A runespoor was a snake with three heads. The left was the planner, the middle was the dreamer, and the right was the critic. It was the first noticeably magical creature Tom encountered at Harry’s snake shop, back during his first week helping Harry.
He came to learn later on that it was rather uncommon to come across a runespoor with all three heads intact. Most often, the planner and the dreamer would turn on the critic, deliberately wounding itself because the three heads couldn’t get along, and thus shortening its life.
Many months later, it was just a nuisance rather than cause for exclamation. It was Tom’s least favorite snake, despite his initial excitement of seeing something so obviously different, so magical.
Each time Tom found himself in its presence, Tom could feel his own sanity and life slipping away the longer he was forced to listen to the three heads argue.
“Stop that, you overgrown garden snake,” Tom snapped, glaring at the runespoor. It was wrapped around one of the rafters in the room, higher than the rest of the snakes tended to climb. Tom assumed that the other snakes drove it up there so that they wouldn’t have to hear the runespoor’s arguing. “You know we can’t feed all your heads on the same day. It won’t go down correctly in your digestive tract.”
“But I am hungry,” the planner hissed, and the argument started again.
For once, the planner and the critic were on the same side, staring hungrily at the dreamer, who was sated and quiet. Never mind that they shared the same digestive tract and would not go hungry. Tom ignored them for a while until it looked like violence would break out. Tom didn’t particularly have anything against violence, but Harry would be sad to see the snake in pain.
Tom picked up his wand and said the spell with a flourish. It was one of the first work-related spells that Harry taught him. Within seconds, cones appeared on each head of the runespoor, preventing them from attacking each other.
“Harry will be very disappointed in you.”
If snakes could pout, all three of them would do so. The critic glared at him. “You don’t have to tell Harry.”
Tom hummed, pushing aside his textbook. “What will you give me in exchange?”
“Nothing,” the planner said in reply. “We’ve heard the news. You won’t be here long.”
Tom’s stomach gave a lurch, just a small one, but one that irritated him all the same. “I will be back. You needn’t worry about me.”
“We won’t,” said the critic.
“We will,” said the dreamer. “We’ll be so bored without you, Tom. Won’t you take us with you? We’ll be good.”
The planner and the critic exchanged a look, then extended their necks toward Tom. The planner seemed particularly intrigued. “There’s an idea…”
“Absolutely not,” Tom said, firmly, ignoring all further protests.
He still hadn’t chosen a familiar among Harry’s snakes. It wasn’t for any lack of trying; in the months since Tom began helping out at Harry’s shop, he had spoken with or handled every snake in the shop. From runespoor to boomslang, from rattlesnake to common adder, Tom knew them all. He’d read book after book on snake handling, even managing to improve Harry’s system.
Tom had used the excuse of helping out at the shop to convince Harry to take him in, but months later, it was no longer just an excuse. Not with how much work Tom had put into the place and how well he knew the snakes, even if he still quibbled about the name.
But they were all Harry’s snakes, not Tom’s.
There was a deadline for all of this, and Tom had stumbled against it almost without realizing it, growing so comfortable in his life in Knockturn Alley.
Tom lingered downstairs before deciding to drop the problem squarely in the lap of the person who started it by bringing it up the first time they met.
Also, the faint smell of pancakes was unmistakable.
He walked more slowly than usual, committing the snake shop to memory. Upstairs, he slipped behind the giant tapestry of snakes wearing medieval armor that separated the kitchen from the living room, which Harry refused to take down and Tom reluctantly found charming.
There was already a plate of pancakes in Tom’s spot at the table.
“Butter,” Tom said, swiping it from the counter.
The butter was excellent, but each time they ran out, Harry spent entirely too long talking to Maisie Prewett about her cows and butter-making spells. When Tom was gone, who would stop Harry from making a nuisance of himself at the Marvelous Marketplace? Maybe Tom would have to write him a list of instructions, so as not to return to find that Harry had up and gotten married in Tom’s absence. The only new additions to their life that Tom would accept were snakes.
“I haven’t chosen a familiar,” Tom said instead of eating, which said a lot considering that these were Harry’s pancakes.
