Chapter 1 : Tom's War
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It was a peculiar kind of summons which began that fateful night, the full implications of which she would not understand until much, much later. It was a message for her, but, in ways she didn't grasp yet, also a message for the rest of the world, for the darkness that was gathering beyond the castle, beyond the beautiful and dangerous illusion that is ignorance. It was an invitation of an ominous kind, not a request but a demand. It began with a summons and ended with a warning, a dire prediction, from the world which was trembling from the force of the evil which held it in tight clutches, and the evil not yet to close its grasp. She was unknowingly caught in the winds of dark and dangerous change, but it began with a summons, and that summons came in the form of a checked-out library book.
It was argued which one of them was the best in the year, and they were nearly always slipping past one another- he with an advantage in Potions, she in Transfiguration. Lately, though, it seemed to become particularly evident that there was not room for both of them at the academic peak. He never seemed to take pleasure in thwarting her. He was always rigidly polite, quiet, and gracious. But there were times, when he just barely triumphed over her, when a teacher favored him, that she could detect the faintest hint of smug, selfish glee in his features. She had learned to ignore it and to tell herself it was not real. But she told herself a lot of things about him, knowing that most of them weren't true.
She made it to the library before it began filling with after-dinner scholars, and headed for the librarian's desk. But before she could get there, she could see the response swelling before her, in the slightly amused, slightly sympathetic expression of the librarian, in the way she stood bracing herself.
"Miss McGonagall, you know I tried, but-"
"I know," she sighed, resisting the urge to heave a loud sigh in frustration. "How did he even get here before me?"
"He skipped dinner, I expect," the librarian replied, and Minerva shook her head. Skipping dinner. She should have thought of that. Naturally there was only one copy of the text she was seeking, a very complex, very detailed description of Charms technique that she had been waiting for for at least a week. She couldn't fathom how he knew she would want it, but it was a particular skill of his: knowing things he shouldn't, couldn't know
By now, she understood him, at least parts of him, well enough to know his intentions. He enjoyed his games. Now he would make her hunt for him, and when she found him, she would discover that she was not the hunter at all, but the foolish creature walking into the predator's den. She feared following his silent orders and she didn't dare resist him. There was something coiled within him, a dark beast which fascinated and repulsed her, a loaded trap. It was a tension that she could not and was afraid to understand, but which drew her attention as surely as shadows draw the eyes into dark places. It defied logical, reasonable Minerva McGonagall.
She left the library heading down, toward the first floor and the Great Hall. He would be difficult but not impossible to find. He would be somewhere quiet and lonely and unexpected, as he was all of these things. He was always endlessly patient; never once had he given up his vigil, when he set her on these chases. But his patience was as disconcerting as it was admirable: she was sure he would wait as long as it took, always, to get what he wanted.
Outside, the night was still in the windows she passed. The sky was clear and the stars bright, but the moon was small, making the night seem that much darker. The world seemed to be waiting with bated breath, for what, she didn't yet know. But she would soon, she felt sure. She would understand, perhaps more than she wanted to. Somewhere out there in that night there was turmoil, destruction and fear, and this peaceful scene outside the window was just waiting, as patiently as the young man she now saw at the end of the corridor.
"Tom," she called, and his eyes turned from the window to acknowledge her, though surely he had heard her footsteps approach before. The smile he gave her was well-crafted and charming and prompted a smile from her in return, one that she had not intended to give. But she was sixteen and the effect of a smile from a handsome young man was inevitable, and added to the effect she often experienced around him: a kind of instability, a sort of uncertainty that was both unpleasant and strangely appealing. She wanted to see goodness in him and sometimes she did, she was afraid to see the lies in his goodness and they were always present. But most of all she wanted to remember that he was sixteen and just a young man with an entire future ahead of him, and convince herself not to be afraid.
But still, those eyes. Those quiet, secret eyes.
"Minerva," he nodded. His hands were in his pockets and he stood relaxed, confident. "I was hoping you'd come." As though she would have stayed away.
"Are you reading that?" she asked him, nodding to the book under his arm.
"Just studying," he replied, without a flicker of change in his expression. His gaze turned once more to the window, and she waited for him to get on with his point, though she knew, as she always did, that he would not reveal it until he arrived there. "You know, I've been reading about their war, the Muggles. All of those weapons they're inventing, all of the money spent on burning everything down."
