Title:Trying for Eden
Summary: The first time Tom met Harry, there was a rabbit hanging in the rafters.
Genre: Angst, Drama, Horror, Romance, etc.
Pairings: HP/TMR, implied HG/RW, implied HP/GW, HP+RW bromance
Warnings: Slash, het, violence, minor gore, time travel
Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.
Note: So, some minor liberties were taken with the ages of Amy Benson and Dennis Bishop. In the book (American version) they're described as little but there is no real way to tell their age. So I'm making them eleven. Also, I'm assuming the incident occurred fairly close to when Tom was introduced to Dumbledore and told about Hogwarts because it was very obviously on Tom's mind during that encounter. I don't know so much about Billy Stubbs's rabbit, so I'm going to have those incidents happen even closer together than they may have in actual cannon. FYI.
The first time Tom met Harry, there was a rabbit hanging in the rafters.
A gleam of wicked pride—only I am capable of something like this… I'm so much better than any of them no matter what Billy Stubbs may say—darkened viridian eyes as the rope stuck to the rafters with the force of Tom's fiery anger; a trophy for everyone to see, a declaration that no one would ever cross him again. And the children wouldn't, because they were scared of him. Tom had seen that at least, hidden behind the cruel words that Billy had slung at him the day before—speak ill of my dead mother—but Billy was right because she couldn't have been great if she died just from giving birth, and it was with a sense of sharp bitterness and overwhelming pride that Tom turned on his heel to sweep out of the dining hall.
No one would know that it was him that had done it. Oh, they could suspect, but there was no way that anyone would be able to know, not with the pretty pretenses he kept up—quite like Mrs. Cole, who pretended not to drink, but hid away in her office when she thought none of the children were around… what a horrible, pathetic woman that matron was, but Tom supposed he should have expected it because no one was ever who they were meant to be. Oh, he would be, Tom knew that, but no one else—
"You shouldn't have done that."
Like a whip cracking against water drenched skin, Tom gave an undignified yelp of surprise and turned around—no one was supposed to be here!—to take in who had caught him—punish him, a voice whispered in his head, make him hurt like only you can—but the person who caught him wasn't exactly the person Tom had been expecting.
One of the older kids, certainly, for the voice had sounded older, but instead Tom saw a face he didn't recognize; a mop of messy black hair that stood out in all directions and bright green eyes which peered at him through thick lenses, almost appraisingly. But the strangest thing about the older boy was not that the unrecognizable boy had seen him, but that the boy himself was… not all there. As if he was a specter. A ghost.
Tom's lip curled.
"I don't know what you're talkin' about," Tom hissed, drawing closer to the door. "I didn't do nothin'!"
The older boy sighed and crossed his arms across his chest. "You know very well what I'm talking about Tom. That's Billy Stubbs's rabbit. You killed it."
"Says who?" Tom spat, glaring at the strange see-through boy with all his might. "You? You're not even supposed to be here. You aren't even real! You're just a…a—"
"Ghost?" The boy finished with a deadly serious expression on his face. "That's how it's supposed to be." Suddenly, the older boy's expression grew sheepish. "At least, that's what Hermione said was supposed to happen and as she's rather clever about these things, I'll believe her."
Tom stared at the older boy with a shocked look on his face; his skin had paled dramatically at the boys first words—ghost, he had said, but Tom thought he knew enough to know that ghosts didn't even exist, so how on earth could this… boy… claim to be a ghost? A figment of his imagination, probably. Some little part within him was probably quailing at the fact that he shouldn't have hurt Billy Stubbs's rabbit, but—no! He deserved it! Billy deserves every ounce of punishment I can bestow upon him! This is nothing. Maybe I'm just dreaming.
Still, his rampant thoughts didn't keep Tom from latching onto the second best thing to talk about. "Hermione?" he asked incredulously. "She's not even a real person. I know because we're doing Shakespeare for our lessons."
The boy sighed. "That's not the point. The point is, you shouldn't have done that. Killing is wrong."
"And like I said before, I don't know what you're talking about! Now go away!" Furious that this apparition was not leaving him be to gloat in the punishment he was bestowing upon the deserving, Tom turned on his heel and strode from the room, pausing long enough to peer around the corner to ensure that no one saw him leaving the scene of his crime.
