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


Chapter 20

The plaque was small and modest. Dippet had suggested a trophy, but Tom had adamantly refused. Not only did a trophy fit ill with his modest and conscientious image, but Tom also felt slightly embarrassed for the Headmaster, who had so readily fallen for his half-hearted diversion. How anyone could believe that Rubeus Hagrid was the Heir of Slytherin eluded Tom. He felt indignant and it pained him to discredit Slytherin's name like this, even as he reaped the benefits of the of the half-breed's expulsion.

"Here it is, then, my boy. You have earned it," Dippet said as he presented Tom with his Special Award for Services to the School. At Tom's behest, the bestowal was conducted in the privacy of the Headmaster's office. The shield was encased in a velvet lined frame and protective glass and bore only Tom's name and a date. This was also at Tom's insistence – he didn't want to advertise to the world that he had 'caught' the Heir of Slytherin.

"Thank you, sir," he said demurely as he accepted the award. He held it gingerly in his hands, shifting his weight as though he didn't quite know what to do with the plaque. "Would it be possible to place it in the Trophy Room? I don't have anywhere to put it."

Dippet smiled softly at him, and Tom felt a flare of resentment at the pity.

"Of course, my boy, if you wish. You may collect it whenever your accommodations allow it. Hmm. Perhaps it is good that the other students can come and admire your award. You are an inspiration to your peers, Mr Riddle."

"I would much prefer an out-of-the-way corner of Trophy Room, sir. The sooner people forget about this whole debacle, the better."

"So modest. Well, of course you will have your wish." Dippet beamed at him with a starry-eyed look. "I have never been prouder of you, my boy – or of any student."

Dippet was easily impressed. The man was entirely removed from the students he oversaw – had been many years ago when he still taught Arithmancy, an unpopular elective, and was even more so now that he spent his days cooped up in his tower. Tom knew that the Headmaster kept a log in his desk that showed how many house points each student earned and lost, and liked to keep an eye on the top ten listings. This was as close as Dippet came to interacting with his students, aside from the occasional troublemaker that was sent to his office to receive discipline.

Tom's name had always been in the top ten of house points earned. In fact, he consistently contended for the first place. This was why Dippet had grown fond of him, and it was also why he was so easily impressed. To someone who was accustomed to judging people based solely on statistics, unexpected heroics were like an Aguamenti to the face.

Tom couldn't decide whether Dippet was his favourite or least favourite professor in the castle. He was by far the easiest to deal with, because all Tom had to do was earn house points, which he did anyway simply by going to class. On the other hand, the man was so pitifully weak that Tom could almost feel his own talents shrivelling in his presence.

After praising Tom some more, the Headmaster led them both out of the office, heading towards the Trophy Room so that Tom could pick a spot for his award. Harry was waiting for him outside the stone gargoyle and pushed away from the wall he had been leaning against when the statue moved aside.

"Ah, Mr Potter. You were waiting for Tom? We are just going to take his award to the Trophy Room. Will you accompany us?"

"Oh. Um, sure. I'll come with you. Sir."

Tom was always amused by the belated way in which Harry used honorifics when addressing authority figures. He thought it was rather fitting, seeing as most of the professors at Hogwarts didn't deserve the respect.

Their group set off towards the Trophy Room and Harry sidled up close to Tom. He tugged on the frame tucked under Tom's arm.

"Can I see that?"

Tom handed the award to him and watched his expression as he inspected the shield. There was a twinkle of amusement in Harry's eyes.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

Harry snorted and leaned in to murmur in his ear so that Dippet wouldn't hear.

"A friend of mine puked slugs over this when he was serving detention in the Trophy Room."

Tom's face scrunched up in disgust and he glanced between Harry and the award.

"He cleaned it up afterwards," Harry said with a placating tone. "He said it took him an hour to get rid of the slime."

So, the award would still be at Hogwarts in Harry's time. Tom had known this – he had no intention of ever retrieving it from the Trophy Room. But was Harry trying to say that he had known Tom would close the Chamber and frame someone for being the Heir of Slytherin? The plaque didn't explain what he had done to earn the award, but Tom was fairly certain that Harry had known Hagrid in the future. It was possible that the half-breed had told him. It would make sense considering Harry's reaction to recent events. He had been disgruntled about Hagrid's expulsion, but there was a notable lack of outrage that indicated that Harry had known it was necessary. In contrast, Harry had been inordinately delighted about the closing of the Chamber.

