A/N: Yeah… I'm really back. So, thanks to my stupid brother and his virus hunt, I lost every single file on my PC, and not just videos or music. Fuck that.

I LOST ALL MY GODDAMN CHAPTERS, of every single story I've written, published or otherwise. God, the depression I fell into was awful; I couldn't even go anywhere near the site, not to mention I nearly bashed my brother's head with the same PC he ruined.

Anyway, I finally persuaded myself to give this another go, so I hope you like it.

CHAPTER TWENTY

He didn't know how much time had passed, but he did know it must have been long enough for the blessed effects of the Pepper-Up to have run their course.

He was aching all over, and he meant that quite literally. From the roots of his hair, down to his toes, every single nerve felt like it was pulled taut and then set on fire just for the heck of it. He didn't know if it was because he had physically exerted himself for the first time since his enforced punishment, or something was seriously wrong with his body.

It should have been more unnerving a notion, but Harry couldn't particularly bring himself to care after everything that had occurred.

"Is it…" he croaked, then coughed and tried again, "Is it time for round two?" His voice still didn't come out as nothing but a soft murmur, but Harry considered it better than nothing.

Eyelids fluttering open sluggishly, he just stared at the grey ceiling, somewhat disoriented at not having met the high, stone ceiling of the dungeons.

Where was he?

Emerald orbs drifted downward, instantly catching the crimson gaze that was already centered upon his person, unwavering and unblinking, but Harry had become too used to being at the receiving end of such prolonged stares from the Dark Lord to even bat an eye.

The older wizard was seated at a velvety armchair that had been positioned at the very foot of the bed Harry was laying on, legs crossed at the ankles and fingers stippled together in his lap. His posture was fairly relaxed, Harry noted absentmindedly, but his face…

Nothing good had ever come from all the times he had witnessed a perfectly blank expression on Voldemort's face, none at all.

It was like a mirage, pulling you in with its false security and lack of eminent danger, only for chaos to break loose when you made the grave mistake of dropping your guard.

Harry swallowed conspicuously, hoping it would be interpreted as him clearing his parched throat.

Those luminous red eyes blinked, slowly, pointedly.

Sufficiently cowed by the gesture – because that's exactly what it was – Harry felt stranded on entirely unfamiliar waters. The constant buzzing in the back of his head that resonated from the ever present link between them wasn't letting on much, it actually felt rather calm.

And if that wasn't cause for mass panic, Harry couldn't really think of something else right then and there.

"…What're you thinking?"

….

On his defense, subtlety had never been one of his strong points.

At least his voice finally started showing signs of cooperation.

Another slow, contemplative blink, and Voldemort tilted his head almost curiously as he regarded him. "Wondering, actually."

Harry tentatively wet his lips. "About?" he pressed, certain the man didn't plan on humoring him a second time.

But the Dark Lord surprised him by obliging him yet again, "You, your elusive band of renegades, Neville Longbottom, you, my new Headquarters, you, you, you…" Scarlet orbs flashed ominously. "You." The finality stuffed in that single, conclusive word was steeped with several layers of severity.

'Aren't we awfully honest today,' Harry thought sardonically, perfectly aware the other would hear him, and resolutely ignoring his quickening pulse.

Was he even supposed to address any of those musings, and if so, where to start?

Was any of it up for discussion, or had the Dark Lord already made his decisions?

Neville…

His friends and the Order were far away, hopefully out of reach for the time being. Neville on the other hand…"What did you do with him?"

A perfectly arched eyebrow met his question, "'Him'?"

Harry felt his hackles rise. "Don't play dumb with me. You know exactly whom I'm talking about."

There was a miniscule upturn at the corners of the wizard's lips, "Perhaps."

"Tom!" Harry seethed, having had more than enough of the Dark Lord's games, only to find himself lifted by the front of his t-shirt and straight into the air. He cried out, the sudden, harsh movement jostling his sore limbs and sending multiple sizzles of pain throughout his entire body.

Unbothered, the invisible force pulled him down the length of the bed with seemingly no effort at all, until he was suspended inches away from Voldemort's livid face.

The transition between that calm, unreadable façade and the positively ballistic one he was currently sporting was so impossibly quick that, despite his manhandling, Harry found himself stricken speechless. "You cannot possibly begin to fathom," Voldemort snarled, punctuating his words by the appropriate shaking of Harry's form, "how absolutely loathsome I find the continued existence of every single one of your meddling, little pests."

The magic that was keeping him aloft abruptly vanished, letting him land with a choked exhale back on the mattress.

