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Chapter Five: Threads and Chains. Part 3.

Seconds bled into minutes; minutes accumulated, forming oppressive clusters. Harry remained rooted to the floor, and every time he tried to take a step, a rush of panic shot up through him, filling his legs with lead.

It felt like his world had changed irrevocably, in such a profound, earth-shattering way that it had to affect every other person out there. In the sombre half-darkness of this fake room, such outcome seemed like an inevitability, but Harry suspected that the illusion would fall apart once he stepped out and entered the real world. There, his last desperate attempt at denial would shrivel to nothing because the truth would be mercilessly loud: people stayed the same. It's Tom who had gone mad, and it's Harry who he decided to drag down with him.

The words "Imperio" and "kiss me" were still ringing in his ears, and no matter how much time passed, their impact stayed just as staggering. Finally fed up with his stupor, Harry forced himself to move. His legs fought his intentions, but he kept walking until he reached the door, and then Hogwarts' familiar lights met him, washing away some of the numbness.

The corridors were empty. Most students must have gone to bed already, but some teachers could decide to take a walk, so Harry quickened his pace, hoping to lock himself in his room before anyone saw him. He didn't know what he looked like at this specific moment, but considering the conflicting emotions that stirred under the icy surface of his shock, it couldn't be good. There were so many questions he had to ask — he was in no state to deflect the inquiries of other people, people who would never understand him.

If he told them everything… If he shared the compromise he had imposed on Tom, the anguish and horror he had to live with each time Tom stepped close to violating it (each time he did nothing in response)… If he talked about Imperio and the would-be kiss, about his own astonishment coupled with a complete lack of surprise, about the small, ugly happiness that was roiling somewhere in the depth of his mind…

They'd think he was mad. As mad as Tom.

No one could understand. And so no one could ever know.

Feeling a thousand years old, Harry finally entered his room. He walked to his bed without stopping, planning to fall onto it without bothering to disrobe, but at this moment, his survival instincts suddenly blared in alarm.

Something was wrong. Someone else was in the room with him.

He spun around, his wand at the ready, already knowing what he was going to see. Tom was standing a few steps away from him, with his own wand raised and the words of the spell already rolling off his tongue.

"Obliviate," he whispered. There was no time for Expelliarmus or any other spell — for anything magical Harry could protect himself with. The greenish light flew at him, and he ducked even before his panicked mind fully comprehended what was happening. Swirling once, he jumped up from his crouch and knocked Tom's wand out of his hand violently, sending it flying to the other side of the room.

Tom's mouth fell open in surprise. Before he could recover, Harry grabbed him by his collar and thrust him against the wall, grimly satisfied with the gasp this elicited. For a moment, they both stared at each other, with only their panting breaking the silence.

"How dare you?" Harry hissed finally. His voice was rough from disuse. "Was Imperio not bad enough for you? Did you decide to dig an even deeper grave for yourself? For the trust I gave you!"

A familiar humiliated flush stained Tom's cheeks, and then, unexpectedly, he began to struggle. Harry could predict his slippery movements with absolute clarity — first he would try to break free, then he would dash for his wand and try the same spell. Unacceptable.

Tightening his grip around Tom's collar, Harry jerked him forward and pushed him again, this time towards the bed. As Tom stumbled, he dived for the wand, picking it up and sticking it behind his belt with a spell. He wasn't taking any chances, not when Tom had proven how far he was willing to go today.

With this settled, Harry faced him once more. Tom was motionless, simply watching him, his face still flushed with anger and embarrassment.

"What were you th—" Harry started, but the next moment, Tom lunged at him again. Harry braced himself for the impact, expecting a blow or an attempt to pull the enchanted wand free, but instead, Tom threw his hands around his neck and crushed their lips together.

All thoughts died before they emerged. Harry froze, too stunned to react, and Tom used it to his advantage, yanking him closer and pressing against his lips with even greater urgency, inhaling him rather than kissing him. His movements were awkward but eager, and uncharacteristically, surprisingly gentle now that he got what he wanted. Every point of collision felt like a caress, and Harry nearly lost himself to this strange and overwhelming closeness when a tip of Tom's tongue brushed against his lower lip, startling him enough to break free.

Gasping, he backed away, feeling like his heart was about to jump from his chest. Tom didn't look regretful. He was flushed again, but this time, it had nothing to do with shame. His eyes were glazed over; a small, blissful smile was playing on his lips, and his anger seemed to have evaporated without a trace. Unsteadily, he took two steps back and dropped on the bed, not looking away for a second.

Shakily, Harry followed his example and sat right on the floor, leaning his back against the wall. For a while, he couldn't speak, too caught up in the range of disturbing feelings whirling in his chest.

He was upset. Astonished. Furious. Sad. Guilty. But he wasn't horrified, not like he had expected to be.

Tom's kiss had felt strange, but not unnatural. And that, in itself, was horrifying.

"When I took you from the orphanage, one of the first things I told you is that you can't take things by force," he said quietly. Tom blinked, the first flickers of recognition flashing in his eyes. "I told you that you have to work for them. To ask for them. To earn them. This? This is not how you get someone to kiss you."

Tom sneered, and the remnants of pleasure on his face twisted into contempt.

"I tried to earn it," he growled. "I tried to ask for it in every possible way, but you never responded."

Another flare of shock made Harry's jaw drop open.

"You tried to ask for it in every possible way?" he repeated incredulously. "Right. In every way except for using actual words!"

"You would have denied me. And not because you genuinely felt like this, but because you are either an oblivious fool or a liar!" Tom balled his fists, and just like that, the rage was back. "You wanted it! I know you did. You showed all signs of attraction — you passed every test I devised!"

"What tests?" Harry asked faintly. Tom had been working on trying to gauge the level of his attraction? This was madness. Complete, inexcusable madness.

"I created a spell," Tom raised his chin defiantly. "It's rooted in Muggle Chemistry and Potion-Making. When applied, it makes an object highly sensitive to chemicals and hormones produced by a person experiencing romantic attraction. I used it on Apophis — I wanted him to follow you to understand if you are interested in anyone. And the only times he reacted was when you were with me!"

Harry recoiled, feeling a wave of belated horror crash into the wall of calmness he'd tried to construct around himself.

He remembered Apophis and the instances where he suddenly flew into the room, choosing a spot nearby and watching him with attentive large eyes. Was that the reaction Tom was talking about? The reaction to some romance-induced chemicals?

"That's crazy," he whispered. A part of him was still shuddering at the idea that he could have done anything that might be interpreted as inappropriate interest, but then again, when was his relationship with Tom ever appropriate? The boundaries between them were so thin, they were practically non-existent. "There is no spell that would be able to decipher what feelings someone experiences. Love is a complex concept, Tom, you can't reduce it to chemicals and formulas."

The glare he received was dark enough to make him shiver.

"I invented this spell myself," Tom said, his words clipped. "I tested it on other people before using it on Apophis. The results were always accurate."

"That doesn't mean anything!" Harry raised his voice, aggravated. "You and I don't share the healthiest relationship. You know it. Love, affection, infatuation — they're similar. Whatever… chemicals my body produces cannot show you what I actually feel. Love and science don't go together like this!"

"You deny the truth because it scares you," Tom bit out. He still sounded livid, but now, something else was creeping into his words — a mix of hysteria and desperation that made Harry's heart contract painfully. "You reject me because you're too used to obeying the rules, and any deviation from them makes you retreat into your safe shell!"

"I obey the rules?" Harry couldn't help it, he laughed, and this time, his laughter was just as hysterical. "I've never obeyed the rules, especially not where you are concerned."

Belatedly, he realised that this would only infuriate Tom more, but what happened was worse. Tom flinched away as if he'd been struck. He dropped his gaze, refusing to look up, and his shoulders slumped a little. The hurt written across his face was so visceral that Harry immediately ached in sympathy.

Taking a deep breath, he decided to try again. This time, from the start.

"Enough about me," he said softly, hoping that his calmness would soothe Tom enough to remove this unbearably pained grimace from his face. "Let's talk about you. Do you think you are—" The phrase felt foreign. Clenching his jaw, Harry forced himself to push it out. "Do you think you are in love with me? Or is this another way of you trying to keep me close and make sure I won't leave you?"

Tom shifted, throwing a wary glance at him.

"Why can't it be both?" he asked. Harry closed his eyes at this, unable to handle the whirlwind of feelings that this conversation kept stirring. Why indeed?

"Because I can accept the latter but not the former," he said honestly. Misery and self-hatred joined the emotional storm, and he could barely stand the feel of his own body. His skin crawled in self-disgust. "If you really think you're in love with me, then it's my fault. I had to set the boundaries years ago — I had to put a stop to all this closeness, the bed sharing, the possessiveness… It's no wonder you're confused. I confused you. I was the only person you interacted with for—"

"Stop that," Tom snapped at him. His irritation was preferable to his hurt, but it didn't make Harry feel better. "I spent years surrounded by the school idiots. Many of them would sell their family estates for a chance to be with me. Do you think I have never received any offers? I get them all the time. I could choose anyone. No one would deny me if I bothered to crook my finger at them."

Some indescribable, ugly sensation burned through Harry's chest. The instant he recognised it as jealousy, he was hit by another crushing wave of disgust. With a low groan, he slammed his head against the wall.

He was a mess. He didn't know what to think or feel. He had never felt more lost in his entire life — both of his lives, and in any other situation, it would have seemed funny. But now… Now…

As if encouraged by his progressing defeat, Tom joined him on the floor, crawling closer. He didn't touch him, not yet, but Harry could sense his proximity.

"You are jealous," Tom stated. He tried to sound confident, but his voice wavered, betraying his hesitation. "And you were jealous of Lestrange, I know you were. I watched you. If you don't like the thought of me being with someone else, then the solution is clear, isn't it?"

"This will never happen," Harry said flatly. He was many things, but he would never be a monster. Not of this kind.

Tom exhaled through his nose, upset and frustrated. He reached for Harry's hand, but Harry yanked it away before it could be touched, pressing it against his chest protectively.

"There has never been any other choice for me," Tom whispered. Harry refused to look at him, but he knew the words were earnest. That made everything worse. "Don't you understand? There was only ever you. You are the only person I see, the only person I'm capable of seeing. If I didn't have you, I would never want anyone at all."

Harry didn't want to listen to this. Or maybe he did because a part of him tore into these words greedily, basking in their meaning and allowing them to fill the empty spaces he hadn't known were inside him.

Another part was more logical, but to his horror, it began to analyse what he'd heard, too. And because of its logic, it was much harder to fight against it.

Voldemort hadn't known the feeling of love — that was what he and Dumbledore both confirmed. He'd never had a partner. Even as Tom Riddle, he seemed obsessed solely with power: the only time he used his charms and good looks was to manipulate others. So it had to be true, Harry had to be the deviation from the norm.

He'd arrived here to change everything, but what if it backfired? He showered Tom with love, but in return, Tom learned to love only him. He still didn't see people as people, with Harry being the one person he made an exception for.

Not that Harry could accept it. Not that he even wanted to accept it... At least he hoped not.

"Talk to me," Tom tried to angle his head so that their eyes would meet. "Tell me what you're thinking."

"I think you are crazy," Harry replied. His voice was rough and distant — he didn't recognise it. "I think I'm crazy, too. And I don't know what to do with it."

For some reason, Tom liked hearing this. He reached for him again, carefully raising Harry's face by his chin.

"Tell me what you feel for me," he commanded in a whisper. His hands were shaking.

"I love you," Harry said readily. This was not something he would let Tom doubt. "I will always love you. But romantic love? Attraction? I raised you. You are fifteen. It's wrong."

Tom's eyes lit up, becoming so light that their usual dark colour turned greenish-brown. Harry stared, fascinated against his will.

"It's not a 'no'," Tom breathed out, leaning closer, a fervent glint in his stare. "You are not saying you don't feel it. You're saying it's wrong — these are two different things."

"I don't know what I feel," Harry held his gaze, and it was almost physically difficult. Disgust was getting more and more solid, cluttering his throat and not letting him breathe freely. "I can't separate my feelings one by one and label them like you appear to do it. In this world, you are the only person in my life. The only person I—" his voice broke, forcing him to swallow and clear his throat. "I love and care for," he finished. Honesty. This was his only salvation. He had to be honest not just with Tom, but with himself, and maybe this would lead him to a more acceptable conclusion. "I always miss you. I need you more than I ever needed anyone. The thought that one day, you'll fall in love and move on with your life—" Harry flinched, shying away from the image his mind helpfully presented.

"It hurts you," Tom said instead of him. He sounded delighted. "It upsets you."

Honesty. Only honesty.

"It does," Harry admitted quietly. "Of course it does. You make me happy. You are my family. I want to spend my whole life with you. But I can't tell you the nuances of these feelings because I don't understand them myself. You are too young for me to see you as a—" he stumbled over the next word, unsure whether it was appropriate. "A partner. I can't do it, Tom. It's wrong."

"Wrong for whom?" Tom growled. His mood changed again, and the furious heat his skin was emanating was almost hot enough to be physically uncomfortable. "For me? Because being with you is the only thing I can think of. It has been this way for years — you don't understand how much I… how long I wanted to— You don't understand."

"I understand that you tried to force me to kiss you," Harry snapped. "I understand that you then tried to erase my memory of it. Is it supposed to convince me of the depth of your feelings?"

Redness blossomed on Tom's cheeks, but this time, he didn't avert his gaze.

"Yes," he hissed, leaning closer. His breath scorched Harry's face. "I didn't want it to be like this, I was certain that you wouldn't remember anything, but since it no longer matters — yes. It is supposed to convince you because it shows how far I'm willing to go for this. I don't regret what I did, I would have done it again. I want to kiss you. I want to touch you. I want you to belong to me in every possible way — and you will. I will make you if I have to!"

Fury, bright and powerful, spiralled up, washing away his shaky calmness. Harry grabbed Tom by his shirt, jerking him closer so violently that his teeth rattled.

"I don't want to ever hear you say something like this again," he warned, his voice low and threatening. Foreign. "You don't build relationships with force. And if you still don't know it, then how can you expect me to see you as anything but a spoiled brat? I'm not interested in immature children. 'No' means 'no', Tom!"

Contrary to his expectations, Tom didn't look angry. He looked riveted.

"But you haven't said 'no'," he whispered. "You still haven't said 'no' to me. If I change, will you consider?.. Is there a chance that—"

Harry released his grip and tried to move away, but Tom clung to his hands, refusing to let go.

"Please," he implored, and there was that hateful desperation again. It was doing terrible things to Harry's mind, bending the principles he'd believed to be impregnable, infecting him with impulses that could never be justified. "I didn't mean that I would force you. It just slipped out."

"Of course you meant it," the madness was devouring every bit of sense he had, so Harry curled his lips in a weak, hopeless smile. "You already tried to force me."

"I'm sorry!" It sounded so genuine, as if Tom himself believed it. Maybe he did, in his half-desperate, half-blinded state. "But it's over now, isn't it? I won't do it again. I just need to know that it's possible, that one day, you will see me as something more. Please, I need it. I'll agree to any terms you want."

His eyes burned all of a sudden. Harry laughed breathlessly, throwing his head back.

"It's not contract negotiation," he said tiredly. The burning didn't stop — it got worse. "I think you lack a fundamental understanding about relationships. What we have is already unhealthy. If we add more to it, it will be even crazier, and then where will this leave us?"

Tom's eyes were fixated on him. He was catching every word, so focused on what Harry was saying that he didn't even blink, but at the same time, it didn't feel like he actually understood much. Maybe he was waiting for specific words, for 'yes' or 'no', and his mind simply dismissed the rest.

"It would never end happily," Harry told him. "People would hate me. I would hate myself. And I already told you, I don't even know what I'm feeling. I can't discuss it now."

"Please," Tom whispered again. Now his whole body was trembling slightly, as if his need was overwhelming enough to demand a physical outlet. Denying him when he was in such state was above Harry's capacities — Tom had to know it. Maybe that's why he was doing it.

'Reject him,' Harry thought. 'Reject him now, before this goes any further.'

But his mind quickly froze his tongue, too scared of what it would mean.

He never wanted to be in a position to break Tom's heart. He abhorred the idea of hurting him in any way. If Tom was really only capable of loving him, then denying him would mean taking his chance at happiness. And even if Tom succeeded in moving on… would Harry be able to live with it? To watch him grow more and more distant, to leave their home, to develop interests and thoughts he knew nothing of?

His heart rebelled. Listening to its panicky hammering, Harry bit his lips nervously, trying to imagine another outcome.

If he said yes… what would that mean? He genuinely didn't see Tom as a romantic partner. Attraction was also the last thing on his mind. Tom was Tom — he was everything, but was everything enough? What if he said yes to calm him down, but the shift in his perception never came and he remained a confused mess?

Harry closed his eyes. His other senses sharpened, and it felt like he could hear Tom's heartbeat, anxious and hopeful both. The word "please" still echoed in his head, along with his own vehement denial of the idea of Tom ever loving anyone else — of loving him less. This was simply unthinkable. He wanted, needed to preserve this love, to be the first one in Tom's life. But if he agreed, how would he live with himself?

And then, suddenly, the answer was there. It wasn't "yes" and it wasn't "no", but it was the only answer Harry could give.

Deep, liberating relief pulsed through him, allowing him to open his eyes. He looked at Tom, who was still clutching at his hands, his nails buried in Harry's skin as if even they feared separation.

A wave of crushing tenderness followed, flooding every part of him, and Harry brushed his fingers against Tom's cheek lightly, savouring the way he shivered.

"We will wait," he said quietly yet steadily. "We will wait until you finish Hogwarts. You'll be eighteen then. If your feelings don't change, we'll return to this conversation."

Tom opened his mouth to blurt something out but paused, probably thinking everything over. A wild, incredulous hope flared in his eyes, with joy so profound that another part of Harry's reservations melted.

"You are not saying 'no'?" Tom clarified, wary and disbelieving. Harry couldn't help but chuckle.

"I'm not saying 'no'," he promised. This came out as a question rather than statement, but it was enough for Tom. A huge, beaming smile flourished on his face, and it was so pure, so happy that Harry's heart nearly stopped.

Without another word, Tom wrapped his arms around him, pressing his nose into his neck and inhaling greedily. A web of shivers spread across Harry's shoulders. Slowly, he hugged Tom back, succumbing to the comfort and warmth of this familiar embrace.

He had no idea what he'd just done, if he'd made the right decision. It still felt strange and condemnatory, but somehow, in Tom's arms and with his breath against his throat, Harry felt carefully optimistic.

Maybe in two and a half years, it would start making sense. Maybe by that time, he'd be able to come up with a definite answer. Until then, nothing had to change: the shock of today would pass eventually, and his relationship with Tom would go back to normal.

But with the way Tom was holding him — possessive as always, yes, but somehow still new, more intense than usual, Harry wasn't sure he believed it. So he sighed, closed his eyes, and thought of nothing at all, losing himself in the sensations.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The world didn't feel any different when he came to the Great Hall for breakfast next morning. People, dishes, the ghosts — everything was the same. As soon as Harry took his seat, his eyes strayed towards the Slytherin table. Tom was already sitting there, staring at him. It seemed that he'd paused mid-sentence because Lestrange, Avery, Black, and Mulciber kept looking at him expectantly, still waiting for him to finish it. The moment their eyes met, a huge, absurdly happy smile graced Tom's lips, and Harry's heart skipped a beat at the sight. In this moment, it was like they hadn't been separated by night — like they were still sitting in his room and Harry had just given his answer.

Tom didn't care about being seen: his joy was bright and open. It was also infectious because Harry grinned at him in return, suddenly feeling light-headed.

Their interaction finally drew attention: Lestrange, furrowing his brows, followed the direction of Tom's focus, probably trying to understand what distracted him. As soon as his eyes fell on Harry, his face tightened, but then it relaxed again, with a defeated expression overtaking it.

It was wrong, but Harry's smile grew wider before he could stop himself.

Some of the teachers began to grow interested, too, so with an effort, he forced himself to look away from Tom and focus on his food. Small, undecipherable happiness kept dancing in his chest, and he knew his lips were still smiling.

Being happy felt good. Making Tom happy felt even better.

He could do this forever.

For the remaining part of the day, Harry's thoughts kept wandering. It was challenging to focus on his lessons, but somehow, he managed: his students seemed as eager as they always were. Still, impatience was getting to him, so he felt relieved when the last group left the classroom. Collecting the essays, he hurried to the staff room, hoping that the mandatory meeting wouldn't last long.

Everyone was already inside. Only Rivers' usual spot was empty, and as usual, Harry felt a small twinge of unease.

Rivers had been absent from the start of the term. At first, it felt liberating, but the more time passed, the stranger Harry felt about this whole situation.

Had Rivers grown too terrified of teaching under the same roof with him? Had he given up — or was he on a quest to do something potentially troublesome?

More importantly, had he shared his suspicions with Dumbledore? Did Dumbledore believe him?

But no, it was doubtful. His Dumbledore had been sceptical of Trelawney and of Divinations in general, so it was unlikely that this one gave Rivers' rambling a serious thought.

"—Tom," Professor Oakwood said. Harry's attention quickly snapped to her. "He was very absent-minded during today's lesson. He loves Astronomy; he's an amazing artist, too — you should have seen the charts he's created over the years. But today, something was clearly wrong. He couldn't focus on a single task, and his chart was… well…" Oakwood shrugged a little apologetically.

"Oh!" Slughorn sounded deeply relieved. "I thought there must be something weighting on that boy's mind. Tom is my star student — why, I haven't seen young people with his level of skill for decades! But his potion today was—" he struggled, as if criticising Tom was a blasphemy he couldn't possibly commit. "Average," he finished very quietly, like he was half-hoping others wouldn't hear him.

They did, and then they all turned to Harry, their stares expectant and curious.

"What?" he asked defensively when the pause got uncomfortable. His face began to feel unpleasantly hot, as it always did under such close attention of so many people.

"Perhaps young Tom is troubled by something?" Dumbledore suggested. His eyes were twinkling, though not in a particularly amused way.

"How would I know? He doesn't tell me everything."

More sceptical stares. Teaching someone you knew and having other people know about it was a terrible idea — Harry should have considered it more thoroughly before agreeing to take the position.

"I have no idea what bothers him," he insisted. "But I'll ask. Thank you for bringing this to my attention."

"I wouldn't say he was troubled, actually," Oakwood said thoughtfully. "It was more of a happy mood. He was smiling more often than he was not, all throughout the lesson."

Harry's flush intensified.

"Maybe he's looking forward to the weekend," he blurted out. The stares turned incredulous, and he could have cursed himself right then and there. Why had he said something this stupid? Everyone would think he's either an idiot or hiding something.

"Whatever the reason is, I'm sure today was the exception," Dumbledore said calmly. "Tom has always made his House proud. After all, we all have moments when concentrating on our duties is more challenging than we're used to."

His eyes lingered on Harry when he said this, but even though his heart twitched in dread, Harry was certain his expression didn't change.

'You don't know anything,' he thought, and even his inner voice sounded defiant. 'You can't know anything, so don't pretend to be omniscient.'

Dumbledore always looked like he knew more than he really did. He wasn't infallible, and Harry wasn't going to forget it... Even if in this situation, he was right.

The majority of his colleagues finally lost interest in discussing Tom, though Slughorn still looked disturbed. Gradually, the topics shifted to students who were lagging behind, and the flush faded from Harry's face slowly.

Now that he allowed himself to think about it, he couldn't help but admit that he found the situation amusing. Apparently, Tom was so affected by the vague idea of getting what he wanted in the distant future that it clouded his mind — clouded it so thoroughly that he forgot about his public image and his determination to be the best in every single aspect of his school life.

It was not just amusing, it was flattering. And charming. And endearing. And Harry couldn't stop smiling when he thought of it.

Then he met Dumbledore's pitying gaze, and the urge to smile vanished.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

That evening, as he was preparing for bed, something caught his eye. A strange object was lying on his bedside table, something that definitely didn't belong to him. Intrigued, Harry reached for it.

It was a carved wooden spoon. A thin, intricate-looking snake was wrapped around the handle in three lazy circles, forming a chain; two small gems made its eyes glow green. There was a delicate rune decorating the inner part of the spoon's surface, and to Harry's embarrassment, he couldn't immediately identify it. Then again, Ancient Runes was never a subject he was interested in, and he didn't exactly study it even as his adult years trickled by.

Fascination spread its curious tentacles, so Harry pressed his finger to the rune. Instantly, a familiar aura burned through him, enveloping him in a blanket of warmth and love.

It felt like Tom. This was his magical signature, etched into the wood, ready to share its sparkling presence with him whenever he touched it.

Why the spoon, though, he wondered, waving the lights away and pressing his gift closer to his chest. Obsessively, his finger kept returning to the rune, and he couldn't help but marvel at how the sensations didn't lose their impact. Did self-made wooden spoons mean anything? How much time had Tom spent on it? And which wood was it anyway?

Harry shifted, adjusting his glasses and bringing the spoon closer to his eyes. It had a warm, reddish-brown colour. Cherry wood? In his past life, he'd been briefly interested in what people's wands said about their owners, so he researched each type of wood. But predictably, he couldn't recall anything specific now. Learning and storing academic information wasn't his strongest side.

With a frustrated sigh, Harry cradled the spoon and closed his eyes. He would find the information he wanted tomorrow — for now, he was going to succumb to the joy of receiving something this unique and thoughtful.

Tom wasn't a fan of giving gifts, especially not physical ones. For him to do something like this…

It made the spoon all the more precious.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Before breakfast, Harry visited the library. Getting the book on wand making from there, he hurried to the Great Hall, hoping there would be something left for him there.

Many people had already left, but Tom was sitting in his place, glaring in the direction of the teachers' table. When Harry approached his seat, Tom's eyes jumped to him. They narrowed suspiciously, analysing his appearance, probably trying to figure out what made him late.

That was to be expected. Harry raised the book with a half-apologetic shrug, not planning on offering a more detailed explanation, but to his surprise, this seemed to be enough for Tom. He couldn't have possibly seen the title from his place, but he still relaxed; his expression lightened, and the smile he sent Harry's way was open and a little shy.