The pleasant expression did not change, as though he were discussing the weather. She frowned. "It's horrid," she said, suppressing a shiver. "So many people."
"But still," he said slowly, "All of the innovation. The change they wreak on their world. It's fascinating. Imagine how different things will look, on the other side. How many things will be gone, and how many things will grow in their place. No one will ever forget. A hundred years from now, and the world will still remember."
The conversation was setting her heart beating faster for reasons she couldn't entirely identify. She sensed a precipice before her, a drop from which she could never entirely recover.
"You're really very pretty, Minerva," he said matter-of-factly, glancing sideways at her. She blushed, and she could see his eyes following the blossom of vitality in her cheeks, and the way her uncertainty pleased him. He so enjoyed her discomfort.
"Thank you," she replied softly, her eyes falling from his handsome, aristocratic face to his shoes, which she could see were old and in need of replacing, though he kept them polished and spotless. Not for the first time, she wondered about his past: where he had come from, what memories he kept locked away, coloring his actions now. He never spoke of it, in fact, he shared very little about himself. His interest in her was a puzzle, and yet, every few weeks, sometimes more than once a week, she would find herself- not by accident, but by his design, she was sure- in his company, serving his strange fascination.
Her eyes wandered, away from his shoes, but avoiding his gaze, and settled on an item of interest: a heavy golden ring, sitting on his left hand, with a black stone in the center. She was sure he had not had it before.
"That's an interesting ring," she said, for the sake of speaking.
He glanced down, and looked at it with a puzzled expression, as though surprised to see it on his own finger. But his face soon cleared. "Family heirloom," he said smoothly. Yet again, she was struck by how little she knew of his family- she had been under the impression that he didn't know them. But she didn't ask. Eager as she was to understand, as much as Minerva McGonagall thirsted for knowledge, she tread cautiously around him.
She could not fully understand her own fear. There was some part of her, some primal, animal instinct, which warned her about Tom Riddle for reasons she didn't know consciously. There was a place in her where she recognized the things within him that she could not turn her eyes to, the things that sometimes sent shivers trailing delicately down her skin, like the feather-light touch of cold air. She could not know, not yet, what it meant, why it was there or why she was so afraid to find out. But she would, someday.
In the following silence, she became acutely aware of his nearness, of the way she could see the tiny imperfections in the skin on his throat. Her eyes found his once more and she read in them the truth, that the cage within him was beginning to crack, that his metamorphosis was taking place here, now, and she heard his words again, with different meaning this time: "No one will ever forget."
She felt fragile, delicate, poised to be broken. It was what he wanted, she realized. Her understanding was coming faster now, on the brink of this strange oblivion. He had chosen her. He had chosen her because she was strong and smart and she thought herself his equal, and he was going to show her how very superior he was. He would watch the world burn around him and he would wreak his own destruction, and she would be the wreckage left behind, his experiment in humanity and how easily he could thwart it.
"Tom," she says, this time in a plea, the end of the word trailing away and sinking to the stones beneath her feet.
"So very pretty," he said again, this time with a thoughtful expression as he stepped toward her and his hand raised to the side of her cheek. His touch was very firm, not the hesitant caress of a teenage boy. Her reaction was thoughtless and came without feeling, just a series of physical realities: her eyes widened, her cheek burned, her lip trembled and she clutched tightly to absolute stillness, and to the false security of inaction. A victim of circumstance and misunderstanding.
She could almost feel his hands encircling the throbbing that was rooted where her heart beat. She could sense herself moulding around him, making room for him in those precious spaces where he would cut her and leave her with only scars, the mismatched marks of time's inability to erase. She was being woven in amongst him and he would wait for the most effective moment to ruthlessly cut her free. He would do it simply because he could, because he saw something beautiful and powerful in destruction.
And then, abruptly, the walls around her matched her quaking.
Thrown off balance, she pressed her hand to the wall beside her. The shaking was not violent, simply a gentle rumble, but it was so unexpected and alien that she felt as though her entire world was tipping precariously. The quaking stopped momentarily, and then began again, and because she was listening this time she heard the deep, resonating Boom! that accompanied it.
"I don't understand," Tom Riddle said, his brow slightly furrowed. He barely glanced at her as his gaze turned to the windows, beyond which all was black and gave no hint as to the strange occurrences within.
