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What He Grows To Be

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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!”

Oh. That.

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.

“Yes.”

“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?”

What?

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—”

“I’m what?”

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?

“No.”

“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?”

“So what?”   

“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.”

“It’s hideous!”

“It’s homely!”

“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.”

Tom listened.

He remembered.

Chapter Text

Three and a half months. That was how long Harry’s reservations had managed to hold up. His thoughts of be careful, and act smartly, and don’t let yourself get attached to him shattered the moment he saw Tom with a broken vase, trying to fix it with trembling, bleeding hands. The panic and resignation in his eyes were so palpable that Harry didn’t need to glimpse through his memories to understand what he was feeling and why.

Tom was scared he’d done something unforgivable. He thought Harry would send him back to the orphanage over this, discarding him like an abandoned toy.

Looking at this young, dark, vicious boy, Harry felt his heart swell with pure, unadulterated love. He didn’t even remember dashing forward and hugging him, didn’t remember his solemn promises of You are more important and I’m not giving you up. He was following his emotions, again, no matter how dangerous it was, and he was mindless enough to let it happen. A part of him registered that Tom wasn’t holding him back but the stubborn feeling in his chest made him ignore it.

Tom wasn’t used to being hugged. Tom wasn’t used to anything good happening in his life, it was obvious from the start and still. Harry had felt it within moments of meeting him, maybe even before, a whole life ago, when he was watching the memories with Dumbledore, feeling a stirring of something that could only be empathy.

Tom had been a miserable child and Harry’s mission entailed changing that. So he bought him things, taught him about magic, but he never let himself open emotionally. He knew very well who Tom Riddle was. His age didn’t matter because even now, there were undeniable cruelty and calculation in his gaze that no child should have. Tom didn’t experience gratitude, maybe only a superficial semblance of it. He ridiculed emotions and he was greedy and possessive of everything Harry had never put importance into.

Sometimes, he thought there were glimpses of something deeper. There were moments when Tom glanced at him with uncertainty and frustration, the need to be touched and reassured of his importance emanating from him in heavy waves of insecurity, but whenever it happened, Harry ignored it.

He wasn’t going to get attached to Tom Riddle. Raise him in comfort, teach him the right things, give him a home, yes. Be sincere and openly affectionate with him? Never. He wasn’t that much of a masochist.

But maybe he was, after all. Because now, holding Tom, Harry knew with startling clarity that he wasn’t going to stick to the initial plan. He was going to let himself love Tom, and maybe, just maybe, this love would be enough to sway him to the right side in the end.

How could he ever believe that he would be able to bring up a child and hold off his affection? Tom needed it, even if he tried to deny it. He needed to be loved and Harry needed someone to love, longed for it.

This Tom Riddle wasn’t Voldemort yet. He was his, and all reservations and worries didn’t matter, not anymore.

He would do what he felt was right, and hope for the best.

So Harry took Tom to the kitchen, cleaned his hands, murmured over his scratches and healed them carefully, happy when it actually worked.

“They didn’t hurt much,” Tom told him, watching him attentively, and Harry gave him a warm smile, noting how Tom’s eyes immediately glued to it.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said softly. “You shouldn’t have been hurt at all.”

Tom considered it, his face unsmiling, and Harry couldn’t believe he’d managed to fight this terrible, crushing affection until now.

Dumbledore was right. Love was the strongest weapon of all, and if anything was going to change Tom for the better, it was this.

“I’ll make you a cocoa,” Harry decided. “Then I’ll read you a book.”

At this, Tom perked up visibly.

“Which one?”

Hogwarts: A History. I think you’ll find it interesting, though personally, I always considered it boring.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

Smirking, Harry opened the shelf and took two cups from there. With the corner of his eye, he could see that Tom was still watching him.

“I can read by myself,” Tom said after a few minutes. “I don’t need you to do that for me.”

“I’ll still read to you. Families have some traditions, don’t they? This will be ours.”

Tom snorted rudely, but Harry noticed he didn’t argue.

He counted it as a victory.

 

 

***

 

 

It all started with George. Or with Fred’s death. Or back on the night when Voldemort had learned about the prophecy and decided to make it real — Harry didn’t know. But it all went downhill from there.

After Fred died, George had tried to hold on. He worked at their shop tirelessly, inventing more and more new things. He visited Molly and Arthur regularly to support them and he, Harry, and Ron had dinners at least twice a week, all absorbing the strength of one another.

And yet, George stopped smiling. He was talking less and less, and after a year and two months, he killed himself, quietly and unassumingly, by swallowing the joke-concoction he himself had developed.

The Weasleys had managed to survive Fred’s death but George’s broke them. Molly turned into a silent, grief-stricken wreck who never left the house, sitting on the chair and staring at the magical clock. Ron began to drink, and since Hermione started to seek him out in the magical bars to talk some sense into him, he moved to the Muggle ones. One night, he was hit by a Muggle car, and though magic had kept him alive, his mind was barely working no matter how much the Mungo team tried to undo that.

Hermione didn’t give up, naturally. She fought relentlessly, researching and trying to come up with all possible methods to help. She attempted Muggle therapy at some point and that was when she and Ron had made the vase for Harry. It was childish but in Harry’s eyes, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.   

Ron seemed to be getting better but one day, his heart stopped, and the suddenness of it after what appeared to be a recovery destroyed Hermione. The death of another family member also broke Harry and Ginny’s relationship, with Ginny leaving the country and trying to lose herself in work.

This way, four years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry’s life was reduced to nothing. It happened quietly, and in the end, it made everything feel even more horrifying.

What had they fought for? The world was saved but to Harry, it didn’t seem any better. Slytherin was eliminated as a House due to violent stereotypes surrounding it. People even suspected of practising dark magic were imprisoned. Harry himself was constantly harassed by the public and Ministry both, with every his breath being scrutinised. He wasn’t interested in helping them and soon, he felt a palpable shift to negativity. Speculations about him not aging began to flourish, even though he didn’t differ much from other wizards at that stage, with the deaths of his loved ones slowly but steadily being blamed on him. A little more, and they would have turned him into a new Dark Lord.

So he fled, but the thoughts about those rumours kept haunting him. By the time he figured out his Master of Death status, he was horrified at his own stupidity. He had thought that destroying the wand would mean the end of the Hallows, but in retrospect, it could never be this easy.

Harry didn’t want eternal life, in any form, even temporarily. He especially didn’t want a life like this.

It took him another year to start thinking about going back in time. He tried to talk to Hermione but her brilliant mind had faded along with her willingness to live. She stared at him emptily, seeing the past instead of the present, and while he didn’t get any actual help, this meeting strengthened his resolve. Doubts, research, and preparations took a while, and when Harry was finally ready, he learned that he could only go back by a limited number of years. Tom Riddle was eight at that point, and since he only had one chance at travelling even this far, Harry was determined to do everything right.

A small, nasty part of him whispered that things never went as planned.

He ignored it.

 

 

***

 

The potatoes were boiling suspiciously slowly. Harry peered into the cauldron, wondering if Tom could have had something to do with it. Over the seven months they’d been playing the game, he had gotten extremely creative, and even though he hadn’t succeeded yet, Harry knew it would happen sooner or later. Tom was brilliant for his age, and while Harry had more advanced magic on his side to help him save the dishes Tom was trying so hard to ruin, he was aware that it wouldn’t last forever.

The potatoes were stiff as if they hadn’t been boiling for the last fifteen minutes. Frowning, Harry leaned closer, and at this moment, the scorching hot water exploded right into his face.

His reaction allowed him to cover it with his hands, making them take the most damage. Immediately, pain thrummed through them, blossoming in the form of ugly blisters, and Harry let out a pained noise, already knowing that his weak healing skills wouldn’t be enough to help.

There was a thump, and when he turned, he saw Tom gleefully stepping on the potato that had fallen out of the cauldron, slowly rubbing it into the floor.

“I won,” he said, his voice low with malicious victory. “You will have to cook what I want today.”

Harry stared at him incredulously. Then he looked down at his disfigured hands.

Tom had somehow made the water explode, knowing it would distract him… knowing it would burn him. If Harry hadn’t reacted timely, his whole face would be destroyed now.

How in the world had Tom thought it was a good idea?

Maybe he’d miscalculated. It could be just an accident that…

No.

Slowly, Harry straightened, feeling his gaze grow cold.

Tom knew very well what he’d been doing. He was seeing the results of his work now and there was not a trace of shame or remorse in his eyes. The only thing that mattered to him was victory.

And here Harry was, thinking they were making progress.

His heart ached but he ignored it.

“Very well,” he said, his voice emotionless. “What do you want?”

Triumph faded from Tom’s face somewhat and he stared at him suspiciously.

“I want a pie made of a mix of Muggle and magical ingredients,” he said arrogantly. “From Muggle ones, I want saffron collected right from Iran, black truffles from France, and white truffles from Croatia. Among magical ingredients, I want you to bring me bursting mushrooms — they’ll have to be treated, of course; African red pepper and merfolk sea salt, and a heart of an Indian salwater crocodile for meat.”

Stupor was an unpleasant sensation. Harry gaped at Tom, unable to believe his ears, hoping that it was a poor joke. But Tom continued to gaze at him in a challenge, satisfaction and that same strange maliciousness still surrounding him, and a deep, cutting disappointment seeped into Harry’s bones, suddenly making him feel endlessly tired.

Despite his words, despite his attempts to turn this cooking challenge into a game, Tom had still approached it as he would a war. And now he was punishing his defeated enemy, giving him a task that was stunning in its thoughtful, meticulous cruelty. 

Tom didn’t love him. He knew it. Tom greedily took all the love he was offering but he never gave any affection back. Harry didn’t mind, not really — he was prepared for it. But for Tom to be this callous towards him? They could just as well be strangers. Seven months of what Harry perceived as slowly growing closeness, and in the end, it meant nothing in Tom’s eyes.   

“Fine,” he said aloud, giving Tom a look as empty as he was currently feeling. “I don’t expect to be back until eleven, so fix yourself some other supper for now.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed at the sound of his voice, and probably due to his lack of reaction. Did he expect Harry to be impressed with this kind of victory? With his oh-so-clever demand?

Right now, all Harry wanted was to be away from him.

Without another word, he moved towards the door, feeling Tom’s anger and turmoil with his back.

“Potter…”

Gritting his teeth, Harry turned his head.

“What?” he asked sharply. A barely visible flinch from Tom indicated that he was affected by Harry’s harshness, but considering the situation, it didn’t mean anything. Not now.

“Nothing.” Tom raised his chin defiantly. “Make sure you bring everything.”

Despite his strong words, he appeared almost uncertain, and it only served to fuel the anger of disappointment flaming in Harry’s chest.

He didn’t say goodbye, slamming the door shut and hoping vindictively that Tom would be startled by it. Then he immediately felt guilty.

This child was a young Voldemort all right.

But he was still just a child.

Seven months did nothing to abate his cruelty.  

But it was only a start. Harry couldn’t possibly expect to change his core so early. Four months ago, he had been trying to stop his affection for Tom from growing, and of course it slowed down the process. Tom still seemed suspicious of his display of feelings at times, and maybe it was natural that he was testing his boundaries.

Harry grimaced when a new surge of hot pain hit him.

First, he’d try to lessen the burns by going into Apothecary. Then, he’d get those damned ingredients.

Maybe it would prove to Tom that he kept his word. Maybe, in the long run, it would be worth it.  

 

***

 

 

By eight o’clock, Harry had retrieved both kinds of truffles. His head was spinning from such complex apparition and his magic was already groaning in protest. Still, he apparated again, this time to Iran, looking for saffron.

By eleven o’clock, he was barely keeping himself on his feet, stuck on the Indian beach. His magic was at its limits but he pushed forward, comforting himself with the thought that he wouldn’t be able to die, at least not until he truly wished for it.

He found a crocodile at half past eleven. Killing an innocent creature that did him no harm filled him with an itching regret, and while Avada Kedavra required a considerable concentration of power, Harry still chose it because at least it was quick and painless. He was holding the heart in his shaking hands, thinking about Tom, knowing he had to apparate two more times, when darkness that kept dancing in front of his eyes suddenly jumped at him, stealing his consciousness.

At half past two, he got to Scotland. He knew how to deal with bursting mushrooms, the precautions he had to take, but in his exhaustion, he still missed one. It exploded with violent force, and once again, Harry found himself drifting into the darkness, cursing his own stupidity.

When he dragged himself to their home, it was almost five in the morning. His clothes were torn in several places, baring ugly scratches, and his hands had long since gone numb with pain. His magic, average as it was, was beating quietly at the very bottom of his body, and at this moment, Harry doubted he would be able to even light a fire.

There was a strange sound from the dark living room and he turned towards it automatically. Tom was curled on Harry’s seat, hugging Hogwarts: A History to his chest, staring at him wide-eyed, as if he had never seen him before. 

“I brought your ingredients,” Harry told him. His tongue felt too swelled to function properly, so his words came out as drugged. “Not sure you will want to eat supper now but—”

An already familiar wave of weakness flooded him, making him stumble.

“Harry!” Tom jumped to his feet but didn’t move, only pressed the book even harder to him, to the point where his whitened knuckles began to glimmer in the darkness.

…Had he just called him by his name? That had never happened before.

Harry was so focused on this thought that he didn’t realise he finally fell to his knees, dropping the small bag he was holding. Tom was instantly by his side, reaching for him, and for a second, Harry was almost sure he saw a red gleam in his eyes, the one Voldemort had after creating his first horcruxes. He jerked away, sick and disgusted.

“Don’t touch me,” he snapped. Tom’s flinch this time was far from subtle. A wounded look that entered his eyes cleared Harry’s mind, and he immediately felt a crushing sense of guilt. 

He wasn’t being fair. Tom would make mistakes as he matured, it was obvious. And seeing Voldemort in him after the first serious transgression was as unjust as Dumbledore’s treatment of him had been.

Sighing, Harry reached for Tom himself, pulling him into an embrace.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “As you can see, I had a difficult night.”

Tom didn’t hold him back, predictably, but he leaned his head against Harry’s shoulder and Harry dropped a small kiss onto his dark hair.

“Magic supplies are low,” he tried to explain. “Too many apparitions. I will need to rest before—”

More darkness whirled up unexpectedly and Harry closed his eyes, unable to fight it again.

 

***

 

When he woke up, he was lying in bed. Sunlight was already filling every creak of his room and weak pain was pulsing quietly in his hands. All in all, he felt much better than he expected after yesterday.

Harry blinked, looking around the room before focusing on himself. The wounds on his chest were absent, as if they had never been there. His hands were bandaged carefully and based on sensations, the blisters were all gone. Only vague discomfort remained.  

How could this happen? He wouldn’t have been able to heal himself in such state, that’s for sure. Healing required three essential things: strong desire, powerful magic, and the ability to visualise one’s body perfectly. Harry was usually enthusiastic but he lacked everything else. He could heal small wounds but nothing as major as from what he’d been suffering from.

Which left Tom as the only other wizard who could have helped him.

Tom and healing? The idea seemed otherworldly in its strangeness, but there was no other explanation.

Incredulous hope raised its head weakly and Harry left the bed, going in search of its source.

Tom was in the kitchen, cooking. The table was set for two and Harry took it all in, feelings his hope grow, strengthen, gain visible contours.

“Good morning,” he said quietly. Tom froze before slowly turning to him, his expression wary.

“Good morning,” he echoed back. His eyes shifted to Harry’s hands and Harry twisted them experimentally.

“Did you heal me?” he asked. Tom immediately looked annoyed, as if he didn’t want this topic to be discussed and was appalled by Harry’s bluntness.

“Yes,” he said shortly, but no matter how cold he was trying to look, Harry saw more.

Tom might never admit it aloud but he had to feel at least a twinge of guilt. Healing him, putting him into bed… Merlin knew how he’d managed to do that… cooking him breakfast — it all sounded like an apology. And it made Harry perfectly, mindlessly happy. His joy spread, lighting every gloomy part of his mind, and all worries and disappointment dissipated.

He’d overreacted yesterday. This Tom, the one that took care of him, was clear evidence that he was doing the right thing. Maybe it was happening too gradually, not as quickly as he had secretly expected, but it was progress, undeniably so.     

“Thank you,” he said cheerfully, and his smile widened when Tom just stared at him incredulously. “I believe you will want your supper for dinner?”

More suspicions in Tom’s eyes. What, did he think Harry wouldn’t cook his outrageous pie after everything he had done to retrieve the ingredients for it?

“I hope you won’t try to ruin this one,” he added. “Would you like to help me cook it?”

“Yes,” Tom replied after a pause, his body relaxing imperceptibly, and for some reason, Harry felt as if something crucial had shifted between them.

Tom never called him by his last name again.

Harry had no idea hearing five simple letters could feel so good.   

 

***

 

On their first Christmas together, he finally took Tom to Diagon Alley. Tom deserved to see it in all its glory, with bright colourful lanterns floating above the heads of the visitors, cheerful songs sung from every corner, and the very air filled with sparkling magic. 

Tom’s eyes flew wide open the moment they stepped inside, and his unguarded expression of awe was so profound that Harry felt overwhelmed with his own happiness.

“This is your world,” he said quietly.

“Yes,” Tom kept staring at everything, still looking stunned. “Yes, it is mine. And one day, it will belong to me alone.”

Happiness stumbled over the hard, warning rock that had emerged from nowhere. Harry tried to bypass it but a jab of worry made it difficult.

These could just be the words of the overly excited, possessive child. Many young boys threw phrases like this around and they never meant anything.

But Tom was never an ordinary young boy, was he? Harry knew it painfully well. This was what had made him so reluctant to get close to him in the first place.

Tom turned to him suddenly, almost blinding him with his joyful smile, and Harry’s premonition faded again, suffocated by optimistic hope.

“Where would you like to go first?” he asked. “There are plenty of different shops here. Sweets, books, clothes—”

“Books,” Tom said immediately. “Then clothes. Then sweets — maybe.”

His confidence towards the fact that Harry would buy him anything he wanted made Harry falter for a moment.

On the one hand, it reminded him of Dudley. And of Malfoy.

On the other hand, unlike them, Tom had never lived in luxury. Wasn’t it good that he was overcoming his never-ending pessimism and trusting Harry to take care of his needs?

In the end, Harry chose to go with the latter. After all, it was a big day today.

“I had a feeling you’d say that,” he uttered, grinning. “Since it’s Christmas and your birthday soon, you can get as many things as you want from here. But don’t overdo it. Remember, there are already presents waiting for you at home.”

Tom’s eyes fixated in him, drinking him in, and another unsettled sensation stirred in Harry’s stomach for a moment.

He wasn’t sure what to think when Tom was staring at him like this. The intensity and possessiveness he glimpsed there were not something Harry had even seen on the face of Voldemort, or on anyone else’s, for that matter. But…

There was always a but. And Harry refused to be intimidated by his own paranoia.

“Ready to go?” he asked, offering his hand. Tom measured it with a thoughtful gaze before accepting it, and once again, it felt like the sun around them shone brighter.

Everything would be all right. Harry would make sure of it.

 

***

 

At midnight, the stars fell. Harry pulled annoyed Tom to his chest, giving him a Christmas hug, and wished for them both to be happy.

 

***

 

Time was flying so quickly that Harry barely noticed it passing. He and Tom spent the majority of it together, doing all possible and impossible things. Harry read to him, a part of their tradition that took roots in their everyday life. They argued about magic and blood status, and whenever Harry felt the alarm rising after some particularly dubious things Tom had said, Tom backed away, destroying his hesitation with a bright smile or perfect obedience and thoughtfulness.

A Slytherin part of Harry whispered that Tom had learned him well enough to deceive and manipulate him. He noticed even the tiniest flickers of reaction and pushed buttons to either escalate or remove it entirely. This same part warned him about being cautious because if Tom was this skilled at manipulation at nine, there was no saying what he would become in the future.

A Gryffindor part of him refused to lose optimism and insisted on Tom being simply attentive and inquisitive, enjoying the challenge of stirring someone’s anger up before soothing it.

Harry listened to both of them but he wasn’t hurrying with conclusions. The strange and maybe cruel truth was that Tom had become his family in the way no one ever had. Dursleys never qualified for this concept. Ron and Hermione were endlessly dear to him but they were friends first and foremost, friends he had been separated from every summer, missing crucial opportunities. The Weasleys came the closest, and being with them was something Harry knew he would cherish always, whether he would see them ever again or not. But the time he spent in the Burrow was so limited that it felt like a taste rather than the actual life.

He and Ginny were too immersed in the gloom of post-war and deaths to reach the level of closeness Harry craved, so a part of him had always remained unfulfilled. Now, it was filled by Tom, and sometimes Harry worried that his previously unused supplies of love were too overwhelming to be good for a child. He was spoiling him, rarely able to deny him anything, and this was definitely not what was supposed to happen.   

But even knowing it, he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t even say what Tom was to him because no labels he knew described his feelings adequately. He worried about co-dependency sometimes, seeing that Tom refused to interact with others and chose his company over and over again. But it also made a small, selfish part of Harry blissfully happy, so in the end, as always, he decided not to think about it much.   

Tom turned ten and their routine didn’t change. They read, and cooked, and even brewed potions together, bickering and glowering at each other and then waiting with equally bated breaths to see if they managed to prepare everything correctly. Harry was still rubbish at potions, even though after Snape’s book, he had learned the necessary basics. Still, he had experience unlike Tom, who was attentive to instructions but was always willing to experiment. He stubbornly added unmixable ingredients, determined to overcome the laws of potion making, and as the result, they destroyed the room that was their lab on countless occasions.

They were still engaged in their cooking war, though it was never as bad as Tom’s first victory. Every time he won, Tom demanded rare ingredients, and they went in their search together, exploring unfamiliar woods and practicing Tom’s wandless magic, sometimes chasing the strange magical creatures, sometimes running from them.  

When Tom turned eleven, he received his letter from Hogwarts. It came right on time, and Harry knew that the image of Tom’s wild happiness and pride would stay engraved in his memory for as long as he lived. Tom clutched at his letter with greed, reading it again and again. Then he looked up, his eyes finding Harry and staying on him, and his emotions felt so raw and vivid that Harry stared back, feeling a tight knot stuck in his throat.  

This was how Tom should have received his letter to begin with. In the comfort of home, with a person who could share his happiness, who could support him and encourage him.

Harry loved Dumbledore, he probably always would, and he thought him a great man. But Dumbledore had made many mistakes, and perhaps the worst of them concerned Tom. The way he introduced him to magic was unforgivable, and most of all, Harry wanted to change that.

Smiling, he embraced Tom, slowly stroking his hair.

“I’m proud of you,” he whispered. Tom still refused to hold him back but like always, he readily accepted the embrace. When he pulled back, Harry saw a triumphant smirk on his face. And then, suddenly, something happened. The smirk wavered, paled, and then disappeared, replaced by a shadow of hesitation.

“What?” Harry asked, frowning. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” Tom turned away from him but Harry could see how his fingers curled around the letter, almost in a claw-like manner.

“Tom—”

“I want to be alone.”

Bewildered, Harry watched Tom walk into his room and slam the door shut.  He stared after him, uncomprehending, with worry beginning to gnaw at him.

Getting a letter from Hogwarts was supposed to be one of the happiest moments of Tom’s life. What could have happened to alter his mood like this?    

 

***

 

“Would you like to go to Diagon Alley to buy your things?”

“No. Later.”

Tom’s voice was emotionless as he stared at the plate with his breakfast without even attempting to touch it. His face was pale and contorted, as if he was thinking hard about something. Harry hadn’t seen him insecure for so long that such sight made his own insecurity rise.

What could be wrong? Tom had been happy to receive the letter, he’d seen it. He’d been waiting for it for years, ever since he learned what Hogwarts was. What could have ruined his mood so abruptly?

“Tom. Talk to me.”

Dark eyes narrowed at him but Tom said nothing. Harry bit his lip, anxiety and desire to push warring inside him for dominance.    

They had never had problems like this before. Tom never withheld information — if he was displeased with something, he always made sure Harry knew it, without any prompting.

“I’m not hungry.” Tom stood up abruptly and left the kitchen, not even bothering to remove the plate after himself. Harry watched him go, his mind running quickly, trying to figure out all possible reasons for such behaviour.

In the end, he came up with nothing.

 

***

 

They lasted like this for almost a week. A week filled with silence, uncertainty, and Tom’s glares that clearly warned him to back off.

One night, Harry woke up with confidence that something was wrong. He glanced at the clock, then at the window. It was still dark outside, not a thing visible. But falling back asleep wasn’t an option because after all these years, he learned to trust his intuition. And it was saying that at this moment, something was happening.

Quietly, Harry left his bed and rushed to Tom’s room, his wand clenched in his hand tightly. At the door, he hesitated for about a second before pushing it open and stepping inside, the words of a curse spinning on his tongue.

No one but Tom was inside. However, before Harry could breathe a sigh of relief, he noticed that Tom’s sleep was far from peaceful and undisturbed. He was panting, his face twisted in a miserable grimace, and his hands kept jerking weakly, as if he was trying to attack someone or defend himself.

Harry dashed to his side before he could even think about it, the memories of his own nightmares expanding, reminding him of how desperately he hoped for someone’s comfort and how he never dared to actually ask for it out of a sense of deep-rooted shame.

“Tom,” he called carefully, rubbing gentle circles into his wrist. “Tom, wake up. Everything is fine. I’m here.”

At first, there was nothing, but then Tom’s eyes flew open. He immediately stared at Harry, looking vulnerable and terrified, and Harry risked touching his wet hair, brushing it to the side.

“It’s all right,” he repeated. “You’re safe.”

Tom leaned into his touch briefly, and this half-conscious gesture of trust sent a trickle of melting warmth through Harry’s chest.

“Hey,” he whispered softly. “What’s wrong?”

“They will hate me, won’t they?” Tom’s eyes were still wide and terrified. “They will think I’m a Muggle-born. They won’t want me in their House.”

It took Harry a second to figure out what this was about.

“Of course they won’t hate you,” he replied automatically. “Hogwarts is about unity. Only some pure-bloods—”

“But if what that book said is true, then Slytherin is crowded with pure-bloods. They won’t accept me. Even in Hogwarts I will be—” Tom’s voice trailed off, the blackness in his gaze intensifying. “But I’ll prove it to them,” he murmured, an upcoming wave of sleep making his words slurred. “I’ll prove my worth. They’ll be sorry… I’ll make them sorry. Muggle-born or not, I’m better than them. I’m better.”

Tom’s eyes fluttered close and Harry pushed him on the pillow, adjusting the blanket around him, dropping feather-light touches across his hair in attempt to chase the rest of the nightmares away.

When he made sure that Tom’s breathing evened out, he left the room and went to the kitchen, making tea for himself in the vain hope to busy himself with something.

He was an idiot. How could he not consider this? It was natural that Tom was worried about being accepted. He was obsessing over Slytherin from the moment he’d learned about each House, and while Harry seemed to have changed his mind about blood superiority, it meant nothing for expectations of Tom’s potential housemates.  

With “Riddle” as his last name, Tom would indeed be rejected by the majority. Naturally, it wouldn’t last forever — the past had been a clear indication of it. Back then, Tom had managed to rise up in the ranks and make everyone forget about his blood status, but this journey couldn’t have been short or painless.

Dumbledore had never talked about discrimination Tom Riddle had to encounter as an orphaned, Muggle-raised child in Slytherin. According to him, Tom had gained his following right away, but even at his most naïve, Harry couldn’t believe it entirely. Hogwarts was full of stereotypical thinking, discrimination, and harassment. Harry himself had been the victim as well as the perpetrator of some of it more than once, and he could only imagine how bad it had to be during the thirties.

Then again, maybe it was good for Tom to fight for something at this stage instead of assuming he was special without having to prove it. Instead of instilling humility within him, Harry had only managed to spoil him rotten, the thought that still sent a pang of muted worry through him occasionally. He knew that his mistakes could come to haunt him later, but faced with reality, he found that he couldn’t really deny Tom anything. And that was a problem.

Letting Tom go to Hogwarts without knowing of his legacy could be just what Harry needed to correct his own mistakes. To restore the balance. Tom would get unconditional love at home and he would fight for recognition at school. It was only logical. But… but…

Recalling the look of fear in Tom’s eyes, his subdued behaviour during this week, Harry groaned, dropping his head into his hands.

He already knew he wouldn’t be able to go through with it. He wouldn’t be able to send Tom, his Tom, to the magical place that would meet him with coldness and hostility, throwing him in the middle of the war that would only sharpen his own cruelty. Everything inside him ached at the thought of the first version of this boy coming to the magical school where he thought he would meet other special people and realising he was a freak to them just like to the children in the orphanage.   

At least his Tom expected it. That Tom had to be taken completely aback, forced to maintain a façade of calmness and hide his confusion and disappointment when his housemates turned their noses up at him.  

But his Tom didn’t deserve this treatment either despite the fact that he had a chance to prepare himself for it. Harry might have come back in time in order to make the future better but it didn’t mean he couldn’t have found some other goals to fulfil in the process. And one of them included making Tom happy. 

Tom wouldn’t need to conquer the world if he already had its recognition and appreciation. 

That left Harry only with one course of actions.

 

***

 

“We need to go to Gringotts.”

Tom gazed at him blankly, curiosity merging with darkness that had to be the direct result of his disturbed sleep, and it only persuaded Harry further that he was doing the right thing.

“You should have told me that you feel worried about your reception at Hogwarts,” he rebuked. Tom tensed immediately, so he hastened to go on. “You know you can tell me anything. I would try to help in any way I could.”

“You can’t help with something like this. As long as my backstory remains unclear…”

“I placed a request with Gringotts. They’re already expecting us. You will pass a small blood test and if you are related to any wizard with a Gringotts account, you will know their names. This way, we might be able establish your blood status.”

Tom blinked, looking incredulous, and then the dark cloud that had been marring his face all this time shifted. A powerful, dazzling hope came in its stead, transforming him into some ethereal creature that emanated light and anticipation.

It was all evidence Harry needed.

He was on the right track. Tom deserved to know the truth — this part of it, at least. The less cruelty he would encounter in his life, the less cruelty he would want to unleash in the future.

“I didn’t know such tests are possible,” Tom murmured, his eyes still alight with hope. “Why haven’t you told me sooner?”

“Because I don’t care about your blood status.” Harry made sure that his voice sounded firm. “I told you. Such matters aren’t important. It’s who you are that makes a difference. Concerning your family… if your magical relatives were looking for you, they would have already found you through magic.”    

Some of the light left Tom, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

“I know,” he uttered. “No one has been looking for me. If I’m not a Muggle-born and if any of them is still alive and knows of my existence—”

“Then what?” Harry raised his eyebrow, letting coldness touch his words as a warning. Tom grimaced.

“Nothing,” he snapped in annoyance. “But I would have still preferred to know it. You should have told me that sooner.”

“To be honest, I never considered it until I realised how worried it makes you.”

“I’m not worried!”

“Neither should you be. Not over this.”

Tom rolled his eyes, but his shoulders did lose the tense edge that Harry had come to hate. His voice barely hid his excitement when he said, “When can we go?”

 

***

It all took less than half an hour. Harry watched Tom scan the list with the names avidly, undoubtedly stopping at the Gaunts and then reaching Salazar Slytherin, and his eyes widened, the shock in them so potent that Harry’s lips twitched in a tender smile. Tom looked up after what seemed like ages, wordlessly passing the piece of paper to Harry, and he looked so breathless with happiness, so animated and thrilled and proud that even more affection poured into Harry’s chest, making his lungs constrict. 

It was worth it. This happiness was worth any possible consequences.

“I’m not a Muggle-born,” Tom said quietly, and it was the dark glee in his words that put a cork in Harry’s empathetic joy. “I knew I wasn’t. I couldn’t be.”

“I thought we agreed that being a Muggle-born doesn’t make you weak or unworthy,” Harry remarked mildly. “As you can see, you aren’t a pure-blood either. There is no information about your father here, which means he must be a Muggle.”

“It doesn’t matter. Don’t you understand?” Tom snatched the piece of paper from his hands, almost pushing it in his face instead. “I’m the heir of Slytherin himself. It places me above other half-bloods.”

“You mean people like me.”

Tom wavered for a second, glazed expression melting from his face to a degree. His eyes focused on Harry and Harry waited patiently, hoping that all information and values he’d been teaching Tom would play their role in his answer.

For a moment, he caught a glimpse of unguarded affection in Tom’s stare. But then his eyes darkened, his lips curling in a cruel, derisive twist.

“Indeed,” he said coldly. “And that brings us to the question of why I should stay with you and what exactly you can offer to me.”

Shock had knocked every wisp of air out of him and Harry stood, feeling dazed, paralysed from the neck up, unable to breathe, unable to believe what he’d just heard.

“What do you mean?” he pushed out, not recognising his own voice, and Tom sneered at him as if he were beneath his notice, looking haughty and arrogant.

“If I’m the heir of Slytherin, I have opportunities. The whole magical world will want to cater to me. You said once that you are an average wizard. Is that true?”

“Yes,” Harry said emptily.

“Yes,” Tom repeated, and even this short word sounded like an insult on his lips. “So what can you offer to me? I deserve to have only the best teachers. I deserve luxury and access that only powerful wizards can provide me with. What can you give me with your limited abilities and an absolute lack of ambitions? You are no one in the magical community. Why would I need you? What’s the point of you?”

Almost three years. Three years together and it meant absolutely nothing to Tom. Three years, lessons, reading, those endless conversations, shopping trips where Harry spent more than he’d planned because denying Tom was an impossibility. Decorating house, playing stupid but funny games, travelling and cooking — all gone in an instant, after one piece of paper that Harry believed would bring Tom comfort.

He had no one to blame but himself.

“I thought I was giving you a family,” he murmured. Tom’s lips tightened, his look becoming even more callous and hostile, as if Harry was an enemy who was encroaching upon his imagined wealth.

“I see,” Harry said after a pause. A terrible bitter weight was dragging him down, making even the slightest movements a challenge, but he managed to raise his head higher. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

That was the last thing he said to Tom for hours to come.

They travelled back home almost separately. Tom was walking in front of him, hiding his hands in the pockets, as if in fear that Harry might try to catch up and take his hand, dirtying it. When it was time to apparate, Harry did have to touch him and Tom gazed at him with contempt, his mouth still curled in a derisive line.

How had they come to this so quickly?

 

***

 

“Can I change my last name?” Tom asked. He was sitting in the kitchen, clearly prepared for Harry to start the cooking process. As if nothing had happened and he hadn’t rejected him so thoroughly and hopelessly just today.

“That was the idea,” Harry said stiffly. “You can change “Riddle” to Gaunt or Slytherin.”

“Slytherin. Does it mean I’ll be eligible for the actual inheritance? Once my status is recognised officially.”

“Neither the Gaunts nor the Slytherin line has any savings left, so I guess you will have to do with my money for now.” 

Tom frowned, contemplating it, and staying with him under one roof for even a minute more suddenly seemed unbearable. Harry turned off the stove and moved towards the front door.

“Where are you going?” Tom’s words were genuinely perplexed.

“To buy you some supper. I’m not in the mood to cook today.”

He slammed the door shut, drowning whatever response Tom could have had.

 

***

 

Maybe his whole idea of time travel had been doomed from the very start, or maybe he’d simply screwed up Tom’s upbringing already, all by himself. Because regardless of Tom’s natural penchant for darkness, Harry hoped he started to mean something to him, too. Tom seemed to enjoy spending time with him, and to be discarded so ruthlessly once he learned of his connection to Slytherin… it hurt. Like every previous rejection.

Maybe he just wasn’t suited for a family. Either he ruined the lives of those he loved or they didn’t want him back. It wasn’t surprising that Tom fell into the second category.

After today, Harry couldn’t see how they could go on. He refused to stay with a person who despised him — never again, no matter what was at stake. And since Tom evidently didn’t want to remain with him either, there was only one thing he could do without discarding his plan of saving the world entirely.

Harry bought the ready-made supper, apparated back to their house and put the meal in front of Tom, who was frowning at him uncertainly. Without saying a word, he went up to his room.

Then he began to write a letter.

 

***

   

The Dumbledore of his time had to know who Tom was related to the moment he heard about his ability to talk to snakes. He had never disclosed the truth to him, though, easily leaving him in the orphanage, even when the war spread, making every return to London a deadly experience.

It wasn’t surprising that Tom had become obsessed with immortality. His obsession prevented him from reaching his full potential as he started losing parts of his sanity not long after leaving Britain.

Dumbledore had made mistake upon mistake but Harry still had faith in him. And it was Dumbledore who could help him now.

“Mr… Potter, you said?” Dumbledore looked at him curiously and Harry’s heart ached at the sight of his younger but painfully familiar face.

Some habits were hard to break. Including his naïve, childish attachment.

“Yes. As I said in my letter, I’m here to discuss my charge, Tom Riddle. Recent inheritance test has revealed that his mother is from the Gaunts. It makes him the heir of Slytherin.”

Dumbledore’s eyes widened in controlled surprise before he tilted his head to the side thoughtfully.

“I see,” he said slowly. “That is remarkable indeed.  I was sure that the line has died out.”

“It hasn’t,” Harry bit his lip, carefully planning how to proceed. He didn’t trust Dumbledore with Tom, not entirely. But as long as Dumbledore had no reason to form an immediate mistrust, things could work out. “Tom is powerful. Extremely so. I’m afraid my guidance is no longer enough to meet his needs but I know you as one of the greatest wizards of this time. I’m also sure that you wouldn’t let prejudice affect your treatment of a student.”

Something flickered in Dumbledore’s eyes, as if he caught the warning and was now mulling over it.

“I would like you to consider taking Tom in as your charge,” Harry said, though words stumbled upon his tongue, fighting against being spoken. “Granted, I haven’t discussed it with him yet, but his thirst for knowledge and experience will likely encourage him to agree. Would you be interested in such offer?”

“This is highly irregular,” Dumbledore noted, studying him attentively. He wasn’t refusing outright, though, and a strange mix of relief and disappointment twisted Harry’s insides. “I would like to meet him first. Let us make all decisions then.”

“Thank you,” Harry stood up, forcing his dead lips to move in an empty smile. “Would a week from now be all right?”

“I believe it would.”

“I’ll send you a letter with confirmation. Thank you again.” Harry turned to leave, suddenly sick with all this impersonal communication with a person he knew and understood better than he would have preferred to. But then he thought of Tom, and of what years of Dumbledore’s suspicions and indifference had done, and his desire to leave like this, like a coward, waned.

Harry turned, narrowing his eyes coldly.

“I know more things about you than you can probably imagine,” he said, and Dumbledore straightened. A faint brush of Legilimency touched Harry’s mind and he immediately erected his shields, clumsy as they were. “And about this habit of yours as well,” he added, his tone getting icier. “I know you have no reason to trust me but I’m on your side — in general. I know what you’re fighting for and I share your ideals, even though I disapprove of the methods you use to achieve them. But Tom is my charge, and if everything goes well and you accept the guardianship over him, I will want an oath that you won’t try to harm him in any way.”

Dumbledore’s face went just as cold and wary.

“It’s quite a harsh request, Mr. Potter,” he said, his fingers playing with a small yellow candy. “I do not harm children.”

“Not physically.”

“I assure you that—”

“I know what you do and don’t do. And if you accept the guardianship over Tom, I want to make sure that you don’t judge him based on some old stereotypes. Tom is a complex child. He grew up in the orphanage where he was mistreated by others due to his magic. I took him from there when he was eight but it left a reflection on him.”

Coldness dissipated from Dumbledore’s face, replaced with a shadow of sympathy, and Harry softened in return, sensing that it was genuine.

“He might be difficult to cope with,” he said, and to his horror, his voice wavered. “But you have to try. You are powerful and respected by the entire wizarding world. He will listen to you. He will respect you even if he won’t agree with everything you’re saying.”

“After your words, I am even more curious to meet him,” Dumbledore said, smiling a little, but even though there was wariness on his face still, he looked more relaxed. “Don’t worry. We will meet and make our decisions afterwards. I don’t mind giving you an oath if that will bring you some comfort. You are clearly attached to this child and I can only admire your willingness to do what’s best for him, even if you have to make sacrifices in the process.”

Dumbledore always understood everything quickly, skilfully filling in the blank spaces. Harry nodded jerkily, murmured another thanks and left, trying to ignore the dark, hopeless simmering of hurt that refused to be extinguished.

Maybe he was acting like a coward. Placing the majority of his responsibilities on Dumbledore and planning to send Tom away without even talking to him about it...

But Tom would hardly be against this idea. And frankly, seeing the purposelessness of his efforts, Harry no longer had faith in himself. He was a useless guardian. If power was still the only thing Tom respected, then Dumbledore, in turn, was the only person who could influence him at least in some way.

Harry would cling to this idea.

It sounded better than admitting that he was too hurt by the unexpected rejection to keep trying.

 

***

 

That day, Harry didn’t cook anything again. He bought the prepared food and placed it in the fridge, all under the watchful stare of Tom. Miraculously, Tom said nothing, neither about his new status, even though Harry knew he must still feel giddy with joy over it, nor about his silence.

They didn’t cross paths until the evening, when it was time for reading. Harry grabbed a snack from the kitchen and stopped, seeing that Tom had already taken his place in the armchair, looking at him expectantly.

Did he really think…

“We won’t be reading tonight,” Harry said. He knew he sounded cold, too cold for it to be acceptable, but there was nothing he could do to make himself sound differently.

He saw rather than heard how Tom drew in a sharp breath and how his hands tightened around the book.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I don’t want to.”

Tom’s eyes widened, and a wounded expression flickered across his face so quickly that Harry barely caught it. It was gone in an instant, replaced by uncertainty and silent accusation, and watching it was as unbearable as staying in this room because Harry had no strength to keep deciphering Tom’s reactions.   

“Have a good night,” he said.

He woke up in the same crappy mood, and in whatever corner of the room he looked, he saw Tom’s input. It was maddening, and more than anything, Harry regretted giving Dumbledore a whole week before visiting them.

He apparated to buy more food, dropped it at home, and apparated again, this time to the closest woods. He spent hours simply walking somewhere, trying to clear his mind and not to think, but ache and misery kept echoing inside him with every step, again and again.

He came back late in the evening and was immediately treated to Tom’s silent, furious glare. Starting a confrontation with him was the last thing Harry wanted, so he moved towards the stairs without a word, stopping only when Tom called, “Harry.”

Reluctantly, he turned back, and was surprised to see that Tom no longer looked angry. Now, his dark eyes were wide with fear, and considering everything, it was impossible to understand the reasons for it.   

“Will we read tonight?” Tom asked hesitantly, and though Harry wanted to say “yes” more than anything, he wasn’t going to lie.

“No,” he said quietly. “We won’t.”

Tom wrapped his hands around himself, looking so insecure that Harry almost gave in, almost found himself willing to agree to every demand just to have him look like he normally did — no fear, no hesitation, only confidence.

“Will we read tomorrow?” Tom’s voice sounded small and Harry sighed, closing his eyes briefly.

“No,” he repeated. “We won’t be reading again, Tom.”

Tom let out a quiet sound that Harry couldn’t interpret but which reminded him of hurt. Swallowing around the lump in his throat, he hastened to walk away, wondering if he was being deliberately cruel, horrified and darkly satisfied with himself at once.

Tom was reacting. It was something, wasn’t it? He wasn’t indifferent. Not entirely.

But he had also been truthful in Gringotts. Harry sensed it.

Perhaps he should have waited until contacting Dumbledore… but with years, he found a new disturbing quality in himself. He stopped forgiving easily. And no matter how much he hated himself for his inability to let go sometimes, he couldn’t do anything about it.

He hoped with masochistic despair that Dumbledore’s visit would help him gain the ground again, get out of this terrible free-falling state.

He didn’t want Tom to be upset with him. He wanted him happy. It was possible that he wanted it more than anything else, however scary that thought was.

But he also wasn’t willing to tolerate Tom’s indifference and derision. And if the only time when Tom showed some positive reaction was when he thought Harry was distancing himself, then they were doomed already, and Dumbledore’s help wouldn’t hurt.

Harry was always good at hoping.

 

***

 

Next morning, Tom made breakfast for them. It was flawless and tasted much better than anything Harry could have ever prepared himself, so he finished it wholly, unmoved by Tom’s intent stare.

“Thank you,” he said simply. “It was very good.”

Tom sent him an almost questioning smile and Harry looked back evenly, knowing he would be unable to return it.

When Tom realised Harry wasn’t going to smile back like he always did, his grin died, worry blooming in his eyes instead, and angry or not, Harry was helpless against the urge to comfort him.

“We can go and change your name today,” he said. Tom’s face brightened.

“All right,” he said. “Will you come with me?”

“Of course I will. You are too young to apparate, though I wouldn’t be surprised if you learned how to do that much sooner than your future housemates.”

Tom seemed to flourish under his praise, confidence returning to him and making him look taller, more like the version Harry was used to.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Tom liked being praised, and Harry wasn’t going to deceive himself by thinking it’s his approval in particular that held any actual meaning for him.

 

Changing name didn’t take long. Soon, they were already leaving the Ministry, Tom beaming, radiating a smug, pleased energy that Harry would have found endearing if not for the circumstances.

“I want to celebrate,” Tom said. “Can we go somewhere special?”

Harry hesitated.

“I can give you the money,” he said finally. “You could go to Diagon Alley. It’s a good opportunity for you to finally start making friends.”

His excuse was almost believable. Harry had tried to push Tom to befriend someone his age numerous times, but Tom absolutely refused the company of the Muggles and avoided other wizards whenever they went out. Now that Harry knew the reason, and now that it had been eliminated, he hoped Tom would jump at the opportunity.

Instead, it seemed like all Tom’s happiness burst like a balloon, wiping his smile off as if it was never there.

“You don’t want to spend time with me,” he accused quietly, his hands clenching into fists. “You are ignoring me.”

He never expected for Tom to be bothered enough to say it openly.

What could he tell him in response?

“I’m making plans,” he replied ambiguously, and accusation in Tom’s eyes turned into wariness.

“What plans?” he murmured.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“If it concerns me, then yes, it does!”

“They’ll make you happy. I think.”

Fear, anxiety, and disbelief made Tom’s glare even more vivid, and Harry breathed in slowly, willing himself to calm. He wasn’t going to give in to Tom’s rapidly changing moods this time.  

“So, would you like to go to Diagon Alley?”

“Not without you.”

Warmth washed over him, unwilling and unwelcome, and Harry turned away from Tom, trying to visualise the distance between them physically, hoping it would work.

“Let’s go home, then,” he replied hollowly.

 

***

 

The torturous, maddening week continued up until the sixth day, one day before Dumbledore’s visit. Tom had to be warned about it — there was no excuse Harry could use to justify his reluctance to share the news any longer.

He didn’t want to see happiness on Tom’s face once he learned he was likely to be taken in by the most powerful and respected wizard in the world. He didn’t want to watch him being artificially perfect, trying to produce a good impression. It was all very illogical and frustrating, and Harry was disgusted with himself so thoroughly that he started to avoid Tom even more vigorously, too ashamed to acknowledge his own confusion and endless mistakes.

He finished reading Dumbledore’s letter with confirmation and put it away, sorting through the guardianship papers slowly. A small strange noise made him snap his head up, and he saw Tom standing in the room, staring at him with horrified, utterly betrayed look on his face.

“You are giving me away,” Tom whispered. “You are sending me back to the orphanage.” 

“No!” Harry stood up, making a few steps towards him before stopping hesitantly. “No,” he said again. “I would never do that. You won’t go back to the orphanage, never. I swear to you.”

The horror faded from Tom’s eyes somewhat but he remained unnaturally still and tense.

“Then what are you doing?” he said through gritted teeth. “Why are you looking through those papers?”

How could he even know what they were from the distance?

But it didn’t matter. He had to tell him now.

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, urging for the frustrated burning to go away. Then he looked at Tom calmly.

“In Gringotts, you told me that you would like to access more opportunities. That an average wizard like me, and a half-blood at that, won’t be able to offer anything important to you.”

Tom dropped his gaze, his features tightening, and Harry almost gaped when he realised what it was. Guilt.

“Yes,” Tom uttered. “But I didn’t mean—”

“I’ve found a wizard who could agree to teach you. He’s the Head of Transfiguration Department in Hogwarts and one day, he’s very likely to become a Headmaster. He’s also one of the strongest wizards in the world, so he could teach you everything you need to know.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed, his face gaining a suspicious look.

“If he will simply teach me, why are you looking through my papers?”

“I didn’t say he will “simply” teach you. If tomorrow goes well and you get along with him, I will…” Harry paused, breathed in again. “I will transfer custody over to him.”

If possible, Tom became even more still. His face went white as sheet, and the ocean of raging emotions in his eyes was so confounding that Harry barely forced himself not to break eye contact.

He honestly couldn’t tell what Tom was thinking. It could be anything from joy to terror, from fury to relief and gleefulness.

“His name is Albus Dumbledore,” Harry said, just to fill the strange, ringing silence. “He has his flaws but he can give you what you need.”

“And you?” Tom’s voice sounded blank and he still hadn’t moved, resembling a frozen sculpture.

“What about me?” Harry’s lips twitched in an ironic smile. “You told me that I cannot offer you what you need. And if that’s how you feel, then you also can’t offer me what I need. I want to have a family. I know you despise this notion, your words in Gringotts have made it more than clear once again. So if everything goes according to the plan, you will be joining Dumbledore, getting what you want, and I’ll be doing the same, just on my own—” Harry didn’t know what ugliness prompted him say the next words, but they flew out of his mouth before he could stop himself. “…seeking another family.”

And just like that, Tom’s mask of blankness shattered. Madness and darkness that flared in his eyes were so intense that Harry shuddered, feeling a strong surge of enraged magic filling the room, burning the air in its fury.

“No!” Tom growled, his voice barely human. Then he flung himself at him, destroying the distance between them faster than Harry could imagine was possible. Tom’s hands wrapped around his waist, fingers digging into his skin even through clothes, vicious and violent.

“You are mine!” Tom snarled at him. “I am your family!”

This wasn’t an embrace, exactly. It was a possessive, suffocating hold, and Harry was too astonished to fight against it.

Tom’s grip tightened even further, his eyes burning fervently, with no trace of sanity in them.

“You will not give me away,” he hissed. “I won’t let you!”

Harry shook his head slightly, shaky and breathless, something bright and joyful growing in his chest, pushing away the echo of wariness towards Tom’s drastic reaction.

He was a fool. Three years with Tom and he still failed to treat him like he would any other child. Children said things they didn’t mean. They were often dismissive and embarrassed of their family — Ron was a good example of it, and yet it never meant that they really felt nothing.

Despite everything, Harry continued to hold Tom to higher standards just because of who he had been once, and it was unacceptable. It was unforgivable.

And he’d gone as far as dragging Dumbledore into it, so sure he was failing… His behaviour had only shaken Tom’s rationality, judging from the barely coherent, crazed glint in his eyes.

Merlin. He was an utter idiot.

Harry lowered himself to his knees, finally wrapping his hands around Tom in return, stroking his hair in an achingly familiar gesture.

“I thought this was what you wanted,” he murmured quietly. “It wasn’t supposed to be a punishment. At least not entirely. Not consciously. I thought it would make you happy.”

Tom buried his head in Harry’s shoulder, his body still shaking with adrenaline, and Harry hugged him tighter.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Of course you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I didn’t think that with a choice like this, you might choose to stay with me. I made a mistake, I can see it now. It’s just—” Harry hesitated, words suddenly foreign on his tongue. “I love you,” he said finally. “And your words hurt me. That’s not an excuse, I know, but I don’t want you to have any doubts about whether you’re wanted or not. I love you. That won’t change.”

Tom said nothing, but his hands hooked around Harry’s neck in an unmovable grip and stayed there.  

Harry didn’t know how much time had passed. He kept stroking Tom’s hair, murmuring meaningless comforting words, and he could sense Tom absorb them all. He still didn’t move, though, so eventually, Harry raised them both off the floor, feeling how Tom’s hold only tightened further around his neck as he refused to let go.

Carrying him wasn’t easy — despite his age and overall thinness, Tom was very tall, but Harry still managed to get them to his room. Carefully, he tried to put Tom on the bed, but the bruising grip only grew stronger. Grunting in surprise, Harry finally gave in and crawled into bed himself, with Tom holding on to him as a stubborn leech.

Tom had never hugged him before, and now that he did, he didn’t seem willing to let go ever again. He shifted a little, pressing his face into Harry’s chest this time, and Harry continued to hold him back, never ceasing his slow, soothing movements.

He didn’t notice when he fell asleep.

 

***

 

Harry startled himself awake with a vague feeling that he was sleeping through something important. Tom was gone and he quickly left the bed, too, a disturbing premonition of something bad happening filling his every cell with tension.

As soon as he approached the stairs, he heard Tom’s voice — or rather, a low, threatening hiss that reminded him more of a parseltongue.

“If you dare to try and change his mind, I will make you regret it. I will ruin your life and I will never let you have a moment of peace — you will be sorry for ever deciding to take me in as your student. I am the heir of Slytherin. I will have connections the moment I step into Hogwarts, and I won’t stop until I turn the entire world against you.”

Oh no. Don’t let it be Dumbledore. Let it be a Muggle. A postman who had come to their house by accident. Just not Dumbledore, not…

It was Dumbledore. And the look in his eyes was identical to the one he’d worn in the orphanage, in those memories.

Maybe some things were destined to stay the same.

Five minutes later, Dumbledore was gone, sending him an inscrutable gaze as he was leaving. Tom looked flushed, but there was a satisfied glint in his eyes that stayed there even when he approached Harry.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Harry said with a sigh, but his reproach was belied by his treacherous hand stretching out to ruffle Tom’s hair affectionately. To his surprise, Tom didn’t step away — on the contrary, he moved closer.

“I didn’t like him,” he said. “He was too smug and overbearing. He tried to manipulate me as soon as he saw me and I wasn’t going to let him separate us.”

“He wouldn’t have pushed if you refused to go with him. He’s in a position of power in Hogwarts and for you to alienate him, to threaten him so directly… it wasn’t smart. You are usually more subtle.”

Tom’s jaw tightened.

“I don’t need him,” he said stubbornly. “And he refused to leave even when I told him that his assistance wasn’t needed. He wanted to take me from you, I could see it.”

“I wouldn’t let him,” Harry murmured, his mind racing in an attempt to understand Tom’s uncharacteristic display of emotions.

Tom had never been this careless with alienating people, especially useful ones. Even in the past, when he had met Dumbledore in the orphanage, he had slipped just a few times — he still tried to keep up the perfect façade and he was much less prepared than now.

It was strange. It didn’t fit the behaviour of Tom Riddle Harry knew, both versions of him. And then his outburst yesterday… Something was going differently. Contrary to Harry’s previous worries, he was indeed achieving something, and he could only hope that it was for the better. 

“Seems like it’s the two of us again,” he said, smiling, and Tom stepped even closer to him, looking transfixed. “How about going to Diagon Alley? We still need to get your things – and your wand, of course. I know how much you’ve been waiting for it… Mr. Slytherin.”

Tom glowed, appearing so genuinely happy that Harry couldn’t believe he could ever doubt his capacity to feel.

His Tom wasn’t the Tom Riddle of his time. His Tom was different. It was high time he stopped making the mistake of confusing them.

 

***

 

Buying books, cauldron, and other ingredients was easy. Choosing clothes and a possible pet took them ages.

Harry waited patiently as Tom tried one robe after another, studying his reflection critically before discarding them and demanding to be brought more.

“They are all black,” Harry complained finally. “They are identical. “Plain robes, black, two sets” — how do you think they could differ?”

Tom sent him an amused glance.

“If you can’t see the difference between them, you’re beyond saving,” he noted. Harry rolled his eyes. He would never understand Tom’s obsession with clothes — all these robes did look the same. Certainly not worth spending more than an hour on trying them all out.

Madam Malkin looked very young and enthusiastic, and Harry watched her for a while, torn between the feelings of nostalgia and a hope that this time, the future would be brighter for them all.

At some point, Tom nodded at one of the robes and began to talk quickly, pointing at the sleeves and the hems. Madam Malkin was nodding in turn, serious and business-like, and soon, she and Tom disappeared behind one of the doors, still engaged in conversation that sounded too boring for Harry to withstand it.

With a sigh, he dropped himself onto one of the armchairs, lifting his head to stare at the ceiling. He thought of his younger, naïve self, going to Diagon Alley for the first time. He thought of how masterfully he was led to believe that Slytherin was the root of all evil, and how meeting the equally naïve and haughty Draco Malfoy played into Dumbledore’s hands so perfectly.

He’d made many mistakes, just like Dumbledore, just like Snape and his parents… just like Voldemort.

Maybe this time, he would be able to save them all.

When Tom finally returned, another hour and a half had passed. Harry loathed the idea of even glancing at one more robe, but he still looked over Tom’s chosen clothes.

His everyday robes looked slick and elegant, made of fabric that Harry didn’t recognise. While they were mostly black, they were fitted expertly with green and silver. The pattern was delicate enough not to appear jarring but it also unmistakably drew attention, separating its owner from others. Which was what Tom was evidently going for.

His winter robe was made of a strange colour, something between black and dark green, and Harry shook his head despairingly.

“You do know that rules are created for a reason?” he asked mildly. “I doubt Hogwarts would make exceptions for you.”

Tom raised his eyebrow.

“And why not?” he wondered silkily. “Considering who I a—”

“This is getting old,” Harry warned. “You won’t be able to use your status every time you want to break the rules.”

“I’m sure the boy won’t have any troubles,” Madam Malkin interfered, smiling at Tom encouragingly. “The colours are hardly distinct and Headmaster Dippet understands the students’ need to stand out.”

Tom sent him a smug look and Harry rolled his eyes again. He could bet she didn’t say it to all her clients. Nevertheless, he paid for the robes, and they finally left the shop, with Harry swearing silently that he wouldn’t be caught dead there in the nearest years. This trip was more than enough.

“Have you decided about pets?” he asked.

“Yes,” Tom gripped his hand harder. “I would like to purchase an owl. I want to be able to write to you.”      

Harry wanted to remind him of Hogwarts’ Owlerly, but something in him stopped the words from escaping. 

Taking care of the pet would be good for Tom. Hedwig had been a huge comfort for him, and even knowing how it all ended, Harry would have still not traded even one moment of time with her. She was his only companion during endless, hot summers at Dursleys, and no matter how many years passed, he was certain she would stay in his memory.

At least Tom didn’t insist on buying a snake.

To Harry’s surprise, the pet shop had different kinds of birds, not only owls. Tom, naturally, was immediately drawn to rarer kinds, observing them shrewdly.

“This one,” he said finally, pointing at the large, black-and-silver bird with strange but intelligent eyes. It let out a muffled noise, staring at him just as intently.

“Good choice!” A man Harry didn’t know rushed to their side, grinning. “It’s a northern goshawk, the magical kind of it. Dangerous birds but very loyal to those they acknowledge as masters.” 

“Oh, I’m sure we will get along,” Tom said softly, but there was something about his expression — something cold and lethal, that sent an unpleasant shiver down Harry’s spine. He studied Tom carefully, trying to understand what was going on in his head, but nothing he could think of explained such reaction.

With an effort, he shook off the bad feeling. Perhaps Tom simply enjoyed finding something else that would distinguish him from others.

The northern goshawk attacked Tom as soon as it was let out of its cage. Just as instantly, Tom wrapped his hand around its neck, squeezing it in a warning. They stared at each other, Tom’s hand bleeding, the goshawk trying to bulk silently. Finally, it abandoned its attempts, tilting its head in a completely human way.

“Are you sure you are going to buy him?” the man asked worriedly. “This one is quite aggressive. Maybe I should have warned you—”

“Yes,” Harry said coldly. “Maybe you should have.”

Heavy silence hung between them, broken only by goshawk’s new sound, this time melodic.

Tom was emanating icy superiority as he let the bird jump on his shoulder, patting its dark feathers slowly.

“We will take it,” he said. The man tried to smile, his eyes darting between Harry and Tom nervously.   

Thank Merlin they only had a wand left to buy.

 

***

 

When Tom touched the first several wands experimentally, his avid expression began to change. There was doubt, then annoyance, then confusion. Finally, after rejecting yet another wand, he turned to send a frown in Harry’s direction.

“None of them can compare to your wand,” he remarked. “I believe yours fits me best. It feels warm, familiar.”

Ollivander’s face grew intrigued and he extended his hand towards Harry.

“May I take a look at your wand, please? Sometimes, family members have similar cores. It might help us determine—”

“We are not related,” Harry replied automatically, anxiety hissing itself awake in his stomach.

This wasn’t good. With Ollivander’s stunning memory, he would immediately realise that Harry possessed a wand that was supposed to be lying on one of his shelves.   

But refusing or pretending to be an idiot who had forgotten his wand at home would be equally suspicious. Maybe even more so, considering how Tom’s eyes already sharpened on him, watching his every move.

Reluctantly, Harry took out his wand, offering it to Ollivander. He knew his smile was unpleasant, warning in its sharpness, and Ollivander furrowed his brows in puzzlement before his eyes fell on the wand and widened.

After what seemed like forever, he glanced up again, with inscrutable look on his face.

“Interesting,” was all he said. Tension slowly bled out of Harry’s body but he remained alert, ready to use some more extreme measures if Ollivander chose to talk. “I think I know what wand will fit you best, Mr. Slytherin.”

The moment Tom touched the yew wand, a shudder rolled through him visibly, making his eyes flash in hungry anticipation.

“Yes,” he said breathlessly. “This one is mine. I can feel it.”

Ollivander hummed thoughtfully, watching them both yet saying nothing.

“Phoenix feather as the core,” he commented, his voice subdued. “The feather of the same bird that the wand of your guardian possesses.”

“Are such things rare?” Tom asked.

“Among non-relatives? Extremely so.”

There was a wild flare of something possessive in Tom’s eyes as he stared at him, but it was gone quickly, veiled behind a more neutral gaze.    

They left the shop without talking much, both focused on their own thoughts. When Harry looked back, he saw Ollivander watching them leave through the glass, looking grave and contemplating.

Perhaps they should avoid this side of Diagon Alley from now on.

 

***

 

That night, Harry woke up from the feeling of someone’s hands wrapping around his back. Bewildered and dazed from sleep, he craned his neck, blinking when he saw Tom hugging him.

“Sleep,” Tom ordered, tightening his hold.

“Are you all right? Did you have a nightmare?”

“No.”

“Then why—”

“Sleep,” Tom repeated insistently, a breath of magic touching his order. Harry wanted to be annoyed but his mind was already succumbing, purring at the strange and unexpected feeling of comfort that enveloped him.  

This time, he decided to obey without arguing.

Chapter Text

King’s Cross was crowded with Muggles. They were everywhere, sweaty, red-faced, and dirty, carrying equally dirty bags, and Tom hated, hated, hated them. They looked just like every caretaker from his orphanage, like the beggars he and Harry saw on Muggle streets with increasing frequency. No matter what Harry said, they were mindless animals. Lab rats. Muggles conducted their experiments on different creatures because they considered them less, so why shouldn’t wizards do the same?

Naturally, Tom kept his opinions to himself, smiling politely when some passing representative of this human garbage threw an interested look at the large bird that sat on his shoulder proudly. One particularly dim Muggle boy gaped so much that he tripped and fell on his face, yelping in pain.

His skin crawled in disgusted anticipation but Tom still offered his hand, forcing a light smile onto his lips.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his tone perfectly concerned. With the corner of his eye, he could see Harry glow, no doubt delighted to see him being so courteous to Muggles.

Why Harry was so obsessed with the idea of playing nice with everyone was beyond him, but Tom didn’t mind playing along if it got him what he wanted. Namely, Harry’s pleased smiles, and his pride, and the undisguised affection and warmth in his eyes. It was embarrassing, really, how much Tom had come to depend on these seemingly irrelevant things, but he no longer tried to fight it. The consequences of resistance were unacceptable and he was never going to relive them.

The Muggle boy nodded, staring at him awe-struck, and when Harry turned away, Tom sent him a cold sneer.

Pathetic. Other than to please Harry occasionally, he had no need to sway Muggles to his side. Hogwarts was offering him access to numerous wizards and witches, and they were the ones who Tom was going to use all his charm and his status as a Slytherin’s heir on.

He spent all these years with Harry learning about the wizarding world, its traditions and policies. There were things he didn’t understand yet but in the future, he knew he would. It was just a matter of time. So he read and he planned, and he already had several clear end-goals in his mind.

He was going to conquer the world of wizards. Being a politician seemed like the most logical way to achieve that, but he was open to trying other ways as well. First, though, he needed to establish himself and grow a circle of trusted supporters. Pure-bloods were the best option but despite his ancestry, Tom was hesitant about how he was going to be accepted by them.

His chances had grown tremendously after the revelation about his blood status, but Harry had told him enough stories of bigotry that left Tom concerned.

Of course, he would destroy any resistance eventually, but he’d rather start gaining support early, not waste his time on proving his worthiness. His plans had already had to undergo several serious revisions after Gringotts because… because…

Hateful anxiety stirred inside, waking from its slumber, and Tom gripped Harry’s hand hard, clenching it in his own.

He had a weakness. Somehow, Harry had managed to take roots in him, and he did it so slowly that Tom hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Harry was just… there. All the time. Always talking to him, always fulfilling his wishes and engaging him in every aspect of his life. He had become such a reliable presence in his life that Tom stopped noticing him, took him for granted.

In Gringotts, he was blinded by the idea of wealth and connections that were about to open to him. He felt drunk on power and Harry faded into something tiny and insignificant. He was a mere stepping-stone, a useful object with an end-date which was needed just until Tom could move towards his next goal.

But then Harry wasn’t there all of a sudden, and ironically, that was when he overtook the entire world in Tom’s mind. The more he distanced himself, the brighter he shone, and Tom craved this light, craved the love and acceptance he’d grown used to.

Harry was his. It was incomprehensible that he could simply decide to give him away, to forget him, to build a new life for himself.

Rage and panic flooded him again at the mere memories, making his heart pound in dread, and Tom dug his nails into Harry’s hand, trying to anchor himself.

It was in the past. He wouldn’t make this mistake again. Harry would stay by his side for as long as he wished it, and Tom strongly suspected that this strange, unexplainable craving would never wane.

The red fog dissolved, calming him somewhat. Tom loosened his hold and frowned when he saw that in his fit of rage, he’d broken Harry’s skin with his nails.

His eyes snapped to Harry, who was watching him attentively and who didn’t seem affected in the slightest.

“Are you nervous?” he asked. Tom snorted, both at Harry’s failure to understand what could set him off and at the assumption that he could ever be nervous because of some train ride.

“A little bit,” he lied, and closed his eyes for a blissful second when Harry wrapped his bleeding hand around his shoulders, pulling him closer.

“That’s all right,” he murmured. “They will love you, Tom. And if they don’t, they’ll still want to suck up to you, so they’ll treat you nicely either way.”  

A startled laugh escaped him before Tom could stop himself. Apophis, who was glued to his shoulder, let out a dissatisfied sound at the motion, and Harry squinted at him.

“Are you sure you don’t want to rename him?” he asked. “I know it’s been months, but maybe he hasn’t learned this monstrosity of a name yet and can be retaught.”

Tom glowered. Not this again.

“It’s an appropriate name,” he snapped. “Apophis was a deity of darkness and a—”

“Serpent, yes. An evil one,” Harry sent him an unimpressed look. “You gave your bird a snake name.”

“I’m a—”

“Don’t repeat that again, I know it already. I still don’t see why your being an heir of Slytherin would make such choice of a name appropriate... Then again, it’s your bird.”

“Exactly. And I highly doubt that you would be able to come up with something creative in the first place. You would probably give your pet a Muggle name.”

“You and I have Muggle names,” Harry pointed out, and Tom had to breathe out slowly to avoid saying more. Arguing with Harry was impossible sometimes. He was downright infuriating, and while it pleased Tom, it also drove him crazy.

“We’re here.” Harry stopped, nodding at the simple grey barrier. “Do you remember how to pass through?”

Tom replied with a scathing glance. Of course he remembered, he wasn’t an idiot. Still, the idea of running into a wall seemed ludicrous. Who had devised such an entrance? Maybe he would change it at some point in the distant future. He would definitely set the platform away from Muggles. Why did wizards have to worry about being seen even when doing something this mundane? Muggles were everywhere and they were a constant threat.

Scowling, Tom jerked his head to the side, making sure no one was walking by, and then he rushed forward. The wall accepted him easily, letting him merge with it for a moment before pushing him to the other side.

Platform 9 ¾ was also overcrowded, but people here weren’t Muggles. The magic reigning in this place was as thick as in Diagon Alley, making Tom’s own magic flutter.

This was definitely his world. The only world worth living in.

Harry joined him a moment later, observing the platform with expression that Tom couldn’t immediately identify.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, frowning. He’d made a study of Harry long ago. He knew every crease in his forehead, every variation of his smiles and every shade of green his eyes took on depending on his mood. This look on his face was something Tom couldn’t decipher, though, and the greedy craving for closeness intensified, making him clench Harry’s hand in his again, digging his fingers into fresh wounds, this time deliberately.

“Just remembering my first visit here. It’s nothing,” Harry gave him a tired but genuine smile, still ignoring the pain he had to undeniably feel in his arm. “Would you like to go in now? You might want a chance to choose a compartment before it’s taken by someone else and you have to ask for a place.”

Tom straightened immediately in concern and Harry laughed before wrapping his arms around him and pulling him close again. Tom flushed, embarrassed at being hugged in front of everyone but enjoying the embrace too much to jerk away. A flickering glow warmed his chest when he observed other adults being affectionate with children, each in their own way.

If he didn’t have Harry, he would have come here alone, with no one to see him off and to explain how to get to the platform. He would also have been forced to wear second-hand clothes that would immediately reveal him as a Muggle-born — worse, Muggle-born that even Muggles didn’t want.

Shuddering, Tom tightened his grip around Harry’s waist, ignoring Apophis’ protests.

Harry let him go all too soon, and while his eyes practically screamed of love, Tom found it wasn’t enough.

He wanted words, too. He wanted words, and actions, and emotions — he wanted every possible claim on Harry he could obtain.

As if hearing his thoughts, Harry touched his cheek gently.

“I love you,” he said. “I hope you will write to me.”

“And you will reply,” Tom’s voice sounded strange. Almost hoarse. “To every letter.”

Harry’s smile widened.

“Of course,” he promised softly. “Try not to get into too much trouble. And for Merlin’s sake, don’t annoy Dumbledore.”

“Only if he doesn’t annoy me first.”

Harry snorted in amusement before quickly schooling his expression.

“Good luck,” he said seriously. “I hope you’ll love Hogwarts as much as I did.”

Tom nodded, then hesitated. For some reason, looking away from Harry was a challenge. The thought that he wouldn’t see him for months left a sour taste in his mouth, one he couldn't wash away no matter how many times he swallowed.

He wished he could freeze Harry in time, so he would be still standing here, on this platform, when Tom got back. He wished he could put him into his trunk and leave him there until the holidays because this way, Harry would be unable to go on with his life. He would stay exactly the same way Tom remembered him while not distracting him from his school plans.

Perhaps he’d look into more options soon.

Taking a deep breath, Tom forced himself to turn away.

Then he stepped into the train.

 

***

 

Without Harry to consume all his attention, Tom was finally able to focus on his surroundings. Carefully recalling everything that had transpired before he went inside, he realised he’d already attracted notice from several families. It seemed Apophis had performed his first task diligently — he got Tom the scrutiny he needed. He hoped it was enough to entice at least some students into seeking him out and asking for his name.

From what he gathered, pure-bloods, especially Slytherins, formed a tight circle. Most children knew each other before they came to Hogwarts and they were likely to be on the look-out for those they knew nothing about to either expand their group or select an amusing target for future attacks.

Tom hoped he would be the first one they’d visit.

Soon, the door to his compartment opened. Four boys about his age peered inside, and Tom studied them coolly, noting their clearly expensive clothes and expressionless faces.

Pure-bloods. They had to be.

Glee spread through him in a cold, pleased rush, but Tom made sure his voice was even when he commented, “One is supposed to knock before they enter. I would think someone of your upbringing would know that.”

The four exchanged glances. Then the tallest of them closed the door and sent Tom a smile that was too openly suspicious for Tom’s liking.

“Apologies,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind if we sit here. All other compartments are taken already.”

A lie, but Tom would let it pass. He had to be patient and tread carefully if he wanted to get anywhere with this kind of wizards.

“At least there is none free enough for the four of us,” a dark-haired boy grinned at Tom, baring his teeth. “I’m sure you can find a place for yourself there, though.”

Tom raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.

“Seeing that I’ve chosen this compartment first, I’ll have to decline,” he uttered. “However, you may sit if you’d like.”

All four pure-bloods exchanged another glance. Must they be so obvious?

Two of them took a place opposite Tom and the tallest one sat beside him.

“I’m Julian Avery,” he said. “These are Alphard Black, Lois Lestrange, and Calder Mulciber. Alphard and Lois are first-years, I and Calder are in our second year already. And you are?”

Tom had been waiting for it. He had imagined this moment many times, in every possible way. The only uniting element of his scenarios was the outcome.

“Tom Marvolo Slytherin,” he drawled, and basked in the expressions of shock and disbelief on each face.

“Right,” Black laughed hesitantly. “Do you actually expect us to—”

Apophis perked up, focusing his eyes on Black. The dark wings trembled in anticipation but Tom just patted them soothingly, satisfied with the deep silence that filled the compartment.

“My guardian is estranged from his family,” he said after a pause. “He’s not particularly outgoing, so we haven’t been making many public appearances. I also see no reason to advertise the fact that Salazar Slytherin’s line lives on. Eventually, everyone will find out as it is.”

“But the Gaunts all died out, didn’t they?” Mulciber asked, sounding as unsure as Black had been. “My parents told me that the last of them were—”

Insane. Inbred.

Yes, Tom knew about it. He’d spent the last seven months searching for every mention of the Gaunts in the books and harassing Harry to find out more. It was unfortunate that not all his background was stellar, but he’d had enough time to plan how to counter possible arguments against him and his bloodline.

“You are correct, of course,” Tom shrugged, his mask of indifference firmly in place. “Slytherin’s line was almost destroyed. That was when my mother decided to lower herself to someone who would be entirely unworthy of her in any other circumstances.”

It took a moment before comprehension reflected on his potential supporters’ faces.

“You are a half-blood?” Lestrange exclaimed, and he sounded so distressed that Tom wanted to snarl at him.

Harry was right. Blood superiority was nothing more than an ancient stereotype. These children couldn’t be more powerful than he was despite the difference in their blood status. Tom wasn’t sure about Muggle-borns yet, he’d have to test this theory himself, but he was almost confident that magical prowess didn’t depend on one’s status.

“I am,” Tom narrowed his eyes, calling on his magic and letting it slither towards every person within the compartment. He could almost see it glittering, wrapping itself around the pure-bloods and tightening its hold on them.

Four gasps were music to his ears.

“And as you can see,” he continued lowly, “my mother’s decision helped us regain our power and preserve the Slytherin’s line. I fully intend to restore it to its former glory — and more.” Tom softened his voice, allowing his lips to curve in a mysterious smile. “Those who assist me will naturally find themselves in the position envied by the rest of the wizarding world. That’s a promise, and I don’t give them lightly.”

Maybe he was overdoing it a bit. Harry always laughed at his speeches — or snorted, or rolled his eyes before inevitably calling him overdramatic. While it infuriated Tom, he couldn’t help but wonder if Harry was immune to his persuasion or if he was really being pretentious.   

Lestrange, Black, Avery, and Mulciber stared at him in awe, and the tension Tom didn’t know was coiled somewhere in his chest suddenly thinned.  

Just as he thought. Something was wrong with Harry, not with his speeches. And well, Harry was an exception in many things, so it wasn’t all that surprising.

Frowning, Tom chased the thoughts about Harry away. Now wasn’t the time to think of him.

He already had these four pure-bloods on his side.

It was a good start.

 

***

 

He should have known that avoiding the thoughts about Harry was impossible. One way or another, everything always led back to him.

“So who is your guardian?” Avery asked excitedly, leaning closer to him. They all were, and Tom bathed in their attention, feeling pleasure tingle in every part of his body.  

He’d expected more restraint and resistance from pure-bloods but he couldn’t complain. His plan was going flawlessly.

“Harry Potter,” he replied, and was immediately wary of the affection that slipped into his voice. This wouldn’t do. His weakness was his own and he had to keep it away from public attention. “He’s rather reclusive but he provides me with everything I need.”

“Potter?” Black blinked owlishly. “One of Potters is sheltering the heir of Slytherin? But they are the light family, are they not? They never favoured Salazar Slytherin’s beliefs.”

Tom froze, his thoughts coming to an abrupt halt.

Potters were a notable family? Harry was a half-blood but Tom assumed that he was born to ordinary wizards. Otherwise, how could he have ended up with Muggles? Muggles who called him a freak and most likely abused him, despite Harry’s silence on this matter.

If Potters were pure-bloods… had they rejected Harry and given him away because he was a bastard child, a half-blood?

Fury flamed in his mind, setting in on fire and devouring every rational thought. For a moment, he saw only redness, but he still forced himself to take several deep breaths.

Later. He would think about it later.

He still had an audience to entertain. 

“Harry is different,” Tom said as calmly as he could. “He doesn’t keep contact with his family.”

“Fascinating,” Lestrange breathed out, still staring at him with wide, enamoured eyes. “Do you know which House he was in?”

Tom paused, and an unpleasant sensation crawled into his stomach, poisoning him from inside.

He didn’t know. He had never bothered to ask even something this simple, too focused on his own upcoming school year.

He still had only a vague idea about Harry’s past. This was unacceptable. Now, he had to think quickly.

Harry didn’t have a mind of a Ravenclaw — he was perfectly content with his limited knowledge. He also couldn’t be a Hufflepuff, his loyalty was neither blind nor absolute and he played dirty at times. He sure was ready to give Tom up easily enough.

Tom clenched his fists under the table, then loosened them slowly as he caught Mulciber’s curious gaze.

That left Slytherin and Gryffindor. Harry was manipulative enough when he wanted to be, and sometimes, when Tom looked at him, he noticed some cold, deadly grace about him, something he couldn’t properly describe and which was gone as quickly as it appeared.

But that was it. Harry was neither ambitious nor cunning enough to qualify for a Slytherin. Gryffindor, on the other hand…

Stubborn, unafraid of revealing his weaknesses, and generous to a fault.

Yes, that fit perfectly.

Harry was a bloody Gryffindor.

“Gryffindor,” Tom answered sourly. Avery barked out a laugh.

“Faithful to family traditions, I see,” he drawled humorously. “A Gryffindor raising the heir of Slytherin, that’s something.”

“That will bring a bigger amount of supporters to our side when the time comes. Until then, I suggest you keep quiet about it,” Tom remarked casually, and everyone fell silent again, their gazes alight with amazement.    

Funny. Tom had only vague plans, the only clear one involved gathering as many people willing to stand by him as possible, and yet Mulciber, Black, Lestrange, and Avery already behaved like he held answers to all mysteries of the universe.

Who was Tom to argue with that?

 

***

 

Hogwarts was beautiful. It was tall, majestic, and it emanated power, but while Tom was impressed, he didn’t feel the pull Harry had described.

It was just a school. A legendary school, probably even the centre of the magical world, but nothing that would make Tom fall in love with it instantly. Harry said it was his home, but Tom already had a home, and though he was sure he’d enjoy studying, eventually, he planned to go back.    

The hall where they were led was bright with thousands of candles. The ceiling reflected the images of the darkening evening clouds, and finally, Tom felt the stirring of childish excitement.

Hogwarts might not be a home but it was stunning. It represented everything he loved about magic, about this world, and wherever he looked, he saw details he wanted to study, mysteries he wanted to uncover.

Muggle world was nothing in comparison to this. It should have never existed in the first place.

The way Lestrange and Black were glued to him was already attracting general attention. Some other first-years were looking at him curiously and Tom ignored them for now, steadily gazing ahead. Mulciber and Avery were gone, having retreated to their classmates, and Tom knew they were spreading the news about his arrival throughout the table.

Another heavy stare burned holes through him, and finally, Tom turned his head to inspect it.

Dumbledore. Dumbledore was watching him, standing near the stool and holding the scroll of paper in his hands. His face was grim. Tom knew it was immature and illogical but he still sneered at him, unable to help himself.

Something about this man made his hackles rise. Maybe it was his arrogance that he tried to hide behind his faulty grandfatherly façade, or the incredible power that accompanied him whenever he moved, but the truth was undeniable: Tom loathed him.  

He could have appreciated meeting such a strong wizard if said wizard hadn’t attempted to separate him from Harry. He spoke of opportunities and knowledge, but all Tom saw was an intruder that wanted to destroy the life he and Harry had already built.

He would never let that happen.

“Ashton, Kimberly,” Dumbledore read.

The first girl approached the high stool timidly and Tom watched her get sorted into Hufflepuff. Lestrange let out a rude noise.

“Figures,” he murmured.

“You dislike Hufflepuff?” Tom glanced at him and Lestrange laughed, as if unsure whether he was joking.

“Hufflepuff is for those who don’t fit anywhere else,” he explained. “It’s worse than Gryffindor. All Hufflepuffs are naive idiots that will give their loyalty to the first person who smiles at them.”

“It makes them useful, then, doesn’t it? Apply some efforts, and they will die for you. That’s an admirable trait.”

Lestrange gaped while Black measured him with a thoughtful stare.

“Depends on who you mean,” he said. “In your scenario, I still wouldn’t want to be a Hufflepuff.”

“Then don’t,” Tom smirked. “Everyone makes their own choices.”

He doubted everything was as black-and-white as Lestrange and Black thought but he wasn’t going to say it aloud. First, he would draw his own conclusions. Afterward, he’d begin to craft more specific plans of spreading them around.

Black got into Slytherin, though the Hat stayed on his head for quite a while before making its decision. From his place, Tom watched Black walk to his table stiffly, flushed with embarrassment.

Not as Slytherin as he wanted to appear? Interesting. It was a weakness Tom could exploit if things went badly.

Lestrange’s name was called soon enough, and he sent Tom an excited look.

“See you in a minute,” he whispered. Tom nodded, ignoring satisfaction that welled up inside him at these words. Several children who’d heard Lestrange stared at him but he still refused to do the same.

Managing to stir everyone’s interest before being sorted was good. Harry would be both exasperated and pleased. 

“Potter, Charlus!”

Time stopped for a moment as Tom’s heart jumped in elation at the familiar surname. Then the first name reached him as well, and slowly, the air around him began to darken.

Charlus Potter was Harry’s relative. No doubt about that.

Sure, Potter was a rather common name, but it was unlikely that there were many Potter pure-bloods, and Harry had told him that his father was one. And the boy himself…

Tom had made a map out of every Harry’s feature and he could see distant but undeniable physical resemblance between him and Charlus Potter. Other people may consider Harry’s last name a mere coincidence, not knowing the whole story, but Tom saw the truth. It was staring right into his face.

