Author's Note: Thank you everyone for the reviews that you have given me. I can't thank you enough for your kindness in letting me know what you think of this story and, for those who are worried about the trail that this story will take: Harry's life has never been an easy one. This will be a difficult path for him, make no mistake about it, but it'll be worth it in the end. Please trust me on this? I promise that I will do my best to provide a worthwhile story for you all to read. :) I also don't want to spoil too much, but the two quotes that were partial inspiration for this story are: Norman B. Rice's "Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light." and Earl Nightingale's "We all walk in the dark and each of us must learn to turn on his or her own light."
Cen byþ cwicera gehwam, cuþ on fyre
blac ond beorhtlic, byrneþ oftust
ðær hi æþelingas inne restaþ.
Torch is known to every living man by its pale, bright flame;
it always burns where lords rest within.
It had been years, Harry acknowledged to himself as he stared outside the Hogwarts Express window, that he had considered returning to school a homecoming. The last time he had felt such a deep, grateful feeling of safety and warmth had been in second year: afterwards, however, each return to Hogwarts had morphed into the various descents of Dante's circles of Hell, one by one and year by year.
He realized what it felt like to be in the ninth level, drowning mercilessly within the first Round, in Caïna: trapped beneath the thick, icy sheet that covered Cocytus, breathing in freezing water as the upper levels of Hell stretched out above him, one amongst many damned souls, all "Livid, as far down as where shame appears, / Were the disconsolate shades within the ice, / Setting their teeth unto the note of storks. / Each one his countenance held downward bent."* The ninth circle of Hell, the level reserved for the most treacherous. Harry had once read the Inferno, back in his Muggle primary school. And, oh, how he finally understood: There was no such thing as redemption. Or forgiveness.
But it hadn't truly hit home until the train ride to Hogwarts, the start of Harry's third year, when he had bumped into the now-youngest Weasley and Ron had looked at him with burning, chocolate-dark eyes and had grabbed Hermione's hand to pull her away from Harry, all the while spitting out, "Stay the bloody hell away from me, murderer!"
It was that moment that Harry realized that the time spent down in the Chamber of Secrets with Tom Riddle had changed things in an irreparable manner for him, and that there was no going back. Ron blamed him for Ginny's death and had somehow managed to overcome Hermione's ever-logical arguments to coax her into blaming Harry for her being petrified for months, as well.
It hadn't seemed feasible; it hadn't seemed possible.
It certainly hadn't been fair.
But Ron's fury had known no bounds, and the redhead had been absolutely vengeful in his wrath. It wasn't long after that rumors began to spread about him—vicious, petty little things that echoed back to the time that people believed that he was the Heir of Slytherin after the snake incident…
And Harry had learned to stop caring.
Humans were fickle, capricious sorts: the Boy-Who-Lived had learned of that the hard way during his primary years when Dudley, Piers, and their gang of bullies had threatened anyone who made efforts to befriend Harry; humans were fickle, capricious sorts—and cowardly, too.
People stopped talking to him. They stopped looking at him. Soon enough, they stopped acknowledging his very presence. Harry had begun to stand alone, to be without partners during lessons, had sat at the end of the Gryffindor Table as the rest of the House talked over him. The professors had been concerned, of course, tried lecturing the other students to mellow their vitriol—but Ron never forgot, and he never forgave, and he made sure that no one else did, either.
And Harry had learned to stop caring.
Hogwarts became a place of apathy for him. Keeping to himself, Harry spent a great deal of time alone in the library, tucked away in a corner that was hardly ever used (and then used not at all when he had started frequenting it) and idly flying on the Quidditch Pitch, playing a Seeker's game with himself, after Harry had been kicked off of the team.
He studied, he learned, and it was so easy to draw parallels now between the Muggle and the wizarding world—so incredibly easy now, as well, to see just where Tom got most of his venom from. But Harry prided himself on not being the Dark Lord, and so instead of lashing out the way that Tom did, he withdrew into himself. Introverted and silent, his vert eyes hardened to jade and became an effortless mask. Oftentimes, he went days without speaking a single word.
As the student population began to turn their backs to him, Tom began to summon Harry more and more: going over plans with the young teen, dark eyes bright as he talked about how he would take over the wizarding world—the changes that he would make, the power that he would have, the suffering that others would feel at his hands; and Harry felt only despair and hopelessness.
Despite it all, though, there still remained a core part of himself that couldn't give up fighting—small acts of rebellion against the now-young Dark Lord. He would pull away from Tom when the other boy would attempt to draw him close, murmur how he had no thoughts on this opinion or that when the other questioned him. The first time that Tom had tried to kiss him, the day that Harry turned fourteen, the green-eyed Gryffindor had bit the Dark Lord.
Seeing the fury at being denied something that Tom had expected to receive on a silver platter… it sparked a wick to life, and it reminded Harry that though he was collared and chained to this boy before him, he was still his own person. He had never broken beneath the Dursleys' treatment of him, and Harry refused to bow beneath this Dark Lord's. It felt good, petty though it was, to constantly deny Tom something that he obviously wanted. It gave Harry power, and it was a constant charm to ward off the apathy that had slowly been taking over his life.