Shit, that had felt like the very air had been knocked out of his lungs.

He tried to lift himself on his elbows, teeth sinking into the flesh of his lip to cut off any noise that might have escaped, eyes narrowing into a furious glare at the haughty smirk that greeted him.

"Rest assured, darling. I plan to be rid of them soon…very soon."

It didn't take more than that for Harry's blood to run cold.

Dismissing him for the moment, Voldemort turned to the side. The Elder Wand materializing between his fingers, he aimed it at the corner, right beneath the single only window of the bedroom and made a swift, slashing motion in the air. A faint simmering could be spotted, like ripples on a liquid surface, and in the previously empty space, a silver cage appeared.

An overly familiar, silver cage.

Harry blanched. 'Wha-? No way!'

Another wave of that deadly wand and Hedwig was sitting up, fully revived from what must have surely been the Stunning spell, and puffed out her chest, round golden eyes drilling holes into Voldemort.

"Hedwig," he called out, shaken and assaulted by an eerie foreboding, because it really couldn't be a mere coincidence that she was there right in the middle of another one of his confrontations with the Dark Lord.

The snow-white owl swiveled her head to the side at the sound of his voice, wings stretching and sliding through and against the bars the moment she spotted him.

A loud hoot was issued right after, shriller than ever.

His girl somehow managed to sound both admonishing and relieved with a single sound.

"Your pet," Voldemort said, causing Harry's focus to shift targets, "was the one that led Neville Longbottom and two other people, a witch and a wizard, right up to the Manor – the very much warded Manor."

The teen was starting to sweat; he could feel the cold, wet beads on his skin, sure to join all the grime he had accumulated over the last couple of days.

"She…" he licked his far too dry lips, "She's always had a way to come to me… despite there being wards in place."

"So I gathered," came the drawled reply, Voldemort looking away from him and towards the caged, vulnerablebird.

Harry was seriously starting to panic.

He didn't like this in the least.

"Look," he hurried to speak, needing to avert Voldemort's attention back to himself, ironically enough. He really, really didn't like the way the other was looking at his owl, "I didn't think she'd actually come back when I sent her away, and with backup no less. I swear I didn't."

"I'm sure," Voldemort said, but it was too noncommittal and the man had yet to glance away from the twitchy, glaring bird and Harry was seriously running out of ideas.

Mind coming up horrifyingly blank, Harry hauled himself into a sitting position and promptly ignored his screaming muscles when he made to crawl on hands and knees to the bottom of the bed, where the Dark Lord was standing still as a statue in his silent perusal.

"Tom," Harry actually managed to keep his voice from cracking and though Voldemort didn't give any indication of having heard him, red eyes jerked down to his face the instant the sleeve of his outer robe was caught loosely between bold fingers.

He had never thought it possible to be so glad under the unrelenting intensity of that hellish stare.

"I won't let her out of that cage again." He would sacrifice her freedom if it meant she would get to keep her life. She would probably end up hating him, but Harry couldn't think about anything beyond the deafening noise of his rushing blood, so loud and demanding in his ears. "I'll keep her out of trouble…so don't-…"

'Don't take her away too…'

Voldemort simply looked at him for the longest time, observing him, studyinghim.

He didn't know how long they stayed like that, but when long, warm fingers came in contact with his cheek, Harry jumped, started out of the prolonged contact.

Those pale digits stroked his flesh, leisure in their journey, as though savoring every moment of it, and Harry could only sit there, jaw slightly ajar at the absolutely enamored look on Voldemort's face. It heightened the perfection of those features, giving them a vivid, otherworldly quality that made Harry's throat seize up.

Voldemort bestowed him with a beatific smile as he leaned closer, lips a mere breath away from the teen's own.

"So sweet to behold…your turmoil. It makes me want to do so, so much worse."

Except for an instinctive flinch backwards, Harry had no time to react.

The Dark Lord was already brandishing his wand, and Harry only caught sight of a violently purple jet shooting towards Hedwig, the slight widening of those round, gold orbs before a hand fell over his eyes, effectively obscuring everything else.

He tried to jerk away but Voldemort's free hand cradled the back of his head, ensuring there was no room to move back.

The piercing sound of an explosion rang out, reverberating against the walls and rooting Harry to the spot.

The hands he had on Voldemort's chest, in his vain attempt to shove the man away, clenched reflexively the fabric they were in contact with, unable to stifle the tremors that started from the pads of his fingers and steadily spread to the rest of his body. The cold sweat he was drenched in served as fuel, making him shake uncontrollably under the combined assault of the suddenly unbearable cold and the crippling denial.

