For somebody only four years and three months old, he had already learned to hate everyone around him. People were mean! The boys in his room, the girls in the other, and definitely the adults…. He always watched them with unveiled envy interact with each other, in a fashion that made them happy, in a fashion they never showed to him. With his four years, he couldn't tell what it was, he only felt something was missing. Whenever adults came to take a kid home with them, he only got a cursory glance and a grimace of disgust. He never understood. The nurses said he was a monster, but never bothered to elaborate. Once an older boy (one just brought in after his parents had died of some sickness and the rest of the family refused to take him in, thinking he would infect them too) told him he was hissing in his sleep. Like a snake, that older boy told him. He also told him what a snake was.
Then, in two or three days, that boy died too.
He never understood what death was. Something horrible, something everybody feared, and did their best to avoid. One morning the boy was there, pale and giving odd sounds, then in the afternoon he had been moved to the far corner of the dorm, and the next morning, the adults had put him in a bag and he hadn't resisted. Never had they talked about him again. He had been forgotten and ignored.
That was a very, very scary prospect for a boy of four years. He didn't want to die, ever.
“Would you rather stay here forever?” an adult once asked with disdain.
No, not that, either. He wanted to be where he belonged.
He'd always felt there was something he had in himself and the people around him were lacking, but he didn't know it was called magic. He didn't, until magic found him coiled up in his bed one morning, in the shape of a fistful of blue, glittering time-sand.
It was like wind had blown sand in from the streets, only, it was coming from the far wall's direction. With round eyes, he stared at the shining particles, as nonexistant wind moved them closer. Clearly it was something nobody had control over... like death. He hid under the blanket. He still felt it on his skin when the blue sand hit him, exactly like when somebody threw a fistful of dirt at him.
Then he lost track of whatever was going on. It was like being thrown out of the bed, tossed around in all directions at the same time, until he finally hit something hard and damp. He let out a frightened hiss, instinctively calling for help in the language that he hadn't learned from any human. Humans were no help in life, he had learned that already.
It was cold, and dark, and raining. The soft lights from fire were so distant, so unreachable, something he had always been denied. There were families over there. And there was only cold, wind and rain out here where he was.
He was on a street of some village.
“They say never look baaaack! Ha haaa!” he heard from somewhere. A very loud roar was approaching, and bright light shone straight into his frightened, wide eyes. Then, “Merliiiiin!” and the loud thing passed by mere centimeters from him.
Whatever that thing was, it had lights on the rear and in the front, and a man in a red jacket was sitting on it. The newcomer mumbled something, then without hesitation he picked the child up. Immediately he was dry and warm, as if he had never been thrown out into the rain by something he couldn’t even begin to understand.
He never liked being lifted from the ground, but this one time he wouldn't resist. Besides, the red-clad man wasn't trying to cuddle him, just held him tight with one arm as they rolled to one of the village houses. That was acceptable. And much better than being left in the rain.
Inside, he got gawked at by two other men and two women, given some strange smelling but comfortable clothes, and – hot cocoa. Anything was agreeable as long as cocoa was included, so he took what he could. Then, when they had finished their business with him, he was put in an adult-size bed in a room he would only share with the one who had found him. Again, this was agreeable. Said adult joked something about him hopefully not talking in his sleep. That, he hoped too. Based on what he knew about humankind, they wouldn't exactly react well to his hissing.
But, as he found out later, he shouldn’t have worried, the adult did enough sleeptalking for the two of them.
Morning proved more stressful: the adults' patience seemed to have run out during the night, and throughout breakfast they constantly were asking him about any way to identify him. He was, however, determined not to give them any lead: he'd been told at the orphanage often enough that in case of ever getting lost, he should just give his name to any adult and they would be able to take him back. Like Hell would he assist to that! Now that he found a place where hot cocoa came in spades!
His silence met pitying looks. Now that he was paying attention to details, all the adults were under the impression he'd been sick (they were using another word, but this was what it meant) after what had happened, and they concluded he only needed time to heal.