With a purposeful step, Tom vaulted up the stairs and down the dank corridor; he could hear rain pattering against the window at the far end of the hallway—such a dreary day it had proved to be, and Tom had to admit that it went well with what he had planned. Getting Billy back was the only thing he had been able to think about since Billy said such horrible things about his mother, but Mrs. Cole had done her damnedest to intervene in their fight.
Tom's lip curled as he slipped into his room, closing the door quietly behind him. No one would know. No one would know that he did it, no matter how much they accused him of such a thing. And if they kept on the topic—well, Tom had made the rabbit hurt in his infinite anger, had made it twist and writhe and release an agonizing sound that no animal had any right to make and if he could do it to Billy's stupid rabbit, he could certainly do it to them too. His anger had been so sharp, so fierce, so palpable—
"You know it's rude to walk out on someone in the middle of a conversation," an eerily familiar voice proclaimed, and Tom whirled around once more, his face flushing hot in his fury. The ghost boy was standing before his door, leaning against it almost casually. His eyes—so bright and green and strange (like how everyone claims me to be, Tom thought through the burning haze of rage) watching him with darkness churning in their depths, as if they simply knew—
"What do you want?" Tom snarled, backpedaling until he was flush against his desk. "I thought I told you to leave me alone! Who are you?"
"My name is Harry," the apparition said, smoothing his disheveled bangs down over his forehead. "I'm here to save you."
The words sent a jolt of pure shock through Tom, and he could only narrow his eyes and let his lips curl into a disbelieving sneer.
"Save me?" Tom asked mockingly. "From what?"
A series of emotions stole over Harry's face then—and how strange it was to think of him as Harry, this ghost stranger, but Tom had seen and done stranger things before—I can make them hurt, all of them, they all deserve it—none of which Tom could put a name to. The ghost staggered away from the door, his transparent hand reaching forward to settle on his shoulder. Tom froze, feeling the strange warmth that was not supposed to be there as it breached the barrier that were his clothes—ghosts aren't supposed to feel like that, are they? Like they're living, like they bleed and feel and—but what do I know about ghosts? I've never seen one before, have I? None but him.
It must be a dream.
Except it couldn't be. Not if Tom could feel him.
Harry knelt slightly and truth shone through in his expression. A greedy, selfish need to know suddenly wormed its way through Tom's chest and just like everyone else he was going to get what he wanted, going to know like he was supposed to—
But the truth disappeared, shuttered off behind a dark frown as the ghost—Harry—regarded him seriously, a strange sense of resignation seeping into his expression and lining his teenage face with weariness.
"Ask me when you're older," Harry replied. "I'll tell you then."
With the force of a thousand white hot knives scorching his skin, Tom jerked away from the apparition, the cool caress of wind slamming into the spot where Harry's warm hand had been only moments before, sucking all the heat away. A prickling sensation of hatred bled into Tom's chest and his cheeks went white in his absolute anger.
"Tell me now!" Tom bellowed with such a ringing force that Harry took a step away from him, his expression veiled with an unimpressed frown. Tom opened his mouth to demand Harry listen to him once more—I can make them do what I want to, too—but a sudden agonized wail echoed up through the creaky floorboards. Suddenly Tom wasn't interested in Harry, but the sound, because he could recognize despair anywhere (it surrounded him in waves) and his bestowed punishment had finally come to fruition.
Billy had found his rabbit.
That was all that mattered.
"You really shouldn't have done that," Harry said once again, as Tom walked towards the door and cracked it open to peer outside his room with a dozen or so other orphans who had heard Billy's cry.
Tom paused long enough to send him a scathing look before it smoothed into the perfect mask of polite disinterest.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Tom said calmly. "I haven't done a single thing wrong."
Tom turned around just in time to see Mrs. Cole appear at the top of the stairs, frazzled and tired and absolutely horrified, a mangled white rabbit hanging loosely from her hands.
"Who did it?" She screeched, walking up to all of the doors one by one and slamming them open. "Who did this! Come out here right now—"
"They'll find out it was you," Harry said, just as Mrs. Cole slammed open the door across the hallway from Tom's, red-faced as she screamed at little Amy Benson. Amy Benson's eyes widened in horror at the sight before her, and Tom turned, ready to spit venom at the ghost that wouldn't leave him alone, but his eyes widened in shock as Mrs. Cole darted across the hall and forced open his door, his hateful words dying on his lips.
