Conjoining of Paragons
Chapter 23: Oversights and Overreaches
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Harry Potter and the Conjoining of Paragons
Chapter 23: Oversights and Overreaches
February 19, 1943
The Room of Requirement
Riddle had decided to begin holding their weekly lessons in Ancient Runes in the Room of Requirement. It was a decision Harry had expected since the night she had revealed the room to him, so it came as no surprise. Harry was more interested in what Riddle would craft the room into, but the answer proved disappointedly mundane. A small central fire ringed by sofas and armchairs made from aged leather, ghostly green lanterns flickering on the wall, and even the black expanse beyond a porthole on the room’s far wall. Riddle had turned the room into an exact replica of the Slytherin common room.
Harry wasn’t sure what he had expected. It made a measure of sense. She had grown up in a muggle orphanage. The two of them were similar in that way. Harry might have grown up with family, but he had still been isolated and, in hindsight, he thought he would have preferred an orphanage. The important thing was that neither of them had known a home until the age of eleven when they both had found Hogwarts. He could empathize with Riddle if that was the true reason for her choice of setting, it just seemed entirely too mundane for someone such as her.
Their lesson proceeded much like all the others. From the way Riddle sat and spoke, one would have never known she had tamed a pit of vipers the week before. Things in Slytherin had been calmer ever since. Harry had expected the common room to be insufferably tense, but there was none of that. It was like every single member of Slytherin House had seen what Riddle was capable of and given up. That or they were just completely willing to submit to the whims of anyone who declared themselves a Parselmouth.
All but Harry, though that last point was one to remember. If he somehow did drive Riddle from the castle, that would leave him able to pull a similar stunt. What exactly he would do with a house under his thumb, he was unsure, but there was doubtlessly a use for such things. It would be nice to be unbothered by a quarter of the school, if nothing else.
Damn Cerastes and his cold-minded logic. Harry valued the snake and his wisdom, but there were times when he truly wished the basilisk would have the grace to be wrong. It was especially annoying when they differed on things Harry so desperately wished could be disputed, but then Cerastes disproved his idea with a swift precision strike.
It took meaningful restraint not to scowl right there, sitting feet away from Riddle. Getting her out of the castle sounded insurmountable, but it was so much easier than what Cerastes had proposed was necessary. Merlin, why could the snake not just be wrong?
Days earlier, in the Chamber of Secrets…
“The usurper is impressive,” Cerastes admitted when Harry had finished telling his tale.
“Too impressive,” Harry hissed back. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to fight against something like that.”
Harry was left in silence for a moment. Months ago, the impulse to turn towards his companion would have been strong but that impulse had dulled as the months went on. Looking at the basilisk would be rather unwise and would be quite the mistake seeing as Cerastes took great care to stay away from Harry’s line of sight at all times.
“Can you beat her?” Cerastes asked after a pause.
“In what?” Harry asked.
Cerastes hissed in a low way that Harry thought indicated displeasure. It had taken some time, but finally, he was beginning to grow somewhat confident in his ability to interpret wordless hisses and what they meant. It really was a shame Parseltongue did not simply translate the intent behind such exclamations. It would make dealing with an expressive yet contemplative basilisk much easier. Though, he supposed, if the language had been devised in the first place, whoever was responsible was unlikely to have ever considered a situation such as this.
“In combat,” Cerastes answered.
“No,” Harry admitted, “not yet. She is older and more practiced than I am. I hope to become better than her someday.”
“You will,” the snake promised. “Any trueborn heir to my master will surpass those of lesser blood.”
Harry’s stomach twisted in uncomfortable knots at that sentiment. He found himself unsure what bothered him more — the possibility Cerastes spoke those words with more behind them than pride, or the reminder of how deceitful Harry had been. Lying was something he had become skilled at this year, but that did not mean he had grown fond of it. Much the opposite, as a matter of fact. Harry found that the more proficient he became at lying, the more and more difficult he found the act became. Probably because as his skill improved, so too did the scope of his deceptions and, in some cases, blatant manipulations.
Thoughts like this made him consider Riddle’s notes on Occlumency. He had been practicing to the best of his ability and making meaningful progress. Of course, it would be impossible to know just how far he had progressed until his skill was tested against a true legilimens. Harry doubted that he would be ready to deal with one of those any time soon, but the mastery over his own mind was coming along well. Clearing it was easier now than it ever had been before.
There was something Harry had seen later in the book about heightening control over one’s own emotions. With how conflicted Harry often felt nowadays, that was a skill he would be investigating was he had a firmer base established. He might never find a willing legilimens to help him practice the defensive aspects of Occlumency, but he could at least sharpen his mind to the best of his abilities.
“What if I don’t have time to surpass her?” Harry asked, choosing each word with great caution.
