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Harry sat in the quiet, far corner of the Room of Requirement and watched the crowd of students chatter.
Nev’s got about half the remaining school here. He teaches more students than most of the teachers. He glanced down at the short note Katie had handed him after lunch and stuffed it into his pocket. If this takes much longer, I’ll be late to meet with Dumbledore.
‘Where’s Nev?’ Ron wondered, ushering Hermione over to join him. ‘He’s not normally late.’
The door creaked open.
‘Sorry,’ Nev apologised. ‘I’ve been searching for my assistant, but he’s proven elusive.’
That’s because I beat you here. You did say it’d be best to meet here.
‘Your assistant?’ Ron frowned. ‘Who? Cedric’s left.’
‘Last time you had an assistant it was Harry…’ Hermione chewed her lip. ‘I’m not so sure that’s a good idea if we’re going to be duelling.’
‘He’s still my assistant and we need to learn how to duel properly.’
‘Why can’t you teach us that?’ Zacharias Smith called.
‘I don’t really know what I’m doing, beyond the spells themselves,’ Nev admitted. ‘Harry does.’
‘What about Hermione?’ Terry Boot suggested. ‘I heard she produced non-verbal spells first time in all her classes and they’re meant to be important for duelling.’
‘I can teach,’ Hermione said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. ‘I’d be happy to.’
‘And you’re better than Harry?’ Nev levelled a long look at her. ‘He said he’d come. He’s probably just running late.’
‘Well…’ Hermione gestured around. ‘He’s not here.’
‘Aren’t I?’ Harry dispelled his Disillusionment Charm and stood up.
‘I can still teach this.’ Hermione folded her arms. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of research.’
‘If you don’t want my help, then I won’t give it.’
‘No, Harry.’ Nev shook his head. ‘I run the DA, not Hermione. You don’t have to go. They just don’t realise the difference yet, but we can show them…’
‘That’s probably not a good idea,’ Harry said.
‘Afraid you’d lose?!’ Smith wriggled to the front of the crowd and sneered. ‘Neville’s probably better than you from what I’ve seen, you’re just worried we’ll tell everyone you aren’t all that great after all.’
‘You’ve been telling people that for years, Smith,’ Harry replied, smothering a trickle of ice in his veins. ‘In second year, you thought I was setting a giant snake on muggle-borns, in third year people stopped listening to you briefly because they realised you’re an idiot, but, oddly, they forgot again afterwards, and since then you’ve been telling everyone I’m a dark wizard, or some other nonsense.’
‘You are a dark wizard,’ Smith snapped.
He swallowed the pinprick of cold in his chest. ‘Not contradicting me calling you an idiot, then.’
‘How about a test.’ Hermione worried at her lip, studying Harry with sharp brown eyes. ‘One potential teacher against the others. Whichever side wins the duel clearly knows more, and should teach. That’s fair.’
‘Others?’ Nev asked.
‘It’s Harry or it’s us,’ Hermione said. ‘His way or our way.’
‘You want to duel Harry… voluntarily.’ Nev’s eyebrows crept up. ‘That doesn’t seem smart.’
‘Normal duelling rules,’ Hermione said. ‘No dangerous spells, no leaving the ring, and no talking about anything except the duel until the duel is over.’
‘And when is the duel over?’ Harry slipped his wand out of his sleeve. ‘I’m starting to think it would be a good idea to demonstrate how it feels fighting a skilled duellist after all.’
‘If one side is stunned or unable to use magic,’ Hermione recited.
Nev sighed and pulled out his wand. ‘Not the face, please, Harry.’
He grinned. ‘I won’t damage anything Hannah will miss.’
Nev turned bright red. ‘We’ll need a ring.’
Harry tossed a ribbon of purple flame out into a circle around them. ‘Done.’
Hermione drew her wand from her waist, tapping its tip against her palm as she moved to stand next to Neville on the opposite side of the ring from him.
‘Five sickles say they beat Potter inside a minute,’ Smith shouted.
