The diary speaks.
Harry has never seen anything like it, but maybe this is normal for wizards. In between enchanted ceilings, animated chess pieces and a cloak that makes you invisible, a talking diary is probably nothing special.
Tom Riddle is the entity that resides within it—Harry doesn't know who or what Tom Riddle actually is, but his handwriting is elegant and his choice of words eloquent, and so he evokes curiosity. And while Harry is sure he has never heard the name before, it still seems to mean something to him, almost as though Riddle is a friend he had when he was very small, and had half-forgotten. But this is absurd; he never had friends before Hogwarts, Dudley made sure of that. Yet the feeling of familiarity persists, tugging at something inside of him, like fingertips pulling on strings.
Tom Riddle asks him a very simple question: how did he come by his diary? Harry plans a very simple answer: someone tried to flush it down the toilet. In an alternate universe, this answer would've lead to a chain of events that ensured the destruction of the diary in question, as well as the ghost residing within it. In turn, any chance for redemption would be lost. At the end of their journey, there would only be death.
This time, however, Harry takes a moment longer to consider his reply, and writes down something different when he realises his first answer wouldn't really explain how he found it.
This seemingly innocent adjustment, resulting from a mere two seconds longer of consideration, twists and bends and breaks fate utterly within the ink of a single sentence, and creates a new reality altogether from the shattered pieces of its original.
"I found it on the floor in the girl's bathroom."
With this, destiny becomes hollow, and Harry eagerly awaits Riddle's reply, oblivious to the change he has inspired.
"That is rather odd. The previous holder must have dropped it."
"Previous holder?" Harry writes down quickly, almost blotting the page.
"Yes, this diary was first found by another student, though it's of no importance now. I'm sure they won't miss it if they were careless enough to lose it in a bathroom of all things."
Harry supposes that is true—the previous holder did try flushing it down the toilet. Maybe they finally figured out the diary had a mind of its own and got scared of it? Maybe there is something wrong with it as Ron implied earlier, but Harry doesn't think so. Aside from the fact that it can talk, it seems pretty harmless.
"What are you?" he asks in a bit of a messy scrawl, unable to contain his intrigue.
"A diary, obviously."
Even in text, Harry recognises the wryness and admits it was rather a silly question on his part. He is a bit disappointed by the answer nonetheless.
"So you're just magic, and not a person?"
"I am part of a person, created by magic."
This response confuses him a bit, and just as he puts the tip of his quill to inquire further, Riddle follows up with a clarification.
"More specifically, I am a memory preserved inside this diary."
That makes more sense, though it still strikes him as an impossible bit of magic. "If you are a memory of the actual Tom Riddle, how did the diary end up here?" It seems rather strange to him that the original Tom Riddle would lose track of something so important. If Harry created a diary and put part of himself into it, he'd be sure to keep it safe.
There is a slight pause before the black words surface in an answer.
"That I do not know. This diary was created fifty years ago. I haven't spoken to anyone during that time."
Harry can't even begin to fathom how terrible that must have been. Even if Riddle is just a memory, to have no one to talk to for all that time sounds dreadful.
"You must have been really bored."
When Riddle replies Harry thinks he can sense a slight, amused tone from the pages, even if there is no voice speaking to him.
"Not at all. I am not an actual person like you, Harry. You could say that I'm immortal, in a sense. Time for me passes by rather quickly. You don't need to pity me."
"I'm not pitying you," Harry writes back almost hurried. "I'm just trying to understand."
"You needn't bother."
"I know what it's like to be alone," he continues (insists) stubbornly, ignoring Riddle's response. "I was alone until I came to Hogwarts."
"Alone in what way?"
"My parents both died when I was a baby. I was adopted by my aunt and uncle, and they pretty much treated me like a servant for most of my life. They're both muggles, and they hate magic, so they hate me for being a wizard. I lived in a cupboard under the stairs until I was sent to Hogwarts, and I had no friends and no one to talk to." It surprises him that he lets all of it out so easily. He's been bottling it up, in part, so to finally have some sort of vent for the years of abuse he hasn't spoken about to anybody seems only obvious.