Harry was gone.
Mrs. Cole grabbed him by the shoulder and forced him around before Tom's mind even had the chance to process that the ghost had probably been a figment of his imagination. She was twice as furious as she had ever been, but Tom had planned for this eventuality, and the lie was on his tongue and out of his mouth with such forced politeness and feigned disbelief that Mrs. Cole had no choice but to believe him. She could suspect him, yes, and with all the 'funny things' that happened around Tom, he knew that she would and probably wouldn't stop. The other children would too but Tom could deal with them if he had to.
Punishment would always strike those that deserved it most.
Tom always made sure of that.
Fingers clutched at Harry's shoulder and he was dragged upright; his insides ached something fierce, and the familiar feeling that accompanied him whenever he rode via portkey was churning about in his stomach. After the nausea passed and the spots stopped dancing in front of his eyes, Harry was coherent enough to accept the glass of water that was shoved none too gently into his hands by Hermione. She peered at him with a questioning glance, as though she had witnessed an event that was most definitely not supposed to happen.
Taking a moment to sip at the water which felt like heaven in his parched throat, Harry thought that she would start asking him things that he had no desire to answer at that moment. His encounter with Riddle had left him disconcerted, as though the ground had disappeared from beneath his feet and left him suspended in air.
Reviewing the memories over and over again had been simple; memories that Dumbledore had shown him the year he had died were poured neatly into a pensieve, and throughout it all, Harry had looked for the proper point in which to go back—it had been Hermione's idea to try and go back to the time before Tom Riddle had killed Billy Stubbs's rabbit and hung it from the rafters, but the only mention Harry had ever heard of it was when Dumbledore had shown up to let the matron of the orphanage know that Riddle was to be accepted into Hogwarts.
"Going to that moment would be too late," Hermione had said. "Because we know that this act of cruelty was done with magic alone—and was probably one of the first times that Riddle started using his magic in a deadly and cruel way—its almost like a milestone in his life. His disregard for creatures he believed subservient to him started then and if we could just go back and stop it before it ever happened, we might be able to undo everything that has happened with the war."
"It could even undo our friendship," Ron had piped up, looking distinctly uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. Hermione had beamed at him and pulled him into a tight hug, her eyes distinctly wet.
Harry had turned away at that point, allowed them their own private moment because they all knew the risk that came with changing the past. Still, a small smidgen of doubt niggled in the back of his mind because there was no guarantee that Riddle could be saved, no guarantee that Riddle could be turned from his course. Even before Billy's rabbit Riddle had been doing things that were far too cruel for any child to ever do to anyone else—but Harry wasn't about to doubt Hermione, and after a moment of arguing, it had been decided that Harry would go back, because he, in the end, was the most familiar with Riddle.
Harry's head ached at that thought.
Setting aside his glass, he peered up at Hermione and offered her a wan smile.
"We didn't go far enough," he said stiffly. "We were too late."
Hermione's eyes widened in dismay and Ron cursed violently under his breath, kicking over a wayward stool. Hermione's eyes flashed as the stool crashed into the ground, but she pressed her lips together in cool discontent instead of chastising Ron. Harry knew that she probably felt the same way that Ron had—Riddle was already on the path… how could they stop someone who appeared to have been cruel since birth—
But that's not true, Harry thought, lifting his glass up once more and taking a deep gulp of water. People aren't born cruel. They choose to be that way. If we're able to steer Riddle towards another choice…
"You at least talked to him, didn't you Harry?" Hermione questioned. "I know that you were on a time limit, but you didn't just give—"
"Of course I didn't," Harry snapped hotly. "You think I would just throw away months of preparation because Riddle killed a rabbit?"
Hermione pursed her lips at him. "Well how did he react when you spoke to him?"
Harry shrugged. "Exactly like you said he would; he was defensive and angry. Didn't count on getting caught at all and then when I brought up what he had done once again, he feigned ignorance."
"Wanker," Ron grumbled, slouching down into the chair besides Harry.
