Conjoining of Paragons
Chapter 28: The Ultimatum
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter universe. All recognizable characters, plots, and settings are the exclusive property of J.K Rowling. I make no claim to ownership.
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Harry Potter and the Conjoining of Paragons
April 17, 1943
The Chamber of Secrets
The last twenty-four hours felt like a distorted blur that moved passed Harry’s eyes too fast to track. He remembered walking numbly back towards the common room with Riddle, but even then, his thoughts had been murky. Sleep had not helped in clearing his mind.
Dreams had plagued him; dreams of a dark hooded figure reminiscent of the time Harry had seen Quirrell in the Forbidden Forest. The figure had stooped over a fallen victim and Harry had tried to move forward, but something pinned him in place and forced him to watch as the figure began suck the victim’s blood — just like the way Quirrell had once drank the unicorn’s. Yet when the figure looked up it was not Quirrell at all, but Abraxas Malfoy, a red smear covering his lips as he smiled at Harry and raised his wand, bathing Harry’s world in vivid green light as high, cold laughter rang all around him.
Harry did little for most of the day. He told himself that he was exploring the castle, but really, he was wandering aimlessly in the vain hope that his mind might finally finish processing everything it had learned last night.
Riddle really did seem to be innocent. There was no definitive proof despite what she said, but every sign pointed clearly towards Abraxas. There was, of course, the possibility that Harry was just misreading her and the situation, but something told him that was not true. He would not categorically rule Riddle out just yet, but for now, Harry would have to proceed under the assumption that Abraxas Malfoy was responsible.
Yet how was he to proceed after all he had learned? Harry would somehow have felt calmer if the culprit had been using Cerastes. Harry was grateful the basilisk appeared not to have betrayed him and a weight certainly lifted from his shoulders, but at least that would have been something Harry could openly confront. Abraxas Malfoy sneaking quietly around the school and subjecting victims to torture and poison was a more difficult opponent to confront.
Part of Harry wondered why he felt inclined to help at all. This was not his fight. He had been dead set on stopping Riddle’s plans, but these strikes appeared not to be of her design. They were also non-lethal so long as no one prematurely woke the victims, so in a way, it was less pressing than the attacks had been during Harry’s own time.
Yet he still felt compelled to stop Malfoy.
Perhaps it was because he felt somehow responsible. If Harry hadn’t intervened, Riddle would have opened the Chamber of Secrets. That would have been a problem all of its own, but it would have spared the school from this. Even if this was a lesser evil, it was one Harry felt somewhat responsible for and the thought made his stomach crawl. He had become adept at lying and deceiving; blossoming into a powerful prospect with a keen and open mind. None of that had hardened him enough to ignore what was going on, however. It appeared that despite the colour of Harry’s robes, there was still an intense Gryffindor streak lurking just out of sight, waiting for the right moment to rear its head and roar in defiance.
All of those thoughts and more occupied Harry’s mind for much of the day, but they just sort of passed over him. Fighting Riddle was something he had prepared for; plans had been formed for that. Fighting a stealthy assailant with more targeted motives and more brutal methods? That was something Harry had not readied himself for.
Other than his duelling session earlier that day with Charlus, Harry had felt adrift ever since leaving the hospital wing. That time with Charlus had cleared his head some, but it had not made anything less complicated. It had, in fact, only confirmed the complexities Harry already suspected; complexities that had him baffled and floating without purpose for the first time since arriving back in the past.
Earlier that evening…
That night had been the single most competitive duelling session Harry and Charlus had ever had. Harry had gone in with low expectations given how clouded his mind felt, but in a way, it had been good for him. His reactions were sharp and, when he relied on them, everything flowed naturally. It did tend to result in him being slightly less crafty, but he still had enough tricks to keep Charlus honest.
They had duelled six times and split the rounds three a piece. A ray of vibrant sunlight seemed to pierce the clouds surrounding Harry’s mind, giving him a moment of pride-filled clarity. If anyone would have told him back in December that he would be on Charlus’s level by the end of the school year, he would have thought that they were delusional. Of course, this was the first time Harry had ever matched Charlus consistently over the course of a single night of practice. It did not at all mean that Harry was indeed Charlus’s equal quite yet, but it did mean that the gap was rapidly closing.