The wick caught aflame:
And though it was a realization years belated, Harry came to terms with the fact that Ginny's death had not been his fault, no matter what Ron thought or what he got other people to say or think. He had genuinely cared about the sweetly blushing girl, and Harry had tried his best to save her. Yes, it hadn't been enough—but he was only human. He was human, could not perform miracles no matter what other people thought, and it dawned on him just how incredibly lucky he had been to have even survived his battle with Quirrell in the first year.
Luck sometimes ran out.
His luck had run out.
But what mattered, the point that people seemed to forget, was that he had tried his best.
It had taken two years, but Harry had finally come to terms with himself and the events of the Chamber of Secrets. Slowly, he began to respond more quickly, more thoroughly to Tom—oftentimes snarkily, which earned him punishments—and despite how Hogwarts still managed to dull his spirits, Harry was alive. Bound, a servant, a slave, but alive—and he would make the most of that life if he could. The only person who would ever have the power to dominate him was himself, and Harry wasn't willing to accept that any longer. He would live the best to his abilities, the most that was possible, even under Tom Riddle's dominion.
The die had been cast, but Harry refused to give up his soul.
The attacks on Azkaban came during fifth year.
Harry hadn't been allowed to participate in them and had stayed within the wards of Hogwarts to instead act as a magical reservoir for Tom—after which Harry had been shaky and exhausted for days after (and had had the pleasure of sending off his first Howler, something that the Dark Lord had not appreciated). But the winter of fifth year—oh, it had been absolutely amazing because Harry had been gifted with something that he had always wanted: a family.
Tom had rescued Sirius Black from his cell in Azkaban with the rest of his Death Eaters. While the Dark Lord never bothered to begin exonerating Sirius and proving his innocence (why should he when Pettigrew was still one of his Death Eaters and a perfect spy within Hogwarts?), he had still freed the Black heir and had handed him over to Harry. However, the arrogant Dark Lord still forced Sirius to remain within the dungeons. But at least there weren't any Dementors.
Harry's link to his parents, his past, a time when he had probably last been truly happy and content with his life—pathetic, he knew, in that the criteria only fit during the time when he was a baby. But the teen was honest with himself, at least, and that realization had been the truth. He had visited Sirius every day during the holidays after Portkeying away from the Dursleys', and Harry had spent the time nursing the blind man back to health whenever Tom didn't require his presence.
The first time that Sirius had the strength to speak, the House of Black scion called him "James," and it was then that Harry had finally realized just how truly broken this innocent, decrepit man was—and Harry's heart broke in turn.
But he couldn't help but love Sirius despite it all; to do any less would make him more of a monster than Tom, and it was something that Harry refused to find acceptable. So he loved his godfather, his true family—no matter the fact that Sirius spent more time calling him "James" or "Prongs" than "Harry." The times that he was lucid, however, and a whispered, beaten-down "Harry" trembled from his lips…
It was so hard for Harry not to fall completely apart and cry.
The Marked teen slowly withdrew from his melancholic memories, not wanting to be lost in them throughout the ride to Hogwarts; it didn't matter that it was the journey itself that inspired such dark, lingering thoughts—a testament that showed in how the compartment that the teen was in had remained empty despite how the train overflowed with students—and Harry smiled slightly as he leaned forward to press his forehead against the cool glass of the windowpane.
Seventh year at Hogwarts.
The farce wouldn't be lasting for much longer—and it was that sole thought that brought a slow, contented smile to Harry's lips: the thought that he would no longer have to return to this not-home, would no longer have to deal with the hostile stares of those who were supposedly his peers. True, it also meant that Tom would then expect him to attend on the Dark Lord thoroughly, but at least Harry could admit—if only in the inner sanctity of his mind—that he preferred Tom's open, deliberate sadism to Hogwarts' thoughtless, casual cruelty.
Seventh year at Hogwarts.
Harry's smile grew.
The first surprise of the year came during the Welcoming Feast.
Despite the responsibilities that the Dark Lord had in overseeing Britain and playing Headmaster for Hogwarts, Tom had decided that—just for this year—he would be taking over the Dark Arts class for the seventh years. Harry personally thought that it was because Tom wanted to make sure that he was keeping up with his assigned reading, a particular thought that made the Gryffindor huff in exasperation.
The announcement had been made by Professor McGonagall, her accent thick with angry disapproval—disapproval that she had learned not to voice, not after Tom and his forces had managed to chase Headmaster Dumbledore from Britain—while the student body gaped up at her in shock. The Dark Lord intended to personally teach the seventh years Dark Arts (though years one through six was still taught by Barty Crouch Jr.). There was fear in the whispers, awe in the murmurs, rebellion in the looks that were sent to the Head Table where the Dark Lord sat quietly sipping his goblet of wine, hiding a pleased smirk behind the silver rim.
The rebellion, of course, mainly came from the Gryffindor Table—and Harry couldn't help but wonder just how many Crucios and other Dark curses Tom Riddle would be tossing out before the end of the first class. The Dark Lord didn't even have the best of temperament with his own followers—and those men and women had sworn their loyalty to them.
