Cause and effect is a study in the ambiguity of truth. It can be argued that the first great War began as a result of a key left unchecked. A teacher who was too sparing with his information, and especially so on a handsome, ruby-lipped boy with the sharpest smile anyone could muster. A curiosity left untreated, festering into something more malevolent. A slip on behalf of the Ministry. Too many tongues that wagged, too many secrets exchanged, and a sky so filled with filth that when the first child burned, the rest of Europe burned with it.
(The boy's fascination had never been the only reason. There had been a woman, a man. One with hair as red as autumn, a spark in her step, the other brash and tousle-haired and with glasses that had a habit of slipping off of his nose. They were the first to make the pledge. The others came after, long after the two had left, and behind them a wake of destruction starting in Wales and leading all the way to the cold of the Siberian north.
Yes, they were the first.
But they were never the last.)
1981 is when it happens. He arrives to collect his due and finds the door barred to his entry.
"You will not come in," she insists, full of her own pride. His mind scans the house and finds it covered in wards, the sigils and enchantments she stole from his spellbook. He snarls. She sneers. "You will never take what is mine."
His entrance is fast, messy, not without its fair share of damage dealt to him. Six times they strike him down, and since times he returns. Enraged.
"Insolence," he snarls, "you will not cheat me of this."
All the windows, the doorways, they hurl open as he recites the most foul string of spells he can summon; the man roars and darkness crashes over his head in tides, but he strikes him down with a whip of the hand and pursues the witch soon after. She hides at the top floor, standing next to the crib, muttering feverishly. When she sees him, he has already swept his wand forward and struck her full in the chest, green spools of light unraveling and lancing through her ribcage like sinister arrows. As she falls, her lips shape a curse.
"Pain," she croaks, "is all you shall know, from the time my boy lives, to the time he kills you. The prophets foretold-"
His foot comes down hard, smashing her head in. The babe wails for its mother, there is a sudden, dizzying flash, the world spinning 'round in sickening circles. He howls at the gale-winds, the storm, but by the time Harry has quieted, he is but a pile of empty robes on the floor, nothing else.
He has always felt watched, even as a boy. An apparition, perhaps, some lonely ghost come to bother him in his night hours. When he mentions it to his uncle and aunt, he only receives a sound beating and is sent back to the cupboard-under-the-stairs. He cannot shake it, the sensation.
Dust rustles, the curtains blow ever so gently, and no one notices but himself.
First year, he catches only glimpses.
Second year is just as uneventful.
Third year is when the Dementors arrive, and with them, a great stirring in the realms beneath. The watcher gains more definition, a shape to put to the eyes. A boy. Taller and older and shadow-thin, but a boy, still.
"Who are you?" he asks.
The boy simply smiles.
Fourth year, the boy saves him from certain doom. It's at the first trial of the Triwizard tournament that he drops his wand. Within seconds, it leaps back into his hand, and he has hardly a minute to spare for the sudden occurrence before he spots his Firebolt flying towards him.
The second trial, he hears a bored voice. "Gillyweed," it says, sounding vaguely impatient. "Over here, you dolt," it goes on, nudging a book towards him when he fails to find the correct page the first time. The next day, he and Neville go out hunting in the swamps, with Neville remarking on the ingenuity of the idea. He keeps himself silent on the way back.
The third and final trial is at a graveyard. A strange, stooped figure is there - Wormtail, that's the name - who kills Cedric. The murder happens too fast to fathom; simply a flare of brilliance, thick tendrils spiraling away as his fellow competitor, mentor, simply ceases. There is blood trickling down his head as he hits one of the statues. Cedric's eyes are wide and open, his face looking contorted into a soundless cry. He doesn't have a chance to shout before Wormtail has bound him to the stone angel behind him using a simple Locomotor, third-year fare; he tries to counter the spell, but Wormtail silences him with a charm and murmurs kill the spare under his breath, looking gleefully from Cedric to him. It is terrifying, how the odd little man eyes the two of them like pieces of meat, like food.
All the Aurors can't come fast enough, he thinks, and Wormtail gives a tiny little shriek as they Apparate in, throwing the ground into the air with a terrible string of Czech words, guttural syllables like knife-thrusts as the soil churns and the dead (Inferi, a textbook term the boy will teach him next month) burst upwards, clawing at the wizards and witches gathered too closely too the headstones when it happens. A few lose pieces of skin. Some lose limbs, ankles and wrists bleeding stumps as Wormtail's undead break the topsoil, churning like flies. They stop soon enough when Dumbledore appears, a clap of fire announcing his arrival, shattering the corpses into dust. The Aurors execute Wormtail right where he stands, hitting him with enough Stunning spells to make his waist rotate a full 360 degrees around then split off, coughing up entrails onto the grass.