‘Two minutes,’ Ernie Macmillan called.
I’m going to enjoy this. Harry allowed himself a small, thin smile. You wanted me to be different. Well, time to see the difference between all of you and me.
‘Will you adjudicate, Ron?’ Hermione asked.
Ron screwed his face up. ‘Will I what?’
‘Judge, Ron.’ Hermione sighed. ‘You need to judge.’
‘Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?’
Hermione bit her lip, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Nev stared at his wand. Behind him, the walls began to sprout thick padding.
Ron yawned. ‘Begin!’
‘Stupefy,’ Hermione hissed, drawing her wand through the full motion and from it into a handful of school-corridor hexes.
Harry batted them away, deflecting each curse into the ground to leave small, smoking rings.
‘Neville,’ Hermione urged, casting stunners as she circled around to Harry’s right.
‘Right.’ Nev mirrored her on Harry’s left.
I wonder. Harry threw up his shield, watching faint, red ripples splash across the wall of glowing silver light like raindrops on glass. This is a bubble in the wards, or it should be capable of becoming one, so I should be able to apparate within the room.
A bright, red beam shot from the tip of Hermione’s wand and another came from Nev’s.
Harry swirled the world back past him and appeared on the far side of the circle with a soft snap. The two red spells fizzled out against the walls.
‘That’s impossible,’ Hermione muttered. ‘The wards at Hogwarts can’t be breached.’
‘He’s using the room,’ Nev said.
‘Good guess.’ Harry raised his wand. ‘But now it’s my turn.’ He unleashed a crackling, sparkling hail of colours.
Spells hissed and spattered off the floor and walls around Nev, bursting in washes of colour on his shield. Hermione conjured a piece of wood before the two of them and hunched in behind it, holding their shield charms.
Harry flicked his wand in an almost imperceptible vee and sent a blasting curse through the wood, ripping it into splinters. He poured magic into the Jelly-Legs Jinx, punching through Nev’s shield like it was wet paper. Every subsequent spell tore through the fading bubble of light, leaving Nev with boneless, waving legs, a faceful of tentacles, waist-length, teal hair, and no wand.
A groan of disappointment rose from the audience.
Of course they want me to lose. He let the pinprick of cold in his chest swell into a clenched, freezing fist. Well, you can’t tear me down now. I don’t need to be a hero. I know who I am. He let Fleur’s face hover before his mind’s eye. I know what I want.
‘Flammam ungui,’ Hermione cried.
A thin, hooked claw of fire lunged from the tip of her wand, singing Harry’s shoulder as he threw himself out of the way.
Nothing dangerous, huh. Harry threw a long look at Ron, who looked down at his shoes. And even the judge is against me. Well, I’ll show you what happens to girls who play with fire, Hermione.
He flicked his wand and the splinters on the floor twisted into shining shards of glass, rising into a flurry of moths. They swirled about her in a vicious storm, beating against her raised shield until their wings broke and they fell to the floor.
Harry let his magic rush through him to his wand, enjoying the jolt of warmth rippling back from it up his arm. Hermione emerged wearing a huge smile, sweeping the remnants of his moths off the floor and sending the razor sharp shards back at his face.
Harry let furious white sparks burst from his wand. This will hurt a little, but if I let go of this spell, someone will get killed. Harry forced the white sparks bursting from his wand into a swirling spiral too bright to look upon, filling the room with the scent of ozone.
The glass sliced hot, thin lines through his robes and across his face.
‘Hermione!’ Nev shouted. ‘What happened to nothing dangerous!’
Ron grimaced and took a step forward. ‘Hermione’s dis—’
‘It’s fine.’ Harry caught a drop of blood from his cheek on the ball of his thumb, licking it off and watching the cuts fade to pink lines. ‘You’re going to get a lot worse than scratches in any duel you fight.’ He levelled his wand at Hermione’s chest, forcing the swirling magic toward the tip. ‘Fulminis.’
