The book was old and worn, and every word it had was already engraved in Tom’s mind, leaving a bittersweet aftertaste.
Wool’s Orphanage’s library was depressing in its paucity of choices, so in his eight years, Tom had already read everything within it at least several times. The book he was holding now wasn’t an exception but it was engaging and reading it was preferable to doing nothing or worse, mingling with other orphans.
“Give me my doll back! Give it back or I’ll tell Mrs. Cole!” Amy cried out shrilly, and Tom’s lips twitched in disgust. Pathetic, all of them. Why must he waste his time on being outside with them? He would much rather stay in his room, away from all the noise and childishness.
“Look!” Billy’s voice was so excited that Tom unwittingly raised his head from the book. “Another one is coming!”
The orphanage wasn’t the most popular place yet at times, idiots who wanted to be parents visited it, choosing the greyest among the grey. During the first years, Tom had stared at them greedily, smiling when they smiled, answering the most of inane questions politely, hoping against hope that this time, he would be chosen. That his potential would be finally seen and acknowledged.
But something inevitably ruined the impression he had managed to produce. Mrs. Cole, the old cow, always tried to hide him from the inquiring adults, presenting him last or whispering things about him until they were afraid to even look his way.
Bitterness and affront had quickly given way to fury, but eventually, it settled on indifference.
Let those parents choose other children. Let them go on with their meaningless, boring lives. Tom was destined for greater things, better things, and he didn’t need anyone’s help in achieving them.
Others immediately quietened down, looking anticipatory at the gates. They opened slowly and a young man came in, short and thin, with a mop of dark, unruly hair on his head.
He made several steps inside and stopped as children flocked to him, breathing out hushed greetings and smiling in the fakest, most revoltingly saccharine way.
“Have you come for me?” Sarah whimpered, and even from his place, Tom could see how the man’s eyes widened before he shifted awkwardly, obviously uncomfortable with all the attention he was getting.
“Will you take me home?” Robert, their latest youngest addition, asked. Derisively, Tom watched how the man’s eyes widened further and how he looked at the children almost helplessly before turning from them and rushing out of the gates.
Well. That was quick.
What a weakling.
Snorting, Tom focused on his book again, listening to how others began to murmur in disappointment.
Sometimes this happened, too. Little idiots overdid it and non-parents stormed out in tears, too upset with the necessity to choose one and leave others heartbroken. But this man had set an entirely new record.
The book began to draw him in again, blurring the contours of the annoying grey world, but a new spike in excitement as well as bewilderment among children forcefully tore Tom away from reading. Frowning, he looked up, and saw the same man walk inside again. This time, he was holding what looked like dozens of plush toys in his hands, and Tom stared, wondering how much it could cost and where he could possibly get them all so quickly.
“Here,” the man murmured, and his voice was as soft as Tom could expect from someone this embarrassingly emotional. Soon, all twenty-one children were holding their own toy, hugging it close to their chests and staring at the man in awe.
All but Tom. The man hadn’t glanced at him even once, as if he was unworthy of his regard. Apparently, he hadn’t noticed him at all if he hadn’t brought a toy for him.
Rejection was Tom’s constant companion but he still felt bitterness swirl inside him, whispering poisonous things into his ears.
Unwanted. Insignificant. Undesired.
Gritting his teeth, Tom stared at his book unseeingly, though somehow, he was still aware of all the things the man did. He began to pass through the children towards the front door, giving everyone a hesitant, apologising smile like a malleable fool he was.
“Look,” Amy whispered, “the freak didn’t get a toy!”
Tom tensed involuntarily, still refusing to look up.
“Even people who’ve never seen him before don’t want to waste money on him!” Billy exclaimed gleefully. Tom’s head shot up as he glared at them, his fury growing rapidly, breathing liquid fire into his veins. Something else began to build in him, too, something heavy and tingling, but before he could direct this energy at anyone, the man suddenly stopped and turned to face others again.
“Actually,” he said, and Tom was startled at how cold and firm he sounded now, “I’m going to adopt him.”
Dead silence fell over the yard. The children gaped and Tom sat frozen, wondering if he’d heard him correctly.
The man began to walk again, still refusing to look at him. When he disappeared in the building, Tom finally shook off his stupor and smoothly jumped to his feet, closing the book. Without saying anything, he moved towards the door as well, forcing himself to walk calmly, even though his heart was pounding in uncharacteristic anxiety.
Was this some kind of a joke? The man hadn’t even glanced at him, how could he know who the others were speaking of? And why would he want to adopt him in the first place?
Once the door closed, plunging him into semi-darkness, Tom allowed himself to speed up. He caught up with the man on the stairs.
“Did you lie?” he asked lowly, measuring him with a suspicious gaze. The man stopped, hesitated, and then faced him, appearing reluctant, as if he had no desire to look at him.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t.”
Tom blinked, not expecting this answer.
