Chapter 26:

It had been another week, and the Christmas holidays were fast drawing near.

Harry now had Quidditch Practise with the rest of the Slytherins, and they suddenly seemed to like him a lot more now that he had the potential to win the Quidditch Cup for them.

Harry didn't really know what to think of them in turn. He knew they became horrible people in the future, and did awful things, but when he saw them in their pajamas or caught them goofing off just like any other student, he couldn't help but be reminded that they were oblivious to the actions of their future selves. They hadn't done anything.

Whilst they may not have been innocents...he couldn't attribute them as Death Eaters and automatically evil either. It messed with his head.

How could he spend time with them, knowing what they'd become? Without smudging some semblance of culpability on himself in turn?

Tom Riddle remained a different matter entirely.

If the other was trying to convince him of some semblance of good intentions, he was utterly failing. Maybe Riddle was just reveling in not having to play his model student act and thus made a note of acting like more of a bastard than normal around him. Or just acting like he would without a nuclear bunker of different facades and faces layered over his skin.

He wouldn't say the Slytherin Heir was without pretence in their interactions, but there was certainly something more genuine involved. Playing with the man not the mask.

Not that he had any mood for games after what had happened to Roger, but there was nothing to be done about that because barring the obliviate incident - and he still didn't know what exactly had riled the other up so much about that, or how he wasn't mind wiped - Riddle seemed to much prefer him 'participating' than plain ignoring him.

Still, Harry had gone quieter, channeling his energies more into improving his duelling skills and trying to find a way home, then making jabs at the young Dark Lord. Even if, ironically, making jabs at Riddle was one of the only sure-fire ways of venting his frustrations at being stuck here he still had.

He wouldn't say he enjoyed their duels, but there was something satisfying about being able to lash out so openly in a manner he was used to, rather than being trapped in political games he was only just starting to get used to.

It felt even better when Riddle gradually stopped beating him so easily, as Harry began playing to his own strengths, instead of just trying to defeat the other in his own field and excel in Dark Arts alone. The other had years of experience and tendency on that matter, he could never win there.

Maybe that had been the problem there all along, with confusion and tearing emotions and the fact Riddle always sickeningly seemed to have the disadvantage - quite simply, because he did. Future knowledge meant next to nothing when he was playing with politics and webs he'd never even dabbled with before, and Dark Arts that were well known for being the domain of the enemy. Knowledge was nothing if he couldn't use it, without simultaneously losing for the attack.

So he started using Light Arts too - Light Arts and Parseltongue to even them out.
Riddle's face had been priceless the first time, before a certain hungry gleam entered his eye that made Harry think he'd not actually emerged victorious at all.

Though that could be the fact that Riddle tended to pull off acting like he had the upper hand, even when he didn't, so it was hard to really tell what he was really thinking unless one could crawl into the bastard's head.

The fact was that Harry was also 'playing' on a constant state of sleep deprivation, so all things considered he didn't actually think he was doing too badly. It just didn't feel like he was doing well, and it was frustrating.

How was he expected to be equal when the odds were so firmly stacked against him? How could he possibly beat Voldemort when the teenaged version could make him feel so very lost?

Roger had been a great help too, in his own way. At least in the short periods he could actually stand to see him between his physiotherapy. It was...relieving to have someone who knew, outside of Tom. He'd relaxed into something far more genuine, if stuff due to the resentments between them, around Roger.

Not that either of Im or Roger wanted to spend time with him anymore. It seemed even Hufflepuff loyalty only went so far. He couldn't blame the other for it though. Roger had even warned him, at the start, not to drag him into a mess with Riddle. And he'd inadvertently done so anyway.

And he had no desire to do so to anyone else, so it was a vicious circle of him spending increasing time with the Slytherins because he didn't care about them, at least not so much.

Maybe that was what Riddle had intended.

But he was also working on his plan, on his wriggling in - he'd somewhat given up being a lackey to Tom, because it was screamingly obvious to everyone that he couldn't do it and couldn't align himself in with the Death Eaters inner circle however hard he tried. Surprisingly, that didn't seem to stop them, or Tom, talking to him. Mulciber had eyed him up a few days before, and pensively asked what made him different, as he packed his belongings for the holidays.

Either way, he'd decided that though overt power lay with Riddle, he would target the masses instead. Those that the inner circle ignored, the foundations and corners of the web instead of daggering a hole in the middle. He knew, first hand, the power a group could have against one man.