“I don’t know how the hell you do it,” Charlus said with a shake of his head.
“Do what?” asked Harry.
“Get so much better so fast. It’s like I’m duelling a new partner every week and, every week, it gets harder. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I wish I had the answer,” Harry said, running a hand through his hair. “I could probably improve even faster if I did.”
Charlus just looked bemused. “Mate, if you improved any faster, you’d be conscripted by the ministry.”
Harry frowned. “Is that actually something they can do?”
“No, but that kind of kills the joke.”
Harry smiled slightly. “And I don’t know how you do that.”
“Joke about the war like it’s nothing. After, you know…”
“And your dad. He’s still out there fighting, isn’t he?”
Charlus nodded, a far away look in his eyes. “It’s easier to laugh,” he said after a pause. “I learned pretty quick that I don’t like the alternatives.”
“Then maybe you learn just as fast as me after all.”
Harry’s parents had been gone for years and laughing about it was still not something he could do. Not that Charlus was laughing at the fact his mother was gone, but he had a way to make light of the situation. Harry could never have done that about Voldemort and the Purity War. It was a different kind of strength, he thought. Someday soon, he might become a better duellist than Charlus, but in this way, he thought the Potter heir would always be stronger.
“It’s different, I guess. I imagine that sort of thing comes down to your upbringing. My mum was always good about things like that, especially once the war started up. I was pretty young when it all started and it got rough here in England for a while. This was before her and my father went overseas to help.”
Harry nodded. “My parents were never much for joking.”
He suspected that was actually untrue. His father had seemed fond of it the only time they had ever spoken, though Harry supposed he couldn’t be sure how accurate that version of his father had been. The Dursleys, on the other hand, were about as far from jokesters as one could get and when thinking about his upbringing, it was impossible for Harry to ignore the influence of that awful family.
Not for the first time, Harry contemplated what it would take to ensure Vernon and Petunia Dursley never found each other. It would be easy, really. Tracking down Vernon’s parents sounded easy enough, and after that…
Harry forcefully cleared his mind and forced his eyes not to widen. He had thought about the Dursleys and wiping them from existence before, but when had he actively begun fantasizing about it? Maybe Cerastes was rubbing off on him more than he’d realized, or perhaps his fallout with Dorea had turned him into a cynic. Harry would like to chalk it all up to stress, but he doubted that excuse would be true. There had been many changes in him this year and not all of them had involved his ability to cast magic. They were impossible to ignore and, at times, Harry sympathized with Charlus and felt as though he was changing at a rate too fast to keep up with.
“I’ll corrupt you one day,” Charlus said with a slight smile.
“Maybe,” Harry said, privately doubting it but smiling back all the same. “Care to educate me first?”
“Educate you about what?”
Charlus actually laughed. “You’re coming to the wrong bloke. It’s a miracle I even got into Slughorn’s NEWT-level Potions class.”
“I don’t need help brewing them. I just need someone who knows about ingredients. I figured with the whole hair-care potion thing the Potters have going on, you might know a thing or two about that.”
Charlus appeared to consider for a moment before shrugging. “I’m not sure I’ll know anything, but you can ask.”
“How hard would it be to get ingredients for the Draught of Living Death?”
Charlus’s eyes widened. “What the hell do you want those for?”
“It has to do with a theory of mine about the attacks. I’m not ready to say more than that yet. Just trust me on this one.”
Harry could tell Charlus was more than a little bit skeptical, and why shouldn’t he be? Harry had spent a bit of time in the library that morning before aimlessly wandering the castle and the potion looked just as ominous as it sounded. It was not often used, nor was its use at all encouraged. Harry was actually somewhat surprised to learn it had not been outright prohibited by the Ministry of Magic.
“Hard,” Charlus said after a long moment of indecision. “Expensive as hell, too.”
“I read somewhere that a lot of the ingredients are used in healing potions. Is it true that getting a hold of those is harder right now with the war going on?”
Charlus shrugged. “I’m not sure, but that would make sense. Any time Dad talks about the last war, he mentioned shortages and things like that. I reckon you could still get them, but you’d probably have to pay an arm and a leg if you wanted them any time soon.”