There was another unnaturally long pause before Cerastes spoke. “You seem more convinced that the usurper is a threat.”
“Hearing what she can do from others isn’t the same as seeing it. That’s changed my perspective a bit.”
“She made no threat toward you.”
“I would be less worried if she had.”
Harry failed to interpret what this hiss meant from Cerastes, nor did he understand why he’d suddenly begun slithering restlessly across the chamber’s floor. “You humans are illogical,” he said after a time. “So… perplexing.”
“For what it’s worth, I think I’m one of the stranger ones.”
“Of course you are. No heir to my master or lord of this chamber would ever be ordinary.”
That actually drew a smile from Harry. Once, he longed to be ordinary; now he was becoming less sure. He was no longer the Boy-Who-Lived, but there were other ways in which one could stand out. Harry’s abilities with magic were not ordinary. He would have scoffed at that idea in his own time but here, it was becoming more and more obvious.
The oddest part was that lately, Harry was realizing there was more to his hunger for knowledge than the pursuit of Riddle and the destruction of any nefarious plots. He had begun to truly enjoy learning on a level Hermione might have been proud of. Every night spent in Dumbledore’s office had become treasured time, as did the moments Harry could slip off to the library and peruse through the Restricted Section. Those visits would now become more frequent after seeing what Riddle could do. Learning for learning’s sake might have become a favourite pastime but still, Harry kept his end goal in mind and was aware of what sort of improvements it would take in order to accomplish it now more than ever.
In his own time, Riddle had always been a concept. Frightening in the way shadowy monsters from a vague nightmare might scare children. It was not the monsters themselves the children feared, but the mystery around them. Of course, the monsters too were worrying, but most often, they failed to live up to their reputation.
The latter was perhaps untrue of Riddle. Never had Harry ever seen anyone cast magic without a wand before that night, but he still much preferred knowing. It made everything feel real and gave him a bar to strive for, even if a blurry one. She had not revealed much, but it was enough to harden Harry’s resolve. If Riddle had expected to break him along with the others, she would be disappointed.
“My question still stands,” said Harry. “What do I do if she becomes a threat before I can beat her?”
“I have offered to eliminate this threat many times.”
Cerastes had, at that, but something always held Harry back. Something about loosing the basilisk on Riddle just felt wrong. There were some obvious moral troubles there that Harry had defaulted to as justifications earlier in the year. The more time that passed, the less certain Harry became of that reasoning. Had he not wanted to kill Voldemort, even in his own time? Had that not been his plan since entering the magical world whether he realized it or not? Had that not been what he imagined any time he pondered how Riddle would be stopped in this one if she became a problem?
Harry had realized during one of his more recent Occlumency practices that perhaps killing was not, after all, what had him so ill at ease with the idea. That only left a few things it could be. Harry thought he had isolated that list down to two.
The first was that the idea sounded much too similar to what Tom Riddle had done in Harry’s world. Unleashing a monster like Cerastes against fellow students made Harry’s skin crawl.
“There are strange likenesses between us, after all. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself We even look something alike.”
No! Harry thought. I’m nothing like him!
That was the heart of it though, wasn’t it? The idea of being like Voldemort sickened Harry. Just thinking about doing something that would link them so closely together… the thought was unbearable.
There was more too, something… darker that Harry had only just realized when reflecting recently. Something… no! No, he would not consider that; that particular path led nowhere but down into dark chasms and deadly pits whose depths were lost to shadow.
“And I’ve said no every time,” Harry countered.
This time, Harry had no trouble deciphering what Cerastes’s hiss meant; the answer disappeared him. “Yet you have never suggested any solutions of your own.”
“My best solution sounds impossible.”
“What is it?”
“Catching or framing her in something and getting her expelled from Hogwarts. That way, I wouldn’t have to deal with her.”
Harry baulked at the single word, the impulse to whirl towards the snake arising for the first time in several months. “Foolish?”
“You don’t think I could do it?”
“I think you could do it with more ease than you imagine.”
“It solves nothing. Removing the usurper from the castle is meaningless. She is more dangerous than most already and would do damage in the wider world. She would wait for you and when you met her there, she would seek vengeance. If one is to strike at an enemy, the last result they wish for is to leave a more determined foe standing.”
Back in the present…
“Is everything all right?” Riddle asked when their work for the night was finished.
“Fine,” said Harry, “just a bit distracted.”
“You’re always distracted by one thing or another. It’s one of the quirks I’ve noticed about you. Tonight, you were just more distracted than usual.”
She had him there. Harry’s existence since being sent back in time could be described as a thousand questions for every answer. Distractions had been plentiful since his arrival. He idly wondered if Riddle knew how many of them were related to her. Harry doubted it. She probably suspected many, but not the true number. She would need to believe him unreasonably fixated upon her to guess such a thing and if she had, he doubted she would have gone through the effort of making sure they interacted more. In that case, she would likely have been confident it would have happened with or without her intervention.