"Harry, are you alright-"
Dumbledore's hand on his shoulder, undoing the bonds. He is numb, but the memory of Wormtail persists past the numbness, into the subject of his dreams.
He starts learning Legilimency when he's discharged from the hospital. The boy finally deigns to name himself on their first lesson.
Riddle is many things: the chill on the back of his neck, the sudden desire to rip out Umbridge's throat when she's spouting her honeyed condescension, the animalistic urge to revel in the blood forming on the back of his hand after detention.
I hope you've learned your lesson, dear.
"Easy to maim, easy to kill," Riddle drawls. "That fat frog could stand a change or two, how utterly degrading. Disreputable, is what she is." He grins, a lupine thing that is far too predatory for Harry's liking; the chill returns.
"You should do something about it."
Sleep brings bizarre dreams: visions of rituals done on a cliff in the middle of the ocean, the ebb and flow of a lake of fire, a firebird leaping from his fingers, becoming equine, a unicorn, then a pair of pegasi, and finally, the Hungarian Horntail he'd seen. Riddle is sometimes there. An observer. The watcher.
He tries to relegate Riddle to being nothing more than an unexpectedly interested third party, as just a passerby ghost. He knows it is an error to downplay his Other's prowess, that Riddle is something far darker, far more complex; the slip of of poison into wine, the subtle knife. Riddle is death.
There is a room. A man. A boy.
The twisted hilt of a black wand. A flash of green fire, magic whipping across the tiles. A scream unlike any other.
His Other's hand stretches, languorously, sheets of rustling black silk draped across pale skin moving with the motion, rippling like water. Riddle's lovely face resolves itself into a grin, a forked tongue running over teeth filed into pale stakes. Harry shivers for what feels like the thousandth time in the dark, his wand clutched close to his chest. There is no power here. Only the absence of it, and Riddle lounging carelessly across his throne. He beckons, and Harry starts.
"You did not kill her. Why?" Riddle inquires. The grin deepens. "She gave herself to you, willingly. She was but a vassal. She would have died for you if you told her to, but you did not. Why did you stay your hand?"
"I'm not Bellatrix," he replies stubbornly. "I'm not a murderer."
But he knows that he speaks a thin lie. It is evident in Riddle's booming laugh, echoing off of the shifting dimensions of this black chamber. The Killing Curse takes little intent; it is a clumsy, shallow spell, nothing more. The Cruciatus Curse, however, requires true finesse, a desire to hurt more than anything else in the world.
Crucio. An ugly sound. He had been thinking of Neville, of the look on his face right when Bellatrix appeared. Fury. Terror. He'd wanted that arrayed on the Lestrange woman's face when Sirius fell. Pain, simple and poisonous. He'd wanted it so much.
"No," replies Riddle, bemused. "You are not a murderer. But you feel it, do you not? The desire. You wanted the bitch," he spits it out, sneering, "to suffer for her actions. Do not deny this."
Riddle's form stretches, bones tearing through spidersilk flesh, the protuberance of fangs billowing from the mouth, coils of muscle and patterned diamonds and the stench of rot enveloping his nemesis completely. Harry stumbles back, mouthing a Protego, hell, even an Avada Kedavra at the daemon that has taken Riddle's place, but none of his magic responds. His wand shudders and crumbles away into flakes of ash, the snake-man still elongating, swimming sensuously through the blackness. A pair of lips ghost past his cheek, the briefest semblance of a kiss; he feels such horror, such revulson at the touch that his knees give way and he is falling, Riddle above him, the sleeves of his cloak now the tattered rags of a Dementor's shroud. He chuckles.
"Fall with me, Potter. Our conflict need not draw the rest of the world into it. This is between you and me, however Dumbledore may try to make you believe otherwise." The words are delicate, each syllable uttered with a breathy hiss of air. "We are brothers, after all, though joined in death, not blood. Think upon the curse. Think long and hard. Approach me again when you have made your decision. Hopefully, it shall be a wise choice."
-he wakes up, sweat-stained, in his own bed in the Griffyndor dorm. His chest heaves, his throat throbs. Riddle is gone.