"Well he obviously thought he was in the right to do what he'd done, didn't he? Remember what the matron said in Dumbledore's memory—Riddle and that Stubbs boy had fought the day previously… oh, I knew I should have aimed for that day instead, it might've changed everything…"
"We can't do anything about it now, Hermione," Harry said. "We'll just have to go to the next step."
"You're right of course," Hermione answered with a displeased huff. "I'll try to make the dates more exact on your next trip, but using the spell based only on mentioned events can be incredibly imprecise—"
Harry waved off Hermione's concern. "It doesn't matter. Just do it."
"I'll have to take a look at your version of Dumbledore's memory, just to be sure—"
"Hermione," Harry intoned with a roll of his eyes. "It's fine. I trust you. I know you'll be able to do it."
Hermione paused long enough to beam at him with a tremulous smile before giving a sharp nod and heading out the room. Ron and Harry exchanged amused glances, but deep down, they were both struck with the same bone weariness that came whenever they thought of undertaking such a tremendous task; they would take it on, no doubt, because it mattered and was so incredibly important, but—
They wished they didn't have to. But they had both lived through war and they knew, better than anyone, that just because it was wished didn't mean it would come true. People's lives could be undone, changed completely, but if it meant saving all of those who had lost loved ones…
Meddling with time could be a very dangerous thing, Hermione had once said, but when it came down to it, time was all they could rely on. Not even Harry knew if they would succeed in their endeavor, but as he glanced at Ron from the corner of his eye, he knew that the three of them would sure do their damnedest to try.
There was no room for failure.
The wind bit at Tom's face, stinging his cheeks red. The air was balmy, typical of a sea side summer, but Tom wasn't used to the biting sting of the of the ocean side breeze. Tugging his jacket tighter around him, he surveyed the coastal area with a thinly veiled expression; his lips remained in a firm line as he gazed at the crashing waves, each one reaching up higher and spraying the air with drops of sea salt. Breathing in deeply, he turned and gazed at all the orphans around him—children were squealing in happiness, darting through sand and water, and Tom felt his lip curl in disgust.
Billy Stubbs stood close by Mrs. Cole and Martha, Mrs. Cole's favorite helper. He hadn't strayed far from them since he had found his precious pet hanging from the ceiling in the dining hall, and Tom couldn't stop the swell of pride at the fact that he wasn't the only one who Mrs. Cole wanted to put into an asylum. Billy had been prone to violent, hysterical tempers since his rabbit had died and Tom couldn't have thought of a more fitting punishment than that.
"All right you lot," Mrs. Cole called suddenly, gathering the attention of the children, "its time to head back to the cabin and not a word of protest from any of you!"
Amy Benson and Dennis Bishop splashed about in the cool waters momentarily, kicking up sand and sending some in Tom's direction. Tom deftly dodged the salty water, giving the two eleven-year-olds a wicked look; they snickered at him and darted off, joining the crooked line that had formed in front of Mrs. Cole.
"You too Riddle, hurry it up!"
With a huff, Tom strode towards Mrs. Cole, drawing behind one of the other children. The boy glanced at him, then immediately turned away, scooting as far from Tom as possible, but it was something that Tom was used to. Everyone avoided him since the hanging of Billy's rabbit—suspected but not caught, just as I thought I would be—giving him a wide berth or sending him sideways glances which practically screamed out his inherent strangeness—though Tom didn't know how these things happened, he just knew that they were. And if they simply were, these strange happenings, then who was he to try to stop them? The strangeness got him what he wanted, when he wanted it. That, Tom thought, was most important.
"All right then, follow me. We'll be back in the morning."
The walk back to the cabin was tiresome, but Tom took in every ounce of scenery he could. It was always so interesting, these summer trips, and Tom wondered if Mrs. Cole would ever stop them. They had been to the country side the year before, and although there had been the constant buzz of silence lingering on all around them, Tom found that he had liked it. The constant shriek and yells of children slamming into his brain day after day left him in so foul a mood that he hadn't realized he relished the silence until he was completely immersed in it. The country trip had been his favorite, by far. Though the beach was certainly shaping up to be quite interesting…
The cabin was warm and toasty when they entered. Immediately, Tom headed towards the stairs, to the room he shared with seven of the other boys. They all scattered throughout the cabin, some heading towards the yard to play with the toys that Mrs. Cole had allowed them to bring and Tom was just grateful that they were suspicious enough of him to avoid him.
