I hereby disclaim all rights to the characters, places, concepts, etc. depicted below.

My beta, Jazz, did a fantastic job putting this chapter in order.

A/N: Thank you for all the wonderful reviews, everyone! You really are the best, and it makes my day to read your comments.

Recently I've made some edits to the earlier chapters to clean up the writing a bit. The only noticeable change occurs in the end of Chapter 12, where Tom looks into the stolen crystal ball. If you haven't read the revised vision yet, I recommend doing so – there's a big hint on future trajectories there.

Chapter 19

The train ride to London was awkward. Harry was poor company, and his depressed mood made everyone in their compartment uncomfortable. Eventually, the gang split in two when Lestrange, Dolohov, and Mulciber wandered off for a game of Exploding Snap, while Rosier stayed behind to keep an eye on Harry. He even stuck to his side when they had reached King's Cross, making sure to pass Harry safely into his grandmother's care.

Iris met Harry at the station alone.

"There you are, Harry darling. It's so good to see you!" she exclaimed and pulled him into a warm hug. Harry patted her back uneasily, forcing a smile on his face when he drew back.

"I'm so glad you changed your mind about coming," she said, squeezing Harry's hand before finally letting go of him. "Howard is, too. He wanted to come pick you up, but he's very busy at work and couldn't make it. I promise we won't distract you from your studies – you can have all the peace and quiet you need. You even have our permission to practice your spells while you are in the house. Just don't tell anybody!"

"That sounds great. Thanks," Harry said. Iris' smile dimmed a little.

"Are you alright?" she asked.

"I'm fine. Just... worried about the exams."

"Well, we had better get you home, then, so you can get back to your books. Let me take your trunk."

They headed to the Apparition point near the entrance to Muggle London, and moments later, they were hanging up their cloaks in the foyer of the Potters' townhouse.

"It's terrible business, what happened at Hogwarts. Those poor children. Have they found out what happened to them yet?" Iris said, brushing the last wrinkles off her cloak before closing the cupboard door over it.

"No," Harry said.

"Do you think it was really one of your house mates? This 'Heir of Slytherin'?"

Harry shrugged. He wished she would stop talking about the Chamber of Secrets. He felt guilty, having known about this and not being able to stop it. He knew she was trying to help, but it only made things worse.

Another student had been attacked: a sixth year Hufflepuff. She had been found petrified in the Trophy Room, where she had been serving detention. The caretaker had been fired for leaving her unsupervised, though he claimed that he had only stepped out to use the loo.

Harry felt terrible. He knew what would come – a girl was going to die. In the Great Hall, his eyes searched out Myrtle, the small third year Ravenclaw who sat alone at the crowded table, shoulders hunched and face obscured by her hair. She picked at her food, but rarely looked up from her plate.

Harry wanted to warn Myrtle, or better yet – he imagined going to the girls' lavatory and sealing the hidden entrance to the Chamber with a volley of Blasting Curses. If that failed to cave the place in, he imagined going in and killing the Basilisk. He would break into Dippet's office first and steal the Sorting Hat – hopefully he was still Gryffindor enough to pull the sword out of the hat like he had in second year. He would probably die killing the beast, because Harry wasn't sure if Fawkes was around yet, but that was okay. He wasn't afraid of dying.

"Are you hungry? Dinner is at seven, but I think there's still some soup left from lunch."

"I'm fine. I think I'm going to study." The thought of food made his stomach turn and he wanted to be alone. "Thanks for picking me up." He managed a strained smile, but couldn't bring himself to look his grandmother in the eye. He headed up the stairshis trunk floating behind him.

"Alright," Iris said, watching him go with worried eyes. "I'll come get you when dinner is ready."

"Thanks," Harry called over his shoulder.

He reached his room on the second floor, and let his trunk lower itself to the floor with a thud. He didn't want to be here, but he had felt miserable at Hogwarts.

He and Tom were over.

They still sat next to each other in classes and worked together on school assignments, because if they suddenly flew apart, Dumbledore would know what was going on. Neither Tom nor the Oath would allow that – and, if Harry was honest, neither would he.

Tom was cold to him. He hardly spoke to Harry, and when he did, it was cruel. Harry, in turn, could not speak. He could not rage, nor shout, nor plead, nor explain. He couldn't even frown or glare, and he knew that the placid, uncaring shroud only hurt Tom worse.

Harry wished he was only angry at Tom for setting the Basilisk loose. But, he was equally angry at himself and at the Oath for forbidding him from being course he didn't begrudge Tom his right to Slytherin's Chamber. He knew Tom well enough to sense his insecurities. There weren't many, but his name and his poverty were at the top of the list. Harry understood, he really did, and if only he could talk to Tom, maybe he could explain that he would never deny Tom his inheritance, but only asked him to use it responsibly.

Harry started, not realising he had walked toward the desk until he stood in front of sat down with a heavy sigh.

