Previous Chapter: After a brief, albeit illuminating conversation with Professor Slughorn, Tom somewhat spitefully vowed to become the greatest student Hogwarts had or would ever see. Over in 1991, Hermione reflected upon her growing relationship with the Weasleys while simultaneously worrying that she was doing everyone a disservice by bringing Neville into the fold without actually telling him anything. Despite her fears, Tom took their newest member in stride and decided to take the four Gryffindors to Slytherin's Classroom for their Defense lesson. After working together for a while, our intrepid First Years parted ways for the night and, much to his ever-mounting frustration, Tom discovered that the nature of the Void was once again changing—only this time, it's gotten shorter and he has absolutely no idea why.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: He Is Unbalancing

Hogwarts, 1991

Draco Malfoy was a strange little boy, as far as Hermione was concerned. Eager to prove himself, but unsure how to proceed—he sauntered about as if he owned Hogwarts and lashed out against anyone who threatened his sense of superiority, or who he considered to be beneath him. He'd accrued a long list of targets which amounted to the better part of the entire student body; but without a doubt, his favourite targets were Gryffindors. His focused vitriol seemed to be fueled by one part House rivalry and two parts loathing for famous Harry Potter. Though they had not shared an encounter nearly quite so charged as the one that resulted in the duel-which never-happened, Malfoy's teasing mockery had nonetheless become a part of everyday life. Like a low-level noise that could almost-but-not-quite be tuned out. Sometimes, though, that noise refused to be ignored; occasionally, it roared to a hideous volume, grating upon her nerves and demanding attention.

For reasons that mostly had to do with Malfoy being a git, he and his shadows had chosen to sit behind Hermione, Ron, and Neville during Gryffindor's match against Hufflepuff. Quidditch strained her temper at the best of times—watching Harry fly at break-neck speeds, knowing he could take a Bludger hit, be cursed again, or slip and fall at any moment left her cold and anxious—and Draco Malfoy's pointed antagonising simply pushed her beyond her breaking point. One cocky exclamation too many, and they all suddenly found themselves in a tense, three-on-three standoff.

It was Ron who threw the first punch, leaping over his own seat to tackle the blond to the ground. Neville, who had never been so reckless since she'd met him, even tried to join the fray, though there was hardly much he could do against meaty slabs like Crabbe and Goyle. Hermione watched them for a stunned moment, incensed but unsure what to do. Despite months of his shallow pestering, she didn't actually hate Malfoy; mostly, she'd just felt a distant sort of pity for him, but even she could admit that he'd been at his nastiest today—poking fun at the Weasley's finances, calling Neville brainless, and going out of his way to pretend Hermione didn't even exist. Her magic had mounted at every slight, drawing out of her core to whip agitatedly through the air around her, but the sudden explosion of violence left her completely unmoored. She hated confrontation, hated this uncivilised descent into barbarous chaos; there were better ways to solve their problems than just wailing on each other. They weren't cavemen, after all!

Neville hit his empty seat with a dull thud, knocked out cold by the beefy, Slytherin goons. That hollow sound, though barely distinguishable above the roar of the cheering crowds, echoed through her mind for a terrible second. In a startling rush, her thoughts simply fell away—right and wrong blurred and dissolved, supplanted by the sick urgency to protect. She felt her magic rush forward, tripping Crabbe and Goyle until they lost their footing and fell, shrieking, from the stands; they both landed with sharp exclamations, though she doubted the fall had been high enough to do anything other than bruise them a bit. Still furious and on-edge, she turned just in time to watch Ron's fist finally connect with Malfoy's face. She wasn't as dispassionate about that sight as she would have liked to be—the blond's grunt of pain was far more satisfying than she would have imagined, like a cold balm over a livid itch.

The stands suddenly erupted—Harry had caught the Snitch, setting the record for what was likely the shortest Quidditch match to ever be played at Hogwarts—and the three Slytherins used the opportunity to slink away before the fight could get worse or a professor could swoop in and start assigning detentions.

Hermione stared blankly at where Crabbe and Goyle had tumbled out of sight, feeling raw and off balance. Like maybe… maybe she'd been wrong. Maybe she had robbed Tom of something all those years ago; maybe she'd been silly and naive, and the angry orphan had been right: the most effective methods to solve a problem were rarely kind. Parvati and Lavender had kept their silence, after all, and had treated her far more judiciously since her outburst—and there was little doubt that Crabbe and Goyle would follow suit, not wanting to instigate a second round or admit that they'd lost a fight to a girl less than half their size. And if there were to be no real repercussions to these two fights, no consequences beyond making life at least temporarily easier, then where was the harm?

