"You must be Harry Potter!"
As Harry arrived through the Floo into the headmaster's office at Hogwarts, his jaw dropped involuntarily at the unwelcome sight of the young man who greeted him: a tall, black-haired wizard, yet strangely blurred around the edges.
"Headmaster Dumbledore has told me so much about you…" the apparition drawled, gesturing towards the headmaster who sat slumped at his desk, quill in hand, looking every one of his one hundred years. The elderly wizard was deathly pale and appeared to be unconscious, but for his hands, which continued to move jerkily, like the hands of a marionette being controlled by a puppeteer. Before him sat a leather-bound journal, whose blank pages absorbed the words inked by his quill, as quickly as they appeared—Tom Riddle's diary.
Fear constricted Harry's heart. Never had he seen Dumbledore so beaten, so helpless, except on the day he was killed. Harry shuddered as the memories of that night came flooding back. Then, he'd been frozen by the headmaster's Full Body Bind, helpless to help, forced to watch his mentor die. Now, there was no spell holding him in place, but Harry found himself paralysed in fear, unable to act.
And it wasn't just the headmaster's life on the line. If he didn't destroy the diary soon, all his efforts to re-write history would be for nothing. They might wind up with a world worse than the one he'd left behind.
Harry tried to turn his head towards Fawkes' perch. The phoenix had helped him last time, had brought him the diary to stab. But as the intruder droned on, shock continued to hold Harry in place; he couldn't take his eyes off him. Very, very slowly, he forced himself to look away... But Fawkes wasn't there!
Harry's shoulders dropped in disappointment. He found himself staring wide-eyed at Riddle, once more, praying that the other wizard had not noticed the slight movement. What now?
"But, he didn't mention that you'd be joining us tonight," Riddle continued pleasantly. "Had I known, I would have taken him into the Chamber of Secrets where we wouldn't be disturbed. Ah well…never mind that; the transfer is almost complete."
Harry wished it weren't so, but it was clear the boast was true. In just the short time since Harry's arrival there was a new intensity about Riddle's appearance. The doppelganger was now almost as solid as he had been when Harry had first seen him in the Chamber of Secrets. He was running out of time. What to do? What to do? Harry gripped the edge of the mantelpiece, in a mix of fear and determination. He was not going to just stand still, and watch the headmaster die before his eyes, once again.
"I've had to rush things a little since dear Dumbledore seemed to be aware of my plans, but considering the amount of raw power he possesses—possessed—there's more than enough to drain all that I need in one go."
Though his words were directed at Harry, the dark wizard's gaze was fixed on the headmaster. Harry took the opportunity to worm his hand towards his mokeskin pouch. His fingers had almost reached it when a sudden movement of Riddle's head made Harry tense up absolutely motionless, holding his breath and watching. But the apparition's eyes were unfocused, gazing into space as he indulged his deluded bragging. Harry took a chance; he fumbled open the pouch, teased out a Basilisk fang, then slipped it silently into his pocket where he could access it more easily.
"He wanted to destroy me, never did like me...but I've always been one step ahead of him," Riddle gloated, still staring intently at the headmaster. "I'm the greatest sorcerer in the world."
Harry distinctly remembered objecting vehemently the last time he'd heard Riddle speak those same words, but now he held his tongue, biding his time. Slowly—so as not to attract attention—he began to inch towards the headmaster's desk, towards the diary. It wouldn't be easy to get to, with Riddle standing over Dumbledore's shoulder, but at least this time around he was the one with a wand.
"Dumbledore's nothing but a weak-minded fool," Riddle laughed mockingly. "He couldn't resist the subtle compulsion charm on my journal, couldn't resist writing to me, couldn't resist getting ensnared… He never did have the power to destroy me...and soon I will have drained all his power for myself." He grinned maniacally, "With his power and mine combined, I will be invincible!"
