Warnings: Slash, Harry/Voldemort, sexual content, angst
Disclaimer: They don't belong to me. Entirely the property of J. K. Rowling, Warner Brothers, etc. I'm not making any money off of this.
A/N: Wow. Ahem. Hello, everyone. Has it really almost been a year? Yup, I'm still alive, and incredibly astounded by the patience and loyalty of my lovely readers. I won't even attempt to make excuses, other than that life has sort of gotten away with me, and I've been caught up in a lot of other projects (the fruits of which you will hopefully be seeing sometime soon!) - so that I can just let you guys dig into this beefy update. I've been crying and pulling my hair out over this for the past ten months, so I hope it lives up to expectations. I also do have every intention of finishing this story, and I am going to try to never ever leave you guys hanging like this again, cross my fingers, my heart, my eyes, &c.
Thank you all for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoy!
The photograph was worn and tired with age, corners curling upward. But it did not damper the beauty of the woman held captive within. Lily was positively beaming up at him, her smile frozen forever with cheap magical ink. It didn't do her justice, despite the spell that made her eyes glitter, silent laughter spilling from her mouth as she glanced out the side of the frame.
Even in her death, Snape found that he was intensely jealous of her happiness. He traced his finger down the side of her face. A beautiful smile, one that he had been treated to less and less as the years wore on as it had been turned instead upon Potter. Loathsome, repulsive git.
And now he was considering abandoning her once more, entrusting her to another Potter. An ugly emotion rose within his chest. Snape forced himself to look away, steering his gaze to the window where the sun was setting behind the hills. He needed to return to Hogwarts before the Carrows had the opportunity to run the castle into the ground. Perhaps they wouldn't have time tonight after all - surely the Dark Lord had already taken him to their bed, doing whatever manner of disgusting things they did together every night.
His fingers tightened around the edges of the picture - his picture. How infuriating, that he must debase himself time and time again for the spawn of the man that he despised with every molecule of his being. And so that Potter might simply hand himself over to the Dark Lord every evening like some slavering, obedient dog! Potter - who should be obedient to no one, least of all the Darkest wizard of their century!
No, Snape decided furiously, there would not be time tonight after all.
A dark shape streaked across the burning sky: the Dark Lord, leaving the manor for some undoubtedly terrible purpose at this time in the evening. Perhaps they had quarreled. Snape felt some satisfaction at this idea; it would serve Potter right, the pretentious little snot.
But his bitterness was fleeting. The image of Potter's eyes - Lily's eyes - floated persistently in his mind, so broken and pained this afternoon in the Ministry. Potter didn't have any right to be broken. Potter was supposed to be arrogant, fierce, stubborn. The day that Potter was broken was the day that wizarding Europe could wave goodbye to its freedom.
Snape took one last look at the photograph: his childhood best friend, radiant in her happiness, completely unaware that her life would be stolen from her but a few short years later. "I'm sorry, Lily," he murmured, the words like glass in his mouth. He remembered her own last words to him: Remember what you've still got left to lose.
He didn't look at the photograph again as he walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.
"Cissy! Open up!"
White knuckles rapped upon the wooden door. It did not open. Mouth twisting, the woman leaned to the crack between door and doorjamb and hissed:
"Cissy, I demand that you open this door!"
There was a rustling from the room behind it, but it still did not open.
"Narcissa," the woman whispered furiously, "if you do not come out of that room right this instant, I swear on our father's grave that I shall -"
There was the sound of a lock clicking, and then her sister's face appeared in the crack in the door. Bellatrix was momentarily stunned into silence by how badly she looked - dark shadows were smudged beneath her eyes, and her once lovely face had a drawn, hollow look to it. She clearly was not eating enough.
"Bella." Her voice had not fared any better; it was weak and thin from weeping, with a cold edge that said she was not receiving any visitors. "It's nearly midnight."
Well, she would receive her sister, whether she liked it or not. Bellatrix pushed forcibly on the door, met with some resistance from the woman on the other side, before it gave way and Bellatrix was striding into the attic in which her sister had spent these last many weeks.
"Bellatrix!" Narcissa hissed in protest, but the dark-haired woman only turned around and silenced her with a sharp glare.
"Shut the door."
Narcissa was trembling visibly. For a moment, Bellatrix was struck with cold fury. How had she, the powerful and loyal Bellatrix Lestrange, the Dark Lord's most trusted and precious, been disgraced with such an impressionable and pathetic sister? It was difficult enough already to keep up the Black name with the other unspeakable woman running around and marrying filthy Muggles. At least Narcissa had had enough good sense to get herself married to a Malfoy - although, as it turned out, Lucius had proved as weak-willed and depressing as his bride.
"I shall not take orders from you in my own home, Bella," said Narcissa, lip quivering, a final attempt at defiance.
"It ceased to be your home the moment the Dark Lord declared it his own - and, further, the moment your traitor of a whelp defiled it with the enemy's presence. Now, shut the door."
Intense loathing burned in icy blue eyes as Narcissa obeyed. Bellatrix attempted a sweet smile as she flicked her wand, sliding the lock into its place. Patience, Bella. She needed Narcissa's trust; it would not do to anger her so soon.
"This is hardly a decent hour for this," began Narcissa, but Bellatrix ignored her, walking about the attic, examining the disgusting hole that her sister had been occupying all winter.
"The stench is horrendous," said Bellatrix off-handedly, lip curling with distaste. She stopped before the empty bed, which was extremely ruffled; several empty vials sat on the stand beside it. She snatched one, examining the label, not noticing the way that Narcissa had stiffened visibly behind her. "Having nightmares, Cissy?"
Hands grabbed her shoulders, and Narcissa spun her around, gaunt face transformed with anger. "Because you've cared so deeply about the state of my health as of late?" She moved between her sister and the empty bed. "What is your purpose here, Bella? You haven't paid a thought to my well-being since December, when you called me mad for grieving over my filthy, dead son."
Tears were shining in her eyes, gray in the moonlight. Bellatrix forced down her anger, trying to remember her purpose here. Her opinion of her pathetic sister - and her fool of a dead nephew, for that matter - could wait.
"It's been nearly three months, Cissy." Bellatrix brushed her hand gently against her sister's hollow cheek; Narcissa flinched, but did not pull away.
"Since when? Since you've bothered to visit your mourning sister?" Her voice was shaking. Such a sad, weak woman she had become. "What do you want from me, Bella?"
"I want to help you." Bellatrix twisted her face into its most caring, sisterly expression.
"I don't believe you."
"We can help each other." Her voice was soft and insistent. "I need you, Cissy. The Dark Lord needs you."
"I don't know what you're -"
"Potter, my dear sister!" The words were barely whispered, but excitement shone feverishly in Bellatrix's eyes. "Together, we can destroy Potter once and for all! You won't trigger the wards - you're a Malfoy by marriage. Oh, darling Narcissa," and here she took her sister's unwilling hand, caressing it, "wouldn't you like to be in the Dark Lord's good graces again?"