Harry shrugged. “It’s been a long week; I’m just tired.”
“You seem to be busier lately,” Riddle observed. Of course she had noticed that.
“I am, yeah. Dumbledore’s lessons take up a night a week and I’ve been trying to get further ahead in most of my other classes.”
“I still wonder why Dumbledore decided to tutor you in his subject.” That had been bothering Riddle and Harry could tell. He had chosen to reveal that soon after the lessons began. There had been no way around it. One way or the other, someone in their group would get wind of what was really going on. Better to associate with someone Riddle despised under the pretence of pragmatism than to be caught out in a needless lie.
Harry shrugged. “I think he just enjoys teaching, and Transfiguration is my best subject.”
Riddle raised an eyebrow. “Better than Defence Against the Dark Arts?”
Harry nodded. “Definitely.”
“Odd. I haven’t seen you use Transfiguration in any of the duels I’ve watched.”
Damn Riddle and her vaunted skills in observation. “I’m improving fast,” said Harry. “I’ve also been trying to work on my pure duelling abilities.” Riddle seemed to take that at face value. Harry was surprised she didn’t see straight through him, he almost gaped, but caught himself.
“I would be interested to see your work in Transfiguration one day,” Riddle said, making it sound casual. Harry almost snorted. Yes, because he was absolutely going to show Riddle exactly what he was capable of in the one subject he might actually edge her in. If she had one shortcoming when it came to her manipulations, it was that sometimes, Riddle seemed to feel everyone was so far beneath her they would be unable to exercise any autonomy against her wishes. That was going to cost her when it came to dealing with Harry.
“Maybe one day,” said Harry. “I wouldn’t mind seeing what you’re capable of, either.”
Riddle just smiled. “Maybe one day,” she returned. “You know,” she said, “I have grown fonder of you as of late.”
If Harry had been drinking water, it might have exploded out of his mouth in a surprised exclamation. “Oh?” he asked, almost spluttering.
“You’re one of the few who still treat me like a human being after last week. It’s refreshing.”
Surely this was an act. Everything Harry knew about Riddle said that being treated as a deity or feared so completely would be some kind of life-long ambition of hers. Being treated like a human seemed like the kind of thing she would avoid at all costs. Though if she was acting, she was doing it marvellously. Not that Harry would expect anything ess; it was just genuinely disconcerting.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Harry answered after a pause, “I think that’s the biggest difference.”
Riddle’s smile remained intact. “If only others shared that same point of view.” She stood and gestured to the door, indicating her plans to head back to the common room. Dumbledore had tutored Harry earlier that night, so they had needed to start their runes session late. That was becoming a theme on Friday nights; they were quickly becoming the busiest and most exhausting night of Harry’s week.
“Your friends seem just as affected as the rest,” Ridde mused as they moved past the absurd tapestry of the madman teaching trolls ballet.
It took Harry a moment to realize exactly what Riddle was referring to. “Oh, Dorea and Elena. They’re both just… introverted.”
“You’re introverted, both of them are far beyond that.”
Harry knew he should deny it, but he was unsure if he would be able to. Lying his way out of this one was going to be difficult, especially with the memory of the last time the trio had spoken about Riddle so fresh in his mind.
Days ago, in an abandoned classroom…
Never had Harry seen his two best friends so on edge. Both of them appeared to leap at shadows ever since Riddle’s display in the Slytherin common room days earlier. Not that most of the house was any different, but these two were worse than most. That was troubling. Harry had hoped they would see past the scare tactics Riddle had employed. It would certainly make his life easier if they had. Convincing himself he could beat Riddle was much more difficult when two of the people closest to him were so awed by her displays of power.
It made sense that Elena was so shaken. Snakes had always been a fear of hers. It was especially ironic for the serpent to be both the symbol of her house and her greatest fear. That had been some mocking from some of the older students when her boggart form had been revealed, but not much of it. Slytherins quarrelled where others couldn’t see and Elena was both important enough and quiet enough as to maker herself an undesirable target.
That all made sense, but Harry had hoped Dorea would handle the whole thing better. The worst part about her wasn’t even the paranoia, it was the fact that Harry felt her eyes on him more often than not. It was like she was planning something and Harry felt an intense sense of dread any time he thought about it.
The first time the trio was able to slip away from the rest of the group did not come for several days after Riddle’s display. Dorea was the initiator, to no one’s surprise, and the three of them swiftly found themselves locked up in an abandoned classroom.
Harry wasn’t sure what he expected. Perhaps for Elena to break down, or else for Dorea to ask what his next plan of attack was. What he certainly did not expect was for Dorea to round on him, cheeks tinged by the touch of scarlet and dark eyes shooting sparks.
