“You bullied Rolf into stealing—”

“I didn’t bully him,” said Harry, indignant. “I asked. And it’s a good thing because otherwise we wouldn’t know anything about portals.”

“We can’t open a portal! It’s too dangerous!”

“What other option do we have?” Harry demanded. “We can’t use magic against it. We can’t hide from it. And now we can’t even contain it. Opening a portal is our only choice.”

Granger chewed on her lip, conflicted. In her hesitation, Harry continued.

“According to their research, the strongest portal they’ve found is at Stonehenge. We lure the Leech there and we get rid of it.”

“But what would stop it from coming right back out again?” asked Weasley.

“Leeches can’t open portals,” Harry explained. “They can find them, but they require an outward energy source — someone else to unlock them. That’s essentially what I did when I fell into Nothingness. My presence caused a wrinkle that the Leech was able to wriggle through. That’s why they’re usually small when they enter different worlds. There’s nothing to feed on in the Void and so they weaken.”

“How were you able to fall into Nothingness?” Rolf asked. “From everything I’ve read about the Elladora Works, that shouldn’t have been possible.”

“Apparently the fabric that separates dimensions from each other lingers on the skin. The Carcerem creates its own dimension to house its prisoners, so just from being inside it made me more sensitive to their pull.”

“You really were in the Carcerem?” said Rolf, staggered. “Who was with—”

“Later,” said Weasley shortly.

“But doesn’t that mean you’re at risk for being dragged into the portal?” said Granger.

“Maybe,” Harry admitted, shifting his eyes just slightly to Tom. “But the Leech practically spends its entire existence swimming around dimensional openings. The portal will be like a vacuum to it. The only issue is that it takes a great deal of energy to open a portal and keep it open.” Harry looked at Tom directly now.

“You want me to do it.”

“You’re the strongest. And you can also sense magic. These portals are invisible to us, but you might be able to pinpoint it. Plus,” Harry added with a humorous smile, “I’m bait.”

Tom did not find that remotely funny.

“This is crazy,” said Granger.

“If you’ve got a better idea, say it quick,” said Harry, “because we really don’t have a lot of time.”

Rolf put down his teacup. “I’m with Harry.”

Weasley and Granger shared a look that spoke of years of insanity.

“We’re in,” he sighed.

Harry turned to Tom.

To think, just a few hours ago he’d been wrapped bodily around Harry, warm and content, feeling that everything was finally right.

“A variation of Alohomora?” he asked.

Harry picked up one of the journals. He flipped to the correct entry.

“Think you can do it?”

Tom scanned the passage. “It’ll be easy.”

 


 

It was a clear, stunning day, most likely one of the last before winter set in its claws. The grass was spongy under Tom’s shoes, the sun pleasant on his back. It was the sort of day Tom would expect tourists to be out and about, but Stonehenge was quiet.

“Okay, spread out,” said Harry. “Make sure no one’s here. We don’t need Muggles caught in the crossfire. Tom?”

“Give me a moment.”

Tom stepped inside the ring of stones. They towered, their shadows chilling him as he slowly walked its circle. Magic resided here, a pulsation that was out of step with itself. Near a center stone, he came upon it. It was difficult to see straight on, but he found it — a wink in the corner of his eye.

He called back over his shoulder, “I have it.”

Harry and the others darted toward him.

“Where?” Harry asked.

Tom pointed. The longer he stood before it, the clearer it became. He felt its promise of endlessness, brimming with unchecked energy. A sharpness coated his tongue, like the sulfuric fumes of a volcano.

“We don’t want it open long,” said Harry. “Only open it when the Leech shows up.”

The pulsations now had color, an electric purple and blistered red. Without warning, Tom felt a tendril of energy hook behind a rib and tug.

“Tom?” Harry’s voice seemed very far away. “Tom.”

Tom’s eyes jerked away and the hook’s thread broke. Harry frowned at him.

“You okay?”

“The energy of this portal is extremely powerful.”

“Can you keep it open?” Harry asked quietly so the others would not hear.

Self-doubt was not a feeling Tom was familiar with, but unease curled in his gut as he glanced at the gossamer threads of energy.

“Yes.”

Closing it, however.

“We’ll force it through as fast as we can,” Harry assured him.

Tom expected Harry to return to the outer stones, but with a single step he placed a kiss, soft as a feather, on Tom’s mouth.

“Good luck,” Harry whispered.

Tom’s lips tingled as if Harry’s kiss had bruised rather than caressed. Swallowing, he gave a jerky nod and put his focus back on the portal. Behind him, the others moved away, giving him space to work.

He heard Weasley say, “So, you’re back together?”

“Yeah,” said Harry.

“’Bout time,” said Weasley and Harry snorted on a laugh.

Grinning, Tom planted his feet and drew his wand.

