Disclaimer: We do not own Harry Potter, nor are we making any money by doing this.
Summary: "Are you often in my dreams, Harry? I have not touched your mind since our little encounter at the Department of Mysteries... and yet here you are... saving me in my nightmares."
An LV/HP alternate universe story written by ladyoflilacs and What-Ansketil-Did-Next, set during Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Warnings: Angst, nudity, scenes of a sexual nature, torture, graphic violence, and - in some cases - excessive creepiness.
In Somno Veritas
In my pain
I murdered her in my thoughts last night.
And in my dreams I held her.
I could not live, I told her
Unless she let me be an animal again.
"Too late, Harry! You shall hear the story another time. Good night."
"Good night, sir."
The door swung shut with a loud clunk, leaving Harry alone in the hall.
Harry climbed onto the moving staircase with a frown, feeling even more confused than he had when he'd entered the headmaster's office earlier that evening. Dumbledore had promised him that he was going to start telling Harry everything, no more holding back. So why was he still refusing to answer Harry's questions?
The bottom of the stairway came into view, and the gargoyle guarding the hall outside leapt out of his way. Sighing heavily, Harry adjusted his bag on his shoulder and headed off in the direction of the Gryffindor common room, where Ron and Hermione were expecting to hear about all of the advanced magic that Dumbledore was teaching him. And what would Harry have to tell them? He'd been so excited when Dumbledore had offered Harry private lessons, but despite Dumbledore's assurances that the lessons would be useful to Harry in the long-run, he could not understand how learning about Voldemort's family would ever help him in a duel with the Dark Lord.
Unless Harry would ever have to run for his life from a cross-eyed Parselmouth. Right. He certainly knew how to do that now; thanks, Professor Dumbledore.
But as Harry rounded the corner toward the common room, he couldn't stop thinking about the crazed look in Marvolo's eye as he'd leapt at the Ministry official, a bloody knife raised high above his head. Well, at least Harry knew that he and Voldemort had something else in common: their relatives were both absolutely loony.
Hermione and Ron were both sitting by the fireplace when Harry climbed through the portrait hole. They were, as expected, eager to hear all of the details of his evening with the headmaster, but Harry found that he was not as excited to speak to them as he had been earlier. He sat with them briefly and explained what Dumbledore had shown him, but the longer that he talked about the Gaunts and their decrepit home in Little Hangleton, the more disturbed he became with the memory. He did not linger to discuss what Dumbledore had meant by showing him this, dismissing himself just as Hermione had opened her mouth to offer her own analysis.
He just needed to sleep. He would wake up in the morning, go to his classes, and forget all about the Gaunts and their abusive violence.
But the sad, crooked gaze of Merope Gaunt continued to burn in Harry's mind as he closed his eyes and drifted off into the darkness.
Lord Voldemort did not often dream of the Riddle house. When he did it was of the manor as it was now: dust thick on old floorboards, interrupted only by Wormtail's footprints and the winding trails of lovely Nagini. Flailing weak, fetal limbs and crying out in the night for the milk of his Horcrux. Nightmares that he would never escape such a form.
Of the late summer of his father's death and the tableau of dead Riddles left in his wake, Voldemort had not dreamed for many years. Yet here he stood, in the lane which he had walked long ago, gazing down at the sleepy village of Little Hangleton and the fine house standing on the other side of the valley... waiting for him.
The air was fragrant with wild flowers, the dry earth warm beneath him. Voldemort breathed deeply, savouring the scented air, staring up at the hazy afternoon sky. The trees buzzed and chirped and rustled around him. He did not know whether he was that same boy with his uncle's wand in his pocket, a future lord intruding upon summers past, or a formless ghost - merely a spectator in his own memories.
He looked toward his mother's home, at the end up a steep little track the hovel nestled under the thick shade of ancient trees. Just visible, a dead snake rattled in the breeze, its tail nailed to the door.
A boy stood in the overgrown garden, black-haired and pale. He seemed to fit amongst the neglected shrubs and encircling weeds - lost in thought.
Perhaps it was himself, preparing to hide Marvolo's ring. It had been summer then too, he recalled, and new Muggles had been living in his father's home. Voldemort watched the young man curiously, walking toward him down the path, wondering whether he might speak to him or if this dream was like a pensieve and the boy-Riddle could not see him.
The boy's shoulders were hunched as he stood amongst the feral remains of a potion-maker's garden. Voldemort could see the tall stalks of asphodel shooting up amongst the grass, heavy with yellow flowers. The pungent stench of fluxweed arose from underfoot. Perhaps the child had just shed a piece of soul and had come to return Morfin's wand. It had hurt the first few times, a raw hollowing of something deep inside. A jagged ache of loss. Lord Voldemort pitied the boy: still so fraught with emotion, just beginning his metamorphosis.
He reached for him, brushing his fingers across the child's arm.
Harry was very familiar with strange dreams. Ever since he had been very small, nightmares from another's life, another's mind, would interrupt his childlike night-time visions of motorcycles and candy canes, and he'd awaken in the dusty darkness of his cupboard with a cry, shivering and sweating and weeping all at once. His shaking hand would yank the chain before he was even fully awake, filling the small cabinet with yellow light; and Harry would fall asleep once more this way, cracking an eyelid open every so often to assure himself that those awful red eyes weren't hiding in the corner of his makeshift bedroom.
The dreams had, of course, increased in both frequency and variety over the years. When Harry had been introduced to the wonderful, frightening world of magic, he'd quickly made the connection between the demon with the red eyes in the nursery with the monster that was Lord Voldemort. He had learned that the dreams could be useful - take, for instance, the traumatizing but fortunate vision the year before that had saved Mr. Weasley's life. He'd also been manipulated by them, leading to the death of his godfather and his terrifying encounter with Voldemort himself in the Ministry of Magic last year as well.
Harry was no stranger to strange dreams - and yet the first thing that he thought, stirring on his back in the garden, was that this one was stranger than usual.
The first thing was the flowers. Even before Harry opened his eyes, he could smell them, rich and pungent. There were never any flowers in the dreams, not in dreams that belonged to himself, nor to him, either. The only other dreams that Harry had ever received from Voldemort had always focused on something that the man deeply desired (and mind you, it was just as unlikely that the Dark Lord was desperately longing to drown in a flowerbed), so Harry could only assume that, no, this dream was all his own.
But that wasn't right. Harry had shared enough dreams with Lord Voldemort to know that he was not alone.
His fingers grabbed at the loose, warm earth, and he pushed himself up slowly. It was a garden, alright, albeit a small one. Harry frowned as he climbed to his feet, looking around at the bright yellow flowers, the brown grass. He plucked a leaf - green, a leaf of summer - out of his hair, and looked about him. He had been here before, but when, and where?
He then turned his gaze to the right, and the answer came to him in an instant: he had been here only hours ago, but, at the time, he had looked at the scene in shades of sepia. And yet, here he was, standing in the overgrown garden of the Gaunt family, full of all the vivid color and life of any summer afternoon. The details were as clear as reality, not the faded, blurry images of the Ministry official's memory.
Harry's heart began to pound as he caught sight of the dead snake nailed to the door. Perhaps this was why Dumbledore had decided to show him the memories instead of teaching him advanced defensive magic. Perhaps he knew that Harry would dream of this place tonight - and Harry was expected to find something here, something that Dumbledore couldn't find himself. A mission, just for Harry, like a regular, useful member of the Order.
He was so caught up in his excitement that he did not hear the rustling approach of the intruder behind him.
An unexpected touch grazed the hairs of his left arm, and Harry jumped, barely restraining a cry as he whirled about in surprise. A handsome man stared back at him, tall and aristocratic. His gray eyes were curious, his neat, dark hair falling in such a way that made Harry feel very conscious of the unruly curls atop his own head. Perhaps this was the person that Dumbledore had sent him here to find.
Harry could only stand there, staring at the man dumbly, like an animal caught grazing defenceless in the middle of a wood. And then, a moment of wild recognition, and Harry's eyes widened behind his spectacles.
"You're Tom Riddle." It was the handsome Muggle boy in the carriage, the one that Merope had been hanging out the window to see - Harry was sure of it. He had only caught a brief glimpse of the man at the time, but looking at this person now, he was certain that they were one and the same. But why would Dumbledore want Harry to speak to Voldemort's father?
Harry looked at him warily, making sure to keep his distance as he spoke. Perhaps there was more to the Muggle than Dumbledore had let on; perhaps that was the reason Harry was here. "You live down in the village, no?" Harry said, trying to keep his voice casual. "Why are you here?"
Harry Potter. Harry Potter. In his dreams - in his thoughts. Had he chosen Potter to say these things to him? Surely this was a true dream, for the boy to know such things! Those green eyes were bright and determined and leaves were caught in Potter's dark hair. He looked so right standing there in Voldemort's mindscape - native. As real as the stench of rotting snake under the perfume of the flowers. I thought you was that Muggle... you look mighty like that Muggle...
"How dare you!" he spat furiously, breath coming fast. But he bit down on it almost immediately as the green stare darkened and Potter's mouth tightened. This could be an opportunity. The boy didn't know who Voldemort was - he was vulnerable. And if this was truly a dream then Voldemort lost nothing by his deception, acrid though it was; sliding against his spirit like sandpaper. "My family own all the land for miles - we hardly live down in the village." He sniffed, acting the blustering Muggle. "Who are you, in any case? Skulking around in someone else's garden. A thieving tramp, no doubt." It was strangely cathartic.
For a moment, Harry could clearly see the man's son in the furious flash of his eyes, the twist of his mouth - so clearly that Harry might have believed that this was in fact Voldemort himself. Alarmed, Harry stumbled backward at the outburst, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process.
But, no, it couldn't be. The Muggle was offended at Harry's implication, not at Harry's presence here in this strange, sweet-smelling dream. And it was Voldemort's father, after all; of course the man would have his temper. Between Marvolo's delusions of blood superiority and this man's high-nosed snobbery, it was no wonder that Voldemort had turned out a little touched in the head.
"My apologies, sir," said Harry quickly. He folded his hands behind his back, bowed his head a little, and generally did his best to look respectful. If Uncle Vernon's near-constant berating was anything to go by, however, this was not something at which Harry usually succeeded. "I didn't realize. I'm not from around these parts."
Damnit, Harry thought before the words had even finished leaving his mouth. It was a lame excuse, considering that Harry had known the man's name - and at first sight, no less. He needed to do better than that. He couldn't botch this up now, not when Dumbledore had finally trusted Harry with something significant. Tom Riddle knew something important to the Order, and it was up to Harry to figure out what.
"I was only … looking for a friend," Harry said. "From school, I mean. I know that his mother lives here. You wouldn't happen to know anything about her, would you?"
Voldemort stared at the boy. The brazenness of the question was staggering. Surely he realised that, even if Voldemort were Tom Riddle, he would not respond kindly to a question such as that. Tilting his head, he stared at Potter almost curiously - as though encountering a new species of some kind. Idly, he mulled over the possibility of drawing his wand: limbs twisting up in agony, body thrashing amongst the weeds, until the vacant green eyes stared dumbly up at the sky, the mind behind them shattered beyond repair. He couldn't kill Potter, true, but that didn't mean the boy couldn't feel the wrath of Lord Voldemort.
"No one of that sort has lived here for a number of years," he said quietly, glancing at the dilapidated shack and the corpse of the serpent pinned to its door. "I don't imagine Morfin Gaunt could afford to send any child of his to school - nor, indeed, attract a wife. Besides, most village boys are off fighting the Germans - are you sure your friend hasn't enlisted?" Voldemort's face felt a little stiff - he hadn't had to use his politely helpful smile for decades and he wondered - simultaneously - whether he was getting the expression quite right and why, in Slytherin's name, he was entertaining Potter's delusions at all. Yet there was something in speaking to the boy thus, and a part of him felt genuinely intrigued. Where on earth did Potter think he was going to take his claim of knowing Voldemort himself?
Although Riddle gave no outward indication that he recognized the woman in question, there was something about the sudden chill in his eyes that put Harry on edge. Harry was not nearly as quick as Hermione at catching on to the subtleties of human behaviour, but it was clear to him that Riddle was keeping something from him.
He just needed to figure out how to get it.