The oldest man, whom others called either Dad or Fleamont, was the most insistent to find his family. The oldest woman, named Mom or Euphemia, was a close second and unlike Fleamont, she also had a tendency to pick him up at random times, or hold him so closely he almost suffocated. At times like that, he really considered volunteering his name. But then he was always released, and also there were sweets on the breakfast table, so he decided to keep quiet and not say anything.
There were the three younger adults, all of them about the age of the boys who would be moving out of Wool's on their own. One was called James, Son, Prongs or sometimes Jimmy, the other was Sirius or Also Our Son, Idiot, sometimes Padfoot as well. With these many names each, he guessed he was also expected to have a confusing variety, and consequently be too confused to talk about it. It hurt his pride to be considered stupid, but that was the way to go. It wasn't like he'd never wanted another name for himself, though.
The younger woman was Lily, Lils, or Hey Evans. She seemed to be the most reasonable about the inquisition for his name, telling the others to be patient and let him tell them what he wants to be called. Too bad, he didn't yet make up his mind for a new name.
After breakfast, he was shown the garden, and Mom / Euphemia spent the following hour showing him the various plants he had never seen before. For him, everything had been “grass” or “tree” but here it was shrivelfig, wand willow, (“See? Those are bowtruckles there!”) fluxweed, knotgrass, asphodel, and dittany. There was a pond with a very strange looking creature in it.
“Don't go closer, he bites! That's what a grindylow does. But he also catches pixies, so he's very useful. You don't go near the pond, he won't go near you. Do you understand, child?”
He nodded. He was pretending to be mute, not stupid.
Eventually, the woman left him alone, and went to collect blossoms from one of the bushes. When she was done, she went inside, but he wasn't inclined to follow, so he just sat down in the grass and enjoyed the sunshine.
“You sssssmell new,” he suddenly heard. Looking around, he spotted a green and blue string of an animal examining his right hand. The thing had a split tongue it waved at him before moving on. It was headed to the wand willow.
The boy looked around. There were no adults in sight, so maybe it was safe to talk? He was certain this was a snake, and it definitely wasn't a human adult, so it wouldn't take him back to the orphanage.
The thing he addressed turned its blue head around, red eyes glaring at the boy. The fork-shaped tongue was out too, waving in what could only be open curiosity.
“Did you ssssay hi, ssssmall man?”
“Assss I don't know your name I can't addressss you otherwisssse.”
“I’m Sssspringsssscalesss,” the snake offered. “Exssssstremely rare for a man to sssspeak parsssseltongue. Who were your teachersssss if I may asssssk?”
“Noone. I never met a sssssnake before. And I only arrived yesssssterday.”
Springscales looked at him with those red eyes, examining him closely. “That issssss a real talent you have. Humansssss learn parsssseltongue in disssssssstant foressssstsssss, or ssssso I’ve been told. But I've never sssssseen one.” The creature slid closer to the boy, watching him.
“Sssssince when do you live here?” he inquired.
“Ssssssseven yearsssss. Ssssssseven issss a magical number but I didn't exsssssspect to meet sssssomeone asssss rare asssss you thisss year.”
Was that a compliment?
“What isssss magic?” the boy asked.
Springscales gave him a very dubious look before sliding on a patch of grass next to him. “It issss a cardinal asssspect of life. Like water, like time, like food, like truth, like heat, like love. Thessssse are richessss of life. Everything comes from thesssse sssssseven. Every living posssessses thesssse to variousssss degree.” The snake paused, waving its tongue again. “You don't undersssstand.”
“You didn’t anssssswer me.”
“There isssss no need. Jusssst remember the sssseven richesssss. Time, heat, food, magic, truth, love, water. That'sssss everything you ever need.”
“I didn't undersssstand about half of that,” the boy hissed with disappointment. What good was talking to a snake if she spoke nonsense?
