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can i be returned (you can, you can)

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It was on Harry Potter’s last day as an auror that everything went wrong.

He’d decided to quit when he’d gotten old enough to see a distinct lack of fieldwork in his future - no offense, but even the paperwork involved in a field auror position was more than Harry ever wanted to do, let alone staying in the department to do nothing at all but paperwork - and they’d agreed for him to officially finish a month later. And, well, there’d been a raid arranged today, and it was going to be the last one he’d ever take part in, so he’d signed himself up for it.

It wasn’t supposed to be anything major. It definitely wasn’t supposed to end up with the wizard they were hunting throwing Harry across the room with a hex so that he went flying head-first into a series of shelves filled with an eclectic mixture of potions, odd mechanical instruments, and assorted crystals. So, of course, that was exactly what happened.

Bloody typical, that.

Something was off when he woke up. His body felt weird - not ‘just crashed into a wall’ weird or even ‘crashed into a wall and had to be fed potions at St Mungo’s weird, but he couldn’t quite put a finger on it. Not until he opened his eyes and found himself somewhere altogether too familiar even after all these years.

The cupboard under the stairs at number four, Privet Drive. Lying on the bed that Harry definitely wouldn’t have fit on as an adult, which led to him lifting up his hands to stare at them. At the fact that he was now looking at the hands of a child, not of a full-grown wizard in his sixties.

Okay. Definitely weird. He pinched himself, and nothing changed.

So, taking stock: he was back in the cupboard under the stairs, and he appeared to be the appropriate age to be there. He didn’t have his wand, or his auror robes, or… well, anything else at all that might be useful. He did have a spider crawling across his leg, but that was flicked off without any fuss.

Harry tried the door of the cupboard, and when he found it open he stepped out. The Dursleys’ house looked just as he remembered it from this age, and when he edged his way into the kitchen he found Petunia fussing with a large metal tub in the sink, which was full of gray water with what looked like dirty rags floating in it. It also stank.

“What’s that?” he asked Petunia, although he had an awful feeling he already knew the answer.

“Your new school uniform.”

Oh. Yes, then. Even after all these years, Harry remembered this.

The day his first Hogwarts letter had arrived.

Without even really thinking about it, Harry blurted out, “I don’t need that.”

Petunia froze for a second, and then turned her head to stare at him. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

It really wasn’t what his auror training said he ought to do in a situation like this. He ought to play along and get his bearings, and only act when he was sure - or at least at least reasonably suspicious - whether this was an elaborate illusion, something happening inside his own mind, or… somehow real. But oh well. In for a knut, in for a galleon, right?

“I mean,” he said carefully, “That I’m not going to Stonewall High. I’m going to Hogwarts.”

Petunia looked like she was about to faint. When she spoke again her voice was shaky, even as she snapped, “What nonsense are you talking about, boy?”

“It’s not nonsense. I know about Hogwarts, and I know about my parents, and I know that I’m a wizard.”

“I— how do you know?” Petunia eventually settled on, and Harry shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter.” It wasn’t like ‘either this isn’t real or I’ve travelled in time from half a century in the future’ would go across any better than just saying nothing. “What matters is that I’m going to get my Hogwarts letter, and then if you give me the money to get to London then I promise to try my best to make sure we never have to see each other again.”

Petunia stared at him for long enough that Harry started to hear the sounds of Vernon lumbering down the stairs, and then finally nodded sharply and turned away to finish fetching the breakfast as Vernon and Dudley entered the kitchen.

Everything went relatively smoothly after that. Harry hid his Hogwarts letter in the waistband of his trousers when he went to get the post, and only opened it when he was in the safety of his cupboard. Everything on it looked to be as he remembered, and he figured there’d probably be somewhere in Diagon Alley that he could hire an owl to send back his reply.

The next day, Petunia gave him enough money to get into London, and after a quiet train journey he found himself in front of the Leaky Cauldron. He kept his scar covered by his hair when he went in - something that was easier now, as it appeared to have faded significantly when he’d woken up here - and headed up to the bar to get the barman’s attention.

When he had it, he explained very, very quietly that he was Harry Potter, that he really didn’t want anyone else to know and make a fuss, and that he’d be coming back and booking a room if that was okay once he’d been to Gringotts and gotten his money, so he’d be very grateful if someone with a wand could come and open the way for him.

Needless to say, he was staring at Diagon Alley inside of five minutes, and from there it was just a matter of withdrawing money and then fetching his supplies. It went well enough, even if in retrospect Harry might have done better to wait longer than the day after the letters went out and avoided just how crowded it was today. He couldn’t get a room without visiting Gringotts, though, and the alternative of staying at the Dursleys’ for longer didn’t bear thinking about.

The goblin he dealt with didn’t seem particularly impressed by the fact he didn’t have his vault key, but he was able to confirm his identity with a drop of blood pressed onto a little stone tablet, and once that was done he was able to withdraw enough money from his vault to buy his supplies, and purchase an enchanted bag linked to his vault that would allow him to withdraw more when he needed it.

Once that was sorted, he started to pick up his supplies. A trunk first, one with a feather-light charm on it and that he could shrink and regrow with a password even if he didn’t have a wand to hand. That made everything else easier, since he could just put things straight in there as he bought them. It was something he was especially grateful for by the time he’d finished in Flourish and Blotts, because he’d ended up with nearly twice as many books as the reading list called for, picking up extra ones that looked like they’d interest him more than the standard first-year texts would. If that curse really had somehow sent him back in time to his child self, he was going to have to redo his whole Hogwarts education, and he wasn’t much looking forward to the idea of being bored out of his mind doing nothing but covering things he’d learnt years ago.

Well. Maybe he could try and actually pay attention in History of Magic. That’d be learning something new.

Once the rest of his supplies were purchased, Harry was left with just two things to buy; a wand, and a pet. He wasn’t sure he was looking forward to getting his wand, because if his scar was this faded then he suspected that he didn’t have Voldemort’s horcrux with him. Which was fantastic news in itself, but it also meant he wasn’t sure whether his wand would still bond with him or whether that initial bond had been because he was a horcrux. He really wasn’t looking forward to the idea of spending even longer in Ollivander’s than he had the first time.

The pet, though, he was very much looking forward to, because he’d realized that Hedwig would still be around. He could have her again, and if he really was in the past and changing things then he was determined that this Hedwig wouldn’t meet the same end as she had before.

Deciding that he’d use seeing Hedwig again to improve his mood afterwards, Harry braced himself and headed for Ollivander’s.

He’d been right about the horcrux, by the looks of things, because after he’d gone through boxes and boxes of other wands and Ollivander gave him the holly and phoenix feather wand, that ended up being snatched away nearly as fast as the others. It took five more wands before Ollivander disappeared into a back room and returned with a single new box, which he offered to Harry with an, “Elder and dragon heartstring, twelve and a half inches. Quite flexible.”

The wand was pale wood, with intricate carved lines around the handle, and when Harry took it and flicked it it sent out a shower of bright silver sparks that had Ollivander clapping once, sharply, in apparent delight.