Had Harry somehow used his knowledge of the future to manipulate Tom into closing the Chamber earlier than he had intended? Certainly, Tom didn't know how far he would have gone to take revenge on Slytherin's enemies if Harry weren't here.

"Well, I'm sure one day I will be ready to forgive him."

Harry laughed and gave the award back to Tom.

In the Trophy Room, Tom chose a glass cabinet that was tucked into a secluded corner of the room. There his award joined company with several tarnished medals for academic merit, an old Gobstones trophy, and an Award for Excellence in Charms. After that, Tom and Harry bid goodbye to the Headmaster and had the rest of the evening at their disposal.

The light of a nearby torch sent stark shadows across Harry's face. He stood stiffly next to the glass case, fidgeting with his cuffs and staring at the Gobstones cup instead of looking at Tom. He looked thin and tired, and Tom knew that direct sunlight would reveal a pallid complexion and dark smudges around his eyes. This was the first time they had been alone together since the day he laid his claim to the Chamber of Secrets.

Their separation had been bitter. Tom could never have expected how much Harry's rejection would hurt him. He understood that the Oath of Unspeakability had been mostly to blame for Harry's cold silence, but knowing this hadn't made him feel any less spiteful at the time – Harry had made his thoughts clear by leaving to London after they had made plans to spend Easter together. Yet, even as he stewed in his hurt and fed the growing fury inside him, he couldn't bring himself to harm Harry. If anyone else had wronged him, they probably would have found a new home in the mental ward of St Mungo's hospital. Instead, the worst Tom could do was to turn his ex yellow. How shamefully he had fallen. It was just as well that none of the Slytherins had realised that he had made Harry lose his balance on the ladder.

"Hey," he said softly, taking Harry's hand and lacing their fingers together. Harry looked away from the trophy case and at their interlocked hands. Tom knew that he had to approach him carefully. Harry was a fiercely ethical wizard and he was probably still agonised over compromising his morals for Tom's sake. Having cooled his head, Tom could see why Harry had been distraught over the petrifications – though he privately maintained that he had overreacted – and so was able to appreciate the sacrifice he had made.

"Are you alright? I know this wasn't the ideal solution, but there had to be some form of closure before the school could let these events rest."

"I know," Harry said. "I just wish Hagrid didn't have to suffer for it. He doesn't deserve it. He'll be fine, though."

"I heard Dumbledore has already taken his case. He's thirteen – they won't do anything worse to him than snap his wand. He can probably get a new one and start over if he moves to live in another country."

Harry shrugged noncommittally. "At least nobody was really hurt. That's what matters."

He finally looked up at Tom, and their eyes met. There was still pain in Harry's eyes, but there was acceptance, too, and something Tom couldn't name. The smile he gave was weak, but sincere. It was that acceptance, ringing with the words he had spoken before – "There is nothing you could do to turn me against you" – that made Tom's chest feel too small.

He wrapped his arm around Harry's middle and pulled him close, trapping their still interlocked hands between their chests, and kissed him. Harry opened willingly for him, and for once didn't fight him for dominance. Less than three weeks apart had been enough to make Tom forget the profound intensity and joy of kissing Harry. A knot unravelled in his chest and the last shreds of uncertainty left him as he wound his tongue around Harry's, tasting his hot, yielding mouth. Sensing Tom's need, Harry gave and gave, pouring out his acceptance and forgiveness for Tom to devour. In his hunger Tom chased after Harry until they staggered a few steps and collided with the trophy case. They untangled their hands and Tom slid his fingers deep into Harry's luxuriously thick, rough hair.

Tom hoped that he could convey his gratitude and make Harry understand how special he was. Nobody had ever accepted Tom for who he was or made him feel like he didn't have to pretend. It was worth closing the Chamber for this.

They broke apart, a thin string of saliva connecting their mouths before Tom flicked it away with a swipe of his tongue. Harry opened his eyes, unfocused, a ring of emerald barely visible around his blown pupils. The desire in those eyes made Tom feel heady and reckless. He thought,'There's nothing I can do to put him off', and leaned in again, burying his nose in Harry's hair and whispering in his ear.