“Because you're ssssso ssssssmall,” Springscales replied. “You need more love, food, and much time. Truth, too.”
The child gave another confused look. Springscales was the first creature he could really talk to; why did the snake have to be so complicated?
“Love and truth together are trussssst,” the animal said, as if that explained anything. “Heat and food meanssss I go hunting. Sssssstay with thesssse people.”
The blue and green snake moved on with an elegance and agility the child had never seen before. He had an impression that the animal had got bored with him.
He watched the other animals in the garden. Most of those he noticed would give some sound, but none of them was capable of talk. Why was that, he wondered. Springscales had said that speaking the snake language was a rare talent, so maybe there were other abilities, one for each type. He wished he could talk to birds just as easily, that would have been useful.
When he finally got bored with the garden, he moved back inside. Lily / Lils / Hey Evans was talking to the oldest two adults, something about time and founders. Hoping they would get the hint, he climbed into the chair at the table, and stared at them expectantly.
It was easy to settle into his new life with these adults. Hey Evans left after lunch that day, but the other four seemed permanent residents. The one who had found him, Idiot / Also Our Son / Padfoot, was quite a cheerful person, and he took him along for rides on what he fondly called his motorbike. Other times, Also Our Son was working on his vehicle, which often included him pointing his wand at various parts. The boy at least understood a fragment of what Springscales had been lecturing about: heat was meant to stay inside the bike, and whenever it came out in form of brilliant explosions, Idiot got very frustrated and said nonsensical words before casting a Reparo and beginning his work from scratch.
Son / James was a different type of person. He would read books and practice charms in the living-room, and resented Also Our Son for acting like a grown-up.
There were also two others who visited, one whom he instinctively decided to call Food, and the other who was very sickly-looking the first time they've met but got better after a good sleep. 'Truth' described him pretty well. He also noticed that Truth and Idiot weren't on speaking terms, and he wished he could ask the details instead of waiting for the adults to drop them. Waiting was tiresome.
“Hi, small bundle!” Truth greeted him one day. “Do you still not talk?”
“Not unless you're a snake,” Padfoot replied in his stead. “Looks like I'll have to be the one and learn that accursed language, if we are ever going to talk.”
“Is that even possible?” Son asked.
“It's an elective at Castelobruxo,” Food, also known as Peter or Wormtail, nodded.
“Do a favor and don't tell my past family.”
“I have a better taste than to speak with them,” Food murmured. He appeared insulted at the mere idea. “Anyway, you all have trusted me with something that can tell us the name of Padfoot's newfound responsibility.”
He gave Food / Peter a murderous look. They could get his name? How was that even possible?
Food held out a large piece of parchment. “Here it is!”
The three others looked at Food dumbfounded.
“What? My parents are regulars at the Three Broomsticks, from there, we only need to go to Honeydukes, and… don't give me that funny look, Moony! You won't rampage it this time!”
“You mean we sneak into school during summer…?” Prongs asked.
“Peter, I can't believe you're this smart!” Idiot exclaimed.
“Everybody keeps underestimating me!” the chubbiest adult replied. “Not that I would mind,” he admitted, more quietly.
He was terrified of being found out, but there wasn't much he could do against four grown-ups. He got properly bribed at Honeydukes, so he kept chewing his blood-flavored lollipop when a silky cloak was thrown on him and Padfoot, and they quietly slipped into the cellar. Wormtail and Moony stayed back, eating their ways through the rest of the candy.
From the cellar, they moved to a dark corridor. It was dark and homey. Padfoot, without any warning, became a large black dog in the corridor. James cast a Lumos and folded the cloak into his bag, then grabbed the child and put him on dog-Idiot's back.
“Hold tight, parsel-child,” Prongs said before jogging away. The boy gripped the dog's wavy fur. It felt exactly like Idiot's wavy hair, and he was sitting quite comfortably. Padfoot took a few careful steps, then picked up Son's pace.