Harry dipped the tip of his wand just as his magic sprang forth. A single flash of lightning pierced through Hermione’s shield, scattering its light like sparks in the draft of a fire, and melting a two-metre hole in the floor beneath her toes.
Hermione’s eyes narrowed and thick bands of copper twisted out of the air.
Clever. Harry forced his magic into her conjurations, scouring her intent from them and sent them snaking ’round the edges of the circle, forcing her back toward the edge, burying her beneath a storm of spells.
She threw up her shield, grimacing as the copper snakes hammered at it and Harry’s spells burst against it in explosions of bright light.
‘And we’re done.’ Harry sent a vibrant, crimson bolt of magic through Hermione’s shield into her sternum.
She dropped like a stone.
Rennervate,’ Ron muttered, jabbing his wand at her.
Hermione remained still. Harry released Nev, then revived Hermione himself.
‘Well.’ Nev patted his chin to check all of the tentacles were gone. ‘I think the winner is pretty obvious.’ He turned to Hermione and fixed her with a long glare. ‘You shouldn’t have broken the rules, someone could’ve got hurt.’
Hermione huffed and turned away. ‘Harry wasn’t even fazed.’
‘Care to explain what you did, Harry?’ Nev asked.
‘I played to my strengths and avoided yours.’ Harry pointed his wand at Nev. ‘You’re more powerful than Hermione, but you throw spells on instinct. Hermione’s cleverer, but not as strong. If you’d worked together, you might’ve been hard to beat, so I avoided letting you do that.’
‘And your strengths?’ Smith demanded.
Harry levelled a flat stare at him. ‘Dark magic.’
Nev snorted. ‘You deserve that, Smith, you complete twat.’ He tucked his wand away. ‘Remember that our goal is to survive, not to kill them. We just have to be good enough to get away.’
Still naive, Nev. Running away only lets you fight again. You have to beat them at some point. He smothered a flash of cold anger. Or you can wait for someone else to do it for you, I suppose.
Harry checked the time. ‘I need to leave.’
‘Meeting Dumbledore?’ Nev asked.
‘Yeah,’ Harry replied. ‘I might check on Katie, too. I was expecting her to come this evening.’
I hope she’s not avoiding me again.
‘We’re in Hogwarts,’ Nev said. ‘There’s not much that could happen to her.’
Harry gave him a long, flat stare, then began to count on his fingers. ‘Cerberus. Voldemort. Basilisk. Voldemort. Werewolf. Dementors. Death Eater. Another Death Eater. More Voldemort. Death Trap tournament… And I’m out of fingers.’
‘There’s not much that could happen to her as long as she isn’t near you,’ Nev amended with a grin.
Too right, Nev. Harry ignored a stab of guilt. But I let her choose. She chose to stand by me.
‘I think she hadn’t finished her Transfiguration essay,’ Hermione said. ‘She was in the library, sulking.’
‘Good.’ A swoop of relief swept through Harry’s stomach. ‘She’ll be gutted she missed me playing around with you two.’
‘Playing?’ Hermione drew herself up. ‘Duelling isn’t meant to be fun.’
‘But winning is,’ Harry replied. ‘And winning’s all that’s left when everyone wants to see you lose.’
She was pretty quick to throw some half-dangerous spells at me. Harry slipped out of the room before anyone else could delay him and hurried toward the Headmaster’s Office. Ones she’d no idea if I could counter.
‘Sherbet Lemon.’ Harry stubbed his toe on the gargoyle and cursed under his breath until the little flare of pain faded. ‘Sugar crystal, fizzing whizz-bee, cockroach cluster, chocolate frog, jelly slug, sugar quill, liquorice wand, acid pop—’
The gargoyle sprang aside.
That’s absurdly easy to guess. He shrugged. A shame I didn’t know that before, I guess.
‘Harry.’ Dumbledore peered down at him from the top of the steps. ‘I wondered who had managed to open the gargoyle when I had only just changed the password.’
‘You asked me to meet you, professor,’ Harry said.
