Now that Halloween has passed them by the year seems to be moving double time. Harry swears he doesn’t do much more than blink and November is gone, streaming past in a flurry of homework, research, and a handful of letters exchanged with Mr. Abbott that resulted in an obnoxiously penitent letter from the Editor of the Daily Prophet and a not insignificant reparation of five hundred galleons deposited into his account. After talking it over both with Mr. Abbott and with Snape, Harry had decided to forgo pressing legal charges – this time – in favor of keeping the state of his affairs out of public record and Dumbledore’s eyes. Something Harry deems prudent because ever since the troll incident the Headmaster has adopted the awful habit of crossing paths with Harry and his group at least once or twice a week, making sure to single out Harry with an overly familiar smile of approval and a cheerful “Hello, my boy!”.
Harry hates it.
He hates it even more once he realizes that it must be because he has proven himself to the old man – that Dumbledore has surely interpreted his going after Hermione as a singular action that proves his goodness despite the house that he had been sorted into.
You did a very brave thing, Dumbledore had told him, a magnanimous statement obviously indicative of his belief that Harry is not really a Slytherin.
Most encounters, however fleeting, with the Headmaster leave Harry internally fuming and longing to march right into the man’s office and spend literal days word vomiting all of his frustration and anger and betrayal out in parseltongue. Just to drive the point home.
He doesn’t, obviously, but he can dream.
That is not the only consequence of the troll incident.
Notably, the Monday after Halloween the Board of Governors and the DMLE descend upon the school. And by the Board of Governors and the DMLE Harry means that Lucius Malfoy and Amelia Bones along with two aurors, their distinctive red robes glaring against the sea of student black, are spotted striding up the main staircase in the direction of Dumbledore’s office ten minutes before the first class of the day.
“Isn’t that your dad?” Harry asks, nudging Draco.
“…and Aunt Millie!” Susan exclaims, grinning broadly. “They must be here about the troll!”
“The troll?” Harry blinks at her and back at Draco when the boy gives a very decisive nod of his head.
“It almost killed you! Of course, I told father,” Draco exclaims, clearly offended by the idea that Harry hadn’t expected him to tell his father. “I didn’t know if Dumbledore would do anything about dangerous creatures wandering the school. Father’s on the Board of Governors. He’ll fix it.”
He'll fix it, a phrase uttered with the unwavering conviction of a child with perfect faith in an adult to take care of things. It conjures a mental image of Lucius Malfoy that is wildly different than anything that Harry had seen from the man.
Well, almost anything, he corrects silently. In his mind he can see the image of a haggard and unkept man searching for his son, so desperate to find him that he walks a battlefield unarmed – a battlefield where he is likely, for one reason or another, to come under fire from both sides.
It's beyond odd to suddenly see the relationship between Draco and Lucius in this light. For so long, Draco had wielded the term my father like a weapon – something used to threaten or punish. And then he hadn’t and Harry had assumed it to be because of shame: his father had been caught, put in Azkaban, revealed for the scum he really was. It had all seemed so simple. But this…
He’ll fix it.
“Oh,” Harry says and hopes that he doesn’t sound as shocked as he feels. Because he’s never had that. Not that he can remember anyway. He’s seen it though. He’s seen it in the Weasley family and in the way that Hermione had spoken about her parents.
It all looks so different now. The world that been so solid beneath his feet isn’t there anymore. It’s not like when he found out that Dumbledore had been keeping him alive only to die at the proper moment. It’s not like when he had died and then found out that the old man simply expected him to accept it and go back to fulfill his destiny.
It's not like that.
But it’s a little closer than he’d like to admit.
Distantly he wonders if this will ever stop. If he’ll ever find his equilibrium again or if is going to spend the rest of his – apparently very, very long existence – constantly feeling the ground ripped out from underneath him over and over and over again.
“I sent Aunt Millie a note on Friday after Draco told us what happened,” Susan tells him. “A troll shouldn’t have been able to get in the school.”
“Oh,” Harry says again and this time he knows he sounds as surprised as he thinks he does because Blaise gives him an odd look.
“You can’t imagine it would be kept quiet,” the other boy remarks, still watching him. “Most of the school was talking about it and half of them probably sent letters to their parents on the rumors alone.”
But that’s exactly what Harry had thought. After all, no one had cared about the troll last time. It had been a slightly terrifying oddity but nothing had happened outside of some light property destruction. Had his stay in the hospital wing changed so much? Or is it simply the fact that this time he happens to be friends with the Head of the DMLE’s niece and the son of a school governor? Is it simply a matter of people actually knowing? He, Ron, and Hermione had never spoken much of their confrontation with the troll and as none of them had been injured the rest of the school had never known that anything had happened except that they had suddenly become friends.
Except, that’s not right either. All of the students – well, everyone but Hermione – had been in the Great Hall when Quirrell had burst in. Surely one of them had written to someone outside the castle about. Surely Draco had mentioned it to his father even without a friend being involved.
So what is different?
And, more importantly, does it matter?