McGonagall corners him one day after class.
"Is something the matter, Potter?" she demands, rapping her knuckles sharply on the desk. "You've been changed in these past few weeks, failing weekly examinations, not paying attention, and simply displaying behavior far beyond what I know you're capable of." The Transfiguration teacher frowns. "Out with it. What has gotten into you?"
He gives her a tight-lipped smile, blinking and rubbing at the circles under his eyes. "Nothing, professor. Just not getting enough sleep, is all."
She raises one severe eyebrow. "I would strongly advise you to consult with the Headmaster if these pertain to the nightmares from You-Know-Who. Perhaps-"
"I've tried. It's taking time."
But secretly, he's thinking of the potions textbook in his bag, of last Tuesday with the mouse and the spell. He almost snickers when he thinks of what happened, like it's some silly schoolboy prank. There are more things hidden within the pages: incantations, runes, medieval summoning diagrams of archaic design, items and subjects spoken about in the softest of hushed tones. Old magic. Folklore and superstition, by today's standards, but, well
(every myth can trace its roots back to a truth, no matter how obscure or fantastic)
he's discovered that a new perspective proves remarkably enlightening when dealing with darker materials.
Monday, he brews the first vial. Wednesday, he tests it. Friday, he perfects it. Sunday, on the night of the highest solstice, he takes the first sip and oh
it is something wonderful.
It culminates in the bathroom. This: Riddle's hand over his own, whispering huskily into his ear, the lift of a hand, the flick of a wrist, Draco's voice rising in a scream before the curse hits him and turns him end over end, his body splashing into the pool of overflowing tapwater. Sectumsempra. The sounds excite him, Draco's feeble whimpers as the cuts truly start to show - heavy, thick slashes across his torso, worthy of a swordsman. He can see Draco's taut stomach, the skin pulled tight and shiny, the blonde boy's terror as he approaches. Riddle assures him that nothing is wrong, their arms one unit, their minds of the same thought.
Kill the spare. Wormtail's order, back at the graveyard in his fifth year. Riddle says it now, his tongue turning the command into something resembling affection.
Kill the spare, Harry.
Harry raises his wand, teeth gleaming in the moonlight, but there is a flutter of robes and Snape marches in, looking grave. Immediately, he lowers his hand as the professor enters the bathroom, Riddle's presence flowing from him like wind. Snape scowls and shoves him away with a gesture, drawing his own wand and drawing the water back into the drains.
The voice of the potions master is what finally jars him from his trance, pulling him back into reality with a violent jolt. He looks at Draco, at himself, at the blood splatters on his shoes, at Snape's furious look. Understanding dawns across his face just as Snape backhands him viciously.
"Get out, Mr. Potter. I will not ask you again."
Harry nods, gulps mutely at the mess that was his enemy now lying quiet on the floor. Nausea rises from his stomach, and he flees back to his dorm. He does not make it halfway before he vomits.
"I can't do this anymore," he protests later, all the blinds drawn shut, wards of isolation and protection from those who might overhear scattered onto the rug, scorched into the wooden planks. Riddle stands in the middle of a binding circle, legs folded and looking pensive as Harry paces.
He chances a look at the other wizard, swallowing down his anxiety. "The book. It's not right. What I did back there - God, I don't even know, I don't know what it was." Harry sighs, running a hand through his hair. "I could feel it, Malfoy's pain. I could even taste it." His lips pucker. "I don't ever want that again. Take this book away, and put it back where you found it. I'll never touch it again."
"So you say," Riddle retorts. "And I have still seen you wandering through places you should not be. The stacks at the back of the library. They interest you."
"They won't. Not anymore."
Barking laughter, Riddle snaps, "What a foolish notion. You know, as well as I do, that you still harbor a fixation for the craft. My dark magic. I can tolerate liars and thieves, but if there is one thing I cannot stand," he gnashes his teeth savagely, "it is a hypocrite."
Harry nods. His Other relaxes visibly, settling back against the perimeter of the sealing circle Harry's bound him to just so they can converse face-to-face, for once in a long while.
He sighs, swaying slightly on his feet. Riddle blinks.
"Are you quite alright?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
"Let me-" The taller boy starts forward, then stops abruptly when he realizes he can go no further. The circle remains, sigils of snaring and entrapment glowing as Riddle tries to thrust his hand through the barrier. At the contact, a spray of blue and red sparks drop, smoldering, into the hearth, and Riddle gives a hiss and a tiny chuckle. "Ah," he says, inspecting his hand. "It's stronger, this time. Very... thorough of you."