Still, there's something about this diary, something so persuasive, eliciting a nostalgic feeling he knows can't be right. There's an almost abnormal pull on him to bare his secrets to this peculiar diary, in spite of his gut-feeling warning him something's not quite right.
"You lived under the stairs until you were eleven?"
Harry is a bit embarrassed with himself now for letting everything slip so easily, but he supposes no harm can come of it. It's just a diary after all, isn't it? Wasn't it made for this kind of thing in the first place?
"Yes, until I got the letter from Hogwarts. It had 'Cupboard under the Stairs' addressed on it, so my uncle panicked and gave me my own room."
The words that appear come to the surface slower, almost hesitant, or maybe incredulous.
"The current Headmaster knew you were living under the stairs, yet did nothing about it?"
Harry pauses, frowning slightly. Well, that is-that is to say-he isn't sure—he never really thought about it, actually.
"I've already heard your story from the previous holder of this diary; The Boy Who Lived, who defeated the greatest wizard of all time when he was a mere infant. Forgive me, but it seems rather ridiculous that Dumbledore or any other staff in Hogwarts would allow the famed defeater of the Dark Lord to live in such dreadful conditions. I am somewhat surprised."
As Riddle explains this, he makes perfect sense as far as the realm of cold, hard logic goes, but Harry has a bit of trouble wrapping his mind around it considering his emotional attachment and his admiration towards the Headmaster. The letter was addressed specifically to the cupboard under the stairs—a fact neither Professor McGonagall nor Professor Dumbledore could've known had they not been keeping track of him in some way. But they must have had their reasons for not interfering. Harry trusts them.
"It wasn't that bad. I fit inside it for the most part."
They didn't have bad intentions; what were they supposed to do? Threaten his uncle and aunt into treating him better?
'Why not?' a small voice in his head coaxes. 'You saw how terrified they were of Hagrid, who didn't even hurt them. It wouldn't have taken a lot. It would've taken a few minutes at most. So why didn't they?'Harry thumbs the tip of his quill with a deep frown, staring down at the pages. He hates to think like this, doesn't want to think like this, but… maybe… had Dumbledore just not… cared enough to do it?
Well, he is Dumbledore after all. Harry is certain he must have had more important things to do than look after a child who wasn't even his own. He can't blame the Headmaster for it. No matter how badly his insides twist at this knowledge, he can't blame him. It's not as if Harry did anything to deserve Dumbledore's consideration as a kid, right?
Who is he, really? Who is Harry Potter?
Just a boy that got lucky once and didn't die.
What is he actually worth, anyway?
Harry has to conclude he's worth very little. Very little indeed, if no one cared enough to intervene all the times he was pushed around by Dudley, yelled at continuously by his uncle, called the most horrible names and endured all sorts of terrible treatment from his relatives.
"Harry, you lived in a cupboard. Even I had my own room in the muggle orphanage. You said they treated you like a servant; this is not only abuse you suffered from those revolting muggles, but pure neglect on everyone else's part, everyone who was aware of this but did nothing to stop it."
He wants to insist it hadn't been that awful. He lived through it, he was never beaten (not by his aunt and uncle, anyway) and he got two meals a day when he did his chores. At the same time, he realises Riddle is right in some way.
Still, even as he contemplates his own situation, something Riddle says pulls his attention.
"You grew up in an orphanage?"
"Yes, unfortunately. I, much like you, had no friends to speak to, and no relatives that cared for me."
"How was it in the orphanage?"
"Bad." A slight pause. "I do not wish to speak of it."
"Sorry." Harry has forgotten his initial interest in the book entirely. He first wanted to ask about the Chamber of Secrets, but he was overtaken by curiosity for Riddle instead. He doesn't think about the Chamber until he's been writing to Tom for almost an hour (somewhere along the line, Riddle changed to Tom) and Tom mentions how pleasant it is to have an actual conversational partner and not someone that just pours all their trivial little woes into his pages and gives nothing in return for Tom's comforting words.
