Conjoining of Paragons
Chapter 29: Awareness
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Harry Potter and the Conjoining of Paragons
Chapter 29: Awareness
May 8, 1943
Albus Dumbledore’s Office
Weeks had passed since Harry’s meeting with Arcturus and with every passing day, Harry grew tenser. His duel with Riddle loomed closer each morning he woke, and now, it was but three short days away. Harry had begun watching for that same tension in Riddle, but so far, he had seen none of it. She really did appear supremely confident; like the upcoming duel did not trouble her at all. Harry wished that was because she had not seen his best. It was technically true in the sense that Harry had definitely improved since duelling Cassie, but that had been a fairly revealing performance and Riddle had appeared unphased.
Harry had known for months this duel would come. It had always been him against Voldemort in his mind, but now, he was unsure. Riddle’s apparent honesty had taken him off guard and cast serious doubts upon most of the assumptions Harry had made about Riddle and her future. Harry would not let his guard down — he knew just how manipulative Riddle had been in his own time — but perhaps there was a chance he’d been wrong all along; a chance that terrified him more than Voldemort ever had.
Months earlier, Harry would have thought that this knowledge would all make the duel feel less intense during the build-up, but that had not been the case. Harry’s ego would never have allowed him not to treat this duel like life or death, and now, Arcturus Black had raised the stakes further. Harry not only had to win for himself and his ego, but he had to win for Dorea and for their friendship. That all made Harry nervous, and none of that was considering just how talented Riddle herself was. Duelling her under any circumstances would be incredibly stressful, but all of this was quickly compiling and making Harry feel sick any time he thought about it.
“You look laboured,” Dumbledore said once Harry entered his office as though the professor was reading his thoughts.
“I haven’t slept well this week, but I’ll be fine.”
Dumbledore looked at him knowingly. “Is it your upcoming duel that has you so worried?” Harry’s eyes widened and Dumbledore smiled. “Did you think the staff was unaware of Professor Merrythought’s practices?”
“What do you think of them, sir?” Harry asked carefully. “Some of the students have said that some professors don’t like it.”
“I support Professor Merrythought and think that her decision is wise. The idea of students unable to defend themselves with all that is going on makes me uneasy.”
“So have the professors been keeping up with the duels or something?”
“Professor Slughorn certainly has been, but most have paid them little heed.”
Harry had to suppress a smile as his mind conjured ludicrous images of Slughorn brandishing the sorting hat at the other professors whilst trying to convince them to gamble on upcoming matches. It really didn’t seem all that out of character for Harry’s Head of House.
“But you know I’m duelling Riddle on Monday?”
“You two serve as exceptions. Professor Merrythought has raved about the both of you, which is rare for her. Given how many of the other professors feel the same way about you both, there has been a degree of interest surrounding the pair of you specifically.”
Harry tried to imagine the faculty of his own time gossiping about a pair of students, but found his mind incapable of painting the picture. Stern Professor McGonagall would never be caught dead doing something so unprofessional and Snape would probably rather drown himself in a potion than praise a pair of rising duellists. Professors Sprout and Flitwick might be the type, but Harry doubted they would have many companions. It was a different bunch that taught fifty years from now, but Harry supposed that made sense. It was a very different country. The one Harry stood in now was wrought with tension but, as of yet, most of the students’ lives had not truly been touched by war.
“It is stressing me out a bit,” Harry admitted, “but it’s a bit of everything. The duel, the attacks, the war…”
“All perfectly reasonable things to worry over. I can only advise you to take one step at a time. Every day is different and new. With each, we put the past behind us and accept our future.”
It was similar to what Dumbledore had told Harry about the Mirror of Erised in a way. This version of the future headmaster used different words, but they amounted to the same thing in the end.
“Would you have any advice about the duel, Professor?”
“About your duel against Miss Riddle? No, I think not. I have never watched her duel and can therefore offer you little.”
Harry knew how Dumbledore felt about Riddle; he had seen it in his eyes the night Aragog had gotten loose. The Riddle of Harry’s own time had spoken of it, too; spoken about how Dumbledore had always suspected him. Harry considered his options for a moment. Did he dare push further? Dumbledore was honourable, but Harry had never known him to follow protocol to the letter. It was probably unprofessional for a professor to pick sides in matters such as these, but if Harry worded it carefully…
“What about a general duelling question, Professor? Would you feel comfortable answering that?”