Charmed by this, Harry gave him an answering smile. Then he attacked the food in an attempt to eat it as fast as he could. Tom stayed, watching him unabashedly, but this was a routine by now, so Harry paid it no mind. His first lesson started in 10 minutes — he really had to hurry.

Apophis flew into the hall at some point. He passed a strange-looking envelope to Tom, and for a moment, Tom's face distorted into something resembling concern. Then it was gone, and he was back to watching Harry.

How strange. What kind of letter could provoke a reaction like this? Who would even be writing to him — everyone he knew was here, in the castle.

Frowning, Harry tried to finish his meal, and eventually, his thoughts went back to the book he'd retrieved.

'See you later,' he mouthed to Tom when he was done. Tom nodded, still staring and making no effort to leave the table, even though he had to be late as well by now. Harry shook his head fondly, and with the last amused look behind, he walked out, moving towards his classroom. He had only two minutes left, but maybe it would be enough for him to check the book.

Trying to keep an eye out on his surroundings to avoid a collision with other rushing students, he began to leaf through the pages quickly, looking for cherry wood. He found it almost instantly, and fortunately, the very first page in the chapter described its different meanings.

New beginnings. Love. Triumph. Immortality.

Harry's gaze lingered on the last word. A shiver slithered through his spine, but he forcibly pushed the unease down.

That one had to be a coincidence. 'New beginnings' and 'love' fit the situation much better.

Grinning now, he reached for his gift, brushing him finger against Tom's rune.

Now he just had to understand what the spoon had to do with anything.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

His second lesson was with the fifth-year Slytherins and Hufflepuffs. Tom arrived among the first as always, taking his place and talking to his friends in a quiet but insistent manner. Harry caught each of his occasional gazes, ridiculously pleased with how even in the middle of a seemingly important conversation, Tom's attention largely belonged to him.

When the lesson finally started, he asked everyone to stand up and move the desks in one corner. The freed space was large enough for duelling, something he knew his students always looked forward to. Like he expected, they instantly perked up, with excited glows lighting up their faces.

"We'll repeat the common stances first," Harry warned them. "Don't start without my permission."

The next stage entailed dividing everyone into pairs. Tom was his biggest problem — his speed and level of skills were unrivalled, so finding even a semi-decent partner for him was difficult.

Tom smiled serenely, hiding his hands behind his back, a perfect embodiment of patience. He knew what the pause was about, and he was unbearably smug about it. Harry snorted before he could stop himself.

"Mr. Slytherin, Mr. Lestrange — stand here, please," he drawled. Lestrange looked thrilled. Tom threw an incredulous look at him before following the instructions, sulking in a way that only Harry could recognise.

Lestrange would likely be defeated within the first minute, but he was the closest match for Tom among these students. Objectively, he was an amazing duellist — he just wasn't as good as Tom.

"Okay, let's start on the count of three," Harry said after everyone was paired off. Either his excitement or the excitement of his students was catching — the air sparkled with heated anticipation. "Remember: when you use a spell, you must assume it'll hit your opponent. Don't take your chances — we aren't using crippling or deadly incantations in this classroom. Be as creative as you want, but don't lose your head either. One… two… three!"

Voices exploded in loud exclamations, followed by the flashes of bright lights. No one fell within the first twenty seconds, which was already a success. Feeling embarrassingly proud of them, Harry began to walk between the rows, observing and giving advice. He approached Tom last, and to his surprise, Lestrange was still fighting. However, his flushed face spoke of frustration and humiliation, and Harry quickly understood why.

Tom wasn't using any spells, not even of the defensive kind. Instead, he was sidestepping every attack, trying hard to look bored, even though his breathing was getting jerky. How Lestrange hadn't knocked the arrogant brat off his feet by now was a mystery, but Harry couldn't summon any real annoyance. He was impressed. Stunned, even, because Tom's speed was far deadlier than it had been a month ago. What had he been doing, practising non-stop? Or did he come up with some genius spell that helped him blur with the air?

"Costeos confractono!" someone shouted. Harry turned abruptly, a protesting shout freezing in his throat when he saw a violet flash darting towards a confused-looking girl.

The rib-breaking spell was tricky. Unlike most other curses, it couldn't be blocked with Expelliarmus, and it didn't dissipate after missing its target. It would cross all distance to the opposite wall, hit it, and then it would ricochet. Alice Whinterly was an average student with good reflexes — she would duck, but she would not expect the spell to come at her again from the back. And if Harry blasted her away, the curse would just hit Michael Richards, an idiot who liked dark spells but barely knew how to use them.

No time for the counter-curse. He'd have to be the one embracing the impact: the wall was far enough, Alice and Michael were close enough — he could reach Alice in time to push her away and block the returning spell with his body.

All these thoughts stormed through Harry's head in one seemingly endless second. The next one, he broke into a run, but he didn't even take two steps when someone lunged at him and pushed him down violently, pinning him to the floor.

He blinked, waiting for his vision to re-adjust. Then he saw Tom's face right above him, contorted in a mildly annoyed grimace.

"You won't be playing the hero, Harry," he whispered, bending low enough so that his words were barely audible. "Not if I have any say in it."

Alice's stunned and pained scream sounded next, chillingly loud in a sudden silence. It broke the initial shock, so Harry pushed Tom away forcefully, sending him a heated glare. Angry words twirled on the tip of his tongue, but there was no time for that. He had to get his student to the hospital wing.

Everyone else was staring at him and Tom. Slytherins looked horrified. Hufflepuffs appeared baffled. They probably didn't understand why Tom had suddenly knocked him down and how it was related to the accident with Alice. That should be dealt with, too, preferably before the wild rumours flew.

"Forty points from Hufflepuff, Mr. Richards," Harry growled, rushing to Alice. "And twenty points from you, Mr. Slytherin, for not being observant enough. I wasn't the one who needed protection."

Tom raised an unconcerned eyebrow, smiling at him in an indulgent manner. Looking at him made Harry's blood boil, so he turned away to focus on the hurt girl. She was wheezing now, crying silently, and a sharp pang of sympathy made Harry wince along with her.

"Everything will be fine," he murmured, transforming the nearest chair into a stretcher. "It's painful, I know, but it'll be healed quickly. Five more minutes and the pain will be gone. Okay?"

Alice nodded weakly, staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. Carefully levitating the stretcher, Harry walked out of the classroom, throwing the last warning look at the remaining students.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Alice's rib had punctured her lung, so after a brief discussion, it was decided that she should be delivered to Saint Mungo's. Harry wasn't allowed to accompany her at first, but after Alice's frantic pleas, the mediwizards changed their minds. It was touching, the way she saw him as someone safe and comforting, but Harry's first thought was about Tom and his possible reaction to this.

Tom would hate his absence. He would hate him staying with another student, and if Alice showed some attachment to him when she returned to school, it could have disastrous consequences.

Then Harry thought of how crazy it was, and his worry shifted into disbelief.

Something was very wrong with him. That the first thing he contemplated was the danger an innocent girl could be in just because he stayed with her at the hospital… This wasn't a normal reaction, was it? Yet somehow, it came naturally. He couldn't allow himself to give Tom the benefit of the doubt, not after what happened with Myrtle.

But he also refused to leave. He was willing to go along with many of Tom's unreasonable and possessive requests as it was — there had to be limits. He wouldn't let an injured girl down and abandon her just because Tom might get angry.

Frowning, Harry gave Alice's hand a comforting squeeze as she trembled in her bed, no longer in pain but still terrified.

"You did very good in your duel," he praised her quietly. "Your reflexes were great."

Alice bit her lower lip.

"I failed," she admitted hoarsely. "I didn't know spells could do that. I—" her face suddenly contorted.

"Don't speak," Harry warned her. "Not until the mediwizards allow it. Your lung is still punctured."

Alice nodded her head and continued to look at him, as if fearing what could happen if she looked away.

It was late evening when Harry finally returned to his chambers. Alice was fine, and she was supposed to resume her classes in two days.

Unsurprisingly, Tom was already waiting for him. What was surprising was the complete lack of anger on his face.

"I saved some food for you," he said politely. "I believe you haven't had a chance to eat anything other than breakfast today."

"That is thoughtful of you," Harry gave him a tentative smile, but his astonished pleasure was quickly undermined by a hot flash of annoyance. "What you did in the classroom was unacceptable," he added.

"Was it?" Tom turned his head, watching him curiously. "I protected you from your own stupidity."

"It wasn't your right to make a decision like that. I'm a teacher. Any accidents that happen in my lessons are my fault — and so is the responsibility."

Tom sighed, as if already weary of this conversation.

"I find your martyrdom extremely tedious," he uttered. "I couldn't care less about your misguided sense of responsibility. I will always choose you, just as I will always protect you — even if I have to do it against your wishes."

"Your controlling threats aren't impressive at this stage," Harry informed him, throwing a longing look at the food-filled table. "How was the class after I left?"

"It was fine," Tom pushed him towards the sofa lightly before snapping his fingers. A round kettle tilted, pouring freshly boiled tea into a cup, and Harry rolled his eyes at this blatant demonstration of wandless magic. "I think Michael Richards will face several unpleasant weeks — his classmates are extremely angry with him, but I'm sure it will pass. What he did wasn't that catastrophic."

"It wasn't?" Harry squinted suspiciously. He had been certain that Tom would be enraged by the accident, but maybe he overthought it a bit. Richards' spell hadn't hit him, so it probably wasn't enough to wake up Tom's vindictive streak.

"Of course not," Tom smiled, silencing the vague whispers of Harry's unease. "I stopped you from doing anything foolish, and I really don't care about that girl getting her ribs broken."

This phrase brought him comfort, so Harry relaxed, focusing on his meal. The words sounded truthful. If Tom didn't think much of this incident, he had nothing to worry about either.

"How did you know?" he asked after swallowing the first few bites. "I barely had time to move when you were already on me. Was my reaction that obvious?"

"To others, no. To me, absolutely." Tom shifted a little, staring at him thoughtfully. "Your sense of self-worth is abysmal. You are a martyr — your system of rewards and punishments and your irrational insistence on helping Muggles in dangerous zones convinced me of this years ago. If you think you are saving someone, you'll readily sacrifice yourself for it." Tom's gaze darkened, and for a moment, some deadly determination froze there, making Harry go still. His unease returned with double force, spreading in sudden bursts of panic, even though there was no discernible reason for it.

Just as suddenly, everything was gone. The shadow slipped from Tom's face, making it look innocent and youthful.

"If there is someone in need of saving in the vicinity, you'll consider it your duty to be the saviour," Tom added more lightly. "But don't worry. I will stop you."

"Again with your threats," Harry sighed, putting on a disapproving expression. "Today was the exception. Your movements became faster, but ultimately? My reflexes are still better. Despite all your secret training."

Tom spluttered, outraged, and Harry burst into laughter at the sight of his indignant face.

When he finished his supper and checked the clock, it was already after ten. Tom didn't look like he was about to leave, so Harry nudged him with his foot.

"You missed the curfew," he said tiredly. "Go now, or I'll have to take points from you."

"You already did." For some reason, Tom appeared to be smug about it. Then his confidence wavered, giving way to shyness Harry had learned to recognise. "Can I sleep with you tonight?" Tom asked, twisting the hems of his robe. Harry froze.

He didn't see this one coming, although maybe he should have. Tom always liked to sleep with him — and this preference was mutual. But if it was inappropriate before, it was even more wildly unacceptable now. Not after Tom's confession, not after their ultimatum, and especially not at school. Never here.

"No," Harry said, and instantly felt awful. Tom's face crumpled, betraying his misery, and the urge to take his reply back became overwhelming. Still, Harry persisted. "It wouldn't be appropriate," he explained firmly, trying to ignore the way Tom was looking at him. "The circumstances have changed, you know that."

Tom snorted angrily.

"They didn't change," he sneered. "You have simply learned of it, but it's been there all this time."

"I don't want to hear more," Harry warned him. "We'll discuss it when we go home for Christmas, but we won't be doing it here. This is neither the time nor the place — I don't want to be fired."

"Is that the only reason?"

Sometimes talking to Tom was maddening.

"Good night," Harry uttered. Tom scowled, obviously wanting to say something, but in the end, he didn't. Wordlessly, he turned on his heel and stormed out, banging the door shut.

So much for being discreet.

Harry went to sleep with a heavy heart, unsure why doing the right thing felt so wrong. Unsurprisingly, he dreamed of Tom, but the content of this dream was unusual.

They were sitting at the table, drinking tea. Tom's smile was all sharp teeth and dangerous intent, and even though Harry saw right through it, for some reason, he remained undisturbed. He kept holding his cup, taking small sips yet feeling no taste. At some point, Tom pulled a box of sweets from under the table, offering him to take one.

"You'll like them," he promised, his voice flowing in a seductive and charming purr. "Just taste one. I promise it'll be good."

Harry nodded, reaching for the sweet. His fingers wrapped around it, pushed it closer to his mouth, then paused. The feeling of wrongness flooded him so suddenly that his head began to spin. Frowning, he lowered his hand, but Tom intercepted it, raising it back up.

"Try it," he said insistently. "It's for your own good. You know that I'll always take care of you — I would never do anything to harm you."

"I know you wouldn't," Harry replied, but his heart was hammering in his chest, panicked and desperate. Hoping that this strange state would pass as soon as he complied with Tom's request, he put the sweet into his mouth. It exploded in a delicious, rich taste, and yet there was an underlying bitter note under it.

Dark and unpleasant, it began to take over the sweetness, and the dizziness it brought sent black spots dancing under Harry's eyelids. His arms flailed in an effort to hold onto something, but there was nothing but emptiness around. He fell, and fell, and fell, and it stopped only after he woke up with a gasp, trying to get rid of the clammy feeling of terrible betrayal.

It was still dark outside. Yet something had changed during the time he was sleeping — the silence was no longer silent. And Harry was no longer alone in bed — someone was lying next to him, hugging him from behind. The touch was so familiar that Harry's body sang from the comfort it brought him.

Tom really hated the word 'no', didn't he? He must have waited for a few hours and sneaked back into his room. Against his wishes.

Harry waited for the awkwardness to ensue, but it never came. The weight of Tom's arm thrown over his waist felt as normal as it always did, and so did his warm, tickling breathing. The sleepiness brushed against Harry's eyelids, so he covered Tom's hand with his, interlaced their fingers, and closed his eyes.

Then he drifted off.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Tom was gone in the morning. It was like he hoped that Harry wouldn't even realise he'd been here at night, which posed a question, was this the first time he did that? Or had he sneaked in repeatedly and left in the morning, and Harry didn't know because he remained asleep during the night?

Such behaviour was reprehensible. It was, it undoubtedly was, but the idea of Tom craving his presence so desperately even now, when he was surrounded by friends and other distractions, sent a thrilling pulse of delight through his body.

Harry reached for the spoon Tom had given him, sighing at the affection that clouded around him the moment he touched the rune on it.

He still had to find out what it meant. Maybe he'd pay a visit to Professor Oakwood — she specialised in Astrology and Ancient Runes both, so she would likely be able to understand the symbolism of such gift.

With this decided, Harry sent a Patronus to Saint Mungo's, asking for an update on Alice Whinterly's condition. Receiving an assurance that she was feeling better, he went to the Great Hall. Tom greeted him with the same blinding grin as always, as if they hadn't just parted their ways, and Harry returned it. He did try to appear strict immediately after that, but Tom's grin just grew wider, so maybe he wasn't very convincing.

Well, they could always talk about it later.

The day followed its typical path, alternating between lessons and breaks. Sometimes Harry caught the glimpses of the Hufflepuff table, and what he saw made him frown. Michael Richards sat isolated from everyone else, pale and haggard, refusing to touch his food.

He'd used a dangerous spell, but it was far from being the most terrible thing students did throughout the year to one another. And Harry hadn't even taken that many points. Was Alice someone everyone loved? He'd never thought she was popular, but maybe he was wrong.

At six, the lessons ended, so Harry went to Professor Oakwood's office. He hesitated in front of the door, raising his fist to knock several times and then lowering it.

They weren't friends — they weren't even acquaintances. Was it normal to drop by like this? Did colleagues ask each other for consultation out of blue or was it considered to be in bad taste?

The feeling of being watched stirred suddenly, making Harry stiffen and look around. A shadow seemed to flicker at the right side of the corridor, but as he stared, nothing happened. Humming, he turned to the door again and finally knocked.

"Come in," a muffled voice uttered. Harry entered, waving at Oakwood awkwardly.

"Hey," he said. "I hope I'm not interrupting you?"

"No, not at all," Oakwood smiled. She looked welcoming enough, but there was also a shade of perplexion on her face. Harry was probably the last person she expected to see, and for a good reason. He should have worked harder on getting to know people he worked with — this would have helped to avoid the discomfort.

"I don't want to bother you, but I got a strange gift from someone and I'm not sure what it means. There is a rune on it, and the symbolism of the gift itself... I thought you could help me to figure it out?"

"A gift, you say?" Oakwood leaned forward, interested. "Let's see it."

Harry pulled the spoon out of his pocket carefully. For a moment, he hesitated, feeling suddenly possessive of it, but Oakwood was waiting, so he forced himself to proceed.

"Oh!" her eyes widened as she saw the spoon, and then she grinned again. "Well, it seems you have an admirer! It's a courtsh—" she froze mid-sentence. Bemused, Harry watched how some semblance of realisation crossed her face before it hardened, losing any trace of friendliness.

"What?" he asked warily.

"It used to be a pureblood courtship gift," Oakwood said. Her tone was cold and mechanical. "The descendants of the oldest families made presents like this to the objects of their affection. Many consider it old-fashioned or distasteful now because centuries ago, a wizard gifted a spoon to a Muggle. The tradition spread in that part of the world — it offended most purebloods and they chose to eradicate it. Those who don't care or people well-versed in history still craft such gifts sometimes, but it's rare."

"That's interesting," Harry said, trying to choose neutral words. He couldn't understand the reasons for Oakwood's mood shift. Was she a disgruntled pureblood who despised this tradition? Or did she suspect who it might be from?

The thought was horrifying, and Harry squeezed the hem of his robe tightly, until his fingers began to hurt.

No. She couldn't know, it couldn't be so obvious.

"Interesting," Oakwood repeated flatly. "Yes, I suppose it is. The spoon itself symbolises a giver's offer of safety and comfort. They promise to provide for you and to make sure you want for nothing. Your spoon means several things. The rune stands for love and devotion. The cherry wood has similar implications. The chain that the snake forms means the giver's desire to forge an eternal union with you, while the snake itself clearly depicts their House."

His heart dropped to the bottom of his feet. Harry stared, pinned to a spot by the horrible realisation.

A snake! Anyone knowing that his ward was the heir of Slytherin would understand whom it's from. How could he have not considered it? How could he have come here with this spoon, hoping to pretend he knew nothing of the giver?

"It's obvious in other ways, too," Oakwood said. She must have read his expression correctly — and was he really that transparent? "A simply infatuated student isn't going to invest so much time and care into making a gift this complex. It's uniquely personal. And there is only one person in this school who feels so strongly about you."

The heavy censure in her voice made Harry's shock and humiliation retreat. He narrowed his eyes, raising his chin challengingly.

"Thank you for your explanation and your input," he said, his voice just as icy. "I'll be on my way now."

Oakwood released the spoon when he reached for it, but her jaw remained tightly clenched.

"This is despicable," she spat finally. "I had my suspicions before, but I hoped I was wrong. You twisted that bright boy beyond recognition."

The words hit their target, and it was a pure miracle that allowed Harry to stand still without crumbling.

She was right.

But she also wasn't.

"You don't know anything," he said quietly. "Don't make hasty conclusions. Not about me, but especially not about Tom. I would never take advantage of him, and I would never presume that I know his mind better than he does."

"You encourage him," Oakwood shook her head. "I saw how you interact. It never looked normal, and now I know it's not. Tom is smart, but he's just 15. You corrupted him."

There were so many things Harry wanted to say to her. I might have corrupted him, but he corrupted me first. I love him. I encourage him because I can't bear to turn him away. I agreed to wait — what else could I do?

But she wouldn't understand. No one would. No one could.

"Thank you," he repeated tiredly. "I appreciate your help. I'm not going to tell you what to do, so if you want to file a complaint about me, I won't be stopping you. But I said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not taking advantage of Tom. We have a complicated relationship, but I never used what he feels for me to harm him. And I never will."

Oakwood shook her head silently. Her face didn't soften, so Harry left her office, still unable to believe the extent of his stupidity.

He shouldn't have been this lazy. He should have researched everything about Tom's gift by himself.

In his mortification, he barely paid attention to his surroundings. That's why he nearly jumped out of his skin when he turned the corner and collided with Tom, who was standing there with his arms crossed.

"What are you doing here?" Harry frowned, checking the time. "Shouldn't you be having your lecture hour, or whatever it is you're doing when you and your housemates lock yourself in the Slytherin Common Room?"

Tom arched his eyebrows, his previously vacant face lightening in surprised pleasure.

"You know my schedule?" he murmured, and Harry's frown grew deeper.

"Of course I do. I have eyes."

"I'm glad to know they are trained on me." Suddenly, Tom's stare narrowed, becoming sharper. "Do you have chats with Professor Oakwood often?"

This was so unexpected that for a moment, Harry went speechless.

"How do you know that?" he asked incredulously. "Were you following me?"

Tom shrugged, looking unconcerned.

"No," he said. Harry arched a brow in disbelief. For a while, no one said anything — their silent battle of stubbornness lasted for almost a minute before Tom finally relented.

"I didn't follow you," he said, annoyed. "I had Avery do it instead."

He said it matter-of-factly, as if it was supposed to be obvious, and Harry took a deep breath, forcing himself to swallow down the biting words that he suddenly wanted to spit. A slow and heavy sensation wrapped itself around him, trapping him until he felt a splash of adrenaline, an intense need to get away from here — to get away from Tom.

"How often do you do this?" he asked, not bothering to mask his coldness. Tom stiffened in response to it.

"What does it matter?" he asked. No matter how calm he tried to be, there was an obvious challenge in his voice. "I have the right to know where you are and what you are doing."

"Then you can ask me," Harry hissed. "I have the right to go where I want without having my own students track my movements!"

Tom pursed his lips, clearly disagreeing with him but saying nothing. Muttering soft curses, Harry stormed towards his room, his anger growing with every step he took. Anger at Oakwood with her disapproval, anger at Tom for his relentlessness, and anger at himself for even being in this situation.

He didn't slam the door shut, knowing Tom would be just behind him. Naturally, there was a soft clicking sound, and then Tom stepped closer with a frown on his face.

"What happened?" he asked. "You wouldn't normally react like this."

Wouldn't he? Harry stopped pacing, thinking about it. If he wasn't already upset, would he not care about Tom getting his friends to stalk him? Unlikely.

Then again, he was an idiot, so maybe he wouldn't.

"You still had no right to do that," he uttered lowly. "Why would you even follow me? I don't hide where I am from you."

Tom dropped his gaze almost involuntarily, studying his feet instead. It seemed that he wasn't going to answer, but unexpectedly, he did.

"I am… concerned," he pushed out. He still wouldn't look up, and Harry could almost sense his embarrassment. "When we are at home, we are alone. Here… there are too many people. I know you said you wouldn't, but—" he fell silent, grimacing as if he'd tasted something sour. "Sometimes, I worry," he tried again. "When you are away from me, I don't feel like— I don't feel comfortable."

"I had to be mad to come and work here." With a long sigh, Harry collapsed into his chair, dropping his head on his chest. "You don't understand a thing about boundaries. Behaving like you do — stalking me, watching me, sneaking into my rooms at night, when I specifically told you to never do that! Add my own idiocy to that, and it's not surprising that Oakwood—"

Tom tensed.

"What about her?" he asked sharply. "Did she say something to you? Is that what upset you?"

Following an already familiar impulse, Harry reached for the spoon, soaking in the sense of comfort it gave him. The fight went out of him, with tiredness coming in its place.

"I was stupid," he said quietly. "I wanted to know what your gift meant. I thought she wouldn't understand it was from you, that I could pass it off for something a love-struck student gave to me."

Tom hissed, startling Harry into raising his head. Then he dropped it again with a groan.

"You cannot be possibly jealous of a non-existing student," he muttered. "Don't be ridiculous. The point is, I went to Oakwood with your gift, and she promptly realised it came from you. Then she started lecturing me on my unacceptable behaviour. This seemed to confirm the suspicions she already had." Coldness washed over him, coming from Tom or from himself, Harry didn't know. He shivered, pushing himself deeper into his armchair.

"And the worst thing is, she's right," he continued. "From the very start, I didn't behave appropriately. What we have now was never supposed to happen. It was—"

"No," Tom interrupted him loudly. Harry looked up. The coldness he had felt was the result of Tom's magic, then, because he could almost see the tendrils of it whirling around Tom, volatile and angry, promising violence. Promising death. "Don't tell me this changed your mind. You said we will wait — you promised. Oakwood is meaningless, you can't allow her to tell you what to do. I won't let it happen!"

Tom's increasing panic and fury cleared Harry's head instantly. He put up his hand in a warning, and Tom fell silent, even though his rage was still slithering through the room, coiling and waiting for the permission to strike.

"She didn't change my mind," Harry said. "I told you we will wait, and we will. I'm not going back on my word. But even if nothing happened yet, it won't mean anything to Oakwood. She thinks I'm sick, and I can't even prove her wrong."

Another surge of weariness rolled through him, and Harry closed his eyes, hoping that his problems would seem less oppressive when he opened them again. Oakwood hadn't told him anything new — her opinion didn't even differ much from his own. What he was doing with Tom, feeding his hopes for something more between them, was wrong. It was despicable, and Harry had largely himself to blame.

Tom's hands suddenly found their way around his neck from behind the chair. His chin nestled in the hollow of Harry's shoulder, and their cheeks brushed against each other.

"You are not sick," Tom murmured. "These people are sheep. They have trivial mind-sets. They could never understand our relationship, so you shouldn't let their opinions affect you."

"It's difficult to believe that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong," Harry retorted dryly. Tom sighed, pressing his lips to his neck briefly.

"They are wrong," he said firmly. "And they don't matter."

