Chapter warnings: (heterosexual) sexual imagery, minor gore, bullying, less Tom more… everyone else.
There was blood in his mouth.
It tasted just as Harry remembered it; unpleasant and sharp. The thick roll of the liquid over his tongue and down his throat made Harry nearly vomit. Turning on his side Harry spat, watching distractedly as a thick gob of bloody mucus hit the chalky wood-paneled floor.
The phantom sensations of Harry's transfer—pain, nausea, dizziness, disorientation—continued to batter about his body. Needing a moment to center himself (and to forget the torturous delirium pricking at his skin while the memory of too-blue eyes peering grimly into his own forced bile to rise to the back of his throat) Harry curled his trembling hands into fists, staring blankly at the dusty chalk that clung to his fingers.
He was vaguely aware of his head throbbing painfully; there was warmth on his scalp, as well as an insistent sting that caused Harry to grunt in discomfort. There was a hitch of breath—not his own—and then fingers pushing at his bangs and tilting his face up until he staring into large silver eyes.
"I think the nargles have made his brain go fuzzy," a soft voice said. It was vaguely familiar, Harry reflected.
"Or," someone cut in, managing to sound both frosty and amused, "he could have just hit his head. He's bleeding for a reason, I imagine."
"Excessively," the first voice agreed calmly.
"Oh, he knows my name," the girl holding him responded happily, shifting her face away from him. Now that he could see her—when had she gotten so close?—Harry could see a pleasant smile touching her lips, as well as the fact that her chin and nose were smeared with blood. A faint prickling of alarm set Harry off, but then he reached forward and rubbed at the spot on her chin, flinching violently when he noticed the blood on his own hands.
"Er," Harry muttered, snatching his hands away. "What—?"
And then the realization slammed into him like the force of a Reducto to the chest.
Luna, Harry thought, staring at her in wide-eyed wonder. Luna was staring at him, a soft smile on her face, seeming completely unperturbed with the fact that Harry was bleeding and feeling positively awful and not a little bit delirious. Her hair was just as Harry remembered it; long, stringy blonde strands hung around her blood spotted face, eyes bright and not at all glazing over with that distant, hazy look which meant she was trying particularly hard to forget that the people around her existed. Her fingers still ghosted against his chin and Harry resisted the urge to lean into them—Luna was there, Luna was looking at him, and, most importantly, Luna only existed in the future.
I'm home, Harry thought, relief flooding him and loosening the painful knot of tension that gripped him.
"Hey," Harry greeted. He eyed her face hungrily.
"Hello, Harry," Luna greeted, releasing him. "I hope you had a pleasant trip."
"Not really, no," Harry muttered, sitting up properly. His vision spun dangerously. "What... what are you—where are Ron and Hermione?"
"Oh, just abandoning their friends and family to go gallivanting through time, I suspect," an incredibly familiar, incredibly scathing voice answered. Dread settled in the pit of Harry's stomach then, hot and heavy. It held all the consistency of lead and Harry had to forcefully push back the dual rush want-need-desire and guilt-fear-cowardice that coiled through his ribs and compressed his lungs with an unbearable pressure. Ginny shifted behind him—one moment, there was only the sound of her voice and the rush of Harry's memory (red hair sliding through his fingers, lips pressed against his own, the soft round of her breast cupped delightfully beneath in his palm, heated flesh trembling around his fingers and slicking them moist) and then there was reality, staring at him pointedly with flashing brown eyes, twisted lips and pretty white skin dotted with freckles Harry had the insane urge to touch and run away from all at once.
Swallowing convulsively, Harry noticed that Luna wasn't the only one who was spotted with blood; a thick crust clung to Ginny's hair line, sweeping over her temple and across her ear before disappearing into the neckline of her yellow blouse. Harry stared at her neck for a moment more (lips parted against soft flesh, breath wet and warm as his tongue laved against her skin, tasting wanting taking) basking in the uncomfortably pleasant wave of memories. Ginny cleared her throat pointedly.
"Er," Harry said, flinching violently. His temples throbbed. "So... what did Hermione tell you?"
"A great many things which appeared to lack weight and substance," Luna supplied.
"Which is to say, nothing," said Ginny. Her hair spilled over her shoulder. Harry dutifully looked the other way.
"She left us a letter." Luna stood and dusted off her skirt, still smiling pleasantly at Harry. "I would show it to you, but you seem to be bleeding quite excessively. Shall I take you to St. Mungo's?"