Fathomless black eyes flashed through her memories along with the ghost of a twisted, cruel smile that had spoken of joy in the face of suffering. As much as she hated to side with the terrifying, remote creature Tom had become during those brief seconds when he'd confronted Andy Smythe, she had to admit that she could finally understand his logic. It wasn't just about meeting a challenge, giving in to provocation or proving some sense of authority, it was also about sending a message: I let you off easy, threaten me or mine again and I won't be so merciful the second time around. Bluff or promise, the sentiment held weight, a tangible bargain that would no doubt make someone like Malfoy think twice before attacking them again. The small burst of provoked nastiness had likely staved off dozens of smaller future confrontations, and though there was no doubt that Malfoy would eventually come back, it was hard to deny that standing up to him might have brought the Gryffindors at least some small measure of peace until he finally worked his nerve back up.

Her stomach twisted uneasily, bubbling and churning with guilt at such ruthless thoughts. And yet, as she and Ron struggled to get a still unconscious Neville to the Infirmary, she had to admit that she didn't regret her actions. She'd done the wrong things for the right reasons—perhaps that was just a part of friendship that she'd tried a little too desperately to ignore. And maybe, just maybe, she owed Tom an apology for refusing to believe something that he had simply understood.

That idealistic chasm she'd once pictured separating her from Tom no longer felt quite so wide as she'd allowed herself to imagine. Somehow, that thought wasn't very comforting.

In short order, they had Neville under Madam Pomfrey's care, and were prepared to lose themselves to the party that was already raging inside the Gryffindor Common room. Lee Jordan had pulled out his radio and the Twins had stolen some sweets from the kitchens—the whole of Gryffindor was chanting and cheering, celebrating Harry's swift victory. But Harry, secretive and contrary boy that he could be, wasn't there. In fact, it wasn't until nearly a full hour after the match had ended that the green eyed boy finally made his way back to the Tower.

"Harry," Hermione sighed in relief. Visions of Quirrell and his insidious shadow had been dancing through her head—visions of that slippery, oozing charmer sinking its hooks into her loved ones—and she was happy that it appeared nothing dire had happened to Harry over the course of his absence. "Where have you been?"

His emerald eyes gleamed in that particular way of his: an almost feverish sheen that belied his excitement in the face of what he knew made most people frightened or anxious. Instead of answering he looked around, pulled Hermione and Ron close and asked, "Where's Neville?"

"We got into it with the Slytherins," Ron admitted, licking the small split in his lip where he'd accidentally bitten himself during the scuffle, "ended up missing most of the game—sorry." He shuffled a little bit, then looked up and brightly added, "I gave Malfoy a black eye, but Neville sort of got the brunt of Crabbe and Goyle." His eyes darted briefly to her, and she was startled to realise that he must have seen something of her outburst, even if only peripherally, but he held silent on her behalf, though she could scarcely imagine why.

Anxious and not wanting to reflect upon her own actions, Hermione quickly added, "We took Neville to the Infirmary; Madame Pomfrey said he'll likely stay the night, just to be safe." Eyeing the smaller boy, the way he practically vibrated with energy, she asked, "What is it?"

With a sigh, The-Boy-Who-Lived conceded, "You're not going to like this. I was just leaving the supply shed when I noticed someone acting really dodgy, heading for the Forbidden Forest."

"Oh, Harry, you didn't!" she moaned. But of course he had—it wasn't like him to ignore a mystery. And so what if that mystery had ambled out of bounds to students? That probably just made the whole affair all the more irresistible to him. For a moment, she couldn't help but wonder how he'd survived this long when it seemed that his entire life was just comprised of wandering from one spot of trouble to the next.

As she'd suspected he would, Harry nodded. "I used my broom to follow, hid up in the trees; I'm positive they didn't see me. Anyway, that's not the interesting part." He drew in closer, voice dropping low and eager as he continued, "I ended up eavesdropping on a secret meeting between Snape and Quirrell."

Hermione had been relieved when her Gryffindor compatriots had finally opened their eyes to the true nature of Quirrell, but even so she had known that they'd been on the lookout for any reason to distrust Snape. Their hatred had lingered so strongly that she'd known it was only a matter of time before their Potions Master found himself under the microscope once more. Not that she blamed the two boys; Snape had done precious little to endear himself to non-Slytherin students, and his attitude was so remarkably prejudiced and confrontational that it would be ludicrous for the Gryffindors not to think him suspicious. Even so, she couldn't hold in her beleaguered groan at Harry's admission.

The two boys eyed her warily, if somewhat stonily, and she shrugged, relenting, "What did they say?"

"You should call up Davies," Harry replied instead, surprising her, "he'll probably want to hear this as well."

She was hardly pleased with the suggestion; it was bad enough that Harry had sought out danger in the first place, nothing good could come of recounting it to the members of their little study group. And yet, she found that she could hardly fault the shorter boy for wanting to involve Tom because—whether Hermione approved or not—they were all in danger. Tom even moreso, thanks to his precarious circumstances; Harry's desire to include their resident time-traveler was only logical.

