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Chapter 13. The Gift of Light
"Do you remember me?" Harry asked as soon as he looked around and ensured they were the only occupants of the corridor.
"I remember every person brave enough to talk to me, especially so insolent about it as you were."
"…Let's pretend it was a compliment."
Harry blew off a lock of hair getting into his glasses. Friendships with certain people inured him to insults. He honestly had no idea whether it was a good development.
"Pretending is a good hobby to have, albeit neither profitable nor intelligent." The Baron paused and his body hovered strangely, more still than usual. "What leads you, Harry Potter, a Ravenclaw student, to seek my company?"
"What makes you think I didn't just want to speak to you? Your conversation isn't too bad. You know, for a ghost. You're much less weird than others."
Harry shuddered when he remembered other Hogwarts ghosts.
An old man murmuring to himself and drawing signs on walls and carpets, his empty eye sockets bleeding red.
A young girl wearing a uniform of an old style and Hufflepuff colours sidling across the corridors, her limbs mixed-up, in disarray; consequences of spell damage.
A professor striding across the dungeons begging Harry to please please please release me, let me out, yes I'll give out higher marks, I won't shout at students anymore, just please-
Harry couldn't guess the gender of the professor; spectral worms had long since devoured the flesh barely covered by a teacher's cloak.
(Michael Corner and Hermione helped him research the matter. A group of students cast a spell to remove the door as a way to get back at a nasty teacher but forgot the place and were too scared to confess. They didn't know the room contained magical plants. The teacher rotted away alive after tasting the fruit).
Because of his gift, Harry alone saw this type of ghosts.
Unfortunately, he was one of the few people they saw as well.
Sometimes being special sucked.
He wondered if rendering those ghosts invisible to most of the student population was part of the binding on them. After all, showing them to first-year muggleborns would increase the level of trauma from their education. The only person to give Harry an answer would be the Bloody Baron... who was talking to him.
The spirit's eyes gleamed, as if he guessed the boy's thoughts.
"Now, now, I have no appreciation for those who offend my kin." The Baron crossed his hands on the blood-spattered chest. "How many ghosts have you talked to in your life to judge? Furthermore, even if you did seek my conversation, it would be merely a part of your motive."
"It is not a bad thing. You are talking to a ghost of the Slytherin House, remember? Double motives are what my house prides itself in."
The Bloody Baron's family as well, if the rumours that he was Salazar Slytherin's son were true.
"Yeah, I know, but double motives are a Slytherin thing and you know how many guys think that if you're Sorted into one House, having qualities typical of another is a crime."
Harry remembered how often James teased his mother that she should be in Ravenclaw for her cleverness, which, he thought, could be considered a back-handed insult – after all, didn't it imply that Gryffindor had no place for brains in it?
Harry wanted to tell that but fear kept him silent. No sense in worsening their relationship if his parents took it the wrong way.
"This is a close-minded point of view fostered by the Ministry in the last few decades. Not all of Hogwarts history was that skewed towards this type of prejudice."
"Were there others?"
"Of course. Believe it or not, at one point people disdained Gryffindor."
"Uncle Reg told me about it, I think. It was at the height of pureblood culture, when self-control meant everything and even new-borns were embroiled in politics."
"Matters still stand as such in certain circles. You should know."
Is he talking about Uncle Reg naming me his heir? If yes, why is a ghost even interested in such things?
"Yeah, I do." Harry wavered before inhaling and staring up at the ghost. He couldn't quite place the expression on the man's face - a mix between quite curiosity and... triumph? "I'd like to ask you for a favour."
The Baron smirked and stepped forwards, right through Harry. Cold and rot washed through the boy. He wanted a shower. He clenched his teeth and forced himself to turn around as the ghost leaned on the wall, a part of his body fading through.
"See? I was right about your double motives," the Slytherin ghost drawled. "I do love being so. This already puts me in a good enough mood for negotiations."
"Good enough for free secret-sharing?"
"I'm not that easy, child."
"Right. So, my friend and I want to practise some magic." Harry generously left out the dubious nature of such magic, but judging by the gleam in the Baron's eyes, he suspected it already. "Do you know any place where we can do it without being accosted by the teachers or Filch?"
Or worse. Headmaster Dumbledore. Not that Harry didn't like the man – he was pleasant enough and lemon sherbet was delicious! – but even thinking about casting Dark Magic around the wizard shamed him somehow. Then again, what would you expect from a Light Lord?
"And why would I tell you even if I knew of such a place?"
"Um… because you're a nice person and want to make people happy?"
The Bloody Baron coughed out what had once been throaty laughter. Harry cringed. This somehow reminded him of Tom, that one time he had made the Slytherin boy hack like a dying kitten- er, laugh.
"I gave up on making people happy centuries ago. A human is a creature that is never satisfied with anything."
"Can't agree with you. All people are different."
This guy is definitely Tom's relative somewhere down the line, Harry thought irritably.
"Same at their core. For instance, everyone is selfish and remembers others only when they need something from them."
"Oh? And how often did you come to see me before you decided to take from me the information you are incapable of finding anywhere else?"
Harry flushed yet again.
"Indeed." The Baron tapped his chin musingly. Harry wondered if the ghost was capable of feeling its own body. Come to think of it, what would happen if two ghosts came in contact with each other? Would they simply pass through? Would they bump? Would the universe explode?
Not for the first time Harry wondered at how few books about ghosts there existed. Oh, you could find the most basic of information easily enough, in any DADA schoolbook, in any journal, in any guidebook for muggleborns. You could also find sensational unscientific trash. But Harry barely heard of actual studies conducted to puzzle out ghosts. People accepted them as part of their daily lives and moved on.
Harry refused to be such a person.