Harry nodded. In a way, it was good news — it meant at least that Riddle might actually have been telling him the truth — but it still sent shivers up his spine. Any time Harry thought this year was incapable of surprising him further, something new crept out at him from the shadows and reared its ugly head.
“Thanks,” Harry said, idly wondering how perilous this year could become before its end.
Back in the present…
Harry grimaced at the memory. Never had he imagined someone being honest would make him more uncomfortable than if they had been lying.
He forced those thoughts down and turned towards the stone statue looming high above the chamber, its long shadow reaching across the floor as though trying to reach the door on the room’s opposite side.
“Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts four.”
The massive jaw unhinged as the sound of Cerastes slithering free filled Harry’s ears. His eyes were tightly shut like usual, but over the months, Harry had grown adept at judging where Cerastes was from the sound of his movements alone.
“Why is it that any time you come, you seem so troubled?”
That actually drew a smile from Harry, though the expression lacked any real humour. “Probably because anywhere I go these days, I’m usually troubled.”
Cerastes hissed indistinguishably for a moment in a way that sounded somehow exasperated. “What has the usurper done this time?”
“Decided to be honest.” Harry shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. “I think she has, anyway.”
“Should that not make you less troubled? Why is it you humans make so little sense?”
“I wonder the same thing sometimes.”
Cerastes’s movements sounded suddenly restless. “That wasn’t the important question.”
“I know, but it was the easy one.” Harry thought for a moment, pondering the very thing that had puzzled him all day. “There have been… attacks on students.”
“Attacks?” The hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stood on end. Cerastes sounded almost excited. Sometimes, Harry forgot just how blood-thirsty the basilisk was by nature. Usually, that oversight was cured when Cerastes proposed a fatal strike against Riddle, but this time, the tell was more subtle.
“On students, yes.”
“You’ve said nothing of these before.”
Harry hesitated. The reason he had kept these from Cerastes was because, for a time, he had wondered whether or not Riddle had somehow taken control of the basilisk despite Harry’s preemptive countermeasures.
“They started recently,” he lied, hoping the Occlumency he’d learned from Riddle’s journal would help him conceal his true thoughts when speaking Parseltongue as well as it did when speaking English.
Harry somehow thought Cerastes was unconvinced, but he didn’t press Harry. “And they have something to do with the usurper?”
“I thought so, but now, I don’t. She’s apparently been investigating and showed me what she’s discovered last night. It was convincing and not really something that can be faked.”
“Why does this trouble you more? You’ve made the usurper sound more intelligent and dangerous than most. Should it not be a relief she is innocent?”
“Probably, but I know her. I had guesses about how she was setting everything up and plans that might have stopped her.” Harry ran a hand through his hair, making an even greater mess of it in the process. “It feels like everything I know just got flipped upside down. It’s frustrating. This whole year, I feel like I’ve been working against the usurper, but now… I don’t know. It’s like I don’t have a purpose.”
Cerastes remained quiet for a moment before hissing his response. “I do not understand this purpose. What is it you want?”
“Yes, want. What is it you want to do?”
That was actually a daunting long-term question. All Harry had considered since landing in the past was Riddle. If Riddle wasn’t responsible for the attacks, that could mean she really was walking a different path.
That was when Harry realized what was truly putting him so ill at ease. Perhaps his plans truly had been uprooted. If this meant Riddle was truly different enough as not to become Voldemort… Harry did not know what that meant for him.
“To stop the attacks,” he answered after a pause. Despite his focus on Riddle, most of his plans for this year had boiled down to that. When considering his situation objectively, Harry saw no reason why they should change.
“Do you know who is responsible for the attacks?”
“I could kill them.”
Harry sighed. “My answer hasn’t changed.”
“Then formulate a better idea. Purpose sounds foolish. Do what it is you desire.”
That sounded almost too simple to be effective, but Harry found himself nodding along. He would need to rethink Riddle and what her changes could potentially mean for him long-term, but in the meantime, there could be some benefit to breaking things down like Cerastes suggested.
It was a good idea, Harry decided, though he remained unsure what it said about him that a good idea for him was thinking less like a person and more like a snake.