Harry was panting on the floor of the Room of Requirement currently, having just finished another duel. It was difficult to say which one of them had won, considering they both had a fair few wounds they were currently tending to.

If he could feel Riddle's eyes on him, he ignored it. The Slytherin always lunged on these moments of exhaustion after to try and talk - or as Harry viewed the little chats, manipulations.

He also refused to acknowledge that being contrasted with the other's rather formidable intelligence as a counter to his own studies, a rivalry, was doing wonders for his ability to learn magic and his grades.

The git was just so insufferable when he won at anything! Harry couldn't help it. It had a way of motivating it which Hermione's attempts had never quite managed to match.

He wasn't arrogant enough to assume that intellectually he was on the same level as the other boy. He wasn't. Tom could start talking a million miles a minute on various things and advanced magic theories as he blinked and pretended he was keeping up.

But Harry also didn't consider himself stupid, and when Riddle actually slowed down and put whatever he was rambling about away from all the fancy jargon, with some practical examples...he found he actually did understand.

It was strange. On one part it galled him that Tom had obviously noted the way he hadn't originally had a clue what the bastard was talking about when he started showing off or trying to illustrate one of his various manipulative points...on the other actually was taking the time to catch him up and put it into a way he could understand.

God, why couldn't the man become an incredibly bastard teacher instead of a Dark Lord? That would make this all so much easier.

Still, normally, after these sessions, he just limped out and tried to ignore the fact they unfortunately shared a dorm too.

His shirt had managed to get soaked in blood by a particularly nasty cutting curse on Tom's side of the spectrum, which banished any delusion that Riddle was going easy on him for the sake of his supposed dark arts teaching.

If he hadn't spent an inordinate amount of time researching counter curses after one of the first times, he would have probably been holding his guts in place at that second.

His consolation prize was the fact Riddle didn't look all that much better.
So far, they hadn't managed to put each other in a coma again, which was just as well, because if either of them had such a victory he suspected the loser would most likely be left to die for the weakness.

He could hardly picture Riddle dragging his bleeding form to the hospital wing, after all.

He peeled his bloodied, tattered shirt off with a slight grimace, to get better at the wound - glancing up, irritated, when he could still feel the other's eyes on.

"Clearly I didn't mess your face up anywhere near enough if you still have time to stare at me," he growled, to where Riddle was holding a handkerchief to his recently healed nose.

"Where are they from?" the young Dark Lord asked quietly, instead of responding, with a gesture in his direction. Harry blinked, glanced down, stiffened.

The Dursleys hadn't given him many wounds, they were more the type to just ignore him, but run in's with Dudley had certainly taken some toll over the years and there had been those times after a few too many drinks coinciding with some magical happenstance. There was hardly an obscene amount, and he'd always healed fast, but it was impossible for there not to be any at all.

"You're not really getting the hang of this 'none of your business' thing, are you?" he snapped, healing the wound with a muttered spell, balling his shirt in front of himself defensively.

Tom's head tilted.

"You know, I've never seen you undressed."

Harry spluttered.

"Now I know why most of your little entourage is male," he said. "Is this a regular thing for you?"

Riddle blinked, before laughing. It was a laugh that rose hairs on the back of his neck, more than being warm and honest, but there was something there.

"Yes, darling. The plan behind all of this is actually to get you in my bed and ruin you."

"So there's a plan?" Harry raised his brows, disregarding the previous statement pointedly, heat on the back of his neck and a glare in his eyes. Riddle merely offered him his favoured shark-smile.

"Hmm, not protesting to the idea? I always said you wanted to fall for the Dark side."

"Oh, I see no point protesting things that are never, ever going to happen," Harry returned., eyes still narrowed. "You're up to something, world domination most likely, but it's not that."

The smirk only broadened, before vanishing entirely, replaced by something Harry had never seen on Tom's face before, though he couldn't place the emotion exactly.

"Well, my initial comment was more to do with the fact that when one shares a dorm, one normally sees their roommates in varying degrees of undress, whether they want to or not. You hide behind your curtains if we're awake, or emerge from the shower already dressed." Riddle's gaze raked over his scars again. "I'd ask if I gave you those, but they're too old for that. They've shrunk and distorted with your skin as you grew up. Interesting, no?" the other's voice was far too soft.

"Not really," Harry said, blandly, standing up.