Apart from having vaguely familiar physical features, the boy was short and square-shouldered, with thick dark hair and superiority that only pure-bloods possessed.

Harry didn’t carry himself this way. On the contrary, Harry always tried to pretend he wasn’t there, as if he hated the very idea of attention. And if Tom was right, the Potters were to blame for this.

They had rejected him. Someone in their line had bedded a Muggle or a Muggle-born and then refused to take responsibility for the child. Abandoned him with magic-hating Muggles, stripping him of care and luxury he was supposed to get as a Potter, and continued with their line, breeding more pure-bloods.

He and Harry really were similar.

Tom wasn’t sure whether his own relatives were alive, so for now, he’d put his thoughts of revenge into the darkest corners of his mind. But Harry… Harry’s family was not simply alive, they dared to live like nothing happened. In fact, with wizards’ lifespan, it was possible that Charlus was Harry’s brother, a replacement for the unworthy half-blood the Potters had spawned.

Hatred, dark and bitter, spiralled up, burning his insides with its intensity.

“Gryffindor!” the Hat announced, and Tom stared unblinkingly as Charlus walked away, memorizing every arrogant feature of his face.

One day, there would be retribution, he promised himself silently.

Potters would regret ever casting Harry aside.

“Slytherin, Tom.” Dumbledore’s tone was subdued, like he was trying to avoid announcing his name loudly enough for everyone to hear. Yet still, the whole hall froze before erupting in whispers and shocked exclamations, hundreds of eyes suddenly tickling Tom’s back with their scrutiny.

Twisting his lips in a smile, he approached Dumbledore and sat on the stool, finally looking at the mass of curious students.

From this position, he could easily imagine them coming here to listen to his speech, waiting for what he had to say eagerly. A surge of power tore through his body at the thought, almost making him tremble, but then darkness descended, with the Hat taking its place on his head.

Oh, it said, its voice dismayed, and before Tom could even blink, it yelled, “Slytherin!”

His table exploded in applause and cheers so deafening, it seemed like even the floor began to tremble.

Tom sent a darkly smug glance to Dumbledore and headed to the Slytherins, where Lestrange was waving at him excitedly. Black, Mulciber, and Avery were grinning, and Tom was sure that the rest of the table would join them soon.

It was time to start expanding his empire.

 

***

Excitement and endless questions died out only about two in the morning. Around three, Tom stood from his bed, listening to noises. Hearing nothing but snoring, he put on his clothes and quietly left the room.

The first spell he used officially helped mute his footsteps. The second one was supposed to lead him to his destination.

Adducerlo Owlerly,” Tom murmured. His wand came alive in his hand as magic ran through it before a ball of blue light emerged in the middle of the air, rolling forward unhurriedly.

Tom followed it, his ears straining to hear any potentially threatening sounds. If he was caught, he’d blame his night trip on curiosity, but that wouldn’t be good for his reputation, so it was best to stay unnoticed.

Without people, Hogwarts looked even more regal. Tom bypassed the snoring portraits silently, observing the walls and the carved ceilings.

As the heir of Slytherin, a part of the castle belonged to him. Did it mean he could claim it at some point? That was a thought worthy of consideration.

The Owlerly was dark and spacious. Tom blinked, trying to adjust his vision now that the blue ball of energy had disappeared, and then he remembered he was a wizard.

Lumos,” he hissed, annoyed with himself. At least he had no witnesses to this pathetic display.

Apophis, finally sensing him, swooped down on his shoulder, biting his ear gently in greeting. Tom tolerated it with a sigh. Taming Apophis hadn’t been all that difficult but forcing genuine attachment was a chore. It took months before the bird began to follow him, growing willingly obedient to his orders.

Tom had been preparing it for a very specific mission.

“Do you remember the four boys that travelled with us in the compartment?” he asked. “Mulciber, Avery, Lestrange, and Black.”

Intelligent eyes studied him before Apophis tilted his head to the side, almost human-like.

“Good,” Tom praised shortly. “I want you to stay here in the Owlerly until they come to send letters to their families. Remember which owls they use. After they leave, catch up with the owl and take the letter from it. Don’t hurt the bird itself, I don’t want to leave any traces, and make sure it returns to the Owlerly instead of flying off without anything. Bring each letter to me. Same goes for their return mail. Intercept it before it’s delivered. I want you to focus on these four for now. Can you do that?”

Apophis bit him again, more strongly this time, as if irritated that his capabilities were questioned. Tom smiled.

“Then it’s decided,” he murmured.

He would learn what his new acquaintances were telling their families about him. With luck, it wouldn’t be different from information other Slytherin pure-bloods were about to exchange. This way, Tom would be able to evaluate the impression he’d made, identify possible enemies, and find out private facts that he could use to his advantage. He would need to check the return letters in case they were charmed, but he doubted even pure-bloods bothered with such precautions, at least for now. No one expected the mail of the first-years to be intercepted.

He’d start small at first. The owls wouldn’t be able to complain, and Tom would make sure to pass the letters back to them as soon as he was finished. Right now, though…

“Bring this to Harry,” Tom pulled out a letter he’d composed as he was waiting for his housemates to fall asleep. “I want you back here in the morning, so be quick. Wake him up and pester him until he writes a reply.”

Another affectionate bite and Apophis hopped off, melding with the darkness.

Satisfied, Tom returned to the castle and crawled into his bed.

Overall, he was pleased. The first day turned out to be productive.

 

***

 

Dear Tom,

First, thanks for setting your demon bird on me in the middle of the night. I nearly had a heart attack when it stormed inside. Honestly, couldn’t you wait until the morning? Your letter had four sentences in it, and that’s counting the greeting and your name in the end!

I’m happy you’ve been sorted into Slytherin. Not like it’s a surprise or like I was expecting any other news, but still, congratulations. I hope with all my heart that you will make your House proud — properly proud, I mean, none of that blood supremacy bullshit. Does it make sense? Probably not. In my defence, it’s late and I’m not in the best shape.

What I’m trying to say is, I believe in you. I know you must already have a plan of a sort, you always do, and I hope you’ll be able to fulfil it. You can make a difference, Tom, I just hope it’ll be for the right reasons. But if you want to simply enjoy your studies and make friends, that’s absolutely fine, too! I will support you anyway. I’m babbling, aren’t I? It’s been ages since I had to write a proper letter, my skills need some refinement, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now.

As for my family… I’m not sure what prompted you to ask about them now. My parents died when I was a child and I grew up with Muggles — but you know that already. It wasn’t the best time of my life and I wish things could have been different. Technically, at this point, I do have some relatives left, but they aren’t really my family.

Tell me how your first lessons pass. In all seriousness, even if it’s the middle of the night, I would still like to know. I miss you already, the house feels empty without you.

Love,

Harry

Slowly, Tom re-read the letter. Then he re-read it again, his eyes lingering on the three last lines. At this early hour, only a few people were present in the Great Hall, with no one directly nearby, so Tom buried his face in the paper and inhaled deeply. He would like to lick the lines off the letter, to make them a part of him, but it was impossible, so reluctantly, he pulled away, carefully folding Harry’s response and hiding it in his pocket.

Harry was so open with his emotions. It was pathetic, but somehow, it was also addictive. Tom wouldn’t have it any other way.

Harry had masterfully avoided giving him an answer he needed, but even from that brief paragraph, Tom understood enough.

Harry didn’t want to acknowledge his parents. Perhaps one of them had indeed died but the other one, the pure-blood, lived for sure. Tom would need to look into the Potters’ line to get the whole picture. And he would watch Charlus.

“Tom!” Lestrange dropped into the seat near him, his eyes exited and enthusiastic, just like they had been yesterday. “You are an early riser.”

Time to put on a mask.

Turning to him, Tom smiled.

 

***

 

The first lessons passed smoothly. Tom would even call them underwhelming because after his chaotic and explosive lessons with Harry, what Hogwarts had to offer was less than stimulating.

He did have some issues with Potions. When he was brewing various things at home, he loved to experiment. He changed the recipes all the time, perfecting them, sometimes altering their nature by accident, and occasionally, it ended up in explosions.

Now, he couldn’t afford something like this. He had a reputation to uphold and he was already known as the most brilliant first-year among all Houses. So he was confined to boring recipes because for now, he wasn’t sure he could experiment without blowing his cauldron up. He still knew little about properties of potion ingredients, no matter how frustrating he found it.

Teachers loved him. All but Dumbledore, who kept watching him impassively. The old man wasn’t treating him unfairly but he was constantly suspicious, that much was obvious, and while it wasn’t good, Tom still couldn’t find the strength to care.

He hoped Dumbledore would get over it eventually.

He was also rapidly earning a reputation of someone who made friends among everyone, regardless of Houses and blood purity.

“But it isn’t right!” Mulciber hissed one day, after Tom turned him down in favour of studying with a Muggle-born second-year. “Why do you associate with this scum?” Catching Tom’s gaze, he flushed. “I can understand half-bloods,” he hastened to add. “But Mudbloods? They are inferior.”

“Why?” Tom asked, genuinely curious. He had watched Muggle-borns attentively and he had to admit that Harry was right. They weren’t necessarily weaker or less intelligent than pure-bloods. In fact, some pure-bloods made Tom suspect they’re actually half-Squibs, with how weak and deficient their magic was.

He also knew not everyone accepted his own status as a half-blood yet. There was confusion among many Slytherins who were torn between supporting him as Salazar’s heir and rejecting him because of his parentage.

Based on Avery’s, Mulciber’s, Black’s, and Lestrange’s letters, though, most families were interested enough to remain neutral and watch him grow into someone they could potentially follow. Tom knew he would be able to sway them all sooner or later, but it was going to take years of work. And he genuinely didn’t understand the obsession with blood purity.

In other circumstances, he could have gone along with pure-bloods’ beliefs. It was easier to take Salazar Slytherin’s known stand and accept the role of his perfect heir — he would definitely be able to move faster, then.

But Harry… Harry. Always, inevitably, Harry.

I will support you anyway. I miss you already. The house feels empty without you.

Tom cherished these words. He craved more. But the truth was, Harry would never support him if he generalised all Muggle-borns and began to promote the idea of their elimination. Tom knew that as more years went by, he would be able to push him more and more, but he also understood that Harry would never condone mass-destruction of wizards. And since Harry was going to stay with him forever, Tom supposed he could make some concessions.

“What do you mean, why?” Mulciber spluttered. “They are worse than us!”

“Why?” Tom asked again. “They aren’t weaker magically. It varies on an individual basis. They might lag behind at first because they aren’t used to magic, but most of them improve quickly. So what in particular makes them worse?”

“Are you sure you are the heir of Slytherin?” Abraxas Malfoy wondered unexpectedly. Tom tilted his head in his direction as tension and curiosity crashed inside him, warring for dominance.

Malfoys were a respected family. He would need to obtain their support, but until now, Abraxas, who was in his fourth year, hadn’t initiated contact with him, observing from the shadows.

“And you’re in doubt?” Tom asked politely. Malfoy’s face was unreadable.

“Salazar Slytherin believed in blood purity. He wanted to close access to Hogwarts to all Muggle-borns. If you don’t share his beliefs and don’t intend to continue his politics, what right do you have to call yourself his heir?”

The Common Room quietened down, everyone’s eyes suddenly on him. Slowly, Tom leaned into his armchair, surveying other members of his House before focusing on Malfoy.

This was an important moment. A lot of things depended on how he presented his position.

Excitement warmed his blood, sending electrical sparks to his brain, feeding it and making his thoughts spin faster.

It was time to play dirty.

“Do you know why Slytherin was against Muggle-borns, Malfoy?” he inquired. Malfoy narrowed his eyes.

“Because they are inferior,” he repeated. “A disgrace to the wizarding world.”

Tom twisted his lips in a mocking smile.

“Do you have anything other than vague generalisations?” he asked, noting how Malfoy bristled at his tone. “Inferior how? Why did it take Salazar Slytherin so long to form his beliefs? Why didn’t he announce his selection criteria before building Hogwarts? Have you actually studied this topic or do you just parrot what your parents told you — who, in turn, parrot their own parents?”

Quick murmurs rolled through the room, the sensations of excitement and nervousness thickening, entwining, and Tom absorbed it all without taking his eyes off Malfoy, who went pale with anger.

“You—”                                                           

“Reply to my questions first. Unless you aren’t interested in hearing my own answers? You were the one who questioned my status, after all.”

“Everyone knows what Slytherin believed,” Malfoy hissed, a faint blush hitting his pale skin. “Even the damned Hat remembers it. Details aren’t important.”

“On the contrary, details mean everything. Did you know that Slytherin wrote several books? They are in my possession. He wrote them in Parseltongue, and as his only descendent who speaks this language, I was able to read them.”   

More silence met his lie, but this time, it was awed. Even Malfoy stared at him with his mouth open.

“Books,” he muttered finally. “But… can you show them to me? Are they here? What do they say?”

“I can’t show them to you,” Tom chuckled, though his heart began to beat faster. If they insisted, he would have to come up with something during the holidays, even if he had to write these non-existent books himself. “They are treasured too much for me to bring them to Hogwarts. They are in my guardian’s vault, safe. I retrieve them only when I need them. But I can reveal some bits of what they say since we’re talking about this.”

Malfoy stepped closer to him, looking fascinated. All arrogance slipped from him and he seemed giddy as a child, excited at the chance to learn more about his idol.

Tom didn’t understand it. He himself had some reverence for Salazar Slytherin, but that was mostly because he was proud to be related to such a known and powerful wizard. Why were others so obsessed with him when they clearly knew little and couldn’t even call Tom out on his lie?

“Slytherin believed that Muggle-borns threaten the exposure of our world,” he announced aloofly. “They have strong connections to their Muggle families, and the more people know about us, the more dangerous our situation becomes. Slytherin didn’t believe they were inferior, he just viewed them as untrustworthy. He had a similar attitude towards half-bloods with a Muggle parent.”

“So… he thought Muggles are the core problem? Not Muggle-borns?” Malfoy clarified, his eyes still wide, and Tom would have loved to snicker at how easily everything was falling into place, how eagerly they were buying into his words.

“Yes,” he said instead, his voice grave. “And I can assure you that I’m going to take care of this problem in the future. Slytherin’s beliefs won’t be forgotten, but I also won’t let them be misinterpreted by others. Muggle-borns are still wizards. They merely need to be convinced to severe their ties with their families, and there are plenty of ways in which that can be done.”

“So are you saying that Muggle-borns are just the same as us?” Goyle demanded in disbelief, and Tom glanced at him, almost bored by now.

Then again, Goyle had just implied Tom was a part of their pureblood clique.

That was another step in the right direction.

“Not entirely,” Tom allowed. “Naturally, they have fewer connections and thus fewer opportunities. The majority of us can easily outdo them because they feel like foreigners in our world. But that only means that they have to be improved, not expelled from our community.” 

More and more murmurs began to surround him. Malfoy nodded at him silently before retreating to the sofa, and Tom relaxed, vicious happiness blooming in him.

He did it. He had planted the seeds that were likely to birth the fruits he needed.

There might be complications, of course — maybe some would refuse to believe his words or even demand to see the books, but it would still end in his victory because no one but him could understand Parseltongue. Those who didn’t fall to his feet at his status would crawl to him once he practiced and expanded his power.

He would make them all into his puppets. It was only a matter of time and patience. Harry was right, using charm was much more gratifying than overpowering others physically.

Maybe a little demonstration was needed to solidify his today’s success, though.

“Pick a Muggle-born,” Tom said lazily to no one in particular. All heads snapped to him again.

“What do you mean?” Black asked, an intrigued gleam in his eyes.

“Exactly what I said. Pick a first-year Muggle-born and I’ll show you how easy it is to break their Muggle attachments and turn them into obedient followers.” 

“Walter Taylor,” Malfoy offered. “That Mudblood keeps gushing about his family all the time. It’s sickening.”

Tom’s smile widened.

“He will stop,” he promised darkly. “And very soon.”

 

***

 

Stealing Taylor’s letters to his Muggle parents was nothing with Apophis at his service. Editing them, intercepting the replies and editing them as well was only slightly more complicated.

On the one hand, Tom despised Hogwarts’ rule of no contact with families other than letters. Not having the option of seeing Harry was frustrating. On the other, it worked well for his plans to sic Taylor and his family on each other.

Soon, he no longer had to edit anything. The letters became full of real accusations and quarrels, and Taylor latched himself onto Tom as his source of comfort, to the amusement and approval of other Slytherins.

The trick with letters was too time-consuming and unreliable to use it on others, so in the future, Tom would have to come up with something else. For now, though, he was entirely satisfied.

When he wasn’t studying and cultivating admiration, he was watching Charlus Potter and learning everything he could about his family.

It appeared that Potters, like the majority of pure-bloods, struggled with producing children. Charlus was the only officially recognised heir, and if the rumours were true, his parents were unable to sire another offspring.

Fleamont Potter and his wife were already pushing fifty. Since they had no other relatives, it was clear that one of them was Harry’s parent, and the more Tom thought about them, the hotter his hatred flared.

Charlus Potter was spoilt and arrogant. He was openly boasting of his wealth and he constantly broke all rules, confident that his behaviour wouldn’t have long-lasting consequences.

His Harry deserved Potters’ wealth much more than this unworthy, disgusting little idiot.

Tom would have liked to push Harry to confess, but doing it through letters was inconvenient. He needed personal contact for his tactics of persuasion to work.

Not to mention that recently, Harry became strangely quiet. He tried to pretend everything was fine but Tom could sense that something was happening. He wasn’t sure how, it was just a feeling he got whenever he read Harry’s responses.

The jovial words lacked sincerity. Every line was written in a half-hearted way, as if Harry was too tired to press the quill strongly, and the longer this went on, the more furious Tom felt.

Harry had no right to hide things from him. Everything he did was Tom’s concern, or didn’t he know that?  

If you don’t tell me what’s wrong with you, I’m going to come after you myself. Do you want me to escape from Hogwarts? Because I will.

It was a bluff, obviously, but Harry was naïve enough to believe it.

As Tom had expected, Harry’s next letter arrived quickly, and it was more informative and less infuriatingly misleading.

Dear Tom,

Don’t even think about running away, or I swear I’ll contact Dumbledore and ask him to keep an eye on you. Nothing is wrong, I told you that already. I’ve just been busy recently.

I found a job. It’s nothing much, I’m working as a bartender in one of Diagon Alley establishments. It’s a part of the broom shop, and eventually, I think I’d like to apply for a position of a broom-maker. It’s depressing, I’m not going to lie, but I’ve made a very expensive purchase recently and now we’re running out of money. When I returned to Britain, I brought my savings with me, but they are basically drained already, so it’s time for me to start working.

In the past, I used to have another job, one I enjoyed, but I lack the required documents to find a similar position, so my options are limited. Before you suggest I restore them: it’s not possible, but it’s a long and tedious story.

I’m sorry if I seemed different in these last letters and if I worried you. I was just too busy wallowing in self-pity. To be honest, I don’t enjoy the company of most people, and after my previous position, I find the job of a bartender disheartening. But that’s my problem. I’ll get used to it soon enough.

Hope I don’t sound too much like one of those stuck-up pure-bloods. Maybe I should start taking double-shifts to cure myself from this wounded pride.  

Stay safe, be good, and please let me know if you are coming home for Christmas.

Love,

Harry

P.S. Don’t ask me about that expensive purchase. It’s a secret, one I know you’ll like.

Snarling silently, Tom crumpled the letter in his hand, almost shaking with fury. Avery paused in the middle of one of his endless jokes, gaping at him. Mulciber, Black, and Lestrange also froze, and Tom knew his magic broke free, infecting the room and snaking around everyone who was inside it, wrapping them in a cold, suffocating blanket.

He couldn’t stop it. Rage pulsated in his head, filling it with white-hot pain that threatened to tear his brain to pieces. His every thought lost its rational shape, gaining a furious liquid form and dissolving somewhere in his blood, heating it uncomfortably.

Harry. Working as a bartender in some filthy bar. The guardian of the heir of Slytherin doing something this degrading.

No. He wouldn’t allow it. Harry was too good for a job like this, he was… he was…

“Tom?” Malfoy asked warily. Tom blinked, and the red fog lessened, giving him a semblance of control.

His hands were shaking with anger and adrenaline, so he hid the letter carefully, focusing on keeping himself steady and overcoming the incensed shivers.

He’d never considered the fact that Harry’s money could come to an end. Harry was always ridiculously generous, buying him anything he wanted. And this expensive purchase must be for him as well, with how Harry had worded it.

This idiot had bought him a present that left him destitute. Left both of them destitute.

This wasn’t right. Tom wouldn’t let it happen.

But what could he do? Years had to pass before he had a chance to start raising the money for his campaigns. He was helpless. But he also couldn’t let Harry work as some bartender.

…The Potters. A part of their wealth belonged to Harry.

But they would never help him, not when they had abandoned him so indifferently, never even visiting him to witness the abuse he was undergoing under the so-called care of those Muggles.

Tom clenched his hands into fists, feeling a new wave of burning fury.

There was nothing he could do right now. Nothing he could immediately think of.

But he would still come up with something. He had to. And one day, he would make sure that Harry wanted for nothing.

He would take revenge on his behalf as well.

 

***

 

If Tom hated Charlus Potter before, now, he couldn’t stand even the sight of him. Every time he saw him, the seed of resentment burned, growing into a kernel of loathing stronger than anything he had ever felt before, surpassing even the feelings for his own Muggle caretakers, for the treacherous family that might still be out there.

Harry had given him a new start, a worthy start. Harry alleviated the hatred Tom felt for those who had wronged him to a degree, but those who had done the same to Harry? Whose actions were now affecting Tom as well?

He wanted to destroy them. He wanted them dead.

The Potters themselves might be untouchable for now but their heir was in Tom’s domain. And if he were to disappear… to die…

At first, Tom shook off these thoughts. He hated to admit it but he was incapable of planning and executing a murder of a wizard successfully at this age. He couldn’t use his wand without being detected, he didn’t know everything about spontaneous magic that a dying wizard might possess, and he had no idea how to get close enough to kill Charlus. He was liked by the majority of students, that was true, but most Gryffindors kept their distance, including the youngest Potter. Tom could use his connections with darker pure-bloods but he didn’t trust their loyalty yet.

He had to learn too much before trying. The only comforting thing was that he did figure out how to get money for him and Harry, but it paled in comparison to what Potters’ fortune could bring.

And Charlus was growing more infuriating by the day, to the point where Tom couldn’t look at him without fantasising about his death.

Without Charlus, the remaining Potters would be broken. If rumours about their health were true, they wouldn’t live long out of grief, and Harry would become the only heir to their fortune.

The more Tom thought about it, the clearer his ideas became.

He didn’t necessarily need a wand to kill someone. For one thing, there was Muggle weapon, which could probably work even more efficiently and detract suspicion from him.

Then there were poisons.

Out of curiosity, Tom immersed himself into studying books on Potions and poisonous ingredients, memorising the ones that seemed promising.

Two weeks before the holidays, he found it.

The dried and previously stewed fangs of a horned viper. Kill within three minutes of contact and result in acute pain, paralysis, and slow choking.

Perfect.

The newfound excitement breathed life into him, making the thoughts of Harry’s current bartender work more bearable. Tom returned the book to the library and spent the next days charming Slughorn, secretly inspecting his shelves in occasional pauses. These fangs were used in potions brewed by sixth-years, so they had to be present somewhere.

They were.

Tom knew how to calculate the doses correctly. He took what he needed and buried it in his trunk, but every night, he took the dried powder out, examining it, unable to stop staring. The kernel of loathing continued to evolve, giving birth to dark, luscious fruits.

He was holding Charlus’ death in his hands. He was holding the means of drastically changing others’ life in three simple minutes.

The sense of power that came with this knowledge was intoxicating, making him breathless with excitement, filling his chest with warm tingles.

Soon. Very soon. He just had to be patient.

Charlus was enamoured with Amber Steins, a Ravenclaw half-blood, and the feelings were clearly mutual. Tom took careful notice of her owl before instructing Apophis to do the same.

The preparation part of his plan was completed. In a few days, he would move towards its execution.

“I bought you a present, Tom!” Lestrange announced, clutching his hand. Tom tolerated it, forcing the smile to stay on his face. They had just arrived at King’s Cross and most parents were already waiting, no doubt assessing him with their stares.

“I’m sure I will be delighted with your choice,” he said aloud, and Lestrange nodded enthusiastically.

“You will!”

“See you, Tom,” Mulciber clapped him on his back. Malfoy nodded at him, and then Tom had to live through tens and tens of students coming closer to say good-bye as well. At some point, he looked up and saw Harry watching him, a soft, fond smile on his face.

Everyone else faded and Tom moved towards him, murmuring his own good-byes distractedly. Nothing else existed to him anymore, nothing but Harry.

He looked thinner and paler. There were bluish circles under his eyes but his smile was as warm and brilliant as ever.

Tom crashed into him without thinking, suddenly forgetting that he was still being watched. His hands snaked around Harry’s back as he tried to destroy any distance between their bodies, hoping to merge with him.

Harry was holding him just as strongly.

“Well, that’s certainly an enthusiastic greeting,” he teased. “Did you miss me that much?”

“Yes,” Tom said, his face still buried in Harry’s midsection as he inhaled his scent greedily.

There was silence for a moment, as if Harry was taken aback by his admission. But Tom hadn’t said he missed him, had he? He only confirmed it.

Harry’s chest moved as he sighed.

“I missed you too,” he said. “Much more than you can possibly imagine.”

Tom didn’t reply, too focused on absorbing every bit of warmth Harry emanated.

Truthfully, he had miscalculated as to how much he actually missed Harry. In Hogwarts, his longing was strong, but it was nothing in comparison to that rush of emotions that were currently devouring him alive, filling him with sensations he didn’t understand and couldn’t describe.

He wanted to crawl into Harry, to infect every part of him and leave his fingertips across his insides. In these months of separation, at times, a colder side of Tom wondered if maybe he had overestimated Harry’s value. Surely no person could shine this brightly? But now, his half-conscious worries were shattered.

Harry was still blinding, and Tom still didn’t want to look at anything but him.

“Mine,” he murmured.

“What?” Harry leaned closer, and Tom finally forced himself to pull back a little.

“Let’s go home,” he said, offering his first genuine smile in forever. Harry caressed his cheek briefly.

“Let’s,” he agreed.

 

***

 

“I can see you’ve made a ton of friends,” Harry remarked as soon as they apparated. Taking Tom’s trunk, he began to carry it upstairs. “You never mentioned that in the letters, you just told me you’ve made connections.”

“That’s because they are connections,” Tom pointed out, examining the house shrewdly. Everything seemed to be on its place, no new atrocities used for decoration. “I don’t consider them friends.”

Harry paused, sending him a strange look.

“None of them?” he asked. “Surely there must be someone you are truly attached to.”

“Attached to them?” Tom repeated, horrified. “No, absolutely not.”

Harry looked upset.

Damn it. He’d managed to forget how sensitive Harry was. 

“I do respect some of them more than others,” Tom amended, and the unsettled expression left Harry’s face, replaced with amusement.

“That does sound like you,” he noted, rolling his eyes. “I’m still sure our house will be flooded with presents for you on Christmas.”

“And on my birthday,” Tom added smugly. He was curious about what his associates could give him, but most of all, he wanted to know what Harry’s expensive purchase was.

He wasted a few minutes on changing his clothes and unpacking his trunk. Then he went to find Harry again.

“Will you be helping me cook today?” Harry asked, turning to face him. His hands were already white from flour. “I will have to leave about seven, but we could have an early supper.”

What?

“Leave?” Tom repeated slowly, his voice getting darker. He had just arrived today after months of absence, and Harry was going to leave him?

His magic lashed out, reaching for Harry instinctively to catch him into a strong, possessive loop, but Tom managed to stop it at the last moment.

He would save it for later, if all other options failed.

Harry wouldn’t leave him, not today and not ever.

Tom was sure nothing betrayed his thoughts, but Harry suddenly appeared wary.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and to his credit, he did sound remorseful. “I have to work today. I took days off for Christmas and New Year so we could celebrate together, but until then, I’m going to have to go to Diagon Alley.”

Oh. So it was just work.

An easy obstacle to overcome.

“No need to go there,” Tom announced airily. “I’ll lend Apophis to you. Write to them and tell them that you are no longer interested in this job.”

“And since when am I not interested in it?” Harry raised an unimpressed eyebrow. Why did he never react to Tom’s announcements in a sufficiently awed way? Anyone else would be intrigued but Harry just looked mildly amused.

What would he say if he knew the steps Tom was going to take to start clearing the path to the Potters’ fortune? Maybe then, he would finally look impressed.

Then again, Harry was Harry. He wouldn’t approve of murder, no matter how justified, so that was something Tom would have to keep a secret.

“I found you a new job,” he announced, hoping for a change in expression, but if anything, Harry looked even more unimpressed.

“Doing what?” he asked incredulously.

“Being a pre-school tutor for magical children. I made arrangements with some of the families. They will start contacting you once the holidays are over.”

Finally, Harry’s eyes widened, a stunned, disbelieving look entering them.

“Tell me you’re joking!”

“Why would I do that if that’s not true? I thought you disliked lying.”

“I dislike— Tom! What the hell have you done? How can I be a— a pre-school tutor, of all things! What can I teach them?”

“The same things you taught me,” Tom shrugged. “You are a good teacher. You lack some deep knowledge but fortunately, my reputation will smooth over it. Everyone is curious about the guardian of the heir of Slytherin. They will hire you even if they don’t think much of your teaching methods.”

A variety of emotions flickered across Harry’s face, changing so rapidly that Tom stared at him in fascination, trying to catch them all. Finally, they stopped between amazement and exasperation. Not the worst combination but definitely not the best one. Tom was expecting gratitude, preferably expressed in one of Harry’s usual hugs, not just a stare.

“Tom, that is… wonderful,” Harry uttered hesitantly. “But you didn’t have to do anything. You could have at least discussed it with me.”

Tom narrowed his eyes.

“I’m taking care of you,” he pointed out. “You told me that you hate your job. I found a solution.”

“Yes, but…” Harry was studying him with uneasiness that he had really come to hate. “It’s not your job to take care of me. I’m an adult, I can make my own decisions.”

“Apparently, you can’t, if you thought that being a bartender was your only option.”

Harry took a deep breath before his shoulders relaxed slowly.

“It was a great idea,” he admitted, and Tom relaxed as well, tension seeping out of his body. “I still wish you had discussed it with me first, but I understand. Thank you.”  

Harry didn’t hug him but he did approach and placed a long, sloppy kiss in the middle of his forehead. A shock of electricity shot through him and Tom melted, barely stopping himself from clinging to Harry to keep him close for longer. His skin felt feverish, and when Harry stepped back, he stared at him, feeling dazed.

“Thank you,” Harry repeated sheepishly. “It’s a wonderful idea. Well, I still don’t think I’d make a good teacher, at least for pre-schoolers, but it’s definitely better than having to work at that bar.” He wrinkled his nose. “And sorry if I seemed… ungrateful. It wasn’t because of you, not really. I had issues with other people trying to control me before and whenever I feel controlled now, I have an instinct to lash out.”

Tom tried to shake off the haze surrounding him and concentrate on what Harry was telling him.

Harry rarely discussed his past. Every bit of information was priceless.

“Sometimes,” Harry continued distantly, “I feel like every move I made in my previous life had been manipulated into existence. Every decision, every choice turned out to be a part of someone’s plan. And I don’t regret my actions, at least not all of them, but still, knowing I was a part of manipulations… it makes me sick, and the more I think about it now, the angrier I become.”

“You always separate your past and present life as if they are two tangibly different things,” Tom noted curiously, and a wry smirk twisted Harry’s lips.

“That’s because it feels like it,” he said.

“Which life do you love more, then?”       

There was only one right answer to his question and Tom sincerely hoped Harry would choose it. He wasn’t sure what he’d do otherwise.

Surprisingly, Harry sent him a mysterious glance.

“I’ll tell you when you grow up,” he promised. Tom frowned, not sure he was pleased with such reply, but in the end, he decided not to press.

At least Harry hadn’t chosen the wrong answer. And he still had time for improvement and for learning to accept the idea of being controlled.

 

***

 

“Tell me about the Muggles that you grew up with,” Tom uttered. They were cooking dinner, both of them busy with their own processes.

“You already know everything worth knowing about them,” Harry replied, his jovial mood darkening palpably. “They were simple people. They wanted normalcy and I was anything but normal.”

Freak. Devil’s child. Monster.

Tom’s own mood darkened in response as his memories surfaced, no doubt echoing those that Harry was currently recalling.

Yes, he knew the type. And he had very particular plans about what to do with these filthy, rotten creatures.

“Did they abuse you?” he asked. “Don’t lie. You never confirmed anything but I’m not stupid.”

“So are you asking or telling me what to say?” Despite the harshness of these words, Harry’s voice was amused.

“I know the answer already,” Tom dismissed. “What I’d like to know is, do you hate them? And do you hate your family who left you with them?”  

“My family?” Harry paused, turning to glance at him. “They didn’t exactly leave me. They died.”

His lies were getting annoying. Why didn’t he trust Tom enough to share the truth with him? Or did Harry hate the Potters so much that he’d convinced himself of their actual death?

“All of them?” Tom let scepticism touch his voice, and just like he’d expected, Harry sighed in defeat.

“I guess you could say that one of my relatives did leave me but it wasn’t his fault. He was impulsive. He tried to do what’s right and it ended badly.”

Finally. Finally, the confession.

Harry was obviously talking about his father, Fleamont Potter, who had an impulsive affair with a Muggle or a Muggle-born and then tried to stick to his family values and stayed with his wife, rejecting his son.

Even if Harry was trying to justify his behaviour, Tom wasn’t going to be this forgiving.

He would destroy the Potters. The very thought filled him with trembling excitement.

“And the Muggles?” he asked. Harry focused on extracting tiny bones from the fish again.

“It depends,” he said vaguely. “I don’t really feel angry with them for how they treated me. They let me stay with them despite their feelings on this matter and I think they changed a bit in the end. But when I try to imagine some other child, or even worse, you, in my place…” Harry stopped again, his eyes growing dark and his hands balling up into fists. “I want to kill them,” he whispered, and silent fury emanating from him was so intoxicating that Tom shuddered, basking in it.

Yes, his Harry had darkness in him. Darkness that would be very useful once Tom moved towards the execution of his grimmer, Muggle-related plans.

Of course, Harry wasn’t dark enough to actually participate in them, but Tom didn’t need it. He just needed acceptance and support, and he was sure that Harry would provide them eventually. There was no other option.

Hiding his smile, he took the deboned fish and began to marinade it in spices.

It felt like he’d never left.

 

***

 

As per their annual tradition, they bought a bushy Christmas tree and then spent the entire day on crafting toys for decoration. Tom was using Harry’s wand while Harry was working with his hands; after an hour, they switched, and Tom had to paint and carve manually while Harry experimented with his magic, coming up with more and more unique designs.

Sitting like this, in their home, doing such a mundane and homely task with Harry by his side, Tom felt a bubbling happiness lighting his chest. It was strange, how much he started to enjoy Christmas and his birthday from the moment Harry took him from the orphanage. Before, he had never thought that doing what millions other families were doing could feel so good.

Soon, the snow began to fall, and Harry returned the wand to him before retreating to the kitchen to prepare hot chocolate for them. They took a break, sipping it and observing the work they had managed to do so far.  

“Four more toys, I think?” Harry asked, and Tom nodded.

“Maybe the fifth one, too, if the left side still looks empty,” he added.

After hot chocolate, Harry turned on the music, and they continued with decorations.

Tom loved their routine. He loved the fact that he could anticipate every step of what was going to happen: decorations, hot chocolate or cocoa, music, dancing, supper, and reading. Predictable but immensely pleasing — a routine that didn’t get boring no matter how often it was repeated.

Late into the evening, Tom fell asleep with his head on Harry’s lap, listening to his even voice murmuring the lines from the book. The lights from their tree were shining brightly, changing shades and sending many-coloured patterns through his eyelids.  

He couldn’t wait for Christmas.

 

***

 

Tom never got Harry any presents. In the first years, he hadn’t wanted to bother. Later, he simply didn’t think there was anything worthy he could give him.

This year was an exception, though. He’d already gifted Harry an opportunity to quit his degrading job. Another possible present was Charlus’ death, although now, in the comfort and warmth of their home, Tom wasn’t as confident about his idea as before.

The problem with money wasn’t urgent any longer. Their holiday was too short to waste it on other distractions, and while Potters had to go, it didn’t have to be now. Maybe Tom should wait until he became older — he would have more options at his disposal and there would be more time to consider everything.

“Ready to open your present?” Harry asked in palpable excitement, pushing the beautifully decorated package to him.

Unlike him, Harry always got him gifts, starting with the first year they spent together. What surprised Tom most was how thoughtful and personal each of them was, so very quickly, he became obsessed with the idea of seeing what Harry’d gotten for him.

Today wasn’t an exception.

Harry was emanating strong waves of excited energy and Tom felt them reach him, teasing him and fuelling his own curiosity.

He quickly unwrapped the package before peering inside. A heavy, golden locket lay on a silver pad, with a serpent-like ‘S’ engraved in its middle, made of glittering green gems. Even without touching it, Tom knew what it was and who it belonged to.

“It’s my heirloom,” he whispered, wild joy making his voice barely audible. Exhilaration burned through him and his fingers shook as he touched the cold surface reverently. “Where did you get it?”   

“I wanted you to have something tangible from your family,” Harry said quietly. “It belonged to your mother. She was forced to sell it to feed herself shortly before your birth. I managed to track it down.”

“My mother?” Tom raised his head, his heart suddenly skipping a beat. “Did you learn what happened to her? How did she end up in the Muggle orphanage?”

For a moment, something hesitant flashed across Harry’s face, but then determination took its place.

“I did,” he said. “And I can tell you about the rest of your family, too, if you want to hear it.”

Tom pressed the box with the locket to his chest possessively.

“I do,” he said sharply. “Tell me.”

 

***

 

When Harry stopped talking, Tom didn’t look at him. He was fingering the locket greedily, refusing to voice his thoughts.

“Are you upset?” Harry asked, and Tom could feel him hover nearby, clearly trying to decide whether he wanted to be touched. “I know it’s not the happiest story but I thought you’re old enough to hear it. Everyone deserves to know what happened to their family.”

“No.” Tom finally looked up, his eyes narrowed.

“No what?”

“They are not my family. None of them are.”

Pathetic, weak mother that had chased after a Muggle and chosen to die like one instead of taking care of Tom. A crazy uncle that was too brainless to restore the glory of the Gaunts, and a whole branch of parasites, such as his father and grandparents.

They were nothing. They were certainly not worthy of him and of his locket. Maybe one day, Tom would pay them a visit — the Riddles could become the first subjects in the series of Muggle-based experiments he was going to let his future supporters conduct, and his uncle was better off dead rather than tarnishing the Slytherin’s line with his existence.

But if it happened, it would have to happen later. Tom had no time for these annoying and meaningless pests right now, and they had no power to interfere with his plans. From Harry’s description, he really doubted that Morfin was staying in touch with the news, so he would be unable to embarrass Tom by announcing their connection to each other.

“Your father likely didn’t know about you becoming an orphan,” Harry said gently. “And I’m sure your mother must have loved you. If you’d like to—”

“I don’t care!” Tom hissed, frustrated. He refused to acknowledge the woman that had given birth to him as his mother. Whatever she felt for him, it was lesser than what she felt for a Muggle, and that made her just as filthy and worthless. And his father… did Harry honestly suggest that he try to build any kind of relationship with him? With a Muggle?

“Tom—”                                                                                            

You are my family. I have no interest in anyone else.”

Harry’s lips parted in clear surprise. Then his eyes went soft and he grabbed Tom by the shoulders before forcibly pulling him close, nearly suffocating him in his embrace.

“Okay,” he murmured, and Tom readily wrapped his hands around Harry’s neck in response, leaning his head against his chest. The locket was pleasantly heavy and he clenched it between his fingers, a feeling of peace settling over him, chasing the remains of unpleasant thoughts away.

Yes, this was all he needed. Harry, his magic, and his status, the first clear evidence of his glory. His so-called biological family was too pathetic to bother with them, so Tom would turn to them only when his empire was mostly built and he had nothing better to do.

“I want you to be happy,” Harry said, the warmth of his lips tickling Tom’s forehead. “If you ever want to meet them, just tell me. I can come with you. If you don’t want to ever hear about them again, that’s fine, too. I do have one question for you — you don’t have to answer but—”

“What is it?” Tom pulled back curiously.

“Are you angry with them? Be honest.”

Tom considered it, but just as he’d sensed previously, there was no anger left in him — only vague disgust and indifference.

“No,” he said truthfully. “I’m not.”

Harry beamed, looking so blindingly happy that Tom couldn’t help but stare at him.

He had no idea what pleased Harry that much, but the sight of his glowing smile was positively breathtaking. He never wanted it to fade.

“I believe in you, Tom,” Harry whispered, echoing his first letter, and Tom hummed thoughtfully. Hearing these words excited him even more than seeing them on paper. Pity that he and Harry had somewhat different ideas about what they were supposed to entail.

“Put the locket on me,” Tom murmured. With a smile still dancing on his lips, Harry complied, carefully putting his gift around Tom’s neck.

“It looks good on you,” he noted.

“Of course it does. It’s mine.”

Harry reached forward to adjust a stray curl of his hair and Tom allowed it, watching him.

Harry had spent almost all his remaining money on this gift. He found out about Tom’s family and gave him another heartfelt Christmas. Harry seemed content with letting his life revolve around Tom, just like it should be.

He deserved a reward. 

“Harry?”

“Yes?”

“I also have a present for you. But you won’t know what it is until later.”

“A present? For me?” For a moment, Harry looked so childishly stunned that Tom laughed, delighted with this reaction.

He wasn’t aware of how much Harry might want a present of his own. Then again, he grew up with Muggles that had never included him in their celebrations, so it wasn’t surprising.

It made Tom’s gift all the more appropriate.

 

***

Next day, he sent Apophis to find out where the Potters lived, with an order to wait for Amber Steins’ owl and intercept the letter it carried. It was a risk — the girl might have forgotten about her school sweetheart once at home, but Tom doubted it, considering her simpering behaviour at Hogwarts.

To his joy, Apophis returned the next day, with a hand-made envelope in his beak. Tom read the saccharine nonsense attentively and then began to write his own letter, flawlessly copying the curly handwriting.

My dear Charlus,

I had to bribe my brother into sending this letter through Owl Post Service because our parents have locked up my owl. Apparently, they dislike me spending so much time on writing to you instead of studying!

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. Thank you so much for your gift, how did you even know that I wanted these earrings? They are lovely!

I miss you tremendously. It hasn’t been long but I really wish we could see each other. What do you think? My parents and I will be visiting Diagon Alley tomorrow at one p.m. Could you Floo there as well? We could meet at the second turn of the Knockturn Alley. I know, not the best place, but my parents will never think to look for me there once they realise I’m gone and I’d like for us to spend at least an hour together!

Don’t reply to this letter or my parents will figure out I disobeyed and wrote to you anyway. I will be waiting for you from 13:10 until 13:30. If you can’t make it, I understand, but I still hope to see you there.

Sending you my love,

Amber

Even if Charlus felt uneasy about going to Knockturn Alley, he would be too worried about his little girlfriend to leave her waiting there all alone. Like a true Gryffindor, he would come. Tom didn’t doubt it.

Now, he had to get to the Owl Post Service himself and send his letter.

Harry would be pleased to swallow his lie about meeting friends, so he wouldn’t ask any questions about his absence. His plan was truly going perfectly.

The poison sang from the depth of his trunk, ready to be used.

 

 

***

 

Harry had easily agreed to lend him his wand so he wouldn’t be left unprotected, and even if he thought to check the used spells afterwards, he wouldn’t see anything incriminating. Tom was taking it as a precaution, not because he would actually need it.

He had turned the poisonous powder into a liquid and carefully soaked Amber’s envelope in it. One touch and Charlus would have only three minutes to live. Even the gloves wouldn’t save him. To protect himself, Tom had prepared a thick bezoar-based concoction and covered his own gloves with it, checking them meticulously before allowing a small smile to lift the corners of his lips.

Everything was ready. In less than a day, the Potters would lose their heir.    

His hands began to twitch in anticipation and anxiety from the early morning. Tom couldn’t eat breakfast properly, his thoughts constantly slipping to what would occur in several hours. Only when Harry began to throw strange glances at him, he remembered himself and tried to act normally.

It didn’t seem to make much difference.

“Are you all right?” Harry asked, pushing the cup of tea closer to him. “What friends are you meeting?”

Oh. Inconvenient.

Sometimes he forgot that Harry could be observant and suspicious.

“Just some of my housemates,” Tom replied vaguely. “I regret having to waste my day on them but I have to maintain a friendly façade.”

“How kind of you,” Harry’s comment was dry but his eyes went cautious. Tom hated when it happened. “Why are you communicating with someone you don’t even like?”

“I need connections. Besides, you yourself told me that charming someone into doing what I want is more challenging than using blunt force. I’m following your advice.”

Harry looked as if he was torn between feeling amused and horrified.

“You are still a child,” he uttered finally. “You should make friends and have genuine fun, not think of connections and manipulations.”

“You have no ambitions at all.” Tom sighed heavily, propping his head on his hand. “Doesn’t it get boring?”

Chuckling, Harry sent a sly grin in his direction.

“I’m extremely ambitious,” he assured. “I have a very specific life goal and I’m still working on it.”

“Really?” Tom perked up, all thoughts of Charlus dissipating as his attention snapped to Harry and Harry alone. “What could it be? You never do anything.”

A short laugh escaped Harry’s chest and he reached across the table, tracing his fingers along Tom’s jaw, making him shiver.

“I’m raising you,” he said tenderly. “You can see it as my long-term ambition.”

Tom snorted in disbelief even as something warm stirred in his stomach, sending sparks of smugness through his body.

He was Harry’s life goal.

It was more perfect than anything he could have come up with himself.

 

By the time he had to depart, he was completely collected. The envelope was lying in a small, poison-resistant folder, and the minutes kept slipping into one another, measuring the last moments of Charlus’ life.

As Tom had expected, this part of Knockturn Alley was mostly empty. It had the least popular shops, so the customers were rarely seen here. Charlus Potter was already waiting, clenching a small wrapped package in his hand and glancing around anxiously.

Resentment and excitement merged into one burning emotion that he couldn’t name, and Tom approached, putting on a friendly mask.

“Hello, Potter,” he greeted, and dark eyes pierced him with suspicious stare.

“Slytherin,” Charlus said stiffly. “Shopping?”

“Running an errand, actually. Amber Steins asked me to give you this.” Tom pulled out the envelope and offered it to Charlus, his heart jumping anxiously, pounding harder and harder. His hand almost shook and he snarled silently, doing his best to keep it steady. 

Charlus narrowed his eyes but as soon as they fell on the envelope, undoubtedly recognising his girlfriend’s handwriting, he relaxed, and a stupid expression marred his face.

Without saying a word, he reached for the envelope and grabbed it, only to blink in confusion as he found nothing inside.

“What is this?” his gaze snapped back to Tom. “What did you do to the letter? Where is Amber?”   

Tom grinned viciously, the dark triumph growing, expanding in his chest, stretching its claws.

“Answer me!” Charlus made a threatening step towards him but in the next second, he gasped, his hands flying to his heart. His stunned, pained expression was pure bliss, and Tom drank it in, trying to avoid blinking so he wouldn’t miss anything.

“What is it?” Charlus whispered, his legs slowly buckling under him. “What did you do? What’s happening?”

“You are dying,” Tom replied, tilting his head curiously. “If my calculations are correct, you have approximately two minutes and thirty six seconds to live.”

Horror and blind panic in Charlus’ eyes were like a breath of fresh air. His legs finally gave way and he dropped to the ground, jerking weakly.

Muted voices reached them suddenly, breaking Tom’s concentration. He dashed forward, grabbing Charlus by his hair and dragging him behind the building, ignoring his panicked struggles and groans. After brief consideration, he placed him between two parts of the broken fence in a way so his face would be visible.

“What are you feeling?” he asked. Reading about poison was fascinating but it was nothing in comparison to how it felt to watch its effects first-hand. Charlus blinked, tears blurring his face and making him even uglier.

He was a pathetic look-alike. The more he cried, the less he resembled Harry.

“Why?” Charlus rasped. “I never… I never did anything. To you. Why?”

“Your family wronged someone very dear to me,” Tom replied. His heart calmed now that he knew he’d succeeded, but exhilaration was still mounting, heating his blood. He wanted to slow this moment down, to examine every minuscule change of expression on Charlus’ face as his body was undoubtedly consumed by more and more pain.

He’d never thought that agony could have this many shades. 

“Amber,” Charlus’ voice was so hoarse that Tom had to lean closer to hear him. His face was already turning pale-grey, his foolish hands trying to grasp the snow around him weakly. “Is she… is she…”

“I killed her,” Tom lied, and a new wave of bliss surged through him as Charlus wailed, more tears falling from his eyes.

Had Tom thought he was ugly? No, he was wrong. Charlus was beautiful in his agony — almost as beautiful as Harry when he smiled.

Three minutes had to have passed by now and yet Charlus was still clinging to life. Interesting. Was it because Tom had turned the powder into a liquid?

The fallen package attracted his attention. He picked it up and unwrapped it, grimacing as he saw a small blue box.

“Is this a ring?” he drawled mockingly. “Or another pair of earrings? You sure were moving fast, Charlus.” Charlus, not Potter. This surname belonged to Harry only.

“Mum…” The boy stared somewhere unseeingly, his chest still jerking harshly. “Mum. Where—”

“Don’t bore me,” Tom warned. He opened the box and peered inside. A golden ring was lying there, with a Gryffindor lion roaring from a small, equally golden pedestal.

It wasn’t a family ring. Tom saw some of the pure-bloods wearing similar ones, each reflecting their own House, and while they must cost a fortune, they weren’t all that rare. Nothing to link him to Charlus’ death.

“Steins was a Ravenclaw, wasn’t she?” Tom asked, glancing at Charlus again. “Why would you think that giving her a ring that symbolises your House is a good choice?”

Charlus didn’t reply, although his eyes moved to Tom slowly. They were almost empty now, with only a flicker of awareness fighting for survival there. 

“Luckily, I have a much better idea,” smirking, Tom hid the ring in his pocket. “It will look good on my guardian. Harry is a Gryffindor, too, you know. He will appreciate it. A sort of a family gift, I suppose.”  

One final tear fell down Charlus’ cheek and then the remains of light left his gaze, leaving it dull and glassy.

Well. That was mildly disappointing. Tom had certainly expected to feel more.

Sighing, he collected the envelope. He would dispose of it on one of Muggle streets.

With the last glance at Charlus, who looked boring even in death, he straightened his robes and headed towards Diagon Alley, the weight of the ring warming his pocket.

One mission accomplished. Maybe the future ones would be somewhat more entertaining.

 

***

 

The first thing Tom noticed as he entered their home was a strange, electrified silence. Frowning, he closed the door and then went to the kitchen, hoping he’d find Harry there.

“Harry?” he called out. There was no reply.

Had he left somewhere? But the feel of magic in the house… it was so strange and dark, Tom was immediately wary.

Clenching the wand in his hand, he walked upstairs, heading towards Harry’s bedroom. At this point, it was as familiar to him as his own, and in some aspects, he began to prefer spending time within it.

Harry’s scent was overwhelming here and Tom breathed it in deeply, holding it in his lungs for as long as he could manage. Then his gaze moved to the floor near the window and suddenly, all air was sucked out of the room.

Harry was lying there motionlessly, with several books scattered nearby, as if he had been carrying them to the shelf before suddenly dropping to the ground.   

Tom stared, unable to believe what he was seeing. He didn’t remember how he approached — one moment he was standing at the threshold, frozen, and the next one, he was already kneeling near Harry, his hands flying across his body uselessly, trying to do something.

Harry’s chest wasn’t moving. His eyes were open, still beautifully green but no longer alive.

Dull. Empty. Just like the eyes of Charlus Potter had been.

No.

Harry couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible!

“Look at me,” Tom hissed. Wave after wave of foreign emotions kept crashing into him, making him shake with magic that started gathering under his skin chaotically, threatening to burst through. “Stop pretending. Stop it!”

Harry didn’t move, continuing to stare somewhere, somewhere Tom couldn’t follow, couldn’t see, and he suddenly looked so hateful that Tom grabbed his face, twisting it until green eyes gazed at him.

But it didn’t change anything. They were still unseeing, and even now that they were directed at him, they looked right through him. As if he didn’t exist.

Tom howled in rage, digging his fingers into Harry’s temples, breaking his skin in an attempt to chase the life that was surely still pulsing in him somewhere, to make sure his blood was still warm.

“Get up!” he spat. “Get up, right now, get up, get up—”

He gasped, the words suddenly choking him, swelling in his throat until he couldn’t breathe. His vision tunnelled, turning grey and then black, and he gripped Harry tighter, tried to breathe but failed.

Nothing worked. Nothing felt real because Harry couldn’t be dead and yet he wasn’t breathing, he could never leave Tom and yet he was ignoring him.

Something hot and dark exploded in his head, devouring the last bits of coherence and destroying his anchors to reality.

Tom screamed.  

Chapter Text

He was floating in the fog of numbness, his mind an empty, shell-shocked place incapable of rational thoughts. There were faded and fleeting images of destruction, of blood and death, of people and the universe itself falling to his feet, victims to his hopeless rage, but even they didn’t evoke a reaction. He didn’t know what they were. He couldn’t focus. The world was gone, so maybe he was gone, too. It certainly felt like it.

A soft voice started to break into the vacant space. At first, Tom ignored it. It was too quiet to truly shake the stupor surrounding him, and he had no desire to react.

But something kept happening. The voice grew more urgent, calling him by name, repeating it louder and louder, and the more it spoke, the more familiar it sounded. Finally, its volume gained a recognisable shape, and the ripples of cognizance tore through Tom’s blank mind, shattering the nothingness.

Slowly, painfully so, he became aware of his surroundings. The room — Harry’s room, he had come here himself, yes, where else would he be…

Harry.

Harry, dead. Dead. Motionless, with his eyes empty and unbearably indifferent, ignoring him, leaving him for good.

In an instant, the air was gone again, and Tom drew in a sharp, desperate breath, clutching his head, a howl of fury blocking his throat.

“Tom!” Someone’s hands grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him lightly. “Tom, what’s wrong? Talk to me.”

…What?

No. This had to be an illusion. Harry could no longer speak, could he? He was gone. Tom had seen that. He checked his heartbeat and there was nothing there, nothing but silence.

“Tom!”

But the voice was so familiar. It sounded real, and the touch was also real, there was no denying it.

Warily, Tom raised his head, and then he forgot all about the lack of oxygen. Harry was looking at him, his green eyes wide and worried, his lips parted, with the air flowing in and out.

Alive. He looked alive.

“What happened?” Harry’s voice was desperate. His hands kept sliding over Tom’s shoulders to his back restlessly, going up to his head and obviously searching for invisible injuries. “Did someone curse you? Are you hurt?”

Tom blinked at him, uncomprehending. What was… Was Harry a ghost? But if so, where was the body? And his hands felt so warm, like they always did. Like nothing was wrong, like the last minutes — or was it hours? — hadn’t happened.

“But it’s impossible,” he whispered, and Harry leaned closer.

“What’s impossible?” he asked urgently. “What’s going on?”

“You died.”

Harry recoiled, his mouth falling open. A strange sort of understanding flashed in his eyes before he lowered them, shaking his head.

“I was just unconscious,” he said, still without looking up. “I’m sorry you witnessed it.” Then his gaze flew back to Tom. “Was it all that happened? You weren’t hurt, were you? Because you were unresponsive. I’ve never seen you in such state before.”

Tom shook his head, refusing to accept it. Such things didn’t happen. Those who died couldn’t come back.

“You died,” he said again, his voice hoarse and shaken. “I saw it. I felt it. You were dead.”

Harry took his hand and gently put it to his neck, to the vibrating pulse point.

It was moving. His heart was beating.

A muffled, terrible sound escaped Tom’s lips, and then he fell into Harry’s embrace, his lips and his nose pressing against his neck, frantic to keep sensing his pulse, the proof of life vibrating in him.

“Tom,” Harry whispered, his own lips buried in Tom’s hair and his voice subdued. “I’m sorry. This was never supposed to happen, I don’t understand it myself, not entirely. I think I just fell and hit my head. It still hurts like hell.”

His head? Tom had nearly broken through his temples in an attempt to capture his fleeing mind, of course his head hurt. It still didn’t explain anything.

But right now, he didn’t want to bother with explanations. His world narrowed down to a quiet, steady pulsing, and he concentrated on it, breathing the smell of Harry’s skin in greedily.

Alive. He was alive. Still alive, still his. It was everything he needed to know.

Time slowed again. Harry’s heartbeat, his warmth and his scent were the only pillars holding this new world, and Tom didn’t care about anything else.

When he looked up after what seemed like eternity, he found himself lying on Harry’s bed, still entwined with him. Harry’s hands were rubbing soothing patterns into his back. The daylight was gone, so it had to be at least after six. He’d lost hours.

“All right?” Harry whispered hoarsely. “I can bring you a calming draught if you want.”

“No!” Tom’s grip immediately tightened in panic. “You won’t leave me!”

“I wasn’t going to. We can go together. What do you think?”

Tom considered this but then he shook his head again.

“I don’t want it,” he muttered. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

“That’s fine, too,” Harry heaved a sigh, continuing his gentle movements. “Are you ready to talk?”

He wasn’t sure. His thoughts were still too slow and the panic refused to dissipate completely, leaving him feeling vulnerable and unlike himself.

“You were dead,” Tom’s knuckles whitened as he clenched Harry’s ridiculous shirt in his fist. “I tried to bring you back but I failed.”

“If I were dead then, I wouldn’t be alive now,” Harry pointed out.

“I’m not crazy!”

“Of course you aren’t, but you were frightened, Tom. It must have been a shock to find me like this.”

These words made sense. Could he really have worked himself up into such a state that he imagined Harry dead? Was it possible?

It had to be, considering that Harry was lying here and that his heart was beating. Tom could still taste it on his lips.

A tight, terrible knot in his chest finally loosened, and Tom pressed his mouth back to Harry’s throat, counting his pulse again. He wanted to lick it, to absorb its warmth, but even with the mess reigning in his head, he understood that he couldn’t. Maybe later, when Harry was sleeping.

“How could this have happened?” he asked quietly. “You said you fell.”

There was a pause.

“I was clumsy,” Harry said lightly. “I didn’t watch where I was going and I must have stumbled. Cracked my head against the windowsill.”   

A windowsill. He had nearly lost Harry because of a windowsill.

Hot, blind rage stirred up again, and Tom pulled back, staring.

This was unacceptable. All of this. Other people could fall to their death, or kill themselves, or get killed by someone, but not Harry, never Harry, never again. There had to be a solution, something he could use to protect him. Honestly, he should have thought of it much sooner.  

“I’m going to make you immortal,” he blurted out, and Harry froze. He didn’t laugh, at least, so it wasn’t the worst reaction. “Yes,” Tom continued more confidently. “I will make you immortal. I’ll do research and I’ll find a way. You’ll have to stay safe until then.”

Harry shook his head so violently that Tom let out a distressed noise, reaching out for him.

“Don’t move too much!” he hissed. “You might have a concussion. Be still.”

“No immortality,” Harry told him, and the harshness of his voice was so unusual that Tom frowned. “Promise me that you won’t research this topic, Tom. There is nothing good to be found there.”

“I don’t need it to be good, I need it to be effective. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Harry’s gaze softened again and he brushed his fingers against Tom’s cheek.

“Nothing will happen to me,” he whispered. “I swear to you. And when you are twenty, I will tell you what I know about immortality. Deal?” 

Tom scoffed. What could Harry possibly know about this topic?

But the way he was looking at him… after what happened, he couldn’t refuse. Even if he wasn’t going to keep his word.

“All right,” Tom nodded. “I promise.”

Harry smiled, relieved and beautiful, and a surge of adoration that hit him was so powerful that Tom’s heart jerked in his chest, trying to break through it and jump into Harry’s.

He wanted something. He wanted something he couldn’t define yet — he craved it, even. He…

Suddenly remembering what he’d done today, Tom straightened. A gleeful current of satisfaction ran through his body as he took out a ring from his pocket.

“What is it?” Harry peered at him curiously but Tom didn’t reply. Taking Harry’s hand in his, he slipped a ring on his finger, watching how it immediately took on a required size. Harry’s eyes widened.

“Wow,” he said, lifting his hand to take a better look. “It looks amazing. And expensive. Is it for me?”

“Of course it’s for you. I’m not a Gryffindor, or have you forgotten?” Tom took Harry’s hand in his again, marvelling at how exquisite the ring looked on it. The lion was garish and loud, but Harry would definitely like it. Good thing that Charlus hadn’t bought a ring with the symbol of his girlfriend’s House because it would be harder to explain it.

“Tom, I don’t know what to say.” Harry looked awe-struck and Tom drank in his expression. A dark and primal sense of triumph reared its head in him at the sight of Harry wearing something he had procured, looking happy and pleased because of him.

“Where did you get it?”

“I was saving money,” Tom replied. “I made arrangements with several people from my House. Since they owed me favours, it helped to speed the process up.”

“But it must cost a fortune.”

“You got me an expensive gift, too. And besides, I wanted you to have it. It’s a family gift.”

He meant the Potters but he knew Harry would understand it differently.

Just as he’d thought, Harry’s eyes went bright, and the smile that shone on his face was so touched and excited that Tom found himself mesmerised.

“Thank you,” Harry said, stretching his fingers and looking at the ring again. “I will always treasure it. It means more than I could ever explain.” Then he pulled Tom into his arms, his embrace familiar and warm, and Tom curled up on his chest, content with listening to the steady heartbeat.

Immortality. He would have to look into it. Maybe Hogwarts library had something. He would have to go to the Restricted Section, such books were likely to be deeply hidden, but he had time. Whatever madness had happened to him today, it wasn’t real. Harry was alive and well, and Tom was warned now. Death was an enemy and he would fight it until he defeated it. Harry would live forever, whether he wanted it or not, and the sooner the better.

In an hour, Harry finally persuaded him to get out of the bed. They had a brief supper, with Tom watching every Harry’s movement like a hawk, and then they were back to the bedroom. Harry looked pale and tired despite having spent hours lying down, so maybe he did have a concussion. Tomorrow morning, Tom would go to their lab to prepare the potions, but today, he wouldn’t leave Harry’s side, not for a second.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. Harry was already falling asleep, unable to keep his eyes open.

“Good,” he muttered. “Just a little strange. As if I’m here and not here at once. I don’t know how to describe it.”

Tom tensed and Harry squinted at him.

“It’s all right,” he repeated. “I’m sure I’ll feel fine in the morning. I told you I’m not going anywhere and that’s a promise I intend to keep. Tell me about your day.”

“I already told you about it.”

“Tell me again. You sounded happy. I like seeing you happy.”

A wave of aching tenderness made Tom shiver from its unusual warmth, and he pushed himself closer to Harry, taking his hand with the ring.

“I will talk but you will sleep,” he ordered. “You have to regain your strength after that ridiculous fall.”

Harry murmured something in agreement, closing his eyes again, and Tom adjusted his position.

“I met my friends in Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour. They didn’t want ice cream because of the weather but I ate some.”

“’Course you did. You have an enormous sweet tooth.”  

“Sleep,” Tom commanded sternly. Harry fell silent. “We talked about homework and holidays. I helped them with Charms because they are all abysmal at it. Then I took a walk with one of them. He got himself a girlfriend recently. He’s the one I made a deal with: I retrieved a letter from her for him and he helped me obtain the ring.”

“It’s a beautiful ring,” Harry sighed. “It reminds me of home. I can imagine what Ron and Hermione would say. They’d think it was too pompous but they wouldn’t mind me wearing it just for the thrill of witnessing Malfoy’s reaction. Me and this very pureblood ring…”

“Your home is with me,” Tom hissed, infuriated. If these Ron and Hermione ever came back, he would make it his priority to get rid of them.

“It is now,” Harry agreed, and just like that, the thick tension left him. Tom relaxed again, stroking the ring in satisfaction.

He resumed talking, inventing more and more new details, and soon, Harry was sleeping soundly, his face calm and innocent. Wordlessly, Tom watched him, and all his attempts to identify the strange flutter in his chest led to nothing.

Harry was his, he knew that much. And his things had to live forever. Tom couldn’t have been the only one to think about immortality, but he had an advantage that others didn’t: he was better than them. He was smart and he had a myriad of potential connections with the darkest families of Britain. When he proved his power, everyone would fall over themselves, trying to gain favour with him. They would give him access to the darkest books, and at least one of them had to have the information he needed.

Tom’s eyes fell on the photos standing near Harry’s bed. His friends, a group of people, and his parents. Fleamont Potter seemed happy, holding the long-haired woman. A Muggle or a Muggle-born? Could the pictures of Muggles move if they were depicted with the wizards? And how could Harry keep this picture, how could he treasure it when he knew that his parents had abandoned him, leaving him with abusive Muggle relatives?

Harry had a soft heart, Tom knew it well. But there was also a note of steel about him that left Tom wary.

Harry wouldn’t be pleased if he learned the truth about Charlus. He might attempt to give him away again and this was something Tom couldn’t allow. He doubted Harry would suspect him in any way even if he heard about the murder, but it was better to keep him away from the newspapers for as long as he could. Later, Harry would forget the details about Tom’s visit to Diagon Alley, so he wouldn’t connect the dots even if some news reached him.

For now, he had to hide, but with time, he would get rid of his mask. He just had to wait until Harry was truly incapable of leaving him, until the thoughts of his other home didn’t even cross his mind. Then he would be safe to be who he was.

Tom brushed a strand of hair from Harry’s forehead, revealing his faded scar. The warmth radiating off his skin was so inviting that Tom pressed his lips to it, then dropped another kiss lower, on Harry’s closed eyelids. 

Alive and warm and his. Just as he wanted it.

Carefully, Tom crawled under Harry’s arm and put it around his waist, entwining their fingers together. Then he let himself fall asleep.

 

***

In the morning, Tom was the first to wake up. After checking Harry’s pulse and making sure he was breathing, he came downstairs and retrieved the newspaper dropped next to their door. Charlus’ murder made the front page and Tom basked in the knowledge that he was the one to make it happen. With a smirk, he studied the photos of Charlus’ distraught parents. The screaming and wailing woman made his smirk widen but the man made him pause.

He resembled the person on Harry’s photo but he appeared to be much older. Interesting. Was it the forced breakup with his lover that made him age so quickly? It served him right. Tom would have liked nothing better than to devise some new torture for him, such as locking him in the room with a fresh body of his son and driving him mad, but dreams had to stay dreams for now. He was limited in what he could do.

Disposing of the newspaper, Tom made breakfast. Then he went upstairs to wake Harry up.

 

***

For the next two days, everything was going well. Tom monitored how Harry ate, how he rested and how he slept. He was always nearby, watching so that nothing happened to him, but on the third day, he woke up alone. Harry wasn’t in bed any longer and his side was cold.

He must have woken up first, that’s all. It wasn’t surprising, considering that Tom had spent the majority of the night staring at him and watching him breathe. He fell asleep only in about five in the morning, so he must have overslept and missed Harry leaving.

Still, his heart began to pound at a sickening rate, and Tom nearly fell from the bed in his haste to get downstairs.

Harry was there. He was there but something was wrong, and a cold sensation of terror kicked into Tom’s stomach, knocking the air right out of his lungs.

“What’s wrong?” he blurted out, dropping next to where Harry was sitting and grabbing his face. “Harry!”

Harry’s skin was grey and his gaze was unseeing. The only visible sign of life was his moving chest and Tom latched onto this one constant, trying to absorb the certainty of it to quench his fear.

“What’s wrong!” he demanded again. His voice became high-pitched but he barely noticed it. “Answer me!”

Harry flinched, raising his head, and the light of rationality returned to his eyes, making Tom nearly collapse from relief.

“Tom?” Harry asked hoarsely. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you woke up.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked for the third time, somewhat more calmly. “Do I need to get someone?”

“No. No, it’s all right,” Harry rubbed his reddened eyes with shaking hands. “I’ve learned bad news, that’s all.”

Bad news?

Oh. Was all of this just because of Charlus Potter?

The terror retreated to its sleeping place and Tom relaxed. His lips twitched in a smile but at the last moment, he managed to hold it off.

It’s not like Harry had even known this insignificant boy. This couldn’t be such a tragedy to him. Maybe he thought it was — he was vulnerable like this, but it wasn’t real, so it couldn’t last long.

“What kind of bad news?” Tom asked, putting the required amount of concern into his voice. Harry clutched his hand like it was his only anchor to reality and Tom basked in a quick flash of triumph this knowledge brought to him.

“Someone I know… someone I hoped to know was murdered. I never talked to him myself but I thought… I expected… I loved him. I loved what he was supposed to—” Harry stopped talking, shaking his head, and Tom frowned when he saw the frustrated tears crawling down his cheeks.

Harry was being irrational. How could he love someone he had never met? The only person who was with him and who he was allowed to love was Tom. It was unfortunate that he hadn’t caught up on it yet.

“How do you know this person was murdered?” Tom asked.

“I went to buy you a surprise breakfast. Two women were talking. I didn’t even look at the newspapers these last days, so I had no idea he—” Harry pursed his lips, and Tom watched, fascinated, as more tears fell. An unlikely duet of dissatisfaction and pleasure battled for dominance somewhere in his stomach, and no matter how long the fight lasted, none of them won.

Tom disliked seeing Harry upset. Perhaps even hated it. At the same time, he couldn’t deny that the sight of his tears was beautiful, ethereally so, and that the feeling they evoked in him wasn’t altogether distasteful. 

He supposed it depended on a reason. Harry had no right to cry for Charlus Potter, a boy he didn’t know, a boy who was never worthy of him. Would he cry for his father, too, when he died?

No matter. Tom would be there to support and comfort him.

He reached out for Harry, hugging him, and a smile did touch his lips when Harry sagged, almost melting in his arms.

“He was killed near the Diagon Alley,” Harry whispered. “On the same day you went there.”

Tom’s heart stopped. The blood roared in his ears, the sound of it deafening, paralysing him to the bones. His body suddenly felt like it weighted a ton, but then Harry continued, and the terror was miraculously lifted off him.

“I don’t want you to go somewhere without me for a while. At Hogwarts, if you go to Hogsmeade, make sure you are with someone — professors or your friends. Anyone. Do you promise me?”

“Of course,” Tom purred, putting his head on Harry’s shoulder. Harry didn’t suspect him. Harry thought Tom himself might be in danger. His voice had a grim note of a real suspicion and Tom would love to know what he was thinking, who he was suspecting, but regretfully, asking these questions was too dangerous. He doubted Harry would think about his involvement but no curiosity was worth this risk.

“The war might be coming sooner than I expected,” Harry murmured, burying his face in Tom’s shoulder. “It could have started differently this time. I could have changed something fundamental and now…”

“You’ll be all right,” Tom said when Harry didn’t continue, hoping he didn’t sound too patronising. “I’ll make sure of it. I will make you happy.”

Harry laughed shakily but didn’t protest.

They stayed like this for a while, and Tom felt better than he had in days.

Harry would be well soon, and eventually, he would understand and accept Tom’s gift. And then all masks would fall.

 

***

 

When time to return to Hogwarts came, Tom felt strangely reluctant. Parting with Harry had never appealed to him, but doing it now crossed the verge of uncomfortable and entered the area of being absolutely intolerable. That was how he found himself standing frozen on the platform, clutching Harry’s hand in his and unable to let go.

“Everything will be fine,” Harry told him, as if reading his thoughts. “Focus on your studies, enjoy the time with your friends. We will see each other soon enough.”

“Six months isn’t soon enough,” Tom said petulantly.

“Time will fly when you are in Hogwarts. It always does.”

“Not to me.”

Harry sighed, threw a quick look around them and pulled Tom closer to him.

“What are you worried about?” he asked. “Is this about what happened? I’m fine, you know I am.”

Tom didn’t want to reply to him — he looked weak as it was, but the words still escaped him before he could hold them back, “What if it happens again?”

“What if I manage to fall and repeatedly crack my head?” Harry chuckled, ruffling his hair, and Tom wanted to be annoyed at him for making him look untidy but couldn’t. “Even I’m not that clumsy. I’ll be fine.”

Tom bit his lip, dropping his gaze to his feet.

Harry was right and he was being ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as when he’d thought Harry was dead when he was just unconscious. But that sight still felt so achingly real… Tom shuddered, trying to force the unwanted images out of his head, and Harry squeezed his shoulders.

“You know that I love you, don’t you?” he asked. Tom nodded. He had doubts about how far this love could stretch but he knew Harry loved him. He had to. “That means I want you to be happy. And with how you reacted when you thought I died… I understand that I’m also important to you. Maybe even very important.”

Tom flushed but said nothing, and Harry’s gaze caressed him like he was seeing right through him.

“I never want you to be miserable,” Harry whispered. “And if I have to stay alive for that, I will. I swear to you that nothing will happen to me. If you don’t trust me to take care of myself for me, trust me that I will do that for you.”

Tom exhaled sharply and before he knew it, he was clinging to Harry pathetically, trying to absorb every part of him into himself.

“I’ll hold you to this promise,” he murmured. Harry hadn’t gotten over Charlus’ death yet, not completely, but Tom hoped that between writing to him and the students coming for lessons, Harry wouldn’t have time to wallow in depression. “And you will reply to my letters as soon as you get them.”

“I’m sure that your demon bird will leave me with no choice anyway, so don’t worry, it won’t be a problem.”

Tom let himself enjoy the embrace for a while longer before finally pulling back, tracking every shift on Harry’s face obsessively.

He had to wait just for several years. He would know how to make Harry immortal then and there would never be a reason to worry. The world would belong to them and they would rule it together, side by side. Harry would have forgotten Charlus’ name by then, and ideally, he would have reclaimed the Potters’ fortune.

Time was his biggest ally.  

 

Fifteen minutes later, Tom was sitting in the compartment with Avery, Black, Lestrange, and Mulciber, observing them joke and act stupid with cold eyes.

“Gryffindor and Ravenclaw are the new enemies!” Lestrange said excitedly. “The Aurors think Amber Steins, Potter’s girlfriend, has something to do with his death because his parents claim he went to meet her. Steins’ family refuses to comment, though.”

“Steins’ family is a disgrace,” Mulciber grimaced, chewing on a sugar quill. “They would benefit from the alliance with Potters, so I don’t think they were involved.”

“Steins’ mother has extremist views about the purebloods, so maybe she was against her daughter dating an heir of a traditionally pureblood family.”

“Tom, what do you think about it?” Black turned to face him.

“Yes, what do you think?” Lestrange seconded. “You did hear about Potter’s murder, didn’t you?”

Tom put down the book he was pretending to read, sending them a mysterious smile.  

“I did,” he replied casually. “I dare say I know more about it than you or the Prophet. Or the Steins.”

The compartment was immersed into a long silence as four pairs of eyes stared at him, obviously trying to figure out what he meant. If Tom had to bet, he would pick Black as someone who would come to the correct conclusion fastest. He was relatively intelligent and outspoken enough to voice his guesses.

Just as he’d thought, Black was the first to talk.

“Are you saying you had something to do with it?” he asked carefully. Lestrange’s eyes widened in shock and excitement, and even Mulciber and Avery looked awed.

“I’m not saying anything,” Tom replied, but his smile grew wider and Avery let out a quiet gasp.

“Will you tell us?” he implored.

“Don’t be an idiot, of course he won’t,” Black said, staring at Tom speculatively. Tom met his gaze, holding it.

“I trust that your theories won’t reach other students,” he uttered after a moment, and was treated to four identical nods.

He couldn’t trust them yet, neither to keep quiet nor to notice and escape manipulation of adults who might want to extract information from them. Instead, he would give them a few veiled hints and see what happened. If anyone questioned him because of this conversation, he would have to pretend being a fool that wanted to look intimidating and secretive. But Tom had a feeling that his allies would keep their word.

This would be a test, and if they failed it, they would have to face the consequences.

 

***

He had warned Black, Mulciber, Lestrange, and Avery against sharing his careful hint with students, but he had deliberately omitted their families. This very night, Apophis brought him the letter Black tried to send to his parents, and Tom took care to get it out of the envelope without damaging it.

Tom has indicated that he might be the one behind Potter’s murder,’ Black had written. ‘I’m inclined to believe him. I also think that this murder has something to do with his guardian. Many assume that Harry Potter isn’t related to the Potters and merely shares the last name with them but I think differently. There is some story there, and physical resemblance is something to consider, too.

Tom is obsessed with his guardian. I observed them together on the platform and I was left with the impression that he has deep feelings for him. He would kill for him, I don’t doubt it.

You may think that Harry Potter is the mastermind behind Potter’s murder but I don’t consider this a valid option. He didn’t strike me as anyone but a typical Gryffindor in those brief moments I watched him. Tom, on the other hand, is something else. You would be very pleased to meet him. His influence is already growing — everyone has noticed how Lestrange, Avery, and Mulciber follow his every word even more intensely than before, and everyone is intrigued. None of them will know what Tom has done but they will still know he’s done something.’

Satisfied, Tom re-packed the letter and nodded at Apophis, indicating that it could be passed back to Black’s owl. Then he returned to the room, hiding a smirk at how the Slytherins immediately fell silent, staring at him with avid curiosity.

He had missed Hogwarts. He missed being in the centre of attention of so many people. He missed the feeling of power that came only with the ability to control and affect someone so thoroughly, so completely. In a way, it was almost as enticing as that short moment of euphoria he’d felt when killing Charlus. Pity it didn’t last. Maybe if he prolonged the murder next time, it would be more entertaining.

That night, Tom went to bed holding the locket in his hand. He thought about Charlus’ face as he realised he was dying, about the small but fascinating spasms that were rolling through his body, about his pathetic, weak whimpering. Still, when he fell asleep, Harry was the only thing he dreamed of.

 

***

“He’s teaching Marlissa. She loves him to death, mother told me she wants to have even more lessons with him! Can you imagine Marlissa wanting to study anything? This Harry Potter must be a miracle-worker.”

“Excuse me?” Tom, who had been forced to listen to this inane conversation due to its close proximity, perked up. The girls looked at him and their eyes grew predictably round.

“Tom!” one of them exclaimed in delight. “We were just discussing your guardian.”

What an idiot. As if he hadn’t heard them mention Harry’s name already.

“What about him?” Tom put on one of his disarming smiles, knowing what effect it was supposed to produce. The girl — Hannah, he recognised her now, immediately smiled back, as if unable to help herself.

“He is teaching my younger sister Marlissa magic,” she explained. “When you recommended him as a tutor, many families booked his services. Marlissa barely got a place and now he’s the only thing she’s talking about! He’s a truly good teacher if he managed to hold her attention for more than a minute.”

Tom’s smile stayed on his face only due to the sheer force of his will. A dark, ominous shape began to form somewhere above his heart, making his magic thrum in disgust.   

He forgot. How could he have forgotten? Harry had taken on students just like he’d planned. It seemed like a good idea initially, but Tom had failed to consider one simple fact: he wasn’t there to supervise them. Now he was stuck in Hogwarts while Harry entertained some other children, sharing his knowledge, limited as it was, his unique patience, his kindness and humour. How many students did he even have? Why hadn’t he spoken of them in his letters?

“You are so lucky to have him as your guardian,” Hannah sighed dreamily. “I wish I could study with him, too.”

“Oh?” Tom continued to smile, even though his lips began to hurt from the effort. “Are you dissatisfied with the level of teaching Hogwarts provides?”

“Well, not exactly, but it’s much more exciting to be studying with a tutor, don’t you think? Marlissa told me he’s charming and that he always lets her stay after lessons for a while.”

Tom clenched his hands into fists under the table, and maybe his face finally revealed some of his true emotions because Hannah suddenly pulled back, looking wary.

“I’m glad your sister is enjoying her lessons,” Tom said pleasantly, and Hannah’s posture relaxed again. She opened her mouth to say something but Tom already turned away, determined to ignore her.

He was being irrational. Of course Harry was working with students — this was the only way he could earn money without doing something humiliating. And of course Harry, being who he was, took his job seriously and entertained these worthless little worms even after the lessons ended. Tom couldn’t begrudge him that.

But the shadow continued to expand, slowly sucking out every positive feeling he had, leaving him with bitter, poisonous void.

It wasn’t acceptable, he saw it now. This work could only ever be a short-term solution, so Tom would have to come up with another one soon. Harry was strange: he was simultaneously the most social and antisocial person Tom had ever seen. He seemed perfectly content with staying home with him, spending the majority of the years this way, but if they went out and encountered someone, Harry laughed, chatted, and refused to shut up to finally end the boring conversation. If he had a chance, like he did now, he would probably surround himself with many more people and he would dedicate his attention to each of them, leaving Tom with the scraps.

Tom had to take this chance from him, then. He would either find Harry some other job or he would start making money himself, and the moment it happened, he would be getting rid of all the potential threats. Harry’s social side had to be subdued and preferably eliminated because Tom hated it, and what he hated was to be destroyed.  

A potion that would leave him temporarily mute? Harry wouldn’t be talking to others in such state, would he? But no, too risky. Harry would figure this one out soon. Making him an outcast and ruining his reputation could work, but this would affect Tom’s reputation in turn and he couldn’t let it happen.

Imperio was a good charm but there was frustratingly little information on it. Applying it was too dangerous, which made it useless.

The enlarged trunk really seemed to be the only effective idea so far.

Tom stabbed a piece of pie on his plate viciously, glaring daggers at it.

He would clearly have to brainstorm some more. Maybe he would try researching mind control magic — it was a fascinating branch of study. It had to offer at least several ideas.

He needed to get into the Restricted Section for two reasons now, and the sooner he found access, the better.

 

***

 

Slowly, the winter ended, turning into spring and then summer. Charlus’ murder remained unsolved, and whatever careful reservations Tom had about it vanished.

He had planned everything perfectly. He couldn’t get caught.

His research into immortality and mind magic was standing still: he had found a way to break into the Restricted Section but he didn’t know how to touch the books he needed. The detection charms showed that each tome he was interested in was soaked in dark protective magic, and his knowledge simply failed to suffice to counter it.

When Tom understood it, he was furious. The following nights, the nightmares about Harry’s dead, empty eyes haunted him, making him wake up panting and wet from the cold sweat. Every time after it, he escaped to the Owlerly to send Harry a letter, and he stayed there until the morning, until Apophis returned with the reply.

I’m safe. Everything is fine. Please don’t worry about me. 

He could breathe only after these three simple lines, and he went to the Great Hall for breakfast knowing that Harry was going to send another letter soon, a longer and detailed one. These short reassurances were only for the nights, but Tom waited for them just as urgently, with dread and anticipation. And he opened these night envelopes with shaking hands, unable to calm down until he saw Harry’s handwriting and until the world around him gained shapes again.