Harry looks up the stairs, past the sea of students, past the tall, dark haired man leaning against the bannister with a pair of sunglasses perched on his nose. The aurors are easy to spot in their signatory crimson but it is the figure of Lucius Malfoy on the stairs in fine robes so dark green they are nearly black, head tilted politely to the side as Amelia Bones says something to him and gestures with one hand, that catches his eye. The man is a Death Eater. In another life he plants a dark artifact on an eleven-year-old girl which unleashes a basilisk on a school full of children, attacks a group of children with clear intent to capture, torture and possibly even kill, and helps Lord Voldemort rise to power.
But right now, in this life, he is just a father acting in defense of his son.
Not a good man but not just a bad one either.
As bloody insane as it sounds, in this life, it feels as if he is acting in defense of Harry as well.
The oddity of the thought is enough to make him dizzy.
“You really don’t have a very high opinion of people, do you?” Mandy leans against his side and the relief having someone holding him up, however accidentally, is enough to make the corners of his eyes burn.
Mandy rolls her eyes. “It was a rhetorical question, idiot. How are you holding up?”
Harry latches onto the change of subject with no small amount of relief. “I’m fine. Honestly. I feel pretty normal, I’m just not allowed to cast in class.”
“Speaking of, we should probably go so that we’re not late,” Hannah says. “Are we still on to feed Blaise’s plant later today?”
“I promise, dear Hannah, that I won’t feed Mr. Grabby without you,” Blaise promises, laughing. Hannah bounces on the balls of her feet and punches the air in excitement.
“You realize,” Harry says to Neville, who has turned faintly pink at this exchange, “that if you don’t get her a plant that she can feed for her birthday she’ll probably be crushed.”
“I kn-know,” the other boy nods his head vigorously. “I a-already h-have one i-in m-mind.”
“Do you think I’ll get to see him before they leave?” Draco asks as he falls in on Harry’s other side once the Hufflepuff and Gryffindor members of their group have left for their own classes.
“Your dad?” Harry clarifies and Draco nods. Harry swallows the slightly incredulous, slightly hysterical laugh that tries to burst out of his throat. “Draco,” he says seriously, “I’m pretty sure your dad won’t leave the castle without coming to say hi.”
Harry nods. “Really. We should get going though. We have to get all the way down to the greenhouses.”
“Want me to carry your bag?” Mandy asks.
Harry sighs. “I’m fine,” he promises.
Blaise pats him mockingly on the shoulder.
Harry is right. Lucius Malfoy doesn’t leave the castle without coming to see Draco.
He nudges Draco and jerks his chin at the entrance to the Great Hall. “See? Told you.”
Draco twists around, nearly falling off of the bench in his enthusiasm, and his entire face lights up as he spots the pair that are walking towards where they are all eating lunch at one end of the Slytherin table. They eat breakfast and dinner with their own houses but they have fallen into the habit of eating lunch together. The others all come to the Slytherin table – a fact the Slytherins don’t particularly care for but after single, incredulous glance at Snape, who simply stared down at them like they were all idiots, the very first time it had happened the snakes handle it much better than the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs had when they’d tried to sit at their tables. They don’t bother trying to take a turn with the Gryffindors. That is something that would only end in disaster. And probably detention.
Lucius is close enough now that Harry can spot the way his mouth twitches into an answering smile before he can stop it all the way.
“Draco,” he greets much more sedately but there’s a warmth to his voice that Harry doesn’t think he’s ever heard before. Apparently, he’s not the only one because Amelia Bones is giving him a look that Harry would call blank, but surprised. “I trust you are well.”
Draco starts to nod but stops himself and gives a very careful tilt of his head, obviously an imitation of the man standing behind him. “I am.” The other boy is still smiling like someone has lit a lumos inside his skull. “Madam Bones,” he adds after a second, twisting the other way to give her a small bow from his shoulders.
“Heir Malfoy,” the woman replies with a respectful tip of her head.
Susan grins. “Aunt Millie! You’re here!” and goes to the woman when she opens her arms for a hug. Hannah pops up from her seat and hugs the woman as well, greeting her familarly.
“Draco,” Lucius chides gently. “Introduce us.”
Draco’s ears turn pink.
“Of course, father. You know Blaise,” Lucius nods his head, lips bracketed in lines that on Snape would mean I want to smile but that would ruin my reputation so I’m going to look serious instead.
“Sir,” Blaise greets easily and pops another dumpling into his mouth.
“Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott.”
Lucius offers them an elegant, sweeping bow. If their arms hadn’t been wrapped around Susan’s aunt Harry is pretty sure the man would have kissed the back of their hands. It seems like that sort of bow. “Ladies.”
“Mandy Brocklehurst.” Mandy even deigns to put her book down, a sure sign that she’s taking this seriously, and offers the man a friendly smile.
“A pleasure. Any relation to Edward Brocklehurst in Archives?”
“My grandfather, sir.”
“Delightful, I’ll be sure to mention that I have seen you the next time I am down there.” Mandy smiles.
"Thank you sir!"
Draco gives the ceiling a longsufferig look before moving on. “Father, Neville Longbottom.”
The look Lucius gives Neville is sharper, more assessing. Harry wants to bristle so instead he forces himself to take a deep breath. They are not meeting in battle. They are not on opposite sides.
Neville mumbles a greeting that might be “Lord Malfoy” or maybe “Mr. Malfoy” even though everything he knows about his grandmother makes Harry think that she’s a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to decorum.