“Oh, bravo!” the old wandmaker cried. “Oh, very good. It is rare indeed to find a match to an elder wand, Mr. Potter, but those who are chosen by them seem to always be destined for great things… I think we must expect the same from you, Mr. Potter.”

Harry, who was mostly just remembering the other elder wand that he’d been in possession of and hoping that this didn’t mean there would be any issues with Dumbledore’s use of it, made a noncommittal noise, paid his seven galleons, and hurried out of the shop as quickly as he could manage without it looking suspicious.

It was time to go and buy his beloved owl again, and that sounded much better than dwelling on his new elder wand or his old-slash-possibly-future Elder Wand.

The rest of the summer passed uneventfully. Harry stayed at the Leaky Cauldron, taking advantage of what he suspected was a steep discount on the usual price of the rooms, and spent most of his time reading through his textbooks and talking to Hedwig.

The only real issue was that by the end of summer, Harry was certain that he really was in the past. Given that it had happened entirely by accident and that it didn’t match any of his experiences with or knowledge of time turners, the chances of there being any way to get back were slim to none. And if he was reliving everything, he wasn’t going to be able to just leave everything the same - he hadn’t managed that even for a summer, let alone for years and years - which meant that when he got to that time again it might look very different.

His children and grandchildren might not exist, or might be very different people if they did. He might not end up married to Ginny at all. It was weird to think about, and the fact that he’d not even had time to prepare for this made it that much harder to stomach. His last conversation with Ginny had been about what they were going to have for dinner that night to celebrate his retirement from the aurors.

His friends, too. Would they still be the same people by the end of this? Would Ron and Hermione at eleven still end up best friends with a Harry who looked eleven but was actually sixty-five?

He didn’t know, and he didn’t like to think about it.

In the end, he decided, all he could do was try to make this timeline the best he could manage. He’d make sure this Hedwig didn’t die, like he’d promised himself before he bought her, but why stop there? He could stop Ginny from being possessed, try to get Sirius out of Azkaban earlier and stop him going through the Veil, stop Cedric from dying, and more besides. Maybe even stop Voldemort from resurrecting at all. If he couldn’t get back to his own time, Harry was going to at least do his best to make sure more people got to the equivalent of it than had the first time.

What could he say? He had a saving people thing.

On September 1st, Harry took the underground to King’s Cross and made his way to Platform 9¾. He thought about hanging around to wait for the Weasleys to show up, but as much as he wanted to see Ron he wasn’t entirely sure he was up to seeing a ten-year-old Ginny Weasley yet, so he ducked through the wall on his own and dodged through the crowds to get onto the Express and find himself an empty compartment.

He was joined right before the train left by a gaggle of fifth-year Ravenclaws, who were apparently content to ignore the little firstie in the corner so long as he was just quietly reading a transfiguration book. In reality he was mostly listening them talk about what they were going to be learning this year, and fighting the urge to correct them on some of the magical theory he actually understood but that they were getting wrong. He kind of wondered if this was how Hermione felt listening to most people talk.

They got all the way without him blurting out anything that would be way above what a first-year should know, though. He was fine with coming across as some kind of spellcasting prodigy because he knew how to cast the first-year spells and didn’t have the patience to go through the hassle of trying to pretend to cast them badly until enough time had passed to seem normal, but he didn’t want to be too notable. Faking that he didn’t know the concepts was easier than faking casting badly, so that was what he was going to focus on.

Once they got there, Harry followed Hagrid and the other first-years to the boats, where he ended up in a boat with the Patil twins and Susan Bones. He kept his head down to hide his scar and didn’t talk, just watching the girls - it was weird, seeing them and everyone else so young - and only looking up when Hogwarts came into view.

It took his breath away, just a little. He’d forgotten what it looked like that first time, coming across from the lake with the castle all lit up, and there really was nothing as magical as that first glimpse of it. Even with having spent six years of his life there so many years ago, nothing beat seeing it like this as an eleven-year old, even one who wasn’t really eleven at all.

Well. It wasn’t like he was the only one staring at the castle like this, so it was fine.

When they got to the castle, Harry kept himself to one side of the chamber they were led into, half-listening to McGonagall telling them about the Sorting while his gaze swept over the others. There was Hermione, whispering the names of spells. Ron, rubbing at the smudge of dirt on his nose. Draco Malfoy over there, flanked by Crabbe and Goyle and looking incredibly calm and self-assured to eleven-year-old eyes in a way that didn’t look quite so genuine to Harry as an adult.

His inspecting of the rest of his year was interrupted by the screams and gasps that the ghosts floating through a wall caused, and then it was time for the Sorting itself. Everything went as it had before, as far as Harry could tell, but that wasn’t particularly surprising. It was uneventful until Harry’s name was called, at which point he had to duck his head and ignore the whispers and pointing as he headed over and hat the Hat dropped on his head.

Interesting, said a voice in his head almost immediately. You’ve been Sorted before, and yet I’ve never seen you before. A pause, and then, A time traveler, eh?

Harry didn’t say anything, just pulled a face. If the Hat could just go ahead and put him in Gryffindor already, it’d be much appreciated.

Gryffindor? the Hat asked, and the tone of the question immediately made him wary. Yes, he thought, Gryffindor.

Oh, no, the Hat said. No, that won’t do at all. There’s bravery in there, yes, but what’s really driving you is an ambition, isn’t it? To change the future? With that kind of desire, you’d better be: “SLYTHERIN!”

Harry had tried to think protests very hard at the Hat as soon as it mentioned ambition, but apparently this time around it hadn’t been inclined to listen to him. When it called out Slytherin he took a moment to brace himself and then took it off, handing it back to McGonagall and walking across the hall to sit at the Slytherin table.

There was even more whispering now than when his name was first called, and the applause from the Slytherin table was scattered and awkward. Not really a surprise, Harry supposed. A good chunk of them were probably wondering what this would mean, and how their families would feel about this, especially the ones whose families had supported Voldemort in the first war - or just the war, as far as they would be concerned, since the second war hadn’t happened yet and wouldn’t happen at all if Harry had anything to say about it.

Malfoy didn’t seem to have any concerns about awkwardness, though, and gestured for Harry to sit next to him when he reached the table. There he launched into introducing everyone to Harry, as pompous as any eleven-year-old could ever be, and telling Harry that it was such good news that he was in Slytherin, since that was clearly the best House and he’d be wasted anywhere else. It was almost certainly empty flattery, given that Malfoy had never even set eyes on him before the Sorting, but Harry remembered the man that Malfoy had grown into - no matter how much of a pompous little wanker he was at eleven years old - and figured that, what the hell, he’d go along with it. Maybe if Malfoy was friends with Harry, Harry could also make him stop being an insufferable twit earlier than he’d managed on his own.

He certainly hoped so, if he was going to have to share a dorm room with him for seven years.