Not to mention, it would be nice to have a project of my own. Not a task hoisted onto me by Uncle Reg, not a Charms Club project imposed by Professor Flitwick, not an objective to reach together with Tom. Something mine and mine alone.
Of course, he also kept his magic-seeing ability to himself as well. It wouldn't do for people to treat him in a special – not necessarily positively – way.
Some people might enjoy extra attention but Harry didn't. Not unless it came from the people he adored.
"I'm sorry for not coming to see you," he mumbled, his head bent so low he was muttering into the loose high collar of his robe. "I did think about you. Really, I did. It's just that… Tom was angry with me – well, he was angry with Snape but he behaved like such a wanker it was easy to make a mistake! – so I didn't want to come down to the dungeons at all. And then we were busy brushing up on Dark Magic together, so…"
He stared into the stones beneath his feet and only twitched when he glimpsed an aura approach him out of the corner of his eye.
"I find your honesty rather endearing," the ghost began slowly. "If not dangerous."
"How can honesty be dangerous? It doesn't really hurt anyone. Unless you use the 'I'm just being honest' card to insult someone; then you're just an arsehole."
Harry despised people who dumped their negativity and sadism on somebody in the form of an 'opinion' and, when the other person got rightfully pissed off, backtracked into the 'well, that's the truth! You can't get angry at the truth!' mode.
"Oh, there are many ways to weaponise it. Despite the claims that we are a house of liars, there have been many outstanding and honest Slytherins." A predatory smile. "But they sharpened their truths accordingly, of course. With you, I mean that your brand of honesty is first and foremost dangerous to yourself."
This time, it was Uncle Reg's voice pouring those words into his mind. Harry wondered if he should just set them up - Tom and Regulus and the Baron - for a playdate and step aside to watch the world burn in cynicism and lies.
He straightened his shoulders, the way his father taught him to face enemies and troublesome allies alike in one of their rare snatches of time together.
"It's a danger I can face."
The Bloody Baron smiled, no open teeth. Just secrecy and quiet danger.
"Time will show. For now, let's see if I can be agreeable to a deal." The ghost swiped a finger across the dust on a painting's frame. It didn't pick up.
"What, no freebies, after all?"
"Not in this case, no. It will remain an open favour on your side." The Slytherin strolled back to Harry, who stepped back. He didn't fancy another rot bath, thank you very much. "When the time comes and I need your help, I will ask it of you."
The boy snorted.
"Please. An open favour is even more dangerous than my honesty. You could ask literally for anything."
The Baron's face fell, as if in disappointment. Harry, meanwhile, didn't understand how someone could look that graceful while pouting of all things.
"We will make a vow, both to ensure that you uphold your side of the deal and that I receive the rightful compensation. The vow would include a clause about the equality of the favour I provide you and the payment. In your case, I would be able to ask for something like aiding me in locating an item or negotiations."
"This sounds too fair to be trusted," Harry accused.
The Baron smiled, razor-sharp this time. Stepped even closer. Like wind blowing dust from a grave onto the boy's face. "Do you agree?"
But of course, in the end, there could be nothing but-
As soon as the words slipped from his lips, he saw magic. It twirled and weaved itself into a chain, wrapping around both of them and settling on their wrists, a manacle. The skin on that wrist tingled.
"You can see it," the ghost whispered.
Harry flinched away, wide-eyed.
"How did you-"
"-know?" the Baron finished for him. His lips quirked. "I told you last time. You do not become a ghost without a secret, and some have acquired a vaster collection by our deathtime."
"Will you tell anyone?"
Harry couldn't stop that tremble in his voice.
"What would I gain from it? Everyone who matters already knows."
"What do you mean, 'everyone who matters'? Why would-"
A finger landed on his lower lip. Coldness pierced through it, and Harry shuddered. The Baron spoke, his voice a caress, a lingering touch that shut down protests.
"I believe we were talking about secret places. Do you know that there is a corridor on the third floor?"
The first thought that entered Tom's mind when he stepped into the Headmaster's office was: "I want to steal everything here and pick it apart".
Which, granted, wasn't particularly commendable, but at least Tom would have done it in the spirit of scientific discovery. That ought to count for something, right?
Considering how eccentric this man is, I wouldn't be surprised if he laughed it off, beamed, and told me to go on.
That said, Tom didn't take his eyes off Albus Dumbledore. No Slytherin ever did.
He remembered their first meeting, how the old man had been atrocious back then. Dressed in a garish yellow-purple costume, with his long hair and beard he had traumatised the matron – the only thing Tom was grateful for – and driven the boy mad with his smiles and twinkles.
Tom didn't trust people who smiled too much. Sometimes they tended to look like they were easy to deceive but turned out to be frightfully perceptive.
Tom was a simple guy. What he saw, he liked to get.
"Mr Riddle," the elderly Headmaster greeted Tom. He wasn't sitting behind the desk but standing near a porch on which a flaming red bird perched and crooned. "So happy to see you here. Are the decorations to your liking? Hagrid and Sinistra have outdone themselves this year!"
The former was an oaf Tom despised and the latter was their batty old Astronomy professor who was strict when it came to checking their knowledge but not as strict when it came to checking her own – she sometimes made mistakes on charts and in calculations, and never apologised for them. He didn't care about their sense of style. He put on a polite smile anyway.
"The Great Hall looks stunning, sir," Tom said. At a gesture from the Headmaster, he lowered himself into a chair that adjusted itself to his height. The Slytherin immediately wondered what incantations the old man used. "The feast was enjoyable as well."
Could he wheedle the spells out of Professor Flitwick during the next Charms Club meeting?