He could not understand writing threatening messages, and petrifying students, had to be personal vengeance,and Harry found it unsettling he had missed the cues leading up to Tom's Tom so bitter and angry at his Muggle caregivers that he would go on a rampage against Muggle-borns? If only they could talk, Harry could ask Tom to explain why he was doing this. Maybe they could move on from there.

The worst part was that he had known all along that this was going to happen, and yet he managed to be horrified. When he had first arrived here and met Tom, he had thought of little else than the imminent events, and he had no trouble believing that Tom was capable of murder. But now…

Nowhe cared about what made him do it. He wanted to understand, and he wanted desperately to do something so that Tom no longer felt like he had to kill. He had thought things were going well – he had been so happy with Tom, and he had thought Tom was happy, too. It offended and frustrated him that Tom had done this behind his back, without breathing a word to him about his intentions. He thought of all the times that Tom had disappeared to the 'library' to do research, asking not to be disturbed. All term he had been doing that, and now Harry realised that he had probably been searching the castle for the entrance to the Chamber. He wished he could talk. If only he could talk to Tom, he might be able to fix this.

Harry lost his sense of time as he sat at the desk, staring out the window. A knock on the door roused him from his reverie, and he looked around just as Iris poked her head around the door.

"Dinner is ready. Oh, Harry, where are your books?"

Harry looked belatedly at his trunk, which still sat unopened by the door.

"Um. Sorry," he said.

"It's alright, dear. You've had a long trip." Iris gave him a reassuring smile, but it looked tense at the corners and she was twisting her hands together anxiously.

"Howard isworking late at the office, so it's just the two of us. I hope you don't mind eating in the kitchen."

"It's fine."

Dinner was roast beef with onions. Normally Harry would have loved it, but now he picked at his food, feeling uncomfortable under Iris's gaze.

"Are you having trouble with your boyfriend?"

The question jarred Harry from his thoughts and he looked up at Iris, shocked. "How do you know about him?" He hadn't mentioned Tom in any of his letters.

Iris smiled wryly at him. "Many of my friends attend Professor Slughorn's parties. I heard several accounts of how you turned up on Valentine's Day with a dashing young wizard."

"Oh." Harry should have guessed.

"What's his name?"

"Tom Riddle."

"He gave you a Christmas present, didn't he?"

"All of my friends gave me Christmas presents."

"Yes, but his was special. I remember."

Harry remembered, too. He had discarded his old scarf and mittens and worn the ones Tom had given him all winter.

"It doesn't matter. He's not my boyfriend anymore."

"What happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

Iris was quiet for a moment, observing him from under her fringe. "Did he kiss another boy?"

Harry snorted mirthlessly into his roast. "No."

"Did he hurt your feelings?"

Harry shrugged. It was far more complicated than that, and his feelings were the last thing that mattered.

"And you ended the relationship?"

Had he? Harry had never said 'We're over', but even if he had been able to speak, he wasn't sure what he would have done. Maybe he would have broken up with Tom fair and square. But, that was neither here nor there, because Tom had drawn his own conclusions that amounted to the same thing.

"I guess we were both angry at each other," he finally said.

"Oh, Harry," Iris said. "Couples fight. It doesn't mean you have to break up. If there's a way to forgive, there is always a future. Do you still have feelings for him?"

Harry twirled his fork in his hand, staring resolutely at his plate. A part of him rebelled against having this conversation, but the rest of him remembered how he had been trapped within himself for the past week, unable to voice his troubles even to himself.

"Yes. Of course. I… Of course."

"Then, do you think that you might be able to forgive him for whatever he did?"

Harry thought of Keegan Towler and Gladys Fischer, the girl who still held a polishing rag in her fist, and Myrtle. And he thought of Tom – vicious, sweet, wonderful Tom. No matter how guilty Harry felt for it, even thoughts of the unsuspecting Myrtle could not make his memories of Tom any less precious.

"I don't know," he said dully. His gaze, still fixed on his cooling roast, had grown glassy as he thought of the Basilisk's victims.

"Well," Iris said after a short silence. "Take your time. I don't mean to tell you what to do, but maybe you should try talking with Tom."

Harry wanted to laugh at the suggestion, but the enchantment was still working on over-drive.

The next day Harry set to work on his studies. He felt better when he was studying – when he was busy cramming Transfiguration theory, he could forget about the Chamber of Secrets and Tom. It was only at night, when sleep refused to come, that his thoughts strayed back to Hogwarts and the depression returned.

They could have had the castle to themselves if things hadn't gone sour. Harry imagined him and Tom lounging together in the common room, kissing in the courtyard, putting the Divination section to better use… Instead, they were both alone. Tom was stuck alone in the cold castle, and Harry was here, doing his best to avoid his grandparents and pretend he wasn't a wreck.

