Chapter 1 : always watching
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The world is in turmoil. In Europe, Hitler’s Germany invades Russia, while the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rise up against their oppressors. The Afrika Korp and the Italian troops surrender to Allied forces in North Africa, and Josef Mengele becomes the chief medical officer in Auschwitz. Rome is bombed by Allied forces, while Operation Gomorrah leaves Hamburg in ruins, with 40,000 dead and 280,000 buildings destroyed. Mussolini resigns, and the Battle of Stalingrad comes to an end. Nazi forces liquidate Jewish ghettos in Krakow, Minsk and Lida.
In the midst of the chaos, Minerva McGonagall has returned to Hogwarts following Easter break.
The girl sitting at the window did not turn when the door swung and footsteps crossed the floor towards her. She could sense him, so there was no need to look. He stopped beside her, not close enough to make his presence a personal invasion, and not far enough away to seem impersonal. He had a way of doing that, of being indifferent and charming at the same time. Outside, she could see the stars and the faint outline of the moon through the dusty glass.
They stood and watched the sky together, until he turned to her, smiling that smile he had. Minerva McGonagall thought it was too superior, too smug, and was not really at home on his face.
He was, as always, trying to fit in. She did not fully understand him, and at times, that vexed her.
“Your holiday was good?” he inquired politely. She nodded, and did not look at him. She did not ask about his holiday, but he felt he needed to answer anyway. “Mine was the same as the last.” There was dark bitterness in his voice; she had never heard that before. Curious, she twisted in her window seat and gave him her full attention. His dark eyes were not on her face, as she had thought, but were gazing out at the sky. A muscle worked delicately in his temple, and his jaw was tight.
Tom Riddle’s lips curled into a smile when he realized he was being watched. “But it does not matter,” he said softly. “Good night, Minerva.”
She watched him leave, chewing her lip. She did not consider Tom to be a friend; not even really an acquaintance. The only thing they shared was a burning passion for knowledge. He was intelligent, fiercely so, and sometimes, Minerva thought that was frightening. As much as she loved learning and craved expanding her horizons, there was something about having too much knowledge that she did not think was wise.
She recalled a time, several years past, where she had volunteered her help after watching him sit, night after night, in the library. He had simply smiled that smile and handed her an essay. With her eyebrow raised, she had taken it from his hand, her eyes skimming the page.
“As you can see,” he had said softly. “I am not in need of any help."
Minerva sighed and stood, stretching. She had been sitting for too long, and was stiff. She thought longingly of her bed, with the soft covering her mother had made for her last Christmas. She reached up and unwound her hair from its tight bun. Normally, she would not do such a thing in a public place, but it was late, and the library was deserted. There was a Hogsmeade visit tomorrow, and she gathered people were getting their fill of sleep.
As she walked, Minerva tugged at a piece of hair, twisting it around her finger. A gentle breeze plucked at the skin on the back of her neck, teasing goosebumps into life. She shivered, pulling her robes tighter around her body. A window had been left open in the corridor. With a flick of her wand, Minerva snapped it shut, and, smiling, walked on.
She did not see the boy watching from the shadows, nor did she see him smile.
Minerva sat in bewildered silence. It was unfathomable. A student had been murdered at Hogwarts! She shivered. The girl, a Ravenclaw, had been found dead in the second floor bathroom. It could easily have been me, Minerva thought, looking around the Great Hall. Everywhere, students were sitting open-mouthed. Someone was crying. From the shock, probably, she told herself.
She could not remember the dead girl’s name, even though mere moments had passed since the announcement was made. Minerva crossed and uncrossed her legs, the fingers of one hand clenched tightly in the other. She felt a joint pop, and thrust her hands into her lap.
There had to be a way to forge order from the chaos. There had to be a way to identify who had done this horrible deed, this soulless act. Minerva could not comprehend it. How could someone be so alive and then, so dead? So destroyed?
She felt eyes on her face and glanced up and across the room. Tom Riddle sat looking at her. Deep shadows coated his face and Minerva felt chilly fingers walk her spine. His eyes caressed her; her stomach clenched at the intimacy lurking there. For a moment, Minerva thought she saw him smile, but she told herself she was mistaken.
She could not look away, and as time moved slowly forward, he simply watched her, burning her and turning her to ice in the same instant. In slow motion, the world came alive again, and students began to move, returning to their common rooms. There would be no more casual and carefree time spent in the courtyard for the moment, not until the culprit was apprehended. The season was turning, spring into summer, and outside, the sun shone merrily, a terrible contrast to the gloom that seeped throughout the castle.
The Hall emptied. Minerva sat, long after Tom had gone, and stared at the place where he had been.
“I wonder, Minerva, if I may join you?”
She looked up, the book open in her lap, and narrowed her eyes. He had never asked to ‘join her’ anywhere before. He was smiling and again, she wondered why – why did people smile at people they hardly knew?
“It’s a terrible shame about Hagrid, isn’t it?” Tom said pleasantly, sitting down beside her, uninvited. Minerva sighed and closed the book.