He refused to believe it, absolutely refused to!

It was a trick; another one of Voldemort's sick, twisted games.

Voldemort released him, the hand on the back of his head being the first to go before the one over his eyes followed at a slower pace.

Involuntarily, the very moment his vision adjusted to the light, Harry's head snapped to the side, only for his brain to short-circuit. The mess seemed to have been contained only to the corner, the dark red, gooey splotches of something nowhere near reach of the two wizards.

It…was a joke…right?

The illusions must have sneaked back without Harry noticing them.

They must have…

It was the only explanation.

A keening sound that was a mixture between a sob and a whimper rose from the recesses of Harry's throat, drawn-out and raw.

The tears came next, first a single drop of liquid wetness that soon morphed into streaming trails down his face. They blurred his sight to the point the only thing he could discern was an expanse of red; no details, just red.

Red.

Red.

…Red…

"No…" he moaned, and the onslaught of tears increased if only to spite him.

He had been walking apparently, feet shuffling unconsciously towards where his Hedwig was, when fingers coiled around his forearm, stopping him in his tracks.

The familiar touch not only snapped him out of his reverie but also set his body on fire.

His blood, icy-cold in his veins, was now boiling hot.

With an animalistic, primitive shout, Harry turned on the Dark Lord, using the flicker of surprise he witnessed across the older wizard's face to bodily push him backward. Lost in the momentum, they fell onto the bed.

Harry wasted no time to climb over the other, knees viciously digging into Voldemort's sides to remain upright and both hands fastening zealously over that pale throat.

It was sinfully tempting.

The stretch of flesh was like an unmarred, white canvas and Harry simply longed to squeeze a little more, to paint it with black and purple images, dark patterns that would only bloom further the more pressure he applied, until the Dark Lord's wheezing breath came to a stuttering halt.

Harry hissed in pleasure.

Sweet, blissful relief.

Oh, he had no doubt. It would be euphoric.

Attentive scarlet pools were boring into his face, drinking in every detail; the way Harry sucked in a deep breath, the parted lips, the fine dusting of red that adorned those high cheekbones, and the way the teen's lower body jerked almost imperceptibly forward.

Everything and anything was absorbed savagely.

Pupils dilating into the thinnest of lines, Voldemort took hold of Harry's hips, the snare around his throat all but forgotten as the heated, vice-like, sinful touch caused the boy's back to arch so beautifully, followed by another uncontrolled thrust.

"You would relish in it."

A statement.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Harry bent abruptly down, and in mimicry of the position the Dark Lord had initiated, brought his mouth scant inches away from the wizard's.

"Every. Fucking. Minute. Of. It."

Voldemort laughed then, a high, delirious laugh that had Harry scooting back in alarm.

Painstakingly slow, Voldemort sobered up, favoring him with a sharp, challenging smile. "Promises, promises."

Harry snarled, tightening his grip on the man's exposed throat and yet the Dark Lord didn't react in the slightest.

"You think I can't do this? Even when we both know I have it in me?"

Just like that, all traces of humor vanished from Voldemort's face. He withdrew both hands, letting them fall limp on the covers. "Go on, then."

The taunt wasn't even disguised, plain and clear as day.

But Harry was already coming back to his senses, blinking and breathing deeply through the nose. He recognized this. It felt similar to the rare occasions Ron and he had had one Butterbeer too many. He felt drunk. He didn't want to admit it before, but power…power could be really intoxicating.

It was addictive.

Harry had been high on it, and it wasn't the first time, either. He had experienced it before, with Voldemort's Death Eaters.

The sensation when he had realized he could actually overpower them…

The teen shuddered reflexively.

…Words weren't enough to describe the heady rush that had made his very blood sing.

Or the shameful thrill that had raced through him at the warring expressions of reluctant awe and a novel terror they had obviously never thought they would have to associate with Harry Potter.

Unprepared to continue down that train of thought and everything it would entail, Harry growled instead, "You killed her. You fucking blew up my owl, you sadistic asshole!"

At once, those blazing red irises darkened, a hard, steely sheen falling over them. In perfect tune with the Dark Lord's rising temper, pressure began to form around his own throat warningly; a blatant show of power the purpose of which was solely to prove that Harry currently had the upper hand simply because he was allowed to.

Like a harmless little cub that was given free leeway to test its claws on a mature, adult lion just so it would learn how to put its born skills to use.

A reprimanding bite to the ear, however, was all it would take for the cub to skulk away, sulking and with its tail between its legs the moment it would get carried away and overstep its boundaries.

