Chapter Six: Birthday Presents.

"What have you got there, boy?" Aunt Marge demanded, grating on Harry's nerves.

It was turning out to be the worst birthday that Harry had had in a very long time, which was a shame because it had started out so good. Riddle had been gone for a week, leaving him agitated and confused, but mostly grateful for the older boy's absence. After his disturbing insistence that Harry would need Slytherin qualities to survive, and the whole mess that had been brought about by the ring, Harry was glad to be rid of Riddle. Hopefully, he would stay away for good this time, although Harry doubted he was that lucky. Still, it had put him in a fantastic mood. Then, last night, just as he'd been putting away some homework that he'd been doing on the sly, three owls had flown into his room, bearing birthday gifts from his friends. An odd sort of feeling had filled him then, the same feeling he'd gotten during his first Christmas at Hogwarts: like he'd finally found his place in the world.

So, of course, the Dursleys had to find a way to spoil his great mood. That morning he had found out that Aunt Marge was coming for a visit. Marge wasn't actually Harry's aunt by blood, being Uncle Vernon's sister, and Harry hated the woman with a passion. The Dursleys were rotten to him, sure, but Aunt Marge took their cruelty to new heights. He still remembered the time that Ripper, one of Aunt Marge's old bulldogs, chased him up a tree, and she had refused to call him off until well after midnight. He would have been able to forgive that, horrible though it was, if she weren't always so vocal about her dislike for Harry. He was willing to ignore people simply being mean-spirited—that's how he'd managed to go two years without strangling Malfoy, after all—but Aunt Marge said wicked things with the sole intension of hurting Harry, of making him feel like less than he knew he truly was. She had a way of ripping down his defenses and bruising his very heart with the terrible things she said, slandering everything from his mental health to his lineage.

"I asked you a question, boy," Aunt Marge snapped, bringing Harry's thoughts back to the present. "Where did you get that?" She pointed a chubby finger at his chest.

Harry's hand went to pat himself where Aunt Marge was pointing, but quickly veered upward when he realized that Riddle's ring had slipped out the neck of his shirt. Although Riddle had only warned him not to wear it, Harry had gone to great pains not to even touch it with his bare skin; lately he'd taken to wearing two shirts, so that the ring could slip under the top shirt without being seen, and not touch his bare chest. "It was a gift," he replied, slipping it back between his two shirts.

She sneered, "I wouldn't have wasted my money on the likes of you."

Harry had no idea how much the ring was worth monetarily—it could have been made from pure gold for all he knew—but as far as he was concerned its worth stemmed only from the power it gave him over Riddle, and how he could use that to either weaken the older boy or at least meet with him on more equal footing.

"You mustn't blame yourself for the way the boy's turned out," Aunt Marge started loudly, turning to her brother.

With a roll of his eyes, Harry began to think of his new broomstick servicing kit, a birthday present from Hermione, but Aunt Marge's words broke through his defenses occasionally, making him cringe. Just when he thought he was going to have to make a strategic exit, or face losing his temper—which could be very dangerous for a young wizard—he saw something flicker out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head slightly, Harry watched as, like a faded character from an old muggle film, Riddle appeared right behind Aunt Marge. His image flashed and sputtered, revealing a head, then legs and arms, and finally a torso, until the whole of Riddle was standing in the Dursley's living room, transparent once more.

"Who's this?" Riddle asked, a nasty sneer on his face as he looked over Aunt Marge.

Harry became aware of a low-level noise then, steadily growing louder until it broke through his concentration in the form of a shout from Uncle Vernon. "BOY!" he thundered. "I think you'd best go to your room for a while."

Harry looked from Dursley to Dursley, confusedly noting that they each looked a bit frightened, though Aunt Marge managed to look more disgusted than anything else. Behind Marge, Riddle had slowly begun to wander the room, picking up little knick-knacks and making disparaging noises. It was right about when Uncle Vernon's eyes followed the little vase that Riddle was holding, but didn't even spare a glance to the boy holding it, that Harry realized what was going on again. Somehow, in his transparent form Riddle was invisible to the Dursleys, it was possible that they couldn't even hear him. Which really meant that, for the Dursleys at least, Harry had been staring at a point over Aunt Marge's shoulder, looking absolutely horrified at something that wasn't there. And now things were moving behind Uncle Vernon's clone of a sister, and the Dursleys couldn't explain that beyond Harry doing something freakish.

"Yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry said quickly, making a dash for his room and praying that Riddle would follow. The older boy didn't seem too likely to be entertained by people who wouldn't react to his presence.

"That boy really is deranged," he heard Aunt Marge mutter as he left the room. "That school you're sending him to… St. Brutus's! Are you sure they don't have any summer sessions?"