Narcissa jerked her hand away violently, face contorting with shock. "Have you gone mad?" she hissed, looking about the room, as though the Dark Lord might be lurking in a corner eavesdropping on their conversation. "Bella, he'll have your head! He'll have both our heads! How could destroying Potter possibly fix anything?"
"Potter has bewitched the Dark Lord, much like he bewitched your son! The boy is a demon - powerful beyond imagination - and when his death breaks the spell, the Dark Lord will understand - he will reward us beyond any of his other servants, who have sat by and watched as he's been wooed by the charms of a seventeen-year-old devil! Just think of it, Cissy! We will be greater than any in his eyes - the most loyal and faithful of his servants!"
The first hint of uncertainty flickered across Narcissa's face. "Draco?" she whispered. Her gaze darted for the briefest of moments to the empty bed. "He's bewitched Draco as well? Then… then perhaps the Dark Lord would be merciful…"
"Yes, yes, surely, Cissy," said Bellatrix impatiently, lips stretching in a mad grin, "and poor Lucius will be exonerated of all past transgressions, and all will be well again! If the child could bewitch the Dark Lord, surely our master will understand how easily he fooled your son. And we shall be the ones to reveal Potter's true nature - we shall be rewarded! But I need you, Cissy - you are the only one who can get past the wards on the second floor."
Narcissa's troubled gaze wandered to the window, then to the bed, then to the window again. Perhaps a little push, then.
Bellatrix concentrated, a subtle nudge against her sister's mind. Upon Narcissa's next inhale, she breathed in a fine, barely visible mist.
"If Potter's bewitched Draco - if the Dark Lord will truly understand…" Narcissa looked up, the life back in her eyes despite the trembling in her hands, her voice hardly above a whisper. "I will do whatever you think is best, Bella."
Harry dreamt of his mother that night.
It wasn't as any other dream he'd had before. Lily Potter was young - younger than she'd been in photos Hagrid had given him. Sixteen, perhaps seventeen years old. She was waiting outside a brick house on a street lined with identical brick houses. A hood was pulled over her head, snowflakes gathering on the shoulders of her cloak. She stood very still on the sidewalk, staring up at the grey sky with strikingly green eyes; she was worrying at her thumb the way Harry did sometimes when he was upset or anxious.
It was the most Mugglish neighborhood Harry had ever seen. A house nearby had all its windows boarded up with rotting wood, bricks crumbling in the foundation. The nearest street lamp was broken. Harry could not imagine how Lily Potter had found herself in such a place.
But even though it was Harry's dream, he knew quite clearly that he was not a part of it. He could not reach out and touch her; she would not notice if he called out to her and asked what she was doing. He might have fallen into a Penseive for all that his presence mattered here.
As though sensing these thoughts, she turned around quite suddenly to stare at him. Her face was dark with some painful emotion, forehead wrinkled and lips pursed.
"You don't need to do this."
It took Harry a moment to realize that, yes, she was speaking to him. "Do what?" he asked, although he had a sinking feeling in his stomach that he knew exactly what she was talking about.
"You don't need to do this," she said again, stepping toward him, and Harry knew what she knew. Knew what she meant.
"I don't have any other choice."
"Of course you do," Lily said hotly, and Harry was confused by the anger in her voice. "You could do the right thing."
"But I don't know what the right thing is! I don't know what I'm supposed to do!"
"Well, this is wrong!" she said, face darkening with anger. "He - this - will never be the right choice! He's a murderer! He'll turn you into a murderer, too! I can't believe you don't understand that by now!"
"Mum," Harry said, chest tightening painfully. He didn't understand - how could she blame him, how could she be so angry when he was only trying to do what was right?
"Remember what he's already taken from you," she said softly, and her eyes glowed green, a flash of a spell, a woman's scream. "Remember what you've still got left to lose. You don't need to do this."
And then her mouth was moving, but no more words came out; the snowy street was fading, the sky darkening; and Harry awoke on the floor of the dark bedroom, alone, cheeks wet, clutching a photograph of Lily Potter to his chest.
Lord Voldemort was not pleased.
His servants, at least, could sense this. They skittered around him like mice trapped in the nest of a hungry serpent, keeping to the edges of the room, their eyes lowered in deference. But the stench of their dread did not make him feel any better. It made him, in fact, even more furious - was he truly so hideous to look upon? Would they, like Harry Potter, prefer the aristocratic nose, the soft grey eyes of his Muggle father's pretty face?
He had not felt so disturbed since Harry had betrayed him. But he refused to allow himself to become so affected over a petulant child. He hadn't gone to check up on the boy, hadn't touched his mind all morning. Harry had apparently locked himself in their bedroom once again, and Lord Voldemort would be damned before he spent another afternoon waiting pathetically in another corridor before another locked door.
"I've no news of the resistance, my Lord," said Fenrir Greyback, who was kneeling on the stone floor. The third of his Death Eaters to report to him today, and easily the least competent.
"No news," Voldemort repeated. This did not help his temper. He was eager to capture the remainder of Dumbledore's Order. He intended to kill every last one of them, slowly, in the most painful ways he could imagine. And Harry would not argue; Harry would watch, silently, because Harry was his, he had pledged himself to Voldemort's cause, and he would prove his loyalty, especially after his infuriating behavior the night before. The Dark Lord leaned forward in his throne. "And the interrogations?"
"They've been carrying on as scheduled, my Lord, but no one seems to have a clue. And believe me, it's not for lack of persuasion." A nasty grin full of sharp teeth twisted Greyback's ugly face.
The Dark Lord was not amused. "Perhaps Lord Voldemort has not been persuasive enough with you, werewolf."
The smile slid predictably right off his pointed face. "Of - of course not, m'lord. We're doing the best we can, but - we'll do better, I swear it."
Disgusting. How easily even the fiercest of his servants crumpled before him. Their fear had gratified him once - but now it was repulsive to him. He was surrounded by weak-minded fools. Malfoy, Dolohov, Rookwood, Wormtail, Travers… only his dear and faithful Bellatrix was not cowering against a wall, standing tall and proud amongst trembling fools.
"But how can I be certain, werewolf?" Voldemort's voice was soft and dangerous. "It's been two weeks since I've had any news of the resistance, and that information came not from you, but from Harry Potter."
"And where did Potter's information lead you?" said Greyback, leering. "To an empty house, as I so recall, and it led him straight into a tree and knocked his head right -"
The werewolf's screams split the air. The beautiful, ancient wand in his hand delighted at the curse - a wand spun by Death, intimate with the pleasures of torture and cruelty. But even the Cruciatus did not abate Voldemort's displeasure. He rose to his feet, face cold and still, intensifying the magic that distorted the werewolf's limbs - thirsty for the satisfaction of another's pain. As Greyback shouted and thrashed, Voldemort could almost imagine Potter in his place, begging for the Dark Lord's forgiveness - pretty face twisted up in pain - punishment for daring to make Lord Voldemort feel so -
"Do you understand now?" he hissed over the werewolf's cries. "Do you find me persuasive? There is nothing but pain and death for all who defy me! Is this a message you are capable of communicating, werewolf?"