But that was where the overwhelming difference lay.

Harry had been forced to shed his lion fur a long time ago, by none other than the Dark Lord himself.

Teeth bared, Harry pointedly strengthened his own hold in retaliation, "You killed her," he persisted, undeterred, "even though you knew how much she meant to me."

His girl…

His precious, beautiful girl.

She had gone through thick and thin with him, and she had been the only companion he had during his isolation with the Dursleys. No matter where he was, his devoted owl would always find a way to him. Not to mention, during his stay at the Dark Lord's headquarters, she had been the only link he had with the outside world, a small reminder of his life before his imprisonment.

"My Hedwig," he whispered brokenly, shoulders caving.

Harry suddenly gasped, rattled as his hands were forcefully dislodged, wrists captured between unrelenting fingers and body bent backwards the moment Voldemort sat up, invading the teen's personal space to the point they were nearly nose to nose.

"Of course I did," the Dark wizard hissed, looking as enraged as he sounded, "and she was merely the stepping stone. I have already acquired everything that Longbottom could possibly have to offer. It's his turn now."

"No!" Harry yelled, thrashing and pulling, and he had half a mind to just bite those blasted digits off if they didn't let him go, when Voldemort's next words froze him on the spot.

"I told you already. I won't allow anyone to take you away from me, be it man, woman, child or animal. No one!"

The teen's brow furrowed into a fierce scowl, gaze hardening. "I hate you," he spat through gritted teeth, only to have those dark red lips twitch to the side.

"No, you don't."

Voldemort released him, regarding him with something akin to wonderment, "The one person entitled more than anyone to hate me, and you don't."

Bringing his hands close to his chest, Harry glowered, "Because you say so?"

"Because I know so."

Whatever he meant to say was promptly cut off.

"We're too alike, you and I."

"…I'm nothing like you."

It sounded faint, even to Harry himself, and he hated how he had actually paused before saying it, but there was no denying it anymore; that cruel, twisted part of him that was capable of equally monstrous things, awful things, and the worst part?

He didn't know whether it was the Horcrux or just plain him.

"Aren't you?" Voldemort peered into his eyes, an unnecessary action – considering he had ready access to his head – that was only meant to jar him.

Shake him up here, unsettle him there and Harry, feeling suffocated already, took the bait and glanced away. Contented with his victory, the Dark Lord pulled back, allowing Harry the luxury of breathing a little more freely again.

"We know each other better than we actually know ourselves."

The admission had the teen growing rigid.

"Yesss," the Dark Lord purred, the abrupt change in languages making Harry's flesh erupt in goosebumps, "you have thought ssso yourssself, haven't you, my treasssure?"

Lips pursed tightly together, Harry shook his head adamantly, refusing to so much as look anywhere near the older wizard.

Magnificent plan…

Right up until his chin was grasped and his head maneuvered to its previous position.

In retrospect, he really should have seen that one coming. Being refused had never sat particularly well with the Dark Lord.

…A wonderful little fact that had Harry mentally wincing, seeing as it only proved Voldemort's point.

"Good boy."

Harry bristled at the praise, yet again treated as if he were some sort of pet, but the way Voldemort was looking at him gave him pause. He couldn't help it; he gulped automatically. Those smoldering irises were practically alight, burning with a heat that had Harry suddenly self-conscious. He made to move away, realizing rather belatedly that remaining seated in Voldemort's lap might not be the wisest idea. A hand shot out, cupping over his thigh with the intention of keeping him in place, and Harry wasn't quick enough to stifle a gasp from slipping out.

He was instantly reminded of not too long ago, when he –

His face flamed. Merlin, what had gotten into him?! He…he normally wasn't like that.

Harry's fingers fumbled to the side, wrapping around the Dark Lord's wrist and tugging insistently. "T-Tom," He would have cursed himself for stuttering if he wasn't so utterly horrified with the rough quality his voice had attained, "let go."

He was starting to feel dangerously light-headed. He needed to move, and he had to do it now.

The Dark Lord outright ignored him, not once looking away from his face.

Harry hated how his treacherous body responded to that stare, heart pounding almost violently against his ribcage and seriously questioning his mentality now more than ever. This – this was beyond his comprehension.

For the briefest of moments, Voldemort glanced down at Harry's mouth before jerking his eyes back to the teen's.

The devastatingly ravenous look that had crossed his features just then, had Harry shuddering, giving him the impression he would be swallowed whole.