As if in response to this very thought, there was suddenly a solid weight pressing against his hip, a sensation that was not unlike the stone presenting itself to him in his first year. He knew what it was even before he reached into his pocket to investigate, fingers brushing against cool, smooth metal. Inspiration struck him - perhaps if he could at least get Riddle to crack and admit that he had known Merope in a less than platonic sense of the word, he might get the man talking, and find out whatever Dumbledore had sent him here for.
And leave. That was important. There was something not quite right about this whole thing, and it was beginning to make Harry feel very uncomfortable.
"He grew up in an orphanage, sir," Harry said, "but he told me this was the home of his mother and uncle. And I'm certain that he hasn't enlisted; he's not exactly the soldier type." The image of Voldemort on a Muggle battlefield nearly startled a snort out of him. "Actually, I had something of his that he left in my care. I was hoping to return it to him."
He pulled Merope's locket from his robes casually, like a stranger sharing an interesting souvenir, the golden chain woven between his fingers. "Clunky thing, isn't it?" he added with a nervous laugh. Perhaps this Muggle would open up to him if Harry shared his dislike of the Gaunts and all things magical.
The golden locket shone in the afternoon sun, chain dangling casually from Potter's fingers, the glittering emerald 'S' swaying a little in the breeze. The boy displayed the heirloom like someone selling a cheap gewgaw, wrinkling his nose as he did so. Voldemort felt his face go slack, his eyes go wide, and his mouth fall open. How?-! There were no words. They remained, hoarse and inarticulate, trapped in the back of his throat. How did Potter know? The Dark Lord reeled, hoping this was merely some wild conceiving of his subconscious, a paranoid fantasy banished by waking. Yet there Potter was, clutching his ancestor's treasured legacy - Lord Voldemort's Horcrux - "Clunky thing, isn't it?" he commented with a casual smile, glasses magnifying the sharp gleam in the boy's green eyes. And in Voldemort's terrified heart, dream and reality merged into one red-slicked nightmare.
All thought of deceit fled from Voldemort's mind. This was his mind, his memory. Light bled from the sky, draining away garden and valley and air. The ground fell away into nightmare: the shapeless agony of the shard of soul left to the Dark Lord; the formless peregrinations that ruined what was left of his sanity as much as his spirit and, beyond that, the icy claws of death itself - the horror of Voldemort's deepest terror subsumed everything in its wake.
"Sir," Harry began to say, but then the garden earth was trembling beneath his feet and Harry almost lost his footing. The boy glanced up in terror at Riddle, whose face was still contorting, distorting, twisting right before Harry's eyes, the ground rolling in steady waves from where he stood. And why the hell should that be happening?! The Muggle was a figment of Harry's imagination - a memory of a person who was long-dead. He was the dreamt, not the dreamer. But before Harry could get too indignant, the sky opened up above their heads, brilliant, blinding white light pouring over them. The tiny, crumbling shack was consumed by it, the village at the bottom of the hill melting into a blur of colours and darkness - and Riddle was still changing as well, his face growing paler, his hair falling in dark clumps from his head, his eyes blazing brighter -
Fear, entirely Harry's own, crashed down on him like a wave, knocking the breath out of him in a terrible moment of realization.
"You!" Harry cried. His face twisted in abject horror as his hand flew to his pocket, nearly dropping the locket in the process - but there was no wand at his hip, no means to defend himself against Lord Voldemort. Dread clenched a tight fist in his stomach, and he stumbled further backward, the world a swirling, awful blend of blinding light and bubbling darkness.
And then he broke; He was nothing, nothing but pain and terror... The pain was so terrible... ripped from his body... But if he had no body, why did his head hurt so badly; if he was dead, how could he feel such unbearable pain, did it not cease with death, didn't it go—? Voldemort screamed, enraged howls of agony, feeling himself unravelling along with the earth. And the boy watched as he had watched that night, wide-eyed and scared but alive - gazing as Lord Voldemort was felled by his own spell.
The one thing he dreaded: the discovery of his past, his Horcruxes. It could not be true - it was impossible... What if... what if the boy knew about the others? But surely if the boy had found any of his Horcruxes, he, Lord Voldemort, would have known, would have felt it? He, the greatest wizard of them all; he, the most powerful... How could Lord Voldemort not have known?
Fear flared around him - he would destroy Potter - torture him until he possessed every secret the boy's mind possessed! But, even as he drew it, his wand slipped from his fingers as it had that Halloween night, and his hands tore away into shadow and vapour. Helpless, he cried and raged. Lightning blazed across the sky, the brilliant green of murder, and the icy claws of death engulfed everything in the maelstrom of Voldemort's terror.
Memories flashed and twisted: anti-aircraft guns going off in the night like hundreds of wizards apparating at once; a small boy covered in welts and bruises begging to be let out; an eleven year old trying to fight his way back to the light flickering at the surface far above him, as his Slytherin robes impeded him and water filled his lungs; bloody, broken glass shone, rippling with the light of an incendiary bomb, more still shrieking from the sky; bloody torture inflicted and inflicting; the forest of agony, of surviving second by second, of keeping himself from oblivion by inhabiting the tiny, terrified minds of small creatures or else risk a madness deprived of life, of scent or touch; a loneliness beyond imagining; a feral world of predator and prey; control or death; fear racing everywhere like wildfire, the stench of the dead and the dying rising like black smoke. Atrocity piled upon atrocity...
This was it. Harry had failed Dumbledore, he had failed the Order, and now he was going to die. Before, he might not have thought it possible - but as the world rippled and screamed around him, darkness flooding in and out between surges of lightning, his fingers empty of a wand, Harry felt like he was in more danger now than he'd ever been in the waking daylight.
I will die bravely, Harry thought. I will die fighting. But Voldemort did not make a move to lunge at him. The Dark Lord seemed to be rooted to the ground, body folding in on itself, flashes of lightning illuminating the pain distorting his features. If Harry didn't know that this was Lord Voldemort, he might have almost felt sorry for him.
And then Voldemort opened his mouth and screamed and screamed and screamed, a sound that ground against Harry's eardrums, and the earth undulated beneath Harry's feet, nearly sending him sprawling across the ground, the wind climbing to a roar in his ears. If Voldemort didn't kill Harry himself, surely this nightmare would do the job for him. Calm down, he just needs to calm down, and then we can both wake up…
"Do you want this back?" Harry shouted over the gale, holding up the locket, heavy pendant swinging in the wind. But Voldemort was still shrieking, his fingers clawing at his own head, and Harry did not think that he had heard.
"Oi! Riddle!" It was remarkably easier to find his confidence when Voldemort was not glaring at him with those horrible eyes. The ground was starting to split, and Harry saw with a jolt of terror that there was lava, red and hot and bubbling up out of the earth from a gash like a bleeding wound. Harry sucked in his breath and flew forward without a second thought, terrified and determined. The air crackled with terrible, powerful energy as Harry drew nearer, but Voldemort was going to send the world crashing down around them if Harry didn't stop him. His hand shaking, as though reaching out toward a wild beast, Harry extended his arm and grabbed the Dark Lord's shoulder.
The touch was warm and human and wrenching - it burned and it comforted - a steadying grip and a torturous seizure all at once. But it did not go through him, Voldemort could feel its heat and its call, tugging at him like a line, a vicious hook ripping into his flesh, trying to reel him in...
It was fierce and dizzying, one more thing attacking him; he didn't want it on him, in him. Voldemort drew back blindly, hissing in pain, lost in the lurid nightmares continuing to assault him, the one conscious thought in his mind to snatch the locket away, wildly clawing, his skeletal corporeal-incorporeal hands renting the air.
Harry nearly drew back in a fresh surge of panic, but with his touch on Voldemort's arm, the wind had begun to die, the shaking of the earth diminished to a steady trembling - it was all the encouragement that Harry needed.
Summoning his courage, he grabbed Voldemort's flailing wrists with both of his hands, the locket still swinging between them, the chain digging into the side of the Dark Lord's thumb. "Voldemort!"
Voldemort. Lord Voldemort. The name - his name; the talisman he clutched through madness: the words he struggled to form within tiny creatures bereft of words. I am Lord Voldemort. He threw himself toward it: Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldemort... as it gripped him and dragged him from the abyss.
It was here, his treasure, his Horcrux - Lord Voldemort most important and precious - he could feel its heart beating with his. His soul's mirror. He broke the snare that had hold of his wrists and snatched at it without thought, flinging his thin, brittle limbs around it, holding it close. His and safe, safe, safe... It breathed his breath, nestling close. And - thank Slytherin! - he was embodied: face, fingers, lungs and warmth; sweet warmth that smelt of Hogwarts, wild flowers and dry, fragrant earth. It smelt of home.
Well, this was awkward.
"Er," Harry said, shifting, but this only caused Voldemort to cling to him tighter, breathing deeply and fingers convulsing against Harry's shoulders. The wind had stopped altogether now, and daylight was beginning to seep back into the sky, grass sprouting where there had been torn, blackened earth. And Voldemort - well, he looked almost peaceful this way, his face relaxed and content in the crook of Harry's neck. An entirely different person. If nothing else, at least this was preferable to Voldemort bringing down the dreamscape in a terrified rage. Awkwardly, Harry rested his palm on his enemy's back, watching as Voldemort's recovery manifested itself in the gradual rebirth of the world around them.
Voldemort's mind rose gradually from the darkness of nightmare, his fear hollowing out as he clung to the Horcrux in his arms. It almost seemed to him as if he were embracing himself. The soul blossoming out around him to comfort and caress; a hand slowly brushing down the knotty rope of his spine. He whispered endearments to the locket in Parseltongue, stroking it possessively, reassuring himself that they were both safe.
He opened his eyes, blinking up at the sunlight and the azure sky. He was still in the Gaunt garden, but Harry Potter was thankfully nowhere to be seen. What a bizarre dream, bizarre and terrifying beyond measure. If he remembered this when he woke up, Voldemort would be sure to check the safety of all his Horcruxes - perhaps even move the ring and the locket if were true Potter and Dumbledore knew about the orphanage and his parents. The locket was the next easily traced. He had not killed Dennis or little Amy - a powerful wizard might break the charms he laid upon them.
He glanced down, still wrapped around his precious Horcrux. The locket lay at their feet, its emeralds twinkling. The Dark Lord loosened his grip in order to bend down and pick it up. It felt light between his fingers, no aura of power surrounding it. Softly, Voldemort ordered it to open, one arm still around its avatar.
It was empty. As it had been before he'd imbued it with his soul. Voldemort jerked back in surprise, almost dropping the thing. Harry Potter stood there, clearly embarrassed and as confused as Voldemort himself. It was inside the boy, the Dark Lord's sense of it had lessened but it was still there, that impossible aura of comfort, of self. How was this possible? Had Potter swallowed the real locket?
...And he had killed the boy, and yet he was the boy... "Oh..." he breathed with soft sibilance, amazed and yet still calmed by his astonishing discovery. Anger would have its day - shame and fury both would come for him, he knew. For he hated this boy with every shred of his being. But he could not summon the energy, steeped as he was in shock. It was obvious now. Everything else - the trees, the sky, the house across the valley - was naught compared to the presence he had sensed, the reflection he had seen from the beginning. "How foolish I have been."
Potter shifted on his feet, clearly uncomfortable. "Er, glad we're on the same page, then." The boy offered him a wary smile. "Right, here's an idea: we walk in separate directions until we wake up, and neither of us will ever mention it again."
Voldemort smiled, seeing Potter's fear written so clearly across his nervous face. The Dark Lord took another step back, straightening to his full, imposing height. But the smile remained. And for once it was not a taut leer or a mad, sadistic gash in the milky skin. It quivered a little, as though the requisite muscles in the man's cheeks had atrophied from long disuse. For a second, it was again possible to see the handsome Tom Riddle in the hairless, etiolated face. A soft, chilly laugh sounded on the air. Potter was his Horcrux. Trust was what he needed from the boy now - to lull him away from Dumbledore and into the Dark Lord's keeping.
"What wizard would believe us," he grinned savagely at the supreme irony of his and Potter's situation, his crimson eyes glittering with the formation of a plan, "even if we did?" Lord Voldemort had always been able to charm those he needed.