There was the creak of the door opening - Voldemort's head jerked up, just in time to get a clear glimpse of horrified green eyes - before it slammed shut again. The steady flow of Dark Magic in his fingers fell away, and Voldemort was left only with disgust and dull rage. The werewolf's whimpering sobs echoed in the hall. Voldemort was tempted to silence him permanently.
"Master," began Bellatrix, but Voldemort was already striding across the room, anger barely concealed. He threw the sniveling werewolf out of his way with a flick of his wand and swept explosively into the corridor, leaving his Death Eaters stunned and silent in his wake.
He found the boy outside, standing on the snowy lawn with his back to the Dark Lord. His arms were wrapped around himself against the biting winter air. He did not look up as Voldemort approached, although his shoulders tensed visibly, a reaction to the Dark Lord's presence. Voldemort remembered for the hundredth time that morning how easily this boy had melted in Tom Riddle's arms, the memory's mocking words: If you truly cared for him, you wouldn't need to comfort him at all.
Lord Voldemort was not pleased.
"What is the meaning of this?"
The boy still did not look up; apparently even his shoes were more pleasant to behold than Voldemort's face. He had dressed himself in his fine robes. It looked as though he'd even considered picking up his comb. "I'm your apprentice. I thought I was expected to follow you at all times."
Red eyes flashed dangerously. "It seemed as though you were much keener on running away from me."
"Sorry," said Harry bitterly to his feet. "I've had my fill of violence for the past twenty-four hours."
Voldemort tried to rein in a flash of temper. "I did not torture the Corner boy. His death was painless. I showed him great mercy, considering the severity of his behavior."
"Right. My fill for the rest of forever, then." Harry was picking at a hangnail. Voldemort wanted to blast it off his finger; perhaps then the stubborn boy would look at him. "Is that why you're here now? To show me some great mercy, too - my Lord?"
"Harry." It took a gargantuan effort to remain calm, but it was the only way for him to retain control of the situation. "If this is an expression of misplaced anger from what happened yesterday -"
"Misplaced anger?" Harry barked out a laugh. "You left me! You yelled at me and left! What did you expect, exactly?"
Voldemort felt the familiar fury rise up in his chest. "I expected you to obey me."
"I have obeyed you!" Harry's voice broke, and he finally looked up. It struck the Dark Lord like a physical ache that the green gaze was shining with tears. "I've obeyed you in everything! I've let you parade me around the Ministry, I watched you murder my friend - I even let you make a fool out of me inside your locket! Some great present that was!"
"I did not intend for you to -"
"To what? To enjoy being around someone who actually cares about me?" The pain on Harry's face was nearly too much for him to bear.
"How can you possibly think I do not care for you?" Voldemort hissed; it took all of his effort not to seize the boy's shoulders and shake him. "I can do nothing - go no where - without thinking of you only and you first! Have you not remarked the lengths to which I have gone to ensure your comfort? Your safety? You, who are the constant subject of my thoughts! You, for whom I have pardoned betrayal and humiliation time and again so that I might keep you at my side! My servants snigger behind my back, and yet I remain a fool to Harry Potter - to a stubborn, infuriating -"
"There's more to caring about someone than that!" Harry interrupted him, face twisted up with desperation. "Safety and comfort don't mean anything when you're being a miserable git toward me! You don't give a damn about me!"
Voldemort wanted to scream - to shake him until his brain rattled about his empty skull - to force him to acknowledge how important and precious he had become. Part of him wished for nothing more than to end this madness here and now - to lock the infuriating child in an enchanted cave or a Gringotts vault, as Tom Riddle had the rest of his Horcruxes - as Voldemort should have done with this impossible boy in the first place. A simple future stretched before him, one without Harry Potter haunting his every thought, without Dumbledore's ghost mocking him from the shadow of every kiss and smile his Horcrux offered him.
But in the end, it seemed that the decision
(a gangly boy spilling forth from the bathroom stall - the way his breath had first caught against Voldemort's fingertips - the mad beating of his heart in the space between their mouths - Harry with snow melting on the tip of his nose, the small curve of his mouth, a smile - Harry, shining with darkness as he performed his first Unforgivable - Harry - impossible and frustrating and fascinating and lovely and his)
had been made for him long ago.
"You are a part of me." His voice was hoarse, unsteady. "I've cared as much for you as I have my own soul."
"Yeah, because you've taken such good care of that." Harry rubbed his face with his hands, disheveling his glasses in the process. "Sorry. That was - uncalled for." He sighed. "Look. Tom is only special to me because he's you. And I know that you - care for me, but - sometimes it's difficult for me to remember that. I never meant to hurt you."
"You did not hurt me," Voldemort snapped.
"Right." Harry sent him an irritated glare. "But you said that you couldn't give me - what I needed. And I thought that's why you were letting me spend time with Tom instead. So that I wouldn't expect so much of you."
"I am giving you all that I am able." His voice was little more than a whisper, face perfectly stoic. "Is that not enough?"
There was a flash of sadness in the green gaze, and for a moment, Voldemort thought he could hear Harry's thoughts - even as he kept them so far from his own mind, terrified of what he might find there: You will never give me what I need. You will never understand.
But then Harry's arms were warm around him, and the child's face was buried in his shoulder. "I hate you," the boy whispered to the wind, and Voldemort did not know if it would have been more painful if he'd said the alternative.
And against all reason, Voldemort allowed himself to return the embrace, to give in to warm skin and soft hair and kindness. "Is it enough?"
"Yes." Harry glared up at him. "I'm here, aren't I?"
The winter breeze lifted the fringe from the famous scar, a jagged pink line on his forehead. Voldemort closed his eyes for a moment. "I... should not have left you."
Lord Voldemort would not apologize. He had not been in the wrong. But some of the tension seeped out of Harry's body, and its departure brought him relief, unexpected and entirely welcome.
"Where did you go?" Harry's voice was hardly above a whisper.
"But where did you sleep?"
There was a reluctant pause. "I did not sleep."
Any remaining anger in Harry eyes vanished, leaving his expression naked and sad, before the boy's face was pressed once more against his neck. Harry's breath was warm against his bare skin. There were a few moments of silence, and then, murmured against his throat: "So come to bed."
Voldemort's eyes fell shut. An image flashed suddenly and vividly behind his closed eyelids: his Harry, miles of naked, warm skin, sprawled across the blankets with a dark smile. Voldemort breathed deeply into the head of wild hair. "I cannot."
"Yes, you can." Harry's voice was teasing against his ear. "You're Lord Voldemort. You can do anything you'd like."