Life in Slytherin was… different. He’d never realized before how much Slytherin worked on power dynamics, and how much work it could take to find and maintain your place in the power structure there. He suspected that even if he’d been Sorted there when he was eleven for real, he might not have picked it up so clearly as he did now, because now he paid more attention to the upper years than he would have if he’d been entirely focused on things like his first-year schoolwork.

The first-years were less rigid with everything, more just falling into a natural kind of structure more based on their families than on them themselves. Further up, people seemed to be starting to feel things out as individuals and differentiate themselves with things like their grades, or their extracurriculars, or how they dealt with conflict in and out of Slytherin. The real upper years, fifth and above, seemed mostly settled, but with occasional dramatic shifts; in the fourth week of term Harry heard whispers of a duel between two of the seventh-years that left their year re-orienting itself around the winner, and one morning he came up from his room early enough to catch two sixth-years with another one boxed up against the wall between them as they hissed something to him - they stopped talking as soon as they saw Harry, but over the next few days he watched that sixth-year push others to include the two that had been talking to him, and saw how his reputation suffered for it even as the others did start to include those two.

Harry wasn’t much looking forward to having to navigate all of that in a few years, but he had to admit it was kind of fascinating to watch. For his own part, he was doing well so far; Slytherin as a whole didn’t really seem to know what to make of him, but the Malfoys were a respected family and their son was practically attached to Harry at the hip, which afforded Harry some level of respect.

He was pretty sure Malfoy was getting something of the same - that the son of a former Death Eater aligning himself publicly and intensely with Harry Potter and being accepted as the friend of the Boy Who Lived was probably something that Lucius was going to be spinning like mad for his own gains by the end of the year, if nothing else - but he didn’t really mind. Not really. Malfoy wasn’t even really that intolerable in private, although he was still obnoxious when they were dealing with anyone from the other Houses and Harry wasn’t having any luck training him out of it so far.

The other Slytherin first-years weren’t all bad, either, although Crabbe and Goyle were still just as mindless as he remembered them being. But Blaise Zabini was smart and fairly pleasant company, Pansy Parkinson was actually surprisingly perceptive when she wanted to be, and Millicent Bulstrode was incredibly witty and sarcastic once she opened up to someone. He wasn’t particularly close to Greengrass, Davis or Nott, but they weren’t all that bad if you were actually in Slytherin yourself, either.

Being in Slytherin also meant Snape went a lot easier on Harry. He still wasn’t Snape’s favorite student, clearly, but the man didn’t go out of his way to be nasty to Harry. It probably helped that Harry had focused on learning Potions better this time around, since he didn’t have to focus so much on his other classes to get by, and that between that and working with Malfoy - who was a pretty competent brewer, even at eleven - most lessons, he was producing fairly good results.

He did miss Ron and Hermione something awful, though. He didn’t think there was much chance of getting Ron on speaking terms with a Slytherin - even if that Slytherin was the Boy Who Lived - in their first year, if at any point during their time at Hogwarts. Especially not when Malfoy had firmly declared himself Harry’s best friend, considering the Weasley-Malfoy feud. That also meant he couldn’t nudge Ron toward Hermione though, and as much as Harry wanted to reach out to her himself, he wasn’t sure it would help her standing in Gryffindor any if she had one friend and that friend was a Slytherin.

He left it alone until Halloween, when he was in time on the way out of Charms to hear Ron telling Seamus that Hermione was a nightmare, and to see Hermione hurrying out of the class in tears. Without hesitating, Harry excused himself from the other Slytherins and hurried after her, catching up to her in an empty corridor and calling out, “Granger! Wait up!”

Hermione stopped and turned, and even with red eyes and a blotchy face she managed to look incredibly suspicious about being approached by a Slytherin.

“What do you want? Come to rub it in?”

Harry shook his head. “No. Come to tell you that Weasley’s kind of a tosser, and you shouldn’t let him get to you.”

Hermione stared at him for a long moment, and then asked, “Why are you being nice to me, Potter?”

He shrugged. “You’re smart, and the people who think you’re a bossy know-it-all just don’t understand that you’re trying to help other people understand, and that you’re excited to learn everything about magic.”

When she kept looking suspicious, he added, “I was raised by muggles after my parents died, so everything’s kind of new to me too. And I didn’t have any friends before Hogwarts, so I… know what it’s like.”

She softened a little that, and Harry grinned at her. “I don’t know if the rest of your House would like you being friends with a Slytherin, but if you wanted…”

“I would,” Hermione blurted out, not even pausing to think. “Although… would your House like it, you being friends with a muggleborn?”

Harry shrugged again, still grinning. “Maybe not, but I don’t care. Call me Harry.”

She smiled back at him now, a little shyly. “Only if you call me Hermione.”

“Hermione it is,” Harry agreed. “Now, let me walk you to Defence. I know a shortcut, so we won’t even be late.”

Hermione let him loop arms with her as they walked, chatting about which classes they were liking best, and they only broke apart once they reached the classroom and went to sit with their respective Houses. Draco was squinting when Harry sat down, and he immediately leaned over to hiss in his ear, “What were you doing with that Gryffindor mudblood, Harry?”

Harry had to admit that he took great pleasure in Silencing Draco then and refusing to undo it until the end of class. Especially as Blaise and Pansy both insisted that oh, no, they definitely couldn’t Finite a fifth-year spell, and all they asked for in exchange for the lie later on was that Harry show them how to cast the spell.

The rest of the year went well enough. Harry split his time between the other Slytherins and Hermione, and although Draco sulked about it he seemed to decide after the next few Silencings that it was better to keep any comments about Hermione’s blood status to himself. At least when Harry was in earshot, anyway, though he was pretty sure Draco was probably still saying the same things to the others. He wasn’t going to go digging for it, though. He was working on trying to subtly improve Draco’s opinions on things, but he wasn’t going to work miracles in his first year.

On the Quirrell and Voldemort front, Harry had decided the best tactic was to let it be. He didn’t think either of them would have any luck working out the enchantment that Dumbledore had put on the Mirror to hide the Philosopher’s Stone, so, really, all that him being there would do would make it easier for them to potentially get it. He didn’t seek out the Mirror of Erised even before it was moved, either, even after Christmas rolled around and Dumbledore gifted him the Cloak as he had the last time.

If Harry was totally honest, he didn’t want to know what the Mirror would show him now. Whether it would just show him yet another family that he’d lost. He didn’t want to see it, if so.

Quirrell disappeared a couple weeks from the end of term. As Dumbledore didn’t seem particularly panicky about the idea of Voldemort possessing the Stone, Harry suspected he’d been right about Quirrell and Voldemort not being able to figure out how to get it out of the Mirror, and that he’d been right to leave things alone. He did regret a little that he hadn’t been able to do anything to save Quirrell, but… well, at least Harry hadn’t personally burned his face off this time around? Quirrell’s future was up in the air, and while Harry didn’t expect that Voldemort would necessarily let him live after they’d failed to get the Stone, there wasn’t really anything he could do about it.

He didn’t much like it, but as far as he knew Quirrell had chosen to work with Voldemort. That would have to content him, at least for now.