He recalled Tom's face that terrible morning in the dormitory with a pang of guilt. He hadn't meant to break up with Tom, not really – he had felt angry and betrayed and he had been utterly unable to express any of it. A simple, unrelated statement was the only thing that the Oath would let him voice in his state of turmoil, and frankly he could not spend a week alone with Tom after what he had done. It was typical that Tom would jump to conclusions without stopping to consider what Harry might be going through.

Maybe it was better this way. Obviously the relationship wasn't supposed to work in the first place. He had been stupid to think that anything good could come out of getting close to the boy who would become Lord Voldemort. How stupid of him to hope that he might be a good influence on Tom, that Tom would let anyone influence him. How stupid of him to fall in love with Tom – now he suffered the consequences. He had brought this on himself, so he had no right to whine.

He couldn't even blame Tom, because Tom was just being himself.

Towards the end of Easter, Howard invited Harry for a game of pool.

"I don't know how to play," Harry said, anxious to return to his room.

"I'll teach you. It'll be fun."

Harry couldn't say no without being rude. Reluctantly, he followed his grandfather into the game room.

Howard spent a few minutes explaining the game to Harry and showing him how to hold the cue stick, and they had a short practice game. Harry was terrible at the game, but he couldn't find it in him to be put out by that.

As he arranged the object balls back into the starting formation, Howard broached the subject that he had brought Harry here for.

"So, tell me about this Tom."

Harry sighed. "What about him?"

"What's he like? Describe him."

"Look, I don't want to talk about what happened."

"I'm not asking you what happened. I don't need to know what you fought about or how you broke up. I doubt I would be able to help. But, I want to know what this boy is like. He must be special to make you mope like this."

Harry eyed him warily, but he just raised his eyebrows at Harry expectantly.

"I'll take the first shot," Howard finally said when Harry remained silent. He bent over the pool table and, with expert moves, sent the cue ball hurtling into the triangle of gleaming object balls, sending them scattering all around the table. One of them disappeared into a pocket. "You're solid. What is he like in school?"

Harry relaxed a little at the safe subject, going around the table to reach the cue ball.

"He's brilliant. Top of the class in every subject, without even trying."


"The professors love him."

"Wow. I hate him already."

Harry surprised himself by chuckling. He struck the cue ball and winced when it barely grazed its target.

"What about his personality?"

That was a trickier question. Harry shifted his weight uncomfortably as he thought about his answer.

"Well, he's really smart, obviously. And… independent. Holds his ground, doesn't let anyone push him around. And, hmm. He can be really charming, like you wouldn't believe, but… he isn't very friendly to most people. Some people find him intimidating, and I don't blame them."

"Er. Sounds amiable."

"I know what you're thinking, and really, you're kind of right. He isn't a very nice person when you first meet him, unless he wants you to think he is. But, when you get to know him… Not many people do, but I did, and once I got to know him, he was really sweet. He'd make these thoughtful little gestures when you least expected him, and he's protective. Not that I needed protecting, but anyway. It was kind of nice."

"Oh, I see. He's a walnut. Just needs a gentle nutcracker."

Harry smiled weakly, his briefly lightened mood faltering. If Tom was a walnut, then Harry had failed to crack him open, and now he had blown his chance to try.

Howard pocketed a striped ball, his second in a row. Harry watched with growing desolation as he lined up a third shot. The cue ball hit a yellow stripe, which hit a green stripe, which fell neatly into a corner pocket.

"So he was good to you?"

"Yeah, he was."

Tom had been kind and considerate and… amorous. As long as they had been together, he had never patronised Harry like he did the rest of the gang. And Tom had never hurt him intentionally. When Harry had been reckless or insolent, Tom had never done worse than shoot him a glare and a few threatening words before letting it slide.

Even Keegan Towler's petrification had been intended as a twisted sort of gift to show that Tom cared. Harry could see how Tom would find it appropriate, even though he couldn't agree with the notion.

Gladys Fischer, though, was a different matter, as was Myrtle. Harry could not possibly forgive Tom for hurting innocents, no matter how much he loved him. How could he forgive? How could he forgive himself if he forgave Tom?

"How long were you two together?" Howard asked when he failed to pocket the fourth ball and it was finally Harry's turn.

"Since Christmas."

"And you share a dorm?"

Harry rolled his eyes, watching his solid orange ball hit the edge of the table and bounce back harmlessly. "Yes, and so do four other boys. Nothing happened." He tried not to think about the night before the message on the wall.

"I wasn't worried about that," Howard said, his voice not entirely convincing.

"Well, nothing did, and nothing will." The burning loss and sinking depression had returned. Harry placed the cue stick on the edge of the pool table with numb fingers.

"I forfeit. You win. Can I go now?"

"Harry, I didn't mean to…"

Harry didn't listen to him, heading out the door in a sort of haze. He climbed the stairs up to his room, barely feeling his legs move for the queasy feeling of emptiness in his chest.