A slender hand came up of its own volition to tangle itself in his Horcrux's impossible hair. "There are - servants, Harry, coming today to deliver important news to their master -"
"Like Greyback?" Harry looked up at him with raised eyebrows, incredulous. "Yeah, that looked like some real important news." He smiled softly, leaned forward so his lips touched Voldemort's ear: "Come to bed."
Voldemort struggled to remember what exactly had been so important about today's appointments. Warm lips fluttered kisses across his skin. "Harry..."
"Tom," Harry whispered.
And all at once, Voldemort's stomach contracted, as though it had been doused suddenly in icy water. Tom, Harry had gasped, writhing against the wall of a smokey attic, Tom - oh Tom oh please oh Tom oh -
Voldemort recoiled from Harry's touch, sucking a breath of freezing, winter air into his lungs.
I can give him more than you ever would, Tom Riddle whispered poisonously, his very worst fear incarnate, his precious Harry lost in his embrace. I can give him what he needs.
The boy reached out his hand to pull Voldemort back.
"Wait," Harry said, voice strained, "wait, I didn't mean -"
"Do not touch me," Voldemort hissed. The memory of those fingers winding themselves in Tom Riddle's hair was too much for him to bear. He was painfully aware of his thin and ugly lips, pulled over his sharp teeth in a snarl, his slitted nostrils flaring in fury. He had seen his eyes many times in Harry's memories to know how they must look - blazing with fury, with flaming madness, the color of anger. Of Hell.
It is no wonder he prefers a locket to your company, Riddle murmured inside his mind, stroking Harry's hair, kissing Harry's eyes. It is no wonder he thinks you a monster.
I don't love anyone else like this, Harry had whispered with a smile full of sea-salt and stars, a hundred moons ago. Only Tom.
"Voldemort," said Harry - the real Harry, shivering here in the cold at Malfoy Manor - his voice steady and stern.
But Lord Voldemort had vanished in an explosion of darkness and angry magic, leaving Harry Potter alone in the snow.
Harry took a deep breath, looked calmly up at the grey sky, and screamed.
At the top of his lungs, right where Voldemort had just been snarling at him, he screamed, a sound of infinite frustration. There was no response, because there was no one there - just the empty, sprawling, snow-covered lawns where Malfoy had died seven weeks ago so that Harry might have a chance to escape. And so Harry screamed again.
If there had been something to throw, he would have thrown it; but as it were, there was nothing breakable in the immediate vicinity. So Harry only kicked at the fresh snow and wrapped his arms around himself tight to choking and tried to yell loud enough to drown out the sound of his heart shattering, bleeding out the rest of his meager hope through the cracks.
"I hate you," he said, over and over and over again; the fog of his breath seemed to give the words a physical weight upon his heart. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."
He walked back inside, ears ringing, his insides numb and cold. He had done nothing but sleep the night before, but he returned to the bedroom anyway, curled up upon the blankets with his eyes squeezed shut against the harsh sunlight.
At least sleep would stop him from wondering what the hell he was going to do when this all fell apart.
Fingers, combing through his hair. Sunlight, leaking through a crack in the curtains, which had been pulled shut.
Reluctantly, Harry stirred.
Voldemort sat beside his bed in the dark, a red silhouette against the window. He was waiting beside Harry's bed as he had often been these past several weeks during Harry's lengthy recovery - but there was something different about his eyes that made Harry's breath catch, two bright nerves exposed to the air.
And then the fingers withdrew, and the moment was over. A dark veil had fallen between them again, and Harry might have hit something if he didn't feel so exhausted.
"You're going to drive me insane," Harry said, without thinking.
Voldemort looked momentarily taken by surprise, brow furrowing in the darkness. "You - are not without your own complications."
Unexpectedly, Harry found himself laughing. He tried to hold it back, but it escaped, strangled and a little hysterical. Pulling his knees up to his chest, he wrapped his arms around his legs. "You've stormed off on me twice now in the past day, and I'm the complicated one?"
"I do not storm anywhere." Voldemort bristled. "And that - did not go quite as I expected."
"Well, we didn't expect a lot of things to happen, did we?"
Silence fell over them. Harry looked down at his knees, and was keenly aware of his throat, sore from yelling, and the curtains that had been closed while he slept, and the heaviness that pulled on his heart.
"I said to you, once - that I could not give you what you needed," said Voldemort, and Harry was instantly reminded of another bedroom, in another lifetime, the Dark Lord's arms tight around him.
"I know," said Harry bitterly, "you've already said all of this, you don't need to -"
"I was wrong."
Harry's head jerked up. For a moment, he couldn't believe he had heard correctly. The world spun and his heart clenched and in the middle of it all was Lord Voldemort, staring at him, voice soft and eyes bright and intent:
"Anything you'll ever need - you shall have it from me. I will give you realms and treasures beyond your wildest dreams. Knowledge, power, pleasure - you shall have the world from me, Harry Potter. But you must be mine, and mine alone. You must belong to Lord Voldemort. Not to Tom Riddle, not to your red-headed wench - to me." He lifted Harry's face with a finger, staring into his eyes. "Do you understand?"
I cannot - love you. Voldemort's words echoed in his mind, wrenching at his heartstrings - and yet here he was, telling Harry he could give him what he needed. I don't believe you, Harry thought. I don't think you can. But instead, his fingers found Voldemort's hands - cool and long and trembling in the dark - and then Voldemort was holding his face and they were kissing. And it was salty and wet and Harry's chest was aching with the throbbing cage of two souls - but it was all right. It was all going to be all right.
I love you, in mouth moving against mouth, in fingers grasping for purchase against skin and blankets, I love you, in bare feet dragging down naked calves, in small, soundless cries muffled against collarbones, in quivering fingers gently cupping one fragile, beating heart - I love you, they did not say.
And it was all right.
Harry rarely woke before Voldemort, but the sunrise stubbornly pulled him from sleep, and Harry could not find his way back into his dreams.
Green eyes blinked open slowly to meet the day. The beginnings of the morning sun fell over the bed, illuminating Voldemort's face, foreign with sleep. Harry, who almost never got to see the Dark Lord this way, found himself captivated. The slitted nostrils dilated rhythmically with his breathing. Without the terrifying red eyes glaring down at him, Voldemort's face looked almost childlike, smooth and easy with sleep. His facial muscles weren't pulled taut in restrained fury, but relaxed, almost peaceful.
I love him.
Harry tested the words out in his mind, silently. With Voldemort's face softened by dawn-light, they didn't sound quite so horrible as when Hermione had suggested the notion to him a few weeks ago. And what did love even mean, anyway? Was love the desire he had always had to settle down with Ginny after school, to marry her and make a family, live an ordinary, happy life? Or was love this ache that grew in his chest as he watched this man sleeping, when he made this man smile? Was there any room for love in fierce kisses, in teeth and nails, in tears and shoving and screaming and betrayal? Could love even exist beside all this hatred?
Well, that was more than enough deep thinking for this ungodly hour. Reluctantly, Harry disentangled himself from the Dark Lord's sleep-warm skin - slowly, so that he didn't wake him - and stepped gingerly from the bed.