This seemed to startle a laugh out of Potter, although it was replaced just as quickly with suspicion and not just a little fear. "Er - right. Well, as long as that's clear... I reckon that'll be all then." The boy took a step backwards. "I'll... um... see you around, I s'pose."
"Are you often in my dreams, Harry?" Voldemort asked, wanting to halt Potter's footsteps. He added a dash of danger to the words, a threatening hiss that pulled the boy back like an undertow. Yet the smile lingered. "I have not touched your mind since our little encounter at the Department of Mysteries... and yet here you are... saving me in my nightmares." He raised a hairless brow and the shining scarlet eyes - narrow with humour rather than cruelty - inviting Potter to share in the joke; to stand and talk awhile under the dappled shade of ancient trees.
"I was hardly trying to dream about you, if that's what you're implying," Potter blurted out, and then he seemed to remember himself. "I - am the boy saviour, though, if you haven't heard," he went on weakly. "I suppose I can add dream warrior to my résumé, too."
It was a poor joke, but Voldemort threw his head back and laughed. That terrifying, mad laughter - that all wizards feared would be the last thing they ever heard - was suffused for once with a genuine mirth. "Dream warrior..." he tasted the words on his forked tongue, still chuckling, watching the boy carefully. "You have Lord Voldemort's thanks." He leant casually against the garden gate. "You know, I do believe I once read a book with that same title at Hogwarts. The author was disgustingly Freudian, if I recall correctly, but you might enjoy the chapter on traversing another's mindscape."
Freudian. As in ... Sigmund Freud? Had Voldemort just referred to a Muggle psychologist? The image of a young Tom Riddle perusing Muggle literature in the Hogwarts library flickered across Harry's inner eye. He supposed that young Voldemort and Hermione might have been very good friends, in this alternate universe where Voldemort apparently enjoyed doing things other than torturing and killing people. And let's not forget the smiling.
Harry realized that his jaw had gone a little slack, and he shut it with an audible click. "Um... what did it say, then? Anything insightful?"
"It's a book defending Hypno-Legilimentic therapy. I read it because it proposes a number of techniques by which Legilimency can become less intrusive and therefore more covert. But a great deal of the material deals with exploring the sleeping mind of another wizard. And since you seem to have found your way into Lord Voldemort's mind without any such skills, I imagine you might find the book quite informative..."
Definitely would have been friends with Hermione, Harry decided. He attempted to keep up with Voldemort but gave up after the third sentence, resorting to nodding and looking as intelligent as he could - an appearance he often assumed whenever Hermione was rattling off information that was far above the requirement of their year.
"...Just ignore all the tripe about sexual repression."
Blink. Blinkblinkblink. Wait ... what?!
A furious flush rose to Harry's cheeks before he could entirely process what had happened. He forgot to nod intelligently at that last part, instead staring with wide eyes and a gaping mouth at the Dark Lord. "Er, I," he stammered, feeling profoundly stupid, "I don't ... I don't think that that would be - er - particularly relevant to my interests anyway. Sir. But, I, yes. I'll be sure to look into that."
Shut up, Harry. Just shut up. This could not possibly get any more mortifying.
Voldemort tilted his head, staring at Potter curiously. This was the vaunted hope of so many witches and wizards? This stammering, flushing teenager? He wasn't quite sure where to go from here. He had wanted to arouse Harry's curiosity, let him know that he - Voldemort - could be a useful source of knowledge, persuading him to return to the Dark Lord's mind. He had not expected this... effusion of embarrassment. As a boy, he would have jumped at the chance of a mentor willing to discuss forbidden magic.
Peering at Potter, he pushed himself off from the fence. "What did bring you here tonight, Harry?" There was no sense wasting such vulnerability, after all. His voice was light, as if he had only just thought of the question, his sanguine eyes luminous even in the day.
Harry's gaze flickered momentarily to the run-down shack behind the Dark Lord, the question immediately calling to mind the memory that Dumbledore had shared with him earlier that evening. Swallowing, Harry quickly looked back at Voldemort, dimly aware that his cheeks were still burning.
"I've already said that I wasn't trying to dream about you. You came here on your own." The accusation was soft, matter-of-fact, lacking hostility. Harry's heart pounded hard in his chest, betraying his steady voice. "What do you want from me?"
"How interesting... you simply found your way here without intent, clutching my mother's locket and asking after me so solituously, as though we were schoolfellows? Why do I find that difficult to believe, I wonder?" A cold wind coiled between them and the sky darkened, bruised clouds thickening ominously. Lord Voldemort loomed over Potter, all amicability lost to the inhuman monster he was; his eyes bloody slits cut into waxen skin.
For one horrible moment, Harry thought that they were about to be plunged back into the nightmare. But before he could even begin cursing himself for being so careless, the world was bright and sunny again, and Voldemort's face had softened back into an unnatural, eerily charming smile. "Ah, look at me Harry - you see how quickly I forget that I am in your debt! Go on... ask the question that brought you here and Lord Voldemort will answer. I give you my word."
Realization dawned on him, flooding in as suddenly as the sunlight. "I knew you wanted something," said Harry, feeling unexpectedly angry. "The days are long gone when you could simply trade a smile for some information, Lord Voldemort. My purpose here is between me and Dumbledore."
"So Dumbledore sent you?" Voldemort breathed, not bothering to hide his cold satisfaction at Potter's mistake. Dumbledore had known his middle name, might have been able to make the connection with the Gaunts... their abandoned home was, perhaps, the least secure of his hiding places... but did the old fool know about Potter himself? Could he really have sent the boy to penetrate Lord Voldemort's mind? Voldemort doubted it. "He told you about my parents... the Gaunts and their shack. I see his game now. But that is between myself and Dumbledore. You have helped me this night, Harry Potter, and Lord Voldemort rewards his helpers. Ask your question - it need not be that one which was at the headmaster's behest."
Harry's breathing was coming a little faster with frustration, hating himself, a traitor to his own cause. An obvious blunder, and now Voldemort had figured something out - something that, to his infinite frustration, Harry hadn't even discerned himself. Another question? What else did Harry have to ask him? What could he possibly want to know about the life or motivations of this monster?
"You were ... touching me. Before." Harry all but snarled at the Dark Lord, self-loathing making him grit his teeth. "You were speaking in Parseltongue - saying things to me. About me." He dared not repeat the whispered, tender words that had assured Harry that he belonged to Voldemort, that he was safe in Voldemort's arms. "Why?"
Voldemort paused. If it had been physically possible for him to blush he might very well have. In truth, the Dark Lord had not realised that he had whispered such possessive securities to Potter. Secret, intimate murmurings between himself and his Horcrux - private reassurances, things he had never confessed to any soul but his own...
His face became completely expressionless: a sharp, blank mask seemingly carved out of bleached bone. Even the feral eyes had dulled, as though they were not eyes at all but inlaid glass, shining red but empty. "Ah... ah Harry..." The eerie tone was almost sad. Spidery fingers reached out and took hold of the boy's chin, bringing the green gaze up to meet Voldemort's own. "Such a difficult question Harry... has your beloved professor told you of what he seeks in the memories of my life? Has he imparted to you the reason for your presence here? I ask not to pry, but because my answer is dependent upon the extent of your knowledge. A mere yes or no will suffice. Lord Voldemort shall know if you lie."
That hand on his chin made him far more uncomfortable than it had any right to. A shiver ran through him, but Harry did not look away, refusing to be intimidated. He hadn't meant for his question to be an open invitation for Voldemort to continue touching him, but the grip on his chin was firm, and Harry didn't dare look away.
The Dark Lord's answer opened up a familiar well of frustration in Harry's chest. He remembered his fruitless attempts to convince Dumbledore to explain his injured hand during their lesson, and scowled. "You're just like him, then, No, he hasn't - he never does."
The Dark Lord nodded, refusing to acknowledge Potter's unflattering comparison, merely storing the information away and keeping hold of Potter's chin. "You were there that night..." Voldemort began, his voice much icier than it would have been had Potter not just compared him to the Headmaster, "when I told my Death Eaters of the many experiments I undertook in my quest toward immortality. Lord Voldemort has gone further toward that goal than any wizard alive. Both of us survived the night which made you so famous. Dumbledore is searching for the reason my spirit remained, even though my body had been destroyed."
Voldemort took a deep breath. This was a gamble. He had not told anyone of this - his deepest secret. "I... I did not recognise you before, Harry. You see, my experiments took me far beyond the limits of human experience. I tore apart my soul and placed each precious shard inside an object fit to house such a treasure. That is why the Headmaster shows you my past - he wishes to discover these vessels in order to destroy them. And... in the delirium of my nightmare... I mistook our connection for such a vessel. My apologies." He let the hand fall away, red eyes observing Potter eagerly through a façade of solemnity. Better to not let the boy know what he was right away, or else risk him dashing himself to pieces. No, Potter couldn't know about what treasure he carried in his scar - not until he was completely under control... and Voldemort had completed the necessary enchantments.
Harry's head was reeling, so much so that he didn't even notice Voldemort releasing the loathsome grip on his chin. It was too much to process, impossible and unthinkable. Was it a trap? Perhaps Voldemort was lying. Harry had never heard of any sort of magic that could tear apart one's soul, even during his lengthy escapades into the Restricted Section. And, even worse, did that make Voldemort invincible? How could Harry fulfill the prophecy and rid the world of the Dark Lord once and for all if he would simply keep coming back, his soul bound to earthly objects?
"So that's one of them, then?" said Harry, gesturing to the locket lying on the ground. That explained why Voldemort had become nearly hysterical at the sight of the heirloom in Harry's possession. "And our ... connection, it feels similar to your mum's locket?" He stared incredulously at the Dark Lord. He didn't really understand how he, a living, breathing human, could be mistaken for a small piece of jewellery, no matter how delirious Voldemort had been.
Why was Voldemort offering him this information so freely, answering his questions, acting in a way that might even be construed as kind? Where was the catch?
"Yes." Harry watched the Dark Lord pull his hood over his head, casting his face into shadow, obscuring all but his glittering crimson eyes from Harry's sight. Dread filled in Harry's chest as he realized that Voldemort was making to leave - and to abandon Harry in this strange half-memory, half-dream constructed of the Dark Lord's twisted subconscious. "You and I both know I gave you some modicum of my power that night. My ability to speak Parseltongue, amongst other things. But I have answered your question and, truly, I was pleased to do so - for now you understand the futility of opposing Lord Voldemort." He swung the gate open, his black robes a stark contrast to the summer afternoon, his departing figure an inky silhouette staining the landscape.
"Wait!" Harry cried, attempting to follow. But his legs didn't seem to want to move, and his sluggish pace out of the garden did not match that of the receding form the Dark Lord, which grew smaller and smaller as he disappeared on the horizon.
And then Harry was left alone, the trees buzzing with summer, the sky growing darker with the setting sun. He was trapped inside Voldemort's mind; he had no control over what happened here, couldn't even bring himself to wake up. Panic roiled in his stomach, crescendoing to a steady pounding in his ears as the sky continued to darken, as he took in the eerie, lifeless landscape of Voldemort's mind.
He was trapped.
The sky grew darker, the air hotter. The sun was not setting, Harry realized: it had simply vanished altogether, the sky instead cast with an eerie, purple-orange glow. It was very different from the cold, thunderous storm of Voldemort's anger - instead of tearing itself apart, the world seemed to be melting, the temperature increasing steadily with each passing second. He squinted in the distance, trying to make out the retreating silhouette of the Dark Lord, but he had vanished, a spot of black that had blended into the sky like a dripping watercolour.
A loud, terrible scream rang out from behind him, and Harry whirled around, his heart pounding furiously. It was a woman, a familiar woman, one whom he had heard crying out many times before. A nightmare, Harry thought, trying to keep himself calm, his breath coming very fast now. It's only a nightmare. I'll wake up any second, I will -
"Harry!" the woman shrieked. "Harry, Harry, please, not Harry -"
His mother. The woman was his mother.
Without pausing to give the urge any thought, Harry sprinted across the garden, trampling the flowers, wilting, wilting in the heat. "Harry, no, please!" A sweat broke out on his brow by the time he reached the door to the shack, the corpse of the serpent staring with empty eyes in Harry's face, and he threw open the door without any hesitation.