She didn't bother to respond. She turned and began to move through the corridor quickly, and he strode calmly beside her, still looking politely puzzled. Her thoughts raced, far beyond the mysterious rumbling, which continued as they sped along. Perhaps it was a miraculous moment of rescue, offered by the universe to save her from the certain plunge she had been so close to falling to. She was not meant for the twisted darkness that would tie her fate to his. There was something much larger, much more important weaving within their destinies, and it was beginning here, tonight.
She found other students moving similarly quickly as they moved through the corridors, some standing around looking confused, some peering out windows and pointing at things she couldn't see. She rounded a corner and found a small crowd gathering by the front door of the castle, which was thrown wide by some early-arriving student. Spilling out onto the steps, the onlookers could hear the Boom! much more loudly now each time it came, and the deep sound echoed throughout the grounds of the school and vibrated in Minerva's teeth, in her bones. It was a terrifying noise, a noise of power and intensity the likes of which she had never experienced before, shaking the very stones.
Several younger students were crying, peering out into the darkness for the terrible creature or thing that was the source of the noises. All around, there was breathless chatter, confusion, growing louder but for the voice of the quiet young man who stood beside her, looking very calm.
"Ah," he said, and she barely heard him over the noise. She followed his gaze to the south, where she saw nothing for a moment. Then, just before the sound of another massive vibration rattled around them, she saw it- a glow, vibrant and brilliant, illuminating the low-hanging clouds some miles away. It was a flare of orange and red, the soft edges of the fire that heralded wrath and stormy hatred. A sunrise which would never fade into the softness of dawn.
"Such destruction," he said softly, and his dark eyes were wide and captivated as the glow flared again.
"The Muggles?" she asked, not directly to him, but to anyone around, though it was he who had the answer. She knew something about their war, about the hateful conflict that was happening so very close to them. But she had never seen it so close. It read like a horror story, a distant tale of terrible crimes committed and innocence lost. It was difficult to understand, the politics she hadn't witnessed, the things she wasn't familiar with, like reading about unrest in a far away country. But it was not far away. It was here, it was now.
It was the first moment when she wondered if this could be the time that the boundary would be crossed. Were there things horrific enough that magic could not protect them? And what about the innocent, the victims? They had magic that could overcome the fiercest of weapons. Were they meant to stand by and watch the world burn around them, and do nothing?
Magic could overcome weapons and boundaries and pain. But she knew nothing that could cure hatred, cure ignorance and cruelty and evil.
"And their machines of war," he confirmed, his eyebrow raised to the South, as though to challenge the perpetrators of the assault to meet him, to match their violence against him. He watched the world's war and he saw his own war, Tom's war, the war that was him against the world and the rules which bound him to it. He would take no prisoners and they would all be victims and perhaps she was just the first. He was glorious and terrible in the dim light.
More noises shattered the air now- a drone, soft and then growing louder, the sound of an agonized groan or else a cry of anguish, extended and drawn out in the night air. And then it faded once more, and the night was still again- all of the noises ceased, and the sky to the South darkened, though a slight glow remained.
"Savages. They create fire from metal and coal, build death out of iron and nails and glass. And then they take to one another like hungry dogs in the street. Artless. They build themselves power and they squander it, like children breaking one another's toys. They know nothing."
It was one of the longer speeches she had heard him make, and the tone of it chilled her. It was not a metaphor, it was a declaration. She looked down and saw that he was absently twisting the large and rather ugly ring around his finger, a display of fidgeting she had never seen from him before.
"People may have died," she said, before she knew she was speaking. "They could be dying still, their homes burning."
In her mind's eye she saw the orange glow, the first flare of fire which still illuminated the sky slightly.
"It will all burn," he said, his eyes fixed on that point to the South, the flare reflected in his dark eyes. "Eventually, all of it will burn."
She stared at him. He looked at no one. There was no magic that could cure hatred or cruelty or the scars of the past. She had stepped close to the edge of havoc, of collapse and implosion. He was a mirror and he showed her what she wished she could see. She watched and it cracked and his eyes reflected the very last flare of the fire to the South, gleaming momentarily red.
She turned her back and left him standing in the last light of the flare of war.
I've stretched the likelihood of a few of my facts in this story. The bombing mentioned is based on the bombing of Glasgow. The likelihood that Hogwarts is really so nearby the city is slim, but never completely denied.