Grimacing, Harry lifted his hand to the back of his head and pressed. The wound was wet and warm, nearly swallowing the pads of his fingers and stung fiercely at his prodding. Drawing his fingers away, Harry gulped; it had been a while since he felt the effects of his time-travel so acutely. He remembered the way his legs would collapse from underneath him, the way his head would crack against the floor and his nose would spill blood without warning. And then, of course, there was the vomiting and lack of color—
—which, Harry noted in horrified wonder as he took in the deep color of Ginny's hair, did not seem to be a problem any longer.
Shaking off the thoughts as Ginny and Luna were both waiting for an answer, Harry rose unsteadily to his feet. Luna gripped his elbow firmly, leading him over to the dumpy not-quite-comfortable couch that Hermione had transfigured ages ago and—how long have I been gone? Harry wondered, exhaling lowly.
"Are you certain?"
"That's splendid," Luna responded absently. She pulled out her wand and cast a non-verbal spell at him—the flesh on the back of Harry's head knit together, piece by piece, suffusing his skull in bizarre warmth that trickled down the thick of his spine and curled all the way to the tips of his toes. "That should do it, I suppose."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, scratching the back of his head. "Er, thanks Luna." He paused, eying the two of them guardedly. "I suppose you want answers."
"Oh, you don't have to tell us—"
"That would be nice, yes," Ginny interrupted, glaring fiercely at a point over Harry's shoulder. "After all, what reason could you have for disappearing for months on end with absolutely no explanation or indication of where, exactly, you might be?"
Harry frowned at Ginny in irritation. "Hermione left you a letter, didn't she?"
"And not much else," Ginny shot back hotly. "Say, for example, an explanation."
Harry's frown deepened at Ginny's irascible tone. Fingers gripping the arm rest of the couch, Harry glowered at the wall and scowled. He didn't fully understand why Ginny was so upset
(a thought flickered in his mind, one of hands gripping hips and tugging them against his own as he pressed her shoulders into the wall behind her, tasting her over and over again only to remember that he had to—
leave walk away disappear
but Harry had experienced the sharpness of her words and the strength of her independence many times before and it was enough for his chest to tighten in a warmth he wanted to forget as he sent a nasty glare in her direction.
"Lots of words but little substance," Luna reminded him.
Harry shrugged and picked at the blood drying on his fingers. "Well what did the letter say?"
"Instructions, mostly. We were told how to get you back and asked to send you into another memory."
Harry was moderately surprised. Whatever Hermione was doing in the past, she had left distinct instructions for others to follow because... why? Harry knew he had come up against a stumbling block; his relationship with Tom Riddle had disintegrated past the point of uncertain distrust and mild affection to complete and utter hatred. If Harry hadn't been so familiar with Voldemort's brand of acting out on that hatred, Harry might have left a little more injured by what Riddle had said. Instead, he could feel his own self-deprecating thoughts leaving him cold and tired—now that he was in the future, Harry didn't want to be sent into another memory. He just wanted to lean his head back and close his eyes, to bask in the love and familiarity that were his friends. He didn't want the isolation. He didn't want to listen to the sneering remarks or deal with the fear that came with sacrificing part of himself for Tom Riddle to use and disregard however he pleased. There was a severe lack of empathy and mind-numbing fury leading Tom's actions and the thought of seeing that utter disregard for another's well-being in Tom's expression left Harry continuously perched on the razors edge.
He didn't like it.
But Ron and Hermione were already in the past. This thought was nearly as startling as the thought of Hermione divulging anything to Luna or Ginny—Ginny, especially, considering how adamant Harry had been to just forget before he left—especially considering the sheer enormity of what they were doing. But if they were in the past, why hadn't they found Harry? Was it because of the nature of the spell? Were they bound by the magic, rendered just as incapable of seeing Harry, of being aware of his presence just as the others in the past were? And (too-blue eyes were watching him from behind half-moon spectacles, dark and grim and familiar and that sickness was knotting his stomach again, making it difficult to think and breathe and it had to be grief, had to be sorrow left to rot and fester deep inside of him, infecting his blood-stream and turning his mind inside out until there was only memories-memories-memories and no time for forgiveness) even if that wasn't a problem, then what could they possible be doing in the past? What were they changing?