It didn’t make sense. He had never seen this stranger before and it was clear that the man had no desire to interact with him. He was holding his gaze, yes, now that he was finally looking at him, but he was practically emanating reluctance and something Tom couldn’t identify.
“So… you are going to adopt me,” he said.
“Do you even know who I am?”
The man’s lips curled in a dry, ironic smile.
“Tom Riddle,” he said quietly. “Age eight.”
He didn’t add anything else and Tom felt frustration mounting.
“Who are you?”
Another strange smile.
“Harry Potter. Although I don’t expect this name to mean anything to you.”
Tom stared at the man intently, noting his hair, his delicate features, his eyes. Green, strangely vivid. Come to think of it, despite different eye colour, they looked somewhat alike. Could it be?..
“Are you my father?” He hated how he’d stumbled over this word, hated how his heart skipped a hopeful beat even more. His father’s surname had to be “Riddle” but who knew what could have changed over these years?
Harry Potter looked stunned, and his reaction was answer enough. Tom straightened, narrowing his eyes in a challenge.
“No,” Potter said belatedly, sounding almost sad. Then he sighed. “I understand you have questions. I thought to talk to Mrs. Cole first but since you know my plans already… let’s go to your room. We can talk there.”
Tom wavered, considering this request. He wasn’t an idiot. Going to his room with a strange adult wasn’t a smart decision but for some reason, he didn’t feel any danger from him. His instincts remained dormant.
“Fine,” he said stiffly. “Follow me.”
They went up the stairs in silence. When they reached room 27, Tom let Potter enter first, observing him carefully, before closing the door and taking a place on his bed.
“I saw you with your group a few days ago,” Potter wasn’t looking at him again, choosing to inspect his hands instead. “I immediately realised that you were different.”
Elation exploded in Tom’s chest but he hastened to school his features. He wasn’t going to fall for flattery. He wasn’t that naïve.
“Different how?” he asked shrewdly.
“Have you ever done things no one else could explain? Something unusual?”
Elation burned brighter and Tom clenched his hands into fists, trying to stay calm.
“Yes!” his voice was still overly eager. “Sometimes, I can make others do what I want. I can control their actions. I can move things without touching them.” His abilities were wildly inconsistent but Tom wasn’t going to tell Potter that. He wanted to appear powerful, to…
What if it was a trap? Some test that Mrs. Cole had organised, like the one with the priest two years ago, and Tom had fallen right…
But Potter nodded, as if he was already expecting his answer.
“I thought so,” he uttered, and since there was no rebuke in his voice, Tom relaxed slightly. “I know others despise you for this. People are cruel when they face something they don’t understand.”
“That’s because they are ordinary. I’m special. One of a kind.”
Potter looked up abruptly, and his eyes were cold again.
“Not one of a kind,” he said sharply. “There are others like you. Like me. And it doesn’t make anyone else ordinary. We are all people, we are just… different.”
Tom scoffed, but before he could retort, something else registered in his mind.
Potter implied that he was special, too. Like Tom.
“You can do things, too? What kind of things?” he demanded. Potter gave him a small but seemingly genuine smile. His eyes slipped to Tom’s wardrobe for a moment but then he looked away. In the next second, his hands began to glow, and he produced a small toy snake out of thin air. Tom gasped, staring at it greedily.
“Is this where you got all those other toys?” he asked, his thoughts dashing forward, planning, calculating…
“No,” Potter grinned sheepishly. “I can’t produce a proper toy just with magic. I bought those other ones in an actual shop.”
Taking out a strange stick, Potter waved it, and the toy disappeared.
“Magic,” Tom whispered. “If we have magic, this makes us…”
“Wizards,” Potter was looking at him now and all coldness was gone. He seemed sympathetic. “I realised you were one when I saw you. I know how it feels, to be with people who don’t want you, who hate you for your existence. So I decided to help.”
Tom’s joy was still bursting in him but there was also wariness.
Potter was a set of contradictions. He had acted as a soft-hearted fool with other orphans until they crossed some personal boundary of his. Then he went freezing cold and intimidating. He’d refused to look at Tom at first, and when he did, his gaze was wary and almost hostile. Now he palpably warmed up to him, but for how long? And how all that explained his desire to adopt him?
“Are there many others like us?”
“Yes. Not a lot in comparison to Muggles — that’s non-magical people, but we tend to stick together.”
“Do you adopt every magical child you see, then?” Tom’s question was cold and Potter’s face went blank.
“No,” he said after a pause. “Most magical children live in families. I…” Another pause. “I’m new in London. I’ve travelled from afar. I have no family, I’ve lost my friends, and I feel lonely. So I was already considering adopting a child when I saw you. It seemed like fate.”
Tom said nothing, watching him suspiciously. He wasn’t sure why but he doubted Potter’s story — maybe because of how absurd it sounded. He himself would never consider adopting anyone for such a pathetic reason.
Then again, he wasn’t most people. And if Potter was a fool, it was Tom’s gain.
“Would you like to go with me?” Potter asked hesitantly. “I have a house. It’s nothing much but it’s better than this place. I can teach you some basic things about magic until you are eleven.”