April 18, 1943
The Slytherin Common Room
Students poured back into the Slytherin common room for the first time in more than a week. The noise was jarring to Harry after so much time spent alone or in scarce company. Elena was somewhere among the herd of bodies, as was Dorea, but Harry’s eyes searched out not his friends, but his enemy.
It was easy enough picking Abraxas Malfoy out from the crowd. His head loomed above most others’ and his pale hair was brighter than almost everything else in the dimly-lit common room. His eyes remained on Nott, whom he was sharing a conversation with. They did not cut towards Riddle once, something Harry thought was admirable.
Riddle herself had been seated beside Harry as they awaited the others’ return, but now she was standing and greeting the other members of her group.
Elena slipped quietly by her. Harry saw Riddle’s eyes flick towards her for a moment, but she let her pass. It was likely she knew how uncomfortable she made Elena, especially given how her boggart had almost definitely been shared to Riddle by Avery or one of the Carrow twins.
Elena slid gracefully into the seat beside Harry, who turned to engage her in conversation before noticing that something felt off. Elena looked tenser than usual. Harry wondered for a moment whether that was just due to seeing Riddle again and returning to a school that had been under attack the last time she’d been here, but he thought not.
Harry opened his mouth to quietly ask what was going on, but he felt something brush up against his hand. It took a great effort not to look down, but Harry trusted his instincts and unfolded his fist. Elena’s hand brushed up against his and Harry felt a piece of parchment shoved into his palm. His fingers closed quickly around it as he nodded minutely.
This message could be a number of things, but Harry thought he could guess which it was. Arcturus Black had failed to respond to Harry before the spring break, but he knew that Elena spent more time with Harry than anyone else. It would have been easy to pass along the note to her and have it transferred to Harry, even right under Riddle’s nose.
Harry’s eyes sought him out, but they did not find him. It appeared that Arcturus Black had not returned to the common room. Harry doubted their meeting — if it was indeed Black who had accepted a meeting — would happen right now since slipping away would draw attention, so Harry resisted the impulse to read the note then and there.
No, it was far more likely that Arcturus Black had worried Riddle would notice the note being passed and sought not to be there in the event of that happening. Harry frowned at that. If his suspicion was true, the Black heir didn’t even trust someone to slip Harry a note properly. If that was the sort of paranoia he was up against, convincing Black to see things his way may prove to be every bit as difficult as Harry feared.
April 24, 1943
The Forbidden Forest
Sneaking out of the castle had once been easy, but those days had died when Harry’s invisibility cloaks had been left behind. It was certainly easier than it had been a few months ago now that Harry’s Disillusionment Charm was coming along, but it could still be tricky. How Riddle managed a perfect version of the charm, Harry would never know. He had never heard of such things before, and nothing he read in any book had suggested such a thing was possible. Harry would have to make do with his own for now, which meant doing his best to avoid the ghosts and, in particular, Peeves. The poltergeist had heard him move through the hallways and had kicked up quite a fuss, but Harry had remained still long enough for Peeves to lose interest and move on.
The snow had melted weeks ago, but the grass beneath Harry’s feet was still coated in a thin layer of frost and the air was heavy with a thick fog. That part was actually good news for Harry. If anyone looked out a window, it would be much more difficult to spot him moving across the grounds and towards the Black Forest on their edge.
Harry felt his companion before he saw him. The fog had not relented by the time he reached the forest’s edge and he could hardly see ten feet in front of him. Still, Harry could feel a change in the air; an odd density he had come to associate with spells meant to ward or obscure things from others.
“You first,” Harry muttered, coming up just feet short of where he thought the older boy stood.
If Arcturus was surprised by the sudden voice, he didn’t show it, instead calmly lifting his own enchantment and shimmering into view. Harry let his own spell fall and the two boys stared at each other, emerald green eyes locked with their stormy grey counterparts.
“How long have you known the Disillusionment Charm?” Black asked, still not removing his eyes from Harry.
“A while now,” Harry lied.
“That’s impressive magic for a fourth year.”
“Impressive enough for you to lift your orders off of Dorea?”
Black frowned. “Straight to the point, I see. I can respect that.”