Harry reached his room in record time, only to find that Riddle was already there, his dark head bent to examine the birthday cards that Harry hadn't had the heart to put away.

"Is today your birthday, Harry? And here I am without a present for you!" Riddle began humming then, swaying slowly to his tuneless song. His eyes lit up suddenly and he stopped moving. "But I think I know the perfect gift to give." He raised a transparent hand. "Make a wish, Harry," he murmured ominously, "it just might come true."

"I don't want anything from you," the green-eyed boy said hotly.

"You'll change your mind," Riddle stated, a smile lurking about his lips.

A silence fell between them, growing more oppressive by the minute, until Harry was finally prompted to speak. "Why can't they see you?" he asked slowly, pointing to where the Dursleys were likely congregated on the floor below them.

Riddle curled the fingers of his still raised hand, making a fist, then twisted his wrist and opened his fingers back up, releasing a shower of bright sparks. "Muggles?" he mocked, clearly disgusted. "Muggles don't see anything, Harry. They ignore the fantastic things around them, not because they can't see them, but because they don't want to. Your relatives can see me just as clearly as you can, but they don't believe in flickering ghost-boys, so their minds simply force them to ignore me."

"They don't believe in magic either, but they still noticed me do small things when I was younger," Harry argued.

"They do believe in magic, Harry," Riddle replied, taking a seat on Harry's bed, "otherwise you wouldn't have been punished for it, you wouldn't have been abused in the hopes that they could force the magic out of you, and they wouldn't be living in fear of you now."

"The Dursleys aren't afraid of me," Harry laughed.

"Aren't they?" Riddle asked quietly, hooking one foot under his knee as he leaned back on his arms.

"No," the green-eyed boy said firmly. "They know that I'm not allowed to do magic outside of school."

"Ah," Riddle crooned, "but there's always the chance that you might want revenge more than you want to return to Hogwarts. How are they to know how much you love school as opposed to how much you hate them? Do you think your boar of an uncle doesn't wake up every morning, terrified that he may have pushed you too far the night before, that he might wake up with extra limbs, or a dead family?"

"I would never-" Harry began, but the older boy cut him off.

"He doesn't know that, not for sure." He raised an eyebrow. "Just like you were afraid of him once." His eyes became hypnotic. "Tell me, Harry, how many times did you go to bed hungry? How many times were you forced to do work that even a full-grown man would have found difficult, and how many times did you fear that your uncle would truly kill you?"

Harry shook his head violently, stumbling until he managed to sit in his desk chair. "Uncle Vernon's not that bad," he said weakly, "none of the Dursleys are."

Riddle's dark brows nearly hit his hairline. "You grew up in cupboard, Harry, in darkness and filth, while your cousin was given everything his piggy little heart desired! They don't deserve your mercy."

"They're not worth staying mad at," the younger boy explained.

Riddle chuckled. "Normally I would agree with you—muggles usually are beneath notice—but they did you wrong Harry, made you suffer for years on end for something that you had no control over." He rose to his feet, looming over the younger man. "Have you no honor, boy?" Riddle mocked, strangely mimicking Uncle Vernon. "You'll let them beat you down?"

"They're not that bad," Harry repeated, although he couldn't get much strength in his voice. They were talking about his relatives, after all, and it was rather hard to defend people who had made it their mission to make his life as horrible as possible.

"And what of that woman downstairs, the one who called you deranged? You'll listen to her slander you, and not raise a hand in retaliation?" Riddle asked silkily. "Listen to her compare your family to her dogs, or shriek about how worthless you are?"

Harry's temper finally snapped. "I despise Aunt Marge, and there is nothing I'd like more than for her negative attitude to be turned right back at her, but-"

Riddle cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Would you really?" He smiled and faded from view. "Who knew that Harry Potter had such a vindictive streak hiding within him?" the older boy's low voice whispered from where he had stood moments before.

Harry, for his part, was horrified at what he had said in front of Tom Riddle about a muggle woman; complaining to him about anyone of non-wizarding descent was just asking for trouble. Blankly, Harry stared at where Riddle had been, his body frozen as his mind pictured all manner of horrible things that could happen to Aunt Marge.

A loud crash sounded downstairs, finally prompting Harry into action, but what he found in the living room completely defied his expectations. He had thought, perhaps somewhat naively, that he would find himself walking into a world of death, with corpses strewn about in a horrible display of power. The trouble with that image was that it failed to take Riddle's imagination and thirst for revenge into account. So, instead, Harry found himself walking into a strange world of dark whimsy. The living room was dim, the sun blocked from the windows by shimmering star-like canvasses. Across the floor rose a low tide of ink, completely submerging Aunt Petunia's favorite rug, and everyone's ankles, in a wet blackness. Here and there, shapes bubbled up out of the tiny ocean. Creatures such as Harry had never seen skittered and dove about the room, black legs and fins gleaming in the soft glow cast from the canvasses. They seemed to dart about the room at random, but he soon realized that eventually the creatures all came to circle around Riddle.