Although he was proud of his accomplishment—the rabbit had writhed, emitting painful, agonized little squeaks that had Tom's heart curdling in half-horror, half-triumph—the sudden avoidance of everyone, the whispers that followed him around… the children were becoming more and more lax in the control of their fear. They were giving him berths even wider than before, their eyes wide and glossed over with the sheen of tears as they saw him enter the room, despite the innocence and careful disinterest he painted in cautious colors across his face.
The whispers weren't any better. Suspected, but not caught had become Tom's mantra, the little hymn he whispered in his head any time someone muttered an ill word about him—strange, different, freak, monster—and Amy and Dennis were the worst.
Pressing his lips into a thin, flat line, Tom pushed open his door, wondering what he could do about them. They made no secret of their intentions; they had not gone so far as to physically cause him harm, but were making small overtures… attempting to soak him with water, while immature and unsuccessful, was a statement, one that they had made quite clearly in front of the all the other orphans…
Tom jerked, his hand immediately swinging behind him and slamming the door shut. The snarl was on his lips before he even registered it, and when his eyes met the bright green of his… ghost-specter-spirit… Tom felt his shoulders tense into a hard, firm line, his body turning slightly as his hand curled into a small fist against the cool wood. He gazed at the specter through half-lidded eyes, noting that almost nothing about him had changed—but why would it? Did ghosts change? They were already dead, weren't they? Preserved forever in a single, permanent form, unable to do anything, unable to function properly, unable to properly exert their will—
For a brief moment, an unexplainable fear rumbled deep within his chest before he squashed it down with all the childish stubbornness of someone that didn't understand the emotion, instead choosing to focus on the ghost. The ghost—Harry, it had said its name was, weeks ago—was lounging on his bed, wrinkling the sheets; Tom's lips curled, and he stared at the ghost with a thinly veiled expression, unsure of how to react. It had been weeks since he had last seen him, weeks since he had been firmly rebuffed—Ask me when you're older, I'll tell you then—and Tom couldn't be sure it was hatred for the ghost for simply knowing what Tom thought or furious resentment at the rejection the ghost had thrown in his face without even flinching, because Tom got what he wanted when he wanted it and no one, not even some half-there, corporeal apparition was going to keep him from having it.
"You're back," Tom said flatly, his lips curling up into a smirk. "You were wrong."
The ghost frowned, as though he were having trouble understanding his meaning. Then—
"Funny, I thought you said you didn't do anything."
Tom flinched, immediately recognizing his slip; he dropped his hand from the door, curling his hands into tight little fists and narrowed his eyes at the ghost. Green peered calmly back at him, but beneath it… there something hidden in the tense set of the ghost's shoulders, despite all his faked nonchalance. It was almost as though every word was carefully thought out, pre-planned, the pros and cons of misspeaking weighed heavily before he even opened his mouth… Tom despised being manipulated, had seen the matrons of the orphanage do so with the children plenty of times in order to calm whatever temper-tantrums they found themselves susceptible to. Tom positively burned at the thought of being handled like some unruly child, something to be manipulated into seeing how utterly ridiculous it was being. Tom was not like the other children; he was strange, different, better, stronger and—
"He's a freaky little monster," Amy Benson had said to Dennis Bishop after their lessons had finished up for the day. "No one wants to be his friend or have anything to do with him. Why can't Mrs. Cole just send him to a different orphanage?"
The feelings in Tom cooled, sharp and bitter and frosty.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Tom said, falling back on carefully constructed innocence and disinterest. "Why are you here?"
The ghost sighed. "To help you."
Tom blinked, long and slow and child-like. "All right."
The ghost's expression sharpened, tightening into a dark scowl as he stared at him. Then, without so much as a warning, the ghost was across the room, one hand settled tightly on his small, bony shoulder.
"They're wrong," he said vehemently. "Whatever those other kids said to you, they're wrong."