He had never ridden any living thing before, and Padfoot felt very different from his bike: he was quiet, and comfortable, and he didn't have the tendency to take off into the air at random occasions. That would have been quite unfortunate, as the ceiling was close enough as it was. So he enjoyed the ride and kept chewing the lollipop.
He couldn't tell how long they went into the corridor, following only Son's wand-light. The lollipop only lasted the first few hundred meters, but he couldn't complain. He kept his mouth shut, more out of habit than to prevent the discovery. He was already making backup plans: if he had to go back to the orphanage, he'd take Springscales with himself. With some little help from her, he was sure he would find his way to Diagon Alley. From there, he would take the Floo - he'd never used it before, but there's a first time for everything. He'd need to turn heat into magic, shout ‘Potter Manor,’ and he could return within a day.
Not exactly a flawless plan, he admitted to himself, but it was his best shot, and Springscales had always told him to be persistent.
…Well, the entire plan relied on Springscales.
In the soft darkness of the corridor, James suddenly came to a halt. Sirius rose back to his human form, which led to the child sliding down his back.
“Are we on the map already? James, what do you have there?”
“What do you have, more like. We should have made bets whether his family is wizarding or not.”
“Quit teasing me now!” Idiot demanded. “I found him, I’m charged with him, now tell me his name!”
“If you wish,” Prongs sighed, and handed over the parchment. “Not a name I recognize.”
From behind Padfoot, the boy could only see straight lines on the parchment, and three tiny dots in one corner.
“From now on, you will recognize the name,” Also Our Son replied. “Well, I’m pleased to finally get to know you, Messr Tom Marvolo Riddle.”
He reached out his hand, and the child imitated the gesture awkwardly. After the handshake, Idiot knelt down. “It is August now. September, October. On the third of November I will reach adulthood, and from that day, your name will be Riddle-Black. And I don't care what my past family will think about it. Do you agree with the plan?”
Tom nodded, not letting his relief show.
They had his name. They could have sent him back. Instead, they took to calling him Our Tom, or Tommy the Treasure, in addition to the already established Parsel- Child. Idiot also addressed him “A Good Riddle” once or twice, but seeing how the boy didn't appreciate the pun, he grudgily gave up on it.
In fact, Also Our Son was the most sensible of the adults here. He wouldn't try to hug him or lift him up without a good reason, and neither did he insist to carry the boy on his back in dog form. Instead he took him along for rides on the motorbike and spent lengthy time explaining the various parts of his vehicle.
One week after his name's discovery, Tom and Padfoot were sitting together in the shed. The grown-up was, yet again, casting spells at what Tom now knew to be the oil tank. Padfoot had already explained him that the oil is what keeps the engine clean, but it gets tainted with use, so muggles need to change it once in a while. He was trying to enchant the oil to stay clean, but not at the cost of the lubricating function. Tom wasn't exactly sure if that made sense. Springscales, who was sunbathing on the windowsill, claimed Idiot had “gotten hissss name for a reassssson”.
“Did she just make a flattering remark on me?”
Tom hissed the opposite of “yesss,” which Padfoot now understood properly.
“Say yes,” he requested with a put-upon insulted grimace.
Tom hissed the parseltongue word as requested, making it clear he was only fulfilling a request, not answering the previous question.
And, to his uttermost surprise, Padfoot hissed back.
His pronounciation was horrible (Tom only understood what he was trying to say because he was aware what that hiss was meant to be) but it was a first word nevertheless. The boy hissed the same word again, and Also Our Son repeated.
Springscales lifted her head, and advised Tom to encourage his oversize student.
The child agreed. He had been considering something akin for days now, so he looked Padfoot in the eye, and told him his exact opinion.
Padfoot picked him up, hugged him, rubbing his growing beard against the child's face.
“I only do that because I know you hate it,” he explained. “Now apologize!”
Padfoot held him even closer. “Is that your last word? Say it again!”
Now was the time to distract the man.
The adult put him down on the leather seat, laughing. “Shall we go shopping? Or should it be the creek?”