"They do. If Oakwood speaks to other teachers, they will all know. I'm sure they all think that our bond is closer than it should be, and with this confirmation… Dumbledore might not fire me, but I don't want to be in centre of attention either. Especially of this kind."

"Then you won't be," Tom's lips touched his neck again, staying there, and Harry tried to move away half-heartedly. But it felt good, and disregarding social norms, what was so wrong with it? Tom's lips were warm. They were familiar and comforting, and right now, Harry needed comfort. Everything else didn't matter.

"You won't be," Tom repeated. "I'll make sure of that. You don't have to worry."

Contrary to how he intended it, this reassurance only triggered Harry's alarm, so he straightened, twisting his head to send Tom a glare.

"Forget about it," he warned. "You won't touch a hair on Oakwood's head. Do you understand me? Not a hair, Tom."

"I always knew you like to suffer," Tom rubbed his nose against Harry's ear affectionately. "But fine, whatever. I'll do as you say."

"Do you promise?" Harry continued to stare, even though the angle wasn't comfortable. "Don't make me regret sharing this with you. I trust you, and if you abuse that trust…" He let the threat hang. Before, Tom might have gotten defensive, but now he just snorted, tightening his grip around Harry's neck and nuzzling into his hair. This softer playful side of him was entirely new, and Harry found it heart melting.

"I promise," Tom uttered. "Just stop worrying about everything. And if you want to understand the meaning of my gifts, you can ask me directly. I never thought you would go to Oakwood of all people."

"Yes, that was stupid," Harry admitted. His worry left him, chased away by Tom's steady presence. "But at least I found out what it means. Thank you. It's the most beautiful thing I've seen. Largely inappropriate, but beautiful."

"Talking about inappropriate…" Tom arched his neck, and before Harry could react, he pressed his lips to the corner of his mouth. It lasted for a second only — Tom jumped back just as Harry jerked away and raised his hand in an attempt to smack him.

"Tom!" he hissed. He got an arrogant, happy smirk in response.

"I will see you tomorrow," Tom told him. "And forget about propriety. It has no place in our relationship."

Harry snorted, half-amused, half-disbelieving.

"Very reassuring," he muttered. But in a way, it was. His heart felt lighter, and even the thought of tomorrow didn't bring any anxiety with it.

As the door behind Tom was shut, he pulled out the spoon, studying it intently. A promise of safety and comfort? An oath of devotion? A hope for an eternal union? Tom was a romantic. How had he never noticed it before?

But Tom had always been so reserved about showing emotions. He was quick to anger and jealousy, and yes, he could be surprisingly affectionate psychically, but gifts? The tenderness and playfulness he was now exhibiting? Harry could hardly believe it came from the same boy who still shied away from using the word "love."

No. He wouldn't go there. Words didn't mean as much as actions, and Tom could have his own reasons for ignoring them.

Huffing at his ridiculous insecurity, Harry stood up, stretching his grumbling muscles.

"I'm not doing anything wrong," he said aloud. It sounded like a lie, and yet it didn't make him feel a liar. Would strangeness never end?

Harry approached the door, watching it for a while. Who decided what was appropriate or inappropriate? His world consisted of Tom and Tom alone. That meant that they were the only ones who could decide on the boundaries.

Affection was acceptable. Gifts were acceptable, whatever they were. Innocent kisses were acceptable… probably.

Sleeping together was not.

With a small self-deprecating smile, Harry focused on the door again. Tom had guessed his password the last time, but it wouldn't happen now. Now, it was time to come up with something entirely unexpected.

"Eternal union," he said before waving his wand. It glowed blue, solidifying his choice. This wouldn't be something he would say himself, but it was what Tom's gift meant, and most importantly, Tom would never guess that Harry used it.

No more night visits.

Satisfied with this small victory, Harry went to his table. He wished he could see Tom creep toward his room at night and get stuck before the door, trying a password after a password.

The image put a huge grin on his face.

Harry was still smiling hours later, when he finally went to bed.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

During breakfast next day, Apophis brought Tom another letter. It came in the same strange grey envelope, and once again, Tom pursed his lips briefly before waving the concerned questions of his friends away.

This couldn't be a coincidence. Something was happening, something Tom wasn't willing to share. Of course, Harry could simply ask, but if it was something serious, Tom was unlikely to tell him. He would have already done it otherwise.

That meant he would have to find out by himself. But how?

Thoughtfully, Harry reached for his fork, yet something made him pause. The fork was emanating a strange sort of heat, almost as if it was full of magic. It made no sense, why would it be…

The realisation came a second too late. The fork exploded right into his face, and the weak shield he had managed to conjure non-verbally protected him only to an extent. Terrible heat bit into his skin, sizzling through it, and Harry had to bite down on his tongue to prevent himself from screaming.

Fortunately, the curse wasn't very powerful, so the fire faded before it could do much damage. Fighting through his blurry vision, Harry managed to see Tom, who stood frozen at his table, his face pale from shock and horror. Then Slughorn made his way towards him, and Harry turned to face him.

"Good Merlin!" he exclaimed. His worried expression reminded Harry of the past, of the day he asked him about the secret memories. "We need to get you to the hospital wing quick. I have the salve that will help, but it must be applied as soon as possible. Come, come with me."

Harry nodded, wincing at the pain this motion caused. He didn't risk turning to Tom again, and he couldn't even begin to guess at what had happened.

Later, all later. For now, he could only think of the pain.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Forty minutes later, the pain was almost gone. His face still felt raw, but it was nothing, and that was exactly what Harry told Madam Bertinger. To his frustration, his arguments fell on deaf ears. She was almost as bad as Madam Pomfrey, grim and relentless in her insistence that he had to stay at least for a day. Slughorn and even Dumbledore supported her, so Harry was confined to bed against his will.

"This is a very unpleasant situation," Dumbledore said, his voice subdued. "I thought you should know that we found the person responsible for it."

"Really?" Harry raised his eyebrows before hissing in frustration. All right, so maybe he wasn't fully recovered yet. "That was fast."

"Several ghosts saw him approach the High Table early this morning," Dumbledore grimaced, like he himself was in pain. "It was already served partly. He must have cursed your fork then."

"Who was it?"

"Michael Richards."

"Richards?" Harry gaped, genuinely stunned. Was it over the incident with Alice? He had merely taken points from him! He could have done much worse, considering the extent of Alice's injuries.

Dumbledore nodded, looking even grimmer now.

"Apparently, the incident during your lesson led to Mr. Richards being bullied by other students. He decided to direct his anger at you."

Harry shook his head in disbelief, trying to come to terms with this idea and failing. Bullying? The accident had only just happened, how did it rattle Richards enough to make him act out in this extreme manner?

And Tom. Oh, no! If Tom knew it was Richards…

"Could you send Tom to me?" Harry blurted out. Then he wavered, realising how it had to sound. The stare Dumbledore sent him was heavy and piercing, and Harry tried to look as clueless as possible.

"He must be worried sick," he uttered innocently. "Madam Bertinger didn't let him enter before she finished treating me."

"But of course," Dumbledore offered him a polite smile. "I hope your injury will stop bothering you soon. As for Mr. Richards, I believe you should decide on his punishment. What he did warrants an expulsion, but—"

"No, there is no need for that," Harry said hastily. "Taking points would be enough." Dumbledore raised an incredulous eyebrow, so he added. "And getting him to scrub some cauldrons?"

Suddenly, Dumbledore smiled, and this smile was so real, so warm that Harry's breath caught in his throat.

He remembered this smile. There had been times when it was his best reward.

"You are very generous," Dumbledore remarked softly. "Very well, I shall pass your wishes to the Headmaster. Be well soon."

He left, and almost immediately after that, Tom slipped inside. He was still paler than normal, and the wild look in his eyes made Harry groan inwardly. It was amazing that Tom hadn't cursed his way inside the ward by now, if that was how terrified he was still feeling.

"I'm all right," Harry told him quickly. "See? Almost completely healed."

"I didn't see this coming," Tom said. He sounded shell-shocked. "I didn't predict this."

"I doubt anyone could. The bullying had to be really bad for him to snap like this, and you don't even share the House, so you couldn't have known."

"I didn't predict this," Tom said again, almost monotonously. "Why didn't I predict this?"

"Come here," Harry thrust his hand in his direction. Robotically, Tom approached, taking it and pressing his wrist to his ear, as if hoping to hear the life beating in it. "See?" Harry tried to catch his gaze. "I'm fine. That was a prank rather than an attack — I wasn't in any real danger."

At this, Tom's eyes finally cut to him, almost black in their rage.

"A prank?" he hissed. "A prank? There was an explosion. It could have blinded you! If not for your shield, it would have burned you so severely that even Slughorn's salves wouldn't help!"

"You exploded water in my face once. And if I recall, you thought it was funny."

Tom flushed, glaring at him with wounded fury.

"That wasn't— I wasn't old enough then," he snapped defensively. "And you weren't as important as you are now. No one will hurt you!"

The almost childish confidence of the last phrase infused Harry with bubbly warmth. He smiled at Tom, brushing his front curls behind his ears fondly.

"Stop being concerned," he murmured. "And leave Richards alone, okay? Let Professor Dumbledore handle his punishment."

"Dumbledore!" Tom's voice went an octave higher in disgust. "What will he do, feed him sweets?"

"Actually, I suggested the punishment."

Tom's face turned even sourer.

"Great," he groused. "Then he wouldn't even suffer through sweets. You probably told Dumbledore to just deduct points."

Harry shrugged a little guiltily. Huffing, Tom inhaled slowly before releasing his breath. His anger still felt like a real, breathing being, and Harry shook their entwined hands, trying to refocus his attention.

"Don't interfere," he warned. "I will watch Richards myself if I have to. You are not my personal avenger — I don't need one. So forget about him. Do I have your word?"

"This is the second promise you ask me to make in two days," Tom noted. His rage finally began to cool down, leaving a strange serenity on his face.

"Do I have it?" Harry insisted, and Tom let out a deliberately loud sigh before nodding.

"You have it," he agreed. "I won't do anything to him. I remember our agreement. Never doubt it."

The last words had a sinister edge to them, but Harry couldn't imagine what that could possibly mean, so in the end, he decided to ignore it.

"Tell me something else," he murmured. "Who sends you letters?"

The change was instantaneous — Tom's features shuttered, his eyes went colder, and a blank, impersonal smile stretched his lips.

"It's a British journal," he said pleasantly. "I'm doing research on Defence against the Dark Arts and Charms, the one I told you about, and they are interested in publishing it."

"Really?" Harry smiled just as blankly. "What journal is that? And is your research done? Can I finally see it?"

"Maybe later," Tom touched his cheek gently. "I want it to be a surprise."

Harry nodded, forcing himself to smile wider.

Tom was lying. It was embarrassingly obvious. Whatever letters he was getting, they unnerved him, and he didn't want Harry to know.

He'd have to find everything out in his own way, then. And why not today, since he got an unexpected sick leave?

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Apophis was sitting on the top of the Owlerly, observing other birds with a superior, condescending look.

"Just like your master," Harry grumbled. "Well? Come here."

The demon let out a derisive sound and flapped his wings once, as if shooing him away.

"Come here," Harry snapped at him, "I don't have all day. It concerns Tom, and if you care about him, you're going to help me."

With another huffing sound, Apophis got down, giving him a sour stare.

"I need to see one of the last letters you delivered to him," Harry said. "Can you bring it to me?"

Apophis snorted in derision, and Harry growled. Only Tom could get such an infuriating pet.

"I know you are smarter than most birds," he spoke slowly, trying to stay patient. His absence from the hospital wing could be discovered any moment, and the last thing he needed was an even bigger fuss around himself. "I know that Tom spoils you beyond measure. You'll be capable of getting into his room — he definitely invites you in there. Take one of those letters and let me take a look at it. If there is nothing wrong with it, then you can take it back. If Tom is having problems, then I'll be able to help him. Do you understand?"

At first, Apophis continued to stare, his large eyes intelligent but completely unfathomable. Then, without a sound, he flung himself through the nearest window, leaving Harry in the company of other curious birds.

This was all he could do at this stage. If Apophis proved to be useless, he'd find another way, but he'd get his hands on Tom's letters.

Tom was never nervous. And if he was, there to be a serious reason underlying it — reason that Harry had to understand.

He returned to the hospital wing just on time — another lesson ended and Tom came to visit him again, looking haggard, like they hadn't seen each other in months.

The same pattern repeated several more times before Madam Bertinger closed the ward for the evening, muttering complaints under her breath. Five minutes later, Apophis pushed the window open, clenching the grey envelope in his claws. He really looked like a demon bird, his movements almost human as he landed next to Harry and dropped the letter on his lap.

"Thank you," smiling gratefully, Harry brought it closer to his eyes. The handwriting was terrible — it looked like whomever the sender was, they didn't write often, or at all. Curious now, he carefully took the letter out. It had only four sentences, but their content instantly chilled his blood, making his stomach drop into nothingness.

Don't think too long. I want to hear what answer you have for me in three days the latest. Your blood is tainted, you's a result of filth union. Pay respects to the real Slytherin's heir or everyone will know you's no better than a Muggle.

The memory of a short man with dirty hair, missing teeth, and deranged eyes resurrected itself in his mind. The initial shock it brought quickly exploded into fury and fierce protectiveness, and Harry hissed, throwing the letter away in disgust.

Morfin. Morfin Gaunt. How had he learned of Tom?

Stupid question — at least several British articles were dedicated to Tom, the first sane heir of Slytherin in years. There weren't many, but they were published on a steady basis, several times per year. Morfin was living in isolation, but even he could have gotten hold on some newer issues. And apparently, he decided to blackmail Tom, threatening to expose the origins of his birth to others.

A muscle twitched in his jaw unwillingly. His magic crackled, and Harry clenched his fists, glaring into the darkness behind the window.

Tom knew his background. He knew about his parents and about Morfin — Harry had told him the truth all those years ago, when he gave him the locket. But would Tom want for the rest of the world to know the details? He didn't hide the fact that he's a half-blood, but Harry could bet that he had never volunteered any real information about his birth, especially the details about his Muggle father. Tom despised this connection, he'd want to hide it.

If it wasn't for their agreement, chances were, Tom would have already paid Morfin and the Riddles a visit, leaving a trail of bodies behind. Maybe he was planning something similar now, only without any unnecessary deaths — he could have simply modified Morfin's memory like Voldemort had done it. He would never let himself be blackmailed, so he would be forced to make his next move within the next several days.

Unless Harry acted first.

The thought lingered, quickly gaining shape and sending dark determination to every part of his body. Harry stood up, summoned his clothes, and slowly put them on.

Technically, Tom could deal with Morfin in a better way. But their meeting could also go badly. Most importantly, Tom was bound to feel hurt. The memories Dumbledore had shown to Harry were too brief to understand what Tom Riddle experienced, but his Tom? He was emotionally vulnerable, and if Harry could do anything to protect him, he would. Whatever it took. Morfin had pointed out his location, so finding him wouldn't be a problem.

'And what next?' his mind whispered. 'What will you do next?'

"I don't know," Harry whispered back.

Well. Then he would have to improvise. It wouldn't be the first time.

And it was for Tom, so the details didn't matter.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Seeing the Gaunts' house was like seeing a ghost. It mirrored the image Harry had seen in Dumbledore's Pensieve to perfection, which sent a strange rush of repulsion and longing through his veins.

That life was long gone now, along with his Dumbledore, his version of Gaunts, and the Tom Riddle he knew. This shack was in the same terrible shape, but it wasn't his. Nothing in this world was, nothing but Tom. Yet somehow, it was enough to tip the scales, making this place his true home.

Shaking off strange illogical thoughts, Harry pushed the door open without knocking, holding his wand loosely. Morfin jumped from his armchair with a furious hiss, overturning the bottles that accumulated next to his feet. Either he was speaking a mix of English and Parseltongue or an ancient part of Harry's mind recognised some of the distantly familiar words because he clearly heard "you," "my house," and "kill you."

"I came to talk to you about Tom," he said sharply. "Your nephew. Does this name ring a bell or do you need a sobering potion first?"

Morfin tried to focus on him, but his eyes kept darting around suspiciously.

"You's not him," he growled, raising his wand but aiming it at the door instead of Harry. "Where's that abomination?"

Harry saw red. The instinct to protect Tom was so ingrained in him that it came to a roaring life whenever it detected any threat, verbal or physical. His wand hand trembled with an effort to hold his fury back and not curse this man into oblivion.

Oblivion. What if—

"I told him to come alone, not send some, some—" Morfin hissed again. "Some Mudblood! Get out of my house! Get out now!"

"I don't think so." Harry waved the clutter away from the chair and sat down, crossing his legs. His mind was quickly sliding through different ideas, seeking the one that could work.

Morfin was beyond rationality. He could talk to him, but it was useless — this much was already obvious. Still, he had to try.

"What do you want from him?" he asked. He tried to speak conversationally, but the tense undernote in his voice was ruining this impression. His magic was whirling in him in agitated, dangerous circles, waiting for the permission to break out and protect Tom in whatever way it could.

Not now, he tried to tell himself, but his magic wasn't listening. It felt like it was everywhere, climbing into his throat and choking him from within in its attempts to force him to act.

Not now, he thought again, with more force this time. For a brief second, his magic and his mind clashed in a battle for dominance, and then magic retreated, though it continued to swell somewhere under his skin.

"It's easy, ain't it?" Morfin muttered, leering at him. "Money. He owes me money. A lot of money. Stealing the status and the fame from a family like ours, that's all that filth's capable of. Looking like that Muggle, an exact copy of his, sickening. A Muggle lover too, I bet. Does someone write about me? No, they drag me to Azkaban. Accosting a Muggle, they say. Hexing him. Served him right! That disgusting rat—"

"How much money?" Harry interrupted him, although his mind was gradually zeroing in on a specific solution. And it didn't include giving anything to Morfin.

"Money," Morfin said absent-mindedly, waving his wand around. "Yes, money. A lot of money. I'm going to make a statement. Let everyone know. Should've never claimed Slytherin name, he's not deserved it, it's not his. Going to make him regret it."

Harry's magic snapped forward again, and this time, he didn't stop it. A furious rush of it collided with Morfin, making him fall over with a surprised grunt, and before he could move, Harry stood up, aiming his wand at his head.

Tom Riddle of his time had framed Morfin for murder and changed his memories. There wasn't going to be any murder now, but the memories part had a potential. The only problem was, Harry had no idea how to modify them.

But thanks to his Tom, he now knew how to erase them. He knew how to manoeuvre between them, how to pick them, and how to choose layers that had to be deleted. The knowledge was there — he only had to use it.

"Obliviate," he said. His voice sounded far deadlier than he expected. His wand flashed green, and just as the light moved towards Morfin, Harry's mind dived into it, dissolving within the spell. He entered Morfin's head, moving between the memories swiftly, bypassing some and directing his magic at others, devouring them until nothing was left.

All information about Tom, gone. All memories about the Slytherin origins, gone. Some facts about the Gaunts remained, but others were erased, leaving shadows of confusion behind. Images of family artefacts — the locket, the ring, all melting in the green fog of the spell.

Harry came to his senses with a gasp, stumbling away and lowering his wand. Violent rushes of adrenaline kept rolling through his body, filling him with a sense of almost maddening power.

It took a while for him to calm down. Morfin was lying on the floor, mumbling something, his eyes even more unfocused than before. Harry turned away, sickened by this display and its implications.

He'd done it. He erased almost as many memories as Lockhart had with his victims. Morfin would be barely functional now, always confused, always lost in the haze of insanity. Not that he had been perfectly sane prior to that, but at least he had his ideas of pride, something to keep him going. Now…

But it was for Tom.

Doubts and regrets faded, transforming into familiar grim certainty and satisfaction. Carefully, Harry approached Morfin, bending over him and staring into his eyes.

"Legilimens," he uttered, then cringed away from the whirlwind of Morfin's crippled mind. Muddy memories surrounded him, throwing distorted flashes of unfamiliar life at him. There was nothing of Tom there, and nothing about Slytherin connection. Even if Morfin saw any mention of him in the newspaper, he wouldn't recognise him. Tom was safe.

Harry pulled back, still grimacing at the contact. He felt dirty — how could have Snape tolerated bursting into his mind again and again? It was ugly. He never wanted to experience this feeling again.

A glint of a ring caught his eye. Pausing, Harry raised Morfin's hand, staring at the Resurrection Stone on his finger.

The heirloom of the House of Gaunt. A beautiful and a dangerous symbol that the members of this family passed to each other from generation to generation. Morfin got it from Marvolo… and Tom was next in line, wasn't he? This ring belonged to him. Or it could belong to him if Harry took it from Morfin and brought it back to Hogwarts.

The temptation that started out as a thin stream quickly turned into a powerful flow, overwhelming him with a sudden rush of possessive greed on Tom's behalf.

Tom deserved this ring. It was his heirloom. Morfin wouldn't remember what it meant anyway, so there was no reason to leave it to him. If anyone could bring glory to the Gaunts' and Slytherin's lines, it was Tom, not this deranged blood purist who would stay within this hovel until the day he died.

His mind made up, Harry pulled the ring off Morfin's finger. For a moment, a warm breath of energy enveloped his hand. The Resurrection Stone flared with golden light before growing dark again, and Harry nearly dropped it in surprise.

What was it? This Resurrection Stone didn't belong to him, did it? He'd acquired the status of the Master of Death back in his own timeline, so these Hallows had nothing to do with him. At least he thought so.

Strangely unsettled, Harry hid the ring in his pocket. Then he summoned Morfin's quill, his parchment and envelope, and wrote a quick note for Tom.

Don't come here. I changed my mind. I'm leaving Britain and I don't need anything from you. Forget that we are related.

Maybe this wouldn't stop Tom from investigating further, but it would calm him down for a while, and he wouldn't feel forced to escape from Hogwarts. This was all Harry could ask for.

If the need arose, they could discuss it during holidays, preferably in the summer. But ideally, Tom would be at peace, and he'd feel no desire to seek Morfin out… and he'd never learn about Harry's involvement.

Folding the envelope in half, Harry left the house, refusing to look back. The hisses of guilt tried to break through, but he steadily ignored them.

He did what had to be done. There was no other choice. Whatever life Morfin led now, it was his own doing — he should have never tried to blackmail Tom.

He would do the same thing again if needed.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

When Harry returned to Hogwarts, it was still dark outside. Giving Apophis the fake letter, he hesitated, wondering if he should head for the hospital wing or go to his room. He wasn't in pain and he was an adult, so it's not like he had to obey Madam Bertinger.

Pleased with this justification, Harry walked towards his floor. A minute later, he was already murmuring his password, anticipating the meeting with his comfortable bed.

His plans were thwarted when he realised that someone else had already occupied it. Even in the darkness, the shape that curled under his blanket was intimately familiar to him, and for a while, Harry stood still, watching it, torn between affection, exasperation, and surprise.

The reason for why Tom was sleeping in his bed was clear, just as the explanation of why he was doing it with Harry's shirt clenched in his fists. But how had he gotten here? He couldn't have possibly guessed his password in less than a day!

Unwillingly impressed, Harry walked to the side and knelt near Tom, stroking his hair lightly. Tom reacted immediately, moving closer to follow his touch, burying his nose in Harry's shirt with an incoherent murmur.

"Tom," Harry whispered. "Wake up. You can't sleep here."

At first, there was no response, but then Tom's eyes fluttered open. They instantly focused on Harry, still hazy and vulnerable from sleep.

"Harry," he muttered, and a soft, open smile lit up his face. "They didn't let me spend the night in the hospital wing. I missed you."

His heart skipped a long beat, making his breathing stutter. Feeling how the darkness that had accumulated within him after his meeting with Morfin began to melt away, Harry leaned closer, pressing Tom's palm to his face.

"Have you woken up or are you still dreaming?" he teased. "You are rarely this lovely."

Tom blinked sleepily, and then the first sparks of awareness flickered in his eyes.

"Harry!" he sat up abruptly, still clutching the green shirt in one hand. "What are you doing here? They weren't supposed to release you until morning."

"I got bored," Harry stood up, and Tom began to follow him instinctively before stopping. "The question is, what are you doing here? This is my room, and I distinctly remember telling you that you shouldn't sleep here."

"Technically, you told me that I can't sleep with you, not that I can't sleep in your room," Tom argued, his words distorted by a long yawn. "And since you weren't here, it didn't count."

With a snort, Harry flopped down onto the bed, but before he even got comfortable, Tom pushed closer, taking his face in both hands and examining it intently.

"Does it hurt?" he asked quietly.

"No," Harry tried to wave him off, but Tom didn't let him. With a frown, he continued to stare, as if trying to find some invisible scars. He leaned even closer, his lips almost brushing against Harry's cheekbone, and all of a sudden, it felt too strange. Unfamiliar tension sliced through Harry in a sharp, jerky motion, and he pushed Tom away, moving at a more appropriate distance, not even trying to hide how shaken he felt.

Oddly, Tom didn't appear to notice. He continued to frown, his troubled eyes still glued to his skin in search of any possible source of pain. The tension faded, and Harry leaned back against his pillow, allowing himself to smile.

"How did you bypass my password?" he wondered. "You couldn't have possibly guessed it."

The worry left Tom's face, giving way to familiar smugness.

"'Eternal union'," he drawled. "What an interesting choice. I wonder if it has any special meaning?"

"Yeah, it does," Harry grumbled. "It was supposed to be something you'd never think of."

Tom laughed, and the corners of Harry's lips curled up in response.

"Next time, you should try harder," Tom advised. "It took me one attempt to guess it."

"What? That's impossible!"

Ignoring his outrage, Tom scooted closer again, throwing an arm over his middle.

"I'm sleeping with you tonight," he announced calmly. "Since you've sneaked out of the hospital wing, you are in no position to throw me out."

Harry considered it for a moment.

"If I yell at you, will that help?" he asked. Tom let out a thoughtful sound.

"No," he said finally, smug satisfaction mixing with sleepiness in his voice. "If you were genuinely angry, you would have actually yelled at me instead of asking. So I'm not going anywhere tonight."

There were many things Harry wanted to say to this. Starting yelling was an attractive option, too, since Tom believed they were beyond it now.