Tom was immediately cautious.
“What happens when I’m eleven?”
“You go to Hogwarts — it’s a school for wizards. I can tell you more about it once we’ve dealt with all the formalities. So, what do you say? Would you like to—”
“Of course I would,” Tom snapped. What an idiotic question!
Then he realised he was being rude, and seeing how Potter went stiff, he didn’t like it.
That wouldn’t do. Tom would have to try harder. He had to stay in Potter’s good graces to remain able to use him.
“Who wouldn’t want to leave this place?” he added, much softer, and Potter, the idiot, immediately softened in return.
“I thought so,” he murmured. “Why don’t you collect your… things?” Another glance towards the wardrobe. “I’ll go talk to Mrs. Cole now, and if everything goes well, I’ll return for you in about half an hour.”
Tom nodded, watching attentively how Potter went to the door. Then he left, and Tom’s room was thrown back into a ringing silence.
He was a wizard. He was special. If he learned more, he could control his abilities much better, and then there wouldn’t be a person who would be able to stand against him.
He wasn’t sure about Potter yet, about whether he was an asset or a threat, but for now, he would do.
He was a wizard.
A happy, gleeful smile twisted Tom’s lips, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t suppress it.
Mrs. Cole looked a little green as she came to see him off. She kept throwing anxious glances at Potter. At first, Tom couldn’t understand them, but the clue, surprisingly, came from Amy.
“He’ll realise what a freak you are and bring you back,” she hissed into Tom’s ear. “Just you wait. You’ll do something he doesn’t like and you’ll be back here for good.”
Tom stared at her coldly. He imagined sticking needles into her eyes until they bled. He imagined tearing her tongue out of her filthy mouth and making her eat it.
He tried to connect to his magic, focusing it on Amy, but while he undeniably felt some force surging through his blood, nothing happened. He tried harder, and Amy suddenly shrieked, her hands flying to her eyes. There wasn’t any visible blood but she kept shrieking in pain, and Tom smiled wider as he watched it.
Then his gaze fell on Potter and his smile died.
Potter was staring back, a blank expression returning to his face. His green eyes emanated ice, and Amy’s mocking words sounded in Tom’s head again.
This was what Mrs. Cole must be worried about. She thought Potter would bring him back and create troubles for the orphanage, damaging its reputation. As if there was anything to damage.
Still, they were right, regardless of how much Tom didn’t want to admit it.
Potter could send him back. Tom was dependent on him. And until he gained some influence, he would have to obey him, do everything so the thought of getting rid of him never even crossed Potter’s mind.
“I’m ready,” Tom said innocently, clenching his small bag. Amy stopped crying, so Potter nodded and started walking towards the exit. The remaining children sent envious and hateful stares to Tom, and Potter must have caught them because he suddenly slowed down, waited for Tom, and then grabbed his hand.
Tom disliked being touched so casually but in these circumstances, he didn’t mind.
Smirking at the little fools, he clenched Potter’s hand harder.
Then he stepped into the new world.
The nausea from their abrupt movement through what reminded Tom of space itself settled heavily in his stomach, but the mere fact of being able to travel like this made him barely notice it.
They had moved through the entire city and maybe beyond it in the span of a few seconds. How many possibilities did such travelling open? Tom wouldn’t have to waste his time on using transport once he learned it. It would save him hours. Hours he could spend on something useful, like collecting more knowledge.
Potter had to teach him. Until then, Tom would be on his best behaviour.
Potter’s house was spacious but almost empty. It looked like Potter had never even been here before, so Tom went back to watching him warily.
“I didn’t have time to do anything with it,” Potter replied to his unvoiced thoughts. “I’ve moved in several days ago. Besides, it’s going to be your home, too. What do you think about designing the interior together?”
Tom stopped walking, stunned by this offer, and something inside his chest fluttered.
Decorating the house? Doing what he wanted here, as if it truly belonged to him?
He liked this idea. He liked it a lot.
“Fine,” he said carefully. “Where am I going to sleep?”
Potter tousled his dark hair absent-mindedly.
“Wherever you want,” he said. “You can pick any room you like — except mine, of course. Come on, let me show you what we have here.”
Tom wrapped his hands around his bag possessively and followed Potter up the stairs. The house had eight bedrooms and after thorough consideration, he chose the one that was the farthest from Potter.
He didn’t want to be disturbed. And he wanted to hear Potter’s approach from afar — it would be safer.
“This one,” he said, placing his bag on the bed. Potter nodded, and he seemed relieved for some reason. Glad that Tom wanted to be away from him?
“Let’s transform this bed into something more comfortable,” he murmured. A flick of his wand, and the bed suddenly changed, growing in size and becoming higher. A green canopy appeared, offering an additional refuge, and Tom gasped quietly, unable to contain his excitement.
The bed looked regal now, like something from the pages of the books he’d read in the orphanage, shivering under the thin blanket. Luxurious, expensive — worthy of him.