Nevertheless, a part of her still fluttered nervously at the idea of facing Tom so soon after her… outburst. An irrational fear was thrumming steadily through her veins: that those piercing, black eyes would take a single look and simply know what she had done. That no amount of dissembling or prevaricating on her part could stop Tom from coming to the conclusion that she'd made a hypocrite of herself—that she had found a new and startlingly effective way of dealing with her bullies and it was uncomfortably similar to his own past methods. What would he think of her? Would his lips curl in anger that she had resorted to the selfsame violence she'd denied him all those years ago, or would he offer her that sharp, pleased smile which never failed to make her a little nervous?

It took some effort to swallow those anxieties down, and she made a great show of checking that the corridor and classroom the trio occupied were both perfectly empty, stalling until she felt that she was in complete control of herself once more.

Because, truthfully, she was just being a bit silly, wasn't she? This had happened before—she'd practically made herself sick with fright over the potential fallout that might have occurred had Parvati and Lavender proved less frightened of her—and Tom hadn't guessed at her actions then, so why should he now? She bit her lip and unhappily acknowledged that staying silent might be her best course of action until she'd had time to make more sense of her own thoughts. For if Tom did not guess the truth and she said nothing either way, then it wasn't really lying, was it? Of course, it wasn't strictly being honest either, and was definitely another one of her Slytherin's behavioural indiscretions she wasn't fully comfortable employing, but could and would if it gave her even a small reprieve. Right now, the reality of what she'd done—allowing her magic to lash out and physically strike others; thoughtlessly, instinctively employing some measure of violence instead of solving her problems in a more dignified and civilised manner—still left her feeling far too raw and shaken to discuss what had happened. When she was at last certain that she wouldn't immediately blurt out the truth at the first sight of her friend, she flipped open her pocketwatch.

Tom appeared in his customary fashion, swift and silent, dark eyes meticulously sweeping his surroundings and companions for any hint of a threat. He stepped closer to the Gryffindors, closer to Hermione, eyes instinctively seeking out her own, but for once she didn't feel comfortable meeting that gaze, worried by what he might see. Her heart stuttered for a moment under the weight of his presence, and she could not stop herself from hastily looking away lest he read her guilt in that uncanny manner of his. He drew up short and stiffened at her uncharacteristic behaviour, though it was difficult to tell if he was offended or merely concerned. Tom had always been unsettlingly good at keeping the full extent of his thoughts to himself, and her quick, darting glances did nothing to help her decipher his tense bearing, but the slight quirking of his brow made it clear that he knew something was amiss.

Harry, thankfully, broke the awkward silence before it had the chance to erupt into something volatile. "I caught Snape and Quirrell meeting at the edge of the Forbidden Forest," he said, answering the impatient, if unspoken, question.

"Blimey," Tom huffed, exasperated, "you're not on about him again, are you?" When Hermione dared to look at him once more, she could tell that his rigid posture had relaxed, bleeding swiftly into something more like resigned irritation. "I thought we all agreed that Quirrell's definitely possessed while Snape's probably just a git."

"Right, well Snape doesn't seem to be on the same page as us," Harry countered, mimicking the Slytherin's beleaguered tone, "and Quirrell was laying the stuttering, innocent act on real thick for him." All four of them took an uneasy moment to let that pronouncement sink in, before Harry continued, "Snape outright asked Quirrell how to get passed Fluffy, and then there was a bit I didn't really catch about a spell or something Quirrell had done to help protect the Stone."

Hermione had a strong suspicion that she knew where this was going. "You don't think—"

"They're working together," he cut her off, tone surprisingly animated, "and Snape seems to be getting worried that Quirrell might go after the Stone without him. He was threatening Quirrell to straighten out his loyalties! I think he might suspect that there's someone else in on the scheme, but I don't think he realises quite how close the danger really is."

"That's not good," Ron jumped in immediately, "we need to—"

But she refused to hear it, loudly interrupting, "Hold on, you two!" It wasn't strictly outside the bounds of possibility that Quirrell had allies they knew nothing about—and if she had to hazard a guess which of the Professors might be in league with Dark Wizards, Snape would almost certainly be at the top of her list—but that was no reason to work themselves up into a frenzy. It was bad enough that they were all trying to keep one eye on Quirrell; if Snape got thrown back into suspicion, she had no doubt that her two Gryffindors would be much more likely to do something rash and incredibly dangerous. Their dislike for the Potions Master was fierce, after all; and, while they weren't without their reasons, rushing off to confront the man in question would be the height of stupidity. "You're both forgetting something," she said, hoping to talk some sense into the boys, "it isn't our job to protect the Stone, that's what Dumbledore is for."

Tom's hand slipped easily into her own, startling her briefly as she had not noticed him closing the small distance to her side. "As much as it pains me to agree," he sighed dramatically, giving her fingers a reassuring squeeze, "I think that the man who defeated Grindelwald can handle a couple of Dark Wizards."