"Do you want to see the Chamber of Secrets?" Harry became taut in his arms, but didn't pull away. "I'll take you there. I'll show you. You'll be safe – the Basilisk is sealed in and she takes my orders. Yours, too – you're a Parselmouth, she won't hurt you."

Harry relaxed and leaned back in his arms, not to get away, but far enough to make eye contact.

"Alright," he agreed, a little too easily in Tom's opinion. He had expected at least a small waver of hesitation. "As long as you don't let the Basilisk into the castle again."

"I promise. You won't regret this," Tom said, giving him one last brief kiss before pulling away from the embrace to draw his wand from his pocket. "We should Disillusion ourselves first. The entrance is located in a place where we shouldn't be seen."

"We're going right now? Okay." Harry brushed a few wrinkles off his robes in a nervous gesture before offering his hand to Tom. "We should probably hold hands again. The last time you Disillusioned us we became completely invisible."

"You read my mind," Tom said, taking his hand and lacing their fingers together again. He brought his wand up to rap Harry on the top of the head. It took a fierce spike of concentrated magic to make the Disillusionment Charm work so thoroughly, but Harry had been impressed with his casting before and he didn't want to disappoint him now.

When they were both invisible, Tom led the out of the Trophy Room and down the nearest flight of stairs to the second floor. It wasn't curfew yet, but the hallways were mostly deserted. He slowed down when they approached the girls' lavatory, feeling vaguely embarrassed about the location.

"What made you look for the Chamber of Secrets in a girls' toilet?" Harry whispered in his ear, sounding amused, as Tom cracked the door open and peered in to make sure that the coast was clear.

"It had to be in a place that was connected to the plumbing network," Tom muttered back stiffly.

There was nobody in the bathroom, so he pushed the door open wide and pulled Harry inside, making sure to close the door behind them. He cast a mild Engorgement Charm on the door to expand it in its frame just enough to jam it. This would buy them time if someone tried to get inside.

"Over here," he said, stopping in front of the sink that hid the entrance. He brought Harry's hand to the tap, where the image of a tiny snake was carved. "Look. Open."

He wished he could see Harry's face as the tap started glowing and the sink sank into the wall to reveal the gaping pipe leading down to Slytherin's legendary Chamber.

"Wow," he heard Harry say.

"I think we can take off the charm now," Tom said. "It's better not to stumble around in the dark like this when we get there."

When the Disillusionment Charms were gone, Tom found Harry standing next to him, looking curiously into the black maw of the pipe. He didn't seem intimidated at all, which Tom found strange. Even someone who had once been in Gryffindor should feel apprehensive about stepping foot in gaping hole that lead to an unknown destination. Tom himself had thought twice before jumping in when he first found the entrance.

"I assure you, it's safe," he said. "You should go first, and I'll close the entrance behind us so that nobody will find it while we are inside."

"That makes sense." Harry stepped closer to the edge, and finally Tom saw him falter hesitantly.

"Just to warn you, the way down is long and swift. Imagine a steep slide with many jolting twists and turns. Don't be alarmed – as I said, it's safe, and I'll be right behind you."

"I'll be fine," Harry said, shooting a smile at him. He leaned in to give Tom a quick peck on the cheek before saying, "See you in a minute!" and jumping into the hole with a reckless lack of caution.

Tom let out an exasperated huff before climbing in after him, holding himself braced over the steep decline long enough to hiss, "Close!" and make sure that the sink ground back into place in the girls' lavatory. Then he let go and submitted to the indignity of the way down.

Harry was waiting for him down in the tunnel, straightening his dishevelled robes.

"That was actually pretty fun," he said. "How are we going to get back up?"

"The Basilisk will give us a boost," Tom said, adjusting his own hems, which had ridden up during the slide down.

Harry paused to give him an alarmed look. "Seriously?"

"Absolutely. I told you, she obeys my commands."

"Ah. Okay. I suppose it can't be much different from riding a Hippogriff. No, wait. What am I saying?"

Tom snorted. "Come on, we're not in the Chamber yet. It's this way."

He held up his wand and cast a powerful lumos to light the tunnel ahead. Harry came to his side and easily slipped his hand into Tom's palm.

"It's in surprisingly good condition, considering this place has been abandoned for a millennium," Harry mused.

"I cleaned it up a bit."