His grandparents saw him to the train station a couple of days later. Harry felt bad for being such a skulking raincloud all holiday, but when he tried to apologise, Iris only hugged him tightly and handed him a care package full of freshly baked sweets.

When he got back to Hogwarts and trudged into the dungeon common room with the other Slytherins, Tom met him with an icy glare. Harry hadn't expected anything else, but it still hurt.

Later, Avery muttered complaints into his ear. "I don't think he cracked open a single textbook during the holiday."

"He already knows the material for the O.W.L.s," Harry said dully.

"Yes, but he was creepy. I wouldn't say he was moping, but something like it. It's like he was seething. On a low boil. I'd leave to the library in the morning and he'd be sitting there glaring into the fire, and I swear, when I came back in the evening, he was still there. Hadn't even moved.

"I wish you two could get back together. I liked him better when he was getting laid."

"If that's the case, you might as well just buy him a prostitute," Harry said bitterly.

Avery opened and closed his mouth, irritation replaced by sudden chagrin. "I'm sorry, that was really crude."

It looked like he was going to offer more platitudes, so Harry picked up his things and left.

Rosier was in an awkward position, caught between being a faithful friend to Harry and a loyal crony to Tom. He tried to reason Harry into patching things up with Tom.

"You were both happier when you were together. Why do you do this to yourselves?"

The fifth years were heading towards the Great Hall for lunch after a double session of Defence Against the Dark Arts. Tom stalked ahead with Avery reluctantly sticking to his side, while Harry and Rosier hung back a few steps behind them.

"Really, I don't see what the big deal is," Rosier continued the whispered conversation. "It's not like anyone's really been hurt. I think it's wicked that the Chamber of Secrets is open. This is just payback for all the discrimination Slytherins have had to deal with for the past millennium."

"If we want the discrimination to stop, this is not the way to do it," Harry muttered back.

"I said payback, Potter. It means revenge. The discrimination isn't going to stop."

Harry reckoned that the situation with Slytherin was better now than it was in the 1990s. The Gryffindors still hated Slytherins, but the Ravenclaws seemed indifferent, while Slytherin and Hufflepuff were downright friendly. Apparently, there were unusual numbers of pure-blood scions currently in Hufflepuff.

"What did Fischer ever do to undermine Slytherin?" Harry said.

"Well, it was just a demonstration, wasn't it? She was unlucky to be convenient."

Harry was about to respond indignantly, but a chilling sound made him freeze, stopping in his track.

"Hungry… Blood… Tear, kill… Let me kill…"

Harry stared at the wall, where the sibilant sound was coming from, moving upward and growing faint. His face had become a blank mask, hiding his horror, and his fingers twitched feebly at his sides as he fought for control. His instincts screamed at him to sprint after the voice, find the nearest stairs and climb, follow, don't let the Basilisk near the students. But he was rooted to the spot.

"Potter? What's wrong?"

Tom and Avery stopped and turned to look at Rosier's question. Tom frowned at Harry, glancing between him and the wall.

"Nothing," Harry finally said, forcing his legs to move and continue down the corridor towards the Great Hall. He refused to look at Tom.

Harry couldn't eat at lunch. His insides were churning with worry as he kept glancing at the doors, expecting someone to dash in at any moment, crying that another student had been attacked. It chilled his bones to think that Tom allowed the Basilisk to roam the castle without the Parselmouth's supervision.

By the end of lunch, no word had come of an attack. When classes were finished and dinner rolled in, still there was no sign of a new victim. Harry was confused. Had the Basilisk been merely wandering the pipes aimlessly? He spent the evening until curfew skulking about the corridors, straining his ears and peeking around corners through his fingers, hoping that he wouldn't find any living statues.

The next day in double Herbology there weren't enough Fanged Geraniums to go around, so Harry and Tom were assigned to prune Professor Beery's favourite Hibiscus Vulgaris, a large plant with an umbrella-sized orange flower hanging from the greenhouse ceiling. Their task was to trim off excess vines that were starting to choke the other creeping plants inhabiting the slanting glass panes.

"I'm sorry, boys, but somebody has to do it. You'll get extra credit," Professor Beery said. "Whatever you do, don't touch the stamens. This beauty is pollinating," he added, indicating at the thatch of tentacle-like protrusions leering at them from the centre of the flower. They were covered in a thick layer of yellow fuzz.

They were given a ladder and a large pair of shears. Without even a by-your-leave, Tom grabbed the shears and climbed the ladder, leaving Harry to stand around awkwardly. Eventually, Harry picked up a burlap sack, figuring he should clean up the cuttings that fell to the floor. He looked up at Tom and winced. Tom's face was blank, but the way he snipped away with the shears indicated that he was probably imagining Harry's fingers instead of the vines.

Harry looked away with a twisting feeling in his gut and bent down to scoop up leaves and wiggling bits of vine. They worked in tense silence, listening to the noise the rest of the class were making on the other side of the greenhouse. After a while, Harry heard a muffled grunt from Tom. He looked up again to catch him rolling his shoulders before bringing the shears up again to continue pruning.

