He stares up at the imposing brick, looming like some kind of sprawling, grey beast with sharp black gates as teeth. The words WOOL'S ORPHANAGE blink down at him, and Harry thinks that somehow the architect managed to find the perfect font to inspire a kind of dull dread in pit of the reader's stomach. That brief glance is all he gets before rough hands tug him forward, and the jaws yawn open to admit them.
His breath is coming out in icy white puffs, blending into an already colourless sky, and he shivers. He's still wearing his pyjama top under the thin jacket he'd been given by a police officer, can still smell the smoke ooze out with every step he takes. He lost the feeling in his toes a long time ago, and his fingers look raw and red, wet from his breath as he mechanically holds his hands up to his lips every few minutes to try to warm them.
The police officer told him he was small for his age - panicked chit-chat as the middle-aged father of four ushered him from the creaking black skeleton that used to be his home, face an ashy white. His large hands had shook as they curled around the bones of Harry's shoulder. Or maybe it was Harry who was shaking? In any case, he agrees - the social worker in front of him is a sour, bustling woman, dressed head to toe in thick black wool and Harry only barely comes up to her chest. Her stupid little heels snap every time her ankle comes down on the ground.
Snap, snap, snap.
"Come along boy," she says, although the words lack any kind of heat. It's the third time she's spoken to him since meeting him at the police station this morning. Harry gets the feeling that she's stopped seeing their faces at this point. He's just the task for the day, a perfunctory box to be ticked, another nameless orphan ferried off to the knacker's yard of the city.
They walk up to the door, an imposing metal arch in the wall, and she raps twice with the back of her gloved hand, frowning as her knuckles come away smudged with dirt. She glances down at him again, as if to check he's still there, and they hear hurried footsteps echo behind the door. The social worker fixes a saccharine beam on her face, her eyes dull.
The door swings open creakily, but whoever's there is hidden behind the hulking shape of his companion.
"Oh." Her tone is surprised, and Harry peers round her waist.
There's nobody directly in front of him, but then his eyes drop and he sees a little girl. She's younger than him - probably around six, in a bobbly grey woolen jumper that hangs down as some kind of dress over her trousers. Her big blue eyes flit from the woman to Harry, before growing wide.
"Mumma Minnie!" she screams, eyes never leaving Harry's. "There's a new orphan at the door."
Harry feels a slice of cold cut through his chest at the word. Orphan: his new identity. He forces down the images of his parents, feels the lump in his throat grow thick and hot. He told himself he wasn't going to cry and he won't. It takes a long, slow breath but his fingers unclench and the water lurking at the back of his eyes evaporates into the cold.
"Yes, well. Hello dear. May we come in?" the social worker says, already stepping past the little girl and into a narrow grey hallway. She grabs Harry's arm in a steel-taloned grip, pulling him in after her like he's deaf as well as mute.
She shuts the door behind them, thankfully cutting off the icy push of the wind, and suddenly all is quiet. Harry hears more footsteps, before a door at the end of the hallway flies open.
"Hullo there," an old, thin lady says, striding down the corridor. Harry takes her in: tall, slender, probably late forties, kind looking crows-feet adorning hard blue eyes and greying brown hair swept up in an elegant updo. Her dark green dress peeks out from under a thick black shawl. Her gaze is sharp, and she nods down at Harry as she speaks.
"You're a little early, but better early than late I suppose. Nice to see you again, Ms. Dean. Please, follow me through to my office where it's warmer."
Whatever his social worker - who's name he now knows is Ms. Dean - says in response, Harry tunes it out. They follow Mumma Minnie through the twist of the corridor, up a set of stairs and eventually make their way to her office. It's tucked away at a corner of the back of the building, overlooking a bustling road. Horse and carriages trot past, with the occasional loud bang of a motorcar; Harry drags his eyes away and looks around. It's a rather plain office, with shabby but clean furniture and no paintings on the walls.
She settles them down on some rickety chairs, and Harry notices they've lost the girl from earlier. Ms. Dean remains standing, doesn't even take off her coat.
"Now, Minerva, I wish I could stay longer but I simply must head back to the office - I have a whole stack of paperwork regarding this one." She gestures at Harry with her stained glove, without looking at him. "And it's not going to do itself."
She tinkles out the fakest laugh Harry has ever heard before inching towards the door. "So I do apologise for not seeing him in properly but I'm confident to leave him in your more than capable hands."
Mumma Minnie has just about gotten out some form of acquiescence before Ms. Dean slips out the door with a "good luck Harry!" echoing behind her.
Both occupants of the room share a look of bemusement, before Mumma Minnie's eyes go sharp and she lets out a small sigh.
"I'm terribly sorry to hear about your parents, Harry," she says softly, and he's strangely touched by the depth of sincerity in her voice. "I know that whatever I say won't be enough, but from experience, what you're feeling now will mellow. It takes time. And for what it's worth, I'm glad you're with us."