An understatement. The amount of waste in the tunnel alone had made even Tom feel queasy: animal remains, discarded skins, faeces, and who knew what else, and all of it crawling with bugs. Not all insects were smart enough to flee before a Basilisk. The pipe had also been covered in slime and some disgusting form of fungus that didn't appear in any textbook or encyclopaedia Tom had checked. He had eventually killed it with Dark Magic.

Now the tunnel was empty and clean, and their footsteps echoed from the bare, roughly hewn walls. Tom felt his heart rate speed up in anticipation as they neared the main chamber. Never, in all the years that he had searched for the Chamber of Secrets, had he imagined sharing his discovery with someone else. Who could be worthy of such an honour? Certainly none of the sycophants who only wanted to leech on his glory. Before he met Harry, there hadn't been a single soul who didn't seek his company for selfish benefits.

Harry had proven himself to be selfless, so Tom felt that he could afford to do something magnanimous and share the Chamber of Secrets with him instead of hoarding it to himself. Besides, was there any better way to prove his claim to Slytherin's legacy? Most of the school's populace still remained sceptical about the mere existence of the Chamber, and none of them knew that it belonged to Tom Marvolo Riddle, excluding his closest associates. Of course, Harry didn't need convincing, but it felt only right and appropriate that he should see with his own eyes the majesty of Tom's heritage.

They reached the entrance to the main chamber, barred by seamless stone doors. The sentinel serpents carved into the doors stared down at them with gleaming emerald eyes.

"This is where we enter the main chamber. The Basilisk should be sleeping in her nest, but just in case she is out and about, you should close your eyes when I open the door."

"That sounds reassuring," Harry said, but obligingly brought his hand up, ready to shield his eyes. His grip on Tom's hand tightened slightly.

Tom squeezed back and spoke, "Open."

The entwined stone snakes began to move, untangling slowly and revealing a widening crack between the heavy doors. Tom held his own palm in front of his face, squinting cautiously through his fingers. Seeing that the chamber was empty, he lowered the hand and urged Harry to do the same.

"Welcome to the Chamber of Secrets."

Tom watched Harry's reaction avidly as he looked upon the magnificent hall with its massive carven columns and mysterious green glow. Harry gave an appreciative whistle, but the look in his eyes was not as overwhelmed as Tom had hoped for. How dare he be less than awed by Slytherin's secret chamber?

"It's great," Harry said, looking around as they stepped inside and walked between the rows of columns towards the back of the chamber. "It looks like the snakes are watching us." He pointed at the snake carvings decorating the pillars.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they were," Tom said, stepping up to the nearest column and running his fingers over the coils of one of the serpents. "There seems to be a trace of old magic here. I get the feeling that they used to be animated, but the charms have faded over the centuries with nobody around to renew them."

"It seems amazing that it took a thousand years before one of Slytherin's descendants found this place. There must have been others before you who attended Hogwarts. Didn't they ever look?"

"Countless people have looked for the Chamber of Secrets over the past millennium, and I imagine there were a few of Slytherin's line among them. However, the entrance is very cleverly hidden – it took me nearly five years of constant searching to locate it. Anyone else would have given up on ever finding it.

"Besides," Tom added, tamping down on a sense of shame, "I'm the first of Slytherin's direct line of descendants to attend Hogwarts in centuries. I've looked through many records, and everything points to the line becoming derelict and falling to obscurity sometime during the 17th and 18thcenturies. It still exists, but as far as I know, those who are left of it live in poor conditions. I don't know why they stopped sending their children to Hogwarts, though. Hogwarts doesn't turn down magical children just because they are poor." Tom should know this. What little money he had, came from charity or the various goods he collected from his fellow students and sold on Knockturn Alley.

The pin he gave Harry on Valentine's Day had been a sacrifice from a full set of collectible Hogwarts House pins from the years 1938 to 1942. Tom had made sure to replace the pin to complete the collection, and once he had a set for all of his seven years at Hogwarts, he would try to sell them. There were people who paid good money for that sort of thing – and who knew, if he grew sentimental, he might even keep the collection.

"Maybe they're embarrassed," Harry said. "It seems stupid, though – if you're poor, then the only way to become rich is to get an education and a well-paid job."

"Well, there are other ways, but that certainly is the most conventional route."