The photograph was hidden in the pocket of a pair of faded jeans, folded neatly at the bottom of his wardrobe. Harry extracted it carefully. Looking once behind him to confirm that the Dark Lord was still fast asleep, he tip-toed across the room and sat quietly at Voldemort's unoccupied desk.
Lily Potter glanced over her shoulder with Harry's grin, staring at her son through the wall of time and death. Resurrected through a magical photograph. Perhaps she had still been Lily Evans when this picture was taken - she surely hadn't yet graduated from Hogwarts. She was young, close in age to the girl who had visited him in that strange, disturbing dream.
So Lily Evans, then, continued to smile up at him, looking at the camera with a hint of pleasant surprise, as though she hadn't expected him to be there. She was sitting in the shade of a big tree, wearing a flower-print dress. Her red hair, striking even through time's wear on the photograph, was tucked into a straw sun hat; she reached up to brush a loose strand from green eyes. Harry's eyes.
Who was on the other side of the camera? James? It had to be James - there was no one else Lily would have been smiling at like that. Harry touched her face through the photo, something painful spreading slowly through his chest. Where had this photo come from? Why hadn't he seen it before? Wasn't it strange, that he should have a dream like that about his mother, and then wake up with her picture in his fist?
Remember what you've still got left to lose.
He found himself wondering once more if it had only been a dream. Perhaps Lily had been trying to send him a message.
"It is rude to pry, Harry."
Harry jumped, startled, in his chair. Voldemort was rising from the bed; a curious, sleepy half-smile curled his lips.
"Huh?" Harry blinked, feeling stupid in his surprise.
"Pry. Come, now - it is only one syllable." Voldemort smirked. "To pry - to sneak, to intrude on one's privacy, to wake up earlier than another so one might ferret about another's desk..."
"I know what it means," Harry snapped, though his voice lacked any bite. "And I wasn't prying. Most of this -" he gestured at the assortment of papers and books, "is all written in languages I don't even know, anyway."
Voldemort frowned at him, suspicious. "Then how might a sleeping boy find himself at my desk while I remain slumbering, unawares?"
"Calm down," Harry said, and smiled. "I was only looking at a picture, all right? My picture," he added quickly, when Voldemort's frowned deepened. Harry held up the photograph. "It's of my mum."
It was snatched from Harry's fingers before he could blink. "Where did you get this?"
"Hey!" Harry stood up, irritated. "Give that back!"
"Answer my question."
"I've always had it."
"Do not lie to me."
"I found it at school."
"Do not lie to me, Harry."
"It was a Christmas present."
"Do not lie to me!"
"What does it matter?" Harry was losing his patience. "Talk about prying! How come you're allowed to have a whole desk full of secrets, and I don't even get to keep a picture of my dead mum?" He snatched it back and glared. "Perhaps I'll tell you when I feel like it."
The glare in those eyes could have cut through dragon scales. "Do not be petulant."
"I'll be however I want to," said Harry, "because it's my picture, and you can't take it from me."
For a moment, Voldemort looked like he was ready to do just that. But he only raised a hand to his brow and closed his eyes for a long moment. "You must listen to me, Harry." Voldemort's voice was very tense, but when he looked up again, his eyes were softer than when he'd closed them. "You may think you know what is best for yourself, but there are those among my followers who would... hurt you, Harry, and -"
"I can take care of myself," said Harry, before he could stop himself.
"Not as well as you think," Voldemort replied, words clipped with anger. "Of the two of us, my dear Horcrux, who is the one who stood beside the other's sickbed, night and day, as he struggled slowly toward recovery? Waiting restlessly for the day that you might open your eyes and speak? Watching you sleep and heal and wondering what might happen next time, should you not be rescued quickly enough - should I let you escape from my sight for just those few minutes - should I wake up again one day without you beside me, without ever a hope for your return?"
Harry faltered, taken aback. "I'm not going anywhere," he said at last, though he felt a pang of guilt as he said it.
Voldemort touched Harry's face with his long fingers. "Not without me."
Harry sighed and leaned into the Dark Lord's touch. "It means a lot, you know." His voice was quiet. "That you actually care."
"More than you shall ever understand."
Harry looked down again at his picture. Lily beamed back at him, laughing silently. Harry gave another sigh, and then, his voice quiet and sad: "I wish I could have known her." He looked up, and added hesitantly, testing the waters, "I'm going to keep it."
Voldemort did not offer him any resistance.
Voices murmured along the corridor, whispering dangerous things from behind the false safety of closed doors. Harry was sure he heard the word Potter slip among them at least once. It made him nervous and itchy, and he tugged at the collar of his robes, ran a hand through his hair for the hundredth time that morning.
Cool fingers trailed along the back of his hand. "Are you sure about this, my little lion?"
The concern in Voldemort's eyes was touching, but it only strengthened Harry's resolve to go through with this. Voldemort hadn't insisted Harry accompany him to today's rounds of meetings, even though they'd been put off as a direct result of Harry's antics yesterday. Perhaps Voldemort still felt guilty for being such a git. But Harry had already made up his mind the night before, while Voldemort had held him in the small hours of the morning, whispering
(my soul, my only, my brave and beautiful boy)
Parseltongue into his hair. Tom Riddle is dead, Voldemort had screamed; but he had said it in anger, and Harry knew it wasn't true. Because Harry had seen Tom Riddle in the flesh. He had touched his mouth and kissed his spine; he knew all the degrees and colors of his smile and what exactly inspired them; and he knew this not from any boy in a locket, but from the man standing beside him.
Maybe Harry didn't need Tom Riddle after all. Maybe it was time to stop searching for flecks of gray amidst the scarlet and see Voldemort as he truly was - an enigmatic synthesis of past and future, immortality and perfection given flesh. But mostly, a man who was terrified of death. Of losing Harry.
Harry tried for a reassuring smile and squeezed Voldemort's hand. "What sort of lion do you take me for? I'm not afraid of a bunch of snakes."
But the snakes, it turned out, were pretty intimidating. The collection of Death Eaters seated at the long table might have fallen instantly silent as the Dark Lord entered the room, but Harry could see from the bitterness in their eyes that they had, in fact, been talking about the Dark Lord's new companion - and that the things they'd been saying weren't very nice.
"My Lord, my Lord," they murmured, heads bowed, as Lord Voldemort swept across the room. Harry followed awkwardly close behind.
"Master," said Bellatrix Lestrange, who was sitting at the end of the table beside Voldemort's throne. Contempt flashed in her eyes as she glanced at Harry, and then she looked back at the Dark Lord, confused. "I was not aware Potter would be joining us... I could conjure an additional seat...?"
"That will not be necessary, Bella," said Voldemort softly, and he looked down the table, toward the empty chair beside a thin-mouthed Lucius Malfoy. "It seems your sister continues to deny us the pleasure of her company."