He was panicking. If Voldemort were to…

He couldn't deal with something like that right now, it was too overwhelming.

"Don't," he pleaded, breathing heavily. "You can't – just…just don't."

Harry didn't know what did it, whether it was the cagy edge to his voice, or the irrefutable fact he was currently nursing a major breakdown that promised to be much too awful if the Dark Lord kept on traipsing all over him. In any case, Voldemort did withdraw, pushing Harry off and to the side before rising to his feet, jaw set and expression closed off.

"I have removed any remaining traces of the toxin from your system, and the snakes were ordered to not provide you with more doses. Given time, the tincture of your blood should return to normal."

'My…blood?' Harry was lost, and though torn between concerned for that ominous reassure and dizzy from all the blood that had been insistent about being stationed to his head only seconds ago, he ended up dangerously close to panic when Voldemort moved towards the door.

"Wait!" he cried out, Voldemort's arm being tugged backwards by invisible strings as if in direct response.

Not finding encouraging in the least the lack of any reaction whatsoever, Harry hastened to speak up, "Clean it up. You can't leave that – that mess here. You can't."

He would do it himself, but he seriously doubted his wandless magic, despite the advances it had made, could actually pull something like that off in the state he was currently in. Knowing his luck, he would probably end up spreading the red – intestines and little bits of flesh that had been his owl only awhile back – substance all over the room.

He had to force down the bile.

"Oh?" Voldemort angled his head just a fraction, enough to peer at Harry over his shoulder without facing him fully, "And if I did this for you, what would I earn in exchange?"

Harry's fingers entangled in the fabric of the covers, nearly tearing them. "Seriously?" he sneered, "You want to make me do this now? 'Cause even though I don't hate you," and it physically pained him to admit it to himself, let alone to the Dark Lord, "I'm going to end up hating this, and you really don't want that, do you?"

He chuckled derisively, shaking his head. "Of course not. You want me willing."

Voldemort remained impassive, nothing short of composed in the face of the stinging, corrupt truths that Harry had desperately tried to ignore. In the end, the Dark Lord merely blinked placidly back at him. "What is it you dread most? That a single kiss from me would feel unbearably good, or that it would feel right?" With a single flare of his own magic, Harry's was brushed off like it was nothing and without another backwards glance, Voldemort left.

The sound of the door being locked was unmistakable – reinforced with magical means, no doubt – and Harry was left only with the dead and a fucked up mind for company.

Seeing as staying in the same room with Hedwig's remains wasn't even an option, Harry lifted himself on unsteady feet, briefly wondering if this was how newborn foals felt like, and relying mostly on the walls for support he made his way towards the en-suite bathroom.

He caught only a glimpse of dark blue tiles and extravagant décor while in the process of closing the door behind him. Then, he slid to the floor, lay down on his side and just shut everything out.

His mind was reeling.

Harry knew he couldn't simply pretend nothing had happened, no matter how much he wanted to walk away from his messed up reality. Cowardice never had much appeal to him.

No, he wasn't running away from it all, he just –

He didn't know how to even make head or tails of the situation.

Hand shifting to let his palm come in direct contact with the hard tiles, he took a moment to breathe in, allowing the tiles' coldness to ground him and soothe along the ragged edges of his nerves.

Alright, first things first. He had to get to Neville.

If Voldemort's words were any indication, he was planning on disposing of his friend very soon.

'He could be doing it right now,' his mind supplied helpfully, but Harry shook it off.

No, the satisfaction Voldemort was bound to feel at ridding Harry of one more connection, one more bond, would be broadcasted in as loud frequencies as possible. He was certain of that. Which meant that the older wizard was giving his attention on some other business, but that didn't necessarily equate to Neville being safe.

He could be in a fatal state right now, suffering the aftereffects of a private session with the Dark Lord, or he was being tortured at the very moment, discarded over to the Death Eaters for target practice now that he was no longer needed. And what information could Voldemort have forced out of him anyway?

Harry's mind had already provided him plenty; especially where it concerned their Headquarters.

At least the adults in the Order should have enough sense to clear out of Grimmauld Place in the scenario it was compromised.

Back to the matter at hand, Harry really needed to find a way to Neville, and that alone was practically impossible given his current condition. Actually getting him to safety seemed too unfathomable a possibility. Harry blamed it on running only on Nutrient potions for energy. His body would have been much more willing if he had been given even a single bite each day of his punishment, or caught a wink of actual sleep.

Harry frowned, toying with the idea that Voldemort had had the forethought to keep his body sufficiently crippled of any fight for a case like this.

