Tom Riddle didn't like to think of himself as someone prone to worry.
Worry meant that something had gone wrong - that something had happened, or could happen, that he himself hadn't anticipated and planned against.
Worry indicated a lack of control over his surroundings, and the people in them. Worry indicated a threat dangerous enough for fear, whether reasonable or not.
However, if he was a man prone to worry…
He would have been worried about Harry.
The boy looked as pale as death when he shuffled back into the castle, to a concerned greeting party of professors.
Harry's eyes skipped straight over them, and glued to him. It was rather flattering, actually. Though he also knew that Harry wasn't currently fixated on him out of affection.
But one day he would be. Tom would make sure of that.
"Are you alright?" Lupin immediately asked. He took a step forward, only for Dumbledore to place a gentle hand on the DADA teacher's shoulder, as the Headmaster took the lead.
Harry's eyes flicked briefly to the man, before back to Tom.
"Are you alright, Harry?" Dumbledore asked. "You must be cold. Hungry. I'll have some cocoa and sandwiches brought to my office and-"
"I apologize for worrying everyone," Harry interrupted stiffly, tearing his gaze away from him. "But if it's all the same, I think I'd like to just go back to Gryffindor Tower. I don't have much of an appetite."
But enough was enough.
"It's not the same, actually," Tom stepped forward, striding straight past McGonagall and the rest, just as Severus' mouth opened to say something no doubt withering. "My office. Now."
"With all due respect, Mr Riddle," Dumbledore began, "I am the Headmaster. You have no involvement with-"
"I'm sure Harry would agree that I have a rather higher level of involvement with his boggart form," Tom murmured. "Certainly more so than you, Headmaster. Harry, come." He made a gesture with his hand.
Harry stayed rooted to the spot, eyeing him warily.
"Yes, in which case it would be irresponsible of me to allow a clearly traumatized student-" Dumbledore let a kindly hand clamp down on the boy's shoulder, "-to leave with the one suspected of causing-"
"Harry. With me. Now."
He kept his gaze locked on the Light Lord, expecting Harry to be smart enough to obey him. Sure, he could go with Dumbledore and stall speaking with Tom all he wanted, but the consequences would only grow if he did.
Yes, the Light Side were of a kinder sort. A more merciful sort. Which was exactly why Harry should know better than to side with them right now, considering his situation.
There were sharp inhalations at the parseltongue, though no surprise. Of course there wasn't. Most of the students were in bed. Everybody here knew the truth.
"He doesn't have to go with you, if he doesn't want to." One of the Weasley Twins had reared up, wand in hand. They were both practically bristling, incandescent with their righteous fury.
"It's fine," Harry said, quietly. However, instead of the resigned acceptance one might expect in his tone, the docility of the perceived sacrificial lamb, his tone was one of steel.
Tom nearly smiled, before composing himself.
"Harry-" Dumbledore started once more.
"I can handle him. I managed fine on my own all summer. I can manage fine right now. I'm the Boy Who Lived. I'm not going to keel over because of him any time soon."
Tom's eyes nearly twitched with irritation at that particular jab. Harry gave him an entirely too sweet smile in response. Still, he could utterly appreciate the fact that the boy had picked up enough to insult both him and Dumbledore simultaneously. It might not be necessarily a wise move, but he could appreciate the comment nonetheless.
"Harry-" Lupin had started this time, a heavy undertone of guilt in his voice. Harry just squared his shoulders and marched straight past them all, chin jutting up in a seeming illusion of confidence and defiance.
Tom was unpredictable; that was a fact Harry had acknowledged plenty of times before.
Despite this, it was somewhat unnerving not to be able to get any real read on his mood at all. Harry liked to think he'd got good at navigating the minefield that was Tom Riddle, over the summer.
Though, really, he was starting to think now that he'd touched on the mere tip of the iceberg.
The game was naturally different when he was locked in a house as the Slytherin Heir's prisoner, mercy to his whims without any immediate company or allies to rely on.
It was almost easy to deal with Tom, when Tom was the one in power - because he was indulgent then. Amused in his complete victory. Well, almost easy. Tom was never easy to deal with. He was the Dark Lord, he was a nasty piece of work on all accounts.
But if there was ever a time Harry had the high ground, it was now. And if there was ever a time to assert that, it was now too.
Once they were in Riddle's office, he whipped around to face the other.
God, he couldn't take that curse twice in one day. He couldn't bear it.
"You can't be mad at me," he said. "This is your fault. You should be glad that my boggart was myself casting that spell at me, not you. Then you'd really be in a sticky situation trying to explain why the history teacher would be a boy's worst nightmare. Really, you should be grateful. And you can't yell at me for running off, because that's your fault too. You can't lock someone up for the whole summer and expect me not to go outside to get some air every opportunity. And really, if you're trying to recruit more people than getting mad at me really isn't going to help that from a logical perspective either-"
"Harry, I'm not mad at you," Tom interrupted.