Dumbledore just peered back at Harry. “I am no duellist, Master Pavonis. I never officially competed and my experiences in the field are limited.”
“And if I wanted to ask you anyway?”
Dumbledore’s lips twitched. “I am an educator at heart. I would have no reason not to answer a harmless question about something so potentially relevant to life nowadays.”
Harry hesitated for only a moment before asking his question. “How would you go about beating someone who’s more skilled and more powerful than you are? Someone who knows more magic and has more weapons.”
Dumbledore considered his question for a moment before answering. “I would concede those advantages and consider what facets of the duel may be in my favour. I would play to my strengths and, above all else, I would avoid engaging in an extended duel that looks at all conventional.”
Harry frowned. “What do you mean by the last bit, Professor?”
“Well, if your opponent has all the advantages you mentioned, trading spells back and forth would only lead to defeat.”
“What if you varied your attacks and mixed in things like Transfiguration?”
“I suspect that would help, though it would depend on the opponent’s experience and ability with Transfiguration. It is at least thinking along the right lines.”
“And what are those lines, sir?”
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. “Do you not see them yet?”
Harry considered for a moment before, slowly, it dawned on him. “If you can’t beat them in a straightforward duel, you have to add tricks and variables.”
That fit pretty well with everything Harry knew. His early wins against Charlus had come that way, and even things like feinting with false incantations were crafty little tricks that could get one ahead. Not that Harry expected party tricks like that to be enough against Riddle, but it gave him something to focus on.
He had heard once that problems were best solved in parts. As a whole, they could look daunting, but when broken down into individual pieces, they often became more manageable. This appeared to be one of those times. Defeating Riddle felt like scaling a mountain, but isolating her weaknesses felt only like ascending a steep hill
None of it was easy and there was peril with every step, but it was possible. That was what Harry needed to tell himself. A part of him had known all along something like this would be his only option, but hearing it from the greatest wizard alive was helpful. Not only did it confirm Harry’s subconscious suspicions, but it also gave him a slight boost in confidence. Dumbledore would not propose this sort of method if it couldn’t work.
“Exciting esoteric questions aside,” Dumbledore said from across the desk, “I believe we best be getting to the topic at hand.”
Harry snapped back to attention. “What are we covering today, sir?”
Dumbledore’s eyes twinkled. “You are ahead of my original schedule, so I thought, given your current worries, we would focus on something marginally more relevant.”
Harry felt his face split into an ear-to-ear grin as his fingers curled as if around his wand. Every little advantage he could get was welcome, and Harry planned to implement as many of them as possible in the next seventy-two hours.
May 11, 1943
The Defence Against the Dark Arts Classroom
Harry had never felt anything quite like the atmosphere present that Monday afternoon when he entered Professor Merrythought’s class. It appeared that he was the last student to do so, which meant he earned the room’s full and undivided attention. It felt to Harry like he was the Boy-Who-Lived all over again. Escaping the stares for the best part of a year had been a blessing. They had returned some after his duel against Cassie, but nothing like now.
This must be how gladiators had once felt in the colosseum, or perhaps how modern day athletes felt before marching out for the championship game. Harry felt oddly breathless as he moved towards his seat, like every inhale only filled his lungs halfway despite his best efforts. He didn’t tremble, but his body felt shaky. This feeling was more recognizable. It was how Harry had felt before entering the final underground chamber in his first year, like marching into the Chamber of Secrets in second year, or even sneaking after Ron and Sirius at the end of this third. This was pure adrenaline. Harry found that oddly comforting. None of those memories were good ones, but Harry had survived them all against overwhelming odds. Feeling the same way now as then gave him some small semblance of confidence, which had all but fled the moment he awoke that morning.
Harry had done everything possible to prepare for today, but now, faced with Riddle, he was unsure it would be enough. It was one thing to run hypothetical situations over and over again inside his own head, but it was another thing altogether to be standing there, preparing to try and make them realities.
Professor Merrythought was taking attendance, but Harry would not have known that had he not been watching. It was like none of the sound around him registered, all blending together in a dull haze that left his mind confused. He answered appropriately when she looked at him, surprised the single word came as easily as it did.