Harry likes to think he’s polite. Most of the time. When he wants to be. A childhood with the Dursley’s had forced that on him, however begrudgingly, but he’ll be the first to admit that he had no idea what decorum was until he looked it up instead of working on a potions essay after Hermione had used it a half dozen times in the space of two days and he still had no idea what she had been talking about. And even then, he’d just read the definition and immediately filed it under the heading of Pureblood Bullshit and Another Reason Why Malfoy is a Prat because he couldn’t think of any logical reason for there being more rules than Please and Thank You. At the time it had struck him as a way for others to make themselves feel superior to other people. And maybe it is that. Maybe it’s that for a lot of people. But he's had his world upended enough in recent months that he’s willing to put in the work to learn all the rules that he had forever brushed off. He’s willing to try to understand them and use them before he draws a conclusion on whether they’re complete bullshit or not. He wants to put in the effort and decide if they belong. If he belongs with them.
Also, he’s willing to admit – out loud even, even if it is just to Inigo – that taking everything as a personal slight has just gotten too exhausting. He’s tired of fighting everything. Tired of being a solider when he doesn’t understand the war he’s walking into.
That’s why when Draco introduces him last – a sign that he considers Harry the highest-ranking member of the group, despite the fact that Neville is a pureblood and from a house that is at least as prestigious as the Potter’s – he offers the man a seated bow and greets him with a polite, “Lord Malfoy.”
If Lucius is surprised by Harry’s correct form of address, he doesn’t show it. Instead he offers Harry a rather regal inclination of his head and returns, “Heir Potter. Draco has written much about you,” he sweeps his eyes over all them as he speaks but Harry is well aware that the man is still speaking to him even if none of the rest of the kids are. “He speaks very highly about you,” he adds when Hannah makes an excited sort of squeak.
“We are pretty awesome,” Mandy deadpans and Merlin help him, Lucius’ mouth actually twitches. He’s not sure he’s ever seen the man smile and now it’s been twice in the space of five minutes.
Harry pinches his leg subtly under the table. Hard.
“Susan does as well,” she admits and Susan mutters something that Harry is fairly sure is an embarrassed “Aunt Millie!”. “I have to get back to the office,” she adds, hugging Susan more tightly, “but I wanted to stop by so that I could put faces to all the names filling up Susan’s letters.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Madam Bones,” Harry adds, not wanting to leave the woman out. He’s not actually sure what the official protocol is when it comes to her. He hasn’t gotten that far in his etiquette books. The Bones aren’t part of the Sacred Twenty-Eight or holders of hereditary seats on the Wizengamot but he’s fairly certain they’re an older, respectable, salt-of-the-earth type family and Amelia is in a position of no small power.
At some point in a different future she had been considered the forerunner for Minister of Magic, the clear favorite in the face of the war the wizarding world could no longer deny was happening right in their laps, and Voldemort had murdered her for it. Personally.
Harry is beginning to notice a trend. Tom Riddle likes to deal with his enemies – the ones he really sees as a threat – on his own, which begs the question: had Dumbledore not been a threat by the end or had Voldemort banked so completely on Draco failing and no one daring to assist him?
“Likewise, Heir Potter,” Amelia Bones has a serious face and exudes a calm, no nonsense air but when she smiles it’s like the sun coming up over the horizon.
“Are you here about the troll?” Hannah asks now that the formalities are out of the way and seven pairs of curious eyes look at the two adults. They’re not the only ones. Daphne and Millicent are listening from where they sit a little further down the table on the other side of Greg and Vincent and Harry can practically feel the way the entire Ravenclaw table goes quiet at his back. Whatever Lucius Malfoy and Amelia Bones tell them is going to be all over the school by dinner.
“Did you figure out how it got in?” Susan demands, mouth settling into an unhappy line that is mirrored by her aunt. “I didn’t think something like this was supposed to be able to happen.”
“It is not,” Amelia replies, obviously unhappy, “and we did.”
The two adults share a look and Lucius takes over. “There was a… small issue with the wards that allowed it to slip in. The issue has been corrected and the Board of Governors will be contracting a Warding Master to take a thorough look to ensure that there are not any other such weak points,” the man tells them, voice level and calm. “It won’t happen again.”
Harry’s eyes narrow.
They’re not lying.
At least, he doesn’t think that they’re lying. They likely did find something wrong with the castle’s wards but Harry knows that look. It’s the sort of look that Snape and Pomfrey had exchanged at his physical. It’s the sort of look that he had seen Dumbledore and Snape or Dumbledore and McGonagall or - insert any two or more adult members of the Order here – exchange it often enough. It means that they know something, something that they’re not going to share. Something that they think Harry is too young to know.
Harry hates that look.
“Promise?” Draco demands.
Lucius gently taps Draco on the shoulder with the head of his cane. Harry gets the feeling that it’s the Malfoy in-public equivalent of a bop on the nose. Or maybe a forehead kiss. “I promise. I will pay for the Warding myself if I have to. I will not leave in a place of danger, Draco. You know that.”
“And please, if there is ever something that makes you feel unsafe, write your parents immediately. Or, if you feel more comfortable, write to me,” Madam Bones add and her eyes flick in Harry’s direction. He thinks that she’s talking to him but by the way he tenses on the bench beside him Neville obviously thinks the same thing.