"We can switch," Harry said hopefully. "I'll pick up from there."

Tom looked down at him with a closed expression that barely hid his contempt, before climbing down. He handed Harry the shears when he reached the floor and Harry readied himself to climb up in his stead.

"Careful, they're sharp," Tom said snidely.

"I think I can handle myself, thanks," Harry said.

Before he knew it, Tom had grabbed the front of his robes and pulled him sharply up against the ladder, glaring at him through the rungs.

"You're a Parselmouth," he hissed, in English this time, face twisted in a furious expression. "Why did you never tell me? Are we– are we related?"

Shocked, Harry stared dumbly. He hadn't realised that they had lapsed into Parseltongue. He cursed himself for not noticing – he had always had trouble distinguishing between Parseltongue and English. Beneath the fury, Harry thought he saw a hint of genuine hurt in Tom's eyes.

"No, we're not related," Harry said with emphasis. "And I didn't tell you because I forgot."

"How could you not tell me? You must have known I'm a Parselmouth, too. It's common knowledge to the rest of our circle."

"I…" Harry stuttered, bringing his hand up to touch Tom's arm. He hesitated and left it hovering in the air. "I'm sorry. I swear, it just never came up."

"Four months and you never told me. I can't believe you!"

Tom pushed him off, letting go of his robes. The expression on his face was disgusted.

"You have a job to do. Get on with it," he said, jerking his head up at the Hibiscus.

Harry stared at him, disquieted. He hadn't been trying to keep his ability to speak Parseltongue a secret – he was telling the truth when he said it had never come up. There weren't any snakes in the school, because students weren't allowed to have them as pets, and while there were plenty of snake carvings and other images in the Slytherin dungeons, many of them even animated, they weren't sentient enough to speak Parseltongue.

He could see why Tom was upset. Tom had shared many of his secrets with him that Harry was sure he had told nobody else, and now he had stumbled upon a secret that Harry had apparently kept from him, something they had in common and that could have brought them closer together. Harry should have thought of this before, he should have told Tom. He had messed up and it made him feel completely awful.

"I'm sorry," he said, knowing it sounded hollow. He grabbed a rung and scrambled up the ladder to escape Tom's glare, dragging the shears with him.

When he had reached the top of the ladder, he let go with his hands, testing the weight of the shears as he reached for the tangle of vines that needed pruning. His hands shook from the churning feeling of guilt in his stomach.

He had barely made a single cut when the ladder suddenly quaked under him, the previously firmly planted legs of the structure tilting to the side. Harry yelped and swung his arms around to regain balance, his heart skipping a beat in panic. One of his wind-milling arms hit the huge flower hanging from the ceiling, and the next second he was blind. The ladder righted itself and Harry clung to the top, gasping with fright. A ten-foot fall from the ladder was no laughing matter.

After he had calmed down a bit, Harry realised that he hadn't gone blind. Confused, he took off his glasses and squinted at the gunk covering the lenses. Looking down, he saw that his black Hogwarts robes had become yellow with sticky pollen. So had his hair and every bit of exposed skin.

"I told you not to disturb the stamens!" Professor Beery cried. "Look at all that wasted pollen! Twenty points from Slytherin, and you can forget about the extra credit, Potter."

The tentacles, now free of the fuzz, wiggled lewdly at Harry from the centre of the flower.

Harry looked down at Tom, who stood at the foot of the ladder, but he couldn't see his face without his glasses. Impotent fury turned his knuckles white around the ladder even as the rest of the class howled with laughter. Tom had pushed the ladder – Harry was sure of it. He only wondered bitterly why Tom hadn't let him fall and break his neck.

"Get down here and let Mr Riddle do the rest. And don't even think about spelling yourself clean! You can stay like that and think about what you've done."

Humiliated, Harry got down from the ladder. He glared at Tom as he passed him. Tom gave him a malevolent smirk before jerking the shears from his grip and climbing the ladder again.

Harry spent the rest of class huddled on a stool in a corner of the greenhouse, lacking only a dunce cap. He glowered at Tom from beneath his yellow fringe, stewing in bitter thoughts. Tom was the one who had ruined the plant's pollination cycle, yet the professor praised him for doing an excellent job. Tom could have killed him with that ladder trick, yet Harry was punished for carelessness. What was worse, Harry couldn't even point fingers without ruining the charade that everything was alright between them.

For the first time, Harry had experienced the cruel side of Tom Riddle first-hand. He guessed he was lucky to escape with public humiliation instead of, say, his corpse rotting in the Chamber of Secrets, but knowing this didn't make him feel any better.

When class let out, Professor Beery gave Harry a potion that would get the sticky pollen out of his hair.

