"You stand there, you accuse me, yet where were you at the time?" The words slipped from between Harry's lips in a serpentine hiss, not angry, but not entirely pleased either. "I did what I had to do to keep myself alive, to keep you all alive. You have no right to judge me."
"How is this any better?" Hermione's eyes shone overbright with tears and an emotion somewhere between primal fear and overwhelming anger. "Harry, he's just like him. He is him."
"No. He's not." Harry shook his head, a pitying smile quirked his lips. "He's so much worse, that's why we needed him. Without him, we'd have lost."
"Does this look like a victory to you?" Ron barked.
As one, three heads turned to look upon the crumbling castle, the red stained grass, the charred husk of a once fear inspiring forest. Nothing remained of Hogwarts but a pile of overturned rock and a fire blackened willow.
A solitary figure in a set of pristine black robes stood among the ruins. Silently waiting.
The war had gone nothing like any of them had thought it would. Voldemort had been busy in the years after his destruction at the hands of little Harry Potter, he hadn't been drifting through the worlds an insubstantial, influential spirit as they'd all believed. He'd used the bodies of weak willed wizards like Quirrell and Pettigrew to gather his followers, who went on to recruit more. When he returned to his physical form, those who had been unsure, hesitant to believe any who didn't bear the form of their previous master, flocked to him in droves. For years they prepared, grew larger, grew stronger, and when they finally struck, they struck hard.
The wizarding world was unprepared for the sudden, simultaneous attacks on every important landmark; the Ministry, St. Mungo's, Diagon Alley all fell under the Death Eaters' vicious attacks. Hogwarts was the only place to remain standing, and it was there every surviving witch and wizard flocked, just as Voldemort had wanted them to. His victory was all but assured with the remaining population huddled terrified and helpless in the ancient castle.
He had not, however, anticipated the lengths in which the Boy-Who-Lived would go to ensure his defeat.
It had started almost a decade ago in a dark, damp chamber, with a boy, a broken soul, and a decision that would tilt the world on its axis.
Ginny Weasley had been near dead, her life force draining into the malignant creature that had once been a portion of Tom Riddle's soul; in its decades of captivity, stored among some of the darkest and most obscure objects the Malfoys possessed, the soul had mutated into something beyond what the dark lord had ever intended it to be. Harry had been only twelve years old at the time and had possessed more luck than any real skill, but he'd been prepared to defend his best friend's younger sister from the soul fragment and the threat of a basilisk or die trying. But then the mangled soul of Tom Riddle offered him another option.
"I am not the only one," Riddle had whispered. "I can feel them even now, calling to me, reaching for me. He will find the others, and through them he will return. Too powerful for you or even your headmaster to stand against."
"We'll fight," young Harry had responded. "All of us."
"And you will die. All of you. But I can help; I will lend you my strength and my knowledge."
"What do you have to gain from this?" Even at that young age, Harry had understood the concept of something being too good to be true.
"You will lend me asylum until you are able to grant me a new body, one in which I am the only soul that resides. It will take time to gather all that we need, but I've waited fifty odd years for this, I can wait a while longer."
"How do I know you're not lying? How can I be sure the moment I let you in you won't try and take over?"
A deprecating smile crossed Riddle's face. "I am not yet that powerful, if I was capable of that I would have taken the redheaded girl's body and done it months ago. Besides, you are looking at my very soul, I could not lie to you if I wanted to." The soul fragment stalked closer to him. "He will return, and, without my help, he will kill you all. Sit still long enough and you will feel it just as I can; you are just connected to him as I am."
Harry shook his head. "No, I'm not…"
"Yes you are. Come now child, you did not truly believe you emerged from your first encounter with Lord Voldemort unscathed, did you? He left you a curse, or a gift depending on how you intend to look at it. A fragment of his soul resides behind that scar. I told you, I can feel them reaching for me, every last one. He will want it back, but he cannot kill you unless he intends to destroy a piece of his soul. That is your first advantage."
Harry raised a brow. "And my second?"
"Me. Together, you, I, and that fragment in your head will be unstoppable."
Perhaps it was the way Harry's scar had itched and burned whenever he was within Voldemort's proximity, or perhaps it was just the manic, delighted, but, above all else, confident light that shone in Riddle's dark eyes, but Harry believed him.
That day, he walked from the Chamber with a sobbing but alive Ginny Weasley clutching onto his arm and one more soul residing in his body. And for years that was where he remained, always there, always whispering to Harry, until it was time for the both of them to uphold their end of the bargain. Harry gave him a body and, together, they destroyed Voldemort and his forces.
Harry turned his back on the ruins to face his friends. "You're alive, you're whole, you're free," he said blithely. "That counts as a victory to me."
Ron shook his head in protest. "Hogwarts-"
"Was only a school; a collection of bricks, talking portraits, and age old prejudices. It was not worth your lives."
"Hogwarts has been our home for so many years," Hermione argued. "We grew up in those halls, formed bonds that will last a lifetime. If that is not worth our lives, then what is?"
Harry shrugged. "That is not for me to decide."
"It seems you already have."
"I know it doesn't seem like it," Harry smiled sadly. "But this is truly for the best. I trust him."
"More than us?"
"Yes," Harry hadn't even hesitated. "He has been with me through everything. He was always right there, he is the only reason I am still alive today."
"This isn't right. I can't agree with this."
"You don't have to. You only have to accept it."
"Or what?" Ron said bitterly. "We die?"
"That's just the way things are now. This is how I keep you safe and alive."
"This isn't how I want to live." The tears Hermione had been stubbornly holding back finally slipped free. "Not under his rule."
"Don't cry, love," Harry cooed, gently swiping the tears from her cheeks. "Everything will be all right. He and I, we have a mutual agreement. We intend to rebuild the wizarding world to be better than it ever was. We're going to make our people great again, you'll see." He kissed her gently on the forehead and clapped a stoic Ron on the shoulder. "You'll see," he said again.
Riddle watched him approach, dark eyes sharp and bright even in the low light of the setting sun. A slow smile slid across his face as the young wizard clasped hands with him.
"They don't understand yet," Harry whispered to him. "But they will. They will."
A/N: I thought I was done with this story, but last night NJChrispatrick suggested we try another challenge, and well one thing led to another and, an hour into writing, I realized I'd written a potential companion to the first chapter of Sisyphus. I changed a few things around, tweaked some dialogue and bam! Here's a tentative explanation as to what was going on in the first chapter.