"Glad that you think so." Dumbledore turned around and walked to his own chair. "Here, have some lemon sherbet. Not as good as the feast, but wonderfully delicious anyway." After Tom politely refused, he shook his head and went on, "You don't know what you're missing out on, my boy. Now, I believe that the purpose of your visit was something other than expressing your opinion on ornaments and tasting a sweet?"
"You are right, sir." Tom smiled one of the smiles he had carefully prepared the other evening, just for this occasion. The perfect mix of timid, grateful, and amazed, with the tiny jot of mischief Gryffindors adored so much. He couldn't help but think that ths was a type of smile Harry could give, then hit himself for thinking about his classmate's smiles at all. "The purpose of my visit actually has to do with something that takes place in several months… Namely, the summer holidays, sir."
The Headmaster tinkered with a strange construction of small coloured triangles, tubes, and hanging symbols, paying visibly zero attention to Tom's words.
The boy's nails scratched the armrests.
Why do I have to waste my charm on this?
"Oh, Tom- Do you mind if I call you Tom? Never mind the old man, do go on. I'm listening." The headmaster raised his eyes and tapped his temple with a beaming smile. "My mind still allows me to multi-task."
"I hope you make use of all these years that you have left before senility kicks in," Tom said with a sweet smile.
Well, it wasn't particularly smooth - or charming - but something in the man just rubbed him the wrong way.
If alternate universes existed, he'd definitely be my archnemesis who spoiled my entire life and ruined all my plans, thought Tom, eying the Headmaster's smile suspiciously.
To his surprise and irritation, the old man only chuckled.
"They'll teach me to be humble, your words." He stopped and leaned back in his seat. "Now, my boy, what bring you here? I trust that everything goes well and Slytherins don't bring you any trouble."
"Why would they bring me trouble, sir?" Tom feigned confusion. "It's a House that's always praised House loyalty, and you can't be very loyal if you trouble your own."
As if anyone would dare torment him.
Okay, maybe aside from Malfoy sometimes. And Zabini. And Nott wasn't respectful enough, not for Tom's tastes. And Tracey Davis, although he hardly ever talked with her, was a nasty and horrendous girl, while Pansy Parkinson could strike home with a single remark in such a way that even Tom's heart would pang-
Dumbledore looked at him, eyes rife with sadness. Tom's hands trembled, itched to wipe that look. If the man wanted to help, he could prove it with his actions, not worthless pity.
"I understand how... difficult life may be for students with a background like yours in the magical world. Slytherin especially lodes its ancestors and archaic ways. We can all observe the end result. The system is rotten to the core and benefits only purebloods."
The old man adopted a lecturing tone, lecturing him of all people, and Tom's blood boiled. He looked down, at the threads in the thickly-woven rug, at his second-hand shoes that didn't fit the grandness of the Slytherin common room.
Tom's smile was as thin as a slit in a wrist. "I believe that unlike you, sir, I have the chance to understand it first hand. You don't have to lecture me and emphasise it."
Rumours were that Dumbledore was a halfblood. While not the ideal variant, it was a status that allowed for a comfortable life and plenty of privileges. It wasn't Dumbledore's place to talk to him, a - Tom mentally spat and sneered and blazed with fury - muggleborn, about rotten systems.
The Headmaster seemed to understand. He drew back and quirked his lips in an apologetic grin, the apology further pronouned in the dancing blue sparks in his eyes.
"Pardon me, I never meant to act as if I were living the same circumstances as you, my boy."
"Nevertheless, you've managed rather well anyway." Tom kept his voice and tone respectful. Words, spiteful. "Another thing you're still capable of before senility?"
Irritation surged when, once again, the man beamed instead of frowning, as if he found Tom amusing rather than cutting, impressive, and witty. Tom hated it. He felt small and childish, immature. Being a child was the worst, a most vulnerable state.
"Sometimes I forget how entertaining conversations with my Slytherin students are. Now, Mr Riddle, I have no cause to be worried about you in your House. You seem very capable of taking care of yourself."
And while this was indeed true, Tom wondered why Dumbledore wouldn't put more of an effort to help muggle-raised students in the Slytherin House if he knew all its intricacies and prejudices so well. After all, while Tom was indeed strong and needed no one, some weaklings got sorted, too. And, to an outsider, they would look perfectly content, too, because Slytherin didn't forgive whinging and spilling the intro-House business. So, it was up to the Headmaster and the teachers to reach out to the students, simply because a student would never be able to complain lest they end up even more tormented and ostracised, and called weak to boot.
Tom wanted, almost burnt with the need to ask this tricky question and watch the Headmaster's eyes dim but he remembered himself. He came for something else.
He decided to start from afar, and touch upon another question he had wanted to ask.
"Why is it that students who stay at Hogwarts don't require to state their reasons for remaining at school?"
Dumbledore blinked in surprise.
"Why, that would be an intrusion into their privacy, of course."
"But aren't there students whose home life... might not be the best? This could be the only chance for you to know the truth about them, one of the few opportunities to catch something suspicious."
Tom didn't consider himself in this category, of course, since he needed no help. He would take what he wanted himself. However, abuse was something people were generally interested in knowing about - or so it seemed from some books and conversations - which made him wonder why there wasn't done more to prevent it.
The Headmaster sighed heavily.
"I get where you come from, Tom." The boy jerked. So far, only Harry called him by name. He didn't like the sound of it rolling off the Headmaster's lips. He made it sound too common. When Harry said it, he felt special and powerful, the way he should feel. "But this happens rarely, and mostly in magical families that hide their secrets anyway. The majority of students have happy home lives, especially in Gryffindor and Hufflepuff."
The Headmaster smiled, and Tom wanted to both strangle him and ask him many questions.
"And you are only interested in the majority, right?"
The old man ignored his question.