Pathetic, yes, sadly so, but he didn’t care. He needed these letters, and he would continue getting them until he learned everything there was to learn about immortality.

When Hogwarts finally ended and Tom returned home, he refused to stay in his own bedroom. The nights spent with Harry next to him were the first ones in what felt like forever that he spent peacefully, secure in the warm hands wrapped around him protectively or in the breathing body he himself was holding.  

Two weeks after the start of summer holidays, Harry whisked him to Providenciales, an island surrounded by the ocean, and Tom was in love with it the moment he saw it. He and Harry had toured across different countries many times before but they had never stayed at a place like this, where the only thing they could do was to laze around.

The beach was white and inviting, the water had the colour Tom would have never believed was real, and most importantly, Harry seemed focused only on him. His face was alight with happiness, as if this was the holiday he had always dreamt of, and he kept fussing over Tom, rubbing a strange thing he called sunscreen into his skin.

“How is that supposed to help?” Tom asked. He tried to keep his voice steady but his insides got entangled in some strange dance, his heart fluttering with every touch Harry bestowed on his shoulders.

“It will block the sun,” Harry explained, working on his arms now, enthusiastic and still delightfully cheerful. “You might get burns otherwise. And you are so pale, it’ll be immediately obvious. You don’t want to walk around with red shapeless spots all over you, do you?”   

Tom’s brain was too focused on the physical contact to pay attention to the words. Clearing his throat, he murmured, “I’m not shapeless,” unsure if it was the right thing to say or if he’d heard something wrong. Harry paused before breaking into laughter.

“You are ridiculous, not shapeless,” he agreed, and Tom finally snapped back to conversation.

“I’m not ridiculous!”

“You are sometimes. A little bit. Like now, when you’re drifting off and trying to pretend you understood what I said, or when you try to make your speeches.”

“My speeches aren’t ridiculous either, stop saying that!”

Harry laughed again and Tom growled at him, even though his lips stretched themselves into a foolish smile.

“There, all done,” Harry pulled back and Tom immediately felt the loss of the contact. Before he had a chance to think, he jumped to his feet and snatched the vial from Harry’s hands.

“My turn,” he told him. “You need the sunscreen, too. After all, you don’t want to be…” Tom waved his hand vaguely, having no idea how to finish the sentence, and Harry dared to tilt his head in fake confusion.

“I don’t want to be what?” he asked innocently, and Tom snarled.

“Shapeless!” he spat. Ignoring the burst of Harry’s continued laughter, he began to spread the salve across his back, carefully mirroring his movements.

Harry had a much tanner skin than he did. It was mostly smooth but two thin scars marred the otherwise perfect picture. Tom leaned closer, studying them.

He had never seen these ones before. He knew of five scars — he turned them into a study, observing them for hours at a time, sometimes tracing their contours with his fingertips when Harry slept. There were two of them on his forearm: one looked like it was caused by a knife, another one resembled a bite of some animal, possibly a snake. A strangely-shaped scar distorted the skin on his right hand, like someone tried to bleach it, and there was one thick line on his left ankle — left by a dog, according to Harry. The scar on his forehead was the fifth and most fascinating, but these ones on his back? This was the first time he was seeing them, and a venomous mixture of greed and possessiveness stirred inside.

Tom wanted to dig his fingers into these scars, to condemn them for hiding from him for so long. He wanted to bite into them, leaving his own mark with his teeth, putting a claim over the one left by whomever had gotten to Harry’s skin first. He’d wanted to do the same to the scars he’d seen, too, but eventually, he managed to make his peace with them. These two were different — they had been hidden from him, as if they didn’t know they belonged to him, just like Harry belonged to him, regardless of who actually hurt him to put them there.

Mesmerised, Tom bent even closer, breathing against Harry’s golden skin, but the misty haze clouding his head was scattered when Harry suddenly jerked with a startled yelp.

“That tickles!” he complained. “You are supposed to put the sunscreen on, not breathe on me!”

A heated flush exploded all over his face and Tom ducked his head, suddenly embarrassed.

“You didn’t tell me about these two scars,” he murmured. “I wanted to see them better.”

“Oh, those?” Harry relaxed again, letting out a little sigh of contentment when Tom resumed rubbing the salve, or whatever it was, into his neck. “Honestly, I completely forgot about them. They are the most recent ones but the circumstances in which I got them weren’t all that memorable. These were simple fights.”

Tom stopped.

“Simple fights?” he repeated. “As opposed to what?”

“Er…” Harry shrugged somewhat guiltily. “As opposed to bigger fights? It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s in the past.”

“I can’t imagine you fighting another wizard seriously. What spells could you even use against them, Expelliarmus?”

Harry froze under his hands and Tom’s jaw dropped.

“Are you out of your mind?” he hissed. “Did you truly use a disarming charm when fighting for your life?”

“Well, the situation was complex—”

“You were left with scars! You could have died! I was only joking — I know for a fact you know more spells. How could you choose the most harmless of them?”

“I didn’t know the spells I do now back then,” Harry pointed out, still facing away from him even though Tom’s hands didn’t move. “And the intent behind any spell is essential, Tom. I didn’t want to hurt or kill anyone. I was defending myself. Taking someone’s wand seemed like the best solution.”

Tom closed his eyes, trying to breathe through his nose slowly and to soothe the outrage swirling in his blood.

Harry was a fool. How many times had he almost died? How close had Tom come to losing him without even knowing him? And how many times could it happen again?

Harry had never shared the whole story of his past. Tom didn’t know who or why he’d been fighting, how long ago it was, where he used to live and why he returned. He knew nothing, and that included any enemies Harry might have. What if they came for him? What if they came and Harry, foolish and kind-hearted Harry, refused to defend himself again?

Tom realised he was hyperventilating too late. Panic was already taking its firm hold over him, conquering his self-control and locking it away, putting it in a place Tom could see but couldn’t access. All thoughts evaporated, replaced by the mindless images of Harry dead, Harry tortured, Harry lying on that floor with his eyes open and Tom being unable to reach him…

Suddenly, he was pulled flush against a familiar chest, with his ear forcibly pressed to the sounds of a heartbeat. The terror receded, throwing the key to control back to him, and the air started flowing into his lungs again, grounding him.

“All right?” Harry asked quietly. Tom nodded silently, counting each of his heartbeats. “Sorry. I don’t know how this conversation went so wrong so quickly. But I want you to know that the past doesn’t matter, Tom. At least my past doesn’t. It’s left behind now and I’m never going to get it back again. People from this past, the friends, the enemies… they are all gone. We will never meet again, at least not in the way we did before.”

“You aren’t making any sense,” Tom uttered, still refusing to open his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter,” Harry repeated. “But I will be safe. Like I promised you.”

A few more years and Tom would love for Harry’s enemies to come. He would meet them with all deadly hospitality he was capable of.

“What do you think about swimming?”

The change of topic was so abrupt that Tom looked up, frowning.

“What?”

The next second, Harry lifted him off the ground and moved towards the water determinedly, and it was so shocking that at first, all Tom could do was gape at him.

“You can’t carry me like this for everyone to see!” he hissed finally. “I’m not a child!”

“You absolutely are.”

“No!”

“You are twelve. You are a child.”

“I’m not a child!” Tom yelled. Several people they were passing giggled and he sent them a scathing glare. “Put me down, I’m not going to be swimming like this!”

Harry ignored him, plunging them both into water, and Tom let out an undignified sound, gripping his neck tightly.

“It’s cold!” he complained sullenly, but brightened when Harry dropped a quick kiss on the top of his head.

“If you swim, it won’t be cold for long,” he promised. Tom didn’t enjoy the water much but sometimes it was worth it. Letting go of Harry, he circled him, observing the underwater floor with interest. Before he could see anything of note there, though, he was splashed with water. Blinking, Tom turned and stared at Harry only to get another splash right in his face.

“Stop that!” he snapped, shaking his head rapidly to get his hair dryer, but Harry just moved around him with a cunning grin on his lips. He was obviously planning to do the exact same thing again, it didn’t take a genius to figure it out.

“And who is a child here?” Tom scowled, crossing his arms together. “This is a stupid game, I’m not playing it.”

However, when the next splash came, he quickly dodged it and then sent a similar one at Harry. The amount of water he got in return was obviously magically induced because it covered him wholly and for a moment, Tom couldn’t see anything.

“Now that is just cheating!” he protested when the final drops of water fell away, revealing the world to him again. Before Harry could make another move, Tom threw himself at him, trying to push him underwater. He smugly noted the openly surprised look on Harry’s face as he went down, but a second later, he emerged back up, spitting the water right into Tom’s face.

Spitting water. Into his face.

No one dared to do something like this to him. No one even considered it. If anyone from Hogwarts saw this, they wouldn’t believe it — he was never a subject of jokes or silly tricks the others liked to play because he knew how to present and hold himself. He was better than this meaningless fun, Harry had do know it.

Of course he did, but since when did Harry ever pay attention to it? He was like a big child sometimes. Maybe Tom had to indulge him a bit.

When a wave of water came at him again, Tom quickly conjured a small barrier, and the monstrosity of wetness was beaten back at Harry. The force of the blow was hard enough to make him waver, and before he could regain his balance, Tom sent the water crashing into him from four sides at once, successfully locking him inside.

Harry was coughing when he emerged, but his eyes shone with childish excitement. 

“Muggles will see!” he whispered, but Tom just grinned ferally, his own excitement making his senses sharpen.

If Harry wanted war, he would get it.

 

***

 

The days on this holiday-island were running so quickly that Tom could barely keep track of them. Not that he needed to. He and Harry didn’t have to rush anywhere, so they kept spending time on the beach, swimming, reading, and building Hogwarts from the wet sand.

Initially, Tom had been sceptical. Harry seemed intent on recreating every stereotype about the childhood he hadn’t gotten to live out, and Tom didn’t feel up to participating in it. Besides, it was embarrassing — no one their age did such things anymore. It was impossible to imagine Black or Lestrange building sand castles, and Tom was better than them.

But as he watched Harry construct the first layers, an expression of open delight on his face, something in him felt compelled to join him. Probably the same part that admired how easily Harry went against the society, how he ignored the strange looks he was getting from filthy Muggles, how he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, a true, wilful Gryffindor at heart. 

So despite all reservations, Tom joined him, and in ten minutes, he forgot about everyone’s scrutiny either. Everything he did with Harry was filled with a sort of glimmering magic he wasn’t sure existed. When they were separated, sometimes, he couldn’t believe it was real. He forgot its taste — the only thing that stayed with him was the memory of how exquisite and incredible it felt. But as soon as they reunited and started doing something together, its familiar freshness began to flow through his pores again, making him hopelessly, helplessly addicted to it.

Creating Hogwarts in particular, just the two of them, meant something. It meant a lot. Harry treated the task as a Gryffindor would, focusing on the building’s physical attributes and optimistically hoping it wouldn’t collapse, while Tom had to be the one to understand how to make its inner parts hold.

It was growing daily, becoming more detailed and impressive. Harry charmed it every time they left so that it wouldn’t get ruined by some ill-wishers or by a curious animal. However, the charms were lifted when they returned, so when an idiotic small child stepped right onto the Slytherin dungeon with a happy giggle, there was nothing to save it, and Tom was too consumed by the task to react timely.

He stared at the dent in the part he’d been working on so meticulously before slowly turning to the child. It was a boy who couldn’t be older than three, and he clapped happily at the sight of Tom’s face, as if glad to see him.

“Oh,” Harry muttered. His hand clenched Tom’s shoulder briefly, like he sensed the growing storm and wanted to calm it, and then he crawled closer to the child, smiling at him.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Harry. What’s your name?”

The boy blabbered something Tom didn’t understand, waving his hands frantically.  To his annoyance, Harry didn’t seem deterred.

“Yes,” he agreed. “It’s a beautiful castle, isn’t it? Would you like to help us build it?”

Tom’s lips parted in shock before he snapped his jaw shut, narrowing his eyes at Harry.

He couldn’t mean it. This was their castle. The intruders weren’t welcome, and this little revolting creature had just destroyed a huge part of Tom’s work. Did it mean nothing to him?

Harry glanced at him suddenly and a shadow of strange understanding ran across his face. Turning his attention back to the boy, he sent him another smile.

“Let’s go find your parents, shall we?” he asked. The boy was a complete idiot who couldn’t understand a word but like every other person in this world, he understood one thing: Harry was friendly. Still babbling, he readily took Harry’s hand, and Tom watched them as they left, his chest heavy and cold.

A minute later, Harry came back and immediately focused on the ruined dungeons.  

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll redo it quickly,” he assured him, but Tom’s lips curled in disgust.

“How could you have offered him to join us?” he asked darkly. “Was the fact that he broke our work not enough for you?”

“He didn’t break it, he just stepped on one part out of many. We can correct it.”

Tom was silent.

“Don’t sulk, my little love,” Harry sing-songed, and all thoughts about the boy promptly left Tom’s head. A surprised heat flooded his cheeks and he tried to snort but failed miserably. Harry, sensing how his mood improved, smiled and pinched his nose lightly.

“That’s much better,” he said, and while Tom finally managed a scowl, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that tension seeped out of his body as quickly as it had filled it. “He’s just a kid, he didn’t do it on purpose. If anything, it’s our fault — we shouldn’t forget about our surroundings.”

Tom nodded distractedly, barely listening.

My little love. Harry had never called him this before. It was said jokingly but the words themselves… Tom liked them. He wanted to hear them one more time.

A pleasant humming rang in his ears as he worked on restoring the dungeons, with Harry by his side. No children distracted them again and in the end, Tom decided that this was one of his favourite days this summer.

He hoped Harry would say the same words again soon.

 

***

 

The next day, the annoying child was back, this time with his elder sister. She chatted with Harry briefly and when she wanted to leave, the child clang to Harry’s leg, drooling and cooing.

“I could watch him for you a bit if you want to go for a swim,” Harry offered, and Tom clenched his fists, infuriated. The young woman agreed hastily and left, and Tom stared at the child, wanting nothing more than to drown him.

“Come play with us,” Harry told him, already moulding something that looked like a cake out of sand. The boy observed him before mimicking his movements, and Tom had the strongest urge to stomp on what they were building and wrap his hands around the child’s neck.

Building anything from the sand was their thing, his and Harry’s. How could Harry let the intruders into their world so easily? Did he see nothing wrong with it?

“Tom, come on,” Harry called, and he sounded genuine, but it only worsened Tom’s already darkening mood.

He didn’t want to join them. He wanted to join Harry and for the boy to be gone.

On the other hand, Harry had gifted him a wonderful holiday. Maybe he deserved to spend several hours in someone else’s company for a change — provided that Tom could be there to supervise it.

But only today. Harry was treading on a thin ice and Tom would hate to see it break.

 

***

 

The boy wasn’t gone tomorrow. He wasn’t gone the day after tomorrow either — on the contrary, he stuck to Harry like glue, listening to his every word and refusing to leave him alone.

The contempt and anger that were slowly boiling in Tom reached their critical point. He tried dragging Harry to another spot on the beach but they inevitably returned to finish their castle, and right away, they were ambushed. Harry was too friendly to turn the girl and her nightmare of a brother down, so what had to be their holiday grew into something infuriating and exhausting. Despite the signs of displeasure Tom was sending Harry, they went ignored. Well, mostly ignored — Harry saw them but instead of obeying, he stubbornly tried to drag Tom into playing together with him and the boy.

“Hawy?” the boy asked Tom, looking at him with wide, confused eyes. Harry was dressing himself in the blue beach changing stall, hidden behind a heavy metal door. The boy’s sister was swimming again, too content to leave her burden on others, so he and Tom were all alone.

“Hawy?” the boy repeated urgently, and Tom sneered at him. How he hated this little waste of space. He had stolen four days from him and Harry and he was clearly set on stealing even more. Unless…

Tom glanced around quickly. No one was in the immediate vicinity. Harry was bound to come out any moment now, but what Tom wanted to do wouldn’t take more than several seconds. He just had to be as quiet as possible.

Taking the child’s hand, Tom led him to the empty changing stall and nodded at it.

“Harry,” he whispered into his ear, leaning close enough so that his voice wouldn’t carry to where Harry was changing.

“Hawy?” the boy sent him a questioning look and Tom nodded encouragingly. As he thought, the boy reached for the stall, grabbing its side awkwardly to keep his balance and peek inside, but before he could do it, Tom slammed the door shut, breaking four of his fingers.

The child wailed instantly. Knowing Harry would come running in a second, Tom dropped to his knees, grabbing the boy’s hand and examining it.

“Don’t cry,” he cooed. “The doctors will make it stop hurting quickly.”

The boy was too stupid to understand Tom was at fault so he leaned into him, still shrieking from pain.

“What happened?” Harry jumped out of the stall, just as Tom had predicted, and ran towards them.

“He was looking for you,” Tom explained, contorting his face in a sympathetic grimace. “He wanted to go inside the stall but the burst of wind shut the door and hit his fingers.”

Harry took a look at the boy’s hand and then he glanced at Tom. His eyes went from concerned to deadly, and the change was so abrupt that Tom almost recoiled.

He had never seen Harry look like this. With such a gaze, he didn’t even resemble himself — he had turned into a terrifying and unfamiliar creature.

“The wind had to be really strong to break his bones,” Harry said, and his voice was as cold as his eyes.

“Yes,” Tom replied carefully. Everything inside his chest was vibrating, screaming danger. “These doors are very heavy.”

Harry continued to stare. Without a word, he took out his wand and murmured a spell Tom didn’t know. The child’s crying subsided.

“He will have to go to the hospital,” Harry said. “I can lessen the pain temporarily but I can’t heal his hand. I doubt he’ll be back to the beach soon.”

“Such a pity,” Tom uttered, tilting his head in mocking regret.

“Is it?” Harry sent him the last piercing stare before focusing on the boy.

He didn’t speak to Tom again that day. They returned to their rented room in silence. They ate in silence, too, and when they went to sleep, Harry turned away from him. Tom was left alone in the dark, breathing through his gritted teeth, angry and scared simultaneously.

Harry couldn’t know he was to blame. He could suspect him, fine, Tom’s version wasn’t really believable, but to know it’s him with such certainty that he dared to shut him out? To ignore him, to not even wish him good night?

Tom opened his mouth to say something but the words died before they could slip out. What could he say?

I don’t like you ignoring me. I haven’t done anything.

You aren’t being fair. It’s not my fault.

Nothing seemed appropriate. Worse, nothing seemed realistic.

How could Harry know? Why didn’t he give him the benefit of the doubt? And why was that useless, worthless boy so important to him that he chose him over Tom?

The silence was growing intolerable. Harry wasn’t sleeping yet, Tom knew it, he knew how his breathing was supposed to sound, and yet he still refused to say anything, to even turn to him.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed but at some point, he finally had enough. Biting his lip, Tom shifted closer and wrapped his hands around Harry, pressing to his back. He waited, his palms growing sweatier the longer Harry didn’t react, the thoughts of unwanted, forgotten, unloved raising from their graves to remind him of their existence. But finally, Harry released a breath and clenched one of Tom’s hands in his, still without turning, and a powerful surge of relief washed the corpses of his insecurities back to their tombs, making Tom shudder, feeling more at ease.

It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing. He was obviously forgiven. Now only if he could make Harry understand that he couldn’t just dedicate his attention to others and not expect Tom to do something about it... Harry was smart but sometimes he made the most serious and stupid mistakes. They had spent years together and he still didn’t know that their world was only big enough for two people?

No, he knew. He had to know. And yet he kept trying to change the rules and make unnecessary additions. When would he stop being so stubborn?   

Tom didn’t say it aloud, and Harry said nothing as well.

Soon, they both fell asleep.

***

 

The next morning, Harry acted like nothing happened. He was cheerful and attentive as always, and most importantly, he was Tom’s again. They went back to the beach and they finished their castle.

The boy hadn’t returned and no one else bothered them again.

 

***

 

Their summer ended on a high note and after that, time resumed its running. Hogwarts was breathing with possibilities and Tom grabbed them all, working tirelessly on establishing and slowly growing his empire.

He was adored by representatives of all Houses, including pure-bloods, half-bloods, and Muggle-borns. All teachers thought the world of him — everyone but Dumbledore, but Tom couldn’t care less about his opinion.

“Why do you spend more time with Muggle-borns than with anyone else?” Avery asked once jealously. Tom glanced above the book he was reading.

“Are you feeling neglected?” he drawled. Avery dropped his gaze in embarrassment but then he stood his ground.

“I’m just saying, you seem to prefer their company. Why is that?”

Tom snapped his book shut abruptly enough to make Avery flinch.

He enjoyed the control he had over his closest allies but having to waste his time on soothing their insecurities was tiresome. He wanted to finish the chapter and then compose a letter to Harry, not stay here and talk to Avery. But what he said to him would quickly spread among everyone else, so it was the chance he had to use to avoid talking more later.

How Slytherin of you,’ Harry’s imagined voice whispered teasingly. Tom ignored it. Harry always had a habit of popping up in his mind, whether he wanted it or not.

“I would assume it’s obvious but as always, you keep on being slow and disappointing me,” he said aloud. Avery flushed, hunching his shoulders. He wasn’t a particularly submissive follower and his ego wasn’t fragile, but these days, in Tom’s presence, he always faded into a bleating shadow. It was as amusing as it was boring because while it undoubtedly injected a stream of power into Tom’s veins, it made their conversations tediously one-sided.

“The pure-bloods who are loyal to our cause, such as yourself, already know my stance and my goals. They also know what I am capable of. Muggle-borns are disposable but their loyalty is a useful cover. They are the shields that will fall first.”

Harry’s sniggering face surfaced in his mind again, his lips forming the words, ‘Not one of your speeches again!’, and Tom huffed, waving the image away.

Avery looked fascinated. That was yet another proof that Harry was wrong.

“But why do you—” Avery started.

“I already told you this before, true loyalty isn’t something that is born overnight. I’ll convert these Muggle-borns to my side and they will spread their new beliefs among others of their kind. As of now, very few people don’t support me, Avery, which means that whatever I decide to do in the future, I will have allies in the majority of Hogwarts population. And you, as well as everyone who’s made it into my inner circle, will reap the benefits along with me.”

Truth to be told, Tom wasn’t thrilled with how many efforts he had to waste. Siding solely with pure-bloods and continuing Slytherin’s real legacy by using force would have been quicker, but Harry was an important factor that he couldn’t disregard. Making peace with Muggle-borns was all for him, and Tom hoped he would appreciate it.    

Avery nodded, looking intoxicated with his blown pupils and flushed cheeks, and Tom couldn’t help but wonder if this was from the promise of power or infatuation. Lestrange’s crush was more than enough, Tom didn’t need to deal with another one.

With such a big head, it’s a wonder your legs are still functional,’ Harry snickered, and if Tom could, he would have glared at him.

He had no time for this. He had to finish the book Black had brought to him from his family library soon and to start another one if this one proved to be insufficient. Immortality seemed to be the topic that even wizards tended to avoid, and Tom was getting more and more frustrated.

Something had to be written on this topic. At least one other person had to have devised a ritual allowing him or her to become immortal.

If not… Tom would come up with something himself. Harry wasn’t allowed to die, and he would find a solution no matter the cost, no matter the time and the sacrifice.

 

***

 

When winter holidays and Tom’s thirteenth birthday approached, his desire to see Harry had turned into a living, breathing being that struggled somewhere within his ribcage, demanding to be let out. The more he stalled it, the more vicious it got, clawing at his insides and leaving huge wounds open.

Tom didn’t like losing control but the less days before their meeting remained, the shakier he felt. He couldn’t explain it properly — he didn’t know why it felt worse than even the last time, why the anticipation and longing grew into obsession so intense, it was driving him absolutely crazy. A few days before the holidays, and he could barely concentrate on anything else. His closest Slytherins began to send him funny looks but Tom was unable to care.

He wanted to see Harry. He wanted to talk to him and hear his voice, not just stare at his handwriting, memorising every curve of every letter. He wanted to touch him and hold him and inhale his scent and never let him go again, and why did this week have to be so endless?

Whatever others thought about it, they didn’t risk voicing their opinions, so their looks were the only display of disobedience. Harry was a restricted topic that no one dared to raise — Tom preferred it this way. He didn’t want his name uttered as if it were just an empty, meaningless sound. Harry deserved more than that, no matter how commonly he was called.

Tom knew what he would give him this Christmas. He knew what he would take from him, too.

 

***

 

The first days upon his return were bliss. On Christmas night, when Harry was sleeping, exhausted after the hours they spent on decorations, cooking, and customary reading, Tom took out his gift from his trunk. It was a photo of himself, the one he demanded Black to take at Hogwarts. He’d chosen each detail very carefully: he wore the robes he and Harry had bought, with his wand in one hand and the book with the potential clues on immortality in another one. The wand symbolised their connection physically — the magic itself thought they were made for each other, linking them together.      The book was the embodiment of what they would become, even if Harry wouldn’t catch the reference yet. But giving this picture to him was only a half of the plan. Another involved the place where he was going to put it.

Quietly, Tom took the three photographs that had been decorating Harry’s bedside table for years now. Resentment was the only feeling he had for the people portrayed there. They had their chance to be with Harry but their time had passed. There was no place for them in his new life with Tom. Harry had to accept it. If he couldn’t make this decision himself, Tom would make it for him.

Placing his photo in the freed space, Tom carried the old ones to his room and after brief hesitation, threw them to the bottom of his trunk. He would have liked to destroy them but he had to consider other options, too. If Harry reacted negatively…

He wouldn’t dwell on this possibility. But he would still have a way to backtrack if it came to it.

Pleased with himself, Tom returned to Harry’s room and crawled into bed with him. Even a year later, Harry was still wearing his ring, and a warm glow of pride lit Tom’s chest at the sight.

Each Christmas they spent together had to be better than the previous one. He would do anything to ensure it.

Throwing a possessive hand over Harry’s waist, Tom let the sleep take him, already anticipating the morning.

 

***

 

When he opened his eyes, Harry wasn’t in bed any longer. He was still nearby, though, kneeling next to the bedside table and staring at Tom’s gift silently.

In the harsh morning light, the idea he’d nourished suddenly stopped looking as smart as he’d believed it to be. He knew Harry wouldn’t be overly happy, not at first, but he also didn’t expect this hateful blankness on his face.

What he did wasn’t all that wrong. Harry was clinging to the past that would never return to him. It wasn’t right.  

“Merry Christmas,” Tom told him. Harry flinched, as if torn from the deepest layer of his mind, before turning his head to look at him.

“Tom,” he said quietly. “Merry Christmas.”

Silence fell between them. Then Harry stood up, climbed up the bed again and took Tom’s hands in his.

“There is a conversation I wanted to have with you for a while,” he murmured. “Ever since our summer holiday.”

Not this again! That topic was closed, wasn’t it? Tom had made a rushed decision and paid for it by spending the rest of the day ignored. Why was Harry bringing it up?

“I know that you are possessive of me,” Harry told him, staring at him intently, and for some reason, Tom felt uncomfortable. He didn’t like where this conversation was going. “I understand the reasons for it. We have a very similar background, and just like you, I struggled with insecurity.”

“I’m not—” Tom started the protest automatically but Harry leaned forward and pressed his fingers to his lips.

“Please, let me finish.”

Tom obeyed, too distracted by the unexpected flare of warmth at his mouth.

“I was afraid to lose those I cared about, too. I thought for sure that they couldn’t love me as much as I loved them. Despite our similarities, Tom, you and I are still very different in many respects, but I think that you feel something close to what I did then. I won’t pretend I understand all thoughts rolling in your head, but I know you are afraid to lose me. What happened last year must have increased this fear tenfold. So… I do understand it. Yet there are boundaries you cannot cross.”

Tom tensed, the hostility blooming in his blood so abruptly that he barely stopped himself from lashing out. Harry, as if sensing it, framed his face with his hands, pressing his cold fingers into Tom’s temples, cooling him down in an instant.

“Even if you try to remove all physical reminders of my past, it won’t go away. The life I had before you will always hold a place in my heart and I will always miss people that I left behind. I will always love them.”

Bristling, Tom tried to pull away, and only after a moment he realised that his lips formed a hissing ‘no’ that he kept repeating in an enraged whisper, ignoring how Harry’s eyes widened in anxiety.

“Tom.” Harry shook him, and even though he wasn’t forceful, it worked. Tom shut up, glaring at him. “The fact that I love someone other than you doesn’t mean that I love you less or that you have any reason to feel threatened. You are the most important person in my life. No one will take this from you. People I have known before, people I might grow to care for in the future — they might hold an important part of me but you will still have more. You will always have more.”

For all his words, Harry didn’t understand. He didn’t understand a thing. Tom didn’t want more, he wanted everything. He wouldn’t agree to anything less, it wasn’t an option.

Probably reading the now-silent rebellion in his eyes, Harry bit his upper lip and lowered his head. When he looked up again, his face was lit with fresh determination.

“I want you to imagine something,” he told Tom. “Imagine that something happened to me. If there was—”

Tom drew in a harsh breath, shaking his head violently. The memories of Harry and death, two concepts that weren’t supposed to ever go together, crashed into his mind at full speed, shattering the sanity residing there. The world dived into a thick blackness, with nothing but white noise filling his ears for a while. He was saved from it only when Harry pulled him close in a practised motion, pressing Tom’s fingers to his neck. The familiar beating of the pulse helped clear the fog and Tom sighed, ashamed of his continuous lack of control.

“Okay, bad idea,” Harry said wryly, and despite the fact that his heart was still pounding, Tom let out a chuckle. Harry didn’t think of the consequences often. “Just imagine that you and I have been separated for whatever reason. I’m no longer a part of your life. Would you still miss me? Or would you destroy the memories of me and go on with your life as if I never existed?”

“Don’t be an idiot, of course I would—” Tom stopped talking when he realised what Harry was doing.

Oh.

He couldn’t relate to the abstract love Harry felt for some abstract people. He couldn’t put himself into his place no matter how hard he tried at times. But he knew himself very well, so he could easily tell what he’d do if Harry’s scenario came to life.

He would never forget him. He would keep the memories forever, or until the moment he found a way to bring Harry back to him. If anyone tried to take them from him by force, Tom would obliterate them, whether it would be Dumbledore, the whole Black family, or the Devil himself.

Was this what Harry was feeling now?

A foreign sensation stepped into him, a stranger in his own body. Tom didn’t know what it was or what caused it, but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.

“There is another way you can look at it,” Harry told him quietly. “If I still love those people even though I haven’t seen them in years, if I haven’t even known some of them personally, like my parents, then you can be absolutely certain I will never stop loving you, and that I’ll cherish you and the memories of you no matter how many decades pass. Treat those photos you have taken as evidence of my unconditional love for you, not as something that threatens it.”

The feeling intensified and suddenly, Tom couldn’t look Harry in the eye. He still failed to identify the feeling that was slowly ravaging him from inside, the feeling that was a mixture of frustration, a bewildering desire to hide somewhere, and something else, even stranger.

He didn’t think he would but he understood where Harry was coming from. A little bit. His gift now seemed like a mockery, not a manifestation of his desire to convey to Harry that Tom was his only family, the only one who would never leave him.

Not saying a word, Tom left the bed and walked out of the room. A part of him protested against his vague, half-formed decision, but Tom refused to listen to it. He was acting on the impulse that he couldn’t define but which was strong enough to push him forward.

His hands felt numb when he pulled the discarded photos from his trunk. His legs moved reluctantly when he returned to Harry, silently offering his past back.

Tom wasn’t sure he could stand seeing Harry replace his photo with these other ones. He might want to hold himself under control but he couldn’t say the same about his magic. With everything concerning Harry, it refused to obey him — it was already coiling tightly under his skin, ready to strike.

But Harry didn’t replace him. Harry stared at him with pride, with so much love that Tom’s head began to spin, and then he took the old photos and brought them towards the window, putting them on the windowsill.

“They’ll stand here, all right?” Harry asked him. “And yours will stand near my bed, so it would be the first thing I see as I wake up in the morning and the last thing I see as I go to sleep at night.”

A blinding joy enveloped him, filling him with happiness so bright, he felt weightless. With a genuine, brilliant smile, Tom pressed against Harry’s chest, soaking up his love and warmth. Harry hugged him back just as tightly, rocking them both. In a while, Tom pulled back, and before Harry could say anything, he placed a kiss on his right cheek, then on his left one. He wanted to kiss him on the lips, too, something in him suddenly craving it with intense, frightening urgency, but Harry got a weird look on his face and Tom had to limit himself by kissing his chin.

“Merry Christmas,” he said. Harry ran his fingers through Tom’s hair, smiling.

“Merry Christmas,” he echoed.    

 

***

 

In the months that followed, Tom had made great leaps in the area of mind magic. He found both Legilimency and Occlumency riveting, though they were not what he had actually wanted to research. Immortality remained an unreachable dream as of now, and it was increasingly infuriating. The world was being slowly but steadily threatened by a wizard who called himself Grindelwald, and while Tom thought it was interesting and potentially enlightening, he would have preferred to avoid having to worry about Harry.

Many families knew where their house was situated. The lessons Harry was still giving made him much more popular than Tom would have liked, which turned him into a possible target. Harry was idealistic. Tom had no way of knowing whether he was blabbering about Muggle-borns and equality to his students, and on some nights, this thought didn’t let him sleep.

Grindelwald was killing off his opposition. In the eyes of society, Harry wasn’t notable in any way, but Tom was. In fact, Tom expected Grindelwald to grow interested in him sooner or later because of his status as a Slytherin heir, and while he would love to turn it into a careful but captivating game, he wasn’t willing to risk Harry in the process.

Harry was undeniably his weakness and he had to either make him immortal or get rid of Grindelwald. The former seemed likelier than the latter, but both were out of reach and it was maddening. It was even more maddening that he was stuck in Hogwarts.

When summer holidays finally came, Tom took his time pestering Harry with questions and watching his reactions. Harry didn’t seem interested or concerned about Grindelwald at all — in fact, he grimaced and threw a quick, “Forget about him. He won’t last long.”

Tom was mystified. Even someone as calm as Black was concerned, torn between his parents’ conflicting beliefs. On the one hand, they were more interested in waiting and seeing what Tom would be able to offer them with time, but on the other one, Grindelwald was advancing and demanding loyalty, answering with death in case he was denied. He was an interesting case study of what a ruler should not be like, and Tom was looking forward to opposing him in years. He didn’t doubt that Grindelwald would be insulted by his inclusion policies, but by that time, at the pace he was moving, Grindelwald would have more enemies than allies.

It was all a part of a still-distant future, at least in Tom’s view. Harry evidently thought differently.

“You can’t rule with fear and aggression,” Harry told him grimly. “A Dark Lord who wants to make everyone grovel and kiss his feet is going to be inevitably defeated. There are people who can stop Grindelwald, and eventually, they will act.”

“I hope you don’t mean Dumbledore,” Tom spat. So many people were blinded by this man that he couldn’t stomach it.

Harry smiled mysteriously but didn’t say anything.

Like the war with Grindelwald wasn’t enough, Harry took to visiting London and helping Muggles who had felt the impact of their own battles. He brought clothes, food, and even money, and he insisted on taking Tom with him.

“The war is getting closer,” he was saying. “Soon, all these people might have nothing left. I want to do what I can to make these times at least a little easier for them. Cardiff and Plymouth have already been bombed, and it’s only the beginning. Our people attack Italian and German families who live in London, even those who are innocent. This shouldn’t be happening, Tom, and if I’m here, I’m not going to stand aside.”

The more Harry talked, the more worried he made Tom feel.

“You cannot help Muggles,” he insisted. Muggles would forget about peaceful times when Tom’s reign began, and Harry’d better get used to it. “They can be dangerous.” They were also not worth it but he wasn’t going to say that.

“Don’t you feel anything when you help others?” Harry stared at him, something imploring in his eyes. “When you see all these destroyed homes, all these people who are desperate even for some bits of food or comfort? You know what it is to live in poverty. You lived through it yourself.”

Tom sighed. He could lie, he did it often enough to fool Harry, but recently, some of the masks he was wearing began to feel heavy.

“I feel something when I see you happy from helping others,” he offered. Harry’s face changed from hopeful to confused to touched, and then he gave Tom one of his small, pleased smiles.

“Good,” he said decisively. “Then you wouldn’t mind helping me more.”

They spent a good chunk of summer going to Muggle cities and offering assistance. If anyone he knew saw Tom like this, they would think he had gone mad. The only comfort was that wizarding community wasn’t big and chances of meeting someone in these Muggle areas were practically non-existent.

The day Tom saw what impact the bombs left, he’d had enough.

“You can’t go to London or other Muggle cities when I’m at Hogwarts,” he told Harry sternly, and was treated to a tired gaze.

“The war might only get worse at that point,” Harry noted. “I’m going to be busy with my students, but when I can, I’m going to help.”

“No,” the familiar hiss of magic slid down him, lighting the fire under the cauldron of panic and madness he usually tried to keep in a dormant state. “Not without me there.”  

“Tom—”

“If you insist on going, you will ask me to accompany you even if you have to take me from Hogwarts for a few days. But you won’t be going alone.”

Harry sighed heavily, but as Tom continued to stare at him in silent demand, he caved.

“All right,” he said. “I promise.”

For Harry’s own sake, it had better not be a lie.

 

***

 

This year at Hogwarts, they were allowed to pick several additional subjects as electives. Tom chose Ancient Runes, Arithmancy, and Divinations. He was sceptical about the latter but his interest in knowing the future was too strong to not at least try it.

The first lesson fell on the ninth of September. Arley Rivers, their professor, was a cheerful round man who didn’t fit Tom’s idea of what a medium should look like in the slightest. Still, he was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“What does he do with his predictions, eat them?” Lestrange whispered with a snort. Tom sent him a long look and Lestrange’s shoulders slumped before he murmured an apology. How amusing. Tom was sure that if he asked him to explain why he was apologising, Lestrange wouldn’t be able to tell him.

“Divinations are often overrated,” Professor Rivers was telling them eagerly. “Two-thirds of you are likely to stop being interested in the subject within two weeks. That’s all right, you won’t be completely wrong. You either have a gift of Seeing or you don’t, you can’t learn it. However, there are some common signs that can help you to interpret some things. Today, we’ll start with drawings.”

With a flick of his wand, he spread pieces of parchment around the class along with what looked like Muggle pencils and crayons. Lestrange let out a disgusted noise but shut up again when Tom glowered at him.

This year was the last one when he was still expanding and strengthening the foundations of his future kingdom. It meant that he had to maintain good relationships with as many people as possible, even if they were useless. Next autumn, he would finally start acting and fulfilling his promises — slowly, gradually, but effectively. His plans were vague at this point because Tom depended on the circumstances like Grindelwald’s activity, but all in all, he knew what he wanted to do. By the time he graduated from Hogwarts, he would be sought out by every representative of the Ministry, with the whole world of opportunities opening before him. 

“Draw whatever you want. Anything you want,” Professor Rivers informed them. “Black or white, coloured or bland — you decide. You have forty minutes for that. After you’re finished, we’ll be analysing what you created and making conclusions.”

This didn’t sound like what should be taught at Divinations at all, and if the man was a Muggle, Tom would be convinced he’s a fraud. As it was, he took the pencil, absently drawing the first lines.

He wasn’t sure what he was going to draw. Only when Harry’s eyes stared at him from the paper, Tom realised his mind worked in very predictable ways.

Of course he had drawn Harry. Who else would it be?

With a sigh, he continued, carefully depicting the unruly hair, the edge of the scar, and the small dimples that appeared only when Harry smiled. When he was finished, there were still about twenty minutes left, so Tom pulled the coloured pencils closer. Harry could never be bland, not even on the pictures. He needed to colours life into him.

The eyes were the most difficult part. No shade of green was vibrant enough, so in the end, Tom mixed several of them together. The result wasn’t perfect but it was the best he could do.

“Time’s up!” Professor Rivers announced. “Let’s see what you’ve come up with.”

He moved to the first pair, critically surveying the pictures they’d drawn.

“Is that a cake?” he asked. “Well, I would think its meaning is obvious. You’re going to eat one today during supper.”

This time, when Lestrange cackled, Tom didn’t stop him. Really, that was the man’s prediction? How boring. This lesson was an absolute waste of time.

Without much interest, Tom waited until Professor Rivers approached him. When it finally happened and the man took a look at his portrait, the indulgent smile suddenly slipped off his face.

“Merlin,” he said quietly. His skin suddenly became very white and the chuckle he forced out sounded nervous. “That is impressive no doubt. Spooky but impressive. Tell me, boy, did you experience clinical death?”

Tom never asked teachers to repeat their questions but he couldn’t stop himself from blurting out, “Excuse me?” Clinical death? Where did it come from?

“There is war going on,” Professor Rivers said, staring at him with narrowed, intense eyes. “Has it touched you personally? Have you had a close brush with death?”

Lestrange stiffened next to him, the protective magic emanating from him in strong waves, but Tom was too concentrated on the professor to calm him down.

“No,” he replied. “I have never experienced something like this.”

Rivers’ eyes hardened.

“This,” he said flatly, pointing at the drawing, “is death.”

Tom had believed the man to be a liar. Now he understood he was simply crazy.

“This,” he mimicked Rivers, “is my guardian.”

“Stop lying to me. This cannot be a real man, he cannot exist.”

Tom had never been in a situation like this. Teachers had never been hostile to him so openly, not even Dumbledore, and they had never been delusional to this extent. What could he even reply?

“I assure you, he exists,” his tone was icy. “I have been living with him for five years.”

Rivers’ brows furrowed angrily, like Tom’s answers were personally offensive to him.

“Stop lying to me, boy!” he raised his voice. “I know what I see and I know this is a dead man. Do you want me to take points from you?”

“How dare you speak to him like this!” Lestrange screeched, jumping from his seat. Tom really needed to do something about his impulsive and explosive behaviour. “Do you even know who he is?”

Rivers didn’t look at him.

“Tom is telling the truth, sir,” Amanda Levington, a Hufflepuff, raised her hand hesitantly. “Harry Potter is a tutor of my younger brother.”

If anything, Rivers looked even more infuriated.

“Well, then he is dead right now!” he barked, and suddenly, what seemed merely annoying turned into something much worse. Tom felt himself tensing, a cold chill shooting down his spine and making his muscles lock.

“That’s a lie,” he said, as calmly as he could manage. If something were to ever happen to Harry, he would feel it.

He hadn’t felt it last time, though.

But Harry wasn’t dead last time. He was all right, it was Tom’s imagination that made him imagine what wasn’t there.

“I don’t tell lies!” Rivers made a step towards him, looking so terrified that Tom could only guess at the reasons behind it. “He is dead, there are no doubts here. Even if he was alive before, he isn’t now.”

The room darkened. A rush of numb fear that swept through it left it bitterly cold and Tom shivered, burning holes in Rivers with his glare but not really seeing him. The memories took him to that cursed day when he thought Harry had died, and the old madness was already waiting for him to descend there, sharpening its claws, getting ready to pierce him with them, all dark and trembling with anticipation.  

No. It didn’t matter what this man was saying, it wasn’t true, he knew it wasn’t. He had exchanged letters with Harry just two days ago…

But anything could have happened. Anything.

“…exactly so.” Rivers’ voice was coming from afar. “You can check for yourself, I have no reason to lie to you. Gift or no Gift, my intuition is never wrong, and I’m telling you that the person you’ve depicted is in the land of the dead.” 

Whatever anchors Tom had been trying to hold on to broke. His magic lashed towards Rivers, wrapping him in a tight, deadly lock, and as soon as the man fell silent, his eyes suddenly wide and bewildered, Tom smiled.

He was good at wandless magic, he had always been good at it, but he had never felt as powerful as he did now, when rage was licking his nerve endings greedily, turning him into a wrathful ball of pure energy. Other students and thoughts about his reputation had disappeared: Tom was the only person left in the world, he and the man across him, the man who dared to speak the forbidden words so freely, as if they were nothing. 

He felt how his magic coiled around Rivers’ wrist, seeped through his skin and bones, and then became heated, burning his hand from inside. Rivers let out a yell, frantically waving his wand and murmuring incantations, but Tom ignored him, focusing on fuelling his powers further, targeting both arms this time. Finally, Rivers screamed, dropping his wand, and Tom slowly dragged his magic up, almost seeing how muscles and tendons curled in pain before withering. Excitement clouded his head, subduing the rage, which, in turn, hid his terror.

This felt good. This felt incredible. His magic was at Rivers’ throat now, slowly swelling there and choking him, but then someone else brushed against him and Tom flinched back to reality.

It was Lestrange. He was staring at him in awe and fear, and he was clenching his hand, probably in an attempt to shake the murderous haze off him.

It worked.

Tom looked at Rivers with new eyes, noticing that he had collapsed to his knees and was pressing his shaking, blackened hands to his chest.

He had attacked his professor. Would it have consequences? The class around him seemed impressed but they would be unable to cover for him. And Rivers was alive enough to tell on him.

These thoughts were automatic and they didn’t bring any concern for himself. The thoughts about Harry, on the other hand, made Tom bite the inside of his cheek so hard that he tasted blood.

He needed to check it. Not that he believed this madman, he was a fraud and a liar, but rationality was never Tom’s strong side when it came to Harry. He had to know. He had to make sure.

Without saying a word, he left the class, obeying the sane part of him that kept insisting that he couldn’t run, not when everyone was staring, not now, control yourself.   

Tom didn’t remember how he got to Dippet’s office. He didn’t remember how he asked to see Harry but he did hear how Dumbledore, who was also there, refused him.

“We may contact him by post,” he was saying. “You have to understand, Tom, that we cannot make the exceptions. The wartime is challenging to all of us and we have to take measures to—”

What a surprise. Dumbledore hated him, he always hated him, and he never called him by his last name, probably resenting the fact that Tom could claim such an important title or wanting to remind him of his Muggle beginnings or whatever else was spinning in his head. Tom didn’t care, not this time. Refusal wasn’t the answer he was going to take.

Careful.

Yes. He had to be careful. Especially with Dippet present. 

“Do you trust the reliability of your professors, Headmaster?” he asked, attempting to keep his voice even. 

“Absolutely,” Dippet frowned in concern. “What happened, Tom? Can you tell us?”

Unlike Dumbledore, Dippet used his first name because he actually liked him. Tom could use it. He had to use it.

“Professor Rivers has predicted that my guardian is dead.” Thankfully, Tom’s words sounded calm, much calmer than he felt. “With all respect to school policies, I need to make sure he is all right.”  

Dippet and Dumbledore exchanged a long look.

“From what we know, Mr. Potter isn’t involved in the war, neither in Muggle nor in a magical kind of it,” Dippet said. “Are there reasons to suspect—”

“He has been helping Muggle communities. He could take trips to London. He could fall and break his neck,” Tom snapped, and this time, there was an unmistakable edge in his words. His magic was trying to burst forward again and he barely managed to keep it leashed. “If you have any trust in your Divinations professor, you will let me contact Harry. Immediately.”

“The Muggle part of South London was bombed two days ago,” Dippet told Dumbledore speculatively, and Tom’s forced calmness shattered. His shoulders went ridged, his face shifted to a wild expression that probably made him look rabid.

“I need to see him!” he snarled. “Get him to see me! Get him here, right now!”

Each word rang with compulsion but he couldn’t care less. Infuriatingly, Dippet and Dumbledore weren’t overly affected, and before Tom could rage further, Dippet murmured something under his breath. Waves of calming magic moved towards Tom but he shook his head viciously, scattering them.

“Get him here!” he bellowed, and Dippet quickly said, “All right, Tom, all right. Please, stay calm. I’ll contact Mr. Potter. Albus, would you go to Professor Rivers?”

Dumbledore didn’t look particularly willing but he didn’t protest either. He walked out of the office and Dippet left, too, after throwing some meaningless comforting words at him. Tom remained waiting, staring strictly ahead, focusing on his breathing. In. Out. Again. Again. Again.     

He still hadn’t found a way to achieve immortality. He could shield his mind, he could read the memories of others so smoothly that they had never even noticed it, his compulsion charms got abnormally strong, even if they still didn’t work on powerful wizards… but he had no idea how to make Harry immortal, and if Rivers was right, if Harry was dead…

It couldn’t happen again, it couldn’t. Seeing him dead once — not dead, unconscious, but still dead, Tom couldn’t forget about it just because it wasn’t true, — that was more than enough. He couldn’t possibly be forced to go through this again.

The urge to listen to Harry’s pulse as a part of their small ritual had never been this strong. The more time passed, the worse he felt, and by the time the door finally opened, he was panting.

“Tom.”

This voice… this voice could belong only to one person. Tom would know it anywhere.

He whirled around, staring, and the stark suffocating terror dissolved at the sight of Harry. Standing from the armchair, he jumped into the arms that were already open for him, and the current of warmth that ran through him was so vivid that a tremor shook his body.

Safe. Harry was safe. Rivers was a liar, after all. A talentless, pathetic liar, and oh, how he would pay.

Some conversation must have taken place but Tom didn’t listen to it. It didn’t even register. He did react to Harry raising his voice, though, and when it happened, his focus returned full force.

“…blame him now! It’s not his fault!”

“Mr. Potter,” Dumbledore sounded like he was choosing his words very carefully, “you misunderstand me. I’m not blaming Tom for asking us to contact you. Such requests are understandable and we do our best to help our distressed students feel better, especially at a time like this. But Tom has gone much further in the display of his fury than could ever be acceptable. Headmaster Dippet is currently at the hospital wing with Professor Rivers. He is helping to assess his condition. The nerve damage in his arms might never be healed.”

“Nerve damage?” Harry echoed, confused now. “I’m not sure I follow you.”

Tom’s back stiffened, and without turning, he knew Dumbledore noticed.

“After hearing Professor Rivers’ prediction, Tom attacked him.” Dumbledore spoke so gravely that Tom fought the instinct to curse him. Harry didn’t need to hear the details. “Would you like to see a memory of it?”

Harry was silent, and each beat of this silence put another rock in Tom’s stomach. It felt heavy and uncomfortable, and when Harry finally said, “Yes,” Tom raised his head.

“Don’t,” he asked quietly. The words tasted bitter. Unusual. He had never asked for something like this, but right now, he’d give a lot for Harry to listen to him and just walk out of this office. Tom had seen him. Tom had learned that he’s fine — he could let him go now, for a while, at least.

Harry looked at him intently. Then his hand squeezed the back of Tom’s neck.

“Everything will be fine,” he whispered. “I’m with you, no matter what.”

Tom blinked, and the next moment, Harry was already standing next to Dumbledore, watching him pull the vial with a silver memory. In another minute, he was gone, and Tom was left with Dumbledore, waiting for the inevitable results. But the thought of them didn’t worry him as much as before. Not after Harry’s promise.

Harry made a lot of promises.

I’m not giving you up. No matter what.

I love you. That won’t change.

I’m raising you. You can see it as my long-term ambition.

You are the most important person in my life. No one will take this from you.

They might hold an important part of me but you will still have more. You will always have more.

And now the new one. I’m with you, no matter what.

Harry gave him his love and devotion willingly, and Tom was never giving them back. He had each of Harry’s promises memorised, collected together and treasured. And he would use them as his weapon if needed.

Harry would have to accept all of his actions no matter what. Even if he hated them. So what if he’d gone too far with Rivers? The fraud deserved it. Tom would do it again in a heartbeat.

Dumbledore was looking at him and Tom stared back defiantly.

He will never give me up,’ he thought, and his lips stretched in an unpleasant smile. ‘He will be mine no matter what you show him.’   

He couldn’t be sure if Dumbledore ever used Legilimency, but out of curiosity, Tom lowered his shields, pulling a string of memories to the front of his mind. Each contained Harry: their holidays, their adventures to search for ingredients that they later used for cooking, the nights they spent together, in one bed, regardless of the fact that Tom was too old for it already.

He didn’t sense any invasion but Dumbledore’s face suddenly changed, became scrunched, as if he was extremely distressed. He must have seen it, then. How often did he visit Tom’s mind? Tom had an excellent protection now, but what about before? In the previous years?

Had Dumbledore seen the murder of Charlus Potter?

The idea was sobering and Tom shut off the access to his mind again. This was the moment Harry chose to return: he stumbled out of the memory awkwardly, nearly crashing into Dumbledore’s table. Tom straightened, his eyes zeroing in on Harry’s face, trying to read his emotions.

Harry was pale. His brows kept trembling slightly, like he wasn’t sure how to position them — this spoke of turmoil. Slowly, Harry raised his chin and turned to Dumbledore.

“Tom’s reaction was extreme. I agree,” he said emotionlessly. Tom’s heart sank, skipped a frightened beat, but Harry continued, “However, he was provoked,” and calmness spread through him in a comforting wave.

Just like he’d thought, Harry was on his side. Harry kept his promises. He wouldn’t betray him.

“Would you mind if we talked privately, Mr. Potter?” Dumbledore asked. Tom opened his mouth to protest but Harry pulled out his wand and waved it before any sound went outside. The magic shifted, forming an invisible barrier and leaving Tom seething.

He wanted to break these charms. He needed to hear what was being discussed. Dumbledore had such a way of twisting everything — Harry had no idea how to deal with him.

Carefully, Tom pushed his own magic forward, testing the barrier. It was surprisingly thick. He didn’t think Harry was capable of conjuring something this strong. Still, Tom’s magic was stronger. He pressed, pushed, and plucked, and finally, the bits of phrases started to slip out.

“…on him. He was traumatised, you can’t possibly…”

“…not acceptable. Psychopathic tendencies… deceive you… see it…”

“…know him… on his side. I won’t let you… still a child.”

Tom intensified his efforts, suddenly desperate to hear more.

“…things he did. Has it ever occurred to you that you might not know everything about his…”

“I know more than you can imagine. More than you will ever be able to imagine. It doesn’t change the fact that… was completely inappropriate. He was goading Tom.”

“…hardly an excuse.”

“…had enough of seers predicting my death. Tom doesn’t need to hear it either. I agree that… talk to him.”

“…supervise him more. I’ve heard you are a… teaching at Hogwarts? Your recommendations…”

“…expect this. I’ll think about it.”

“…Mr. Potter. Maybe a female figure…”

“…doubt it. But I will consider it.”

The barrier disappeared abruptly and Tom reeled back from the suddenness of it. Harry nodded at Dumbledore stiffly and then took Tom’s hand, walking towards the door.

As soon as they were alone, Harry exhaled, and the tension seeped out of him.

“What a day,” he said dryly. Tom nodded, hesitant about the approach he should choose. The conversation with Dumbledore was concerning but Harry seemed to hold on well. He also didn’t look angry or disappointed — on the contrary, he appeared almost relaxed now that they were away from Dippet’s office.

“I don’t approve of what you did,” Harry said, but his strict words were belied by a comforting hand he lay on Tom’s shoulder. “This was scary and unwarranted. No matter what that man said, these were just words. You can’t let the words affect you.”

“I know,” Tom grimaced. Harry was right. He’d made a mistake. Rivers deserved retribution but not such an overt one. This was a clear misstep.

“But I also understand that it wasn’t calculated. You were angry and you didn’t think. It happens. And whatever Dumbledore says, I know you weren’t in the right state of mind. You couldn’t control it. Actually, I can relate to it. I blew up my… not-really-aunt once.”

Tom’s jaw dropped open.

“You did?” he asked incredulously. “How? Why? When?”

Harry laughed, and just like that, the remaining particles of unease vanished. Tom smiled involuntarily, charmed by how carefree Harry sounded.

“That’s quite a long story,” Harry told him. Tom didn’t mind. He could listen to him forever.

 

***

 

The incident with Rivers had dual consequences. On the one hand, even those who were sceptical about entering Tom’s alliance before now seemed awed by him, flocking to his side. On the other hand, the teachers were conflicted. Their scrutiny intensified and Tom couldn’t get revenge on Rivers no matter how covert it was. He would be suspected automatically, which was not what he wanted.

He chose a subtle and less effective approach of not dropping Divinations. Rivers seemed spooked to even look at him, angry at his embarrassment and his damaged hands but also fearful and wary. Tom supposed it was rather pathetic for an adult teacher to fall victim to a third-year student, but he was always special, so it wasn’t surprising.    

His letters to Harry increased in quantity for a while, his need for reassurance of his well-being growing. October passed peacefully, but in November, something changed. 

Harry’s letters became awkward. Awkward in the sense that it seemed like he wanted to say something but had no idea how to do that. So he wrote pages upon pages of meaningless chatter, approaching some revelation but then moving away from it again.

Tom was curious. This curiosity was of a greyer shade, ready to grow into displeasure if the reasons for Harry’s behaviour turned out to be something Tom wouldn’t like. Whatever it was, he hoped it was connected to him. Maybe Harry had some surprise for him — another gift or something similar that he didn’t want to spoil sooner than necessary.

When Christmas holidays came, Tom was burning with anticipation. As always, Harry was already waiting for him when the train arrived, but this time, instead of crashing into him as he usually did, Tom jerked him close. He wasn’t taller than Harry yet but he was growing rapidly, so he could control their hugs to a bigger extent now.

Harry let out a surprised noise before laughing and putting his hands around Tom’s back, leaning into him.

“Missed home already?” he teased.

“Missed you,” Tom said, and Harry’s eyes softened, green and bright and loving. Then a spark of realisation and uncertainty shadowed them.

“Oh,” he uttered, pulling back and clearing his throat. “I completely forgot to— Tom, this is Beth.”

For the first time, a tall, dark-haired woman came into his focus. Tom slowly turned to her, staring, and only endless self-control allowed him to keep his face blank.

 “She is my—” Harry gestured almost helplessly and the woman gave him a wide, warm smile.

“Girlfriend,” she finished. “Honestly, Harry, no need to stress so much over the labels. Hi, Tom,” Beth offered her hand to him. Tom waited until the embarrassed flush hit her cheeks before finally accepting it.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said neutrally. The blood in his veins had turned into ice somewhere between ‘this is Beth’ and ‘girlfriend’. The shock was too overwhelming, muddling his thoughts to the point where he knew he couldn’t make a rational decision as to how to react. Harry. He had to think about Harry.

But was Harry thinking about him? Bringing this… being to meet him? Starting dating her without ever saying a word? Was this his surprise, the one Tom had been waiting for?

“I wanted to tell you sooner but I thought it’s better to do that in person,” Harry told him, smiling sheepishly. “Let’s go home. Beth is living with us for now, so I hope you’ll get to know each other better.”

Could Harry be this idiotic? Or was it a joke? What in the world made him think that Tom would tolerate the presence of this abhorrent creature in their house?

“I hope we’ll become friends,” Beth said, and her smile was indeed hopeful. The kind of smile Tom would have loved to remove, and not with magic but with his bare hands.

He didn’t reply to her, giving his hand to Harry for side-apparition instead.    

This wouldn’t end well for any of them. How could Harry think that such betrayal was acceptable? That Tom wouldn’t do anything about it? It was like he was doing it on purpose.

With a loud snap, he and Harry disapparated, and for a short moment, there were just the two of them again, like it should have been from the start.

Then they arrived and Tom saw Beth reappearing at the exact same time.

His fingers were already twitching with murder.    

 

***

 

“Before you voice what is undoubtedly your disapproval, let me speak,” Harry told him quickly. Beth went to the kitchen, allegedly to prepare some tea, while Harry helped him get his truck upstairs.

Tom nodded at him silently. The ice inside him wasn’t melting — no, it was getting thicker, and every part of his body started feeling cold as well.

“Beth is a Squib,” Harry said. “She’s moved into the area recently and we met on the street, pretty much by accident. She’s nice — no, she’s lovely. She really is. I never consciously realised how lonely I am now that you’re at Hogwarts, so I enjoyed finally making a friend.”

“A friend?” Tom asked emotionlessly. He kept himself entirely still. He could feel blood draining from his face slowly, trying to reach the frozen places around his heart and melt them, as if it was possible in this situation.

“Well, a little more than that now,” Harry admitted. His face flushed, and Tom would have loved to kiss even more redness into it if given a chance. Harry looked ethereal when he blushed, so beautiful and endearingly naïve, but the thought of it being caused by Beth, this woman with no rights, no claims on him… this was maddening. His insides burned from cold, deadly fury.

Harry was watching him now, his gaze assessing.

“I understand that you may have reservations about it,” he said, more softly this time. “But I hoped our last conversation about people in my life and my feelings for you made some difference. This thing with Beth, it’s not serious. Not yet. But I like her and I think we might build something. Consider this a test run. Let’s spend the holidays together, all three of us. I’d like you to make an effort to know her. If you are still uncomfortable with her presence after that, I’ll take it into account. All right?”

He would take it into account. What did it mean? That he would kick Beth out and never see her again? Because this was the only outcome Tom could ever be comfortable with.

No matter. This wouldn’t last, he wouldn’t let it. But maybe he had to wait before striking. For Harry.

“All right,” Tom echoed. He smiled, thinking about how lovely Beth would look if she was missing everything but a torso with a head, and Harry smiled back at him, obviously relieved.

“Thank you,” he murmured, touching Tom’s face briefly. “This means a lot to me. But you still mean more.”

Tom nodded, and smiled again.

More wasn’t enough. He wanted everything. And he wouldn’t settle for anything less.

 

***

 

 

The fact that the next several days were amusing was the only thing that prevented Tom from acting on what he actually felt.

Beth was dancing around him, ready to do whatever he wanted just to get his approval. Harry was constantly nervous, looking at Tom questioningly without even realising it whenever he was interacting with her. Beth was pathetic, Harry was endearing, and Tom let the amusement compensate for the fact that he was forced to sleep in his own bed, that he had to tolerate the presence of a stranger, that he couldn’t spend as much time with Harry as he was supposed to.

However, the amusement shattered on the fifth day, when Harry apparently decided Tom was fine with his parody of a relationship. Laughing at some inept joke Beth said, Harry leaned forward and kissed her, and suddenly, Tom was full of bile. It poisoned everything in him, making the need to spew his rage so powerful that he almost choked on it clenching his fists in impotent fury. For a second, torn between fury and envy, he couldn’t speak, or breathe, or even think. But then the outer layer of anger broke apart and confident, deadly calmness flooded him instead.

Beth had to go. He had been willing to wait before, to give Harry an opportunity to get rid of her himself, but if he insisted on being so difficult, Tom had no other choice but to take matters into his own hands.

All he needed to do was to plan and be smart about it.

 

***

Magic was out. Poison was boring because he had already used it on Charlus, not to mention that a sudden death at home would be suspicious. No, everything had to look like an accident, something that had happened outside, something that Tom couldn’t be connected to.

Muggle weapon was the best choice, really. It would serve two goals at once: eliminate Beth from Harry’s life and turn Harry against Muggles, at least to an extent.

Gutting her with a knife personally would probably feel incredible. Tom’s heart sped up at the very idea of it: doing something this intimate, breaking through Beth’s skin literally, twisting the knife and feeling how her organs tear… the excitement that came with these images was so powerful that his hands began to tickle, and Tom flexed his fingers, trying to get rid of the sensation.

He’d never done something like this before. Destroying a person in such a close way had to bring amazing euphoria, euphoria much more intense than that brief one he’d experienced when killing Charlus. But regretfully, he couldn’t do it himself this time. Too risky. His alibi had to be impeccable. It meant that he had to find—

Tom’s train of thoughts collapsed when someone jumped on him from behind and tackled him into the snow. Hissing in annoyance, he jerked around, the wand he couldn’t use jumping into his hand, but before he could see his attacker, he got even more snow into his face. Ironically, it made him relax. Only one person could have the audacity to do something like this, and it was the only person he could never harm.

“I thought you grew out of this,” Tom commented, wiping his eyes and ducking when the next snowball flew in his direction. “Honestly, must you always—”

Harry’s snowball caught him this time and Tom huffed, backing away and taking a fighting stance.

“You’ll never be too old for snow-fighting with me,” Harry declared. His skin seemed almost translucent today. He glowed with bright, infectious happiness, and Tom stared at him, transfixed. Only another snowball shook the haze off him.

“I was talking about you, not me,” he replied, constructing a snowball of his own and sending it in Harry’s direction swiftly. Harry ducked, smooth and efficient. “You could play Quidditch with such reflexes,” Tom grunted. That was why he hated these games: he could best Harry only with magic or by playing extremely dirty.

“I did,” Harry told him cheekily, ducking again and then again, when Tom sent a surprise snowball at him. “You seemed deep in thought. Something on your mind?”

“A gift. Don’t give me that look, it’s not for you. It’s for me.”

“You are giving yourself presents for Christmas now?” Harry snorted with laughter. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Oh, shut up!” Tom lunged at him, and they both fell into the snow. The mirth between them was so palpable that Tom wanted to close his eyes and just bask in it. These were his favourite moments. He could sacrifice anyone and anything to preserve them and get more of them.

And he would.

He would, and Harry would never know.   

 

***

 

The war had brought a lot of worries for Tom. Right now, though, it played to his advantage.

Many impoverished people filled the streets. Some merely hoped for a job. Others were also interested in finding a job, but based on the desperate glint in their eyes, they didn’t care what it entailed.

Arming himself with the wand, Tom walked through the worst Muggle streets, taking careful glimpses into the memories of those around him. If Harry knew he was in this district, he would have a heart attack — another reason why he’d never learn about it.

Tom discarded some options right away. Some would have to be checked in the end, if he failed to find a perfect fit.

After almost an hour of walking, Tom finally stumbled across it. It was a man with a hungry look — he didn’t appear unstable but there was a certain aura of danger coming from him. For a Muggle, he wasn’t all that bad, and as his memories showed, he wouldn’t mind doing a dirty job.

“I’ll give you 120 pounds up front,” Tom told him. He and Harry still didn’t have an abundance of money — there was enough but it couldn’t come close to the fortune Potters possessed. Unfortunately, Potters seemed to drop off the face of the earth, so Tom had no idea what they were doing or if they were even alive at this point.

The money they did have was kept in disarray, so Tom could always take as much as he needed. This time, though, he didn’t have to do even that — Beth, the fool, had given him twenty galleons for Christmas with a conspiratorial wink, as if he wasn’t supposed to tell Harry about it. These galleons had quickly turned into 60 pounds, so he had the first part of the payment covered. The second part came from his own supply.

After this conversation, he would never have to see this man again. All tracks will be covered.  

“Beth Logan,” Tom said coldly. “I will give you her photo and her typical schedule. I don’t care how you kill her but it has to be effective. Take whatever money you find on her — it has to look like a robbery. No mistakes. You must do it in February, not sooner. If you lie to me and try to escape with the money, you will regret it.”

While Tom wore a hoodie, he knew his voice betrayed his age. He had to use some persuasion tactics mixed with compulsion. He had never tried long-term non-verbal compulsion before, so he was curious as to whether it would work.

“Look here,” he murmured, opening his palm. When the man obeyed, Tom conjured a small, decorative knife. He knew it wouldn’t hold its form for long but even a minute was enough. The man’s eyes bulged in shock and fear and he backed away, suddenly going white in the face. Tom waited for a moment, savouring this reaction, before vanishing the knife and hiding his hands in the pockets.

“If you lie, I will know,” he repeated. “I will expect the results from the first to fifteenth of February. The woman might be walking with a man. If so, walk away. Do not touch him. He mustn’t see what happens and he is not to be harmed in any way. Understood?”

The man nodded shakily.

“Good,” Tom smiled. This was perfect. No one would be able to suspect him or link him to this crime. Muggle authorities had nothing to do with the world of wizards, and Harry would never figure out that Beth’s death wasn’t as simple as it appeared.

He could hardly wait.

 

***

 

Tom spent the last day of holidays with Harry and Beth. It wasn’t a bad day — he treated it as a curious rarity that would never repeat itself again, so he managed to enjoy himself. By the end of it, both Harry and Beth were grinning foolishly, pretending like they all were a family. Tom didn’t break their delusions — he watched Muggle movies with them, cooked with them, and even agreed to build a snowman together. Normally, he wouldn’t allow anyone but Harry to see him doing such undignified things, but Beth had an end-date, so her opinion was in no way important.  

On King’s Cross, Harry clang to him, like he was unwilling to let go, and Tom clang right back.

“It was great meeting you,” Beth told him, with an uncertain but genuine smile. “I hope you enjoy your time at Hogwarts. Going there is a privilege that most students don’t appreciate properly.”

“I assure you, I’m not among them,” Tom said.

“I know,” Beth reached out to clap him on his shoulder and Tom found it hard to keep himself from grimacing. He hoped no one saw a Squib touch him so freely. “I hope you liked these holidays as much as I did. If you don’t mind, maybe we could spend summer vacation together, too?”

“Beth,” Harry interrupted her suddenly, a clear warning in his voice. Tom raised his eyebrows at this, intrigued.

Harry didn’t really like Beth. He liked the idea of her, that much was obvious, but he had never been anything but cordial to her before.

“Right, sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself,” Beth backed away, but Tom put his charming smile back on.

“Not at all,” he said. “I would love to spend summer together.”

“Really?” Beth brightened. Harry, on the other hand, narrowed his eyes.

“You would?” he asked sceptically.

Damn. Why did he have to show perceptiveness now?

“Yes,” Tom looked him right in the eyes. “Beth is wonderful. I don’t mind spending time with her.”

Harry didn’t look convinced but Beth puffed up with pride.

“I’ll see you in summer,” Tom added, throwing one last lingering look at Harry. Then he moved towards the train.

Harry might doubt him all he wanted. He would still never figure out the truth, not with how thoroughly Tom had planned everything. And the summer would belong just to them, like it always did. Like it always would.   

 

***

 

January crawled forward, but it was doing it so slowly that Tom was getting more and more restless. Harry’s letters were innocent and careless, and it didn’t help matters. To distract himself, Tom delved into his schoolwork and politics, and soon, it began to help. The first week of February arrived quickly, after all, and more and more, he drifted off to the thoughts of Harry’s reaction. Would he be upset? Angry? Worried? Would he fall apart and require Tom’s help in putting him back together?

His answer came on February 13.

Tom was just getting ready to leave the Great Hall when Slughorn approached him with a small crease in his forehead.

“Tom, your guardian has arrived,” he said, concern lacing his voice. “He’s waiting for you outside. He says it’s urgent, asked to see you.”

Tom’s heart froze before jumping in glee and excitement.

Harry was here. He was here. Did he come to share the news personally? Was everything done, was Beth dead?

“Thank you, professor,” Tom replied belatedly. Why was Harry waiting outside? Away from Dumbledore’s prying eyes?

There wasn’t time to think — anticipation was thrumming through his veins, sending an occasional tremor through his body.

Harry was waiting not far from the entrance. He was the same — all the same, but his eyes…

Tom stopped.

Harry’s eyes were ice-cold. Foreign. No trace of warmth or love there.

He knew. He knew. He knew.

Excitement vanished like smoke, changing into terror.

He couldn’t. Harry couldn’t know. What had happened? Had Tom made a mistake somewhere? Had that poor excuse of a human being he paid messed something up?

Slowly, Tom resumed walking, trying to ignore how his limbs trembled. Harry’s expression matched his eyes. It was just as cold and stony. And suddenly, Tom’s panic dissipated, giving way to defiance and certainty.    

Harry loved him more than anything. Tom didn’t doubt it now. He loved him enough to forgive him, no matter what he’d done. Before, there was a chance of Harry giving up on him, but not now. It was too late. Harry had given him promises and Tom was going to make him keep them.

Maybe it was time to let one of his masks slip.

He raised his chin, staring at Harry challengingly. Then he crossed the final distance between them and curled his lips in a smile.  

“Harry,” he drawled. “What an unexpected surprise.”

Harry didn’t smile back. But he would, eventually. Tom would make him.

And then everything would be like it’d been before.

         

Chapter Text

Denial was a sweet and comforting thing. It helped him hold on through the moments when doubts flooded him, whispering scary things he didn’t want to hear, mocking his hopes and scoffing at his determination. It helped him live without constantly second-guessing himself; it let him love Tom with all devotion and passion that children were supposed to be loved with.

But now, even the relief of denial was gone. He was left with nothing. Nothing but sharp shards of crushed hopes that pierced his insides at the slightest movement or mental effort.

Tom. Beth.

Tom. Murder.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Harry asked. His voice sounded as dead as he felt.

“To see me, of course,” Tom tilted his head, observing him, and though he was smiling, this wasn’t a nice or an innocent smile. It was challenging, and dark, and entirely unremorseful. “You may tell yourself you’re here for another reason, but I know the truth. You came because you missed me.”

Somehow, this still took him aback, and Harry let out a short, disbelieving laugh.

“Your arrogance knows no bounds, does it?” he asked mirthlessly. “Believe me, missing you has been the last thing on my mind.”

Tom narrowed his eyes, clearly disliking his words, but he kept smiling that awful cruel smile. It belonged on Voldemort, not on Tom. Never on Tom.

“Beth is dead,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting: for Tom’s expression to change? For him to pretend to be horrified? It was useless. They both knew the truth.

But he still hadn’t expected for Tom’s smile to grow to a full-blown vicious grin.

“Good,” he drawled, and another shard stabbed deeply in Harry’s heart. “Now you can stop pretending you were ever in love with her. It was sickening. I would have never tolerated her presence during summer.”

It took a tremendous effort not to step back under the onslaught of Tom’s anger. Harry had tried to steel himself before this meeting — he thought he was ready. He had been planning to tear down all masks Tom would attempt to put on, but the problem was, Tom wasn’t wearing any. He wasn’t even trying to look upset, and this, somehow, was even more chilling than what Harry had seen at the police department. More chilling than the image of Beth’s body that was ingrained in his mind now.

When had this happened? How could the transformation be this swift and violent? Or had he really been deluding himself so much that he missed all the signs, despite knowing what to look out for?

“You have one attempt to tell me your side of story,” Harry said slowly when he regained the ability to speak. “If you lie to me, you won’t get another chance. I won’t listen to you no matter what you say. Do you understand?”

Tom studied him intently, as if calculating what to do next. Finally, his smile dimmed and his expression turned worried.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he spoke. “I’m not upset that she died but that’s it. You’re acting like I killed her. Why would you even think that? I was here all this time, you can ask Professor Dumbledore.”

Harry took a deep, careful breath, clenching his hands into fists. 

He had to stay calm. He had to control himself. If he allowed his emotions to take over, he wouldn’t be able to stop, and even the remains of his life with Tom as he knew it would be destroyed.

“I told you not to lie to me,” this time, his voice was miraculously steady. “You just did.”

Turning his back to Tom, Harry began to walk away, towards the apparition border. If he knew Tom — if he had ever known him at all, he wouldn’t go far. Tom wouldn’t let him.

“You can’t prove I had anything to do with it!” Tom protested. Just like Harry had thought, he rushed after him, the amount of his arrogance noticeably diminishing. “There is no way you could—”

Harry whirled around, silencing him with one look.

“You may think you are clever, but no matter how much it might pain you to admit it, you are still a child, Tom,” he uttered through gritted teeth. “A child who cannot plan a murder efficiently. The man that killed Beth has been caught. I asked the Muggle police to let me talk to him. Do you know what I’ve seen in his memories? Or do you still want to deny your involvement? Because I can repeat what you told him word by word.”

Tom’s mouth fell open in shock before he quickly steadied his expression. A range of conflicting emotions ran through his face, and though Harry couldn’t define them all, he still understood what was happening in Tom’s mind. Probably better than he would have preferred. Because no matter how wounded and horrified he was feeling, he still knew this boy. He knew how he acted in stressful situations.

Tom was an expert in lying, but he was also very impulsive when there was something he feared. He had obviously come out to greet him with an intention to confirm what Harry already knew, but once the conversation actually touched Beth, he grew uncertain and tried to backtrack. Now, he was being torn between illusion and reality, unsure which of them to stick to. It was naïve and inconsistent, but that was also what Harry understood about him.

He didn’t understand murder. He didn’t understand how someone who was surrounded by love and acceptance could still do something like this. Maybe that’s why it was so hard — this action of Tom didn’t fit the image Harry had constructed, the one he believed to be real. The Tom he knew would never kill anyone, and since he had, what did it mean for him? For them?

He had made a fundamental mistake somewhere. If he just knew which one, maybe he could still fix it.

Then Harry thought of Beth’s terrified face that he’d seen in the memories of her murderer. He thought of her body lying on the ground, crumpled and broken, just like the ones he’d seen during that fateful night at Hogwarts that never faded from his mind.

Was there even anything to fix? How could there be, after something like this?

Tom must have chosen his next strategy because he spread his shoulders confidently, sending him a challenging stare.

“There is no need to repeat what I told him,” he said coldly. “I remember it perfectly. If you came to hear my regrets, you wasted your time. I’m not sorry and I would have done it again.”

The shaking travelled towards his upper arms, and Harry crossed them behind his back, letting his nails dig into his skin hard enough to draw blood. His head was spinning.

This couldn’t be happening. They couldn’t be having this conversation.

“I came to listen to you,” he said, but it was getting harder and harder not to shout. “I wouldn’t believe in your remorse because I saw you in those memories. You were confident and you understood what you were doing. But I want to know why.”

Tom snorted rudely.

“Why do you think?”

Harry had three possible versions. He wasn’t sure which of them was worse.

“Did she hurt you?” he asked, praying for ‘no’ but hoping for ‘yes’. The mere idea of Tom being hurt filled him with so much rage that he could taste its redness even as he imagined it, but on the other hand, it was the only explanation he could probably accept.  

Tom blinked, astonishment and pleasure briefly colouring his face before it grew contemptuous again.  

“Do you think a Squib could hurt me? Please,” he rolled his eyes. “I would have never let that happen.”

Harry’s heart sank while relief spread through his blood in a thick stream. Such conflicting reactions issued by the same brain muddled his thoughts further, so he shook his head slightly, trying to clear them.

“Then her status as a Squib was the reason?” he uttered. “This is what motivated you: you thought she was too unworthy to be associated with us?”

“No!” Tom spat with disgust, as if the idea itself offended him. “I don’t care about that. Not enough to bother with someone like her. Do you truly not understand or are you pretending?”

Harry was silent. He couldn’t force himself to voice the third option. He wasn’t sure what it would do to him and how he would react if it happened to be true.

“Because of you!” Tom snarled, and he suddenly looked furious. Harry bit the inside of his cheek, hoping to keep standing. He had never seen such blind rage on Tom. Not in this world. He cherished the realisation that his Tom didn’t have the ugliness that Voldemort had carried, that he’d protected him from the worst, but what he was seeing right now was eating at this knowledge with no regard for the ache it was causing.

If he was the reason for this, he’d never forgive himself. It’d be another thing on the heavy shelf of mistakes he had made.

“Because of me?” Harry repeated softly.

“You are mine. You have been mine since the moment you chose me. Did you think you could flaunt her in my face and that I’d do nothing?”

“I told you I wasn’t serious about her!” Harry raised his voice. “I told you that if it makes you uncomfortable, you have to talk to me and that I’ll take it into account. You have always been more important, I made it clear from the start, so why would you still do this? Instead of coming to me, how could you ever think that taking another person’s life is an acceptable solution to a problem? When you tried to take the photos from my room, I thought we achieved something! That you understood you can’t be the only—”

“I understood that I’m incapable of erasing your past,” Tom hissed. “I cannot destroy the connection to those you knew before me. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to tolerate the presence of someone else, anyone else. If you bring another person into our home, I’ll do the same, and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

“What’s wrong with you!” Harry exploded, his control finally snapping. His heart was beating so madly, he could barely breathe. “We are talking about someone’s life! Do you understand it? Do you understand the finality of death? What would you do if someone from Beth’s family got me killed for the same reason?”

Tom’s nostrils flared, craziness flashing in his eyes.

“No one would be able to hurt you,” he denied. “You have good instincts and you know a sufficient amount of spells.”

“I’m good but I’m not that good. If someone wanted me dead, I would be.”

“Then I would revive you!” Tom growled, and there was more madness in his gaze — madness that made Harry shudder. “And I would kill those who hurt you, I’d do it before this thought even crossed their minds!”

You hurt me,” Harry said, and Tom flinched. Was it the only way to affect him? To connect everything to Harry himself? “You hurt me, and you don’t seem to even understand it. You killed another person! You destroyed the life of Beth’s family and you condemned me to years of guilt that will never go away now! I hoped you loved life enough to understand that taking it from others is not an option. That every person has the right to enjoy it, that if you don’t like something, first thing you must do is come and TALK to me about it! Didn’t I teach you that? Didn’t I prove that I’d choose you above anything and anyone? If that meant nothing to you, then maybe I was wrong all along. Maybe you really are beyond sav—”  

“Is there a problem here?” a third voice asked politely, and Harry froze, a fresh wave of terror suddenly washing over him.

Dumbledore. How long had he been standing here? Had he or Tom used any spells against eavesdropping?

Dumbledore’s face was blank, so it was impossible to say if he had heard anything. Tom, on the contrary, looked stricken, and Harry’s protective instincts burned brighter than his anger.

“Nothing serious, professor,” he forced his wooden lips to twitch in a semblance of smile. “Just a disagreement.”

“Indeed? Our rules don’t allow parents or guardians to visit pupils without a meaningful reason, Mr. Potter.  I was under the impression that you were aware of this.”

“I didn’t say the reason wasn’t meaningful. Our family friend has died, so I thought Tom might want to come home for several days. He insists on staying at school and I think it’s inconsiderate. That’s it.”

“That’s it?” Dumbledore repeated, looking at him before moving his glance to Tom. Tom still looked lost, unable to collect himself, so Harry quickly stepped in front of him, hiding him from Dumbledore’s view.

If Dumbledore used Legilimency, he would be unable to disclose anything he had seen, but he’d still be able to take some actions. Harry couldn’t allow it. He couldn’t, even if Tom deserved it.

“We’ll be done in another minute and Tom will return to classes. I apologise for not warning you about my visit in advance.”

“Nothing to apologise for, my boy,” Dumbledore smiled at him, but his eyes remained grave. “Death is something we all expect but never anticipate. Please accept my condolences. I hope your friend will find peace.”

Harry’s throat tightened and he nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“I understand the timing isn’t right, but have you given thought to my offer?” Dumbledore asked, and Harry nearly laughed. Yes, because the last one ended so well. Maybe a female figure could make a difference, Mr. Potter? It could smoothen Tom’s sharp edges. Why don’t you try looking for a partner? Tom would only benefit from having a full family.

He was an idiot to ever fall for it. And now Dumbledore wanted him to consider his other suggestion.

“I’m still in the process of making a decision,” Harry said vaguely. “I’ll send you an owl in several months.”

“All right, I’ll look forward to it. Have a good day. Tom, I expect to see you at the castle as soon as your guardian leaves.”

 “Of course,” Tom replied somewhere from behind Harry’s back. When Dumbledore finally disappeared, Harry turned to face him again and froze.

Gone were the hesitance and the stupor. Tom wasn’t smiling, exactly, but he was radiating smugness, studying Harry with a possessive, confident look.

“All right, you did prove it,” he said casually.

“Prove what?”

“That you’d choose me over “anything and anyone”. I knew you would, but I still enjoyed seeing another confirmation.”

Harry stared, unsure if he’d head it right. Had Tom deliberately pretended to be scared of Dumbledore to trigger his protectiveness? Had that vulnerable look been a mask, too?