“You know that all you’re doing is hurting her, right?. You remember how Marianna looked that night in the common room? Do you not think Dorea felt the same way?”
Black scowled. “If I didn’t, this meeting wouldn’t be happening, and it will end if you try and guilt trip me again, Pavonis.”
“I’m not trying to do anything. I’m asking because it doesn’t make sense to me. Dorea always spoke highly of you. Now I realize she must have been wrong, so I’m trying to work out what kind of man I’m dealing with.”
This was a risky approach, but Harry felt like it was right. Everything he had heard about Arcturus indicated a pragmatic worry surrounding Riddle. If Harry wanted to win him over, he would need to convince the boy that Riddle was someone he could handle. That would not be accomplished by lying down and begging for terms.
Black must have realized what Harry was doing, for he smiled slightly. “You’re bold, Pavonis, I’ll give you that. I don’t know many people who would come at me the way you have.”
“I’m not most people.”
“No, you’re not. If you were, I would have ignored you.”
Harry raised a challenging eyebrow. “I thought you just said the only reason this meeting was happening was because of Dorea.”
Black snorted. “Clever. This meeting wouldn’t happen if you were average and it wouldn’t happen if Dorea wasn’t as bothered as she was. I wish she would get over herself, but here we are.”
“Why do you wish she would get over herself? It sounds like you don’t care about her, but then you say that this meeting is somewhat because of her. None of it makes sense.”
“Take a guess.”
Harry frowned. “You’re worried that Riddle might try and use her after Hogwarts.”
Arcturus snorted again. “Close. Dorea is willful, but I’m worried that Riddle will force her hand. She’ll put Dorea in some kind of situation that makes refusing whatever she’s planned impossible.”
“And you don’t think Dorea could avoid something like that?”
“Against most people? Sure. Against Riddle? I have my doubts. All it would take is an Imperius Curse and Dorea will never be half the witch Riddle is. Better in some ways, but not with magic.”
It all sounded paranoid to Harry, but he could understand where Arcturus was coming from. His mind, too, often concaucted the worst imaginable outcomes for situations involving Riddle.
“What if I told you I could stop that from happening?”
Arcturus locked eyes with him again. “And what if I asked how the hell you plan to do that?”
“I can match Riddle. You’ve seen me do it before.”
“I saw you defend your mind against wandless Legilimency, that’s not the same thing. I have no way of knowing whether you would have been able to do it if she was using a wand and, even if you were, the Mind Arts are just one small piece of the puzzle.”
“Have you not noticed that she treats me differently than the others? She never gives me orders and gives me my space when I want it. She never once bothered Dorea when she was with me.” Harry raised an eyebrow again, challenging Arcturus to deny it. “Why do you think that is, Black?”
Black dipped his head. “There is definitely something about you and I’m sure Riddle realizes it. She could be wary because of how unknown you are; none of what you said necessarily means anything.”
Harry internally cursed. It had been a slim hope, but part of Harry wished Arcturus would have accepted that at face value. The problem was that Harry really didn’t have much to work with. There was no definitive proof of his claim and he even doubted just how valid it was.
“So what? You came all the way out here just to dismiss any arguments so you could keep making your sister’s life hell?”
Black’s expression hardened. “I wouldn’t have come out here just to listen to arguments one way or the other. Merlin knows there are more appealing things to be doing.”
“Then why did you come?”
“To make an ultimatum.”
Harry felt heat rise up in his cheeks. He had effectively been played. Black had forced Harry to show his hand despite never planning to consider it and just for him to dictate the terms anyway. Merlin, politics were infuriating — Slughorn could keep every last bit of them.
“What sort of ultimatum?” Harry asked cautiously.
“I need you to prove that you can handle Riddle. I don’t think you’re her intellectual equal and there isn’t really any way to prove it, anyway. I’ll settle for her magical equal or better for now.”
Harry felt a bubble of dread well up in the pit of his stomach. “And how do I prove that we’re magical equals?
Arcturus watched Harry very closely and, instinctively, Harry knew he was waiting to catch some sort of reaction to whatever he would say next.
“I think Merrythought has you two set to duel next month…”
The end of the year is very much in sight. I currently estimate five more chapters, but we’ll see how accurate that guess turns out to be.
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