"-Yet, this doesn't truly concern you, does it, Tom?" Seemed like 'Tom' was there to stay. The boy almost trembled with rage; remembered the great amount of other Toms out there and the fact that Dumbledore could be talking to any of them. "Actually, I wondered why you stayed at Hogwarts at all for the holiday. Your orphanage looked lovely." A smile morphed into a frown. "Although your behaviour left much to be desired."
A pointed look. Tom stiffened.
"You burnt my wardrobe, sir," he accused. It hadn't been real, true, but did the Headmaster realise how terrified he had been of losing all his belongings? The fear had been real. "Just because of a couple things I did that might be questionable! This is beyond unfair, especially for a teacher. You should be ashamed of your teaching skills."
"Well, it seems like I'm receiving a great amount of compliments today," Dumbledore muttered. "Almost as many as when I have the pleasure of meeting Lucius Malfoy."
Tom tossed his head up and glowered from underneath the heavy eyelids. Yes. Disconcert the Headmaster - and then attack.
His whole face changed. A construction of another persona in motion, the slipping on of another mask - everything going smoothly, as ifTom were destined for this, as if Salazar Slytherin's cunning returned to life in him. Tom fleetingly wondered how great it would be if he were indeed connected to the great Founder not only by House but by genes.
"I admit that I... committed some mistakes when I was younger," Tom began, his voice catching in the middle. He kept his eyes dry, though - never overplaying. Dumbledore swam a lot among political slime, and Slytherin lies, and deception. He would know what a fake looked like. "I'm ashamed of some actions I did - I never should have stolen, for once, then you wouldn't burn my wardrobe," he quickly added, knowing that this remark would sound natural; no Slytherin one hundred per cent repentant, after all.
He ignored the Headmaster's comment of "My boy, it was only an illusion! I didn't burn anything!"
Illusion or not, it had scared him stiff. Tom honestly believed that Dumbledore had to overhaul his teaching method. Maybe someone appointed him Headmaster because they couldn't sack him and thought that he would do less harm if kept far, far away from a living, breathing student.
"But some of them happened because I was set up by other children," he continued. "I... the life in the orphanage is lonely, sir." Here he allowed some shine in his eyes. Clenched his fists. Breathed hard. "Please don't spread this around but... The other children... they didn'tlike me," he whispered.
Dumbledore looked at him, and the portraits looked at him, and all of them judged, but Tom sat unwavering and sorrowful, a beautiful flower among the thorns.
He couldn't read the Headmaster's eyes.
"They did things to me - and yes, sometimes I did things to them, I'm sure Mrs Cole told you-" He cut himself off and allowed a quick glance in the Headmaster's direction. "Not everything she must have told you is true, of course, but still. The orphanage is a place that holds no fond memories for me. I'ts lonely, and cold, and-"
And there was no magic there.
Tom remembered the Trace and his summer dipped in even darker colours.
"Oh, Tom." The Headmaster reached out a hand to lay it on Tom's shoulder, leaning over the desk. "Is there anything I can do to lift your burden? If it is withing my power, I am ready to offer it with hands wide open."
Tom stifled a smile. It was working! See? He wasn't a child. He was a Slytherin, a liar and a manipulator. Not all these things were synonyms, but they were impressive and gave him power. Many things less valuable than power over the Headmaster of Hogwarts.
"Yes, sir," he told him softly and slowly raised his head. "I mean- It might be presumptuous but- May I stay at Hogwarts for the summer, sir?"
The hand slid off Tom's shoulder, and Tom knew.
Rage sizzled in his brain, overtook his thoughts.
He didn't need to look at the old man to know that he was shaking his head.
"I'm afraid not, Tom." Dumbledore's voice should never be so gentle when he was ruining Tom's plans and wrecking the boy's dreams. Archnemesis indeed. "Hogwarts is closed for the summer."
Desperation. It clawed his chest, and Tom... He almost couldn't breathe. Something hazy drifted before his eyes, and it was as if he were looking through a veil, with noise clogging his ear, and suddently he didn't have to pretend. Lies fell away and left only the truth, the truth of longing, and the truth of loneliness, and the truth of wanting a home.
He didn't need a person but everyone needed a place they could call home.
"I could help you!" fell from his lips. Tom's eyes widened and he wondered how words slipped from his control. He didn't regain it. "I'm good at everything I put my hand to, and I'm sure I would be useful to you. Just-"
He wanted to shout "Just please, let me stay!" Wanted to beg and cry, wanted to wail and scream, but his pride kept him there, in place, and the words didn't come. He looked straight into the Headmaster's eyes and knew they wouldn't come.
Hatred burnt in his veins, caressed his belly and his soul.
He didn't know where the desperation came from. Wasn't he the strongest at the orphanage, the most amazing and powerful, the most feared? Didn't everyone slink off in terror when he came into the room?
But somehow it didn't seem enough anymore.
He was reaching for something else, something very close, dangling in front of his eyes, and here the Headmaster was, taking everything away-!
He had simply disliked the Headmaster before. Now he abhorred him.
Perhaps his feelings wrote themselves into his eyes, because the old man's face changed, morphed into a statue of a war god with its frowns and ancient wisdom. Its pure calculation. Dumbledore hurried to explain himself.
"It is not that I don't want you here, Tom," he said in a gentle voice that burnt fiercer than hatred. He took Tom's hand in his palm, wrinkled but so strong compared to Tom's frail fist. Tom saw it shaking and willed it to stop. "However, it is against the rules to allow a student in the building during holidays, not least because of ward maintenance, exorcising ghosts, cleaning up the Forbidden Forest, and a variety of other actions that must be taken each year. I hope you won't hold it against this old man." Dumbledore smiled. "Here, take this box of lemon drops." He summoned an intricately decorated package. "Usually, I am too stingy to share whole boxes, but just for you I shall make an exception. Merry Christmas, Tom!"