Bile roiled in his gut, pushing its way up his throat and threatening to come out as vomit. Harry backed away, unable to believe he could still feel this betrayed.

He wasn’t used to this cruel and cold version of Tom. He had no idea what to do with it. But Tom was right, he had just chosen him again, hadn’t he? He had shown willingness to lie for him and hide the truth from others.

And what was the alternative? To give him up to the authorities? To have him thrown in Azkaban? Did they even arrest children as young?

“I’m going home,” Harry said. His words sounded too hoarse to be coherent, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m going home. I have to think. I’ll be there to pick you up after the term ends, but until then, don’t contact me. I won’t reply.”

Tom’s mood darkened again, his lips setting in a grim line.

“You won’t ignore me,” he warned icily, and at this moment, Harry was so sick at the sight of him that he wanted to be as hurtful as possible.

“Let me spell it out for you,” he hissed. “Starting from this second and until summer, you don’t exist to me. I can’t stand to even look at you, and right now, I’m disgusted at the idea that I had anything to do with your upbringing. You are a murderer. Until you understand what it means and what you’ve done, I don’t want to see you. You wanted to shatter my relationship with Beth? You succeeded. But you also destroyed my trust in you. Think about it if the thought of robbing another person of their life is not enough to make you feel something.”

This time, Harry was almost certain that Tom’s paleness, shock, and hurt were genuine, but he couldn’t say for sure. He couldn’t say he cared either.

Turning away from him, he swiftly walked towards the clearing, back to the apparition border. Tom called his name, sounding angry and upset at once, but Harry ignored him.

He was going to keep his promise. For Beth.

For himself.

 

***

 

Somehow, the truth hadn’t sunk in. Not entirely. Despite everything he had seen, despite the conversation he’d just had with Tom, the impact was dulled up until he walked into their home and saw a bright Christmas tree standing there.

Beth had insisted on getting rid of it, claiming that the holidays had passed a long time ago, but Harry refused. Tom had helped him decorate it, and every time he looked at it, warmth and wistfulness washed over him, reminding him of their moments of laughter and joy.

He missed Tom. He missed him terribly, feeling purposeless and weightless, finding ground again only when the school ended and Tom came home. But now, every instance of happiness was poisoned because whatever Harry thought was happening, he was wrong.

Tom was a murderer. When Harry’s thoughts were full of celebrations, Tom’s focused on the ways to kill Beth. When Harry saw him off, already missing him and thinking of the day they’d reunite, Tom was counting days until the murder.

A murderer at fourteen. Several years earlier than in their former life. He had come here to save Tom and instead, he made him into a killer even sooner than it was supposed to happen.

A terrible pressure squeezed his lungs. Harry sucked in a breath, but the air dissipated before it could get inside. He tried again, but it felt like he was inhaling emptiness, not oxygen. His chest began to burn and he quickly lowered himself on the floor, burying his head between his knees, trying to hold on to reality.   

How could it have gone so wrong? Why? When had it happened? He’d done what he could, hadn’t he? Tom wanted for nothing. Whatever he needed, Harry gave it to him. But Tom still… he had still…

His breath hitched. Harry shut his eyes, hoping to deceive his consciousness and give himself a temporarily reprieve, but he was instantly bombarded by memories so vivid, they made him even sicker.

He lost. He lost. He lost. He hadn’t saved Tom, he somehow made him worse. Myrtle had been a coincidence. This murder was planned. It was meticulous and calculated, and the fact that Harry had seen Tom discuss it with the man he hired, heard his emotionless voice give precise instructions… it shattered something in him, so when the tears came, he didn’t fight them.

Look at him even now: he was more concerned about himself than about Beth. He was mourning his life with Tom, not her lost opportunities. He was despicable. He had killed people he cared for in the past — Sirius, Cedric, all those who believed and died for him, and now he started a new list here. But why? This life was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be better!

Tom had killed Beth, yes, but it was Harry who had thrown her onto his path. He was thoughtless. He believed Tom was slowly getting over his possessiveness and he missed the signs that had to be there. He missed everything.

A badly subdued sob tore from his chest, shattering what hadn’t been shattered yet. Pressing his forehead against his knees, he cried, finally giving in to the grief that was busily occupying every damaged part of him. His shoulders shook, and the sounds he made got uglier with every second he failed to stop himself.

What now? What now? How could they possibly survive it?

 

***

 

On Tuesday, Harry realised he’d been sitting motionlessly for almost a day. His body protested but his mind was too tired to pay attention to it.

No matter how hard he tried, he could only see nothingness ahead.

 

***

 

He didn’t want to live.

 

***

 

On Thursday, he discovered a way that helped make these endless hours of nothing but pain and self-hatred more bearable. He started pressing the edges of the Gryffindor ring Tom had given to him to the corner of his lips with varying degrees of pressure. Sometimes, he was trying to absorb the brightness of those times, to warm the ring with his lips and to find comfort in the unblemished memories. Sometimes, he pressed hard enough to scratch himself, letting his mind shift to the physical pain and forget about its masochistic streak at least temporarily.

This was better. Maybe he’d regain his ability to think critically soon.

 

***

On Saturday, Tom sent him a letter. It was poetic and remorseful, and not a word in it was authentic.

Dear Harry,

I know you are still angry with me. You have every right to be: I betrayed you in the worst way possible. I am truly, genuinely sorry about what I did — not just about hurting you but about hurting Beth, too. She was kind to me. She was generous and selfless, but I was too blinded by my anger to see this. Somehow, I didn’t really think she would die. I know I asked another person to kill her but I didn’t expect him to actually do it. I just wanted her gone and I never stopped to think about the consequences.

The thought of her death haunts me every day. I cannot believe that I have her blood on my hands. I don’t know what to do about it; no matter how much I try, I can’t stop thinking. It frightens me, Harry. I want to make it better but I don’t know how. If I could turn back time, I would have never done what I did. I would have taken her place gladly — anything to avoid causing this much pain to you and her family. Beth deserved to live a full life, and I will never forgive myself for taking it from her.

I’m sorry. I hope one day, you will be able to forgive me. Please tell me, is there anything I can do? Also, what would you recommend against the nightmares? I don’t want to go to Slughorn with this because he’ll ask questions, and I’m getting desperate. I want to sleep. I need to sleep but I can’t because every time I close my eyes, I see her. And I feel guilty.

Please help me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Your Tom

“This is the biggest crock of shite I have ever heard,” Harry told the letter. Tom’s demon bird stared at him expectantly, so he shook his head, indicating that he wasn’t going to send a reply.

“Go to the kitchen, take whatever treats you want,” he said. “Rest if you’d like and get out. No letters for you today.”

Letting out a disgusted sound, Apophis jumped from the table, and Harry leaned against the back of the sofa, crumpling the letter in his hands.

The very idea of Tom sitting down to write this bunch of sweet poisonous lies was mind-boggling. Did he honestly think Harry would buy it after that display at Hogwarts? Did he think he could put on another mask and Harry would gladly accept it, jumping on the chance to get things back to normal, choosing denial over truth?

Maybe Tom didn’t know him. And maybe Harry didn’t know him either.

When did it happen? When did Tom feel the need to mask his true self from him? Harry had always tried to be accepting and understanding. They didn’t always agree with each other, but they resolved most conflicts by talking, by refuting each other’s arguments. Yet at some point, Tom must have felt that he wasn’t going to be accepted again, so he started hiding himself, presenting the version he thought Harry wanted to see.

Who was Tom? Was anything in their moments together genuine?

The moisture he hoped he’d overcome suddenly flooded his eyes, and Harry shut them tightly, breathing carefully through his nose.

What they shared couldn’t be fake. He made mistakes, yes, but he couldn’t be this wrong. He knew love when he felt it. Whatever Tom’s violence and coldness stemmed from, these weren’t the only things he felt.

There were signs indicating that something wasn’t right. Max, the child from the beach. Tom had broken his fingers in a burst of senseless jealousy. He had attempted to erase the images of Ron and Hermione from Harry’s life, too, unable to tolerate the thought of him caring about anyone else.

Harry thought he was getting better, but maybe that was the one thing he got wrong? Tom didn’t get better. He was genuinely terrified of losing him or of being moved to a less relevant position in his life, terrified enough to kill for it.

He still had panic attacks at any careless mention of Harry’s death or something separating them. That was genuine, just as Tom’s love for him. Harry felt it time and time again, in different variations and displays.

It was there. Tom loved him.

But maybe he loved him too much. That was what Harry had feared in the past: that his focus on Tom could be too overwhelming, leading to co-dependency so intense, none of them would be able to recover from it. And that was exactly what happened: he had effectively trapped himself and Tom. He did make Tom a murderer, in the most direct sense of this word, because if not for their relationship, none of it would have happened.

When another flood of tears came, Harry was powerless to stop them. Turning to the side, he buried his face in the pillow, wishing for something, anything, that could help him hold himself together. He was falling apart, and the sudden flare of longing for Ron and Hermione made him grit his teeth to stop himself from crying out.

If only he could talk to them. To share some of what he was feeling. He wasn’t really used to doing it, too accustomed to overcoming his problems by himself, but right now, he’d give anything for a friend, someone he could trust.

He had been too intense. He should have realised that by making Tom the centre of his universe, he would become the centre of his, too. Tom wasn’t like him. Whether he was affected by the fact that he’d been conceived under the love potion or by Gaunts’ inbreeding, he was different. His emotions, his reactions weren’t like Harry’s or the people’s he knew, and there were enough instances in their past for Harry to see this.

Yet still, he didn’t change his behaviour. He jumped headfirst into the idea of bonding with Tom, and it birthed a two-sided obsession that was terrifying in its intensity and destructiveness.

His Tom wasn’t interested in blood purity. He didn’t think that other people, be they Muggles or wizards, deserved to die due to their alleged inferiority. The only thing that made him temporarily lose his humanity was Harry, and if there was one thing Harry could never hold against Tom, it was love. Love he had cultivated himself, even if unwittingly. Tom’s love was twisted, unhealthy, and it cost Beth her life. But it was still love. And Harry still embraced it.

What should he do with all this? Was there any way out?

 

***

 

On Monday, Harry thought about Snape. He thought of how hard he had fought to clear his name, to get him acknowledged as the hero he was. Years of humiliation and resentment dissipated in an instance just because Snape had loved his mother and dedicated his life to Harry as her extension. The thought of it was enough to undo all damage he had inflicted, including the fact that he had been the one to deliver the prophecy to Voldemort.

If Harry held nothing but warmth and respect for the man who had never shown him kindness, how could he hate Tom for anything? Tom loved him. Harry could never hate someone who loved him, no matter what they did. Add his own profound and desperate love for Tom, and everything else paled in comparison — everything, including Beth and the heartbreak her family must be undergoing now. 

Harry couldn’t give him away. But he couldn’t forgive him either.

Or could he?

A murderer. How could he continue to live with a murderer? It went against everything he believed in. It made him a pathetic and vile human being, someone he would despise almost as much as he did Voldemort. And if he could do it, then how could he ever live with himself afterwards?

 

***

 

Harry spent almost the entire Tuesday sitting outside, on a badly conjured chair, letting the snow slowly chill his skin, crawl inside, and freeze him there, too. The cold shifted from quiet and tingling to fierce and biting, but Harry didn’t move even when his body began to ache.

This seemed fitting, somehow. His blood was gradually turning to ice, and self-hatred lessened along with his energy, hindering and scattering his thoughts.

What would Ron and Hermione say? Would they hate him for being unable to reject Tom even now, after the murder?

But he wouldn’t reject them either, even if they killed someone. He loved them. And he was afraid that he loved Tom most of all. These years had built a dedication that was impossible to overcome — it was his second nature now. Tom was his world.

His magic thrummed weakly, trying to alert him to the fact that he needed to get warm. Harry ignored it.

He was sitting here, doing nothing, and as Beth’s family must be still attempting to recover, all he wanted was to be hugged and comforted by Tom. To feel his warmth and his cool certainty, to hear justifications that would stop his conscience from rotting in guilt.

It wasn’t realistic, but it was what he wanted.

The lion on his ring growled in an attempt to get his attention. Absurdly, it looked worried, and Harry tried to move his lips in a bitter smile only to realise that he couldn’t. It felt like he had truly turned into an icicle.

He didn’t want to get up. Sitting here, in this half-dead state, was preferable to the alternative of getting warm and coming back to life… but he really couldn’t afford such luxury at this point.

Inhaling deeply, he released his magic, allowing it to tentatively spread through his body, melting the worst of the coldness. When he could move again, he got up and staggered into the house.

He couldn’t go on like this. He had to tell himself something, to ground himself in a way that would let him live through this. Otherwise, he would simply lose his mind, with no chance to correct his mistake.

 

***

 

On Thursday, Tom sent him another letter. It was curt and angry, but it was more genuine than his first message.

Harry,

I apologised. I admitted I was wrong. What else do you want from me? Answer me right now. I told Apophis to wait for your reply.

Your Tom 

Sighing, Harry put the letter away, closing his eyes for a moment.

Tom was Tom. He might have worked hard to blind him but Harry had only himself to blame for missing his trigger points.

The decision had already been made for him — he couldn’t give Tom up. Not because of Beth’s murder, and perhaps not ever, no matter what else he did.

But things weren’t that bad yet, were they? Tom had done what he thought he had to. Harry could recall the words he’d spoken with frightening clarity: “I don’t care how you kill her but it has to be effective.” So it wasn’t about cruelty, bigotry, or sadism. It was a necessity — in Tom’s eyes. His sense of security must have been much shakier than Harry had imagined, so despite all reassurances, he still couldn’t take a chance of Beth becoming someone more meaningful to him.

It wasn’t okay, far from it, but maybe Harry could work with it. Now that he knew the danger, the weak point, he could try to…

Apophis pecked him aggressively, flapping his wings. It was painful enough and Harry jumped from the unexpectedness of it, torn out of his thoughts.

“Get away from me!” he snapped, trying to shake the stupid bird off. But like its owner, it possessed a unique kind of stubbornness, and no matter how hard Harry shook his hand, Apophis held on, refusing to unclench his beak.

There were always spells, but Harry wasn’t ready to risk hurting a creature that was just following its owner’s orders. 

“All right, I’ll give you a letter to take back to Tom! Deal?” he hissed finally. Apophis released him immediately, but his stare remained suspicious and bloodthirsty.

He was a smart bird, Harry could give him that, but he could still be tricked. And no matter what orders Tom gave him, Apophis would never be able to tell what kind of message Harry was sending.

Grabbing the first insulting letter Tom had composed for him, Harry evened out the crumpled bits and offered it to the bird. With a satisfied creak, it flew off, leaving him in his silent house.

Whatever thoughts he was having, he would not go back on his promise. He wouldn’t reply to Tom until summer. Even if he wanted to.

 

***

 

The pain came and went in waves, so he spent Friday and Saturday outside again. Saturday was the worst because he kept himself sitting motionlessly for so long, even magic wasn’t enough to restart proper blood circulation. Harry barely forced himself to crawl inside the house, and he still collapsed in the hall, pulling his legs to his chest weakly.

His behaviour was pitiful. He knew it. He’d survived much worse, so why was this situation killing him? He had never felt as destroyed as he did now.

Different. This life had to be different. It wasn’t supposed to have any losses. Tom had to be… he had to be…

…himself. Harry couldn’t demand anything else. But murder wasn’t what Tom was about either, and it brought Harry back to the same train of thought that had sent him on this self-hatred-fuelled trip: the only thing he could do to try salvage their lives was to educate Tom better, to watch him more attentively, and to correct his own mistakes . And for that, he needed to forgive him, and he needed to forgive himself for doing it.   

Harry knew what he wanted to achieve. But he wasn’t sure where to get the strength for one more try.

 

***

 

The answer came in the form of Tom’s next letter. This one was chaotic and disturbing, but it was so refreshingly genuine that Harry finally felt the first stirring of calmness waking him from his shell-shocked stupor.  

I wanted to protect you from the truth because I could see you can’t handle it. I gave you an illusion of comfort, but you decided to throw it in my face. Fine. If you reject the lies, then listen to the truth. I could care less about Beth’s death. She should have never come into your life because your life is mine. Your time, your stares, your smiles, your feelings, everything about you is mine and I’m never going to share any of it. Do you want me to make a list? I will. It doesn’t matter that I killed her. She was nothing, I don’t understand why you are being so stubborn. You didn’t love her. You told me that yourself! How can you care about someone you don’t love? Why do you even bother to meet new people if you know none of them will be as important to you as I am?

I always make concessions for you because I know what you’re like. But I won’t make them here. If you want me to be honest, here it is: I don’t want you to have girlfriends or boyfriends or friends. I don’t want you to meet with any acquaintances, I don’t want you to talk to anyone other than me unless it’s for business purposes. If you won’t give it to me, I will ensure you have no one by myself. And I’m not going to make another mistake — next time, you won’t even know what happened. You will never prove I did anything. You are mine and I am yours, and it will be this way always. We don’t need anyone else.

You won’t dare to ignore my letters forever. You will overcome your senseless suffering and you will reply to me sooner or later. You will be fine. Everything will be fine. You won’t remember Beth’s name in a year but nothing will change for you and me.

Reply to me.  

Harry put the letter aside, blinking slowly and trying to absorb everything he had read.

Well. Not that he’d learned anything new — he was already aware of all these things. But seeing them written so bluntly, so carelessly, with no regard for the fact that this outrageous, crazy letter could be intercepted…

Then again, who would dare to attack Tom’s evil bird? It looked frightening no matter how you looked at it.

Harry brought the letter closer again, re-reading it, and a strange mixture of peacefulness and frustration filled him.

Technically, he would have no problems following Tom’s demands. It was something he had already decided for himself: no new people, not until Tom grew up and realised that the world didn’t start and end with Harry. But the fact that Tom demanded it in the first place was crazy. It was madness. And it proved again that Harry had to tread very, very carefully. He was the reason that had awakened Tom’s murderous rage, and he had to alleviate the consequences and remove the danger in whatever way he could.

He wouldn’t go along with this — submissiveness was never his strong side, but he wouldn’t refuse Tom either. He could never bring Beth back or pay her family for the hurt and horror he and Tom had caused them, but he could make sure nothing like this happened again.

He could still make the future better. He just had to be cautious. Patient.

Strong.

 

***

 

The next months dragged by slowly, but Harry didn’t mind. He dismissed all his students, leaving himself unburdened, and focused on rebuilding his belief in himself… and in Tom.

It was going to take time, he knew it. Self-hatred and a crushing sense of disappointment still stabbed at his brain at times, filling his head with thoughts he couldn’t refute, trying to push him back into the now-melted snow.

Tom had already killed a person. Even if it wasn’t done with his hands, it was still murder and it still tarnished his soul. Beth was dead.

But the more time passed, the thicker stream of optimism broke through, mending the wounds and soothing the throbbing scars.

The world could still be a beautiful place. It was over for Beth, and his father would never be born because Grindelwald had killed his grandfather, but everyone else was still asleep in a limbo, waiting for their time. Ron. Hermione. His mother. Sirius, Lupin, Fred and George, Tonks, Cedric, Snape — everyone. They would be born at some point, and Harry could still make their lives happier, brighter, fuller.

He didn’t have an option to switch the worlds anyway — this was his one and only chance. And even if he did, Harry wasn’t sure he would use it. He had a solid and stable life here — life with Tom. He treasured it, even if it was currently bleeding from several vulnerable places.  

Tom kept sending him letters and he kept reading them, although he never replied. Their tone ranged from furious to upset, from vicious to pleading or desperate. Tom threatened. Made promises. Took them back. Swore. Raged and threatened again. Harry folded the letters after reading them and put them all in one heap on the table, watching how the pile got bigger and bigger.

Love overflowed him. Sadness was a frequent guest, too, because he knew Tom was being genuine, both in his threats and in his promises. He also knew Tom wasn’t going to keep either of them. For such a smart child, he could be surprisingly short-sighted at times. Harry could easily use some of what he’d written to lock him up in Azkaban or even St. Mungo’s. But he would never do that.

No, he had another idea.

By the time the school term ended, Harry was feeling collected. Each negative emotion had been reviewed, analysed, and put into its drawer, and he hoped he would be able to maintain his hold on them, at least until he and Tom got everything out in the open.

The magical part of King’s Cross was crowded as always but he didn’t find it concerning. He knew Tom would find him, no matter how many people stood between them.

Harry sensed him before he saw him. His attention was drawn to a specific carriage, and a moment later, Tom stepped out from it, his eyes immediately zeroing in on him. Tom’s fury was palpable — Harry could feel it slide towards him in a hissing, vicious shadow, getting darker with every step Tom made in his direction. Finally, he reached him, and Harry’s heart skipped an anxious beat when he realised that Tom’s eyes looked unfamiliar. They were empty, with nothing but rage and violence reflected inside.

If he were ever asked how he imagined evil, he would think about Voldemort with the glare Tom was currently wearing.   

“You—” Tom started brutally, but before he could say anything, Harry grabbed him by his shoulders and pulled him close, nearly crushing him against his chest. His lips pressed to the top of Tom’s head in a familiar motion, and then he rubbed his cheek against his hair, inhaling the familiar, beloved smell. A part of his mind registered that Tom had become even taller, and he tightened his grip further, irrationally upset that he missed the way it happened.

Tom didn’t have a chance to hug him back, with how tightly Harry was holding him, so Harry wasn’t sure about his reaction. When he pulled away, he couldn’t help but smile.

The transformation was immediate. Tom’s body deflated like all the toxicity had evaporated from it. Anger and blackness were gone from his eyes. They looked alert and bright again, and there were confusion, hope, and vulnerability that would never stop having one and the same effect on him.

Harry reached for him again, brushing a longer strand of hair behind Tom’s ear gently. At this moment, the pain was genuinely forgotten. Every cell of his body sang with love.

“Hello,” he said. Tom’s eyes had gone hazy after the touch, and now he jerked his head to the side, as if trying to shake off the dizziness.

“Hello,” he echoed uncertainly. Silently, Harry offered his hand, and Tom clutched it in his instantly, his eyes still fixated on him, as if the rest of the world no longer existed.

Without saying anything else, they left the crowded place, and Harry apparated them to their house. Tom also said nothing: whatever biting words he had prepared were dispersed with one simple embrace.

“Are you hungry?” Harry asked as they stepped inside. “I’ve prepared some of your favourites.”

Tom nodded, watching him warily.

“Good. Go unpack your trunk and change. Then we’ll talk, and then we’ll have our early dinner.”

Despite his offer, Tom didn’t budge. His eyes narrowed.

“What are we going to talk about?” he asked suspiciously, and Harry raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

“I think you know,” he replied mildly. “About boundaries and your understanding of them.”

Violence filled Tom’s body again: the room seemed to go colder as his body coiled slightly, preparing for an attack. A verbal or physical one, Harry had no desire to find out.

“If you wanted to learn about my understanding of anything, you should have read my letters,” Tom spat.

“I did,” Harry said. For whatever reason, the angrier Tom became, the calmer he felt. “I kept them, too,” he waved in the direction of the table, and Tom’s aggressiveness dimmed the second he caught sight of the pile of letters. His posture softened a little, losing its sharp edges.

“You never replied,” he accused, though anger was mixed with hesitation now.

“I told you I wouldn’t. I keep my promises about everything I say to you.”

Tom must have caught something in his voice because he crossed his arms defensively, burning holes in him with his stare.

“I want to talk now. Not later.”

“If you are certain,” Harry shrugged. The fact that Tom was so palpably nervous was good. It meant he still had a way to reach him. If he could, he would tell him that the need to worry would come later, during the second discussion, which was bound to be dirtier and upsetting… but that would defeat the purpose of his plan.

“From now on, you and I will be using a new system,” Harry said aloud. “A simple but efficient one. Rewards and punishments.”

Tom’s lips curved down, a light sneer hardening his features.

“How old do you think I am?” he asked derisively. Harry ignored his tone.

“People of all ages respond to this system,” he explained patiently. “What matters is the nature of the reward and the punishment. In your case, they’ll be tailored specifically for you.”

This wasn’t going well. Tom was still tense, resentment accumulating in him in waves, and Harry wasn’t sure he would hear anything even if he listened to what was being said.

With a sigh, he approached Tom and framed his face with his hands, tilting his head up a bit, brushing at his cheeks softly. Fascinated, he noticed how Tom deflated again, practically melting under his touch.

This was much better.

“I understand that you are different,” Harry told him. “You don’t see this world like I do, like I would prefer for you to see it. I think you would have changed it if you could, if I asked you to, but it’s impossible, so I’m not even going to bother. The thing is, you are not a senseless child either. You are old and smart enough to realise that some universal rules must be obeyed even if you don’t like or get them. You cannot harm others just because you find them annoying or a threat. You cannot actively hate someone for liking me, or for me liking them. This isn’t sustainable. It damages your soul, it endangers innocent people, it hurts me and it ruins your chances of building a future you want to have. So from this moment, whenever you have an impulse to do what you know is unacceptable, you must come to me and tell me about it. Together, we’ll find a way to overcome this impulse and channel your emotions elsewhere.”

Tom’s skin was burning under his fingers, but Harry felt he had his undivided attention. Tom was staring at him so intently, he didn’t even blink.

“After we do that,” he continued, “if you manage to act in the way you know is right, not feel is right, you will be rewarded. There will be two options. Either you ask me for something specific or you let me decide what to give you.”

Since he was looking so closely, he saw how Tom’s pupils dilated, greed and hunger darkening them.

“How do you know I won’t abuse this system?” he wondered silkily. “I might lie to you and you will never know it.”

A smile danced on his lips as Harry pressed their foreheads together.

“I trust you,” he said quietly. “I don’t doubt you can abuse any kind of system, but I hope you won’t do it to me.”   

Tom wrapped his hands around Harry’s neck, pulling him even closer.

“I won’t,” he promised. He looked dazed again, but he still thought to ask, “What about punishments? What will they be about?”

“We’ll get to it later,” gently, Harry untangled himself from Tom’s hold and stepped back. “I’m glad we’ve reached an agreement. Go change now, it’s time for dinner.”

Tom looked at him for several more seconds, with such wonder, as if he had never seen him before. Then, with a nod, he hurried upstairs, and Harry closed his eyes briefly.

Now he just had to survive the next part of the agreement.

 

***

 

All the barriers seemed to be gone by the time they finally started dinner. Tom was chattering about school, mentioning friends and subjects, complaining about Dumbledore and voicing his absolute disgust for Quidditch.  

“I can teach you how to fly,” Harry suggested, struggling not to grin at how seriously Tom began to mull over it. You would think he’s solving the riddle of his life.

“I will think about it,” he finally said, so graciously, like he was a merciful king. Harry snorted in his cup of tea, and rolled his eyes when Tom glared at him.

It felt good to have Tom home, no matter what the persistent worm of guilt was trying to tell him. He preferred to be realistic, and realistically, the only thing he could do was make sure that Tom corrected his dangerous patterns of behaviour. He had failed to protect Beth but he’d protect everyone else. Better something than nothing.

Reassured once again, Harry picked up the empty plates, carrying them to the sink and ignoring Tom’s frustrated sigh. Tom hated him doing things the Muggle way, so sometimes Harry did it just to make fun of him. Tom always looked so deeply offended, like the mere idea of doing something manually was incomprehensible to him.

“Harry? May I ask a question?”

“Of course,” Harry turned to give him a confused look. When Tom wanted to ask something, he did, without redundant hesitations.

“Does your system cover the period from winter or does it start today?”

Alarm bells rang in Harry’s mind, but he tried to stop his face from contorting in what would undoubtedly be an anxious grimace.

“Let’s say it starts with winter,” he said slowly. “Why? Is there something you’d like to tell me?”

Tom’s mouth stretched in a pleased, predatory grin that instantly made Harry wary. Considering the context, there were few things as inappropriate as this smile. What else could have Tom possibly done? And if his simmering darkness wasn’t related solely to Harry and spread to others, too, then what else could be causing it?

“There is a boy I befriended. Lestrange. I told you about him before.” Tom looked at him, expecting a confirmation, and Harry nodded slowly. What on earth could Lestrange be guilty of to the point of Tom struggling with the desire to harm him?

“He has been very annoying recently,” Tom pursed his lips in a thin disapproving line, and despite the tension that was rapidly digging through Harry’s chest, he still felt a flare of endearment. Tom had the strangest rules sometimes – no wonder that even his friends couldn’t always follow them. “I usually ignore his uncontrollable explosions of enthusiasm, but he was getting worse, and I was—” Tom’s face suddenly shut off, going entirely blank. Harry almost reached out, wanting to touch him, to bring back the expression he’d just had. Anything was better than this detached coldness, this complete and frightening lack of any emotions.   

Tom considered something before focusing on him again, more shrewdly this time.

“I was angry,” he said quietly. “I was furious with you for ignoring me. I couldn’t concentrate on my lessons or even on Slytherin matters. I kept thinking about what you were doing, who you were seeing, if you were all right. Other than that letter that you returned, you didn’t react to anything. It was like you didn’t even exist anymore!” Tom’s balled his fists, and his fury that Harry had managed to fend off resurfaced with vengeance. It was like white-hot redness began to ooze from his body, colouring everything it touched, heating the floor until Harry could barely stand on it. “I asked the headmaster to let me see you, but he refused. I begged you — begged you to respond. To send me a blank letter, some thing from the house, anything. You still ignored me. You ignored me!”

“I told you I would,” Harry echoed himself, but this time, his calmness only infuriated Tom further.

“I felt like I hated you sometimes,” he hissed. “I felt so enraged, I couldn’t see straight. Lestrange was bothering me with his nonsense all the time, and at some point, I wanted to do it. I wanted to kill him to make you come to Hogwarts. Dumbledore hates me, and if one of my closest acquaintances turned up dead, he would have tried to blame it on me. He would have summoned you to school and I would have finally been able to see you!”

Harry swallowed, chill pouring down his spine in a generous, numbing wave.

At least he wasn’t wrong. There was a direct connection between Tom’s darker mood swings and him… scary and bewildering as it was. Because if Tom even considered something like this, the situation was worse than he’d imagined. To kill a person, a friend, just to lure Harry into school, despite knowing they were about to meet at King’s Cross? These were the impulsivity and short-sightedness Harry couldn’t understand.

“What stopped you?” he asked carefully. Murder. They were talking about murder again. Harry didn’t know Lestrange personally, but he was relatively certain that “uncontrollable explosions of enthusiasm” didn’t warrant death. Or even a hex.

“You!” Tom spat, with so much disgust that Harry would have recoiled if he could still move. “I knew you would hate me if I did it. And I knew that even if I wasn’t caught, you would never— you would—” Tom fell silent, his breathing laborious, his fists still clenched tightly.

Harry wondered if he should say what he wanted.

He shouldn’t.

He definitely shouldn’t, but the words still escaped, “I could never hate you.”

Tom’s eyes pierced him instantly, as if trying to assess whether he was telling the truth, and Harry bit his tongue to stop himself from bursting in more reassurances. What he said would have to be enough.

“Thank you for sharing this with me,” he uttered softly. “I’m glad you did and I’m glad you stopped before acting.”

Tom relaxed slowly, although the tension didn’t leave him entirely.

“So do I deserve my reward?” he asked cockily.

“Yes,” Harry said, and when a grin lit up Tom’s face, he smiled, too, despite not feeling like it.

Tom would get a reward. But he would also get his punishment.

“Would you like to choose it yourself or let me do it?”

“I’ll choose it myself this time. There is something I want.”

Curious now, Harry tilted his head.

“All right. What is it?”

“I want to sleep next to you throughout the summer.”

Harry’s mouth fell open before he snapped it shut, staring at Tom incredulously. He was expecting a demand for an expensive object, a trip somewhere, a book he would have to search the whole country for, and Tom wanted this?

“Why?” Harry asked, completely mystified. It wasn’t like Tom was actually scared of nightmares. What caused him to ask for something this inconsequential as a reward?

Tom’s paleness changed to a flush.

“Because you ignored me,” he uttered, hunching his shoulders slightly. “You ignored me and I missed you.”

He clearly wasn’t sure if he should consider this display a weakness or not, but Harry was still too stunned, pleased, touched to say anything about it.

“All right,” he agreed easily. The remnants of tension slipped from Tom’s body and he smiled, too, looking as pleased as Harry felt.

This request, Harry mused, was a staggering improvement from the cruel and malicious demand Tom had presented back when they were only getting used to each other, after he won the cooking war. And it reaffirmed his hypothesis that every strong emotion Tom experienced went back to him.

This would make the punishment even more fitting.

 

***

 

Harry was already in bed when Tom strolled into his room. For a second, a feeling of uncertainty jolted through him. Tom was fourteen and a half, but in this light, he looked almost like Tom Riddle from the Chamber of Secrets. He looked older — not a child anymore, and Harry wasn’t sure if it was normal for teenagers to sleep with their guardians.

Then he thought of how obsessed with normalcy his aunt and uncle had been and banished the hesitancy. Who cared what most people did or didn’t do? Neither he nor Tom belonged to the group that could be called normal. And if Tom missed him enough to want to stay with him at night, Harry didn’t mind. He missed him, too.

As always, Tom grimaced in distaste when his gaze fell on a lion statue Harry had bought years ago, but then his eyes travelled to the photograph of him that was still standing next to Harry’s bed. Lingering there, they moved to Harry, and the whirlwind of emotions in them planted something warm in his heart.

There was love in Tom’s eyes. Confused, possessive, unvoiced, but it was love, and a surge of reciprocal feeling that rushed through Harry was twice as strong. It overwhelmed him, birthing restlessness that urged him to say or do something to show Tom just how much he was loved in return.

At this moment, Harry felt like the happiest man in the world. Tom never said he loved him, but at times like this, Harry discovered he didn’t need it. Tom’s eyes spoke louder than his often-lying tongue ever could.

“Since you intend to sleep with me, you’ll have to tolerate going to bed before midnight,” he said lightly. Tom let out a long-suffering sigh.

“If I must,” he drawled. He crawled into the bed, shifting closer to Harry, watching him. Smiling, Harry stroked his hair briefly before turning away and closing his eyes. Trying not to think about the knife hidden under his pillow.   

 

***

 

That same night, Harry woke up from the slight creaking of the door. When he raised his head, he saw that Tom had left the room — probably went in search of tea and ‘night cookies’, as Harry called them. Tom had taken to doing it about two years ago, driven by night hunger for something sweet that never failed to make Harry snicker. Still, he made sure to keep mint-and-jam cookies in stock at all times, and this day wasn’t an exception. But this time, it also played into his plan.

Tonight, then. Why not? Reward and punishment had to go together.

This whole thing had an ugly chance of backfiring spectacularly, but it was the only weapon he had. So he just had to bite the bullet and hope that Tom would be affected enough to never risk harming another person again.

Harry took out the knife, clenched it in his hand, and began to wait.

Tom returned ten minutes later, looking sated and sleepy, and when he noticed Harry, it took him several moments to piece what he was seeing. Harry watched the change on his face, from delight at him being awake to confusion and incredulity.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked slowly. Harry touched the tip of the blade, pressing his finger against it.

“We haven’t discussed punishment yet,” he said, relieved that his words sounded detached. “I thought to wait, but since you insisted on getting a reward, it would be prudent to address both of them today.”

“Yes?” Tom managed to suppress his bewilderment. His lips formed a small, derisive smirk. “Let’s address it, then. What does it entail? You threatening me with the knife? ‘Kill someone else and I’ll kill you’?”

“Does it sound like me?” Harry raised his eyebrows. “Do you think I would ever hurt you?”

He waited for it to sink in. When Tom’s eyes suddenly widened in alarm, Harry took it as a cue, and before Tom could lurch forward, he jerked the knife to the side of his own neck.

“Do you know how Beth was killed?” he asked conversationally. “You didn’t specify the method, so the man you hired chose it by himself.”

Tom was silent, but his breathing was rapidly accelerating.

“He slit her throat,” Harry told him. “Quickly and messily. He started to run, but since he couldn’t be sure she was really dead, he decided to come back and stab her again. He was grabbed before he did this, but even then, it was too late. Beth died soon after this. We both know you have vivid imagination — how long do you think it would take for a person to bleed out?” 

“You wouldn’t kill yourself to teach me a lesson! Stop this, put the knife down!”

Harry smiled.

“No,” he said simply. “To your second sentence. As for the first… I don’t intend to kill myself, but who knows how it goes? Maybe I won’t die this time, but you could come up with a more elaborate and violent plan in the future. And since I will be replicating it, only you can say to what extent I will be endangering myself.”

“This is ridiculous, it’s the most stupid plan you could have possibly come up with!” Tom clenched his fists. His chest was heaving now, and with every second, a wilder look overtook his face.

“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Harry pressed the knife harder, breaking skin, and Tom drew in a sharp, hitched breath. “All your letters and our previous conversations have made it clear that you have a very selected empathy. You can emphasise only with me. You said it yourself: you feel happy when I’m happy. You are worried something will happen to me but you wouldn’t care if the whole world went up in flames. Correct?”

Tom’s furious glare and silence were answer enough. Harry shook his head, feeling how his own heart began to pound.

This was traumatic for Tom. He knew it. It could have long-lasting consequences, it could make everything ten times worse, but this was his only chance at getting Tom to feel at least a flicker of thoughtfulness to others. A quiver of remorse, a gleam of compassion — anything Harry couldn’t instil in him by himself.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that I can make you feel emotions you just don’t feel,” he continued more softly. “I’m also not a fool to trust your promises, so don’t even bother lying to me. During these last months, I’ve learned more about the real you than I have in all the years we spent together. You were hiding many sides of yourself from me. Not entirely — you let me see the glimpses, but I never thought your capacity for compassion was this limited. If your feelings for me are intense enough to make you kill someone, then maybe they will be intense enough to make you stop next time.”

The knife dug in deeper. First streaks of blood flowed down, and Tom stretched out his hands towards him in a warning, like trying to soothe a volatile animal.

“All right, I understand,” he said calmly, his voice a vivid contrast to his shaking hands. “You’ve made your point. I will never act this thoughtlessly again. There is no need to take it any further — I accept your system and all your rules, even if I don’t like them.”

Harry shook his head slightly, gripping the knife harder. Being cruel to Tom was much harder than moving the blade, but it had to be done. He had to do something other than issuing empty threats, or he would never get his point across, no matter what Tom was saying.

“I have always preferred practical demonstrations,” he noted wryly. Then his hand jerked decisively, making a harsh, semi-circular cut. Tom screamed, throwing himself forward, and before Harry could finish the cut, Tom’s hands were there, gripping the knife right by the blade and tearing it from his grip. The blood rushed from the cuts Tom had sustained after his desperate move, but he didn’t seem to notice it. He was still bellowing the denial, the barely coherent hysterical “no” that made Harry’s heart break as it echoed through the room repeatedly.

His own thoughts were sluggishly slow, but even as blood escaped him in bursts, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t die from this. His magic, triggered by what it perceived as disaster, was already working on hindering the blood loss, and a similar but considerably more powerful magic was thrust at him by Tom. His eyes were wild and terrified, and as he was clumsily trying to close Harry’s wound with his hands, not realising this wasn’t possible, he was almost glowing with instinctive, wandless power. Even unconsciously, he was directing every ounce of it to Harry’s throat, attempting to heal it, to undo as much damage as he could.   

Since dying wasn’t an option for him, Harry could play with death. Tom didn’t know it.

Harry hoped fervently this would make the impact stick.

He sensed how life stopped seeping out, but since a big amount of blood was decorating him at this point, Tom didn’t seem to notice. His hands were still trying to hold the torn skin together, and he was making quiet, choked sounds, trembling so much that Harry raised his hand involuntarily, stroking his cheek in comfort.

“Do you understand what Beth’s family felt now? When they learned how she died?” he croaked. “Do you understand that you should never—” 

“I won’t!” Tom gasped. “I won’t! I promise! Take it back now, take it back, take it back—”

Harry wasn’t sure what he was asking. Tom seemed to disintegrate right before his eyes, turning into a crazed, feral beast. He was still struggling for air, and his hands were doing more damage than good now, clinging to his wounded neck like they hoped to physically put life into it.   

Harry felt his eyes water. Trying to blink them away, he scoffed internally at himself. Since when was he so weak? He knew this had to be done, regardless of what nightmares Tom would be fighting afterwards.

Tom. The boy who still had panic attacks at the thought of Harry being harmed and who needed to listen to his heartbeat to calm down.

He must have done a bad job of fighting tears because Tom’s bloodied hands suddenly pressed to his cheeks. His dark eyes seemed enormous on his pale, horrified face, and they reflected such blind fear that Harry would give anything to never see it again.

“I’m sorry,” Tom choked out. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Harry didn’t know what exactly he was apologising for. He was sure that if he asked, Tom wouldn’t be able to say it either, but the mere fact of hearing these words from him — the authentic, heartfelt, emotional words, meant everything.

“Bring some water and bandages,” Harry rasped. “Then some Firewhiskey. Have to clean the wound.”

“No, I can’t leave you!” Tom clutched at him, a new wave of tremors rolling through his body. “I can’t. If I go, you will— you will—”

Speaking was still tough, but Harry still managed to push out, “I’ll be fine. Blood stopped. I didn’t cut deeply enough. Muggle wound, so magic’s working.”

Nothing changed. Tom was shaking his head, rejecting his words, digging into his shoulders with that same loathsome expression of primitive mindless terror on his face.

“The more you wait, the more danger I’m in,” Harry tried, and it immediately pushed Tom into action. He jumped from the bed, rushing outside after throwing one more anxious look at him. In less than a minute, he was back, and his hands were still trembling when he started gently cleaning Harry’s wound, soaking the cloth in warm water and pressing it to his skin. He said nothing, staring at his throat so intently, like he was afraid the cut would start bleeding profusely again the second he looked away from it.

Harry wasn’t set on speaking either, so the next minutes passed in silence. When all blood was gone, Tom stared at the bare wound with a shudder, wringing his hands over and over again.

“I need to… I need to close it,” he murmured finally. “Is there a spell? I don’t know healing spells. Not like this.”

“Wash it with alcohol first. Then bring the threads and a needle. Put it in there too.”

“No!” Tom shook his head violently. “It’ll hurt you.”

Harry chuckled hoarsely.

“Can’t hurt worse than it already has,” he pointed out, but instead of having the desired effect, these words seemed to send Tom back into the abyss. He pressed his hands to his ears, as if trying to block the unwanted sounds, and his eyes took on a glassy look, staring somewhere Harry couldn’t reach.

The night didn’t look like it was going to end soon. Taking a deep breath, Harry grabbed Tom’s hand in his, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“Come back to me,” he said quietly. “I need you.”

He had to repeat it several times before the first light of acknowledgement lit Tom’s eyes. Slowly, he let Harry remove his hands form his ears, and when he glanced at him, he looked like he was a second from bursting in tears. This was so atypical that Harry’s heart clenched painfully, sending jolts of guilt through his body.

“This is just a scratch,” he told Tom firmly. “We’ll have to take care of it for several days, but in the end, it’ll heal. Everything will be fine. But it won’t be fine for Beth, who got a much deeper wound. If I had truly replicated it, I would be dead now.”

Tom let out a half-choked whimper, pressing closer to him, and Harry pulled him to his chest, wincing when pain seized his neck. Noticing it, Tom scrambled back. He wasn’t crying, but his eyes were wet, making Harry ache in love and sympathy.

“Bring the needle and some threads,” he asked again. “I promise you, everything will be fine. And if you manage to hold off your irrational desire to hurt people you don’t like for whatever reason, nothing else will happen to me.”  

Tom nodded jerkily, then got up and moved towards the door, a little unsteadily. Harry took his wand, intending to clean the bloodstains from the sheets, but hesitated.

It would be better if Tom washed them manually. If he saw that the mess and the ugliness had long-lasting consequences for everyone involved on all levels — physical and psychological, and in their case, even magical… maybe it would stick. At least in some ways.

Harry could feel a heavy weight of magical exhaustion pushing against his eyelids, urging him to sleep and to restore his energy. A blood-replenishing potion could help a great deal, but they didn’t have a supply of it at their home.

When Tom returned, he still had a haunted look in his eyes. He stopped near Harry, and his fingers were even more unsteady when he tried to make the first stitches. Colours were fleeing his face one by one, with it changing from pale to white to grey.

Harry thought he wasn’t fairing much better.  

“I’m going to pass out soon,” he warned. Blood was flowing out again, though more slowly this time. “Don’t panic when it happens. Finish the stitches and have some rest. We’ll talk in the morning if you want to.”

Tom’s lips moved, but not a sound escaped. He looked on the verge of passing out himself, and more than ever, Harry hoped that he hadn’t made a big mistake.

He didn’t notice how consciousness slipped away from him. The next time he opened his eyes, the sunlight was bathing the room in a warm yellow, and Tom was sitting next to him, cradling Harry’s wrist to his chest. His thumb was pressed tightly against the pulse point there. Big dark circles under his eyes revealed the fact of sleepless night, and Harry had to forcefully ignore another sharp stab of guilt.

He wasn’t going to regret his decision. In comparison to what happened, this was a relatively mild punishment.

His neck was hurting, but the ache was dull. Weakness still held each part of his body captive, though, so Harry grimaced even as he pushed himself up on the pillows.

Silently, Tom handed him a vial, and Harry’s eyebrows shot up.

“When did you prepare the potion?” he uttered. Tom shrugged, not saying a word.

He still hadn’t said a word by the time the evening came. He’d helped Harry get to the bathroom, made breakfast for him, cleaned his wound, washed the sheets, but he did it all silently. The rest of the time was spent in bed, with Tom curled up near him, holding his hand or placing his head on his chest.

How could someone who was so emotional and loving to him be so callous to others? Harry didn’t understand it. It made no sense to him.

For a long time, he stayed silent, too. He was stroking Tom’s hair and his back, drawing small, comforting figures there, waiting for the silence to break. When it didn’t happen, he decided he had to do it himself.

“It wasn’t meant to hurt you,” he said quietly. “Do you understand it?”

Tom didn’t react. After a pause, Harry continued.

“And whatever you might be thinking now, I’m not actually suicidal.” At this, Tom snorted incredulously, and Harry chuckled. “I’m not. But there are things I care about more than I care about myself. You. Your soul. Your safety. People who don’t deserve death… like Beth.” Tom tensed, wrapping his hands tighter around him. “What you did was reckless on so many levels… I don’t want to ever face this situation again, and most importantly, I don’t want you to face it. So I’ll do whatever it takes to protect you and others from it. If my life is important to you, I hope you will remember the last night before doing something like this again. In any case, talk to me. When something is wrong, when you feel overwhelmed or angry, talk to me. Together, we will find a solution, no matter what the problem is.”

Tom sighed, burrowing his face into Harry’s shoulder. For a long time, there was nothing, but then he said, “All right.”

The words were barely audible yet Harry absorbed them, letting their impact spread through him, chasing away the last bits of doubt.

Tom could lie to him, he knew it. Tom could lie well enough to deceive him.

But after everything… Harry felt he could trust him. He wanted to trust him.

So he did.

 

***

 

Tom turned into his shadow. Wherever Harry went, he followed, sitting and observing him quietly or helping him do something, like cooking or cleaning. He didn’t even mind doing it the Muggle way, and Harry found himself pleased and worried at once.

Tom’s presence brightened his every minute, giving it a glow that died every time he went to Hogwarts. But somehow, with every obstacle they overcame, Tom’s fixation on him grew worse. After what had occurred, Harry wasn’t sure it was a good thing. Then again, it could mean Tom was going to keep his promise, so he tried to use this reasoning to calm himself.

Since Harry had abandoned his tutoring practice, they didn’t have enough money to go on vacation. They stayed at home, busying themselves with mundane tasks. Tom helped with gardening, too, although he kept grumbling about it without stop. Somehow, no matter how carefully he kept trying to be, it always ended with him standing covered in dirt, bristling and demanding to be cleaned with the spell.

“I’m sorry, I don’t use magic on strangers,” Harry teased him. “You certainly don’t look like someone I know. My Tom wouldn’t allow anyone to see him in such a grimy state.”

Tom growled and jumped on him, trying to tear the wand from his pocket. Harry dashed away with a laugh. Sensing that he was being chased, he made a rapid turn to the left, and Tom crashed into the blueberry bush. He managed to utter a curse before falling forward, squashing several berries that immediately painted his palms blue. Harry bent over with laughter, and he kept laughing even as Tom finally reached him, thrusting berries in his face and rubbing them into his skin vindictively. Tom didn’t look like he was doing it out of amusement — he seemed genuinely miffed that he was being laughed at, but after he finished applying the blueness across Harry’s face, a satisfied smile began to shine on his lips, too.

“You’re still dirtier than me,” Harry pointed out haughtily, and that turned Tom’s smile into a scowl right away.

This time, when Tom tackled him, Harry wasn’t even attempting to flee.

 

***

 

Another Hogwarts term was approaching with amazing speed, and Harry found himself growing moodier the closer September came.

He didn’t want Tom to leave. He didn’t want to stay in this house alone, wondering what Tom was doing and if he was keeping his promise, counting days until winter holidays. This routine had gotten old a long time ago — Tom was away for almost nine months every year, and each time, it was harder and harder to let him go.

Dumbledore’s offer kept resurfacing in his mind, and shortly after his birthday, Harry sent Apophis to him with a letter stating, “If Headmaster Dippet doesn’t mind, I would be honoured to accept the position of DADA teacher.”

He spent the next day in a restless, anxious state, rethinking his decision at least several times but ultimately waiting for confirmation.

He wanted to be a part of Hogwarts again. Hogwarts had been his home for so many years, Harry knew that this unique, magical connection he felt with it would never fade. Having a chance to watch Tom, seeing his school persona with his own eyes, was worth even more, and he had no desire to miss it.

Dumbledore was rather swift in his reply, so next evening, a confirmation letter arrived. Harry clenched it in his hands, feeling absurdly, deliriously happy.

He would be able to stay with Tom. He would be able to re-discover Hogwarts with its endless mysterious corridors, quirky portraits, and independent staircases. He would get a chance to teach children, to maybe steer some of them in the right direction.

He was returning to his first home.

“I’ve got a new job,” he told Tom later that evening. He knew he must still radiate happiness, so it wasn’t surprising when Tom stared at him suspiciously.

“I thought you intended to go back to teaching pre-schoolers,” he said slowly. “I tried hard to secure that position for you. What kind of job did you find? If you want to work in that bar again—”

“That wasn’t a bar, not really, and no, I wouldn’t have gone back there unless I had to. I was miserable in that place. But anyway, I’m not telling you what I’m going to do now.”

“What?” a dark shadow marred Tom’s face, and the temperature in the room dropped. “You can’t do that.”

“I can’t do what? Find a job without telling you about it?” Harry snorted. “Don’t be silly. Of course I can — and it’s going to be a surprise. You’ll know all about my new workplace, but later.”

“No!” Tom raised his voice, and the darkness on his face bled to pure, uncontrollable fury. “I want to know about it now! Tell me!”

The compulsion in his voice hit Harry with a surge of harsh power, and for a second, it blurred the thoughts in his head, making his tongue tickle with the need to confess. Then rationality took over, and he narrowed his eyes, staring at Tom.

“Why are you so worked up about it?” he asked slowly. “I know you are concerned about me, but you aren’t entitled to know every single thing that happens with me the moment it does. I’m an adult. I’ve been an adult for years. If I decide I want to find a new job, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

“Not without telling me,” Tom hissed. He didn’t sound any closer to calming down, and Harry had to stay silent for several moments, subduing his own awakening irritation.

“We are a family,” he said finally, watching how these words immediately took off a layer of Tom’s rage. “A very close one. But if I don’t want to tell you something, it’s usually for a good reason. Don’t you know that?”

Tom said nothing, though his glare didn’t soften.

“If you had approached this topic in any other way, I would have told you,” Harry uttered. “If you’re really that impatient. But your reaction is… What’s happening? Where is all this aggressiveness coming from?”

Tom’s muscles tensed even further, like he was one step away from physically launching himself at him. Harry stared, unable to believe this was happening. Tom had gone from calmness to irrational rage in a matter of seconds – and over what? Something as innocent as Harry’s new workplace?

But suddenly, the fury was gone, as unexpectedly as it appeared. Tom relaxed and sat back down, sending him a slightly apologetic smile.

“I was just taken aback,” he explained calmly. “It’s fine. Of course, you can do what you consider is right. I’m not going to dictate where you should work. I did have something planned already, so I’d appreciate it if you told me about such things beforehand, but it’s not all that important. I’m more than prepared to wait for you to share it with me when you feel like it.”

The response was so perfectly polite, it instantly threw up a red flag for Harry. At the same time, he couldn’t figure out what could possibly send Tom into such deep rage that he’d blow up like this and then try to pretend everything was fine. So maybe it was really a simple overreaction? Tom was overprotective of him, especially since the ‘punishment’. It could explain it.

“Is our dessert ready? I’m hungry,” Tom added, still smiling.

“You always are when it comes to sugar,” Harry replied automatically, with a smile of his own.  

The evening went on like it hadn’t been interrupted. Everything was fine, and yet his heart felt heavy. A vague alarm rang somewhere in his mind, but the ringing was quiet, and soon, Harry dismissed it.

He wasn’t going to worry. This argument was too small and insignificant to feel concerned about it.

 

***

Tom spent the next day writing letters. Apophis departed to one place, returned, and was sent somewhere else right after this. This procedure was repeated several times, and Harry finally asked, “What’s so urgent? Your bird is going to hate you after today.”

“Apophis knows how to obey orders,” Tom waved him away dismissively. “And I’m doing a new project this term. I need some books to prepare for it.”

“Really?” Harry tried to peer at his letter, but Tom immediately put his hands on it, preventing him from seeing anything. “What will it be about?”

“Defence against the Dark Arts and Charms,” Tom folded the letter carefully, hiding it in his pocket. “I’d like to do something that no one has ever done.”

A rush of affection warmed him from inside, and Harry smiled.

“Your success wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” he said, and Tom beamed, pleased.

“You’ll be the first to know it,” he promised.

Apophis was busy during the next several days, too. Instead of letters, he was carrying books now — heavy volumes with ambiguous titles that could mean a thousand things. Tom plunged into reading. He seemed entirely focused on it, but as September approached, his mood took a darker turn. Eventually, he abandoned the books and spent all his time with Harry, watching him with attentive, intense eyes, as if worried he might disappear as soon as he was out of sight.

Harry woke up several times at the sensation of Tom stroking the scar on his neck, looking at it with grim, vacant determination. He was so engulfed by his thoughts that he didn’t even notice the fact that Harry was awake.

“What are you thinking?” Harry whispered after the fifth time it occurred. Tom replied without raising his eyes, in a mechanical, distant voice.

“I don’t want to leave you. Not for Hogwarts. Not for anything else. One day, I won’t have to.”

Maybe it was the cover of the night or Tom’s detached state, which showed he might not be fully aware of what he was even saying, but the thought Harry had been dreading for years, maybe since those terrible days following their Gringotts visit, suddenly burst through.

“I’m afraid that one day, you won’t care.”

“What?” this seemed to startle Tom out of his thoughts. “I won’t care about what?”

“About staying with me,” Harry said quietly. The inevitability of this outcome weighted heavily on him, and whenever he considered it, depression and blankness were the only things he could see ahead. “You are still young. At some point, you will fall in love, or you’ll lose yourself in politics or whatever area you’ll choose for yourself. Childhood connections break more often than they don’t. They lose their intensity, so one day, you’ll laugh at the memory of how you never wanted to leave me.”

He’d laugh, but his naïve, innocent intention would stay in Harry’s memory forever. At the very beginning, he had looked forward to him and Tom parting ways. He thought he’d raise him, make sure he entered a future that differed from the one Voldemort had chosen, and then retreat, waiting for the birth of those he really cared about. His parents, Sirius, Ron and Hermione.

Now, even this perspective couldn’t water down the greyness he saw when imagining his life without Tom.

“What?” Tom said again, his eyes round and very alert now. “But that could never happen. I will always… Do you actually think that? It makes no sense!”

He shouldn’t have mentioned anything. Winding Tom up wasn’t his intention. Why had he not just stayed silent?

“Unless they’re unhappy, no one thinks they’re going to want to build their lives elsewhere at this age,” Harry uttered with a sigh. “It comes later. You’re going to meet someone who you’ll want to have a family with. It’s only natural to—”

“I’m never going to meet anyone more important than you,” Tom snapped, clearly annoyed, and a side that Harry despised clung to those words, desperately wanting to believe them.

Still, he made himself say, “You don’t know that.”

“I do.”

“All right,” Harry tried to smile. “Let’s revisit this conversation later. Could be interesting to—”

“You don’t understand,” Tom grabbed his hand and shook it. “Some things… you just know them about yourself. I don’t see other people like I do you. They don’t matter to me. Nobody can be you, and you are… to me, you are…” Tom floundered, at a loss for words. With a low, frustrated growl, he tugged at Harry’s hand before climbing on top of him, digging his fingers into his temples.

“I won’t change my mind,” he announced. “You are mine. I told you that. I don’t give away what’s mine.” There was a pause. “Unless it’s stolen,” Tom added, and Harry nearly laughed at his blatant and out-of-place attempt to show himself from a better side. “But you aren’t. You chose me. And since I accepted it, there is no going back now.”

It was unexpected to have Tom attempt to comfort him. Unexpected and endearing. It didn’t really alleviate any of Harry’s fears — only time could do it, but it was more than he thought he’d get and maybe more than he deserved after starting this stupid conversation.

Tom dropped his head on his chest, listening to his heart, and Harry wrapped his hands around his back. No matter how tall Tom was or how heavy he was getting, the feeling of rightness behind this embrace never wavered.

At least he was going back to Hogwarts now. So whether the separation was looming over them or not, there were still years before he found out.

 

***

 

Tom was grim and reluctant when they were saying their goodbyes on September first. Ignoring the gazes directed at him, he held Harry for what seemed like eternity, unwilling to let go, and when he finally did, the dark cloud in his face grew even more prominent.

“You will reply to me this time,” he said quietly. “Right?”

“If you write to me,” Harry agreed, suppressing his grin. He was going to apparate to Hogwarts apparition point as soon as he left the platform, but naturally, he wasn’t going to share this with Tom. He couldn’t wait to see his face once Tom realised who was going to be one of his teachers.

Tom’s eyes lingered on him. Stepping closer again, he brushed his fingers against the scar on Harry’s throat. Then he turned and walked to board the train stiffly, without looking back.

Harry waited for the train to depart, and then, already feeling the stirring of excitement, he apparated.

He had never been this eager for the start of the feast.

 

***

 

He was accepted by other teachers so warmly, he instantly felt at ease. The only source of annoyance came in the form of Slughorn. He was among the first to greet Harry, looking at him with acute interest.

“Are you related to Potters?” he asked, examining every feature of his face shrewdly. “Dreadful business with their heir. Dreadful. We are all so certain that Grindelwald won’t come knocking, and then something like this happens.”

“I’m aware of Charlus Potter’s murder,” Harry said as emotionlessly as he could. “But I’m not related to them. We just share a name.”

“Indeed?” Slughorn frowned. “There is definitely some resemblance here.”

“Confirmation bias. You know my surname is Potter, so you expected to see a member of their family.”

“I see,” disappointment in Slughorn’s eyes was so undisguised, Harry nearly snorted. Fortunately, the death of interest in him was palpable. Harry doubted teachers received invitations to the Slug club, but who could say for sure?

He tried to imagine Slughorn getting Dumbledore to come to his meetings and had to fight a stupid grin. Now this would be something he’d pay to see.

Students began to arrive when the evening fell, taking their places at different tables. Tom walked in soon enough, in the company of several other students who almost resembled bodyguards, with the way they were moving. Harry blinked, struck by the way Tom looked.

This boy was almost unfamiliar to him. His expression was impersonally cold and assessing, and when someone greeted him, he sent them a fleeting condescending smile. He held himself like a king — but at least this was something Harry could recognise.

Tom Riddle had been known as charming. His Tom looked like he was already above such things, fully confident that his position wouldn’t waver no matter how cold he was to others.

“What a pretentious brat,” Harry muttered under his breath. He doubted anyone heard him, but he did catch Dumbledore’s amused glance.

Tom took his seat, glancing at his classmates with a bored look. Gradually, his eyes moved to the staff table, and though Harry was sitting at the farther end, they immediately snapped to him, as if sensing him.

Tom stared. Harry could see how he closed his eyes, kept them shut for several seconds, and looked at him again. Very slowly, he turned his head to his classmates, as if checking if they could see him, too, and Harry raised his eyebrows mockingly.

“Silly,” he mouthed. Tom’s jaw dropped, and it didn’t close even when others started throwing confused glances at him. It felt like hours had passed before he finally regained control over himself, straightening and closing his mouth. He was still staring, but now that the first shock was melting away, joy and pride were taking its place. The mask of coldness shattered and Tom glowed, grinning so widely, it was a wonder his lips didn’t split.

The Sorting started, and Tom kept looking at him. It was like no one else existed for him; like they hadn’t seen each other for years and now he was taking his fill, memorising every detail of his face anew.

Harry stared right back.

Chapter Text

When they saw each other again, it was during breakfast, and though they hadn’t had a chance to talk yet, Tom was still glowing with happiness. It was sparkling around him like a crown, lighting his face and making it deceptively innocent, and Harry found his attention drawn to it every other minute. He was unable to concentrate on anything else — Tom stole his focus, outshining the rest of the world, so by the time everyone was finished with their food, Harry’s plate remained full.

Embarrassed, he hastened to gulp down a sausage, thinking unwillingly about Ron and his dinner habits. Watching him eat had never been pleasant, but his methods were effective in situations like this, so why not? It’s not like Hermione was around to throw a reproachful look at him.

When Harry was finally done chewing, he dared to look up again before immediately jerking back in surprise. Tom was standing right next to him, with a small indulgent smile on his lips.

“This looked even worse than how you eat at home in the mornings,” he remarked, and Harry spluttered.

“I eat fine at home,” he protested automatically. “At least I do when you aren’t trying to blow up food in my face.”

“That excuse no longer works. I haven’t done anything like that in years.”

“I suppose I’ve been accidentally making self-combustive dishes, then.”

Tom laughed softly before reaching forward and putting his hand on Harry’s arm. The touch was light, but the fingers wrapped around him possessively, and with a startled jolt, Harry recalled where they were.

In the Great Hall. Having breakfast. With the entire school watching them, from students to teachers to Merlin knew whom. They weren’t at home, it wasn’t their kitchen, and Tom had just approached him and demonstrated an unacceptable level of familiarity just to publicly establish their connection, to prove he was on friendly terms with a new professor.

Had he been worried about someone noticing he hadn’t eaten his breakfast just a moment ago? Listening to a lecture on healthy eating had suddenly become an extremely appealing prospect.

“If you don’t let go, I’ll curse you,” Harry hissed as quietly as he could, but Tom just raised a deeply unimpressed eyebrow.

“Cursing students on your first day? How unprofessional of you.”

If so many people weren’t watching them at this moment, Harry would have gladly sent a mild hex his way, but doing this would be ten times worse than what had already taken place. Tom was right, he couldn’t be seen cursing students, even — or maybe especially — those he shared a personal connection with.

Well, he could always pay him back later.

Judging from how Tom narrowed his eyes suspiciously, the same thought had entered his head. Smiling, Harry stood up, finally forcing him to remove his hand.

“Go back to your table, Mr. Slytherin,” he said lightly. “I’ll see you at today’s lesson.”

“I look forward to it,” Tom murmured, a familiar devilish glint in his eyes. He was already calculating what Harry could respond with and planning his own counter-moves, and a warm wave of excitement rose in Harry’s chest, sending a thrum of joy through it.

No empty months ahead. No meaningless days spent in frustration and longing — he could look after Tom constantly now, doing the exact same things they did back at home.

Trying to hold back his foolish grin, Harry threw a casual glance at other professors and faltered.

None of them looked amused. Some were bewildered; others, like Dippet, were frowning in confusion, and Dumbledore was watching him with tight disapproval etched into every line on his face.

The happiness dimmed and Harry turned away, walking towards the exit and hoping he didn’t look as dismayed as he felt.

This was a bad start. Dumbledore had brought him here to be a figure of authority, to ensure a stricter control over Tom’s actions. Instead, Harry allowed himself to relax and react teasingly to a clear challenge of his position. Regardless of their relationship outside of Hogwarts, he couldn’t be seen giving Tom liberties that others were prohibited from. Power games weren’t acceptable, especially when they were played so openly. He’d have to be more careful. 

He’d also have to get Tom to behave, but this wasn’t as difficult or impossible as someone like Dumbledore might think.

Tom wanted him here. It meant that he would be willing to agree to any compromise for Harry to stay. Maybe the first morning had been disastrous for his reputation, but there was still plenty of time to change it.

He would start with the first lesson.

 

***

 

Fortunately, things began to look up almost immediately — his first students were pleased with him, Harry could say that with certainty. They responded to his questions eagerly and even looked reluctant to leave, which was more than he could ask for.

After two successful lessons, the worry faded, and the memory of his colleagues’ unvoiced criticism stopped stinging as much. Lunch passed peacefully, so when the time for Tom’s lesson came, his mood brightened back into brilliance.

Teaching Gryffindors and Slytherins together had always seemed like a very strange choice to Harry, but to his surprise, the group that arrived appeared to get along rather well. Not that they were all chatting amicably, but there was no hostility that he could remember back from his own classes either. It exceeded most of his tentative hopes.

Tom, as expected, took his place in the first row, and Harry smiled at him before he could stop himself.

All right, so maybe he still had to work on remembering his place. But he hadn’t thought this would be easy, had he? Learning how to draw a professional line in these circumstances was bound to take time, and he was going to do his best, even if Tom refused to be helpful.

Harry waited until everyone quietened down before clearing his throat.

“Hello,” he greeted them. For some reason, talking to these students was more difficult than with his Tom-less classes. “My name is Harry Potter. You are unlikely to have heard of me before, but I’ve spent years practicing defence against the dark arts. There is a lot I could teach you, and with your cooperation, I’m sure we’ll be able to surpass what the school board expects from students your age by the end of this year.”

Harry was fully prepared to intercept sneers or sceptical smirks in response to his words. He knew he looked much younger than other professors — more than that, he had virtually no reputation at this point, so it was only natural for his students to have doubts.

However, to his surprise, there was nothing. Gryffindors were watching him with open curiosity while Slytherins’ faces remained frozen in polite blankness. No grimaces, no eye-rolling, no whispered comments — no anything, not from anyone.

Huh. There had been some sneers and dissatisfaction even among the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs at the beginning of their lessons. For Gryffindors and Slytherins to be immediately willing to give him a chance? Another pleasant surprise. Or maybe…

Harry’s eyes strayed to Tom for a moment.

Maybe today’s display during breakfast wasn’t about boasting of having personal ties with a professor. Maybe Tom was staking his claim in another way, making it clear that Harry was the one to be respected because of having ties with him.

Or it could be both. After all, Tom was a Slytherin through and through, and his protectiveness was something Harry had witnessed multiple times, in multiple ways. Hogwarts wouldn’t be an exception.

A ridiculous rush of fondness flooded him, and with an effort, Harry made himself look away.

“I don’t know any of you yet,” he spoke again, then caught Tom’s glare and amended, “Almost any of you. So today, we are going to change that. This lesson will be theoretical in nature, but eventually, we’ll have plenty of practice as well, so don’t worry about it. Let’s start with some questions. How many of you have ever participated in a duel? A training or a real one, doesn’t matter.”

Out of sixteen students, nine raised their hands. Harry nodded at them in acknowledgement, carefully ignoring the way Tom was staring at him. He’d learned his lesson — catching Tom’s eye meant being unable to concentrate on anything else, which would undermine his every attempt to achieve progress and prove himself as a competent and unbiased teacher.

“By the end of this month, all of you will have practical experience with duelling. But first, I’d like to learn about your way of thinking,” Harry walked around his table and leaned against it, observing his classroom. “Imagine that you are facing your opponent. What would be the first spell you use?”

Tom’s hand flew up, the need to be chosen for a reply written so starkly on his face that Harry couldn’t help but think of Hermione. A sudden lump in his throat made his breath hitch, but he swallowed around it, shaking his head slightly.

During his own time at Hogwarts, he had always found Hermione’s frantic desire to reply to every question exasperating. With Tom, the feeling was the opposite.

He felt warm. He felt pleased. He felt indulgent. And this was the problem, wasn’t it? Indulgence. The inability to assess Tom and everything related to him rationally.

Several other students had also raised their hands, but Harry’s lips moved without his permission.

“Mr. Slytherin?”

Tom beamed at him, making Harry’s foolish heart swell in mirroring happiness.

“Expelliarmus,” Tom said confidently. “Disarming an opponent as fast as possible is always the best strategy in a duel.”

Harry blinked, unsure if he’d heard it correctly.

Expelliarmus? Really? This was something he would choose, but it would never be Tom’s strategy. Tom thought Expelliarmus was one of the most boring spells ever invented. Quick bloodless victory would never appeal to him — this was something Harry had been forced to accept long ago.

Tom had given him a reply he thought Harry wanted to hear. Was it about pleasing him? Or was it an attempt to hide and show off the kind of morality Harry knew for sure Tom didn’t possess? He didn’t find lies impressive. Especially when they were so outrageously obvious.

“Very good,” he said evenly, watching how Tom’s joyful glow faded, turning into a frown. “Anyone else?”

Some people raised their hands again, although their number had dropped, particularly among the Slytherins. What, had they wanted to say Expelliarmus as well? Was Hogwarts of these times really so different from the one Harry had known?

“You, please,” he pointed at a blonde Gryffindor in the third row. “Miss…?”

“Caroline Williamson,” the girl replied. “I would use the Invisibility Charm on myself. It would take my opponent aback, which would give me more time to come up with a strategy.”

Harry nodded approvingly, but Tom’s sneering voice interrupted him before he could even say anything.

“There is no such charm.”

“There is,” Williamson furrowed her brows. “My parents told me about it.”

“Either you remembered it wrong or they didn’t know what they were talking about,” Tom retorted coldly. “The Invisibility Charm can make an area disappear from view, it doesn’t work on people the way you implied. Perhaps you meant the Invisibility Spell?”

“They are the same thing!”

“No, they are not. Do you not understand the difference between a charm and a spell?”

“That’s enough,” Harry said sharply, sending a warning glance in Tom’s direction. How could everything go downhill this fast? “I support discussions, but don’t let them turn into quarrels. You are here to learn, and learning means making mistakes.”

Tom’s lips twitched in a clear desire to make another poisonous retort, but Harry glared at him, so he crossed his arms against his chest, saying nothing.

“Now, Mr. Slytherin was right about the nature of the charm you mentioned, Miss Williamson. Your idea is undeniably creative, but I’m afraid neither Invisibility Charm or Spell would work here because they cannot be cast on people. A Disillusionment Charm would be a better choice if you wanted to use your shape against your opponent. Who can tell me what characteristics it has?”

Tom raised his hand again, but even though every Harry’s instinct urged him to choose him, he tried to override them. Obviously, his mind couldn’t be trusted, so he’d have to set specific goals and then rely on them.

By the end of this hour, he would learn every name of every student. Maybe he wouldn’t remember them all yet, but he would talk to each of them at least once. That would be enough for today.

When the lesson finally ended, most students looked flushed with excitement. They all wanted to duel as soon as possible, refusing to deflate even when Harry warned that it couldn’t happen right away. Miss Williamson, on the contrary, looked very subdued, but there was little Harry could do to improve her first impression now.

Maybe he should have taken points from Tom? His words had been an attack, not a polite disagreement. On the other hand, he hadn’t said anything truly offensive, and it’s not like he wasn’t right.

Harry’s thoughts came to a halt when the last students left the room, with Tom being the only one who stayed behind. The moment the door was shut, Tom whirled around to face him, bristling with indignation.

“You love Expelliarmus,” he spat. “Why didn’t you like my answer?”

“Because it was a lie?” Harry slipped his fingers under his glasses, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “I didn’t ask you which spell I would like. I asked which one you would use.”

Tom’s snort somehow managed to sound both offensive and offended.

“So you would have preferred me to name a dark curse that would irreversibly break the legs of my opponent?”

“What?” Harry straightened in alarm. “No.”

“But that’s what I would use,” Tom taunted, his tone getting uglier. “It’s effective and it gives a real advantage in a duel.”

“I can’t believe you even thought of saying something like this. This kind of spell is—”

“What, crude? Sadistic? Does it offend your sensibilities? You criticise me for lying but you don’t like hearing the truth just as much!”

“It’s illegal!” Harry raised his voice, and Tom miraculously shut up. Good. He could be so short-sighted that sometimes Harry couldn’t help but worry. “I don’t care if you break the legs of your actual enemy in a life-or-death duel, but you can’t talk about dark spells like this during lessons where everyone can hear you! If someone reported you, what do you think would happen? Dippet would probably throw me out for not reporting you myself, and there will definitely be questions neither of us will be able to answer.”    

Tom mulled over it, the tension slowly seeping out, along with hostility he’d been emanating for a larger part of the lesson.

“So what did you want me to say, then?” he asked finally, calmer this time.

“Anything that wouldn’t be a downright lie or a crime,” Harry pushed himself against his table again, crossing his legs. “I’m sure your imagination could help you to come up with something interesting. Something that you could actually consider using; something that would awe your classmates and impress me.”

An embarrassed flush travelled up Tom’s face. He pursed his lips so tightly that they turned into one barely noticeable line, looking angry and regretful simultaneously. The desire to turn back time, to give an answer Harry would praise him for was coming out of him in waves, ones so palpable that it was almost painful to withstand them.

“You were still the smartest student in this class,” Harry said, but it didn’t seem to make Tom feel better — if anything, he appeared even more sullen now, his expression steadily growing darker.

Well, there was a tested method that never failed to work.

“Come here,” Harry uttered, his voice softening. The glance Tom threw at him was sour, but he moved anyway, albeit reluctantly.

As soon as he approached the table, Harry opened his arms. Tom paused, and then he walked right into them, wrapping his own hands around Harry’s neck tightly.

Ending up with his nose pressed against Tom’s throat, Harry couldn’t help but breathe in the familiar comforting smell, and the tiredness from today melted away in an instant. His chest sang with warmth, and he inhaled again, burying his face in Tom’s skin instinctively, registering how Tom shuddered and immediately tightened his hold, pushing closer. 

I missed you,’ Harry thought. Tenderness overfilled him, leaving its tingling touches with every gentle press to his heart.

“I missed you,” Tom whispered, echoing him aloud. “When I saw you sitting there, I… It was too impossible to be true. I thought I might be seeing things. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to work here?”

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Harry tried to pull back but Tom refused to let go, so he relaxed again. “And seeing your face was certainly worth it. I don’t think you’ve ever looked this astonished. Except maybe that time when the passing car splashed dirt all over your clothes.”

Tom grumbled something incoherently before laying his head on top of Harry’s with a sigh.

“We should set some boundaries,” Harry muttered, and smiled when a predictably displeased growl followed.

“More boundaries?”

“These ones will be for school only, and they are for our mutual benefit. I promise.”

Tom finally pulled back enough to look at him, though he didn’t bother to move away.

“Which ones?” he asked. His cheeks were burning even brighter now, and Harry touched one of them, amused.

“The ones that will ensure I’m not fired by the end of the week,” he replied, raising his eyebrows when Tom just leaned into his touch, closing his eyes. Tom had always been very tactile, at least with him, but this was too much. They hadn’t been separated for even a day this time, there was nothing to warrant this kind of reaction.

“Hey,” Harry moved his fingers to Tom’s chin, tilting it carefully. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Tom opened his eyes again, staring at him a little unfocusedly. “What boundaries did you mean?”

“The public ones.” Hesitating briefly, Harry started to remove his hand, but Tom caught it before he could lower it, entwining their fingers.

Okay. Whatever was happening, Tom needed physical comfort. Harry could provide it.

“What happened today at breakfast cannot happen again,” he spoke, watching how Tom raised their intertwined fingers to his face, pressing his cheek to them absent-mindedly. “You cannot flaunt the fact that we have a personal relationship in front of everyone. It’s unprofessional.”

“But everyone already knows that you are mine.”

Harry swallowed a snort, unsure if he should find this funny or irritating. Not that Tom’s declaration was surprising.

“Yes, which is a problem in itself,” he explained patiently. “And when you parade it like this, it’s making me look even more unprofessional. I cannot be seen indulging you more than I do other students. So if I allow you to approach me during dinner and touch me, I’ll have to allow others to do the same.”

“What?” As expected, this was something Tom understood very well. He straightened quickly, the flush finally fading from his face, replaced by alarm. “No.”

“Then don’t do it again. Not publicly.”

Displeasure poured out of Tom, the faint feel of his magic rippling through the air.

“Fine,” he said shortly. “Something else?”

“You have to understand that the same rules will apply during the lessons. I can’t always choose you to answer my questions. You won’t be the only student I praise, and if you do something like you did with Miss Williamson again, I will take points from you.”

Tom stepped away, so clearly outraged that Harry actually felt a stirring of unease. He didn’t think they would be having real problems on the first day, but then again, with Tom, it was impossible to know for sure.

“I was right!”

“You were rude.”

“Well, she was an idiot.”

“She’s a student, she has a right to make mistakes. So do you.”

“I don’t make mistakes, especially such imbecilic ones!”

“Tom.” Harry refused to raise his voice, but he put enough steel in it to mark the end of this conversation. Tom grimaced, something frustrated flashing across his face before he schooled it.

“Fine,” he said again, though this time, it was through gritted teeth. “Is that all?”

“Yes.” Even if he could think of some more rules, now was obviously not the time to discuss them. Violence was rolling off Tom in billows, thick and bitter — he had to be given time to calm down before they could proceed.

“I’ll see you at dinner, then,” Tom turned away, clenching his bag in his hands. But contrary to his words, he didn’t leave. For a while, he kept standing motionlessly, saying nothing, and when he faced Harry again, a surprisingly serene smile shone on his lips.

“And you will see me,” he said. Harry nodded warily, unsure what it meant besides the obvious.

Apprehension tugged at him, settling somewhere low in his stomach, and it stayed there long after Tom left.

 

***

 

After Tom’s strange behaviour, Harry was suspicious of going to dinner, but he knew he had no chance of escaping it. If he didn’t come, Tom might decide to go looking for him, and this would end even worse than whatever it was he was planning.

To his surprise, though, nothing happened. Tom’s eyes found him the moment he entered the Great Hall, and while he smiled in a way that wasn’t entirely reassuring, he didn’t do anything out of ordinary. In fact, when Harry took his seat, Tom raised a thick book he was holding, showing it off, as if demonstrating he was otherwise occupied.

Shrugging, Harry focused on his food.

The dinner was calm and boring. The professors next to him kept talking about something quietly, but while in any other situation, Harry might have felt compelled to get acquainted, he was too tired to bother with it now. He knew Dumbledore, Dippet, and Slughorn already. That was enough for one day.

He finished sooner than others, so muttering a goodnight, he stood up and walked towards the door, only to collide with another teacher who was rushing inside.

“Sorry,” Harry said automatically, moving to the side to let him pass, but the man froze, staring at him with wide, shocked eyes.

“You!” he breathed out. His face turned almost grey. Harry reached for him in concern, but the man recoiled so violently that he nearly fell over.

That was… They’d never even met, what could possibly cause such a reaction?

Harry paused when something shifted in his memory.

Come to think of it, the man did look a bit familiar. Maybe not immediately, not directly, but…

Oh. This was Tom’s Divinations professor. The one who had made a useless death prediction and whom Tom had injured in his fury.

“How are your hands?” Harry blurted out before wincing and mentally kicking himself. Of all things to say, how could he have possibly chosen this one?

The professor also didn’t look impressed. If anything, he turned greyer, and the first flickers of terror dashed through his gaze, as if he thought Harry was playing some malicious joke on him.

“Look, I don’t know what your problem with me is,” Harry hissed. Carefully, he glanced at where Tom was sitting and cringed. Of course Tom had already spotted them. Even from here, Harry could see how rigidly tense he was, how tightly his hands were gripping the book. His eyes were fixed on the professor — and honestly, it was completely insulting. Did Tom think Harry was incapable of holding his own? He was a DADA teacher! He was the one who’d taught Tom everything he knew about duelling!

On the other hand, Tom seemed to believe Harry would wither if anyone as much as looked at him wrong, so it wasn’t about doubting him, it was about Tom being unreasonable and overly protective. 

But Harry still didn’t want to imagine the possible consequences if he didn’t resolve this mess soon. And damn it, he didn’t even remember the man’s name.

“You shouldn’t be here!” the professor raised his finger, pointing at Harry’s chest shakily, and with the corner of his eye, Harry saw how Tom stiffened even more, half-rising from his place. “It’s against the laws!”

Dread twitched inside, infusing his blood with ice, but with an effort, Harry melted it back into calmness.

Trelawney had been one of the very few real seers. Dumbledore had never mentioned anyone else, so whoever this person was, he couldn’t know anything for certain. Maybe he did sense something, but vague suspicions weren’t a threat to him — Harry knew he would be able to deal with them if needed.  

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” he said as pleasantly as he could manage. He had to end this conversation now, before they attracted everyone’s attention. “I’m Harry Potter, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. I know you had a conflict with Tom, but I hope we can leave it behind us. We are both professionals, aren’t we?”

The man’s lips moved, but no sound escaped.

“Right,” Harry forced himself to laugh, trying to look at ease for Tom to calm down and sit back before he did anything stupid. “I’ll see you around, then.”

No reply followed, so he hurried out of the Great Hall, still disturbed, but mostly relieved.

It wasn’t over, he knew it — he and this man would have to talk again at some point, but at least it wouldn’t happen today, and if Harry had any say in it, it wouldn’t be anywhere in Tom’s vicinity.

Good thing that Tom had no idea in what room he was staying because Harry didn’t want to have this conversation with him either. Right now, all he needed was change his clothes and throw himself into bed. Everything else could wait.

 

***

 

Exploring Hogwarts anew felt like opening a beloved childhood book. Despite the fact that the time was different, most things remained exactly the same, from crooked corridors and busy ghosts to mischievous staircases and grumbling portraits. And magic — magic was everywhere. It was in the flawless reflection of the sky in the Great Hall, in the candles that floated in the air, lighting the school with thousands flames. It was in the books that tried to slip away when Harry tried to touch them and in the screeching owls that carried messages and demanded treats, self-entitled and frighteningly intelligent.

A wistful, aching nostalgia pooled in his heart, and during the breaks between his lessons, Harry found himself just wandering through the corridors, touching the walls and stupidly hoping they remembered him, thinking of how Ron and Hermione were going to be touching them decades from now, how their laughter would fill the corridors. Maybe, if he were still here at that time, he would get to see it. He would be able to teach them, to watch them carefree and happy, with no concern for the war and its deadly consequences.

This train of thinking inevitably brought him back to Tom, and thinking of Tom meant remembering the foolish game they were currently playing.