 

xXx

 

Harry was confident the Leech would come. He just didn’t know when. They spaced themselves evenly around the outer ring of stones, wands at the ready. Harry shifted from foot to foot, his eyes scanning the grassy knoll. He’d never been to Stonehenge. It was beautiful and would be an excellent spot for a picnic. He’d have to bring Teddy before the days turned too cold.

Back and forth, Harry’s eyes traveled the horizon. He’d make cheddar biscuits. Teddy loved them. Maybe Tom would even come.

A shimmer, like a heat wave, caught Harry’s eye. Where there had only been grass and one lone, wayward wisp of a cloud now stood the Leech, towering at thirty feet. The sunlight reflected off its bleached skin, making Harry squint against the glare.

“It’s here!” he roared. “Tom—”

The Leech moved. Rolf was right. It was fast. Far faster than it had been just days ago. Harry whipped up his wand just in time. A blink later and the Leech collided with his shield and Harry’s feet slid backward from the force of the impact.

“Protego!”

Hermione’s spell joined his, then Ron’s and Rolf’s. The Leech roared in frustration, its fingertips digging into the shield, nails piercing it like a cat’s claws in silk.

“Tom!” Harry bellowed over his shoulder. “The portal! Open the—”

With the crack of a lightning bolt, a blast of energy unlike anything Harry had felt before plowed over him, flattening the grass. Tom had done it.

 

xXx

 

“We have to get it closer to the portal!” Tom heard Harry shout to the others. “On my word, we drop the shield.”

The portal was an entity of itself. Unbridled, vicious energy scorched the grass. The opening split upward like a rip in the air. Fifty feet. Sixty. Tom kept his wand hand steady, his feet firmly planted, but the tendrils of energy coiled around him, sinking in their hooks. If Harry and the others were right behind him, Tom couldn’t tell. Only the roaring wind filled his ears. It was an abyss. An endless, bottomless void. The blackness deepened and widened as Tom stared at it. It promised an eternity of nothingness. An eternity of darkness with only his worst memories to keep him company.

Horcruxes, ripping and tearing his soul. He could feel the scars as acutely as a freshly healed wound. His father. The Potters. Lonely, pathetic Hepzibah. Everywhere he walked, his footsteps left a trail of death and blood. As he stared into the Void, his feet slipping forward on the slick grass, the hooks digging deeper, he saw them all. He was back in that impenetrable darkness that haunted his dreams, his victims all around him. The howling in his ears was their screams. Their pleads. Their terror. He was lost in it. A baby was crying.

He saw himself lifting a wand into that child’s frightened face, green eyes identical to the woman who lay dead at his feet. He saw himself like a bystander and felt revulsion.

He had forgiven Harry so long ago, but had he forgiven himself?

“Tom!”

Harry.

Harry was balm on a sting. He was sun on a frozen lake. He was happiness. He was love. Like rising from a well, Tom rose up out of that endless darkness. He blinked sweat from his eyes and was back — struggling against the whipping wind as the portal widened even more, veins of volcanic black bleeding outward and upward. He risked a glance over his shoulder. They were right behind him, the Leech battering their shield, apparently too determined to reach them to fear or even notice the portal.

“NOW!” Harry bellowed.

At once, the shield fell. Perhaps they could not hold it up any longer, even if they’d wanted to. They crouched down, flattening themselves to the ground. The portal’s tentacles shot out, wrapping as tight as Devil’s Snare around the Leech. The creature released a bone-shattering cry of terror that Tom was sure Muggles miles away would hear. The ropes pulled it toward its chasm of a mouth. The Leech fought, grabbing a stone, its nails leaving foot long gouges, but the tug of the portal was constant. Unwavering. The Leech lost its hold and tumbled straight through the gateway, spinning head over heels into its depths.

“Close it!” Harry shouted.

They clung to the stones, the wind as strong as a hurricane. Tom’s wand was unbearably hot, vibrating so badly he feared it would burst into flame. Every movement sent needles of pain shooting through his body, but he rolled his wrist, performing the counter-charm, urging the gate to seal.

The hooks were so deep in his flesh that each breath was a torture. Tom gritted his teeth, his hair falling into his eyes. He felt his feet slide closer—

A second beam of light joined his. Battered against the vicious wind, Harry stood beside him. And then there was a third. A fourth. A fifth. Their spells combined did what one could not. The portal began to shrink, slowly knitting back together. Tom felt the cords attached to him snapping off, one by one, the tendrils of energy dissolving without their anchor.

But he was bleeding.

“YES!” Weasley and Rolf roared as the portal vanished from sight. “YES!”

“We did it!” Granger gasped, breathless. “We actually did it.”

“Tom? Tom, are you okay?”

No. I’m bleeding.