Tom wiped away the anger and the longing. What use did it have to feel them? No, his feelings had to be as practical as his actions.
He smiled and took the offered present.
"Thank you, sir. Don't worry, it's a disappointment, but nothing I won't survive." He hesitated before adding bashfully. "I'm sorry I don't have any present for you."
"You being happy on this day is already a present for me, Tom."
Tom laughed and exited the room.
The burning in his veins never once stopped.
"It's so strange to see the dorms so empty, isn't it?" Harry asked Michael Corner as both boys lazily dressed themselves for the day. Everyone else went home, Anthony Goldstein with a happy smile and a threat to send him at least a card, Terry Boot with a large grin and exclamations that he would finally get to play Quidditch, Stephen Cornfoot with a sullen look because he would be made to look after his numerous siblings yet again and could he please hide away at school until seven years were over?
Michael only hummed in response, trying to find a clean sock in a pile by his bed.
"Is there a spell to create socks out of thin air?" he grumbled when he didn't find a washed pair and resigned to wearing mismatched ones. Harry wondered what his clean-freak mother would say to that.
"Well, there are conjurations - McGonagall will teach us if we take Advanced transfiguration. Oh, and you can look through old books to see whether there is a spell for socks. I don't doubt it, though, spells can be terribly specific."
"Tell me about it. I've found a spell when preparing my project for Flitwick's Club which basically levitated a potato into someone's mouth to shut them up."
Harry resolved to dig up that spell. A grin tugged his lips when he imagined Tom's reaction when he threw that thing at him.
"Oh, you're already preparing your project?" he asked aloud. "Lucky bastard, I've got no idea where even to start!"
Harry only knew that he was definitely going to beat Tom. The Slytherin's face would be priceless. almost as good as with a potato sticking out of his mouth.
"Well, I've had a couple of ideas..." Corner hedged before making a show of rummaging around in his drawers, this time for a clean undershirt.
"Care to share?"
Corner shook his head hurriedly, a suspicious eye glancing at him from beneath the untidy fringe.
"Later. Maybe." He shut his drawer with a bang.
Not for the first time, Harry noticed how closed off and greedy Ravenclaws were about their projects, or even sharing knowledge in general. The only exceptions were Su and Anthony, and only sometimes. McDougal, Entwhistle, an Turpin mostly kept to themselves, sometimes inviting Padma or Stephen. Terry spent most of his time deep in Quidditch stuff, researching the history of the game and the trivia; he was the person who could immediately tell you the names of all the Quidditch teams in British history.
Of course they talked, they discussed classes and the like, sometimes made allusions to what they were studying in free time... but each of them guarded what interested them most.
Harry was the same. No soul knew about his magic sight, and even his interest in ghosts toned down. That's not even mentioning his other pursuits. Speaking of which...
Harry heard Corner tumbling to the bathroom and neared his pile of presents, a light smile on his lips. Sunlight streaming through the latticed tower windows played beautifully upon the covers, bringing out the sparkles and the shine of the wrapping paper and decorated boxes, most of them in disarray after he opened them.
The best present, of course, was given by Uncle Regulus. A present and response to Harry's innocent and totally hypothetical question of 'How do I break into a professor's office? Asking for a friend'. His mentor responded with 'Hypothetically, your friend could use an artefact allowing you to slip through wards. Here is a sample, charged for four times of use'. There was a silver chain bracelet attached, which Harry hurried to put on. He had an amazing uncle.
He left the assortment of other gifts for later - mostly sweets, pastries, parchment and ink sets, books, healing potions, greeting cards, clothes, knicknacks. Sirius prepared an ornate lantern with a mirage of fairies dancing around a bean-sized vial with a phoenix tear inside. Ridiculously flashy and expensive... but useful. So much like the man.
Harry hoped his own presents were well-received as well. He had already sent out everything... except for one.
He couldn't keep a smile off his face when he thought about his Slytherin friend.
He tucked the gift into his bag, caressing the bright red cover that Tom would definitely find obnoxious and scoff at, which was why he had chosen it.
It was a diary, similar to his, except the cover was a sheer obsidian black to Harry's dark grey, and the illuminated letters read 'Tom Marvolo Riddle' in a lovely cursive. Harry adored diaries like this - all types of stationery, actually - and hoped it would cheer Tom up. He had also ordered a bag of chocolates from Honedukes, even though there would be plenty of sweets at the Feast.
He decided to come to the Great Hall early, since his friend claimed he had some business to attend to in the morning, so he bumped into Hagrid dragging a huge Yule tree and Professor Flitwick.
"Ah, Mr Potter!" the little man exclaimed. He paused in the middle of casting decoration charms, and his wand emitted sparks as he waved it up and down. "Up early, I see! So typical of one of my Ravenclaws!"
"Good morning, Professor Flitwick!" Harry greeted brightly. "Are you in the middle of casting?"
Stupid question,. Of course he was. Harry looked around curiously. There were some nice adornments across the ceiling, and the teachers all bustled around the place as Hagrid set up the tree. Professor McGonagall was transfiguring some of the armours into a merrier version, adding flares and lace to the metal, while Professor Sprout was murmuring to several smaller firs, encouraging them to grow right in front of Harry's eyes. He figured they were magical firs, since they grew tiny crystal-like particles that glistened under the frosty chandelier.
"Would you like to help me?" Professor Flitwick offered. Harry blinked and flushed.
"I- I don't think I would be of any help to you, Professor," the boy mumbled, "although, of course, I'd love to."