‘Indeed I did. I was about to send Fawkes to find you, but you seem to have figured out this particular piece of confectionary yourself.’ Dumbledore pottered back into his office as Harry climbed the stairs and offered him a chair. ‘How are you feeling about your NEWTs, Harry? Confident? Even Professor Slughorn hasn’t seen you since we came back from the Christmas Break.’
‘A lot’s been going on, sir. I’ll be okay, though.’ Harry glanced at the pensieve. ‘Are we going to look at some more memories? Have you made any progress looking for the horcruxes?’
‘In but a moment, Harry.’ Dumbledore smiled and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes crinkled. ‘First things first, however. I can invite Professor Tofty in for three days’ time, Harry, if that suits you? I fear delaying would be unwise, given current circumstances, though Professor Tofty has been more than keen to move here behind the safety of the wards.’ He steepled his fingers. ‘I’ve also taken the liberty of adding an apparition test.’
‘Thank you, professor.’
Dumbledore sighed. ‘I can sense your impatience, Harry. Very well. Time for another insight into the mind of Tom Riddle.’ He folded his gloved hands into his lap. ‘When he was very young, Tom discovered that he was different from other children. I suspect, from how his accidental magic manifested and grew into something more sinister, that he was not well-treated where he grew up.’
Of course he wasn’t. Shallow little people hate those they fear are better than them.
‘Where did he grow up?’ Harry asked.
‘Tom’s mother was a woman named Merope Gaunt. She died shortly after giving birth to him, leaving him in the care of a muggle orphanage.’
The Gaunts. Not a great family, from what Gringotts’s records showed.
‘The Gaunts claim to be descended from Salazar Slytherin and their ability to speak Parseltongue made it difficult to deny. They were blood purists of the most unfortunate kind, marrying within their own family tree, sometimes even brother to sister, to preserve their purity.’ Dumbledore pulled his spectacles off, rubbed the bridge of his nose, and replaced them. ‘Merope fell in love with a rich muggle, seducing him with what I suspect to be love potions, given she was a squib, the nature of their affair, and how it came to an unfortunate end after she became pregnant.’
‘I imagine Tom Riddle Senior didn’t take that well.’
‘No. Merope was abandoned by him and died a few weeks after naming her son, quite possibly in part from the depression that sometimes affects women after they give birth. Her brother, Morfin, and her father, Marvolo, never even searched for her.’
Salazar would’ve been furious.
‘I daresay Merope was grateful she was not found.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘Marvolo wouldn’t’ve taken kindly to what his daughter had done, especially not as she took one of his precious heirlooms, the locket we saw together before, with her. Still, it is sad that she found herself so bereft of affection; life often offers us naught but bitter pills, and there is little we can do but swallow them and pretend they are sweet.’ He offered Harry the bowl of Sherbet Lemons, taking one for himself.
‘So Voldemort grew up never knowing about his family either,’ Harry said, helping himself to one of the sour, yellow sweets.
‘It is my belief that Tom was never treated with any real affection by anyone when he was young and by the time he realised he was different, he’d come to hate the world that had so far hated him.’ Dumbledore sighed and rubbed his eyes. ‘When I gave him his Hogwarts letter, he was overjoyed, but so distrustful, as if he was waiting for it all to be snatched away at any moment.’
Of course he was. That’s what always happens.
‘So he came to Hogwarts.’ Harry kept his expression unreadable. ‘And then what?’
‘I saw little of Tom for the first four years he was here,’ Dumbledore admitted. ‘Events around the world demanded my attention. However, when I met him in his fifth year, he was a boy wearing two faces. Sometimes I would see him at the heart of the crowd, blazing with charisma, but behind that face lurked only selfish ambition and a terrible hunger. He collected trinkets and trophies, hoarding things that held any value to him.’ Dumbledore leant back in his chair and tugged open the cabinet behind him. ‘That, Harry, is one thing that has never changed. As his estimation of himself grew, so did the value of his trinkets, but he never stopped collecting them.’
‘He would’ve used them to make his horcruxes,’ Harry said.