“Can you do the same thing to the walls and the floor? And the ceiling?” he asked demandingly. Potter sent him a strange, frustrated look, and Tom immediately remembered himself.
“Thank you,” he uttered and tried to smile. “It looks wonderful.”
Potter didn’t seem pleased — in fact, his face became even more pinched, as if he saw right through Tom’s manipulation and it upset him.
“I can’t do the same to anything else,” he replied finally. “I transfigured the already existing bed. We’ll have to buy the rest. Why don’t you unpack your bag so we could decide what else you need?”
Tom shrugged but didn’t argue. Soon, all his belongings were spread on the bed, and illogically, he almost felt embarrassed at how little he owned.
Potter said nothing for a while, and when he did, his voice was flat.
“These three things. Do they belong to you?”
Immediately, tension coiled in him, and Tom didn’t have to look to know what Potter meant.
A silver cross, a small doll, and a torn plush heart. His little victories, something he was immensely proud of.
Potter would hardly see it his way.
“Well?” Potter’s intonations sharpened, and Tom answered reluctantly, “No.”
“I thought so.” Potter looked directly at him and even though Tom had faced much more intimidating men in his life, for the first time he could remember, he felt unsettled.
It was like Potter could see right through him.
“Why would you steal from others?” he asked conversationally, tilting his head. “This is not something you would actually want for yourself. What made you want to hurt those who are weaker than you?”
“Why do you assume that they were weaker?”
“Because I saw you and I saw them. You are the strongest among them all, with or without your magic. What you lack in strength you compensate with cunning.”
Pride and happiness danced inside him and Tom raised his chin, elated that this was what Potter thought of him.
Yes. Yes, he was strong. He was special.
“If people are weak, they deserve to lose what they have. If they can’t fight for it, they aren’t worthy of it.”
“So you take it from them. As a bully.”
Elation faded, making Tom scowl.
“They deserved it,” he repeated harshly.
“There is nothing strong about attacking those weaker than you,” Potter retorted, just as harshly. “If you are proud of your strength and want to challenge someone, do it with those who are your equal. Do it with those who are stronger than you if you feel particularly adventurous but don’t target the weak. Because it’s not flattering for you first and foremost.”
Tom narrowed his eyes, thinking about it.
Maybe… maybe Potter was right, to an extent. Playing games with other orphans was as stimulating as tormenting a kitten. The oldest children had caused him problems in the past but even then, Tom wouldn’t call them worthy opponents. Using their age and physical strength that came with it was nothing that deserved respect.
It brought him to another issue.
“No one is my equal,” Tom said, sneering. He didn’t care about making a good impression on Potter, at least not at the moment. Something about this man just dragged all his viciousness to the surface.
“Maybe not in the orphanage,” Potter admitted unexpectedly. “But now that you live with me, you have a wider range of possibilities. Instead of going after those who can’t fight back, why don’t you focus on me?”
Another strange thing about Potter: somehow, he always managed to take him aback.
“Why do you mean?” Tom asked, frowning.
“Just what I said,” Potter smiled at him, a little warmer this time. “If you need to test your power, be that your magical abilities or cunning, be creative about it. I’m more than capable of being your opponent.”
“But you are—”
Oh, how Tom didn’t want to admit it.
“You know more magic than I do,” he said through gritted teeth. “Of course you’d win.” For now.
“All the more reasons to try harder,” Potter’s smile widened. “Also, I think you misunderstand me. I don’t mean that you have to wage an actual war against me. But if you need a challenge, like I think you do, you can find it in ways that don’t involve any actual harm. We can start with cooking.”
Tom’s jaw dropped.
“What?” he spluttered. “What does cooking have to do with it?”
“I’m going to make our supper soon. Why don’t you try to do something to ruin it?”
The force of shock was so strong that Tom didn’t recover for several seconds.
Was Potter insane? What sense did this crazy, childish idea even make?
“What would be the point?” Tom asked in disbelief. “I am hungry. Why would I ruin my own supper?”
Potter, the bastard, dared to roll his eyes.
“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I’ll feed you anyway. We can make a bet, though. If I win, we eat what I cooked. If you win, I’ll cook what you want. Whatever you want.”
“Anything at all?” Tom clarified and Potter nodded solemnly.
“Anything at all. Even if such ingredients can’t be found in England.”
That was… interesting. Tom’s mind immediately jumped to all possible and impossible recipes, but he knew little about food — the orphanage had a very limited menu and he certainly didn’t want to ever taste anything from there.
He would have to do some research.
“Deal,” he uttered aloud, unable to fight the excitement that was spreading through him rapidly. “How will we do it?”
“We’ll be cooking together. If I catch you doing something to hinder the process, you’ll have a chance to try again but on a different stage of preparations.”
“Excellent,” Tom zipped his bag shut and turned to Potter again, his face alight with determination. “Let’s go now.”