Harry nods - he can't open his mouth or the sob will escape, so he just stares at the ground. The wooden floors are dark and scuffed, and he makes images out of the scratches. A snake. An eye. A knife.
"Now a couple of things to get you started. We sleep the boys in dormitories of six until fourteen - and then it's two to a room. We have lessons from the local Pastor five days a week for three hours, and attendance is compulsory. We have a strict chore rota, so that we all do our bit. Oh, and I expect you're wondering about food. Breakfast is at 7am sharp, Lunch at 12.30 and Dinner is at 6. If you miss it, you miss it - we don't do food at any other time.
Now, we've assigned you a buddy - Abernathy. He'll be waiting outside my office by now, I expect, and can show you around and introduce you. I'm usually away from the orphanage - it takes a lot of work to secure funding - but I'll be around from time to time. In my stead, Mrs. Umbridge, the deputy housemother will be in charge."
Mumma Minnie fixes him with a piercing look. "Anything you wish to say to me can be said to her."
Harry nods again.
"Now Harry. One other thing before you go." She lets out a little sigh and seems to be casting around for the right words.
"I've been told your vocal chords are fine, if a little damaged from the smoke - the doctors have told me that overall there's nothing particularly wrong with your voice. I just want you to know... take your time. If you feel like you can't speak at the moment, that's ok. And if you need any help, please come to me."
Why is this woman being so kind? Doesn't she know what he did? If she knows about his voice then she's read the report - so why is she being so nice?
He just nods, and tries not to let his emotions play out on his face but his anger is feathered by grief and must bleed out anyway as Mumma Minnie's face softens. His mother always told him he was too expressive.
"Right then Harry. As it's almost dinner you better be off. Abernathy will show you where you'll be sleeping and help you get everything you need. Won't you?" She speaks the last two words loudly, and looks at the door, unimpressed.
It inches open to reveal a shame-faced, thin boy with tousled blond hair and red cheeks. His white shirt is dirty and haphazardly tucked into navy shorts and thick knee high socks.
"Eavesdropping again, Abe?" Mumma Minnie scolds, shaking her head. "At least I won't have to repeat myself. Be off with you then, boys."
Harry rises, ignores the luminous stare of curiosity foisted on him by Abernathy, and follows the taller boy out of the room. As soon as the door shuts behind him, Abernathy whirls around, chattering excitedly.
"So, Harry is it? I'm Abernathy, as you probably already know, but call me Abe - everyone does. I heard about what happened, sucks pal. And just to let you know, nobody ever gets adopted from here. I've been here since I was six, like five years ago, and in that time I think one little girl got adopted. But it was all a bit weird to be honest with you, and I don't know if her foster parents were really the right sort, if you get my meaning."
He pauses to suck in a breath and Harry blinks. Abe beams at him and begins to stroll back down the corridor. "Funny that you're a mute though. I've never met one before. How old are you anyway?
Harry sticks up all his fingers on both hands.
Abe looks impressed and whistles. "Really. I thought you were a good few years younger - mate you look about seven! Although we all look young for our age. Mumma tries her best but it's not like there's a great deal of food to go around and we get more and more kids every year."
Harry listens with half an ear, too busy scoping out the rooms they walk past. Some of them are locked shut, some of them are tiny and have two dingy mattresses pushed up against the wall. He peers inside another and sees the metal frames of six beds crammed together, shelves running the wall's perimeter stacked to the brim with odd nicknacks. That must be the dorms.
Abe notices his look of morbid curiosity and laughs, grabbing a thin stick from where it's propped up against the wall and twirling it round before hoisting it up on his shoulder. "Yeah. Stuck in this set up until we're fourteen, annoyingly. You're with me, after Johnnie - uh, after he ran away, just down this corridor."
Harry is already struggling to keep up his mental layout of the orphanage. It's surprisingly complicated - it's not the biggest building he's ever seen, but it seems to have dark corridor after dark corridor, and the staircases make no sense. They seem to just pop up out of nowhere, and lead in circles. It doesn't help that the thin winter light dripping through the windows lends a sallow, half-hearted illumination to the place.
All in all, it's terrifying.
He feels his hand drifting to the locket hidden under his top, and he stops himself just in time, shoving it in his pocket where it trembles. He can't draw attention to it in a place like this; he'll keep it on him at all times for now, until he can find somewhere appropriate to hide it.
"Now, I don't think you need any clothes - you can keep your fancy shirt. We'll get you a set of pyjamas though. Might be able to find you a jumper or something, but you can just nick one if you get put on snow shovelling."
It sinks in that his ratty, soot-stained pyjama top is of better quality than most of the other kid's clothes. Yeah, he definitely needs to find somewhere to stash the locket.