"You have incredible talent, Mr Potter." The little man waved his wand distractedly at a fixture on the wall, making it stand upright. "Actually, this year I've really lucked out with my Charms Club students. You, Mr Riddle, and Miss Granger are among the best Ive taught in a while."
Harry rubbed the back of his neck.
"Have you ever cast hoaring charms?" At Harry's shake of head Professor Flitwick continued. "Well, they're very, very easy. All you have to do is say the spell and direct your wand like this-" He took Harry's hand in his to show the process. "And it's all done! Here, try!"
"What do I have to cast it on?"
Professor Flitwick pointed to one of the painting frames. "This year's theme is frost, so everything is going to be covered in it."
"Aren't the paintings going to mind?" Harry asked, dubiously staring at the woman in the painting whose pursed lips clearly showed how much she appreciated all the Yule preparations.
"Of course we do!" she hissed.
"Of course they won't!" Professor Flitwick exclaimed cheerfully and cast a Silencio on the woman when she wanted to speak up against it.
"All right, I'll try," Harry muttered, still with a doubting grimace.
He hoped the painting would understand if he ended up blowing away its frame instead.
He cast the spell.
A blinding flash - and nothing.
Professor Flitwick stared at the frame. The woman inside leaned back, utterly unimpressed with everything.
"Well, even though there is no visible result, I can still see traces of your incantation."
"Yes. When you've cast magic for long enough, once you have researched enough, you may reach levels when you can read auras and see magic."
Harry's heart thumped in his chest.
It was... exactly what he did.
"You can see magic in people?" he almost whispered.
"People? Oh no, this is almost unheard of. But objects, oh, yes!"
Could... Harry do that, too? And where could he learn it?
"Who else can do this?"
Professor Flitwick lowered his voice, albeit its pitch didn't go away entirely. "Necromancers can. Their art is closely connected with souls, and according to some theories, souls are tied with magic in wizards and witches."
"I never would have thought!"
Where was he supposed to find a Necromancer to teach him?
"So, now if I observe the results of your spell-casting with my sight that came to me from hard-boiled experience, I can clearly see the traces of your casting. It means that your spell did work but was too weak to manifest fully. I would advise you to put a bit more force behind the spell."
"It's a bit of a problem," Harry admitted. "I used to put too much and had to get rid of that problem, but now I'm putting in too little."
"Don't worry, it's something that comes from practice. Now, try again!"
Harry mentally apologised as he stared into the painting's eyes, and pronounced the incantation again. This time, the blinding flash didn't appear. In its stead, a bluish veneer coated the golden frame.
"Very good, Mr Potter!" Profesor Flitwick beamed. "Three points to Ravenclaw! Now, you can return to the common room, sit here and watch the preparations, or help me."
"I'll help!" Harry piped up immediately. It would help him pass the time before Tom appeared.
"Very good! Here, let's try this frame - spells aren't as repelled by wooden frames as they're by metal ones."
"Why are you so gloomy?" Harry asked Tom the second they met. "It's Yule! Time for cheer and love!"
Tom's gloom turned to horror as he watched him.
"If you're going to be this merry, please don't bother talking to me today."
The Slytherin boy didn't move or run away, though (Harry didn't give him the chance) so the Ravenclaw decided he could just as well hug him - I'm not a teddy bear, Potter! - But you're as cuddly as one! - before thrusting his present into Tom's face.
"What's this?" Tom frowned. "Have you decided to give me a Dark artefact that kills me as soon as I rip off the wrapping paper because you're tired of being beaten by me in Charms? Actually, being beaten by me in everything because we all know you don't hold a candle to my genius."
Harry rolled his eyes. If he weren't so tired after spending the whole morning casting charms - mostly levitation and frost - he knew he would have said something. As it was, he only dropped, "Just open it already - and oh, do you really think I would waste a Dark artefact on you? They're damn expensive! It's not like you go down the street and see a Dark artefact and go, 'Oh, here it lies around, I might just as well take it home'! I would choose a much cheaper way to dispose of you if I wanted to."
Tom wasn't listening to him. Tom was neatly unwraping the paper. Tom was staring at the diary he uncovered.
The Slytherin's mouth slacked a little. He looked... lost.
"Why... are you giving me this?"
A soft voice.
Harry's heart jumped and slugged in sadness. To think that Tom reacted like this, that he had never been given a present before-
"It's a gift," Harry said gently. He stretched his hands and covered Tom's, rubbed them tenderly, hoping to make up for the tenderness Tom probably hadn't received earlier in his life. "I have a diary myself-" He didn't tell that his diary was used to store blackmail material; no need to give Tom ideas. "-and you seem like a person who would appreciate something like this, too."
"I don't have anything for you," Tom deadpanned after a pause. Harry rolled his eyes again. Ugh, dealing with Tom, such a pain.
"I knew I wouldn't have anything in return when I chose to buy it for you," he told him patiently. "But I still wanted to give you a present. It's fair that at least someone does."
Well, Professor Flitwick probably sent Tom some sugar quills as well, and Tom had told Harry once that they received Christmas presents at the orphanage, but this was likly the first present Tom ever got from a friend.
"You're strange," Tom whispered.
Harry's mouth opened and shut as he stared with wide eyes at that guy.
"Look who's talking. Now, do you want to see that ritual or not?"
"Hurry, hurry," the Ravenclaw urged him as Tom and he rushed to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. "We've already missed the most interesting part because of your business."
Tom scowled at the reminder of Dumbledore. Yet another person with a black mark against him. He dreaded the list of people to take revenge on, how it would grow once Hogwarts education came to an end if it was already so long.
"Why didn't come here yourself if you wanted to be there so much?" he bit out.