The screaming stopped abruptly. The room was still, and dark, so dark. How was there no light from the windows? His breath caught in his throat, trepidation seizing every cell in his body - and yet, against his better judgement, he slowly lifted his foot and took a single step into the room.
The darkness came alive, then, shadows and black buzzing like a hundred thousand flies - no, not flies, but black, evil creatures of the dark, thousands of them, rolling together in some sort of terrible, writhing, buzzing wave. He was too late, Harry realized. It was a trap, and they were going to consume him.
With a terrified shout, he leapt back and slammed the door, the dead serpent flying off of its precarious position on the door from the force of it - but it didn't keep them in, the windows were shattering in great bursts of glass, and they were rolling out, coming for him, hungry for him -
Harry turned around and ran for his life. The ground was boiling now, the earth bubbling over like the insides of a volcano, heat closing in from above and below and around. The sky was the colour of blood and overripe plums, black clouds streaking the heavens. He burst through the garden gate noisily, feeling the pressure of the shadows against him, the heat pressing in on him from all sides. It was so difficult to run - the churning earth was rising up to swallow him, now, and he was thrashing and drowning and struggling - but it was no use, they were growing closer, and he was going to die in this heat, this human oven - and oh, his scar was on fire, his whole body was being torn apart -
And then, just like that, it was over. He dared not open his eyes, but the temperature had dropped, the boiling heat of the earth had subsided, and he was only floating, bathed in cool, sweet darkness. He was being put back together again, from the inside out: cool, expert fingers arranging him so that he was a walking, talking boy once more. There were red eyes, kind and smiling, and soft fingers, and a gentle, hissing voice, whispering things that Harry didn't understand.
Harry did not remember anything else for a very long time.
Lord Voldemort smiled viciously to himself, closing the confines of his mind as he ascended into waking, trapping the boy in his dream a little longer; mentally walling up the valley of Little Hangleton around Potter. If the child had indeed read Dream Warrior, he would have known the dangers to straying into the mind of a Master of Legilimency and Occlumency. Potter would sleep as soundly as the baby he had been for a few hours yet.
Voldemort opened his eyes and blinked into the blurry darkness. The bed was warm and - for a moment - he was lost in that comfort, coiling further under the duvet. But he could not afford to waste time and, reluctantly, he reached an arm out of the luxurious warmth, fingers searching for Potter's spectacles.
At last his hand landed on smooth glass and wiry metal and Voldemort carefully put them on, unused to this world of smudged shadows. If he were the boy, he would have made an effort to discover a magical means of correcting such a weakness rather than relying upon such a vulnerable aid.
The Gryffindor dormitory swam into abrupt clarity. Moonlight streaking in over darkened red and gold. It was not yet dawn. The red-haired boy in the next bed was snoring obnoxiously. Voldemort drew Potter's wand out from under his pillow and closed the bed-curtains, casting a silencing spell as he did so.
None of the sleeping Gryffindors heard Potter's voice begin to incant spells far beyond their simple minds - magic of Lord Voldemort's own devising. He bound the piece of striving soul to the boy, closing the agony of its wound by ever-fixing it in Potter's skin. Magic flew from his mouth as he clothed this flesh in the same protections as his lovely Nagini, warding Potter irrevocably against all harm but that inflicted by Voldemort himself.
He gasped and trembled at channelling his vast power through the boy's skull, collapsing against the sheets, exhausted by the effort. Potter would not know what was happening, but he would feel a shift as great as this, even while still trapped within a dream.
The Dark Lord closed Potter's eyes, tired beyond measure, and retreated to his own body and his own dawn. Harry Potter was his Horcrux. Long, spidery hands rubbed at red eyes, claw-like nails near breaking the shadows beneath them. Voldemort let out a shriek of thwarted fury. Emotion had been held at bay for so long after the worst of the nightmare. He'd done what was necessary, his fear driving him to push aside everything else - still half hypnotised by the surreality of dreaming. But now he was fully awake and enraged because he couldn't stand the feelings pulsing in his blood: fear, desire, horror, possession, and shame. Fear for his Horcruxes and of the madness spinning in his head. Horror at the prophecy which had spurred him on and at the despised child who was now one of his precious treasures. And fierce, possessive desire battling with the shame of all this weakness...
The great snake moved slowly, its darkly green body unspooling as it slithered closer. Lord Voldemort stretched out a pale hand, stroking the scales just above the unblinking amber gaze. She had done her duty and guarded him while he slept. But he had no voice to thank his beautiful pet, nor inform her that she could rest now. His sharp shoulders shook and Voldemort let out another cry of fury, causing Nagini to pull away from him, her bulk sliding off the sheets and onto the floor. The Dark Lord stood, his emaciated nakedness almost blue in the dim light of the shrouded room. He stalked over to the nearest window, rolling his wand between the lengthy digits of his left hand and ripped the curtains aside with the other.
Bright sunlight dazzled in, illuminating the forest of blue-purple veins tangled under his pallid, near-translucent flesh and the scarlet eyes blinking pinkly against the morning; slit, night-hunting pupils receding to the thinnest of lines. A nocturnal creature venturing out of its element, blank-faced and seemingly without feeling. Motes of dust caught the light around him as he opened the window to his shuttered rooms.
Voldemort leapt. Magic spun around him like smoke on the air, clothing him in silken darkness and -
(the world twisted, contracting to red pin-pricks spiralling through the void to release)
- as pale feet landed soundlessly outside the ruin of the Gaunt shack, fearful unease flickering inside him. His diary had been destroyed. Potter's ignorance was no reflection of anything Dumbledore might know or suspect. Of course it was Dumbledore at the root of all this, Dumbledore who had always suspected him. Now Voldemort knew the man was looking for them. But what if... what if he was too late? Had the headmaster already acted, had he traced more of them? A very old, sickening fear rose within him: a burning wardrobe, a suspicious glance when all the other teachers were congratulating him...
No, no - it was ludicrous - the ring was safe, it must be. He, Lord Voldemort, would have felt it had any of his treasures been harmed. True, he had not felt the destruction of the diary, but that was because he'd been disembodied and far away. This... this was a mere precaution. And Voldemort swung the old, creaking door open. The nail was still there, almost lonely, bare without its corpse.
He knew as soon as he stepped inside, the rotting floorboards ripped apart at his feet, his spells broken and in disarray. His mind swimming numbly through mounting hysteria, he stared at the disinterred golden box, lying open and empty beside the hole. Through the haze of rage, Voldemort could feel the prickle of Albus Dumbledore's magic - the signature as gaudy as the man himself. No... no, no, no! This was worse than any nightmare. Tears of rage streaked down the flat face as acrid reality shot through Voldemort's terrified heart.
The hallways of Hogwarts were emptier than usual, even for a Sunday afternoon, but a quick glance out the window proved that the student population was taking advantage of the unnaturally warm autumn weather outside the castle. Ron talked as they went, catching Harry up on the trivial things he had missed whilst sleeping: Peeves nailing the Slytherins in the face with water balloons at breakfast - "the only time I've ever liked the conniving bastard" - Hagrid was asking them to tea at his cabin next weekend, another bickering match between him and Hermione. Harry began to zone out at this last bit, his thoughts wandering to the strange happenings that had so far surrounded his morning - or rather, afternoon.
Harry rarely slept late. He wasn't an early-early riser like Hermione, but he certainly never slept as late as Seamus, who would remain in bed far after the rest of the dorm had risen and dressed, and never had he slept into the mid-afternoon. And he had forgotten to take his glasses off before falling asleep! Even after his most exhausting adventures - battling the Hungarian Horntail, or duelling with Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic - Harry had never forgotten to remove his spectacles before closing his eyes. It was a method of self-preservation that had been carried over from his childhood: his aunt and uncle would never repair or replace his beaten glasses, even when Dudley would snap them in two, and with vision as poor as his, Harry could not afford to go without them. He had learned from a very young age to take good care of them; he refused to shut the light in his cupboard until they were sitting on the shelf above his pillow.
And, what was even worse, he felt as though he were forgetting something of much greater significance than a bedtime ritual. Something had happened last night, something very important, and Harry couldn't for the life of him put his finger on exactly what it was.
It did not take very long for him to find out.
"… can't stand her, sometimes I wonder why I even bother, especially when she's just going to snap at me like that!"
Harry made a noncommittal noise - he hated getting in the middle of their arguments - as they reached the entrance hall, which was just as empty as the rest of the castle. They approached the portrait depicting the giant bowl of fruit. Ron was still in the middle of his rant about Hermione's insufferable nagging, so Harry decided that he would do the honours. Raising his arm, he reached forward and went to brush his fingers against the bright green pear -
- and instead found himself looking at an old, rotted door, so familiar, yet older and more decrepit than he had remembered it. He watched passively as he opened it, stepped inside the dark room. A detached fury rose inside of him at the sight of an empty, golden box - except that it wasn't him, was it? It was Voldemort, and Harry had never remembered making that distinction before. Harry watched in dull shock as the Dark Lord raged and shouted - he was so angry, and there was so much loss - but Harry was only watching. He wasn't overwhelmed by the emotions, he wasn't thrown in the middle of Lord Voldemort's agony: he was only observing.
What was more, he knew that, if he wanted to, he could stop watching as well. Deciding to give it a shot, Harry closed his eyes and returned back to his own body, easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, with barely any effort. And his scar - it didn't hurt. He wasn't rolling around the floor, panting and sweating and clutching at his forehead like a raving lunatic. He was perfectly okay, not any worse for the wear, completely unaffected.
"Harry," Ron said, sounding quite offended. "I don't think you're listening to me."
And suddenly, it all came back to him, in a rush of memories and emotions and fear that really did overwhelm him. There was a reason that the shack had looked familiar - he had been there twice, just the night before, once in a Pensieve and once in a dream. Voldemort had returned there today, had been looking for something as a result of it all - and he had found it missing. Perhaps it had been that locket, Harry thought, his stomach flipping over. Perhaps it had been a piece of his soul.
Harry looked at Ron, his heart pounding. "We need to go see the headmaster."
Broken pieces of rotted wood lay scattered across the tall grass. The debris and detritus of the old shack had been blasted to pieces. In the clearing, Lord Voldemort stood, scarlet eyes livid - his ophidian nostrils flaring. If the walls of the hovel had been men, he would have shattered them as unthinkingly as plaster and wood - lashing out at everything around him; a furious, white-faced demon at the centre of a crater of his own making.
Then the air around Voldemort curved, swirling black robes blurred -
(the sky raced toward him into twisting abyss)
- and sea spray hit his face and hands as the Dark Lord sped on the wind above the crests of roiling grey waves. Voldemort glided smoothly to an outcrop of rock beneath the cliff, the agitated ocean washing carelessly around him.
He half-ran half-flew through the grim fissure, down into the black-slimed darkness of the damp, saline tunnel beyond. The high cavern awaited him, glimmering wetly under the sharp light of his wand. It allowed Lord Voldemort passage with a flick of his wrist - the aura of his long-ago magic welcoming his return. No one had come this way - none had disturbed Slytherin's locket.
But... better to be sure...
The great, black lake was utterly still - shining with the light of the basin that reflected in the vast, watery mirror like the light of some verdant moon. The silence calmed Voldemort, though it did not soften his rage. Cold fury had settled in upon him and it was with a terse movement of the yew wand that he summoned the ghostly coracle from beneath the water, causing it to rise, dripping with the rancid swill of Inferi.
His bare feet slid against the slippery, filthy bottom of the boat, but Lord Voldemort did not care. He breathed in the stench of salt, seaweed, and necrosis, uncaring. The dead teemed beneath the boat - their limbs thick and dense, almost squeezed under the glassy surface of the lake - but Voldemort had eyes only for the island of dark, flat stone and the pedestal where Slytherin's Locket should lie safe in its shining, poisonous broth.
And - yes, yes, yes - it was there, it was safe. Voldemort carefully drew it out from the green glow with his wand. It dangled in the air, emeralds sparkling. A chasm opened up inside his stomach as he stared at a perfect simulacrum of his treasure, as void of soul as the locket in his dream:
To the Dark Lord,
I know I will be dead long before you read this but I want you to know it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can.
I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more.