When it got close to the end of term and Draco heard that Harry was due to spend the summer with muggles - not that he actually intended to go back to the Dursleys’, but he needed Dumbledore to think that he did - he insisted that Harry come to Malfoy Manor instead. Harry considered it. It would be nicer than spending the summer at the Leaky Cauldron, and probably have a lower chance of Dumbledore finding out. Or being able to do anything about it even if he did find out, for that matter.

Also, Lucius Malfoy was currently in possession of one diary that Harry would quite like to get his hands on and destroy.

With that in mind, Harry agreed readily - he was pretty sure it was safe to, since they were in their room in the Slytherin dorms.

“But I don’t think Dumbledore will like it,” he told Draco. “He’d probably insist that I should go back to the Dursleys… so it’s probably best if we keep it secret, right?”

As he expected, Draco was thrilled with the subterfuge. He made a big show of bringing it up in public every day of the last week of term, whining and sulking when Harry would shake his head or change the subject each time. Their friends got in on it too; Pansy and Blaise insisting that he should stay with one of them instead, and Millicent just using the chance to make fun of Draco’s whining and get away with it because the whining was just an act. Harry had a feeling she’d probably like to make fun of it even when it was totally genuine and that this was making her week.

He didn’t tell Hermione the truth, though he felt kind of bad about it. He’d tell her when they got back, or if he saw her in Diagon Alley, but he was a little worried that if he told her now she’d give away the secret to someone unfortunate. He loved Hermione, and he was incredibly glad that he’d been able to befriend her again, but keeping secrets from authority figures wasn’t something she was great at as a twelve-year-old.

She might be angry at him for not telling her earlier, but he could deal with that come September.

Malfoy Manor was… spectacular, honestly. Harry had only ever been there when it was being occupied by Voldemort during the second war, and the difference between that and now was amazing. Everything was gorgeously opulent, and whenever Harry wanted something he was immediately tended to by well-behaved house elves. He hadn’t seen any sign of Dobby so far in the time he’d been staying there, but having the little elf in mind had him wondering whether there’d be a good way to free him in this life as well. Even if Harry liked Draco this time around - and his parents, for that matter, because Narcissa seemed genuinely lovely and Lucius was all charm because Harry and Draco were friends - he still thought Dobby deserved to be a free elf. He’d been so much happier that way.

That was an issue for another day, though. Today the more pressing issue was that Harry had managed to sneak into Lucius’ study under the Cloak while the man had stepped out. He’d managed to spot Riddle’s diary in amongst the other books on one of Lucius’ bookshelves when he was in the study earlier that week with Draco, and now he slipped it under the Cloak with him and hurried back to his room to hide it in his trunk, before heading back out to find Draco and ask him if he wanted to go flying.

It wasn’t until he went to bed that night, once he was sure that Lucius hadn’t immediately noticed the theft, that he actually took the diary out of his trunk and sat staring at it in bed. He wasn’t sure how best to deal with it. It wasn’t like he could use a Basilisk fang to destroy it this time - well, maybe he could, but he didn’t fancy going down to the Chamber and trying to have a chat with the bloody thing unless he really had to - and he wasn’t sure he could control Fiendfyre all that well, so if he was going to use that he’d need to find a particularly secluded place for it.

Which meant that right now, he couldn’t destroy the diary. In which case, he ought to just put it away very deep in his trunk and not dwell on it until he could.

He almost certainly shouldn’t do what he ended up actually doing, which was flicking open the diary, grabbing a quill, and writing, Hello, Tom Riddle. I’m Harry Potter, and I know what you are.

There was a long enough pause after the ink disappeared that Harry almost wondered if the diary was even going to respond, and then Riddle’s cursive faded into view.

I think you have me at a disadvantage, Harry Potter. Whatever do you mean?

You’re a horcrux., Harry wrote back, and he couldn’t hold back a grin as he watched the ink fade away. It struck him that Hermione would probably be horrified if she knew he was doing this - both Hermiones, actually, this one at the idea of him talking to an unidentified possibly-dark object and the Hermione from the old timeline at the idea of him talking specifically to one of Voldemort’s horcruxes.

It took a while, again, but eventually more words faded into view. So I am. And then, before Harry could put his quill back to the blank page, What are you going to do about it?

He paused himself, then. Should he tell the diary he was planning to destroy it? He was pretty sure the horcrux had enough of a personality to think of that as Harry killing it, and might try to lash out if it was in fear of that. Harry was pretty sure he could handle anything it tried, but he’d rather avoid it if he could. Not to mention that as much as Riddle wasn’t an innocent by any stretch of the imagination - he’d already killed Myrtle and had Hagrid expelled by this point, after all - it still felt somehow needlessly cruel to hold imminent death over the head of someone who, if they were their own person and not the horcrux of a mass murderer, probably deserved a stint in Azkaban, not death.

Please don’t destroy me., faded into view then, and Harry found himself cringing a little. He probably should have counted on the diary being smart enough to work out what he had planned, and while he wasn’t sure how much of this was just Riddle trying to manipulate his emotions and how much of it - if any - was genuine, it still made him that bit uncomfortable.

It wasn’t the brave decision - but he was a Slytherin now, not a Gryffindor, so what did anyone expect? - but Harry started to close the diary instead of answering. He only stopped when the word Wait! faded into view, and then sighed and flipped the diary fully open again. There was nothing for a moment, and he thought Riddle might be waiting to see if Harry would write anything more. When nothing materialized, though, the horcrux started to write again.

Please. Will you tell me about my future self, at least? If I’m going to die, I’d like to know why.

That time, Harry was almost certain that Riddle was trying to play to his emotions. Still, he justified to himself, where was the harm in telling the diary? Both Hermiones would probably have told him that the answer was ‘quite a lot’, along with everyone back in the old timeline who’d known anything about horcruxes, but… well, it wasn’t like any of them would ever know, was it? And Harry was sure he could handle it.

Fine, he wrote eventually, but no funny business. The moment you try to drain my lifeforce or possess me or drag me in or anything else like that, I’ve got a locked trunk and some Fiendfyre with your name on it.

If he didn’t know better, he’d have said the diary shivered in his grip.

Understood. No funny business.

After that night, Harry found himself writing in the diary often. He paid careful attention to his energy levels, and made sure to keep the diary locked in the very bottom of his trunk when he wasn’t using it, and as far as he could tell Riddle was keeping to their agreement.

Well. The threat of Fiendfyre would do that, probably, especially when your soul container would be vulnerable to even regular fire if it weren’t a horcrux.

The more Harry told Riddle about Voldemort’s actions in the first war, the more unimpressed he seemed to become. It wasn’t the easiest thing to judge with nothing but writing, admittedly, but it seemed like Riddle’s handwriting got scratchier when he was annoyed, and when Harry told him about Voldemort going after a toddler, Riddle resorted to responding with a burst of question marks before he composed himself enough to ask for details.