Harry glanced across the room at Riddle and, for the first time that day, a shred of confidence returned, bringing with it some of the lucidity Harry felt as though he had lost.
Riddle was a remarkable actress, but that really was what gave her away. Her posture was always perfect, but today, it was a skillful imitation of perfect; just a touch too rigid. Riddle’s eyes did not wander as freely as usual, either. They focused intently on everything they watched as though she was analyzing the field of battle. Of course, that was exactly what she must be doing, but Harry had not seen her act like this before any of her previous duels and that was when he realized one glorious fact.
Emily Riddle viewed him as a legitimate threat.
That single revelation lifted the haze from his mind and allowed Harry’s lungs to fill properly with air for what felt like the first time in Horus. His body still felt shaky and his heart still beat fiercely, but Harry’s mind finally found a semblance of rest when it realized that it was not alone in worrying.
It was a small victory and should really have changed nothing. Just because Riddle took him seriously didn’t mean she wasn’t confident. Harry saw no signs of doubt, just focus. In a way, that might really have been worse for him. A focused Riddle would surely not spend time toying with him like she had with others. His dignity might wind up appreciating that, but Harry knew that might have presented him with openings. There would be no foolish missteps on Riddle’s part. Not ones of that scale, anyway.
That was another problem that faced him. Harry had never seen Riddle duel for an extended period of time. His sample size was relatively limited and did not provide him with much beyond her general duelling style.
Harry watched the first pair step up to duel and tried to focus on them. There was no new angle from which he could examine his own conflict, so thinking about it was useless, but his efforts were no good. The closest he got to taking his mind off his own duel was wondering for a moment in which order the duels would take place. It did not take long for him to realize how obvious that was. Professor Merrythought was more rigid and better at hiding it, but she was every bit as dramatic as Slughorn in her own way. There was no world in which Harry and Riddle’s duel would not happen last.
Harry usually watched the other duels attentively, but today he found that they failed to hold his interest. They had no importance to him. This had evolved far beyond classroom duels for the sake of practice. It was always going to be this way against Riddle, but Arcturus had raised the stakes even higher and now these other duels held nothing for him. Harry felt detached as he watched; like a parent watching his children frolicking in the fields whilst he and others discussed dire matters behind their backs.
Harry could not have said which order the duels went in, nor even who won each of them. Harry felt attuned only with himself, Riddle, and the slowly thickening atmosphere in the room. It had been tense since the lesson began, but now it was growing unbearable. Harry found the sensation odd. Weeks had been spent dreading this duel — every time he had thought of it, his stomach twisted in painful knots — but now that the moment was soon at hand, Harry wished its arrival could be hastened. He found that now, the anticipation of the thing had grown to become far worse than the thing itself could ever be.
His wish came soon. Cassiopeia took her seat near Riddle, who was now looking straight at Harry. Had she not been, he likely would not have known their duel was next, but that fact and his instincts cued him.
Harry stood without instruction and moved towards his side of the classroom. His heart was still racing and his legs really were shaking now, but his mind felt surprisingly calm. A peaceful air had fallen over him now that the duel had arrived. One way or another, there would be clarity soon and this was something Harry thrived at. Plotting and planning were concepts he was learning, but he still grappled with them and had a tendency to overthink. He had grown competent, but those sorts of things would never come naturally to Harry.
Duelling, on the other hand, was something Harry had learned almost at once. It was the first thing besides Quidditch he had ever mastered, and like the times spent soaring through the air on his broomstick, Harry felt strangely light and free as he stood across from Riddle, posture miraculously relaxed as he met her stare and waited for Professor Merrythought to give the signal.
Harry wasted no time in moving once she did, correctly guessing Riddle would immediately go on the offensive. She had played defensively against the weakest of her opponents, but any time Riddle took a duel seriously, she attacked with a storm of magic so violent that none had yet stood against it. The moment Harry saw she was tense, he knew he would have to weather that storm from the onset.
It proved difficult. Harry had known before the duel began that shields were of no use. Riddle’s power was greater than his or Charlus’s and she attacked with speed unlike anything Harry had ever seen. Any shield would crumble under that onslaught before the defender could counterattack. Conjured objects would serve him better, but Harry had not planned to rely on them for defence, for he had something none of Riddle’s other opponents had possessed.