Something changed in the air, tension thickening almost palpably. "My Lord." Malfoy spoke up, his voice dry and a little hoarse. "My wife has fallen very ill - she sends her sincerest apologies -"
"Do you take me for a fool, Lucius?" Harry shivered at the danger in his voice. "Narcissa has been absent from every gathering this month. Perhaps it is time for a conversation. You will bring her to me this evening."
Malfoy did not meet the Dark Lord's eye as he spoke, and for the first time, Harry felt sorry for him. "Yes, my Lord."
Voldemort turned back expectantly to the dark woman sitting beside his throne. "Bella."
"Master," said Lestrange, who was staring at Voldemort with big, admiring eyes. Harry thought he might be sick.
Voldemort's eyes narrowed impatiently. "Did I not make myself clear? Your sister's seat is empty."
Shock flickered across Bellatrix's face. She seemed to be struggling to make sense of the situation. At last, she rose to her feet with a feeble, "Oh... of - of course, Master." She found her sister's empty chair halfway down the table with as much dignity as she could muster, heels of her boots clicking loudly on the stone floor.
Harry looked at his feet, avoiding the shocked and accusatory gazes staring at him from every direction.
I could have just sat there myself, you know, he thought reproachfully at the Dark Lord. Voldemort did not dignify this with an answer, so Harry sat down uncomfortably in Lestrange's empty chair, preparing himself for a long and horrible morning.
The rest of the meeting, however, was decidedly lacking in excitement, the seating fiasco notwithstanding.
There was a conflict among the giant tribes over goat herds. The Ministry needed approval of their latest series of anti-Muggle pamphlets: Don't You Put That Cell Phone Near MY Baby! By the time they were discussing a recent shortage of dragon blood, a topic that should have put anyone but Snape to sleep, Harry had long since drifted.
"I don't understand," Macnair was saying loudly. "Why can't we just gut one of the ones we've got?"
"Because they're endangered creatures in Britain, you dolt," said Mulciber. "Egypt still isn't cooperating, and everyone knows that's where all the dragons are these days."
"What about China?" put in Travers. "Don't they got them - Chinese dragons, or what have you?"
"The People's Ministry in China hasn't involved itself with foreign conflicts in thousands of years, and they certainly aren't about to begin now," said Malfoy, who seemed to have gotten over his melancholy to flaunt this bit of political know-how.
Harry, who was picking at a hangnail, was deep in thought about kisses. Seamus had once said it only really counted if someone's tongue was in the other person's mouth, but Harry had had loads of kisses with Voldemort that didn't involve any tongues at all - even kisses where Voldemort's mouth wasn't anywhere near his own.
"What should we even care about dragon's blood, anyhow?" Travers demanded, scowling with crooked teeth in Malfoy's direction. "I couldn't give a bowtruckle's backside about a shortage of dragon blood! The only thing I'm concerned with is Muggle blood, and there's more than enough of that to spill."
This was met with uproarious approval.
"Dragon's blood has a number of known valuable medicinal applications, and an even greater number of unknown ones," said Snape irritably, although no one appeared to be listening.
"It's a fantastic oven cleaner," put in Goyle's father. Everyone turned and stared. "What? It is!"
Harry sunk a little deeper in his chair, distracted, eyes wandering to the vaulted ceiling. Kisses on the mouth were quite lovely, but Voldemort knew how to kiss him in other places that made Harry's lips too busy trembling and gasping to be kissing anything. He thought about Voldemort's mouth the night before, dragging along the naked nape of his neck as he prepared him with his long fingers, lips memorizing every bump and groove of Harry's spinal column slowly, thoroughly, until Harry thought his muscles would cramp from anticipation, hot face buried in his pillow to keep from begging.
By the time the Dark Lord's tongue had gotten below his spine, though, Harry hadn't been able to keep from crying out any longer.
It was a few moments before Harry realized the room had fallen into an expectant silence. Startled, Harry looked up - and found that Voldemort was staring at him. Intensely.
With a jolt of panic, it occurred to Harry that someone might have asked him a question. He had just begun to wrack his brain desperately for Dumbledore's twelve uses of dragon's blood - hadn't they gone over this in Potions? - when - sweet, sweet relief - Voldemort seemed to shake himself out of whatever trance he'd fallen into and began to speak.
"It is far past time for me to pay a personal visit to the Egyptian Minister. I believe the issue will resolve itself with a little encouragement. A renewed supply of dragons shall be ours in due time, my friends." There was probably a threat hidden in there somewhere, but there was a rough edge to Voldemort's voice that told Harry all he needed to know.
"Of course, my Lord," said Snape, not missing a beat. "Now, there's some business with next year's Hogwarts curriculum that needs your approval..."
Harry made a great and merciful effort to pay attention for the remainder of the meeting.
It wasn't until much later, when the meeting had ended and the room was beginning to clear out, that Voldemort looked at him again.
"Potter. A word."
Harry, who had been slumping in his chair, sat up a little straighter. "Um - yeah?"
"I find it incredible that you managed to pass any of your classes."
Harry tried not to blush or to smirk, and found himself failing at both. "I - er - suppose I have better things to be thinking about than dragon's blood right now."
Voldemort gave him a withering look. "I have killed greater men for lesser distractions than the one you've posed to me these past three hours."
"Well, it's a good thing you were always such rubbish at killing me, then, isn't it?"
An unwilling smile touched Voldemort's thin lips. "Nonsense. Lord Voldemort has always known there were many uses to keeping you alive."
Harry couldn't help but snigger. "Oh, right, of course he has." The last of the Death Eaters had left the room, and Harry smiled cheekily at the Dark Lord now, doing his best to look seductive. "Perhaps we should go over a few of those...?"
"Harry." Voldemort was smiling, and something in Harry secretly thrilled at his ability to make this unhappy man laugh. "That tone of voice is only effective once every day."
"Damn." Harry pretended to think about this. "So I should be good to go tonight, then?"
Voldemort dragged a finger along the sensitive skin underneath Harry's chin, tilting his face upward. "If you behave."
Harry shivered, but something in Voldemort's voice put him on edge. "I thought your Dark Lord duties were done for the day?"
Voldemort released his chin and stood. "I've yet to deal with the Malfoy woman. I will require you to wait in our chambers while I do so."
"Oh. Er. About that." Harry followed the Dark Lord to his feet, suddenly uncomfortable. "I was thinking, and maybe you - y'know. Shouldn't."
Voldemort's shoulders tensed. He turned his head slowly, his eyes dark with something that made Harry want to run from the room. "That is not for you to decide, Harry."
"Well, obviously," said Harry dryly, "but I was hoping you might care about my opinion."
"Really?" Voldemort turned to face him fully, towering over him. "And why do you think I should spare her, this woman who openly defies Lord Voldemort before his own servants?"
"She isn't defying you," said Harry, trying to rein in his patience. "She's depressed. She needs time. You killed her son."
"Draco Malfoy was a traitor."