If you’d asked Harry even on the day he’d stolen the diary whether he thought he could get along with a shade of Tom Riddle, he’d have been appalled by the thought. And yet… that was what was happening, wasn’t it? He enjoyed talking with Riddle, enjoyed telling the diary everything he remembered about the first war - even if he didn’t always remember enough about Voldemort’s specific strategies to content Riddle, who’d keep asking for further details to try to understand and then sink into little brooding periods of non-responsiveness when Harry couldn’t give him more.

They started talking about things besides Voldemort, too. Riddle asked him about his schooling, about his home life, about the things he enjoyed; Harry agreed to talk only about the things where Riddle would return the favor, and their home life was swiftly struck off of the list.

He learned, though, that Riddle’s favorite subjects were Charms and Defence; that Herbology and History of Magic were his least favorites, though he found the actual history of the wizarding world fascinating to learn when it wasn’t just endless goblin rebellions taught by a soporific ghost; that he’d never been one for Quidditch but could apparently play a wicked game of wizarding chess, although he admitted that he actually preferred muggle chess as he found the animated pieces in wizarding chess irritating.

If Harry hadn’t known that Riddle was already a murderer who’d been setting the Basilisk loose on the school, he would have just found him a charming, nice - though his sense of humor was definitely more the kind of biting wit that Millicent used than like anyone else Harry knew - and smart upper-year student. Even with knowing that, it was easy to put it to one side while talking to him.

He knew his friends in the old timeline would have told him that he needed to be more cautious. But none of them were here to actually tell him that, and this was… nice.

He’d still be able to destroy the diary when it came down to it, too, and in the end that was all that really mattered.

Harry’s summer at the Malfoys’ was so full, between Draco and his parents and talking to Riddle, that he didn’t really dwell on the next year until their trip to Diagon Alley. Of course he’d known that him having the diary meant that Ginny wouldn’t be possessed, but he hadn’t really thought in depth about the fact that this would be her first year. He remembered when he saw her in Diagon Alley, of course, and it made his stomach flip a little oddly.

He was swiftly distracted from that by having to duck behind Lucius to avoid Lockhart - and even he had enough self-preservation to not try to get past Lucius Malfoy with his most unimpressed sneer in place, thankfully, so Harry avoided being on the front page of the Prophet this time - and once they were back at Malfoy Manor, Harry just did his best to put it out of his mind. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to dwell on it at all, he told himself; Ginny would be in Gryffindor, like her brothers, and him being in Slytherin would kill her crush, and he wouldn’t have to deal with being the first crush of an eleven-year-old version of his old wife. It would be fine.

It was, of course, not fine. Harry being a Slytherin didn’t seem to have had any negative effects on Ginny’s hero-worship crush on him; he frequently spotted her peeking out from under her hair at him in the great hall or when they passed in corridors, and any time he went to speak to Hermione and she was nearby, Ginny would turn as red as her tie and lose all thread of whatever conversation she was having, no matter who it was with.

Between that and Lockhart being just as useless as Harry remembered, he was on edge, and he should have known that Riddle would pick up on it and ask.

It’s just the Defence teacher, he started to write when Riddle asked, but almost immediately found another hand crossing out what he’d written.

No it’s not., Riddle told him, and Harry really wasn’t sure how a short line of text could seem so imperious. Yes, yes, the useless Defence teacher isn’t helping, but it’s more than that. I know you already know his material, so he’s only an inconvenience. What’s really bothering you, Harry?

Harry stared down at the diary, unsure whether he should answer. If he just said that a first-year girl had a crush on him, Riddle would say that that was only an inconvenience too, and keep digging. But telling the truth…

Well, he eventually decided. It wasn’t like Riddle could tell anyone, right? And when the time came to destroy the diary, the secret would go with him.

Okay., he wrote. This is going to sound like a crazy story, but

He paused, long enough enough for Riddle to write an impatient Well? as he tried to decide how to word it, before deciding to just go with straightforward.

I’m from the future.

There was a long pause, and then, Explain.

So Harry did. He told Riddle about being an auror, about the raid and the curse and the potions and instruments he’d hit, and how he suspected that they and the curse had somehow combined to send him back here. He told Riddle about having been in Gryffindor the first time, about missing out on being able to be close to one of his best friends in this timeline because he was a Slytherin.

He told Riddle about having had a wife and children, and the fact that that former wife was, in this timeline, an eleven-year-old girl who turned bright red any time he went anywhere near her.

I can’t profess to understand that personally, Riddle admitted, but it does sound awkward, if you loved the woman.

I did., Harry wrote. I still do, even though I know I’ll never see her again. We were more friends than anything by the time I was sent back here, but she became my closest friend. And she was a very different person to how she is at eleven.

There was a long time with no response, and then Riddle wrote, Would you allow me to draw you into the diary, Harry? You could leave whenever you wanted, and I swear on my magic - still no funny business.

Harry blinked down at the diary. He wasn’t sure why Riddle was asking, but…

The Fiendfyre thing still stands if you do try anything, okay? I’ll take us both out from inside if I have to.

Of course, Harry.

And then there was a horrible spinning sensation, like a less intense combination of a Portkey and Apparition, and Harry found himself in what appeared to be the Slytherin common room by evening. It didn’t look exactly the same, but certainly similar enough to just be the common room of fifty years ago.

Looking around, he found that Riddle was sat in one of the armchairs, one leg crossed over the other and his chin balanced on his fist as he leaned forward to watch Harry sit down opposite him.

“…hi,” Harry offered. It was easier when you could plan out what to write, as it turned out. And didn’t have Riddle sitting there and staring at you without blinking.

After a few moments he leaned back in his chair, though, apparently done with his inspection of Harry.

“Hello, Harry. It’s good to see you in the flesh.”

Harry nodded, went quiet for a moment, and then blurted, “Why, though? I mean… why have me come here?”

Riddle shrugged, a fluid motion that he somehow managed to make look graceful.

“I thought,” he said, and then paused, lips pursing in thought for a moment before he continued. “I thought that you might like company beyond what I can provide with paper and ink, after that.”

Harry stared at him, unable to decide whether he should be touched or suspicious, and Riddle shifted in his chair, almost… awkwardly?

“I can’t understand it, not… emotionally,” he went on, and his face twisted into a scowl as he did; whether at having to admit to not understanding something or just at the discussion of feelings, Harry couldn’t tell, “But I know that it must be… difficult, and I don’t think you’ve told anyone else.”

He paused, only continuing when Harry nodded. “If you’d like to talk about it, and not just write, then… well, you can do that here. There’s no chance of being overheard, either.”

“And… what, that’s it?” Harry asked. “You just want to… be there for me? Nothing in return?”

Riddle’s lips twitched up into a smirk. “Well. You do presumably have more information about my future self than what you’ve told me before, and this way you can tell me about it without me having to suffer your awful handwriting.”

There, that was more like the Riddle that Harry knew.

Still, it was… nice.