“Of course,” Susan agrees instantly.
“I knew you would fix it,” Draco tells his father. “So, I wrote my letter right away. Professor Quirrell was kind enough to post it for me so that I didn’t have to leave the Hospital Wing before I heard how Harry was doing.”
Lucius’ eyes widen in surprise. “He did, did he?” He glances up at the staff table where the man in question is nibbling delicately at a roll. “I’ll have to extend my gratitude. Such dedication should be rewarded.”
Lucius and Amelia exchange another look.
Harry hates it.
Harry spends much of the next week quietly panicking about what changes Lucius Malfoy and Amelia Bones might bring to the school. It’s a quiet, conflicted panic: a scattered anxiety that rises and falls in waves. On one hand, the part of him that had always wondered if there were any actual competent adults in the world is ecstatic at the idea of something being done to make Hogwarts less dangerous – to fix whatever issue their investigation had uncovered. That same part of him is also laughing hysterically, bitterly over the fact that in this incidence the competent adult is Lucius bloody Malfoy. On the other hand, the idea of something changing, of the school being made safer, terrifies him. Will whatever they do force Dumbledore to move the stone? Will it accidentally expel Voldemort from where he sits on Quirrell’s head?
For over three months now Harry has existed in quiet lull of knowledge, the memories of his first life giving him the framework of simple steps to take to sidestep the path of the Gryffindor Hero he had sought to be for the last seven years. He has hesitated to change anything in the broader world, focusing his changes on things almost entirely within his purview: his house, his friends, his attitude towards learning, and a general open-mindedness to the society and people around him. He is too battered, too sore, angry, and grieving and to change anything. He is too busy trying to understand a world that no longer makes sense to launch straight into changing said world.
He must change himself first.
He must deal with the changes that have been wrought in him. He must come to terms with them and face them.
Overwhelmed, does not begin to describe how he feels most days.
Such a simple word does not begin to describe the idea of being the Master of Death, of being quasi immortal and reliving his own life because he, Harry Potter, has the power to do that.
It can’t possibly encompass the lingering feelings of anger and fear and resentment towards Albus Dumbledore and the boy that Harry had once been. Feelings that bubble up with no warning and at the least provocation. Feelings that steal all reason from his head, leaving nothing but emotion so thick and conflicted that he shakes with it.
It doesn’t account for how, with his loss of faith in Dumbledore, comes his loss of faith in what Harry has always thought of right or good. It doesn’t account for how the revelation of his purpose and subsequent death has broken him right open until, beneath all the grief and rage, he has become a well of empathy for those who had never warranted such attention from him.
It doesn’t account for how it is all too easy now - especially when he has shut himself in the trunk flat and is looking at the timeline of his life and the summation of everything he thinks might be important spread out around him – to see the game Dumbledore had played from the positions of the other players. It’s easier to take their places on the gameboard. It’s even easier to step back from the game and find the view to be drastically different from the outside.
He can see it now, all too clearly, the logic of all the paths that lead to destruction.
Save everyone. Kill everyone. I don’t care, Death had all but told him and Harry finds it easy – so bloody easy – to see the path that leads to that and he knows, he knows, that someone there is a Harry that has done just that. And not just one Harry but many Harrys, more than he could probably begin to count, that feel the cut of betrayal and fury and extract the price of their pain from the flesh of those around them. Harrys that leave the world desolate and barren, a smoking ruin drifting against the endless blackness of space.
And it terrifies him. It terrifies him because it would be so easy.
Just as terrifying are all the other possibilities between the life he had lived and absolute destruction.
That terror has spread to other things. Having the power to choose, to purposefully direct the fate of the wizarding world has left him paralyzed. The great irony, when his mind clears enough to let him think properly, is that he has always had this power but now he has knowledge to go with it.
Knowledge that is not perfect but is but the view of a single perspective. Knowledge that is mixed up with fluctuating pain, with grief and rage.
Imperfect, but all that he has to guide him.
The quiet fear that maybe, just maybe, the life from which he has come is the best possible outcome haunts him in the moments of exhaustion just before he drops into sleep.
His fear and uncertainty has paralyzed him, has made him nearly as stagnant as the world around him.
He has let himself drift in a holding pattern for too long.
And now things are changing.
Now he is beginning to see what his earliest changes have wrought.
Now he is wondering if he can live with the consequences of those changes or if they will upset everything so thoroughly that he will be left wandering as blind in this life as he felt in the last.
He wonders if it matters.
He sits up at night and stares at the lake. He wonders if he should just kill Voldemort: resurrect him and kill him dead and move on to some other…reality, some other life completely. If he should just take himself and Tom out of the picture before they can fuck the world up even more.
But then he thinks of Draco, who was so worried about him that he had used the power of Lucius Malfoy – a power he had only ever known as a threat to be resented and feared - in Harry’s favor.
He thinks of Snape, who has cared for him and assisted him and berated him. Who, under different circumstances, has done more for Harry’s well being in two and a half month than all the other adults in Harry’s life for the past seven years. Combined.
They are the same as the Malfoy and Snape that Harry had known and yet they are completely different.
The same ingredients mixed up in a different quantity and a different order to form something entirely more palatable.
He thinks of a little boy in an orphanage and a man who wanted to live forever and a monster who had aimed his wand at Harry and killed him.