The shriek echoed across the lake, agitating the corpses, making them shift and claw each other. Magic flared and a fuming lash of power brought forth a desiccated body from its surface. Regulus Black... A weak-willed fool, a thief, a coward... a traitor. "Tell me, Black..." Voldemort hissed at the Inferius suspended along with the false Horcrux. "Where is my locket?"
The rotted lips parted, the body over-swelled and leaking. The Inferius gurgled. A pathetic, bubbly groan. Nothing of Black remained, only this putrid shell. But it obeyed its Master. Dumbly, its finger reached out and spelt the answer on the air with all the dreadful compulsion of ritual. Greedily, Voldemort watched, fear and hope and fury racing in his chest - pulse pounding in his temples. The livid eyes were wide and eager, the gash of a mouth vicious and hateful in the darkness.
And who, or what, Kreacher was - Lord Voldemort had no idea.
Seven flights of staircases lay between Harry and the headmaster's office, but Harry took them two steps at a time, Ron panting at his heels.
"Harry," Ron called from behind him as they paused at the landing of the seventh floor to take a breath, "Harry, what the hell is the matter with you?" Harry did not pause to listen, only long enough to calm his breathing and his pounding heart, before he set off down the corridor in the direction of Dumbledore's office. He turned left and nearly barrelled into a familiar load of bushy brown hair.
"There you are!" said Hermione, her hands on her hips and a disapproving frown on her face. "I've been looking all over for you two," and here, she sent an icy look in Ron's direction, who was just as quick to return it. "I've been down at the library and - "
"There's no time, Hermione," Harry said breathlessly, and pushed past her, ignoring the indignant sound she made at being shoved aside. "I need to see Dumbledore straight away." And he continued stalking down the hallway, not bothering to look behind him to see if they were following. This was beyond urgent - this could put Dumbledore's life in danger, for all he knew - if only he had remembered the dream just a few moments earlier -
"Perhaps he saw something," Hermione suggested in a hushed voice from behind him, their footsteps not a step behind his own as they hurried to keep up. She had apparently forgiven or forgotten her earlier gripe with Ron. "Was he clutching at his scar?"
Right turn, past the statue of Lachlan the Lanky.
"No, no - he didn't even bat an eyelash!" Ron replied, sounding exasperated and very out of breath. "One minute he was going to let us in to the kitchens, and the next he's raving about seeing Dumbledore! Won't even stop to tell me what's wrong!"
This last bit did give Harry a moment to pause, but only to again contemplate how strange it was that his scar hadn't even given him the vaguest prickle of irritation. It felt as calm and happy as it did on days when he was able to nearly forget Voldemort's existence - never mind days that he was treated to entire visions of Voldemort's terrified rage. And he had been able to extract himself from Voldemort's mind before as easily as he might have slipped from a pleasant daydream.
Had he somehow mastered his connection with Voldemort's mind in his sleep? Could this mean - Harry swallowed - that he could slip in and out of the Dark Lord's consciousness as well?
Harry gave a hesitant, experimental prod at Voldemort's thoughts – that space in his mind from which he had so easily escaped in front of the kitchens' entrance. He called up the Dark Lord's surroundings as effortlessly as a familiar memory. A dark, musty cave replaced the seventh floor corridor, and a terrible, stinking monster - a corpse, oh god, it was a corpse - filled his vision, standing only feet in front of him, green water spilling out of its mouth, its eyes. Stomach turning, Harry watched with horror as the carcass raised a bloated, rotten finger, began to spell out a word in the air: Kreacher.
He stood in the middle of the lake, lost in thought, his waxen skin turned sickly green by the light of the basin. He did not spare a glance at the corpse and the locket, both suspended, turning idly in the air beside him. In the unnatural stillness, he forced himself to think. Harry – Voldemort - prowled the water's edge, trying to recall the word the Inferius had given. Kreacher. Was it a place, a name, a spell?
He paced the circumference of the tiny island, tasting the word on his forked tongue. It seemed to hover, just out of reach, taunting him: Kreacher, Kreacher... There was a terrible roar and the Inferius cried as only the dead can cry: wretched groans as searing, vindictive flames billowed from his wand, immolating the corpse of Regulus Arcturus Black.
Unable to stand the stench any longer, Harry threw himself back into the hall and nearly lost the little contents of his stomach right then and there.
"Harry?" Hermione said softly, voice shaking; her hand was resting gently on his arm. Harry realized that he had stopped walking.
"Kreacher," Harry croaked, ignoring the confused, wary looks on his friends' faces. He was trembling. Kreacher was at Hogwarts, working in the kitchens. Kreacher, since Sirius' death, belonged to Harry.
It seemed as though Harry would be encountering the Dark Lord a lot sooner than he had expected.
Voldemort watched as the corpse began to crisp and blacken. There was still a chance. He had not sensed any of his old Transfiguration professor's magic. The charms he layered upon his Horcruxes were exhaustive. It was possible that Black's accomplice had been unable to destroy it. Fire danced in his red eyes as the Dark Lord cast his mind back to when he had first hidden his heirloom in this cave. He had required a House-Elf from one of his Death Eaters, to test the efficacy of the potion. A worthless, mewling, cretinous creature...
Kreacher! That was it! It had been Black who had volunteered his elf! He remembered the runty thing, crying and begging for its mistress as he left it to die with the secret of the cave. Scattering the charred remains of its former master, Voldemort summoned the little body with an elegant swish of his wand.
He tried again, more forcefully, causing the other Inferi to half rise from the water, murmuring, hypnotised by the pull of his magic.
There was only one conclusion he could draw. Somehow, despite every precaution, the loathsome thing had escaped and carried the knowledge of Lord Voldemort's treasure back to its treacherous owner. Very well. Assuming the elf was still alive, it would have passed to Sirius Black upon the deaths of Orion and Walburga, and he had been felled at the Ministry scant months ago. This meant that, legally, the elf was the property of the eldest Black cousin: Bellatrix Lestrange. Only, only... he remembered Rodolphus and Bellatrix complaining that the will had violated pure-blood custom and everything had passed to... Harry Potter.
Potter. Why must everything always come back to Potter? But Potter didn't know about his Horcruxes until last night. Perhaps the elf had merely hidden it away; simple, animal intelligence unable to recognise the locket's true value? But now Potter was his creature and the mind which held the elf's location was ripe for plucking.
And, as Voldemort stepped from the boat onto the rocky shore, and slipped from the cave - a streak of dark ribbon rushing headlong over the swell of the incoming tide, toward the daylight at the end of the jagged, black tunnel - he closed his eyes and sank effortlessly into Potter's thoughts. As deft and feather-light as the black shadow flying high above the sea...
"I had another dream."
Dumbledore looked up from his desk, where he sat with a quill in his good hand. He surveyed the three wheezing teenagers through his half-moon spectacles, his eyebrows raised, laying his quill on the desktop, and rose to his feet. "Someone is hurt?"
"No - not yet, sir, but - but someone's in danger - we all are," said Harry breathlessly. His cheeks were pink with shortness of breath and shame. "He knows, he fooled me, and he knows about his soul - the pieces of it, that you want to destroy them -"
"Pieces?" Dumbledore repeated softly. He shook his head. "Oh dear. Just as I suspected. Sit down, Harry, have an Acid Pop." He looked over Harry's shoulder, noticing Ron and Hermione standing there for the first time. "Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, good day to you - you may both have a seat as well." A wave of his wand, and three armchairs appeared on their side of the desk; Dumbledore set about to arranging various sweets for their consumption.
"Acid Pops?" Harry repeated, still panting. Ron and Hermione sat down uncomfortably on either side of him. "But - sir, with all due respect, this is rather important -"
"It is of grave importance, I am well aware," Dumbledore said, settling himself behind his desk again, "but if you would indulge me for just a moment, Harry, it would please me very much if you were to have an acid pop." The bowl of candies floated toward him; Harry didn't notice Ron staring at them with wide eyes. Frustrated, Harry grabbed one, unwrapped it, and popped it in his mouth.
"Can I speak now?" Harry said around the candy after a few moments. Ron was practically gaping at him now, and Dumbledore was studying him carefully.
"Your tongue," Ron said, unable to hide his surprise. "Your tongue is still in one piece, Harry!"
"Indeed, Mr. Weasley," said Dumbledore, steepling his fingers and continuing to examine Harry carefully, "but we can explore that particular curiosity in a few minutes. Who is in danger, Harry, and how immediate is the situation?"
It took Harry a few moment to answer this question; he had torn the Acid Pop from his mouth at Ron's enlightening exclamation and was now looking at it very strangely, recalling what Ron had told him once about how these particular lollipops could burn a hole straight through a person's tongue. "Kreacher," he said after a moment, looking back at the Headmaster; he placed the candy very carefully on his leg. "Voldemort was in a cave, just now - he's angry, something is missing, and it has something to do with Kreacher."
Dumbledore frowned, but it was clear from his eyes that he had made a connection from this disjointed explanation that Harry had not. Raising his wand, he flicked it at the space next to the desk; there was a loud crack, and the house-elf in question appeared, big ears flopping and a very sour expression on his face. He grimaced when he caught sight of Harry, Ron, and Hermione sitting there.
"Kreacher appears to be safe and sound," said Dumbledore. He leaned forward, looking the ugly creature in the eye. "Would you mind answering some questions for us, Kreacher?"
"Kreacher doesn't have to answer to you - blood-traitor, Mudblood-lover, disgrace to the ancient school and Salazar Slytherin - "
"Kreacher!" Harry snapped irritably. The house-elf shut up in an instant; Hermione treated Harry to a very frosty glare. "Answer the headmaster's questions, and be polite. Please," he added through gritted teeth as Hermione's expression became threatening.
And, rather begrudgingly, the house-elf obeyed.
Lord Voldemort stood in the shade of an ancient oak tree, staring at the gate of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Invisible, the Dark Lord admired the pillars of the great gate, topped with Hogwarts' heraldic winged boars. The iron gates had been chained shut. He contemplated the wards, shutting his eyes and feeling their power emanating outwards. Voldemort could sense the old magic of Hogwarts, deep below the grass and, atop it, layer upon layer of newly cast protective spellwork. Enough Anti-intruder jinxes to repel an army.
But Voldemort knew that. He knew that the Aurors stationed at Hogsmeade were Savage, Tonks, Proudfoot and Dawlish. Just as he knew that they were about to be called away on urgent Ministry business as, with any luck, would the majority of the Order of the Phoenix.
It was a golden autumn Sunday. Much of the fear that had been attached to venturing out in the wake of the news of Voldemort's return had dissipated. And in Diagon Alley witches, wizards and their progeny would be out shopping and enjoying the last of the warm weather. The Dark Lord had intended to spend most of this year consolidating his influence and rebuilding his forces. However, he felt confident - even at such an early stage of preparedness - in his ability to outmanoeuvre Albus Dumbledore. Voldemort had given his Death Eaters strict instructions: do not endanger yourselves with heroics, use the Imperius Curse rather than Avada Kedavra to allow your victims to spread chaos for you, and take as many of them alive as you can.
Potter's mind had told him that it was too late to attempt taking the elf. If the locket was to be found, it would be by Dumbledore. The Headmaster was busy even now interrogating the little cockroach. But Voldemort didn't need to locate his Horcrux himself. All he needed to do was be in a position to force Dumbledore to give it to him.
A great silvery cat streaked across the grass toward the drab-haired Metamorphmagus stationed at the gate. The Auror listened with rapt attention to the deep-voiced murmur of the Patronus, before disapparating with an inelegant crack. Voldemort waited a few minutes and then glided invisibly, almost lazily, toward the gate.
He had always been fascinated by warding magic, even at school. Such complex towers of incantation, usually built on such shaky foundations. The wards of Hogwarts were tripartite. Firstly, there were enchantments which recognised trespassers, alerting the staff should any magician enter without authorisation. Then there were the wards which barred entry. Those were the most recent spells, added in the last few years or left over from the previous war. The final level was the old magic of the earth - as old as Hogwarts itself - keyed off intention. One could not enter intending to harm the school or its students.
Lord Voldemort flickered into being for a few moments and then his body narrowed and lengthened, collapsing into the grass and writhing into another form entirely. The snake slipped noiselessly through the iron bars of the gate, beneath the watchful eyes of the bronze boars. I am the Heir of Slytherin, the serpent voiced to the ancient magic above and beneath it. This is my place, my home... and I seek only what is mine to protect...