Twenty minutes later, Tom was cutting the vegetables, observing how Potter moved around the kitchen. To his regret, he had to accept that he wouldn’t be doing anything to damage the meal tonight. First, he had to get to know Potter’s cooking skills better, to see what could be sabotaged most easily, where he could slip unnoticed. Only then, he would act.
“Out of curiosity, why did you pick those things in particular to steal?” Potter asked, mixing the eggs in a bowl. Tom eyed him mistrustfully.
“Because their owners annoyed me most,” he answered. “And because they treasured them above all.”
“Was it difficult to steal them?”
Why was he asking all that?
“How did those children react?”
“They cried,” Tom’s lips stretched in a smirk before he could stop himself. “It was pathetic.”
“Pathetic,” Potter drawled thoughtfully. “But you felt excited when you took the toys, didn’t you?”
“Say, what would give you a bigger sense of excitement, to steal from others or to charm them into giving the things they cherish most to you willingly?”
Tom forgot about the vegetables, staring at Potter instead.
“Charm?” he echoed. “Do you mean with magic?”
“No. I mean genuinely. Could you make them like you enough for them to want to give those things to you?”
A sense of wonder overcame him and Tom spent the next following minutes in silence, pondering over this new idea.
“I could,” he murmured eventually. “But it would take time.”
“Wouldn’t it make the victory sweeter?”
Damn Potter. Must he always surprise him?
On the other hand, Tom liked that Potter treated him as if he were an adult. Not a freak, but someone he talked to as if they were equals.
It felt good.
He said nothing else, going back to his vegetables, but Potter’s words kept echoing in his head, slipping into its darkest corners.
Charm other children and make them submit to him willingly? That could be even more pleasing indeed. To trick those worms so thoroughly that they would be unable to tell his real intentions, craving his very presence...
Tom smiled, and this smile stayed on his lips throughout the entire evening.
Next day, Potter took him shopping. The first store they visited had different kinds of clothing and Tom stood in front of the display awkwardly, unsure what to do.
He had no idea whether Potter was wealthy. Should he ask for something modest? He might have allowed himself to lose his mask a few times yesterday but today, he was collected and polite to a fault.
Would it be greedy to ask for a few outfits? How much could he demand for Potter to deem it acceptable?
With the corner of his eye, Tom noticed how Potter reached for his shoulder before jerking his hand away. As if the thought of touching him was unpleasant.
Dark bitterness rose inside, stretching its poisonous arms, and Tom tried to push it back.
What was so wrong with him that another wizard, the one who adopted him, refused to touch him unless he absolutely had to? Potter wasn’t like the orphanage people. Muggles. He was supposed to be different and yet he still seemed to despise Tom for something.
“You can choose anything you want,” Potter said awkwardly. “I have enough money to afford it.”
“I wouldn’t say so, seeing what you wear,” Tom remarked coldly, and Potter’s face did a weird thing, as if he wasn’t sure whether to be amused or offended.
“I don’t really care about what I’m wearing,” he admitted. “But I have a feeling you do. So like I said, pick what you want.”
Potter was a never-ending contradiction. He refused to even pat his shoulder but he was willing to spend a fortune on him?
Well, if he didn’t know the worth of his own money, Tom wasn’t going to argue with him.
Soon, he looked as flawless as those rich bastards that came to their orphanage sometimes, stuffed with money and prestige. Wild joy and a surge of power made Tom’s head spin, and he grinned at Potter before he could berate himself, feeling perfectly, mindlessly happy.
Potter returned his smile, although it was somewhat dim.
“Where to next?” he asked. “Some ice cream, perhaps?”
Tom’s traitorous stomach grumbled and Potter’s lips twitched again.
“I’ll take it as “yes”,” he said dryly. “Come. I know a good place nearby.”
“Do wizards have their own places?” Tom asked when they were sitting in a café. Potter nodded.
“Yes. I’ll take you to the Diagon Alley soon, so you could see the world you belong to. We won’t be able to get you a wand until you’re eleven but there will still be things you like, such as books.”
“Books,” Tom repeated reverently. Magical books. A tool for uncovering mysteries and gaining knowledge.
“I’ll teach you everything I know about magic. About what it should and shouldn’t be. But there are also Muggle sciences that I think you should learn, so we have to decide whether you’d rather go to school or stay at home with me as your teacher.”
“You know Muggle sciences?”
A shadow ran through Potter’s face.
“I do,” he uttered. “I spent the first eleven years of my life in a Muggle world, having no idea that magic existed.”
Tom paused at these words, hearing more than Potter was saying. There was an undeniable sadness in his voice and something about it created a sense of relation so strong, Tom almost felt weak under its force.
Potter, catching his intense gaze, grimaced.
“You weren’t the only one called a freak for something you had no control over,” he confirmed darkly. “And that’s another reason why I decided to adopt you.”
That hit too close for comfort, so Tom sneered.
“To have a family?” he put all disgust he felt towards the notion into this word, all inevitable disappointment, hoping it would be enough to embarrass Potter. To his surprise, Potter only nodded.