Harry could move unlike any of them.
Even the best of her opponents so far — opponents like Dolohov, Lestrange, Rosier, and Cassiopeia — tended to fight mostly from static stances. They moved when strictly necessary and that was their biggest weakness against someone like Riddle. When fighting Emily Riddle, you were not simply facing a masterful duellist, but a masterful mind. She dissected opponents and observed their patterns faster than anyone Harry had ever met. That revelation had come with Riddle’s own help — one of the exercises written in her notes on Occlumency involved more clear recalling of one’s own memories. That exercise had been invaluable these past few weeks, for Harry had seized every advantage he could get.
His own duelling style involved more movement than anyone Harry had ever seen, and his were less predictable at the best of times.
Today, he turned it up to eleven.
His movements were faster and more numerous, but above all else, they were more erratic. If Riddle found a pattern, she would lead him into traps, so Harry moved without consideration, trusting that his instincts would keep him out of her line of fire.
It proved more difficult than he expected. The biggest advantage to defending mostly through movement was that it often allowed Harry to exploit openings and counterstrike more efficiently than most others. The problem here was that finding openings against Riddle was like trying to reason with Peeves. Whilst technically possible, disaster would usually befall one who dared attempt either.
Disaster nearly befell Harry several times. Moving was great, but Harry was not used to fighting someone as fast as Riddle. The truth was, Harry just wasn’t swift enough. Something in his shoulder shattered moments into the duel and that same forearm was opened with a well-placed Cutting Curse that Harry had moved right into. Riddle had given him little choice. The alternative would have been to be hit with something far fouler, for it had not taken Riddle long to realize that cornering Harry was her best option.
Harry had planned to exploit openings and potentially even allow Riddle’s storm to blow out in the hopes it would leave her fatigued, but Harry realized just how far from viable this plan was almost at once. Playing solely defence against her was impossible. He would be struck down within the next minute if that was his plan. It almost happened several times in the next twenty seconds as Harry looked for an opening that just wasn’t there.
Finally, he attacked. Still, no opening presented itself but by then, the duel had been in progress for what had to be two minutes and Harry had spent its entirety on the back foot. Riddle had controlled every second of it and it was clear she was not sloppy enough to give him opportunities. Harry would have to take chances and create them himself.
He lunged straight between two oncoming spells and lashed out with a volley of his own that Riddle easily shielded against. Harry fired off several Blasting Curses and prepared to follow up once Riddle’s shield fell, but miraculously, it held.
Harry’s eyes widened. Never had a shield withstood so many of his spells. This one was slightly different than any he had seen, possessing a subtle silvery blow, but Harry felt as though it still should have fallen.
Riddle gave him no time to consider, dropping her shield and attacking, forcing Harry back onto the defensive once again. He internally cursed as he was quickly backed up towards the wall. Fighting her was like duelling three opponents at once and soon, Harry would be overwhelmed. No, he had to stay on offence!
The students stood in a warded corner of the room, so Harry dove behind a row of abandoned desks and transfigured them into a wall of dark grey stone that stretched towards the ceiling. Harry knew it would be blown apart in seconds, but he was ready and banished the stones towards Riddle the second it happened, transfiguring half of them into a swarm of ravens and the other half into arrows as they all sailed towards her.
Harry used the projectiles to clear his own path forward, or at least that had been his plan. He lunged after them and was preparing to strike when, suddenly, he felt a sharp jerking sensation and found that his own creations had spun in the air and now flew towards Harry.
His eyes widened. His control over magic had been superior to anyone else’s he had ever fought, yet the way Riddle seized control from him was almost casual. It was like her shield from earlier; it just shouldn’t have been so easy.
It was power, he realized. Elena had once complained how ineffective she was against Harry at times simply due to how outmatched she was in that one aspect of magic. All Harry had learned taught him that, in most aspects, being more magically powerful wasn’t actually all that useful. There were very few spells that relied on such factors and usually, it only came into play when dealing with large-scale transfigurations.
Or something like this.
Riddle had been able to exert her will over Harry with little effort and, earlier, the magic that formed her shield had been denser than that which Harry was accustomed to.