He grins. "Perhaps, in the end, that book has had its uses after all. You're getting better, Harry." He lets his index finger trail along the border of the entire circle, kicking up retaliatory energies in the process. Harry finds it distracting: the crackling sound, Riddle's smirk.
"It's a very boring cage."
Riddle lashes out with a kick, a fine spray of particles skittering onto the carpet.
"Would it be acceptable if you were to let me out?"
"You can't maintain your form without the circle," Harry responds dryly. Inside, however, he is sweating.
"A luxury I am able to go without," replies Riddle. "Come now. I gave you your night of fun. Won't you allow me mine?"
Guilt boils up in him again, the memory of Draco reappearing, and he acquiesces. The cage disperses, and Riddle rushes out, his form fading as soon as the containment spells go down, but Harry feels him, light as air, a touch - Riddle's hands cupping his face, smoother, harder lips brushing against his own. It's not Ginny, it's not Hermione, it's Riddle that's kissing him, and all of sudden, the room reels and tilts on its axis as Riddle breathes in deeply, a sound like all the wind being drawn out of a single area, and his arm burning, hurting.
"We will do wonderful things, you and I," Riddle exclaims inside the confines of his head, shackled again but bearing a strange sort of brightness, a warmth about him Harry had never noticed before. The chained boy howls, mirth in the gleam of his eyes. "Potter."
(Nightmares, of ravens streaming from his mouth in huge droves, of Riddle on the pale god's throne, sipping from a gold chalice, his lips stained red.
"Drink." Blood, thick and hot. He takes a tentative sip. There is madness, all the world's fears and furies and passions bundled into this, a mere taste of what is to come.
"Your parents before you," Riddle murmurs. "And those before them. I am young, Harry, but I am also old. I am the Darkness. I am the Prophecy. All things must come to an end, including this frail mortal realm. We shall be the ones to salvage what is left from the wreckage, kings of a new world. Join me." He extends a slim-fingered hand, the other clutching a wand curved like bone, white as fresh snow. A delirium dances across Riddle's face, a beauty horrible to look upon. "Let us partake in all the tomorrows the planet has to offer, let us feast."
Bodies in rows. A snake, Riddle's snake, coiled among them, the cemetery's watchful queen. The stone angel. Wormtail, chanting Kill the spare, kill the spare.
Somewhere in between, he snaps.)
His mind is a whirl of curiosity and anticipation, thoughts of Riddle and the spellbook devouring the seconds day by day. The books are not enough, after the first week. He needs more. And here is where Riddle comes in.
"Slow," his tutor instructs. "Careful. Feel it, Harry, the drive. Look."
There is a savage glee with which he allows Riddle to take hold, more than once. They move not as partners, but as a single being. A circle, unwound, unbroken. Sinuously, his arm bends, his fingers tighten around the handle, breaking away the locks. A treasure trove of information consumes him, drowning him in a fixation so intense he could bleed and still, they wouldn't shut up. Mutterings. Candle-lights flickering. Shadows, sprawling across the wall, the awakening of entities long thought dead, of hunger.
"Steady, Harry," Riddle teases. "There's no need to rush."
(But he can swear it: the lips of his Other, gliding across his neck, his brow, sweetly venomous. Fires erupt at his command. Riddle throws his head back and the two of them laugh together as order goes up in flames, the other boy's arm draped across his shoulder.)
He and Dumbledore stand ready on the Astronomy Tower. The headmaster gazes long into him, searching for signs of something amiss. But he has gotten better, far better. Narrowly, he meets Dumbledore's stare dead-on, the truth conveniently hidden behind a façade of worry, an easy falsehood taking its place.
"Where we are going, Harry," Dumbledore tells him, "will not be so easy to escape from. I cannot guarantee that you will be safe. I cannot guarantee that you will live. I can only promise that if we go and we succeed, we will be one step closer to decrypting the secrets of the madman that once called himself the Dark Lord." He holds out an arm. "Are you sure that you will not withdraw?"
Harry shakes his head, feeling the chill of the wand in his pocket, a spell already coming to mind; Riddle, callous and vengeful, singing to him an order, kill the spare, make him bow, make him pay. Easily, he answers, "I'm coming, Professor."
Dumbledore nods, and they Apparate. They leave none of themselves behind.