In retrospect, it wasn’t smart to goad Tom into anything, but sometimes Harry simply couldn’t help himself. It all started with a predictable question of “Where are your rooms?” Harry knew that he’d have to reply sooner or later — he wanted Tom to be able to find him in the case of emergency, but he also hoped to delay this moment for at least a few weeks. He knew Tom, which is why he also knew the requests he would inevitably make, from spending an increasing number of hours in his chambers to moving in there permanently. Somehow, Harry doubted that Dumbledore would consider it normal, but he also doubted his own ability to banish Tom when needed, so the later he had to deal with it, the better.

Tom, as expected, wasn’t thrilled with being denied. The expression on his face was getting progressively darker, and in a minute of despair, Harry offered one of the most stupid and half-baked ideas he’d ever had.

“If you manage to impress me enough to make me forget about what a disaster letting you into my rooms is going to be, I’ll tell you,” he said. Watching how an arrogant smile began to slowly spread across Tom’s lips, he instantly panicked. Who knew what Tom understood under the word “impress”? Harry wasn’t keen on having his classroom explode or seeing his students switch limbs or whatever else Tom’s mind could come up with. “Professionally,” he hastened to add. “Since I’m your Defence teacher, why don’t you try to… to... to sneak up on me. Take me aback. Without using any spells or asking others for help.”

Arrogance shifted into incredulity. Harry couldn’t believe the rubbish he’d just blurted out himself, so he opened his mouth again to take the stupid offer back when Tom’s face lit up with excitement.

“Sneak up on you,” he repeated. “Sure. Why not?”

Harry still groaned at the thought of what his lips had let out, but it was too late. It seemed like Tom didn’t consider himself above childish games, and he treated the whole thing as seriously as he would an actual assignment.

Which put Harry in a difficult position of staying vigil all the time and trying to hide what was happening from others. Slughorn and Dumbledore were already watching him as if they thought he wasn’t in his right mind, and in this case, Harry had to agree with them. He tried to appear nonchalant, but his eyes kept tracking Tom warily, and he carefully inspected every place he walked into to make sure there was nothing or no one waiting for him there.

Tom looked extremely amused every time he caught him doing it, and seeing the dancing mirth in his eyes made a fluttery warmth blossom in Harry’s chest, compensating for every time he felt like an idiot in the presence of his colleagues.

Another good thing was that due to staying attentive all the time, Harry managed to avoid having a direct confrontation the Divinations professor. Apparently, his name was Rivers, and he acted completely normally as long as he didn’t see Harry in front of him. When it did happen, his eyes immediately went wild, so Harry took to walking in the opposite direction whenever they crossed paths.

Like now. Rivers stopped at the end of the same corridor, staring at him, so Harry promptly turned away and sped towards his chambers. Fortunately, he wasn’t that far away from them.

Once inside, he closed the door, pushing his forehead against it and breaking into half-hysterical laughter.

This was ridiculous. He was a grown man who’d seen more than most people here could imagine, more than any seer, fake or real, could describe, and yet here he was, being forced to hide in his rooms just to escape the rambling of one single and not entirely sane person. But worst of all, he found his current position inappropriately funny, which was something his rational side couldn’t understand.

It was a potentially dangerous situation. Rivers might be half-mad, but how long until Dumbledore decided to listen to him? How long until he noticed that Harry wasn’t aging properly and started to connect the dots? But instead of taking proper actions, Harry was hiding here and giggling like a child; playing a sneaking up game with Tom, as if they were twelve and had nothing better to do… And the truth was, he didn’t want to stop. Not even if other people were starting to notice.

Maybe there was something wrong with him — even more wrong than he had thought initially. Maybe returning to Hogwarts had affected his mind adversely, and this behaviour was some sick attempt to relive his teenage years by using Tom as an excuse. Why else would he be enjoying this to such extent?

A subtle shift in the air somewhere behind him cleared Harry’s head in an instant, killing off his laughter.

Old habits tended to stick around — he might not have been an Auror in years, he had no reason to expect someone to stab him in the back, but if his instincts flared to life, he knew better than to question them.

Whirling around, Harry sent a Stupefy in the direction where he sensed someone’s presence. This someone ducked just in time to avoid being hit, and then Tom’s shocked eyes dug into him, causing Harry to lower his wand instinctively. 

“Tom?” he asked in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

Huffing, Tom straightened, dusting his robe.

“How did you know I was there?” he wondered petulantly. “I didn’t make any noise.”

“Believe it or not, I can sense when someone is sneaking up on me,” Harry noted dryly, hiding his wand. Tom crossed his arms, looking even more annoyed.

“You almost hit me with that spell,” he accused. “It went an inch from my hair.”

“Well, I didn’t know it was you, did I? Breaking into someone’s rooms is never a safe decision.”

Tom’s scowl was verging on being a pout now, and Harry felt an involuntary smile breaking out on his face.

“Your reaction was brilliant,” he praised. “I don’t think any of your classmates would be able to move this quickly, and that includes those older than you.”

Tom inclined his head, a pleased flicker softening his eyes briefly before a frown marred his features again.

“But you were faster than me,” he said slowly. “I barely saw you move. The only reason you missed was because you stopped laughing right before that and I was already cautious.”  

Harry snorted, shaking his head in amazement.

“Sometimes there is just no pleasing you,” he informed him. “I’m an adult. I have more experience than you, so it’s not surprising that my movements are faster.”

“But you have never been this fast when we duelled.”

“Because I was teaching you then. Those weren’t real duels. This time, I thought I was facing a real threat.”

When Tom’s mouth dropped open in indignation, Harry swallowed a regretful groan. This was such a wrong thing to say.

Those weren’t real duels!” Tom repeated, his voice going high-pitched. “But you said you stopped indulging me and letting me win years ago!”

“I did! But you didn’t expect me to really fight you, did you? I’d never cast a dangerous spell on you unless I was sure you could repel it.”    

“Stop contradicting yourself, you either let me win or you don’t!”

This was hopeless. This was exactly why Harry didn’t want Tom to know about his chambers.

“From what I recall, you’ve never tried to break my legs with that spell of yours as well,” he noted. “So you were holding back too.”

This, at least, gave Tom pause, but it didn’t last long.

“I want a real duel with you,” he demanded haughtily, his eyes flashing in determination. “Without any of us holding back.”

“Not happening.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” Harry couldn’t believe he had to explain it. No, he couldn’t believe Tom even bothered to delude himself into thinking they could ever truly strike at each other in the first place. “One of us will end up hurt, and the other one will be feeling guilty.”

“Guilty?” Tom spat this word with such revulsion that a warning bell rang in Harry’s mind, marking the approach to a dangerous territory. “I never feel guilty. Guilt is a tool of control over the weak-minded people who aren’t certain about the decisions they make. I am.”

“Is that so?” the remaining bits of mirth slithered away, Tom’s words cutting the last string that held them in. “Fine. Let’s do it right now. Throw the darkest curses you can think of at me.”

Tom’s contemptuous certainty wavered, extinguishing some of his aggression.

“And what about you?” he asked warily.

“I’m a weak-minded person controlled by guilt,” Harry told him coldly, raising his wand. “I’m not willing to risk your safety just because you want to prove your superiority over me. I will limit myself to the defensive spells only. Feel free to do your worst.”

More hardness melted out of Tom’s eyes, replaced by hesitancy. He looked at Harry’s wand, then at his own, and then his shoulders slumped slightly.

“No,” he muttered, his voice so resigned that Harry’s heart jumped in sympathy. “I can’t.”

“I know you can’t,” Harry hid his wand back in his robes. “I’m surprised you didn’t know it yourself.” Tom, the boy who had panic attacks the moment he thought Harry was in danger. Who was ready to attack Rivers right in the Great Hall for doing something as harmless as pointing his finger at Harry’s chest. And he thought he could cast something even remotely dangerous on him?  

“But do you think you would be able to defeat me?” Tom pressed, the lines of his mouth setting in an unhappy grimace, and Harry rolled his eyes in frustration.

I already did,’ he wanted to say. ‘More than once. And look how it ended.’

“Why do you even want to defeat me?” he asked instead. “What would that prove?”

Tom said nothing, his expression growing tighter, like he didn’t know the answer but craved to get it.

“You have more magical potency than I do,” Harry said finally. “I have more experience. You’d be fighting dirty, I cannot imagine truly cursing you even in a hypothetical scenario, not even if my life depended on it. So yes, I think you would defeat me.”

“You still mean you would let me defeat you,” Tom shook his head. “You are hopeless. I’ve never seen people so incapable of imagining a hypothetical situation.”

Harry planned to reply, but a sudden banging on the door stopped words from emerging. Frowning, he turned around. Who could his visitor be? Unless of course…

“Open the door,” Rivers’ breathy voice commanded. “I know you are there.”

Cursing, Harry pinched the bridge of his nose.

This couldn’t be happening. Why did Rivers choose to confront him today of all days, when Tom was present? Also, why was Tom even present? They still had to discuss the whole breaking in thing.

A cloud of dark volatile energy behind made Harry’s attention snap back to Tom. He was staring at the door, his gaze intent and unfathomable, his jaw clenched so hard that it looked like every muscle on his face vibrated with tension.

“Tom,” Harry hissed, “I need you to be quiet now. He can’t know you are here.”

Tom’s hands curled into fists.

“He’s disrespectful to you,” he hissed back. “How often does he come barging in like this?”

“This is the first time. And if you can’t keep quiet by yourself, I’ll just use Silencio.”

Seeing how Tom’s eyes widened in outrage, Harry chocked back a laugh. The next moment, the banging restarted, so he quickly grabbed Tom by his wrist, dragged him towards the door, and pushed him against the wall next to it, pressing a warning hand to his chest.

“Not a word,” he said again. “Don’t say anything, don’t move, don’t try to curse him. If you do, I’ll put so many protective charms on my door that you’ll never be able to break in again.”

Tom didn’t look impressed by the threat, but there was no time to think of something more creative. With the last warning glance at him, Harry finally opened the door, taking in Rivers’ flushed face.

“What do you want?” he asked directly. “I’ve been giving you time to adjust to my presence since you seem to have some big problems with me, but this is going too far. I’m not obligated to put up with your stalking.”

Rivers flushed even more, glaring at him.

“This school is everything to me,” he spat. “As are its teachers and students. I won’t allow you to sabotage it.”

“How am I sabotaging it, exactly?”

“I know what you are!” Rivers raised his finger again, poking Harry in his shoulder. Tom’s face twisted in a vicious snarl, and Harry increased the pressure, pushing him further into the wall to prevent him from jumping forward.

“If you promise to leave me alone afterward, I’ll indulge you,” he told Rivers tiredly. “What am I?”

There was an outright hatred in the man’s eyes as he stared at him.

“A necromancer,” he uttered in disgust. “You disturb the dead and speak to them. You bring them back to life. You did it so many times that you no longer feel like a breathing, living person.”

Harry’s heart jerked sharply before starting to hammer like a drum, pushing the increasing volumes of panic through his blood. Rivers’ conclusion was entirely wrong, laughably so, but the assumptions themselves… there was a degree of truth in them. A dangerous truth that should never become revealed.

Tom guffawed, not even trying to disguise the sound, and Rivers recoiled as if he’d been struck, opening and closing his mouth like a fish. He probably thought it was one of Harry’s dead bodies laughing because the terror in his eyes was wild and genuine.

“You are a monster,” he whispered, his voice wavering. “I don’t care if no one believes me. I’ll take this matter into my own hands, I can promise you that.”

“Yes, fine, whatever,” Harry slammed the door shut, finally releasing Tom and glaring at him. “You couldn’t keep silent for even one minute!”

“Your threat wasn’t very intimidating,” Tom shrugged, still grinning. “I’m sure I can break through your protective spells even if you use them. I already found your rooms and got inside by myself.”

“You are a brat,” Harry poked him in the ribs with a scoff. “You’ve just made my life harder. He’ll think I’m hiding the living corpses in my rooms or something even worse.”

“He already thinks you are a necromancer, what could be worse than that?” Tom asked seriously before doubling over with laughter. The sound was so pure and happy that Harry began to smile against his will, feeling how small curls of warmth started to unfold in his chest, chasing away the chill brought by Rivers’ accusations.

“A necromancer!” Tom repeated, still folded in half. “You! Speaking with the dead, as if you could ever wield such power. That man is crazy!”

Offended, Harry dug his fingers into Tom’s ribs again, tickling him mercilessly.

“For your information, I speak with the dead every day,” he informed him as he struggled to subdue Tom’s squirming.

“Liar,” Tom gasped, breathless with laughter, trying to bat his hands away.

“I do,” Harry insisted, twisting his fingers even more and smirking when Tom let out an undignified yelp. “If you haven’t noticed, Hogwarts is full of talking portraits, and most people on them are long dead.”

Tom blinked before laughing even harder, and this time, Harry couldn’t resist the temptation. He laughed too, even though the mirthful sounds quickly turned into gasps when Tom used his weakening hold to topple him to the floor, pushing his own fingers between his ribs.

“Give up and give me my reward!” he announced smugly, dodging the flights of Harry’s protesting hands. “I’ve completed your task: maybe I didn’t sneak up on you properly, but I took you aback. You said my reaction was quick, so you were impressed. This was the condition.”

“Fine, I’ll tell you where my rooms are. This was the reward,” Harry mocked him. In response, Tom resumed his tickling efforts, and when Harry jerked forward to push him over, he was startled to realize that he couldn’t.

Tom had gotten strong. Wiggling out of his grasp was nearly impossible now without applying his full physical strength, and Harry wasn’t at the stage of doing that yet. So he tried to bite Tom’s arm, and when Tom loosened his hold with a distressed sound — worried about his expensive clothes, no doubt — Harry managed to wrap his hands around his shoulders and push him back at last.

Minutes later, they were lying on the floor next to each other, panting with the remnants of laughter, too exhausted to keep their battle going. At some point, Tom propped his head on his hand, watching him with a look that Harry couldn’t read.

“Deluded as Rivers might be, he still threatened you,” he uttered, more gravely this time. “I don’t like it.”

Harry sighed.

“There is nothing I can do about his threats,” he said. “No one believes what he says anyway, so there is no point in worrying about it.”

For a while, Tom was silent.

“What if there was a way to do something about his threats?” he murmured finally, leaning closer to Harry and brushing his finger against his cheek. “Would you take it?”

“Like what?”

Tom lowered his head, nuzzling into his temple and then pressing his lips to his ear.

“I could kill him for you,” he whispered, his breathing hot, but his words chilling. “I could make it so he’d never be found. He would never bother you again.”

At first, Harry’s mind blanked out, trying to make sense of what he’d heard. When the impact of what Tom had just said finally hit him, coldness shot down his spine, quickly turning his blood into ice. Something bitter clogged his throat — a betrayed sense of shock that he hadn’t felt in months, that was supposed to stay in the past indefinitely.

Taking a deep, shaking breath, Harry pulled away, putting more distance between him and Tom. His voice came out unsteady when he asked, “Have I ever given you an impression that you could joke about such things with me?”

Tom tilted his head, following his every movement.

“It’s not a joke,” he said neutrally. “You implied that Rivers makes your life harder. I’m offering to make it easy again.”

“By killing him?” Harry refused to believe this. Not after the summer they had, not after all their conversations. “And you thought there might be even the slightest chance of me agreeing to this?”

“If Rivers is a problem, then yes.”

“Problems aren’t solved with murder!” Realising he was dangerously close to shouting, Harry jumped to his feet and began to pace, trying to dispel the suffocating cloud of distress that was dimming his senses.

He thought they’d made progress. He believed it. Everything couldn’t fall apart this quickly — not now, not here, not ever.

“I don’t understand why you are angry with me,” Tom bit out, his own voice getting darker. “I haven’t even done anything. You wanted me to talk to you about these things, so I’m trying. If you react like this every time—”

“It’s different! I told you that you have to come to me if you are feeling tempted to act in a way you know is unacceptable, not to offer me to participate in murder as if it’s some… some trivial topic of conversation!”

“But it’s not for me this time, it’s for you!” Tom threw his hands up, anger distorting his features, and only now did Harry realise that he was becoming truly upset. It wasn’t just Tom testing his limits or forgetting everything they had been discussing over summer — he looked genuinely frustrated.

“Murder is murder,” Harry spoke more calmly. “You know that I don’t see it as a solution to anything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for you or for me. It’s unacceptable. No exceptions — not unless someone is in real danger.”

“But it’s for you,” Tom repeated stubbornly. “Rivers upset you and he will do it again. I want to take care of you.”

Even though dismay was still burning small poisonous holes through him, Harry forced himself to stand straight, waiting for his breathing to even out. Then he approached Tom and put his hands on his shoulders, looking at him intently.

“I appreciate it,” he forced out. “I do. But you can’t take care of me with this. Never with this.” 

Tom clenched his teeth, still angry, and Harry gave his shoulders a gentle squeeze.

“You know me,” he said, trying to sound lighter. “You know I would never support murder, even if your intentions are… noble.”

“Well, I didn’t know you’d get equally angry,” Tom grumbled, but some tension finally left his body. With a resigned exhale, he stepped towards Harry and placed his head on his shoulder, wrapping his hands around his waist. “Don’t worry,” he uttered. “I’ll think of something else.”

“There is no need to. Do I have to remind you again that I’m an adult? I can deal with Rivers. If he bothers me too much, I’ll use a restraining spell that won’t let him get close to me.”

“Really?” Tom jerked away, his eyes lighting up with avid interest. “There is a spell like this?”

“Yes. Would you like me to teach you?” As an Auror, Harry had had to use it several times on wizards who failed to understand that people didn’t want to be stalked. It was a tricky but useful spell, and Harry still remembered how to cast it… more or less.

“Of course,” Tom pressed closer to him again, and Harry indulged himself by burying his hands in his hair, brushing through it soothingly.  

The disaster seemed to be averted, but he would still watch Tom and Rivers for a while.

Just in case.

 

***

 

Days turned into weeks, weeks grew into months, and everything stayed the same. Rivers was still a nuisance, but he was alive and well, and gradually, Harry allowed himself to relax.

Tom had listened to him. He was capable of keeping his word, so Harry was going to learn to trust him again.

Not that it was easy in any way, considering how possessive Tom could be of him and the consequences it could potentially have. Harry liked teaching — it felt natural, and seeing so many excited faces, sensing such eagerness and genuine interest in his lessons filled him with enthusiasm that he had almost forgotten. One-on-one lessons couldn’t compare to this, couldn’t bring the same powerful energy that the entire class of students emanated. But while Tom showed him absolute respect, he very obviously couldn’t handle the idea of having to share his attention with others.

Every time Harry ignored him in favour of someone else, Tom looked slighted. Every time Harry awarded points to non-Slytherins, Tom glowered. If Harry ever praised another student with something longer than three words, Tom’s anger and resentment gained an almost physical shape, ready to collapse on the head of his fortunate classmate and bury them under the debris.

Notably, most Slytherins from Tom’s year were quiet and rarely spoke out, so Tom’s glares and biting fury were almost exclusively reserved for Gryffindors. Harry wondered about it sometimes. He realised that the status of a Slytherin heir brought Tom an unfair advantage, but he doubted Tom abused this power to intimidate his housemates into something as trivial as not being active on Harry’s lessons. Something was happening, yes, but it looked more like all these Slytherins simply understood Tom’s wishes and willingly respected them.

Dumbledore would disagree with him for sure, but Harry doubted Voldemort had only ever used manipulation or intimidation to make others join him, and he could clearly see this wasn’t the case with Tom. Because despite his behaviour during Defence lessons, at all other times, he was perfect.

He was spending time with the representatives of all Houses, discussing something and sometimes even tutoring them. He was attentive to those younger than him and respectful to older students. Sure, his sense of superiority shone through even then, but Harry was certain that for everyone else, it came across as simple unwavering confidence. Tom was friendly but he didn’t let the majority of people close, so Harry was among the few, if not the only one, who could understand the nuances in his behaviour.

Tom did have several friends, but even after four months of teaching, Harry couldn’t say he knew much about them. They formed a united front around Tom at all times, but Harry barely had a chance to observe their interactions. Whenever they crossed paths, Tom’s attention snapped to him, and he almost never even talked to his friends until Harry left. If he had to guess, though, he’d say that Lestrange and Avery were a bit overeager in their focus on Tom; Mulciber didn’t stand out in any way, and Black… Harry’s heart kept skipping beats at first, struck at his similarities with Sirius, but it quickly became obvious that other than physical appearance, they were nothing alike. This Black was quiet where Sirius had been loud, thoughtful where Sirius was spontaneous, so very soon, seeing him stopped unsettling Harry this much, and the associations shattered.

Not before Tom noticed it, of course. His sudden chill towards his own friend was palpable even to someone as uninvolved in their relationship as Harry. It lasted for a few weeks, and to Harry’s reluctant amusement, Black started shooting him half-masked glares, as if blaming him for the distance between him and Tom. Fortunately, it ended another week later, when Harry made it a point to ignore Black, so soon, Tom let him back into his good graces.

There were echoes of occasional prejudice in the corridors and during lessons: some purebloods still looked down on Muggle-borns; some Slytherins sneered at Gryffindors and vice versa, and Hufflepuffs were dismissed by quite a number of other students. Still, Harry thought the situation was surprisingly better in comparison to how things had been during his time. The general level of hostility felt lower, and even the exchanged insults seemed lazy rather than genuinely heated.

Had it always been like this? Or was Tom’s changed life making a difference?

Harry knew which option he preferred, and he hoped for it with fervency that was almost overwhelming in its desperate intensity. The desire to be proud of someone wasn’t something he had a big experience with, but when it came to Tom, he found himself undergoing a whole new range of bewildering and unfamiliar feelings.

He loved hearing about how Tom excelled in every subject he was taking. He loved how so many people seemed awed by him. He loved thinking that his efforts were worth something, and the idea of Tom bringing such a positive change filled him with reckless, profound giddiness. So when Tom told him that he wanted them to go home for Christmas, Harry answered “yes” with a blinding, foolish grin, and his heart felt almost uncomfortably warm when Tom smiled back at him, looking like nothing could be more important than this moment.

Harry couldn’t help but agree.

 

***

 

 

They began Christmas preparations right away. This year, their tree was incredibly tall, and it was impossible to decorate it without the floating spells. But while Tom was always passionate about magic, as fascinated by every display of it as he had been all those years ago, now he insisted on doing everything the Muggle way for some reason. And he was vehemently against using chairs or anything else for elevation.

“Okay,” Harry said, “so how do you suggest we get to the top? Do you want me to hold you up so you could reach it? I’m afraid you’ve gotten a bit too heavy for that.”

“What?” Tom frowned, looking almost comically dismayed. “Are you saying I’m fat?”

Of course this was what Tom had gotten from it. Harry snorted with laughter, shaking his head.

“No,” he uttered, amused. “I’m saying you are… tall. Yes. Very tall.”

Tom narrowed his eyes, studying him with suspicion.

“You are!” he concluded finally, so offended that Harry broke into uncontrollable laughter again. “You are saying I’m fat!” 

“I’m really not,” Harry reached to touch him but Tom slapped his hand away, glowering. “My God, you are impossible sometimes. No, you aren’t fat, and I wouldn’t care if you were. But you are still heavy and tall enough, so I’m not going to be walking around the tree with you on my shoulders. If that was your plan…”

“Fine,” Tom raised his chin, a flawless sculpture of condescension. “I’ll be holding you, then. Since you aren’t tall or heavy enough.”

Harry pondered over whether there was an insult there, but then discarded these thoughts and shrugged. If Tom convinced himself of some crazy idea, he knew from experience that nothing could be done to change that — worst-case scenario, he was going to get dropped on the floor. Nothing he wouldn’t survive.

But what he had perceived as Tom’s whimsy turned into something much sweeter and unexpectedly moving. True, it started a little ridiculously — Harry couldn’t stop his embarrassed laughter and instead of putting the toys on the higher branches, he kept waving his arms aimlessly, much to Tom’s flustered annoyance. But then the feeling of almost childish excitement took its roots, chasing away the awkwardness and filling every simple action with magic — not the usual one, but the unique and more complex kind of it. Harry was quickly becoming lost in these moments, putting each toy on the branch with greatest care, following Tom’s suggestions and admiring his own work, feeling warm and exhilarated and absurdly happy.

When the final toy took its place on the very top, Harry just looked at it, pleased in a way he hadn’t felt in a while. Absent-mindedly, he reached towards it again to adjust it a bit. Tom made an alarmed noise and stumbled, and before Harry understood it, they both crashed to the floor. Thankfully, the impact was more startling than painful, but Tom still scowled at him, managing to look fearsome even as he was sprawled across the carpet.

“You just had to do that,” he complained. “At least you didn’t pull the tree down with you. I wouldn’t help you to decorate it again!”

Smiling, Harry bent his head and dropped a kiss on Tom’s brow.

“Sorry,” he said dutifully. He heard how Tom’s breath caught before coming out in a shaky exhale. His eyes lost their sharp focus, and Harry raised an eyebrow, surprised but pleased. His methods of ridding Tom of his annoyance seemed to be getting swifter and swifter.

“Come on,” Harry finally stood up, offering Tom a hand. “Let’s go make hot chocolate.”

Tom took his hand, still looking flushed and a little dazed, and Harry rolled his eyes.

“You didn’t fall all that hard, stop trying to make me feel guilty.”

Tom merely gazed at him, just as wordlessly.

 

***

For Tom’s birthday, Harry decided to make a non-alcoholic whiskey cake. The recipe he had in mind seemed intriguing enough to make him want to try it, although Tom was sceptical.

“What’s the point of making a whiskey cake when it has no real whiskey?” he wondered. “And why whiskey in the first place, why not a, I don’t know, a butterbeer cake? You love that sickening drink.”

“I do, but as you just confirmed, you consider it sickening,” Harry pointed out. “Whiskey is a harsher drink, I thought you’d like it more.”

“But it’s not even real whiskey!”

Harry had nothing to say here, so he just shrugged sheepishly, unable to stop himself from grinning when Tom gave him an exasperated but a very fond look.

As he was working on the cake, Tom was sitting at the table, alternating between watching him and reading a book. It looked vaguely familiar, but Harry couldn’t see its title from the distance.

“What are you reading?” he asked finally. “You seem to be doing it an awful lot lately.”

Tom looked up, a glimmer of a strange smile on his lips.

“I do,” he said. “There is a project I’m interested in completing, but as of yet, I don’t have sufficient knowledge to plan everything. I hope to find an answer in these books.”

“What is it about?” Harry turned back to the stove, checking whether the chocolate was melting.

“It’s going to be a surprise, so I’m not telling you.”

This made him wary, so Harry faced Tom again, briefly forgetting about the chocolate.

“A surprise that needs you to read so much to complete it? I’m not sure I like it.”

“You will,” Tom assured him before focusing on the book again. It was very tempting to snatch it from his hands and look at its title, to check what chapter Tom was reading, but after the brief inner struggle, Harry reluctantly discarded this idea.

He wanted to trust Tom. If he said Harry was going to like it, then he wanted to believe it was really so.

Though maybe he’d still take a quick look when Tom was sleeping.

 

***

 

The cake turned out to be delicious, and Tom liked it so much that he even requested the second helping. Harry conjured a glowing green ‘15’, and Tom kept trying to brush his fingers against it, smiling softly when it flared under his touch. They had radio on for music, and the lights from their Christmas tree reached even the kitchen where they were sitting, filling it with multi-coloured shine.

At some point, Tom went quiet, staring at his empty plate and throwing occasional hesitant looks at him. Harry patiently waited for him to voice whatever was bothering him, but when it finally happened, it was the last thing he’d been expecting to hear.

“Dance with me?” Tom said, or rather asked. It sounded like he’d intended to put more force into his words but lost his confidence along the way, so it came out fragile and unsure.

“All right,” Harry replied slowly. It wasn’t that strange of a demand, so he couldn’t imagine why Tom felt so awkward asking.

A steady wave of redness flooded Tom’s cheeks. He stood up a little too quickly and eagerly, but then faltered again, fidgeting.

He had never been this nervous about anything before, not from what Harry could remember.

Amused and taken aback, he walked towards Tom himself, taking his hands and leading him away from the table. Tom clang to him like a lifeline, still flushed and hesitant, and Harry twirled him around playfully, again and again, hoping to ease some of his tension.

When Tom laughed in delight, he knew it worked. The next time Harry pulled him close, Tom took the lead, wrapping one hand around his shoulders and pushing them even closer, forcing Harry to move at his pace. As he turned them around, his grip hardened. His lips parted, and he stared at Harry in such transfixed way, as if he’d never seen him before.

Harry wasn’t sure what to make of it. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Tom look at him like this — or anyone look at him like this, if he were honest. This wasn’t something he recognised within himself either, not before, at least, so he couldn’t begin to guess what was going through Tom’s mind.

Time seemed to slow. Tom’s hold was warm and firm now, and Harry held onto him just as tightly, letting the simple happiness of the moment overtake him. Being close to Tom never felt like something he could take for granted, something he could stop consciously craving. It was like learning he had magic for the first time; it was like seeing a reflection of his parents, like feeling accepted and understood by people who mattered.

Tom was his world. It wasn’t a new revelation, but it still tore through his mind in a shocking flash, exposing love so fierce that his body shook with it, unable to cope with its crushing, overwhelming force. Harry was the one to cling to Tom this time, trying to find a balance and prevent himself from suffocating him in an embrace he suddenly wanted.

To reach a compromise with himself, Harry chose to lean against Tom more, pressing his head into Tom’s shoulder. Tom adjusted to this immediately, changing his grip to a softer one and covering Harry’s head with his.

The music was there, it had to be, but Harry had no idea what song was playing. At some point, he gazed at the table and flinched, seeing Apophis there.

“Tom,” he muttered. “Why is your demon bird staring at us?”

Tom didn’t answer right away, probably as lost in their semblance of a dance as Harry was.

“Still not a demon bird,” he uttered finally, with voice rough. “Do you hate all birds or is Apophis an exception?” 

“I don’t hate all birds,” Harry pulled back, though he still didn’t let go of Tom’s hand. “I love them — I had an owl before. There were times when she was my only companion. I might not think of her every day now, but she’s always with me. A memory that won’t fade.”

“You never told me before,” Tom frowned, rubbing several soothing touches into Harry’s palm with his fingers. “Would you like to buy another owl, then? I suppose I could get you one.”

“No,” Harry sighed, leaning closer again. Sometimes Tom truly didn’t understand the simplest things. “It doesn’t work like that. Even if I get a thousand new owls, they won’t replace Hedwig.”

“Hedwig?” Tom repeated. “As in Saint Hedwig, the patron of the poor and the orphans? Did you name your owl after a Muggle?”

“Actually, I saw the name in A History of Magic. I don’t really remember whom it belonged to at this point. But if it was a patron of orphans, then I suppose it’s fitting. Considering I was an orphan and all that.”

Even without looking, Harry could feel Tom frowning. His mood darkened, and they spent the next several minutes in brooding silence, not really dancing but merely moving slowly. Apophis kept staring.

“I wouldn’t want another owl anyway,” Harry remarked, hoping to lighten the atmosphere and to bring back the magical feeling they’d been enjoying before. “A dragon, on the other hand…”

Tom was the one to jerk his head back in surprise this time.

“A dragon?” he asked incredulously. The frown faded from his face as if it had never been there at all. “Why would you want a dragon for a pet?”

“One of my friends got a dragon’s egg once,” Harry smiled, a weak echo of nostalgia and wistfulness tugging at his heart. He had already formed a close relationship with this time’s younger version of Hagrid, but this boy and his Hagrid were still worlds apart. “It was a little monster, though it had its moments. I didn’t have a good relationship with dragons — magical creatures never interested me much. Then, when I was fourteen, I had to fight a dragon for a prize. It was a stupid tournament and of course, my opinion didn’t improve after the challenge ended. I’m still surprised I survived it in one piece.”

“Are you making this up?” Tom stopped moving altogether, eyeing him with so much scepticism, it would have been insulting if Harry wasn’t feeling so happy.

“No, I’m not,” he smirked.  

“Do you really expect me to believe you fought a dragon when you were fourteen? This is absurd!”

“Trust me, I wasn’t happy about it myself. But it’s a long story.”

“But you couldn’t have defeated a dragon!” Tom ran his fingers through his hair in agitation, his eyes wide and stunned. “They are mostly invincible — I don’t think even I would be able to handle it. I suppose I’d go for the eyes, they are probably the weakest place on their body, but I’m still not sure I would have succeeded. What did you do? And who let you do this — you could have died!”

“I didn’t have the most normal childhood,” Harry agreed, trying to pull Tom back to him. When he resisted, Harry jerked him forward, ignoring his indignant gasp. “Calm down,” he urged. “It’s in the past. And I succeeded mostly out of pure luck. I simply used my Quidditch skills, and to be honest, I wasn’t even the one to come up with this plan. So don’t worry, you would have still beat me in every aspect that counted. Well, almost in every aspect.”

“I’m not worried about that!” Tom scoffed. Harry’s eyebrows arched. “Not entirely,” he amended. “But when you say things like that... I don’t know anything about your past, do I? You are hiding parts of yourself from me. And every time you reveal one of the pieces, it turns out you should be dead at least a dozen times over by now!”    

“But I’m not,” Harry pressed his lips to Tom’s forehead soothingly. “I’m here, with you, and I always will be.”

Tom calmed almost instantly, closing his eyes and taking a slow breath. Still, a while had passed before he spoke again.

“So, dragons,” he said more neutrally. “If you had a bad experience with them, why would you want one as a pet?”

“I was joking mostly,” Harry admitted, lacing their fingers together. “But dragons are still special and I grew to love and appreciate them over the years. Ron’s brother spent his entire life working with them. I took a trip with him once and I got to know them from an entirely new side. They are very intelligent, very prickly and often violent, but they are loyal to those they love and they are kind towards those they trust. Actually, now that I think about it, they remind me of you.”

Tom blinked, surprise and pleasure turning his features softer.

“I remind you of dragons?”

“You do,” Harry smiled at him. “In many ways. You can be fierce and intimidating, but when you let someone into your heart, it’s for good. You are smart and resourceful, and viciously protective. So yes. Perfect likeness.”

Tom hummed, wrapping both of his hands around Harry’s back, spinning him around unhurriedly.

“I like it,” he said after a few moments, his voice quiet and thoughtful. “I like it a lot.”

Harry nuzzled his hair in response, following his movements lazily.

“And I liked today,” Tom blurted out suddenly. “I liked your gift, I liked your stupid illogical cake, and I liked dancing with you. This was my best birthday.”

“Really?” In his surprise, Harry breathed in too much air, and some of Tom’s hair got into his mouth, making him splutter in an attempt to spit it back out. Tom laughed at this, loudly and unabashedly, and when their eyes met again, Tom’s were shining.

“Yes,” he said breathlessly, and this single word was filled with such devotion that Harry’s heart skipped a beat, too caught up in the blissful sensation of warmth, love, and gratitude. “Yes,” Tom repeated. “It’s undoubtedly the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

Harry couldn’t have asked for more.

 

***

 

Four days before they had to go back to Hogwarts, a part of Liverpool had been bombed. The damage wasn’t extensive, but considering the abundance of attacks this area had already gone through, the number of people needing assistance remained unknown. And most surprisingly, Harry hadn’t learned about it himself, too focused on finishing drafting his lesson plans. No, the information came from Tom, who had come to his room with a grave expression and offered to apparate there and help.

You want to help Muggles?’ Harry nearly exclaimed, but he stopped himself at the last moment.

Tom didn’t care about helping, he knew that. They had already had this discussion — Tom went with him because he understood how much Harry appreciated it. But to actually initiate their trip, to share the news and insist that they go? This wasn’t something Harry had expected, not at this point. This was way beyond his boldest hopes.

“All right,” he said easily, trying to keep his tone normal and not to betray the shock coursing through him. “Thank you for telling me about this. We’ll go right away.”

It didn’t matter what Tom’s reasons were. Whether he wanted to please him, to prove something, to see Liverpool — he offered to go, and for Harry, it was everything.

They arrived in the middle of destruction. It was hard to say whether they had come too late or too early — the street seemed entirely deserted, with silent wrecks of the houses being the only reminder of what had occurred. The sky was grim, and even though it was morning, it felt like twilight was fast approaching.

“I think we’ll be able to repair some of it,” Harry said, examining the broken pieces of a green wall that were still clinging to each other. “But we should focus on finding people first. I don’t know if someone has already done a rescue mission or if they just ran without looking for survivors.”

Only the wind answered him, tearing through the wreckage with a hollow sound. Harry turned towards Tom and caught his affirmative nod. But despite the agreement, it didn’t look like Tom was comfortable or even accepting of the necessity to spend any time here. His face was pale and tense, and he kept throwing wary glances at the sky, clenching his wand so tightly that his knuckles went white.

He was scared to be here. It was so painfully obvious that Harry’s first instinct was to immediately take them back home, to never bring Tom to places like this. But now that he’d seen the actual damage, he couldn’t stay away, and he knew Tom would never let him go alone.

“We won’t stay long here, okay?” Harry asked quietly. “It’s very likely that these are just empty buildings and that all people have already been evacuated.”

Tom looked briefly startled by his words before quickly composing himself.

“I don’t mind,” he assured him calmly. It was almost convincing — it would have been if Tom’s paleness and tension didn’t betray his anxiety. “I offered to come here myself, after all. I’ll help you with the people we find.”

“It means a lot to me,” Harry replied. But somehow, this didn’t feel enough, not this time, so he added, “And I’m proud of you for offering.”

Tom’s paleness slowly shifted into a completely unexpected blush. It looked so out of place that Harry just squinted in his confusion, wondering what it could possibly mean. This wasn’t the first time he said he was proud of Tom, was it? So what made it different?

Tom dropped his gaze, clearing his throat awkwardly.

“I’ll start with this house,” he muttered, nodding jerkily at one of the ruins. “Stay close to me, though.”

Harry rolled his eyes good-naturedly but did as Tom asked.

They were working silently side by side for a while, Tom using Harry’s wand as subtly as possible, Harry using his the Muggle tools he’d brought. At some point, he stumbled upon someone’s pale hand, and his mood plummeted.

He caught Tom’s attention, and they gently dug out a corpse, laying it on the ground. It was a man with a brown scarf on his neck, and Harry bit his lip as his breathing tumbled into something painful and irregular, the terrible and familiar guilt crashing into him, biting into everything it could touch.

It wasn’t his fault, none of it. But Muggles or wizards, war was war, and every war now looked like his first one to him. The new faces easily turned into Fred’s and George’s, Lupin’s and Tonks’, even Snape’s — cold and still in death, silent and unreachable.

With another deep inhale, Harry nodded at Tom, indicating he was fine and that they could continue.

They didn’t find anyone else, so maybe someone had already searched the ruins and just did it inattentively. Finally, after another half an hour, Harry straightened, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He was wondering whether he should leave the body here or take it to some other place when Tom called him, “Harry?”

He sounded strange, and Harry immediately made a few steps towards him, alarmed.

“What’s wrong?”

Tom wavered for a moment, heavy reluctance written on his face, but then determination replaced it. He pointed at one of the piles he’d been digging through.

“There is an infant here,” he said. “It’s making noise, so I assume it’s alive.”

Harry hurried closer, peering over Tom’s shoulder.

There really was a small child lying under the ruins. It couldn’t be older than a few months, and its mouth kept opening in a struggle to cry or scream.

For a moment, Harry just stared, feeling entirely lost. He hardly knew what to do with the body, where was he supposed to take a child? It needed urgent care, and he doubted that any orphanage would agree to accept such responsibility.

“We’ll take him back with us,” he decided. “We’ll use potions to treat him. I’ll try to find out if he has any living relatives, and if not, we’ll find some foster family for him.”

Tom grimaced, throwing an unreadable look at the child. Then he looked at Harry again and clenched his jaw.

“Fine,” he said curtly. “Tell me what I should do.”

 

***

 

The child was a boy, and by the end of the day, Harry was completely enamoured with him. He reminded him of Teddy, of those first years they shared, and for the first time, the tinge of sadness was gone from his memories.    

He might never be involved in Teddy’s upbringing again, but he’d make sure he still had his parents. Lupin and Tonks would cherish him, just as the family he’d find for this boy would cherish him. These children would never be affected by any war again.

Tom was mostly silent, although he obediently fetched the things Harry needed and helped him to prepare the potions. His lack of expression was troubling, though, and Harry couldn’t escape an unpleasant queasy feeling boiling in the pit of his stomach.

He understood the reason for Tom’s silence. How could he not, after everything that happened?

“We won’t keep him,” he said, tilting Tom’s head up by his chin and staring him in the eye, knowing Tom would be able to read his sincerity. “You and I are going back to Hogwarts in four days. By that time, the child will be gone. I promise.”

Tom stared at him, still expressionless, and the blankness of his stare sent shivers up Harry’s spine.

He knew this look. He’d seen it only several times on Tom, but it never ended well.    

“Four days,” he repeated. “Just four days. Do you understand? Nothing beyond that.”

“Yes,” Tom said, but his words came out wooden and emotionless. “I understand. Four days.”

He didn’t sound like he understood. And Harry found it more terrifying than the worst of Tom’s letters.

Were four days really too much to ask? This was just an infant. An infant they both had saved. How could Tom perceive it as threat in any way? What more could he possibly say to convince him?

Harry transformed a chair into a crib and put it into his room. Other than that, he forced himself to approach the boy only when necessary, drowning every longing impulse to hold or play with him before it could fully emerge. He dragged Tom into the room, too, and they spent several hours reading together. By the end of them, Tom began to smile again, and a weak hope lit up somewhere in Harry’s chest, letting him breathe easier.

“I have to feed the child,” he said carefully. “Would you like to watch or maybe you want to do it yourself?”

Perhaps if Tom felt even more involved, if he saw there was nothing to be threatened by… It was a slim chance, but maybe it could stall the tension for the next several days.

Tom’s smile froze before fading, dragging the corners of his lips down with it. The blank look returned, but he still said, “I’ll feed it myself.”

Harry beamed before leaning forward and planting a sloppy kiss on his cheekbone.

“Great,” he said. “Let’s find that blend again, I forgot where I put it.”

“How you fail to remember you have magic escapes me,” Tom remarked, but the words that had to be teasing were filled with nothingness. As if he was simply going through motions without feeling any genuine link with them.

Harry forced himself to smile, even though uneasiness began to spread through him again, turning his insides to ice.

He watched Tom feed the boy with intensity that bordered on obsessiveness. Maybe it was unfair, but he felt it was better than taking any risks, no matter how small.

Tom’s actions were smooth and careful, and if Harry had been unable to see his face, he might have called them caring. As it was, he saw the emptiness and the darkness, and when the child jerked back from the bottle, smacking his lips and wrinkling his nose in a display of vulnerable innocence, Tom’s gaze grew colder.

No, he didn’t feel any more involved, it was palpable. And while Harry’s heart melted at the sight of such helplessness, Tom’s only appeared to harden.

But it didn’t matter. It didn’t. Tom was trying, really trying this time, and Harry would appreciate his efforts without requiring something he was incapable of giving, even if he couldn’t understand how someone this small and fragile could leave anyone unmoved.

“Well done,” he praised when Tom removed the bottle and hid his hands behind his back, staring at him vacantly. “I’ll start looking for someone to take him in tomorrow morning. Would you like to watch a film?”

Normally, Tom would immediately scold him, commencing a long rant about how terrible the majority of modern films were, but now he just shrugged slightly.

“All right,” he said.

Harry had purposefully selected the most hilarious film he could find, and he spent the following two hours wrapped around Tom, hoping, praying, that it was enough. That whatever doubts and fears plagued Tom’s mind, his devotion would be able to dispel them.

They slept in one bed this night, and Harry felt relieved: this way, he could watch both Tom and the baby while also proving that accepting a temporarily responsibility for someone else didn’t mean that Tom would start getting less of his attention. He hoped Tom could see it.

He was fifteen. How could he not?

The morning didn’t bring him any peace of mind. Tom remained detached, and whenever Harry interacted with the child, his gaze sharpened, glistening dangerously.

This complicated the search for the boy’s family. To find anyone, Harry had to go outside, and he couldn’t possibly leave Tom in charge, not when he behaved like this. It was unbelievable that this problem even existed, but it did, and this time, he wasn’t going to willingly close his eyes to it.

In the end, he decided to take Tom with him and leave the child by himself. It wasn’t safe, but a quieter part of his mind suggested that it was safer than asking Tom to stay behind.

Unfortunately, their trip was fruitless. The boy’s family was dead, and none of the people Harry had built connections with expressed any willingness to adopt him. When they got back home, the child was wailing loudly, so Harry rushed upstairs, grabbing him from the crib and muttering comforting sweetness, rocking him from side to side. The boy calmed down eventually, blinking at him sleepily, and Harry smiled, unable to help himself.

At that very moment, a sudden chill entered the room, freezing everything on its way forward. Harry stilled.

He knew where it was coming from, but he didn’t want to look to make sure. He didn’t want to turn suspicions into reality. Yet the iciness was getting too biting to ignore it, so he did look, and his heart sank.

Tom was standing at the threshold, measuring him with an intense stare. His lips were pressed into one thin line, and his eyes were burning with rage so profound, Harry was surprised it didn’t spill over, drowning them all in its poison.         

Frustration flared up then, nearly bursting from him, filling him with a sudden need to counter Tom’s iciness, to scream at him and ask if he understood how utterly crazy he was acting. Why did he have to always be the one understanding everything? Why did he have to cater to Tom’s every need, to tiptoe around him in the fear of pushing him towards darkness?  

Maybe Tom read something on his face because his fury suddenly twisted into hurt, and just like that, Harry’s anger dimmed. His stomach was still roiling from the unfairness, from the injustice of it, but the resentment began to lose its sharp edge.

He knew why he was putting up with it. Of course he did. He loved Tom and he’d made him a promise. It didn’t mean he was going to follow every unreasonable demand Tom made, but when it came to sharing any part of himself with anyone, even a little child who was only a temporary presence in his life, he had no choice. Better to swallow it down than risk alienating Tom or bringing harm to anyone. Not again.

“He’s fine now,” Harry said evenly. The bitterness was still gnawing at him, but he managed to push it down enough for his voice to remain unaffected. “Let’s go to the kitchen, we should eat something.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed, cautious and hostile, but after a moment of hesitation, he gave him a nod, and Harry put the baby back into his crib.

They left the room silently, and they barely exchanged a couple of words by the end of the day.

Harry’s dreams were dark and anxious. He woke up in the middle of the night with a certainty that he was drowning, and it took a while for his brain to calm and to realise it wasn’t really suffocating. But even as it happened, the sensation of wrongness didn’t disappear, and with a start, he sat up in his bed, his heart pounding.

Tom was standing above him. His fists were clenched so tightly that his hands looked abnormally pale even in the darkness. His hair was dishevelled, as if he had spent hours running his fingers through it nervously, but it was the wild, completely unhinged look in his eyes that injected Harry with sudden terror.

“What’s wrong?” he whispered. “Tom. Talk to me.”

“You need to get it out of our house,” Tom said. His voice was laborious, every word coming out as a small gasp. “Not in several days. Right now.”

“Tom—”

“You have to do it now because I hate it. I hate it, and if it stays, I’ll kill it.”   

He expected it. He expected it, but he still recoiled, feeling bile rise up his throat, choking him for real this time.

“Explain why,” Harry gritted out, even though each syllable appeared to be stuck in his mouth. “Explain why you can’t wait for two more bloody days.”

“Because you aren’t going to give it up in two days!” Tom hissed. Something on Harry’s shelf shattered loudly — a glass, from the sound of it. “I know you. You’ll want to find it a perfect family who’ll raise a perfect child, but it’s never going to happen because no one wants a burden like this! Two days will turn into four, four days will become a week, and then you’ll get so attached that you’ll refuse to give it to anyone else. I won’t allow it. I should have never told you it was there.”

“You saved a life,” Harry whispered. Something wet brushed against his lower eyelids and he tried to blink it away. This was a nightmare, one he didn’t know how to end. “No matter what you feel now, you did the right thing then. Don’t taint it.” 

“Then don’t ignore me!” Tom spat, and these words jolted Harry out of bed. Vaguely, he realised his own hands were curled into trembling fists — or maybe his whole body was trembling, unable to cope with Tom’s accusations, with inevitability of what he was going to have to do.

“I have never ignored you!” he shouted, and there was an audible crackle in the air, a pulse of more volatile magic — his magic this time. “My whole life revolves around you! My every day starts and ends with you! Even in this situation, this temporary situation with the boy, I made sure you remained my priority. How can you not see that!”

“I don’t need to be your priority!” Tom bellowed. In one single step, he closed the distance between them, grabbing him by his shirt, his knuckles digging deeply into Harry’s collarbone. “Priority implies competition and I won’t tolerate it. I will never tolerate it. We won’t share our life with anyone! I don’t care if it’s for one day or one year, I won’t let it happen. So get it out before I do something you asked me not to!”

For a second, Harry’s vision turned red. The hopeless uncontrollable fury reached its peak, incinerating him from inside, rising up and up, thick and disgusting like vomit. The need to spew it, to scream himself hoarse until Tom stopped doing this to him turned into an almost physical necessity, but then Tom threw his hands around his neck, burying his head in his throat, and Harry felt how fast his heart was beating against his own chest.

“I don’t want you to mollify me or try to distract me like you’ve been doing,” Tom whispered feverishly, all but melting against him. “I just want you with me. Always with me. I won’t allow you to think of someone else, I won’t allow you to change our plans just because someone else needs you. I told you, you are mine. You promised you are mine. You promised.”

 “I did,” Harry said tiredly. “And I am. This child doesn’t change anything.”

“I don’t care. I want it gone.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

Silence fell, interrupted only by their sharp breathing. Slowly, the red haze of anger began to fade, and when it did, Harry felt wrung out. Exhausted beyond belief.

Despite the bitterness twisting somewhere in his stomach, he couldn’t summon the energy to stay angry because… what would it change? Tom was who he was. Whether Harry had screwed up or Tom had always been like this, it didn’t change the present. Maybe one day, when Tom inevitably discovered there’s more to life than him, this suffocating hold would loosen, but until then, Harry’s choices were limited. When pushed, he would choose Tom — he would always choose Tom. Tom was more important than freedom, more important than common sense and rational decisions. So there was only one thing he could do.

“Let’s go, then,” Harry squeezed Tom’s nape firmly, forcing a tight smile when Tom peered into his face. “There is no point in waiting.”

“Go where?” Tom muttered warily.

“To the orphanage. It’s the only place that will agree to accept him. He’s healthy now, and I’ll give them money so they would…” Harry trailed off, swallowing around the lump in his throat.

So they would treat the boy well. So they wouldn’t cast him away. So he wouldn’t feel unloved and abandoned.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

“You will never see him again, though. Will you?” Tom tilted his head, staring at him, and Harry met his gaze steadily.

“I won’t make this promise,” he said. Seeing how Tom instantly bristled, he shook his head. “Don’t start. I agreed to give him up without waiting. You are right, I won’t be able to find a good family for him in two days, not at times like this, so there is no point in delaying the inevitable. But I might still visit him occasionally.”

“But—”

“Stop it.” The hardness in his own words surprised him. It surprised Tom, too, from how he shifted nervously, suddenly looking unsure. “Don’t abuse your right to make demands of me. You are the only person I love, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to watch out for those who depend on me. And this child depends on us both.”

Tom frowned, puzzled, and Harry jumped on the chance before it could slip away.

“You found him. You helped me save him. This boy is our shared responsibility now, so while we won’t participate in his life, we’ll check on him sometimes. Together.”  

Finally, he said the right thing because the frown smoothed out. Tom nodded at him, thoughtful and serious, and Harry nodded back in response.

“Let’s do it,” he said determinedly.

 

***

When they returned home, it was already morning. Harry closed the curtains with a wave of his wand and crawled into bed, trying to keep himself awake long enough to see what Tom was going to do. He didn’t have to wait long — very soon, Tom followed him into his bed, covering them both with a blanket. His eyes were surprisingly alert for someone who hadn’t gotten any sleep last night, but Harry had no strength to be bothered by it now. His mind kept flashing to the face of a woman who had taken the child from him, to her stern and unsmiling features. But the boy stopped wailing the moment she began to rock him, and that gave Harry hope. Maybe everything would be fine. It was for the better — Tom was right. He would have gotten attached even more with time, and there was no guarantee he’d be able to find him a good family.

Comforted by these thoughts, Harry finally let the darkness take him. When he woke up, the lights in the room became a little brighter. Tom was sitting next to him, staring at him, and there was something very strange about his expression.

“Have you slept even a little bit?” Harry muttered with a yawn. Tom shook his head before biting his lip in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture, and only now did Harry feel the floods of anxiety he was emanating.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, frowning. He thought they were over the worst already. What else could be possibly worrying Tom like this?

“Nothing,” Tom replied quickly. “I was just wondering if the system you suggested at summer is still relevant. The one with rewards and punishments.”

Oh. He’d completely forgotten.

“Yes,” Harry said. The irrational part of his mind rebelled against the idea of rewarding Tom in this particular case, but with an effort, he brought it to order.

Tom had done the right thing, no matter how much Harry disliked it. Instead of plotting, pretending, and acting behind his back, Tom was genuine and open about his feelings. He might have been selfish, but he proved his growth, he chose to trust him, and Harry couldn’t leave it unrewarded.

“Yes,” he said again, firmer this time. “It’s still relevant.”

Tom’s eyes flashed in triumph before even more anxiety filled them. He dug his fingers into his knees, lowering his gaze and half-shrugging, as if responding to his own unvoiced question.

Curiosity settled in, subduing the remaining pangs of bitterness. Harry sat up too, trying to catch Tom’s gaze.

“What is it?” he wondered. “Is there something specific you want to ask me for?”

“I do,” Tom finally looked at him. His eyes were burning brightly, and the first spots of colour on his cheeks chased away his usual paleness. His hands jerked awkwardly, like he wasn’t sure what to do with them, and when Harry raised a questioning eyebrow, Tom flushed even more.

“What?” Harry asked, leaning closer. He was smiling now, too amused and intrigued to stay serious. Whatever this wish was, it had to be something either deeply embarrassing or absolutely outrageous. Nothing else would turn his Tom into this blushing and awkward doppelganger.

“I want you to—” Tom’s gaze slid down Harry’s face, stopping there. His blush intensified — Harry could almost feel its heat. “I want you to—” Tom tried again, but the words still failed to come. Even his nose was red now, and following the impulse shaped by tenderness unfolding inside him, Harry brushed his own nose against it, smiling in simple joy from how warm it felt. When he pulled back, Tom’s eyes fluttered. It felt like he was struggling to keep them open, and when their looks finally met again, Tom’s was completely glazed over.

“Can’t decide?” Harry teased him. “I told you that you should get some sleep. What if you ask for something now and then change your mind after you wake up?”

“I won’t,” Tom kept staring at him. “I know what I want.”

“Well, then say it.”

But Tom didn’t. His lips moved, shaping the words and freezing before any sound escaped. There was almost a desperate glint to his eyes, a need so strong that the unease raised its head in Harry’s heart, putting a stop to the amusement he was feeling.

“Tom, what is it?” he uttered softly. “Tell me.”

Tom shook his head, and the despair faded, changing into resignation.

“Nothing,” he muttered. “I’ll leave the decision to you this time.”

“But—”

“I want you to surprise me. I’m curious as to what you could come up with.”

This was a very obvious lie, but after a brief hesitation and a fight with his protesting curiosity, Harry chose against pressing further. Tom would talk when he was ready to talk — no force in the world could make him speak when he didn’t want to.

“All right,” he agreed. “But I’ll need a few days to think about it.”

Tom nodded glumly before crawling closer and pushing him back down onto the pillow. When Harry succumbed, Tom dropped his head on his chest, wrapping an arm around his stomach possessively. Every Harry’s cell sang with warm pleasure under this touch, and a new rush of sleepy contentment hit him.

Being with Tom was worth every sacrifice. Tom might be selfish, cold, monstrous in the eyes of some people, but he was his. And Harry wouldn’t change it for anything.

 

***

 

It took him almost a week to come up with the reward. They returned to Hogwarts by that time, and Harry spent every free moment considering and discarding different options. He wanted the reward to be meaningful, capable of impressing Tom, but it was easier said than done.

On the sixth day, Harry thought of the Room of Requirement. After careful probing, he determined that Tom hadn’t discovered it yet, so he brought him to the seventh floor during dinner, stopping next to the familiar wall.

“And this is the reward?” Tom squinted suspiciously. “A wall?”

“It’s a special wall.”

“Looks the same as all other walls in the castle to me.”

“Patience,” Harry chided him. “I want you to concentrate. Think about what you need most at this moment. Visualise it, then walk three times past the wall.”

Tom’s look clearly suggested that he doubted Harry’s sanity, but with a long-suffering sigh, he stared ahead without blinking. Then he walked past the wall unhurriedly, and when the door appeared right in front of him, he stopped, gaping at it.

“Is that some secret passage?” he asked, making no move to touch the handle. His voice was guarded. “How did you know it was here? Where does it lead to?”

Harry just shrugged, knowing his lips were twitching in a traitorous smile. Leave it to Tom to be suspicious even as he was getting rewarded.

Tom finally reached for the handle, pulling at it carefully, and then they both froze, seeing the familiar room greet them.

“My bedroom?” Harry quirked an eyebrow, looking around in bemusement. Every little detail was preserved, even the garish statue of a lion Tom hated so much. “I thought it would be a throne room or something equally pretentious.”

“I’m not pretentious,” Tom grumbled, but his face was burning. He looked both fascinated and mortified. “You didn’t clarify, how was I to know what I should be thinking about?”

“So what did you think about?”

This time, Tom sent him an almost pitying look.

“About home,” he said finally. A strange feeling that had made a place for itself somewhere underneath Harry’s ribcage retreated, dimming the shadow of a distant, vague realisation. He smiled, touched, and closed the door behind them.

Tom could use this room for different purposes — with his thirst for knowledge and experiments, he would frequent it daily. Maybe it would never take the form of their house again, but the fact that it did so now sent a current of joy through Harry’s chest.

He was Tom’s home as much as Tom was his. He knew it wouldn’t last forever — it couldn’t, Tom would inevitably move on with time, but he was going to enjoy what he had for as long as it was possible.

 

***

 

Having to grade essays wasn’t something Harry was pleased to return to, but the practical side of his lessons filled him with almost childish enthusiasm. Seeing his students respond in kind was exciting, so he prepared each lesson diligently, including as many useful elements as he could think of. Now that he knew most students personally, he started to devise individual tasks for them.

They were smart — all of them, in their own way. But no one could compare to Tom, and Harry wasn’t sure if it was because of his brilliant mind, his intense desire to be the best in DADA class, or the simple fact of his existence. Whenever Tom was in the vicinity, Harry’s eyes were drawn to him. Tom was blinding in his radiance, and Harry was disturbingly aware that if given a chance, he’d spend all their lessons staring, catching every Tom’s movement, memorising every word he spoke.

Tomorrow would be a tough day. Harry had been trying to delay this moment for months, but his excuses to himself stopped working a while ago. Tom’s classmates had undergone enough preparation and tests, so it was time to introduce them to Patronus Charm.

Voldemort and most of his Death Eaters had been incapable of conjuring a Patronus. Dumbledore had several theories about that, and Harry wasn’t sure which one he believed. What he did believe was that Patronus required a powerful positive energy, a pure kind of it, and beings like Voldemort, soul-crippled and rotten, could never hope to experience it. The happiness he felt was a pale imitation of the real thing, and even if he had won the war, Harry was certain that it wouldn’t be enough to fuel this charm.       

Tom Riddle might have been able to use Patronus, but Harry doubted that he had enough truly happy memories to do it. His Tom, though… His soul was complete. It wasn’t pure any longer, not after Beth, but it didn’t mean it was corrupted beyond hope. There was still a chance that there was more light than darkness living in him, that his happiness was wholesome, and that Patronus would be just another spell he mastered.

But maybe not. Maybe Tom, with the circumstances of his birth, with his inability to feel like other people felt, couldn’t access magic this light. Maybe his happy memories were still a shadow, something incapable of forming a strong corporeal Patronus, an embodiment of light and love.

It wouldn’t make a difference for Harry. It might break his heart, but he wouldn’t let it tarnish his belief in Tom. Tom himself, on the other hand… The failure to cope with a spell could infuriate him. Worse, it could hurt him, instilling a certainty that he was flawed and only pushing him further onto the path Harry hoped he would never follow.   

Or perhaps he was exaggerating. He knew for a fact that only few students would be able to summon a corporeal Patronus, if any at all. If Tom failed, he really wouldn’t be the only one, so he’d have no reasons to think light magic was inaccessible to him alone.

No, he really was making it far too complex. The truth was much simpler: if Tom failed with the Patronus in front of everyone, he would be upset and discouraged, and Harry couldn’t stand the idea of it.

That’s why he sought Tom out in the evening and dragged him into his office, feeling guilty but grimly determined.

He would teach Tom everything he knew about this charm. It would give him a better foundation for succeeding in comparison to his classmates, so even if he never conjured a complete form of it, he’d still have an advantage. He’d still do better than many others.

It wasn’t fair, but the alternative was worse.

“What will we be doing?” Tom wondered, looking at him with unabashed curiosity.

“I’m going to start teaching fifth-years a difficult charm tomorrow,” Harry said. “But I wanted to practice it with you first.”

“Why?”

Harry hesitated, and Tom’s face tightened.

“Do you doubt you’ll be able to demonstrate it or do you doubt I’ll be able to excel in it?” he asked coolly.

“Neither,” Harry said. At Tom’s narrow-eyed stare, he shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “It’s an important and difficult charm. Hardly anyone is going to succeed at all, not even after ten or twenty tries, so I’ll have to spend a lot of time monitoring less capable students. I want to cover the basics with you in advance because I want to see you try it myself, and I won’t be able to pay proper attention to you tomorrow — I know you won’t make the mistakes others would.”

The tense lines on Tom’s face loosened, and the aggressive swirls in his magic fizzled out.

“All right,” he agreed. “What is this spell?”

“Have you heard about the Patronus Charm?”

Apprehension flickered in Tom’s gaze for a second before he masked it.

“Yes,” he said stiffly. “I already know the basics but I’ve never tried casting it before. I don’t believe it’s a necessary charm.”

“Oh, but it is,” Harry retorted. “You never know in which situation you might find yourself. Dementors aren’t attached to Azkaban indefinitely. What if you were attacked by one?”

“Dementors are drawn to emotional fools who experience vivid feelings,” Tom argued. “They wouldn’t target me deliberately, they’d always pick someone else if there was a choice.”

“Let’s imagine it’s true. What if they picked me?”

Shock and denial twisted Tom’s features. His breathing grew sharper, but he still tried to stand his ground.

“If you intend to teach me this charm, you must be capable of producing it. You wouldn’t need my help.”

“I could be incapacitated or taken aback. Or outnumbered.” The latter wouldn’t be a problem, but Tom didn’t need to know about it. His reservations about trying the Patronus and his irrational protectiveness would clash, and Harry was fairly sure he knew which would prevail.

As he’d expected, Tom didn’t hesitate long. A few seconds later, he raised his chin, a steely resolve darkening his eyes.

“Fine,” he said shortly. “Let’s do it. But I don’t know all the details.”

Harry swallowed the emerging smile. Tom wouldn’t appreciate seeing it.  

“Patronus is a guardian in a way,” he explained. “In most cases, it takes the form of an animal you have an affinity with, something that represents you. Sometimes it might mirror the person you have deep feelings for. For example, in basic terms, if your animal would typically be a snake but you are in love with a Gryffindor, your Patronus might be a lion — or vice versa.”

Tom’s eyes widened a fraction, but he said nothing, so Harry continued.

“My Patronus has always been a stag. It’s the Patronus my father had, and since I never had a chance to know him, my fantasies and my hopes about him were embodied in this image, in this kind of link between us. It’s the—” Harry cut himself off, noticing how Tom’s lips curled in a small but ugly snarl. “What?”

“Nothing,” Tom said, but the disgust in his voice belied his words. Puzzled, Harry tried to figure out the reason for it, but nothing came to his mind. What could Tom have against his father? Or was it the sentiment he was objecting to?

“I know that the charm is focused on memories,” Tom interrupted his thoughts, sounding calmer now. “So what should I imagine?”

“Anything that makes you truly happy,” Harry replied automatically. “Something that could make you smile just from thinking about it. It has to be a powerful memory, one that you know will stay forever with you. ”

“Can you show me?” Tom inclined his head, his eyes piercing. “I’ve never seen a Patronus before.”

“Of course.” Harry raised his wand, then paused.

So many years had passed since the last time he summoned his stag. What memory should he use now?

His parents. Sirius. Ron and Hermione.

The images flickered and dimmed. They felt like illusions, not like real memories. They didn’t bring the expected surge of confidence and joy, the belief that he could do anything, become anything to experience this overwhelming feeling of happiness again. 

Tom… Tom.

The mere whisper of this name breathed life into him. Harry’s magic rushed through the wand before he had a chance to say anything, and a million images shot through his mind, making every his cell sing in fulfilment.

Hugging Tom for the first time. Seeing his first genuine smile. Cooking together. Decorating their Christmas tree. Dancing. Sleeping in each other’s arms, the sensations of home, safety, comfort that came with it.

Yes, Tom. Tom was his source of light.

Contrary to all recommendations, Harry couldn’t concentrate on just one memory, but the storm of ebullience still whirled through him, charging him with the energy he needed.

Expecto Patronum,” he said clearly. A corporeal silver shape burst forward, brightening the entire room with its brilliance, and Harry felt so childishly happy from succeeding that it took him a moment to realise something.

This wasn’t a stag. For one thing, his Patronus wasn’t standing on the floor like it usually did — it was floating high in the air. More than that, it had wings now, and its neck had become much longer. It was…

It was a dragon. It was something as far from the stag as it could get.

The realisation knocked every shred of self-control right out of him, and Harry stared with his mouth agape as his thoughts scrambled, trying to re-arrange themselves into something that made sense again.

Maybe it was naïve to expect his Patronus to remain the same without evolving. He was a very different person from the boy he’d once been. But the stag had always been more than just a Patronus to him — it was a link to his father. A father he was never going to see again because their line had been interrupted with Charlus Potter’s murder.

Speechless, Harry continued to watch the new shape flying above, looking for the enemies that weren’t there.

“A dragon,” Tom said softly. With a start, Harry turned to him. Tom’s eyes were wide and fascinated, and the radiance from the Patronus seemed to make them lighter, giving him an almost innocent look. “Your Patronus is a dragon, not a stag. So it must have changed.”

Slowly, Tom shifted his gaze to him, and his entire face was alight with joy and delight so powerful, Harry felt rooted to a spot under their impact.

“It changed because of me,” Tom whispered. “You told me on my birthday that I remind you of dragons. So your emotions, your feelings took a shape of one. You love me.”

Despite a strange embarrassment burning through him, Harry laughed.

“How is that surprising to you?” he asked. “I have never denied loving you. Of course I do.”

“But it’s different,” Tom turned to stare at the dragon again. “It’s proof. Tangible proof.”

There were many things Harry could say to that, but he swallowed all the words down. If Tom was still insecure in any way… although how could he possibly be, after everything... then maybe having his Patronus change shapes was a good thing. And even though a part of Harry mourned the loss of one more link with his father, he couldn’t deny that he understood why it happened.

Tom was his life. It was no wonder that his magic reflected it.

“Your turn now,” Harry said a little hoarsely. Tom paid him no mind, his eyes glued to the dragon greedily. Taking a careful step forward, he held out his hand, and the creature reached for it curiously.

Harry allowed the moment to last and then he waved his wand again, almost reluctantly. The glow faded, but Tom kept looking at the spot when it had been floating. His magic felt soft and light, wrapping its tendrils around Harry lovingly. Harry had never felt anything like this before — he could always sense Tom’s power, a dangerous shift in the air whenever he experienced strong emotions, but this? This was like a blanket, warm and comforting, and if Harry could, he would have wrapped it around himself tighter.

Tom shook his head lightly, as if shaking off the daze, and then he raised his wand.

Expecto Patronum,” he commanded. Silver sparks shot up, bright but shapeless. Tom faltered, and the dizzying cocoon of his magic suddenly evaporated, with something darker coming in its place.

Expecto Patronum,” he tried again, but this time, even the sparks didn’t emerge. The room remained silent and cold.

Wordlessly, Harry approached, and his heart clenched at the guarded look Tom sent his way. 

“It’s all right,” he said firmly. “I don’t expect you to succeed right away or even at all. Like I said before, this charm is special. Even the most powerful wizards aren’t guaranteed to master it because it requires a combination of many different things. The circumstances—”

Expecto Patronum!” Tom growled, jerking his wand up. Nothing happened, and his knuckles whitened. Fury began to flow out of him in palpable waves, but before he could repeat the incantation again, Harry put his hands on his shoulders, pressing his lips to his ear.

“Stop,” he ordered quietly, and Tom froze, the tension in his rigid back receding. “You know how this charm works. It thrives on light and positivity. The angrier you get, the less chances of succeeding there are.”

“I wasn’t angry the first time,” Tom gritted out. “It still didn’t work.”

“You can’t expect it to work immediately. Choose a specific memory. Relax. Try to focus on it. Feel the happiness from it in every part of your mind, then try again.”

Tom straightened, gripping his wand tighter. The tension returned, so Harry clenched his shoulders harder, nuzzling his hair.

“Imagine that there are clouds above you,” he whispered. “Dark and heavy clouds. You are cold and you want to see the sun, but the clouds won’t let you. They are too thick, too grey. In this coldness, you’re slowly forgetting who you are. What would give you the power to summon the light? What would ground you, make you feel warm and happy again? What would make you hold on?”

Tom was silent for a long time, but gradually, Harry began to sense a shift in his magic. Its dark intensity wavered, replaced by lighter and calmer undertones, and suddenly, all air in the room seemed to evaporate, flowing into Tom and transforming into a powerful wall of pure energy.

Expecto Patronum,” he said, and this time, a wholesome radiant shape burst forward in one elegant swoop, stretching its wings wide.  

A dragon. The same as Harry had just conjured, from its narrow face to the powerful scaled wings.

For a moment, the sheer happiness of Tom succeeding made Harry light-headed, filling him with bone-deep bliss that coloured his vision sparkly white. He felt exhilarated. He felt capable of producing an army of Patronuses because Tom was right, this was tangible proof. Proof of Tom’s soul not being crippled. Proof of him being able to do the lightest form of magic there was.

When the awareness began to seep through, Harry’s attention shifted to the fact that he was seeing the exact copy of his own dragon. It was… strange, to say the least. His own Patronus was clearly tied to Tom. So Tom’s was tied to himself? Or…

The breath was suddenly knocked out of his chest. He inhaled deeply, shocked and not daring to believe it, but… it made sense. It made perfect sense.

Tom’s Patronus was anchored to Harry’s perception of him. He might protest and ridicule the values Harry had been trying to instil in him, but he still yearned to correspond to them, to be the person Harry wanted him to be. It was all there, in the silver and beautiful creature soaring above their heads, proud, loyal, and fierce, a reflection of everything Harry had hoped for.

Tom wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but he wanted to be perfect for him. It was the best gift Harry had ever received.

Unable to find any other outlet, his joy materialised through tears that suddenly flooded his eyes. Harry blinked and finally looked away from the dragon, finding Tom already staring at him.

“There were clouds above me,” he said expressionlessly. “In the orphanage. No sun. Only greyness. And then you came and took me away.”

A lump in his throat grew, thickened, and Harry found himself unable to comment. He took Tom into his arms instead, sagging when Tom immediately hugged him back.

“I love you,” Harry breathed out. “More than anything.”

As always, Tom said nothing in response, but his dragon was still fluttering nearby, expressing more than any words ever could.

 

***

 

The rest of the school year flew by quickly. Harry spent it in a strange giddy state, knowing he’s overestimating the impact of Tom conjuring the Patronus but incapable of stopping himself from feeling reckless with elation. Only one other student from Tom’s year had managed to produce a fully corporeal charm, and though it was wrong, this fact made him even more proud.

Tom’s behaviour was almost flawless. He still threw dark glances at students Harry paid close attention to, but other than that, there was nothing concerning or disturbing. In fact, Tom seemed to have doubled his efforts in forming close connections with all other students, and his influence appeared to be surprisingly positive. Maybe Harry was biased, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen all Houses this united. Tom was relentless in finding approach to everyone, and it was difficult to meet even one person who wouldn’t be charmed by him.

Not counting Dumbledore, obviously. Dumbledore who had called Harry into his office the day before the summer holidays started.

“You wanted to see me?” Harry asked, closing the door after himself. It was strange how even though Dumbledore wasn’t a headmaster yet, Harry still saw him as such. Some associations were impossible to change.

“I did. Please, take a seat,” Dumbledore pointed at the armchair. “It won’t take long.”

Harry nodded, but his wariness didn’t subside. His childish affection for Dumbledore was an inherent part of him — he knew it would never fade, but Tom was taking precedence in everything, and the fact that Dumbledore was suspicious of him meant that they couldn’t be on the same side. No matter how justified these suspicions were.

“Headmaster Dippet and I are both pleased with your performance,” Dumbledore said. “Your practical approach has certainly conquered the hearts of the students. Why, I believe this school hasn’t seen this much enthusiasm since the addition of Quidditch into curriculum.”

Harry smiled wanly, accepting the compliment but knowing this wasn’t why he was summoned in here. Dumbledore always started with light-hearted things before moving to subjects he actually wanted to discuss. This didn’t change in this time.

“I do have some concerns about your relationship with Mr. Slytherin,” he continued, and Harry tensed. “The reason why I invited you to teach here was my belief that you could provide a positive influence on him. He respects you and your high regard is undeniably his major motivation. But from what I’ve observed, you don’t treat him as a mentor. You treat him like an equal. Like a peer. It might have undesirable consequences.”

“With all respect,” Harry interrupted harshly, “I don’t see how my personal relationships are your business, professor. Unless you are accusing me of being unprofessional? I assure you that during lessons, I treat Tom like I do any other student.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Dumbledore uttered softly, his eyes glistening in a way that made Harry feel unbalanced. Like he was missing something. “You indulge him. You allow him to destroy the boundaries — the vital boundaries, and you yourself seem keen to destroy them. As a consequence, he doesn’t see you as his guardian.”

More subtlety and hints that never went anywhere. How was Dumbledore a Gryffindor?

“Like I said,” Harry repeated icily, “my personal relationships aren’t your business. Tom and I know where we stand with each other. It’s all that matters.”

“I certainly hope that you do,” Dumbledore studied him without smile. “Although I doubt it.”

His temper flared up, and Harry had to fight the hot-headed impulse to jump to his feet and storm out.

“Why are you so focused on Tom?” he demanded instead. “What did he do to attract this kind of scrutiny from you? I know your first meeting didn’t go well — that’s my fault. But surely you can see how much he’s changed. I’ve been watching him all this year and I can see that he’s making positive changes here. So what exactly worries you?”

“I’ve already told you,” Dumbledore sighed, leaning against the back of his chair. “You underestimate the potential influence of your relationship on the lives of others. But I can see it’s too early to discuss it with you. Too early and yet too late. I apologize for taking your time.”

Fuming, Harry stood up. Few people managed to rile him up like Dumbledore — and for what? He still had no idea what he even wanted to say.

“A beautiful ring,” Dumbledore noted, and Harry stopped, turning to face him again.

“Thank you,” he said coolly. “Tom gave it to me.”

“I see,” Dumbledore’s gaze lingered on the roaring lion. “A symbol of Gryffindor?”

“This is the House I relate to most.” No reply followed, so Harry turned away again. “Have a good day.”

His heart felt heavy, but irritation was also buzzing under his skin, soaking it with bitterness and resentment.

He just wanted to be at peace with everyone — Tom, Dumbledore, even Rivers. But fate seemed to have other plans, and it was becoming increasingly frustrating. 

At least he could have a good summer with no one but Tom.

 

***

 

June and July were gone in a blink. Nothing out of ordinary happened — he and Tom still took trips to find rare ingredients, cooked, spent evenings reading or watching films, or travelled to the key places of the wizarding world, sometimes leaving bewildered, unable to relate to what some communities classified as entertainment, sometimes excited. The only deviation from their normal summers was the frequency of their visits to the shops.

Tom seemed to develop an even more intense interest in clothes. He always fussed about how he looked and which clothes he wore, but this summer, his obsession increased to an almost concerning extent. More than that, he was focusing on Muggle shops too now.

“Does it suit me?” Tom asked, twisting around. Harry supressed a sigh.

“Looks like the same ten pairs of trousers you’ve already tried,” he grumbled, and Tom’s jaw clenched.

“This pair has pleats.”

“Who cares about pleats?” If they weren’t being watched by shop assistant, Harry would have banged his head against the wall in frustration. “Trousers are trousers! They just are.”

For whatever reason, Tom seemed equally frustrated with him.

“What about the cuffs?” he asked stiffly. “Do you like them better?”

“The what?”

Tom’s lips tightened. Without saying a word, he stormed off — probably to try the twelfth pair, and honestly, what was wrong with him? He knew Harry wasn’t an expert on clothing, why would he suddenly become so interested in his opinion?

Other than that, Tom seemed… quieter. They bantered less and less, with Tom choosing to just sit and watch him instead. Harry didn’t mind, not as long as they remained in the vicinity of each other, but sometimes, he couldn’t help but feel concerned. Something was going on, but Tom didn’t seem willing to share it.

On his birthday, Tom unexpectedly gave him a book titled Obliviate: Nuances and Ways of Usage. At Harry’s questioning look, he shrugged.

“It’s a rare book and a relatively unexplored charm,” he said tranquilly. “I thought you might be interested in learning more about it.”

This non-answer didn’t clarify anything, and Harry wasn’t stupid enough to think that such gift had no deeper meaning. Tom never did simple things, he always built long and intricate schemas. The problem was, Harry couldn’t figure them out.

Was it a hint? Had Tom erased his memory at some point? Doubtful. Harry wasn’t this oblivious. So what else could it mean?

Obsessing over it was senseless because he’d never get anywhere, so in the end, Harry accepted the gift with thanks. He started reading the book the same night, feeling Tom’s intent gaze on himself throughout.

In August, they went for an extended vacation to a small Muggle island untouched by the war. Ridiculously, most of their suitcases were filled with Tom’s clothes — Harry’s thoughtless, ‘I like you in green’ resulted in the appearance of an entirely new wardrobe in all possible and impossible shades of this colour. Considering the fact that he and Tom spent most of their days on the beach, it was even more absurd, but Tom clearly didn’t think so. He stubbornly changed clothes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, even if he ended up wearing them for about an hour in total.

“Are you planning on becoming a model?” Harry wondered, barely keeping his lips from trembling in the suicidal urge to burst in laugher. Tom shot him a sour glance.

“Every person should strive to look their best,” he replied curtly.

“Even when there is no one around to see it?”

“Well, you are here, aren’t you? You see it.”

Slowly, Harry’s smile faded. A strange feeling settled somewhere deep in his bones, a combination of unease, worry, and longing.

Tom sounded upset. All this time, Harry was convinced that he was undergoing some inner crisis and compensating for it by playing in a prince, collecting clothes like some did stamps, but maybe something more serious was happening. Maybe Tom genuinely needed reassurance.

He caught Tom by his hand, drawing him closer, noting how his eyes widened.

“You always look beautiful to me,” Harry said quietly. “And the diversity of your wardrobe doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

Tom’s breathing stuttered to a stop. For a moment, there was nothing but silence between them, full of piercing, unexplainable tension. Harry’s head felt surprisingly light, and he thought he saw the same strange daze in Tom’s eyes. But before he could understand it, Apophis flew into the room, crashing into shelf and letting out a displeased sound. Then he stared at them, and Harry frowned.

“What’s wrong with your bird?” he asked. “He’s been acting strange lately.”

Tom didn’t reply, watching him with an inscrutable gaze. A chill travelled down Harry’s spine, and he licked his lips, suddenly feeling ignorant and out of place.    

He was right. Something was happening. Tom was doing something… But what?

 

That night, Harry waited for Tom to fall asleep before reaching above him and snatching the book he’d been reading from the bedside table. His fingers felt clumsy, but he managed to hold it still, examining the title.

Life Magic. Short and vague.

He didn’t know what section Tom was reading, exactly, there was no bookmark, and the list of contents had so many options that Harry couldn’t begin to understand what had drawn his attention. It seemed like every topic related to life was covered here, from ways to increase fertility to unbreakable bonding and theories about necromancy. Nothing immediately suspicious — unless Tom had taken Rivers’ accusations seriously and was now exploring the opportunity of Harry being a necromancer.

This was too laughable to be true, so with a snort, Harry returned the book to its place and pulled a blanket over himself and Tom. Tom didn’t shift, and for a while, Harry watched him, studying every line on his face, as if he hadn’t committed them all to memory already.

All his doubts retreated in moments like this. Being together with Tom, in the world where only the two of them existed, brought a sense of calmness and rightness with it. Right now, he didn’t need Hogwarts or even the familiar faces of people he cared about — he was more than happy to live in the present, to stay frozen in it for years, maybe decades to come.

Tom was changing for the better, Harry could feel it. He couldn’t accept the victims this change had brought, it was too painful to dwell on it in any way, but at least it had some positive consequences, too. Tom had dropped the masks and was trusting him with his genuine feelings, no matter how terrifying they were at times.

And he was capable of producing a Patronus. Harry’s heart still sang with joy at the memory of it, at the implications it had. Because if Tom had an affinity for such light magic and his Patronus was a reflection of what Harry saw in him, then he couldn’t have the same darkness that had tainted Voldemort.

He’d made a mistake once, but he wasn’t going to repeat it. He wouldn’t let Tom fall again.

Pushing himself closer, Harry clenched Tom’s hand in his and closed his eyes.    

At some point, on the verge of falling asleep, something caused him to glance up.

Apophis was sitting on the windowsill, looking at them. Again.

It seemed he was doing this more and more lately. Sometimes it felt like it was stalking him — or rather, him and Tom together because Harry couldn’t recall the last time he saw the bird without Tom around.

Strange.

A little unnerved, he closed his eyes again, putting his free hand around Tom in a protective grip.

Then he was asleep.

 

***

 

They spent the entire August on the beach, soaking in the sun and enjoying the fact that almost no other people were around. Tom didn’t seem averse to playing childish games when there were no witnesses around, so their days started and ended with laughter until their voices began to grow hoarse from it.

Returning to Hogwarts felt jarring because of the loudness and incessant activity taking place, but a few days later, Harry adapted anew. Rivers was surprisingly absent, but he didn’t risk asking where he had gone, not wanting to jinx it.

On Thursday, Harry didn’t have the first lesson, so he allowed himself to laze around in bed, opting to ask the house-elves to bring breakfast here. He was about to finally get up when the door slammed open, and a familiar cloud of agitated magic filled his rooms. A moment later, Tom burst inside, looking so lost that Harry immediately sat up.

“What happened?” he demanded. Tom’s first lesson was Potions — did someone get hurt? Although it was doubtful Tom would be bothered by it if they had.