"Yeah, only because he was trying to protect me!"
"By directly disobeying my orders!" All traces of teasing had vanished from Voldemort's face. "I shall not stand to suffer traitors, Harry, nor any who sympathize with them!"
"He wasn't a traitor!"
"That is not your place to decide!"
"Oh? And where is my place, then?" Harry demanded.
"Your place," Voldemort hissed, "is in my chambers until I have further need of you!"
There was a number of things Harry could have said to that, but the rage in the Dark Lord's crimson eyes silenced the words right in his throat. Glaring furiously, Harry left the room as loudly as possible, ignoring the shocked and angry looks of the Death Eaters lingering in the corridor as he stomped up the stairs and slammed shut the door to their rooms. Voldemort's rooms.
Harry collapsed face-first on the bed.
This was impossible. Voldemort wouldn't listen to a word he said. What did Harry even think he was doing, arguing with Lord Voldemort about who he should and shouldn't kill? The Order had sent Harry here to collect the Horcruxes. Hermione had sent him here to look for Tom. But what had Harry come here for?
What if Voldemort continued to be unmoved by Harry's persuasions? What if Harry was forced to watch the world fall beneath the Dark Lord's fist? What if there was nothing that Harry could do to fix him? Was he doomed to spend the rest of his days with a murderer, to watch his parents' killer slaughter everyone he'd ever known and loved? Would Harry be truly forced to make a choice between -
Harry's head jerked up off the bed.
Something was wrong.
The forest had honed his instincts - months spent lying awake in the night, watching the shadows dance across his canvas tent while he wondered if every snap of twig and rustle of leaves was a group of Snatchers, ready to haul him to face his fate. And those instincts were currently telling him that something was here that was not supposed to be.
Silently, the boy dragged himself to the end of his bed. His eyes were very wide as he looked over the edge.
The huge head of a snake suddenly lunged at him, snapping its jaws.
Harry yelped and scrambled backward on the blankets. He was still trying to calm his pounding heart when Nagini's head rose above the end of the bed, hissing with laughter as she raised her swaying body from the floor.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" Harry demanded, face flushed with anger. He hauled himself into an upright position in a desperate attempt to redeem what little remained of his dignity.
"Stupid man-child," she chastised him, eyes glittering with mirth. "You have all the perceptiveness of a sleeping rat."
"That's because … I was sleeping," he lied rather lamely, glowering at her.
She ignored him, sliding up the covers, her thick body dragging across his ankles. She paused, hovering near his face, flicking a forked tongue. "Your sniveling has dulled your senses."
She had been watching? A rush of mortification swept over him, and Harry sat up further, spluttering in Parseltongue as the great serpent settled heavily across his chest. "How long have you been here?!" he said furiously. "You can't just - you can't spy on me -"
The snake slid across his shoulders, laughing in short, breathy bursts of air. "Relax, man-child," she hissed as she curled around the other side of him. "I can taste your sadness in the air. And my master has given me ways to roam his home that do not require human doors."
Somehow, this did not make him feel any better. "I'm not a child," he muttered resentfully as she wound the full length of her body around his shoulders.
"But you are not yet a man," she replied, "Not as my master is - but then again, he is not a man either."
Harry sighed, feeling bitter. "Uncanny, how much we've got in common."
Nagini lingered near his ear, tongue brushing against the lobe. "You are his mate," she murmured. "You need nothing else in common."
Harry shifted uncomfortably beneath her weight, scowling. "So why are you here if you've got the whole manor to yourself?"
The snake suddenly turned her yellow gaze on the closed door. Harry did not like the way her body stiffened, her head pointing straight at the entrance to the bedroom. "There is evil lurking in the shadows tonight," she whispered. "Master's servants are not happy with his choice of mate."
Harry swallowed. His previous unhappiness with his new wand was suddenly the furthest thing from his mind; in fact, he wished very much that Nagini would get off of him so he could snatch it from the nightstand. "I don't see how that's any of their business." He squirmed, testing her weight. "Or yours, for that matter."
If a serpent could glare, Nagini surely did at that moment, looking at him with great disdain before turning slowly back toward the door."Master would not be pleased with his Nagini if she allowed his mate to be eaten in his absence."
"Eaten?!" Harry squeaked. That did it. Heedless of the huge snake curled about his prone body, the boy threw himself across the bed, much to Nagini's hissing displeasure, his hand groping for the yew wand on the night table. He was hindered, however, by several feet of heavy, angry snake, which was still tangled about his shoulders and legs from her lazy coiling.
"Off!" he hissed furiously, flailing. "I need my - get off me, you! -"
His was promptly cut off by a faceful of scales. Nagini's furious face whipped before him, inches from his nose. "Silence, foolish human! There is someone here!"
The Gryffindor blanched. He protested weakly when the snake crushed herself against his mouth, but it came out muffled, and another sharp look from Nagini quickly silenced him. With nothing else left to do, Harry strained his ears and listened.
There was nothing.
"Nafgimi -" he began to complain after a few long moments, voice muted against cold scales, "I -"
And then several things happened at once.
James Potter had often bragged about his invisibility cloak. But Snape had his own sort of invisibility that was far more effective than any piece of magicked cloth. No one ever paid any attention to the quiet boy with his large, greasy nose buried in his book, to the ugly man standing quietly with his head bowed in the shadows. Others had always underestimated Snape, silent and brooding and completely absorbed in his work. It was this ability to move invisibly in broad daylight, unnoticed in a crowd of people, that enabled Snape to do his job - to notice the way Quirrel's gaze lingered too long on the Gryffindor table.
To see the iciness in Bellatrix Lestrange's eyes as she stared at Potter sitting in her chair.
The Dark Lord might have been too enamored with his young charge to notice anything but the way Potter was squirming and yawning and doing anything other than paying attention to the topic at hand, but Snape had seen. He had seen Bellatrix staring at Potter, glancing every so often at Lucius, and he had begun to wonder just how much time he truly had to convince Potter to give up this reckless quest and return to the task to which Dumbledore had so foolishly entrusted him.
Which is what sent Snape heading straight to Lucius directly after the meeting had concluded.
"I do not have time for your inanity today, Severus," Lucius said, hardly looking at the other man as he swept up the stairs. "I have business with my wife."
"Lucius - this is very important," Snape said, hurrying after him and quite wary of the voices that fell silent as they passed. "Did you deliver what I asked you to?"
"Yes," Lucius hissed, "now if you will excuse me, I must attend to my ailing wife."
"I'm afraid that it was not enough," Snape said, ignoring him, as they rounded a corner. They were walking as quickly as possible short of breaking into a run. "I'm afraid that - yes, hello, Mulciber - you must go and give him something else. Another memory. More potent, perhaps - for we're running out of time."
"Indeed?" Lucius snapped, and suddenly whirled around to face him. "The Dark Lord is on his way to execute my wife, and we're standing here discussing magicked photographs and Harry-god-damn-Potter! I have wasted far too much time playing the hero for the sake of a foolish, arrogant childwho clearly does not even wish to be saved! Now excuse me while I go and care for the last person left precious to me!"