They reached the back of the chamber, where Salazar Slytherin's huge statue loomed.

"So, what do you think?" Tom asked. He wasn't nervous. He didn't need Harry's approval, but he did want him to be impressed.

"I think he may have been compensating for something," Harry said, looking up at the statue.

"That might be true," Tom said, the corner of his lips twitching up despite him. "But, I wasn't talking about the statue."

Harry looked at him then, and Tom admired the greenish gleam of his wild, black hair in the murky light of the chamber. There was a lopsided grin on his face, amusement lingering in his eyes, but it faded into a soft smile as he looked at Tom.

"It's unbelievable, Tom," he said. "Well, this place is kind of dank, but it's unbelievable that you discovered it. Even after years of coming up with nothing, you still kept looking and never gave up. You deserve this. If there's anyone in the world who deserves such a great, historical legacy, it's you."

Of course, that was true. Harry said nothing that Tom didn't already know. However, hearing him say these things with that earnest look in his compelling green eyes was somehow completely different from knowing. To hear that Harry appreciated his perseverance and understood why the Chamber of Secrets was so important to him made him feel strange, as though something heavy had lodged itself into his chest, making it a little hard to breathe. Annoyed at himself, he exhaled sharply to clear the obstruction.

"Well, I'll grant you that the chamber is somewhat desolate after centuries of neglect, but there is one thing that you haven't seen yet, and I'm sure you will find it thrilling." He turned to indicate up at Slytherin's image. "The Basilisk sleeps beyond the statue. If you'll allow me, I shall summon her before us and introduce you. As a Parselmouth, you will have full authority over her."

"Oh, um. Sure. Fine. If you're sure," Harry said, clasping his hands together nervously and eyeing the statue warily. "Does she have a name?"

"If Slytherin ever named her, she has forgotten about it since. I saw no point in giving her a name, because she wouldn't respond it anyway."

"Are you sure she won't try to eat me? I may be a Parselmouth, but I'm no heir of Slytherin. No relation whatsoever. Can't she smell that?"

"If you were 'no relation whatsoever', you wouldn't be a Parselmouth. Perhaps yours is a latent talent from an obscure branch of the family tree."

Tom was fairly sure that his own explanation was wrong. Parseltongue was a gift that was known to be exclusive to Slytherin's direct line of descendants. There was more to Harry's gift than met the eye, and Tom was almost willing to bet his wand that it had something to do with their connection. He was also sure that if questioned about it, Harry would give no answer.

"She won't try to eat you," he continued. "I will forbid her. She obeys me. Now, close your eyes before I summon her."

With one last glance at Slytherin's statue, Harry huffed a breath and muttered, "Fine." Then he closed his eyes, brow furrowed in concentration.

Tom eyed him uneasily. He looked exceedingly vulnerable standing there with his eyes scrunched shut. Making a swift decision, he cleared his throat.

"On second thought, take off your glasses," he ordered. Harry opened his eyes.

"Why?" he asked, looking confused.

"Just take them off."

Harry pulled the round spectacles off his face and folded them neatly into his pocket. "Now what?" he said.

Instead of answering, Tom stepped up close behind him and placed his palm over Harry's eyes, making sure they were completely covered. Harry yelped indignantly, which Tom ignored, wrapping his free arm securely around Harry's waist.

"It's not that I don't trust you to keep your eyes closed," he explained. "I just don't want to take any risks. The briefest eye-contact would mean instant death."

"This is ridiculous," Harry grumbled but stopped struggling, one hand gripping Tom's wrist where his hand was covering his eyes.

"Now, beware," Tom said before closing his eyes and speaking in Parseltongue, "Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four."

Harry grew tense in his arms as they listened to the scraping sound of the statue's mouth grinding open. There was a moment of silence before they could hear something moving above them, the low, dry hiss of scales against stone. There was a slight tremor and a quiet splash when the Basilisk landed on one of the shallow pools of water gathered in uneven dips of the ancient chamber's floor. For a giant snake, the Basilisk could move with astounding stealth.

"Master has brought food," the Basilisk hissed excitedly and Tom could almost feel its forked tongue taste the air only a foot away from Harry's face. "Delicious, warm blood."

"Shield your deadly gaze, mighty serpent. Close your eyes and do not open them without your master's leave," Tom ordered with his most commanding inflection. He tightened his hold on Harry's waist, pulling him closer to his chest. Harry was very still, hardly even breathing.