Tom hissed the parseltongue word for water, which thus became the second word Sirius repeated after him. He got it right in a few tries.
Also Our Son grinned proudly. He repeated the word (now with even more confidence), put the motorbike together with a wave of his wand, and sat behind Tom, holding the child safe between his arms.
“For your information, kid, if anybody asks, that was your FIRST word, all right?”
Tom giggled. “Idiot!”
“I knew I cannot count on you.”
“Bike!” Tom hastily corrected himself.
“Off we go!”
“Say my name. Padfoot.”
“Give up, pal, he knows better than you.”
“Son!” Tom said, pointing at the speaker.
Prongs burst out laughing.“And Dad said he's not making progress!”
“He is teaching me hiss,” Also Our Son shared. “In my entire past family, all those Slythertins were unable to learn more than three words. So far, I'm at five! This means ‘yes’, this is ‘snake’, this is ‘garden’, ‘sleep well’ is this, sounds easy but damn hard to pronounce, and ‘creek’ is this.
Tom hissed what could only be ‘no’, and threw a glass’s contents at Idiot. Son only laughed at the scene.
“I guess it was supposed to mean ‘water’, I hope he didn't yet teach you ‘fire whiskey’. But knowing your horrible influence on everybody in your reach, that won't be long…”
“Fire whiskey!” the four year old happily repeated. His own adult turned a bit white in the cheeks before growling, “Just look what you are teaching this poor kid, Messr Prongs!”
Tom frowned: he didn't like being called a poor kid, not even in this context. He crawled on the leather seat, and imperiously stated, “Bike!”
“I'm teaching?” Son rolled his eyes.
Also Our Son stood up, and rested both his palms on the same seat, with the child between his arms.
“Listen, Tom. People need to work on other things, too. We can't just ride all day. Prongs here is in love with Lily, and it seems that, finally, he has a chance. That means we must help him in every way he does and doesn't ask.”
“Bike?” the child tried again, but with much less determination. Also Our Son laughed.
“No, believe me, I we tried. The bike didn't have the desired effect when we kidnapped Lils with it. It kinda… didn’t work, all right?”
“Bike.” He let out a long series of hisses. Then, seeing the adults didn’t get it, he tried again. “Bike Lils?”
“Why would we bike to Lily's place? She lives with her muggle parents, and with her sister, who is jealous of her magic and doesn't like anyone using it in her presence…”
“There's the idea, Padfoot!” Son sprung up. “We introduce Tom to that Petunia weed!”
Also Our Son’s grin went wide. “All right, Tom, I'm in. We will have an early lunch, and then the three of us…”
“Bike!” the boy happily finished the sentence.
“Yes. But please Tom, no blasting up your vegetables this time. Save all your accidental magic for the afternoon.”
“Accidental magic,” the child nodded, knowingly.
“Yes, your magic. Prongs and I are not allowed to use ours when visiting muggles, but pre-schools are an exception from the rule.”
“I can't believe my luck!” Son exclaimed. “This kid is a genius. Everywhere I read that if something mollifies a girl, it's a child. And now my dear Padfoot, you're holding the key to Lily's heart! Why didn't we think about this sooner?” With that, he bent down, and looked at the boy who was still sitting on Idiot's motorbike. “Do make sure you melt Lily's hear for me, all right?”
Uncertain for once, the child gazed at Also Our Son, as if asking for advice. “Idiot?”
The last two weeks of the summer went fast. After the merry havoc the four year old had unleashed on the two Evans girls and on Petunia’s overly ambitious cavalier Vernon, after the horrified gazes of the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad (with the reputation the Marauders had already held, Sirius being responsible for a child wasn't the omen of them peacefully sipping tea in the afternoons in the next thirteen years) and after getting a “maybe” from Hey Evans, James loudly announced that Tom was his favorite person in the not-Lily category. Fleamont agreed that Evans was a great girl and he would happily welcome her to the family. “She would bring some fresh blood to the old family tree,” he said.