But after Morfin, being close to Tom felt healing. The darkness didn't feel threatening, and even the whispers of guilt went silent.

"Only for tonight," Harry warned. "If I find you in here again, I will yell."

"Fine," Tom said, but his smile announced, 'We'll see.'

Such an infuriating display of insolence, and yet somehow, it was charming rather than irritating. Adjusting his pillow, Harry closed his eyes, moving until his head was lying on Tom's shoulder. He thought he felt lips pressing to his hair, but the touch was too light to know if it was really there.

One of Tom's hands found his, squeezing it, and Harry squeezed back. The sleep came soon afterwards.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

As before, Tom was gone in the morning. Torn between relief and strange disappointment, Harry went to the Great Hall. Everyone greeted him warmly, including Oakwood, which gave him pause. She was courteous and concerned about his health, and there was not a trace of disapproval in her looks.

Was she just upset at him getting hurt? Or was something more at play here?

Harry threw a suspicious glance towards Tom. Tom only shrugged, with a small smile playing on his lips.

That could mean several things, none of them good. But Tom wouldn't have gone to talk to her just to erase her memory, would he? Maybe they had simply talked. Although that was bad by itself…

His sense of duty told Harry to dig deeper and find out the truth, but another part, the one that formed under the influence of life with Tom, whispered to let it go. Whatever happened to Oakwood, it affected only that one memory of his mistake. Yes, it was a terrible breach of her privacy, but it wasn't worse than what Harry had done to Myrtle, and it was far better than what he'd done to Morfin yesterday.

He didn't want to know. And the situation wasn't serious enough for him to drive himself crazy over it.

Still, he tried to keep his interactions with Oakwood to a minimum. And he avoided letting their eyes meet for an extended period.

Apophis arrived fifteen minutes after breakfast. Tom tensed as soon as he saw the envelope, but when he read the letter, his face smoothened, turning incredulous. For a short moment, it lightened in joy and relief, before an expression of aloofness took its place.

Harry caught it all, and he quickly pressed a goblet with pumpkin juice to his lips to hide a pleased smile.

After that, time went by quickly. The days were hectic, but in a good way, so the thoughts about Oakwood, Richards, and even Morfin left his mind. Every evening, Harry came up with a new password, and almost every night, he woke up with Tom spread across his bed, sleeping without a care in the world. There was no possible way for Tom to really guess these passwords — he must have devised a spell that let him know everything Harry said as he was standing next to the door. But no matter how hard he tried, Harry couldn't find any traces of it, and as the result, he couldn't block Tom's access.

Sometimes his patience snapped and he sent Tom away right in the middle of the night. Sometimes he felt too tired to fight about it and to pretend he didn't find sleeping together comforting. In any case, his thoughts revolved around Tom obsessively, whether it was because of his absence, presence, or something else. Harry loved his lessons with passion, but his focus on them was never absolute because like always, Tom made a home for himself at the back of his mind, and not thinking about him was an impossibility.

How did he learn of the passwords? Why did he break in on some nights but not on others? What was he doing with his housemates during their lecture hour, when they all gathered in the Slytherin Common Room? Why did most students look at him as if he'd hung the moon, how did he manage to make pureblood Slytherins more tolerant, when was he going to explain the secret research he was conducting?

The questions were never-ending, but Harry was reluctant to ask them. Some of them felt too intrusive while others could have answers he'd find disappointing.

It made him feel good to think that Tom was responsible for the Slytherins' attitude. That was what he'd told Dumbledore and what he believed. And if it happened to be a coincidence, he didn't want to know it.

The thought of the upcoming Christmas filled Harry with delighted excitement. Spending several weeks in their home was possibly the happiest time of the year for him, rivalled only by the entire summer when they could go wherever they wanted. Tom was equally enthusiastic, dropping hints about some great gift he'd prepared, and Harry couldn't wait for December to come.

He already knew what his first gift to Tom was going to be, too. The ring he'd taken from Morfin. He was almost sure that Tom wouldn't connect the dots, but to be certain, he thought of a believable explanation as to where he got it from.

Tom would be happy to get this ring. He loved everything related to Slytherin and his status, and Harry could already imagine the smile that would grace his lips, the way his eyes would flash with pride and contentment.

Christmas couldn't come soon enough.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Their Christmas tree was shining with different magical lights. It enveloped the room in a welcoming colourful glow, and right now, sitting on the floor, on the thick warm carpet, Harry couldn't imagine feeling happier.

It was snowing heavily behind their windows, to the point where the whiteness was all they could see. Tom was sitting across him, with a cup of hot chocolate in his hands, watching him with undisguised attentiveness.

"So, is it time yet?" Harry wondered. Tom snapped his fingers carelessly, conjuring burning green numbers.

"Two minutes left," he said, and Harry chuckled, shaking his head.

"Since when are you obsessed with midnight? We never exchanged the gifts on it. Who does it?"

"This is the right way to celebrate Christmas," Tom insisted. "The new year will be important, so we have to do everything properly."

"And let me guess, you're the one who decides what 'properly' means," snorting, Harry took a sip of his drink. Tom's eyes tracked his movements, watching with such intensity, as if nothing else mattered.

The last minute passed, and a shower of red sparks exploded from the end of Harry's wand, announcing that midnight had arrived. Tom's face instantly transformed, becoming anticipatory and greedy.

"You first," he demanded. Harry rolled his eyes, even as his lips curled up in an affectionate smile.

"You are almost sixteen and yet you still manage to sound like a spoiled brat," he murmured, pulling a small box from under the tree. "Here it is. Merry Christmas."

Tom took his gift, preening like he was getting a reward issued by the Minister for Magic himself. But then his face softened, and by the time he unwrapped the ring, it was glowing with genuine, innocent curiosity. Harry stared at his eyes, trying to catch every shift of emotion in them.

At first, there was surprise. Then it changed to calculating assessment: Tom took the ring out carefully, studying it from all sides, probably trying to determine its value. His gaze lingered on the symbol of the Deathly Hallows, paused there, and slowly went up to Harry, filling with wonder.

"I know this ring," Tom said, subdued. The wonder in his eyes strengthened, turning into outright disbelief. "This is the Peverell coat of arms, the heirloom of the Gaunts. I saw it on Marvolo Gaunt, in the book on the oldest pureblood families. He's dead now, and that means his ring belongs to his son. My uncle. Where did you get it?"

This wasn't going the way Harry had hoped it would. But he still had an answer ready.

"It was sold before or after Marvolo's death," he said. "I managed to locate it because I thought it should be yours. It's your heirloom."

Tom was silent, staring at him and clenching the ring in his hand possessively.

"It wasn't sold," he said finally, stronger and more defiant. "I know for a fact that several months ago, Morfin was wearing it. He sent several letters to me — the first of them bore this seal. He pressed the ring to it and left his mark to prove his identity."

Harry opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out, so he was forced to close it again. An unpleasant rush of something engulfed his face, turning it red or pale — or maybe green.

This… This was a miscalculation. A large one. Tom was not supposed to learn of his encounter with Morfin, not like this, and definitely not now. This would only convince him that Harry was willing to forego his morals even more than he already had, encouraging him to do things that would never be acceptable.

But could he have predicted that Tom knew about the ring and its whereabouts? He hadn't seen Morfin's first letter — he didn't even think that Morfin was capable of remembering how to signs letters with magic.

Stupid. Of course he remembered it — family pride had been everything to him, he likely learned how to sign letters even before he understood how to write them.

"I bought it," Harry stated insistently. "So he must have sold it. And letters? What letters? When did he contact you?"

Tom tilted his head, studying him with narrowed eyes.

"You are lying," he said softly. "I can tell. You did something to him. You are the reason he left me alone."

Harry wanted to argue again, but Tom pressed his fingers to his lips, silencing him.

"Thank you," he whispered. His dark eyes were shining with joy and gratitude, and devotion so profound that Harry's heart jumped to his throat. "For me. You did it for me. And you brought me the ring. How did you know?"

Harry pulled Tom's fingers away from his mouth, clenching them in his hand. Thirty seconds ago, he had been ready to self-combust from shame, but now it evaporated. It was difficult to feel self-disgust when Tom was looking at him with such an open admiration.

"I noticed that you were getting letters," Harry said awkwardly. "You reacted negatively to each of them and you lied to me, so I decided to find out what's happening. Your demon bird helped. When I realised Morfin was blackmailing you, I paid him a visit and convinced him to stop."

"Liar," Tom crawled closer, burying his face in Harry's neck and breathing him in. "Tell me the truth. What did you do to him?"

The trembling excitement in his voice cooled Harry's embarrassment, replacing it with irritation.

"Stop your overactive imagination, you sadist," he grumbled. "I tampered with his memories — your book turned out to be unexpectedly useful. He won't remember anything about you or the so-called glory of his heritage. He'll be—"

"A vegetable," Tom finished, with so much gleefulness that Harry had to bite his lips to keep himself from commenting. "His whole life was based on his lineage. Without these memories, he'll be completely insane. I won't be surprised if Saint Mungo's specialists come to forcibly hospitalise him after this."

"Shut up already," Harry snapped, trying to push away the images of Morfin wandering around amidst the snow, lost and confused. 'For Tom,' he reminded himself. 'It was worth it.'

Tom pulled away from him, and gradually, his brilliant smile dimmed.

"I apologise," he uttered, looking so uncharacteristically serious that it took Harry aback. "I know you must feel bad about it. That's who you are — I accept it. And that's why I want you to know much it means to me. How much you mean to me."

All words stuck uselessly in his throat. Harry tried to hold himself still even as a simmering shaky emotion unfolded in his chest, warming it until everything inside it began to melt, leaving him feeling shapeless.

"I know how much you sacrifice for me," Tom continued, just as gravely. "I know that. I remember every instance. I might not always show it, but everything you did, everything you ever said to me is engraved in my mind. I'm grateful for it. I always will be."

Something moist began to form in Harry's eyes, so he shifted, trying to hide this embarrassing display of feelings. Tom stopped him: he took his hand and brought it to his lips, kissing his knuckles, still holding his gaze.

"Thank you," he said, and maybe it was the shadows, or the angle, or something else, but all at once, Harry was hit by a stunning realisation of how incredibly beautiful Tom was. His breath hitched, and a strange half-forgotten sensation twisted his stomach, briefly leaving him mindless.

Tom leaned closer again, and Harry's heart lurched somewhere before starting to pound quickly, stealing his breath and confusing him even further. Tom's lips touched his cheek, and his heart gave another violent twitch, in excitement or disappointment — he couldn't tell.

But the bewildering stupor dissipated just as suddenly, and Harry shivered, alarmed by his own state of mind.

What was that?

"A ring," Tom mused, focusing on his gift again and effectively dragging Harry out of his panic. "I gave you one, too, all those years ago. How symbolic. Would you put it on me?"

Expected relief and unexpected shyness filled him to the brim, and Harry laughed, almost light-headed.

"Fine," he said with a long-suffering sigh. Christmas was a good time for indulging Tom's need for dramatics.

Taking the box, he held Tom's hand and carefully put the ring on his slender finger, ignoring how the Resurrection Stone sang upon his touch.

Tom gazed at him, smiling a private smile, before shifting his eyes towards the ring. For a few moments, they shared a silence, with Tom admiring the ring and Harry staring at him, unable to look away. Then Tom lowered his hand, turning to face him again.

"My turn," he announced. "I also have something special for you."

No matter how many years passed, Harry's mind kept reacting to the idea of getting gifts with the same wild enthusiasm. He grinned, bouncing and clapping his hands a few times in his playful eagerness. Tom gave him a knowing look, dragged a huge soft package from under the Christmas tree, and put it on his lap.

"Merry Christmas," he murmured. Sending him an intrigued look, Harry pulled at the golden ribbon, trying to get it to release the contents of the package. What could it be? Based on the softness, it was some kind of blanket. But why would Tom give him one?

The final ribbon succumbed, revealing a silvery-green mass of fabric. It wasn't a blanket — it was a cloak, and Harry stared at it, bewildered and uncomprehending. Tom had bought him clothes? It was nice, but why would he bother — it's not like Harry was a fan of changing or expanding his wardrobe.

Hesitantly, he touched the cloak, wondering what it was made of, and the moment he did, a thousand tingling rays of Tom's magic enveloped his hand. Touching the rune on the spoon felt like Tom was standing next to him, sharing the warmth of his aura. This? This felt a hundred times stronger. Wherever Harry put his hands, he was engulfed by an intoxicating feel of Tom, his power, his magic — it was all over the cloak. Wearing it would be like having Tom's arms around him all the time, like being hidden in a cocoon made of his magic.

Harry understood how the rune could produce the effect it did, but the cloak? It was a work of art. It was pure, raw power.

"What's it made of?" Harry asked, not hiding his shock and awe. Tom preened, raising his chin smugly.

"Partly of cashmere," he replied carelessly. "With some silk for linings and trimmings. And partly of magic."

"Of magic?" Harry echoed. He couldn't look at Tom for long — his gaze kept returning to the magnificence of the cloak. "How is that possible?"

"There is a rare ancient spell that only the most powerful wizards can perform," Tom told him. He sounded so prideful that Harry would have laughed if he didn't think it was fully warranted this time. "It helps to materialise magic, to give it physical shape. It is difficult to keep hold on it, even more difficult to create something from it, but I managed to weave it and make it a part of this cloak."

"It is beautiful," Harry uttered with feeling. And it was. It had delicate silver embroidery decorating the hem and even more complex lustrous patterns running along the sides, up to a hood. A huge letter "S" was curved at the back of the cloak, sparkling with silver and magic whenever the fabric moved.

The time and efforts this had to take, the amount of creativity and talent… Harry kept brushing his hands against his gift, still unable to believe that it could exist — that it could be made for him.

"Why the Slytherin colours?" he asked when his voice returned to him again. "When I wear it, everyone will assume I'm a Slytherin."

A mysterious smile curled Tom's lips up.

"You'll find out," he promised. It sounded a little ominous, but Harry was too caught up in the admiration and reverence to think about it. The cloak wasn't just beautiful — it felt addictive. And to think that Tom had taken so much care to make this gift for him.

"When did you make it?" he wondered. "You were constantly so busy. Patrolling the corridors, stalking me, playing nice with other students, breaking into my rooms—"

Tom rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

"If you want to know, I kept working on it during what you called a lecture hour. In the Slytherin Common Room."

"Really?" Harry snorted with laughter. "And what, did other Slytherins sit around you silently, watching you work?"

He meant it as a joke, but Tom nodded, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

"Can you imagine how impressive it looks?" he asked. "They could see me weave magic from the thin air. Trust me, they would have gladly paid me to witness this. It was a privilege — they were honoured to be able to watch it."

For once, Harry didn't think Tom was exaggerating. Even Dumbledore would be impressed, he was sure of it.

"By the way, we were invited to a party," Tom said casually. "Lestrange's family is hosting it on the thirty-first."

Harry choked, almost dropping the cloak on the floor.

"The Lestranges?" he wheezed out. "Invited us to a party? Us as in, you and me?"

Tom's lips twitched in amusement as he nodded.

"No way," Harry told him, aghast. "I'm not going to their party!"

"We can't exactly refuse. It wouldn't be polite. Besides, I already sent a letter with our acceptance, so we'll have to make an appearance."

"Forget it!" Harry hugged the cloak and dropped himself into an armchair. "I have no interest in pureblood parties. And you never bothered to even introduce me to your friends properly, so why would I want to go there?"

"This will be a chance to rectify it," Tom approached him, lowering himself to the floor and resting his hands on Harry's knees. "Please?"

It was impossible to refuse any of Tom's "please's". Why did he have to have such expressive eyes? Even knowing he was being blatantly manipulated, Harry was helpless to say 'no'.

"What will I do there?" he tried to reason, though he already knew it was futile. "Watching peacocks? Listening to the purebloods talk about Muggles or flaunting their fortunes? I hate this kind of company, and I'm pretty sure these feelings will be mutual."

"No, they won't," Tom replied sharply, his eyes darkening to dark brown. "They will show you the respect you deserve. They will make you feel welcome."

Harry sniffed in derision, but Tom continued to stare at him imploringly, wide-eyed and earnest. All Harry could do was surrender.

"Fine," he grumbled. "I'll go to this stupid party. But don't expect me to stay long there. Two hours — this is the best I can give you."

Tom beamed, jumping to his feet and pulling Harry out of his chair, whirling them both in a dance.

"And you'll wear your cloak," he told him breathlessly. "I want everyone to see it."

"Fine, you show-off, I'll wear it. Satisfied now?"

"Yes," Tom said, and the happiness on his face was so profound that it felt like sunlight. "Yes, I am."

Harry could probably attend a hundred more parties if it put so much joy into Tom's smile.

Like he said, hopeless.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

They celebrated until four in the morning. Their dancing changed into watching a film together, which turned into Harry singing Christmas songs and Tom pouncing on him to make him shut up, which grew into mock fighting that ended with them both lying on the floor, trying to catch their breaths. Afterwards, Tom brought them cups with fresh hot chocolate, and that was when Harry's mind swam.

"Too tired," he managed to say. His eyes were falling shut, his legs shaking from an effort to keep standing. "Bed?"

"Of course," Tom wrapped his hands around his waist, holding him upright. "Come with me."

Almost blindly, Harry stumbled into the bedroom, letting Tom direct him towards the bed. His pillow was so welcoming, he instantly hugged it close, sighing with tired contentment. The bed moved under the increased weight when Tom joined him and covered him with a blanket.

"My love," Harry murmured, closing his eyes. He heard a sharp intake of breath followed by a shaky exhale. Then Tom's hands slid around him, his lips pressing to Harry's ear.

"Say that again," Tom whispered. "Please."

Harry half-turned to him, trying to blink through sleepiness.

"My love," he repeated softly. "Always my love. My Tom."

Tom shuddered, his eyes fluttering. Once again, he looked almost ethereally beautiful, but Harry had no strength to admire him. The heaviness on his eyelids was getting unbearable, and he began to fall into an alluring nothingness.

"You are everything to me," he heard Tom say with quiet certainty. "The thing is, I'm not sure you understand it. But you will. One day, you will — that's a promise."

Harry wasn't sure he really heard it. His magic flickered weakly, fighting against this crushing weariness, but then it succumbed, and in the next second, his consciousness was no more.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The Lestranges, predictably, lived in a ridiculously huge mansion that screamed of wealth. Its vast halls glistened with decorations and family portraits, and Harry really wanted to burst into laughter. If Ron and Hermione were here with him, he would have followed this impulse, but his only company was Tom, and Tom blended in flawlessly. He looked just as stuck up as the rest of the purebloods, holding his chin up as if he were a king. The most ridiculous thing was that people acknowledged it — most of them bowed slightly as they passed, and there were respect, admiration, and wariness in their eyes.

"Why are they all bobbing their heads to you?" Harry murmured. Since Tom was taller, he had to tilt his own head up to whisper to him. "Do they know how old you are?"

Tom turned to him, giving him a fond smile.

"They do," he said simply.

"So why the worship? Just because you're the heir of Slytherin? Are they really this senseless?"

Tom pressed his hand to the mouth, stifling a laugh, and Harry caught several amazed stares directed at them.

"No, not because I'm the heir of Slytherin," Tom commented wryly. "Although that was a good starting point. I know these people, I met them on more than one occasion. And they aren't bowing to me, they are bowing to us."

Harry nearly stumbled, horrified at this idea.

"No thanks," he muttered lowly. "It's disgusting. Wait, how do they know you? When did you meet them? You never told me about this!"

With a small sigh, Tom raised their hands — and how did Harry not notice they were interlaced? — before kissing his fingers gently.

"I didn't think you would be interested," he explained. "I've been making some connections, so these people are eager to establish a closer contact with me."

"'Making some connections'," Harry snorted rudely, ignoring the outraged look on the face of some woman. "You mean you've been showing off."

A familiar offended expression crossed Tom's face, finally turning him into the person Harry knew.

"Shut up," he grumbled. "No one has ever accused me of showing off but you."

"Well, how is that surprising to you? Look at them, they are already your mindless puppets. They wouldn't risk offending His Majesty."

Tom growled at him, looking thoroughly tempted to curse him, and Harry stuck his tongue out. A vindictive part of him hoped to repel the potentially interested purebloods from approaching, and considering the looks sent his way, he succeeded.

Tom, instead of being embarrassed, flushed, taking a shaky breath. For a moment, he looked completely out of place, probably as much as Harry did, but then the arrogant mask slipped back on, and he raised an arrogant eyebrow.

"Such childishness," he chided.

"I'm not the one turning sixteen today, am I?"

Another win — the blush returned, and Tom's eyes narrowed in a glare.

This was the only fun part of the evening. Soon, Tom was swept away by the crowd. For the first few times, he tried to stubbornly drag Harry with him, but Harry managed to escape at the first opportunity, and eventually, he gave up. Strangely, the evening only got worse from there.

Harry hoped that without Tom, people would forget about him, but no — couples after couples kept approaching, introducing themselves and flattering him until he felt as green as his cloak. Even the people who had stared at him in outrage were trying to play nice now. Harry really had no idea what Tom had done or promised to explain all this, and he didn't appreciate the results. All the attention began to hurt his head, making him check his old Muggle watch with the increasing despair.

At some point, Lestrange approached him, giving him a smile so forced that Harry almost cringed from the second-hand embarrassment.

"Are you enjoying the party, professor?"

"Not really," he replied. Lestrange spluttered, looking so wrong-footed that it was almost funny.

"Why?" he asked, and the sudden alarm in his voice quickly reduced Harry's desire to broadcast his frustration. "Is something not to your liking? If there is anything I could to make you more comfortable—"

"Nothing other than asking all the guests to leave," Harry assured him. Lestrange didn't appear comforted. He threw a hesitant look at the crowd, as if genuinely contemplating to tell them to leave, and Harry nearly smacked himself for his complete lack of sound judgment.

Lestrange was besotted with Tom. He was hopelessly loyal to him, and since his family was hosting this party, of course he'd worry about displeasing Harry.

"I'm sorry," Harry said half-sincerely. "I was joking. The party is beautiful. And you have a beautiful house. I just don't enjoy everyone staring at me and seeing me as Tom's extension."

Once again, he must have done something wrong because now Lestrange looked offended instead of guilty.

"Of course they are staring," he almost snapped at him. "You are wearing Tom's cloak."

"It's my cloak," Harry retorted. "Tom gave it to me for Christmas."

Two purple spots appeared on Lestrange's face, and the first twitches of concern spasmed through Harry's body.

"What is it?" he asked, but only got a glare in response. Then Lestrange's expression went blank, his eyes darting towards Harry's hands and back.

"Did you hurt your hand?" he wondered, with strange false innocence in his voice.

"What? Oh, this," Harry nodded at the thin scar on his palm. "Tom and I had a play fight. Apparently, I crashed into our Christmas tree and broke one of the toys by accident."

He could barely remember this happening. The image of their evening shone clearly in his mind, but what happened after the film was a blur. Tom said they'd both grabbed the same glass bulb as they were fighting and it broke when they were trying to pull it away from each other, but Harry could only recall some flashes of it. He must have been more tired than he'd thought. Now he and Tom had similar cuts, something Tom wouldn't stop complaining about.

"Apparently?" Lestrange drawled. "How is that? You are not sure?"

Annoyance stirred, gnashing its teeth, reminding him of why exactly Lestrange didn't like him, and Harry found himself struggling to remember that this was his student he was talking to.

"I was tired," he said shortly. "It was very late. I don't remember the details."

"How strange. Did Tom break a toy as well? Because I could swear he has the same—" Lestrange paused suddenly, going purple again.

"If you are that interested in this, then yes, Tom and I broke it together," Harry snapped. "What's it to you?"

Lestrange bit into his lower lip, chewing on it so harshly that it was a wonder it didn't start bleeding immediately. It looked like some inner battle went on in him, with him growing angrier the longer he stayed silent. Finally, he sought out Tom with his gaze, making sure he was still preoccupied elsewhere, and then stepped closer to Harry.

"The cloak," Lestrange hissed. "Your cloak. Do you know what it means?"

"It's a gift," Harry repeated through gritted teeth. Something about Lestrange was riling him up, making him irrationally frustrated. "It's something Tom spent a lot of time on to make me happy. What else is it supposed to mean?"

"How obtuse could you possibly be!" Despite his aggravation, Lestrange managed to spit his fire quietly. "It's not just any cloak. It's the Slytherin's Consort cloak. This tradition is as ancient as the Slytherin bloodline itself — everyone knows it. You are here as Tom's partner, and instead of acting like one, you're embarrassing him!"

Harry felt his face breaking in shock. He took a step back, too stunned to even think about masking his reaction as his heart skipped some vital beats before erupting in a panicked pounding.

Accidentally betraying Tom's feelings to Oakwood and witnessing her reaction felt mortifying, but this? This was obliterating. Harry wished for the ground to open and swallow him whole, together with this stupid cloak — its weight had suddenly become crushing.

Maybe it wasn't true. Maybe Lestrange was playing a joke on him.

But the desperate justifications of his mind were futile — even in Harry's current horrified state, he was capable of recognising it. The way everyone stared, the amount of efforts Tom, who hated giving gifts unless they served a specific purpose, had invested into creating this cloak… it all spoke of the truth.

Tom had created a way to mark him. To announce something Harry had never promised him in front of the rest of the world, in front of his students. And maybe it was largely a pureblood part, but it didn't make things better. It didn't lessen the blow of betrayal and the humiliation that was now burning through his lungs, eating away at any air they managed to drag in.

Harry's first impulse was to tear the cloak off and throw it away. To burn it. Better yet, to give it to Lestrange, if he thought it was such an honour.

He was an adult. Tom was turning sixteen tonight. How could all these people not see anything wrong with it?

Then again, they bowed to a sixteen-year-old like he was their deity, so maybe it wasn't surprising. And it's not like most purebloods ever held socially sane views.

Fury clawed at his chest, demanding a violent release, and his body shook with an effort to subdue it. Harry's eyes found Tom in the crowd, but even before their gazes met, he was hit by the abrupt realisation that he wouldn't let his anger blow up. Not publicly.