She didn't feel reassured at all. In fact, it struck her quite suddenly that Grindelwald's defeat was something Tom might not be meant to know of. What if his knowing changed things, rerouted history? Unless… unless the duel had already happened in his time and Tom was simply speaking of contemporary events? Afterall, Grindelwald had fallen to Dumbledore in 1945 and she had estimated that her Slytherin could be attending Hogwarts as late as the 1950's. Not that secrecy ultimately mattered, she realised with a sinking feeling—they'd discussed more modern problems like You-Know-Who at length, so the cat was thoroughly out of the bag. Pressing the issue now was not only impractical, it was outright pointless.

Unaware of the abrupt sidetrack Hermione's thoughts had taken, Harry countered, "Maybe Dumbledore could handle Snape, but no one other than us seems to realise that there's more to Quirrell than meets the eye—and even we don't know who's possessing him."

"That doesn't give us much of an advantage, you know," she replied, quickly shaking off her newfound concerns. "We're still just First Years, and Dumbledore is one of the greatest wizards of the modern age."

"Yeah," Ron waded into the debate a bit uneasily, "but how hard do you suppose it is to get passed a three-headed dog?" He rubbed the back of his neck, ear flushing darkly at the incredulous looks he received. His embarrassment, however, did not stop him from pointing out, "It's not like Dumbledore tucked the Stone into his desk drawer; he's not there to guard it all the time. He might not even know it's in danger until it's already gone!"

She felt her lips turning down into an almost childish moue of frustration. "If he was so worried that even Gringotts, of all places, wasn't safe enough, then he wouldn't have left the Stone without defenses! There's probably more to it than just Fluffy." But the two Gryffindor boys refused to see the sense in her words and, indeed, seemed to regard them as a confirmation of their own worries.

"Yeah," Harry agreed pointedly, "but how hard do you reckon it is to get passed all those security measures if Dumbledore isn't physically there to guard the Stone?"

"Quirrell did manage to rob Gringotts, Hermione," Ron added, "that's never been done before. Ever." At her dirty look, he held up his hands and carefully explained, "My brother, Bill, is a Curse Breaker for the bank. He said the sort of magic that this bloke had to use to get in and out unharmed and unseen was in another league; said they'd never seen anything like it."

Tom, who'd been eerily silent as he observed their exchange, let out a sigh and grudgingly conceded, "Between a Potions Master, a Dark Arts expert and whatever it is that's possessing him, they probably know loads of enchantments and forbidden magic that would help them sneak by under Dumbledore's nose."

"Not you, too," Hermione bit out, feeling the slightest bit betrayed that he wasn't taking her side—the fact that Ron and Harry shared her surprise only seemed to add to the insult. She quickly dropped Tom's hand and rounded on the boys, all but shouting, "Look you three, this is dangerous stuff we're talking about; you're only proving my point! We're barely even through our First Year and so much of what we've been taught is just foundation and theory—these are two or three full grown men who could probably kill us without even having to so much as whisper an incantation. We're not prepared for something like this!"

"Undoubtedly," Tom replied levelly, his fingers slipping back around her own—although it was unclear if he was trying to soothe her or simply prove he was unaffected by her temper—and continued, "but we're stuck in the thick of it anyway, prepared or not. Quirrell wants something from me, and the only way he knows how to get it is through you and, by association, your friends here." He gave her a gentle squeeze, patiently waiting for her to meet his eyes before asking, "So if we're already under his scrutiny, if we're already considering him our enemy, then wouldn't it make more sense to understand him and his motivations as much as we can? This is exactly why you went looking up wands, is it not?"

It was, and she hated how thoroughly he'd backed her into a corner with it. Uncomfortably petulant, she refused to reply, but it hardly mattered because he already knew her answer.

"It's safer to know," Harry asserted, putting an end to the petty silence that had been brewing, "and if we can put this mystery together then it's a certainty they could as well."

"So how do you get passed a three-headed dog?" Ron repeated thoughtfully.

"We could ask Hagrid," the shorter boy replied slowly, his tone a bit uncertain. "I mean, he raised the thing after all, so he ought to know."

Whatever mulish silence Hermione had committed herself to broke at that suggestion. If she was to be a part of this nonsense—and there was no question she would be, because the thought of leaving these three boys to their own devices was terrifying—then she was going to be adamant that they not take advantage of one of their own. "He wouldn't willing give up that information to a group of First Years," she murmured, trying to ignore how openly she was appealing to Harry's uncertainty. "You'd have to trick it out of him—and I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't enjoy the idea of treating a friend like Hagrid so poorly. He'd be hurt, and you know it!"

"What's the alternative?" Harry asked darkly, frustration punctuating each word. "We just let Snape and Quirrell make off with the Stone?"

"Is that a sacrifice you're willing to make?" she countered seriously. "Abuse the feelings of a man who genuinely cares for us, for no reason other than that he is truly kindhearted—deceive and betray his trust for the sake of the greater good?"