He thinks of a mangled baby, crying beneath an insubstantial bench.
He remembers how he felt the day of his first quidditch game: terrified and nervous, palms sweaty, stomach churning, so dizzy with anxiety that it had been a miracle he’d made it to the pitch without passing out. His legs had shaken as he mounted his broom. He had been sure that he would slip off and, if not fall to his death, at least make a horrible spectacle of himself. He remembers how he had looped through the air, high above the rest of the game. How he had both relaxed and grown more nervous with the feel of the wind on his face. He remembers how, even in the air, there had been a part of him that had been certain that he was going to be the one to mess it all up, that Gryffindor would lose because of him. Because of what he did or didn’t do.
But then he had taken a deep breath, dived down into the game, and started to play.
It hadn’t gone how he expected it to. The Slytherin players had been even more brutal than he had expected. Someone had tried to literally jinx him off his broom. He had caught the snitch but caught it in his mouth after tumbling off his broom and skidding across the grass.
It hadn’t gone as expected but that hadn’t stopped him from reacting, from trying to analyze the game around him to predict where he needed to be, how he needed to fly – a skill that he had gotten immeasurably better at the longer he had played.
Harry takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly and thinks of nothing but the way the air had felt on his face as he had spiraled toward the ground.
“I am tired of being afraid,” he tells Inigo. He doesn’t want to spend his entire life in fear of what had happened or what could happen. He wants, simply, to just live and that’s never going to happen if he just hovers here, paralyzed by the what-ifs and the unknowns.
He's waited long enough.
It’s time to dive.
Harry decides the fate of the wizarding world at three am on a Sunday in late November.
It’s a dramatic thought, even for him, but it feels entirely too appropriate as he stands in his flat and stares at the wall. He’s moved his makeshift bed and Inigo’s terrarium over by the kitchenette leaving the full expanse of the wall, some eighteen or twenty feet, for his plotting. He’s transfigured the entire thing into a blackboard and earlier in the week pinched a few pieces of chalk from Binns’ classroom that have probably been sitting there for at least a decade, if not longer. With it he has turned most of the wall into a timeline of his past life: a brief summation of events stretching from when the Fidelius broke and Voldemort attempted to kill him to when he actually killed him. Or came as close as he could get. The neatness of his handwriting probably leaves something to be desired but he charmed the chalk different colors and organized everything as logically as he could.
Hermione would be so fucking proud of him.
On one side of the board he has the words of the prophecy inscribed, though he suspects that the only binding power they have over him now are in the form of Dumbledore’s belief and reach. Beneath that he has a list of the horcruxes that exist at this point in time: diary, ring, locket, cup, diadem, and Harry himself. Even in the relative safety of his trunk he can’t bring himself to write their locations. Identifying them at all feels risky enough, a constant prick beneath his skin that tastes all too much like the panic that had filled him during his most recent trip to limbo.
On the other side, beneath his brief account of the Battle of Hogwarts, he has a list of changes he’s already made and what – if any – results they have had so far. There is also a list of not quite connected things that he wants to change, wants to make better. Things that range from clearing Sirius to getting Neville a new wand. But really, it’s the words in the center of the wall-turned-chalkboard that hold his attention.
Tom Marvolo Riddle is written front and center and circled. Twice. With ‘resurrect’, ‘unicorn blood’, and ‘sorcerer’s stone’ scrawled beneath it. The words ‘map’ and ‘cloak’ are written above it.
Harry has spent the last several hours furiously writing out this information. It’s not the first time he’s written most of it. He’s filled dozens and dozens of pages of his first journal by this point but there is little rhyme or reason to it: memories and thoughts as they come to him - stream of consciousness musings filled with ink blotches and tear stains. He’s thought through it all more times than he can count, his mind turning it over and over again whenever he has a free moment. And frequently when he doesn’t have a free moment. But there had been something… some sense that if he could just get it all out of his fucking head and be able to stare at it all at once that it would suddenly start to make more sense.
“So this is it? The grand plan?”
Harry jumps at the voice but manages to keep from pointing his wand at the man who saunters up next to him, hands shoved deeply into the pockets of his trousers. He looks the same as Harry remembers from Limbo, all artfully tousled black hair, neat but noticeable scruff, and dark walnut eyes. Though he feels distinctly taller as they stand side by side. A fact easily explained once Harry remembers that he had been taller in Limbo as well.
“Death,” he greets slowly, confused but not surprised. Not really.
Death grins. It’s adorable and terrifying, a flash of white teeth against full lips and tanned skin. “Hello darling.”
“I’ve seen you around," Harry ventures, curious. He's spotted this form, this body encompassing Death, several times over the past few weeks: lounging on the stairs, sitting in a window, or even taking a turn at the telescope at the top of the astronomy tower.
“Mmmm. Just getting you used to me" Death explains. "There have been some complications. Plus, you always do badly with a voice in your head unless you’re practically unconscious. Have to work up to such things, hmm?”
“Of course, that’s what you fixate on,” Death mutters as he prowls forward. “It’s nothing bad. Not really. It shouldn’t interfere with all of… this,” he waves vaguely at the wall. He has a piece of chalk in his hand. “It actually helped. Helps?” He shakes his head. “Fuck tenses. It will help with all of this.” He gives the chalk a little twirl. “Probably.