This was Tom's birthday, and the New Year, and Tom had clearly spent years on cultivating respect from everyone present. Humiliating him now wasn't something Harry could do.

'He humiliated you first,' his mind hissed, trying to flood him with more and more rage. 'This is exactly what he hoped for. He knew you wouldn't cause a scene publicly. He counted on it, this is manipulation, you can't fall for it.'

But I love him, Harry thought dully. He did. And wasn't it the ultimate problem? How could he humiliate the person he loved by rejecting him in front of everyone?

Tom frowned a little, mouthing, 'Are you all right?' to him. He didn't deserve a response, so Harry turned away, moving towards the exit almost blindly. He could hear Lestrange muttering anxiously, probably regretting his outburst, but right now, Harry was too fed up with the lies, the secrets, and misdirections — all aimed against him.

Tom could stay and continue to bask in his own superiority. He was going home. He'd had enough embarrassment for one evening.

As soon as Harry entered their house, he threw the cloak onto the nearest armchair and locked himself in his room, sick to his stomach. Now that he was away from the awful party, his fury, hurt, and disbelief gained even more volume, thrusting horrifying images into his mind.

These people would undoubtedly discuss him. They would make comments on his relationship with Tom, on his behaviour, his discomfort, and worst of all, it would all find a way into Hogwarts.

What was the point of Tom erasing Oakwood's memory or convincing her to stay silent when he went ahead and flaunted his intentions publicly? What could possibly be going on in his mind?

The crack of apparition interrupted Harry's helpless rage for a moment, before it spurted with a double force.

Tom had chosen to follow him home. Good. Now they could really talk.

"Harry?" Tom unlocked his room without a second thought, stepping inside. "Why did you leave without warning me? Did someone upset you?"

This concern only infuriated him further, setting his already frayed nerves on fire. Harry let out a harsh laugh and clenched his hands into fists.

"Someone did," he said sarcastically. Tom's expression changed from confused to thunderous in an instant.

"Who?" he demanded. The darkness of his eyes promised retribution, and Harry wished it could be directed at Tom himself. But no, Tom would never admit he was wrong. He genuinely believed the decisions he made, no matter how despicable they were.

"You," Harry replied. This time, his empathy for Tom didn't lessen his wrath. "By making a fool out of me. You humiliated me. Do you even understand by how much?"

Tom stepped closer, folding his hands behind his back. A thin smile emerged on his lips.

"Do you mean the cloak?" he drawled. "If you do, then you misunderstood everything."

"Misunderstood?" Harry hissed. Tom's blasé attitude boiled his blood, making him see red. "Which part did I misunderstand? That you gave me a cloak and never mentioned what it means? That you allowed me to visit a party in it, making everyone think you and I— what in the bloody hell does a consort even mean? A fiancé? A partner?"

"An intended," Tom corrected him. He still looked calm and careless, as if he found Harry's anger soothing. "But like I said, you're overreacting. That was just a formality I needed to get out of the way, it doesn't change anything. You said we will discuss it again when I graduate, and we will. I'm not opposing your terms."

The calm rationality in his voice was extremely convincing, and if Harry wasn't involved in this personally, he might have believed him.

"Very funny," he spat out. "And here I was, thinking that you have just presented me to a bunch of purebloods as your consort. Purebloods whose children I teach, and who are going to talk. The whole school is going to know what happened!"

"It won't," Tom assured him. He was still watching him indulgently, and Harry's hands itched with the need to shake him until he lost this infuriating look. "I give you my word. You can trust people in that house. We have an agreement with them, and they will never dream of breaking it."

"Really? Then what was the point of this performance? You destroyed every boundary I've set — how can you call it anything other than betrayal!" Against his better judgment, Harry shouted the last words, and this finally made Tom wince.

"I'll explain," he hastened to say, taking another step in his direction. Harry tensed, wary. Tom's posture was comforting, but it meant nothing. It would be just like him to hurl an Obliviate at him when Harry was least expecting it. "My intention was never to overstep your boundaries. I was merely solidifying your promise and protecting us from any unfortunate misunderstandings."

"Start making sense or get out," Harry told him coldly. Tom frowned, a startled unsettled look briefly crossing his features. What, he didn't see it coming? Had Harry really been letting him get away with so much that the idea of him being genuinely angry didn't compute?

"All right," Tom replied, his own coldness touching his words. "After Beth's death, you made me a promise. You said that until I lose interest in staying with you, you won't be making any new relevant connections."

"That's—" Harry paused, trying to remember that conversation, ignoring the guilty spasm that never failed to seize his stomach at the mention of those dark months. "I'm not sure I ever told you this." He'd been thinking about it, that's for certain, but had he made a promise like this explicitly? Would he do that?

"You implied this much," Tom shrugged. "You said that I have always been more important to you and that you are worried how one day, I will no longer care about staying with you. I made a logical conclusion. If I'm more important, then you don't need anyone else, not as long as you have me."

Reaching this conclusion required some substantial mental gymnastics. For now, Harry could just stand there and gape, wondering how Tom could treat something he'd practically made up as a sacred truth.

On the other hand, this promise was true, even if he'd never stated it openly. This was what he'd told himself in those empty months of ignoring Tom and trying to stitch his world back together. Tom giving these thoughts a voice didn't make them untrue.

"See? You are starting to understand," Tom sent him a fleeting smile. Maybe he meant it to be reassuring, but all Harry saw was a veiled threat.

As if in response to his thoughts, Tom's smile widened, gaining sharper edges. There was less fake calmness and more deadly menace in it now, and Harry couldn't deny a cold wave of unease that swept through him at this sight.

"The thing is," Tom said conversationally, "either you will be with me or you will be with no one. So in the event you decide to reject me after I graduate, you will still never have someone else to share your life with. I wanted my circle of people to know that. It serves two purposes at once: on the one hand, they will stay away from you. On the other hand, they will stay away from me. I have no desire to waste my time on rejecting hordes of hopeful heirs and heiresses on a daily basis. After this one appearance on Lestranges' party, they will know I'm taken. Do you understand now?"

Speechlessly, Harry stared at him, incapable of finding any appropriate words. Hundreds of chaotic emotions twisted inside, with the two most prominent ones being frustration and absurd possessiveness.

Even if he'd made this promise, it would have been out of his willingness to put his love for Tom above his inevitable loneliness. The way Tom described it sounded like an obligation, something self-evident, something to be taken for granted, and it was almost more infuriating than the whole incident with the cloak.

But knowing that wearing it marked Tom as Harry's as much as it marked Harry as Tom's… This sent a thrum of satisfaction through his blood, a primitive, gleeful kind of it that growled "mine" and refused to consider any other alternatives.

Still, he had to ask.

"What if you don't want to be "taken" one day?" Harry wondered carefully. "What if you become interested in someone else?"

Tom dared to roll his eyes at him.

"I told you, that's not going to happen," he drawled. "I've already made my choice. You might not appreciate my announcing it at this stage or the manner in which I did it, but there was no other option. Being my consort doesn't have to mean anything more than what you already are. Let others know it — it will save us from the potential conflicts."

"Conflicts," Harry repeated.

"Yes." Tom crossed the last bit of distance between them, touching his lapels playfully. "This way, I won't have to hunt anyone down to discourage them from pursuing you. You won't have to terrify students interested in me by yelling at them. Poor Lestrange still hasn't gotten over his shock — he was the first and the last person you actually yelled at in the classroom."

Harry choked on his indignant protests, flushing from mortification.

"Why would you mention that!" he moaned, stepping back and closing his face with his hands. He'd already forgotten his reaction to Tom's short-lived attempt to make him jealous. "Don't ever speak of it again. It never happened."

"Oh, but it did," Tom purred, following him and pushing him against the desk. Harry swatted at him, pulling away from his grip and moving at a safer distance. "If you want me to pretend it didn't, then I want something in return."

Had Harry been on the verge of exploding from rage a minute ago? Anger felt like a shadow now, fading into the farthest background. Amusement and impressed disbelief at the level of Tom's arrogance took the front stage, pushing a stupid smile onto his lips.

"I know what you'll get in return," he uttered. "I will agree to ignore your behaviour this night and the way you embarrassed me."

Tom pouted.

"I thought you could do it as a gift for my birthday?" he asked hopefully.

"I already gave you one, don't be so greedy!"

Tom put on the most miserable expression he was capable of, and Harry snorted, shaking his head. Gradually, the mirth began to fade, too, until the balance between annoyance and affection was restored.

"I still don't appreciate what you've done," he said. "Giving me that cloak, then not warning me about what it meant. Assuming that if I reject you, I'll never look for a romantic partner—"

"But you won't," Tom interrupted him sharply, his playful undertones disappearing under the layers of steel and deadliness. "You promised. I won't let you."

Harry's inherent stubbornness rebelled instantly, infusing his blood with persistent flows of adrenaline. He squared his shoulders, craning his neck and staring at Tom intently.

"Let's make something clear," he said. "I didn't make such a promise. You taking my words and molding them into the version you like is not the same as me promising anything."

Tom bared his teeth in a silent snarl, but Harry ignored him.

"Secondly," he continued resolutely, "you won't dictate the rest of my life. I give you more control over it than I ever willingly gave anyone else, but I never agreed and will never agree to be enslaved by you. Yes, I don't have anyone else right now, be that a friend or someone I'd be interested in romantically. But this might change in the future."

Tom's magic flared up, rushing at him with deadly force but coming to a stop an inch away, hovering close instead of colliding. Harry didn't even blink, holding the black glare aimed at him steadily.

"I don't form close bonds with others because I feel no need for them," he said. "I'm happy with having just you. But if you graduate and nothing happens, one day, I might want something else. And you will have to respect that decision. I hope you don't expect me to be indefinitely intimidated by the possibility of you harming every person who approaches me — that will get old soon enough. Don't think I will feel too cowed to develop other relationships: if I want it, it will happen. If I don't, then nothing will change for us."

The danger didn't pass — it only intensified. Tom's expression grew frightening as his magic broke out in a chorus of infuriated hisses. It felt hot, like it was burning, waiting to engulf him, and if it wasn't for Harry's own darker mood, he would have taken a moment to admire the power Tom was emanating so effortlessly.

"You will always mean most to me," he softened his voice deliberately, sensing how eagerly the magic around him reacted to it. "But it doesn't mean I will never want anything else. I can have other people in my life while loving you with the same abandon I do now. I'm not saying I'll ever need them, but if I do, we will find a way to deal with it together. You are too old to throw tantrums just because you can't get what you want in the exact way you want it. You are about to be an adult — start acting like it."

For a moment, Harry feared that he might have overdone it. Tom's eyes bored into his, black and lethal in their calculating resolution. But all of a sudden, his posture relaxed. The hissing magic snapped back, disintegrating in what seemed like a second, and a peaceful, somewhat resigned smile returned to his lips.

"You are right," he said. "That might have been insensitive of me. I don't necessarily agree with what you said, but I understand. I promise I will consider it."

That was… odd. And yet a million times better than he expected. His tension slipped away, and Harry risked smiling back.

"Thank you," he replied. "That's good enough for now."

Tom continued to watch him, his head tilted, his eyes largely inscrutable. Harry knew what had to be happening inside him, the conflict between what he wanted and what he knew was right, and the fact that Tom was making an effort to stay composed was the biggest evidence of his growth. The happiness this brought him was so bright that it chased away any remaining wariness, and Harry lowered himself into the armchair, finally allowing calmness to wash through him.

"I'm not sure you need to hear it," he teased, "your head is already big enough, but even though I hated the way you got me to wear it, I still love the cloak itself. It's a work of art."

Tom brightened, walking to him and trying to smooth his hair down gently.

"Does it mean that you're going to wear it?" he wondered silkily. Harry shrugged.

"Maybe," he said. "Depending on the company."

This was the right answer because Tom's eyes became lighter. He bent down, pressing a soft kiss to Harry's chin.

"Fine," he murmured. "But that's irrelevant now. Since you decided to leave the party early, would you like to have supper with me?"

Harry did.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The rest of the holidays passed quickly — more quickly than Harry would have preferred. For the most part, he and Tom lazed around the house, cooking, watching films, and competing by using nonverbal magic on the banks of snow surrounding their garden. At first, they were exploding them, checking whose explosion did more damage. Then the terms grew trickier: they had to make snow figures without moving their hands, relying solely on their inherent magical power.

Harry lost every time. Predictably, Tom used every opportunity to show off: as Harry was looking at the floating Patronus-like snow dragon he'd conjured, pleased with himself, Tom created a whole performance. There were two elevated thrones with two people sitting on them, surrounded by five other figures. They were spread in a dance below, bowing and then whirling in a series of complex movements. It was ridiculously pompous and jaw-droppingly impressive, so Harry watched with his mouth hanging open, trying to understand how Tom could possibly maintain control over so many apparitions at once.

Tom was bursting with smugness, but unlike the arrogant superiority he'd demonstrated in the previous years, somehow, this one seemed softer. It felt like he was happy because of Harry's reaction, not from winning, which was a first. The beautiful performance had already conquered Harry's attention, but it was Tom's behaviour that melted his heart. He didn't recall the last time he felt just as happy.

In the remaining days, they travelled to several war-ravaged Muggle places. Tom was helping diligently, with patience that felt surprising coming from him. Then Harry decided to visit the orphanage and check on the baby they'd left there a year ago. This was the first time Tom's flawlessness wavered, with disgust and hostility overtaking his features. But to his credit, he hastily resumed self-control, and he continued to maintain it during the entire hour they spent among Muggles.

The boy was named Marcus, and he was just as sweet as innocent as Harry remembered. For those sixty minutes he played with him, he forgot about every concern he had. The simplicity and the happiness had a bittersweet taste, bringing memories of the evenings he'd spent with Ron and Hermione into his mind. They had been quiet and meaningless, but endlessly warm, and when Harry closed his eyes now, he could almost deceive himself into thinking that they were here, too. Marcus' delight at seeing the new toys was infectious, and the warmth that this image sent to Harry's chest was soft and gentle, wrapping him in a comforting blanket of carefree lightness.

Then he raised his head to look at Tom, who was standing next to the window expressionlessly. The cold morning sun sifted through his hair, making it flicker with gold, and emotions that crashed into Harry at this sight were like nothing he'd ever experienced.

Marcus was a candle flame, something fragile and warm, something Harry wanted to protect. But Tom was a sun, blinding to the point of being uncomfortable, yet the closer you saw it, the more mesmerising it became. The joy and lightness from spending time with Marcus contrasted sharply against the brilliance of happiness that shone in him after one look at Tom. If there was a way to combine them…

But it was an impossible idea. No matter how deeply Harry wanted to help, Marcus would have to stay at the orphanage, and he had a life with Tom to go back to, with all its ups and downs.

Tom was moody when they returned home, but after Harry's teasing and cajoling, he relented, and a smile graced his lips again.

They left for Hogwarts the next day, and though Harry longed for the cosiness of their home, he was glad to see his students and resume his lessons. Rivers was still gone, Oakwood smiled at him in greeting, and like Tom had promised, there were no rumours about the Lestranges' party. Lestrange himself was pale and sullen, and he didn't risk looking at Harry, not even during lessons.

"Did you curse him?" Harry asked suspiciously. Tom shook his head.

"There are other means of punishment," he replied.

"He's your friend. You don't punish friends."

"What are you talking about?" a frown darkened Tom's face. "If they are guilty, of course you do."

His brain paused for a moment, and Harry gaped, too stunned to make a comment.

"You can't be serious," he said finally, trying to keep his voice reasonable. "Friendship is built on mutual attachment and trust. If there is a problem, you solve it together. You don't punish anyone!"

"But you punish me, don't you?" Tom narrowed his eyes. "Provided that your system is still relevant."

"It is. But that's an exception. In normal situations—"

"There can be no exceptions in matters like this. Either you can punish everyone or you can punish no one."

Harry fell silent, looking for useful words but finding nothing. In a twisted way, Tom's convictions made sense, even though they had little to do with how things functioned in reality. What could he say to him, that only children could be punished, and only by their guardians? Tom was no longer a child. This statement would also open another round of questions and refutations, and Harry wasn't sure he was well equipped with rationalising this at the moment.

That night, he woke up from the feeling of someone joining him in his bed. His last spell-enhanced password must have been cracked already. It survived two whole days — a definite progress.

"What are you doing here?" Harry muttered sleepily. A half of him was already drifting off, too used to Tom sneaking into his bed whenever he could. Another half was prepared to follow, but something kept it awake. There was no response to his question, no words, no anything — only Tom's heavy breathing.

Worry shot through him like a lightning, and Harry sat up abruptly, trying to adjust to the darkness.

Tom looked flushed. Tiny tremors were twisting his body, and his eyes glowed with fervency that bordered on wildness.

"I almost did it," he whispered. His words were shaky, too, but it was not fear lacing his voice — it was excitement. "I almost killed him. I was so close — if I'd just stretched my hand a little farther, I would have been able to push him. And he would be dead now."

The remnants of sleepiness scattered, leaving horror in their wake.

"What are you talking about?" Harry whispered back. Tom grabbed his hand, pressing it to his face tightly. His skin felt almost uncomfortably hot.

"I had a plan," he blurted out, speaking so quickly that it was hard to catch everything. "Initially, I wanted him to kill himself. This would be new and no one would look into it. He was being bullied every day, I made sure of it, and I knew he was weak enough to crumble. But I didn't take these holidays into account. He went home and he returned stronger. I didn't want to wait again, so I invited him to the Astronomy Tower tonight. I was inches from pushing him — he was standing so close to that edge… The flight would be so long, and with the snowstorm, only I would hear his scream," Tom grinned, and this grin was crazy in its exhilaration. "I wanted it so much, I thought my magic would push him if I didn't. It was—" he paused, gesticulating with his free hand, as if trying to show how amazing it felt. The fire in his eyes intensified, glazing them over; his lips parted to let a soft gasp pass.

He looked almost as intoxicated as he did when Harry stood close to him. When their lips were inches apart.

It was sickening.

Some consciousness must have returned to Tom as their gazes met. Seeing the look on Harry's face, he sighed and shook his head in frustration.

"You don't understand," he said more loudly. "I almost felt life pulsating through him. It belonged to me in that moment, I was the one who decided whether it would continue or not. If he'd fallen, it would have been mesmerising. His body would be frozen when they found him in the morning — I wanted to see if—"

"Shut up!" Harry cried out. "Shut up, right now! Why are you telling me this? Where is it coming from? Who was it, what did he do, what happened?"

"Oh," Tom blinked, probably realising how incoherently he sounded. "It's Richards. I never liked him, but since he put you in danger, I couldn't ignore it any longer. I wanted him gone."

"Richards?" It sounded so impossible that for a moment, Harry thought he'd misheard. "Michael Richards? But that was twice, and it was months ago! And the first time didn't even count!"

"Nothing counts for you," Tom's lips twitched in a wry smile. "But it does for me. That spoon I made for you was a promise. I will always fulfil it."

Despair clawed at his throat, making breathing impossible. Harry tore his hand from Tom's grasp, digging his fingers into his hair restlessly.

"You made another promise to me," he muttered dully. "You promised that you would never—"

"I fulfilled that, too, didn't I?" Tom frowned. "Richards is alive and well. I stopped, again, like I knew you would have wanted me to. But you will never understand how difficult it was."

Harry wanted to say something, but dejection weighted on him heavily, crushing every bit of happiness he'd accumulated over the holidays.

"You sound crazy," he growled finally. "Do you understand this? What Richards did was a prank! It was ages ago, I already forgot about it! What's next, you'll go after someone who hits me with a spell during the class duel?"

"No one ever hits you in a duel, you're too fast," Tom snorted. "Besides, you're missing the point."

"Which one? Which point could I possibly be missing?"

"I stopped," Tom repeated. Something wild and excited blossomed in his eyes, sending a flicker of wariness through Harry's mind.

He'd already seen this determined, raw look before. It was just before—

"I'll choose my reward myself this time," Tom told him, and before Harry could react, he lurched forward, toppling him over and straddling him. Then Tom kissed him, open and passionate, and unlike the last time, he was devouring rather than tasting. His lips were hot, demanding, and enthusiastic, and his hands curved around Harry's face, holding him in place.

Harry's thoughts scattered under the force of shock, and he let out a protesting sound. Tom's grip on him tightened instantly as his fingers turned into claws, suppressing his every movement.

He could push him away. Of course he could — Tom was strong, but when it came to physical altercations, Harry would win. Tom relied on magic too much.

But this was the reward, and he'd promised to grant Tom's wishes whatever they were… Did a kiss mean going too far? Should they have clarified it?

Perhaps, but they hadn't. It meant that technically, he had to go along with it, no matter how confused and strange this was making him feel.

This decision brought relief with it, so for at least one short moment, Harry allowed himself to sink into the kiss, to map out the shape of Tom's lips with his own hesitantly, to succumb to the heat and the desire. His lungs grew tight, turning his breaths into shuddery gasps that burned his throat, and when Tom's tongue ran across his lower and then upper lip, he parted them, letting it slip inside.

A strange forgotten tingle spread through Harry's skin, covering it with goosebumps. Tom twisted on top of him: he tilted his head further back, and the kiss became deeper, more frantic, sending thrills of want to every part of Harry's body. But even under this cloud of pleasure and confusion, there was a persistent seed of doubts. As his stomach curled in delight, as his thoughts darkened in drunk anticipation, this seed suddenly gained a more physical shape, shaking him out of his haze.

Sixteen. Too early. Too wrong.

Harry jerked his head away forcefully, prepared to fight if he had to, but this time, Tom let him. His pupils were abnormally wide, his breaths mingling with Harry's. Raising his shaking hands, he cradled Harry's head again. His lips descended onto his chin, sliding down his neck, tracing its lines in soft, reverent caresses.

"I think that met the criteria for the reward," Harry said hoarsely. Tom hummed, dropping another kiss onto the hollow of his neck.

"It did," he agreed.

"So get off me before I use force. Must you always be so greedy?"

Tom's joyful laughter scorched his skin. It already felt feverish, so Harry finally pushed him off, hoping that this would sober him up.

"Did you actually almost hurt Richards?" he asked. "Or was it a ruse to get me to kiss you?"

"Why not both?" Tom stretched across the bed, watching him with soft eyes. Darkness began to spread its poison again, killing off the remnants of Harry's other feelings, but before it swallowed everything, Tom brushed his hair to the side, chasing it away.

"Don't worry," he murmured. "I promise that Richards is safe, just like the rest of students. I was starting to feel restless, but it's fine now."

"It is?" Harry squinted, wishing he had his glasses on. In his current state, he couldn't trust himself to read Tom's range of expressions correctly.

"At least until graduation," Tom teased him. This wasn't funny, and yet the soothing flow of relief calmed Harry's anxiety, washing away his fears.

Tom was still impulsive and dangerous. Bullying Richards in the hope that he would kill himself? Luring him to the Astronomy Tower to push him down? It was monstrous, but at the same time, it didn't end with disaster. Marcus, Myrtle, Richards — Tom had come close to crossing the boundaries irrevocably with them, but every time, he made himself stop.

Harry's system was working, despite the occasional flaws. Tom was trying. Whatever toxicity was causing his dark impulses, he overcame them time and time again, and that was exactly what Harry hoped to achieve.

"You will stop this bullying nonsense," he warned. Why had he not noticed Richards's emotional state? So maybe his eyes and attention belonged to Tom to an unhealthy degree, but why had other professors ignored it? "I'll be watching."

"There is no need for that. Everyone will leave him alone, I give you my word."

"Alone as in, not bullying him? Or alone meaning isolating him and pretending he doesn't exist?"

Tom laughed again, a note of pleased surprise underlying it.

"Who would have thought that you speak Slytherin so well?" he drawled. Harry bit on his tongue to stop himself from saying what he wanted. "Like I said, don't worry. I'll take care of everything in the way you'd approve."

That was good enough. It had to be.

"I believe you," Harry uttered. "But I'll still be watching."

Tom shrugged, settling under his blanket. With an annoyed sound, Harry pulled it off him.

"Not tonight," he said. "You got what you wanted, now you can leave."

He was expecting a fight, but Tom just shrugged again.

"If you insist," he stood up obediently, smoothing his clothes. "Have a good night."

Such capitulation was extremely strange, but no matter how hard Harry racked his brain, he couldn't find a believable explanation. Unless it was of physical nature — and if it was, he didn't want to know anything about it.

When the door behind Tom closed, Harry tried to go back to sleep. Exhaustion crawled into his every cell, injecting them with tons of iron, but that still wasn't enough to make him keep his eyes closed. His thoughts revolved around Richards, Tom, and the kiss, stirring slow waves of insecurity and confusion.

The tiredness hindered him from making sense of everything that happened, so Harry kept lying motionlessly almost until the morning, held captive by his own masochistic brain.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The kiss haunted him. Whether Harry was teaching, or having dinner, or talking to others, it flickered in the background, waiting for a moment to attack and overwhelm him with thoughts and memories.

Somehow, it was different. Harry had managed to discard the first kiss quickly, but this one lingered, making him return to it obsessively. Maybe it was because he had returned it? He had no other choice — Tom's reward was deserved, but still…

The only thing worrying him more than his own reaction was the idea of Dumbledore somehow learning about it. It was impossible, he understood it, but paranoia continued its stubborn growth, so Harry found himself practising Occlumency more and more often.

He had perfected his skills over the years, but he'd never become strong enough to fight off a possible attack by a wizard of Dumbledore's level. Now, he was determined to change it.

Staying true to his promise, Harry watched Richards, but to his relief, nothing seemed amiss. The boy was smiling like nothing happened, and if anything, he looked happier than Harry ever remembered seeing him.

Another pleasant discovery was Alice. She'd never shown any impressive skills in Defence Against the Dark Arts, but over the months following her release from Saint Mungo's, something changed. She worked hard now: her essays exceeded the assigned word count, and when she duelled, she used spells that only advanced students were aware of.

Something new appeared in her attitude to him, too. She seemed star-struck, even though it was displayed in a quiet, timid way. At least several times per week, she came into his office for consultations, fidgeting and blushing at random moments. But she was dedicated and stubborn, and Harry could only welcome such a change.