Tom, likely not knowing who they were talking about, looked as he always did when he felt she was being needlessly difficult—which was to say, bored silly and slightly irritated. Harry and Ron both had the decency to look a little shamefaced at those words, but that guilt didn't stop the redhead from replying, "I like Hagrid as much as anyone, but think about what's at stake, Hermione. Snape and Quirrell certainly won't be above tricking him! What else can we do?"

"There are lines you can't cross without becoming someone else. This line here is what separates us from them," she asserted with a seriousness beyond her short years. "Besides, I thought you all knew me better than that: when in doubt, research."

Hogwarts, 1939

Tom grit his teeth against the anger and frustration welling up within him, against the overwhelming urge to smash and destroy—to unravel something so completely it may as well have never existed in the first place—to exert whatever explosive influence he could until he felt himself in control once more. Helplessness bubbled just under his skin, a sickening weakness that he could never seem to fully combat because the unseen forces of the Universe kept stacking unsolvable puzzles at his feet.

The Void, that abyssal realm bereft of Time or Reason, obeyed no laws he could discern. Indeed, the very instant he felt as if he had figured out even the smallest truth of its nature, the hellish place changed in whichever manner he was most unable to predict. When last he had parted from Hermione, his journey home had been unsettlingly smooth, unexpectedly short, but not so today. Today, it was as if that dimension of Everything and Nothing had forced him to repay his temporary ease with interest—today, it had taken him the far more unpleasant, but infinitely more customary amount of time to bridge the gap between decades and he did not understand why!

Tom's breathing caught, his jaw clenching further as he bitterly acknowledged that this was not the only area of his life which had become unexpectedly aloof. Hermione had all but cringed at his presence this afternoon, and though she had appeared to temper and subdue her initial response the shock of it still left an acrid, rotting taste in his mouth. That familiar distance was stretching between them once more, a fissure which could mean only one thing: she was keeping secrets from him again. Slipping away from him like water, dripping through his fingers piece by piece because he could not contain her unless she wished it—the real question was why she did not wish it. Why would she not confide in him? What had happened, what had she discovered that shook her so greatly she could scarcely even stand to look at him? She had tolerated his touch, and yet still there had been an almost tangible wall between them, something greater and even more terrible than the half century that routinely separated their lives.

She was mad if she thought she could get away with it, whatever it was; he had conceded that he had to share her with her family, had grudgingly endured her other friends, and could do nothing about the academic demands on her time, but he would not tolerate Hermione herself throwing further unnecessary obstacles between them. It was unacceptable; if she put herself in danger again, if she faced the unknown without him—his thoughts stuttered and broke off at the very idea.

She seemed so small to him sometimes, fragile almost, and without the necessary ruthlessness to face the world head on. Appearances were deceiving though, for he knew there were hidden strengths to her—her sharp intellect, her explosive temper, and her delightfully reactive magic, just to name a few—but he couldn't shake the feeling that she was better, safer with him at her side. Why deny him that role? Time and again, they had proven that they worked more effectively together than they did apart, their unique perspectives combining in complementary ways that allowed them to achieve greater success than they might have faced on their own. Why deny herself that opportunity? Why… why turn away her oldest friend?

He could not abide it, could not allow that insufferable distance to spread and fester between them like necrotic poison! He had to… had to find some way of—!

With a startled blink, Tom's more logical side finally caught up to his racing thoughts, appalled and intrigued with the idea that had been blooming in his mind. It was certainly not the first time he had wished to steal away with the girl, and he sincerely doubted it would be the last, either. The fact remained, however, that he did not have the means to do so and, even if he could, it was unlikely to solve his current problem. Swallowing down his anger—forcing that formidable rage to quiet itself—he tried to review Hermione's behaviour in the same way he might assess any of his Housemates.

She'd been wary, sweet brown eyes darting to and fro, appearing strangely shifty for her. As suspicious as that was on its own, he could not ignore her posture: awkward and hunched, her arms drawn tight as if she were trying to fold in upon herself, the wild curls of her hair providing a curtain for her to hide behind. Her body language had suggested she'd been less frightened and more… embarrassed. But what did Hermione have to be embarrassed about in Tom's company? There was no denying that she'd been unhappy with Potter's recountings—perhaps she'd felt foolish for dragging Tom into it. But why flinch away from him then?

It suddenly struck him that he'd seen this behaviour from her before. Shaken, unsure, and curled in on herself as if leery of Tom's reaction—she was being bullied again, he was sure of it! True to her stubborn nature, she felt it was not his place to intercede on her behalf, and no matter how greatly he despised that attitude he knew he could not offer his protection in this matter until she asked for it. Well, he amended, that wasn't entirely true; he was teaching her Defense, after all, and that was a sort of protection, was it not? He couldn't stand between Hermione and her problems—she would not allow it—but he could make damn sure she knew how to protect herself. He would simply have to find a few creative hexes to share while they were studying and think of a particularly underwhelming way to phrase their usage that would not strike her as violent. Was it possible to trick someone into defending themselves? Though his four Gryffindor charges had made excellent progress within the bluestone walls of Slytherin's Classroom—learning several weeks' worth of material in a single visit—it was clear to Tom that he would have to impress upon them how integral Defense was, even in their everyday lives. Perhaps in a group setting, surrounded by boys who would no doubt share Tom's opinion, Hermione would finally start to see the sense in his argument.