Riddle stood in the middle of the room, atop Aunt Petunia's coffee table, fully corporeal. Ink ran from his hands and legs, bubbling over the surface of the table like a small waterfall, while over his head a swirl of flying ink-creatures circled. For one brief moment, as he finally noticed Harry enter the room, his eyes glowed a bloody red, then faded back to their normal dark tones. "I'm so glad you joined us, Harry. I'm doing this for you, after all," he purred, a maniacal grin blooming over his face.

"Sto-" Harry began to demand, but liquid hands clamped over his mouth.

"Now, Harry," Riddle chided gently, "we can't have you spoiling your gift. Just sit back and enjoy."

Something reached out of the lake of ink and wrapped around his ankles while his wrists were seized from behind. The green-eyed boy struggled for all he was worth, but his bonds refused to give way.

"Who are you?" Uncle Vernon roared at Riddle, obviously able to perceive the older boy in this form. "I demand that you leave at once!"

Riddle barely spared a glance for the purple-faced man. "So what will it be, my young Gryffindor?" he asked, idly petting the ink-based monstrosity that had landed on his shoulder. "Shall I drown them?" A wave rose up, crashing against the Dursleys' laps. "Shall I burn them?" A red haze enveloped the room as tiny flames danced and flickered across the surface of the inky ocean, then sputtered and died, but not before they had singed some of the furniture and a few pairs of trousers as well. "Or," Riddle slowly began to turn, at last facing Aunt Marge, who had been seated behind him, "shall I spare them, and concentrate on her?" He looked over his shoulder at Harry, a single brow raised. "She's really the one you want hurt the most, isn't she?"

Harry tried to shake his head as Aunt Marge began to shriek and bluster in terror.

"Deny it all you want," Riddle raised a hand, creating a ring of fire around Marge's chair, "but I can see your hatred for her shining in your eyes." Something slithered up from the ink-covered floor to twine about Marge's legs, keeping her trapped in the chair. "Why save someone you hate, someone who would not extend the same courtesy to you?" he asked quietly, then turned back around to face the hysterical woman. "Let the Heir of Slytherin show you how to handle enemies, Harry."

Harry ran, as far and as fast as his legs would carry him, stumbling occasionally when his ink-slicked shoes slid on the already wet pavement. Horrible images danced through his thoughts: Aunt Petunia and Dudley's terrified faces, Uncle Vernon weeping and shouting his sister's name, and Aunt Marge… well, what was left of Aunt Marge staring sightlessly into eternity, her mouth frozen in a silent scream, blood trailing obscenely from the corner of her lips. They haunted his every step, driving him further on, forcing him away from the blood and death. More than that, though, Riddle drove him on; the image of the older boy's laughing face, the memory of his gleeful jibes as he slowly delivered death was burned into Harry, spurring him past exhaustion. When he finally stopped, it was because he had tripped headlong into a flickering streetlamp.

He sat in the wavering light for what felt like hours, watching the encroaching night descend, and wondering what was to happen to him now. He couldn't return to Number Four—if there was anything left of it—he'd be sent straight to Azkaban if he did. Despite the fact that it was Riddle's doing, Harry had no doubt that the Ministry would misunderstand, just as they had when Dobby had performed magic at his house. And, in a twisted way, it sort of was his fault; by destroying the diary, he'd given Riddle shape, and later blood as well, so it was Harry's fault that he was out of the Chamber, his fault that the older boy had been at Number Four in the first place. Riddle had been right all along—the consequences of his actions were far-reaching and devastating.

He was an outcast now, he couldn't return to Hogwarts so long as the Ministry might be looking for him, and he couldn't tell the Ministry the truth. As if anyone would believe that the soul of a boy who had lived fifty years ago could cause such terror and destruction! Except for Dumbledore, the thought wandered through his head. Dumbledore would believe him, but… would Dumbledore act; would he help? Harry hated the doubts that plagued him, that made him uncertain of how the Headmaster would react, but Dumbledore had already failed him once.

So he was truly alone, he realized with a heavy heart, without even Hedwig or his wand, having left all his things back at the Dursleys'. How was he to survive, and where was he to go? Harry eventually fell asleep under the disrupted orange light, feeling weary, lonesome, and scared.

He awoke with a start, unsure of how much time had passed; it couldn't have been long though, since it was still dark out. At first he wasn't sure what had woken him up, but slowly he became aware of voices. Just beyond his pool of artificial light, he saw two men and a woman looking around in the murky darkness. Their words were murmurs at first, vague whisperings that grew louder until he could finally make out what was being said.