On the other side of the table, Mom / Euphemia was untying the Daily Prophet from the family's barn owl's leg.
“Oh, look, dear!” she exclaimed, seeing the front page. But before Fleamont could have got back to her from the teapot, she turned the paper to Idiot and his charge. It had a moving photograph of a girl with curly black hair. “Sirius, your cousin has been found! And it says she didn't age at all!”
“My cousi… WHAT?”
“Really, Mom, what?” Son joined Idiot in reading.
Of what Tom could understand of their incoherent and overly excited chatter, Idiot had something called a “cousin” that vanished before the time he was born, and the Unspeakables had claimed to have detected active time magic in their search. The cousin had been believed to be kidnapped (that word was explained as “human-stealing regardless of what age they are” by Padfoot) and now she had been found on a Hogwarts corridor just like she had been at the time of her disappearance, five years old and wearing the exact same clothes, and holding her favorite plush scorpion that had vanished along with her. She was doing well, although shocked to find her parents being twenty years older than what was, for her, yesterday.
Tom was getting jealous of her, stealing all the attention without being present in the room. He hated being ignored! Admittedly, however, he hated the other extreme even more, too much attention and suffocating hugs were just going to be the death of him.
“I want learn read,” he announced.
He managed to get back about half of the attention.
“Now,” he demanded, a bit louder, with more determination.
“All right,” Idiot giggled. “It’s not like the Prophet is good for anything else, trust me. They never get the important details. Euphemia, would you please pass us the sports page?”
The last day of August came so fast, and with the oncoming September, came a lot of packing and preparations for tearful goodbyes. Springscales informed Tom that it was always happening at this time of the year, and she was already losing appetite so the hibernation season was coming.
“Thingssss go quiet,” she said. “Green goes brown. Shadowsss go cold. Trusssst time with them getting back to usssss….”
“Why?” Tom queried.
“Food, water, heat, magic, love, truth, time. Trussssst time.”
“You're not being helpful one bit,” Tom hissed back, but the green-blue snake didn't bother to talk to him again.
“Tom?” another familiar voice addressed him.
“I was talking to you in human.”
“You understand anyway,” Tom shrugged. Indeed, Sirius did understand quite a lot by now, he was a fast learner and Tom prided himself in teaching his own adult.
“Do you fancy a last ride to the creek today? Tomorrow morning will be overly chaotic for a goodbye, and I want some quality time with you before I go.”
Tom dusted himself off, and nodded. “I agree.”
Padfoot grimaced, wondering where Tom might have picked up his attitude. He was on par with the Blacks.
“You will behave for Fleamont and Euphemia in my absence,” Sirius quietly reminded / reprimanded him after he brought the motorbike out to the yard. Tom immediately took his seat.
But Idiot knew him a bit too well by now.“You only mean whatever you say when you speak in parseltongue.”
“I promissssse I won't messss up their livessss,” Tom obediently hissed. And he meant it: while they both tended to pick him up or hug him without a preamble, Fleamont had given his word to continue teaching him to read, and Euphemia was teaching him spells. In other word: they were important. And much, MUCH better than the orphanage.
“And I promise to return and formally adopt you literally as soon as I can.” Sirius moved to sit behind him, holding him safe between his arms as they rolled out to the forest road. As soon as they were out of sight, they took off into the air.
The once green forest was slowly turning golden, red, and a million shades in between. Time, magic, heat, water, food, truth, the child recalled. He always tended to forget the last one, but in this moment, he could feel on his skin all the six he remembered, and indeed, they summed up to LIFE. Life on a flying motorbike above the autumn forest, with Also Our Son behind him, enjoying the last heat of summer. Sirius would go away, and would return on the third of November to finalize the change. By ten o'clock that day, he would no longer be Tom Marvolo Riddle, the unwanted orphan. He would be a once-removed Marauder, and his name would be Tom Marvolo Riddle-Black.
It was more than all right with him.