No one else seemed so obviously interested in him, so for a while, Harry paid increased attention to Tom, monitoring his reactions. The last thing he wanted was the repeat of what happened with Myrtle. But his worries appeared to be misplaced this time: Tom had definitely noticed Alice's appreciation, but if anything, he treated it indulgently.

Things changed abruptly in March. Alice didn't come for the usual consultation, and when Harry saw her in class, her attention was elsewhere. It took him a while, but eventually, he realised that her focus belonged wholly to the Slytherin side of the classroom. In particular, her eyes refused to leave Avery.

"Did Avery get an admirer?" Harry wondered. This was good news, but it still took him aback. What did quiet and hard-working Alice had in common with Avery, whose attention was almost always on Tom?

"He did," Tom rolled his eyes amiably. "That girl keeps following him around. She's obsessed. Why, are you worried that your novelty wore off?"

"Yes, I'm losing sleep over it," it was Harry's turn to roll his eyes. "I just wish her new interest didn't affect her studies. She was making progress."

"Forget about her," Tom's eyes slipped towards his lips, staying there. "If you are losing sleep, I hope it's over me."

"You wish," Harry snorted. When Tom's eyes still didn't move from his mouth, he clicked his fingers right in front of his face. "Snap out of it, will you? And learn some patience."

The months flew by. March melted into April, April warmed into May, and May heated into summer, flourishing with many opportunities for holiday destinations. This time, Harry and Tom both settled on a small island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, renting a small house right on the beach. The water was cold, but the sun was scorching, so they spent most of their days sunbathing and coming up with ways to force each other into swimming.

One evening, they felt too warm and comfortable lying outside to go back to the house. The sand retained its warmth, so they stayed right there, watching the star-lit sky, sometimes talking, sometimes enjoying the silence.

"I want to go flying," Harry said suddenly. The yearning for his broom gripped him with unexpected intensity, making his heart quiver at the thought of dashing through the night air, having the wind crash into his face with cool and violent urgency.

What he'd give to be able to play Quidditch again.

"Flying?" Tom made a rude noise. "On a broom?"

"How else do you want me to fly?"

"Not like this, that's for certain," giving an exaggerated shudder, Tom turned his head to him. "I will never understand your passion for this ridiculous sport. How can you trust some artefact so much? It can stop reacting to your magic at any point, and you'll drop from a huge height. "

"There are so many things wrong with your statement that I'm not even sure where to start," Harry informed him hotly. "First, the broom cannot stop reacting to magic as long as I have this magic. Just like the quill can't fall if you levitate it. Second, I had repeated experiences with falling from my broom, and as you can see, neither of them ended with my death. And finally, how can you not like flying?!"

At Tom's ringing laughter, Harry felt like Ron, who could never control his desperate love for Chudley Cannons. Snorting quietly, he turned to his left, just as Tom propped his head on his hand, gazing at him, a smile lingering on his thin lips.

"It's not that I hate flying," he explained patiently. "It's that I don't trust the brooms and the process itself. It's dangerous for a human to be so high up in the air. The brooms aren't always obedient, and if you fall—"

"I did."

"Yes, you've already said that," a shadow crossed Tom's face. "Something always happens to you. I often feel like there is some force out there that's waiting to snatch you from me."

The dark solemnity of these words made Harry reach out, brushing Tom's hair from his face lovingly.

"Everything will be fine," he murmured. "Nothing can happen to me."

"Maybe it can," Tom disagreed quietly. "But it won't. I'll make sure of that."

'You'll never have to worry about that,' Harry wanted to tell him. But then he'd have to explain, and this wasn't something he was ready to do. Not now. Not until Tom found his way in this world and Harry was certain that he wouldn't deviate from the set course.

The next several minutes passed in silence. Tom continued to watch him, his eyes examining his every feature, committing them to memory — as if he hadn't done it a thousand times by now.

"Do you want to go flying with me?" Harry asked out of blue. He hadn't known he was going to do that until the question was out, and then he was treated to Tom's stunned, wide-eyed stare.

"Flying with you?" he echoed. "Now?"

"You might not trust the broom, but would you trust me?"

Tom hesitated, clearly torn. There was a strange longing on his face, but it was overshadowed by wariness.

"You did say you fell down repeatedly," he hedged. It wasn't a "no", and Harry sat up abruptly, his pulse jumping in excitement.

"There were outside forces that led to this, I didn't fall by myself," he denied. "Come on. You won't regret it. I promise that the broom will listen to me — you know I'm good at flying."

He stood up, offering his hand to Tom, and Tom took it hesitantly,

"I don't think… I mean…" he paused, stumbling over words so uncertainly that Harry wanted to chortle from amusement.

"What?" he urged him when nothing else followed.

"I don't really like the heights," Tom muttered, kicking at the sand. His voice was dejected, as if he was confessing his biggest weakness. "Even if it is safe."

"Oh." Harry's amusement waned, replaced by compassion. He clenched Tom's hand in his reassuringly, offering him an encouraging smile. "It's okay. You can just watch if you want — or wait for me inside."

His acceptance seemed to relax Tom. The uncomfortable grimace evaporated from his face, and he looked up, his expression so light and warm that in Harry's biased mind, it looked brighter than any star.

"No," Tom said decidedly. "I want to fly with you."

The excitement flared again, and Harry had to fight the childish desire to jump in anticipation. Still, he had to ask.

"Are you sure? If you know this will make you uncomfortable—"

"No," Tom uttered again. "I think that with you, it won't be uncomfortable. You are right. I do trust you."

Harry didn't need to be told twice. Beaming, he rushed to the house, summoned the broom, and ran back out, hoping that Tom hadn't changed his mind yet.

He hadn't. He was paler than usual, his eyes wide and uncertain, but he didn't back down.

"Mount it first. Move closer to the front — I'll sit behind you."

Tom moved to comply before pausing, throwing a distrustful stare at the broom.

"Don't worry about it, it won't move," Harry gripped the back of the broom. "See? I'm holding it."

With a stifled nod, Tom climbed it, and his hands instantly went white as they clutched the shaft. Harry jumped behind, wrapping one hand around his waist and putting the other on the broom.

"Ready?" he asked. Tom muttered something unintelligible. His shoulders were stiff as a board, and the waves of tension he was emanating were almost physically palpable.

With a small smile, Harry pressed him close, dropping a small kiss behind his ear. Instantly, Tom's body loosened up, melting under his touch, and Harry kissed his hair, hoping to secure his success.

"Ready?" he repeated.

"Yes," Tom said dazedly. Without waiting, Harry pushed his feet off the ground and directed the broom towards the sky. The wind hit them immediately, swallowing Tom's loud gasp, and Harry laughed, freely and unabashedly. The air was colder at such distance, but it was also breathtakingly beautiful. The clouds stretched right above them, dark grey and majestic, and from where Harry and Tom were flying, they could see the silvery moonlight flowing from one fluffy island to another.

"Isn't this incredible?" Harry shouted. He felt Tom's body move as he sighed before leaning against him comfortably. He said nothing, and Harry slowed down, stopping the broom near one of the clouds.

"All right?" he asked. Now that the wind wasn't slashing the air around him, he could afford to speak normally.

"Yes," Tom replied. His fingers let go of the shaft, wrapping around Harry's hand instead.

"Do you want me to keep moving or would you like to look around?"

Tom's grip on his fingers tightened. His head nestled in the crook of Harry's shoulder, and he looked around slowly. Harry tried to crane his neck to get a glimpse of his face. Tom's eyes were no longer wary: they were curious and unveiled, and he regarded the moonlit clouds with an expression of genuine fascination.

"It is incredible," he murmured belatedly. "It's like an entirely different world. And no one exists here — just us."

A glow of joy flickered into existence, lightening every shadowed part of his mind. Harry grinned, suddenly feeling absurdly happy. Tom was right, it did feel like another world. A world with no expectations, no dangers, and no possibilities of making a mistake.

"Let's fly," Tom decided. "But not as fast as before. I want to be able to see everything more clearly."

Harry nodded and sent the broom forwards unhurriedly. At some point, Tom's grasp relaxed and turned into a caress. His fingers stroked Harry's lightly, again and again, and Harry buried his nose in Tom's hair, inhaling its soothing scent.

Time stopped. There was no one but them.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

They were still a little high when they returned to their house. After enjoying their tea and several silly jokes, they went to bed. Tom didn't ask for permission to spend this night in his room, but after the amazing flight they'd just shared, Harry didn't have the heart to make him leave.

Not that he'd made him leave on all previous nights. Tom seemed to move into his room on the first day, and now everything here was cluttered with his things.

Annoyed with himself but feeling too happy to care, Harry went to the table, looking for his Occlumency book. It wasn't in any visible spot, so with a grumble, he began to sort through Tom's heavy volumes. A piece of parchment fell out from one of them, and Harry caught it. His eyes automatically scanned through the text before pausing and going through it again, this time more attentively.

Courtship initiated and accepted (done). Will prove intentions.

Constant shared contact with each other's magic (done). Will prove closeness.

Blood taken on the day of mutual happiness (done). Will prove union.

Shared kiss (done). Will prove desire.

Deepest secrets/revelations shared (?). Will prove ultimate trust + activate the ritual.

"What in the world is this?" Harry muttered, re-reading the list again. Courtship? Blood? Ritual?

"What are you doing?" Tom peered over his shoulder. Then he froze. His magic jolted in alarm, but a second later, everything calmed. "Oh. That's Avery's ritual."

"Avery's? What's he got to do with it?"

"It's a ridiculous situation, really," Tom rolled his eyes, flopping down back onto the bed. "His parents want him to marry a pureblood heiress of one family. Avery is already in love, and he asked me to prepare a magical ritual that would bind him and his intended. Magical bonding has more relevance than law, so his family won't be able to force him into marriage."

Harry nodded slowly, releasing the parchment. Something in his mind continued to shift restlessly, offering him vague memories of past events, but they weren't making much sense, so he discarded them.

"Aren't you going to be in trouble for this?" he asked with a frown. It was good of Tom to help Avery break the toxic pureblood cycle, even better that they both considered feelings more important than traditions, but with how much Tom treasured his reputation…

"No," an expression of smugness slid over Tom's face. "On the contrary, it'll help me to cement my connections. Avery will be in my debt forever."

"And of course you will hold him to it," chuckling, Harry moved Tom's books away and finally found the one he'd been looking for. Grabbing it, he returned to bed. "Who is this girl? It's not Alice, is it?"

"No, not her," a wry smirk settled on Tom's lips. "That poor girl seems to constantly find unsuitable objects of interest. I'm sure Avery won't be the last."

"Don't be a brat," Harry warned him. He got a derisive snort in response.

As he began to read, he could feel Tom's eyes on him, slowly going over his features. It felt natural and familiar, and soon, Harry stopped noticing it, too engrossed in his reading.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The summer rushed past them with a bewildering speed. Before Harry knew it, it was time to go back to Hogwarts, and like always, he felt a combination of enthusiasm and reluctance at the thought of it.

He missed the castle — this was a part of him that would never disappear completely. But he missed spending an unlimited time with Tom even more.

Alternating between joy and forlornness, Harry entered the Great Hall. His eyes moved towards the High Table, and he nearly stumbled.

Rivers was sitting there, among other teachers. More than that, he took the place right next to Harry's seat.

What did he do to deserve this?

Forcing his feet to move, Harry approached the table, nodding to others and trying to ignore the way Rivers immediately focused on him. Fortunately, he said nothing, so Harry started to hope that this would be the end of their non-existing interaction.

He was wrong. When students filled the hall and the Sorting began, Rivers moved his chair closer, turning to face him, and even before he spoke, an unsettling sense of foreboding stretched its icy hand, gripping Harry's heart.

"The places I've been to," Rivers murmured with a grin. He might have intended for it to look pleasant, but it came across as deeply disturbing. "The things I've learned."

"Oh?" Harry responded with pointed disinterest.

"Don't you worry, I won't take much of your time. Let's cut straight to the chase." Rivers leaned even closer, and with the corner of his eye, Harry saw how Tom tensed. Of course he was watching. "I know everything about you now. I know who you are. I know where you came from. I know why you're here. You don't want this information to become public knowledge, do you? I'd wager you especially don't want Mr. Slytherin to know it. There is a way we could solve this, but I need your compliance."

"Forget about it," Harry growled under his breath. Ice continued to lock around his heart, infusing more and more coldness into it and making it feel like it was about to stop.

Rivers couldn't know anything, it simply wasn't possible. He wasn't that good at being a seer, and there was no evidence to explain what Harry was due to the sheer implausibility of it.

But what if he looked into his background? What if he found nothing, dag deeper, and found something?

It still wasn't likely, but the absolute certainty in his voice…

"Are you sure?" Rivers pressed with a sneer. "Are you sure you want to me to forget about it? I can stand up right now and announce who you are to everyone here. This time, Dippet and Dumbledore will listen."

"I won't do anything on the basis of your vague hints! If you figured anything out, then go on. Tell me. And I'll decide what to do next."

"You really don't want us to discuss it here," Rivers pursed his lips. "I have another idea. Let's meet in Hogsmeade, three days from now. Five o'clock. Three Broomsticks. Then we'll talk."

Harry's first instinct was to snap out a refusal. His fears were alive and muttering in his head, but rationality was there, too. And it insisted that Rivers couldn't know the truth, so at most, he was going to share yet another absurd theory.

But he'd been absent for over a year. If he was really travelling, who knew what he could have found? It was strange of him to suggest the Three Broomsticks — they could easily speak in any empty classroom. Why there? Why such a change from Rivers' usual approach?

On the other hand, how would that hurt? He didn't need any additional complications. Maybe this talk would help to put things to an end. Rivers would hardly attack him in public, and if he said nonsense once again, Harry could take the memory of their conversations to Dumbledore with a complaint about harassment.

Satisfied with his decision, he nodded.

"Okay," he said. "I'll be there."

A triumphant look flitted across Rivers' face.

"Then it's a deal," he muttered. "And one more thing: don't take your ward with you. Believe me, you won't want him to be present."

Even a hypothetical threat to Tom made Harry's magic rise up, darkening to a threatening cloud. He didn't know what Rivers saw on his face, but he suddenly reeled back, thrusting his hands forward, as if trying to shield himself from him.

Sneering, Harry turned away. Tom sent him a questioning stare, and he shook his head slightly, mouthing 'later.'

No, he wouldn't take Tom with him. He shouldn't be present during a conversation like this. The problem was, how to sneak out in secret?

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

His secrecy collapsed during the very first conversation, under incessant pressure. What followed was Tom's furious glower and his complete refusal to be rational.

"I'm going with you."

"No, you are not."

"If you insist on going, you won't be doing it alone. I'll accompany you."

"Did you not hear me? It was his condition. I gave him a magical oath."

This part was a lie, but Tom didn't need to know it. His overprotectiveness, insulting as it was, was Harry's only weapon, so maybe a possible threat from the failed oath would make him pause.

"You gave an oath," Tom said flatly. A whisper of violence surrounded him like a cloak, promising to unleash destruction on the first person he saw. "What was the phrasing?"

"It was very clear: you cannot come with me."

Tom narrowed his eyes, scrutinising him, looking for a lie, and Harry stared back defiantly. It seemed like hours had passed before Tom finally glanced away, frowning like he did when he was trying to solve a puzzle.

"Fine," he uttered at last. "I won't go with you. But you will take Avery. Or did the oath cover him, too?"

It was too late to change the phrasing, and Harry swore internally. He should have considered this sooner — of course Tom would find a way to stop him from going alone. Though getting rid of Avery would be far easier than making Tom stay back.

Still, he had to try to talk sense into him.

"How would taking Avery help?" Harry asked calmly. "He's a student — my student. You do realise that if something happens, I will have to protect him, not the other way around?"

"Avery knows the stakes," Tom waved his hand dismissively. "I have no doubts that you can protect yourself. But having him there will make me feel better. You won't want me to stay here and worry, will you? Because I don't like worrying. And when I do, it just so happens that other people also grow worried."

"Yes, you are so very terrifying," Harry made a face before propping his hands on his hips. "All right, he can come along. But this is going to be embarrassing for me, so you'll owe me something for this."

"I will?" Tom cocked an eyebrow curiously. "What would you want?"

"That's for me to decide," Harry gave him a cheesy grin. "Take it or leave it."

"You are oddly cheerful for something that's supposed to concern you," Tom closed the distance between them, pressing their foreheads together. "Are you nervous? Or is there something you are not telling me?"

His presence washed over Harry in a calming, relaxing way, and he smiled more genuinely, rubbing his nose against Tom's.

"I just want it to be over," he murmured. "Rivers is getting on my nerves. I'll listen to him, but that's it. I won't put up with this behaviour any longer."

"I could still take care of him for you," Tom's lips slid down his cheekbone towards the corner of his mouth, making him shiver. "But I know what your answer will be."

"It's a good thing that you know," Harry pushed out hoarsely. Tom's proximity was doing strange things to him, disrupting his sense of self-control. His stomach contracted, and he stepped away, forcing a rueful smile.

"Everything will be fine," he promised. "Rivers is delusional — he's no match for me even on my worst day."

Tom frowned at him but said nothing. Harry took it as encouragement.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The road to the Three Broomsticks seemed overly long. Harry was certain that Avery was the reason: he was walking by his side quietly, with a blank face that most of Tom's friends had. He didn't utter a word, and the more they walked, the more awkward it felt.

"How is your girlfriend?" Harry asked at last. Avery stumbled, sending him a startled gaze.

"What girlfriend?" he asked cautiously.

"The one you want Tom to bind you to."

Avery's expression remained empty, and Harry began to wonder if maybe he'd overstepped some boundary. In retrospect, that wasn't the best thing he could ask. Life with Tom had erased some of his understanding of what was and wasn't acceptable.

"Oh!" a flash of realisation went through Avery's eyes, and then he lowered them. "We are good. There are some problems, but we're almost over them. Tom has helped us tremendously — his magic is like nothing I have ever experienced. And the things he knows, the things he can do… it's truly empowering."

"Right," Harry said carefully, trying to hide his confusion. Avery seemed more enamoured with Tom than with his girlfriend. Or was this some kind of obligation Tom had imposed on all of his friends? 'If you are with Harry, be sure you praise me until he swoons?'

Snorting, Harry focused on his surroundings. They were approaching the Three Broomsticks, but the closer they came, the fewer wizards they encountered.

"I didn't know people took breaks from Hogsmeade," Harry muttered, pushing the door to the pub open. Avery entered after him, and they both stopped, perplexed.

The place was empty. There was no one inside — neither the visitors nor the personnel. As soon as the door behind them closed, a low, hissing sound of a locking spell reverberated through the room. A shift in magic let Harry know that anti-apparition barriers were up now, so the only way out of this place was by identifying and breaking the spell on the door.

Avery pulled out his wand, looking around wildly. His whole body tensed, and Harry touched his shoulder comfortingly.

"You'll be safe," he told him. "I'll make sure of it."

Avery huffed and mumbled something in exasperation, his eyes alert and scanning the room thoroughly. Harry took one small step to stand before him, trying to locate the source of magic. He could feel it — it was strong, breaking even through whatever disguise the person had built around themselves.

Whoever this was, it wasn't Rivers.

The moment this understanding came, the disguise disappeared. The flood of magic filled the room, dark, confident, and powerful, and if Harry hadn't had such a close contact with Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Tom over his life, he might have swayed on his feet.

Avery did sway for a moment, but he quickly regained his fighting stance. A hoarse laughter echoed through the pub, and then a cloaked figure stepped from behind one of the arcs. Avery's shocked inhale coincided with Harry's startled recognition: blood drained from his face rapidly, and this time, he did stagger from the impossibility of the situation.

Grindelwald. This was Grindelwald. He had to be in his sixties now, but he looked somewhat older. His blue eyes and fading golden hair, the hard and arrogant look on his face — they drew attention, making him appear regal. Or maybe it was because of the overconfidence he was exuding.

"Harry Potter," he drawled silkily, and Harry laughed in disbelief. There was a note of hysteria in his laughter, but there was also amusement in it.

"What could you possibly want from me?" he wondered. Everything felt unreal. "I don't know you. You don't know me. What interest could you have in me? Or is my life simply incomplete without one of the dark lords stalking me?"

Avery side-eyed him, probably wondering if he'd lost his mind, while Grindelwald just stared tonelessly.

"I have little interest in you, wizard," he uttered finally. "What does stir my attention is the artefact you possess."

How informative.

"Could you be a little more specific?" Harry demanded, his voice low from frustration. Rivers and Grindelwald — what could they have in common? Why did this have to happen to him, and in the presence of his student no less?

Grindelwald's lips stretched in a slow smile, and the superiority of it was nauseating.

"You see, a man came to me some six months ago," he said pleasantly. "He claimed to be a seer. He was sure that a demon had infiltrated Hogwarts and was planning on massive destruction."

Harry's jaw dropped. Then he laughed, and Grindelwald's smile gained some life.

"Yes, that's what I thought," he agreed. "I didn't take him seriously. He was an amusing little thing, though, and I granted him a chance to explain. He babbled incessantly about you, about the alleged aura you possess, and that was when I caught the name. Harry Potter. Would you like to hear something strange?"

Grindelwald actually waited for a reply, so Harry nodded jerkily.

"The surname Potter is not at all common within the magical community," Grindelwald gazed at the wand he was gripping lazily, and a sudden panicked jolt shook Harry, effectively dispersing his disbelief.

The Elder Wand. It belonged to Grindelwald. Or did it? If they duelled and Harry lost, would that mean that he would no longer be the Master of Death?

Losing immortality wouldn't be such a terrible idea, but losing his life? Grindelwald had more chances of killing him than vice versa. If he died… what would happen to Tom?

"I looked at his memories," Grindelwald continued, "and the resemblance was remarkable. Truly uncanny. Of course, you were just a regular wizard, whatever that seer sensed from you. But how curious: all officially known Potters have gone into hiding. Because of me. Dumbledore has released the oddest rumour about me allegedly murdering the Potters' heir. For the longest time, I couldn't understand why he'd think that. What interest could I have in some snotty boy representing an average family?"

"You tell me," Harry growled, jerking his wand up. Horror at himself for failing to remember what Grindelwald had taken from him fuelled a blinding fury, and his magic lashed out, making the candles flicker.

"Incredible," Grindelwald commented, sounding bored. "Incredibly average. But I'm courteous enough to reply: no, I had no interest in the death of that child. I hadn't heard of his existence before the news arrived. Dumbledore backed down soon enough, but the Potters kept hiding, and so I began to wonder, what was all this about? Why would Dumbledore believe I'd go after this family in such a way? Unless this family had something he knew I would want for myself. And see, Mr. Potter," Grindelwald stepped closer, "that was when I got really curious. I looked into the Potters. I listened to stories about them. I came to the conclusion that they held a unique artefact, one of the three. When the seer appealed to me, claiming Dumbledore ignores his warnings, I thought, how odd. A man carrying the name Potter, teaching at Hogwarts. A man who has Dumbledore's trust and who comprises death itself, if the seer was to be believed."

Harry's stomach dropped to his feet. He tried to focus, gripping his wand tighter, but a storm of thoughts raged through him, bringing confusion and fear.

If Grindelwald hadn't killed Charlus, who had? How much did Grindelwald know now? Did he know everything? Or did he come up with an incorrect theory like Rivers?

Harry had managed to find a way out of many situations, including those that seemed hopeless. But he didn't know if luck would still be on his side now.

"I won't bore you with details," Grindelwald took another step forward. Harry tensed, and Avery, who didn't seem to be even breathing, crouched in defensive position. "I concluded that you must possess the Cloak of Invisibility. The Potters are hiding while you, a man who is officially not connected to them, are enjoying obscurity. But this was a long shot. After all, why would the cloak alone make an insignificant wizard like you reek of death enough for the incompetent seer to sense it?"

Avery hissed in fury, moving forwards with his wand raised, and Grindelwald gave him an amused look.

"Yes, this is exactly what I'm going to discuss next," he agreed. "I did yet another small research. And the things I've found! Mr. Potter is raising the heir of Slytherin. I have young competition planning to oppose me. Laughable competition, but competition nonetheless."

This time, Avery growled, and Harry had to jerk him back before he did anything even more stupid. He wasn't entirely sure how to protect even himself — being responsible for Avery just made the situation worse.

"This competition is sending children to protect Mr. Potter," Grindelwald continued like nothing happened. "Although if you allow me to comment on it, you look younger than most of them. But no matter. The truly interesting thing is that your ward is wearing a very rare ring. Now, that couldn't be a coincidence."

The playful light in Grindelwald's eyes suddenly dimmed — now they shone with steely coldness.

"You have two Hallows," he said icily. "I intend to take them. Unfortunately for you, no actions on your part are required — I have access to your things thanks to Mr. Rivers. If the cloak is hidden, it's also not a problem. All I need is your blood and some magic to share the ownership. When it's done, I assume my naïve competition will come running to avenge you, and that will conclude our business."

"Shows how much you know!" Avery spat. His wand was trembling with an effort to suppress his violent magic. "Tom is stronger than you! He knows more than you do! You spent months on looking for an answer about Charlus Potter while Tom knew the truth all along! He set you up — I bet you didn't see this coming. Times are changing — no one is going to fear you soon!"

Shock went through Harry in a hot wave, but he didn't have time to ask anything. Grindelwald flicked his wand, and six different destructive spells shot up from its tip, one by one, moving towards him and Avery with deadly speed.

Emotions retreated, freeing place for focused resolution. Harry's shield covered him and Avery at the last moment, and though it was shaky, it absorbed the spells.

From that moment on, he was on the defensive. Grindelwald moved lazily, but his curses were flying from all directions, and Harry barely had time to repel them, never mind fire his own spells. Avery was the one who got a chance to attack: protected by Harry's shields, he kept showering Grindelwald with curses so dark that the mere fact of him knowing them was outrageous.

