Not Optimal

Chapter One

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or A Christmas Carol.

Tom Riddle didn't like to think of himself as an arrogant sort. Of course he didn't, arrogance was a flaw and he tried to avoid those whenever he could. Some, he knew, might disagree on the matter of his arrogance but they either knew better or were simply too polite to openly say something like that. Tom was a proud wizard, to be sure, but arrogance was really excessive pride and he felt that every inch of his pride was well-deserved. Thus 'arrogant.'

Tom had always been able to be proud of his maturity and self-possession and, as he grew, he came to find pride in his intelligence, natural charisma, and magical talent. As a presumed Muggleborn with no family to speak of, conquering those Pureblood snobs and taking his rightful place at the top of the Slytherin heap was one of his finer moments as well. And of late, he had even found reason to take pride in his mother's family if not in his mother herself.

He had the blood of Slytherin running through his veins. He had no title and no heirlooms or great wealth but he did have the proof of his Pareseltongue ability, which was more than being the unheralded heir to some great lines would have gotten him, though for obvious reasons that must remain a secret for now.

His proof, something his followers understood even if no one else could be permitted to, was causing problems for him even now.

Somehow, his transfiguration professor and harshest critic had cornered him and Tom hadn't been able to get out of going to his office, supposedly to talk about his performance in class but that shockingly hadn't come up (and what needed to be said? Tom was a Transfiguration genius as well as topping all of his other classes) and who discussed schoolwork in Christmas Eve anyway?

Dumbledore stared piercingly at him. "It is such a tragedy that Miss Finnegan was attacked and must miss Christmas, do you not agree?"

Tom would have been more wary if staring piercingly were not Dumbledore's usual method for dealing with him. Dumbledore had a neat trick of making you feel like he could read your mind but Tom knew for a fact that if he were a Legilimens then he did not use this power on any student. After all, if Dumbledore ever used it on any student then it would be Tom. Tom himself had been studying Occlumency for years but he was not so vain as to think himself a match for Dumbledore, not yet. As such if Dumbledore were to use Legilimency then he could not fail to learn conclusively – and not just suspect – that Tom was behind the attacks and then he would act on it.

Dumbledore might have spent the last three years ignoring the increasingly desperate please from Western Europe to stop Grindelwald and save them all but Tom had faith that he would at least have Tom tossed out of the school they both resided in.

"She is unfortunate indeed, sir," Tom agreed. He didn't say that he cared because he didn't and he tried not to outright lie to Dumbledore just in case. And she was unfortunate in being the first Muggleborn the basilisk had come across; he had not set the creature after her in particular. It continued to amaze him that the basilisk was able to identify and attack a Mudblood on command but that was magic for you. It also proved, he supposed, that there was some sort of fundamental difference between wizards with proper families and those whom the basilisk was hunting.

"I am surprised at your staying at Hogwarts over Christmas, Tom," Dumbledore said mildly.

Tom frowned. "Really, sir? I had thought that you were aware that I would stay over the summer if it were allowed. You went to the orphanage yourself."

"It may not be an ideal environment," Dumbledore conceded. "Though I am sure that they are trying their best. But it is not safe here. This creature is targeting those of your background and-"

"I am not a Muggleborn," Tom interrupted quietly. Maybe he shouldn't antagonize the old man but he couldn't just sit there and be demeaned in such a way, even if Dumbledore didn't seem to view it as an insult. He was pleased that he had remembered to say 'Muggleborn' instead of 'Mudblood.'

"I thought you didn't know where you came from?" Dumbledore asked slowly, suspiciously.

Here was where he had to be careful. If Dumbledore knew that he was the Heir of Slytherin or even that he knew of his relations to the Gaunt and decided to do some research of his own then Tom could be in a great deal of danger of discovery.

"I know enough to know that my mother was a witch," Tom said stiffly.

"Be that as it may, if whatever force directed the attack is not aware of that then you may still be in danger," Dumbledore warned.

Nobody had known that Emma Hubbard was a Muggleborn either, raised as she was by her Muggleborn uncle and Half-blood aunt until the attack, after which the truth had come out. Dumbledore had to have known that and so, even if Tom were not the one directing the basilisk, he would have had nothing to fear.

"I appreciate your concern, sir, but I would rather spend a few weeks petrified than go back there," Tom replied.

Oh, some concern. Dumbledore had been expecting him to start strangling kittens or something equally appalling since he first walked into Hogwarts, as innocent – more or less – as any other first year. If Tom were to be petrified, Dumbledore would breathe much easier. He might even suspect a trick of some sort. Although that was an idea so perhaps he wasn't entirely off base. Still, no need to risk it right now. Perhaps if he became suspected.

"Who said anything about being petrified?" Dumbledore asked gravely.

Tom blinked, wondering briefly if Dumbledore was finally going senile. "Well, sir, all of the other victims have been petrified and so I think that it stands to reason that if I get attacked then I, too, will end up petrified."