Tom stilled, blinking at him, before pushing his hands behind his back.

“I wanted to ask you something,” he said. His voice was even, a sharp contrast with his magic that was still going haywire. “Do you know anything about Amortentia?”

“Is that a scientific interest?” Harry arched an eyebrow, his concerns evaporating. Tom had occasional flares of study-related anxiety, convincing himself he didn’t understand something he was supposed to. It was flattering that he came to Harry for answers, but in most cases, it turned out to be futile. 

“Yes,” Tom replied after a pause.

“Is there anything specific you’d like to know? Because I assume you’ve already read about it in your Potions book.”

“The information there doesn’t seem to be complete,” Tom looked away for a second. “It says that the scent of the potion is multi-faceted. That it varies in accordance with what a person likes, which makes the combination entirely unique.”

“And so?” Harry finally crawled out of bed, studying the clothes he’d dropped on the floor the previous night. Would it be okay to put them on again? It’s not like anyone would see them under the robe. That was, if he chose to wear the robe today — he didn’t obey limitations if there was a way to avoid them.

The silence dragged on, so Harry turned to check if Tom was still here. He was. His initial gravity seemed to falter, and now he was looking flushed and confused, his eyes a shade darker than they had been a minute ago.

Harry thought the end of the summer cured Tom of his internal crisis, whatever had been causing it — the fact that he didn’t request a new wardrobe exclusively for Hogwarts was a good sign, but it seemed he was wrong. Tom was still alternating between different moods, and this lost look would have been amusing if it didn’t emerge so often lately.

“What is it?” Harry asked more softly, putting on a crumpled shirt and straightening it carefully. “What about Amortentia?”

“What if—” Tom hesitated. Then a determined expression overtook his face, wiping all traces of uncertainty away. “What if the scent isn’t multi-faceted? What if it smells of just one thing?”

A spark of rare academic interest ran through him, and Harry hummed, trying to think of an answer.

Like Tom had said, what made Amortentia unique was the combination of smells an individual found most attractive. For it to smell like one thing… this didn’t seem possible. Why would it? Every person had various interests and multiple things they found desirable. Surely there had to be more than one smell.

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted. “I don’t see how it could be possible. Is it hypothetical or did it actually happen?”

For Tom to react this strongly, he had to be motivated by a personal interest. Either he was having problems with a theory he was trying to prove… or he sensed such scent himself during today’s lesson.

His stomach suddenly churned in dread, and Harry didn’t know why.

“It’s hypothetical,” Tom said at last, but the pause had been too long, too unsure. The churning intensified, and Harry tried to twist his lips in a smile.

“Of course,” he said, his voice subdued. He had to put trousers on now, but his hands felt listless, refusing to obey. “If someone gets only one scent, I imagine that whatever they smell, it has to have a very powerful impact on this person. Something so strong that it subdues all other things they find attractive. And since Amortentia has a romantic nature, I imagine this scent has to be rooted in it — it must be something that stirs romantic thoughts, feelings, or associations in you.”

Tom was silent again, and the more it lasted, the harder Harry’s heart clenched.

He wasn’t sure what Tom’s potion could smell like. For it to have only one scent… If this was something other than Amortentia, Harry would have thought of himself, but Amortentia set a romantic direction, so this wasn’t about him. It couldn’t be.

Still without saying a word, Tom walked out of his rooms, and for the first time, Harry didn’t feel like stopping him.

Tom’s behaviour for the last couple of months… could he be in love? Was this what his insistent attempts to look his best were about? 

Dumbledore always implied that Tom Riddle was incapable of something like romantic sentiments, but his Tom was different, wasn’t he? If he could produce a Patronus, he could certainly fall in love.

Disturbed at how unsettled this thought made him feel, Harry continued to dress, although his thoughts were scattered.

Tom, in love.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.

 

***

 

He and Tom didn’t talk again for the next several days, and the loss felt sharp against Harry’s heart.

Tom used to seek him out. Apart from lessons and meals, they always had at least several private encounters every day. Maybe the problem was in the increased responsibility — Tom was a prefect now, something Harry still glowed about. Tom had received his badge back at summer, and Harry even took him to a ridiculously expensive restaurant for celebration. But regardless of the reason, the absence of their routine carried an almost physical weight, distracting him from his job and sharpening his focus on Tom to an even larger extent. That was why he immediately noticed the change among Tom’s inner circle.

Before, Tom had treated Lestrange with condescending indulgence. Now, he seemed to genuinely enjoy his company, listening to him with an expression of avid interest and even rewarding him with occasional smiles.

Harry didn’t like it. He liked the implications of this change even less.

Could it be Lestrange whose scent Tom had sensed? It didn’t seem likely. Hadn’t Tom been planning to carelessly murder him less than two years ago just to make Harry come to Hogwarts?

But Tom had changed since then. Despite their closeness, they didn’t spend 24/7 together, so who knew what went on in the Slytherin Common Room?  

His stomach felt full of roiling, biting insects, and the more Tom ignored him, the worse this feeling got.

When Harry caught himself raising his voice at Lestrange for an innocent mistake he would have ignored otherwise, he stopped, sickened and ashamed of himself.

What was he doing? This wasn’t normal. If Dumbledore knew about it, he would have fired him on spot, rightfully so.

Automatically, Harry’s eyes went to Tom, and he froze.

Tom was staring right back, with a small, cold smile on his face. His gaze was sharp and assessing, and Harry knew he didn’t imagine the satisfaction there.

Even sicker now, he returned to his table, trying not to look back.

Tom was goading him. Tom was trying to provoke him. Was it revenge for something? Tom’s mind could work in the strangest ways at times, he could take offense at the things Harry would never imagine to be offensive. One thing was clear, though — Lestrange was just a pawn… Probably. Whatever game Tom was playing, it was between them again, even if Harry didn’t know the rules yet.

The fact that a huge part of him went boneless with relief at this was the final straw. This bewildering thing was getting out of control, and he was slipping like a teenager would.

Let Tom play his games and get this newest viciousness out of his system. Tom wanted to ignore him? Fine, Harry would gladly obey his wishes. Out of the two of them, Tom was the one who lacked patience, and he would lose this fight first. He should have never started it in the first place. And for what? That was the part Harry couldn’t comprehend. Everything had been perfect up until they returned to Hogwarts. 

Forcefully shutting these thoughts out, he focused on the lesson again.

This same day, Myrtle approached him, pushing her glasses up her nose nervously and clenching a book in her hands. Involuntarily, Harry smiled. Seeing her alive was as thrilling as seeing a teenage Hagrid wrestling with the beasts he kept smuggling in from the forest, as seeing a young version of McGonagall scolding those breaking the curfew and then sneaking out of the Gryffindor Common Room herself.

They were all his. He knew having a soft spot for some students over others wasn’t a good idea, but this wasn’t something he could fight against. Tom might have consumed him entirely, but it didn’t mean seeing others didn’t make his days brighter as well.

“Can I help you?” he asked. Myrtle shifted, pouting. She wasn’t the most tolerable person to be around, but Harry was willing to ignore all that in favour of simply seeing her alive and well.

“I was wondering if you could help me with a Patronus Charm,” she muttered. “I’m sure I’m doing everything right, but it’s just not working.”

Harry suppressed a sigh. He doubted Myrtle would be able to succeed any time soon — she was smart, yet she lacked confidence about everything, including the happiness of her memories. But he also knew he wouldn’t be able to deny her.

“Sure,” he said aloud. “Come to my office around seven today. We’ll try again.”

Myrtle blushed, ducking her head and muttering her thanks. Harry watched her go, and when he turned, he stumbled across Tom’s emotionless gaze. Tom was standing at the other end of the corridor, doing nothing, just watching him. The distance between them had never felt as acute as it did now, and what infuriated Harry most was that he couldn’t understand the cause of it.

What did I do?’ he wanted to shout. ‘What did I do for you to act like this?

Tom continued to be silent. Fed up with it, Harry disappeared back into his office, slamming the door shut.

 

***

 

Myrtle didn’t come at seven. Slightly annoyed, Harry was getting ready to leave when a silver shape slid inside, curling its wings around him possessively.

“Come to the Room of Requirement,” Tom’s cold voice announced. “Don’t wait long.”

Tom had never used this little communication trick before, not after Harry had taught it to him. The Patronus faded, but the tension its emergence had brought remained.

What did Tom want now? Did he finally deign to talk to him and explain what was going on? Harry was tempted to ignore the message, he really was, but the taut feeling in the pit of his stomach didn’t let him. Reluctantly, he locked his office and went to the seventh floor.

Tom met him at the door, looking composed and flawless, maybe only a little paler than normal.

“Inside,” he said shortly. Warily, Harry walked into the room, and then his blood rushed to his head, turning to ice on its way up.

Myrtle was lying on the floor, her head smashed, with a small pool of blood spreading underneath.

Paralysed by horror, Harry didn’t immediately understand that she was still breathing, and when he did, a powerful rush of relief nearly knocked him off his feet. Letting out a shaky breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, Harry rushed to her, removing the blood to get better access to her wound. He couldn’t tell how serious it was, and while in any other situation, he would brought her to the hospital wing immediately, now… now…

Balling his trembling fingers into fists, Harry raised his head, glaring at Tom.

“What did you do?” he hissed. “What is this?”

“Do you want the details?” the corner of Tom’s lips quirked up. He looked bored, but Harry could sense the turmoil in him, rising and flaring and shattering into thousands pieces before reassembling itself. “I pushed her down the stairs. I wanted to kill her, but I changed my mind even before she landed, so then I tried to save her. She still hit her head, though.”

Disgust and fury shot up through him, blackening the world around him for a moment. Harry gripped his wand, feeling his magic pulse in him, trying to break out and get to Tom — to punish him, to make him regret what he’d done… or maybe to protect him from the possible consequences. He didn’t know, and this made nausea stir up, threatening to undo all his attempts at self-control.

“Why?” he spat out. He had seen Tom approaching the breaking point with the Muggle boy they had saved, but this? This was unmotivated. This was completely out of blue, and Harry could sense several threads holding his sanity together snapping broken.   

His key to controlling and changing Tom lied in understanding. And if he couldn’t understand him… if he couldn’t predict and counter his actions…

“She was saying disgusting things about you to her friends,” Tom twirled his own wand in his fingers, portraying a picture of utter disinterest. “Did you really think she wanted to improve her performance? Please. She wanted to stay alone with you. This girl has a very dirty mind.”

“Stop this,” Harry shook his head, his heart pounding somewhere in his throat. Jealousy. So jealousy was the motive? He could understand it. This was something he had already dealt with time and time again. But…

“Why?” he asked again. “Even if it’s true, you had to realise it wouldn’t go anywhere. She’s my student. I’d never take advantage of that.”

Tom’s expression darkened, betraying the first visibly genuine emotion.

“Don’t I know that?” he drawled. “Of course you wouldn’t. Your moral principles and all that boring nonsense. Then again, you wouldn’t recognise attraction if it smashed your head open.”

The analogy sent chills travelling to the farthest parts of his body, and Harry shivered.

“I take it that our deal and my safety no longer concern you,” he concluded quietly. Tom stiffened.

“On the contrary,” he said bitingly. “Our deal is the only reason why I tried to save her. I didn’t kill her, no matter how much she deserved it for saying those things. So technically, I fulfilled your requirements because I stopped despite being tempted. I won’t ask for a reward in this case, you refraining from your suicidal tendencies would be more than enough.”

Harry bit his tongue until he tasted blood, trying to keep himself from screaming. Myrtle moaned, and he focused on her again.

“I’ll take her to the hospital wing,” he said, his words unsteady. “Go to your common room. I don’t want to see you.”

“Of course,” Tom smiled, but his smile was cruel. Challenging. It reminded Harry of Tom Riddle as he had been in the Chamber of Secrets, and his heart sank. “But I think there is something you should know first. She knows I was the one to push her. She saw me when I began to slow her fall. So you can bring her to the hospital wing and let her speak or you can Obliviate her first. It’s your decision.”

If Harry thought he had been cold before, it was nothing in comparison to the ice that slithered through his bones now. His lungs froze, unable to perform their primary function, and he nearly collapsed when the full implication of Tom’s words hit him.

Obliviate. That book Tom had given him for this birthday, the one Harry felt obligated to read because it was a gift. But Tom hadn’t known about Myrtle then — today was spontaneous. Which meant…

“You have been planning something like this from the start?” a choked, bitter laugh tore from Harry’s chest, rattling it. “Were you preparing a test for me? To see how far I can be pushed?”

Tom tilted his head, observing him silently. Harry couldn’t read his expression, couldn’t read anything beyond the blankness.

“Are you ever satisfied?” he hissed. His magic finally snapped, uncoiling under the force of his adrenaline, and angry sparks shot up from the tip of his wand. “I am always on your side. I keep protecting you against Dumbledore’s suspicions. I accepted the fact that you murdered a person, someone I cared about — I gave up everything for you, including my ‘moral principles and all that boring nonsense’, and it’s still not enough! What else do you want from me? How else can I prove that I love you — will you want me to murder someone for you next time? Because I won’t. My patience has limits, Tom, and if you push hard enough, you won’t like the consequences.”

“Are you threatening me?” Tom’s voice was curious, but it had a dark edge that Harry hated with all his heart. So it was a test. Another one. And it seemed like they would never stop. Tom would never stop upping the stakes, testing his boundaries, and so they were condemned to repeat this cycle over and over again.

“I know what to threaten you with,” Harry replied. The blinding fury began to fade, moulding into a bitter sense of defeat. “You know that I know it. I won’t be your experiment. If you ever treat me like one again, I will leave, and trust me when I say that you will never find me.”  

The amusement, fake or genuine, slid down Tom’s face like a mask. His eyes hardened and he changed his grip on his wand, as if preparing to keep him hostage if needed.

“You promised you would never leave me,” he said dangerously, but Harry paid the deadly tone no mind.

“You promised you would try,” he countered. “This,” he looked at Myrtle, “this is not trying, Tom. This is you trying to manipulate me. And if you ever do it again, I won’t bother with the rewards and punishments system. I will simply remove myself from your life as if I’ve never been a part of it in the first place. Do you understand?”

Tom’s nostrils flared, and his composure seemed to finally shatter. Dark and stifling magic whirled around Harry, threatening but not quite touching him. Tom’s chest was rising and falling with increased speed, and the cornered, wild look in his eyes betrayed every panicked emotion he was feeling.   

Disgusted, Harry looked at Myrtle and pointed his wand at her.

Rennervate,” he uttered. Her eyes flew wide open, but before she could say a word, Harry added, “Obliviate.”

Before Tom’s book, he would have been incapable of erasing a specific memory so confidently. But he read it, he learned from it, and now he knew more about this charm than any average wizard. What a perfect accomplice he was — just the way Tom wanted to see him.

“I will bring her to the hospital wing,” Harry repeated icily. “And you… get out of my sight.” 

The storm of Tom’s magic quietened down the moment Harry had used the spell. He looked more human again, more like his Tom, and even as Harry’s mind cringed away from what had happened, his heart twitched in longing.   

…No. Not this time.

Tom took a hesitant step towards him before stopping. A shadow crossed his face, and when it was gone, his features grew smooth and even again.

Then he turned around and left. Harry waited for several more minutes, and as they passed, he lifted a newly unconscious Myrtle off the floor, carrying her towards the hospital wing.

One more crime he committed for Tom’s sake. But it would be the last one. He wouldn’t betray himself again.

He wanted to believe he wouldn’t. He had to.

 

***

 

Myrtle was going to make a complete recovery. She didn’t remember anything about the incident, and the tight anxious knot in Harry’s chest loosened only after she confirmed it.

Tom was safe this time. Again.

The relief he felt was promptly replaced with self-disgust.

Tom was spinning out of control. Something had to happen for him to relapse like this, to blow hot and cold without any explanation. They had been making progress, but now Harry was at a loss, and his confusion and turmoil kept getting heated until they reached the boiling point.

They had to talk. Calmly and carefully. Tom might try to slither his way out of questions, but Harry knew which buttons to push.

He was the one to send a Patronus this time, asking Tom to meet him in the same place. He suspected that the Room of Requirement would always be tainted by the ugly memories now, but there was nowhere else they could have this discussion securely.

In the evening, Harry turned to Occlumency, trying to calm his mind enough for both of them to survive their meeting. Then he walked to the seventh floor.

Tom was already inside, his face blank and unreadable. That was probably to be expected, but the room itself looked strange. For some reason, it reminded him of the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry stiffened, slightly alarmed.

“Hi,” he said carefully. “Why is—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence because Tom suddenly pointed his wand at him.

Imperio,” he commanded. A comforting floating sensation instantly wiped away all his worries, and Harry swayed, feeling wonderfully light. His fears seemed ages away, but the sweet relief lasted only for a second. Then his mind was pushing back furiously, tearing through the artificial fog, and the awareness flooded back in, bringing an even stronger sense of agitation with it.

Tom had… Tom had tried to use the Imperius Curse against him. In Hogwarts. To compel him to do… what?

Tom lowered his wand, and Harry had to struggle to keep his features relaxed. His heart was slamming wildly against his ribcage, his hands and his legs trembling, but he forced himself to stand still, waiting to hear what Tom wanted. Waiting and dreading it.

At least Tom didn’t look emotionless now. A myriad of feelings was going through his face, from fear to eagerness to wonder — Harry hadn’t witnessed such openness in him for what felt like years now.

Tom cleared his throat in a very uncharacteristic expression of hesitancy, and then he whispered, “Kiss me.”

Harry froze. The shock and disbelief hit him with the force that felt staggering, and he barely managed to keep his features still, to conceal the feelings that were itching to plaster themselves across his face.

“Kiss me,” Tom repeated, his voice hoarse, and Harry realised he couldn’t do nothing for much longer. Slowly, buying himself time, he moved towards Tom, frantically trying to bring his thoughts to order. Something was swelling, burning, hissing under his skin, clogging his throat and his chest, exploding in his stomach.

Stupor. Denial. Shock. And something less prominent, almost foreign, that felt a little like elation.

It had been his smell in Tom’s Amortentia. He was still Tom’s focus. Nothing changed.

But then these strange dark thoughts were pushed down by a stronger current of incredulity, and Harry stopped next to Tom, unable to comprehend that this was truly happening.

Tom looked flustered and excited. His pupils were blown wide, his cheeks burning scarlet, and his eyes were glistening with such raw anticipation that Harry found it hard to remain unaffected.

Tom’s lips parted at his proximity, probably expecting to be kissed, and Harry leaned closer.

“What the hell are you doing?” he breathed out right into those waiting lips, his words steely. Tom blinked, looking dazed, still too far gone in his expectations, but when no kiss followed, the first sparks of awareness began to flicker in his gaze.

Harry saw the exact moment the realisation crashed because Tom suddenly took a panicked, stumbling step back. His blush paled before flaring even brighter, only this time, it screamed of mortification, not desire.

“I… but how…” Tom backed away, gasping. “It’s not… I didn’t mean to—”

He was obviously unable to formulate a coherent sentence. Harry still waited, numb with astonishment yet determined, but Tom didn’t try to say anything again. Instead, he gave him the last half-horrified look before turning and fleeing, not even bothering to shut the door close.

Harry stared after him as his thoughts finally began to re-arrange themselves, slowly swirling into a complete, clear picture.

A part of him felt stunned. A part of him felt like it’d always known.

What was he supposed to do with it?

Chapter Text

Seconds bled into minutes; minutes accumulated, forming oppressive clusters. Harry remained rooted to the floor, and every time he tried to take a step, a rush of panic shot up through him, filling his legs with lead.

It felt like his world had changed irrevocably, in such a profound, earth-shattering way that it had to affect every other person out there. In the sombre half-darkness of this fake room, such outcome seemed like an inevitability, but Harry suspected that the illusion would fall apart once he stepped out and entered the real world. There, his last desperate attempt at denial would shrivel to nothing because the truth would be mercilessly loud: people stayed the same. It’s Tom who had gone mad, and it’s Harry who he decided to drag down with him.

The words “Imperio” and “kiss me” were still ringing in his ears, and no matter how much time passed, their impact stayed just as staggering. Finally fed up with his stupor, Harry forced himself to move. His legs fought his intentions, but he kept walking until he reached the door, and then Hogwarts’ familiar lights met him, washing away some of the numbness.

The corridors were empty. Most students must have gone to bed already, but some teachers could decide to take a walk, so Harry quickened his pace, hoping to lock himself in his room before anyone saw him. He didn’t know what he looked like at this specific moment, but considering the conflicting emotions that stirred under the icy surface of his shock, it couldn’t be good. There were so many questions he had to ask — he was in no state to deflect the inquiries of other people, people who would never understand him.

If he told them everything… If he shared the compromise he had imposed on Tom, the anguish and horror he had to live with each time Tom stepped close to violating it (each time he did nothing in response)… If he talked about Imperio and the would-be kiss, about his own astonishment coupled with a complete lack of surprise, about the small, ugly happiness that was roiling somewhere in the depth of his mind…

They’d think he was mad. As mad as Tom. 

No one could understand. And so no one could ever know.

Feeling a thousand years old, Harry finally entered his room. He walked to his bed without stopping, planning to fall onto it without bothering to disrobe, but at this moment, his survival instincts suddenly blared in alarm.

Something was wrong. Someone else was in the room with him.

He spun around, his wand at the ready, already knowing what he was going to see. Tom was standing a few steps away from him, with his own wand raised and the words of the spell already rolling off his tongue.

Obliviate,” he whispered. There was no time for Expelliarmus or any other spell — for anything magical Harry could protect himself with. The greenish light flew at him, and he ducked even before his panicked mind fully comprehended what was happening. Swirling once, he jumped up from his crouch and knocked Tom’s wand out of his hand violently, sending it flying to the other side of the room.

Tom’s mouth fell open in surprise. Before he could recover, Harry grabbed him by his collar and thrust him against the wall, grimly satisfied with the gasp this elicited. For a moment, they both stared at each other, with only their panting breaking the silence.

“How dare you?” Harry hissed finally. His voice was rough from disuse. “Was Imperio not bad enough for you? Did you decide to dig an even deeper grave for yourself? For the trust I gave you!”

A familiar humiliated flush stained Tom’s cheeks, and then, unexpectedly, he began to struggle. Harry could predict his slippery movements with absolute clarity — first he would try to break free, then he would dash for his wand and try the same spell. Unacceptable.

Tightening his grip around Tom’s collar, Harry jerked him forward and pushed him again, this time towards the bed. As Tom stumbled, he dived for the wand, picking it up and sticking it behind his belt with a spell. He wasn’t taking any chances, not when Tom had proven how far he was willing to go today.

With this settled, Harry faced him once more. Tom was motionless, simply watching him, his face still flushed with anger and embarrassment.

“What were you th—” Harry started, but the next moment, Tom lunged at him again. Harry braced himself for the impact, expecting a blow or an attempt to pull the enchanted wand free, but instead, Tom threw his hands around his neck and crushed their lips together. 

All thoughts died before they emerged. Harry froze, too stunned to react, and Tom used it to his advantage, yanking him closer and pressing against his lips with even greater urgency, inhaling him rather than kissing him. His movements were awkward but eager, and uncharacteristically, surprisingly gentle now that he got what he wanted. Every point of collision felt like a caress, and Harry nearly lost himself to this strange and overwhelming closeness when a tip of Tom’s tongue brushed against his lower lip, startling him enough to break free.

Gasping, he backed away, feeling like his heart was about to jump from his chest. Tom didn’t look regretful. He was flushed again, but this time, it had nothing to do with shame. His eyes were glazed over; a small, blissful smile was playing on his lips, and his anger seemed to have evaporated without a trace. Unsteadily, he took two steps back and dropped on the bed, not looking away for a second.

Shakily, Harry followed his example and sat right on the floor, leaning his back against the wall. For a while, he couldn’t speak, too caught up in the range of disturbing feelings whirling in his chest.

He was upset. Astonished. Furious. Sad. Guilty. But he wasn’t horrified, not like he had expected to be.

Tom’s kiss had felt strange, but not unnatural. And that, in itself, was horrifying.

“When I took you from the orphanage, one of the first things I told you is that you can’t take things by force,” he said quietly. Tom blinked, the first flickers of recognition flashing in his eyes. “I told you that you have to work for them. To ask for them. To earn them. This? This is not how you get someone to kiss you.”

Tom sneered, and the remnants of pleasure on his face twisted into contempt.

“I tried to earn it,” he growled. “I tried to ask for it in every possible way, but you never responded.”

Another flare of shock made Harry’s jaw drop open.

“You tried to ask for it in every possible way?” he repeated incredulously. “Right. In every way except for using actual words!”

“You would have denied me. And not because you genuinely felt like this, but because you are either an oblivious fool or a liar!” Tom balled his fists, and just like that, the rage was back. “You wanted it! I know you did. You showed all signs of attraction — you passed every test I devised!”

“What tests?” Harry asked faintly. Tom had been working on trying to gauge the level of his attraction? This was madness. Complete, inexcusable madness.

“I created a spell,” Tom raised his chin defiantly. “It’s rooted in Muggle Chemistry and Potion-Making. When applied, it makes an object highly sensitive to chemicals and hormones produced by a person experiencing romantic attraction. I used it on Apophis — I wanted him to follow you to understand if you are interested in anyone. And the only times he reacted was when you were with me!”

Harry recoiled, feeling a wave of belated horror crash into the wall of calmness he’d tried to construct around himself.

He remembered Apophis and the instances where he suddenly flew into the room, choosing a spot nearby and watching him with attentive large eyes. Was that the reaction Tom was talking about? The reaction to some romance-induced chemicals?

“That’s crazy,” he whispered. A part of him was still shuddering at the idea that he could have done anything that might be interpreted as inappropriate interest, but then again, when was his relationship with Tom ever appropriate? The boundaries between them were so thin, they were practically non-existent. “There is no spell that would be able to decipher what feelings someone experiences. Love is a complex concept, Tom, you can’t reduce it to chemicals and formulas.”

The glare he received was dark enough to make him shiver.

“I invented this spell myself,” Tom said, his words clipped. “I tested it on other people before using it on Apophis. The results were always accurate.”

“That doesn’t mean anything!” Harry raised his voice, aggravated. “You and I don’t share the healthiest relationship. You know it. Love, affection, infatuation — they’re similar. Whatever… chemicals my body produces cannot show you what I actually feel. Love and science don’t go together like this!”

“You deny the truth because it scares you,” Tom bit out. He still sounded livid, but now, something else was creeping into his words — a mix of hysteria and desperation that made Harry’s heart contract painfully. “You reject me because you’re too used to obeying the rules, and any deviation from them makes you retreat into your safe shell!”

I obey the rules?” Harry couldn’t help it, he laughed, and this time, his laughter was just as hysterical. “I’ve never obeyed the rules, especially not where you are concerned.”

Belatedly, he realised that this would only infuriate Tom more, but what happened was worse. Tom flinched away as if he’d been struck. He dropped his gaze, refusing to look up, and his shoulders slumped a little. The hurt written across his face was so visceral that Harry immediately ached in sympathy.

Taking a deep breath, he decided to try again. This time, from the start.

“Enough about me,” he said softly, hoping that his calmness would soothe Tom enough to remove this unbearably pained grimace from his face. “Let’s talk about you. Do you think you are—” The phrase felt foreign. Clenching his jaw, Harry forced himself to push it out. “Do you think you are in love with me? Or is this another way of you trying to keep me close and make sure I won’t leave you?”

Tom shifted, throwing a wary glance at him.

“Why can’t it be both?” he asked. Harry closed his eyes at this, unable to handle the whirlwind of feelings that this conversation kept stirring. Why indeed?

“Because I can accept the latter but not the former,” he said honestly. Misery and self-hatred joined the emotional storm, and he could barely stand the feel of his own body. His skin crawled in self-disgust. “If you really think you’re in love with me, then it’s my fault. I had to set the boundaries years ago — I had to put a stop to all this closeness, the bed sharing, the possessiveness… It’s no wonder you’re confused. I confused you. I was the only person you interacted with for—”

“Stop that,” Tom snapped at him. His irritation was preferable to his hurt, but it didn’t make Harry feel better. “I spent years surrounded by the school idiots. Many of them would sell their family estates for a chance to be with me. Do you think I have never received any offers? I get them all the time. I could choose anyone. No one would deny me if I bothered to crook my finger at them.”

Some indescribable, ugly sensation burned through Harry’s chest. The instant he recognised it as jealousy, he was hit by another crushing wave of disgust. With a low groan, he slammed his head against the wall.

He was a mess. He didn’t know what to think or feel. He had never felt more lost in his entire life — both of his lives, and in any other situation, it would have seemed funny. But now… Now…

As if encouraged by his progressing defeat, Tom joined him on the floor, crawling closer. He didn’t touch him, not yet, but Harry could sense his proximity.

“You are jealous,” Tom stated. He tried to sound confident, but his voice wavered, betraying his hesitation. “And you were jealous of Lestrange, I know you were. I watched you. If you don’t like the thought of me being with someone else, then the solution is clear, isn’t it?”

“This will never happen,” Harry said flatly. He was many things, but he would never be a monster. Not of this kind.

Tom exhaled through his nose, upset and frustrated. He reached for Harry’s hand, but Harry yanked it away before it could be touched, pressing it against his chest protectively. 

“There has never been any other choice for me,” Tom whispered. Harry refused to look at him, but he knew the words were earnest. That made everything worse. “Don’t you understand? There was only ever you. You are the only person I see, the only person I’m capable of seeing. If I didn’t have you, I would never want anyone at all.”

Harry didn’t want to listen to this. Or maybe he did because a part of him tore into these words greedily, basking in their meaning and allowing them to fill the empty spaces he hadn’t known were inside him.   

Another part was more logical, but to his horror, it began to analyse what he’d heard, too. And because of its logic, it was much harder to fight against it.

Voldemort hadn’t known the feeling of love — that was what he and Dumbledore both confirmed. He’d never had a partner. Even as Tom Riddle, he seemed obsessed solely with power: the only time he used his charms and good looks was to manipulate others. So it had to be true, Harry had to be the deviation from the norm.

He’d arrived here to change everything, but what if it backfired? He showered Tom with love, but in return, Tom learned to love only him. He still didn’t see people as people, with Harry being the one person he made an exception for.

Not that Harry could accept it. Not that he even wanted to accept it... At least he hoped not.

“Talk to me,” Tom tried to angle his head so that their eyes would meet. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I think you are crazy,” Harry replied. His voice was rough and distant — he didn’t recognise it. “I think I’m crazy, too. And I don’t know what to do with it.”

For some reason, Tom liked hearing this. He reached for him again, carefully raising Harry’s face by his chin.

“Tell me what you feel for me,” he commanded in a whisper. His hands were shaking.

“I love you,” Harry said readily. This was not something he would let Tom doubt. “I will always love you. But romantic love? Attraction? I raised you. You are fifteen. It’s wrong.”

Tom’s eyes lit up, becoming so light that their usual dark colour turned greenish-brown. Harry stared, fascinated against his will.

“It’s not a ‘no’,” Tom breathed out, leaning closer, a fervent glint in his stare. “You are not saying you don’t feel it. You’re saying it’s wrong — these are two different things.”                

“I don’t know what I feel,” Harry held his gaze, and it was almost physically difficult. Disgust was getting more and more solid, cluttering his throat and not letting him breathe freely. “I can’t separate my feelings one by one and label them like you appear to do it. In this world, you are the only person in my life. The only person I—” his voice broke, forcing him to swallow and clear his throat. “I love and care for,” he finished. Honesty. This was his only salvation. He had to be honest not just with Tom, but with himself, and maybe this would lead him to a more acceptable conclusion. “I always miss you. I need you more than I ever needed anyone. The thought that one day, you’ll fall in love and move on with your life—” Harry flinched, shying away from the image his mind helpfully presented.

“It hurts you,” Tom said instead of him. He sounded delighted. “It upsets you.”

Honesty. Only honesty.

“It does,” Harry admitted quietly. “Of course it does. You make me happy. You are my family. I want to spend my whole life with you. But I can’t tell you the nuances of these feelings because I don’t understand them myself. You are too young for me to see you as a—” he stumbled over the next word, unsure whether it was appropriate. “A partner. I can’t do it, Tom. It’s wrong.”

“Wrong for whom?” Tom growled. His mood changed again, and the furious heat his skin was emanating was almost hot enough to be physically uncomfortable. “For me? Because being with you is the only thing I can think of. It has been this way for years — you don’t understand how much I… how long I wanted to— You don’t understand.”

“I understand that you tried to force me to kiss you,” Harry snapped. “I understand that you then tried to erase my memory of it. Is it supposed to convince me of the depth of your feelings?”

Redness blossomed on Tom’s cheeks, but this time, he didn’t avert his gaze.

“Yes,” he hissed, leaning closer. His breath scorched Harry’s face. “I didn’t want it to be like this, I was certain that you wouldn’t remember anything, but since it no longer matters — yes. It is supposed to convince you because it shows how far I’m willing to go for this. I don’t regret what I did, I would have done it again. I want to kiss you. I want to touch you. I want you to belong to me in every possible way — and you will. I will make you if I have to!”

Fury, bright and powerful, spiralled up, washing away his shaky calmness. Harry grabbed Tom by his shirt, jerking him closer so violently that his teeth rattled.

“I don’t want to ever hear you say something like this again,” he warned, his voice low and threatening. Foreign. “You don’t build relationships with force. And if you still don’t know it, then how can you expect me to see you as anything but a spoiled brat? I’m not interested in immature children. ‘No’ means ‘no’, Tom!”

Contrary to his expectations, Tom didn’t look angry. He looked riveted.

“But you haven’t said ‘no’,” he whispered. “You still haven’t said ‘no’ to me. If I change, will you consider?.. Is there a chance that—”

Harry released his grip and tried to move away, but Tom clung to his hands, refusing to let go.

“Please,” he implored, and there was that hateful desperation again. It was doing terrible things to Harry’s mind, bending the principles he’d believed to be impregnable, infecting him with impulses that could never be justified. “I didn’t mean that I would force you. It just slipped out.”

“Of course you meant it,” the madness was devouring every bit of sense he had, so Harry curled his lips in a weak, hopeless smile. “You already tried to force me.”

“I’m sorry!” It sounded so genuine, as if Tom himself believed it. Maybe he did, in his half-desperate, half-blinded state. “But it’s over now, isn’t it? I won’t do it again. I just need to know that it’s possible, that one day, you will see me as something more. Please, I need it. I’ll agree to any terms you want.”

His eyes burned all of a sudden. Harry laughed breathlessly, throwing his head back.

“It’s not contract negotiation,” he said tiredly. The burning didn’t stop — it got worse. “I think you lack a fundamental understanding about relationships. What we have is already unhealthy. If we add more to it, it will be even crazier, and then where will this leave us?”

Tom’s eyes were fixated on him. He was catching every word, so focused on what Harry was saying that he didn’t even blink, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like he actually understood much. Maybe he was waiting for specific words, for ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and his mind simply dismissed the rest.

“It would never end happily,” Harry told him. “People would hate me. I would hate myself. And I already told you, I don’t even know what I’m feeling. I can’t discuss it now.”

“Please,” Tom whispered again. Now his whole body was trembling slightly, as if his need was overwhelming enough to demand a physical outlet. Denying him when he was in such state was above Harry’s capacities — Tom had to know it. Maybe that’s why he was doing it.

Reject him,’ Harry thought. ‘Reject him now, before this goes any further.’

But his mind quickly froze his tongue, too scared of what it would mean.

He never wanted to be in a position to break Tom’s heart. He abhorred the idea of hurting him in any way. If Tom was really only capable of loving him, then denying him would mean taking his chance at happiness. And even if Tom succeeded in moving on… would Harry be able to live with it? To watch him grow more and more distant, to leave their home, to develop interests and thoughts he knew nothing of?

His heart rebelled. Listening to its panicky hammering, Harry bit his lips nervously, trying to imagine another outcome.

If he said yes… what would that mean? He genuinely didn’t see Tom as a romantic partner. Attraction was also the last thing on his mind. Tom was Tom — he was everything, but was everything enough? What if he said yes to calm him down, but the shift in his perception never came and he remained a confused mess?

Harry closed his eyes. His other senses sharpened, and it felt like he could hear Tom’s heartbeat, anxious and hopeful both. The word “please” still echoed in his head, along with his own vehement denial of the idea of Tom ever loving anyone else — of loving him less. This was simply unthinkable. He wanted, needed to preserve this love, to be the first one in Tom’s life. But if he agreed, how would he live with himself?

And then, suddenly, the answer was there. It wasn’t “yes” and it wasn’t “no”, but it was the only answer Harry could give.

Deep, liberating relief pulsed through him, allowing him to open his eyes. He looked at Tom, who was still clutching at his hands, his nails buried in Harry’s skin as if even they feared separation.

A wave of crushing tenderness followed, flooding every part of him, and Harry brushed his fingers against Tom’s cheek lightly, savouring the way he shivered.

“We will wait,” he said quietly yet steadily. “We will wait until you finish Hogwarts. You’ll be eighteen then. If your feelings don’t change, we’ll return to this conversation.”

Tom opened his mouth to blurt something out but paused, probably thinking everything over. A wild, incredulous hope flared in his eyes, with joy so profound that another part of Harry’s reservations melted.

“You are not saying ‘no’?” Tom clarified, wary and disbelieving. Harry couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I’m not saying ‘no’,” he promised. This came out as a question rather than statement, but it was enough for Tom. A huge, beaming smile flourished on his face, and it was so pure, so happy that Harry’s heart nearly stopped.

Without another word, Tom wrapped his arms around him, pressing his nose into his neck and inhaling greedily. A web of shivers spread across Harry’s shoulders. Slowly, he hugged Tom back, succumbing to the comfort and warmth of this familiar embrace.  

He had no idea what he’d just done, if he’d made the right decision. It still felt strange and condemnatory, but somehow, in Tom’s arms and with his breath against his throat, Harry felt carefully optimistic.

Maybe in two and a half years, it would start making sense. Maybe by that time, he’d be able to come up with a definite answer. Until then, nothing had to change: the shock of today would pass eventually, and his relationship with Tom would go back to normal.

But with the way Tom was holding him — possessive as always, yes, but somehow still new, more intense than usual, Harry wasn’t sure he believed it. So he sighed, closed his eyes, and thought of nothing at all, losing himself in the sensations.

 

***

 

The world didn’t feel any different when he came to the Great Hall for breakfast next morning. People, dishes, the ghosts — everything was the same. As soon as Harry took his seat, his eyes strayed towards the Slytherin table. Tom was already sitting there, staring at him. It seemed that he’d paused mid-sentence because Lestrange, Avery, Black, and Mulciber kept looking at him expectantly, still waiting for him to finish it. The moment their eyes met, a huge, absurdly happy smile graced Tom’s lips, and Harry’s heart skipped a beat at the sight. In this moment, it was like they hadn’t been separated by night — like they were still sitting in his room and Harry had just given his answer.

Tom didn’t care about being seen: his joy was bright and open. It was also infectious because Harry grinned at him in return, suddenly feeling light-headed.

Their interaction finally drew attention: Lestrange, furrowing his brows, followed the direction of Tom’s focus, probably trying to understand what distracted him. As soon as his eyes fell on Harry, his face tightened, but then it relaxed again, with a defeated expression overtaking it.

It was wrong, but Harry’s smile grew wider before he could stop himself.

Some of the teachers began to grow interested, too, so with an effort, he forced himself to look away from Tom and focus on his food. Small, undecipherable happiness kept dancing in his chest, and he knew his lips were still smiling.

Being happy felt good. Making Tom happy felt even better.

He could do this forever.

For the remaining part of the day, Harry’s thoughts kept wandering. It was challenging to focus on his lessons, but somehow, he managed: his students seemed as eager as they always were. Still, impatience was getting to him, so he felt relieved when the last group left the classroom. Collecting the essays, he hurried to the staff room, hoping that the mandatory meeting wouldn’t last long.

Everyone was already inside. Only Rivers’ usual spot was empty, and as usual, Harry felt a small twinge of unease.

Rivers had been absent from the start of the term. At first, it felt liberating, but the more time passed, the stranger Harry felt about this whole situation.

Had Rivers grown too terrified of teaching under the same roof with him? Had he given up — or was he on a quest to do something potentially troublesome?

More importantly, had he shared his suspicions with Dumbledore? Did Dumbledore believe him?

But no, it was doubtful. His Dumbledore had been sceptical of Trelawney and of Divinations in general, so it was unlikely that this one gave Rivers’ rambling a serious thought.

“—Tom,” Professor Oakwood said. Harry’s attention quickly snapped to her. “He was very absent-minded during today’s lesson. He loves Astronomy; he’s an amazing artist, too — you should have seen the charts he’s created over the years. But today, something was clearly wrong. He couldn’t focus on a single task, and his chart was… well…” Oakwood shrugged a little apologetically.

“Oh!” Slughorn sounded deeply relieved. “I thought there must be something weighting on that boy’s mind. Tom is my star student — why, I haven’t seen young people with his level of skill for decades! But his potion today was—” he struggled, as if criticising Tom was a blasphemy he couldn’t possibly commit. “Average,” he finished very quietly, like he was half-hoping others wouldn’t hear him.

They did, and then they all turned to Harry, their stares expectant and curious.

“What?” he asked defensively when the pause got uncomfortable. His face began to feel unpleasantly hot, as it always did under such close attention of so many people.     

“Perhaps young Tom is troubled by something?” Dumbledore suggested. His eyes were twinkling, though not in a particularly amused way.

“How would I know? He doesn’t tell me everything.”

More sceptical stares. Teaching someone you knew and having other people know about it was a terrible idea — Harry should have considered it more thoroughly before agreeing to take the position.

“I have no idea what bothers him,” he insisted. “But I’ll ask. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

“I wouldn’t say he was troubled, actually,” Oakwood said thoughtfully. “It was more of a happy mood. He was smiling more often than he was not, all throughout the lesson.”

Harry’s flush intensified.

“Maybe he’s looking forward to the weekend,” he blurted out. The stares turned incredulous, and he could have cursed himself right then and there. Why had he said something this stupid? Everyone would think he’s either an idiot or hiding something.

“Whatever the reason is, I’m sure today was the exception,” Dumbledore said calmly. “Tom has always made his House proud. After all, we all have moments when concentrating on our duties is more challenging than we’re used to.”

His eyes lingered on Harry when he said this, but even though his heart twitched in dread, Harry was certain his expression didn’t change.   

You don’t know anything,’ he thought, and even his inner voice sounded defiant. ‘You can’t know anything, so don’t pretend to be omniscient.’

Dumbledore always looked like he knew more than he really did. He wasn’t infallible, and Harry wasn’t going to forget it... Even if in this situation, he was right. 

The majority of his colleagues finally lost interest in discussing Tom, though Slughorn still looked disturbed. Gradually, the topics shifted to students who were lagging behind, and the flush faded from Harry’s face slowly.

Now that he allowed himself to think about it, he couldn’t help but admit that he found the situation amusing. Apparently, Tom was so affected by the vague idea of getting what he wanted in the distant future that it clouded his mind — clouded it so thoroughly that he forgot about his public image and his determination to be the best in every single aspect of his school life.

It was not just amusing, it was flattering. And charming. And endearing. And Harry couldn’t stop smiling when he thought of it.

Then he met Dumbledore’s pitying gaze, and the urge to smile vanished.

 

***

 

That evening, as he was preparing for bed, something caught his eye. A strange object was lying on his bedside table, something that definitely didn’t belong to him. Intrigued, Harry reached for it.

It was a carved wooden spoon. A thin, intricate-looking snake was wrapped around the handle in three lazy circles, forming a chain; two small gems made its eyes glow green. There was a delicate rune decorating the inner part of the spoon’s surface, and to Harry’s embarrassment, he couldn’t immediately identify it. Then again, Ancient Runes was never a subject he was interested in, and he didn’t exactly study it even as his adult years trickled by.    

Fascination spread its curious tentacles, so Harry pressed his finger to the rune. Instantly, a familiar aura burned through him, enveloping him in a blanket of warmth and love.    

It felt like Tom. This was his magical signature, etched into the wood, ready to share its sparkling presence with him whenever he touched it.

Why the spoon, though, he wondered, waving the lights away and pressing his gift closer to his chest. Obsessively, his finger kept returning to the rune, and he couldn’t help but marvel at how the sensations didn’t lose their impact. Did self-made wooden spoons mean anything? How much time had Tom spent on it? And which wood was it anyway?

Harry shifted, adjusting his glasses and bringing the spoon closer to his eyes. It had a warm, reddish-brown colour. Cherry wood? In his past life, he’d been briefly interested in what people’s wands said about their owners, so he researched each type of wood. But predictably, he couldn’t recall anything specific now. Learning and storing academic information wasn’t his strongest side.

With a frustrated sigh, Harry cradled the spoon and closed his eyes. He would find the information he wanted tomorrow — for now, he was going to succumb to the joy of receiving something this unique and thoughtful.

Tom wasn’t a fan of giving gifts, especially not physical ones. For him to do something like this…

It made the spoon all the more precious.

 

***

 

Before breakfast, Harry visited the library. Getting the book on wand making from there, he hurried to the Great Hall, hoping there would be something left for him there.

Many people had already left, but Tom was sitting in his place, glaring in the direction of the teachers’ table. When Harry approached his seat, Tom’s eyes jumped to him. They narrowed suspiciously, analysing his appearance, probably trying to figure out what made him late.

That was to be expected. Harry raised the book with a half-apologetic shrug, not planning on offering a more detailed explanation, but to his surprise, this seemed to be enough for Tom. He couldn’t have possibly seen the title from his place, but he still relaxed; his expression lightened, and the smile he sent Harry’s way was open and a little shy.

Charmed by this, Harry gave him an answering smile. Then he attacked the food in an attempt to eat it as fast as he could. Tom stayed, watching him unabashedly, but this was a routine by now, so Harry paid it no mind. His first lesson started in 10 minutes — he really had to hurry.

Apophis flew into the hall at some point. He passed a strange-looking envelope to Tom, and for a moment, Tom’s face distorted into something resembling concern. Then it was gone, and he was back to watching Harry.

How strange. What kind of letter could provoke a reaction like this? Who would even be writing to him — everyone he knew was here, in the castle.

Frowning, Harry tried to finish his meal, and eventually, his thoughts went back to the book he’d retrieved. 

See you later,’ he mouthed to Tom when he was done. Tom nodded, still staring and making no effort to leave the table, even though he had to be late as well by now. Harry shook his head fondly, and with the last amused look behind, he walked out, moving towards his classroom. He had only two minutes left, but maybe it would be enough for him to check the book.

Trying to keep an eye out on his surroundings to avoid a collision with other rushing students, he began to leaf through the pages quickly, looking for cherry wood. He found it almost instantly, and fortunately, the very first page in the chapter described its different meanings.

New beginnings. Love. Triumph. Immortality.

Harry’s gaze lingered on the last word. A shiver slithered through his spine, but he forcibly pushed the unease down.

That one had to be a coincidence. ‘New beginnings’ and ‘love’ fit the situation much better.

Grinning now, he reached for his gift, brushing him finger against Tom’s rune.

Now he just had to understand what the spoon had to do with anything.

 

***

 

His second lesson was with the fifth-year Slytherins and Hufflepuffs. Tom arrived among the first as always, taking his place and talking to his friends in a quiet but insistent manner. Harry caught each of his occasional gazes, ridiculously pleased with how even in the middle of a seemingly important conversation, Tom’s attention largely belonged to him.

When the lesson finally started, he asked everyone to stand up and move the desks in one corner. The freed space was large enough for duelling, something he knew his students always looked forward to. Like he expected, they instantly perked up, with excited glows lighting up their faces.

“We’ll repeat the common stances first,” Harry warned them. “Don’t start without my permission.”

The next stage entailed dividing everyone into pairs. Tom was his biggest problem — his speed and level of skills were unrivalled, so finding even a semi-decent partner for him was difficult.

Tom smiled serenely, hiding his hands behind his back, a perfect embodiment of patience. He knew what the pause was about, and he was unbearably smug about it. Harry snorted before he could stop himself.

“Mr. Slytherin, Mr. Lestrange — stand here, please,” he drawled. Lestrange looked thrilled. Tom threw an incredulous look at him before following the instructions, sulking in a way that only Harry could recognise.

Lestrange would likely be defeated within the first minute, but he was the closest match for Tom among these students. Objectively, he was an amazing duellist — he just wasn’t as good as Tom.

“Okay, let’s start on the count of three,” Harry said after everyone was paired off. Either his excitement or the excitement of his students was catching — the air sparkled with heated anticipation. “Remember: when you use a spell, you must assume it’ll hit your opponent. Don’t take your chances — we aren’t using crippling or deadly incantations in this classroom. Be as creative as you want, but don’t lose your head either. One… two… three!”

Voices exploded in loud exclamations, followed by the flashes of bright lights. No one fell within the first twenty seconds, which was already a success. Feeling embarrassingly proud of them, Harry began to walk between the rows, observing and giving advice. He approached Tom last, and to his surprise, Lestrange was still fighting. However, his flushed face spoke of frustration and humiliation, and Harry quickly understood why.

Tom wasn’t using any spells, not even of the defensive kind. Instead, he was sidestepping every attack, trying hard to look bored, even though his breathing was getting jerky. How Lestrange hadn’t knocked the arrogant brat off his feet by now was a mystery, but Harry couldn’t summon any real annoyance. He was impressed. Stunned, even, because Tom’s speed was far deadlier than it had been a month ago. What had he been doing, practising non-stop? Or did he come up with some genius spell that helped him blur with the air?

Costeos confractono!” someone shouted. Harry turned abruptly, a protesting shout freezing in his throat when he saw a violet flash darting towards a confused-looking girl.

The rib-breaking spell was tricky. Unlike most other curses, it couldn’t be blocked with Expelliarmus, and it didn’t dissipate after missing its target. It would cross all distance to the opposite wall, hit it, and then it would ricochet. Alice Whinterly was an average student with good reflexes — she would duck, but she would not expect the spell to come at her again from the back. And if Harry blasted her away, the curse would just hit Michael Richards, an idiot who liked dark spells but barely knew how to use them.  

No time for the counter-curse. He’d have to be the one embracing the impact: the wall was far enough, Alice and Michael were close enough — he could reach Alice in time to push her away and block the returning spell with his body.     

All these thoughts stormed through Harry’s head in one seemingly endless second. The next one, he broke into a run, but he didn’t even take two steps when someone lunged at him and pushed him down violently, pinning him to the floor. 

He blinked, waiting for his vision to re-adjust. Then he saw Tom’s face right above him, contorted in a mildly annoyed grimace.

“You won’t be playing the hero, Harry,” he whispered, bending low enough so that his words were barely audible. “Not if I have any say in it.”

Alice’s stunned and pained scream sounded next, chillingly loud in a sudden silence. It broke the initial shock, so Harry pushed Tom away forcefully, sending him a heated glare. Angry words twirled on the tip of his tongue, but there was no time for that. He had to get his student to the hospital wing.

Everyone else was staring at him and Tom. Slytherins looked horrified. Hufflepuffs appeared baffled. They probably didn’t understand why Tom had suddenly knocked him down and how it was related to the accident with Alice. That should be dealt with, too, preferably before the wild rumours flew.

“Forty points from Hufflepuff, Mr. Richards,” Harry growled, rushing to Alice. “And twenty points from you, Mr. Slytherin, for not being observant enough. I wasn’t the one who needed protection.”

Tom raised an unconcerned eyebrow, smiling at him in an indulgent manner. Looking at him made Harry’s blood boil, so he turned away to focus on the hurt girl. She was wheezing now, crying silently, and a sharp pang of sympathy made Harry wince along with her.

“Everything will be fine,” he murmured, transforming the nearest chair into a stretcher. “It’s painful, I know, but it’ll be healed quickly. Five more minutes and the pain will be gone. Okay?”

Alice nodded weakly, staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. Carefully levitating the stretcher, Harry walked out of the classroom, throwing the last warning look at the remaining students.

 

***

 

Alice’s rib had punctured her lung, so after a brief discussion, it was decided that she should be delivered to Saint Mungo’s. Harry wasn’t allowed to accompany her at first, but after Alice’s frantic pleas, the mediwizards changed their minds. It was touching, the way she saw him as someone safe and comforting, but Harry’s first thought was about Tom and his possible reaction to this.

Tom would hate his absence. He would hate him staying with another student, and if Alice showed some attachment to him when she returned to school, it could have disastrous consequences.

Then Harry thought of how crazy it was, and his worry shifted into disbelief.

Something was very wrong with him. That the first thing he contemplated was the danger an innocent girl could be in just because he stayed with her at the hospital… This wasn’t a normal reaction, was it? Yet somehow, it came naturally. He couldn’t allow himself to give Tom the benefit of the doubt, not after what happened with Myrtle.

But he also refused to leave. He was willing to go along with many of Tom’s unreasonable and possessive requests as it was — there had to be limits. He wouldn’t let an injured girl down and abandon her just because Tom might get angry.   

Frowning, Harry gave Alice’s hand a comforting squeeze as she trembled in her bed, no longer in pain but still terrified.

“You did very good in your duel,” he praised her quietly. “Your reflexes were great.”

Alice bit her lower lip.

“I failed,” she admitted hoarsely. “I didn’t know spells could do that. I—” her face suddenly contorted.

“Don’t speak,” Harry warned her. “Not until the mediwizards allow it. Your lung is still punctured.” 

Alice nodded her head and continued to look at him, as if fearing what could happen if she looked away.

It was late evening when Harry finally returned to his chambers. Alice was fine, and she was supposed to resume her classes in two days.

Unsurprisingly, Tom was already waiting for him. What was surprising was the complete lack of anger on his face.

“I saved some food for you,” he said politely. “I believe you haven’t had a chance to eat anything other than breakfast today.”

“That is thoughtful of you,” Harry gave him a tentative smile, but his astonished pleasure was quickly undermined by a hot flash of annoyance. “What you did in the classroom was unacceptable,” he added.

“Was it?” Tom turned his head, watching him curiously. “I protected you from your own stupidity.”

“It wasn’t your right to make a decision like that. I’m a teacher. Any accidents that happen in my lessons are my fault — and so is the responsibility.”

Tom sighed, as if already weary of this conversation.

“I find your martyrdom extremely tedious,” he uttered. “I couldn’t care less about your misguided sense of responsibility. I will always choose you, just as I will always protect you — even if I have to do it against your wishes.”

“Your controlling threats aren’t impressive at this stage,” Harry informed him, throwing a longing look at the food-filled table. “How was the class after I left?”

“It was fine,” Tom pushed him towards the sofa lightly before snapping his fingers. A round kettle tilted, pouring freshly boiled tea into a cup, and Harry rolled his eyes at this blatant demonstration of wandless magic. “I think Michael Richards will face several unpleasant weeks — his classmates are extremely angry with him, but I’m sure it will pass. What he did wasn’t that catastrophic.”

“It wasn’t?” Harry squinted suspiciously. He had been certain that Tom would be enraged by the accident, but maybe he overthought it a bit. Richards’ spell hadn’t hit him, so it probably wasn’t enough to wake up Tom’s vindictive streak.

“Of course not,” Tom smiled, silencing the vague whispers of Harry’s unease. “I stopped you from doing anything foolish, and I really don’t care about that girl getting her ribs broken.”  

This phrase brought him comfort, so Harry relaxed, focusing on his meal. The words sounded truthful. If Tom didn’t think much of this incident, he had nothing to worry about either.

“How did you know?” he asked after swallowing the first few bites. “I barely had time to move when you were already on me. Was my reaction that obvious?”

“To others, no. To me, absolutely.” Tom shifted a little, staring at him thoughtfully. “Your sense of self-worth is abysmal. You are a martyr — your system of rewards and punishments and your irrational insistence on helping Muggles in dangerous zones convinced me of this years ago. If you think you are saving someone, you’ll readily sacrifice yourself for it.” Tom’s gaze darkened, and for a moment, some deadly determination froze there, making Harry go still. His unease returned with double force, spreading in sudden bursts of panic, even though there was no discernible reason for it. 

Just as suddenly, everything was gone. The shadow slipped from Tom’s face, making it look innocent and youthful.

“If there is someone in need of saving in the vicinity, you’ll consider it your duty to be the saviour,” Tom added more lightly. “But don’t worry. I will stop you.”

“Again with your threats,” Harry sighed, putting on a disapproving expression. “Today was the exception. Your movements became faster, but ultimately? My reflexes are still better. Despite all your secret training.”

Tom spluttered, outraged, and Harry burst into laughter at the sight of his indignant face.

When he finished his supper and checked the clock, it was already after ten. Tom didn’t look like he was about to leave, so Harry nudged him with his foot.

“You missed the curfew,” he said tiredly. “Go now, or I’ll have to take points from you.”

“You already did.” For some reason, Tom appeared to be smug about it. Then his confidence wavered, giving way to shyness Harry had learned to recognise. “Can I sleep with you tonight?” Tom asked, twisting the hems of his robe. Harry froze.

He didn’t see this one coming, although maybe he should have. Tom always liked to sleep with him — and this preference was mutual. But if it was inappropriate before, it was even more wildly unacceptable now. Not after Tom’s confession, not after their ultimatum, and especially not at school. Never here.

“No,” Harry said, and instantly felt awful. Tom’s face crumpled, betraying his misery, and the urge to take his reply back became overwhelming. Still, Harry persisted. “It wouldn’t be appropriate,” he explained firmly, trying to ignore the way Tom was looking at him. “The circumstances have changed, you know that.”

Tom snorted angrily.

“They didn’t change,” he sneered. “You have simply learned of it, but it’s been there all this time.”

“I don’t want to hear more,” Harry warned him. “We’ll discuss it when we go home for Christmas, but we won’t be doing it here. This is neither the time nor the place — I don’t want to be fired.”

“Is that the only reason?”

Sometimes talking to Tom was maddening.

“Good night,” Harry uttered. Tom scowled, obviously wanting to say something, but in the end, he didn’t. Wordlessly, he turned on his heel and stormed out, banging the door shut.

So much for being discreet.

Harry went to sleep with a heavy heart, unsure why doing the right thing felt so wrong. Unsurprisingly, he dreamed of Tom, but the content of this dream was unusual.

They were sitting at the table, drinking tea. Tom’s smile was all sharp teeth and dangerous intent, and even though Harry saw right through it, for some reason, he remained undisturbed. He kept holding his cup, taking small sips yet feeling no taste. At some point, Tom pulled a box of sweets from under the table, offering him to take one.

“You’ll like them,” he promised, his voice flowing in a seductive and charming purr. “Just taste one. I promise it’ll be good.”

Harry nodded, reaching for the sweet. His fingers wrapped around it, pushed it closer to his mouth, then paused. The feeling of wrongness flooded him so suddenly that his head began to spin. Frowning, he lowered his hand, but Tom intercepted it, raising it back up.

“Try it,” he said insistently. “It’s for your own good. You know that I’ll always take care of you — I would never do anything to harm you.”

“I know you wouldn’t,” Harry replied, but his heart was hammering in his chest, panicked and desperate. Hoping that this strange state would pass as soon as he complied with Tom’s request, he put the sweet into his mouth. It exploded in a delicious, rich taste, and yet there was an underlying bitter note under it.

Dark and unpleasant, it began to take over the sweetness, and the dizziness it brought sent black spots dancing under Harry’s eyelids. His arms flailed in an effort to hold onto something, but there was nothing but emptiness around. He fell, and fell, and fell, and it stopped only after he woke up with a gasp, trying to get rid of the clammy feeling of terrible betrayal.   

It was still dark outside. Yet something had changed during the time he was sleeping — the silence was no longer silent. And Harry was no longer alone in bed — someone was lying next to him, hugging him from behind. The touch was so familiar that Harry’s body sang from the comfort it brought him.

Tom really hated the word ‘no’, didn’t he? He must have waited for a few hours and sneaked back into his room. Against his wishes.

Harry waited for the awkwardness to ensue, but it never came. The weight of Tom’s arm thrown over his waist felt as normal as it always did, and so did his warm, tickling breathing. The sleepiness brushed against Harry’s eyelids, so he covered Tom’s hand with his, interlaced their fingers, and closed his eyes.

Then he drifted off.

 

***

Tom was gone in the morning. It was like he hoped that Harry wouldn’t even realise he’d been here at night, which posed a question, was this the first time he did that? Or had he sneaked in repeatedly and left in the morning, and Harry didn’t know because he remained asleep during the night?

Such behaviour was reprehensible. It was, it undoubtedly was, but the idea of Tom craving his presence so desperately even now, when he was surrounded by friends and other distractions, sent a thrilling pulse of delight through his body.

Harry reached for the spoon Tom had given him, sighing at the affection that clouded around him the moment he touched the rune on it.

He still had to find out what it meant. Maybe he’d pay a visit to Professor Oakwood — she specialised in Astrology and Ancient Runes both, so she would likely be able to understand the symbolism of such gift.

With this decided, Harry sent a Patronus to Saint Mungo’s, asking for an update on Alice Whinterly’s condition. Receiving an assurance that she was feeling better, he went to the Great Hall. Tom greeted him with the same blinding grin as always, as if they hadn’t just parted their ways, and Harry returned it. He did try to appear strict immediately after that, but Tom’s grin just grew wider, so maybe he wasn’t very convincing.

Well, they could always talk about it later.

The day followed its typical path, alternating between lessons and breaks. Sometimes Harry caught the glimpses of the Hufflepuff table, and what he saw made him frown. Michael Richards sat isolated from everyone else, pale and haggard, refusing to touch his food.

He’d used a dangerous spell, but it was far from being the most terrible thing students did throughout the year to one another. And Harry hadn’t even taken that many points. Was Alice someone everyone loved? He’d never thought she was popular, but maybe he was wrong.

At six, the lessons ended, so Harry went to Professor Oakwood’s office. He hesitated in front of the door, raising his fist to knock several times and then lowering it.

They weren’t friends — they weren’t even acquaintances. Was it normal to drop by like this? Did colleagues ask each other for consultation out of blue or was it considered to be in bad taste?

The feeling of being watched stirred suddenly, making Harry stiffen and look around. A shadow seemed to flicker at the right side of the corridor, but as he stared, nothing happened. Humming, he turned to the door again and finally knocked.

“Come in,” a muffled voice uttered. Harry entered, waving at Oakwood awkwardly.

“Hey,” he said. “I hope I’m not interrupting you?”

“No, not at all,” Oakwood smiled. She looked welcoming enough, but there was also a shade of perplexion on her face. Harry was probably the last person she expected to see, and for a good reason. He should have worked harder on getting to know people he worked with — this would have helped to avoid the discomfort.

“I don’t want to bother you, but I got a strange gift from someone and I’m not sure what it means. There is a rune on it, and the symbolism of the gift itself... I thought you could help me to figure it out?”

“A gift, you say?” Oakwood leaned forward, interested. “Let’s see it.”

Harry pulled the spoon out of his pocket carefully. For a moment, he hesitated, feeling suddenly possessive of it, but Oakwood was waiting, so he forced himself to proceed.

“Oh!” her eyes widened as she saw the spoon, and then she grinned again. “Well, it seems you have an admirer! It’s a courtsh—” she froze mid-sentence. Bemused, Harry watched how some semblance of realisation crossed her face before it hardened, losing any trace of friendliness.

“What?” he asked warily.

“It used to be a pureblood courtship gift,” Oakwood said. Her tone was cold and mechanical. “The descendants of the oldest families made presents like this to the objects of their affection. Many consider it old-fashioned or distasteful now because centuries ago, a wizard gifted a spoon to a Muggle. The tradition spread in that part of the world — it offended most purebloods and they chose to eradicate it. Those who don’t care or people well-versed in history still craft such gifts sometimes, but it’s rare.”

“That’s interesting,” Harry said, trying to choose neutral words. He couldn’t understand the reasons for Oakwood’s mood shift. Was she a disgruntled pureblood who despised this tradition? Or did she suspect who it might be from?

The thought was horrifying, and Harry squeezed the hem of his robe tightly, until his fingers began to hurt.

No. She couldn’t know, it couldn’t be so obvious.

“Interesting,” Oakwood repeated flatly. “Yes, I suppose it is. The spoon itself symbolises a giver’s offer of safety and comfort. They promise to provide for you and to make sure you want for nothing. Your spoon means several things. The rune stands for love and devotion. The cherry wood has similar implications. The chain that the snake forms means the giver’s desire to forge an eternal union with you, while the snake itself clearly depicts their House.”

His heart dropped to the bottom of his feet. Harry stared, pinned to a spot by the horrible realisation.

A snake! Anyone knowing that his ward was the heir of Slytherin would understand whom it’s from. How could he have not considered it? How could he have come here with this spoon, hoping to pretend he knew nothing of the giver?

“It’s obvious in other ways, too,” Oakwood said. She must have read his expression correctly — and was he really that transparent? “A simply infatuated student isn’t going to invest so much time and care into making a gift this complex. It’s uniquely personal. And there is only one person in this school who feels so strongly about you.”

The heavy censure in her voice made Harry’s shock and humiliation retreat. He narrowed his eyes, raising his chin challengingly.

“Thank you for your explanation and your input,” he said, his voice just as icy. “I’ll be on my way now.”

Oakwood released the spoon when he reached for it, but her jaw remained tightly clenched.

“This is despicable,” she spat finally. “I had my suspicions before, but I hoped I was wrong. You twisted that bright boy beyond recognition.”

The words hit their target, and it was a pure miracle that allowed Harry to stand still without crumbling.

She was right.

But she also wasn’t.

“You don’t know anything,” he said quietly. “Don’t make hasty conclusions. Not about me, but especially not about Tom. I would never take advantage of him, and I would never presume that I know his mind better than he does.”

“You encourage him,” Oakwood shook her head. “I saw how you interact. It never looked normal, and now I know it’s not. Tom is smart, but he’s just 15. You corrupted him.”

There were so many things Harry wanted to say to her. I might have corrupted him, but he corrupted me first. I love him. I encourage him because I can’t bear to turn him away. I agreed to wait — what else could I do?

But she wouldn’t understand. No one would. No one could.

“Thank you,” he repeated tiredly. “I appreciate your help. I’m not going to tell you what to do, so if you want to file a complaint about me, I won’t be stopping you. But I said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not taking advantage of Tom. We have a complicated relationship, but I never used what he feels for me to harm him. And I never will.”

Oakwood shook her head silently. Her face didn’t soften, so Harry left her office, still unable to believe the extent of his stupidity.

He shouldn’t have been this lazy. He should have researched everything about Tom’s gift by himself.

In his mortification, he barely paid attention to his surroundings. That’s why he nearly jumped out of his skin when he turned the corner and collided with Tom, who was standing there with his arms crossed.

“What are you doing here?” Harry frowned, checking the time. “Shouldn’t you be having your lecture hour, or whatever it is you’re doing when you and your housemates lock yourself in the Slytherin Common Room?”

Tom arched his eyebrows, his previously vacant face lightening in surprised pleasure.

“You know my schedule?” he murmured, and Harry’s frown grew deeper.

“Of course I do. I have eyes.”

“I’m glad to know they are trained on me.” Suddenly, Tom’s stare narrowed, becoming sharper. “Do you have chats with Professor Oakwood often?” 

This was so unexpected that for a moment, Harry went speechless.

“How do you know that?” he asked incredulously. “Were you following me?”

Tom shrugged, looking unconcerned.

“No,” he said. Harry arched a brow in disbelief. For a while, no one said anything — their silent battle of stubbornness lasted for almost a minute before Tom finally relented.

“I didn’t follow you,” he said, annoyed. “I had Avery do it instead.”

He said it matter-of-factly, as if it was supposed to be obvious, and Harry took a deep breath, forcing himself to swallow down the biting words that he suddenly wanted to spit. A slow and heavy sensation wrapped itself around him, trapping him until he felt a splash of adrenaline, an intense need to get away from here — to get away from Tom.

“How often do you do this?” he asked, not bothering to mask his coldness. Tom stiffened in response to it.

“What does it matter?” he asked. No matter how calm he tried to be, there was an obvious challenge in his voice. “I have the right to know where you are and what you are doing.”

“Then you can ask me,” Harry hissed. “I have the right to go where I want without having my own students track my movements!”

Tom pursed his lips, clearly disagreeing with him but saying nothing. Muttering soft curses, Harry stormed towards his room, his anger growing with every step he took. Anger at Oakwood with her disapproval, anger at Tom for his relentlessness, and anger at himself for even being in this situation.

He didn’t slam the door shut, knowing Tom would be just behind him. Naturally, there was a soft clicking sound, and then Tom stepped closer with a frown on his face.

“What happened?” he asked. “You wouldn’t normally react like this.”

Wouldn’t he? Harry stopped pacing, thinking about it. If he wasn’t already upset, would he not care about Tom getting his friends to stalk him? Unlikely.

Then again, he was an idiot, so maybe he wouldn’t.

“You still had no right to do that,” he uttered lowly. “Why would you even follow me? I don’t hide where I am from you.”

Tom dropped his gaze almost involuntarily, studying his feet instead. It seemed that he wasn’t going to answer, but unexpectedly, he did.

“I am… concerned,” he pushed out. He still wouldn’t look up, and Harry could almost sense his embarrassment. “When we are at home, we are alone. Here… there are too many people. I know you said you wouldn’t, but—” he fell silent, grimacing as if he’d tasted something sour. “Sometimes, I worry,” he tried again. “When you are away from me, I don’t feel like— I don’t feel comfortable.”

“I had to be mad to come and work here.” With a long sigh, Harry collapsed into his chair, dropping his head on his chest. “You don’t understand a thing about boundaries. Behaving like you do — stalking me, watching me, sneaking into my rooms at night, when I specifically told you to never do that! Add my own idiocy to that, and it’s not surprising that Oakwood—”

Tom tensed.

“What about her?” he asked sharply. “Did she say something to you? Is that what upset you?”

Following an already familiar impulse, Harry reached for the spoon, soaking in the sense of comfort it gave him. The fight went out of him, with tiredness coming in its place.

“I was stupid,” he said quietly. “I wanted to know what your gift meant. I thought she wouldn’t understand it was from you, that I could pass it off for something a love-struck student gave to me.”

Tom hissed, startling Harry into raising his head. Then he dropped it again with a groan.

“You cannot be possibly jealous of a non-existing student,” he muttered. “Don’t be ridiculous. The point is, I went to Oakwood with your gift, and she promptly realised it came from you. Then she started lecturing me on my unacceptable behaviour. This seemed to confirm the suspicions she already had.” Coldness washed over him, coming from Tom or from himself, Harry didn’t know. He shivered, pushing himself deeper into his armchair.

“And the worst thing is, she’s right,” he continued. “From the very start, I didn’t behave appropriately. What we have now was never supposed to happen. It was—”

“No,” Tom interrupted him loudly. Harry looked up. The coldness he had felt was the result of Tom’s magic, then, because he could almost see the tendrils of it whirling around Tom, volatile and angry, promising violence. Promising death. “Don’t tell me this changed your mind. You said we will wait — you promised. Oakwood is meaningless, you can’t allow her to tell you what to do. I won’t let it happen!”

Tom’s increasing panic and fury cleared Harry’s head instantly. He put up his hand in a warning, and Tom fell silent, even though his rage was still slithering through the room, coiling and waiting for the permission to strike.

“She didn’t change my mind,” Harry said. “I told you we will wait, and we will. I’m not going back on my word. But even if nothing happened yet, it won’t mean anything to Oakwood. She thinks I’m sick, and I can’t even prove her wrong.”

Another surge of weariness rolled through him, and Harry closed his eyes, hoping that his problems would seem less oppressive when he opened them again. Oakwood hadn’t told him anything new — her opinion didn’t even differ much from his own. What he was doing with Tom, feeding his hopes for something more between them, was wrong. It was despicable, and Harry had largely himself to blame. 

Tom’s hands suddenly found their way around his neck from behind the chair. His chin nestled in the hollow of Harry’s shoulder, and their cheeks brushed against each other.

“You are not sick,” Tom murmured. “These people are sheep. They have trivial mind-sets. They could never understand our relationship, so you shouldn’t let their opinions affect you.”

“It’s difficult to believe that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong,” Harry retorted dryly. Tom sighed, pressing his lips to his neck briefly.

“They are wrong,” he said firmly. “And they don’t matter.”

“They do. If Oakwood speaks to other teachers, they will all know. I’m sure they all think that our bond is closer than it should be, and with this confirmation… Dumbledore might not fire me, but I don’t want to be in centre of attention either. Especially of this kind.”

“Then you won’t be,” Tom’s lips touched his neck again, staying there, and Harry tried to move away half-heartedly. But it felt good, and disregarding social norms, what was so wrong with it? Tom’s lips were warm. They were familiar and comforting, and right now, Harry needed comfort. Everything else didn’t matter.

“You won’t be,” Tom repeated. “I’ll make sure of that. You don’t have to worry.”

Contrary to how he intended it, this reassurance only triggered Harry’s alarm, so he straightened, twisting his head to send Tom a glare.

“Forget about it,” he warned. “You won’t touch a hair on Oakwood’s head. Do you understand me? Not a hair, Tom.”

“I always knew you like to suffer,” Tom rubbed his nose against Harry’s ear affectionately. “But fine, whatever. I’ll do as you say.”

“Do you promise?” Harry continued to stare, even though the angle wasn’t comfortable. “Don’t make me regret sharing this with you. I trust you, and if you abuse that trust…” He let the threat hang. Before, Tom might have gotten defensive, but now he just snorted, tightening his grip around Harry’s neck and nuzzling into his hair. This softer playful side of him was entirely new, and Harry found it heart melting.

“I promise,” Tom uttered. “Just stop worrying about everything. And if you want to understand the meaning of my gifts, you can ask me directly. I never thought you would go to Oakwood of all people.”

“Yes, that was stupid,” Harry admitted. His worry left him, chased away by Tom’s steady presence. “But at least I found out what it means. Thank you. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. Largely inappropriate, but beautiful.”

“Talking about inappropriate…” Tom arched his neck, and before Harry could react, he pressed his lips to the corner of his mouth. It lasted for a second only — Tom jumped back just as Harry jerked away and raised his hand in an attempt to smack him.

“Tom!” he hissed. He got an arrogant, happy smirk in response.

“I will see you tomorrow,” Tom told him. “And forget about propriety. It has no place in our relationship.”

Harry snorted, half-amused, half-disbelieving.

“Very reassuring,” he muttered. But in a way, it was. His heart felt lighter, and even the thought of tomorrow didn’t bring any anxiety with it.   

As the door behind Tom was shut, he pulled out the spoon, studying it intently. A promise of safety and comfort? An oath of devotion? A hope for an eternal union? Tom was a romantic. How had he never noticed it before?

But Tom had always been so reserved about showing emotions. He was quick to anger and jealousy, and yes, he could be surprisingly affectionate psychically, but gifts? The tenderness and playfulness he was now exhibiting? Harry could hardly believe it came from the same boy who still shied away from using the word “love.”

No. He wouldn’t go there. Words didn’t mean as much as actions, and Tom could have his own reasons for ignoring them.

Huffing at his ridiculous insecurity, Harry stood up, stretching his grumbling muscles.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said aloud. It sounded like a lie, and yet it didn’t make him feel a liar. Would strangeness never end?

Harry approached the door, watching it for a while. Who decided what was appropriate or inappropriate? His world consisted of Tom and Tom alone. That meant that they were the only ones who could decide on the boundaries.

Affection was acceptable. Gifts were acceptable, whatever they were. Innocent kisses were acceptable… probably.

Sleeping together was not.

With a small self-deprecating smile, Harry focused on the door again. Tom had guessed his password the last time, but it wouldn’t happen now. Now, it was time to come up with something entirely unexpected.

“Eternal union,” he said before waving his wand. It glowed blue, solidifying his choice. This wouldn’t be something he would say himself, but it was what Tom’s gift meant, and most importantly, Tom would never guess that Harry used it.

No more night visits.

Satisfied with this small victory, Harry went to his table. He wished he could see Tom creep toward his room at night and get stuck before the door, trying a password after a password.

The image put a huge grin on his face.

Harry was still smiling hours later, when he finally went to bed.

 

***

 

During breakfast next day, Apophis brought Tom another letter. It came in the same strange grey envelope, and once again, Tom pursed his lips briefly before waving the concerned questions of his friends away.

This couldn’t be a coincidence. Something was happening, something Tom wasn’t willing to share. Of course, Harry could simply ask, but if it was something serious, Tom was unlikely to tell him. He would have already done it otherwise.

That meant he would have to find out by himself. But how?

Thoughtfully, Harry reached for his fork, yet something made him pause. The fork was emanating a strange sort of heat, almost as if it was full of magic. It made no sense, why would it be…

The realisation came a second too late. The fork exploded right into his face, and the weak shield he had managed to conjure non-verbally protected him only to an extent. Terrible heat bit into his skin, sizzling through it, and Harry had to bite down on his tongue to prevent himself from screaming.

Fortunately, the curse wasn’t very powerful, so the fire faded before it could do much damage. Fighting through his blurry vision, Harry managed to see Tom, who stood frozen at his table, his face pale from shock and horror. Then Slughorn made his way towards him, and Harry turned to face him.

“Good Merlin!” he exclaimed. His worried expression reminded Harry of the past, of the day he asked him about the secret memories. “We need to get you to the hospital wing quick. I have the salve that will help, but it must be applied as soon as possible. Come, come with me.”

Harry nodded, wincing at the pain this motion caused. He didn’t risk turning to Tom again, and he couldn’t even begin to guess at what had happened.

Later, all later. For now, he could only think of the pain.

 

***

 

Forty minutes later, the pain was almost gone. His face still felt raw, but it was nothing, and that was exactly what Harry told Madam Bertinger. To his frustration, his arguments fell on deaf ears. She was almost as bad as Madam Pomfrey, grim and relentless in her insistence that he had to stay at least for a day. Slughorn and even Dumbledore supported her, so Harry was confined to bed against his will.

“This is a very unpleasant situation,” Dumbledore said, his voice subdued. “I thought you should know that we found the person responsible for it.”

“Really?” Harry raised his eyebrows before hissing in frustration. All right, so maybe he wasn’t fully recovered yet. “That was fast.”

“Several ghosts saw him approach the High Table early this morning,” Dumbledore grimaced, like he himself was in pain. “It was already served partly. He must have cursed your fork then.”    

“Who was it?”

“Michael Richards.”

“Richards?” Harry gaped, genuinely stunned. Was it over the incident with Alice? He had merely taken points from him! He could have done much worse, considering the extent of Alice’s injuries. 

Dumbledore nodded, looking even grimmer now.

“Apparently, the incident during your lesson led to Mr. Richards being bullied by other students. He decided to direct his anger at you.”

Harry shook his head in disbelief, trying to come to terms with this idea and failing. Bullying? The accident had only just happened, how did it rattle Richards enough to make him act out in this extreme manner?

And Tom. Oh, no! If Tom knew it was Richards…

“Could you send Tom to me?” Harry blurted out. Then he wavered, realising how it had to sound. The stare Dumbledore sent him was heavy and piercing, and Harry tried to look as clueless as possible.

“He must be worried sick,” he uttered innocently. “Madam Bertinger didn’t let him enter before she finished treating me.”

“But of course,” Dumbledore offered him a polite smile. “I hope your injury will stop bothering you soon. As for Mr. Richards, I believe you should decide on his punishment. What he did warrants an expulsion, but—”

“No, there is no need for that,” Harry said hastily. “Taking points would be enough.” Dumbledore raised an incredulous eyebrow, so he added. “And getting him to scrub some cauldrons?”     

Suddenly, Dumbledore smiled, and this smile was so real, so warm that Harry’s breath caught in his throat.

He remembered this smile. There had been times when it was his best reward.

“You are very generous,” Dumbledore remarked softly. “Very well, I shall pass your wishes to the Headmaster. Be well soon.”

He left, and almost immediately after that, Tom slipped inside. He was still paler than normal, and the wild look in his eyes made Harry groan inwardly. It was amazing that Tom hadn’t cursed his way inside the ward by now, if that was how terrified he was still feeling.

“I’m all right,” Harry told him quickly. “See? Almost completely healed.”

“I didn’t see this coming,” Tom said. He sounded shell-shocked. “I didn’t predict this.”

“I doubt anyone could. The bullying had to be really bad for him to snap like this, and you don’t even share the House, so you couldn’t have known.”

“I didn’t predict this,” Tom said again, almost monotonously. “Why didn’t I predict this?”

“Come here,” Harry thrust his hand in his direction. Robotically, Tom approached, taking it and pressing his wrist to his ear, as if hoping to hear the life beating in it. “See?” Harry tried to catch his gaze. “I’m fine. That was a prank rather than an attack — I wasn’t in any real danger.”

At this, Tom’s eyes finally cut to him, almost black in their rage.

“A prank?” he hissed. “A prank? There was an explosion. It could have blinded you! If not for your shield, it would have burned you so severely that even Slughorn’s salves wouldn’t help!” 

“You exploded water in my face once. And if I recall, you thought it was funny.”

Tom flushed, glaring at him with wounded fury.

“That wasn’t— I wasn’t old enough then,” he snapped defensively. “And you weren’t as important as you are now. No one will hurt you!”

The almost childish confidence of the last phrase infused Harry with bubbly warmth. He smiled at Tom, brushing his front curls behind his ears fondly.

“Stop being concerned,” he murmured. “And leave Richards alone, okay? Let Professor Dumbledore handle his punishment.”

“Dumbledore!” Tom’s voice went an octave higher in disgust. “What will he do, feed him sweets?”

“Actually, I suggested the punishment.”

Tom’s face turned even sourer.

“Great,” he groused. “Then he wouldn’t even suffer through sweets. You probably told Dumbledore to just deduct points.” 

Harry shrugged a little guiltily. Huffing, Tom inhaled slowly before releasing his breath. His anger still felt like a real, breathing being, and Harry shook their entwined hands, trying to refocus his attention.  

“Don’t interfere,” he warned. “I will watch Richards myself if I have to. You are not my personal avenger — I don’t need one. So forget about him. Do I have your word?”

“This is the second promise you ask me to make in two days,” Tom noted. His rage finally began to cool down, leaving a strange serenity on his face.

“Do I have it?” Harry insisted, and Tom let out a deliberately loud sigh before nodding.

“You have it,” he agreed. “I won’t do anything to him. I remember our agreement. Never doubt it.”

The last words had a sinister edge to them, but Harry couldn’t imagine what that could possibly mean, so in the end, he decided to ignore it.

“Tell me something else,” he murmured. “Who sends you letters?”

The change was instantaneous — Tom’s features shuttered, his eyes went colder, and a blank, impersonal smile stretched his lips.

“It’s a British journal,” he said pleasantly. “I’m doing research on Defence against the Dark Arts and Charms, the one I told you about, and they are interested in publishing it.”  

“Really?” Harry smiled just as blankly. “What journal is that? And is your research done? Can I finally see it?”

“Maybe later,” Tom touched his cheek gently. “I want it to be a surprise.”

Harry nodded, forcing himself to smile wider.