Pausing in his rant, Riddle shifted his gaze away from the headmaster, for the first time since Harry had arrived. His grin disappeared, replaced by an angry snarl, when he noticed Harry's approach. With an ugly look on his face, he reached down towards the headmaster's pocket.
Harry froze in confusion. What was he…? Suddenly, he remembered—Dumbledore's wand, a wand that wasn't just the brother of his own but, actually identical.
Harry stood rooted in place, a look of horror on his face, as he watched with bated breath… When Tom's fingers came up empty, not yet solid enough to grip the wand, the time-traveller breathed a sigh of relief, and took another step forwards, and another, and another…Unfortunately, he was still several strides away when Tom finally did manage to grab hold of the wand and point it threateningly his way.
Staring straight at the business end of the Elder Wand, Harry began to feel the stirrings of panic. He was still too far; there was no way he was going to make it. He chanced another desperate glance at the phoenix's perch, but it was still empty. Where was Fawkes when he needed him?
Riddle grinned, an evil glint in his eyes. "I had planned to make Dumbledore my first kill, in my new body, sort of fitting, his life-force for mine, but you'll do just as well, Harry Potter! The headmaster tells me that you travelled back in time to destroy me. Perhaps you shall have to be my first kill…" he taunted, laughing a high, cold laugh. Once it would have made the hair on the back of Harry's neck stand up, but Harry had faced down Voldemort at the height of his power; at sixteen the budding Dark Lord still had a ways to go. "What, nothing to say?"
Harry wanted to respond, to stall for more time, but words failed him. He stared back at the Dark wizard, not blinking, his focus on Dumbledore's wand in Riddle's hand. There was no time to draw his own, and really, he didn't particularly want to test out how connecting spells from identical wands would react. Cataclysmic explosions came to mind—perhaps as a result of listening to too many sci-fi movies, when his cousin had watched them within earshot.
Instead, as a flash of green light shot his way, Harry threw himself desperately out of its path, lunging for the desk—for the diary—fang in hand. His fingers brushed against it as he caught sight, in the corner of his eye, of Riddle raising his wand, once more.
Time seemed to slow.
Riddle's lips started to move, and a streak of green light emerged from his wand, zooming towards Harry.
In the same moment, Harry raised the fang and plunged it straight into the heart of the book.
Riddle began to scream and writhe in pain, his cries echoed by the long, dreadful, piercing screech coming from the diary itself. Ink spurted from it in torrents through a sizzling hole where it'd been pierced by the fang.
Harry stood frozen, unable to move out of the curse's path. There was no time left to duck. This was it. After running from death all his life, it had finally caught up with him.
Moments before the spell connected, the streak of green light suddenly fizzled out and disappeared, leaving a gaping Harry in its wake. Behind the headmaster's desk, Riddle vanished, as well, his wand dropping harmlessly to the floor.
For a moment the headmaster's office was silent, but for Harry's frantic breathing and the steady drip drip of sticky ink from the diary leaking onto the floor of the office. Before long, Dumbledore began to groan and slowly stir.
Finally, his eyes blinked open, "Harry?" The older wizard shook his head in confusion, "My apologies boy, I must have fallen asleep. I was just asking the diary a few quest…" Dumbledore trailed off suddenly, his eyes wide with surprise as his mind caught up to the full scene before him: the burn mark near the fireplace where Riddle's first Killing Curse had struck the wall, Harry's dishevelled look, the dripping fang held loosely in Harry's hand, the still sizzling diary laying in a puddle before him… "What happened?"
Harry couldn't help it. He laughed. Never before had he seen the headmaster look so confused. "You got ensnared by Voldemort…" he began, all humour draining from his voice "and, he tried to drain your life-force…"
Dumbledore nodded sagely, the twinkle slowly returning to his eyes, as though that explained everything. "I see…I take it you took care of the problem?"