Tom jerked away, backing into the door with a soft thud—he wasn't supposed to be warm, ghosts weren't real or there or even completely existing and he wasn't supposed to be warm, just cold-cold-cold like night terrors and the ever-constant thrum of fear and Tom wanted his triumph back, wanted it more than the furious anger he felt towards the ghost—Harry—because at least it was his and unshared and—
"What would you know?" Tom hissed furiously. "You left."
Harry froze, his hand becoming light as air as it loosened, then hovered uncertainly above the younger boy's shoulder. Tom's gaze was hot, burning vicious lines of accusation across Harry's non-existent skin, and Harry stared, his green eyes wide in realization before he took a careful, measured step back.
"Tom," he said gently. The manipulation was back. Tom didn't like it. "I never said I would stay."
"Just that you'd save me," Tom spat.
"So you want to be treated like you're less than what you are?" Harry asked incredulously, shaking his head. "You can handle those children fine. You had no problem with Billy Stubbs—"
"I'm not a child—"
Harry's eyes flashed. "Prove it," he said roughly, more emotion and fierceness and anything that Tom had ever heard from any adult ever. "Make an adult decision. See if you can choose what is right over what is easy." Harry paused long enough to kneel in front of him, settling his too-warm-too-real hands on Tom's shoulders. "Because honestly Tom? I don't think you can."
"I will always do what is right for me," Tom said, silky-smooth and utterly blank. "No one will ever make me out to be less than what I am. I will not be inferior."
Harry released him. Stepped back. "I expected that."
Gone, Tom thought, a strange, all-consuming anger working its way through his body, making his fingers tingle and his blood thrum heavily in his veins. His eyes swept the room, landing on the bed. The sheets were still wrinkled and warm when he pressed his hands against them, and with a fury unfitting of an eleven-year-old, he darted forward and yanked the sheets off the bed, snarling angrily, because—I will make him suffer. I won't allow this to go unpunished—
The door behind him slammed open.
Turning his liquid dark gaze to whoever entered the room, he felt a sparkle of malicious delight as he caught the sight of pretty little Amy Benson—Dennis was hovering behind her shoulder, staring at him with an expression caught halfway between disgust and exaltation; finally, his expression seemed to say, we found him.
"Hello Riddle," Amy said falsely amicable, inching into the room slightly. She peered at the mess he had made, her lips curling as she exchanged a wary glance with her partner; Dennis grinned maliciously—he was tall for his age, bigger than most eleven-year-olds, but Tom didn't care. They were there, the people who called him monster—who thought they were well within their rights to just insult him… and he could make them do whatever he wanted, could impose his will upon them, could make them hurt just as he had made Billy Stubbs's rabbit hurt, could make them regret and beg and—
"So this is what freaks with no friends do," Dennis said, looking around. He moved closer to Tom, kicked at the dresser beside his bed. A small, cheap metal frame with a picture of the only person Tom ever wanted shook, teetering over the edge and clattering to the floor. Dennis caught Tom's eye, lifted his foot and stepped on it. "No wonder your mother went and died on you."
Freakmonsterweirdstrange and there was a need to hurtteachhimhisplace because they would never let him get away with what he had done to Billy's rabbit, not after Amy had seen the expression on his face... that pure, unadulterated wicked glee and Tom's mind briefly flickered back to what Harry had said, so resolutely, weeks ago—They'll find out it was you—but despite that, despite them knowing, there was still fearsomuchfear—he's-going-to-hurt-us-TOO and Tom would because he was superior in every way—
Amy was the first to break. Dennis followed not a few seconds later.
Tom's watched them, the thick heady feeling of triumph flushing his face red. "Let's go play," Tom said, his voice the smooth flavor of a suggested-demand.
"Okay," they both said, voices hazy and soft and obedient.
Tom smiled darkly.
The color bled from his surroundings the moment he opened his eyes, but all Harry could think of was that he needed more time and the sick churning in stomach which meant that he had failedfailedfailed. Hermione was beside him, wiping sweat from his brow, but she was caught in a frightening gray-scale, one that made Harry's muscles clench in panic. This was worse than the last time, worse than being parched and thirsty and weak, because now his vision was going and the repercussions weren't supposed to build upon one another so quickly.
"I have to go back," Harry managed; his voice was scratchy and pained. "I have to—"
"Here," Ron said, shoving a glass of water in Harry's hand. "I know you didn't mean to do it, but that was really freaky mate."