This trait alone would not have been problematic, but the issue was that Riddle also just happened to be extraordinarily skillful; something made obvious when Harry’s creations morphed in mid-flight about halfway towards him. His arrows had split into many small blades, the ravens bursting into flames but continuing to soar.
Harry conjured another wall of stone, but Riddle seemed to have expected that. She blasted it apart more violently this time, sending Harry sprawling. Had he not kept rolling, the duel would have ended there, but he avoided her follow-up volley by inches before scrambling to his feet.
The duel paused just long enough for Riddle to smile. There had been enough time to evaluate things and she must have felt confident. The worst part was that Harry couldn’t blame her. In standing so long and getting off competent offence of his own, he had already done better against Riddle than anyone else, but she had still dictated every second of the duel. She had every reason to be confident, but Harry was not about to lay down. Not with a friendship on the line and not when he still had tricks at his disposal.
Riddle paused at Harry’s incantation. It was clever. She must have expected Harry to pull a trick similar to the one he had used against Charlus — speaking one incantation but using another silently. He was indeed pulling a trick, but that was not it. The familiar stag burst from Harry’s wand and galloped towards Harry, who stumbled backwards, unsure how exactly something like this could be fought. Harry waited until the last second before flaring the Patronus, causing it to glow so brightly that Riddle must surely be blinded.
That was when he attacked, lunging forward and unleashing a torrent of spells. Riddle’s eyes were closed against the vivid light and Harry’s heart leapt. This would be the moment she fell.
His mouth fell open as his eyes widened. Riddle deflected his spells with her eyes closed. Harry’s mind worked at top speed and could come only to one conclusion. She must be able to sense magic like him, but at a higher level. Her defence had not been perfect — a Bludgeoning Curse and a Cutting Curse had gotten through, but they had merely been diversions. The fact Riddle had defended as well with her eyes closed was nothing short of incredible.
Riddle must not have agreed because, for the first time, her demeanour shifted and Harry saw something unnerving in her eyes as she raised her wand and fired something silvery into the air. Harry was unsure what the spell was and instinctively shielded.
It was the right move. His shield collapsed as he was tossed backwards like a roughly discarded doll, but the impact was still dulled. Whatever that spell was, Harry sensed it would have ended the duel had there been no barrier between them.
Harry instinctively rolled again, avoiding several more spells as he roughly took to his feet. His ears rang so loudly it was like someone whaled inside his head. The room spun around him as the desk blurred and the light looked all of a sudden much too bright. That last spell had damaged him, shield or not, and Harry could see Riddle’s wand raising again. This duel had been disappointing. Harry had so many tricks planned, but Riddle had just been too much. She had never given him time to cast any elaborate transfigurations, instead pressing him so hard he was forced to revert to simpler magic. The Patronus Charm had been effective, but still, it had failed. Now, the end was near. Harry was compromised and fatigue was beginning to settle in.
Hatred coursed through his body. It was an emotion he had not felt towards Riddle in some time. Wariness, yes, but not hatred. Harry could not remember the time when that had changed, but he knew now that it had. Yet it returned to him then, surging back with frustration and pain. This duel would cost him his friendship with Dorea and, for that, Harry could not decide if it was Riddle he hated, or himself.
All Harry knew was that, if he was going to lose, he would not do so whilst on the back foot. He would not cower away from Riddle in the final moments before his defeat.
Both of them struck as one.
Riddle fired a spell that looked much like the last, though this was aimed at Harry, who returned in desperation with the Bone-Breaker Curse. Riddle’s wand continued moving and Harry knew she would send more curses his way, but before she could, something incredible happened.
Their two spells collided in mid air and a shower of golden sparks shot up towards the ceiling as light of the same colour filled the room, shining as brightly as Harry’s Patronus and forcing him to blink spots from his eyes. He expected Riddle to disarm him in that time, but she didn’t.
When Harry opened his eyes, it became immediately apparent why. Riddle’s wand was occupied, as was his own. There was a brilliant ray of golden light connecting Harry’s wand to Riddle as similar rays sprung up around them, encasing them in a dome of what Harry could only describe as magic. There was a soft ambiance that sang through the room, reminding Harry of the one and only time he’d heard a phoenix sing. It filled him to the brim with fiery determination that he remembered feeling when facing a different version of Riddle down in the Chamber of Secrets.