“Yes,” he said simply. “The only family I had fell apart. All I could do for them is start anew.”
Now, that was more curious.
“Fell apart how?” Tom asked and Potter hesitated.
“That’s a story for another time,” he said finally. “In short, one of my best friends died. My other best friend, his wife, was never the same again. Watching her fade day by day was unbearable.”
“So you abandoned her,” a vague alarm flickered in Tom’s mind and he tried to make his face sympathetic.
If Potter could abandon his best friend, he could abandon him, too, if things went wrong.
Tom mustn’t forget himself. He must try harder, limit his slips to a minimum.
“As I said, it’s not a story I’m willing to discuss today,” Potter focused on his ice cream.
Tom would have liked to push him but something told him it wasn’t a good idea to do that now.
“How old are you?” he asked instead, and Potter relaxed.
“Twenty five,” he said, making Tom snort in disbelief.
“You look younger.” Potter looked about nineteen. It was humiliating that Tom could ever consider the possibility of him being his father.
“Some people don’t have the luxury of growing older,” Potter said cryptically, and before Tom could figure out what he meant, he added, “So what do you think about your education? Do you prefer going to school or—”
“You,” Tom blurted. When Potter just stared at him, he hastened to clarify, “I’d like you to teach me.”
His answer seemed to please Potter — his whole face lit up before darkening again.
“Good,” he said. “We’ll start tomorrow.”
The following weeks were the most exciting and mentally stimulating time in Tom’s life. Potter insisted on teaching him Muggle subjects in the first half of the day; then they had dinner. After that, Potter told him about magic — hours upon hours filled with explanations, facts, and suggestions. He was never really specific — no matter how much Tom asked, Potter refused to teach him actual spells, claiming he wasn’t ready yet, but Tom was confident that with time, he would manage to change his mind.
Theoretical foundations of magic were fascinating. The story of wizards’ hierarchy even more so.
“In the magical world, many wizards mistakenly believe that blood is a factor determining one’s worthiness,” Potter was saying, his eyes dark and hooded. “The society is divided into Muggle-borns, half-bloods, and pure-bloods. The latter consider themselves royalty and treat others as inferior, but in most cases, they don’t differ from anyone else. Not favourably, at least.”
“I take it you aren’t a pure-blood, then,” Tom commented bitingly and Potter narrowed his eyes at him.
“No,” he said coldly. “I’m a half-blood. And I spent enough time in the magical world to know that blood means nothing.”
This was clearly a sore subject. And it only solidified Tom’s opinion that Potter was biased and thus untrustworthy in this regard.
“Blood can’t be meaningless,” he said. “You and I were just discussing genetics two days ago. Traits can be inherited.”
“Traits, yes. Superiority, no.”
“Children of ill parents are often ill themselves. It’s logical that children of pure-bloods have more magic.”
“No!” Potter snapped the book shut, frustrated. “Pure-bloods don’t have more magic to begin with. Look at yourself. You have more magic and talent than most children your age. I’d even say, you are the most magically potent child I’ve ever seen. Would you consider yourself inferior just because you aren’t a pure-blood?”
Magically potent. Potter thought he was magically potent.
Potter thought he was special, despite all his talks about equality.
“Maybe I’m a pure-blood,” Tom said greedily. It could explain everything! That could be why he was so different from everyone else — not just because he had magic but because he was royalty even by magical standards. If so…
“You are not.”
Potter’s words crashed into his thoughts and Tom tensed, glaring at him.
“How do you know?”
Potter was looking at him strangely, half-sympathetic, half-annoyed.
“Your surname is Riddle,” he said. “Mrs. Cole said that it belonged to your father. There are no Riddles among the pure-bloods. You might be a Muggle-born. So, again, do you think it would make you inferior?”
“No!” Tom denied instantly, but disappointment and rage already waged a war in his stomach, almost making him shake with adrenaline and magic, so much magic.
He couldn’t be a Muggle-born. He refused to believe that.
“Tom. Blood doesn’t define anyone.”
“Spoken like a true half-blood,” he spat, and Potter dared to snort.
“Five minutes ago, you knew nothing about blood status in the magical world. Why are you so set on believing the stereotypes when you never even researched this subject?”
“Because you’re prejudiced. Why should I trust your words?”
“I lived a life. From where I’m from…” Potter’s voice broke suddenly and he cleared his throat, palpably regaining control over himself. “There were two most powerful men. And by powerful I mean, powerful. The whole magical world revered them, albeit in different ways. There was no one who would have more magic or more knowledge than them, and they both were half-bloods.”
These words soothed the dark torrent raging in him, and slowly, Tom began to return to the state of calmness.
Potter might be a fool but he was honest. This was Tom’s perception of him. He wouldn’t lie about those powerful half-bloods just to make himself look right.
As if sensing his changing attitude, Potter leaned forward, and his face gained such an animated and vivid expression that Tom stared, fascinated.