Harry stumbled and looked at him. Tom refused to sweep that stubborn curl that got into the boy's sparkling eyes, shielding them from him. He preferred to look straight into the pools of verdant green for some reason. His gaze dropped to the ghost of freckles on the Ravenclaw's nose and cheeks, and he scowled more. It wasn't normal to notice such things, he was certain.
"I wanted to show you everything," he spoke softly, and Tom's heart soared, and his soul lit up into a fire brighter than the snow drifting around them. "I wanted to share your first magical Yule with you. Should I have gone without you?"
His voice rang with uncertainty. An unfamiliar feeling stifled Tom. No, he didn't want Harry to go without him at all. Did't want him to share this day with someone else, one of those pesky friends Harry insisted on surrounding himself with day in day out. Friends like the fiery-haired Weasley, or the inept fool Longbottom, or the smirking bastard Zabini, or, recently, that aloof Patil girl, the one of the blue-bronze House. She hardly responded to Harry, he noticed, and yet the boy spoke with her too often and too brightly.
Tom wondered why he kept track of all those people who kept talking to Potter.
It's because he's my ally, he reasoned. And he knows certain facts about me. I need to keep track of his movements so that I see signs of treason. I must never allow him to betray my secrets.
Yes, seemed like a worthy cause.
Relieved, Tom responded with "Do whatever you want, you are deluded if you think that I care" in an almost kind voice.
"The way you show your love for me strikes me right in the heart," Harry told him dryly and dragged Tom further.
Despite the caustic tone, Harry held his hand gently, and Tom could feel the warmth seeping through the gloves.
They entered the Forest, and it differed from the one they had seen at the beginning of the term. Tom almost expected silver bloodprints staining the mounds of snow, but they walked a trail of untouched white. The gaps between the trees were flush with sunshine and birds singing, so unlike the last time, when they had answered the unicorn's call.
"What about the centaurs? Will they let us pass?" Tom asked dubiously, fingering his wand. It tingled in response.
This time, he wouldn't be as helpless. He may lose control, yes, but his enemies would be incapacitated anyway.
"Only today, yes. As long as we keep to the trail - don't you feel it?" Harry turned sharply to Tom, his breath lingering as a puff. "The Light leading us to its centre?"
"The only thing I feel is cold," Tom snapped. And a hand in his. A flutter in his stomach. "Next time I see Flitwick, I am going to demand that he teach us an actual heating charm."
A glass jar with bluebell flames hid under his coat, and the winter cloak was warm, but Tom preferred stifling heat to even the barest hints of coolness.
Harry looked unsympathetic to his plight.
"I feel like nothing will ever make you feel warm enough anyway," he muttered. "Anyway, it's your bad, then. Seems like you really do need me as my guide."
"Be thankful I find a use for you."
"Your gratitude is so heartwarming."
A curtain of trees slid away and revealed a clearing, snow-covered despite a tureen of fire burning in the middle. Its pale flames licked the leafless boughs, and its sparks danced around the clearing, landing on a couple of laughing girls in warm-looking headscarves and a Slytherin student Tom recognised.
"This is the most sacred place today for any Light being in the vicinity," Harry murmured and inhaled deeply, as if sensing something Tom didn't. His eyes snapped open and he looked around, in wonder and in awe, in respect and admiration.
Tom looked but he saw snow, and fire, and students who came for a piece of fairy tale.
"Come," Harry- actually ordered (!) Tom, beckoning him towards the flames. The Slytherin generously disregarded the tone just this once. Harry's hand leaked warmth, which was never enough in Tom's opinion, and if Tom told him off, Harry would respond negatively and try to quarrel - he was weird like that, refusing Tom's demands... and it's not like Tom could quarrel effectively with someone while holding their hand. He wasn't an expert on emotions, but it looked sort of counter-productive.
"What do we have to do for the ritual?" Tom asked him. The closer they got, the more feelings woke and rose in him, and he itched to get away. They were not aggressive nor negative. They were pleasant.
Tom detested it.
He had always leaned towards the powerful, the mysterious, the strangest, and the Darkest. He felt at home in the lies and intrigues of the snake house, he enjoyed and appreciated the subtle beauty of poison-making as revealed in snatches of Zabini's conversation, he revelled in the readings on mind-magic and manipulation, on minds breaking and hearts changing, on souls fracturing with murder.
He wasn't supposed to shiver with pleasure from the flickers of light dancing on his skin, to lean towards the brightest sparks, to thrum with magic dancing and singing to the tune as crystal as the summer sky reflected in the lake.
"There are many rituals you can conduct during this time," Harry started, and his voice quivered as if folding under the burden of ancient history. "For witches and wizards Yule has always been a festival of light, truth, fire, and new insights. A new year, a new point of view. The reparation of bonds, too, sometimes."
"This isn't what the books say about Light magic," Tom told him with a frown, his mind whirring to discover any discrepancies in his reading.
"There are many definitions of Light Magic... just like there are many definitions of Dark Magic. For instance, did you know that in Greece mental arts are actually considered Light, when they are the epitome of the Dark here in England? Legilimency and Occlumency originated there, were first categorised and researched as separate branches there, and are part of the curriculum. Sometimes..."
Harry hesitated and looked at Tom. The curl got into his eye again, and this time Tom couldn't stand it. His hand stretched out and removed it. The Slytherin nodded to himself. He liked things clean and neat and he would keep Harry's face clean and neat, too, because that's how their friendship was going to work.
Harry blinked. Smiled. Continued more confidently, probably mistaking Tom's care for his own aesthetics as care for what he had to say. Tom saw no reason to point out the mistake.
"Sometimes I feel like it is us, witches and wizards, who divide magic into Dark and Light."