"-and it's not like I was in any danger, so you can't use that as an excuse to kill anyone I care about. I'm not an idiot. I was on Hogwarts grounds, perfectly safe-" His voice was speeding up the more he talked, fists clenching at his sides.
"Harry. I am not going to punish you."
Harry blinked, and came to a stop, dry-mouthed. For a second, he stared at Tom.
"Do I have a reason to?" Tom raised his brows.
"Well, then," Tom said, a familiar smirk at his lips. "I am not an entirely unreasonable man, Harry. I see little point punishing those who do not deserve it."
Harry had a feeling that Tom would still torture people for the fun of it though. Oh, he'd be honest in a Tom sort of way, and not justify it with punishment or any such thing. But that wouldn't stop him from doing it.
Harry could entirely believe Tom didn't punish people who didn't deserve it. But he could also entirely believe that he hurt people for no reason at all, for his own sadistic delight.
"Couple of deep breaths," Tom continued, after a moment. "There we go."
Harry did as instructed, not even realizing that his breath had been going harsh in his chest at all, with his thoughts. "Better?"
"If you're not intending to punish me, why did you drag me to your office?" Harry questioned warily.
Tom grew serious, and conjured up a plush, soft looking armchair for him. The next second, a house elf had appeared in front of him at a call. Harry nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Fetch us some cocoa, and some supper for Harry here. Perhaps a calming potion would also be advised." Tom waved a dismissive hand.
"Since when do you have a house elf?" Harry blurted out, as the creature vanished again. "Who the hell even thought that was a good idea?"
"It's one of the Hogwarts house elves," Tom said.
"Hogwarts has house elves?"
Tom gave him a look. Harry flushed a little – okay, so maybe that had been a stupid question when he'd literally just seen the proof of his answer.
"Take a seat, Harry."
"If you're trying to reassure me, it's not working." Harry nonetheless sank tensely into the armchair, drumming his fingers in his lap. Tom sprawled in his own chair, reaching forward to place a hand on his, stilling his fidgeting.
He wasn't sure what to do with himself now, though. He'd been fully prepared to go at Tom all guns blazing, to confront pain and intimidation and battle.
He hadn't expected this. Maybe he should have. But he never knew what to do with the Slytherin when he was being 'nice'.
Tom merely hummed in response, studying him with an alarmingly clinical expression. He didn't speak until the house elf had appeared once more, setting down cups of steaming cocoa and a platter of various sandwiches, cold meats and other dinner foods.
"Thank you," Harry smiled to the creature. "What was your name?" The elf's eyes widened with shock, and maybe Harry should have learnt from Dobby but…
"Sookie, sir," the creature replied. Tom dismissed her again, impatiently. Shoved a mug in his direction.
Harry couldn't relax.
Tom's next words proved that was just as well.
"So," the Slytherin Heir said, "why are you so terrified of yourself?"
Harry nearly spluttered.
"I'm not scared of myself, I mean-"
"I am the one who has cast that curse on you," Tom interrupted. "It would have made sense if your Boggart was me, if the sole aspect of your fear was sensory deprivation. However, it wasn't. Your boggart was very specifically yourself. A dark, seemingly murderous version of yourself. So."
That ruthlessly intelligent gaze seemed to sear straight through his skin. Harry chewed on his lip, uncomfortable with the topic. He avoided responding by taking another sweet sip of cocoa. Nibbling on a sandwich. The silence stretched.
Tom's jaw tightened a little, before he seemed to measure his words.
"You like my garden, yes? You liked your owl too? Hedwig?"
Harry's eyes flickered at the comment, not sure what Tom was trying to get at, but the memory of his owl made a cold stone settle in the pit of his stomach.
"Yes, and you killed her-" he snapped.
"-The strong prey on the weak," Tom interrupted, leaning forward again. Eyes aglow. "You see this all of the time in nature, and you don't judge them for it. You see it in the way plants compete for resources. You see it in how your Hedwig presumably hunted and fed on mice. On prey. That is how the world works."
"Yes, but – humans aren't-"
"Humans, whatever sensibilities and masks they put on the matter, work in the same way. You see that quite clearly in the cruelty of children, in how they can scent out the weak and the different immediately," Tom said. "The strong prey on the weak. There is absolutely nothing to fear in being strong, and you should never be afraid of your own strength."
"You're still not going to convince me murdering people is good," Harry mumbled.
"There is no good and evil," Tom replied. "There is only power, and those to weak to seek it. Power rules, Harry. Not morality. Power. Your parents were undoubtedly good people. Good people die just as easily as the wicked, if not more easily. Being good is not going to keep you and the people you care about safe, is it?"
Harry examined his hot chocolate with far greater attention that it really needed.
"Dumbledore is good. And strong. You can't tell me that they have to be mutually exclusive."
"I could personally make arguments against Dumbledore's complete goodness, but nonetheless I'll accept the point," Tom allowed. "There are different types of strength. That does not, however, make one type better than the other. Just like nature has various different types of predator. How does power work?"