“What have you done?” she hissed.
Harry stammered. “W-what?”
“You had to get curious over Riddle, didn’t you? You had to want to figure something else. Look where that’s gotten us now.”
“Do you think she’s just going to let us slip away from her, Harry? A Black, a Fawley, and probably the next most gifted student in the school after her?” He opened his mouth, then closed it. Part of him had expected that somehow, Riddle and the problem she posed would be solved before that became pressing. It was foolish and he realized it now. Maybe he had been more committed to the plan of driving her from the castle like she had Hagrid than Harry had realized.
“I won’t let it to come to anything serious—”
Dorea laughed. “You won’t let it? Harry, did you not see what she did in the common room? Not only is she a Parselmouth, but she can cast magic without a wand. The only wizard I’ve read viable accounts of doing that is Grindelwald.” She let that sink in for a moment as something solid seemed to slam against Harry’s stomach, driving much of the air from his lungs.
“What are you saying?” Harry asked, his voice hoarse and resistant to his whims.
“I’m saying that you’ve led us into some kind of trap. I’m saying that if you would have used your brain and not rushed off like some fantastical hero, we might not be trapped in a situation none of us want to be in.”
Harry’s face flushed. “You were all for the idea at the time—”
“That was before I realized exactly what she was. I also thought, at the time, that you had a solid plan. Not just this traipsing through every day and hoping you stumble on something helpful.”
That last bit was a slap in the face. Did Dorea not see how many hours Harry was dedicating to improving himself? Did she not realize that those hours were spent largely in the hopes of beating Riddle?
No, of course she didn’t. To them, Riddle was a talented schoolgirl who would go on to do great things. Harry knew her for what she truly was, or at least, for what she may become. It was different. Telling them he was spending hours improving in the hopes of being Riddle would just sound over dramatic. So what could he say? Harry found himself unsure that there was any lie he could tell to get himself out of this. Even if there was, would he tell it? Did he want to lie to Dorea again?
“You don’t even have anything to say,” Dorea stormed, glaring at Harry.
“Dorea,” said Elena, but she didn’t get far.
“No! I know you’re happy to just go along with whatever Harry does, but I’m not.” She turned back to face him. “Harry, you’ll always be one of my best friends, but I can’t be stuck so close to Riddle. There’s a reason Arcturus avoids her. I think she’s going to be like this for a long time, even after Hogwarts. I don’t think the dangers with her stop when we graduate and I… I can’t let myself be caught up in all of that.”
Harry found himself too stunned to speak when Dorea leant forward to kiss him on the cheek and his voice continued to fail him as she made her way towards the classroom door, only glancing back to deliver one, final message.
“If you manage to get yourself free of Riddle, let me know. I don’t want to stop being best friends with you, Harry. I just…” She looked away, unable to meet Harry’s eyes and suddenly, he wondered whether there was more at play than he had originally realized.
Back in the present…
Every one of Dorea’s words had sliced across Harry’s skin like a lashing whip in the dead of winter. It was the most painful thing he had gone through all year but the more time that passed, the more he thought he had been missing something. The way she had refused to meet his eyes near the end, the way her voice had broken. Dorea was not the type to cower after an argument. It was odd and out of character and slowly, Harry felt the seeds of an idea were growing inside his mind.
“They didn’t make the same agreement I did,” Harry reminded Riddle. “I didn’t agree for them, either. They have no guarantees from you.”
“Yet they followed you anyway.”
Harry shrugged. “I never asked them to.”
“I never implied you had. I had expected them to stay away. It was a welcome surprise when they didn’t.” She tilted her head. “Can I presume you’ve had a falling out with Dorea?” Harry nodded curtly. Riddle hummed to herself as they walked. “They are perfectly free to split from the group whenever they choose. I wouldn’t want something so trivial to cause you such stress.”
Harry almost stumbled over his feet. “They are?”
“Harry, this is a social group at a school, not a secret society or ministry funded organization. Everyone has the right to leave whenever they choose.”
What remained unsaid, of course, was that Harry was not afforded that same luxury; not after the deal he had made with Riddle.
What game was Riddle playing, anyway? She would let two daughters of Sacred Twenty-Eight families just walk away so long as it meant keeping a no-name halfblood happy?
Every time Harry thought he had Riddle figured out, she showed him a new wrinkle. It never grew less disconcerting and Harry was swiftly realizing the way to beat Riddle wasn’t going to be to play for a desired outcome — it was going to be to plan for every outcome.
This was a bit of a transitional chapter, but things are going to pick up in chapter 24. Time is going to begin passing much more quickly soon, too, as we are nearing the final stretch of the school year.
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