Dumbledore sighed heavily. "I must confess that I do not know what manner of creature is attacking our students but sooner or later, if this continues, I truly believe that someone will die."

Tom felt a momentary flicker of concern (students being attacked was one thing but actually killed? Would they really just let that stand? Might they even close Hogwarts temporarily and force him to return to the orphanage?) but brushed is aside. The basilisk wasn't careless enough to do that.

"May I be excused, sir?" Tom asked politely. "I'm suddenly feeling not very well."

"Ah, my apologies for keeping you," Dumbledore said immediately, standing up and going over to open his office door. "I trust you will continue your pattern of academic excellence when the new term starts?"

Tom nodded. "I will, sir."

He was going to head back to the Slytherin common room but on a whim decided to stop by and see Rubeus instead. Maybe if things ever do go terribly, terribly wrong and Dumbledore isn't just worrying too much then he should have some sort of a contingency plan. He's sure he won't ever need it, not really, but there is no harm in being overly prepared.

Rubeus quickly hides what he's doing when he hears someone coming but he could not – really could not – look any more suspicious.

"Evening, Rubeus," Tom drawls.

Rubeus jumped and relaxed when he realized who it was. "Yeh shouldn' scare me like that. I though' yeh was a professor or somethin'. Course, yeh are a prefec'."

Tom held up a hand. "Not to worry, Hagrid. I quite understand. The rules are there for a reason, of course, because we do not want people who don't know what they're doing to smuggle all manner of creatures in here but you clearly have an affinity with these creatures."

Rubeus beamed. He was too easy to deceive and he trusted Tom. If it came down to it, he would make the perfect scapegoat, he and whatever it was he was raising this time.

"Yer the on'y one who understan's," Rubeus said gratefully.

"I'm sure that's not true," Tom said soothingly.

Rubeus nodded seriously. "It is true! Why, just the other day someone asked me if it were true that I was raising werewolf cubs under me bed! Werewolves! Can yeh imagine?"

Tom was honestly surprised at that. "But surely they know that werewolves are only actually transformed one night of the month?"

Rubeus shrugged. "Didn' seem like it. Not ter mention that even I'm not fool enough to go near a fully-transformed werewolf…"

"That is a good approach," Tom remarked. "Well, it's getting late so I'll let you get back to it. I'll see you later, Rubeus."

"An' yeh, Tom," Rubeus said, before turning his attention back to whatever it was that he had been hiding.

Satisfied with his work and his new resolve, Tom headed off to the common room. It was far too early to go to bed but being the only Slytherin remaining had its advantages and he happily envisioned a cozy evening reading by the fire.

He thought he saw something in the misleadingly bare patch of stone wall that led to his common room but, looking again, it was just a dark spot on the stone. Seeing things wasn't good and, unlike with his hearing things, there wasn't an easily explainable reason for that.

He pulled his favorite armchair closer to the fire and then grabbed the book he was reading and settled in for a very enjoyable evening.

After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, perhaps an hour or two, he sensed that he was no longer alone in the room. Staying perfectly calm, he looked up and saw the ghost of a rather plain-looking woman. She had eyes that went in different direction and dull, lanky hair. Tom tried not to put too much importance on beauty (though he believed it was only natural to prefer to look at aesthetically pleasing things) but there was something about this woman…She rather repulsed him, truth be told.

"I don't believe I've seen you before," Tom said neutrally, setting down his book. "Are you a ghost of the castle?"

The woman shook her head.

"Then what are you doing here, if I might ask?" Tom inquired. "Are you visiting? Were you in Slytherin?"

Her smile was tinged with melancholy. "I was never afforded the opportunity to go to Hogwarts but I would have liked to have been a Slytherin, I think. I am pleased that you, at least, are a Slytherin."

Tom began to get a very bad feeling about this. Still, she seemed to be a ghost and not a poltergeist so if things took a turn for the nasty there was nothing she could do to him short of annoying him. And possibly finding out about the basilisk and telling someone. Could ghosts be petrified? He would need to look into this.

"My name is Tom Riddle," he introduced.

The wistful expression on her face grew stronger. "I know."

"Then I'm afraid that you have me at a disadvantage," Tom said pointedly.

A sharp flash of pain in her eyes. "Of course. I shouldn't have realized…Of course. My name is Merope Gaunt. I'm…"

"My mother," Tom realized, taken aback. Clearly he had inherited his looks from his filthy muggle father. And this rather answered the questions he had about whether his mother was a Squib or something since she had died rather ignobly at a filthy muggle orphanage. You couldn't be a ghost if you were a Squib, after all.

Merope bowed her head. "Yes."

What was he supposed to say to that? He supposed that there were questions he should have for her – she looked as if she expected questions – but he was having difficulty thinking of anything. Well, there was one thing, wasn't there? The reason it had taken him four years to consider the possibility that his magical blood had come from his mother's side of the family.

"Why did you bleed out in a muggle orphanage if you're a witch?" Well, that came out a little blunter than he had been intending.