"Your wife is a lost cause!" Snape's temper was rising as he followed Lucius up another stairway, taking it three steps at a time. "The Dark Lord wants her dead! There is nothing you can do for her now!"
"I will not let him take another member of my family!"
"She will not leave, Lucius!" They rounded another corner and began to climb yet another staircase, this one much narrower and darker than the rest. "This is hopeless - you cannot make her -"
"How dare you! You know nothing of my wife - you know nothing of my family - now if you will pardon me -"
They had arrived at a dark wooden door. Lucius whipped out his wand. There was a flash of light, the lock clicked, and the door swung open to reveal -
Nothing. The small attic room was as dark and dusty as Severus remembered - but there was no one there. The lanterns had been put out. The place stunk of sickness and Dreamless Sleep.
"Narcissa?" Lucius' voice was thin and quavering. There was no response but for the sound of their labored breathing.
And then there was a mighty crash from the floor below; and from a distance a woman let out a terrible scream.
The bedroom door blasted open with a huge crash.
Harry had just enough time to catch a slender silhouette behind a burst of white light, and then he was thrown across the room by Nagini's whipping tail. He scrambled to his feet, heart pounding - and although his next thought was to go for the yew wand on the bedside table, Harry found that he could only gape stupidly at the scene before him.
There was another snake. Bigger than Nagini, with thick, black scales, but Nagini had wrapped herself around its body several times, a twisting mass of green and black. They thrashed violently in the air, hissing and spitting and striking at each other viciously. The door was hanging slightly off its hinge; there was no sign of the person Harry had seen just a moment before.
Nagini gave a pained hiss as her attacker squeezed, and Harry sprang suddenly into action. Flying to the nightstand, he grabbed his wand, nearly dropping it with his sweating fingers. "Stupefy!"
The two snakes flew apart in a blast of red light, Nagini screaming something incomprehensible in Parseltongue. She seemed to fly across the room in slow motion, the smack of her body hitting the wall a physical pain in Harry's forehead as she crumpled to the floor.
"Nagini!" he cried, heart nearly stopping in his throat.
But at that moment, the huge black snake caught sight of Harry with its even darker eyes. It rounded on him, hissing, its mouth stretching like a huge black hole. Somewhere, a woman began to scream. Harry sent another spell at it - "STUPEFY!" - but it seemed to go straight through its body, as though it were made of smoke. Fangs bared, the creature lunged at him -
- and was thrown suddenly off-course by Nagini, who pitched them both sideways, colliding with the armoire, which was sent toppling to the floor and caused a crash so large it shook the floorboards.
"RUN!" Nagini hissed, jarring Harry out of his stupor as she twisted once more around Harry's attacker. "Run, stupid human!"
Harry opened his mouth to cast another spell - but before he could think of what to do, someone else burst into the room. His eyes flew first to Harry, and then to the serpents thrashing on the floor. There was a crack - a flash of light - and then the black snake lay motionless, as limp as a huge rubber hose.
"Snape," Harry breathed. He didn't think he had ever spoken that name with so much relief.
She came to him in his dark place, where he often slipped away in the night to think. He knew she was there before he saw her, even in his deep state of meditation, where he was one with the stars, the pulse of the sea, the wind sifting through the grass and kissing his skin.
He did not open his eyes. "I did not summon you here, Bellatrix."
"My sincerest apologies, Master," she breathed from behind him. "I did not mean to disturb you in this place... but I fear we can no longer speak freely in Malfoy Manor."
"Indeed," Voldemort mused, lifting his face to the sky. "It seems as though the loyalty of my servants is more fickle than I supposed."
"I remain true to you and you only, Master," she whispered in a rush of breath. "You and you only - you are the greatest sorcerer in the world - my loyalty is unwavering -"
"I did not say I was questioning your loyalty, dear Bella," he murmured, although there was a touch of amusement in his voice. "But perhaps I should be? Given the paths your sisters have chosen -"
"I do not mourn my sisters," Bellatrix said, a little too harshly for his taste. "Either of them. Traitors, disgraces to the family name - Narcissa deserved her punishment -"
"There is no need to be so defensive," Voldemort said softly, rolling the Elder Wand between long fingers. The sea breeze washed over his face, and he breathed deeply of the ocean air. "Lord Voldemort knows all, sees all... he hears the whispers of the traitors in his halls, and he knows the black hearts of every last one..."
She knelt behind him; he could smell her fear, but also her adoration, her loyalty. "I am afraid - that they will not stop at Narcissa, Master."
Voldemort tilted his head. "Was her death not enough for those of wavering faith? Are you suggesting that I must make another example?"
"The number of examples matters not to these fools, Master. They shall continue to despise the Potter boy. No amount of death meted out by your hand will convince them of his loyalty." She paused. "But perhaps... death by his hand..."
Crimson eyes flew open to the night sky, the peaceful plateau he had achieved through his meditation suddenly disrupted. "Potter is not yet ready," he snapped. "He cannot stand to suffer death... Even the death of your sister disturbed him greatly, the woman who would have seen him dead..."
"It is the only thing that would convince them, Master. He does not need to kill many - but simply for him to kill once, to prove his faithfulness to our cause..."
Voldemort rose to his feet, glowering over the dark sea. "He is not yet ready."
"May I - make a suggestion, Master?"
The Dark Lord passed a hand over his face; he did not have patience for Bellatrix's antics at the moment. But she seemed only to take his silence as an assent, and continued:
"With Greyback's assistance, Master, I have located the family of Potter's Muggle relatives. The very ones who raised him, from when he was a small child - I am certain it is them. If Potter were to kill his own relatives in your name, before an assembled crowd, surely any thoughts of his disloyalty would be put immediately from their minds. No one would ever doubt him again."
Potter's Muggles. Voldemort froze. Bellatrix couldn't possibly understand the brilliance of such a plan. She thought it would be difficult, painful, even, for Potter to murder his family - perhaps she herself doubted the boy's faithfulness, and longed to see him prove himself to the Dark Lord with such sacrifice - but Voldemort knew how Harry felt about his relatives. He had seen that ghastly, blond child abusing Harry in his thoughts - had even tortured Harry with such memories, once.
Surely, it would be an easy thing for Harry to kill his aunt and uncle, after they had put him through such tortures. And his foolish, fickle servants would no longer dare to question the loyalty of his Horcrux, of his precious young man, after seeing him murder his own family in the name of Lord Voldemort...
Voldemort's heart quickened with excitement. If Harry followed through - if he truly used the Killing Curse and exposed himself to the dark thrill, the addictive beauty of the Avada Kedavra - Harry would understand. Harry would know what it was like, would come to crave it - he would not be able to stop.
"Bring them to me."
Far away, in a small dark room smelling of sickness and potions, a motherless boy with yellow hair opened his eyes.