“There’s no rush,” Harry replied.
He plated one final pancake, then turned the stove off with a wave of his wand and sat down across the table from Tom.
Tom made a face at the amount of syrup Harry poured on his stack of pancakes. As if to spite him, Harry added more with a twitch of his lips.
“I wanted to bring a snake to Hogwarts,” Tom grumbled.
He’d had all sorts of plans, from impressing his housemates with his parseltongue—the rarity of which he’d had to learn from a book instead of from Harry, who had the audacity to not care at all about being a parselmouth—to complaining about all the annoying people around him. Instead, Tom hadn’t been able to settle on a snake.
Harry dipped his fork into his plate of syrup. “Is it that you think you’ll be too busy for a pet?”
“No.” Tom shook his head. “It’s not that I can’t choose, either. I’m just… still waiting for the right one. It has to be perfect.”
He was waiting for his snake. As silly as it sounded even in his own head, Tom felt as though he would know his snake when he met it, and he had not met it yet. He knew that with a certainty that drowned out any thoughts of simply picking a snake and being done with the question.
Harry heaved a sigh, looking overly dramatic as he said, “As long as it’s not a basilisk.”
“I would be living up to my legacy,” Tom replied, just because. In truth, a basilisk sounded very inconvenient. Where would he get enough food for a snake that size?
Harry waved his fork at him. “No more pancakes for you.”
In a way, it was true. Tom looked down at his plate and started eating while he still could. While he was still here at Harry’s snake shop instead of grand, exciting places that he’d prepared for but didn’t quite feel ready for.
“You don’t have to decide now.” Harry’s voice had gentled. “I mean it. When you get back, we can visit every magical menagerie in the country to look for your perfect snake. You have so much time, Tom. It doesn’t all have to happen immediately.”
For so long, Tom had grabbed all he could, when he could, because he’d never known if he’d have another chance. If there would still be any food later at the orphanage, if there would be any notebooks and pencils later in the donation box. But he didn’t have to choose now because he would be back. Harry said so himself. And Harry would know.
Tom gave a short nod. “I’ll hold you to it. Every magical menagerie.”
“It’s a promise.”
Breakfast was over before Tom knew it. There were only a few morning chores to be done today, and Tom did them without complaint, saying goodbye to his favorite snakes.
“You didn’t say goodbye to me,” said the critic, dropping down from the rafters.
“He was getting to it, surely,” said the planner.
The dreamer blinked at him. “He doesn’t have to say goodbye if he takes us with him.”
“I hope you’re sold before I return,” Tom said to all three of them, although he didn’t hold out hope. Runespoors were coveted enough that Harry wouldn’t sell without being assured that the snake wouldn’t be chopped up for parts or otherwise mistreated. “Goodbye.”
The dreamer flicked its tongue out at him.
Tom didn’t give in to the urge to do the same.
Once he was done, he headed upstairs, giving his room a once-over. His bed was made. It would be empty for months.
“You’re not allowed to adopt anyone while I’m gone,” Tom called out, suddenly having to make sure. “Or get married. I expect everything to be the same when I get back.”
Harry’s laugh could be heard down the hallway. “Where do you come up with these things, Tom?”
“No orphans, no marriages.”
“You can have a friend,” Tom allowed, graciously. He wouldn’t want Harry to get too lonely without him.
“Thank you, your highness. Have you got everything?”
Tom looked around again. His trunk was packed. His bookshelves were empty. His wand was in his pocket. His heart was beating fast. He was ready and he wasn’t ready and it didn’t matter because it was time. Tom’s future had arrived, and Tom would be there to meet it.
“I’m ready,” Tom said.
Harry bustled around for a quarter of an hour longer, throwing a pack of snacks into Tom’s trunk and rereading the Hogwarts shopping list as though Tom would have allowed him to forget anything.
Tom crossed his arms and repeated, “I’m ready.”
“Maybe I’m not,” Harry replied. He ran a hand through his hair. “Do you want a sandwich for the train?”