Harry managed a half-smile, "Yeah, another one down, two more to go…"
"Ah yes, about that, I believe I've already mentioned that I'm perfectly willing to collect the ring Voldemort used as a Horcrux, while we wait on my spy for news of Hufflepuff's Cup. However, in order to do so, I will need more information about it."
Taken aback, Harry couldn't find the words to respond. Dumbledore had almost gotten them both killed and released a younger version of Voldemort into the world, and he was still thinking of going after Horcruxes on his own!? Shaking his head in disbelief, he flopped into the office's guest chair. "You're kidding, right? That would be even more dangerous than the diary should have been. The last time you went after the ring alone, you barely escaped alive, you lost your hand, and though Snape managed to slow the curse down, it continued to slowly kill you."
"Then I shall endeavour to be more careful, boy," replied the older wizard, his eyes twinkling, "I admit I may have been a little rash this evening with the diary, but surely if you tell me what enchantments protect the ring, they won't be anything that I can't handle."
Harry shook his head in exasperation, "Even if I told you everything I know about the ring—which is a lot— it would still be too dangerous for you go after it alone. The Horcrux will play on your weaknesses, on the deaths of your parents and sister. It will convince you to put it on, which will activate the curse, and slowly begin to kill you."
"I hardly see what one has to do with the other," objected Dumbledore, thoroughly unconvinced.
Harry threw up his arms and groaned in frustration. "The ring is set with the Resurrection Stone!" The words came out much louder than he'd meant them to, but they had the desired effect.
Dumbledore sat back, visibly startled, "The Resurrection Stone? You're sure? I'd given it up as nothing but a tale..."
"No, they're all real," confirmed Harry, "All three Hallows: your wand, Marvolo Gaunt's ring, and my father's Invisibility Cloak—which I hope you're planning to return, soon."
Surprise flashed, briefly, in Dumbledore's eyes. "And you possess all three?"
"I—I mean, yes—how did you—?"
"I couldn't help but notice the resemblance of your wand to my own... and then there was the fact that you apparently brought it through the Ring with you, which shouldn't have been possible... I could think of no other explanation. As for the rest, pure conjecture..."
"Yes, well you told me that a man in a million could unite the Hallows, safely—which is why you really should return my father's Cloak," said Harry, "I was tempted after the war…but…I've tried my best to be careful with them... I only used the ring once, the night I turned myself in to Voldemort, expecting to die."
"Which is why you want to come with me to retrieve the ring?" asked Dumbledore, "You think you're less likely to be tempted?"
"It was your idea, actually—your portrait, that is," corrected Harry, glancing reflexively at the place on the wall that Dumbledore's portrait would one day occupy. "I'd like to think you were right."
"Very well," responded the Headmaster, making a show of his capitulation, "You may accompany me. However, surely we should retrieve it as soon as possible?"
Harry shook his head, "There are so many things that could, and probably will go wrong. We might both end up ensnared…which is why I think it's best to leave it for last…just in case…"
Dumbledore sighed, not entirely convinced, suddenly too tired to argue the matter further. Now that the adrenaline was starting to wear off, he was starting to feel the effects of his close brush with death…"Very well," he repeated, "we'll do things your way."
"Good," Harry nodded, "You'll let me know when you've heard from Snape?"
"Certainly," replied the Headmaster, nodding, then stopped short in realisation, "How did you know the identity of my spy? I promised never to reveal it to anyone."
"You didn't," Harry agreed, "Snape himself confirmed it. I may not always have liked or trusted him—in fact, I pretty much hated him the entire time I was a student at Hogwarts—but Severus Snape has saved my life more than once, and he was—is— loyal to you. He has been since the moment you promised to protect my mum from Voldemort—even after you failed..."
"You'll keep his secret?" asked the Headmaster.
"Luna already knows," replied Harry, "But I won't tell my parents, or Sirius and Remus. If Dad hates Snape as much as Snape hated him, it would be a disaster waiting to happen...Good night, Headmaster."