Harry spent an hour or so talking to Riddle inside the diary pretty much every night after the first. Mostly he told him about the second war, and being able to see his reactions made it even more clear that, yes, Tom Riddle really wasn’t at all impressed with his future self. His decisions, for the most part, but Riddle really did look utterly horrified when Harry told him that Voldemort had been unnaturally pale, bald and noseless by the end, and he reached up to touch at his hair almost self-consciously until he registered that Harry was watching him and jerked his hand away.

They discussed the other horcruxes, what Harry knew of them and how they’d been destroyed. That lead to an awkward night where Riddle insisted he wanted to know how the diary had been destroyed in the first timeline and, upon hearing that Harry had killed the Basilisk and used its fang to stab the diary, went very quiet and asked Harry to leave. He wouldn’t respond to any writing in the diary for the next few days, long enough that Harry found himself starting to be almost concerned, and when he did respond and let Harry back in he was stiff and awkward the first night.

“I’m sorry,” Harry told him. “I know it must be… weird, hearing how you died.”

Riddle lifted his head to stare at Harry, expression incomprehensible, and then shook his head sharply.

“There’s nothing to apologize for; you were defending yourself and the girl. I’m sure I’d have done more-or-less the same in your position.” There was an awkward moment, the awareness between them that Riddle probably wouldn’t have cared about Ginny half as much as Harry had under the circumstances.

“Anyway,” he went on, “It won’t happen now, so it doesn’t much matter, does it?”

Harry bit his lip. It was true that everything in the Chamber wouldn’t happen again, but…

Riddle eyed him, and then turned away to drift over to the bookshelves at the side of the common room, fingering the spines of the books there as though he was searching for something. Harry suspected that Riddle just didn’t want to be looking at him right now, especially when the other spoke again.

“If there was a way to vanquish my future self without me dying, would you let me live? I think I’d help you defeat him either way, if only to avoid the embarrassment of him doing what he did in your timeline, but… I’d like to live, Harry.”

His voice cracked on the last part, and Harry was sure that if any of his friends were here they’d say it was an act. That Riddle just wanted to save his own skin.

But they weren’t here, and they hadn’t been talking to Riddle all this time. Harry had, and… Harry thought Riddle might be being genuine.

Which meant he deserved the same, Harry thought.

So, “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t know for sure. But… I think so. I think I would.”

Riddle didn’t turn away from the bookshelves, but something lightened in his posture, and if Harry didn’t know better he’d think Riddle had breathed out a very, very quiet thank you, Harry.

Riddle seemed to throw himself into trying to find a way to defeat Voldemort, after that conversation. He grilled Harry in more depth on the other horcruxes, on how they’d reacted or not reacted when they were destroyed. He analyzed Voldemort’s decisions, comparing the first and second wars and pointing out why his future self’s decisions and actions didn’t make sense to him.

Eventually, he theorized that the horcruxes could be a half-and-half split of the soul each time. It would explain, he said, why he could so easily tear holes in Voldemort’s tactics, and why he felt that Voldemort had been even worse at planning during the second war. If Riddle was right, then he was half a soul, and Voldemort by the end had had potentially had less than a hundredth of his soul inhabiting his body.

Even if it wasn’t exactly a half-and-half split, Riddle said, and even if the soul did its utmost to regrow itself in a body, he was almost certain that he was much more complete than Voldemort was now, even with him having not yet made Nagini into a horcrux.

“I wonder,” he said one night, “Whether… if you destroyed the other horcruxes, and then contained his wraith somehow and destroyed the container with Fiendfyre, would he be destroyed?”

“He’d still have a horcrux, though,” Harry pointed out.

Riddle waved a hand impatiently. “Yes, but I’d be so much more than him. If it came down to it, mightn’t the magic prioritize me?”

“I’m not a magical theorist,” Harry admitted. “I don’t know. And making more than one horcrux had never been done before you guys, let alone any of this.”

Riddle fell into a brooding silence, as he often did when he was thinking through an idea, and then locked eyes with Harry.

“You said that Ravenclaw’s diadem is hidden within Hogwarts, yes?” When Harry nodded, he demanded, “Find it. Find it and leave it with the diary for a day. I have an idea, but I’d need to test the theory to know if it might work.”

He waved his hand impatiently again when Harry went to speak. “Yes, yes, I know. Any funny business and you’ll use Fiendfyre on the both of us.”

Harry wasn’t going to get anywhere with Riddle when he was like this, he knew, so he just sighed and agreed that, it being Thursday night, he’d try to find the diadem in the Room of Hidden Things tomorrow, and leave it with the diary until Saturday night. If he couldn’t manage it tomorrow, he’d find it on Saturday and leave the diary until Sunday.

With that decided, Riddle practically shooed Harry out of the diary, and as Harry was tucking it back into the back of his trunk he huffed out a little laugh to himself at the thought that, really, if circumstances hadn’t been what they were, Riddle seemed like someone that Hermione could have gotten along with. They were both just as bad as one another when they had an idea in their heads, anyway.

Harry did succeed in finding the diadem the next day, although he ended up having to sneak back into his dorm under the Cloak past curfew, and he tucked it into the compartment in the back of his trunk that he kept the diary in before firmly locking his trunk.

He settled down to sleep after that, trying not to focus on how weird it felt to have not spoken to Riddle at all today, or on wondering exactly what Riddle was trying to do with the diadem.

He did a better job of it that night than the next day, admittedly, when he was so distracted that by the evening Pansy asked him if he needed to go to the Hospital Wing for a checkup in case he was coming down with something.

“No… no, that’s fine,” he assured her. “I think I’m going to go to bed early, though.”

She gave him a considering look over, and then shrugged. “Fine, but if you’re still this out of it tomorrow morning I’m taking you there whether you like it or not.”

“You just want an excuse to get out of Lockhart’s class.”

Pansy gasped in mock-offence, the picture of scandalized disbelief, and then grinned at him. “Shut up and go to bed, Potter.”

“Yes Ma’am,” he told her as he pulled himself up, matching her grin, and then headed down to the dorm room.

Once he was in there, he retrieved the diary from his trunk, squinting contemplatively at the diadem - did it seem… brighter, somehow, or was he only imagining it? - before he re-locked the trunk and climbed into bed, pulling the drapes shut and casting his usual privacy charms to keep his dorm-mates out.

Flipping open the diary, he wrote, I’m here., and waited. As expected, it took only a few moments before there was the familiar, still-horrible spinning sensation and he found himself once more in the copy of the Slytherin common room inside the diary.

He turned to find Riddle, only to be found by Riddle, who was picking him up and spinning him in apparent delight and then… kissing him? Yes, Riddle was definitely kissing him, and Harry was pretty sure his brain had stopped functioning for a moment there.

Or maybe longer than a moment, because when Riddle pulled back, all that Harry managed was an incredibly eloquent, “Bwuh?”

Riddle seemed self-conscious now, pulling away and patting his hair down and apparently trying to get back to his normal level of composure.

“It,” he started and then shook his head, looking frustrated for a second. And then he apparently decided the best thing to do was just pretend that that hadn’t happened and carry on as normal, because he pulled himself up and told Harry, “It worked. My idea.”

