One piece of parchment.
Why, of all things, had he asked for that?
He could have asked for food. Or a healing potion.
Or a wand.
But the first two would have provided moments of relief so small, they might as well be measured on a geologic scale. And the latter...
No. He could not imagine how Voldemort would make it worse for him, if he tried anything that dangerous.
But it would get worse. He couldn't imagine how, but he knew it would.
Imagining that it could, even if he couldn't imagine how, was enough to put him in very real danger of being sick.
The only reason he wasn't was because there was nothing in his stomach for him to throw up. He hadn't eaten in days.
Not food, anyway.
He focused on the silky feel of the parchment between his fingertips. He still couldn't fathom exactly why he'd thought this would be the thing to ask for above all others.
Because he knew there was no way out for him. There would be no relief.
There wasn't even hope.
But there could be something. Something he could imagine.
That would give him a kind of peace.
Like his death couldn't. Even that, Voldemort was denying him.
Harry was so startled by the appearance of the white owl outside of the barred window-- so utterly shocked and overjoyed all at once-- that the cry came out of him before he could keep it in. Fortunately, his throat was so raw from the last bout of screaming, it was not much more than a whisper.
Hedwig had lost a lot of feathers, and was no longer the well-fed, sleek creature on which Harry had lavished so much care and affection. To be honest, she looked like shite. She was the most beautiful thing Harry had ever seen.
He put his fingers through the bars. Hedwig was trying to push her head through, but they were just narrowly placed enough to prevent that. She touched his fingers with her beak, fluttering her wings as she perched upon the tiny stone ledge of the window.
"Hedwig..." he whispered again, the contact so intense he found that tears were already running down his face, neither of joy or sadness but of something so much larger than either extreme. "You're alive..."
She was so keenly aware of the danger she didn't even hoot. She just kept nuzzling Harry's fingers, as if she was as starved for the contact as he.
Despite that, he did not, could not, let it go on for long. "You have to go," he said in the same raspy whisper. "You'll be caught. You have to go."
Now she did hoot, softly. Harry had not spent those years with his familiar only to be left unaware of her meanings. She'd hooted no.
"You have to," he repeated. "If I know you're out there, and alive... Hedwig, that'll be enough. Please, please go." The tears were coming faster now.
This time that soft owl hoot was a query. Harry knew it both from the sound and the way she lifted her wings. Harry drew closer to the window, which up to now had never been a source of comfort; it let the cold into his stone prison, taunted him daily with the knowledge that another day of his captivity was passing, and-- and he knew this was the big one-- it made sure his screams got carried as far a distance as possible.
"There isn't anything. There's nothing you can do." God, how true he knew that was.
"There isn't anyone left to get a message TO, Hedwig. Please, please just go!"
Again. No. Query.
She would be caught. She would be caught and killed like all the others, and then he wouldn't even have this memory to sustain him. Harry pushed his face to the bars of the window, shivering as the cold air touched his bare skin, and Hedwig's beak left his fingers and nuzzled against his lips instead. The Query hoot was more aggressive this time.
"You won't go." Harry closed his eyes against the near-onslaught of tears now drenching his cheeks. "You won't go until I tell you some way you can help me."
As firm a Yes as he had ever had from the snowy owl.
Harry had been telling the truth. There was no one left to contact. That Hedwig was still alive was the greatest miracle of the past-- what had it been? A year? More?
Because no one else was. No one else who had ever cared about him in the slightest. Or even those who would have helped out of a sense of duty.
But if he gave her a task, then she would go. And she would be safe. And he could cling to that thought.
Cling to it every day of this hellacious existence that was his carefully-protected life.
He should tell her to do something that would insure she would not return here. A message that forbade a reply. Something he could give her to carry away.
What was there? He could make something up, give her a piece of his hair or something, pretend it was part of a plan.
But where would he tell her to take it?
...To anyone. It did not matter. He did not have to think of someone who would help. There was no one.
No one who could change one moment in the current existence of Harry Potter.
Something about the way he'd thought that put another thought in his head.
...No. There was nothing that could be done to help him here and now, that was true.
It was a ridiculous thought. It wasn't magic of any sort, it was more like...
...More like a wish.
"Hedwig..." He licked his lips. "Can you... can you bring me... one piece of parchment?"
He stared at the blank surface with its bareness only a promise of all the possibilities that lay before him.
Harry looked back at the snowy owl at the window. "I need a feather."
