"So, how did the party go?"
Harry rolled his eyes at the very first question Tom asked him once they were alone. Sirius had brought the man over to Potter Manor again for a change, the very same day Harry had arrived.
To be honest, it had caught Harry by surprise, having expected a visit in a few days, just before Christmas perhaps. But it seemed like Tom had wanted to catch Yule, actually, considering Quetzalcoatl had already been waiting at the manor when Sirius and Harry arrived from King's Cross after a rather uneventful journey back.
"Well... it was alright, I guess?" Harry answered as such, not really sure what else to say.
Tom didn't seem particularly impressed with that answer though.
"Could you elaborate, perhaps? Did anything exciting happen? Who did you talk to?"
"Well, I don't know what you want to hear?" Harry asked back, frowning a little. It wasn't like the party had been that interesting. "I talked to a few Slytherins... Managed that they're not scared of me because of you anymore?" For a moment he considered mentioning the incident with McLaggen but decided against it. He hadn't even done anything to mitigate it in the end, and when he had meet back up with Ron and Hermione he had thanked Ron for acting. That was it, really.
"That's... great, but I was mostly talking about people not in Hogwarts. You know... the people Slughorn invites? Connections?"
Harry blinked in surprise.
"Oh. Well... I talked to Mr. Worple? El...dred or something?"
That seemed to interest Tom a bit more.
"The author of Blood Brothers: My Life Amongst the Vampires?" he asked, eyebrows raised a bit.
"Uh... yes? It was a book about vampires at least and he did have a friend with him," Harry agreed slowly.
"Did he offer to write your biography?"
Harry frowned at the uncomfortable reminder. "Yeah..."
"What did you say?"
"What is it with all these questions?" Harry finally snapped, glaring at Tom. "What do you care with whom I've talked or if any weird people wanted to make money with me dying soon?"
Tom sighed softly.
"It's called 'having a plan'. You know we're all still working on finding a cure-"
"Yeah, a fair lot of good that did up to now!"
Harry couldn't help it. It wasn't like he wanted to be angry at Tom, to snap his answers and glare, but... it was like all the stress from the days and weeks of being stared at, being examinated in the Hospital Wing again and again, the other students whispering once more... The fact that he had only four months left! It was bubbling over, creating a rage within him that made no sense, but was nonetheless very real.
"Harry, I know the situation looks bad, but-"
"You know nothing!" Green eyes met red, anger growing even more at seeing the everlasting calm behind the other's gaze. "I'm the one who's going to die! Because of your bloody Horcruxes and that ridiculous booby-trap for Dumbledore!"
The moment the words left his mouth Harry realised what he was saying and froze, eyes going wide.
That had been uncalled for. Not only that, it had been outright mean.
And Tom looked... well. His expression was unreadable to Harry, to be honest, but the air around them felt heavy, as if it was laden with magic that was ready to be discharged... and Harry did not know what would be its target.
"Don't you think I know that?" Tom said, each word spoken slowly but in a way that let the calm seem forced. "Do you think I spend day and night researching, trying to figure out a solution to my arrogant curse, just to watch you die in a few months?" With each word his voice grew darker, more forceful, though it also started slipping into sibilant words until he outright continued in Parseltongue. "I care for you, you dunderhead! Do you think I would simply sit by idly, watching you die? Do you honestly believe I would invest my time and effort into something I do not believe worth saving?" Tom's red eyes were full of fire, passionate in a way Harry had not yet truly seen them, taking him aback.
"I... I didn't..." But words eluded him, he knew he probably should apologise for how he had spoken, but part of him was still so angry, so helpless... He was dying and he couldn't do anything to stop it!
Perhaps Tom had picked up on his rising anguish as well, or perhaps his words had been enough to release his stress, but when he spoke again, it was once again a lot calmer.
"I understand. Death is a frightening prospect. Incredibly more so for you right now, I am sure. Believe me, I seldom regret things, but creating this trap does haunt me, every day."