“I was in the middle of the war of these stereotypes,” Potter said urgently. “I knew many people. My best friend, Hermione, is a Muggle-born, and she has always been the most brilliant witch I’ve ever known. Her knowledge was so vast that many pure-bloods couldn’t stand her because of this, knowing they could never rival her, but they still respected her despite their beliefs. Hermione did more for the wizarding world than any of them and they knew it. My other friend, Ron…” Potter took a deep breath, visibly trying to calm down. “He was a pure-blood. He was a wonderful man but he was neither really smart nor strong magically. He was average. Like me, a half-blood. Hermione was better than both of us.”
Tom tried to make sense of everything Potter had just said and everything he hadn’t said. After several fruitless attempts, he had to admit that he was confused.
Potter was using different tenses when discussing his friends. Ron was clearly the one who died and Hermione was his wife, but even with her, Potter alternated between past and present.
Another mystery. He shall uncover it eventually, once he made sure that Potter wasn’t going to send him away. Because despite their lessons, despite all the time they spent together, Potter still appeared conflicted about him. He refused to touch him even casually in most cases and there were times when Tom thought he was forcing himself to be in his company.
Potter didn’t want him here, not entirely. It was impossible to say why he even bothered with him in the first place if that was how he felt, but this, Tom didn’t need to know.
He would stay with Potter, no matter what it took.
“Can wizards talk to animals?” he asked aloud, changing the topic. There was already an abundance of information about blood status that he had to consider — it was enough for today.
Potter was startled. His face was still flushed and Tom drank it in, storing the view in his memory.
Potter was fascinatingly emotional. Interesting, what could Tom do to wind him up most efficiently?
“No,” Potter replied belatedly. “Most of them can’t.”
“Most of them?” Tom’s eyes lit up.
He had kept his ability to talk to snakes a secret from Potter, not because he was protective of it but because he doubted it meant anything. If magic existed, then talking to snakes had to fall within the usual magical things, didn’t it?
But if Potter said most wizards couldn’t talk to animals…
“Some can talk to snakes,” Potter uttered carefully and Tom barely stopped himself from jumping on him and shaking him until he told him every tiniest thing he knew.
“Which ones? Tell me!” he commanded, putting his magic into the last two words.
Potter’s flush faded. His face became cold, the sparkle in his eyes dimmed, and Tom was immediately wary.
During these last weeks, he’d made a lot of conclusions about Potter’s personality.
Potter was soft-hearted and emotional, yes, but whenever one of his boundaries was crossed, he became chilly. Tom’s first perception wasn’t wrong. Potter could tolerate a lot, even things he didn’t like — Tom’s presence was a good example of that. But as soon as his boundary was crossed, there was no turning back. He distanced himself, became closed off, and Tom had to cajole even one-word answers out of him for a while before things went back to normal.
He tried not to think what would happen if one day, he crossed a particularly important boundary.
“That’s enough for today,” Potter told him icily. “We’ll continue some other time.”
Tom watched him leave, frustrated, already thinking how much time he’d have to spend on bringing Potter to a normal state.
Potter never reacted to his compulsions, probably because he was a wizard himself.
But one day… One day, it would change.
One day, Tom would gain power over him, and he would use it at the first opportunity.
Decorating their house was more fun than Tom had expected. They spent hours shopping and arguing about design of each room, and eventually, Potter warmed up to him again. He still tried to bring the ugliest things into the house, though.
“Not this!” Tom cried out in horror, watching Potter drag a heavy statue of a lion in the direction of a seller. “Put it back!”
“It’ll make the house look lively.”
“You are an idiot!” Tom growled, words escaping before he could halt them. Then he paused, panic whirling in him, wondering if Potter would be insulted.
To his relief, Potter laughed freely, hugging the statue closer.
“Don’t be such a bore,” he chided. “You can decorate your space as you see fit. This is for my room.”
“You have a terrible taste.”
“I don’t buy it because it looks good. It reminds me of things from home, so it’s worth it,” sending him another grin, Potter reached the seller, and Tom scowled at him, even though his lips were twisting in an answering smile on their own accord.
Potter truly had a penchant for collecting the most horrible things. There was already an ugly vase standing on his bedside table and he refused to let Tom even touch it because it had been allegedly given to him by his friends.
Sentimental. Another thing that could be used against him.
Potter finally purchased the lion monstrosity and Tom, to demonstrate the difference between good and bad taste, picked a slender, elegant snake figurine. Potter evaluated his choice with inscrutable expression before nodding slightly and paying for it.
All in all, Tom was satisfied. After three weeks, their house looked lived-in, and even Potter’s awful selections didn’t ruin the overall impression. Red, yellow, white, and green were the predominant colours, and while Tom wasn’t thrilled with the first two combinations, he had to acknowledge that they made the house lighter.
He had a home.
It still seemed too good to be true.
Potter began to dance around the kitchen. Every time he cooked, whether they were engaged in their game or not, he danced from one corner to another, and Tom couldn’t take his eyes off him, though he struggled to say if he felt appalled, amused, or captivated.