This was a dangerous request, he knew. He would have to be very careful, destroy the feather before it could be found. Hedwig presented her side to him and he drew one, as delicately as he could.
"Hedwig, this is all you can do for me. I'm not sending this away with you. Please, please go, and never come back. I want to be able to know that you're alive."
She regarded him with her large amber eyes.
He pushed his face to the bars again. "Please, Hedwig."
Would he have to keep begging her?
The owl bussed his lips with her beak again, lifted her wings, and flapped off, leaving a few wisps of down that he brushed off the ledge into the outside drop.
What, exactly, was he trying to do?
...He was trying to help himself. That was the simplest answer, if not the most direct.
If he did this, he did not know if it would work in the sense that there would be any change in the world. Except that he would know he did it.
And that was what he wanted from it.
He hadn't made Hedwig bring him ink. He didn't need it. Needed something more for this.
The cut on his shoulder-- the place where the whip struck directly on the bone-- was still oozing; other lash marks were as well, but that one was the easiest to get to. Harry bit off the end of the feather and touched the end of the quill to the bloody ooze.
The whip marks were only on the back of him today. Voldemort had been in an unusually charitable mood.
And he was only raped the once. No Death Eaters. Maybe Voldemort was... saving up for something.
So he had to hurry.
He set the ragged point of the quill on the parchment and wrote:
To anyone and every one.
You know who I am. You've all heard about Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. Whether you think I'm dead or just missing, it doesn't matter.
I'm writing this to beg for help in the only way I can think of.
This won't get sent to anyone by any conventional route. I don't understand why I believe this will work. But I'm writing this in my own blood, and I will do all I can to see that this letter is burned in a fire.
And I know that writing is itself a kind of magic. To give words life where they were only ideas... I can't explain it any better than that.
Which is why I’m asking what I'm asking.
Please. You, who are receiving these words.
Make what's happened happen differently.
Make it change by imagining it differently.
Writing it differently.
Make me a world where it didn't happen this way. If writing is a kind of magic, then that world will exist. It won't change what happened to me. But somewhere, it will BE.
Write a world where a boy's parents did not die. Where they lived, and cared about each other, and a boy grew up in a home where he was wanted...
...those cries, so vivid in his head in the presence of the Dementors: "Not Harry-- please, have mercy-- have mercy...!" The last words his mother ever said...
...and the cupboard where he'd spent ten years of his life, the days he went hungry for some contrived wrongdoing, the cuffs and blows that never hurt as much as knowing that his relatives hated him just for being different...
A world where the boy had a second father, in the form of his godfather, who was always there for him, even when he found love of his own in the form of his other best friend, and where they had all their lives together to experience that happiness...
Ten years in Azkaban for a crime Sirius hadn't committed. More years on the run. And then, finally, when he had been acquitted and found that Remus had never stopped loving him in that way... the owl bearing the spell, showing up at Sirius and Remus's house in the middle of the night, Remus opening that envelope addressed to him so trustingly, releasing the Moonbright Curse into the room so that he changed, was forced into were form a week early because of the spell, unprepared with any potion to help him keep his human faculties, and knowing only that there was living warm flesh sleeping beside him to satisfy his werewolf's blood hunger. Voldemort had let Remus live just long enough to realize that he'd killed Sirius in his shapeshifter's madness, and then had raised a muggle revolver and put a silver bullet through his heart.
A world where the boy met the best of friends when he went away to school, friends who loved him, always loved him, even when they learned how much they loved each other as well, and not only kept a place for him in their hearts and lives, but made a place for him within their very family...
Ron and Hermione. And his goddaughter.
They'd married soon out of school, seeing no reason to wait-- weren't they with the one person they knew they would always want?-- and the baby had come just a year later, Harry having a fit when he learned the two were going to give their daughter the ridiculous name of Angharad, just so they could shorten it to honor her godfather. The last thing that they'd really disagreed on.
And Voldemort had learned from his past mistakes.
When he'd shown up to slaughter the entire family, he did not make the same error. He waited, waited until Ron and Hermione realized he had found them, and had made the conscious decision to give their lives in exchange for the baby's.
And then Voldemort had slaughtered baby Hari first.
And neither Ron nor Hermione had time to do anything but die, after that.
A world where his years at that school were completely uneventful, where death never visited that place, or those who meant something to that boy...
Cedric Diggory, killed for no other reason than being in the way... possibly the luckiest, for Voldemort had no vendetta against him the way he'd had against all those whom Harry had cared about, or who had had any kind of duty to him....