Merope winced. "I…Well…"

Tom waited patiently.

"You have to understand that after your father left…I never had much in my life," Merope began awkwardly. "I had my wand and the locket handed down in our family since Slytherin himself but my father was a cruel and unstable man and my brother grew up to be just like him. He was so terrified of anything happening to ruin the purity of our line that he wouldn't even let us be exposed to Hogwarts. I shudder to think about how far he would have gone to ensure that our line remained pure."

Tom's mind suddenly went to some very unpleasant places and tried to put that out of his mind.

"Then my brother and father were taken away to Azkaban and I ran off with your father and things were perfect but then he left and…I loved your father. Whatever else you may believe, believe that," she said firmly. "And with him gone, I really had no idea how to survive on my own. I was forced to peddle what I had and I just…I gave up caring about myself, as much as I ever had. I don't think that I ever cared about myself when your father wasn't there."

This pathetic and desperate creature was his mother? Tom was finding this whole thing rather distasteful and was putting his considerable effort into not revealing his distaste. He may yet learn something from this encounter.

"I wanted to hold on, at least until after you were born," she explained. "I tried to find a place that would take you."

"You were so bloody concerned about me that you died giving birth to me and left me at an orphanage," Tom said, unable to help himself. "What kind of a witch were you?"

"Not a very good one," Merope said, pained. "And what kind of a life would you have had with me, anyway? The muggles looked like they knew what they were doing and I thought that maybe, without me, your father would come back."

"He didn't," Tom said coldly.

Merope sighed. "I can hardly blame him, really."

Just how defeated was this woman? She forgave the man whose actions had ultimately killed her in more ways than one just like that? That was really not healthy. "He abandoned you," Tom reminded her.

"I…may have forced him into marriage against his will with the use of magic," Merope conceded. "But he was so loving, so gentle, so kind! He didn't care what his family or his friends or that horrible girl thought. He just loved me and wanted me and we left together to start a new life together. But then I was pregnant and…"

Realization hit Tom then. "You let him go."

"I really thought he loved me," Merope said again, pleading for understanding.

And his father had woken up to find his will sapped, his body ravaged, his life stolen and the fiend who did it all standing hopefully before him asking him to stay. That explained why he had left. What it could not forgive was why he had never returned for Tom himself. Maybe Tom Riddle Sr. had only been a muggle himself but he couldn't be worse than the orphanage.

He slightly amended his summer plans to track his father down.

"Why are you here? Why did it take you fifteen years to track me down?" Tom asked.

"I'm not a ghost," Merope informed him.

Tom stared at her. "Really."

"Well, now I am," she conceded. "But normally I'm not. I'm here under special circumstances, you see, to issue a warning to you."

This sounded like the sort of thing Dumbledore would come up with.

"I'm listening," he said impassively.

"You must not continue down this path you have started," Merope warned.

"What path?" Tom asked innocently.

"I know about the Chamber of Secrets," Merope said flatly.

"That old legend?" Tom asked dismissively. "I rather think whatever is attacking the Muggleborns is a little closer to Earth, if you take my meaning."

"There is really no need to pretend with me," Merope told him. "I know all about it, more than you yourself even know."

That was an unsettling thought and Tom found himself resenting it. Even if it wasn't true, there was a great deal of presumption in her words.

"You will find power, true," Merope conceded. Power was good. "But also pain and a brutal defeat that will leave you far worse off than death could ever do. What you will do to yourself, my son…I cannot bare it. And the wizarding world will suffer greatly so I am given this chance to appeal to you."

"How can you appeal to me when I know nothing about this future that you are describing?" Tom asked reasonably. "It is all just a bunch of words."

Merope nodded. "And I am but a stranger, besides. You're right. I can't. You have every right to hate me, Tom, but I can't let you throw everything away and destroy yourself because of my actions."

Hatred was a strong word. He felt nothing for this woman but mild dislike that was bordering on indifference.

"So what do you intend to do?" Tom inquired. "Or was all of this just a wasted trip from the afterlife?" At least he knew there was an afterlife now. With regular ghosts it had sort of been implied but he had never quite been sure. And she looked well enough. Or at least he didn't imagine that she looked much worse than she had in life.

Merope shook her head. "No, I am but the vanguard. You will be visited by three other spirits tonight and, if fate is kind, you will see why you must change your path."

"Very well then," Tom acquiesced.

Merope drew back. "You do not wish to resist these visits?"

"I can hardly stop them if I try," Tom replied. "So long as they do what they mean to do and leave me in peace whatever I decide, I am willing to tolerate this intrusion. It is only one night and I had nothing important planned anyway."

"Oh, you will not regret this!" Merope swore as she began to float towards the door. "They will appear every hour on the hour starting from one o'clock."

Tom looked at the clock. That was still a few hours away yet.

He might as well get to bed so he would have the energy to deal with this tiresome intervention.

And he still wasn't convinced that Dumbledore was not somehow involved.

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