The invisible wounds were too many to count, but they were not new injuries, he realized. They were ones from long ago. Wounds of his making. Wounds he’d inflicted upon himself, again and again. The hooks had simply pointed them out. He had not known how riddled he was.

Tom!

Harry grabbed him before he hit the ground. Someone was shouting, but it was just noise to Tom. He could only smell fresh pine.

He could only smell Harry.

 


 

His body was heavy. For a long time, he thought of nothing, merely following the gentle sensation of his lungs filling with air and slowly releasing. The rustle of paper drew his attention. It was harder than it should have been to open his eyes.

White met him. He lay on his back in a small bed. It was quiet, save for that rustling of paper. A scratching of a quill tip. His eyes shifted to the right. Beside a window, bathed golden in the sunlight, Harry sat on a chair, reading a magazine. He took in the sight, thinking that if this was death, how silly of him to have always feared it.

He spotted the magazine’s cover.

“We need to discuss your reading choices,” he said, his voice surprisingly hoarse.

Harry’s head jerked up. The relief that spread across his face made Tom’s heart swell.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Harry lightly. “Sometimes the Quibbler makes an interesting point.” He closed the magazine and set it aside. “And you’d be hard pressed to find a better crossword.”

He stood and sat on the edge of the bed.

“You okay?” Harry asked softly.

Tom hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he said honestly.

“We nearly lost you,” Harry told him. “You’ve been unconscious for over two weeks.”

Tom was startled. “Sorry.” And he was saying sorry for everything. I’m sorry I took your family from you. I’m sorry I hurt you. I will never hurt you again. It was impossible to know whether Harry understood, whether he guessed just how deeply Tom wished he could go back and change everything, fix everything, right everything, but perhaps Harry did. The small smile that crept over his lips made Tom think it could be so.

“Hope you don’t mind, but Ron and I already ate all your chocolate frogs. You got Dumbledore, Burdock Muldoon, Gwenog Jones —”

For the first time, Tom noticed the stack of get well gifts piled on the table by his bedside. Some of the horror at the sight of the miniature mountain must have appeared on his face, for Harry laughed.

Tom’s eyes were on a vase of cabbage sized flowers, a flamboyantly colorful card sticking out of its leaves.

“There are cards?” he said, feeling ill.

“Yeah,” said Harry, grinning apologetically. “I told them you wouldn’t want any fuss, but they were insistent.”

Dear. God.

“I’m sorry too.”

Surprised, Tom turned his focus back to Harry.

Nervous, he fiddled with the corner of Tom’s blanket. “I was so scared by how I felt that I kept pushing you away. I should have said it ages ago.” He took a steadying breath and looked Tom straight in the eyes. “I love you.”

What was this sensation coursing through him? This feeling that had his heart pounding and his skin tingling? This overwhelming flood that made his throat constrict? He was shaking. Dear Salazar, he was actually trembling. School girls were more composed than this.

But Harry understood. He saw it all and understood. He leaned forward and kissed him, and as it deepened an alarm jangled into life above their heads. Harry pulled away, guilt-faced.

“You aren’t supposed to get your heart rate up.”

“If that’s the case, you’re going to have to leave,” said Tom, dead serious.

Grinning even wider, Harry slipped off the bed and returned to his chair. He flipped the Quibbler back open, picked up his quill, and propped his feet up onto the bed, chewing on the tip of his quill as he studied his crossword.

“What did I miss?” Tom asked.

“Not much,” said Harry. “The gnomes found my garden — I was surprised it took them so long. Made a mess of the carrots. Oh, and Nott’s been arrested.”

“He has?”

“Turns out, he was low on funds. When he showed up at Gringotts to access his vault, the goblins alerted Robards. You’d think he’d know better, but I guess not everyone’s willing to rough it while on the run. Eddie was the first on the scene.”

“I imagine he enjoyed that.”

“Immensely,” said Harry. “Won’t talk about anything else.”

“Pity the dementors have been pulled from Azkaban.”

“No one deserves dementors,” Harry disagreed.

“He does,” said Tom.

Harry’s smile was small. His socked toes wriggled against Tom’s leg, burrowing under his knee. Turning back to his crossword, voice light, he said, “Three letters, green vegetable.”

Tom studied the ceiling, relishing the warmth spreading through his chest to every inch of his being. To every wisp of his soul.

He smirked. “Pea. And they’re still vile.”

“Says the bloke who’ll gut fish all day,” said Harry, writing in the word.

“Fish are worth eating,” Tom stated. “Peas … I don’t even understand peas.”

“They were in the chicken.”

“They were not.”

“Sure were,” said Harry, filling in another word. “I mashed them and mixed them in with the spinach. And you ate every bite,” he said with satisfaction.

“You are a menace, Harry Potter.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, a crooked grin on his face. It was the most beautiful thing Tom had ever seen. “I know.”

 

<<the end>>