With that matter as settled as it could be, Tom looked around the empty classroom he had arrived in and allowed his thoughts to drift as his more calm and rational side reasserted itself. Inevitably, reminiscing about his clandestine tutoring session only reminded him of the curious little rumour Weasley and Longbottom had let slip: in addition to his lost classroom, Salazar Slytherin may have had a Chamber of Secrets. And Tom, covetous at the best of times, was eager to learn more about it—this, at least, was a mystery well within reach. His first impulse was to go to the Seneschal, but despite how generous she often was with him, decoding Slytherin's parseltongue writings would take time he current did not have to spare. He wanted information now, which left him thinking of one student only: Andrus Lestrange. The older boy had long since proven himself more than helpful when it came to gossip and rumour.

Finding Andrus was hardly difficult—the Second Year was perched in his customary seat by the Common Room's eerily submerged windows. Regrettably, he was also surrounded by his equally customary mob of extended family. The Rosiers and Carrows had attempted to close ranks around their cousin after hearing some of the more exotic rumours that had begun circulating about Tom, and they looked positively thunderous at his approach.

"Sod off, Riddle!" one of the more surly ones—a Third Year Rosier, if he wasn't mistaken—bit out as soon as he was within earshot.

But Tom refused to be deterred; their aggressive posturing only ensured his disfavour later down the road, so there was little point in being particularly upset right now. "A word, Andrus?" he asked, making a great show of ignoring the other Purebloods gathered 'round.

Lestrange gave him a long look, as if trying to divine Tom's purpose by sight alone. In this, at least, Tom was just as talented as even the loftiest lordling inside Slytherin; his expression was bland, mildly disinterested, it gave nothing away and offered Andrus—or, more precisely, his cousins—no useful clues. Though he had greater reason to distrust Tom than anybody else, this newest leap of faith did not seem to bother the Second Year. True to his foppish nature, however, he let out an exaggerated sigh as he packed his schoolbag and rose lazily to his feet.

Lestrange's brutish cousin did not appreciate their playful indifference, anymore than he appreciated that his noble-born cousin was obeying the whims of a bloodless orphan. He clapped a heavy hand over one of Andrus's shoulders and, flushing an ugly red, growled, "Ignore him."

"I'll be back in a few minutes," Andrus soothed, trying to shrug off Rosier's hold.

But Rosier had fisted his hand into the material of Lestrange's robe, forcing the younger boy still. "You're legitimising him, you know," he all but bellowed, emboldened by the distant, hissing agreement of the Carrows. "The more time you spend with that little Mudblood, the more acceptable he becomes to the rest of the House!"

Which, in the long term, was precisely Andrus's goal; the sooner Tom had some tangible clout around Slytherin, the sooner Lestrange could begin reaping the benefits of having aligned himself with the unknown boy. His allegiance was still a precarious thing, but for now at least he seemed more than willing to eschew his cousins for the opportunity to stand beside the Heir of Slytherin. He maneuvered free of his cousin's grasp, murmuring, "Peace, Seserin."

The soft tone only appeared to enrage Rosier further. "What's he got on you?"

Tom watched Lestrange carefully, curious what the other boy would say. Andrus could not cavalierly hint that the orphan was his bastard half-brother—not to his closest cousins who knew better—and it was unlikely that he would invoke Dumbledore's name when he'd been so upset by the comparison in the first place. Neatly backed into a corner, the young noble tread as close to the truth as he dared. "It's not like that. Riddle's," he paused and sighed, obviously struggling to find the right words, "look, he might not be a Lestrange but he's someone, I'll tell you that."

Rosier did not look the least bit convinced, and sneered, "Trash you picked up in a city gutter? I've never known you to be altruistic enough for charity cases—you're above them, the heir to the Lestrange family, and this doesn't reflect well upon you. If you throw the family into disgrace, you could stand to lose your inheritance."

"Andrus," Tom murmured, threading his voice with a hint of impatience. In truth, he quite enjoyed watching this odd byplay—so different from Alphard and Eunice's blatant adoration, and yet still filled with that easy sense of fellowship family members all seemed to share—but his blood was positively burning to learn more about the Chamber, and Seserin Rosier was only wasting time.

Lestrange frowned at the gentle urging, and snapped, "You could jump in at anytime, Riddle!"

He understood the Second Year's frustration; short of telling the truth, there were no lies pretty enough to sway the more ardent blood purists. In fact, a part of Tom was a little sadistically pleased that he was no longer the only one to feel the full weight of that burden. When else would a perfect little Pureblood like Lestrange ever experience that sort of discrimination, even if only secondhand? Perhaps a small taste of strife would encourage him to stop dithering.