Admittedly, something like that was too horrifying, even as nothing but a mere consideration.

The vile reminder of his punishment, no matter how brief, was more than enough for Harry's lips to tremble imperceptibly and he had to clench his eyes tight, ashamed at how utterly consumed by fear he had become. It was like a conditioned response now, like it had been drilled into him to react a certain way at a single mention of the hallucinations.

And at the bane of it all was none other than the Dark Lord, the permanent fixture in Harry's life ever since he could recall.

Only now Voldemort had upped his repertoire, seemingly driven by the sole desire to see Harry suffer – or bend until he broke. Whichever came first.

An image flashed unbidden to the forefront of his mind, of a hand over his eyes that mocked the horrible claims that had preceded it about the sweetness of his pain, saving him from the irreparable damage the violent, horrendous end of his owl would have undoubtedly trampled him under.

Consequently, his brain supplied him with his recent encounter with Neville.

"No?"

"No."

Such a simple word, and yet, had it actually been yes Neville would be –

Harry's breathing was turning alarmingly fast.

Voldemort had stopped him. If it wasn't for him, Harry would have taken Neville's life himself. He would have killed him. The easiness with which he would have done it came back to him, the staggering clarity of it emerging in the form of a horrified gasp for breath.

Why…why would Voldemort do that?

Was it because he still had some use for Neville at the time? To get the information he wanted? Of course. That must have been the reason.

Because having Harry's fragile mental state for motivation made nearly as much sense as keeping him from witnessing Hedwig's grotesque demise; which was no sense at all.

It was entirely preposterous.

As was Voldemort's apparent craving of owning everything that made Harry up.

Voldemort…Voldemort had ruined his entire life – and gifted him with a new one, a free existence.

Harry gingerly rose to all fours, breathing irregular and pulse hammering a fierce tempo right into his head.

It was Voldemort that imprisoned him in the first place, forcefully removed him from the one place he called home – enabling Harry to finally grow into himself, into the Equal he had recognized him as many years ago.

No! He had been perfectly satisfied with his life!

Always so weak, powerless to save those that mattered. Weak, powerless, vulnerable!

Quivery fingers darted to his throat, frantic to ease the pressure against his windpipe only to find nothing on his skin, no obstacle, and yet…

Voldemort had hurt him, subjected him to horrors that would haunt him for the rest of his life – but preserved him from the ones that would destroy him beyond repair.

He killed Remus, and Hedwig, and Dumbledore and -!

And kept him for the one person that could ever accept all aspects of him, the monster and the human, the deadly and the pure.

…and yet he was being strangled, inhaling and exhaling air too rapidly to put it to its proper use, panting and gasping and clawing at the floor.

He couldn't – couldn't breathe right.

The black spots assaulting his vision only made him panic more, and Harry couldn't breathe, not properly, not at all. They swarmed him, growing and expanding in size until he felt their presence like a physical weight, like he was being crushed underneath them until he smothered.

Then, the blackness enveloped him and Harry ceased to be.

Then, he just was.

*)&(*

"Considering you just escaped from here, I find it rather foolish you willingly chose to return, or incredibly masochistic. Take your pick."

The all too familiar, snarky comments clued him in as to where he was long before he decided to open his eyes. Meeting that high ceiling when he did came as no surprise. "I spent I don't know how many days here," Harry quipped back, "It's all I've known…for a long time."

An eternity, it seemed to him, and as his gaze darted around he found it disturbing that nothing seemed out of place.

Even the holes and the protruding spikes were there.

"You reconstructed it perfectly," the Horcrux said from its shadowed corner, the smirk practically echoing in its words, "Such dedication. And all so you could revisit it even in your sleep."

"I didn't choose to dream it up." Harry snapped, disgusted by the mere notion of holding anything but deep seeded loathing for this place, "And I really hope you aren't hoping I'll be held prisoner inside my own dream." Which he went ahead and proved by pushing away from the stone pillar he had been leaning against. He stood on feet that hadn't felt so steady in a long while, and stepped away from the pillar without having serpentine tails reeling him right back.

The Horcrux made a gruff, disappointed noise.

Harry smiled triumphantly to himself, arms spreading wide. "See, the setting might be the same, but not the play."

"And you're all about plays, aren't you?"

Smile sliding off his face, Harry frowned, "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that you can adopt any role and perform it very well. It's almost…unnatural."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Or," the Horcrux promptly ignored him, "the reason you wear darkness so easily, is because you were always meant for it."