Dumbledore, going to his office, murmuring a cheery "Cadbury Dairy Milk," at the gargoyle guarding the stairwell-- and the gargoyle had leaped from its pedestal and bitten his throat out....
Hagrid, so unafraid of even the fiercest animals, killed by the most insidious thing of all: a fluffy white rabbit sent to him anonymously, with a poison impregnated in its fur that was activated and transferred when it was stroked...
Professor McGonagall, killed, so far as Harry could tell, simply because she'd been the head of his house, struck with a curse that froze her into her animagus form and kidnapped, her remains returned with a note in Voldemort's handwriting that read I wanted to see if there really was more than one way to skin a cat. Apparently not.
Snape... he may not have liked Harry, but he'd done his duty in protecting him, and for his former Death Eater servant, Voldemort had been merciless. He and a handful of other Death Eaters had magically barricaded themselves inside the Potions classroom with Snape. When the wards finally broke, they were gone, and what they had done was obvious. They had bound Snape down, taken every single potion and ingredient in the room and combined all of them together in one large cauldron, and forced the resulting miasma into every single orifice into the potion master's body. Though his death should have been quick when his stomach was mostly eaten away in the first minute, the wizards in charge of the investigation found that the brew had an unfortunate multi-resurrection effect, and it was likely that Snape had suffered for quite some time as a result.
Had Dumbledore still been alive at that time he would have made sure that Harry never heard that detail.
Write a world where there were no petty murders done merely because those people might have meant something to Harry Potter.
The entire Weasley family had been wiped off the earth. Voldemort had destroyed the Burrow when all of them had gathered together just after the murders of Ron, Hermione, and Hari Weasley.
Voldemort had learned that Harry's partner for the first Yule Ball he'd attended had been Parvati Patil. He'd killed her. He'd also learned that Harry had asked Cho Chang, before he'd asked Parvati. Voldemort had killed her as well.
The next two years, Harry had taken Hermione and then Ginny Weasley, and Voldemort could not kill them twice even for that.
His last year...
He couldn't write the rest of it.
He had to. More than all the rest of it, he had to.
Write a world where that boy had a rivalry.
It hadn't been anything that innocent, had it? It would have been a rivalry if all it had to do with was houses and Quidditch and House Cups.
But no one was harmed by that kind of rivalry.
It wasn't wrong of him to wish away the vicious bits: every time Hermione trembled at being called mudblood, Ron regularly singled out not only for his family's lack of affluence but their loyalties in the anti-muggle sentiment, Buckbeak nearly losing his life because of one boy's stupidity and hatred.
No, none of it related to Harry, had it? The insults, the duels, the Quidditch matches... that all could have been schoolboy rivalry after all, couldn't it have?
And Draco could never have shown obsession in any other way.
So, no, he couldn't hate that, or ask that to be wished away.
And that rivalry was such a strong emotion that nothing could ever replace it except for another strong emotion.
Draco sneering at him, calling him a stuck-up little prat of a Gryffindor golden boy for, at last, one fucking time too many, and Harry breaking, not caring if it was exactly what Draco wanted, to get him in trouble, and they'd fought with wands and fought with fists and still, through the whole thing, he couldn't get Draco to shut up, and finally doing the one thing that he could think of that might actually stop the stream of insults that was coming from the blond boy's mouth.
He'd pushed his mouth against Draco's.
Meaning only to shock him and shut him up.
He'd done both.
But then Draco had shocked him, by not pulling away and spitting, but by suddenly kissing back.
They'd been in the deserted Quidditch locker room at that time, and didn’t have to worry about what anybody thought of this but themselves, and before they knew it, it wasn't merely kissing, they had their hands inside each other's sweaty clothing, pulling at sleeves and clawing at buttons while all the time still devouring each other's mouths, Harry oddly the one who was single-mindedly going for Draco's trousers while it was the Slytherin boy who was cupping one hand under Harry's chin while he kissed him and running the other over Harry's torso, learning the planes and edges of his shoulders and stomach, Harry who had the other boy naked first while Draco couldn't seem to break away from carding his hands through that messy black hair on Harry's head while trying to fix his gaze on the other boy's, holding his eyes there even as Harry tore every stitch of clothing off of Draco, right down to his socks, Harry who pushed Draco down onto the floor and took the entire length of the blond boy's cock into his mouth while Draco arched on the floor like electricity was running through his spine and howled Harry's name-- Harry's first name-- like they were long-time lovers.