Tom still spoke in Parseltongue and Harry stayed silent, considering he did not know what else to say. There was nothing he could offer that would improve this situation, nothing he could say to make the other feel better, for part of Harry agreed with it. It had been a huge mistake on Tom's part, even if the other could never have known how things had changed...
And for the first time, Harry understood Tom's fear of death. The feeling of helplessness, knowing nothing could stop it when it actually came... Oh, sure, his mother's protection had managed once, but it had been such a unique situation... And he didn't want another person he cared about to die for this either!
Suddenly Harry had an idea. A crazy idea, he was sure, but... when he looked up at Tom he just had to ask it.
"Do you... Do you think having a Horcrux would let me survive?" he asked slowly, switching to Parseltongue in the middle when he realised he did not want anyone else to listen in.
Tom's eyes widened at the question.
"No!" he exclaimed, just as Harry felt Shiva's ever-existing grip on his wrist tighten.
"Master! What are you saying?!"
And... honestly, Harry didn't know. It wasn't like this was an option he really... had considered before at all, it was just... would it work?
"Harry," Tom said seriously, placing his hands on Harry's shoulders, intent on catching his eyes. "Making a Horcrux is not a solution. It is a vile ritual, as I am sure you are well aware of, and it will break you." His look was dead serious as he continued, promising nothing but the harsh truth. "I was an idiot for thinking it would help me, especially being as young as I was. Yes, chances are high that having a Horcrux would make you survive the curse. But at what cost? I have lost over fifty years to insanity and I was much better prepared for it than you could ever become in a few months. Don't you dare to continue looking into such a path."
"Master! What are you even saying? You know that this ritual is crazy! You were almost sick when you read about it!" Shiva commented agitatedly, slithering out beneath his sleeve to be able to look at him.
And somehow something inside of him loosened as he stopped looking at Tom, falling back to the much more comfortable situation of talking with Shiva as he had done countless times in the past, for just about any topic on his mind.
"I know! But what am I supposed to do? Do you have any idea how it feels like, knowing you will die in a few months but unable to do anything? I can't heal myself, I can't just go on another stupid adventure to somehow fix the mess I got into this time! I can't do anything! And these stupid Curse-Breakers can't find anything either, no matter how much they prod and ask and try to analyse!"
Shiva gave him her version of a hug again, hissing comfortingly.
"I understand... but please, splitting your soul is not a solution... Remember how it took multiple years before the diary soul piece found its way back to its owner? And how, even while he was alive, he was just a spirit or something? You told me it took over a decade for him to regain a body."
Harry's shoulders slumped. It wasn't that he didn't know all that, and honestly, the whole idea had been kind of stupid, but... He just wanted to stop feeling so bloody helpless.
"Actually, perhaps I can offer a solution," Tom suddenly spoke up again, his tone soft even in hissing. Harry looked up warily. "The reason why I visited today, in fact. I devised a ritual... it's... I cannot tell you if it will work, of course, and I will not promise anything. But it's a specific form of a dark healing ritual that can remove even very strong curses from people. I found it a few weeks ago, but it has to be done on the evening of the winter solstice. The darkest day of the year. Which is today..."
Harry blinked a few times as the words registered with his brain.
"You... found a cure?" he asked, slowly, trying his best not to sound too hopeful.
"Well... I am not sure. I did the theory and it does seem promising, but, obviously, such a ritual has never been used on a curse like yours. I would have to try." Did Tom... actually sound nervous? Or was it the Parseltongue that made his words come out in a weird way? "The worst thing that could happen would be nothing, though. So it cannot make the curse worse, at least. Although... it might still be painful."
"Let's try it," Harry answered, uncaring about the potential negative side-effects. As long as it couldn't make it worse and provided a good chance of helping, he would try anything right now, he thought...
"Do Sirius or Remus know of this?" Shiva asked just then, causing Harry to frown at her for a moment - before realising what she was doing.
Right... stupidly agreeing to people's requests, no matter how much he thought it was a good idea, had... not exactly gone well for him up to now.