In the silence that stretched, only the crackling of the torches could be heard, until the chains that held the Horcrux in place abruptly shifted forward, and Harry had the impression of a carnivorous animal scenting the spike of fear from its stalked prey, delighting in it. An imagery which was only heightened by the Horcrux's gleeful answer, "Oh? Have I hit a nerve?"

His eyes narrowed into a glare, whole-heartedly hating how the Horcrux's words had the uncanny ability of always striking a little too close to home.

It only got him a manic giggle in return, "I love how you want to deny it but just can't. Not anymore. I can see the battle waging on your face; it's absolutely priceless."

Harry, on the other hand, didn't find it remotely as funny.

More silence, charged and electrified, and heavy with all the unvoiced screaming Harry longed to let loose.

"What does he possibly see in you?"

The sudden change of subject apparently required no comments, because Harry was only allowed a single, puzzled blink before the Horcrux went on, "It can't be your Parseltongue, you owe that to me. Is it your potential for wandless magic? Then again, he's got greater capacity for it, so it rules out the logic in that."

It said that as though that was all there was to Harry.

"There's nothing special about you," it spat, seemingly reading the teen's mind, and Harry vaguely wondered if that bitter, ugly sentiment he could feel rearing its head furiously at him was, in all actuality, plain jealously.

"Nothing special about you at all." It persisted, resolute and stubborn. "You owe most of who you are to me, so why…?"

The sentence trailed off only to morph into a snarl, and for the first time during the exchange, fire-spitting red eyes centered solely on him, "Why would he throw me away, but choose to keep you?"

A strange thought struck Harry, 'Are you afraid of admitting you're lonely?'

He just had to blink then, the concept ringing truer than he expected, summoning forth half conceived notions that had been nagging at him for some time. "Maybe," he ventured slowly, hesitant to find out the answer to his suspicions, "because he doesn't need two of me. Not that it'd come as a surprise; I'm plenty enough to drive him nuts by myself. And it's not like he doesn't return the favor, of course not, as he's been graciously demonstrating all th – "

"I'm nothing like you!" the Horcrux cut off his rambling, shackles rustling in agitation, "With your disgusting susceptibility to emotions, letting them rule you all the bloody time. You'd throw your own life away in the blink of an eye if you knew it'd actually solve all this."

The sound of gritted teeth reached him, loud and aggravated. "Think you're so saint-like, don't you? You're nothing but a disgrace."

"So…you're saying we aren't alike at all?"

"Not in the slightest." It was delivered with no little amount of vitriol.

Harry couldn't quite suppress the surge of pity that jolted through him. "If that's the case, why didn't you kill Bellatrix?"

Prepared to look for it, the flash of unfiltered, genuine shock was only too easy to spot in those luminous orbs.

"And don't go telling me it was because she's an important pawn on Tom's vast game board, or some other crap." He took advantage of the Horcrux's stunned quiet and pressed on, "We both know it'll be an empty excuse as any. You didn't kill her because I wouldn't have, because Tom was right; you're changed."

The details of that incident had slowly come back to him during his punishment, steadily flowing in to fill the blank parts in his memory. At first, he had mistaken it for another illusion, but considering it only offered information rather than the usual harm, Harry even welcomed it; both for the light it would shed on that day and the fleeting break.

Eyes jerking to the side, the Horcrux said rigidly, "You're wrong. I'm who I've always been."

But Harry had just about had enough, and with a single prodding in his mind, the fire in the torches burnt brighter, illuminating far more space than before.

The ever black encompassed corner that housed the Horcrux was alight in an instant, the sight that was revealed momentarily flooring Harry's senses, even though it merely gave away what he had suspected for some time now.

The Horcrux flinched reflexively at the brightness, eyelids shutting and effectively hiding acquainted crimson eyes from view.

Everything else, however – from the jagged scar in the shape of a lightning and the unruly, midnight-black hair, down to the mangled, dirty clothing he had been wearing the day he was taken from Hogwarts, and the very dirt beneath his fingernails – was a carbon copy of Harry's.

"…Amazing," was the only thing the teen could breathe out.

He crouched down, not quite over with shamelessly ogling his doppelganger and was undeterred even when an all too vicious glare bore into him.

"All this time I wanted you gone because I thought you were all him, when it turns out you're more like me." He grinned suddenly, "Did you notice? Even your speech resembles mine now. You sounded all proper and formal before."

"Piss off," the Horcrux growled, making Harry outright laugh.

"There you go."

It only earned him another venomous look that did nothing to dissolve Harry's newfound, giddy mood.

Until the moment he spotted the chains.