And Hogwarts allowed the snake passage.
A heavy silence filled the room when Kreacher finished the last words of his tale. There were shining tracks of tears down his leathery, wrinkled face, his over-large ears quivering. Hermione looked ready to cry herself, and even Harry, who detested Kreacher, found himself affected. Fresh hatred filled up inside him; he could all too easily imagine the cruel smirk twisting Voldemort's thin lips as he left the house-elf dying on the island, and, later, the house-elf sobbing, forced to watch as the Inferi rose from the water to seize his master's body.
Dumbledore was the first to speak. He did not look nearly as disturbed as the three teenagers sitting before him; rather, he was fixing Kreacher with an intense stare, leaning forward in his chair with his fingers still steepled beneath his chin. "And do you have any knowledge of the locket's current whereabouts, Kreacher?"
Kreacher gave the headmaster a watery glare. "The locket is Kreacher's; Master Regulus said so, said that Kreacher was not to show it to mistress or to - "
"Kreacher," Harry said, but his voice had lost its bite. "Please, just answer the headmaster's question. It's very important."
The house-elf's mouth began to tremble as badly as his ears. His shrivelled lips opened to speak - but thoughts of Kreacher and the locket briefly fled from Harry's mind when a blinding bright light flashed through the window. For a terrible moment, Harry thought that they were being attacked; and then he saw that the light had taken the form of an animal, some kind of mountain cat - a Patronus.
The glowing lynx halted between the students and the headmaster, turning slowly to face Dumbledore. "Chaos in Diagon Alley," Kingsley Shacklebolt's deep voice resonated through the room. "They're taking hostages. Come as soon as possible. Bring as much help as is convenient." And with those ominous words, the Patronus dissolved into thin air.
The headmaster's office fell into silence once more. Harry's heart was pounding; an attack on Diagon Alley? The day after Harry had let slip to the Dark Lord that they were hunting pieces of his soul? Not an hour after Voldemort had discovered that Dumbledore apparently was well on his way in this venture? He caught Dumbledore's eye and knew that his professor had come to the same conclusion. Mouth set in a thin line, Dumbledore kept Harry's gaze and nodded toward the house-elf, who still stood beside the desk, shaking and uncertain.
"Kreacher, go home," Harry said at once. "You're not to leave Grimmauld Place. Stay out of sight."
With one last hateful glare, the house-elf raised its hand, snapped two of its fingers, and vanished.
Dumbledore stood up slowly, his gaze drawn to the window in through which the Patronus had glided. He looked deeply troubled. Harry wished desperately that he were a Legilimens so that he could peer into his professor's thoughts, learn of the terrible conclusions that the brilliant mind behind those piercing blue eyes was currently drawing. Instead, the boy saviour could only sit there silently, left confused and in the dark.
At last, Dumbledore gave a heavy sigh and turned toward the three teenagers. "Mr. Weasley, Miss Granger, if you could please rally the other prefects and escort all students directly to their respective House common rooms immediately."
Hermione, ever eager to follow directions, leapt immediately to her feet. She seized Ron's sleeve - the red-head was still sitting in his chair, gaping back and forth from Harry to Dumbledore - and pulled him out of his seat as well.
"Are my parents alright?" Ron asked Harry suddenly. He looked as though he had been waiting to ask this question since Harry had begun sprinting up the stairs to the headmaster's office. Perhaps he had; Harry had not been paying attention. "My brothers, too - you didn't see them hurt or anything, did you?"
"No," Harry said. His voice sounded very far away. "They're fine."
"Come on, Ron," said Hermione, and she began to drag him toward the door. Harry made to follow them as well, but Dumbledore halted him with one pointed glance.
"One moment, Harry."
Hermione gave him a sympathetic glance, and then the door thudded shut behind them, leaving Harry and Dumbledore alone. The headmaster sighed again very heavily, crossing back to the window, gazing out at the Quidditch pitch. Silence settled uncomfortably between them again, and, after a few long minutes, Harry began to wonder if Dumbledore had forgotten that he was there.
"Professor, you don't think," Harry began, but his mouth was very dry. He cleared his throat and tried again. "You don't think that Voldemort would come ... here, to Hogwarts, do you?"
Dumbledore's lips thinned. He suddenly looked very old in the autumn sunlight, his face a map of wrinkles, his beard very white. "Yes, Harry," he replied. "I believe that that's exactly what he intends to do."
And, as Harry tried to calm his runaway pulse, tried to hold his wand in fingers that didn't tremble as badly as the pitiful house-elf describing the day that the Dark Lord nearly killed him, there was a knock on the door.
But it was only Slughorn who came bursting into the office, looking quite disgruntled but very far from the glowing red eyes in Harry's nightmare. His already ample bulk swelled and his nose was turned upward above his bristling, walrus moustache - as though scenting intrigue.
"What in Merlin's name is going on, Albus?" Slughorn seemed almost like one of those reptiles who, when disturbed, puff themselves up in order to appear more threatening than they truly are. "Mr Weasley near flattened us running down the stairs and Ms Granger was full of all sorts of nonsense about an emergency!"
"I believe I shall be able to shed some light upon the matter, professor." A tall figure stepped gracefully through the door from behind Slughorn.
Lord Voldemort unfurled into the room, his tenebrous aura lengthening like a shadow. All of the breath left Harry's lungs in a rush. The Dark Lord was wearing another face - just as he had in Harry's dream, a plain, too-human disguise that seemed so inappropriate for the monster that he knew was lurking beneath.
"Oh yes," Slughorn bumbled, looking thoroughly pleased with himself. Of course it would have been Slughorn to lead Voldemort right into Dumbledore's office! Harry might have been furious with the man, but the only thing he could conjure was fear, cold and consuming, turning his blood to ice in his veins. "May I introduce–?"
"There is no wizard in Europe who has not heard of the great Albus Dumbledore," The icy tone cut Slughorn's speech like a knife slicing through butter. Voldemort's eerily mellifluous voice seemed to take up more space than its volume, filling the office like an electrical current. Although his expression remained polite, there was something contorted and derisive rippling beneath the pale skin which stretched slowly into a taut, evil smile. "And, as he seems to take particular pleasure in remembering my name, I will wager he has not forgotten it."
"Forgive my nostalgia, Tom, but I'm an old man," said Dumbledore, and to Harry's surprise, the professor gave the Dark Lord a small, sad smile. "I shall always see the eager first year in your face, no matter how badly you disfigure it."
Harry's eyes darted with shock and nervous fear from the Headmaster to the Dark Lord to Slughorn, whose face had drained completely of colour at this revelation. Dumbledore was acting as though Lord Voldemort waltzed into his office every other day, seeking Dark Lord advice from Hogwarts' wizened old headmaster on a weekly basis. How could he speak so easily to the most dangerous wizard of their time?
"Albus - really!" Slughorn blustered, finding his voice, hands flapping helplessly. "Merlin help us - you've gone off the deep end! This isn't him, it's-" And then the mask slipped away from Voldemort's features, melting like heated wax, and the potions professor's words terminated with a horrified squeak.
The hairs rippled on the back of Harry's neck as Voldemort swept into the armchair directly beside him, only a few feet away. The Dark Lord's magical energy prickled the air at this proximity, no longer dulled by the fog of dream and nightmare. For all of the attention that Voldemort was paying Harry, however, they might not have seen each other since the debacle at the Ministry last summer. There was no hint of recollection in the slitted, scarlet eyes of their nonchalant conversation the evening before, nor of - he tried not to shudder - that strange, embarrassing embrace.
"My apologies, Headmaster," Voldemort said softly. "For not owling you in advance and..." he spared the boy next to him little more than a contemptuous sideways glance, "interrupting your class." The smile widened, showing the lascivious forked tongue and sharp, white teeth. Glittering eyes took in Dumbledore's luxurious orange and silver robes. Voldemort had the air of a deadly predator kept at bay only by some private amusement. He was enjoying this. "But I hardly think I am alone in my weakness for the dramatic."
Dumbledore seated himself behind his desk, following suit, a bizarre chess game of sorts. "Ah, but I was under the impression that the great Lord Voldemort had little time for such foolish extravagance," Dumbledore mused. "But I suppose that, much like one's true name, some things never change." Another sad smile. He almost looked like he was … pitying Voldemort, leaning backward in his high-backed chair, hand folded in front of him, studying the Dark Lord like some sort of enigmatic puzzle. "I somehow doubt that you've wandered into Hogwarts this afternoon to criticize my partiality for dramatic flair, Tom. To what do we owe the pleasure?"
The air became colder still and Voldemort's voice was arctic as his eyes burned. His flat, serpentine face was closed - expressionless - as though holding off on the brink of murderous rage, kept at bay only by the most ruthless self-control. "You know why I have come, Dumbledore." The crimson gaze lingered for a moment on the Headmaster's withered, blackened hand. "And I have no doubt that one of your pet Aurors has already informed you of the consequences should you refuse me. I have come for what is mine."
A violent shiver raced down Harry's spine, and Voldemort turned his eyes to meet Harry's for the first time since he had entered the office. Death and horror lay in those eyes, the torture and bloodshed of so many people, so many faces. Harry saw them, each and every one; saw their mouths contorting and their bodies writhing and their families weeping. So much avoidable, unnecessary carnage and it was in Harry's hands, Harry's house-elf, to stop it.
The boy rose to his feet in a heartbeat, his fists clenched hard to stop the trembling. No one would die because of him. But before he could open his mouth, Dumbledore raised his hand - the one that wasn't shrivelled up and rotted with disease - and silenced Harry with a weighty look.
"Sit down, Harry," Dumbledore said firmly, that casual, cheery civility completely gone from his voice. Harry opened his mouth to protest, but the headmaster's gaze hardened further, and Harry lowered himself slowly to his seat. Kreacher was only a single word away, Harry reminded himself. If things got too nasty, Harry could always summon the house-elf to return the damn locket to the Dark Lord. Even so, the slow beginnings of fear and uncertainty coiled in long, icy tendrils around his stomach. Dumbledore wouldn't sacrifice lives for this crazy battle of wills, would he?
"And what of that which was not yours to take in the first place?" Dumbledore levelled a cool glare at Voldemort. "You always did have a nasty habit of appropriating the other children's belongings for your own cruel uses, Tom. I did not endorse such behaviour in your schooldays; do you truly expect that I've changed in my old age?"
"Ah yes..." there was almost a sigh in Lord Voldemort's words, "The five minutes you devoted to my moral education by terrifying a child. You flatter yourself, Dumbledore." The ruby gaze became wide, shining with a horrible, mercurial immaturity that could almost pass itself off as innocence. Almost. "I have told you what I have come for, Headmaster, and I do not care to repeat myself. The locket. Or shall I signal my servants to begin?"
Harry stared dumbly at the Dark Lord, uncomprehending. Voldemort was discussing the massacre of dozens of people like he might simply be calling Wormtail in to fetch a kettle of tea. It was revolting. And Dumbledore - Dumbledore was just sitting there, his expression unreadable, eyes twinkling in a way that did not seem nearly as congenial as it had been when Harry was eleven. Merlin, he was actually sitting there, weighing his options - weighing the lives of dozens of innocents like so many Knuts and Sickles, as though their senseless deaths even could be a viable option in this negotiation. Harry's stomach turned again at the thought of it: how many mutilated, bloody corpses must be piled onto the headmaster's golden scale before it tipped over?
"No," Harry said without thinking. He rose to his feet, his heart racing; Dumbledore raised a warning hand as he had before, but Harry ignored it. The hands and words of these two men might hold the world together, but they wouldn't stop Harry if he could help it.
"Harry," Dumbledore said, his voice low and warning.
"I won't let you," Harry snapped right over him, and he turned to look at the Dark Lord. He was hardly able to stop himself from trembling, his nails biting into the skin of his palms, his right hand curled so tightly around his wand he thought it might leave impressions when he finally released it. "You must promise not to hurt him," he told Voldemort, pleased that his voice caught only slightly as he spoke. "You've already put him through quite enough." He could only imagine the tirade to which Hermione would treat him should he trade Kreacher's life for anything, no matter how important.