Harry doesn't understand why someone wouldn't want to ask Tom questions, or to get to know him better. The knowledge he possesses about the castle alone is impossibly vast—there's not a hidden passage or secret room Harry has discovered that Tom doesn't already know of, and he adds blithely that Harry hasn't even touched upon a third of the castle's secrets.
Aside from the fact that Tom is a bottomless well of information, Harry finds he enjoys talking to him. The memory that is him is of a sixteen year old Tom Riddle, who, while very tight-lipped about a lot of personal things like his upbringing, has a good sense of humour and is always polite and ready to answer whatever question Harry has for him.
Their conversation that first night is ended rather suddenly when Ron walks in and Harry—through some weird, inexplicable instinct—closes the diary and shoves it underneath his pillow, sitting up straight.
"What's up?" Ron asks him, looking at him with concern.
Harry shrugs. "Nothing."
He doesn't know why he didn't tell Ron about the diary and what he has discovered. Even when Ron specifically asks if he has anything new on the diary, Harry shakes his head. He'll tell Ron and Hermione eventually—at least that's what he says to himself as Ron moves to his own four-poster. He notes to the other that he's going to sleep and closes the curtain between them after a quick exchange of good night.
Instead of sleeping, however, he pulls the diary back out from under his pillow and opens it again. He managed not to spill his bottle of ink all over his sheets, so that's something.
"Sorry about that, my friend walked in."
"I'm surprised you're keeping me a secret."
Harry is quite surprised at himself as well, but reasons that it's for the best.
"If Hermione found out about you, you'd probably end up being confiscated."
"That would be unfortunate. Make sure you hide me well, Harry."
He thinks about a potential hiding spot for a very long time after he tells Tom he's going to sleep and closes the diary, putting it on his nightstand on the pile of books for classes. He decides he definitely wants to keep it, so for now, what better way to keep it safe than to have it on him at all times?
Harry asks Tom the next day if he can't replace the cover of the diary or transfigure it to look like something else, in case Ron or Hermione ever catch a glimpse of it—or worse, Malfoy—but Tom replies that because of his memory residing within it is essentially magic, the diary is immune to any other form of magic.
In the end he decides to chance it, hiding the diary inside a larger notebook. When he returns to the dorms that Sunday after Quidditch practice he finds his belongings strewn around the room, as if a hurricane went through his trunk and ripped everything apart in some sort of desperate search. Even his cloak is torn.
Harry walks over to the bed, open-mouthed, treading on a few loose pages of Travels with Trolls. As he and Neville pull the blankets back onto his bed, Ron, Dean, and Seamus come in, Dean swearing loudly.
"What happened, Harry?"
"No idea," Harry mutters. Ron examines Harry's robes; all the pockets are hanging out.
"Someone's been looking for something," Ron says. "Is there anything missing?"
Harry starts to pick up all his things and throws them into his trunk. As far as he could see, nothing is gone—it's a good thing he decided to keep the diary on him, instead of leaving it in his dorms.
"No, nothing's missing."
Ron helps him clean up the mess, and Seamus suggests reporting this to Professor McGonagall, and Harry would be crazy not to. It has to be a Gryffindor, after all, though Harry can't figure out why they would mess with his stuff like this. When he explains what has happened later that evening to Tom, he gets a surprising answer in return.
"It sounds like the previous holder is trying to reclaim my diary."
Harry figured it had to do with the diary, so Tom only confirms his suspicions. "Who was the previous holder?"
He can hardly believe it. Ginny, of all people? Of course—the diary was dropped in the girl's bathroom, but why would Ginny try to flush it down the toilet, then only to rip Harry's things apart instead of just asking him to return it?
Harry mentions all of these thoughts to Tom, who doesn't seem as bemused by the whole situation.
"She became frightened of what my diary can do, of what I can do. She has told me all of her secrets, so perhaps when she found out that the diary was not gone but instead in your possession, she panicked, thinking I might give all of it away, and tried to get it back. I am rather glad she failed."