Maybe he didn’t see it as defiling them. Maybe he just couldn’t bear to put a piece of his soul into anything he didn’t consider precious.
Dumbledore rose from his seat to stir the pensieve with the tip of his wand. ‘I am not sure whether he made this ring or the diary first, but I do know that he killed his father and his father’s family. Knowing him like I do, I suspect he used the death of his father to make a horcrux of the ring he took from his uncle. It held a neatness Tom would’ve appreciated. In one go, he secures immortality, avenges his mother and himself on his uncle, and rids himself of any muggle relations.’
It’s efficient. Harry smothered a faint smile. It’s nice to do things in one clean, elegant sweep.
‘What about the locket and the cup?’ he asked. ‘Do we know where he got those?’
Dumbledore extended a gloved hand in Harry’s direction. ‘I will show you the horcrux I found this summer before we speak of the ones still hidden. It’s best if you see for yourself just how Tom views people, it will help you understand him and find these horcruxes yourself, should it come to that.’
Harry smothered a snort of laughter. Should it come to that. You’re using me to help find the other horcruxes, then you intend to send your living one off to slaughter with a head full of delusions.
He dipped into the pensieve and found himself on an overgrown path in the soft, warm rain of summer. Green woods stretched away on either side of him and soft, brown clay lay beneath the thicket of brambles, bushes and bluebells.
‘The Gaunt’s manor,’ Dumbledore said, pointing over the pin-striped shoulder of his memory self at a dilapidated shack.
‘Manor?’ Harry raised an eyebrow.
‘The Gaunt family are descended from the Peverells and other illustrious families but, once their excessive inbreeding grew too much for even other purist families to stomach, they were isolated. Their fortune dwindled to nothing more than a handful of heirlooms they were too proud to part with and their manor crumbled until this was all that remained of them.’
They followed the memory of the headmaster as he hummed some cheerful dirge, strolling up the path and bending any stray branches out of the way of his plum suit with a flick of his wand.
‘As you can see, Harry—’ Dumbledore indicated the rotting, swollen bodies of dead serpents writhing in the mud between the gate and the shack ‘—Voldemort does not leave his horcruxes unguarded.’
The plum-suited Dumbledore paused at the gate, flourishing his wand and revealing a set of burning purple runes running along the boundary of the property. The headmaster paused, cut his thumb and pressed it upon the gate. The serpent inferi swarmed in a thick, festering wave toward the path, but Dumbledore walked past them as if they were not there.
Harry trailed after him through the sea of serpents. ‘The snakes, professor, why did they not attack?’
‘Voldemort does not want anyone leaving with his treasure,’ Dumbledore said. ‘But anyone who comes here has learnt a secret he doesn’t want known at all. He desires to lure them in before trapping and killing them.’
‘So the blood?’
‘A sacrifice to ensure the visitor is weakened when they try to leave.’ Dumbledore shook his head. ‘An effective way to handicap a confident wizard, but a crude one, and, as always, Tom underestimates what he doesn’t value.’
The mouldering bones of a serpent fell from the rotting wood of the door when Dumbledore forced it open with a flick of his wand.
‘The wards within were quite clever,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Strong enough to make you think a serious attempt at defence was being made and to tire anyone who found this place, but weak enough to be overcome and let them further into the trap.’ He led Harry after his memory self, drawing Harry’s attention to the stacks of gold, ancient tomes, and gleaming, enchanted trinkets as his memory stripped the magic away to reveal bricks of clay, twigs, and dead leaves. ‘For all his ingenuity, Tom consistently underestimates people. I do not think he believes it possible for a person to exist without ambition, avarice, or anger.’
‘What would happen if you touched any of it?’ Harry asked.
‘A powerful compulsion to take more,’ Dumbledore said. ‘And no doubt a number of horrible curses, too.’
A rough stone plinth appeared in the centre of the house. The ring Dumbledore wore gleamed within a small depression, guarded by a shining silver serpent.