It didn't seem as though there had been any ripples—Harry still possessed that same warm affection for Luna, still wanted to hold and hide from Ginny (desired her, more than anything), still wanted to visit the Weasleys and feel Molly's arms wrap around him securely, feeling that pleasant unconditional love seep into his skin. But most of all—more than anything—Harry wanted Ron's palm to slap against the blade of his shoulder as he offered him an exaggerated grin, the solid weight of pure understanding passing between the two; wanted to remember the sound of Hermione's reassuring words echoing in his ears, the strength of her hugs forcing him to inhale a mouthful of bushy hair; wanted to see Hermione scowling fiercely at Ron but loving him all the same, just as Ron sputtered in annoyance but couldn't stop loving Hermione, either—
But Ron and Hermione weren't there.
"Right," Harry said at length, rubbing his hands against his face tiredly. "Well, we have time, I suppose, before I have to go—"
Harry stared at her incredulously, unable to form the words. Slowly, he rose; Luna peered between the two of them, a curious smile curving her lips.
"Ginny," Harry heard himself say with unending patience. Ginny's eyes narrowed. "I'm going back."
"Luna," Ginny said with as much patience as Harry, "may we have a moment?"
"Certainly," Luna replied, tapping Harry absently on the temple as she moved passed him. "I'm actually quite hungry."
Harry snagged her before she could go. Tugging her towards him, Harry spared Ginny one long, indecipherable look before saying, "You don't have to leave, Luna."
"Luna, please," Ginny insisted, but Harry's fingers were pressing into the dip of Luna's elbow, rendering her immobile. Luna hummed ambiguously.
"How curious. I've never been in the middle of a lover's quarrel before."
Harry inwardly recoiled, once again reminded of those uncomfortable truths the girl was so apt to point out. Not even Ron and Hermione were bold enough to describe Harry and Ginny as lovers in anything. Especially when such thoughts were wholly unwelcome and made Harry stew in a frustrated silence or snap at them in agitation. Luna, Harry had to remind himself, staring blankly at her shaggy blonde hair, was definitely worlds apart from what he was normally used to.
"If you could call it that," Ginny said without inflection.
"Come on, Luna," Harry muttered, tugging her towards the kitchen, "let's eat."
"Yes," Ginny agreed after a moment, staring long and hard at Harry, "let's."
"One hundred points," Avery said bleakly during breakfast the next morning, unknowingly clutching his toast to his chest and smearing marmalade all over his charcoal gray vest and green and silver tie. "One hundred." Avery looked up abruptly, hazel eyes wide as he stared across the table at Dolohov. "How did he manage to lose us one hundred points?"
"How should I know?" Dolohov growled, slitting his eyes in Tom's direction. Tom dutifully ignored him, methodically eating a strip of bacon inch by inch. "I'm not the one that went around destroying school property. What do you think, Nott?"
Nott—a boy with brown eyes and muddy features—looked up from his breakfast and snorted scornfully. "There was probably some discriminating slur written in one of those books Tom's always has his nose stuck in. Or he spilled his ink all over his perfect hand-me-down robes and got angry. Maybe Avery managed to offend his delicate Slytherin sensibilities and made Tom cry like a four-year-old. Who knows?"
"Tom doesn't cry," Avery pointed out absently, sinking down in his chair. "He storms angrily about. You know, um, temper-tantrums and all that."
Dolohov choked on his morning tea.
Nott hummed absently in agreement. "My mum is having a rough time getting my sister out of that phase. She's three, you know."
Tom twitched. Dolohov hastily stuffed more eggs into his mouth.
Avery nodded sagely. "Mum said I used to have that problem when I was younger, too. My brother used to rip off his nappies and fling his dung around everywhere."
Both Nott and Dolohov snorted loudly into their breakfast, trying and failing to stifle their laughter. Tom paused ever so slightly, turning to regard Avery with a curiously tense look. Flashing Tom a tight-lipped smile, Avery shrugged absently, lifting his goblet and taking a long draught from it.
"Oh, don't give him that look, Tom Riddle," a voice spoke up suddenly. Tom turned slightly, his expression blanking as he took in the sight of Walburga Black and Druella Rosier standing behind him, shoulder to shoulder. Walburga's fury was like something out of a nightmare, Avery thought, cringing slightly. Druella didn't look any better—prettier, as Avery always thought she was, but Druella was staring at Tom with the sort hate-filled disgust that people were only courageous enough to send his way back before they realized Tom was a Parselmouth.