“I mean, it doesn’t always but statistically it’s in your favor, darling.”
“What are you talking about?” Harry’s voice cracks and comes out much more like a squeak than he would like. Brilliant.
“Ah. Well,” Death spins the chalk between his fingers, weaving it around his knuckles before grasping it firmly and turning to the wall. “When I brought you to the Inbetween I may have exacerbate the drain of your magical core to achieve it. Harmless really – especially for you. Or it should have been but then you had to go and push yourself.”
Harry still doesn’t know what he did, exactly, but he knows the precise moment that Death is talking about. He can still taste the panic and the fear and the determination rising up in him at the sight of Snape’s blood trickling to the floor. Even now, it makes him twitch.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, even though he’s not. Not even a little. “It all got mixed up in my head for a minute.”
“It does that,” Death agrees quietly, watching him. “I’m told that it gets better after a while. Especially once you have the first several millennia under your belt.”
The word hits Harry with enough force to rock him backwards.
“Do I… do I really? For that…”
“Not always, but most of the time,” Death’s hand is gentle on his shoulder, steadying and cool, crisp air flooding his lungs. “You are a creature of survival, darling. You always have been. Having the guarantee of being able to live as long as you’d like doesn’t change that.”
“But millennia…” Harry can’t fathom it. He has lived much of his life wondering if this month, this week, this day was the point when his luck finally runs out. He has a hard enough time wrapping his head around the fact that Dumbledore is over a hundred, let alone imagining that he will ever live that long.
“Doesn’t even scratch the surface. Especially when you have someone to share it with.”
As if pulled on a string, Harry’s gaze is drawn back to the name on the wall and, perhaps for the first time since he decided on this mad course as he sat, confused and more than a little hysterical beneath a tree in the park, the sheer enormity of what he is about to do washes over him. He is the Master of Death and he will live as long as he wishes to. He, Harry Potter, who holds a piece of another’s soul in his own, will live for as long as he wants. He has and he does and he will until thousands of years are mentioned like one might think just a second. As if they are so miniscule that they might be unworthy of notice. And, unless steps are taken, so long as Harry lives, then he will as well.
Tom Marvolo Riddle.
They have been enemies. In Harry’s mind they have always been enemies – two men cut from the same shadow. And they might go on being enemies, millennia spent tearing at each other’s throats over and over and over again, laying waste to entire civilizations and worlds in their quest for survival.
Harry wonders if it makes him a bad person that even that thought brings him a great deal of comfort – a surety of something familiar, even if it is in the form of a madman trying to murder him, long after everything else he has ever known turns to dust.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even in his first life it hadn’t needed to be that way.
Voldemort had offered him peace once, had offered him… perhaps not an alliance, not really, but at least a way out of the conflict they had found themselves locked in.
And maybe it had already been too late. Maybe the sheer, illogical, destructive madness that had taken root in Lord Voldemort by the time he rose again had already been present but it hadn’t seemed that way. Standing at the end and looking back, the Voldemort on the back of Quirrell’s had had seemed much more present and rational. Egotistical and cruel but not…not broken. Not a caricature of evil to go bump in the night. Not someone who had left the womb a fully formed unfeeling monster.
Just a man, terrible and great.
Lord Voldemort had offered Harry his hand once, had offered him a place by the Dark Lord’s side. Harry had refused it and sealed it with murder. He had snubbed it so thoroughly that the offer had never been made again.
He wonders if the offer will be better received when it is his hand extended.
“Does that bother you?” he asks Death. “I mean you’re…you.” Harry motions helplessly at the man. At Death. It feels a bit wrong for Death to mastered by someone who constantly defies it.
“Not in the slightest, darling.” Death squeezes his shoulder. “All things end. Everything dissipates into the dark eventually. Even you. There is no rush.”
Harry turns into the being’s embrace, nearly – but not quite – tucking himself under Death’s arm. He clears his throat, chest suddenly suspiciously tight. “So…you were telling me about the complications?” he finally manages to ask, dragging them back on topic.
Death lets go of his shoulder with another squeeze and takes several bouncing steps back to the wall. “I was!” he declares cheerfully and he gives the chalk in his hand a delicate spin, weaving it over and around his fingers before putting it to the dark surface of the chalkboard. He moves quickly, flowing, his handwriting unbearably smooth and almost delicate looking – certainly much neater than Harry’s – as he writes out three words.
Severus Tobias Snape.
Harry’s heart freezes inside his chest.
“What about Snape?”
“Mmm, such a cunning man, Severus Snape,” Death murmurs. Gently, almost tenderly, he runs his finger in a line beneath the potions master’s name. “Always such a puzzle. The consummate survivor who wishes for nothing more than to let go. As you recall, we were talking about your push. If you had been a normal wizard such an action would have killed you. Your magical core has a natural cut off point, a place where it is so close to empty that if you get close to it your magic turns against you and renders you unconscious in an effort to protect itself from being entirely used up. If you can hold and push past that to use up what little magic is left to you then you start tapping into more vital, more mortal forces. If any of your friends had attempted such a thing – if Severus himself had attempted it – they would have died.” The look Death gives him is very serious. “You went even further. You drew straight from the Void itself. Even tangled up in Tom’s horcruxes, a different you would have very likely been rendered a squib.”