Voldemort's gaze flicked impassively from one wizard to the other, clearly revelling in the growing discord between Harry and the Headmaster. "Get me my locket, Harry," he replied silkily, "and Lord Voldemort shall spare as many worthless elves as you deem necessary."
"You'll release all of your prisoners as well," Harry added warily, the statement almost posed as a question, inflection rising on the last word. It couldn't be that simple. There must be something else that the Dark Lord wanted. "I call Kreacher, he retrieves the locket, and you'll let them go?"
Perhaps it really was that simple. Harry remembered the raw, brutal terror that had swept them both into that mind-shattering nightmare the evening before. He could never recall Voldemort being so frightened before - and it had all stemmed from that one locket, drawn casually from Harry's pocket. His mere knowledge of its existence had thrown Voldemort into a furious panic. And the way that the Dark Lord had held him afterward, mistaking him for that strange, disconnected piece of his soul - if Lord Voldemort, ruthless, monstrous, hateful Lord Voldemort could feel such uncharacteristic affection and kindness for something, anything at all - inspiration, hopeful and dangerous, bloomed slowly within Harry's heart. How far would Voldemort go to ensure the safety of his soul?
This is mad, Harry thought. But wasn't this entire endeavour madness in itself? The assumption that Harry Potter, an inexperienced, ordinary sixteen-year-old save for an absurdly-shaped blemish on his forehead, could take on and bring an end to the greatest Dark wizard in history … Harry remembered fleeing in terror, defenceless, in a graveyard, remembered cowering behind a statue as his headmaster and Voldemort traded powerful, violent curses in the Ministry atrium. Harry's destiny was leading him straight to his death at the hands of a powerful, sadistic monster, and the wizarding world wouldn't even be any the better off for it.
"But what of the rest of these - these objects?" There was a sort of wildness in his eyes, his posture. He was very aware of Dumbledore's heavy gaze, boring into him from behind his desk, but he didn't care; this was brilliant, it could be the end of all this senseless death, it could mean a new, peaceful age for the wizarding world. "If we swore to stop hunting them - if we returned them all to your safekeeping - what would you give us in return? Would you stop the killing altogether? Would you -"
"Harry, that is enough."
Dumbledore had stood up when Harry hadn't noticed. He had never seen the headmaster looking so angry; the air in the office had grown very cold and thick, and Dumbledore's face was dark with fury. Harry saw that his headmaster had drawn his wand, and he realized with a jolt of shock that he wasn't quite sure whether Dumbledore intended to point it at his enemy or his student. "If you would summon Kreacher, we shall restore the locket to Mr. Riddle and he will be on his way."
The Dark Lord did not even pay Dumbledore the slightest passing glance; rather, he was studying Harry with a fierceness that was uncanny - nearly the same way, Harry recalled, that Voldemort had looked at him in his dreamscape when he'd realized he had been clinging to a boy and not a locket. The intensity of Voldemort's stare sent another ripple of goose bumps crawling across the flesh of Harry's neck and shoulders. Last Harry had checked, however, he had neither been embraced by the serpentine wizard this afternoon, nor had he done anything that might have caused Voldemort to take him for an inanimate object again; he could think of nothing that would warrant him this sort of attention.
"Summon the elf," Voldemort echoed Dumbledore softly, his high voice nearly a whisper. "Restore to me what is mine, and I shall indeed be a merciful lord." And then Voldemort extended his hand, a slow uncurling of long, white fingers. "You have my word."
Harry blinked at the gesture in confusion, half-expecting the Dark Lord to spring up and close those elegant fingers round his neck. But the Dark Lord's hand did not falter nor lunge, and after a few more moments of disbelief, Harry had no other choice but to understand that Lord Voldemort was attempting to shake his hand.
"Harry," said Dumbledore again, a reminder of his place, his allegiance. Would Dumbledore shake Voldemort's hand if the Dark Lord offered it to him? But Dumbledore had nearly been ready to offer innocent blood for the sake of this twisted contest between light and dark. Harry was not as much like his headmaster as he had once thought. And besides, Harry knew that there was a deeper magic invoked through physical contact during negotiations such as these. If nothing else, accepting the gesture would at least hold Voldemort to his word.
Swallowing, the boy reached out his own hand, tentative and uncertain, and grasped the Dark Lord's own.
He cringed automatically, expecting a flare of pain to rip his skull in half the way it did whenever he was unfortunate enough to come into physical contact with Voldemort - but there was nothing. No, wait - not nothing; there was certainly something, an unfamiliar and not altogether unpleasant stirring in his chest, in the very core of his being. Harry sucked in his breath, but he couldn't bring himself to let go, so intrigued by this foreign sensation coursing through his body. It was a vague but insistent tugging, as though an invisible thread were tied to his heartstrings and ran all the way through his shoulder to his elbow to the very tips of his fingers, and something inside of the Dark Lord had latched onto the ends of it and was tugging, tugging, tugging at the centre of Harry's soul -
And then the moment was over as quickly as it had begun. Voldemort had released his hand, and he looked far too pleased for Harry's comfort; perhaps Harry should have simply listened to Dumbledore, who, despite his disturbing lack of reaction to the threat of a massacre in Diagon Alley, always seemed to have Harry's best interests in mind. It occurred to him then that they were waiting on him to fulfil his end of the bargain, and so he cleared his throat, shifting awkwardly to dispel the lingering prickle in his fingers, his arm, and said loudly, "Kreacher, come."
There was a crack, followed by a hoarse scream, and Harry found himself with a house-elf barrelling past and then behind him, clinging to the backs of his robes and shaking like a leaf. It took at least a minute of reassurances and coaxing to get Kreacher to calm down enough to speak, and at least several more minutes of stammering and squeaking before Harry realized with a wave of dread that retrieving Voldemort's locket might not prove as simple as he had hoped.
A thief, in Grimmauld Place. A thief, who had taken everything valuable, who had snatched Slytherin's dusty locket from Kreacher's bed. Harry's stomached plummeted through the floor, his hopes falling with it. If Mundungus had truly stolen the locket, then there was no telling who had it now.
"This seems very clear to me." Voldemort's high, sibilant voice was matter-of-fact. "You have the house under the protection of the Fidelius Charm, do you not? So this... Mundungus Fletcher... must be a wizard you trust or, at least, are in a position to command. Have you not merely to order him hence at the behest of Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore? Or would you have Lord Voldemort hunt Mr Fletcher himself?" Cold, merciless amusement lurked in the question. Voldemort looked as though he would very much like to hunt and kill a wizard at this moment – it showed clearly in his greedy, angular features. His lipless mouth pulled away from his sharp teeth in an impatient snarl.
"I'm sure Mundungus would be perfectly happy to help us of his own volition, no hunting necessary," said Dumbledore. Somewhere between Harry's strange handshake with the Dark Lord and the end of Kreacher's speech, the headmaster had returned to his small smiles and pleasantries. But Harry could see that the twinkle was lacking in its conviction every time Dumbledore's gaze fell on his unruly student, who was still kneeling where his trembling house-elf had stood before Harry had sent it happily back to Grimmauld Place. "Horace?"
The man in question was still at the entrance to the headmaster's office, stiff as a board, eyes bulging. Harry had nearly forgotten that his Potions professor was still there; he had gone completely mute as soon as Dumbledore had revealed the true identity of their visitor, and he hadn't spoken a word since. At the call of his name, however, his jowls began to quiver, a small assurance that he hadn't in fact been petrified when they all had been arguing.
"Would you be so kind as to keep Harry and Tom company while I send for Mr. Fletcher?" The mild, casual way Dumbledore posed this question was rather discordant with the sudden panic making Harry's stomach do backflips. "I should only be a few short minutes."
Would Dumbledore really leave them alone together? Across the room, it seemed as though Slughorn were going through a similar crisis; his mouth hung open, and his face was turning a rather unpleasant shade of purple.
"Lovely," Dumbledore said, rubbing his hands together and rising to his feet. "I'll just be a moment, then. There's tea, sweets, crumpets - help yourself." And with that, he grabbed a handful of Floo Powder from the jar beside the hearth, said a name that Harry didn't recognize, and disappeared into the roaring green flames in the fireplace - leaving Harry essentially alone.
Harry stood up uncomfortably, his wand still clutched in his hand, a comforting safety net between his fingers - or at least the illusion of one, because there wasn't much of a safety net when one was locked in a small room with a dragon. Harry glanced hopefully over at Slughorn, but his professor had gone from purple to white in a few seconds flat. It was clear that he would be useless in any sort of duel, especially against a wizard as powerful as the one lounging in his armchair at present. Harry could only hope that the Dark Lord was preoccupied enough with his locket to make an attempt on Harry's life, and that his trust in Dumbledore's good intentions was well-founded.
"I do hope the Headmaster has not decided to do anything too foolish," Voldemort sniffed, the slitted nostrils dilating as he stood with a rustle of black silk. With Dumbledore gone, the Dark Lord's aura engulfed the entire office in its velvety darkness. "But how fortune favours Lord Voldemort! Here I find myself at leisure with two wizards I have been seeking for so long."
He glided over toward Slughorn, his clawed hands outstretched as if to embrace him. The two Slytherins could not have been less alike. Pale, rail-thin Lord Voldemort towered over squat, round Slughorn.
"My dear professor," Voldemort greeted Slughorn affably, "you must forgive me for the small trick I played upon you. It really is such a pleasure to see my favourite teacher once more." Milky digits settled on Slughorn's shoulder and Voldemort seemed to relish the horrified shudder that accompanied them. The Dark Lord turned to Potter, crimson eyes bathing the room in malice. "Did you know – Harry – that this fine wizard once taught me, just as he is teaching you now? I wonder, Horace, if you invite him to your little parties? If you secretly dream about bending famous Harry Potter over your desk as you once dreamed of brilliant Tom Riddle?"
Heat rushed to Harry's cheeks, and his mouth dangled open wordlessly, unable to form a response. Ron and Seamus had privately teased Harry that Slughorn's obsession with him bordered on infatuation - all those points to Gryffindor during Potions, with the Prince's ample help, of course - but Harry would have never in a million years entertained the notion that Slughorn would actually consider such a thought himself. And the thought of Slughorn, doing … doing that, with Harry - the boy's stomach churned with revulsion at the idea. The other boys in his dorm had often speculated about their teachers' sex lives, but Harry much rather preferred to think of his professors as non-sexual entities. Much as he thought of most of the adults in his life, in fact - Slughorn and Voldemort included.
But it occurred to Harry then that perhaps even Tom Riddle had once had a life that included pleasures beyond the systematic torture and murder of Muggle innocents. Harry's cheeks grew even warmer, and not quite from revulsion, as he thought about the converse of that statement - young, handsome Tom Riddle with his dark hair and light eyes, the boy who had chased Harry in the Chamber of Secrets - dishevelled and bent over a desk and…
Harry decided then that it was probably best to not ever think about the adults in his life in sexual situations again, because, Merlin, this was Voldemort, and there were so many different things wrong with this conversation that Harry had lost count.
"I, you," Slughorn was spluttering tremendously. The colour in his face didn't seem to be faring any better - purple to white to beet red since he had first walked into Dumbledore's office that afternoon. Harry wondered how many shades the man's face could turn in one sitting. "I don't know what you're t-talking about, Mr. … Mr. Riddle." He hmph'd dramatically for emphasis, but, somehow, Voldemort's given name did not sound nearly as patronizing coming from Slughorn's mouth as it did from Dumbledore's. "I knew you would go wrong, right from the beginning, I did! I didn't want anything to do with you!" Perspiration had broken out on the big man's brow, and he shuffled backward a little, clearly attempting to loosen himself from Voldemort's grasp.