Tom was lying. It was embarrassingly obvious. Whatever letters he was getting, they unnerved him, and he didn’t want Harry to know.

He’d have to find everything out in his own way, then. And why not today, since he got an unexpected sick leave?

 

***

 

Apophis was sitting on the top of the Owlerly, observing other birds with a superior, condescending look.

“Just like your master,” Harry grumbled. “Well? Come here.”

The demon let out a derisive sound and flapped his wings once, as if shooing him away.

“Come here,” Harry snapped at him, “I don’t have all day. It concerns Tom, and if you care about him, you’re going to help me.” 

With another huffing sound, Apophis got down, giving him a sour stare.

“I need to see one of the last letters you delivered to him,” Harry said. “Can you bring it to me?”

Apophis snorted in derision, and Harry growled. Only Tom could get such an infuriating pet.

“I know you are smarter than most birds,” he spoke slowly, trying to stay patient. His absence from the hospital wing could be discovered any moment, and the last thing he needed was an even bigger fuss around himself. “I know that Tom spoils you beyond measure. You’ll be capable of getting into his room — he definitely invites you in there. Take one of those letters and let me take a look at it. If there is nothing wrong with it, then you can take it back. If Tom is having problems, then I’ll be able to help him. Do you understand?”

At first, Apophis continued to stare, his large eyes intelligent but completely unfathomable. Then, without a sound, he flung himself through the nearest window, leaving Harry in the company of other curious birds.

This was all he could do at this stage. If Apophis proved to be useless, he’d find another way, but he’d get his hands on Tom’s letters.

Tom was never nervous. And if he was, there to be a serious reason underlying it — reason that Harry had to understand.

He returned to the hospital wing just on time — another lesson ended and Tom came to visit him again, looking haggard, like they hadn’t seen each other in months.

The same pattern repeated several more times before Madam Bertinger closed the ward for the evening, muttering complaints under her breath. Five minutes later, Apophis pushed the window open, clenching the grey envelope in his claws. He really looked like a demon bird, his movements almost human as he landed next to Harry and dropped the letter on his lap.

“Thank you,” smiling gratefully, Harry brought it closer to his eyes. The handwriting was terrible — it looked like whomever the sender was, they didn’t write often, or at all. Curious now, he carefully took the letter out. It had only four sentences, but their content instantly chilled his blood, making his stomach drop into nothingness.

Don’t think too long. I want to hear what answer you have for me in three days the latest. Your blood is tainted, you’s a result of filth union. Pay respects to the real Slytherin’s heir or everyone will know you’s no better than a Muggle.       

The memory of a short man with dirty hair, missing teeth, and deranged eyes resurrected itself in his mind. The initial shock it brought quickly exploded into fury and fierce protectiveness, and Harry hissed, throwing the letter away in disgust.

Morfin. Morfin Gaunt. How had he learned of Tom?

Stupid question — at least several British articles were dedicated to Tom, the first sane heir of Slytherin in years. There weren’t many, but they were published on a steady basis, several times per year. Morfin was living in isolation, but even he could have gotten hold on some newer issues. And apparently, he decided to blackmail Tom, threatening to expose the origins of his birth to others.

A muscle twitched in his jaw unwillingly. His magic crackled, and Harry clenched his fists, glaring into the darkness behind the window.

Tom knew his background. He knew about his parents and about Morfin — Harry had told him the truth all those years ago, when he gave him the locket. But would Tom want for the rest of the world to know the details? He didn’t hide the fact that he’s a half-blood, but Harry could bet that he had never volunteered any real information about his birth, especially the details about his Muggle father. Tom despised this connection, he’d want to hide it.

If it wasn’t for their agreement, chances were, Tom would have already paid Morfin and the Riddles a visit, leaving a trail of bodies behind. Maybe he was planning something similar now, only without any unnecessary deaths — he could have simply modified Morfin’s memory like Voldemort had done it. He would never let himself be blackmailed, so he would be forced to make his next move within the next several days.     

Unless Harry acted first.

The thought lingered, quickly gaining shape and sending dark determination to every part of his body. Harry stood up, summoned his clothes, and slowly put them on.

Technically, Tom could deal with Morfin in a better way. But their meeting could also go badly. Most importantly, Tom was bound to feel hurt. The memories Dumbledore had shown to Harry were too brief to understand what Tom Riddle experienced, but his Tom? He was emotionally vulnerable, and if Harry could do anything to protect him, he would. Whatever it took. Morfin had pointed out his location, so finding him wouldn’t be a problem.

‘And what next?’ his mind whispered. ‘What will you do next?

“I don’t know,” Harry whispered back.

Well. Then he would have to improvise. It wouldn’t be the first time.

And it was for Tom, so the details didn’t matter.

 

***

 

Seeing the Gaunts’ house was like seeing a ghost. It mirrored the image Harry had seen in Dumbledore’s Pensieve to perfection, which sent a strange rush of repulsion and longing through his veins.

That life was long gone now, along with his Dumbledore, his version of Gaunts, and the Tom Riddle he knew. This shack was in the same terrible shape, but it wasn’t his. Nothing in this world was, nothing but Tom. Yet somehow, it was enough to tip the scales, making this place his true home.

Shaking off strange illogical thoughts, Harry pushed the door open without knocking, holding his wand loosely. Morfin jumped from his armchair with a furious hiss, overturning the bottles that accumulated next to his feet. Either he was speaking a mix of English and Parseltongue or an ancient part of Harry’s mind recognised some of the distantly familiar words because he clearly heard “you,” “my house,” and “kill you.” 

“I came to talk to you about Tom,” he said sharply. “Your nephew. Does this name ring a bell or do you need a sobering potion first?”

Morfin tried to focus on him, but his eyes kept darting around suspiciously.

“You’s not him,” he growled, raising his wand but aiming it at the door instead of Harry. “Where’s that abomination?”

Harry saw red. The instinct to protect Tom was so ingrained in him that it came to a roaring life whenever it detected any threat, verbal or physical. His wand hand trembled with an effort to hold his fury back and not curse this man into oblivion.

Oblivion. What if—

“I told him to come alone, not send some, some—” Morfin hissed again. “Some Mudblood! Get out of my house! Get out now!”

“I don’t think so.” Harry waved the clutter away from the chair and sat down, crossing his legs. His mind was quickly sliding through different ideas, seeking the one that could work.

Morfin was beyond rationality. He could talk to him, but it was useless — this much was already obvious. Still, he had to try.

“What do you want from him?” he asked. He tried to speak conversationally, but the tense undernote in his voice was ruining this impression. His magic was whirling in him in agitated, dangerous circles, waiting for the permission to break out and protect Tom in whatever way it could.

Not now, he tried to tell himself, but his magic wasn’t listening. It felt like it was everywhere, climbing into his throat and choking him from within in its attempts to force him to act.

Not now, he thought again, with more force this time. For a brief second, his magic and his mind clashed in a battle for dominance, and then magic retreated, though it continued to swell somewhere under his skin.

“It’s easy, ain’t it?” Morfin muttered, leering at him. “Money. He owes me money. A lot of money. Stealing the status and the fame from a family like ours, that’s all that filth’s capable of. Looking like that Muggle, an exact copy of his, sickening. A Muggle lover too, I bet. Does someone write about me? No, they drag me to Azkaban. Accosting a Muggle, they say. Hexing him. Served him right! That disgusting rat—”

“How much money?” Harry interrupted him, although his mind was gradually zeroing in on a specific solution. And it didn’t include giving anything to Morfin.

“Money,” Morfin said absent-mindedly, waving his wand around. “Yes, money. A lot of money. I’m going to make a statement. Let everyone know. Should’ve never claimed Slytherin name, he’s not deserved it, it’s not his. Going to make him regret it.” 

Harry’s magic snapped forward again, and this time, he didn’t stop it. A furious rush of it collided with Morfin, making him fall over with a surprised grunt, and before he could move, Harry stood up, aiming his wand at his head.

Tom Riddle of his time had framed Morfin for murder and changed his memories. There wasn’t going to be any murder now, but the memories part had a potential. The only problem was, Harry had no idea how to modify them.

But thanks to his Tom, he now knew how to erase them. He knew how to manoeuvre between them, how to pick them, and how to choose layers that had to be deleted. The knowledge was there — he only had to use it.

Obliviate,” he said. His voice sounded far deadlier than he expected. His wand flashed green, and just as the light moved towards Morfin, Harry’s mind dived into it, dissolving within the spell. He entered Morfin’s head, moving between the memories swiftly, bypassing some and directing his magic at others, devouring them until nothing was left.

All information about Tom, gone. All memories about the Slytherin origins, gone. Some facts about the Gaunts remained, but others were erased, leaving shadows of confusion behind. Images of family artefacts — the locket, the ring, all melting in the green fog of the spell. 

Harry came to his senses with a gasp, stumbling away and lowering his wand. Violent rushes of adrenaline kept rolling through his body, filling him with a sense of almost maddening power.

It took a while for him to calm down. Morfin was lying on the floor, mumbling something, his eyes even more unfocused than before. Harry turned away, sickened by this display and its implications.

He’d done it. He erased almost as many memories as Lockhart had with his victims. Morfin would be barely functional now, always confused, always lost in the haze of insanity. Not that he had been perfectly sane prior to that, but at least he had his ideas of pride, something to keep him going. Now…

But it was for Tom.

Doubts and regrets faded, transforming into familiar grim certainty and satisfaction. Carefully, Harry approached Morfin, bending over him and staring into his eyes.

Legilimens,” he uttered, then cringed away from the whirlwind of Morfin’s crippled mind. Muddy memories surrounded him, throwing distorted flashes of unfamiliar life at him. There was nothing of Tom there, and nothing about Slytherin connection. Even if Morfin saw any mention of him in the newspaper, he wouldn’t recognise him. Tom was safe. 

Harry pulled back, still grimacing at the contact. He felt dirty — how could have Snape tolerated bursting into his mind again and again? It was ugly. He never wanted to experience this feeling again.

A glint of a ring caught his eye. Pausing, Harry raised Morfin’s hand, staring at the Resurrection Stone on his finger. 

The heirloom of the House of Gaunt. A beautiful and a dangerous symbol that the members of this family passed to each other from generation to generation. Morfin got it from Marvolo… and Tom was next in line, wasn’t he? This ring belonged to him. Or it could belong to him if Harry took it from Morfin and brought it back to Hogwarts.

The temptation that started out as a thin stream quickly turned into a powerful flow, overwhelming him with a sudden rush of possessive greed on Tom’s behalf.

Tom deserved this ring. It was his heirloom. Morfin wouldn’t remember what it meant anyway, so there was no reason to leave it to him. If anyone could bring glory to the Gaunts’ and Slytherin’s lines, it was Tom, not this deranged blood purist who would stay within this hovel until the day he died. 

His mind made up, Harry pulled the ring off Morfin’s finger. For a moment, a warm breath of energy enveloped his hand. The Resurrection Stone flared with golden light before growing dark again, and Harry nearly dropped it in surprise.

What was it? This Resurrection Stone didn’t belong to him, did it? He’d acquired the status of the Master of Death back in his own timeline, so these Hallows had nothing to do with him. At least he thought so.

Strangely unsettled, Harry hid the ring in his pocket. Then he summoned Morfin’s quill, his parchment and envelope, and wrote a quick note for Tom.

Don’t come here. I changed my mind. I’m leaving Britain and I don’t need anything from you. Forget that we are related.

Maybe this wouldn’t stop Tom from investigating further, but it would calm him down for a while, and he wouldn’t feel forced to escape from Hogwarts. This was all Harry could ask for.

If the need arose, they could discuss it during holidays, preferably in the summer. But ideally, Tom would be at peace, and he’d feel no desire to seek Morfin out… and he’d never learn about Harry’s involvement.

Folding the envelope in half, Harry left the house, refusing to look back. The hisses of guilt tried to break through, but he steadily ignored them.

He did what had to be done. There was no other choice. Whatever life Morfin led now, it was his own doing — he should have never tried to blackmail Tom.

He would do the same thing again if needed.

 

***

 

When Harry returned to Hogwarts, it was still dark outside. Giving Apophis the fake letter, he hesitated, wondering if he should head for the hospital wing or go to his room. He wasn’t in pain and he was an adult, so it’s not like he had to obey Madam Bertinger.

Pleased with this justification, Harry walked towards his floor. A minute later, he was already murmuring his password, anticipating the meeting with his comfortable bed.

His plans were thwarted when he realised that someone else had already occupied it. Even in the darkness, the shape that curled under his blanket was intimately familiar to him, and for a while, Harry stood still, watching it, torn between affection, exasperation, and surprise.

The reason for why Tom was sleeping in his bed was clear, just as the explanation of why he was doing it with Harry’s shirt clenched in his fists. But how had he gotten here? He couldn’t have possibly guessed his password in less than a day! 

Unwillingly impressed, Harry walked to the side and knelt near Tom, stroking his hair lightly. Tom reacted immediately, moving closer to follow his touch, burying his nose in Harry’s shirt with an incoherent murmur.

“Tom,” Harry whispered. “Wake up. You can’t sleep here.”

At first, there was no response, but then Tom’s eyes fluttered open. They instantly focused on Harry, still hazy and vulnerable from sleep.

“Harry,” he muttered, and a soft, open smile lit up his face. “They didn’t let me spend the night in the hospital wing. I missed you.”

His heart skipped a long beat, making his breathing stutter. Feeling how the darkness that had accumulated within him after his meeting with Morfin began to melt away, Harry leaned closer, pressing Tom’s palm to his face.

“Have you woken up or are you still dreaming?” he teased. “You are rarely this lovely.”

Tom blinked sleepily, and then the first sparks of awareness flickered in his eyes.

“Harry!” he sat up abruptly, still clutching the green shirt in one hand. “What are you doing here? They weren’t supposed to release you until morning.”

“I got bored,” Harry stood up, and Tom began to follow him instinctively before stopping. “The question is, what are you doing here? This is my room, and I distinctly remember telling you that you shouldn’t sleep here.”

“Technically, you told me that I can’t sleep with you, not that I can’t sleep in your room,” Tom argued, his words distorted by a long yawn. “And since you weren’t here, it didn’t count.”

With a snort, Harry flopped down onto the bed, but before he even got comfortable, Tom pushed closer, taking his face in both hands and examining it intently.

“Does it hurt?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Harry tried to wave him off, but Tom didn’t let him. With a frown, he continued to stare, as if trying to find some invisible scars. He leaned even closer, his lips almost brushing against Harry’s cheekbone, and all of a sudden, it felt too strange. Unfamiliar tension sliced through Harry in a sharp, jerky motion, and he pushed Tom away, moving at a more appropriate distance, not even trying to hide how shaken he felt.

Oddly, Tom didn’t appear to notice. He continued to frown, his troubled eyes still glued to his skin in search of any possible source of pain. The tension faded, and Harry leaned back against his pillow, allowing himself to smile.

“How did you bypass my password?” he wondered. “You couldn’t have possibly guessed it.”

The worry left Tom’s face, giving way to familiar smugness.

“‘Eternal union’,” he drawled. “What an interesting choice. I wonder if it has any special meaning?”

“Yeah, it does,” Harry grumbled. “It was supposed to be something you’d never think of.” 

Tom laughed, and the corners of Harry’s lips curled up in response.

“Next time, you should try harder,” Tom advised. “It took me one attempt to guess it.”

“What? That’s impossible!”

Ignoring his outrage, Tom scooted closer again, throwing an arm over his middle.

“I’m sleeping with you tonight,” he announced calmly. “Since you’ve sneaked out of the hospital wing, you are in no position to throw me out.”

Harry considered it for a moment.

“If I yell at you, will that help?” he asked. Tom let out a thoughtful sound.

“No,” he said finally, smug satisfaction mixing with sleepiness in his voice. “If you were genuinely angry, you would have actually yelled at me instead of asking. So I’m not going anywhere tonight.”

There were many things Harry wanted to say to this. Starting yelling was an attractive option, too, since Tom believed they were beyond it now.

But after Morfin, being close to Tom felt healing. The darkness didn’t feel threatening, and even the whispers of guilt went silent.

“Only for tonight,” Harry warned. “If I find you in here again, I will yell.”

“Fine,” Tom said, but his smile announced, ‘We’ll see.

Such an infuriating display of insolence, and yet somehow, it was charming rather than irritating. Adjusting his pillow, Harry closed his eyes, moving until his head was lying on Tom’s shoulder. He thought he felt lips pressing to his hair, but the touch was too light to know if it was really there.

One of Tom’s hands found his, squeezing it, and Harry squeezed back. The sleep came soon afterwards.

 

***

 

As before, Tom was gone in the morning. Torn between relief and strange disappointment, Harry went to the Great Hall. Everyone greeted him warmly, including Oakwood, which gave him pause. She was courteous and concerned about his health, and there was not a trace of disapproval in her looks.

Was she just upset at him getting hurt? Or was something more at play here?

Harry threw a suspicious glance towards Tom. Tom only shrugged, with a small smile playing on his lips.

That could mean several things, none of them good. But Tom wouldn’t have gone to talk to her just to erase her memory, would he? Maybe they had simply talked. Although that was bad by itself…

His sense of duty told Harry to dig deeper and find out the truth, but another part, the one that formed under the influence of life with Tom, whispered to let it go. Whatever happened to Oakwood, it affected only that one memory of his mistake. Yes, it was a terrible breach of her privacy, but it wasn’t worse than what Harry had done to Myrtle, and it was far better than what he’d done to Morfin yesterday.

He didn’t want to know. And the situation wasn’t serious enough for him to drive himself crazy over it.

Still, he tried to keep his interactions with Oakwood to a minimum. And he avoided letting their eyes meet for an extended period.

Apophis arrived fifteen minutes after breakfast. Tom tensed as soon as he saw the envelope, but when he read the letter, his face smoothened, turning incredulous. For a short moment, it lightened in joy and relief, before an expression of aloofness took its place.   

Harry caught it all, and he quickly pressed a goblet with pumpkin juice to his lips to hide a pleased smile.

After that, time went by quickly. The days were hectic, but in a good way, so the thoughts about Oakwood, Richards, and even Morfin left his mind. Every evening, Harry came up with a new password, and almost every night, he woke up with Tom spread across his bed, sleeping without a care in the world. There was no possible way for Tom to really guess these passwords — he must have devised a spell that let him know everything Harry said as he was standing next to the door. But no matter how hard he tried, Harry couldn’t find any traces of it, and as the result, he couldn’t block Tom’s access.

Sometimes his patience snapped and he sent Tom away right in the middle of the night. Sometimes he felt too tired to fight about it and to pretend he didn’t find sleeping together comforting. In any case, his thoughts revolved around Tom obsessively, whether it was because of his absence, presence, or something else. Harry loved his lessons with passion, but his focus on them was never absolute because like always, Tom made a home for himself at the back of his mind, and not thinking about him was an impossibility. 

How did he learn of the passwords? Why did he break in on some nights but not on others? What was he doing with his housemates during their lecture hour, when they all gathered in the Slytherin Common Room? Why did most students look at him as if he’d hung the moon, how did he manage to make pureblood Slytherins more tolerant, when was he going to explain the secret research he was conducting?

The questions were never-ending, but Harry was reluctant to ask them. Some of them felt too intrusive while others could have answers he’d find disappointing.

It made him feel good to think that Tom was responsible for the Slytherins’ attitude. That was what he’d told Dumbledore and what he believed. And if it happened to be a coincidence, he didn’t want to know it.

The thought of the upcoming Christmas filled Harry with delighted excitement. Spending several weeks in their home was possibly the happiest time of the year for him, rivalled only by the entire summer when they could go wherever they wanted. Tom was equally enthusiastic, dropping hints about some great gift he’d prepared, and Harry couldn’t wait for December to come.

He already knew what his first gift to Tom was going to be, too. The ring he’d taken from Morfin. He was almost sure that Tom wouldn’t connect the dots, but to be certain, he thought of a believable explanation as to where he got it from.

Tom would be happy to get this ring. He loved everything related to Slytherin and his status, and Harry could already imagine the smile that would grace his lips, the way his eyes would flash with pride and contentment.

Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

 

***

 

Their Christmas tree was shining with different magical lights. It enveloped the room in a welcoming colourful glow, and right now, sitting on the floor, on the thick warm carpet, Harry couldn’t imagine feeling happier.

It was snowing heavily behind their windows, to the point where the whiteness was all they could see. Tom was sitting across him, with a cup of hot chocolate in his hands, watching him with undisguised attentiveness. 

“So, is it time yet?” Harry wondered. Tom snapped his fingers carelessly, conjuring burning green numbers. 

“Two minutes left,” he said, and Harry chuckled, shaking his head. 

“Since when are you obsessed with midnight? We never exchanged the gifts on it. Who does it?”

“This is the right way to celebrate Christmas,” Tom insisted. “The new year will be important, so we have to do everything properly.”

“And let me guess, you’re the one who decides what ‘properly’ means,” snorting, Harry took a sip of his drink. Tom’s eyes tracked his movements, watching with such intensity, as if nothing else mattered.

The last minute passed, and a shower of red sparks exploded from the end of Harry’s wand, announcing that midnight had arrived. Tom’s face instantly transformed, becoming anticipatory and greedy.

“You first,” he demanded. Harry rolled his eyes, even as his lips curled up in an affectionate smile.  

“You are almost sixteen and yet you still manage to sound like a spoiled brat,” he murmured, pulling a small box from under the tree. “Here it is. Merry Christmas.”

Tom took his gift, preening like he was getting a reward issued by the Minister for Magic himself. But then his face softened, and by the time he unwrapped the ring, it was glowing with genuine, innocent curiosity. Harry stared at his eyes, trying to catch every shift of emotion in them. 

At first, there was surprise. Then it changed to calculating assessment: Tom took the ring out carefully, studying it from all sides, probably trying to determine its value. His gaze lingered on the symbol of the Deathly Hallows, paused there, and slowly went up to Harry, filling with wonder.

“I know this ring,” Tom said, subdued. The wonder in his eyes strengthened, turning into outright disbelief. “This is the Peverell coat of arms, the heirloom of the Gaunts. I saw it on Marvolo Gaunt, in the book on the oldest pureblood families. He’s dead now, and that means his ring belongs to his son. My uncle. Where did you get it?” 

This wasn’t going the way Harry had hoped it would. But he still had an answer ready.

“It was sold before or after Marvolo’s death,” he said. “I managed to locate it because I thought it should be yours. It’s your heirloom.” 

Tom was silent, staring at him and clenching the ring in his hand possessively.

“It wasn’t sold,” he said finally, stronger and more defiant. “I know for a fact that several months ago, Morfin was wearing it. He sent several letters to me — the first of them bore this seal. He pressed the ring to it and left his mark to prove his identity.” 

Harry opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out, so he was forced to close it again. An unpleasant rush of something engulfed his face, turning it red or pale — or maybe green.

This… This was a miscalculation. A large one. Tom was not supposed to learn of his encounter with Morfin, not like this, and definitely not now. This would only convince him that Harry was willing to forego his morals even more than he already had, encouraging him to do things that would never be acceptable.

But could he have predicted that Tom knew about the ring and its whereabouts? He hadn’t seen Morfin’s first letter — he didn’t even think that Morfin was capable of remembering how to signs letters with magic.

Stupid. Of course he remembered it — family pride had been everything to him, he likely learned how to sign letters even before he understood how to write them.  

“I bought it,” Harry stated insistently. “So he must have sold it. And letters? What letters? When did he contact you?”

Tom tilted his head, studying him with narrowed eyes.

“You are lying,” he said softly. “I can tell. You did something to him. You are the reason he left me alone.”

Harry wanted to argue again, but Tom pressed his fingers to his lips, silencing him.

“Thank you,” he whispered. His dark eyes were shining with joy and gratitude, and devotion so profound that Harry’s heart jumped to his throat. “For me. You did it for me. And you brought me the ring. How did you know?”

Harry pulled Tom’s fingers away from his mouth, clenching them in his hand. Thirty seconds ago, he had been ready to self-combust from shame, but now it evaporated. It was difficult to feel self-disgust when Tom was looking at him with such an open admiration.          

“I noticed that you were getting letters,” Harry said awkwardly. “You reacted negatively to each of them and you lied to me, so I decided to find out what’s happening. Your demon bird helped. When I realised Morfin was blackmailing you, I paid him a visit and convinced him to stop.”

“Liar,” Tom crawled closer, burying his face in Harry’s neck and breathing him in. “Tell me the truth. What did you do to him?”

The trembling excitement in his voice cooled Harry’s embarrassment, replacing it with irritation.

“Stop your overactive imagination, you sadist,” he grumbled. “I tampered with his memories — your book turned out to be unexpectedly useful. He won’t remember anything about you or the so-called glory of his heritage. He’ll be—”

“A vegetable,” Tom finished, with so much gleefulness that Harry had to bite his lips to keep himself from commenting. “His whole life was based on his lineage. Without these memories, he’ll be completely insane. I won’t be surprised if Saint Mungo’s specialists come to forcibly hospitalise him after this.”     

“Shut up already,” Harry snapped, trying to push away the images of Morfin wandering around amidst the snow, lost and confused. ‘For Tom,’ he reminded himself. ‘It was worth it.’ 

Tom pulled away from him, and gradually, his brilliant smile dimmed.

“I apologise,” he uttered, looking so uncharacteristically serious that it took Harry aback. “I know you must feel bad about it. That’s who you are — I accept it. And that’s why I want you to know much it means to me. How much you mean to me.”

All words stuck uselessly in his throat. Harry tried to hold himself still even as a simmering shaky emotion unfolded in his chest, warming it until everything inside it began to melt, leaving him feeling shapeless.

“I know how much you sacrifice for me,” Tom continued, just as gravely. “I know that. I remember every instance. I might not always show it, but everything you did, everything you ever said to me is engraved in my mind. I’m grateful for it. I always will be.”

Something moist began to form in Harry’s eyes, so he shifted, trying to hide this embarrassing display of feelings. Tom stopped him: he took his hand and brought it to his lips, kissing his knuckles, still holding his gaze.

“Thank you,” he said, and maybe it was the shadows, or the angle, or something else, but all at once, Harry was hit by a stunning realisation of how incredibly beautiful Tom was. His breath hitched, and a strange half-forgotten sensation twisted his stomach, briefly leaving him mindless. 

Tom leaned closer again, and Harry’s heart lurched somewhere before starting to pound quickly, stealing his breath and confusing him even further. Tom’s lips touched his cheek, and his heart gave another violent twitch, in excitement or disappointment — he couldn’t tell.

But the bewildering stupor dissipated just as suddenly, and Harry shivered, alarmed by his own state of mind.

What was that?     

“A ring,” Tom mused, focusing on his gift again and effectively dragging Harry out of his panic. “I gave you one, too, all those years ago. How symbolic. Would you put it on me?”

Expected relief and unexpected shyness filled him to the brim, and Harry laughed, almost light-headed.

“Fine,” he said with a long-suffering sigh. Christmas was a good time for indulging Tom’s need for dramatics.

Taking the box, he held Tom’s hand and carefully put the ring on his slender finger, ignoring how the Resurrection Stone sang upon his touch.

Tom gazed at him, smiling a private smile, before shifting his eyes towards the ring. For a few moments, they shared a silence, with Tom admiring the ring and Harry staring at him, unable to look away. Then Tom lowered his hand, turning to face him again.

“My turn,” he announced. “I also have something special for you.”

No matter how many years passed, Harry’s mind kept reacting to the idea of getting gifts with the same wild enthusiasm. He grinned, bouncing and clapping his hands a few times in his playful eagerness. Tom gave him a knowing look, dragged a huge soft package from under the Christmas tree, and put it on his lap.

“Merry Christmas,” he murmured. Sending him an intrigued look, Harry pulled at the golden ribbon, trying to get it to release the contents of the package. What could it be? Based on the softness, it was some kind of blanket. But why would Tom give him one?

The final ribbon succumbed, revealing a silvery-green mass of fabric. It wasn’t a blanket — it was a cloak, and Harry stared at it, bewildered and uncomprehending. Tom had bought him clothes? It was nice, but why would he bother — it’s not like Harry was a fan of changing or expanding his wardrobe.    

Hesitantly, he touched the cloak, wondering what it was made of, and the moment he did, a thousand tingling rays of Tom’s magic enveloped his hand. Touching the rune on the spoon felt like Tom was standing next to him, sharing the warmth of his aura. This? This felt a hundred times stronger. Wherever Harry put his hands, he was engulfed by an intoxicating feel of Tom, his power, his magic — it was all over the cloak. Wearing it would be like having Tom’s arms around him all the time, like being hidden in a cocoon made of his magic.

Harry understood how the rune could produce the effect it did, but the cloak? It was a work of art. It was pure, raw power.

“What’s it made of?” Harry asked, not hiding his shock and awe. Tom preened, raising his chin smugly.

“Partly of cashmere,” he replied carelessly. “With some silk for linings and trimmings. And partly of magic.”

“Of magic?” Harry echoed. He couldn’t look at Tom for long — his gaze kept returning to the magnificence of the cloak. “How is that possible?”

“There is a rare ancient spell that only the most powerful wizards can perform,” Tom told him. He sounded so prideful that Harry would have laughed if he didn’t think it was fully warranted this time. “It helps to materialise magic, to give it physical shape. It is difficult to keep hold on it, even more difficult to create something from it, but I managed to weave it and make it a part of this cloak.”

“It is beautiful,” Harry uttered with feeling. And it was. It had delicate silver embroidery decorating the hem and even more complex lustrous patterns running along the sides, up to a hood. A huge letter “S” was curved at the back of the cloak, sparkling with silver and magic whenever the fabric moved.

The time and efforts this had to take, the amount of creativity and talent… Harry kept brushing his hands against his gift, still unable to believe that it could exist — that it could be made for him. 

“Why the Slytherin colours?” he asked when his voice returned to him again. “When I wear it, everyone will assume I’m a Slytherin.”

A mysterious smile curled Tom’s lips up.

“You’ll find out,” he promised. It sounded a little ominous, but Harry was too caught up in the admiration and reverence to think about it. The cloak wasn’t just beautiful — it felt addictive. And to think that Tom had taken so much care to make this gift for him.

“When did you make it?” he wondered. “You were constantly so busy. Patrolling the corridors, stalking me, playing nice with other students, breaking into my rooms—”

Tom rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

“If you want to know, I kept working on it during what you called a lecture hour. In the Slytherin Common Room.”

“Really?” Harry snorted with laughter. “And what, did other Slytherins sit around you silently, watching you work?”

He meant it as a joke, but Tom nodded, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Can you imagine how impressive it looks?” he asked. “They could see me weave magic from the thin air. Trust me, they would have gladly paid me to witness this. It was a privilege — they were honoured to be able to watch it.”

For once, Harry didn’t think Tom was exaggerating. Even Dumbledore would be impressed, he was sure of it.

“By the way, we were invited to a party,” Tom said casually. “Lestrange’s family is hosting it on the thirty-first.”

Harry choked, almost dropping the cloak on the floor.

“The Lestranges?” he wheezed out. “Invited us to a party? Us as in, you and me?”

Tom’s lips twitched in amusement as he nodded.

“No way,” Harry told him, aghast. “I’m not going to their party!” 

“We can’t exactly refuse. It wouldn’t be polite. Besides, I already sent a letter with our acceptance, so we’ll have to make an appearance.”

“Forget it!” Harry hugged the cloak and dropped himself into an armchair. “I have no interest in pureblood parties. And you never bothered to even introduce me to your friends properly, so why would I want to go there?”

“This will be a chance to rectify it,” Tom approached him, lowering himself to the floor and resting his hands on Harry’s knees. “Please?”

It was impossible to refuse any of Tom’s “please’s”. Why did he have to have such expressive eyes? Even knowing he was being blatantly manipulated, Harry was helpless to say ‘no’.

“What will I do there?” he tried to reason, though he already knew it was futile. “Watching peacocks? Listening to the purebloods talk about Muggles or flaunting their fortunes? I hate this kind of company, and I’m pretty sure these feelings will be mutual.”

“No, they won’t,” Tom replied sharply, his eyes darkening to dark brown. “They will show you the respect you deserve. They will make you feel welcome.”

Harry sniffed in derision, but Tom continued to stare at him imploringly, wide-eyed and earnest. All Harry could do was surrender.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “I’ll go to this stupid party. But don’t expect me to stay long there. Two hours — this is the best I can give you.”

Tom beamed, jumping to his feet and pulling Harry out of his chair, whirling them both in a dance.

“And you’ll wear your cloak,” he told him breathlessly. “I want everyone to see it.”

“Fine, you show-off, I’ll wear it. Satisfied now?”

“Yes,” Tom said, and the happiness on his face was so profound that it felt like sunlight. “Yes, I am.”

Harry could probably attend a hundred more parties if it put so much joy into Tom’s smile.

Like he said, hopeless.

 

***

 

They celebrated until four in the morning. Their dancing changed into watching a film together, which turned into Harry singing Christmas songs and Tom pouncing on him to make him shut up, which grew into mock fighting that ended with them both lying on the floor, trying to catch their breaths. Afterwards, Tom brought them cups with fresh hot chocolate, and that was when Harry’s mind swam.

“Too tired,” he managed to say. His eyes were falling shut, his legs shaking from an effort to keep standing. “Bed?”    

“Of course,” Tom wrapped his hands around his waist, holding him upright. “Come with me.”

Almost blindly, Harry stumbled into the bedroom, letting Tom direct him towards the bed. His pillow was so welcoming, he instantly hugged it close, sighing with tired contentment. The bed moved under the increased weight when Tom joined him and covered him with a blanket. 

“My love,” Harry murmured, closing his eyes. He heard a sharp intake of breath followed by a shaky exhale. Then Tom’s hands slid around him, his lips pressing to Harry’s ear.

“Say that again,” Tom whispered. “Please.”

Harry half-turned to him, trying to blink through sleepiness.

“My love,” he repeated softly. “Always my love. My Tom.”

Tom shuddered, his eyes fluttering. Once again, he looked almost ethereally beautiful, but Harry had no strength to admire him. The heaviness on his eyelids was getting unbearable, and he began to fall into an alluring nothingness. 

“You are everything to me,” he heard Tom say with quiet certainty. “The thing is, I’m not sure you understand it. But you will. One day, you will — that’s a promise.”

Harry wasn’t sure he really heard it. His magic flickered weakly, fighting against this crushing weariness, but then it succumbed, and in the next second, his consciousness was no more.

 

***

 

The Lestranges, predictably, lived in a ridiculously huge mansion that screamed of wealth. Its vast halls glistened with decorations and family portraits, and Harry really wanted to burst into laughter. If Ron and Hermione were here with him, he would have followed this impulse, but his only company was Tom, and Tom blended in flawlessly. He looked just as stuck up as the rest of the purebloods, holding his chin up as if he were a king. The most ridiculous thing was that people acknowledged it — most of them bowed slightly as they passed, and there were respect, admiration, and wariness in their eyes.

“Why are they all bobbing their heads to you?” Harry murmured. Since Tom was taller, he had to tilt his own head up to whisper to him. “Do they know how old you are?”

Tom turned to him, giving him a fond smile.

“They do,” he said simply.

“So why the worship? Just because you’re the heir of Slytherin? Are they really this senseless?”

Tom pressed his hand to the mouth, stifling a laugh, and Harry caught several amazed stares directed at them.

“No, not because I’m the heir of Slytherin,” Tom commented wryly. “Although that was a good starting point. I know these people, I met them on more than one occasion. And they aren’t bowing to me, they are bowing to us.”

Harry nearly stumbled, horrified at this idea.

“No thanks,” he muttered lowly. “It’s disgusting. Wait, how do they know you? When did you meet them? You never told me about this!”

With a small sigh, Tom raised their hands — and how did Harry not notice they were interlaced? — before kissing his fingers gently.   

“I didn’t think you would be interested,” he explained. “I’ve been making some connections, so these people are eager to establish a closer contact with me.”

“‘Making some connections’,” Harry snorted rudely, ignoring the outraged look on the face of some woman. “You mean you’ve been showing off.”

A familiar offended expression crossed Tom’s face, finally turning him into the person Harry knew.

“Shut up,” he grumbled. “No one has ever accused me of showing off but you.”

“Well, how is that surprising to you? Look at them, they are already your mindless puppets. They wouldn’t risk offending His Majesty.” 

Tom growled at him, looking thoroughly tempted to curse him, and Harry stuck his tongue out. A vindictive part of him hoped to repel the potentially interested purebloods from approaching, and considering the looks sent his way, he succeeded.

Tom, instead of being embarrassed, flushed, taking a shaky breath. For a moment, he looked completely out of place, probably as much as Harry did, but then the arrogant mask slipped back on, and he raised an arrogant eyebrow.

“Such childishness,” he chided.

“I’m not the one turning sixteen today, am I?”

Another win — the blush returned, and Tom’s eyes narrowed in a glare.  

This was the only fun part of the evening. Soon, Tom was swept away by the crowd. For the first few times, he tried to stubbornly drag Harry with him, but Harry managed to escape at the first opportunity, and eventually, he gave up. Strangely, the evening only got worse from there.

Harry hoped that without Tom, people would forget about him, but no — couples after couples kept approaching, introducing themselves and flattering him until he felt as green as his cloak. Even the people who had stared at him in outrage were trying to play nice now. Harry really had no idea what Tom had done or promised to explain all this, and he didn’t appreciate the results. All the attention began to hurt his head, making him check his old Muggle watch with the increasing despair.

At some point, Lestrange approached him, giving him a smile so forced that Harry almost cringed from the second-hand embarrassment.   

“Are you enjoying the party, professor?”

“Not really,” he replied. Lestrange spluttered, looking so wrong-footed that it was almost funny.

“Why?” he asked, and the sudden alarm in his voice quickly reduced Harry’s desire to broadcast his frustration. “Is something not to your liking? If there is anything I could to make you more comfortable—”

“Nothing other than asking all the guests to leave,” Harry assured him. Lestrange didn’t appear comforted. He threw a hesitant look at the crowd, as if genuinely contemplating to tell them to leave, and Harry nearly smacked himself for his complete lack of sound judgment.

Lestrange was besotted with Tom. He was hopelessly loyal to him, and since his family was hosting this party, of course he’d worry about displeasing Harry.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said half-sincerely. “I was joking. The party is beautiful. And you have a beautiful house. I just don’t enjoy everyone staring at me and seeing me as Tom’s extension.”

Once again, he must have done something wrong because now Lestrange looked offended instead of guilty.

“Of course they are staring,” he almost snapped at him. “You are wearing Tom’s cloak.”

“It’s my cloak,” Harry retorted. “Tom gave it to me for Christmas.”

Two purple spots appeared on Lestrange’s face, and the first twitches of concern spasmed through Harry’s body.   

“What is it?” he asked, but only got a glare in response. Then Lestrange’s expression went blank, his eyes darting towards Harry’s hands and back.

“Did you hurt your hand?” he wondered, with strange false innocence in his voice.

“What? Oh, this,” Harry nodded at the thin scar on his palm. “Tom and I had a play fight. Apparently, I crashed into our Christmas tree and broke one of the toys by accident.”

He could barely remember this happening. The image of their evening shone clearly in his mind, but what happened after the film was a blur. Tom said they’d both grabbed the same glass bulb as they were fighting and it broke when they were trying to pull it away from each other, but Harry could only recall some flashes of it. He must have been more tired than he’d thought. Now he and Tom had similar cuts, something Tom wouldn’t stop complaining about. 

“Apparently?” Lestrange drawled. “How is that? You are not sure?”

Annoyance stirred, gnashing its teeth, reminding him of why exactly Lestrange didn’t like him, and Harry found himself struggling to remember that this was his student he was talking to.

“I was tired,” he said shortly. “It was very late. I don’t remember the details.”

“How strange. Did Tom break a toy as well? Because I could swear he has the same—” Lestrange paused suddenly, going purple again. 

“If you are that interested in this, then yes, Tom and I broke it together,” Harry snapped. “What’s it to you?” 

Lestrange bit into his lower lip, chewing on it so harshly that it was a wonder it didn’t start bleeding immediately. It looked like some inner battle went on in him, with him growing angrier the longer he stayed silent. Finally, he sought out Tom with his gaze, making sure he was still preoccupied elsewhere, and then stepped closer to Harry.

“The cloak,” Lestrange hissed. “Your cloak. Do you know what it means?”

“It’s a gift,” Harry repeated through gritted teeth. Something about Lestrange was riling him up, making him irrationally frustrated. “It’s something Tom spent a lot of time on to make me happy. What else is it supposed to mean?”

“How obtuse could you possibly be!” Despite his aggravation, Lestrange managed to spit his fire quietly. “It’s not just any cloak. It’s the Slytherin’s Consort cloak. This tradition is as ancient as the Slytherin bloodline itself — everyone knows it. You are here as Tom’s partner, and instead of acting like one, you’re embarrassing him!”

Harry felt his face breaking in shock. He took a step back, too stunned to even think about masking his reaction as his heart skipped some vital beats before erupting in a panicked pounding.

Accidentally betraying Tom’s feelings to Oakwood and witnessing her reaction felt mortifying, but this? This was obliterating. Harry wished for the ground to open and swallow him whole, together with this stupid cloak — its weight had suddenly become crushing.

Maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe Lestrange was playing a joke on him.

But the desperate justifications of his mind were futile — even in Harry’s current horrified state, he was capable of recognising it. The way everyone stared, the amount of efforts Tom, who hated giving gifts unless they served a specific purpose, had invested into creating this cloak… it all spoke of the truth.

Tom had created a way to mark him. To announce something Harry had never promised him in front of the rest of the world, in front of his students. And maybe it was largely a pureblood part, but it didn’t make things better. It didn’t lessen the blow of betrayal and the humiliation that was now burning through his lungs, eating away at any air they managed to drag in.

Harry’s first impulse was to tear the cloak off and throw it away. To burn it. Better yet, to give it to Lestrange, if he thought it was such an honour.

He was an adult. Tom was turning sixteen tonight. How could all these people not see anything wrong with it?

Then again, they bowed to a sixteen-year-old like he was their deity, so maybe it wasn’t surprising. And it’s not like most purebloods ever held socially sane views.

Fury clawed at his chest, demanding a violent release, and his body shook with an effort to subdue it. Harry’s eyes found Tom in the crowd, but even before their gazes met, he was hit by the abrupt realisation that he wouldn’t let his anger blow up. Not publicly.

This was Tom’s birthday, and the New Year, and Tom had clearly spent years on cultivating respect from everyone present. Humiliating him now wasn’t something Harry could do.

He humiliated you first,’ his mind hissed, trying to flood him with more and more rage. ‘This is exactly what he hoped for. He knew you wouldn’t cause a scene publicly. He counted on it, this is manipulation, you can’t fall for it.’   

But I love him, Harry thought dully. He did. And wasn’t it the ultimate problem? How could he humiliate the person he loved by rejecting him in front of everyone?

Tom frowned a little, mouthing, ‘Are you all right?’ to him. He didn’t deserve a response, so Harry turned away, moving towards the exit almost blindly. He could hear Lestrange muttering anxiously, probably regretting his outburst, but right now, Harry was too fed up with the lies, the secrets, and misdirections — all aimed against him.  

Tom could stay and continue to bask in his own superiority. He was going home. He’d had enough embarrassment for one evening.

As soon as Harry entered their house, he threw the cloak onto the nearest armchair and locked himself in his room, sick to his stomach. Now that he was away from the awful party, his fury, hurt, and disbelief gained even more volume, thrusting horrifying images into his mind.

These people would undoubtedly discuss him. They would make comments on his relationship with Tom, on his behaviour, his discomfort, and worst of all, it would all find a way into Hogwarts.     

What was the point of Tom erasing Oakwood’s memory or convincing her to stay silent when he went ahead and flaunted his intentions publicly? What could possibly be going on in his mind?

The crack of apparition interrupted Harry’s helpless rage for a moment, before it spurted with a double force.

Tom had chosen to follow him home. Good. Now they could really talk.

“Harry?” Tom unlocked his room without a second thought, stepping inside. “Why did you leave without warning me? Did someone upset you?”

This concern only infuriated him further, setting his already frayed nerves on fire. Harry let out a harsh laugh and clenched his hands into fists.

“Someone did,” he said sarcastically. Tom’s expression changed from confused to thunderous in an instant.

“Who?” he demanded. The darkness of his eyes promised retribution, and Harry wished it could be directed at Tom himself. But no, Tom would never admit he was wrong. He genuinely believed the decisions he made, no matter how despicable they were.

“You,” Harry replied. This time, his empathy for Tom didn’t lessen his wrath. “By making a fool out of me. You humiliated me. Do you even understand by how much?”

Tom stepped closer, folding his hands behind his back. A thin smile emerged on his lips.  

“Do you mean the cloak?” he drawled. “If you do, then you misunderstood everything.”

“Misunderstood?” Harry hissed. Tom’s blasé attitude boiled his blood, making him see red. “Which part did I misunderstand? That you gave me a cloak and never mentioned what it means? That you allowed me to visit a party in it, making everyone think you and I— what in the bloody hell does a consort even mean? A fiancé? A partner?”

“An intended,” Tom corrected him. He still looked calm and careless, as if he found Harry’s anger soothing. “But like I said, you’re overreacting. That was just a formality I needed to get out of the way, it doesn’t change anything. You said we will discuss it again when I graduate, and we will. I’m not opposing your terms.”

The calm rationality in his voice was extremely convincing, and if Harry wasn’t involved in this personally, he might have believed him.

“Very funny,” he spat out. “And here I was, thinking that you have just presented me to a bunch of purebloods as your consort. Purebloods whose children I teach, and who are going to talk. The whole school is going to know what happened!”

“It won’t,” Tom assured him. He was still watching him indulgently, and Harry’s hands itched with the need to shake him until he lost this infuriating look. “I give you my word. You can trust people in that house. We have an agreement with them, and they will never dream of breaking it.”

“Really? Then what was the point of this performance? You destroyed every boundary I’ve set — how can you call it anything other than betrayal!” Against his better judgment, Harry shouted the last words, and this finally made Tom wince.

“I’ll explain,” he hastened to say, taking another step in his direction. Harry tensed, wary. Tom’s posture was comforting, but it meant nothing. It would be just like him to hurl an Obliviate at him when Harry was least expecting it. “My intention was never to overstep your boundaries. I was merely solidifying your promise and protecting us from any unfortunate misunderstandings.”   

“Start making sense or get out,” Harry told him coldly. Tom frowned, a startled unsettled look briefly crossing his features. What, he didn’t see it coming? Had Harry really been letting him get away with so much that the idea of him being genuinely angry didn’t compute?

“All right,” Tom replied, his own coldness touching his words. “After Beth’s death, you made me a promise. You said that until I lose interest in staying with you, you won’t be making any new relevant connections.”

“That’s—” Harry paused, trying to remember that conversation, ignoring the guilty spasm that never failed to seize his stomach at the mention of those dark months. “I’m not sure I ever told you this.” He’d been thinking about it, that’s for certain, but had he made a promise like this explicitly? Would he do that?

“You implied this much,” Tom shrugged. “You said that I have always been more important to you and that you are worried how one day, I will no longer care about staying with you. I made a logical conclusion. If I’m more important, then you don’t need anyone else, not as long as you have me.”

Reaching this conclusion required some substantial mental gymnastics. For now, Harry could just stand there and gape, wondering how Tom could treat something he’d practically made up as a sacred truth.

On the other hand, this promise was true, even if he’d never stated it openly. This was what he’d told himself in those empty months of ignoring Tom and trying to stitch his world back together. Tom giving these thoughts a voice didn’t make them untrue.   

“See? You are starting to understand,” Tom sent him a fleeting smile. Maybe he meant it to be reassuring, but all Harry saw was a veiled threat.

As if in response to his thoughts, Tom’s smile widened, gaining sharper edges. There was less fake calmness and more deadly menace in it now, and Harry couldn’t deny a cold wave of unease that swept through him at this sight.

“The thing is,” Tom said conversationally, “either you will be with me or you will be with no one. So in the event you decide to reject me after I graduate, you will still never have someone else to share your life with. I wanted my circle of people to know that. It serves two purposes at once: on the one hand, they will stay away from you. On the other hand, they will stay away from me. I have no desire to waste my time on rejecting hordes of hopeful heirs and heiresses on a daily basis. After this one appearance on Lestranges’ party, they will know I’m taken. Do you understand now?”

Speechlessly, Harry stared at him, incapable of finding any appropriate words. Hundreds of chaotic emotions twisted inside, with the two most prominent ones being frustration and absurd possessiveness. 

Even if he’d made this promise, it would have been out of his willingness to put his love for Tom above his inevitable loneliness. The way Tom described it sounded like an obligation, something self-evident, something to be taken for granted, and it was almost more infuriating than the whole incident with the cloak.

But knowing that wearing it marked Tom as Harry’s as much as it marked Harry as Tom’s… This sent a thrum of satisfaction through his blood, a primitive, gleeful kind of it that growled “mine” and refused to consider any other alternatives.

Still, he had to ask. 

“What if you don’t want to be “taken” one day?” Harry wondered carefully. “What if you become interested in someone else?”

Tom dared to roll his eyes at him.

“I told you, that’s not going to happen,” he drawled. “I’ve already made my choice. You might not appreciate my announcing it at this stage or the manner in which I did it, but there was no other option. Being my consort doesn’t have to mean anything more than what you already are. Let others know it — it will save us from the potential conflicts.” 

“Conflicts,” Harry repeated.

“Yes.” Tom crossed the last bit of distance between them, touching his lapels playfully. “This way, I won’t have to hunt anyone down to discourage them from pursuing you. You won’t have to terrify students interested in me by yelling at them. Poor Lestrange still hasn’t gotten over his shock — he was the first and the last person you actually yelled at in the classroom.”

Harry choked on his indignant protests, flushing from mortification.

“Why would you mention that!” he moaned, stepping back and closing his face with his hands. He’d already forgotten his reaction to Tom’s short-lived attempt to make him jealous. “Don’t ever speak of it again. It never happened.”

“Oh, but it did,” Tom purred, following him and pushing him against the desk. Harry swatted at him, pulling away from his grip and moving at a safer distance. “If you want me to pretend it didn’t, then I want something in return.”

Had Harry been on the verge of exploding from rage a minute ago? Anger felt like a shadow now, fading into the farthest background. Amusement and impressed disbelief at the level of Tom’s arrogance took the front stage, pushing a stupid smile onto his lips.  

“I know what you’ll get in return,” he uttered. “I will agree to ignore your behaviour this night and the way you embarrassed me.”

Tom pouted.

“I thought you could do it as a gift for my birthday?” he asked hopefully.

“I already gave you one, don’t be so greedy!”

Tom put on the most miserable expression he was capable of, and Harry snorted, shaking his head. Gradually, the mirth began to fade, too, until the balance between annoyance and affection was restored.

“I still don’t appreciate what you’ve done,” he said. “Giving me that cloak, then not warning me about what it meant. Assuming that if I reject you, I’ll never look for a romantic partner—”

“But you won’t,” Tom interrupted him sharply, his playful undertones disappearing under the layers of steel and deadliness. “You promised. I won’t let you.”  

Harry’s inherent stubbornness rebelled instantly, infusing his blood with persistent flows of adrenaline. He squared his shoulders, craning his neck and staring at Tom intently.

“Let’s make something clear,” he said. “I didn’t make such a promise. You taking my words and molding them into the version you like is not the same as me promising anything.”

Tom bared his teeth in a silent snarl, but Harry ignored him.

“Secondly,” he continued resolutely, “you won’t dictate the rest of my life. I give you more control over it than I ever willingly gave anyone else, but I never agreed and will never agree to be enslaved by you. Yes, I don’t have anyone else right now, be that a friend or someone I’d be interested in romantically. But this might change in the future.”

Tom’s magic flared up, rushing at him with deadly force but coming to a stop an inch away, hovering close instead of colliding. Harry didn’t even blink, holding the black glare aimed at him steadily.

“I don’t form close bonds with others because I feel no need for them,” he said. “I’m happy with having just you. But if you graduate and nothing happens, one day, I might want something else. And you will have to respect that decision. I hope you don’t expect me to be indefinitely intimidated by the possibility of you harming every person who approaches me — that will get old soon enough. Don’t think I will feel too cowed to develop other relationships: if I want it, it will happen. If I don’t, then nothing will change for us.”

The danger didn’t pass — it only intensified. Tom’s expression grew frightening as his magic broke out in a chorus of infuriated hisses. It felt hot, like it was burning, waiting to engulf him, and if it wasn’t for Harry’s own darker mood, he would have taken a moment to admire the power Tom was emanating so effortlessly.         

“You will always mean most to me,” he softened his voice deliberately, sensing how eagerly the magic around him reacted to it. “But it doesn’t mean I will never want anything else. I can have other people in my life while loving you with the same abandon I do now. I’m not saying I’ll ever need them, but if I do, we will find a way to deal with it together. You are too old to throw tantrums just because you can’t get what you want in the exact way you want it. You are about to be an adult — start acting like it.”

For a moment, Harry feared that he might have overdone it. Tom’s eyes bored into his, black and lethal in their calculating resolution. But all of a sudden, his posture relaxed. The hissing magic snapped back, disintegrating in what seemed like a second, and a peaceful, somewhat resigned smile returned to his lips.

“You are right,” he said. “That might have been insensitive of me. I don’t necessarily agree with what you said, but I understand. I promise I will consider it.”

That was… odd. And yet a million times better than he expected. His tension slipped away, and Harry risked smiling back.  

“Thank you,” he replied. “That’s good enough for now.”

Tom continued to watch him, his head tilted, his eyes largely inscrutable. Harry knew what had to be happening inside him, the conflict between what he wanted and what he knew was right, and the fact that Tom was making an effort to stay composed was the biggest evidence of his growth. The happiness this brought him was so bright that it chased away any remaining wariness, and Harry lowered himself into the armchair, finally allowing calmness to wash through him.

“I’m not sure you need to hear it,” he teased, “your head is already big enough, but even though I hated the way you got me to wear it, I still love the cloak itself. It’s a work of art.”

Tom brightened, walking to him and trying to smooth his hair down gently.

“Does it mean that you’re going to wear it?” he wondered silkily. Harry shrugged.

“Maybe,” he said. “Depending on the company.”

This was the right answer because Tom’s eyes became lighter. He bent down, pressing a soft kiss to Harry’s chin.

“Fine,” he murmured. “But that’s irrelevant now. Since you decided to leave the party early, would you like to have supper with me?”

Harry did.

 

***

 

The rest of the holidays passed quickly — more quickly than Harry would have preferred. For the most part, he and Tom lazed around the house, cooking, watching films, and competing by using nonverbal magic on the banks of snow surrounding their garden. At first, they were exploding them, checking whose explosion did more damage. Then the terms grew trickier: they had to make snow figures without moving their hands, relying solely on their inherent magical power.

Harry lost every time. Predictably, Tom used every opportunity to show off: as Harry was looking at the floating Patronus-like snow dragon he’d conjured, pleased with himself, Tom created a whole performance. There were two elevated thrones with two people sitting on them, surrounded by five other figures. They were spread in a dance below, bowing and then whirling in a series of complex movements. It was ridiculously pompous and jaw-droppingly impressive, so Harry watched with his mouth hanging open, trying to understand how Tom could possibly maintain control over so many apparitions at once. 

Tom was bursting with smugness, but unlike the arrogant superiority he’d demonstrated in the previous years, somehow, this one seemed softer. It felt like he was happy because of Harry’s reaction, not from winning, which was a first. The beautiful performance had already conquered Harry’s attention, but it was Tom’s behaviour that melted his heart. He didn’t recall the last time he felt just as happy.

In the remaining days, they travelled to several war-ravaged Muggle places. Tom was helping diligently, with patience that felt surprising coming from him. Then Harry decided to visit the orphanage and check on the baby they’d left there a year ago. This was the first time Tom’s flawlessness wavered, with disgust and hostility overtaking his features. But to his credit, he hastily resumed self-control, and he continued to maintain it during the entire hour they spent among Muggles.     

The boy was named Marcus, and he was just as sweet as innocent as Harry remembered. For those sixty minutes he played with him, he forgot about every concern he had. The simplicity and the happiness had a bittersweet taste, bringing memories of the evenings he’d spent with Ron and Hermione into his mind. They had been quiet and meaningless, but endlessly warm, and when Harry closed his eyes now, he could almost deceive himself into thinking that they were here, too. Marcus’ delight at seeing the new toys was infectious, and the warmth that this image sent to Harry’s chest was soft and gentle, wrapping him in a comforting blanket of carefree lightness.

Then he raised his head to look at Tom, who was standing next to the window expressionlessly. The cold morning sun sifted through his hair, making it flicker with gold, and emotions that crashed into Harry at this sight were like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Marcus was a candle flame, something fragile and warm, something Harry wanted to protect. But Tom was a sun, blinding to the point of being uncomfortable, yet the closer you saw it, the more mesmerising it became. The joy and lightness from spending time with Marcus contrasted sharply against the brilliance of happiness that shone in him after one look at Tom. If there was a way to combine them…

But it was an impossible idea. No matter how deeply Harry wanted to help, Marcus would have to stay at the orphanage, and he had a life with Tom to go back to, with all its ups and downs.

Tom was moody when they returned home, but after Harry’s teasing and cajoling, he relented, and a smile graced his lips again.

They left for Hogwarts the next day, and though Harry longed for the cosiness of their home, he was glad to see his students and resume his lessons. Rivers was still gone, Oakwood smiled at him in greeting, and like Tom had promised, there were no rumours about the Lestranges’ party. Lestrange himself was pale and sullen, and he didn’t risk looking at Harry, not even during lessons.

“Did you curse him?” Harry asked suspiciously. Tom shook his head.

“There are other means of punishment,” he replied.

“He’s your friend. You don’t punish friends.”

“What are you talking about?” a frown darkened Tom’s face. “If they are guilty, of course you do.”

His brain paused for a moment, and Harry gaped, too stunned to make a comment.

“You can’t be serious,” he said finally, trying to keep his voice reasonable. “Friendship is built on mutual attachment and trust. If there is a problem, you solve it together. You don’t punish anyone!”

“But you punish me, don’t you?” Tom narrowed his eyes. “Provided that your system is still relevant.”

“It is. But that’s an exception. In normal situations—”

“There can be no exceptions in matters like this. Either you can punish everyone or you can punish no one.”

Harry fell silent, looking for useful words but finding nothing. In a twisted way, Tom’s convictions made sense, even though they had little to do with how things functioned in reality. What could he say to him, that only children could be punished, and only by their guardians? Tom was no longer a child. This statement would also open another round of questions and refutations, and Harry wasn’t sure he was well equipped with rationalising this at the moment.

That night, he woke up from the feeling of someone joining him in his bed. His last spell-enhanced password must have been cracked already. It survived two whole days — a definite progress.

“What are you doing here?” Harry muttered sleepily. A half of him was already drifting off, too used to Tom sneaking into his bed whenever he could. Another half was prepared to follow, but something kept it awake. There was no response to his question, no words, no anything — only Tom’s heavy breathing.

Worry shot through him like a lightning, and Harry sat up abruptly, trying to adjust to the darkness. 

Tom looked flushed. Tiny tremors were twisting his body, and his eyes glowed with fervency that bordered on wildness.

“I almost did it,” he whispered. His words were shaky, too, but it was not fear lacing his voice — it was excitement. “I almost killed him. I was so close — if I’d just stretched my hand a little farther, I would have been able to push him. And he would be dead now.”

The remnants of sleepiness scattered, leaving horror in their wake.

“What are you talking about?” Harry whispered back. Tom grabbed his hand, pressing it to his face tightly. His skin felt almost uncomfortably hot.

“I had a plan,” he blurted out, speaking so quickly that it was hard to catch everything. “Initially, I wanted him to kill himself. This would be new and no one would look into it. He was being bullied every day, I made sure of it, and I knew he was weak enough to crumble. But I didn’t take these holidays into account. He went home and he returned stronger. I didn’t want to wait again, so I invited him to the Astronomy Tower tonight. I was inches from pushing him — he was standing so close to that edge… The flight would be so long, and with the snowstorm, only I would hear his scream,” Tom grinned, and this grin was crazy in its exhilaration. “I wanted it so much, I thought my magic would push him if I didn’t. It was—” he paused, gesticulating with his free hand, as if trying to show how amazing it felt. The fire in his eyes intensified, glazing them over; his lips parted to let a soft gasp pass.

He looked almost as intoxicated as he did when Harry stood close to him. When their lips were inches apart.

It was sickening.

Some consciousness must have returned to Tom as their gazes met. Seeing the look on Harry’s face, he sighed and shook his head in frustration.

“You don’t understand,” he said more loudly. “I almost felt life pulsating through him. It belonged to me in that moment, I was the one who decided whether it would continue or not. If he’d fallen, it would have been mesmerising. His body would be frozen when they found him in the morning — I wanted to see if—”

“Shut up!” Harry cried out. “Shut up, right now! Why are you telling me this? Where is it coming from? Who was it, what did he do, what happened?”

“Oh,” Tom blinked, probably realising how incoherently he sounded. “It’s Richards. I never liked him, but since he put you in danger, I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I wanted him gone.”

“Richards?” It sounded so impossible that for a moment, Harry thought he’d misheard. “Michael Richards? But that was twice, and it was months ago! And the first time didn’t even count!”    

“Nothing counts for you,” Tom’s lips twitched in a wry smile. “But it does for me. That spoon I made for you was a promise. I will always fulfil it.”

Despair clawed at his throat, making breathing impossible. Harry tore his hand from Tom’s grasp, digging his fingers into his hair restlessly.

“You made another promise to me,” he muttered dully. “You promised that you would never—”

“I fulfilled that, too, didn’t I?” Tom frowned. “Richards is alive and well. I stopped, again, like I knew you would have wanted me to. But you will never understand how difficult it was.”

Harry wanted to say something, but dejection weighted on him heavily, crushing every bit of happiness he’d accumulated over the holidays.

“You sound crazy,” he growled finally. “Do you understand this? What Richards did was a prank! It was ages ago, I already forgot about it! What’s next, you’ll go after someone who hits me with a spell during the class duel?”

“No one ever hits you in a duel, you’re too fast,” Tom snorted. “Besides, you’re missing the point.”

“Which one? Which point could I possibly be missing?”

“I stopped,” Tom repeated. Something wild and excited blossomed in his eyes, sending a flicker of wariness through Harry’s mind.

He’d already seen this determined, raw look before. It was just before—

“I’ll choose my reward myself this time,” Tom told him, and before Harry could react, he lurched forward, toppling him over and straddling him. Then Tom kissed him, open and passionate, and unlike the last time, he was devouring rather than tasting. His lips were hot, demanding, and enthusiastic, and his hands curved around Harry’s face, holding him in place.

Harry’s thoughts scattered under the force of shock, and he let out a protesting sound. Tom’s grip on him tightened instantly as his fingers turned into claws, suppressing his every movement.

He could push him away. Of course he could — Tom was strong, but when it came to physical altercations, Harry would win. Tom relied on magic too much. 

But this was the reward, and he’d promised to grant Tom’s wishes whatever they were… Did a kiss mean going too far? Should they have clarified it?

Perhaps, but they hadn’t. It meant that technically, he had to go along with it, no matter how confused and strange this was making him feel.

This decision brought relief with it, so for at least one short moment, Harry allowed himself to sink into the kiss, to map out the shape of Tom’s lips with his own hesitantly, to succumb to the heat and the desire. His lungs grew tight, turning his breaths into shuddery gasps that burned his throat, and when Tom’s tongue ran across his lower and then upper lip, he parted them, letting it slip inside. 

A strange forgotten tingle spread through Harry’s skin, covering it with goosebumps. Tom twisted on top of him: he tilted his head further back, and the kiss became deeper, more frantic, sending thrills of want to every part of Harry’s body. But even under this cloud of pleasure and confusion, there was a persistent seed of doubts. As his stomach curled in delight, as his thoughts darkened in drunk anticipation, this seed suddenly gained a more physical shape, shaking him out of his haze. 

Sixteen. Too early. Too wrong.

Harry jerked his head away forcefully, prepared to fight if he had to, but this time, Tom let him. His pupils were abnormally wide, his breaths mingling with Harry’s. Raising his shaking hands, he cradled Harry’s head again. His lips descended onto his chin, sliding down his neck, tracing its lines in soft, reverent caresses.

“I think that met the criteria for the reward,” Harry said hoarsely. Tom hummed, dropping another kiss onto the hollow of his neck.

“It did,” he agreed.

“So get off me before I use force. Must you always be so greedy?”

Tom’s joyful laughter scorched his skin. It already felt feverish, so Harry finally pushed him off, hoping that this would sober him up.

“Did you actually almost hurt Richards?” he asked. “Or was it a ruse to get me to kiss you?”

“Why not both?” Tom stretched across the bed, watching him with soft eyes. Darkness began to spread its poison again, killing off the remnants of Harry’s other feelings, but before it swallowed everything, Tom brushed his hair to the side, chasing it away. 

“Don’t worry,” he murmured. “I promise that Richards is safe, just like the rest of students. I was starting to feel restless, but it’s fine now.”

“It is?” Harry squinted, wishing he had his glasses on. In his current state, he couldn’t trust himself to read Tom’s range of expressions correctly.

“At least until graduation,” Tom teased him. This wasn’t funny, and yet the soothing flow of relief calmed Harry’s anxiety, washing away his fears.

Tom was still impulsive and dangerous. Bullying Richards in the hope that he would kill himself? Luring him to the Astronomy Tower to push him down? It was monstrous, but at the same time, it didn’t end with disaster. Marcus, Myrtle, Richards — Tom had come close to crossing the boundaries irrevocably with them, but every time, he made himself stop.

Harry’s system was working, despite the occasional flaws. Tom was trying. Whatever toxicity was causing his dark impulses, he overcame them time and time again, and that was exactly what Harry hoped to achieve.

“You will stop this bullying nonsense,” he warned. Why had he not noticed Richards’s emotional state? So maybe his eyes and attention belonged to Tom to an unhealthy degree, but why had other professors ignored it? “I’ll be watching.”

“There is no need for that. Everyone will leave him alone, I give you my word.”

“Alone as in, not bullying him? Or alone meaning isolating him and pretending he doesn’t exist?”

Tom laughed again, a note of pleased surprise underlying it.

“Who would have thought that you speak Slytherin so well?” he drawled. Harry bit on his tongue to stop himself from saying what he wanted. “Like I said, don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything in the way you’d approve.”

That was good enough. It had to be.

“I believe you,” Harry uttered. “But I’ll still be watching.”

Tom shrugged, settling under his blanket. With an annoyed sound, Harry pulled it off him.

“Not tonight,” he said. “You got what you wanted, now you can leave.”

He was expecting a fight, but Tom just shrugged again.

“If you insist,” he stood up obediently, smoothing his clothes. “Have a good night.”

Such capitulation was extremely strange, but no matter how hard Harry racked his brain, he couldn’t find a believable explanation. Unless it was of physical nature — and if it was, he didn’t want to know anything about it.

When the door behind Tom closed, Harry tried to go back to sleep. Exhaustion crawled into his every cell, injecting them with tons of iron, but that still wasn’t enough to make him keep his eyes closed. His thoughts revolved around Richards, Tom, and the kiss, stirring slow waves of insecurity and confusion.

The tiredness hindered him from making sense of everything that happened, so Harry kept lying motionlessly almost until the morning, held captive by his own masochistic brain.

 

***

 

The kiss haunted him. Whether Harry was teaching, or having dinner, or talking to others, it flickered in the background, waiting for a moment to attack and overwhelm him with thoughts and memories.

Somehow, it was different. Harry had managed to discard the first kiss quickly, but this one lingered, making him return to it obsessively. Maybe it was because he had returned it? He had no other choice — Tom’s reward was deserved, but still…

The only thing worrying him more than his own reaction was the idea of Dumbledore somehow learning about it. It was impossible, he understood it, but paranoia continued its stubborn growth, so Harry found himself practising Occlumency more and more often.

He had perfected his skills over the years, but he’d never become strong enough to fight off a possible attack by a wizard of Dumbledore’s level. Now, he was determined to change it.   

Staying true to his promise, Harry watched Richards, but to his relief, nothing seemed amiss. The boy was smiling like nothing happened, and if anything, he looked happier than Harry ever remembered seeing him.

Another pleasant discovery was Alice. She’d never shown any impressive skills in Defence Against the Dark Arts, but over the months following her release from Saint Mungo’s, something changed. She worked hard now: her essays exceeded the assigned word count, and when she duelled, she used spells that only advanced students were aware of.

Something new appeared in her attitude to him, too. She seemed star-struck, even though it was displayed in a quiet, timid way. At least several times per week, she came into his office for consultations, fidgeting and blushing at random moments. But she was dedicated and stubborn, and Harry could only welcome such a change.

No one else seemed so obviously interested in him, so for a while, Harry paid increased attention to Tom, monitoring his reactions. The last thing he wanted was the repeat of what happened with Myrtle. But his worries appeared to be misplaced this time: Tom had definitely noticed Alice’s appreciation, but if anything, he treated it indulgently.

Things changed abruptly in March. Alice didn’t come for the usual consultation, and when Harry saw her in class, her attention was elsewhere. It took him a while, but eventually, he realised that her focus belonged wholly to the Slytherin side of the classroom. In particular, her eyes refused to leave Avery.

“Did Avery get an admirer?” Harry wondered. This was good news, but it still took him aback. What did quiet and hard-working Alice had in common with Avery, whose attention was almost always on Tom?

“He did,” Tom rolled his eyes amiably. “That girl keeps following him around. She’s obsessed. Why, are you worried that your novelty wore off?”

“Yes, I’m losing sleep over it,” it was Harry’s turn to roll his eyes. “I just wish her new interest didn’t affect her studies. She was making progress.” 

“Forget about her,” Tom’s eyes slipped towards his lips, staying there. “If you are losing sleep, I hope it’s over me.”  

“You wish,” Harry snorted. When Tom’s eyes still didn’t move from his mouth, he clicked his fingers right in front of his face. “Snap out of it, will you? And learn some patience.”

 

The months flew by. March melted into April, April warmed into May, and May heated into summer, flourishing with many opportunities for holiday destinations. This time, Harry and Tom both settled on a small island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, renting a small house right on the beach. The water was cold, but the sun was scorching, so they spent most of their days sunbathing and coming up with ways to force each other into swimming.

One evening, they felt too warm and comfortable lying outside to go back to the house. The sand retained its warmth, so they stayed right there, watching the star-lit sky, sometimes talking, sometimes enjoying the silence.

“I want to go flying,” Harry said suddenly. The yearning for his broom gripped him with unexpected intensity, making his heart quiver at the thought of dashing through the night air, having the wind crash into his face with cool and violent urgency.

What he’d give to be able to play Quidditch again.   

“Flying?” Tom made a rude noise. “On a broom?”

“How else do you want me to fly?”

“Not like this, that’s for certain,” giving an exaggerated shudder, Tom turned his head to him. “I will never understand your passion for this ridiculous sport. How can you trust some artefact so much? It can stop reacting to your magic at any point, and you’ll drop from a huge height. ”  

“There are so many things wrong with your statement that I’m not even sure where to start,” Harry informed him hotly. “First, the broom cannot stop reacting to magic as long as I have this magic. Just like the quill can’t fall if you levitate it. Second, I had repeated experiences with falling from my broom, and as you can see, neither of them ended with my death. And finally, how can you not like flying?!”

At Tom’s ringing laughter, Harry felt like Ron, who could never control his desperate love for Chudley Cannons. Snorting quietly, he turned to his left, just as Tom propped his head on his hand, gazing at him, a smile lingering on his thin lips.

“It’s not that I hate flying,” he explained patiently. “It’s that I don’t trust the brooms and the process itself. It’s dangerous for a human to be so high up in the air. The brooms aren’t always obedient, and if you fall—”

“I did.”

“Yes, you’ve already said that,” a shadow crossed Tom’s face. “Something always happens to you. I often feel like there is some force out there that’s waiting to snatch you from me.”

The dark solemnity of these words made Harry reach out, brushing Tom’s hair from his face lovingly.

“Everything will be fine,” he murmured. “Nothing can happen to me.”

“Maybe it can,” Tom disagreed quietly. “But it won’t. I’ll make sure of that.”

You’ll never have to worry about that,’ Harry wanted to tell him. But then he’d have to explain, and this wasn’t something he was ready to do. Not now. Not until Tom found his way in this world and Harry was certain that he wouldn’t deviate from the set course.

The next several minutes passed in silence. Tom continued to watch him, his eyes examining his every feature, committing them to memory — as if he hadn’t done it a thousand times by now. 

“Do you want to go flying with me?” Harry asked out of blue. He hadn’t known he was going to do that until the question was out, and then he was treated to Tom’s stunned, wide-eyed stare.

“Flying with you?” he echoed. “Now?”

“You might not trust the broom, but would you trust me?”

Tom hesitated, clearly torn. There was a strange longing on his face, but it was overshadowed by wariness.

“You did say you fell down repeatedly,” he hedged. It wasn’t a “no”, and Harry sat up abruptly, his pulse jumping in excitement.

“There were outside forces that led to this, I didn’t fall by myself,” he denied. “Come on. You won’t regret it. I promise that the broom will listen to me — you know I’m good at flying.”

He stood up, offering his hand to Tom, and Tom took it hesitantly,

“I don’t think… I mean…” he paused, stumbling over words so uncertainly that Harry wanted to chortle from amusement.

“What?” he urged him when nothing else followed.

“I don’t really like the heights,” Tom muttered, kicking at the sand. His voice was dejected, as if he was confessing his biggest weakness. “Even if it is safe.”

“Oh.” Harry’s amusement waned, replaced by compassion. He clenched Tom’s hand in his reassuringly, offering him an encouraging smile. “It’s okay. You can just watch if you want — or wait for me inside.”

His acceptance seemed to relax Tom. The uncomfortable grimace evaporated from his face, and he looked up, his expression so light and warm that in Harry’s biased mind, it looked brighter than any star.

“No,” Tom said decidedly. “I want to fly with you.”

The excitement flared again, and Harry had to fight the childish desire to jump in anticipation. Still, he had to ask.

“Are you sure? If you know this will make you uncomfortable—”

“No,” Tom uttered again. “I think that with you, it won’t be uncomfortable. You are right. I do trust you.”

Harry didn’t need to be told twice. Beaming, he rushed to the house, summoned the broom, and ran back out, hoping that Tom hadn’t changed his mind yet.

He hadn’t. He was paler than usual, his eyes wide and uncertain, but he didn’t back down.

“Mount it first. Move closer to the front — I’ll sit behind you.”

Tom moved to comply before pausing, throwing a distrustful stare at the broom.

“Don’t worry about it, it won’t move,” Harry gripped the back of the broom. “See? I’m holding it.” 

With a stifled nod, Tom climbed it, and his hands instantly went white as they clutched the shaft. Harry jumped behind, wrapping one hand around his waist and putting the other on the broom.

“Ready?” he asked. Tom muttered something unintelligible. His shoulders were stiff as a board, and the waves of tension he was emanating were almost physically palpable. 

With a small smile, Harry pressed him close, dropping a small kiss behind his ear. Instantly, Tom’s body loosened up, melting under his touch, and Harry kissed his hair, hoping to secure his success.

“Ready?” he repeated.

“Yes,” Tom said dazedly. Without waiting, Harry pushed his feet off the ground and directed the broom towards the sky. The wind hit them immediately, swallowing Tom’s loud gasp, and Harry laughed, freely and unabashedly. The air was colder at such distance, but it was also breathtakingly beautiful. The clouds stretched right above them, dark grey and majestic, and from where Harry and Tom were flying, they could see the silvery moonlight flowing from one fluffy island to another.

“Isn’t this incredible?” Harry shouted. He felt Tom’s body move as he sighed before leaning against him comfortably. He said nothing, and Harry slowed down, stopping the broom near one of the clouds.

“All right?” he asked. Now that the wind wasn’t slashing the air around him, he could afford to speak normally.

“Yes,” Tom replied. His fingers let go of the shaft, wrapping around Harry’s hand instead.

“Do you want me to keep moving or would you like to look around?”

Tom’s grip on his fingers tightened. His head nestled in the crook of Harry’s shoulder, and he looked around slowly. Harry tried to crane his neck to get a glimpse of his face. Tom’s eyes were no longer wary: they were curious and unveiled, and he regarded the moonlit clouds with an expression of genuine fascination.

“It is incredible,” he murmured belatedly. “It’s like an entirely different world. And no one exists here — just us.”

A glow of joy flickered into existence, lightening every shadowed part of his mind. Harry grinned, suddenly feeling absurdly happy. Tom was right, it did feel like another world. A world with no expectations, no dangers, and no possibilities of making a mistake.

“Let’s fly,” Tom decided. “But not as fast as before. I want to be able to see everything more clearly.”

Harry nodded and sent the broom forwards unhurriedly. At some point, Tom’s grasp relaxed and turned into a caress. His fingers stroked Harry’s lightly, again and again, and Harry buried his nose in Tom’s hair, inhaling its soothing scent. 

Time stopped. There was no one but them.

 

***

They were still a little high when they returned to their house. After enjoying their tea and several silly jokes, they went to bed. Tom didn’t ask for permission to spend this night in his room, but after the amazing flight they’d just shared, Harry didn’t have the heart to make him leave.

Not that he’d made him leave on all previous nights. Tom seemed to move into his room on the first day, and now everything here was cluttered with his things.

Annoyed with himself but feeling too happy to care, Harry went to the table, looking for his Occlumency book. It wasn’t in any visible spot, so with a grumble, he began to sort through Tom’s heavy volumes. A piece of parchment fell out from one of them, and Harry caught it. His eyes automatically scanned through the text before pausing and going through it again, this time more attentively.

 

  1. Courtship initiated and accepted (done). Will prove intentions.
  2. Constant shared contact with each other’s magic (done). Will prove closeness.
  3. Blood taken on the day of mutual happiness (done). Will prove union.
  4. Shared kiss (done). Will prove desire.
  5. Deepest secrets/revelations shared (?). Will prove ultimate trust + activate the ritual.

 

“What in the world is this?” Harry muttered, re-reading the list again. Courtship? Blood? Ritual?

“What are you doing?” Tom peered over his shoulder. Then he froze. His magic jolted in alarm, but a second later, everything calmed. “Oh. That’s Avery’s ritual.”

“Avery’s? What’s he got to do with it?”

“It’s a ridiculous situation, really,” Tom rolled his eyes, flopping down back onto the bed. “His parents want him to marry a pureblood heiress of one family. Avery is already in love, and he asked me to prepare a magical ritual that would bind him and his intended. Magical bonding has more relevance than law, so his family won’t be able to force him into marriage.”

Harry nodded slowly, releasing the parchment. Something in his mind continued to shift restlessly, offering him vague memories of past events, but they weren’t making much sense, so he discarded them.

“Aren’t you going to be in trouble for this?” he asked with a frown. It was good of Tom to help Avery break the toxic pureblood cycle, even better that they both considered feelings more important than traditions, but with how much Tom treasured his reputation…

“No,” an expression of smugness slid over Tom’s face. “On the contrary, it’ll help me to cement my connections. Avery will be in my debt forever.”

“And of course you will hold him to it,” chuckling, Harry moved Tom’s books away and finally found the one he’d been looking for. Grabbing it, he returned to bed. “Who is this girl? It’s not Alice, is it?”

“No, not her,” a wry smirk settled on Tom’s lips. “That poor girl seems to constantly find unsuitable objects of interest. I’m sure Avery won’t be the last.”

“Don’t be a brat,” Harry warned him. He got a derisive snort in response.

As he began to read, he could feel Tom’s eyes on him, slowly going over his features. It felt natural and familiar, and soon, Harry stopped noticing it, too engrossed in his reading.

 

***

 

The summer rushed past them with a bewildering speed. Before Harry knew it, it was time to go back to Hogwarts, and like always, he felt a combination of enthusiasm and reluctance at the thought of it.

He missed the castle — this was a part of him that would never disappear completely. But he missed spending an unlimited time with Tom even more.  

Alternating between joy and forlornness, Harry entered the Great Hall. His eyes moved towards the High Table, and he nearly stumbled. 

Rivers was sitting there, among other teachers. More than that, he took the place right next to Harry’s seat.

What did he do to deserve this?

Forcing his feet to move, Harry approached the table, nodding to others and trying to ignore the way Rivers immediately focused on him. Fortunately, he said nothing, so Harry started to hope that this would be the end of their non-existing interaction.

He was wrong. When students filled the hall and the Sorting began, Rivers moved his chair closer, turning to face him, and even before he spoke, an unsettling sense of foreboding stretched its icy hand, gripping Harry’s heart.

“The places I’ve been to,” Rivers murmured with a grin. He might have intended for it to look pleasant, but it came across as deeply disturbing. “The things I’ve learned.”

“Oh?” Harry responded with pointed disinterest.

“Don’t you worry, I won’t take much of your time. Let’s cut straight to the chase.” Rivers leaned even closer, and with the corner of his eye, Harry saw how Tom tensed. Of course he was watching. “I know everything about you now. I know who you are. I know where you came from. I know why you’re here. You don’t want this information to become public knowledge, do you? I’d wager you especially don’t want Mr. Slytherin to know it. There is a way we could solve this, but I need your compliance.”

“Forget about it,” Harry growled under his breath. Ice continued to lock around his heart, infusing more and more coldness into it and making it feel like it was about to stop.

Rivers couldn’t know anything, it simply wasn’t possible. He wasn’t that good at being a seer, and there was no evidence to explain what Harry was due to the sheer implausibility of it.

But what if he looked into his background? What if he found nothing, dag deeper, and found something?

It still wasn’t likely, but the absolute certainty in his voice…

“Are you sure?” Rivers pressed with a sneer. “Are you sure you want to me to forget about it? I can stand up right now and announce who you are to everyone here. This time, Dippet and Dumbledore will listen.”  

“I won’t do anything on the basis of your vague hints! If you figured anything out, then go on. Tell me. And I’ll decide what to do next.”

“You really don’t want us to discuss it here,” Rivers pursed his lips. “I have another idea. Let’s meet in Hogsmeade, three days from now. Five o’clock. Three Broomsticks. Then we’ll talk.”

Harry’s first instinct was to snap out a refusal. His fears were alive and muttering in his head, but rationality was there, too. And it insisted that Rivers couldn’t know the truth, so at most, he was going to share yet another absurd theory.  

But he’d been absent for over a year. If he was really travelling, who knew what he could have found? It was strange of him to suggest the Three Broomsticks — they could easily speak in any empty classroom. Why there? Why such a change from Rivers’ usual approach?

On the other hand, how would that hurt? He didn’t need any additional complications. Maybe this talk would help to put things to an end. Rivers would hardly attack him in public, and if he said nonsense once again, Harry could take the memory of their conversations to Dumbledore with a complaint about harassment.

Satisfied with his decision, he nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

A triumphant look flitted across Rivers’ face.

“Then it’s a deal,” he muttered. “And one more thing: don’t take your ward with you. Believe me, you won’t want him to be present.”