“But I wasn’t.”
“No, darling, you weren’t.”
“Snape,” Harry whispers, remembering the weight on his chest, remembering bloodied palms and a song that had rumbled around in the man’s chest and down into Harry’s soul. He remembers drifting in the Void and he remembers being pulled back, gentled and settled back into his skin by midnight skies and golden stars. “Snape did something.”
“You, this you,” Death emphasizes, “would have been fine. You are the Master of Death. Young, unpracticed, but the Void is yours to use. You would have been fine. I knew that. You…well, you didn’t know it but you didn’t need to. Severus Snape did not know that.”
Harry is almost afraid to ask but he does anyway, “What did he do?”
Death scratches at his chin. “Think of your magical core like an organ – a magically powered heart if you will," he begins. "You had not only used up your natural charge but you were overloading your system with more magic than it should have been capable of holding. Snape created a feedback loop. He connected you to his core and helped direct the stream of magic through him as well as feeding some of his own magic back into you in an effort to stabilize your core and keep you from reaching for magic that should, to his knowledge, be too dangerous for you to use. The theory is sound, of course, if unorthodox. The man has impeccable control when he wants to and an innate understanding of magic that precious few will ever possess. This, however, was not enough to stabilize you.”
“But you said…”
“Yes, you would have been fine but your body didn’t necessarily know that. Snape certainly didn’t. Did you know that there is a way to remove someone’s magical core from their body?” Death asks suddenly and Harry blinks.
“Er…no? That sounds awful though.” And entirely too dangerous. The thought of someone like Bellatrix or Umbridge getting their hands on such an ability is enough to make him feel sick and faint.
“Oh, it is. Absolutely revolting,” Death agrees calmly. “Very intense. Very time consuming and it requires an enormous amount of power to perform. It’s only happened once in the last thousand years. But it is actually possible and over time the tales of it have become twisted and pruned until some wizards believe that it is how muggleborns acquire their magic. Not that that’s important to our story. What is important is that years and years ago Snape witnessed this ritual being performed.”
Harry nods. Of course he has. Three guesses who had been performing it and the first two don't count.
“Mmm, clever Tom Riddle has always been fond of pushing the boundaries and Severus remembered. It is not a ritual he could ever manage to perform but it gave him enough of an idea that he bastardized it on the spot and used it to stabilize you and bring you back.”
“He…removed part of my magical core?” Harry wrinkles his nose and feels his lip curl back in a snarl, torn between dismay, confusion, and an instinctive, unthinking rush of fury.
“Oh, goodness no. That wouldn’t have been helpful at all,” Death waves away his concern with a brush of his hand. “No. He removed some of his own.”
Harry stares. “He…what?”
“He tore off a bit of his magical core – not much just a little piece – and patched it into you. It wasn’t magic moving through you, it was magic that was in you. Fooled your core into thinking it was exhausted but not broken. He doesn’t know it quite yet but you left a bit of the Void in him in return.”
“Oh fuck,” Harry mutters. “Oh Merlin. Oh shit. Oh… does this mean he’s mixed up in the whole horcrux mess now too?” he screeches, whirling about as the thought occurs to him. “Is Snape now part of this weird soul thing that I have going with Voldemort?”
Death looks amused. “…No. Technically.”
“Technically,” Harry repeats flatly.
“Technically,” Death repeats and holds both of hands out in front of him, palms up. He raises and lowers them as if they’re two sides of a scale. “The soul and the magical core are separate things. Muggles don’t have magical cores but they certainly have souls. Dementors have magical cores but they certainly do not have souls – not of their own, anyway.”
“But a wizard that has lost their soul? Not really able to perform magic anymore. They’re separate things, yes, but for those that have both they’re rather tangled up in each other. So, no, technically Severus is not part of the whole soul sharing thing you and Tom have going on but he’s also not not part of it. You won’t be able to resurrect him, not like you can Tom, nor will his connection to you keep him from dying in a spectacular potions accident or if, say, someone throws an avada kedavra at his head.”
“…but?” Harry prompts again.
“But he is bound to you both. Bound twice to you and thrice to Tom. Bound by magic, oath, and blood.” Death tells him quietly. “Three is a powerful number. Additionally, both you and Tom have left your magic in him. You have left a piece of the Void itself in his heart. That is not something to be treated lightly. The Darkness does not consume itself, darling. Severus is not impervious to death but neither will it seek to claim him in the natural course of things – he will not weaken or age. He will not die unless he seeks it or it is inflicted upon him by outside forces.”
“Oh fuck,” Harry says again, staring at the names on the wall. “Oh, Merlin’s fucking balls. He’s going to kill me. Oh, shit. That’s how I’m going to die. Snape is going to bloody murder me.” He buries his face in his hands and tries to take a deep breath. It doesn’t work. His chest is too tight, his ribs caving in on his lungs and crushing them, an invisible fist tightening around his throat until he can hear his heart pounding frantically in his ears.
Oh bloody, buggering fuck.