"Anyway, here's your bed." They've arrived at a dorm a similar size to the previous one. This one is arranged a little strangely though - one bed at the foot of the room, next to the window and blocked partially by a shelf. There's an extra throw on it too, and a second pillow. Maybe it's for an older boy? The other five are arranged uniformly, like the others, and Abe leads him to a thin mattress caged in by a metal bed frame. It looks like a hospital bed. There's a thin sheet and a scraggly blanket, and no pillow.
The blonde boy looks weirdly contrite, scratching the back of his head. "Yeah, sorry about that. This bed's been unoccupied for a while, since Johnnie left."
Harry pointedly looks at the nicer bed, the one with the second pillow.
Abe barks out a laugh. "Yeah, good luck getting that back from Riddle. Take my advice - leave it. You're better off steering well clear of the likes of him."
Harry's brow furrows in question. Abe seems to be getting pretty good at reading his expressions as the bitter smile drops off his face.
"He's another orphan, couple years older than you. He's only been here for four months but already he's got everyone under his thumb. Umbridge loves him. And trust me, he's not one to mess with."
"My my, how you flatter me."
The voice cuts through the room from the doorway, silky-soft and dangerous.
Harry almost gets whiplash from how quickly he turns to look, feels his heart pick up a furious beat. He hadn't heard a thing, even though the floor is as creaky as a organ pipes.
Beside him, Abe turns white, very quickly, and stares up in solemn fear. Harry's incredibly curious - the boy doesn't look like much, although Abe certainly is afraid of him. He's tall for his age, supposedly, with curly dark brown hair, a pale face and quick blue eyes. He's unabashedly staring at Harry and Harry gets the feeling he's being sized up, like prey.
Abe mumbles an apology and grabs on to Harry's arm, tugging him along. Riddle smiles and steps to the side, letting them go, but Harry can feel that cold blue gaze burning through his shoulder blades as they speed down the corridor.
Dinner is almost comically akin to how Harry had imagined it. Some kind of watery stew, with horrible sour tomatoes and celery floating in an oily slick of water. He gulps it down regardless: all the comments on his height have struck a bit of a nerve. Besides, he can't taste anything anyway. Just smoke.
They're arranged in funny lines of tables, shoved together like pigs at a trough. The older boys and girls have more food and less wobbly chairs, at the top of the room, and the rest of the children just grab what they can. The noise is deafening, shouting, screaming, slurping. Harry tunes it out, lets Abe introduce him to the others. There's a quiet girl with a big bush of chestnut hair and teeth a little too big - Hermione - who gives him a sad smile when he nods, and a rather dirty red-head, freckles splashed over his face like mud from a wheel, called Ron. He doesn't bother trying to contribute to the conversation, just drains the chipped glass of water and tries not to feel overwhelmed by the wall of noise.
A few minutes later, there's a noticeable dim, and Harry looks up.
The boy from earlier - Riddle - walks through the doors. It's pretty crazy that that in itself is enough to cause a hush, but despite the number of eyes on him his expression doesn't change. He walks up to the dinner lady and, to Harry's surprise, gets served what is clearly an older boy portion.
As he walks past Harry, Riddle suddenly stops. Harry can feel the heads swivel, the gazes redirect until they burn a hole in the back of his head. He's horribly conscious of Riddle's weight behind him, imagines he can feel the warmth baking off his torso. Next to him, Abe, Hermione and Ron have frozen, Ron with his spoon halfway to his mouth. Harry refuses to turn around, remains steadfastly looking down at the table and ignores the prickling in the back of his neck.
He sees what they mean now. Riddle is wrong, dangerous. There's some instinct buried away at the back of his mind which tells him to beware, watch out, stay on alert.
Riddle seems to be waiting for something, and suddenly Harry's had enough. He won't be cowed into submission by a look - especially not by someone who lords himself over his peers and gets his kicks from being a bully. They're all bloody orphans, Harry thinks with a savage humour, it's a pretty even playing field at this point.
He steels himself, raises his head and deliberately turns in his chair, meeting Riddle's gaze.
There's some strange undercurrent when their eyes meet, some inexplicable intensity in the connection. Riddle looks almost surprised, before his lips turn up at the corners. Harry feels his own expression darken to a hot anger. Why won't he just move on, and leave him alone?
Riddle holds his gaze for a beat longer, the room so quiet the rattle of the wind through the windows is audible, before he makes his way to the end of the table, depositing his tray and gracefully taking a seat. The children nearby actively shrink away, and one even gets up to leave.
Slowly, the noise returns to the room, although still not as loud as before.
"What was that," Ron says, soup forgotten, staring at Harry. "He's never done that before."
"Did you listen to anything I said?" Abe hisses quietly. "He's not someone you want to challenge, Harry."
Harry shrugs at them, picking up his spoon and scraping the last vestige of carrot from the bottom. Ron shakes his head.
"Bloody mental..." he mutters.