"As master commands," the Basilisk hissed with a sullen note.

Tom opened his eyes cautiously and, seeing that she had indeed obeyed him, lowered his hand from Harry's face. Harry fumbled his glasses out of his pocket and placed them back on his nose, looking up at the looming serpent with fear that only emphasised his courage.

"I have not brought food," Tom said imperiously, frowning at the serpentine tongue that fluttered out dangerously close to the wizard in his arms. "This is my mate." He almost winced at the description, but there was no other word for what Harry was to him in Parseltongue. "When he speaks, you will listen. Every command he gives you, you must obey. Those are my orders – your master's orders."

The Basilisk reared back, whipping her tail agitatedly and hissing as though he had burned her. "I serve only one master!"

"Now you serve two. Your master's orders." Into Harry's ear he whispered in English, "Say something to her. Assert dominance."

Harry stood frozen for several seconds, eyes wide with panic. Tom wrapped both arms around him tightly to reassure him. Then, he seemed to get a grip and lifted his chin.

"Listen to me, Basilisk. My word is your master's word. To harm me would be to harm your master. This is my place. Obey me." He spoke with command, but the anxious glance he gave Tom betrayed his nerves.

"Insolence!" she spat, writhing impotently around her own coils – she couldn't strike with Tom pressed so close to Harry. Her resistance was worrying – Tom had been sure that the magic that gave Harry Parseltongue would be enough to pacify her.

"Bow to my mate now, serpent, or I shall trap you within your nest forever, and there you will die of hunger!"

Finally, the Basilisk submitted, albeit with the worst grace Tom had ever seen. She hissed unintelligibly, sounding like a bucketful of water tossed over hot coals, and bent her head down. Her blunt nose wasn't even close to touching the floor, as it did for Tom.

"As master commands," she said. "I shall obey his mate."

"Good. You must not harm him or threaten him with harm. When he calls for you, you must come."

"Yes, master."

"You may leave. I will call for you later." Tom had wanted to show her off some more, but it was better to dismiss her than to risk her ire.

With one last disgruntled hissing sound, the Basilisk turned away and stretched up to return to her nest behind the statue.

Tom let go of Harry and stepped back to give him space. Harry swayed a little on his feet and let out a nervous laugh as he watched the statue's mouth grind closed behind the serpent.

"I don't think she likes me," he said.

"She's used to being independent," Tom said, though privately he was disturbed by the Basilisk's vehement protests.

"Why didn't she just kill us both? Obviously she hated every second of that. Why does she take orders from you if she doesn't like them?"

"There is magic that binds her to Slytherin's blood. She cannot harm me, and she's obliged to obey me." Tom shifted his weight and crossed his arms with a frown. None of this was going as well as he had planned. "I'm sorry if she scared you."

"What, scared? Me?" Harry said, blowing his fringe out of his eyes with a crooked smile. "I was just admiring what big teeth she has."

"I didn't bring you here to intimidate you."

"I know."

A silence stretched between them, and to Tom's frustration, he didn't know how to break it and make things right.

"I'm not intimidated," Harry finally said, stepping closer. "Are you worried about that? I'm not afraid of you, Tom. I'd never – I trust you. The Basilisk, though? Well, anyone would be just a little bit wary. You seem to have her under control, so really, I'm not afraid of her, either." He held Tom's gaze insistently. "I know you. In some ways, I know you better than you know yourself. I know things you haven't done yet, things you can do, things you could do… And none of it bothers me, at least not anymore.

"Or, you know. I bet there will be loads of things we don't agree on, because we see things so differently and have such contradicting values. There'll be a lot of things I need to make peace with, but I think we can work through all of it when the time comes. I mean, if you're willing to work with me. I certainly want to work with you – every part of you, even the scary bits that might push others away. Because it's all you, who you are, and every bit of you is worth …" He furrowed his brow and waved his hands inarticulately. "… all of it. All of this. All of… what I have. I lied to Dumbledore for you, through my teeth. You know how bad I am at lying, but I really should have won an Oscar for that, if I say so myself. I'd do it again. I'd lie to anyone for you; I'd hex anyone if it kept you safe. I'd take the blame for you. Nothing you could ever do can change that. Really, you'll have to go all out to shock me."