"Down!" Harry yelled as Grindelwald's wand flashed with green light. There was no time to check if Avery listened to him — he ducked, then jumped to his feet, reflecting yet another spell and trying to stretch his shield as wide as possible. Avery straightened from his own crouch, muttering a curse after a curse, twisting and waving his wand so rapidly that his movements blurred. His technique was next to flawless — it was so similar to Tom's that—

A heavy chair flung itself at his head. Harry threw himself to the side, and during the brief second of his flight, he managed to use his first offensive incantation. He wasn't sure he could overcome Grindelwald's shields, so he directed a simple breaking curse at the chandelier hanging right above his head. It dropped, distracting him for a precious moment, and that's when Harry's second curse hit. Grindelwald let out a startled sound when the bones in his right hand melted, turning it into useless rubber. It hung lifelessly, a burden rather than a strength, and as Grindelwald's wand began to fall, he caught it with his left hand, adjusting his stance.

"Clever," he said breathlessly. He tried to appear nonchalant, but Harry could easily read fury in his narrowed eyes. "And yes, do you think this will save you?"

A wave of the wand, and a thin violet film emerged right in front of Harry. It shimmered, floating closer, and he conjured a protective barrier between them, quickly analysing the way it moved and glistened.

It was pointless. The second this film touched his shield, it coiled furiously, and then it shot forward, instantly breaking through every additional barrier he'd constructed. Harry's reflexes allowed him to avoid the major impact, but the film managed to touch his fingers, boiling the skin on them.

He hissed from pain, tightening his grip on the wand stubbornly, but then something else collided with him, throwing him against the wall. Collapsing, Harry winced as his hand screamed in agony.

The green light followed immediately, and his mind recognised the fatality of it before his body caught up.

In five seconds, he would have been able to move and avoid it. But in these first moments after the crash, disorientation held him captive, making him flounder and watch stupidly as death approached him.

And then Avery was there, silent and determined. Harry gasped just as the light hit him in the chest, deadening everything it touched, making him collapse like a ragdoll with its strings cut.

Shock and horror were blinding. They coloured Harry's world in one endless splash of Avada Kedavra, and all of a sudden, he saw his parents, and Cedric, and Dumbledore, and Hedwig — all gone, all swallowed by the green.

Avery fell on his back, his eyes unseeing, and Harry screamed in rage and despair. His wand obeyed an unvoiced command, jumping into his hand, and he dashed forward with it, unleashing everything he knew on Grindelwald.

The magic crackled around them. Harry whirled, crouched, jumped, ducked — now that he wasn't tied to one spot to protect himself and Avery, he could afford to move freely through the room. His defence no longer depended purely on magical barriers — he dodged where he could, using every opportunity to send an array of spells in Grindelwald's direction.

The shields Grindelwald was maintaining were designed to repel serious curses. Their threads were smooth, strong, and impenetrable, but in their intention to stop large volumes of hostile magic, they stretched too widely, leaving small holes through which insignificant spells could slip. Harry used this to his advantage. At first, he threw a Furnunculus jinx, ignoring Grindelwald's sneering. Then he conjured a series of fever, relaxation, and sore feet spells, alternating them with more destructive curses.

As he expected, Grindelwald concentrated on fighting off the bigger danger, but most smaller hexes hit their target. Following this same tactic, Harry dropped himself behind one of the tables, sending Sectumsempra from his right and immediately following it with a nosebleed spell from his left. Grindelwald struggled with Sectumsempra briefly, so he missed the last hex, and a flood of blood erupted from his nose.

Growling in annoyance, he slashed his wand through the air. Three red flashes flew at Harry, and he jerked to the side, manoeuvring himself between them. Even before they dispersed, he thrust a blood-boiling curse and Conjunctivitis at Grindelwald. The curse was repelled with a crash; Conjunctivitis hit, and Grindelwald growled again as his eyes filled with painful redness, trying to shut close.

All these hexes were relatively harmless separately, but when thrown together, they created a dangerous mix. It weakened the body, eating away at a person's concentration — this was the only way for Harry to even out their chances. Grindelwald was fighting with one hand, still bleeding, with his head and his feet aching, his muscles trying to relax against his will, and his eyes begging for a chance to close. His aim was getting worse while Harry remained mostly unharmed.

"Aguamenti," he commanded, directing his wand at Grindelwald's feet. When water pooled beneath it, he added, "Glacius."

Grindelwald stepped back automatically, slipping, and using this additional break in his focus, Harry sent a series of advanced severing charms at him. Most of them were successfully blocked, but one carved itself into Grindelwald's shoulder, cutting through the skin and bone.

Roaring in pain, Grindelwald snapped his eyes to Harry. They were no longer amused — they were enraged, and this sent a trickle of dark satisfaction down Harry's mind. He bared his teeth in a violent grin, crouching where he stood.

"Incredibly average," he mocked breathlessly. "Seems like killing children is all you're good at. And you thought you could handle Tom? Please. You can't defeat even an insignificant, mediocre Hogwarts teacher."

Grindelwald screamed in his fury. His body almost glowed with magic, and the next second, tens of impulsive spells shot out, creative a tight net that stretched itself across half of the room. Harry threw his magic at it, trying to break it, but the net swallowed it before suddenly jumping at him, covering him from head to toe. An unseen force lifted him in the air and threw him against the wall, knocking all the air out of his lungs. His disfigured fingers released the wand, and it took a moment for Harry to realise all implications of it.

He was weaponless. Grindelwald had disarmed him.

He was no longer the Master of Death.

Horror crushed every rational thought that was still in his head. Panicked, Harry tried to get up, but another wave of magic wrapped around him, raising him up again. Then it sent him flying across the room, and the speed of it told Harry everything he needed to know about his chances.

This was it. Either the collision would kill him or it would cripple him, making him helpless before Grindelwald's wrath. One way or another, he was going to die.

'How stupid,' he managed to think. He crashed into the wall right after that, felt the pain engulf him, heard the crack of his own skull.

The light faded, taking his life with it.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Distant sounds were the first to return. Something was destroying the air, filling it with pressure so intense that his ears began to hurt even before he remembered his name.

Slowly, Harry opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. He was lying on the floor, among the shattered wooden boards. Somewhere in the room, a fight was taking place — the thick fog of magic that formed after a repeated usage of powerful spells was quickly intensifying, growing almost suffocating. What was happening? Where was—

The memories finally caught up with him. Harry gasped, sitting up and turning his head in the direction of the sounds, and his bewilderment and confusion at being alive were instantly trampled by the primal fear.

Tom was here. Tom was duelling Grindelwald, mirroring Harry's movements and speed with stunning precision, but using curses with the power that only he could wield. From his place, Harry could see Grindelwald limp in an attempt to dodge the spells he couldn't block. His robe was soaked with blood, but he wasn't the only one hurt — a long cut crossed Tom's face. His half-burned robe was lying in heap on the floor, and there was a thick purple mark on his throat, as if someone had tried to choke him.

The rage that had filled him after Avery's death was molten hot, burning his blood and urging him to act. The fury that exploded in him now went beyond any human definition of heat. It was pure lava, deadly in its sentient destructiveness, crazed in its obsessive need to erase something that hurt Tom.

Avery's body was nearby, with his wand still clutched in his limp hand. Grabbing it, Harry rose to his feet, catching Tom's gaze. Tom's eyes widened in shock before he staggered, relief and joy shining on his face.

Reacting to this change, Grindelwald began to turn, and as Tom shouted, "Expelliarmus!", Harry snarled, "Avada Kedavra!"

Red and green collided with their target almost simultaneously. For a second, Grindelwald's body was bathed in an ethereal yellow light. It shook, as if something was tearing it apart from inside, before falling down with a dull thump. Harry stared at it wordlessly. Rage was still clawing at him, tugging at his insides and demanding revenge, unsatisfied with this quick and painless death. His body didn't feel like it belonged to him — it felt like it was still floating in some other world, detached from his mind, unable to handle the dark intensity of emotions rocking through it.

"Harry."

The clear voice was so beloved that it lit up the darkness, chasing the shadows away. Harry blinked, and Tom was standing right in front of him, battered but alive, and looking as stunned as Harry felt.

"You killed him," Tom whispered. His eyes were wide and incredulous. "For me? Or because this was the right thing to do?"

Trying to remember how to speak, Harry cleared his throat.

"For you," he murmured. Tom's smile was positively glowing. He bent down, pressing a kiss to his lips, and Harry let him, unable to move from the spot.

Just as suddenly, Tom pulled back, glancing at the front door.

"This is how we'll do it," he said. Raising his wand, he pointed it at Grindelwald's throat, murmuring several slicing hexes. "I don't know if they'll consider your use of Unforgivables unacceptable despite the circumstances, but we can't take the risks. We'll say I killed him with a slicing hex after we duelled. Give me this." Returning to his side, Tom took the wand from him and threw it back towards Avery's body. His eyes didn't stop on it, didn't change — as if Avery's death was something to be taken for granted. "They won't be checking his wand, and if they do, it doesn't matter, he's dead anyway. So don't say anything else. Do you understand?"

Harry cringed at the mention of Avery, shaking his head, hoping that the memories would fade away. He didn't want to remember this. He didn't want any vivid reminders of his other losses — it'd been years since they affected him like this, he couldn't allow himself to regress, not after all this time.

Tom must have misinterpreted his reaction.

"Technically, it's not even a lie," he said earnestly, as if this was the most bothersome thing. Disbelief was slowly fading from his face, replaced by wild excitement. "You killed him for me, so it can be said that I'm responsible for his death. This will be safer for you and useful for me. I thought I'd have to spend years on fighting for this level of recognition, but Grindelwald's death changes everything. Everyone will respect me. I will have next to no opposition left."

This was all too much. Harry continued to shake his head, too wrung out to make sense of anything. With a breathless laugh, Tom kissed his brow, his irises lightening to a warm greenish-brown shade.

"I think I'll take his wand," he mused. "This will be symbolic, won't it? I wonder if it'll like me."

Tom pulled out the Elder Wand, observing it shrewdly. Still feeling like he's in a dream, Harry touched it, too, and it glowed slightly, responding to him and sending currents of warmth through his fingers.

He didn't understand anything. Why were the Deathly Hallows of this world reacting to him? Why had he come back to life even after losing to Grindelwald? Was there a paradox of some sort? Was he stuck as the Master of Death, and nothing could change what he'd become?

Tom eyed the wand curiously before a satisfied smirk stretched across his lips.

"It reacts to me," he stated smugly. "It accepts my ownership."

Harry choked on his hysterical laughter, and Tom frowned.

"Are you all right?" he asked, concerned. "When I arrived, you were already unconscious. How badly are you hurt?"

"Nothing serious," Harry managed to push out. Tom leaned against him, sighing in contentment.

"I nearly lost my mind when I saw you lying there," he murmured. His triumph gave way to darkness and fragility, and Harry put his hands around Tom's waist in an automatic desire to comfort him. "It just stopped working. I tried to get to you, but he was there. He must have said or done something to stop me — I don't even remember how the fight started."

This finally stirred something in Harry's mind. His thoughts sharpened, trying to assemble themselves together.

"Why did you come?" he wondered.

"I saw Rivers," Tom's voice turned into pure venom in its loathing. "You weren't back, so I decided to go and check by myself. If I hadn't… if I had come even one minute late…"

He shuddered, and Harry stroked his back slowly. Suddenly, the half-broken door opened, with several people peeking inside. Tom quickly turned to face them. Then he began to talk and explain, waving his hands animatedly, and Harry sat right on the floor, hugging his knees close.

Avery's eyes stared at him, silent and accusing, and irrevocably dead.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Harry barely remembered the fuss that followed. There were questions, conversations, surprise and happiness, but he ignored it, too lost in his own thoughts and feelings. Later, he was taken to a hospital wing along with Tom, and then they were separated. Tom was accepting awe and congratulations from Dippet while Harry was given to Dumbledore. At this point, he wasn't surprised.

"I'm sure that Tom will gladly answer all questions you have," he said tiredly. Dumbledore's eyes glistened with something that could be pity… or sorrow.

Oh, right. Grindelwald. Dumbledore's greatest love and tragedy.

"I'm sure he will," Dumbledore agreed quietly. "But I would like to hear it from you."

'There is not much to tell," Harry pushed himself against the back of the chair, studying the ceiling. He wanted to sleep, but at the same time, he was terrified of the dreams that were to come. "Rivers made Grindelwald aware of my existence. He was deluded, but his information turned out to be useful. Grindelwald decided I have the Potters' Cloak of Invisibility, so he killed Avery and tried to kill me. Tom realised that something was wrong, so he followed us and managed to kill Grindelwald. That's it."

Dumbledore continued to stare at him in an expectant and patient way that only he could manage. It was utterly infuriating, but an old resurrected part of Harry was used to obeying it. With a tired sigh, he tried to think of anything he could say — anything that wouldn't be related to the truth of who had killed Grindelwald. Anything that wouldn't be related to Avery.

And suddenly the answer was there, rushing to the surface with a surprising sharpness.

"Actually, there is something else," Harry muttered hesitantly. "Grindelwald claimed he hadn't killed Charlus Potter. That he was surprised when he heard about this murder being attributed to him. He sounded genuine."

Though Avery hadn't seemed taken aback, had he? As if he'd already known the answer. What was it he said? 'Tom knew the truth all along. He set you up'?

A chill poured down Harry's spine. Suddenly, the room seemed bitterly cold, and a vague unshaped realisation started to form somewhere at the back of his mind, scratching at it with long ugly claws.

He rubbed his temples, hoping to send the despicable thought to the hell it'd come from. But Dumbledore was silent — why was he silent? He had been the one to suggest that Grindelwald had murdered Charlus. What other options could there be?

'Tom knew the truth all along. He set you up.'

No. Tom had no connection to Charlus. He had just turned twelve at the time, the idea was laughable!

But Dumbledore was silent. Why was he still silent?

"I always believed there are two possibilities," Dumbledore said, subdued, as if having overheard his thoughts. "Gellert was the first one. It certainly made sense for him to attack the Potters."

"Yes, it did!" Harry agreed fiercely. But no matter how hard he clung to this idea, his heart rate was accelerating, slowly but steadily. He tried to draw in some air, to breathe deeper, but it dissipated before it had a chance to get to his lungs. This sent additional bursts of panic through his already blackening mind, and he touched his throat, feeling as if an invisible rope was being tightened around it.

"And yet," Dumbledore continued softly, "this was not quite Gellert's style. To kill a child in the middle of the Diagon Alley and disappear without leaving a message? To never claim the credit for it? This is not how he would have behaved."

Harry opened his mouth, trying to say something, to argue, but no words escaped. They gathered in his throat, cluttering it and suffocating him further.

"That was when I started to consider another option," Dumbledore paused, watching him. "I cannot prove it. There is no direct evidence. However, Tom Riddle—"

"Slytherin," Harry choked out. His heart was hammering, its pounding echoing in his temples, threatening to explode his head if one more ugly thought entered it. "He's not Tom Riddle. He's Tom Slytherin."

Dumbledore sighed, lowering his gaze briefly.

"All right," he murmured. "Tom Slytherin. He wasn't fond of Charlus. I know for a fact that he was watching that boy closely, even stalking him at times. The portraits see everything — they talk, they gossip. They noticed his behaviour, but I have to admit I didn't think much of it. I believed he was interested in the boy because he carried your name. After Charlus was killed, some more rumours emerged. Again, they weren't specific, but they had enough information to make me look closer at Tom. For a while, there was nothing… but when I saw you next time, I noticed your new ring."

Harry's hurting fingers clutched at the ring protectively before he even understood what he was doing. Nausea roiled in his stomach, contracting it in sudden spasms, and he took another shaky breath, hoping to calm it down.

"What about the ring?" he wheezed.

"Perhaps nothing," Dumbledore held his gaze steadily. "Charlus had a lot of affection for another student. His parents helped him to purchase a Gryffindor ring for her, yet after his death, it was never found."

The bile rushed to his mouth, and Harry barely managed to swallow it back. Then he swallowed again, and again, but his throat kept spasming. Not caring what Dumbledore thought of him, he reached across the table, grabbed a cup standing there, and drank from it, trying to wash the bitterness away and to drown out the twitches of nausea.

"It doesn't prove anything," he mumbled finally. The words sounded like they were spoken by someone else. "It's not a unique ring. There are others."

"Yes, there sure are," Dumbledore suddenly looked very grave. "That begs the question… do you remember when Tom gifted you this ring? And where he was on the day Charlus was murdered? I understand that a lot of time passed since then, but perhaps you could think of something."

He could. He could because Tom had gone to Diagon Alley that day. He returned soon after Harry dropped dead, and later that day, he put the ring on his finger.

Time matched. It matched perfectly.

Grindelwald had never been to the Diagon Alley that day — there was only Tom. Tom killed Charlus. And with him, he killed James. Again.

Harry didn't notice how he jumped to his feet. His gut turned over in a warning, his throat contracted, and this time, he knew he wouldn't be able to help himself.

He ran out of Dumbledore's office, rushing down the stairs before stopping. Another spasm, and his stomach forced everything that was in it out. Harry dropped to his knees, heaving, shivering violently with every lurch. The bile dribbled from his chin, mixing with tears, and he bent down again in a coughing fit.

He had no idea how much time passed. When the vomit finally stopped, he was curled into a ball, feeling like his insides had turned into one large bruise. He was covered with cold sweat, his robe stained with wet white spots.

Would this day ever end? Maybe it would turn out to be a dream. A nightmare.

But even these childish delusions didn't help him to feel better. His body was shutting off, and he was still stuck in Hogwarts, near Dumbledore's office of all places.

He had to go home. He had to go home now.

Slowly, Harry pushed himself up, using the railing for support. His legs shook under him, threatening to drop him with each step, and his throat felt as dry as if he hadn't drunk water in centuries.

How could he apparate anywhere in such state?

Then again, why did it matter? He had to get home. Not to his Hogwarts rooms — home.

Somehow, Harry made it outside. He almost crawled to the apparition barrier, and the moment he felt its borders, he apparated.

He got to his destination almost in one piece.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Hours kept slipping into one another. When the sound of apparition came from the outside, Harry had lost count — he was sitting in the corner of the dark living room, cradling his bleeding hand to his chest, practising Occlumency in the hope to subdue the images his masochistic mind kept bringing to the surface. Despondency was gradually turning everything in him into ice, but when Tom entered the house and then the room, this ice cracked. Emotions began to bleed through, incinerating everything the cold hadn't killed yet.

"Harry!" Tom came to a halt. His face was wary. When he saw the blood, the caution slipped away, and he jerked forward, his face contorted in alarm.

"Stay away from me," Harry barked. Tom paused mid-step, watching him with wide, perplexed eyes.

"What is it?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

It would take him a lifetime to explain what was wrong. Instead, Harry raised his hand, stretching the fingers on it.

"I want to know about my ring," he said. Something was coiling, snapping under the surface of his voice — any small thing could push him over the edge now. "Where did you get it?"

Realisation and calculation ran across Tom's features, so fast and yet so noticeable that Harry felt sick again.

"You spoke to Dumbledore," Tom announced finally. He scoffed, a sneer marring his beautiful face. "Since when do you trust his words?"

"Since I can confirm them." Slowly, Harry stood up. The ring felt hot on his finger, trying to burn its way down to the very bone. "You were gone that day. You went to Diagon Alley. You returned with the ring."

"How do you know I returned with it?" an arrogant smile pulled the corner of Tom's lips up. "I could have purchased it weeks before."

Harry's magic stirred. Its volatility and fury blew it wide, making it into a hissing, living being, something more powerful than Harry ever thought he possessed.

"Stop lying to me," he hissed. Tom flinched slightly, all arrogance evaporating from his face. "Tell me what happened."

Tom still wanted to lie — it was obvious from his expressions, which kept changing like he couldn't settle on the appropriate one, from his hesitant posture, from his eyes that remained shrewd and calculating. Harry continued to hold his gaze. He didn't know how he himself looked like, but Tom suddenly stiffened defensively, crossing his arms against his chest.

"I cannot imagine why you think it matters," he uttered coldly. "It was years ago — it happened even before Beth. Can't you just let it go? What's done is done."

"Let it go," Harry repeated. His words were shaking, and a searing, maddening hysteria rose from inside, mashing everything he was seeing together, turning the world into a blur. Only Tom remained a clear image in it, a figure of death and destruction. "You killed a child for no reason. You killed my family."

This time, it was Tom's magic that snapped, whirling around him in an angry cloud.

"Never say that again," he warned through clenched teeth. "I am your family. You tried to hide your connection to Potters, but I knew you were lying. They abandoned you — they deserved to suffer."

"What are you talking about!" Harry screamed. His body was quivering violently, making his vision even blurrier. "No one abandoned me! Stop making up lies to justify your monstrosity — you are a murderer! You never had reasons to hurt anyone, you invented them to give yourself an excuse!"

"It was for you," Tom growled, closing the distance between them. He was shaking, too, his dark eyes flashing furiously. "Everything I ever did is for you!"

"It was never for me, it was for you," Harry spat. His heart felt like it was about to explode in his chest, and he couldn't breathe — couldn't force his lungs to accept the air. "You planned it. You lied to me and pretended you needed to go to Diagon Alley — and for what? Because you thought I was related to Charlus Potter? Because you cannot stand the idea of me having even one other person in my life, even if they are my family and I don't interact with them?"

"Stop calling them that!" Tom bellowed. The glass shattered around them, and Harry laughed breathlessly, feeling light-headed and mad.

"Look at me," he choked out. "I raised a monster. I perverted the idea of love, turned it turn into something abnormal. Something awful. If you were out there planning murder when you were eleven, then I failed. I failed at everything."

Tom tried to say something, but Harry raised his hand again, silencing him.

"I don't want to hear anything else," he said hollowly. "We're back to where we started. You don't care about people dying — their lives mean nothing to you. You destroy them when you think they are a nuisance. You brainwashed your friends — why would Avery die for me? He didn't even know me. But there was no hesitation, he just threw himself in front of the spell like it was his responsibility."

The memory flashed with green in his mind, making him shudder. Harry closed his eyes, but the emotions didn't settle — they continued to hiss and blister, blackening everything they touched.

"You are trying to make the world live by your rules," he added dully, "but you're forgetting something. You still live by mine. I promised you practical demonstrations before, didn't I? I think it's time for another one. Accio the Draught of Living Death."

The potion was in his hand before Tom had a chance to react. Harry uncorked it, bringing it to his lips, and that was when Tom finally came alive. His eyes flew open, horror making them abnormally huge on his face, and his magic lashed out urgently to knock the vial out of Harry's hand.

It collided with Harry's own magic, losing some of its impact, so while his hand shook, it didn't release the potion.

"Stop," Tom whispered. His trembling hands were raised in an attempt to soothe, a morbid echo of the same moment from years ago. "You know that if you drink too much, you'll be dead instantly. There won't be a way to come back from this. Don't do this."

Harry smiled mirthlessly. He tilted the vial, but the next second, Tom lunged at him, his hands reaching to intercept the potion.

He was much quicker now, there was no denying it, but still, Harry was faster. He cradled the vial, pushing Tom away violently and watching him hit the floor.

"No!" Tom gasped. He rose to his knees, panting, staring at him with wild eyes. "Don't do this. You can't do this to me. You can't, it's not fair."

"You're not the one to talk about fairness," Harry curled his lips in a grimace that twisted his face, probably making it look as ugly as he felt. "You killed my family. You lied to me."

"Don't call them that!" Tom cried, and for the first time in years, frustrated tears filled his eyes. Harry stared at him, unmoved. "I don't understand why you call them your family! That's not true — you are mine! They were never there for you, so why do you care about them?"

How could he explain? How could he explain James, the pure and childish love Harry still held for him, the fragile hope that one day, they could meet? Thinking that Grindelwald took it from him was heartbreaking, but he accepted it. He made peace with it.

But for Tom to do it… To do it again, despite everything. To make him wear that ring on his hand.

It was unbearable. He couldn't live with this.

His resolution must have been visible because Tom suddenly shrieked, "No! I killed him, all right, I killed him, but it was before your rules! I didn't break them, you can't punish me for something that happened before you even introduced your system!"

Harry shook his head, rejecting this explanation.

"Please," Tom begged. He tried to get up, but his knees buckled, sending him back to the floor. "Please, I'll do anything. Whatever you ask. I'll confess publicly, I'll make an Unbreakable Vow to you, I'll leave Hogwarts — anything at all, just don't do this. I can't live without you."

Harry waited for these words to affect him, but they didn't. There was only merciful numbness shrouding the charred remains of his heart, bringing peace to his tattered mind.

"I hate you," he said. Then he took two large sips from the vial, letting the silvery potion slip down his throat. Almost immediately, his consciousness switched off, and Tom's desperate howl was the last thing he'd heard.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

His consciousness swam. As always, the sounds came first: someone was gasping loudly right into his ear. It felt like they were struggling to breathe because every inhalation ended with a wheeze, and whenever they exhaled, the air came tumbling out in a choked sob. Something wet kept dripping on his neck, and at some point, the sensation became uncomfortable enough for Harry to open his eyes.

At first, he didn't understand what he was staring at. He was being held in a strong, crushing grip, and the only thing he saw was a mess of dark hair. Instincts woke up sooner than logic: he knew this hair, knew every curl and twist of it. It was Tom — of course it was Tom, but why was he…

Oh.

The memories burned, instantly filling every part of him with ancient ache. Grimacing, Harry tried to move, and the wheezing above him stopped abruptly. In the next moment, Tom's ashen face came into view, and Harry flinched before he could stop himself.

Two prominent tear tracks shone on his skin, an image so shocking and unexpected that Harry would have recoiled from it if Tom hadn't been wrapped around him like a manacle, making each of his possible movements futile. One of Tom's hands was clutching Harry's shirt, and several of his nails were covered with blood. Alarmed, Harry tried to examine him from his awkward position, and his gaze stopped at Tom's hair again.

There were two tiny streams of blood flowing behind his ears, down his neck. They mixed with tears there, and Tom's robe was so soaked that some of it had been transferred to Harry's skin. That's what dragged him out of his peaceful slumber earlier than he would have preferred.

Tom stared at him silently, saying nothing. He wasn't gasping now, but he wasn't breathing either, so Harry did sit up, forcefully disentangling himself from his suffocating hold.