"Vulgaris pollen has the nasty habit of sticking to you like a lecherous old man. Use this if you don't want to find yellow hairs for the rest of the term. A few well-powered Scourgifys should take care of your clothes."

Rosier and Avery tried to cheer him up on the way to the castle.

"We weren't laughing at you – we were laughing at the situation!" Rosier said.

"Everybody screws up sometimes. Beery shouldn't have made you sit in the corner, but he does that to anybody who messes with his favourite plants," Avery said.

They reached the castle's East entrance. On the ground floor near the entrance, there were public showers for students like Harry who made a mess of themselves in Herbology and didn't have time to go to their house quarters for a bath. Their group filed in to the boys' changing room.

"Now strip, Potter. We'll get your robes clean while you're in the shower."

At first, Harry felt even more humiliated than before, but his friends' no-nonsense attitude put him at ease. He spent a good while scrubbing his hair in the shower, listening to Rosier and Avery's bickering in the next room.

He was squinting at his hands, trying to discern a hint of yellow in the suds, when he heard Avery ask, "Where's Riddle? I thought he came here with us."

"Huh. Is he in there with you, Potter?" Rosier called teasingly.

"Ha, ha," Harry said.

He turned off the shower, the unpleasant mix of feelings flooding back and making his stomach turn. Then, he heard it – the voice that had been swallowed by the running water.

"Hunt... Tear, kill... Blood... Give me blood... Kill... Yes, kill!"

Sudden, primal fear gripped him. Paralysed, he couldn't even think as he listened to the Basilisk move through the pipes, unable to tell which way it was heading. Had he been too quick to count himself lucky?

He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly before calling to his friends, "Guys? I think this is going to take a while – this pollen just won't come off. You can head off without me and I'll catch up later."

"Uh, do you... Do you need help?" Rosier called back, sounding reluctant.

"No, no, I'll manage. You two go to lunch, there's no point in all of us going hungry."

"Okay, if you're sure. Your robes are on the bench," Rosier said.

"See you in the Great Hall, I hope," Avery added. The two of them left the changing room.

Harry grabbed the shower head and tilted it so that he could see the door behind him reflected on its gleaming back, and he waited. The room grew cold around him as the steam dispersed. The Basilisk still hissed within the walls, but the sounds were growing distant. Harry wouldn't let his guard down.

After what felt like a very long time, he allowed his stance to relax. He wasn't the Basilisk's next victim. His relief was short lived before he began to worry about who was going to take the brunt of Tom's wrath. He turned the shower back on to wash away the suds, and remained under the hot spray for a long time after, wishing that he could wash away his fear as well.

Lunch was over and Harry was going to be late for Potions when he finally got out of the shower and headed further into the castle. When he reached the Entrance Hall, he found out that Potions had been cancelled.

"Another Mudblood has been petrified," Rosier said. He and Avery were part of the crowd milling in the Entrance Hall. "Gryffindor, sixth year. Veronica Valentine. They found her on the ground floor near the Ancient Runes classroom. "

"Oh," Harry said.

He was relieved to hear that the girl had only been petrified and not torn to pieces by the Basilisk, but he had the terrible feeling that this attack was his fault – that he had made Tom so mad that he had to take it out on the first Muggle-born that got in his way. He wondered what had saved Veronica Valentine's life.

"We heard Professor Merrythought say that they'll probably have students supervised between classes, if the monster has started attacking during the day," Rosier said.

"That's bullshit," Avery said passionately. "If the teachers have to escort us everywhere, when do I get a chance to go to the library? Miss Spencer can't keep an eye on everyone who steps foot in the library. What about our O.W.L.s, aren't they thinking of that?"

"This is going to be a pain. I won't be able to see Maggie," Rosier grumbled.

The two Slytherins exchanged disgruntled looks, probably thinking that Tom had gone too far.

"Anyway," Avery said to Harry. "The afternoon classes have been cancelled. I don't see why – it's not like it takes the combined effort of all Hogwarts professors to move Valentine to the infirmary – but I'm not complaining. There's still food being served in the Great Hall, since lunch was interrupted. Do you want to go grab a bite, seeing as you haven't eaten?"

"I'm afraid, Mr Avery, that students are instructed to return to their common rooms," a voice interrupted. Professor Dumbledore had crept up behind them. "Although I'm glad that you are taking this crisis so calmly, I would recommend showing greater caution while Slytherin's monster is running loose."

"Of course, Professor, I'm sorry," Avery said, feigning contrition. "We didn't know about the instructions. We're heading to the dungeons now."

"Mr Potter," Dumbledore said before they could leave. "It seems that you haven't had lunch. We can't have children going hungry. Would you care to join me in my office for some sandwiches and a pot of tea?"

Harry had no choice but to accept. He bid goodbye to Avery and Rosier and followed Professor Dumbledore up the marble staircase.