Tom sat down on his trunk while Harry prepared it. He wondered what the little flat above the shop would be like when he was gone. He wondered if his bed wouldn’t be as comfortable or if the students would be more irritating than Tom was ready for.
When they were finally ready, Harry took Tom’s hand, and the living room disappeared in their pop of apparition.
The next time Tom opened his eyes, it was to the bustle of the train station.
The Hogwarts Express stood before him, grand and tall and metallic. Steam blew from its top and its tail stretched out behind the train, longer than Tom could see. The conductor was an older man who was helping a student get her trunk through the first open door. Tom had grown used to the magical society of Knockturn Alley, despite Harry’s wishes, but here on Platform 9 and 3/4, it was all different.
Tom looked around the station and felt a thrum of excitement. These were the students he would compete against in class, the purebloods he would best. He was looking forward to it.
The only downside was that he couldn’t return to the snake shop after a long day of learning, but Tom would deal. He turned back to Harry, feeling strangely hesitant despite his excitement.
“I suppose this is goodbye,” Tom said. He clenched his hand around the handle of his trunk.
“Only for a few months. You’re coming back for Christmas break,” Harry said, the closest thing to an order he’d come to since they made their rules.
Tom didn’t mind. He didn’t even pretend to think about it. “I’ll come back.”
“And Easter break,” Harry added.
“And you’ll write to me. And you’ll tell me and a professor immediately if anyone tries to bully you.”
“I’ll bully them back,” Tom huffed, rolling his eyes.
“That’s not a solution to the problem,” Harry fretted. “I should have gotten you an owl, but at least there are school owls. I’ll send you some owl treats if the post owl doesn’t eat them all.”
Tom sighed. “I’ll be fine, Harry.”
“Don’t worry about the sorting ceremony, either. It’s a lot of nonsense. Any house is as good as the other.”
“I’ll be a Slytherin. I’ve already decided.”
“I know.” Harry smiled helplessly. “But I still have to hold out hope, don’t I? Maybe you’ll change your mind and remember your Gryffindor side.”
“No, thank you.”
Tom looked forward to donning silver and green. They were the colors of his ancestors—also, he looked quite good in them. Nothing like red and gold, which couldn’t possibly look sophisticated.
“Then you’ll be the best Slytherin Hogwarts has ever seen,” Harry said, sounding fond. “The smartest, too. Just don’t forget your heart, Tom. I know it’s there.”
Harry reached out his hands and Tom didn’t pretend not to realize what he was doing. He stepped into Harry’s arms, letting Harry hug him as tightly as he wanted to. It was all for Harry’s benefit, really, including the way Tom tightened his arms around Harry’s torso. His ear was pressed against Harry’s chest and Tom imagined that he could hear Harry’s heart beating.
“I won’t forget,” Tom agreed, even if he only meant it when it came to Harry, not anyone else.
Harry’s embrace was so warm. Tom couldn’t remember ever being hugged before, but no one else’s hugs could have compared anyway.
Hogwarts was so far away from London.
Tom couldn’t make himself let go. Harry couldn’t seem to either, until eventually he appeared to force himself to let go.
“It’s not goodbye forever,” Tom said for both their benefit.
He believed it; he believed that in a few months, Harry would meet him at the station. That no matter what happened, Harry would be there.
“Just for now,” Harry agreed. He straightened, giving Tom’s shoulder one last pat. “Go on. I’ll be here until the train leaves.”
Tom nodded, heart lodged somewhere in the vicinity of his throat. The trunk was light in his grip, levitating next to him, and he crossed onto the train with ease.
He turned back just once to see Harry waving at him. Tom waved back and then he took another step, continuing on into the train. He would write to Harry soon, Tom decided, already crafting his letter in his head. He would write to him of his Slytherin sorting and new housemates, and of his classes and professors, and everything and anything. Perhaps he would leave a thing or two out when matters necessitated it, but he would write.
It was quite a wonderful thing, to see parents tearfully waving their children off, and to not feel a spark of envy.
Tom had Harry, and Harry had Tom.
Tom would take Hogwarts and the wizarding world by storm. And then he would return home for Christmas break, because he promised.