"One hundred points!" Walburga snapped shrilly when Tom continued to stare at her absently. "What makes you even think—I can't expect a half-blood... but listen. We're Slytherins. I know you think have some right to prance around this school as if you own it, but Heir of Slytherin or not—"
"Don't," Avery cut in suddenly, rising to his feet. "Just... stop talking."
Walburga pinned Avery with her furious gaze. "Why? Why should I? Everyone knows—"
"Someone's certainly gotten bold," Dolohov murmured, eyeing the silent Tom carefully. "I remember, not even a few weeks ago you were so very sorry about what Lestra... well, you're being very bold Black."
"I'm being bold?" Walburga asked, a disbelieving laugh cutting the air. Her eyes continued to hold that furious tint. "You're second years. Riddle—"
"Please just go," Avery said quietly. He felt his body shifting automatically to serve as a barrier between the older girls and Tom. Discomfort crept up his spine again—the same discomfort he felt the moment Tom curled his fingers into his hair and threatened him, sugar sweet but so very hateful at the same time. Avery didn't want to see that face again, not with everyone watching. The fact that Tom was sitting so silently, just taking Walburga's anger and disdain... that same feeling of wrongness was curling about in the pit of his belly, the one he had felt the moment Lestrange confronted him when he first sought to understand more about Tom, to see what was really behind those infuriatingly blank expressions...
Avery remembered the force of Tom's order, the way the words spilled from his lips so seamlessly—Tell the truth—and he remembered never wanting to go against that power again. He wondered when Dolohov started noticing it, wondered if Walburga Black was smart enough to even see.
Druella Rosier caught Avery's eye, then tugged on the sleeve of Walburga's robes. "Let's just go, 'Burga. These second years aren't worth our time." She paused. "Besides, I'm sure the Prefects will be more than willing to handle them."
"Fine," Walburga huffed, turning on her heel and following her friend down the table. "But one hundred points..."
A tense moment of silence past.
"At least someone understands how I feel," Nott said solemnly. His lips quirked as Avery retook his seat. "You have toast stuck to your front, by the way."
Cringing, Avery peeled the toast off of his vest and tossed it on the plate in front of him. He wasn't feeling very hungry anymore.
Tom remained silent, his steady gaze focused at some point down the table.
"He wants to know about the Dark Arts," Avery said between classes, appearing next to Dolohov so unexpectedly that the other boy jumped and stumbled on the hem of his robes. Righting himself, Dolohov glowered at Avery before glancing towards Nott—the boy stared at the both of them with wide brown eyes before making an inarticulate sound and gesturing vaguely.
"That's not surprising," Dolohov muttered, hoisting his satchel higher up on his shoulder, "but I really could care less."
"He requested that I speak to you," Avery said.
"More like bullied," Nott said, smiling crookedly at Avery's annoyed scowl. "But with him, it's pretty much all the same, if you ask me."
"I didn't," Avery snapped, shoving Nott roughly in the shoulder. "Could you go away?"
Nott laughed. "See, I knew you couldn't have changed that much. One minute you're teasing Tom along with the rest of us and the next you're some pathetic—"
"Shut up," Avery snarled, careening towards Nott. Nott danced away, keeping Dolohov firmly between the two, a taunting smile on his face as he watched the blond boy go red in aggravation. Dolohov rolled his eyes and continued down the staircases, hardly sparing Avery a glance.
"Not surprising," Dolohov reiterated, "but he has a point, you know."
"Why does he want to know?" Dolohov interjected, bowling over Avery rudely. "Not that I care, obviously, but my parents have always told me that's not something you talk about in polite conversation."
"Half-blood," Nott replied sotto voce, wiggling his fingers in Avery's face impishly. "Of course he has to make up for that filth somehow."
Avery sighed, rubbing his face wearily. "I don't know. He just brought it up. But I can't say anything because I don't know and—I told him to ask Lestrange."
Nott and Dolohov both choked rather loudly, whirling around to just stare. Avery fidgeted uncomfortably, catching the attention of one of the ghosts—the Bloody Baron swept eerily down the corridor and Avery flinched, gripping each boy by the sleeve and moving them towards the wall. Silver blood stained the cloak of the Baron as he hovered near them for a moment, eyes peering unseeingly down at them as his chains clanked together ominously. Then, without warning, he swept through the three of them, causing them to stiffen at the sudden unpleasant chill—its was as if they had all been doused with a bucket of ice water—and goose pimples erupted on their skin. The Bloody Baron sunk through the floor, head hovering over the flagstone for a moment more—and then he was gone, leaving the three boys huffing in discomfort.