In the professor's office, Harry sat down in the uncomfortable visitors' chair, thinking that this conversation had been coming for a long time. He waited tensely as Dumbledore summoned a huge tray full of sandwiches and pulled a steaming teapot out of his sleeve.

"Help yourself, Mr Potter," Dumbledore said.

Harry forewent the sandwiches and poured himself a cup of tea. It was easier to fake drinking from a cup than biting into a sandwich.

"Mr Potter, I am… worried," Dumbledore said after Harry had taken a close-lipped sip, surprising Harry by not dancing around the subject. "The situation with the Chamber of Secrets is baffling the staff. Professor Slughorn is working on the Mandrake Draught that will revive the petrified victims, but we fear for the students' safety. The so-called Heir of Slytherin is growing bolder."

Harry waited for him to continue, but Dumbledore was gazing out the window with a troubled frown.

"Professor," Harry said carefully, "I can't help you with the Chamber of Secrets."

"I know. I'm sorry, my boy," Dumbledore said closing his eyes briefly before looking at Harry again. "You are bound by a magical oath. But you do know something about the crisis."

Harry stared at him blankly.

"You seem distant lately. You need prompting to answer questions in class and you don't socialise with your friends. Your connection with Mr Riddle appears to have suffered."

"It hasn't," Harry said, glad that his hands were steady around his teacup. "It's just… difficult for me, with so many things on my mind. The enchantment makes it worse."

"Yes, knowing must be a terrible burden when you cannot use your knowledge for good."

Harry made a non-committal sound, faking another sip from his cup.

"I noticed that Mr Riddle was absent from lunch, too," Dumbledore said casually after a short silence.

Harry almost froze, but managed to keep stirring his tea. He glanced at Dumbledore through his fringe. The man's expression was calm and open, as though he were making idle small-talk, but Harry knew that this was an interrogation. Cold sweat broke under his collar as his mind raced. Tom always took meticulous care not to implicate himself in any crimes – it seemed ridiculous that he would attack a student at a time when his absence was easily noted. Had he made a mistake? Was Harry to blame?

That was when Harry had a moment of perfect clarity. Suddenly, the torturous inner conflict that had battered his emotions since the writing on the wall resolved itself, and he knew with absolute certainty what he was going to do. It was shocking, yet he felt like he had known all along. Feeling like a huge burden had been lifted from him, Harry looked into Dumbledore's eyes.

"You suspect him, don't you? Well, I can tell you right now he was with me," he lied, staring boldly at Dumbledore, counting on the assumption that the man wouldn't use Legilimency on a time traveller. It was a risk, but he had to take it if he wanted to appear sincere.

Then, as though his nerve had faltered, he clutched his hands tightly around his teacup and looked down awkwardly. He drew from his most explicit private memories to affect embarrassment and felt his cheeks flush.

"We were… We were in the showers by the East entrance. There was an accident with a plant in Herbology and all this pollen got in my hair. Tom... well. Um. He stayed to help. Nothing happened!" He cleared his throat, scratching at his still damp hair. He imagined Tom naked in the shower with him, and his face burned red.

Harry chanced a glance at Dumbledore, who looked uncomfortable and slightly mortified. Most importantly, he seemed distracted from the interrogation.

"Oh. Well," Dumbledore said. "Hem. As long as nothing happened. It wouldn't do to defile our public bathing facilities."

"Of course not! I swear." Harry made sure not to meet his eyes this time.

"You haven't eaten anything," Dumbledore said, changing the subject.

"I'm not really hungry. I can still smell the pollen in my nose."

"Well then, I think I've taken up enough of your time. I shall escort you to the Slytherin common room. Tightened security, I trust you understand."

Walking behind Dumbledore, Harry allowed himself a silent sigh of relief.

He had realised under the professor's subtle interrogation that he would do anything to protect Tom. Even if all the Basilisk's victims were lined up in a cemetery, he would lie to Dumbledore until he was blue in the face, if it had the slightest chance of preventing Tom's capture. It didn't matter that Tom had humiliated him in front of the whole class, or that Tom probably wouldn't have him back if he begged, because Harry loved him, and that wasn't going to change.

A part of him was appalled that he could ever condone murder, even in the face of love, but for the first time in nearly three weeks, he felt something akin to peace. Both determined and resigned, but no longer conflicted.

They reached the hidden entrance to the Slytherin dungeons and Dumbledore bid him goodbye. Harry spoke the password (pre-eminence) and entered. The common room was full, as the Slytherins had all been herded in while he was with Dumbledore. He found Tom and the gang gathered in a tight group in a corner. Tom wore an irked expression and it looked like the others were letting him know how much they appreciated the new security measures.

"Tom," Harry said, stopping to hover outside the group. "Can we talk? If you don't mind."

"I do mind," Tom said flatly.

Harry tried not to feel hurt.

"It'll only take a minute, and you won't have to say anything."