But Draco was soon reciprocating in a way that made both of them glad they were in a locker room, because that shower was going to be very necessary afterward. Harry remembered the less significant things about that day almost as vividly as the more important ones: the way neither of them wanted to interrupt what they were doing long enough to even lock the door, how they piled their discarded clothing underneath them for cushioning and how lousy a mattress it had made, how they ended up using someone's balsam-scented hair conditioner as lubricant because it was all they could find that they trusted not to be caustic or itch.
The thing Harry remembered best was the moment when he was lying on his stomach, uncertain just how they'd decided who was going to have who first, and Harry having concluded that Draco, as the more experienced of the two, should probably be the one to show him how to do this, and Draco covering Harry's back with his own body, trying to insert himself painlessly into Harry and failing, the two of them finding that hair conditioner wasn't all that great a lubricant, and him whispering, "Am I doing this right?" to Harry, who froze as he realized he'd just made a very big jump in assumptions, and whispering back, "Wait-- you mean you haven't done this before either?"
Second best he remembered how they almost left the locker room at the same time, still in the shaky blissful haze of several mind-blowing orgasms, the last set of which had taken place in the shower itself, which had prolonged that to the degree that they ended up using all the hot water and had to actually get clean under a tepid spray.
Draco had stopped him just before they walked out and suggested they either leave separately or take the time to think up an excuse as to what they'd been doing in there all that time. Not having enough working brain cells, even combined, to come up with anything, Harry had agreed to wait five minutes before he left the locker room.
But they'd almost walked out together.
The locker room had been convenient, but they made a point of finding additional places to tryst that year, so as not to set up too obvious a pattern: the Astronomy Tower, the Divination classroom, the tunnels to Hogsmeade. It was Harry who owned the invisibility cloak, so he always had the pleasure of being the one to go find an impatient Draco and invite him under the cloak so they could race off together.
Hermione and Ron had noticed that Harry seemed happy. Stupid-grin happy. But they didn't connect it. None did. The rivalry between the two boys was no less in the classroom or on the Quidditch pitch, though Malfoy had known, for Harry's sake, that he'd better stop the hateful behavior towards his friends, and they had noticed that... but still didn't connect it to Harry's mood.
Harry still didn't remember whose idea it had been that he and Draco should partner each other at the Yule Ball. All he remembered was Draco kissing him and saying, "It's a smashing idea. We'll turn Dumbledore's hair white when he sees us-- oh, wait, it's already white. Snape's hair, then."
It had stayed a surprise by not keeping it a surprise. When asked whom they were taking, Harry had replied, "Malfoy," and Draco had said, "Potter." Of course, none of their friends had thought they were serious, and assumed the joke was intended to stop them asking, conceal the identity of a different partner.
Strangely, at the ball, Snape was the only one who hadn't looked surprised.
Write how they weathered all the mistrust...
That had been true, at any rate...
And refused to forget how lucky they were to have found this...
Also true. Malfoy's parents, general public opinion, even Sirius, who was also in love with a man... Harry and Draco wouldn't give up what they'd had.
Thank god Ron and Hermione had never abandoned him. It had been harder for Ron, but he'd understood (okay, Hermione had been instrumental) that Harry needed him more now, not less.
He stared at the parchment. How could he write it, even the negation of it?
Coming home to their flat. The blood. The note.
The blind panicked obedience to what the note had instructed.
Voldemort could have killed him right then. He'd been absolutely defenseless.
But if he'd done that, Harry's suffering upon discovering Draco's mutilated corpse would have been short, would have been done.
Voldemort wanted him to suffer.
He let Harry go long enough to be a witness to the rest of the murders. Harry hadn't even had time to send out warnings, because of how quickly Voldemort worked and how badly he'd underestimated how far Voldemort would take his vendetta.
Even Malfoy's parents, about whom Harry had never cared, and who had always served the Dark Lord, became part of the list of the dead when they'd dared to protest their son's murder.
And Voldemort had known Harry too well. As badly as Harry had wanted to die when Draco had been taken from him, let alone all the rest of it coming crashing down on him, he wanted to kill Voldemort more, before he died.
He couldn't even do that.
And now... now he couldn't even kill himself.
Voldemort's spells had seen to that. Because he wanted Harry kept alive.
Because emotional suffering wasn't all he intended to inflict on The Boy Who Lived.
The methods of torture.
Instruments of pain that would have done the Inquisition proud.