Thankfully Tom nodded at this.
"They do. I have spoken with them yesterday evening and explained the situation and my possible suggestion. Sirius was not happy about the idea of dark magic being used for it, but further explanations seem to have convinced him. But feel free to talk to them beforehand to double-check. We need to start preparing only around ten in the evening, so there is still time."
Harry swallowed hard, but nodded. It was a sensible suggestion. In fact, it would probably be good to do it immediately, just... to get away from this rather awkward situation right now.
"I will do that now, then," he muttered, already turning away before hesitating for another moment. "And... thank you. For talking me out of doing something stupid again." His voice was barely a whisper, even when hissing, but he did look at Shiva to hopefully convey he meant both of them.
He was a reckless idiot sometimes, he knew that, so it was comforting to have people around who managed to talk him out of the worst things, at least... He just needed to listen a bit better, perhaps.
For now though, he really needed to talk to Sirius.
Luckily Sirius was relatively easy to find, considering he spent most of the time when Tom was visiting in one of the nearby drawing rooms, pretending to be very busy by playing chess or Gobstones or whatever other game he currently had in mind just then with Remus.
When Harry entered the room Sirius looked up immediately, abandoning the card game he had played this time when getting up to walk closer to Harry.
"So... did he tell you?" he asked slowly, clearly not sure how to phrase the question. Harry nodded. "How do you feel?"
Opening his mouth to give the very first answer he had in mind - fine, let's get this over with - Harry hesitated for a moment. Didn't Sirius deserve at least a slightly more thought out answer?
"I- Well... I'm not sure," he finally admitted, looking at the ground while he started to nervously play with the hem of his cloak's sleeve. "I really want to try this ritual... he did tell you about it, right?" Looking up once more just to make sure, he waited for a confirming nod form Sirius before continuing, now a bit more relaxed. "It's... if this is a chance to get rid of this curse, I want to take it. I'm only worried that... well..." Harry hesitated again, feeling like the words were stuck in his throat. He felt like he had to muster all of his Gryffindor courage to continue and still barely managed a mutter, his eyes once again having returned to the ground. "That it won't work..."
A moment of silence reigned between them until Sirius was suddenly next to him, wrapping his arms around Harry's smaller frame.
"Listen, Harry," he began, his voice soft, missing his usual tint of mischievousness for once. "I will not pretend to understand the situation you're facing right now. Because I don't. But if all my years in Azkaban have taught me one thing, it's to never lose hope."
Harry stared at him incredulously. Sirius huffed.
"Can you perhaps not both stare at me like I've gone completely mad?" he grumbled. Clearly Remus had sported a similar expression as Harry had just now. "I do mean it! Sure, I didn't exactly feel hopeful, what with all the Dementors around, but... at some point the only thing you can do is believe it's going to get better. Do you know how many people completely lost their minds after barely a year? And sure, they did not have the added bonus of being animagi, but... they gave up. Many people died because they just stopped eating, you know? Hell, I had entertained such thoughts in the past as well. But somehow I managed. I didn't give up. And in the end I found the final spark that revitalised me enough to do something about my situation."
Harry just stared at him, unsure what to respond. It was clear how Sirius was trying to impress the seriousness of situation onto him, but seemingly Harry didn't show the reaction Sirius wanted, for he frowned a moment later.
"I'm... not really great at explaining this, am I?" Running a hand through his hair, he tried again. "What I meant was: I think it's a good idea to try out this ritual. I looked into it - hell, I made Kreacher unlock Grimmauld Place for a day to take a look at the Black library for some of the specifics Tom mentioned - and I do think that the theory is sound. It's about as risk-free as any ritual can be, really, and... even if it wouldn't work... there is still time. We would figure out another solution. I know things are seeming bad, but... just believe that we are all working very hard on it, alright?"
Harry had to swallow hard as he nodded slowly. It was... still hard to try and rely on others to fix something wrong with him, but... he would have to try. Sirius was right. It wouldn't help if he just gave up. And the ritual... it did sound so very promising too!