“There is no need to pretend, Tom,” she said, a touch of anger in her voice.
He laughed his cold laugh and dragged a slender hand through his dark hair. “Whatever do you mean, Minerva.”
It was not a question and she drew a shaky breath, driving her anger down into the depths of her stomach. Her eyes fell to the Prefects Badge pinned neatly on his robes.
“Where is your medal?” she asked bitterly. She thought he would be wearing it; he was proud enough to do so.
“How is your exam preparation going?” Tom inquired, changing the subject. Perhaps he could sense her anger, and her disapproval of him, yet he was as polite as always. “Do you have plans for when you finish school?”
Minerva bit her lip, but the words exploded from her mouth anyway, a sea of mistrust. “He was innocent, Tom! That poor boy! I know you said you caught him, but … I refuse to believe he had anything to do with that girl’s death!”
“It is only natural for you to endorse his integrity, Minerva. He was in your House. If it were someone from my House who had done such a terrible thing, maybe I too would try and defend my fellow Slytherin,” Tom said, looking away from her. His tone held the slightest trace of condescension, but she told herself it was just his way. Ever since he had first come to Hogwarts, and she remembered the time, he had been self-righteous and proud.
“And anyway, he is not gone, so you can still speak with him if you wish. Headmaster Dippet has been very kind, kinder than most, I imagine, considering.”
The silence between them lengthened. She could think of nothing to say. Tom always left her feeling dislocated, as if there was some secret he knew that she did not. There was a time, once, when she thought him handsome. They had gone out; it was a union borne of a dare. Minerva’s friends had said she was running the risk of becoming boring, and, never one to back away from a challenge, she had squared her shoulders and asked the younger boy to accompany her for a walk in the grounds one spring evening.
She had thought, at the time, that if she must share her company with someone, it would be best to choose a man who was more than good looks. She wanted someone she could converse with, someone who perhaps loved the things she did.
That evening had been the last. Tom was charming, and a great conversationalist, but Minerva found him cold and aloof, indifferent beneath his polite exterior. He had tried hard to win her over, even clearing the ground of debris for her so they could sit. In the end, Minerva decided they were simply not suited for one another. She knew he knew it, too. They had, since then, generally avoided each other, for they were not friends before their excursion. Now, he was seeking her out, and she had no clue why.
“You should wear your hair out,” Tom said gently. Minerva started, almost dropping her book. He did not speak again, and did not look at her. The air had grown colder, the sun slipping behind a cloud, casting the grounds in momentary darkness. Minerva gathered her book to her chest, climbing to her feet. She had grown tired of this game.
“I think I will go in now,” she announced, and walked away without another word, her robes swishing.
He was wearing a gold ring, one that she had never seen before. It sat heavy and overbearing on his slim finger, like it did not really belong there. She wondered where he had purchased it, or how he could afford it. It was no secret that Tom Riddle was an orphan, and therefore not possessed of any personal fortune. She held her tongue, however, and continued to sip at her tea.
Once more he had sought her out, finding her in Hogsmeade. She had no idea how he had discovered her location, and she wished to ask him, but could not. She could not begin to imagine what she had done to pique his interest, both now and in the past.
She had not spoken to him for almost a month, and after leaving school, had believed she would never speak with him again. Now, here he was, sitting opposite her, again uninvited, smiling his smile and watching her. She wondered if he had lost weight.
To distract him, for she did not want to answer any of the personal questions she was certain he would ask, she indicated her copy of The Daily Prophet..
“It’s a terrible business, isn’t it, Tom?” Minerva asked. “Those poor Muggles in Little Hangleton. Murdered in their house!”
She thought she saw his nostrils flare, but when she looked, his eyes had grown distant and he glanced at the paper before turning away. “Yes. Terrible.”
“And then,” Minerva continued, her voice rising as it did when she was feeling passionate. “That poor Gaunt fellow!”
“’Poor?’” Tom interjected, his eyes tight. There were lines around his mouth that she had not seen before. “The man confessed, did he not?”
“Well, yes, I suppose he did …”
Tom smiled again, leaning across the table towards her. His eyes sparkled. “Then naturally, he is guilty. Why would a man confess to a crime he did not commit?”
Minerva straightened in her chair, pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “He wouldn’t. I only meant … it is a terrible business. Especially with everything else that is going on in the world.”
“You care about Muggle affairs?” he asked, drumming his fingers gently on the table-top. She nodded, lifting her chin.
He shrugged and snuck one of her little tea cakes. “Of course.”
Minerva watched him pop the treat into his mouth and chew. He made a face before he swallowed and she wondered if he, like her, had found the cake too sweet.
“Yes,” Tom Riddle said, sitting back casually in his stolen seat. “Terrible.”
A bird called overhead, and Minerva looked up automatically, watching as a raven flew by. The sun caught on its wings, and she blinked, caught up in the moment of simple beauty. The dark-haired boy sitting across the table watched her, and smiled.