Simpler yet classic punishments like the whip or the beatings.
Suffering that could be sustained like starvation or temperature extremes.
The basic humiliation and agony of rape that Voldemort so favored when it came to him.
And Harry couldn't escape it.
He pressed the quill to the parchment, almost breaking the tip.
And they all lived happily ever after.
He could write no more.
He took the quill to the window and broke it into tiny pieces before throwing them out the bars.
Now he had to obscure what he'd written on the parchment.
The writing wasn't quite dry. That was fine. It had been written, that was what mattered.
And the parchment would have to be found, thought the words could not be read by Voldemort.
He still had tears on his face. That would do to start. Using the wetness on his face, he smeared the writing on the parchment. When he needed something more, he used his tongue. Blood, tears, and spit... and, if all went as planned, fire. If these wouldn't make some sort of magic, there was nothing else he could do.
There. It would still be seen that it had been writing of some kind, but was now so illegible it might have been hieroglyphics.
Why couldn't he just bring himself to tear it up and toss the pieces out the window as well? This way was going to get him punished. And he couldn't tell himself that he wouldn't even notice more punishment on top of the horror of his usual routine. He would... but it was worth it. It would have to be.
He crumpled the parchment into a ball and dropped it on the floor.
And, not precisely on cue, but not long after either, the door to his cell opened.
The Dark Lord had brought four of his Death Eaters this time.
Harry shrank away.
There was never any point in begging. But neither was there any point in concealing his fear. Voldemort didn't want him obedient. Voldemort just wanted him in pain.
One of the four masked (they were always masked) Death Eaters gestured with his wand, and Voldemort's chosen structure of torment for this particular session appeared in the center of the cell.
Harry recognized it right away, of course. This was one of the ones designed primarily for restraint, and was not actually a torture device in itself.
That provided no sense of relief. What they'd do to him while he was in it was sure to be just as bad.
Two of the Death Eaters came forward to seize him, pull him to the structure. They began strapping him into it.
Even as he was choking on his own heartbeat, Harry heard a voice say, "My Lord? Should this-- be here?"
Slight scratchy sound of crumpled parchment being unfolded.
A hiss. "Give me that."
Harry saw, out of the corner of his eye, Voldemort take the parchment.
"It looks like writing, my Lord, but smeared too much to read..." the Death Eater said.
Voldemort looked at it, glaring at the written surface long enough to ascertain that no, it could not be read, turning the parchment over in his hand. "So. That explains it."
Harry, who had not thought he could be any more panicked, found that indeed, he was wrong. Explained what?
But he could say nothing. One of the Death Eaters restraining him was pushing something into his mouth designed to keep him from speaking but also propped his jaw open. This meant so many different possibilities, the most harmless of them that Voldemort wanted his screams to be unobstructed, to worse ones including intentions to rape his mouth, or to torture his tongue with needles, or to force water down his throat in quantities until he vomited it back up.
Voldemort handed the parchment back to the man. "Burn it."
Harry closed his eyes. Yes.
He was fortunate that day in that the open-mouth gag was only there to keep his screams audible.
All five of them raped him, and while each was forcing him open, using only enough lubricant to make sure that they would not be uncomfortable from the friction, the others took turns using a studded whip on the front of his body. That left him a bloody painful mess, but it looked worse than it was.
And that was all they did. Again, Harry was startled by how minor the abuse had been, comparatively.
When he'd been let out of the restraints and lay upon the floor, not daring to moan, Voldemort said, "I've decided to be generous to you, Harry. You're going to be fed today." One of the Death Eaters left the room, presumably to fetch whatever it was.
Oh, no. No, this wasn't good. The only days he actually was allowed relief from the starvation was on days when Voldemort's torture had been particularly brutal.
"It's even fresh, this time. And until you eat it in its entirety, you'll get nothing else. Remember how hungry a man can get if he cannot die, Harry?"
Harry didn't even look up as he heard the small dead weight hit the floor. He knew what it was.
He also knew Voldemort was right: he'd eat it, eventually.
As the door closed behind Voldemort and the four who had accompanied him, Harry dragged himself up and picked up the body of the snowy owl, cradling it on his lap in a way Hedwig never would have tolerated when she was alive, heedless of the blood he was getting on her feathers.
"It's going to be all right, Hedwig," he whispered. "It happened, you know. Somewhere they all did live happily ever after."
And in a nearby fire, a single piece of parchment was reduced to
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