Harry paused, his fingers scrabbling at the glass before he stilled. He watched, uncertain as to what they were talking about, but the fierce look Hermione sent in Ron's direction was enough to let him know that whatever had happened was not good. His hand trembled as he pushed the glass to his lips and when he was finished, Ron heaved him up from under the armpits and set him on his customary stool; brown, three-legged and crooked, but useful, because Harry knew he wouldn't be able to walk if he tried. His legs had the consistency of jelly.
"So," Hermione asked, peering at him inquisitively, "what happened?"
"Not a lot," Harry admitted grudgingly. "He did admit to killing the rabbit—"
"I wish I knew if that was progress," Hermione interrupted woefully, tossing her long hair out of her face. "Was he repentant?"
Harry shook his head. "We… went too far back this time," Harry admitted reluctantly, "I don't think we'll be able to land close enough next time to stop him."
Hermione frowned. "Harry?"
"He's really angry," Harry said softly.
Ron snorted, leaning against the table next to him. "But it's Voldemort. He's always angry. I'd be surprised if he wasn't."
Hermione didn't miss the guilt. She was watching him shrewdly, her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing as Harry fidgeted under her scrutiny. Sure, they were older now and Harry should have been used to her seeing through pretty much everything he felt, but at least he knew what he was feeling when it happened. This time… Harry wasn't quite sure whether he should be pleased that Tom Riddle felt hatred towards him even as a child, or guilty for making him feel… Harry immediately crushed the thought, because thinking about things like that was hardly going to help. Yes, no one could have expected Riddle having such a violent reaction to just him being there, but Harry couldn't feel bad. He was going to make things better, make sure that people could have happier lives, and if meant trying to change one single person…
He'd have to keep the promise out of his words. It'd been so long since anyone kept theirs, Harry had forgotten what it sounded like. Such resolution, such determination—even if he was violent and angry and vengeful, Tom Riddle was still a child, and promises appealed to them more than the truth. The truth, he knew, could at least be turned into a lie. The truth could easily morph into something recognizable. It could be handled. But the promises—
"I told him I'd save him," Harry said, wincing internally when Hermione jerked hard and her glare turned poisonous. "I didn't expect—"
"Well," Hermione said after a long moment, fury coloring her words, "at least we know he's not so far out of reach that he doesn't have some hope of things getting better."
"How is that good?" Ron asked as his face twisted in disbelief. "I mean, just because he reacted to Harry doesn't mean he's not going to hurt those kids."
"I know, Ronald," Hermione said impatiently. "But we'll deal with that later. Right now—" she heaved a breath, physically calming herself before she addressed Harry once again. "—are you all right?"
Harry nodded. "I'm fine."
Hermione and Ron exchanged glances then and Harry felt the familiar coiling of annoyance in the pit of his stomach. He wasn't so wrapped up in the eleven-year-old Riddle that he didn't know when someone was hiding something from him, and suddenly Ron's words came rushing back into his mind—it couldn't just be the gray-scale. That had faded, slowly bleeding into something resembling normal; Hermione's hair was a thick, chestnut brown, and Ron's freckles were the distant shade of fleshy-peach and cinnamon. Hermione's shirt was bright scarlet, while Ron's was a deep emerald; the color was there, and vibrant, and his legs no longer struggled to support his weight. Something had happened, yes, and the repercussions were worse than the last time, but at the very least he had recovered.
Glancing towards the center of the room, Harry's eyes traced the pentacle; made from white chalk and candle wax, it was what allowed his… spirit… Harry, supposed, to travel through the temporal rift Hermione and Ron's magic had trouble sustaining for more than only a few minutes at a time. The familiarity of his form was only because Harry willed it to be; Hermione retained reservations about keeping something so utterly familiar, but Harry had decided that if they were going to change time, it wouldn't matter if Tom Riddle recognized him in the future, because the chances of them even running into one another would be slim. The future was going to be different, after all. Bonds were going to be torn apart, dissolved. People would live. Wizards wouldn't have to know what it meant to live in fear or speak a name or just exist because they were different and—the strain of new memories hadn't filtered into his brain yet. Yes, Tom reacted to the promise, felt as though Harry's words had held the weight of the world in them, but it wasn't enough. Harry was just a spirit, manifesting itself in a corporeal form for Tom, and only Tom, to see. He would be gone for long stretches of time until Hermione was able to pin down a more specific target date—and those few minutes, well, they just weren't enough. Harry needed more time, his friends needed more strength—
"I'm not going to be able to keep this up much longer," Harry said, catching the guilty cast to Hermione's face. "Did I almost die or something?"