Harry watched with horror as Voldemort dissolved into horrible, breathless giggles, a high disturbing sound that contrasted harshly with the face of the dark, attractive boy that refused to leave Harry's mind. He felt sorry for Slughorn, he really did - but he couldn't help but also feel relieved that Voldemort had not turned his attention to Harry in his headmaster's absence. "Oh..." Voldemort murmured between maniacal giggles, "Oh... of course you did..." He was near-hysterical with mirth, driving his claws mercilessly into the fat shoulder, the forked tongue hissing viciously into Slughorn's ear. "This from the man who told me I could be Minister of Magic by the age of-"
He stopped, catching Harry's gaze, and there was no more thanking lucky stars, nowhere far or dark enough in this tiny room to hide from the intensity that hit him in that moment. The nails released Slughorn and the man almost crumpled. Voldemort stared at Harry like a snake hypnotised, the laughter dead in his throat. And Voldemort was a Legilimens…
Heat rushed over Harry in a wave, and he was vaguely aware that his lips were still parted with surprise, but he couldn't bring himself to move, to look away. Voldemort was staring at him, looking at Harry like he was the most fascinating creature in the world, and Harry once again might have truly believed that Voldemort had only seen him for the first time right now, just now, if he hadn't already felt this way twice in the past twelve hours. Looking at Voldemort's face like this - so raw, almost naked - it was almost easy to see the young man in his imagination behind the pale, perfect mask of Voldemort's visage. Harry flushed at this thought, and furiously attempted to separate young, attractive Tom Riddle from this man - monster - in front of him - but it was too late and to little avail.
Wrong, wrong, wrongwrongwrong. This had gotten out of control way too fast.
Swallowing, Harry forced himself to take a step back, tore his gaze away to look pleadingly at Slughorn for assistance. But, Merlin, the professor was still collapsed on the floor, breathing in huge, panicked sobs. Harry realized with a jolt of panic that his own breathing wasn't coping too well either; he closed his eyes forcibly and tried to steady himself. Breathe. Perhaps, when he opened his eyes, Voldemort would have lost interest and returned to antagonizing the teacher on the floor.
Dark magic buzzed as skeletal fingers wrapped around Harry's face and Voldemort's breath fanned his closed lids. "You cannot defeat Lord Voldemort, Harry..." he murmured. The fingers against his jaw were somehow cold and hot at the same time - freezing against the surface of his skin, but warmth, such warmth underneath, a fire beneath his face. Harry felt the smooth pads of Voldemort's thumbs pry open his lips, slowly, tenderly, and a wonderful shudder passed through him, far too pleasant a sensation for the person invoking it.
It was because of this that Harry kept his eyes closed, the sharp edge of terror warring with the delicious heat pooling at the base of his stomach. He would rather stand here, pathetic and vulnerable with his lips parted and Voldemort's hands spread across his cheeks, than to open his eyes and react. To open his eyes meant releasing this moment, returning to the cold, horrible fear that Voldemort's presence created - or - or he might open his eyes, look into the blood-stained gaze of the Dark Lord, and find that nothing had changed about this moment at all. And that somehow was worse than all the terror in the world.
Voldemort was speaking to him softly, in low, intimate hisses that touched his eyelids, his forehead. "You will lose… but perhaps… perhaps it is not necessary to kill you, after all…"
Harry did open his eyes then, surprise getting the better of him. What was that supposed to mean? Brow furrowing, Harry stared up at the Dark Lord, rather dizzy from his proximity - so close that Voldemort could surely feel how hard Harry's heart was beating, a vehement tattoo against his rib cage. His lip trembled underneath the Dark Lord's finger, and he took a deep breath, trying to find the will to speak -
And then there was the sound of flames rearing up on the hearth, followed by a loud cough, and before Harry knew what had happened, those hot-cold fingers that had been tugging at his soul-strings though the skin of his jaw had vanished, and Voldemort was standing straight and blank-faced, like nothing had transpired between them at all. The only sign that Dumbledore noticed anything out of the ordinary was a little frown twisting his lips as his gaze passed from Slughorn, who was still clutching at his heart on the floor, to Harry, who realised at this moment that he was shaking and had to bite his bottom lip hard - his lip, which still was tingling from that small, soft touch of Voldemort's fingers - to stop.
"I'm sorry to say that Mundungus was not pleased with the idea of making your acquaintance, Tom," said Dumbledore, not sounding very sorry at all. "Fortunately, he was kind enough to pass this along so that you can be on your way." He reached into his robe, and out came the heavy gold locket, just as brilliant and ornate as Harry remembered from his vivid dream the night before.
Voldemort nodded stiffly. The pale talons reached out once more, this time to the precious heirloom of gold and emeralds. It flew from the Headmaster into his grasp. "The boy shall know I have fulfilled my promise," he said, hardly looking at the other three people in the room, clearly too preoccupied with his locket.
A buzzing tension slowly unravelled within Harry's chest. It was not a familiar sensation to him, but he recognized it immediately for what it was: the dissipation of their magical agreement, having been fulfilled by both involved parties. Harry wondered hopefully if perhaps that strange, magnetic pull toward the Dark Lord's person might have dissolved with the bond as well - but, no, a few deep breaths later and Harry still found himself remembering the cool touch of those long, smooth fingers tracing his jawline with something distressingly close to longing.
"Yes," said Harry quietly. He looked at his feet, cheeks still burning with shame and confusion. "He has."
Dumbledore clapped his hands together. "Very well then! A pleasure, Tom, as always, but I'm sure we both have more pressing matters to attend to now that this has been resolved." Like destroying the rest of Voldemort's soul. How ironic and how very strange, that these two enemies could be so civil with each other. Almost as strange as Voldemort touching the face of the boy he was destined to kill, whispering in a secret language that perhaps he would spare Harry's life after all. Harry tried not to shiver or shift, instead memorizing the pattern of his trainers and feeling very confused and angry toward every single person in the room - save for Slughorn, who was still the colour of a turnip and for whom Harry could conjure up little more than detached pity.
"Indeed," Lord Voldemort nodded again to the Headmaster, sending Harry one last indecipherable glance before turning, the door opening and closing almost noiselessly behind him.
"That was very foolish of you, Harry." Dumbledore sounded deeply disappointed. It made Harry want to hex something.
"And what would you have done if I hadn't said anything?" Harry finally looked up from the floor, his eyes settling on Dumbledore's sad, disapproving expression, and all of the confused, wayward emotion in him gathered together into one boiling hot ball of anger. "I was sitting right here, sir. You were thinking about it - about handing over the lives of all of those innocent people."
Dumbledore sighed heavily, and Harry's irritation with the man climbed further. "I would have bought us time, dear boy, valuable time!" The headmaster shook his head, and Harry was disturbed to find that Dumbledore's behaviour toward Harry was really quite similar to the way that he had treated Voldemort. "You acted very rashly today, Harry. It was not your place to do that."
"And what is my place, then?" Harry demanded, his voice rising. "To offer up my neck on the altar, and watch passively while everyone else makes the important decisions? You said you weren't going to hide anything from me anymore." There was a note of hurt in his voice, and he was aware that it made him sound very childish. This realization only made him even angrier, a burning red flame in his stomach, and Harry decided that he needed to leave before he started throwing things again; he had a feeling that another temper tantrum, no matter how justified, would not help his cause.
"Harry," Dumbledore began after another one of his long-suffering sighs, but the boy had already began to stride toward the exit, pausing only to peel the dangling lollipop from his trouser leg, which, he noticed with dismay, had sported a large, smoking hole in the upper right thigh from its prolonged contact with the acidic candy. Scowling, he threw it to the floor - apparently too close in proximity to Slughorn, who yelped rather girlishly - and stormed out of the office. And if the door closed a little too loudly behind him, it was only because it had caught a draft. The castle was full of them.
Harry let out a long breath that he didn't know he'd been holding, sagging against the stone wall; cool through the hole in his trousers. And what was that about? The skin of his leg was completely intact, not a blister or bruise to be seen, even as the material that had clothed it had curled up in tatters in a hole that was roughly the size of an orange. He heard Slughorn say something through the closed door of the office and headed for the stairs, unwilling to risk extending this unpleasant encounter any longer should either of his professors walk out into the hallway.
Bitterly, he wondered whether he should return to the common room and tell Ron and Hermione what had happened. They always seemed to know how to cool him down. But then he remembered that the common room was currently packed with every student in Gryffindor House, eagerly awaiting news of the attack on Diagon Alley and why it might affect the safety of Hogwarts students, and decided that the recollection of his meeting with Voldemort was best left for a private conversation.
Harry headed for the stairs. Perhaps he would pay a visit to the library and see if this Dream Warrior book had anything useful to say.
Potter's friends had obviously done their job, for the Dark Lord saw not a soul as he strode down the stone stairs, stopping only to collect Ravenclaw's diadem from the secret room only he had ever discovered. But secrecy was not enough now that his and Potter's thoughts were so intimately entwined. Bellatrix Lestrange should be back from Diagon Alley by now with Hufflepuff's golden cup.
The afternoon light was fading by the time Voldemort, invisible, reached the castle's great oaken doors. He shivered in the crisp, Scottish air and felt the breath of winter up his spine. The locket was still warm from Dumbledore's palm, and the sweaty paws of the Order's thief. He had felt its joy at being reunited. Yet it was cold. Its metal did not quiver at his touch and its magic was but a poor echo of his own power. Voldemort felt cheated, bereft at finding one of the few things he had ever cared for - the locket of noble Slytherin! - hollow by comparison to Harry Potter. It felt as empty as its image in his dream. Nor did the diadem offer him any more comfort than the locket. Two Horcruxes and still nothing compared to Harry Potter's touch. The Dark Lord took to the air, trying to escape his thoughts, twisting above the cloud line until –
(everything broke apart, void, and was remade into)
- the darkness of his shrouded rooms and the feel of his hand on Nagini's scales. "My lovely one," he whispered as her shining amber eyes glittered in the firelight and he caressed her dark green scales, listening to her chatter happily about the rodents she had devoured, the scents she had tasted, and how pleased she was that he - her Master - had returned.
He wanted to scream, to destroy, to kill - killkillkill - but that desire belonged to the most base of his instincts: sadism fused to the predatory mind of a serpent, aided by magic so steeped in darkness it thrilled and exalted at the prospect of murder. But Lord Voldemort was master over his inhumanity, icy serenity smoothing over his rage almost at once. It was only when he lost his temper that he became a creature bereft of human faculties. His life now was a battle with those mercurial emotions which could so easily lay waste to all sense. Voldemort fought to remain lucid, fought not to drown in the black, predatory rush of his own cruel power. Another reason he could not - could not - afford to lose any more of his precious soul-shards.
Instead, he sat by the glow of the fire with his pet curled around his chair and pretended all was well. For he could not tell even her of those things that had shaken him to the core. Voldemort had no confidant, no friend, and his lofty pride would not allow him to admit weakness even to Nagini.
He gazed upon his beautiful treasures: the locket, the cup, the diadem, and his cherished snake. Yet he could think only of Harry Potter; entranced and entrancing. A white hand stroked the vessels, trying to recreate the sensation, to convince himself it was nothing he could not find in any of his Horcruxes. The pieces of soul which held fast his spirit and his sanity. Precious beyond measure: emerald, diamond, sapphire, silver and gold - the relics of the founders and the glossy scales of his familiar. But they were as hungry and dissatisfied as he - they did nothing to fill the ache he felt. It gnawed and infuriated him. He, Lord Voldemort, was the most accomplished, the most powerful sorcerer alive. Immortal. He had just forced the dying Albus Dumbledore into submission.
Lord Voldemort closed his eyes, watching the interminable echoes of light that danced behind his lids. The minds of his servants hid nothing from him. He knew some of them thought his obsession with Potter was something unnatural. The tortured screams of the agonies they suffered for daring to suppose such a thing was, until this point, vindication enough. He moved to the bed, removing his robes, adjusting his hairless body beneath black sheets, and pulling up the quilt - saturated in heating charms to last the cold blood of himself and Nagini through winter. The logs in the hearth shifted, crackling.
The Dark Lord had fantasied about Potter's death for too long – and now the world had shifted and Potter's place was still in his grasp but his desires had changed. Potter was his. His to keep, and his to torture, and his to visit with unspeakable annihilation until the boy shone with the darkness of the soul trapped within him. He curled up beneath the covers. Autumn was almost over and the instinct to hibernate was strong. But he was a wizard, not a serpent, and he could not stop because his blood was growing sluggish and telling him to sleep. Potter would be his in due course. All would be his in time.
I am Lord Voldemort. But the words brought him small comfort.
Wow, what a long first chapter! We hope you enjoyed it! The next chapter is already finished and should be up by next week. :)