A silence followed during which Tom, to his horror, found himself unable to look directly at Harry or keep his hands entirely still. He clenched them into fists to stop the fidgeting. Harry was the only person who had ever made him feel like this – pleased, flattered, and proud, but abashed and wrong-footed at the same time.

Harry shifted his weight awkwardly and drew in a breath to say something more, but let it out in a sharp exhale. He tried again and said, "I told you this before. Why did you… Not that I don't appreciate this; I really do, more than you know – but why did you close the Chamber when you knew I didn't hold it against you anymore?"

At the question Tom relaxed his hands and looked at Harry. He considered what answer to give – he had several reasons for sealing the Basilisk back inside the Chamber and framing Hagrid. There was, of course, the inconvenience of the improved security measures. While Tom was perfectly capable of sneaking around behind the professors' backs, the other Slytherins had been less than pleased with him when they found out that they wouldn't be allowed to move about the castle at their own discretion. Attacking Veronica Valentine during lunch had also been a slip on his part. Tom doubted that he would have been placed under investigation even if someone had pointed out to the headmaster that he had been absent from the Great Hall, but even the slightest doubt was too much to risk.

These were both reasons that Harry could undoubtedly figure out on his own – he didn't need or want to hear them. He wanted to be reassured of Tom's character. Tom could give him that.

"I had nothing left to prove," he said with a small shrug. "I had already laid my claim to Slytherin's legacy, as publically as conceivably possible. The Muggle-borns didn't matter, in the end. No matter how many students the Basilisk petrified, there would always be people who doubt that the Chamber of Secrets even exists, and very few would ever know that I am Slytherin's heir. It was a pointless endeavour, but in my anger and resentment, I didn't realise that. I didn't see that I already had my proof – it's right here." He swept his arm in an arch to encompass the Chamber of Secrets.

"You did a selfless thing when you put aside your morals to stand beside me," he continued honestly. "It was an impressive and inspiring gesture – I know how important moral integrity is to you. I couldn't just continue as before after you had taken such a significant step to meet me half-way."

Harry stared at him with some indecipherable emotion, before looking down.

"Thank you," he muttered. "You didn't have to do it, but you did anyway. I really do appreciate that."

The air between them had grown awkward again. This was a conversation that had to happen, Tom knew this, but such serious topics and so much opening up made him uncomfortable in ways that he had never felt before. Frankly, he wished that they could go back to snogging each other senseless against a wall – that, he knew how to deal with.

"Well, I'm glad we understand each other again," he said. "These past couple of weeks were…"

"I know," Harry said. Neither of them could look at each other.

"Do you want to return to the castle?" Tom asked after another moment of silence. "I'm sorry for bringing you here – I should have realised this place would put you ill at ease."

"I'm not ill at ease," Harry hastened to reassure. "Not really. I mean, I wouldn't call this place cosy, but it's very impressive. I bet it's really useful, too, if you want to get away from everything or if there's something you don't want anyone to find. A place just for you. I'm glad you brought me here."

"It could be a place just for us," Tom blurted without thinking. A second later he regretted his words. "I mean," he continued hurriedly, but ran short. He frowned and started over, "I don't mean we should turn the Chamber into a love nest. I don't want that. I mean that now you have access to this place, too, and the Basilisk is under orders to obey you. You may come and go as you please, and if ever there's a time when we can't find a moment of peace anywhere else, we can come here."

Harry was watching him with an amused expression as he spoke.

"I think a love nest would need some rudimentary comforts, at least. The dormitory will do for now, if you ask me." When Tom glared at him, he made an attempt to pull his face straight. "The rest of it sounds fine to me. I'm not sure if I'll ever feel the need to talk to the Basilisk on my own, but I won't mind coming here again with you, if that's what you want."

"It's just a possibility. I don't intend to leave the Chamber neglected, even though I've closed it off from the rest of the school."

"That would be a pity, yeah."

The unbearable silence returned again. Tom was eyeing Slytherin's statue, tempted to call the Basilisk to take them up the pipes back to the castle, when Harry shifted his weight from foot to foot and let out a frustrated huff.

"This is really awkward," Harry said. "How about we stop talking and just snog, okay? That pillar looks pretty comfy."

Tom couldn't agree quickly enough.