Andrus had spoken to Tom during a time when the rest of Slytherin would hardly even acknowledge his presence, and for that Tom held a certain… not fondness, per se, but trust in the other boy. That said, it had not escaped his notice that Andrus had a worrying tendency to place himself off in the wings—unseen and out of the fray, acting only as an advisor instead of getting his hands dirty. While having Lestrange's insight into the wizarding world was invaluable, his lack of true action made it feel as if he wasn't choosing a side; Tom suspected that the older boy was keeping his options open, so that if it ever became necessary he could simply laugh the orphan off as a silly mistake. Under different circumstances, Tom might have admired that wary caution, but here and now it simply felt like a slight against him. To that end, he was only too happy to stir up conflict between these cousins, add a little pressure for Andrus to disengage himself from the families that so despised "Mudblood" Riddle.

Tom allowed his lips to curl into a hard smile that he knew warped the otherwise benign features of his face. "Yes, I suppose I could," he replied thoughtfully, but left the matter there. Wishing to further drive home the point that he wasn't about to bail the older boy out, he raised a haughty brow and asked, "Are you coming or not?"

Lestrange's lips thinned in displeasure, but he turned away from his cousins, quietly throwing over his shoulder, "I'm sorry, Seserin. One day you'll understand," before crossing to the younger boy's side.

The Common Room was bustling with activity, but the pair managed to find a secluded corner to converse in, well away from angry relations and eavesdroppers. Eyes surreptitiously observed the pair—curious onlookers, irritated family members, and suspicious classmates all watching in without wanting to appear too keen—but no one approached them. As ever, the uncertainty of Tom's blood status kept the majority of the House at bay. If only they knew! How many would bitterly regret their standoffishness once it became known that little orphan Riddle was Heir to their precious Founder? How many who spit and sneered at him today would later bow their heads in subservience?

Once he was absolutely certain they would not be overheard, Andrus tsked disapprovingly and observed, "You're in a mood today."

Tom allowed his fantasies to slip away, barely stopping himself from rolling his eyes at the other boy's accusation—Lestrange would no doubt resent it if he explained that he'd wanted to watch the older boy make a choice, declare his loyalty in some small way. However, as much fun as it was to see the noble scion struggle between personal ambition and familial expectation, he ultimately could not afford to alienate the Second Year. Even planted firmly in neutral territory, Andrus was a useful font of information. Letting that particular grudge go for now, he softly replied, "You failed to tell me about the Chamber of Secrets."

"Didn't see the point," Andrus laughed, his tense mood quickly evaporating, "it's just a legend. Generations of students have come and gone without a single hint of truth to it." At the orphan's dark and unimpressed gaze, he held up his hands, shrugging, "Look, other Heirs of Slytherin must have passed through these halls, Riddle, but the Chamber has never been opened."

"As far as anyone knows, you mean," Tom countered. "It wouldn't exactly be a secret if they announced it to the whole school, now would it?"

For a brief second it appeared as if Lestrange considered the idea, but plainly could not come to terms with it. "People have searched, but in all these years it still hasn't been found." He shook his head and grimaced, though it was unclear if he simply disliked the topic or if he was uncomfortable trying to disabuse the First Year of this infamous fantasy. "As far as anyone can tell, it never even existed in the first place."

But Tom wasn't the sort to give up on his desires so readily; the idea of the Chamber felt right. If he was to share anything in common with his ancestor—serpentine communication aside—then why not an acquisitive love of secrets? Besides, Hogwarts was massive, parts of it clearly long since forgotten; creating a secret chamber and keeping it hidden for over a thousand years was well within the realm of possibility. "Spin me a tale then, Andrus," he encouraged silkily. "How does the legend go?"

Lestrange was wary of that tone of voice—and rightly so, since it had often preceded a nasty trick on the younger boy's part. Tense once more, he stiffly replied, "The four Founders were some of the greatest witches and wizards to ever live, and they wanted to impart their wisdom and experience upon the rest of us, which is why they opened Hogwarts. They were all fast friends and very close, but they each held uniquely different qualities and ideals in high regard. This not only led to the creation of the Sorting Ceremony and the four separate Houses—it birthed a deep and insurmountable rift between Slytherin and the others."

Andrus wet his lips nervously, but seemed to relax by inches as he recounted such ancient history. Voice low, he continued in a hushed tone, "Slytherin wasn't so much of a Blood Purist as some people like to claim, but he did feel that Hogwarts should only be open to students from magical families; it was less about the purity of the bloodline and more about keeping the wizarding world safe from muggles." An unnecessary task, certainly. What did the wizarding world have to fear from non-magicals? "Maybe he grew resentful over the years and became more of an extremist, who knows? Either way, between that and his persistent desire to include some of the Dark Arts into the curriculum, Slytherin soon found himself with a distinct lack of allies."

Lestrange took in a breath, drawing closer before he continued, "The legend goes that, in his isolation and anger, he began collecting materials—books and artefacts, mostly—to store within a hidden chamber where he intended to teach select students what he felt they truly ought to know. He was supposedly forced from the school before he ever got the opportunity."