He had just been trying to help and now he’s, now he’s…
“Breathe, darling,” Death’s voice is gentle in his ear, one hand brushing up the line of his spine. “Come here, my dear. It’s alright, darling. Just come here and take a breath.” Harry feels frozen, paralyzed as Death’s hands pull him forward, the eldritch being tucking Harry into his chest and wrapping his arms around him. “It’s alright, Harry,” Death promises. “Just breathe.”
The cold of Death’s hand slipping beneath the soft cotton of Harry’s sleep tee and pressing between his shoulder blades is enough to shock him into taking a breath. He gasps, inhaling sharply and unsteadily, his entire chest screaming and stuttering, unable to remember what it is supposed to do.
“There you go,” Death murmurs. “Keep breathing, darling. Just like that.”
Harry sucks in another breath and another and another, gradually matching them to the guiding rumble of Death’s voice as it echoes around in the chest beneath his ear.
“He’s going to hate me,” Harry finally manages to whisper, clutching at the fine white fabric of Death’s shirt. “I finally got him to see something besides my father and he is going to hate me.”
“It’s possible,” Death agrees, but the terribleness of his agreement is tempered by the gentle stroke of his fingers up and down Harry’s spine. “Unlikely, but possible.”
“Unlikely?” Harry wants to laugh. It comes out as something closer to a sob. “I’ve trapped him. I’ve… I’ve…”
“If you think that Severus Snape wouldn’t willingly sacrifice his soul for you, in any life, then you haven’t been paying attention,” Death tells him but Harry shakes his head. This Snape, maybe. Maybe. But the Snape of his first life wanted forgiveness, wanted to put an end to the man who killed the woman he loved. He had been Harry’s more than he had been Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s but that meant very little when it hadn’t been about them at all. Not to him. “For better or worse, he has always, will always orbit you. Because of who you are, because of who he is. The three of you are always so tangled up. That’s my fault, I suppose.”
“So, what… he’s just going to accept it? Be thrilled with this near immortality that I’ve accidentally gifted him?”
Death can’t hold back his laugh, and the bark of it rolls around the room like thunder. “Oh, absolutely not. I mean, technically, it’s possible but unlikely. Extremely unlikely. At least at first.” Harry is pretty sure that Death can feel his skepticism because the being laughs again. “Severus is cunning and pragmatic and very, very adaptable. The probability of him coming around to the idea quickly is high as long as you address the matter correctly.”
And there’s the catch. Harry sighs. “I’m going to bollocks that up,” he mutters. “I know it. How the fuck am I supposed to know how to tell him?”
“Well, I don’t recommend just marching into his office and saying ‘Oh, and by the way, you’re never going to get old or sick again. Congratulations!’. That never goes over well.” Death pauses and steps back, holding Harry by his shoulders and staring at him intently. “Do you really want to know? How to tell him?”
Harry stares back. “Could you really tell me that?”
Death laughs. “Darling, I am the Endless Darkness. I am without beginning or end. I have stood watch over infinite existences, am watching infinite existences, and will watch an infinite number of existences. I am in everything and at the end of everything. I could answer any question you might pose.”
And oh, isn’t that a dangerous thought. More dangerous than living for as long as he might wish. So much of Harry’s life – both the old and the new – hinge on knowledge: on having it. On getting it. And here Death is, just…offering it. Like it is nothing.
Harry shakes his head, shakes it so vigorously that his barely calmed stomach rolls and he suddenly feels dizzy. “No,” he says. “No…that. Sometimes, maybe, but I don’t… I don’t want to just coast through life, having someone hand me everything. I don’t… I know what that does to a person,” he swallows roughly. “I don’t want to become Dudley. Or Malfoy. I mean, I’ll probably still ask things because it would be stupid to ignore such a resource but I’d rather, I’d rather do most of it on my own if that’s alright.”
Death beams, indulgent and fond and, Harry thinks, just a little bit pleased. “Whatever you want, darling. Whatever you want.”
Harry takes a slow, deep breath. “Okay,” he says and his voice hardly shakes. “Okay."
They stand in silence for a moment. It should be awkward. It probably looks awkward. Death still has his hands curled around Harry’s upper arms, his thumbs sliding gently across the fabric of his sleep shirt. The touch is firm and cool, both grounding and freeing.
“Is that everything?”
Death makes a questioning noise deep in his throat.
“You said ‘complications’. Is that everything?”
“Mmm. For now. I’m sure you’ll probably create more complications at some point. You’re terribly good at it,” Death tells him.
“It’s a gift,” Harry deadpans. “But…it won’t compromise my plans?”
Death shakes his head. “Not in the slightest. Not that you have explained your plans to me yet.”
Now it is Harry that laughs, unexpected and unbelieving. “I suspect that you already know exactly what my plan is.”
“Eh. No two realities are ever exactly alike," Death dismisses, turning them both towards the chalkboard wall. "I might recognize the broad outlines of it but this moment, this plan has never existed before and will never exist exactly like this again. So explain it to me, darling. Walk me through it.”
“Alright,” Harry huffs, giving in. It seems silly to not take advantage of Death’s presence, of his infinitely more capable brain – does he even have a brain? – to troubleshoot his plan. The rest of what he learned this morning can be set aside for later, for when he has a moment and the energy to freak the fuck out. It feels like a theme to this new life. A constant, exhausting theme.
“Alright," he says again and points to a word on the board. "Well, the first thing I need to do is steal back the Marauder’s Map.”