Pitch black, iron manacles were wound so tight around the Horcrux's hands that the skin had visibly started to chaff, dried and fresh blood coating both the flesh of its wrists and the inside of the cuffs. Harry eyed the way they connected with the floor, noting the little to no room for movement they allowed with grim comprehension.

Shunned by both the soul it originated from and the one it unwillingly latched onto, the Horcrux belonged right in the middle of nowhere.

Not to mention that years of ignorance on Harry's part, along with his open detest ever since he was made aware of its actual presence, would have some sort of toll on the Horcrux. He had never guessed though, that it would be maimed for real. The manifestation of the chains was entirely his fault, the direct result of wanting the shard to have as less freedom inside his body as possible.

"It's okay, now," he murmured softly, touching the chain closest to him with his fingertips. "You can let go."

At his touch, the bindings gave an almost violent shudder before falling still once more. Harry didn't know if verbal permission was enough to persuade his subconscious, and the blank, steady stare he was being subjected to wasn't entirely helpful either. Then, there was a peculiar, unobtrusive click and the cuffs fell apart, the shackles altogether flickering out of existence before they even hit the ground.

Nodding to himself in satisfaction, Harry reached for a scraped wrist only for the hand to jerk indignantly away.

"Sorry," he mumbled, and if his tone gave the impression he was apologizing for more than the unwelcomed touch, it went ignored.

"What do you think you're doing?" the Horcrux grunted instead, furtively glancing at the spot the restraints had been with a dark scowl etched onto its face. For the life of him, Harry couldn't figure out whether it was cursing those things' very existence or expecting them to return at a moment's notice.

"I think I just set you free."

The casualty of his tone only appeared to set the Horcrux off, its lips peeling back into a guttural snarl, "I don't need you, or your pity. If I could, I'd tear apart your vile, pathetic soul, blacken it until the only parts left are the ones you so desperately try to keep at bay."

Harry gave an empathic nod, "I know. It's not me you want, and I know you'd rip me to shreds from the inside if you knew you could get away with it." He shrugged, "You can try. I'll fight right back, of course, and I'll probably end up winning just like all the other times, but I'm not going to throw you away."

The ever again was left hanging unmentioned in the air between them.

Harry looked away awkwardly, not particularly comfortable with watching the other's reaction and feeling somewhat stupid for the way that had come out.

Clearing his throat, the teen stood gingerly to his feet, "In any case, I think I'm gonna do some renovations with this place. The tearing everything down kind. I've really missed the Gryffindor common room, so I'll give it a –"

Harry started, nearly falling face first into the ground when something grabbed his ankle the instant he made to take a step away.

Blinking, his head tilted downwards, and he stared confusedly at the fingers biting into his skin, following the length of the arm back to its owner. The dark glare he was being subjected to could have made grown men piss their pants. Harry on the other hand, having a notoriously unhealthy habit of not following the norm, merely smiled down at the Horcrux.

"It's alright," he muttered, kneeling down and extending his hand, palm up and fingers displayed in invitation, "I promised, didn't I? I'm not leaving you alone again."

Red eyes looked steadily back at him, feeling as though they were boring right into his core, searching and analyzing, before flickering tentatively to his outstretched hand. Harry didn't speak, sensing the gravity of the moment and not wanting to ruin it. So he waited, more patient than he had ever thought himself capable of, and was rewarded when the Horcrux's own arm finally lifted.

His double reached out, hesitantly at first, with its hand twitching back a number of times as if reconsidering, but even with his limb growing steadily numb from the extended time he had it in the same position, Harry never moved.

In the end, pale fingers touched his own and Harry laced them together, "How about we do this properly?"

Beaming, he tugged them both on their feet, not once letting go. "I'm Harry. Nice to meet you, other me."

The corners of the other's lips twitched helplessly, a smothered chuckle unwittingly slipping past before the Horcrux was openly laughing; a contented, ringing and amazingly sweet laugh that had Harry's eyes softening. He couldn't fail but join in, the dungeon that had housed uncountable horrors dissolving around them to leave the cozy common room of Gryffindor Tower in its wake, their joined laughter echoing all around them pleasantly.

Then, it too faded into nothing.

Back on the bathroom's bitingly cold floor, Harry's fingers slowly flexed and soon, eyelids fluttered open.

Bright crimson flecks began bleeding into the equally bright, emerald irises, until the most stunning of combinations was created.

As he lay there, a serene, half-smile tugged at his lips.

Harry had never felt more lucid than he did that very moment.

TBC…

A/N: Tell me what you think?