The man was entirely ridiculous. He felt no awkwardness at all — he just danced, and sometimes he murmured some songs under his breath. Technically, it was supposed to distract him, making Tom’s task of tempering with the food easier, but Potter had a surprising ability to notice everything.
So far, Tom had added a whole pound of salt into the dishes, thrown in vegetables with their skin on, and increased the oven temperature. To his frustration, Potter caught him every time — not just caught but also skilfully liquidated the results of his efforts.
Tom would naturally win sooner or later, once he learned even more about cooking, but Potter was a challenge, there was no denying it. Fighting against him was far more entertaining than winding up other orphans.
Their time together was enjoyable. However, Tom would enjoy it even more if Potter were consistent. No matter how many things they did together, Potter’s attitude to him remained as conflicted as it was in the beginning, and slowly, it started to anger him.
He was still unwanted. Maybe not as often as at the very start but still. And Tom hated it.
Potter was gone currently and Tom found himself standing on the threshold of his bedroom, studying its contents shrewdly.
He had never really been inside. He’d seen the terrible statue, the ugly vase, and garish curtains Potter surrounded himself with, but he had no idea what else was there.
Carefully, he stepped inside and inhaled deeply. The room smelled like Potter. Sawdust, some delicate spices from spending hours on cooking, and something else, light and sweet.
The house was silent, so Tom went to the wardrobe, opening it and peering inside.
Potter’s smell was even stronger here. Predictably, he possessed very few pieces of clothing — Tom’s collection surpassed his many times over. All of them were simple and bleak, but Tom still inspected them thoroughly, trying to sense… something. He wasn’t sure what.
To his disappointment, there was nothing worthy of his consideration there. Apart from clothes, Potter had few personal things: several books, a vase, and three moving photos. Tom picked them up, studying people depicted there.
It was captivating, to hold such an obviously magical object in his hands. To see how people there moved, laughed, and looked at him warily, as if knowing things he did not.
The couple on the first photo must be Potter’s parents, considering their physical resemblance. Were they dead? If they were wizards, why did Potter say that he grew up without knowing about magic?
The second photo portrayed a group of people and the third one was in colour, featuring a red-haired man and a young woman.
Potter’s friends, most likely. Was the red-haired a pure-blood, then? Looking at him, Tom had to acknowledge that Potter was right. There was absolutely nothing special about him — in fact, he looked downright moronic.
Scoffing, Tom put the photos away and focused on the vase instead. Up close, it looked even more hideous than he’d first thought. It appeared to be self-made, with terrible, twisted lines decorating its red-and-gold sides. There was an inscription but the writing was so bad that it was impossible to decipher what it was saying.
Potter didn’t give his attachment freely. What could his so-called friends do to deserve it?
Tom’s grip tightened around the vase. Then he reached to put it back but a sudden loosening of pressure resulted in the vase slipping from his hands. Shocked, Tom watched how it fell on the floor and shattered, losing every indication of its previous form.
For a while, he stood frozen, unable to believe he could be so clumsy. Gradually, the ice of shock began to melt into panic, and without thinking, Tom dropped to his knees, his hands hovering uselessly over the broken pieces.
He couldn’t get a grip on his self-control. The only pulsating, blinding thought was, This could be a hard boundary. Potter wouldn’t forgive him breaking one of the few things left from his friends.
Tom tried to imagine being told to pack and sent to the orphanage, to all those who were certain that he would fail. Being cut off from magic knowledge again, losing his house, his things, his Potter.
Terror flooded him, pouring down his spine, and Tom tried to focus, to glue the pieces together with his magic. Potter had said he was strong, so he had to be able to fix it — he must fix it, right now, before Potter saw it…
Tom couldn’t say how much time had passed. He kept trying to concentrate his energy on mending the vase but nothing worked. He was failing. Failing. His hands were shaking, his skin bleeding in some places, and for the first time in his life, he felt his age.
There was nothing he could do. Nothing.
Desperately, he looked up at some point and saw Potter staring at him, an expression of disbelief and wonder on his face. A wave of resignation and coldness swept through him and Tom straightened slowly, preparing a biting answer to whatever dismissal he would hear.
Potter continued to look at him and Tom clearly saw the moment when something in him snapped. In several steps, Potter crossed the distance between them and hugged him, wrapping his hands around him tightly.
Tom couldn’t move. His brain short-circuited, and every retort, every insult his mind had prepared dissolved, leaving layers of confusion behind.
Potter was hugging him. Holding him, willingly.
Why was he holding him? It didn’t make sense. Tom had broken his vase. Potter almost never initiated touches, so why would he decide to do that now?
“It’s all right,” Potter murmured, and Tom shuddered from the warmth of his breath that felt so alive against his hair. “It’s just a vase. I can fix it myself, but even if I couldn't, it wouldn’t mean anything. You are… you are more important.”
Tom listened, absorbing every word, sensing how they took root somewhere deep inside him.
“I’m not giving you up,” Potter added. “No matter what.”