"Should I go talk to her?"
"If you think it wise."
Harry can tell Tom doesn't think it wise.
"If I promise her you haven't told me anything, maybe she'll stop."
Tom doesn't reply, so Harry changes the subject to the classes he'll have to pick for his third year. He stalled signing up for any because he wanted to hear Tom's opinion, who had already gone through this whole process.
"I know I want to take Care of Magical Creatures, but I need to pick a second subject and I don't know which one. Ron is taking Divination as his second one…"
"Divination is a waste of time. Reading the lines off someone's palm and staring into a crystal ball for an hour—it's all nonsense. Though I admit dream interpretation can be intriguing, it has more to do with the psyche than it does with the future. The whole subject consists of superstitious drivel."
"So which subject should I take then?"
"If you are really interested in predicting the future, arithmancy is a much more trustworthy method as it relies on a mathematical approach instead of blatant guesswork. Otherwise, I would pick Ancient Runes. Translating scripts of old magic can teach you a lot of interesting spells, or aid you in creating them."
Creating spells, even? While Harry was initially put off by the name of the subject alone, the way Tom explains it makes it sound a lot more useful than it was depicted as.
"A lot of studies on the spells we use today are written in old runic texts. Reading them can bring you a new understanding of how magic works far better than any copy of Waffling's Magical Theory ever could. With new understanding comes new possibilities."
And so, to Ron's shock and Hermione's delight and Tom's approval, Harry picks Ancient Runes as his second elective next to Care of Magical Creatures.
When a week has passed and he still hasn't told either of them about the diary, he doesn't think he ever will. Tom certainly doesn't want him to. Tom also doesn't want him to talk to Ginny, but he does, or attempts to, but whenever she sees him she pales and instantly makes her escape.
At the same time, Harry finally asks Tom about the Chamber of Secrets while Ginny is avoiding him, when Dumbledore's temporary resignation and Hagrid's arrest causes uproar within the school. He can scarcely believe the Headmaster is actually gone—and Hagrid arrested! For what? What could the giant have possibly done?
His question is answered when Tom actually shows him; he's sucked into the pages of the diary and ends up in the past, first witnessing a conversation between Tom and Headmaster Dippet. While this takes place Harry pays attention to his friend especially, as it is the first time he sees him, and he finally has a face and a voice to place with the words in the diary.
The real shock comes when he witnesses Hagrid being blamed for the attacks. While it does look like Hagrid had been keeping a dangerous creature hidden in the castle, even when the memory ends and Harry is lying back on his bed, he can hardly believe it. Hagrid can't be the Heir of Slytherin, can he?
Tom admits as much to him. He explains he hadn't been entirely sure at the time either, but driven by desperation at being sent back to the orphanage he so despised, since Hagrid's "pet" was the only dangerous animal in the castle at the time he had concluded the obvious.
There are no further attacks.
The Chamber of Secrets remains closed and undiscovered.
Tom Riddle no longer cares about cleansing the school from mudbloods.
All he cares about now is Harry Potter.
"So he'll be back next year? Dumbledore as well?"
Hermione smiles brightly and nods. She, Harry and Ron are in their own little compartment in the train that's heading back to King's Cross station, discussing recent news of Hagrid's release after Dumbledore insisted on a fair trial, in which it was of course impossible to prove he was actually behind the opening of the Chamber in the first place. There was no substantive evidence for his involvement both now and in the case of fifty years ago.
What ultimately matters to the school board and the Wizengamot both is that the attacks should stop. And so they did—for several months until the end of the year. Since none of the attacks have been actually fatal to any students, the Ministry did what the Ministry does best; sweep the whole ordeal under the rug, and pretend like nothing happened.
The train ride itself is far too short. Within hours he has to say goodbye to his friends, and finds himself on the doorstep of Privet Drive, facing a long, long summer stuck with relatives who loathe him.
Well, if nothing else, at least he has Tom.