Taking a deep breath, Harry spoke up again, his voice now a bit more stable.
"That's the way to go!"
Sirius smiled at him and Harry returned the smile, if a bit more hesitant. Although there was one thing that was still bothering him a bit.
"So... how does the ritual work, actually?" he asked after a moment, assuming if Sirius had researched it he would know. After all, being part of a ritual he knew nothing about... did not bring back very happy memories. He would rather prepare himself for what was to come, really.
And considering the way Sirius looked a bit uncomfortable as he shared a look with Remus, it was probably a good thing to have asked anyway.
"Well, it is a dark ritual, so, in a way, those usually require some sort of sacrifice," Remus began, but before Harry could do more than open his mouth to protest he held up his hand. "We are not talking about human sacrifices or anything, of course. Although I am sure that rituals like this exist as well, and perhaps the one Tom proposed might have needed it as well, but as he is executing it on the Winter Solstice it needs a lot less power coming from... elsewhere. No, what I meant was blood."
Harry blinked at that, not sure if he understood.
"So... I need to cut myself somewhere?" he asked slowly, trying not to remember 'Blood of your enemy, forcibly taken' too well...
"In a way..." He hesitated for a moment longer before continuing. "The ritual is quite runes heavy. And considering it's about you - your body and your curse... well, someone will need to put the runes on your body."
"So... they will... write them in blood?" Harry asked slowly as a horrifying thought popped up in his head. Surely this was it... right?
Sadly Remus' expression did not seem to agree.
"They will need to be carved with a special ritual knife," he finally admitted.
Harry swallowed hard.
"How... many are we talking about?"
"This would happen under a numbing spell though!" Sirius cut it just then, distracting Harry from... potentially just outright panicking. "While there cannot be spells on you during the ritual the act of carving will not hurt at least. And the ritual itself will heal the cuts, so there won't be any sort of scarring or anything remaining at least."
Unsaid was that this also meant that once the ritual would start, the spell was gone and it would hurt. Great...
On the other hand, Harry had been bitten by a bloody Basilisk and survived. He had been hit with the Cruciatus! Surely a few cuts would not be as bad...?
As such he managed to steel his resolve a bit more before looking at the two adults in the room, a determined look on his face.
"I'll do it anyway."
Despite his declaration, when the evening actually turned into the night and they made their way over to Tom's manor - chosen based on the very simple fact that it had a ritual room while Potter manor did not - Harry was incredibly nervous.
Tom apparated them over, as Harry was the only one who was actually keyed into the other's wards at the moment and he did not quite dare yet to do long distance apparitions if not absolutely necessary, and as he brought them directly to the west wing they met no one else, which suited everyone involved just fine.
At least Sirius and Remus had, in the end, fully walked Harry through what was expected from him during the ritual and it wasn't much, although having to remove his clothes up to his underwear to give Tom enough space to carve in the runes wasn't one of his favourite parts. If anything he felt incredibly self-conscious the whole time - although the two other adults were nice enough to busy themselves with adding a few more spells to the entryways of the rooms they were occupying, not looking too closely at was was happening between Harry and Tom.
Also Sirius had taken Shiva for the moment, as she wanted to be there for the ritual but obviously couldn't stay wrapped around Harry for it. And while it did make him feel even more 'naked' than simply standing there in underwear... well, there was nothing to be done.
As such, while Tom took a look at what he had to work with Harry did his best to keep an embarrassed blush from his face as he himself looked at his rather skinny body. It was getting better, seeing how he had been able to eat regularly for the last year and a half without any food issues last summer, but... he still knew that he was too thin. He usually tried to just ignore it, or tell himself that Sirius had managed to fill out more after third year too, but... Harry was still over a year behind there.
Thankfully Tom didn't comment on anything he saw, his face betraying no emotions at all.
"I will numb your body now and start carving, alright?" he asked once, looking up for confirmation.
Harry just nodded - not sure if he was able to say anything in a voice that would not be shaking. Sure, he had agreed to it, but damn... Letting people carve things into his skin wasn't exactly easy either.