A few locks of dark hair were lying on the floor, next to Tom. This, along with the blood and the nails, told Harry exactly what happened, and self-disgust that crashed into him was powerful enough to steal the words he was about to say.

He had seen Tom panicked before. He had seen him in deep shock. He had seen him lost and cut off from reality, but this? This was too much. The Tom he was seeing now barely looked like himself — he was so pale that he resembled a corpse. There were scratches on his temples, and it was painfully clear that in his fit of madness and grief, he had pulled some of his hair out, trying to hold on to something solid with despair that Harry had never wanted him to experience.

And this was his doing. His fault.

Tom still wasn't breathing, so Harry grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him.

"Breathe," he whispered. "Please, breathe, Tom. I'm here. I shouldn't have done it."

Tom's lips parted, but no sound came out. And his chest still wouldn't move. He was beyond reach, beyond any reasonable methods of calming, so Harry moved his hands up towards Tom's face and briefly kissed him on the lips. Tom shuddered under his touch, and then he leaned away with a gasp, his glassy eyes finally regaining life.

"Impossible," he murmured hoarsely. Even his lips were trembling. "You are dead. I know you are dead. I saw it happen."

"I'm sorry," Harry dropped his head, fighting his own sudden urge to cry. What on earth had he done? How could he have been so cruel? The death had had a calming effect on him because now, he could think rationally — and his own behaviour horrified him.

Whatever Tom had done, he didn't deserve what Harry had forced him to witness. He was right: he'd killed Charlus before they discussed the system of rewards and punishments. It was monstrous, it was crushing, but Harry was to blame for this as much as Tom was. He'd missed the signs, he lived in a delusion. That was why Beth's death had nearly destroyed him: he was blindsided. He wasn't ready.

But his conversation with Tom and his system had changed everything. Tom had been trying since then, trying to the extent he was capable of. He didn't deserve punishment. At least not of this kind.

"I'm sorry," Harry said again. Tom was finally breathing, but he still resembled a statue. "I didn't mean most of what I said. It's just Avery's death, and me killing Grindelwald, and then learning about Charlus — it was too much. I lost control."

"You were dead," Tom repeated woodenly. "You weren't breathing. I tried everything, but I couldn't bring you back. You were gone."

Guilt pushed against his brain, making it shrivel and send an array of random impulses through his body. Harry's hands jerked helplessly, his mouth fell open to say something, and his body moved from side to side. He wanted to console Tom, to soothe him, but he wasn't sure how. Unless…

"I can explain everything," he swore, trying to angle his head so that he would meet Tom's gaze. "Will you let me?"

Tom didn't appear to hear him.

"You said you hated me," he muttered emptily, his voice cracking. "You promised you wouldn't, but you said you did."

"No, I— no, Tom," Harry shook his head vehemently even as guilt continued to burn, making every second unbearable. "I love you. I'm angry and hurt, but I love you. I could never stop."

Contrary to his hopes, Tom didn't react even to this. He rocked forwards and backwards, still in a strange half-trance, and tears began to pool in Harry's eyes.

"I'll tell you a secret," he promised desperately. "Would you like to hear it?"

To his astonishment, this word seemed to achieve the effect even his kiss hadn't. Tom blinked, rationality and something else glimmering in his stare.

"A secret?" he echoed.

"Yes. One that I have never shared with anyone else."

Slowly, awareness began to shine in Tom's eyes. He still appeared shell-shocked, but his mind started working — that was already good enough.

"Yes," he uttered quietly. "I want to know it. You learned my secret, now I will learn yours. That's how it should be."

Harry nodded, eager to do something to remove this frightening expression from Tom's face. He stood up with a wince, stretching his sore muscles, and headed towards his bedroom. But before he took even three steps, Tom jumped up and clung to his hand, watching him warily.

Oh. Of course.

"Let's go together," Harry offered kindly. Tom nodded, holding on to his arm with both of his hands.

They walked towards the room, and Harry took out a dusty Pensieve from the depth of his wardrobe. He had initially bought it to remember his first life, to keep Ron and Hermione close, but he hadn't used it for years.

Now it was time. The only way for him and Tom to move forwards and find forgiveness was by making sure there were no secrets left.

"You didn't kill anyone else, did you?" he clarified as the horrible thought entered his mind. Tom flinched and shook his head furiously, and Harry relaxed. "All right. Let me put some memories into this. Then you'll watch them and—" he took a deep breath. "We will talk. For real."

"Memories?" Tom asked, but his voice sounded distracted. A glassy look began to overtake him again, pulling his consciousness away, and Harry grabbed him by his shoulders, pushing their foreheads together.

"Listen to me," he breathed right into his lips. "I don't hate you. I didn't mean what I said. After seeing these memories, you will understand why Charlus' death affected me so much… and I hope you and I will be able to forgive each other."

Tom sighed, swaying softly. Then he nodded.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

It took Harry almost an hour to put the memories together. His mind kept alternating between dread and determination, but he still picked several memories from each relevant period of his life.

Several scenes from his childhood. Hagrid's visit. Seeing the world of magic for the first time. Meeting Ron and Hermione. Learning about Voldemort. Every year in Hogwarts, every confrontation, the decisions he had to make at the end, when the war ended yet the peace didn't arrive.

The way he became the owner of the Hallows without suspecting what that meant. The way he couldn't die, couldn't age.

When he was done, he felt shaken. Rubbing the sweat from his forehead, Harry tried to give Tom an encouraging smile.

"Go on," he said softly. "I just hope that you will want to talk to me afterwards."

Tom cocked an eyebrow sceptically. His eyes moved towards the Pensieve, hesitant and greedy. Finally, with the last look at Harry, he dived inside, and a soft shimmer appeared above the Pensieve, indicating that it was being used.

Now all he could was wait.

Harry sat on his bed, trying not to obsess over what memory Tom was seeing now, how he was reacting to it, what he was going to watch next. As minutes trickled by, he kept his eyes on the shimmery surface of the Pensieve. At some point, when he raised his hand to brush hair from his face, he noticed the ring, and everything in him went cold.

Charlus' ring. The one that should have been given to the girl he liked, not stolen by his murderer.

Pain and fury dropped into his stomach again, hardening until they felt like lead. Harry sucked in a gulp of air. Then, with an effort, he released it.

He couldn't allow himself to dwell on this. He would go crazy. It'd be some time before his rage lessened, but he wouldn't take it out on Tom again. What he'd done was punishment enough.

Self-hatred paid him a visit next, spitting its venom around. Harry tried to cringe back from it, but it'd already taken roots, resurrecting the guilt and the sickness.

He needed Tom. He needed Tom to come back so they could talk — everything would be all right then. They would start anew, like nothing bad had happened — Tom would understand him after seeing his memories. He would understand the danger of darkness, and he would willingly stay away from it. Tom was bright, powerful, and admired by everyone — he would never want to become something as empty as Voldemort.

More time passed. Splashes of anxiety mirrored his every inhale, and when Tom finally emerged, Harry no longer remembered what breathing normally felt like. His heart stopped beating for a second as he stared at Tom intently, trying to read his face.

To his frustration, he realised that he couldn't. Tom was absolutely expressionless, standing there, studying him with a blank dark gaze. Then, unexpectedly, his lips formed a smile.

"I think we should drink something," he uttered. His voice was pleasant, revealing nothing about his feelings. "Let's go downstairs. I'll make us some tea."

Confused, Harry nodded. His tongue was burning with the need to fire questions, to understand if he'd done the right thing, but Tom was acting so business-like that he didn't dare.

What could that mean? Did he despise him now? Did he even want them to still have a future together?

In the kitchen, Harry sat down, watching Tom prepare everything silently. Maybe he was sorting through his thoughts this way? Making sense of what he'd seen?

Several minutes later, Tom set the table, and unexpectedly, a vague sense of déjà vu brushed against Harry's mind.

He'd already seen a scene like this before… or had he?

Tom took the opposite chair, still smiling his little generic smile. Feeling oddly unsettled, Harry took his cup, sipping from it, wondering if he should break the silence first.

Tom beat him to it.

"That was interesting," he drawled, toying with his drink. For some reason, his eyes slid to a clock before focusing back on Harry. "And that certainly changes things."

"Changes things how?" Harry clarified warily. Tom deliberated with his answer, looking at the clock again.

"By a lot," he replied vaguely. "Though of course, the essence of things stays the same. You abandoned your old life, people in it, and came back here for me. For me alone. That means I'm the reason for your existence. And if so, you are most definitely mine."

Was that all Tom had gotten from it? Floored, Harry took another sip, but when he tried to put the cup back on the table, his vision suddenly swam. He blinked, hoping to clear it, but it only got worse. The world lost its contours, blurring into one single image, and as this happened, a memory of a dream unfolded in his mind with startling clarity. Tom, feeding him sweets, sweets that stole his consciousness.

Harry tried to stand up, but his legs were too soft to obey him. Tom's strong hands caught him just before he fell down, just as darkness began to suck him in insistently.

'Not the sweets,' Harry thought suddenly, and icy chill shot through him. 'Not the sweets, the tea. I got it wrong, there was something wrong with the tea…'

Tom's satisfied expression haunted him as the last colours of reality faded.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

Something was happening. He felt magic, strong and overwhelming, touching every part of his body. There was a familiar voice chanting incantations he didn't recognise — endless, complex spells he'd never heard about.

Occasionally, darkness claimed him back, but when Harry approached the border of consciousness for the fourth time, he tried to cling to it.

It worked. Slowly, gradually, he opened his eyes, and Tom's face was the first thing he saw. It was triumphant. It was relaxed and happy.

"What happened?" Harry murmured, trying to sit up. A strange feeling hit him, and he fell back onto the pillow with a frown. The memories flickered, gradually forming into clear shapes.

The fight. The Pensieve. The tea. And Tom's smiling, pleased face.

Calmness vanished, with coldness slipping into his veins and freezing his blood.

"What have you done to me?" Harry breathed out. He didn't feel different, but something wasn't right. His skin tingled — even his magic felt tired.

"You don't have to worry," Tom told him calmly. "Everything is fine. I promised I would protect you, and I did. I made sure that you will never be able to hurt yourself again."

"What does that mean?" This time, Harry managed to sit up, even though the world around him kept tilting slightly.

"I bound our lives together," a joyful wide grin stretched Tom's lips. He looked drunk on his happiness, so detached from what Harry was experiencing that it felt unreal. "Life magic is tricky, there are many kinds of it, but I selected the one that fit us most. Look."

Tom bent down, taking Harry's hand in his gently. Pressing the wand to it, he murmured a light version of a cutting spell, and a thin trail of blood formed against Harry's skin. Grimacing slightly, as if even this sight was intolerable, Tom raised his own hand, and Harry saw the exact same cut there.

His mind stuttered, too confused to keep up its work.

"What hurts you hurts me now," Tom announced. His happiness and pride were tangible things, so bright that they outshone the shadows in the room, and Harry wrenched his hand away in horror.

"Why would you do something like this?" he whispered. It didn't make any sense. Why did Tom treat this bewildering result as some life project he finally completed? Why had he focused on it now, after seeing the memories?

"To stop your self-destructive habits, of course," Tom tilted his head, watching him with amusement. "See, I've been working on it ever since you threatened to harm yourself in case you found out about me hurting someone. What you did that night with the knife was not something I could ever allow to happen again. And then this evening…" A vacant look started to roll over Tom's features, and he rubbed his forehead, as if trying to stay anchored to reality.

"I don't understand," Harry said quietly. His voice seemed to help because Tom's attention went back to him again, as intense as before.

"I know you have problems with your self-worth," he murmured gently. "I also know that you love me. You could hurt yourself, but you could never hurt me. Not physically. Now that our lives are one, you'll have to find some other way of influence because your punishments will no longer work. Not when you know that whatever you do to yourself will also happen to me."

A heavy weight dropped into his stomach. Harry stared, unable to say anything as the first bites of horror slowly bruised him from inside, tearing out chunks of protection he thought he had.

"You don't believe me?" Once again, Tom misinterpreted his reaction. He sounded smug when he said, "Do you think you'll be able to cut your throat again when this action will also cut mine? To drink poison and condemn me to the same pain? I don't think so."

Harry pressed his fingers to his chest, rubbing it almost obsessively without a clear idea of why. He couldn't think. Couldn't focus. Even the air seemed suffocating.

"How could you do something this stupid?" he finally wheezed out. "I'm a… I'm a teacher. Accidents happen. What if I fall down the stairs? What if I get involved in a duel? We won't even be able to do what we did with Grindelwald because we will share the wounds! Have you lost your mind?!"

Tom chuckled. He continued to glow, and Harry couldn't remember the last time he saw him this happy.

"You'll just have to be more careful," Tom teased him. "But also, you are forgetting something."

His expression suddenly changed, going from disturbed to pleased again. With a mutter, he summoned a piece of parchment from somewhere and offered it to Harry.

Harry was scared to look at it. But he did.

A locket?

A ring?

Apophis reacts to magic. Preservation + Horcrux?

Might be easier to protect a bird than an object.

Useful — wouldn't have to replace him.

Terror gripped him, sending a rush of sickness up his throat. This horrible, disgusting word stood out from all others, and for a second, Harry was sure this was a nightmare. An ugly, realistic nightmare, nothing else.

But Tom's hand on his felt was too warm and solid to be fake.

"Don't worry," Tom muttered knowingly. "This is no longer a part of my plan. See, my goal was immortality. Not for me — this was secondary. For you. I knew you would never agree to something like a Horcrux, so I was planning to do it for both of us at once. I thought to bind our lives first and then to make us immortal by creating it, but your Master of Death thing has already given me everything I needed. You already can't die, and now, neither can I."

Harry shook his head. The parchment fell to the floor, and when he tried to breathe, for the countless time today, his lungs ignored him. Instead of air, there was only dry nothingness, and Harry coughed again, holding his throat.

His thoughts were scattered, too shaky to be coherent. Life bonding? Horcruxes?

Horcruxes. Tom had been thinking of creating Horcruxes. His Tom, in an entirely new world — he had still wanted to disfigure his soul with this poisonous magic. And for what? For him?

How could he live with this?

"Naturally, even being the Master of Death has its drawbacks," Tom grimaced slightly. "If the legend you showed me is true, then you could summon death willingly when you feel too tired to go on. But you won't kill me, will you, Harry?" Tom grinned at him. "You won't lift a finger against me. So you and I have forever to settle our differences and resolve our problems."

The lack of oxygen started to take its toll. His head span, and Harry barely managed to croak, "Cancel it. Cancel whatever you have done. Live forever if you want, take the Hallows — you already have two. But don't make me do it. I won't be responsible for hurting you."

"Yes, that's the point, isn't it?" Tom rolled his eyes. "I can never predict the lengths you're prepared to go to when you're determined to harm yourself. And I wouldn't be able to cancel the ritual even if I wanted to. It's a blood pact. It's irreversible."

Harry recoiled from the mention, clenching his trembling hands into fists.

"Blood pacts don't work like this," he mumbled. "You need consent. You can't force someone into a pact when they are unconscious."

"Oh, I haven't told everything yet, have I?" Tom leaned towards him, rubbing his nose against Harry's cheek affectionately. "There are many different types of life bonds and blood pacts. I chose the romantic kind. It was activated from the moment you accepted my courtship."

Harry froze, and Tom laughed into his ear before pulling back.

"You accepted the spoon," he sang, his voice giddy. "You accepted the cloak. Both are a part of the courtship ritual and both have my magic. You kept them close, and I had some things of yours to prove that we have constant contact with each other, even at night, even during lessons. When we were celebrating Christmas, I took your blood and mixed it with mine. We were both happy that day, and we fulfilled the requirements for the previous stages, so magic considered you a willing participant. You kissed me back after Richards. Everything was going perfectly."

It felt like he was falling. Or dreaming. Harry stared at Tom silently, barely seeing him but hearing every word.

"Only the last stage was left, and it was the most complex one," Tom continued. Excitement was still colouring his every syllable, making his words sound rushed. "Sharing the most intimate secrets with each other. I wasn't sure how to do that. I didn't want to share my secrets — I knew how you'd react, and I wasn't sure you even had any relevant secrets to share. But this night… it worked." Tom rolled to the ball of his heels and back in his exhilaration. "You learned about Charlus and I confirmed it. Then you showed me— that," he stumbled over the word a little, as if unsure how to describe it. "The last condition was met. I could complete the ritual. The good thing about magical bonding is that it doesn't care about the circumstances. It works with bare facts."

Harry didn't really want to ask, but every part of his body felt like a separate entity, including his tongue.

"How does romantic bonding differ from others?" it wondered. Tom hummed, sounding pleased with the question.

"It ensures fidelity," he said smugly. "You will never be able to be unfaithful to me. If magic believes that you are engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone else, it will react. As per the ritual, it was supposed to make you too sick to continue, but I changed it a little. Now, the person you are having these feelings for will get sick. I think in your case, this would be more effective."

Despite sitting, Harry swayed, no longer capable of keeping himself upright. The words didn't make sense to him because… because Tom wouldn't do that to him. Ensuring his safety, maybe. Maybe Harry could even accept it some day. But ensuring fidelity meant something entirely else.

It was a violation. It was disregard for every conversation, every concession Harry had ever made when it came to this side of their possible relationship. Tom wouldn't simply ignore it, would he? He wouldn't force this choice on him when Harry hadn't even given his answer yet.

But he did. Tom did this. And instead of feeling guilty or ashamed, he was emanating such satisfaction and pleasure as if all his dreams had come true, and now nothing could sour this moment for him.

"It covers me, too," Tom added after a pause. "I won't be able to be unfaithful to you either. But we can discuss the details later. I think you need to rest now — the ritual was draining, and I don't believe you've fully recovered from the Sleeping Draught. Sorry about that, by the way," another grin flashed in his direction. "I know you wanted to talk about what you've shown me. I do, too. I merely wanted to get more important things out of the way first."

Taking Harry's hand again, Tom pressed a kiss to his wrist, letting his lips linger there.

"I know you might be angry now," he murmured, "but you will understand. I know you will. Sleep now, and tomorrow morning, we will talk more."

Harry couldn't make himself move, not even to nod.

Sending him a soft look, Tom left his room, closing the door shut.

THTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTHTH

The moment he was left alone, Harry was on his feet. With trembling hands, he summoned the first things he could think of — some clothes, some books; the photographs and the gifts. When this was packed, he stumbled towards the stairs, clutching his trunk, unable to believe what he was doing.

Numbness was a good feeling. It drowned out the pain and the horror he would inevitably feel when full realisation hit him. But he wasn't at that stage yet, and so he could think — and he could run. Running was his only choice.

He was at the front door when Tom's voice froze him in his tracks.

"Harry?"

The stairs creaked, and a moment later, Tom came downstairs. He held his wand in his hand, and Harry automatically clenched his own.

For a while, they stared at each other silently. Tom studied him, his clothes, his trunk, and his confusion shifted into tension as his body twisted, readying itself for attack.

"Where do you think you are going?" Tom asked coldly. The fact that it took him by surprise was the craziest thing in this crazy day, and Harry laughed hysterically, almost doubling over with it.

"Away from you," he said finally. Hysteria began to disperse the numbness, so he had to act quickly. "Did you think I was going to stay in this house?"

"This is your home," Tom told him with narrowed eyes. His wand went higher, and Harry mirrored his movement. "Our home."

"Not anymore," with a twisted smile, Harry backed away, letting his magic wrap itself around him protectively. "How can it be my home when I no longer feel safe here?"

The blow was powerful enough to make Tom suck in a breath.

"I didn't hurt you," he protested darkly. "You know you are safe here."

"Safe?" Harry would have laughed again, but he feared that this time, he wouldn't be able to stop. "You took the choice away from me. You destroyed the only thing I had to stop you from turning into him. You lied to me for years. You used my trust and my immortality to get what you want. And you expect me to feel safe with you?"

"Don't make this into something it's not!" Tom snapped. He began to approach him, and Harry instinctively jerked away, getting vindictive pleasure from how this movement seemed to hurt Tom.

He deserved it. This time, he deserved it.

"I did this for you and for us, not for me," Tom said more calmly. But this was an artificial calmness — anxiety and suspicion were swirling right under the surface, waiting to break free. "Let's talk about this. I wanted to give you some space, but if you want to discuss it now—"

"Oh, I'm going to get some space," Harry promised him. His voice shook, just as his hands and the rest of his body. A hot, devastating wave was rising from the depth, and he knew that he wouldn't be able to overcome it. It would break him into pieces, and when it happened, he had to be as far away from Tom as possible. "But it won't be here, and I'll be doing it on my own terms."

Tom's wand was now staring him in the face. The heat got worse, and Harry bent forwards slightly, trying to keep himself from collapsing.

"I'm leaving," he pushed out. "And I'm not coming back."

Shock, fear, and wrath distorted Tom's face. He crouched, and a threat that poured out of him was so potent that Harry had to take another step back.

"You won't dare," Tom snarled.

This was the worst thing he could possibly say. The wave crashed down, devouring everything sane and rational, and Harry growled out a spell. A temporary barrier snapped up between him and Tom just a second before Tom's Incarcerous touched him. He laughed at the sight of Tom's distraught face, feeling high from the unreality of everything that had been happening tonight.

"I will dare," Harry said breathlessly. "I'm going to leave you. I'm going to a place where you will never find me, no matter what that ritual of yours does. And I'm not going to come back. You got what you wanted from me — you can go on by yourself now."

Tom's deadly magic crashed into the barrier, crumpling it bit by bit. He was shaking, too, his eyes burning with madness, and if the wall separating them disappeared, Harry had no idea how this would end.

He wasn't going to test fate again. Enough was enough.

"Good-bye, Tom," he whispered.

In the next second, three things happened simultaneously. The barrier collapsed, Tom screamed, and Harry apparated, letting the whirl take him away.

A/N:

. .tragedies, thank you so much, I', so happy to hear that the chapter was compelling enough to pull out right out of bed :D Tom's POV will be after this chapter, I hope you'll enjoy it as well!

Miss-Nails-Black, probably it was everything at once :D Thank you, I'm glad you liked the chapter!

nickles1600, thank you, and sorry for the long wait! These chapters just refuse to stay of normal size, lol, so it takes a while to write them.

MusicInfiresMe, ah, thank you so much for all these wonderful words! I'm very excited that you enjoyed the last chapter this much, and I hope you liked this new one as well. Possessiveness is one of my most favorite topics in fiction, so I love writing and exploring it. I actually do write original fiction - I plan to publish a dark M/M romance soon. If you're interested, I'll let you know when I'm done!)

Muse-Dono, thank you - I hope this new chapter answered some of your questions :D Tom definitely needs to grow up for Harry in more ways than one before any real relationship is possible between them.

isylador, thank you so much!)

HoboHeartLover, haha, yes, although at this point, Tom knows many more spells to keep Harry form leaving :D Not that they worked.

Flower15 and Breesabry, thank you, hope you both liked this chapter!

noulis, wow, I'm glad you recalled the previous events quickly! The updates are rare, but I hope the size compensates for it. Thank you!

lalalamb, thank you for all your lovely comments! And yes, their actions definitely birth a whole array of different twisted consequences :D Also, I'm sorry to hear about your cat :( I lost my own this year, and I still haven't recovered. As for your question: yes, Harry knows he can't die. He already had several deaths from the start of this story, including when he hunted for Tom's ingredients and after Charlus.

olso6744, poor Harry, he can never catch a break :D

NikkiSqrl, thank you, I'm glad you like my writing!

Guest 1, thank you! :D I'm happy you found it engrossing.

pinkypong, thank you! Tom's indifference to others and his possessive love for Harry are shaping him into someone dangerous, although on a more individual scale rather than global one. Harry's ability to forgive and understand is legendary, but even his patience is going to snap one day.

arya304, thank you, I'm so happy you enjoyed this chapter! It was calm before the storm :D

Guest 2, ah, thank you! :D And I'm sorry for the long wait.

asian0music0lover, lol, yes, Tom embarrassed himself to an extent where he risked exploding from shame and mortification :D

Sarah Uchiwa, thank you! Hope you enjoyed the update.

Kira, thank you so much for your detailed, amazing comment! I'm so extremely happy that you liked this story. I'm glad you enjoyed the characters, even though they are definitely f*cked up, even Harry, after dealing with Tom on such a lengthy basis. The changing dynamic of their bond comes slowly, and it's definitely wrong on all accounts, but they are both helpless to resist it. I hope you liked this new giant of a chapter, too - we'll get Tom'd POV next.

JaiJayce, thank you! I'm really glad you like both Tom and Harry.

Knaruto, that's a fitting phrase for evety chapter because Tom *always* does something :D

littlepanther, I hope this chapter answered your questions!) Although we'll get a much more detailed reaction from Tom in the next chapter, when he has time to think about what he saw and to re-watch the memories.

IKaitoChanI, thank you, hope you'll stay tuned!

Gery O Donut, hello! I'm glad to see you back) Rivers keeps sensing something very wrong with Harry, but yeah, he constantly draws wrong conclusions. And this time, he chose a wrong person to appeal to. Harry never knows quite how to react to Tom's new ideas and desires, so he goes with his gut... and it doesn't always lead him to good places.

Kichigai17, haha, thank you! I'm glad you're rooting for them. This relationship is definitely twisted and wrong on many accounts, but for Tom and Harry, the rules and boundaries get thinner and thinner. They lose their grasp on what is normal and what is not. And don't worry, I'll definitely finish this story! I'm posting it on AO3, too, and it gets a lot attention - I'm very happy about it!

Normal Reader, thank you, I'm glad Tom comes across realistic to you!

Guest 3, thank you, and sorry the update took so long! It;s the longest chapter Ii've ever written))

pibs and highinpraise, thank you, guys, I'm happy you're enjoying this story! I hope you'll stay with it until it's finished - only two or three chapters are left.

lovebird, haha, thank you! Knowing you like it enough to re-read it is the best praise.

Guest 4, thank you, and I'm sorry for the long break!

ruinedsandwich, thank you for your comments! Yes, Harry going back in time to adopt Tom is one of my most favorite plots, I only wish we had more of them written and finished. I hope you enjoyed the update!

NikkiSqrl and Printedhydrq, thank you!)) Hope you liked this new chapter.