Change that to mutinous seventeen year-olds, dead-set on proving their leonine bravery?
Sipping his pumpkin juice, Harry idly let his musings wander, considering absently just how long it would take before the first death would occur—and just who from his House it would be. He pondered, too, as to how productive it would be to begin a betting pool with himself. At least he would keep himself entertained with it.
Perhaps he should have expected it.
But, honestly, Harry hadn't.
The vitriol that he was faced with day after day had never mellowed, had never softened—the spite and malice had always remained, and the green-eyed teen had resigned himself to another year of it. It was just a year, after all, less than that, truthfully. A year was made up of twelve months and Harry only had to attend Hogwarts for ten: September through June, and then he would be finished.
It was as Harry was following the rest of his fellow Gryffindors up to their Tower lair that they, as a collective whole, and the seventh years from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, rounded on him and cornered the Potter heir in an abandoned classroom. Everyone crowded close, and a tense excitement, a feeling of expectation and elation, filled the air.
Harry watched them from beneath his lashes, face as blank as it ever was during Death Eater meetings, despite the fact that his mask hid his expressions, anyway, and the teen waited for the others to have the first word.
Shockingly, it was a Hufflepuff that made the first move. "Harry, mate, now's your chance."
"Yeah!" several other people agreed excitedly, some students clapping and all of them looking to the boy with the chartreuse eyes with faces that shone with hope and delight and confidence in the slim figure of the Potter heir.
Harry, however, quirked an eyebrow at them all. "It's my chance for what?" he asked simply. It was so easy to play the naïve fool, but the bitterness within him would allow for nothing less—would allow for nothing less for these children to spell out, exactly, what it was that he knew that they wanted of him.
Some of the expressions looked briefly taken aback, lips parting in surprise, and it was Seamus Finnigan who then stopped forward; disposition cheery, he lightly clapped his fellow Housemate upon the shoulder, beaming happily at Harry while his face glowed with pride. "Now's your chance to finish You-Know-Who off! We have a class with him—what better chance will you get?"
The Potter heir slowly raised an eyebrow. "Why would I do any of that?"
The inquiry stunned nearly all of the students, and it was a sputtering Ron who stepped forward to look at Harry as if the boy had grown a second head. "Why would you do it?" he asked, incredulous. "You're the Boy-Who-Lived! You defeated You-Know-Who when you were a baby! Now's your chance to finish him off again, this time once and for all!"
The apathy that he felt towards these witches and wizards faded, if only for a moment, and Harry's temper sparked to life. The look that he gave the students surrounding him was hard: many of them flinched beneath it, and several even took a step backwards, away from the iconic Gryffindor. How dare they. The hypocrisy...
"Let me get this straight," Harry murmured. He never raised his voice to a shout, but—then again—there was no need to. His tone was sharp enough to have cut through any conversation that might have sprung up around him. "The lot of you have shunned me and referred to me as a murderer for something that wasn't my fault since the end of second year, before which most of you had ignored me after thinking me the Heir of Slytherin. The end of second, and all of third, fourth, fifth, and sixth years, you lot considered me the Spawn of Satan and I didn't even have a bloody friend. And now that the Dark Lord is in the school on a permanent basis, you expect me to go after him and defeat him in some epic duel? Are you all serious? Really?"
The answer to their expectations came in Harry's derisive laughter.
He was so bitter. And so tired and weary, so completely and utterly done with them all.
Hermione was the one who next posed the argument, and Harry wasn't surprised at all over which tactic she attempted to put into use. Emotional guilt, hints towards his responsibilities, had worked so well before. Remind Harry of his duty, the teen thought angrily, green eyes flashing warningly at the girl; remind Harry of his duty and he'll go jumping at the chance to prove himself. "You're the scion of the Light, Harry," Hermione said, voice soft and coaxing, completely unaware of Harry's venomous thoughts. "The Boy-Who-Lived. It's your destiny to fight and defeat You-Know-Who."
Harry looked out over all of the students' expectant, hopeful faces, and verdigris eyes turned hard and unsympathetic as he remembered the pain that these children had put him through and the pain that he had suffered at having no one to turn to as Tom Riddle had dragged him deeper and deeper into the Abyss. And then there had been no going back because Harry had Fallen too far.
Years, these children had pushed him to the outskirts for their own malicious, petty closed-mindedness—and it was only now out of desperation and cowardice that they even bothered to look at him.
He was so bloody tired of being the wizarding world's whipping boy—the Savior one moment, the boy who everyone could depend upon to save them in their true hour of need, and then the blackest of the black the next, the type of wizard who mothers whispered about in the midnight hour as the starlight faded to true oblivion: "You must always be careful and always mind your manners or I shall summon the Boy-Who-Lived to whisk you away." The fluxuating opinions were disgusting, and it demonstrated just how truly shallow these people were. And, if only for a moment, Harry pitied Tom for having to rule them all. Sheep. They were all bloody sheep.
"Destiny can go hang," Harry said. "And you lot can join her."
He left them all gaping as he headed up to bed.
* Dante's Inferno; Canto XXXII