Harry blinked at him, still trying to process what had just happened, but managed, “What… what was your idea, anyway?”

“That I might be able to overpower and absorb the piece of soul in a later horcrux, if I truly was more complete than the later horcruxes.”

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but that definitely wasn’t it. He moved to one of the armchairs and sat down slowly, gesturing for Riddle to carry on, and Riddle nodded and tossed himself down into the opposite chair.

“I can’t quite describe how I did it,” he admitted, and it had him frowning for a moment before he continued. “I’m not sure it would even make sense to anyone not a horcrux themselves. But I was able to pull out the soul piece in the diadem and integrate it.” He paused a moment. “It’s… odd. I can remember some of the things between my creation and that of the horcrux in the diadem, but it’s as though I’m remembering… someone else’s dream.”

Riddle fell silent again, and then shook his head sharply. “Anyway. That part isn’t important. What’s important is that if I were to do that with all of the other horcruxes, I’d have a nearly complete soul. Certainly more than what my future self has. And if he was able to give himself a body with only the tiny shred of soul he had left - even if it was a body like that - then…”

“Then… you think you’d be able to have a body, since you’d have more of a soul than that?” Harry tried, and Riddle nodded sharply.

“Exactly. And if I had a body and he didn’t, I’m almost certain that I could either do this with my future self as well, or that he could be killed.”

Harry thought about it. Riddle essentially being able to be human again, and helping them take out Voldemort… it sat better with him than just destroying the diary did at this point, he had to admit. But even if Riddle wasn’t Voldemort and wanted to help defeat him, and even if Riddle had followed all of Harry’s rules under the threat of Fiendfyre… would they be able to trust him, if he were in a body of his own again? Tom Riddle wasn’t Voldemort, but that didn’t make him a good person, and the fact he clearly didn’t want to do the same things that Voldemort did wasn’t the same as him not wanting to do anything terrible, was it?

The indecision must have shown on Harry’s face, because Riddle blurted, “An Unbreakable Vow.”

Harry blinked. “What?”

“An Unbreakable Vow,” Riddle repeated, slower this time. “I’ll swear one. Whatever you want. Whoever you want as Bonder. Anything, Harry. I…” He trailed off, turning his head away to avoid Harry’s eyes. “I don’t want to die, and… if I do have to die for my future self to die, I don’t want to do it stuck inside a diary. I’ll swear anything you want, if you’ll help me avoid that.”

Harry stared across at him, at where Riddle was staring desperately at him. No matter how sincere Riddle seemed - no matter how sincere he was - it was almost certainly a terrible idea. Even at sixteen, Riddle was a murderer and a liar.

He wanted to do better, though, was prepared to kill his own future self and Vow away whatever freedoms Harry chose in order to make that happen, and Harry couldn’t just ignore that. He couldn’t just ignore it, but he also couldn’t just agree - he knew he’d made probably-unwise choices about Riddle already that had so far turned out fine, but this would be more than anything before. This would be letting Riddle out into the world, and no Unbreakable Vow could be completely comprehensive about every single possibility, especially with someone as smart as Riddle.

He couldn’t decide this on his own.

“I… need to think about it,” he said, slowly.

Something in Riddle’s face went shuttered and closed-off, and he stared down at the floor with a short, bitter-looking nod. It was, Harry was pretty sure, the face of someone who thought that he was just being brushed off rather than told the truth.

“Riddle,” Harry said, and when Riddle didn’t look up at him he tried again - quieter and more hesitant this time, because he’d never called him this before. “Tom?”

That made him look up, and Harry went on, “I promise I really am going to think about it. But… I know what you have to do to make a horcrux, and I know you got Hagrid expelled, and I need to think about what kind of Vow would be enough, if any.”

He flashed Riddle an awkward grin, and added, “I’m in Slytherin in this timeline, aren’t I? Can’t just rush into it without thinking because you’re nice to me and I think you mean what you say.”

Riddle stared at him in silence for long enough that Harry wondered if he was going to respond at all, and then he inclined his head a little stiffly.

“I suppose,” he said quietly, “That it is good that you’re having foolish Gryffindor tendencies trained out of you, even if they might have been beneficial to me right now.”

Harry’s grin widened, and he reached out to hug Tom without really thinking about it. He went stiff in Harry’s arms, and hadn’t relaxed by the time Harry pulled back, but he didn’t actively push him away.

“I’ll speak to you again as soon as I have an answer, okay?” Harry told him. “Goodnight, Tom.”

When he left the diary, it was to find Goodnight, Harry, written in Tom’s elegant handwriting on the page it was open to, and his grin stayed in place all through locking the diary back in his trunk and heading to bed.

In the morning, he’d find someone to talk things through with, and they’d go from there.

Come morning, it occurred to Harry that he really wasn’t sure who to go to. Back in the first timeline, it would have been Ron and Hermione, like it always was. But him and Ron didn’t know each other here, and Hermione was only a second-year, not someone he could burden with this. The same with the Slytherins, too. There was McGonagall, but Harry wasn’t a Gryffindor anymore, didn’t know this McGonagall as more than his Transfiguration teacher. There was Snape, but for all that he wasn’t so awful to Harry now that Harry was in Slytherin, he was still… well, Snape.

Really, the only possibility was Dumbledore. Harry wasn’t entirely sure he trusted Dumbledore’s judgement so much as he had when he was actually twelve, but he couldn’t deny that the man was probably the only one he could explain everything to and have him still capable of actually forming a reasonable judgement by the end of it.

Which was how Harry ended up standing in front of the gargoyle that guarded Dumbledore’s office, listing off the names of sweets and feeling progressively more awkward until, finally, Sugar Quills made the gargoyle move aside and let him up into the staircase.

Dumbledore was waiting behind his desk when Harry entered the office, looking for all the world as though he’d invited and expected him there, rather than Harry having had to recite every sweet he could think of at the gargoyle.

“How can I help you today, Harry?” Dumbledore asked, eyes twinkling as he gestured for Harry to sit opposite him.

He wasn’t sure where to start, really. But… well, just launching into it had worked well enough with Tom, hadn’t it? So he blurted out, “I’m from the future.”

Dumbledore blinked slowly but didn’t immediately say anything, so Harry carried on; telling him everything he’d told Tom, about the first timeline and being sent back by accident. He told him parts he hadn’t told Tom so much, too, about having decided that if he couldn’t get back then he’d make this timeline better; about how he’d planned to destroy the horcruxes quicker and hopefully prevent Voldemort from ever reviving himself.

And he told Dumbledore about Tom. About deciding to talk to the diary even knowing what it was; about Tom’s disgust with Voldemort; about the fact he claimed to have absorbed the diadem horcrux and wished for a body of his own.

“And he says he’ll swear an Unbreakable Vow,” he finished, “With whatever terms I want and whoever I choose as Bonder, so long as he’s allowed out of the diary.”

When he stopped there, finally, Dumbledore leaned back in his chair to watch Harry. The headmaster looked incredibly tired, and Harry wondered if he’d gone about things wrong - should he have tried to condense things more? Kept back details about Dumbledore’s death in the first timeline? He couldn’t tell.