‘And now for my mistake.’ Dumbledore sighed as his memory-self stripped the snake away. ‘It doesn’t do to dwell on dreams, my boy, not all of them are achievable, and in chasing them, we are wont to throw away our lives.’
Harry watched Dumbledore drop his wand to the floor and pluck the ring off the plinth with wide eyes. ‘I found it!’
His hand withered, turning black, and Dumbledore snatched his wand up to cast half a hundred spells on his forearm. A dark stone glittered upon the gold band, marked with a triangle, a circle, and a single line.
I’ve found it! Bright, hot triumph swirled through Harry’s veins as he found himself back in Dumbledore’s office. The Resurrection Stone. Now I just have to take it… A hot lump welled up in his throat and tears prickled in his eyes. And then I’ll have Salazar back.
‘As you can see, Harry.’ Dumbledore peeled his glove back from his withered hand. ‘It’s most dangerous to go after these alone. I would like, if you are amenable, of course, for you to accompany me to a certain location in a week’s time.’
Perfect. Harry stared at the mark of the Deathly Hallows upon the black stone and grappled with the heady rush of victory before it showed on his face. Freedom’s so close I can almost taste it.
‘Why me, sir?’ he asked.
‘Why not someone older? Or more powerful?’ Dumbledore gave Harry a gentle smile. ‘There’re few wizards as powerful as you, Harry, and I can trust none of them. And, unlike them, you’ve something most don’t, an ability that Tom cannot understand or anticipate.’
‘Love?’ Harry managed to keep the withering condemnation from his tone.
‘Yes, Harry.’ Dumbledore beamed and Fawkes let out a soft trill. ‘Tom will always underestimate and dismiss power he cannot comprehend. Were it not for the mutilation of his soul, he would’ve been utterly destroyed by your mother’s sacrifice. You see the difference between the two of you, one born from a loveless union, the other with parents who sacrificed their lives for their child.’
A child you’re desperate to make sure follows in his parents’ footsteps.
‘I wouldn’t know, sir, would I?’ He let a bright smile spread across his face. ‘My relatives never really showed me much affection.’
Dumbledore bowed his head. ‘Alas, family is not always easy. But you’re a lot like your mother, Harry. You may resemble your father, but inside you burns a fire as bright as your mother’s love. That passion, that devotion to the one she loved most, drove your mother to perform magic capable of overcoming anything Tom could ever hope to cast. Sometimes a great deed must come at great personal cost.’
Harry pointed at his withered hand. ‘So it would seem, sir.’
‘This is merely the most recent such lesson for me.’ Dumbledore smiled and steepled his fingers. ‘Death is not so terrible, Harry. Many of those I hold dear are waiting for me. I think it’s far worse a fate to live on alone as Tom intends.’
Emptiness or emptiness. Damned either way.
Harry’s eyes flicked back to the Resurrection Stone. ‘A pity those we hold dear can’t be brought back to us,’ he murmured.
Dumbledore straightened his spectacles and peered at Harry with sharp blue eyes. ‘It is selfish of the living to drag the dead from their rest and dangerous to dabble between worlds that ought to remain separate. Your parents have long been gone from us, their time has passed, just as the time of so many of my friends has.’
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
‘It’s not possible anyway, I suppose,’ Harry said.
‘You’re a better wizard than I was when I was younger, Harry,’ Dumbledore whispered. ‘I couldn’t resist the lure.’ He straightened up and pushed the cabinet shut. ‘I think that’s enough until next week, Harry.’
‘Do you think it’s likely to be there?’ Harry asked. ‘Which one is it?’
‘I am confident,’ Dumbledore said. ‘It is a place Tom was once fond of, an escape from his childhood home at the orphanage. I suspect we will find the locket bearing Slytherin’s emblem there, since Tom associates his childhood and his ancestry most closely.’
Harry nodded. ‘Goodnight, then, professor.’
All my goals within my reach. He let triumph surge through his veins, a wide smile spreading across his lips. His desire welled up, hot and bright as Fiendfyre. I just have to reach out and take them.