"Harry," Hermione said, her voice going shrilly. "You didn't—we made absolutely sure—"
"Hermione," Harry said sharply, cutting her off. She blinked at him, her lips thinning into a severe line and her eyes burning hot.
"Your body isn't sustaining its form," she replied. "What I mean is—"
"You started to fade," Ron interrupted, earning a glare from Hermione, "into the past."
Harry stared. A cold fear trickled into his chest, and it must have shown on his face because Hermione's eyes widened, her mouth working quickly as Harry tried to wrap his mind around the fact he started to fade—the repercussions weren't supposed to be that bad, not for a while, and he was fading, ceasing to exist, dying—No, Harry thought, pushing the fear back down and forcing it into something sane, I was being pulled into the past. There's a difference. There has to be, because Harry knew he wouldn't be able to survive, knew that sending his spirit was different from actually being there and—
A thought worked its way into his head, suddenly calming the maelstrom of emotions that kept him frozen, terrified. He glanced to Hermione, saw her jerk and marveled faintly at her upset.
"It wasn't bad," Hermione rushed to reassure him, though it was unnecessary, "just a flicker and only for a moment, and then your spirit was back in your body, but it was enough, Harry. You won't be able to do this much longer and I'm starting to wonder if it's even worth—"
"It is," Ron and Harry said resolutely. They stared at each other, a firm foundation of understanding strengthening their resolve and their friendship, despite the weariness. Ron held out a hand and Harry clasped it, allowing his friend to help him to his feet. They both turned towards Hermione, who scowled before letting out an exasperated sigh, throwing her arms in the air in defeat—and, Harry thought with amusement, a small amount of proud affection.
"Fine," Hermione bit out. "I think you're being incredibly dense, but… something has to change," she said softly, reaching forward. "We did agree to see this through, and I know things are going to change, I just never thought—at least, not this fast." The three of them fell silent, allowed the weight of her words to press down on them, crush them. Yet Hermione was having none of it. Straightening, Hermione gripped Harry's hand and stared at him resolutely, her hand tight and warm and Harry took some of her strength, molded it into his own. "At the very least, we're going to have to make sure that if you do get pulled into the past, you aren't… unprepared. To live there, I mean. I hope you realize the things I do for you, Harry James Potter. I could very well end up—"
"Dead," Harry said seriously. "Kissed," Ron answered softly.
"Fired," Hermione snapped, glaring at the two boys. "Unspeakables don't take this kind of theft and misuse of their research lightly. You do realize it was mostly theoretical to begin with, don't you? The fact that we able to get even this far on baseless speculation and daring—"
Harry rolled his eyes. "I understand, Hermione. Do you want the memory or not?"
Hermione huffed at him, lifting her wand. Harry shuffled the recent encounter with Riddle to the forefront of his mind, feeling Hermione's magic take hold; it caught the end of her wand, thread-like and silver, and Harry felt the ghost sensation of claws raking over his brain settle at the firm absence of it. Yes, the memory was still there—but hazy, almost incomplete. Hermione settled it into a tiny vial before waving her wand once more; the chalk and wax on the floor wiped itself clean, and Ron turned, handing Harry his half-empty glass of water.
"It's too bad," Ron said as Hermione left the room. Harry glanced at him askance. "The kids," Ron clarified. "Nasty little buggers, probably deserve a good punishment but not… that. Whatever he did to them. They're just kids, you know?"
"I know," Harry said. "But so is he."
"Doesn't make it okay," Ron said sharply.
Harry nodded; he knew, probably better than anyone, that being a child didn't make anything okay. Still, it did not change the fact that Riddle was a child and Harry had to make sure he stayed that way, without the unnecessary taint.
He made a promise, after all.
Harry was going to keep it.