"And obviously you didn't grow up with your parents." Riddle stood too, stepping nonchalantly into his path. Harry wetted his lips, chin jutting up slightly, folding his arms.

"Obviously."

"And you're muggle raised. Easy enough to see the tells, you don't know enough about the ins and outs of magical society in enough depth, nor do you have the arrogance to have been reared in fame. Hence, muggle. You're a halfblood, by your own admission, and so presumably your mother was muggleborn. Relatives there, perhaps?"

"Why does this matter?"

"I just find it interesting that a small child would grow up with that many scars."

"I was a careless child."

"Somehow I doubt that."
There was still that flicker of something in Tom's eyes, and somehow it made him even more uncomfortable than any overt hatred or signs of Voldemort could ever have done for some strange reason.

He dropped his gaze, sidestepped, expecting the hand to clamp down on his arm and expertly dodging it. He figured he probably shouldn't have done it when Riddle just spun and slammed him firmly against the wall instead.

He was getting far too used to that. Riddle had a tendency to do it when Harry ended the conversation.
Maybe if he wasn't dealing with the teenage Dark Lord, he would have found it sweet that the other apparently was so desperate to keep lines of communication open.

Didn't stop it being bloody annoying - and painful in his currently sore state. Harry's eyes narrowed.

"What the hell is it to you that's got you so worked up?" he bit out. "What, were you expecting me to have some golden childhood where I was spoilt rotten?"

"I wasn't expecting you to be abused."

"I wasn't abused-" Harry began, face flushing a little at the thought.

"Right, yes," Tom snarled, suddenly far more ferocious, eyes burning. "It is normal for a teenager to be so thin and small as you, and to have that many scars. You were just an irritating child. You deserved every bit of it."

Harry's mouth soured, and Riddle's eyebrows demanded, grip only tightening.

Harry's stomach churned with unease, not liking the turn this conversation had taken. Wondered why Tom was so bothered by it, when he had seemed indifferent or amused to any of the countless murders and suffering he had caused in the future.

All of a sudden his mouth ran dry, and staring at Riddle, it just...clicked. A rather nasty smile spread across his face, even as his heart hammered.

Tom Riddle was an orphan too.

"What's the matter?" he questioned, oh so softly. "Is Lord Voldemort horrified to have condemned another to the same childhood that he had?"

Tom's face twisted, fingers flexing violently against his shoulders but staying so still after his initial surge of movement, as if his strings had been abruptly cut, and Harry's breath stuttered at the almost raw expression to the other's face. He swallowed, thickly, wetting his lips. Riddle seemed to have completely frozen, and for all the roughness of his grip, Harry was suddenly certain he could easily shove the other away without him doing anything.

Maybe, it was for precisely for that knowledge, that he didn't. Maybe it was for that stupid, lost expression on Tom's face and how he was sure it wasn't fake or showed for the purpose of manipulation this time.

Whilst he'd been thinking for a while now that maybe Tom Riddle was Voldemort, but Voldemort wasn't Tom Riddle and there was so much more to Riddle than the monster he'd become...he'd never really seen anything to hint at redemption. That the boy had any inclination to stop on the path he was hurtling down.

But looking at him now...he looked more human than Harry had ever seen. Just another fifteen, sixteen year as uncertain about his life and future as Harry himself was.

Maybe, just maybe, he'd spent so much time trying to save other people, because he hadn't been able to save his parents or himself, that it had become an instinct along the way, and it no longer mattered who he was trying to save.

Harry gently detached Tom's fingers from his shoulders.

"Come on," he murmured, dropping his gaze, "your lackeys will be wondering where their master's got to."

For once, the Slytherin Heir followed silently.


A/N: I can't bloody well believe I've updated this before Solace in Shadows. I really want to update Solace, but I am so unbelievably stuck. Everything I want is in the future or near future, not the next chapter. It's driving me nuts! Regarding Past's Player, I hope you enjoyed the update, though don't expect PP updates to become regular or anything. This story isn't abandoned, a lot of you have been asking, but it's so not my priority either. If i have a sudden burst of yay or inspiration for it, then sure I'll post, or, like in this case, I have most of a chapter written and so see no reason not to finish it and give it to you. I'm rambling. That, and I'm busy with my uni stuff too, especially more coming up as my first week is drawing to a close.

But yes, here you go, feedback is as always loved :)

PS: If you're bored, check out "Butterfly Heart" (part 1 now complete) and "Love's Loathing" ;)