"You shoulda seen it," the woman said lowly to her companions, idly lifting her illuminated wand. "Room was black as pitch; we thought he'd set the place on fire at first, and we were expectin' a nasty mess with the muggles," she paused, poking about in a large bush.

Harry stayed perfectly still, unsure of why the three adults hadn't noticed him. He thought about running, but he had already done too much of that, and something in the witch's tone kept him rooted to the spot. Could she be talking about the Dursleys?

Not finding anything in the bush, she straightened and continued, "Then, not a minute later, they all come stumblin' out of another room, covered from head to toe in black and all slightly engorged. A bit confused, all four of 'em, but none the worse for wear." She ducked behind one of the men, lifting her wand high as she searched the tree branches above them. "Turns out he just stained the place, like painted it or somethin'. But you shoulda been there," she repeated darkly, shuddering. "It was awful. Thinkin' like we did that The-Boy-Who-Lived had murdered his family… well, we're all just relieved that it turned out to be a prank gone a bit too far. Musta scared himself pretty bad though, to go runnin' off like this."

Harry drew his knees up to his chest—the motion didn't even garner a glance from the three. The Dursleys were alive, he though in astonishment, even Aunt Marge! Riddle must have faked the torture somehow.

"All I know," one of the men, a burly-looking wizard who was regarding a bench suspiciously, interrupted, "is that we'd better find him. The Minister will have our wands if we don't come back with the boy, what with Sirius Black on the loose and all."

The remaining man stayed silent, his eyes staring sightlessly through Harry, before he shrugged and meandered quietly with the other two. Soon their chatter died away and they quickly faded from view, swallowed up by the night once more.

Why had they not seen him? Had he somehow, in his panic, lost control of his powers and made himself invisible? His questions were quickly answered, however, when he straightened his legs; something whispered over his head and began to pool in his lap, a silvery, familiar material: his father's invisibility cloak! He had always considered it to be lightweight, almost fluid really, but how had he not noticed its presence at all, and where had it come from?

A sound rent through the night then, a rustling that broke through the steady murmur of crickets and peepers. From a distance a light fluttered and died, only to flare to life again closer to Harry; it did this several more times until it came close enough for him to see that it was Riddle, the very last person he wanted to be near. Standing just outside the orange light of the streetlamp, Riddle faded in and out of sight as if he didn't have enough strength to remain completely visible.

Harry turned away from the older boy, looking out into the night. "Are they really alive?" he asked about the Dursleys, almost positive that Riddle had heard the witch talking; the older boy was beginning to take on nearly omnipotent perception in his mind.

Riddle shrugged and, his voice oddly echoing, replied, "They'll likely have nightmares for some time to come, provided the Ministry doesn't outright Obliviate their memories, but yes, they are alive."

"Why did you do that?" Harry whispered, his throat tightening. He had thought that he'd been witness to the torture of his relatives, but it had turned out that the only one being tortured was him.

"The Minister is coming," Riddle ignored his question, "and you have two choices: you can either take that cloak and hide, or you can let the Minister find you, coddle you to a potentially disgusting degree, and allow you to spend the remainder of your summer at the Leaky Cauldron." He faded from view for almost a solid minute, but when he returned, Harry's trunk and Hedwig's cage appeared beside him.

"Why are you doing this?" Harry tried again.

"I fear that you misunderstand your gift, Harry," Riddle grinned genuinely, "but all the same… happy birthday." And, with that, he disappeared from sight for good, just moments before the Minister's dim shape trudged through the darkness.

As Harry waited for Fudge to discover him—he'd already decided to go along with the Minister; he was much too confused and weary to continue hiding—he realized that, in a strange and sick way, the older boy might have actually given him a gift that he'd longed for: Riddle had given him a Dursley-free, four weeks of freedom.

A/N: So… that was a bit darker than I intended to go for this chapter. (Also, a peeper is a frog, in case that confused any of you.) And don't worry, if you're confused at what went on and why (i.e.: the fake murder of Aunt Marge) it will be explained soon.

Hurray for mostly disregarding the plot of Prisoner of Azkaban! As I said when this story first started, there will probably be elements from the Azkaban story-line, but a lot of things are going to be completely different.

For those interested, I've added more to the Trophies section in my profile, addressing some questions that I've been asked more than once. It doesn't give away any important plot-points, but it may help you understand some of the things that have already happened. Also, don't hesitate to ask me questions; chances are I didn't explain something as well as I should have, and pointing that out to me will benefit everyone because, in most cases, I'll go out of my way to further explain it within the story. I can't promise I'll be able to answer everything, since some explanations would be plot-sensitive, but I will try my best.

Please Review!

Disclaimer: One or two lines of text were taken from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling, as were most of the characters and locations. I own nothing!