"I hate him," Nott muttered, rubbing his arms rapidly.
"I heard he's half mad," Dolohov said, nose crinkling in distaste.
"And Avery's completely mad," Nott said loudly, jumping up and pointing a finger directly in the blond's face. "I mean, telling Tom Riddle to ask Lestrange—the gent who has been bullying him ever since he was Sorted—for a favor—" Nott burst into excited laughter, swinging his arm around Avery's shoulder and tugging him close. "I knew you had it in you. I knew you hadn't changed."
"Don't be so disgusting," Dolohov groused, shoving Nott away from Avery.
"What did he do?" Nott continued, staring at Avery with bright eyes. "How angry did he get? Did he try to hex you? Hit you? Did he throw a tantrum like a six year old and storm off to... are you all right?"
Avery grimaced, refusing to meet their eyes. He had felt the blood drain from his face—felt his insides squirm unpleasantly and the sickening feeling of nausea rumble about in his stomach. Down the corridor, a group of Hufflepuff fourth years were chattering with one another—a girl's shoulders were slumped as she moped along behind her friends, eyes downcast and lips trembling ominously—with a flash of self-disgust, Avery straightened his shoulders and elbowed past Nott, snorting as the smaller boy fell to the floor. Dolohov huffed in irritation before following behind Avery with a roll of his eyes.
"Just because you can't pick on Tom doesn't mean you should pick on the rest of us."
"Are you going to tell me what you know or not?"
"He must have really scared you," Nott piped up, swinging up beside Avery and giving him a pleasant smile. Then he planted his elbow in Avery's stomach. Hard.
Struggling for breath, Avery hunched over, glowering fiercely at Nott and Dolohov who just laughed at him unsympathetically.
"I hate you," Avery said breathlessly, rubbing his stomach. "I really, really hate you."
"If you have to hate anyone, hate Riddle," Dolohov said absently, scratching his cheek. "He's the one torturing you."
Avery winced. "I'm not—"
"Who's torturing Avery?" A voice cut in, and Avery felt himself go ramrod straight. Lestrange was standing not a few feet in front of him, half-hidden behind one of their other dorm mates. Malfoy was staring at the three of them with a strange expression on his pointy face, murky eyes pinched at the corners.
"Who else? Since Avery became Riddle's whipping dog—"
"Oh," Malfoy said disinterestedly, waving his hand in front of his face absently. "Well I already knew that." He frowned suddenly. "Speaking of which, it is rather odd to see you not hovering in his shadow like some demented half-spirit. Did he put you in time-out?"
Avery bared his teeth at Malfoy. "I will hit you."
Malfoy rolled his eyes dismissively. "You're even starting to fight like a Muggle. No hexes? I guess hanging around that dirty half-blood really does give new meaning to the phrase 'mucking about in the filth.'"
Avery rolled his eyes. "I should tell him you said that."
"You won't, though."
"Only because he's standing right behind you," Avery pointed out, a sharp smile curving his lips. He waved absently. "Hello, Tom."
Malfoy jumped, whirling around—only to be met with nothing but an empty corridor. Nott erupted into choked laughter, biting down hard on his knuckles to stifle it. Dolohov rolled his eyes, but a mean-spirited smirk was curving the corner of his mouth upwards. Malfoy huffed, his shoulder going tense as he turned to stare at Avery; Malfoy's silver eyes were narrowed in agitation, glittering with a fury that reminded Avery all too well of Tom.
"That wasn't funny."
"Except that it was," Nott said with another huff of laughter. "I can't believe you're afraid of that half-blood!"
Malfoy sniffed primly, his hands twitching by his side. "Of course I'm not afraid. It's just..." Malfoy paused and peered at Avery, long and hard. "I don't understand. Why are you friends with him, especially when he..." Malfoy trailed off, gesturing vaguely.
"I don't want to talk about this," Avery said shortly, folding his arms petulantly over his chest. "And as this is no concern of yours—"
"It's because he's the Heir of Slytherin," Lestrange cut in, staring intently over Avery's shoulder. His eyes were glassy. "You said as much, well. Before."