But Dumbledore shook his head slowly, then, and said, “I wish that that were not a burden that had to be put on you so young, Harry. I’m glad that you grew into a man still so willing to forgive and love, even so.”

He closed his eyes. “I fear that that is something I failed in, in a time where it counted, and overdid in another time where the opposite would have counted.”

“Grindelwald,” Harry said, barely a whisper, and Dumbledore nodded. Again, when he went on, “And Tom, when he was in school.”

“Yes,” Dumbledore agreed, opening his eyes again to stare across at Harry. “I was too forgiving where Gellert was concerned, and too suspicious where young Tom was concerned. I suppose I will never know what difference it would have made had I acted differently, as I don’t expect to be involved in the perfect freak magical accident that you seem to have encountered.”

Harry couldn’t help but grin at him then, even if it was a little bittersweet, and Dumbledore smiled back across the desk. He still looked tired, but the ever-present twinkle had returned to his eyes, and Harry felt a little more firm on his feet with it there.

“But we can, perhaps, see what difference it would make to act differently with this young Tom,” Dumbledore went on, and Harry nodded.

“I brought the diadem,” he told Dumbledore, “So you… I think he’s telling the truth about it not being a horcrux anymore, but I figured you might be able to tell for sure.”

Dumbledore nodded, and when Harry fetched the diadem from his pouch he waved the Elder Wand over it, murmuring spells too quietly for Harry to hear.

“I believe that you are correct,” he said eventually, “Your Tom has indeed removed the horcrux from this, though I do not think I could say for certain whether he has absorbed or simply destroyed it. Either way, he appears to have told the truth to some degree at least.”

Harry wasn’t quite prepared for just how relieved he was to hear that. Or for the odd twist in his stomach at hearing Tom referred to as ‘his’ Tom, for that matter.

Pushing that aside, though, he leaned back in his chair and grinned across at Dumbledore for a moment before his expression turned serious.

“What now then, sir? Do you think we should trust him?”

“What do you think, Harry?” Dumbledore asked.

He had to think about it for a while. Except… he didn’t, really, did he? Harry knew what his answer was, even if he didn’t know whether it was actually logical or sensible or the right answer.

He braced himself a little, and then said, “I think we should. Or… I want to, at least. I don’t know if it really is a good idea, because he’s done bad things already and even with an Unbreakable Vow he might still find a way to do more. But I think he really does want to be better than Voldemort, and if there’s a way to get him out of the diary that isn’t the ritual Voldemort used then I think we should try it.”

Dumbledore opened his mouth to respond, but before he could speak there was a burst of song from Fawkes’ perch that made both of them look over. Harry hadn’t really acknowledged the phoenix when he’d entered, but Fawkes was at his best right now; his feathers were bright and glowing, and as Harry watched him he lifted off and flew to land as a heavy, warm weight on Harry’s shoulder. He let out another burst of song once he was settled, and Harry looked to Dumbledore.

The headmaster was all smiles and twinkles, and Harry had a moment of wondering what had caused that before Dumbledore told him, “I think, my boy, you will be pleased to hear that Fawkes has promised his aid in returning your Tom to a body. It may still take some work to figure out exactly how to go about it, but a phoenix’s magic may make all the difference.”

And Harry was pleased, more than he could put into words. He turned his head to look at Fawkes on his shoulder and lifted his other hand toward it, letting the phoenix rub his head against Harry’s hand.

Thank you, Fawkes,” he told him. It wasn’t close to enough, but Fawkes seemed to understand; he crooned into Harry’s ear and preened at a lock of Harry’s hair with his beak before finally lifting off of Harry’s shoulder to return to his perch. There was something about the croon in particular, too, something that he couldn’t quite put into words, that made Harry suspect that Fawkes’ aid might go further than just helping Tom regain a body; that perhaps, when he had, there was a wand waiting in a box at Ollivanders that he’d find a perfect fit for him now.

“This still may not be easy,” Dumbledore went on, “And even with your foreknowledge, I don’t expect defeating Voldemort to be a simple matter. And yet…”

He trailed off, and Harry turned his head to blink at him questioningly.

“And yet, sometimes, fighting besides loved ones can make the hardest tasks feel simple. Don’t you agree, my boy?”

It was late by the time Harry got back to the dorms; him and Dumbledore had spent so long hashing out the terms of Tom’s Unbreakable Vow and planning how best to go about creating Tom a body that Dumbledore had ended up calling the house elves to bring them dinner there.

It meant that he had to deal with questions from the other Slytherins about where he’d been all day, but he managed to brush them off with assurances that they’d be the first to know when it was time for anyone to know. While none of them liked it, clearly, even at twelve any good Slytherin could appreciate waiting for plans to come to fruition before spilling the beans.

He still had to wait for the other boys to go to bed before he could risk getting the diary out of his trunk, though, since he knew they’d all be on high alert now to try to figure out what his secret was.

It meant that by the time he could Harry felt like he was practically buzzing, and the moment he was able to enter the diary he raced to Tom’s side and grabbed his hands, grinning wildly up at him.

“It’s agreed!” he told him, and Tom stared wide-eyed at Harry like he thought if he so much as breathed it would be taken back. “I spoke to Dumbledore, and he agreed to be the Bonder, and… and Fawkes agreed to help get you a body.”

Tom’s eyes went even wider then, presumably at the knowledge that both Dumbledore and Dumbledore’s phoenix were going to be helping him, even knowing who he was. And then he was breaking Harry’s grip on his hands, but only so that he could wrap one arm around Harry and slide the fingers of his other hand into Harry’s hair, and then he was pulling him in and kissing him again, even more intensely than the last time. Harry froze up again, but he managed to recover enough to kiss back after a few moments, his own hands going up to grip at Tom’s shoulders.

When they broke apart they were both breathless, but Harry was grinning like mad and Tom was practically matching him as he breathed, thank you, thank you, thank you like a mantra in between peppering more kisses across Harry’s cheeks. Harry didn’t know how long that lasted, only that eventually they ended up both squeezed onto one of the armchairs opposite the fireplace with his head resting on Tom’s shoulder as Tom stared into the fire.

“If someone had told me about this on the first day I took the diary, I never would have believed them,” Harry admitted, “But I’m glad things did go this way, and that I didn’t destroy the diary.”

Just like with Fawkes, the words weren’t nearly enough to sum up how he actually felt. But Tom tilted his head to meet Harry’s eyes and smiled down at him, sincere in a way that Harry could never even have imagined Tom Riddle looking before this moment, and he knew it didn’t matter; that even if the words weren’t enough, Tom understood anyway.

Dumbledore was right, he was sure, that things wouldn’t actually be easy. But right now, next to Tom, it really did feel like the simplest thing in the world; they would fight, and Voldemort would be defeated, and Tom would be at his side the whole time.

And for the first time since he’d woken up in this timeline, he didn’t have a single regret about being here.