Harry stared, utterly confused by the question.
"It…just…does?" He'd had far too long a day for this.
"Power works on hierarchy," Tom said. "On strength. To have power, another person must by necessity lack power. Our whole society is built on power structures, cruel ones, often. It is merely so normalized that you don't notice it."
"No," Harry huffed. "People have power over other people and abuse it, that's-"
"If you wanted something, you can buy it. Yes? You have money. Say the sweet trolley comes along, you can buy as many as you want. Right?"
"I guess so," Harry said, thinking of his first train to Hogwarts.
"And your friend – the Weasleys? Can they?"
An uneasy prickle went down his spine.
"I don't – that's – it's not like I chose to be rich, whilst they were poor-"
"No, you didn't choose it," Tom said, calmly. "But you benefit from the system. You have economic power. They don't. You have money, because they don't. Economic power hierarchy. As you said, you didn't choose it. Having that power is not inherently good or bad. No type of power is inherently good or bad."
Harry felt like his skin was itching.
"What's any of this got to do with Boggarts?" he grumbled.
"There is no point in being scared of your own power, Harry. That is the worst thing you could possibly be scared of. It's not going to go away, just because you don't like it. If you are going to fear power, fear the strength of your enemies. Fear the power that other people have over you. Murder, just like everything else, is an assertion of power. Of will. Of strength. The strong survive. The weak don't. That is the way it has always been, and the way it will continue to be. Moralizing it will not change that. Would you rather stand in a room with the blood of your enemies on your hand, or with the blood on your friends because you were too weak to help them? Too frightened to do what was necessary to get what you wanted? Put in overly simplistic terms, what do you value more - morals, or the people you care about?"
Harry's eyes were wide. The cocoa was turning cold in his hands as he just…listened. Let Tom's words wash over him. He swallowed, thickly.
"I can't help what I'm afraid of. You don't get to pick," he muttered.
"No," Tom agreed. "You don't. But you can understand your fear, and thus better confront it and overcome it. You fear doing to other people the worst things that have been done to you, but that is not going to stop those things from happening."
It would have been easier if Tom had just been mad at him. His head was spinning. Of course, what Tom said wasn't revolutionary of anything, and he knew that the world could be a cruel place, of course he knew that, but…
It was different looking at himself through it though.
He knew he'd been practicing Dark Arts for a while now, but all that time he'd still been, well…afraid of the dark, he supposed. Afraid of what it would do to him. If it would change him, and break him down, and build him anew as someone cold who he didn't even recognize.
But…well. His Boggart had been stronger than him, hadn't it? That was why he got cursed. Because he hadn't won. It wasn't because the Boggart had been dark, and cruel. It had been because the Boggart had been stronger.
For crying out loud, the Boggart should have been defeated with laughter! If anything was a will of light power, it would have been that. But he hadn't done anything with that, either. He'd just frozen on the spot!
Maybe Tom was right. Maybe he shouldn't be scared of darkness, or light. They were his to control. They didn't control him. They were his powers. He should be scared of being so weak that his own powers overwhelmed him. That other people's powers were stronger.
The Boggart Harry hadn't succumbed to the dark. It had been utterly comfortable with it, in a way Harry himself wasn't. Terrified of having power, and abusing it. But what was the alternative?
God, he felt so confused. It must have shown on his face, because Tom reached forward again, squeezing his shoulder with a warm, comforting pressure.
"The sense deprivation, I won't lecture you about," the Slytherin Heir stated. "But you realize why the sense deprivation scares you now, don't you?"
"Without senses, I'm alone and helpless. Weak."
Whether he believed it or not, he knew that was the answer Tom was looking for. Sure enough, the other man gave an approving nod.
"Precisely. Now, eat up."
"We're done?" Harry asked, perhaps a little hopefully. Conversing with Tom could be bloody exhausting.
"Well, I was also going to question why your automatic response to dealing with problems is to run away, but you already answered that," Tom said. Harry snorted.
"Why are you advocating strength so much? Aren't you scared I'll get stronger than you? Surely it suits you better if I'm weak?"
"Stronger in which way?" Tom countered. "There are different ways to be strong. You are a very strong person, Harry. However, what reason do I have to be scared, if your particular brand strength is not a threat to mine?"
"But what if it became a threat?" Harry knew he should stop pushing the subject. He was practically holding his breath. The Slytherin's head tilted slowly, expression blank once more.
"What happens when a great force meets an immovable object?" Tom countered. "A lot of collateral damage. Which you care about far more than me. You're not going to threaten me, Harry Potter. You're smarter than that, aren't you?"
Harry's mouth had gone unbearably dry.
It took rather a long time to shake his sudden chill.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to Lydia Theda, for her birthday. Happy Birthday! Thank you for being a fantastic beta, and putting up with all of my rambling. Hope you enjoyed the chapter. Sorry that it's not very birthdayish?