"This is obvious. I have only been formally part of the magical world for a short while but even I can already see that. The Ministry decides what magic is allowed, and which is not-"
"No, I mean- Yeah, of course, you get the Ministry definitons." Harry screwed his face up. "But then you have people devoting themselves to Light and Dark, and betraying that allegiance, and there are real consequences for that. However, I feel like it is our minds that need this division and the magic only listens to us and humours us... and punishes us for the treason to our chosen type because we ourselves believe that we should be punished." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Just touch the flame, Tom. I know you already believe that you're Dark even though you're so young, but touch the flame and tell me you don't feel at peace."
He wanted to protest. He remembered the whisper of power, how good it felt, even the loss of control, and wanted to laugh because how could he ever want to give that up?
But Harry's voice compelled him, and his hand reached against his will, and the fire licked his skin, and the fire... didn't burn him.
For the barest of moments, happiness engulfed him.
Cleanness, contentment, the kind you enhale when you press your nose into washed cotton after a long bath. He sensed the truth in Harry's words, and felt something pass between them because Harry joined his hand in the white flames, and Tom warmed up. Snowflakes touched them. The wind blustered despite the repelling wards. Yet none of that bothered Tom.
The memory of his treasure box back at the orphanage poped into his mind.
If he still had it, he would put this moment into it as well. It was a day that made Tom realise that some scenes, some moments came and went, and were lost forever, and the emotions he experienced came and went with them. His mother's memory had been one of those, an insight he could never bury in his mind, a reminder at the back of his head that he was a mere side effect, never loved enough to be the centre of someone's life, of someone's ideal.
This was another, a more positive note.
It passed, of course. Good moments always did.
A second of absolute truth and happiness - but then he was again a boy who had to go back to the orphanage in the summer, whose control over Dark magic slipped sometimes, whose Head of House refused to teach him, and at whom even Light purebloods glanced condescendingly from the corners of their eyes.
"You are an idiot," he told Harry curtly, wrang his hand away, pushed away the lingering warmth, and gave himself away to the cold and bit into him after the instance of absolute heat.
They bickered the walk back. Tom pretended it was all a waste of time but inside he knew...
That moment would never be erased from his memory. A second of absolute light.
The moment that came after the feast would never be forgotten either, since it set Tom on a path of personal discovery that wouldn't be finished for a while and would only end in tears, pain, and madness, and not all of them were his.
"There is another thing I want to show you," Harry whispered and clutched Tom by the sleeve just as the Slytherin was about to return to the dorm. Tom wondered if he should take a look at some dog-training books to see if there was a way to train Harry out of that nasty habit. Strangely, he never seemed to summon the will to actually act upon his wishes. "It's part of your Yule present."
Tom stared expectantly.
"It's not a thing," Harry added, understanding Tom's silence. "It's a place. Somewhere to practice... to plot. I promised to help you with your revenge."
Tom wondered if Harry knew what he was signing up for.
If he didn't...
Well, it was Tom's task to convince him. Or force him to stay if Harry was going to run.
"I'm not really sure how safe it's gonna be," Harry warned him as Tom followed him down the corridor. "I was told there hasn't been anyone there in decades. Oh, and there is a trapdoor involved. Good thing Professor Flitwick taught us all those unlocking spells, eh? You can always count on your Charms teacher to teach you breaking and entering!"
"Who told you about this place? Aren't you worried they might intrude or blabber?"
"Oh, they won't. They don't usually talk to people... they're not even alive!" Harry exclaimed cheerfully before remembering himself, wincing, and hunching his shoulders.
"So, we're going to visit a place that has been abandoned for decades, where there is a trapdoor, where no one knows we are going... and your source is dead? Sounds fantastic. Get me the sign-up sheets right now."
A sense of déjà vu crept up on Tom. Did friendship really imply getting into these situations? Tom had read a book on it once, after Harry introduced the concept to him, and it definitely hadn't mentioned this. He was going to sue that author.
"This is put very pessimistically, Tom. I'm pretty sure everything's gonna be all right!"
- Dumbledore. Please note this isn't a bashing story. He's not evil in this fic. He isn't even that important, actually. However, in this chapter we see him from Tom's POV and he's understandably biased even though Albus' reasons for not letting Tom stay are actually valid (it's not like there's a war in the muggle world and Tom's orphanage really isn't as bad as the 40's one, so Tom's request actually IS inappropriate here... not that my heart doesn't go out to the poor boy).
- Muggle wank. Since I received a comment on it somewhere in the previous chapters, I'm going to say it now: worry not, because I hate it with a passion! Like, seriously, I love technology and progress in real life but I don't want it anywhere near the stories I read. I'm here for magic. MW is actually one of my biggest pet peeves, so while I might mention muggle world and even, rarely, compare them, please know that I'm a sword-over-gun sort of girl. It's never my intention to imply that magical world should be transformed into our real world, since I consider them fundamentally different, and I'm sorry if it comes across like that!
- We've got only a couple of chapters to go until summer, yay! And I love the summer arc. Also, I somehow like this chapter? The reason I've been sitting on it for so long is that I thought it was totally no-good, but now I'm feeling a bit stupid and guilty because it doesn't look that horrible to me (or does it? please let me know!).
- Please check out my Tomarry Big Bang story! It's titled The Librarian, and is a dimension-travel AU where, at the train station, Harry decides to time-travel but life (coughAlbuscough) happens and he ends up in a dimension where Tom's become the Headmaster. The librarian vacancy is conveniently open - RIP Madame Pince - so Harry decides to keep his enemy closer. Really closer. But being a Master of the library is different, and Tom sucks at the whole Headmaster business, so Harry decides to take reins. Features mentor!headmaster!Tom, Harry trained in magic, seer!Ron, library activities, Harry counselling people (hint: he's as good at it as Tom at being the Headmaster), and freaky books.