Tom stared at him, looking unimpressed. Harry stared back, ignoring the way the others shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

"Fine," Tom finally said, pushing himself up from his armchair with a longsuffering air. He led the way to the dormitory and Harry followed.

"Dumbledore called me to his office just now," Harry said after closing the door behind him. "He asked me questions. You weren't at lunch when Veronica Valentine was petrified."

Tom crossed his arms and glared icily at him. "It must have killed you to be under an oath of silence."

"I told him you were with me. I'm on your side, Tom."

Tom frowned at him, which Harry guessed was better than glaring.

"Just wanted to let you know. I know you aren't happy with me, but there's nothing you or anyone else could do to make me turn against you."

Tom said nothing, still staring at him through narrowed eyes.

"And, I'm sorry about not telling you about the Parseltongue. I really didn't mean to keep it a secret. I hope you can stop hating me so much at some point, because things could get awkward if this drags on. Also," he added, "I told Dumbledore we were having sex in the ground floor showers during lunch. I don't know if he bought it, but we might want to pretend we're together at least a little longer, just to make it more believable."

Tom's expression had become unreadable, but still he remained silent. Harry wished he would say something, but knew not to expect anything.

"Right. I guess that was it. Any time you have thoughts to share, let me know."

He turned around and walked out of the dormitory, leaving Tom to stand there rigidly. He found himself an empty desk in the common room and pulled out his textbooks, not feeling up to socialising with anyone.

The afternoon passed slowly. Harry managed to revise a good portion of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, through sheer force of will. At dinner, Tom refrained from inching his chair away from Harry, but otherwise didn't acknowledge him. Even a glare would have been nice.

Unable to take it any longer, Harry turned in absurdly early. He told himself that he only sound-proofed his bed hangings to get some peace and quiet – he wasn't at all worried that someone might walk in and hear him crying. So, of course he didn't notice that Tom snuck out of the Slytherin dungeons after curfew, or that he returned to the dorms in the wee hours of the morning.

Harry only noticed something amiss the next morning when Professor Slughorn came to escort his house to the Great Hall for breakfast. The man seemed disturbingly jolly, considering the state of crisis in the castle. He hummed a tune on the way up to the castle and wouldn't answer any questions when prodded, simply smiling enigmatically.

After all four houses had found seats in the Great Hall, Headmaster Dippet stood up from his ornate seat at the staff table, causing silence to fall.

"I have very good news to all of you this morning," he said. "The person responsible for the recent assaults on students, the so called Heir of Slytherin, has been caught."

There was an explosion of whispers and gasps – a great susurrus of noise amplified by the acoustics. Harry's jaw would have dropped open if the enchantment hadn't kicked into gear again.

Dippet held his hand up for silence before continuing, "A student, Rubeus Hagrid of Gryffindor, has been expelled for harbouring a dangerous Dark creature within the castle. The beast has now been banished and we can all sleep well at night once more.

"For all of this, we have one person to thank. Our very own, beloved Slytherin prefect Tom Riddle will be bestowed an Award for Special Services to Hogwarts for his courageous initiative, unerring diligence, and consummate loyalty to the school."

Harry stared at Tom as he stood up from his seat and inclined his head demurely at the acknowledgement. Shock, joy, dismay, and disbelief warred in him, making him speechless. He hardly heard the rumble of confused applauds, exclamations, and heated gossiping around him.

As Tom sat down again, his eyes finally met Harry's, and there was something almost warm about them. He offered his hand to Harry, palm up, and Harry realised that his olive branch hadn't gone ignored after all. He placed his hand in Tom's palm and smiled, squeezing the hand tightly to make sure it was there. Tom squeezed back and then surprised Harry by pulling him into a heartfelt kiss. It was chaste and gentle, and joy ballooned in Harry's chest. The Slytherins clapped even harder and Lestrange whistled loudly.

"I never hated you," Tom whispered into his ear, hugging him close after ending the kiss. Then he pulled away and told everyone to quiet down and get back to their breakfast.

Harry was left swaying with relief – Tom had forgiven him, and there would be no more attacks. His gaze strayed to the Ravenclaw table, where Myrtle sat. He felt a thread of worry when he looked at her, realising with a sinking feeling that her survival had thrown history off course. He wondered how this could have happened – he had forgiven Tom and given him leave to go on killing spree if he wanted, and in doing so he had saved a life.

Once the excitement had died down in the hall and Tom was no longer the centre of everyone's attention, he shifted his chair closer to Harry and distracted him from his worried contemplation.

"I'm picking up the award from Dippet's office today after dinner," he said. "Come with me? We can spend the evening together afterwards, just us."

"I hope you're not too proud of that award," Harry murmured back with a frown. "An innocent student was expelled for it."

"I don't want the award. Dippet insists I take it."

Harry looked at him and knew that he couldn't hold this against him, either. Hagrid's fate had always been to suffer the blame for the attacks. Harry didn't like it, but he had already accepted it.

"I'll come with you," he promised.