Still, he couldn't help but watch as Tom moved his wand in silent spells over his body, causing just the faintest of tingling as the magic took hold, fixating him how he stood just now before... well, stopping him from feeling anything beneath his head. He tried tensing his stomach for a second but stopped it a moment later when he realised how weird it was to not actually feel what he did. Creepy...
"Try to hold still now, I will begin," Tom said quietly and Harry nodded once again before doing just that, watching how Tom pulled out a knife - gleaming silver in the torches, for any electrical lights had been removed in the room that was supposed to be used for highly magical rituals - and began to write runes on Harry's body. There were seven big ones - two on his arms and legs, three on his torso - followed by a group of smaller ones on his right arm, mostly where the curse had not yet reached, although the last few went directly on the blackened skin, making Harry grimace. He felt like he should be shivering or something, but as he couldn't feel anything that was... quite disconcerting.
He worked on distracting himself by trying to understand the runes, but... well, it was clear that Tom was the expert between them here. Harry was able to read most of the big runes he could see - two of them had been carved into his backside and he could only move his head, really - but they were just simple things, standing for 'protection' or 'health'. No real explanation how they would work together to achieve the result they wanted. And the smaller runes on his arm were mostly ones Harry hadn't even seen before - he felt they might belong to a different runic alphabet to begin with, so he didn't even try to figure them out.
That the cuts were bleeding and, as such, making the runes even less recognisable didn't help either...
At least the runes on his blackened skin seemed to have been the last ones, for Tom was straightening again, looking seriously at Harry's face.
"That's it. I will have to take off the numbing charm now to start the ritual." Harry grimaced again, but nodded once more in confirmation, trying his best to brace himself.
Tom hesitated for just a moment longer before flicking his wand and at once the pain came crashing in, causing Harry to gasp. It was a good thing that the spell to keep him upright had not ended yet, for he did feel his knees buckle for a moment at the sudden return of sensory input. And that it was really mostly painful did not help either.
Still, he really didn't want to draw this out any longer - besides, they were kind of on a timer anyway, with this whole ritual being time based and stuff, right? - so he did his best to wrestle the painful feelings under control.
"I-I'm alright, let's start," he managed to get out past gritted teeth, focussing hard on keeping upright without needing the help of the spell so that Tom could cancel it as well.
"Very well then," Tom agreed after looking at him for another moment - was this concern shining in his eyes? The pain must be making Harry delusional or something - before cancelling the other spell and stepping back. Out of the ritual circle that took up most of the room's floor and in which they had been standing the whole time.
The loss of stability from the spell was noticeable, but Harry managed to keep upright, focussing on Tom to have something else to think about than the pain. He did notice movement from the corners of his eyes, so Sirius and Remus had probably joined them somewhere outside the circle to watch as well - Sirius had insisted, after all - but Harry just kept focussing on his former nemesis, who was now deeply focussed it seemed as he started muttering, waving his wand, letting magic swirl around them... It was hard to describe what exactly was happening, but it was clear that the ritual had started and the more Tom spoke, the less Harry understood. At least it had started out as something resembling Latin, but by now Harry was totally lost, the words coming from languages he had probably never heard of before.
The runes on his body began to glow and oh-so slowly he felt himself being raised into the air by the magic around them as it took hold onto said runes. Not exactly a pleasant feeling either, causing him to grunt in pain, but it was also something he had been explained. This was... not fine, but endurable. It had to be.
The pain increased slowly. It started out around the places where the runes had been carved but slowly spread until Harry wasn't sure if there was any inch of his skin not in pain. Bloody hell!
And yet he fought hard. He would not scream, would not make this even worse for the others, he would manage... It was still less painful than the Cruciatus... wasn't it? Honestly, it was hard to think about anything at all as the pain still intensified and he was not sure if he did scream out after all some time later - but he did notice when a flash of something sent bouts of energy through his body at a moment's time as everything around him turned black...