Salazar Slytherin had always been something of an abstract concept in Tom's mind: a blood relation that had lived so long ago his deeds had passed into the realm of myth and legend. It was hard to picture Slytherin as a real person, to find some similarity between himself and this grand ancestor he still knew precious little about. In that spirit, he couldn't help but admire these newfound parallels: the instinctive urge to acquire hidden knowledge, to jealously guard his secrets where none may find them, and the bone-deep desire to tutor the select few who were worthy of it. Perhaps he had far more in common with his ancestor than a simple ease with snakes.

It took effort to set the thought aside, to recall that Weasley had spoken of a creature. "And the monster?" he finally asked after a quiet moment.

"Who knows?" Andrus shrugged. "It could have been a pet or something he discovered on his travels. Some of his more ardent detractors insisted it had the power to purge Hogwarts of anyone Slytherin would have disapproved of—maybe by then he was filled with so much hate that he really did raise a monster." Softer, the boy added, "He left Hogwarts a very changed man."

Tom had seen the same story play out a thousand times in London: a bright, hopeful young thing would come to the city, filled to the brim with energy and ideas, only to swiftly find themselves pressed up against the immovable wall of reality. The failure of those youthful whimsies could twist a person up, thread a steely cord of bitterness around their souls, until there was practically no resemblance between who they'd once been and what they had become. He'd seen innovators transformed into charlatans, moneylenders falling amongst paupers, and fresh-faced young women warped into shrill harridans. It was unthinkable that Salazar Slytherin had succumb to the same ordinary fate—hopeful dreams and ambitions crushed by the very friends who had once sworn to help him achieve them—and yet it was hardly surprising that the steady fallout had forged him into a different man.

It was just unfortunate that the legacy his House chose to bear had been born of his defeat, that they were now overflowing with a purist ideology he had only turned to in the depths of his despair. How different might Hogwarts be today had those early students chosen to honour their Founder's true philosophy, if they had sharpened their cunning and ambition in place of spouting hateful nonsense? Tom was wary of concepts like fate and destiny—being a time-traveler left him uncomfortably aware of his actions, and jittery at the prospect that his choices were never truly his own because they had been preordained in some way—but perhaps he had a duty here, as Slytherin's Heir, to straighten out the mess festering inside their House. Maybe that was the true explanation behind his unfavourable upbringing; he was a Half-Blooded orphan so as to have a unique, outsider's perspective, to be without the decadent trappings of aristocracy that might have otherwise clouded his vision and prevented him from doing what clearly needed to be done.

Or maybe the Universe was pure chaos and he was attempting to find meaning in a long series of unrelated coincidences.

Tom pushed those thoughts away, silently chuckling at the fanciful turn he'd taken. "I don't suppose you have any idea where the Chamber might be?" he asked, refocusing on his companion.

Andrus, however, was lost for words, his otherwise boundless well of knowledge failing him. "All the legend says is that only Slytherin's true Heir will have the power to open it, but it's location is anyone's guess," the Second Year replied, shrugging helplessly. "He favored the dungeons, of course, but considering his trickster nature, I doubt he would have dared to place it so obviously close to his House or classroom. Satisfied?"

At that petulant question Tom allowed himself a true laugh, the high and wild sound unsettling Lestrange almost as much as his intense assertion of, "Never."

A/N: Good news, everyone! I'm not dead! To make a long story incredibly short, the Ergott family ended up moving several hundred miles away from where we were previously living. We've moved a lot over the years (in fact, we only lived about 2-3 years in the town we most recently left), so we're pretty experienced at this, but the process takes time and my writing suffered for it. The dust is finally starting to clear as we're settling into our new home, so hopefully that means more time to focus on Addendum. I can't express my apologies enough—I certainly didn't want to break away from the story for so long that people started to think it was abandoned! I also would like to apologize to anyone who was corresponding with me, be through email, PM, or reviews that have not or stopped responding to; things started piling up pretty badly, and I just wanted to get this chapter out finally! I'm not ignoring anyone, I'm just a little overwhelmed.

As always, my deepest and most heartfelt gratitude goes out to everyone who has followed or faved, especially to mshccs, maraudergurl2010, KaTee19, 013bela, Alp Glide, sorainier, Evanelle, Kathryin, The little Red Automobile, mega700201, JuliSt, Cecily Mitchell, Infernalbooks, AnnaOxford, stressed but impressed, Agent Twinkle Toes, Guest, Sqidly, patronuswriting, PinkFriday28, Herdcat, Lizzyy, Blueberry and Blacktooth, alizaykhan6123, Zynis, Rigoudon3, Broken Reveries, Guest (2), myuu, tsohg a ma, Guest (3), Adi, Bubblyblueberry42, Ed, and Guest (4) for all taking the time to review!

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Story Cross-Posted at AO3. (Summary also updated, yay!)