Smaller beams of the same golden light had formed on the ray that connected Harry’s wand with Riddle’s, but Harry looked past them and to the girl that stood directly across from him. Her skin looked even paler in the golden light. Her eyes stood out more starkly and were wide. Gone was the calculating air in them, gone was the quiet confidence, gone was the amusement, gone even was the anger that had been there in the duel’s final moments. Harry saw fear in Riddle’s eyes for the first time ever and that, more than anything else that day, drove him onwards.
The beads slowly began to slide down the connected ray of light, inching closer to Riddle’s wand. Harry noticed that hers began shaking whilst his remained stable, but there was a force pushing against him and he somehow knew the two of them were locked in some kind of battle. It was like their very wills had been pit against each other’s, but for the first time that day, Harry felt confident.
Riddle could not win this game. Harry was nothing but an interest to her. She was competitive, but to her, this was about winning. It was so much more than that for Harry. Not only was a friendship on the line, but much as he tried, Harry still saw Voldemort when he looked at this girl. Dark blue eyes ceased staring back at him, replaced by a crimson stare that glowed like hot coals. Riddle pushed and pushed, but Harry would not lose. She was stronger and more skilled, but she did not know his past, did not know of her potential future.
Harry had a lifetime of motivation that Riddle could never match and, try as she might, it was becoming more and more obvious as their battle stretched on. The beads of light were now dangerously close to her wand and Harry could see her composure cracking as one of her lips began to tremble.
Then, the beads touched the wood of her wand and the implement screamed.
There was no other way of describing it. A horrible wail went through the room so loud that Harry feared the window would shatter. Any thought of broken glass were driven from his mind as awareness flooded Harry. Awareness not only that the connection between their wands could now be broken, but so much more.
Silver wisps began rising from Riddle’s wand and with each one, a new incantation whispered inside Harry’s mind as the spell’s effects played like a muggle film behind his eyes. It was Harry’s turn now to smile at Riddle, who stood frozen on the other side of the room, looking for all the world as though she had seen a ghost.
Harry sensed his moment and pulled upwards with all his might. There was a moment of resistance, but then, the connection shattered. The dome of light surrounding the pair of them faded all at once. The classroom suddenly looked dim without the vibrant golden light, but Harry’s focus was not on that, but Riddle, who staggered so violently she nearly fell. He would never have another chance like this.
Harry blinked spots from his eyes as he looked up from the floor. He had shouted the first incantation that came to mind, an incantation he had not known until some strange force whispered it in the back of his mind just moments ago. For a moment, he thought it had backfired but then, he saw the single most astonishing thing he had ever seen.
Riddle was lying face up on the other side of the room. Her eyes were closed and her ebony hair was splayed out around her like the blackness of night around a shining star. Her chest rose and fell, but she did not move and, most beautiful of all, her wand lay some distance away from her.
Harry felt a smile grace his lips as his brain realized that the impossible had just been achieved.
Then, he knew nothing but darkness.
Calling this chapter difficult to write would be an understatement. That was my eighth attempt at that duel and, to be honest, I still think I could have done better. I wanted this to be more about characters than flashy spells and I think I accomplished that, but I do think there could have a better balance struck that involved more of the duel being detailed.
Regardless, let me know what you all think and I hope you enjoyed the chapter.
Please read and review.
NOTE FOR PATRONS:
There was originally going to be a Harry/Elena scene sandwiched between these two, but I’m not actually sure it adds enough to justify the WC. It would just be a dialogue-heavy scene discussing Harry’s nerves about the duel and would show Elena’s confidence in him, even against the person she fears most. I’m very open to feedback here and could pretty easily be swayed either way. If a majority of people seem to think this chapter would be better with that scene in it, I will add it before this goes up on FFN/AO3.
PS: The next password will be released in two weeks. THE NEXT SIX CHAPTERS ARE AVAILABLE RIGHT NOW OVER ON PATREON! THAT’S THE REST OF YEAR 1, PLUS THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS OF YEAR 2! If you would like to read all of those chapters now, feel free to sign up to my Patreon page.
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