There was a long uncomfortable moment when no one said anything—Nott and Dolohov instantly found something fascinating about the other's face, but when staring became too awkward, they averted their gazes to the floor. Following their example, Avery peered idly at the flagstone that stretched beneath their feet; dust was beginning to coat the stones once again, the fine particles getting caught in an upsurge whenever one of the other boys shifted. Avery pondered that for a moment, the discomfort, but something else was gnawing at the pit of his belly, and every urge to ignore the fact that Lestrange had willingly conversed with him had him shifting his weight to turn towards Nott and Dolohov and continue his previous conversation.
"There's something wrong with him."
Avery licked his lips nervously and caught Lestrange's eye. "... yes."
"He's been worse lately," Lestrange said slowly, tugging at the sleeves of his robes, "hasn't he?"
"Yes," Avery answered shakily. "He wants to learn about the Dark Arts."
Malfoy sputtered. "He wants to do what?"
"I told Tom if he wanted anyone to teach him, it'd have to be you."
"Well," Lestrange said through gritted teeth, his sharp tone and expression something Avery was familiar with, but couldn't quite read, "I suppose I should get started then, shouldn't I?"
Avery was acting strange.
Under normal circumstances, Tom wouldn't have cared—didn't, actually, because Avery's feelings of discomfort meant absolutely nothing to him—but with the way Avery's eyes kept darting over to him only to skitter away moments later, Tom found his tolerance of the boy waning rapidly.
Closing his quill neatly in his Potions text, Tom pinned Avery with a steady stare.
"You are beginning to annoy me."
Avery twitched imperceptibly before lifting his head, meeting Tom's stare head on. "Oh." Avery frowned. "Have I done something—"
"If," Tom interrupted, his tone even and his expression perfectly neutral, "there is something you want to say to me, say it."
"Or don't," Tom continued irritably. "But go away if you're going to—"
"Dolohov said he'd tell you about the Dark Arts!" Avery exploded in a whispered frenzy.
The information didn't filter into his mind at first—Avery had said something that was meant to be important, that was supposed to mean something to him, but was overcome with disbelief. It was hazy and diluted and so strange, because Tom could remember being in control of his mind, of his responses and never had he been so unable to think.
"What did you just say?" Tom asked softly, slowly.
"I said… Dolohov, he said that—" Avery took a moment to glance around the Common Room, watching silently as a group of sixth years bent over their star charts and two fifth years huddled into a corner, touching fingers and smiling at each other warmly. "He'd teach you. About… what you asked about."
Tom's eyes glowed as the euphoria erupted inside of him. It was different from the glee he felt when he had shown Amy and Dennis the true meaning of pain, different from when he had strangled Billy Stubbs' stupid little rabbit… a gleefulness that was so consuming that Tom struggled just to breathe. He relished the feeling, grew high on it. His smile was razor sharp.
"Yes," Tom whispered feverishly. "Yes."
"Tom—" Avery's voice quavered in his distress.
"When?" Tom asked abruptly, his gaze catching Avery's and holding it with a force that left the other boy immobile. Avery's eyes widened slightly, the color draining from his cheeks—but Tom didn't care, couldn't care, because despite the fact that Tom hated Avery, Avery had just given him the key to something he wanted very, very badly. His mind had been consumed with the thought of learning more ever since he overheard the upper years talking about the Dark Arts; he had been obsessed with the possibilities of what he could learn, of what he could do and it was falling into his grasp oh-so-neatly… Tom couldn't pass it up. Didn't want to pass it up.
"I…" Avery started in a tone Tom couldn't identify. Avery's gaze jumped about the room. "He didn't say, but… soon. I—I'll ask him again and… soon."
Slowly, so very slowly, Tom said, "I really do value you, you know."
Avery didn't respond.
Perhaps it was Harry's complete refusal to talk about anything complicated, but Ginny had been adamant on the three of them leaving Harry's run-down flat and meeting up at Luna's home instead of the Burrow. Luna's home was just as odd and stupefying as Harry remembered; the murals painted beautifully across her walls were enough to make his throat tighten as he stared at the neatly printed words lining the ceiling. Friends, it read, and for the longest time, Harry couldn't pull his eyes away.
"Here's the letter," Luna said, handing him a thick, folded up piece of parchment. "It doesn't say much, just instructions."
"It wouldn't," Harry answered, tucking the letter into his pocket without reading it. His attention was once again caught by the colors splashed over Luna's wall. "We weren't going to involve anyone else."
"So," Ginny started, crossing her arms and settling more comfortably on the edge of Luna's bed, "are you going to tell us why we cast a spell that pulled you out of a swirling vortex of doom or is this one of those noble things where you just expect us to go along with you, no questions asked?"
"You're being unfair," Harry began crossly. "You know I would never ask you—"
"Of course you wouldn't. You just expect us to sit around and do nothing while you run off into danger as though—"
"Don't use that tone with me, Harry Potter!" Ginny snapped venomously.
For a moment, Harry was struck dumb by the sheer intensity of her glare (not like Tom's, never like Tom's, and it left a bad taste in his mouth to think so), his insides crawling in unease. He had never liked the thought of hiding anything from Ginny, but the thought of anything happening to her—the very knowledge that the path that he, Ron and Hermione had decided to go down could bring her any sort of pain… Harry didn't like the feeling. Didn't even want to think it. But Ginny was there, in front of him, and the desire to just confide in her (the way he used to, once upon a time, when she was his and only his and there was no such thing as heroism and sacrifice—except it had always been there, and Harry knew the taste of loss, better than anyone) was a weight in his heart he knew he would never be able to rid himself of.
But more than that, Harry could recall, quite clearly, being seventeen and the suffocating crush that came with watching Ginny wade out into danger at the Battle of Hogwarts. Could remember, distantly, being twelve and his face draining of color the moment he saw Ginny lying cold and unresponsive on the floor of the Chamber of Secrets. The thought of anyone wading into danger just for him had always left him worried and uncomfortable, and after all they had been through in their Hogwarts years (and beyond, because Harry could remember the way Ginny's eyes sparkled when she smiled, or the way her lips pressed against his own when they kissed, and he didn't want to lose those memories, not for the world, but the world was crumbling around him and this was all he could do to stop it) seeing any of the people he loved hurting and suffering was the most unbearable pain in the world.
There was no guarantee that they would survive whatever dangers going into the past could bring about. Even knowing that Harry, Ron and Hermione had gone back in time in an attempt to change it—terrible things happen to those who meddle with time, he'd been told once, back when things were easier and more about getting a family and less about struggling to keep it. Hermione had been clear when she told him that the spell was illegal, that using it could end with them spending the rest of their lives in Azkaban, so the thought that Hermione would bring Ginny and Luna in on what they were doing, even in the vaguest sense, was confusing and very difficult for Harry to swallow. He hadn't even told Ginny goodbye before he left…
Looking at Ginny, seeing the fury clouding her expression and keeping her shoulders bunched tight, Harry knew he couldn't tell her the truth. He wanted to—yearned to have the truths slip from his lips, to let her know of all the irritation and rage that had bubbled beneath his skin just as frequently as the regret—
I'm ruining everything, Harry wanted to say. No matter what I do, I can't get through to Tom Riddle. I can't save him. I'm going to have to kill him.
(Again, a traitorous thought erupted, and something inside him wrenched because it would be so easy, even if he didn't want to.)
"My mom used to practice theoretical spells," Luna said suddenly, looping a string of Butterbeer tops around her neck. "But then it back fired on her and I watched her die. I don't think the spell would have backfired if I hadn't been trying to get her attention and distracted her. I think this is one of those times when asking questions might make things worse than they already are, Ginny Weasley. Maybe we should just trust him. He is Harry Potter after all."
Ginny twitched. "Luna—"
"Hermione really is the smartest witch I know. If you can't trust Harry, I would at least trust her."
A flood of warmth suffused Harry then, his eye catching on the word friends once again.
"I want to tell you. But… I promised Ron and Hermione. And—"
"Everyone has always and will always come second to them," Ginny finished bitterly, head bowed as she stared hard at her lap. "Fine, I won't ask questions. But you can be sure that I won't have any part of this. If you want to go gallivanting around in the past, that's your business. But I won't help you do it."
A cold rush of something (shock euphoria relief fear rage) coursed through Harry and he stared uncomprehendingly as Ginny set her jaw and stared firmly at their faces splashed against Luna's wall.
Harry's mouth worked silently for several moments, unsure of what to say, before he finally settled on: "What?"
"You heard me," Ginny said defiantly.
"But—Ginny!" Harry bellowed uncontrollably, surging to his feet and staring at her in complete disbelief. His heart thundered wildly in his chest. "There has to be three people to work the spell. I can't go back unless there are two people to anchor me and keep the magic from—Ron and Hermione are still—if I don't go back then—"
"Then," Ginny cut in curtly, looking Harry squarely in the eye (she always did know how to catch his anger head on), "You better get settled, I suppose. I imagine you won't be leaving for a while."