Even a hypothetical threat to Tom made Harry’s magic rise up, darkening to a threatening cloud. He didn’t know what Rivers saw on his face, but he suddenly reeled back, thrusting his hands forward, as if trying to shield himself from him.

Sneering, Harry turned away. Tom sent him a questioning stare, and he shook his head slightly, mouthing ‘later.’

No, he wouldn’t take Tom with him. He shouldn’t be present during a conversation like this. The problem was, how to sneak out in secret?

 

***

 

His secrecy collapsed during the very first conversation, under incessant pressure. What followed was Tom’s furious glower and his complete refusal to be rational.  

“I’m going with you.”

“No, you are not.”

“If you insist on going, you won’t be doing it alone. I’ll accompany you.”

“Did you not hear me? It was his condition. I gave him a magical oath.”

This part was a lie, but Tom didn’t need to know it. His overprotectiveness, insulting as it was, was Harry’s only weapon, so maybe a possible threat from the failed oath would make him pause.   

“You gave an oath,” Tom said flatly. A whisper of violence surrounded him like a cloak, promising to unleash destruction on the first person he saw. “What was the phrasing?”

“It was very clear: you cannot come with me.”  

Tom narrowed his eyes, scrutinising him, looking for a lie, and Harry stared back defiantly. It seemed like hours had passed before Tom finally glanced away, frowning like he did when he was trying to solve a puzzle.

“Fine,” he uttered at last. “I won’t go with you. But you will take Avery. Or did the oath cover him, too?”

It was too late to change the phrasing, and Harry swore internally. He should have considered this sooner — of course Tom would find a way to stop him from going alone. Though getting rid of Avery would be far easier than making Tom stay back.

Still, he had to try to talk sense into him.

“How would taking Avery help?” Harry asked calmly. “He’s a student — my student. You do realise that if something happens, I will have to protect him, not the other way around?”

“Avery knows the stakes,” Tom waved his hand dismissively. “I have no doubts that you can protect yourself. But having him there will make me feel better. You won’t want me to stay here and worry, will you? Because I don’t like worrying. And when I do, it just so happens that other people also grow worried.” 

“Yes, you are so very terrifying,” Harry made a face before propping his hands on his hips. “All right, he can come along. But this is going to be embarrassing for me, so you’ll owe me something for this.”

“I will?” Tom cocked an eyebrow curiously. “What would you want?”

“That’s for me to decide,” Harry gave him a cheesy grin. “Take it or leave it.”

“You are oddly cheerful for something that’s supposed to concern you,” Tom closed the distance between them, pressing their foreheads together. “Are you nervous? Or is there something you are not telling me?”

His presence washed over Harry in a calming, relaxing way, and he smiled more genuinely, rubbing his nose against Tom’s.

“I just want it to be over,” he murmured. “Rivers is getting on my nerves. I’ll listen to him, but that’s it. I won’t put up with this behaviour any longer.”

“I could still take care of him for you,” Tom’s lips slid down his cheekbone towards the corner of his mouth, making him shiver. “But I know what your answer will be.”

“It’s a good thing that you know,” Harry pushed out hoarsely. Tom’s proximity was doing strange things to him, disrupting his sense of self-control. His stomach contracted, and he stepped away, forcing a rueful smile.

“Everything will be fine,” he promised. “Rivers is delusional — he’s no match for me even on my worst day.”

Tom frowned at him but said nothing. Harry took it as encouragement.

 

***

 

The road to the Three Broomsticks seemed overly long. Harry was certain that Avery was the reason: he was walking by his side quietly, with a blank face that most of Tom’s friends had. He didn’t utter a word, and the more they walked, the more awkward it felt.

“How is your girlfriend?” Harry asked at last. Avery stumbled, sending him a startled gaze.

“What girlfriend?” he asked cautiously.

“The one you want Tom to bind you to.”

Avery’s expression remained empty, and Harry began to wonder if maybe he’d overstepped some boundary. In retrospect, that wasn’t the best thing he could ask. Life with Tom had erased some of his understanding of what was and wasn’t acceptable.

“Oh!” a flash of realisation went through Avery’s eyes, and then he lowered them. “We are good. There are some problems, but we’re almost over them. Tom has helped us tremendously — his magic is like nothing I have ever experienced. And the things he knows, the things he can do… it’s truly empowering.”      

“Right,” Harry said carefully, trying to hide his confusion. Avery seemed more enamoured with Tom than with his girlfriend. Or was this some kind of obligation Tom had imposed on all of his friends? ‘If you are with Harry, be sure you praise me until he swoons?’

Snorting, Harry focused on his surroundings. They were approaching the Three Broomsticks, but the closer they came, the fewer wizards they encountered.

“I didn’t know people took breaks from Hogsmeade,” Harry muttered, pushing the door to the pub open. Avery entered after him, and they both stopped, perplexed.

The place was empty. There was no one inside — neither the visitors nor the personnel. As soon as the door behind them closed, a low, hissing sound of a locking spell reverberated through the room. A shift in magic let Harry know that anti-apparition barriers were up now, so the only way out of this place was by identifying and breaking the spell on the door.

Avery pulled out his wand, looking around wildly. His whole body tensed, and Harry touched his shoulder comfortingly.

“You’ll be safe,” he told him. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Avery huffed and mumbled something in exasperation, his eyes alert and scanning the room thoroughly. Harry took one small step to stand before him, trying to locate the source of magic. He could feel it — it was strong, breaking even through whatever disguise the person had built around themselves.

Whoever this was, it wasn’t Rivers.

The moment this understanding came, the disguise disappeared. The flood of magic filled the room, dark, confident, and powerful, and if Harry hadn’t had such a close contact with Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Tom over his life, he might have swayed on his feet.

Avery did sway for a moment, but he quickly regained his fighting stance. A hoarse laughter echoed through the pub, and then a cloaked figure stepped from behind one of the arcs. Avery’s shocked inhale coincided with Harry’s startled recognition: blood drained from his face rapidly, and this time, he did stagger from the impossibility of the situation.     

Grindelwald. This was Grindelwald. He had to be in his sixties now, but he looked somewhat older. His blue eyes and fading golden hair, the hard and arrogant look on his face — they drew attention, making him appear regal. Or maybe it was because of the overconfidence he was exuding.   

“Harry Potter,” he drawled silkily, and Harry laughed in disbelief. There was a note of hysteria in his laughter, but there was also amusement in it.

“What could you possibly want from me?” he wondered. Everything felt unreal. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. What interest could you have in me? Or is my life simply incomplete without one of the dark lords stalking me?”

Avery side-eyed him, probably wondering if he’d lost his mind, while Grindelwald just stared tonelessly.

“I have little interest in you, wizard,” he uttered finally. “What does stir my attention is the artefact you possess.”

How informative.

“Could you be a little more specific?” Harry demanded, his voice low from frustration. Rivers and Grindelwald — what could they have in common? Why did this have to happen to him, and in the presence of his student no less?  

Grindelwald’s lips stretched in a slow smile, and the superiority of it was nauseating.

“You see, a man came to me some six months ago,” he said pleasantly. “He claimed to be a seer. He was sure that a demon had infiltrated Hogwarts and was planning on massive destruction.”

Harry’s jaw dropped. Then he laughed, and Grindelwald’s smile gained some life.

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” he agreed. “I didn’t take him seriously. He was an amusing little thing, though, and I granted him a chance to explain. He babbled incessantly about you, about the alleged aura you possess, and that was when I caught the name. Harry Potter. Would you like to hear something strange?” 

Grindelwald actually waited for a reply, so Harry nodded jerkily.

“The surname Potter is not at all common within the magical community,” Grindelwald gazed at the wand he was gripping lazily, and a sudden panicked jolt shook Harry, effectively dispersing his disbelief.

The Elder Wand. It belonged to Grindelwald. Or did it? If they duelled and Harry lost, would that mean that he would no longer be the Master of Death? 

Losing immortality wouldn’t be such a terrible idea, but losing his life? Grindelwald had more chances of killing him than vice versa. If he died… what would happen to Tom?

“I looked at his memories,” Grindelwald continued, “and the resemblance was remarkable. Truly uncanny. Of course, you were just a regular wizard, whatever that seer sensed from you. But how curious: all officially known Potters have gone into hiding. Because of me. Dumbledore has released the oddest rumour about me allegedly murdering the Potters’ heir. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why he’d think that. What interest could I have in some snotty boy representing an average family?”

“You tell me,” Harry growled, jerking his wand up. Horror at himself for failing to remember what Grindelwald had taken from him fuelled a blinding fury, and his magic lashed out, making the candles flicker.

“Incredible,” Grindelwald commented, sounding bored. “Incredibly average. But I’m courteous enough to reply: no, I had no interest in the death of that child. I hadn’t heard of his existence before the news arrived. Dumbledore backed down soon enough, but the Potters kept hiding, and so I began to wonder, what was all this about? Why would Dumbledore believe I’d go after this family in such a way? Unless this family had something he knew I would want for myself. And see, Mr. Potter,” Grindelwald stepped closer, “that was when I got really curious. I looked into the Potters. I listened to stories about them. I came to the conclusion that they held a unique artefact, one of the three. When the seer appealed to me, claiming Dumbledore ignores his warnings, I thought, how odd. A man carrying the name Potter, teaching at Hogwarts. A man who has Dumbledore’s trust and who comprises death itself, if the seer was to be believed.”

Harry’s stomach dropped to his feet. He tried to focus, gripping his wand tighter, but a storm of thoughts raged through him, bringing confusion and fear.

If Grindelwald hadn’t killed Charlus, who had? How much did Grindelwald know now? Did he know everything? Or did he come up with an incorrect theory like Rivers?

Harry had managed to find a way out of many situations, including those that seemed hopeless. But he didn’t know if luck would still be on his side now.

“I won’t bore you with details,” Grindelwald took another step forward. Harry tensed, and Avery, who didn’t seem to be even breathing, crouched in defensive position. “I concluded that you must possess the Cloak of Invisibility. The Potters are hiding while you, a man who is officially not connected to them, are enjoying obscurity. But this was a long shot. After all, why would the cloak alone make an insignificant wizard like you reek of death enough for the incompetent seer to sense it?”

Avery hissed in fury, moving forwards with his wand raised, and Grindelwald gave him an amused look.

“Yes, this is exactly what I’m going to discuss next,” he agreed. “I did yet another small research. And the things I’ve found! Mr. Potter is raising the heir of Slytherin. I have young competition planning to oppose me. Laughable competition, but competition nonetheless.”

This time, Avery growled, and Harry had to jerk him back before he did anything even more stupid. He wasn’t entirely sure how to protect even himself — being responsible for Avery just made the situation worse.

“This competition is sending children to protect Mr. Potter,” Grindelwald continued like nothing happened. “Although if you allow me to comment on it, you look younger than most of them. But no matter. The truly interesting thing is that your ward is wearing a very rare ring. Now, that couldn’t be a coincidence.”

The playful light in Grindelwald’s eyes suddenly dimmed — now they shone with steely coldness.

“You have two Hallows,” he said icily. “I intend to take them. Unfortunately for you, no actions on your part are required — I have access to your things thanks to Mr. Rivers. If the cloak is hidden, it’s also not a problem. All I need is your blood and some magic to share the ownership. When it’s done, I assume my naïve competition will come running to avenge you, and that will conclude our business.”

“Shows how much you know!” Avery spat. His wand was trembling with an effort to suppress his violent magic. “Tom is stronger than you! He knows more than you do! You spent months on looking for an answer about Charlus Potter while Tom knew the truth all along! He set you up — I bet you didn’t see this coming. Times are changing — no one is going to fear you soon!”

Shock went through Harry in a hot wave, but he didn’t have time to ask anything. Grindelwald flicked his wand, and six different destructive spells shot up from its tip, one by one, moving towards him and Avery with deadly speed. 

Emotions retreated, freeing place for focused resolution. Harry’s shield covered him and Avery at the last moment, and though it was shaky, it absorbed the spells.

From that moment on, he was on the defensive. Grindelwald moved lazily, but his curses were flying from all directions, and Harry barely had time to repel them, never mind fire his own spells. Avery was the one who got a chance to attack: protected by Harry’s shields, he kept showering Grindelwald with curses so dark that the mere fact of him knowing them was outrageous.

“Down!” Harry yelled as Grindelwald’s wand flashed with green light. There was no time to check if Avery listened to him — he ducked, then jumped to his feet, reflecting yet another spell and trying to stretch his shield as wide as possible. Avery straightened from his own crouch, muttering a curse after a curse, twisting and waving his wand so rapidly that his movements blurred. His technique was next to flawless — it was so similar to Tom’s that—

A heavy chair flung itself at his head. Harry threw himself to the side, and during the brief second of his flight, he managed to use his first offensive incantation. He wasn’t sure he could overcome Grindelwald’s shields, so he directed a simple breaking curse at the chandelier hanging right above his head. It dropped, distracting him for a precious moment, and that’s when Harry’s second curse hit. Grindelwald let out a startled sound when the bones in his right hand melted, turning it into useless rubber. It hung lifelessly, a burden rather than a strength, and as Grindelwald’s wand began to fall, he caught it with his left hand, adjusting his stance.

“Clever,” he said breathlessly. He tried to appear nonchalant, but Harry could easily read fury in his narrowed eyes. “And yes, do you think this will save you?”

A wave of the wand, and a thin violet film emerged right in front of Harry. It shimmered, floating closer, and he conjured a protective barrier between them, quickly analysing the way it moved and glistened.

It was pointless. The second this film touched his shield, it coiled furiously, and then it shot forward, instantly breaking through every additional barrier he’d constructed. Harry’s reflexes allowed him to avoid the major impact, but the film managed to touch his fingers, boiling the skin on them.

He hissed from pain, tightening his grip on the wand stubbornly, but then something else collided with him, throwing him against the wall. Collapsing, Harry winced as his hand screamed in agony.

The green light followed immediately, and his mind recognised the fatality of it before his body caught up.

In five seconds, he would have been able to move and avoid it. But in these first moments after the crash, disorientation held him captive, making him flounder and watch stupidly as death approached him.

And then Avery was there, silent and determined. Harry gasped just as the light hit him in the chest, deadening everything it touched, making him collapse like a ragdoll with its strings cut.

Shock and horror were blinding. They coloured Harry’s world in one endless splash of Avada Kedavra, and all of a sudden, he saw his parents, and Cedric, and Dumbledore, and Hedwig — all gone, all swallowed by the green.

Avery fell on his back, his eyes unseeing, and Harry screamed in rage and despair. His wand obeyed an unvoiced command, jumping into his hand, and he dashed forward with it, unleashing everything he knew on Grindelwald.

The magic crackled around them. Harry whirled, crouched, jumped, ducked — now that he wasn’t tied to one spot to protect himself and Avery, he could afford to move freely through the room. His defence no longer depended purely on magical barriers — he dodged where he could, using every opportunity to send an array of spells in Grindelwald’s direction.

The shields Grindelwald was maintaining were designed to repel serious curses. Their threads were smooth, strong, and impenetrable, but in their intention to stop large volumes of hostile magic, they stretched too widely, leaving small holes through which insignificant spells could slip. Harry used this to his advantage. At first, he threw a Furnunculus jinx, ignoring Grindelwald’s sneering. Then he conjured a series of fever, relaxation, and sore feet spells, alternating them with more destructive curses.

As he expected, Grindelwald concentrated on fighting off the bigger danger, but most smaller hexes hit their target. Following this same tactic, Harry dropped himself behind one of the tables, sending Sectumsempra from his right and immediately following it with a nosebleed spell from his left. Grindelwald struggled with Sectumsempra briefly, so he missed the last hex, and a flood of blood erupted from his nose.

Growling in annoyance, he slashed his wand through the air. Three red flashes flew at Harry, and he jerked to the side, manoeuvring himself between them. Even before they dispersed, he thrust a blood-boiling curse and Conjunctivitis at Grindelwald. The curse was repelled with a crash; Conjunctivitis hit, and Grindelwald growled again as his eyes filled with painful redness, trying to shut close.

All these hexes were relatively harmless separately, but when thrown together, they created a dangerous mix. It weakened the body, eating away at a person’s concentration — this was the only way for Harry to even out their chances. Grindelwald was fighting with one hand, still bleeding, with his head and his feet aching, his muscles trying to relax against his will, and his eyes begging for a chance to close. His aim was getting worse while Harry remained mostly unharmed.

Aguamenti,” he commanded, directing his wand at Grindelwald’s feet. When water pooled beneath it, he added, “Glacius.”

Grindelwald stepped back automatically, slipping, and using this additional break in his focus, Harry sent a series of advanced severing charms at him. Most of them were successfully blocked, but one carved itself into Grindelwald’s shoulder, cutting through the skin and bone.

Roaring in pain, Grindelwald snapped his eyes to Harry. They were no longer amused — they were enraged, and this sent a trickle of dark satisfaction down Harry’s mind. He bared his teeth in a violent grin, crouching where he stood.

“Incredibly average,” he mocked breathlessly. “Seems like killing children is all you’re good at. And you thought you could handle Tom? Please. You can’t defeat even an insignificant, mediocre Hogwarts teacher.”

Grindelwald screamed in his fury. His body almost glowed with magic, and the next second, tens of impulsive spells shot out, creative a tight net that stretched itself across half of the room. Harry threw his magic at it, trying to break it, but the net swallowed it before suddenly jumping at him, covering him from head to toe. An unseen force lifted him in the air and threw him against the wall, knocking all the air out of his lungs. His disfigured fingers released the wand, and it took a moment for Harry to realise all implications of it.

He was weaponless. Grindelwald had disarmed him.

He was no longer the Master of Death.

Horror crushed every rational thought that was still in his head. Panicked, Harry tried to get up, but another wave of magic wrapped around him, raising him up again. Then it sent him flying across the room, and the speed of it told Harry everything he needed to know about his chances.

This was it. Either the collision would kill him or it would cripple him, making him helpless before Grindelwald’s wrath. One way or another, he was going to die.

How stupid,’ he managed to think. He crashed into the wall right after that, felt the pain engulf him, heard the crack of his own skull.

The light faded, taking his life with it.

 

***

 

Distant sounds were the first to return. Something was destroying the air, filling it with pressure so intense that his ears began to hurt even before he remembered his name.

Slowly, Harry opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling. He was lying on the floor, among the shattered wooden boards. Somewhere in the room, a fight was taking place — the thick fog of magic that formed after a repeated usage of powerful spells was quickly intensifying, growing almost suffocating. What was happening? Where was—

The memories finally caught up with him. Harry gasped, sitting up and turning his head in the direction of the sounds, and his bewilderment and confusion at being alive were instantly trampled by the primal fear.    

Tom was here. Tom was duelling Grindelwald, mirroring Harry’s movements and speed with stunning precision, but using curses with the power that only he could wield. From his place, Harry could see Grindelwald limp in an attempt to dodge the spells he couldn’t block. His robe was soaked with blood, but he wasn’t the only one hurt — a long cut crossed Tom’s face. His half-burned robe was lying in heap on the floor, and there was a thick purple mark on his throat, as if someone had tried to choke him.

The rage that had filled him after Avery’s death was molten hot, burning his blood and urging him to act. The fury that exploded in him now went beyond any human definition of heat. It was pure lava, deadly in its sentient destructiveness, crazed in its obsessive need to erase something that hurt Tom.

Avery’s body was nearby, with his wand still clutched in his limp hand. Grabbing it, Harry rose to his feet, catching Tom’s gaze. Tom’s eyes widened in shock before he staggered, relief and joy shining on his face.

Reacting to this change, Grindelwald began to turn, and as Tom shouted, “Expelliarmus!”, Harry snarled, “Avada Kedavra!

Red and green collided with their target almost simultaneously. For a second, Grindelwald’s body was bathed in an ethereal yellow light. It shook, as if something was tearing it apart from inside, before falling down with a dull thump. Harry stared at it wordlessly. Rage was still clawing at him, tugging at his insides and demanding revenge, unsatisfied with this quick and painless death. His body didn’t feel like it belonged to him — it felt like it was still floating in some other world, detached from his mind, unable to handle the dark intensity of emotions rocking through it.

“Harry.”

The clear voice was so beloved that it lit up the darkness, chasing the shadows away. Harry blinked, and Tom was standing right in front of him, battered but alive, and looking as stunned as Harry felt.

“You killed him,” Tom whispered. His eyes were wide and incredulous. “For me? Or because this was the right thing to do?”

Trying to remember how to speak, Harry cleared his throat.

“For you,” he murmured. Tom’s smile was positively glowing. He bent down, pressing a kiss to his lips, and Harry let him, unable to move from the spot.  

Just as suddenly, Tom pulled back, glancing at the front door.

“This is how we’ll do it,” he said. Raising his wand, he pointed it at Grindelwald’s throat, murmuring several slicing hexes. “I don’t know if they’ll consider your use of Unforgivables unacceptable despite the circumstances, but we can’t take the risks. We’ll say I killed him with a slicing hex after we duelled. Give me this.” Returning to his side, Tom took the wand from him and threw it back towards Avery’s body. His eyes didn’t stop on it, didn’t change — as if Avery’s death was something to be taken for granted. “They won’t be checking his wand, and if they do, it doesn’t matter, he’s dead anyway. So don’t say anything else. Do you understand?”

Harry cringed at the mention of Avery, shaking his head, hoping that the memories would fade away. He didn’t want to remember this. He didn’t want any vivid reminders of his other losses — it’d been years since they affected him like this, he couldn’t allow himself to regress, not after all this time.

Tom must have misinterpreted his reaction.

“Technically, it’s not even a lie,” he said earnestly, as if this was the most bothersome thing. Disbelief was slowly fading from his face, replaced by wild excitement. “You killed him for me, so it can be said that I’m responsible for his death. This will be safer for you and useful for me. I thought I’d have to spend years on fighting for this level of recognition, but Grindelwald’s death changes everything. Everyone will respect me. I will have next to no opposition left.” 

This was all too much. Harry continued to shake his head, too wrung out to make sense of anything. With a breathless laugh, Tom kissed his brow, his irises lightening to a warm greenish-brown shade.

“I think I’ll take his wand,” he mused. “This will be symbolic, won’t it? I wonder if it’ll like me.”

Tom pulled out the Elder Wand, observing it shrewdly. Still feeling like he’s in a dream, Harry touched it, too, and it glowed slightly, responding to him and sending currents of warmth through his fingers.

He didn’t understand anything. Why were the Deathly Hallows of this world reacting to him? Why had he come back to life even after losing to Grindelwald? Was there a paradox of some sort? Was he stuck as the Master of Death, and nothing could change what he’d become?

Tom eyed the wand curiously before a satisfied smirk stretched across his lips.

“It reacts to me,” he stated smugly. “It accepts my ownership.”

Harry choked on his hysterical laughter, and Tom frowned.

“Are you all right?” he asked, concerned. “When I arrived, you were already unconscious. How badly are you hurt?”

“Nothing serious,” Harry managed to push out. Tom leaned against him, sighing in contentment.

“I nearly lost my mind when I saw you lying there,” he murmured. His triumph gave way to darkness and fragility, and Harry put his hands around Tom’s waist in an automatic desire to comfort him. “It just stopped working. I tried to get to you, but he was there. He must have said or done something to stop me — I don’t even remember how the fight started.”

This finally stirred something in Harry’s mind. His thoughts sharpened, trying to assemble themselves together.

“Why did you come?” he wondered.

“I saw Rivers,” Tom’s voice turned into pure venom in its loathing. “You weren’t back, so I decided to go and check by myself. If I hadn’t… if I had come even one minute late…”

He shuddered, and Harry stroked his back slowly. Suddenly, the half-broken door opened, with several people peeking inside. Tom quickly turned to face them. Then he began to talk and explain, waving his hands animatedly, and Harry sat right on the floor, hugging his knees close.

Avery’s eyes stared at him, silent and accusing, and irrevocably dead.

 

***

 

Harry barely remembered the fuss that followed. There were questions, conversations, surprise and happiness, but he ignored it, too lost in his own thoughts and feelings. Later, he was taken to a hospital wing along with Tom, and then they were separated. Tom was accepting awe and congratulations from Dippet while Harry was given to Dumbledore. At this point, he wasn’t surprised.

“I’m sure that Tom will gladly answer all questions you have,” he said tiredly. Dumbledore’s eyes glistened with something that could be pity… or sorrow.  

Oh, right. Grindelwald. Dumbledore’s greatest love and tragedy.

“I’m sure he will,” Dumbledore agreed quietly. “But I would like to hear it from you.”

‘There is not much to tell,” Harry pushed himself against the back of the chair, studying the ceiling. He wanted to sleep, but at the same time, he was terrified of the dreams that were to come. “Rivers made Grindelwald aware of my existence. He was deluded, but his information turned out to be useful. Grindelwald decided I have the Potters’ Cloak of Invisibility, so he killed Avery and tried to kill me. Tom realised that something was wrong, so he followed us and managed to kill Grindelwald. That’s it.”

Dumbledore continued to stare at him in an expectant and patient way that only he could manage. It was utterly infuriating, but an old resurrected part of Harry was used to obeying it. With a tired sigh, he tried to think of anything he could say — anything that wouldn’t be related to the truth of who had killed Grindelwald. Anything that wouldn’t be related to Avery.

And suddenly the answer was there, rushing to the surface with a surprising sharpness.

“Actually, there is something else,” Harry muttered hesitantly. “Grindelwald claimed he hadn’t killed Charlus Potter. That he was surprised when he heard about this murder being attributed to him. He sounded genuine.”

Though Avery hadn’t seemed taken aback, had he? As if he’d already known the answer. What was it he said? ‘Tom knew the truth all along. He set you up’?

A chill poured down Harry’s spine. Suddenly, the room seemed bitterly cold, and a vague unshaped realisation started to form somewhere at the back of his mind, scratching at it with long ugly claws.

He rubbed his temples, hoping to send the despicable thought to the hell it’d come from. But Dumbledore was silent — why was he silent? He had been the one to suggest that Grindelwald had murdered Charlus. What other options could there be?

Tom knew the truth all along. He set you up.

No. Tom had no connection to Charlus. He had just turned twelve at the time, the idea was laughable!  

But Dumbledore was silent. Why was he still silent?

“I always believed there are two possibilities,” Dumbledore said, subdued, as if having overheard his thoughts. “Gellert was the first one. It certainly made sense for him to attack the Potters.”

“Yes, it did!” Harry agreed fiercely. But no matter how hard he clung to this idea, his heart rate was accelerating, slowly but steadily. He tried to draw in some air, to breathe deeper, but it dissipated before it had a chance to get to his lungs. This sent additional bursts of panic through his already blackening mind, and he touched his throat, feeling as if an invisible rope was being tightened around it.

“And yet,” Dumbledore continued softly, “this was not quite Gellert’s style. To kill a child in the middle of the Diagon Alley and disappear without leaving a message? To never claim the credit for it? This is not how he would have behaved.”

Harry opened his mouth, trying to say something, to argue, but no words escaped. They gathered in his throat, cluttering it and suffocating him further.

“That was when I started to consider another option,” Dumbledore paused, watching him. “I cannot prove it. There is no direct evidence. However, Tom Riddle—”

“Slytherin,” Harry choked out. His heart was hammering, its pounding echoing in his temples, threatening to explode his head if one more ugly thought entered it. “He’s not Tom Riddle. He’s Tom Slytherin.”

Dumbledore sighed, lowering his gaze briefly.

“All right,” he murmured. “Tom Slytherin. He wasn’t fond of Charlus. I know for a fact that he was watching that boy closely, even stalking him at times. The portraits see everything — they talk, they gossip. They noticed his behaviour, but I have to admit I didn’t think much of it. I believed he was interested in the boy because he carried your name. After Charlus was killed, some more rumours emerged. Again, they weren’t specific, but they had enough information to make me look closer at Tom. For a while, there was nothing… but when I saw you next time, I noticed your new ring.”

Harry’s hurting fingers clutched at the ring protectively before he even understood what he was doing. Nausea roiled in his stomach, contracting it in sudden spasms, and he took another shaky breath, hoping to calm it down.

“What about the ring?” he wheezed.

“Perhaps nothing,” Dumbledore held his gaze steadily. “Charlus had a lot of affection for another student. His parents helped him to purchase a Gryffindor ring for her, yet after his death, it was never found.”

The bile rushed to his mouth, and Harry barely managed to swallow it back. Then he swallowed again, and again, but his throat kept spasming. Not caring what Dumbledore thought of him, he reached across the table, grabbed a cup standing there, and drank from it, trying to wash the bitterness away and to drown out the twitches of nausea.

“It doesn’t prove anything,” he mumbled finally. The words sounded like they were spoken by someone else. “It’s not a unique ring. There are others.”

“Yes, there sure are,” Dumbledore suddenly looked very grave. “That begs the question… do you remember when Tom gifted you this ring? And where he was on the day Charlus was murdered? I understand that a lot of time passed since then, but perhaps you could think of something.”

He could. He could because Tom had gone to Diagon Alley that day. He returned soon after Harry dropped dead, and later that day, he put the ring on his finger.

Time matched. It matched perfectly.

Grindelwald had never been to the Diagon Alley that day — there was only Tom. Tom killed Charlus. And with him, he killed James. Again.

Harry didn’t notice how he jumped to his feet. His gut turned over in a warning, his throat contracted, and this time, he knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself.

He ran out of Dumbledore’s office, rushing down the stairs before stopping. Another spasm, and his stomach forced everything that was in it out. Harry dropped to his knees, heaving, shivering violently with every lurch. The bile dribbled from his chin, mixing with tears, and he bent down again in a coughing fit.

He had no idea how much time passed. When the vomit finally stopped, he was curled into a ball, feeling like his insides had turned into one large bruise. He was covered with cold sweat, his robe stained with wet white spots.

Would this day ever end? Maybe it would turn out to be a dream. A nightmare.

But even these childish delusions didn’t help him to feel better. His body was shutting off, and he was still stuck in Hogwarts, near Dumbledore’s office of all places.

He had to go home. He had to go home now.

Slowly, Harry pushed himself up, using the railing for support. His legs shook under him, threatening to drop him with each step, and his throat felt as dry as if he hadn’t drunk water in centuries.

How could he apparate anywhere in such state?

Then again, why did it matter? He had to get home. Not to his Hogwarts rooms — home.

Somehow, Harry made it outside. He almost crawled to the apparition barrier, and the moment he felt its borders, he apparated.

He got to his destination almost in one piece.

 

***

 

Hours kept slipping into one another. When the sound of apparition came from the outside, Harry had lost count — he was sitting in the corner of the dark living room, cradling his bleeding hand to his chest, practising Occlumency in the hope to subdue the images his masochistic mind kept bringing to the surface. Despondency was gradually turning everything in him into ice, but when Tom entered the house and then the room, this ice cracked. Emotions began to bleed through, incinerating everything the cold hadn’t killed yet.

“Harry!” Tom came to a halt. His face was wary. When he saw the blood, the caution slipped away, and he jerked forward, his face contorted in alarm.

“Stay away from me,” Harry barked. Tom paused mid-step, watching him with wide, perplexed eyes.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

It would take him a lifetime to explain what was wrong. Instead, Harry raised his hand, stretching the fingers on it.   

“I want to know about my ring,” he said. Something was coiling, snapping under the surface of his voice — any small thing could push him over the edge now. “Where did you get it?”

Realisation and calculation ran across Tom’s features, so fast and yet so noticeable that Harry felt sick again.

“You spoke to Dumbledore,” Tom announced finally. He scoffed, a sneer marring his beautiful face. “Since when do you trust his words?”

“Since I can confirm them.” Slowly, Harry stood up. The ring felt hot on his finger, trying to burn its way down to the very bone. “You were gone that day. You went to Diagon Alley. You returned with the ring.”

“How do you know I returned with it?” an arrogant smile pulled the corner of Tom’s lips up. “I could have purchased it weeks before.”

Harry’s magic stirred. Its volatility and fury blew it wide, making it into a hissing, living being, something more powerful than Harry ever thought he possessed.

“Stop lying to me,” he hissed. Tom flinched slightly, all arrogance evaporating from his face. “Tell me what happened.”

Tom still wanted to lie — it was obvious from his expressions, which kept changing like he couldn’t settle on the appropriate one, from his hesitant posture, from his eyes that remained shrewd and calculating. Harry continued to hold his gaze. He didn’t know how he himself looked like, but Tom suddenly stiffened defensively, crossing his arms against his chest.

“I cannot imagine why you think it matters,” he uttered coldly. “It was years ago — it happened even before Beth. Can’t you just let it go? What’s done is done.”  

“Let it go,” Harry repeated. His words were shaking, and a searing, maddening hysteria rose from inside, mashing everything he was seeing together, turning the world into a blur. Only Tom remained a clear image in it, a figure of death and destruction. “You killed a child for no reason. You killed my family.”

This time, it was Tom’s magic that snapped, whirling around him in an angry cloud.

“Never say that again,” he warned through clenched teeth. “I am your family. You tried to hide your connection to Potters, but I knew you were lying. They abandoned you — they deserved to suffer.”

“What are you talking about!” Harry screamed. His body was quivering violently, making his vision even blurrier. “No one abandoned me! Stop making up lies to justify your monstrosity — you are a murderer! You never had reasons to hurt anyone, you invented them to give yourself an excuse!”

“It was for you,” Tom growled, closing the distance between them. He was shaking, too, his dark eyes flashing furiously. “Everything I ever did is for you!”

“It was never for me, it was for you,” Harry spat. His heart felt like it was about to explode in his chest, and he couldn’t breathe — couldn’t force his lungs to accept the air. “You planned it. You lied to me and pretended you needed to go to Diagon Alley — and for what? Because you thought I was related to Charlus Potter? Because you cannot stand the idea of me having even one other person in my life, even if they are my family and I don’t interact with them?”

“Stop calling them that!” Tom bellowed. The glass shattered around them, and Harry laughed breathlessly, feeling light-headed and mad.

“Look at me,” he choked out. “I raised a monster. I perverted the idea of love, turned it turn into something abnormal. Something awful. If you were out there planning murder when you were eleven, then I failed. I failed at everything.”  

Tom tried to say something, but Harry raised his hand again, silencing him.

“I don’t want to hear anything else,” he said hollowly. “We’re back to where we started. You don’t care about people dying — their lives mean nothing to you. You destroy them when you think they are a nuisance. You brainwashed your friends — why would Avery die for me? He didn’t even know me. But there was no hesitation, he just threw himself in front of the spell like it was his responsibility.”

The memory flashed with green in his mind, making him shudder. Harry closed his eyes, but the emotions didn’t settle — they continued to hiss and blister, blackening everything they touched.

“You are trying to make the world live by your rules,” he added dully, “but you’re forgetting something. You still live by mine. I promised you practical demonstrations before, didn’t I? I think it’s time for another one. Accio the Draught of Living Death.”

The potion was in his hand before Tom had a chance to react. Harry uncorked it, bringing it to his lips, and that was when Tom finally came alive. His eyes flew open, horror making them abnormally huge on his face, and his magic lashed out urgently to knock the vial out of Harry’s hand.

It collided with Harry’s own magic, losing some of its impact, so while his hand shook, it didn’t release the potion.

“Stop,” Tom whispered. His trembling hands were raised in an attempt to soothe, a morbid echo of the same moment from years ago. “You know that if you drink too much, you’ll be dead instantly. There won’t be a way to come back from this. Don’t do this.”

Harry smiled mirthlessly. He tilted the vial, but the next second, Tom lunged at him, his hands reaching to intercept the potion.

He was much quicker now, there was no denying it, but still, Harry was faster. He cradled the vial, pushing Tom away violently and watching him hit the floor.

“No!” Tom gasped. He rose to his knees, panting, staring at him with wild eyes. “Don’t do this. You can’t do this to me. You can’t, it’s not fair.”

“You’re not the one to talk about fairness,” Harry curled his lips in a grimace that twisted his face, probably making it look as ugly as he felt. “You killed my family. You lied to me.”

“Don’t call them that!” Tom cried, and for the first time in years, frustrated tears filled his eyes. Harry stared at him, unmoved. “I don’t understand why you call them your family! That’s not true — you are mine! They were never there for you, so why do you care about them?”

How could he explain? How could he explain James, the pure and childish love Harry still held for him, the fragile hope that one day, they could meet? Thinking that Grindelwald took it from him was heartbreaking, but he accepted it. He made peace with it.

But for Tom to do it… To do it again, despite everything. To make him wear that ring on his hand.

It was unbearable. He couldn’t live with this.

His resolution must have been visible because Tom suddenly shrieked, “No! I killed him, all right, I killed him, but it was before your rules! I didn’t break them, you can’t punish me for something that happened before you even introduced your system!”  

Harry shook his head, rejecting this explanation.

“Please,” Tom begged. He tried to get up, but his knees buckled, sending him back to the floor. “Please, I’ll do anything. Whatever you ask. I’ll confess publicly, I’ll make an Unbreakable Vow to you, I’ll leave Hogwarts — anything at all, just don’t do this. I can’t live without you.”  

Harry waited for these words to affect him, but they didn’t. There was only merciful numbness shrouding the charred remains of his heart, bringing peace to his tattered mind.

“I hate you,” he said. Then he took two large sips from the vial, letting the silvery potion slip down his throat. Almost immediately, his consciousness switched off, and Tom’s desperate howl was the last thing he’d heard.

 

***

 

His consciousness swam. As always, the sounds came first: someone was gasping loudly right into his ear. It felt like they were struggling to breathe because every inhalation ended with a wheeze, and whenever they exhaled, the air came tumbling out in a choked sob. Something wet kept dripping on his neck, and at some point, the sensation became uncomfortable enough for Harry to open his eyes.

At first, he didn’t understand what he was staring at. He was being held in a strong, crushing grip, and the only thing he saw was a mess of dark hair. Instincts woke up sooner than logic: he knew this hair, knew every curl and twist of it. It was Tom — of course it was Tom, but why was he…

Oh.

The memories burned, instantly filling every part of him with ancient ache. Grimacing, Harry tried to move, and the wheezing above him stopped abruptly. In the next moment, Tom’s ashen face came into view, and Harry flinched before he could stop himself.

Two prominent tear tracks shone on his skin, an image so shocking and unexpected that Harry would have recoiled from it if Tom hadn’t been wrapped around him like a manacle, making each of his possible movements futile. One of Tom’s hands was clutching Harry’s shirt, and several of his nails were covered with blood. Alarmed, Harry tried to examine him from his awkward position, and his gaze stopped at Tom’s hair again.

There were two tiny streams of blood flowing behind his ears, down his neck. They mixed with tears there, and Tom’s robe was so soaked that some of it had been transferred to Harry’s skin. That’s what dragged him out of his peaceful slumber earlier than he would have preferred.

Tom stared at him silently, saying nothing. He wasn’t gasping now, but he wasn’t breathing either, so Harry did sit up, forcefully disentangling himself from his suffocating hold.

A few locks of dark hair were lying on the floor, next to Tom. This, along with the blood and the nails, told Harry exactly what happened, and self-disgust that crashed into him was powerful enough to steal the words he was about to say.

He had seen Tom panicked before. He had seen him in deep shock. He had seen him lost and cut off from reality, but this? This was too much. The Tom he was seeing now barely looked like himself — he was so pale that he resembled a corpse. There were scratches on his temples, and it was painfully clear that in his fit of madness and grief, he had pulled some of his hair out, trying to hold on to something solid with despair that Harry had never wanted him to experience.

And this was his doing. His fault.

Tom still wasn’t breathing, so Harry grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him.

“Breathe,” he whispered. “Please, breathe, Tom. I’m here. I shouldn’t have done it.”

Tom’s lips parted, but no sound came out. And his chest still wouldn’t move. He was beyond reach, beyond any reasonable methods of calming, so Harry moved his hands up towards Tom’s face and briefly kissed him on the lips. Tom shuddered under his touch, and then he leaned away with a gasp, his glassy eyes finally regaining life.

“Impossible,” he murmured hoarsely. Even his lips were trembling. “You are dead. I know you are dead. I saw it happen.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry dropped his head, fighting his own sudden urge to cry. What on earth had he done? How could he have been so cruel? The death had had a calming effect on him because now, he could think rationally — and his own behaviour horrified him. 

Whatever Tom had done, he didn’t deserve what Harry had forced him to witness. He was right: he’d killed Charlus before they discussed the system of rewards and punishments. It was monstrous, it was crushing, but Harry was to blame for this as much as Tom was. He’d missed the signs, he lived in a delusion. That was why Beth’s death had nearly destroyed him: he was blindsided. He wasn’t ready.

But his conversation with Tom and his system had changed everything. Tom had been trying since then, trying to the extent he was capable of. He didn’t deserve punishment. At least not of this kind.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said again. Tom was finally breathing, but he still resembled a statue. “I didn’t mean most of what I said. It’s just Avery’s death, and me killing Grindelwald, and then learning about Charlus — it was too much. I lost control.”

“You were dead,” Tom repeated woodenly. “You weren’t breathing. I tried everything, but I couldn’t bring you back. You were gone.”

Guilt pushed against his brain, making it shrivel and send an array of random impulses through his body. Harry’s hands jerked helplessly, his mouth fell open to say something, and his body moved from side to side. He wanted to console Tom, to soothe him, but he wasn’t sure how. Unless…

“I can explain everything,” he swore, trying to angle his head so that he would meet Tom’s gaze. “Will you let me?”

Tom didn’t appear to hear him.

“You said you hated me,” he muttered emptily, his voice cracking. “You promised you wouldn’t, but you said you did.”

“No, I— no, Tom,” Harry shook his head vehemently even as guilt continued to burn, making every second unbearable. “I love you. I’m angry and hurt, but I love you. I could never stop.”

Contrary to his hopes, Tom didn’t react even to this. He rocked forwards and backwards, still in a strange half-trance, and tears began to pool in Harry’s eyes.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” he promised desperately. “Would you like to hear it?”

To his astonishment, this word seemed to achieve the effect even his kiss hadn’t. Tom blinked, rationality and something else glimmering in his stare.

“A secret?” he echoed.

“Yes. One that I have never shared with anyone else.”

Slowly, awareness began to shine in Tom’s eyes. He still appeared shell-shocked, but his mind started working — that was already good enough.   

“Yes,” he uttered quietly. “I want to know it. You learned my secret, now I will learn yours. That’s how it should be.”    

Harry nodded, eager to do something to remove this frightening expression from Tom’s face. He stood up with a wince, stretching his sore muscles, and headed towards his bedroom. But before he took even three steps, Tom jumped up and clung to his hand, watching him warily.  

Oh. Of course.

“Let’s go together,” Harry offered kindly. Tom nodded, holding on to his arm with both of his hands.

They walked towards the room, and Harry took out a dusty Pensieve from the depth of his wardrobe. He had initially bought it to remember his first life, to keep Ron and Hermione close, but he hadn’t used it for years.

Now it was time. The only way for him and Tom to move forwards and find forgiveness was by making sure there were no secrets left.

“You didn’t kill anyone else, did you?” he clarified as the horrible thought entered his mind. Tom flinched and shook his head furiously, and Harry relaxed. “All right. Let me put some memories into this. Then you’ll watch them and—” he took a deep breath. “We will talk. For real.”

“Memories?” Tom asked, but his voice sounded distracted. A glassy look began to overtake him again, pulling his consciousness away, and Harry grabbed him by his shoulders, pushing their foreheads together.

“Listen to me,” he breathed right into his lips. “I don’t hate you. I didn’t mean what I said. After seeing these memories, you will understand why Charlus’ death affected me so much… and I hope you and I will be able to forgive each other.”

Tom sighed, swaying softly. Then he nodded.   

 

***

 

It took Harry almost an hour to put the memories together. His mind kept alternating between dread and determination, but he still picked several memories from each relevant period of his life.

Several scenes from his childhood. Hagrid’s visit. Seeing the world of magic for the first time. Meeting Ron and Hermione. Learning about Voldemort. Every year in Hogwarts, every confrontation, the decisions he had to make at the end, when the war ended yet the peace didn’t arrive.

The way he became the owner of the Hallows without suspecting what that meant. The way he couldn’t die, couldn’t age.

When he was done, he felt shaken. Rubbing the sweat from his forehead, Harry tried to give Tom an encouraging smile.

“Go on,” he said softly. “I just hope that you will want to talk to me afterwards.”

Tom cocked an eyebrow sceptically. His eyes moved towards the Pensieve, hesitant and greedy. Finally, with the last look at Harry, he dived inside, and a soft shimmer appeared above the Pensieve, indicating that it was being used.    

Now all he could was wait.

 

Harry sat on his bed, trying not to obsess over what memory Tom was seeing now, how he was reacting to it, what he was going to watch next. As minutes trickled by, he kept his eyes on the shimmery surface of the Pensieve. At some point, when he raised his hand to brush hair from his face, he noticed the ring, and everything in him went cold.

Charlus’ ring. The one that should have been given to the girl he liked, not stolen by his murderer.

Pain and fury dropped into his stomach again, hardening until they felt like lead. Harry sucked in a gulp of air. Then, with an effort, he released it.

He couldn’t allow himself to dwell on this. He would go crazy. It’d be some time before his rage lessened, but he wouldn’t take it out on Tom again. What he’d done was punishment enough.

Self-hatred paid him a visit next, spitting its venom around. Harry tried to cringe back from it, but it’d already taken roots, resurrecting the guilt and the sickness.

He needed Tom. He needed Tom to come back so they could talk — everything would be all right then. They would start anew, like nothing bad had happened — Tom would understand him after seeing his memories. He would understand the danger of darkness, and he would willingly stay away from it. Tom was bright, powerful, and admired by everyone — he would never want to become something as empty as Voldemort.

More time passed. Splashes of anxiety mirrored his every inhale, and when Tom finally emerged, Harry no longer remembered what breathing normally felt like. His heart stopped beating for a second as he stared at Tom intently, trying to read his face.

To his frustration, he realised that he couldn’t. Tom was absolutely expressionless, standing there, studying him with a blank dark gaze. Then, unexpectedly, his lips formed a smile.

“I think we should drink something,” he uttered. His voice was pleasant, revealing nothing about his feelings. “Let’s go downstairs. I’ll make us some tea.”

Confused, Harry nodded. His tongue was burning with the need to fire questions, to understand if he’d done the right thing, but Tom was acting so business-like that he didn’t dare.

What could that mean? Did he despise him now? Did he even want them to still have a future together?

In the kitchen, Harry sat down, watching Tom prepare everything silently. Maybe he was sorting through his thoughts this way? Making sense of what he’d seen?

Several minutes later, Tom set the table, and unexpectedly, a vague sense of déjà vu brushed against Harry’s mind.

He’d already seen a scene like this before… or had he?        

Tom took the opposite chair, still smiling his little generic smile. Feeling oddly unsettled, Harry took his cup, sipping from it, wondering if he should break the silence first.

Tom beat him to it.

“That was interesting,” he drawled, toying with his drink. For some reason, his eyes slid to a clock before focusing back on Harry. “And that certainly changes things.”

“Changes things how?” Harry clarified warily. Tom deliberated with his answer, looking at the clock again.

“By a lot,” he replied vaguely. “Though of course, the essence of things stays the same. You abandoned your old life, people in it, and came back here for me. For me alone. That means I’m the reason for your existence. And if so, you are most definitely mine.”

Was that all Tom had gotten from it? Floored, Harry took another sip, but when he tried to put the cup back on the table, his vision suddenly swam. He blinked, hoping to clear it, but it only got worse. The world lost its contours, blurring into one single image, and as this happened, a memory of a dream unfolded in his mind with startling clarity. Tom, feeding him sweets, sweets that stole his consciousness.

Harry tried to stand up, but his legs were too soft to obey him. Tom’s strong hands caught him just before he fell down, just as darkness began to suck him in insistently.

 ‘Not the sweets,’ Harry thought suddenly, and icy chill shot through him. ‘Not the sweets, the tea. I got it wrong, there was something wrong with the tea…

Tom’s satisfied expression haunted him as the last colours of reality faded.

 

***

 

Something was happening. He felt magic, strong and overwhelming, touching every part of his body. There was a familiar voice chanting incantations he didn’t recognise — endless, complex spells he’d never heard about.

Occasionally, darkness claimed him back, but when Harry approached the border of consciousness for the fourth time, he tried to cling to it.

It worked. Slowly, gradually, he opened his eyes, and Tom’s face was the first thing he saw. It was triumphant. It was relaxed and happy.

“What happened?” Harry murmured, trying to sit up. A strange feeling hit him, and he fell back onto the pillow with a frown. The memories flickered, gradually forming into clear shapes.

The fight. The Pensieve. The tea. And Tom’s smiling, pleased face.

Calmness vanished, with coldness slipping into his veins and freezing his blood.

“What have you done to me?” Harry breathed out. He didn’t feel different, but something wasn’t right. His skin tingled — even his magic felt tired. 

“You don’t have to worry,” Tom told him calmly. “Everything is fine. I promised I would protect you, and I did. I made sure that you will never be able to hurt yourself again.”

“What does that mean?” This time, Harry managed to sit up, even though the world around him kept tilting slightly.

“I bound our lives together,” a joyful wide grin stretched Tom’s lips. He looked drunk on his happiness, so detached from what Harry was experiencing that it felt unreal. “Life magic is tricky, there are many kinds of it, but I selected the one that fit us most. Look.”

Tom bent down, taking Harry’s hand in his gently. Pressing the wand to it, he murmured a light version of a cutting spell, and a thin trail of blood formed against Harry’s skin. Grimacing slightly, as if even this sight was intolerable, Tom raised his own hand, and Harry saw the exact same cut there.

His mind stuttered, too confused to keep up its work.

“What hurts you hurts me now,” Tom announced. His happiness and pride were tangible things, so bright that they outshone the shadows in the room, and Harry wrenched his hand away in horror.

“Why would you do something like this?” he whispered. It didn’t make any sense. Why did Tom treat this bewildering result as some life project he finally completed? Why had he focused on it now, after seeing the memories?

“To stop your self-destructive habits, of course,” Tom tilted his head, watching him with amusement. “See, I’ve been working on it ever since you threatened to harm yourself in case you found out about me hurting someone. What you did that night with the knife was not something I could ever allow to happen again. And then this evening…” A vacant look started to roll over Tom’s features, and he rubbed his forehead, as if trying to stay anchored to reality.

“I don’t understand,” Harry said quietly. His voice seemed to help because Tom’s attention went back to him again, as intense as before.

“I know you have problems with your self-worth,” he murmured gently. “I also know that you love me. You could hurt yourself, but you could never hurt me. Not physically. Now that our lives are one, you’ll have to find some other way of influence because your punishments will no longer work. Not when you know that whatever you do to yourself will also happen to me.”

A heavy weight dropped into his stomach. Harry stared, unable to say anything as the first bites of horror slowly bruised him from inside, tearing out chunks of protection he thought he had.

“You don’t believe me?” Once again, Tom misinterpreted his reaction. He sounded smug when he said, “Do you think you’ll be able to cut your throat again when this action will also cut mine? To drink poison and condemn me to the same pain? I don’t think so.”

Harry pressed his fingers to his chest, rubbing it almost obsessively without a clear idea of why. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t focus. Even the air seemed suffocating.

“How could you do something this stupid?” he finally wheezed out. “I’m a… I’m a teacher. Accidents happen. What if I fall down the stairs? What if I get involved in a duel? We won’t even be able to do what we did with Grindelwald because we will share the wounds! Have you lost your mind?!”

Tom chuckled. He continued to glow, and Harry couldn’t remember the last time he saw him this happy.

“You’ll just have to be more careful,” Tom teased him. “But also, you are forgetting something.”

His expression suddenly changed, going from disturbed to pleased again. With a mutter, he summoned a piece of parchment from somewhere and offered it to Harry.

Harry was scared to look at it. But he did.      

A locket?

A ring?

Apophis reacts to magic. Preservation + Horcrux?

  • Might be easier to protect a bird than an object.
  • Useful — wouldn’t have to replace him.

Terror gripped him, sending a rush of sickness up his throat. This horrible, disgusting word stood out from all others, and for a second, Harry was sure this was a nightmare. An ugly, realistic nightmare, nothing else.

But Tom’s hand on his felt was too warm and solid to be fake.

“Don’t worry,” Tom muttered knowingly. “This is no longer a part of my plan. See, my goal was immortality. Not for me — this was secondary. For you. I knew you would never agree to something like a Horcrux, so I was planning to do it for both of us at once. I thought to bind our lives first and then to make us immortal by creating it, but your Master of Death thing has already given me everything I needed. You already can’t die, and now, neither can I.”

Harry shook his head. The parchment fell to the floor, and when he tried to breathe, for the countless time today, his lungs ignored him. Instead of air, there was only dry nothingness, and Harry coughed again, holding his throat.

His thoughts were scattered, too shaky to be coherent. Life bonding? Horcruxes?

Horcruxes. Tom had been thinking of creating Horcruxes. His Tom, in an entirely new world — he had still wanted to disfigure his soul with this poisonous magic. And for what? For him?

How could he live with this? 

“Naturally, even being the Master of Death has its drawbacks,” Tom grimaced slightly. “If the legend you showed me is true, then you could summon death willingly when you feel too tired to go on. But you won’t kill me, will you, Harry?” Tom grinned at him. “You won’t lift a finger against me. So you and I have forever to settle our differences and resolve our problems.”   

The lack of oxygen started to take its toll. His head span, and Harry barely managed to croak, “Cancel it. Cancel whatever you have done. Live forever if you want, take the Hallows — you already have two. But don’t make me do it. I won’t be responsible for hurting you.”

“Yes, that’s the point, isn’t it?” Tom rolled his eyes. “I can never predict the lengths you’re prepared to go to when you’re determined to harm yourself. And I wouldn’t be able to cancel the ritual even if I wanted to. It’s a blood pact. It’s irreversible.”

Harry recoiled from the mention, clenching his trembling hands into fists.

“Blood pacts don’t work like this,” he mumbled. “You need consent. You can’t force someone into a pact when they are unconscious.”

“Oh, I haven’t told everything yet, have I?” Tom leaned towards him, rubbing his nose against Harry’s cheek affectionately. “There are many different types of life bonds and blood pacts. I chose the romantic kind. It was activated from the moment you accepted my courtship.” 

Harry froze, and Tom laughed into his ear before pulling back.

“You accepted the spoon,” he sang, his voice giddy. “You accepted the cloak. Both are a part of the courtship ritual and both have my magic. You kept them close, and I had some things of yours to prove that we have constant contact with each other, even at night, even during lessons. When we were celebrating Christmas, I took your blood and mixed it with mine. We were both happy that day, and we fulfilled the requirements for the previous stages, so magic considered you a willing participant. You kissed me back after Richards. Everything was going perfectly.”   

It felt like he was falling. Or dreaming. Harry stared at Tom silently, barely seeing him but hearing every word.

“Only the last stage was left, and it was the most complex one,” Tom continued. Excitement was still colouring his every syllable, making his words sound rushed. “Sharing the most intimate secrets with each other. I wasn’t sure how to do that. I didn’t want to share my secrets — I knew how you’d react, and I wasn’t sure you even had any relevant secrets to share. But this night… it worked.” Tom rolled to the ball of his heels and back in his exhilaration. “You learned about Charlus and I confirmed it. Then you showed me— that,” he stumbled over the word a little, as if unsure how to describe it. “The last condition was met. I could complete the ritual. The good thing about magical bonding is that it doesn’t care about the circumstances. It works with bare facts.”

Harry didn’t really want to ask, but every part of his body felt like a separate entity, including his tongue.

“How does romantic bonding differ from others?” it wondered. Tom hummed, sounding pleased with the question.

“It ensures fidelity,” he said smugly. “You will never be able to be unfaithful to me. If magic believes that you are engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone else, it will react. As per the ritual, it was supposed to make you too sick to continue, but I changed it a little. Now, the person you are having these feelings for will get sick. I think in your case, this would be more effective.”

Despite sitting, Harry swayed, no longer capable of keeping himself upright. The words didn’t make sense to him because… because Tom wouldn’t do that to him. Ensuring his safety, maybe. Maybe Harry could even accept it some day. But ensuring fidelity meant something entirely else.

It was a violation. It was disregard for every conversation, every concession Harry had ever made when it came to this side of their possible relationship. Tom wouldn’t simply ignore it, would he? He wouldn’t force this choice on him when Harry hadn’t even given his answer yet.

But he did. Tom did this. And instead of feeling guilty or ashamed, he was emanating such satisfaction and pleasure as if all his dreams had come true, and now nothing could sour this moment for him.

“It covers me, too,” Tom added after a pause. “I won’t be able to be unfaithful to you either. But we can discuss the details later. I think you need to rest now — the ritual was draining, and I don’t believe you’ve fully recovered from the Sleeping Draught. Sorry about that, by the way,” another grin flashed in his direction. “I know you wanted to talk about what you’ve shown me. I do, too. I merely wanted to get more important things out of the way first.”

Taking Harry’s hand again, Tom pressed a kiss to his wrist, letting his lips linger there.

“I know you might be angry now,” he murmured, “but you will understand. I know you will. Sleep now, and tomorrow morning, we will talk more.”

Harry couldn’t make himself move, not even to nod.

Sending him a soft look, Tom left his room, closing the door shut.   

     

 

***

 

The moment he was left alone, Harry was on his feet. With trembling hands, he summoned the first things he could think of — some clothes, some books; the photographs and the gifts. When this was packed, he stumbled towards the stairs, clutching his trunk, unable to believe what he was doing.

Numbness was a good feeling. It drowned out the pain and the horror he would inevitably feel when full realisation hit him. But he wasn’t at that stage yet, and so he could think — and he could run. Running was his only choice.

He was at the front door when Tom’s voice froze him in his tracks.

“Harry?”

The stairs creaked, and a moment later, Tom came downstairs. He held his wand in his hand, and Harry automatically clenched his own. 

For a while, they stared at each other silently. Tom studied him, his clothes, his trunk, and his confusion shifted into tension as his body twisted, readying itself for attack.

“Where do you think you are going?” Tom asked coldly. The fact that it took him by surprise was the craziest thing in this crazy day, and Harry laughed hysterically, almost doubling over with it.

“Away from you,” he said finally. Hysteria began to disperse the numbness, so he had to act quickly. “Did you think I was going to stay in this house?”

“This is your home,” Tom told him with narrowed eyes. His wand went higher, and Harry mirrored his movement. “Our home.”

“Not anymore,” with a twisted smile, Harry backed away, letting his magic wrap itself around him protectively. “How can it be my home when I no longer feel safe here?”

The blow was powerful enough to make Tom suck in a breath.

“I didn’t hurt you,” he protested darkly. “You know you are safe here.”

“Safe?” Harry would have laughed again, but he feared that this time, he wouldn’t be able to stop. “You took the choice away from me. You destroyed the only thing I had to stop you from turning into him. You lied to me for years. You used my trust and my immortality to get what you want. And you expect me to feel safe with you?”

“Don’t make this into something it’s not!” Tom snapped. He began to approach him, and Harry instinctively jerked away, getting vindictive pleasure from how this movement seemed to hurt Tom.

He deserved it. This time, he deserved it.  

“I did this for you and for us, not for me,” Tom said more calmly. But this was an artificial calmness — anxiety and suspicion were swirling right under the surface, waiting to break free. “Let’s talk about this. I wanted to give you some space, but if you want to discuss it now—”

“Oh, I’m going to get some space,” Harry promised him. His voice shook, just as his hands and the rest of his body. A hot, devastating wave was rising from the depth, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to overcome it. It would break him into pieces, and when it happened, he had to be as far away from Tom as possible. “But it won’t be here, and I’ll be doing it on my own terms.”

Tom’s wand was now staring him in the face. The heat got worse, and Harry bent forwards slightly, trying to keep himself from collapsing.

“I’m leaving,” he pushed out. “And I’m not coming back.”

Shock, fear, and wrath distorted Tom’s face. He crouched, and a threat that poured out of him was so potent that Harry had to take another step back.

“You won’t dare,” Tom snarled.

This was the worst thing he could possibly say. The wave crashed down, devouring everything sane and rational, and Harry growled out a spell. A temporary barrier snapped up between him and Tom just a second before Tom’s Incarcerous touched him. He laughed at the sight of Tom’s distraught face, feeling high from the unreality of everything that had been happening tonight.

“I will dare,” Harry said breathlessly. “I’m going to leave you. I’m going to a place where you will never find me, no matter what that ritual of yours does. And I’m not going to come back. You got what you wanted from me — you can go on by yourself now.”

Tom’s deadly magic crashed into the barrier, crumpling it bit by bit. He was shaking, too, his eyes burning with madness, and if the wall separating them disappeared, Harry had no idea how this would end.

He wasn’t going to test fate again. Enough was enough.

“Good-bye, Tom,” he whispered.

In the next second, three things happened simultaneously. The barrier collapsed, Tom screamed, and Harry apparated, letting the whirl take him away.   

Chapter Text

When he opened his eyes, only blankness greeted him. He was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing, and if he weren’t aware of his own eyes blinking, he would have thought that this was a part of a strange, unpleasant dream.

With a frown, Tom sat up, studying the room around him slowly.

No, his initial impression was incorrect. He wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. He was at home — or at least this place looked like home. Right now, it seemed like a hurricane had been raging inside: the table was overturned, the books from the shelves were scattered on the floor, and even the furniture was all in the wrong places, as if someone had been throwing it around aimlessly.

And yet, he felt nothing at the sight.

That was where the confusion came from: he wasn’t surrounded by the blankness, he was filled with it. Even now, looking at the destroyed living room, he felt no stirring of anxiety or concern.

It wasn’t a bad feeling. In fact, it felt strangely comfortable.

Tom stood up, his frown deepening when his muscles ached at the movement. What had he been doing to tire himself like this? His body felt exhausted, and he suspected that the physical sensation of emptiness in his chest was supposed to worry him more than it did. What was happening?

Testing his legs warily, Tom walked towards the kitchen. A bright green cup caught his attention, and for a moment, something inside him lurched violently. A terrible mangled wound opened right underneath the emptiness, sending doses of shocked pain through his blood. Tom sucked in a breath and swayed on his feet, grabbing the counter in a half-blind attempt to steady himself, but the next second, everything was suddenly gone. The strands of his magic entwined, hiding the wound and numbing every emotion that tried to burst outside, neutralising them before they could do any damage.

The vacuum returned, serene and calming. It was extremely tempting to let himself dissolve in it, but something in Tom rebelled against the idea.

If he’d suspected that something wasn’t right before, now he was certain of it. His own magic was trying to trick him — was it protecting him from his memories? Was it even possible?

Unsure how to proceed, Tom let his eyes wander. They stopped at the lonely bottle of butterbeer that stood on the counter, glimmering softly under the preservation spell, and once again, his brows furrowed.

He didn’t like this drink. It was too sweet, too sickening. So what was it doing here? Had he brought it for someone?

Ridiculous. Whom would he bother bringing anything for when there was no one he could possibly—

Harry!

Tom stilled as the foreign name breathed itself into existence, spreading through his head in a persistent echo.

Harry. Harry. Harry.

The magic trembled in him in a desperate effort to keep itself wrapped around something. Around memories — it had to be.

Something had happened. Something bad, so bad that it must have broken his mind to the extent where his magic snapped into protective mode, trying to shield him and give him time to regroup.

That was why he was feeling so exhausted. He was practically drained — a huge volume of his magic was focused on keeping something buried and blocking his emotions.

Tom despised mysteries.

He closed his eyes, reaching for the cluster of magic he could feel roiling deep inside his chest. It flared upon his first conscious touch, as if scaring him away, too set on continuing its frantic crusade.

“That’s enough,” Tom growled. He threw the remaining part of his magic at this cluster, shattering it and ripping the misleading camouflage away.

The moment he did, his memories flowed free, crashing into him with a force of tsunami. His legs buckled again, and this time, he couldn’t stop himself from falling.

Harry. Harry. Harry. Harry.

Grindelwald. Charlus Potter, creating problems for him even from his grave.

Harry.

Harry dead. Harry killing himself. But then coming alive again, wrapping Tom in an embrace, kissing him, whispering words of comfort.

Harry sharing a secret with him. Harry being a time traveller — a time traveller who knew a version of Tom in his first universe. Who came here because he needed to prevent Tom from joining Voldemort, a wizard whose rise Tom had apparently contributed to.

Most images of the memories he’d seen were blurry: Tom hadn’t had time to really concentrate on them. His thoughts were consumed by the opportunity that had fallen straight into his hands, so he planned, plotted, and calculated, seeing the future they could share instead of the past he had nothing to do with.

He succeeded. Harry became his just as he became Harry’s. But then—

Then Harry left.

He left him. He left. He left. And Tom failed to stop him. His magic failed, his mind failed, his power failed. Harry left with his things, and he said— he said—

I’m going to leave you. I’m going to a place where you will never find me. And I’m not going to come back.

I’m not going to come back.

I’m not going to come back.

Pain exploded in his temples. Jolts of horror and despair shook his body so hard that Tom accidentally crashed his head into the counter: the dull sound was deafening, but for some reason, the ache didn’t follow. Another kind of hurt was quickly spreading, squelching every other sensation and leaving its boiling traces all over his insides. Tom let out a strangled sound, pushing his head into his knees, his magic whirling around him in helpless circles.

One moment of clarity. He just needed one moment of clarity. Maybe it would help, maybe he would be able to think, not just shiver here like some frightened, abandoned animal…

But no matter how hard Tom clung to rationality, nothing worked. His heart was hammering, his lungs were working chaotically, and before he knew it, the images of the kitchen began to blur into one dark spot. It grew and grew and grew until it swallowed him, and then there was only oblivion.

 

***

 

When he woke up, his head felt empty. His magic had clearly tried to alleviate the damage again because for a moment, Tom couldn’t remember a thing. It didn’t last long, though: his energy supplies hadn’t recovered yet, so he managed to shake off the self-inflicted blackout within ten seconds.

He remembered. He remembered.

But he still had no idea what to do.

Wild, raw, Tom looked around the kitchen. His eyes stopped at Apophis, who was sitting on the table, staring at him with his piercing gaze. There was a letter in his claws, and a fierce hope flared in Tom, pushing the cloud of darkness away.

Without a word, he lurched forward, colliding with the edge of the table and nearly overturning it in the process. Apophis screeched indignantly, but before he could move, Tom grabbed him by the throat, pulling him up and tearing the letter from his claws forcibly. His hands were shaking so badly that he nearly dropped it — the lines were jumping, making it impossible to read them.

Tom released Apophis, ignoring the way he recoiled from him, and grabbed the letter with both of his hands. The text became steadier, and as soon as it did, his hopes crashed down, giving way to a familiar nausea.

The handwriting was too elegant and practiced to be Harry’s. It wasn’t his letter. It was meaningless.

Still, his eyes skipped over the lines.

Dear Tom,

I’m sorry to bother you, I know you hate receiving letters (for the most part), but I had to ascertain that you are fine. No one has seen you since the day before yesterday. Is everything all right? Where are you?

Big changes are coming, Tom. There is a tremendous number of people who would like to meet you. The sooner you do, the faster we can push our plans along. It’s starting, I can feel it.

To victory!

Lois Lestrange

With a furious hiss, Tom tore the letter to pieces. His body was vibrating. It felt too hot, it felt too cold — it was too much.

He just needed to think. If he came up with a plan, the suffocating panic would retreat — he knew it would. If he could think of anything that could help him, anything at all…

A letter. Birds like owls could find the addressee no matter where they were located.

Apophis could find Harry. All Tom needed was to follow.

The long-awaited relief brought a burst of dizziness with it. For the first time in what felt like weeks, Tom managed to breathe in without choking on air, so he laughed, wildly and unabashedly.

He had to write a letter, place a tracking spell on Apophis, and this nightmare would end. He would see Harry and things would start making sense again. They would talk, Tom would explain everything one more time, and Harry would understand. He had to. The bond wasn’t created to hurt him, it was for his own good. For both of them, for their future together.

He had failed to find appropriate words before, but he wouldn’t repeat this mistake. Everything would be fine. In a week already, they’d be able to leave these terrible days behind.

The thought was deeply comforting. It calmed his heart, soothed his nausea, lightened his mind, and Tom inhaled again, feeling how the tremors slowly retreated.

Parchment. He needed some parchment now.

It was difficult to find anything in the mess he’d made. Tom spent almost ten minutes before he found the paper, and then he stood with it, staring at it blankly, wondering why he hadn’t used a simple summoning spell.

Maybe his head wasn’t clear enough yet. Maybe there was still something wrong with him.

But it didn’t matter. He would see Harry soon. Harry would make it all right.

Tom grabbed a quill and wrote, “Harry.” Stopped.

Every word was shaky. His hand already felt sore.

Gritting his teeth, he tried to continue.   

You misunderstood. I can explain. I wanted

The quill fell from his fingers. They were trembling again, bursting with the need to voice everything Tom had failed to say but being completely useless in their eagerness. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t produce another word, so with a frustrated growl, Tom threw the quill away.

Two and a half sentences would suffice. It’s not like he was going to rely on the letter anyway — he was planning on talking to Harry. He just had to find him first.

The surroundings continued to blur around the edges, fuelling the light-headedness that wreaked havoc in his mind. Stumbling, Tom returned to Apophis, thrusting the semblance of a letter at him.

“Take it to Harry,” he ordered. “Be quick.”

For a moment, he thought Apophis wouldn’t obey. The way he stared, contemplative and wary, was enough for the anger to start humming somewhere in Tom’s body, feeding on magic that rolled restlessly under his skin.

If Apophis refused… if he dared to refuse…

Whatever expression he had, it must have been convincing. Apophis made a low sound, grabbed the letter, and dived into the window so fast that Tom barely managed to throw a tracking spell after him. He released his breath only afterwards, leaning against the table and closing his eyes.

Harry would be found. He would be found any minute now. The spell would make Tom feel Apophis’ arrival to his destination, and then he would simply apparate there. He would see Harry, he would explain, and everything would be fine again.

Very soon, these thoughts turned into a soothing echo. They kept washing over his mind from all sides, over and over again, and his sense of reality faded. Tom was floating between the worlds, caught in a web of dreams that bordered on hallucinations. He had no idea how much time had passed when his magic suddenly buzzed in a warning.

Apophis found Harry.

His eyes flew wide open, and the next moment, Tom was gone.

 

***

 

He landed in the middle of a meadow. It was surrounded by the trees from three sides; the fourth ended with a small stream. There was nothing else in the vicinity, and from the place itself, it didn’t look like a town or a village could be located nearby.

And yet his magic had brought him here. It couldn’t have failed.

Hesitantly, Tom made several steps forward, looking at the yellow grass and dying flowers. Inch by inch, he explored the meadow, both physically and with his magic.

Nothing. No trace of life other than a little sparkle indicating that Apophis was here somewhere.

His heart shrank, already flinching away from the upcoming onslaught of pain. Shaking his head resolutely, Tom decided to cover the meadow again, but before he could move, he saw Apophis. He materialised out of thin air and immediately flew up, either missing or deliberately ignoring him. Tom’s attempt at a letter was gone, and Apophis wasn’t carrying any response either.

Slowly, Tom’s eyes moved to the place from where his bird had appeared. He still saw nothing, yet his stomach seized in a preparatory way.

Harry was here. He was right behind this invisible wall. If Tom could break it…

White noise filled his ears. His gaze was fixed on the spot ahead, and Tom moved, directing every drop of magic in him against it. He could practically see the ocean of energy rushing forwards, glimmering in the weak sunlight, fuelled by the obsessive conviction that this nightmare would be over in the next ten seconds. Harry was here, Tom had found him — now he only had to get to him. The wall was a physical obstacle, meaning that he could overpass it.

It was nothing. He could do it.

But the magic flew through the space unobstructed. It made a wide circle around the meadow before returning to Tom, melding seamlessly into his body.

There was no wall.

Of course there was no wall. He’d just covered every inch of this cursed place and he hadn’t stumbled upon anything. How had he not realised this sooner? What was wrong with his head?

The thought sent a trickle of concern down his bloodstream, but it quickly drowned in a more horrifying understanding.

Harry might be here, but there was no way to get to him. Whatever magic he had used, it hid him away from the rest of the world. He could spend decades and centuries here, and he’d be close and yet forever out of reach. Tom could be standing just an inch away and he’d never even know it. Never see or touch or smell him again, not unless the spell was broken.

Whatever remnants of sanity still clung to him vaporised. Darkness descended, and Tom screamed his rage. He lunged at the no-wall, fell right through it, and ended up on the grass. His fingers dug into the ground under it, destroying everything on their way. The world around him spun again, and his magic broke away, speedily coating the grass and the flowers in the layers of scorched blackness.

Toxic bile stirred in his stomach. Then it rushed to his throat, filled his mouth, and Tom lost himself to these physical sensations, his mind slipping far, far away.

 

***

 

When he opened his eyes again, it was nearly dawn. The first rays of redness touched the tops of the trees, slipping towards the stream. Tom stared blankly. The next thing he knew, he was already standing near the water, peering into it to see his reflection.

He looked dirty. His chin was bloodied. His hair was a complete mess, even worse than Ha—

Harry.

Awareness flooded back, but this time, instead of blind horror and grief, Tom felt an entirely foreign fear.

He was going crazy. His magic was out of control — if it kept giving him these self-induced temporary mind wipes, things truly had to be bad. Tom wasn’t sure he’d ever read about magic being able to do that.

He had to get to Harry. But he also had to regain control over himself.

Shaking on his feet, Tom turned around, gazing at the meadow again. The ground where he’d fallen was all black — the energy he’d let out must have been incredibly toxic to poison everything in the vicinity.

But Harry was there. He was there. For now, it would have to be enough. There was no spell Tom couldn’t crack, and sooner or later, he would do it. He just had to get better first.

He was terribly cold. Weakness continued to gnaw on his every bone; his magic was too chaotic to listen properly, but Tom still tried to focus and apparate home. The air swirled around him, and then he crashed into the floor of their living room. His head span, so he tried not to move to let the dizziness pass.

But the longer he remained motionless, the worse it got. Something else was wrong with him now — something red was dripping on the carpet. Blood? Had he splinched himself during his apparition?

The pain was present, but it was distant. Shaking his head to clear the fog in it, Tom began to climb the stairs. He wasn’t sure where he was going until he entered the room and a rush of Harry-concentrated air greeted him, brushing against his face gently. The relief that followed was so sweet that Tom staggered under its impact, closing his eyes and breathing in greedily.

Harry’s bedroom. This was where he could get better. If any part of Harry was nearby, it would help. Tom would spend every hour here, soaking in his scent, and if it started to fade at some point, he’d find a way to dissect it, shape it, and store it. It would have to suffice until he found the way to bring everything back.

His thoughts turned sluggish. More blood splattered, so Tom muttered a spell. It didn’t close the wound, but the blood slowed down. Good. Harry would hate to see his floor ruined. What if he refused to come back because of this? Tom would have to make sure everything looked perfect.

But first, he needed sleep. Maybe this would help him to feel better.

He managed to make his way towards the bed, collapsed into it, and crawled under the blanket, snuggling into it until he was surrounded by it — by Harry’s scent — completely. His body was shivering, the darkness steadily spreading, dragging him back into unconsciousness.

But as long as he had this smell, this piece of comfort, he wasn’t afraid to succumb to it. He wasn’t sure why he felt like this — he was Harry’s protector, wasn’t he? So why did he want Harry’s protection right now?

Confusion kept gaining volume, and the darkness used it eagerly. A moment later, Tom felt a new lurching sensation, and then he was falling, falling, falling.

 

***

 

He wasn’t alone.

Even without opening his eyes, Tom could feel it. Someone else was in the room with him. He knew this bed, he knew the smell, and so his mind immediately jumped to the only possible conclusion.

“Harry?” Tom murmured. There was silence, and then someone released a shaky breath.

“No. It’s me,” an alien voice rasped. Alertness and hostility chased the sleepiness away, and Tom sat up, turning to glare at his unwanted guest.

Lestrange. Sitting in Harry’s chair, next to Harry’s bed, in Harry’s room. Uninvited, intrusive, offensive.

“Stand up,” Tom snapped. “Who gave you permission to sit there?”

Lestrange jumped from the chair like scalded. His eyes were very wide. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days, and Tom would have commented on it if he cared.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded instead. “I didn’t summon you.”

To his surprise, Lestrange didn’t drop his gaze like he usually would. His eyes flashed with something that would have been indignation in any worthier human being.

“You should have!” he exclaimed. Apparently, his newfound bravery didn’t affect his voice because it was trembling. “You nearly died! Thanks Salazar I found you when I did! If I hadn’t come here, you would have either bled out, coughed your lungs out, or died from dehydration!”

That gave Tom pause. Dehydration? Bleeding out? When had that happened?

The memories sparkled to the surface as if they’d been waiting for this very question. The violent storm of magic he released as soon as Harry disappeared, the inability to recall a thing; nearly breaking Apophis’ neck and following his trail. The meadow where Harry had to be hiding, the realisation that it was impossible to destroy the magic protecting him; the breakdown and the unfortunate apparition.  

When was the last time he drank or ate anything? In between the repeated bouts of unconsciousness, Tom couldn’t even tell how many days had passed. He must have been surviving on magic alone all this time — no wonder he felt so crazed and helpless.

He was stronger now. His head was relatively clear, so whatever Lestrange had done, it worked.

Not that he needed it. He was immoral now, wasn’t he? So Lestrange’s actions were completely unwarranted. Tom would have been fine either way.

The reluctant appreciation shattered, re-transforming into hostility. Tom adjusted the blanket and closed his eyes briefly when a new wave of Harry’s scent tickled his nostrils.

“Why did you come?” he asked frostily. Lestrange, probably sensing the change in him, shifted uncomfortably.

“Everyone’s been wondering where you’ve gone,” he explained. He was biting his lips now, and Tom felt the strangest impulse to cut them off. It’d be funny to watch Lestrange fumble for words and bleat for mercy. “Ever since you’ve defeated Grindelwald, the entire country is in the uproar. Everyone wants to see you and talk to you.” The more he spoke, the more excited his voice became. “You did it, Tom! You did it! They all want your attention now! You can ask for a meeting with anyone, and I mean it, anyone. We could start with—”

Lestrange stopped suddenly. His confidence faltered, and when he continued, he sounded more subdued.

“We keep telling everyone that you are busy with someone else, but I decided to try to find you. You didn’t respond to my letter. I found it concerning. I know I overstepped my boundaries, but you have to understand— I mean, I hope you understand that… What happened?”

Tom measured him with a silent stare. He didn’t feel like talking. Lestrange’s rambling didn’t deserve a response anyway.

Carefully, he left the bed, testing his limbs. Everything seemed in order. There was no wound on his hand, so Lestrange must have fixed it. A terrible gnawing sensation still lurked in him somewhere, threatening to overwhelm him, but now that he wasn’t sick, Tom felt in control of it.

Mostly.

“Professor Potter hasn’t been attending lessons,” Lestrange said hesitantly. “Is there a connection? Did you… Did you have a fight?”

Tension flooded him instantly, and the gnawing feeling intensified.

“None of your business,” Tom said shortly. “Wait in the living room. Come up here in ten minutes. I’ll have a task for you.”

More hesitation, but then Lestrange nodded. When he left, Tom waited a little before following. However, he froze at the threshold.

He didn’t want to walk out of Harry’s room. He wanted to stay here, in the comfort of his smell, until he resolved this whole situation.

But he needed clothes and food — he couldn’t allow himself to regress back into that shattered state again. A few minutes, and he could return.

Tom stepped into the corridor. The air felt stale there, lacking something so vital that it might just as well be absent. His lungs burned, and before he knew it, Tom was back in the room, near the bed, clutching at Harry’s blanket helplessly and burying his face in it.

He wasn’t all right. He still wasn’t all right. His sense of gravity was gone — he was stuck in a free fall, unable to think about anything other than his intense, maddening, all-consuming need for Harry.  

Where had he gone wrong? How had he miscalculated so badly?

He didn’t need clothes. He’d order Lestrange to bring something to eat and then he would start devising ways of countering whatever spell Harry had used to hide himself from him.

The panic finally loosened its grip. Tom forced himself to release the blanket. But its absence felt like a loss, so he quickly grabbed it again and wrapped it around himself, shuddering in relief when the threatening cloud of grief retreated. 

This way, enveloped in Harry’s scent and warmth, he could start thinking again.

 

***

 

Muggle-repelling charms transformed in a manner that affected other wizards.

Invisibility spell vastly expanded.

Fidelius charm.

Tom stared at the list he’d composed, trying to understand if he was missing something. Unlikely. He knew all there was to know about charms and spells that could hide things — he’d researched it relentlessly for his future political projects.  There was no chance of Harry holding some secret knowledge.

Unless it came from the future. And he still hadn’t re-watched the memories, so he had no way of knowing if Harry arrived from some supremely developed world.

The thought unsettled him. His heart sped up, and Tom pressed his hand to his chest absent-mindedly, trying to rub the uncomfortable stinging away.

“Do you need anything?” a meek voice asked. Tom threw a curt glance at Lestrange, who was sitting at the newly conjured table with a quill of his own.

“No,” he said. “Unless you’ve come up with any worthy ideas.”

“I’m not sure there is anything I could say that you haven’t thought of already,” Lestrange admitted. It was pathetic but honest, so Tom just grunted.

He expected their conversation to end here, but Lestrange cleared his throat nervously.

“I do have some suggestions,” he uttered warily. “I’m not sure you’ll like them, but if you want to hear them…”

For a moment, Tom kept staring at his piece of parchment. Transformed Muggle-repelling charms were an impossibility. Wizards couldn’t hide from each other like this. Invisibility spell was too simple and it was easy to bypass it while Fidelius required Harry to put his absolute trust in someone. The only semi-bond Harry had was with Dumbledore, and Tom doubted he would come to him for help. If he did, the situation was hopeless anyway. Dumbledore wouldn’t tell Tom anything, and even if he died, there was no guarantee he’d been the one to cast the spell.

There was nothing he could do and nothing he could lose. Not at this point.

“Tell me,” Tom said. Lestrange didn’t comply immediately, and he tightened his grip around the quill. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t sound good, he was sure of that.

“I don’t want to offend you,” Lestrange spoke finally. His voice was already resigned, like he knew how Tom was going to react and how he would be the one to bear the impact. “But have you really thought everything through? Even if you succeed... If you fought and Potter doesn’t want to be found, he won’t react kindly to you barging in. This will only make things worse.” 

A muscle twitched in Tom’s jaw. Logical or not, Lestrange’s words were offensive, and they lit up a torch of rage in him — rage that had been waiting for a new spark. It started building up rapidly, unfurling and licking every part it could reach, pushed forward by the image of him finding a way to get to Harry yet facing another rejection.

He wasn’t sure he’d survive it. Not again.

“Get out,” Tom hissed. The liquid fury scorched the backs of his eyes. It pulsed under his skin, ready to burst through and set the world on fire. “Get out. Now.”

Lestrange backed away. He looked forlorn but unsurprised, and this was even more offensive because Tom wasn’t predictable. He wasn’t.

“There might be another way,” Lestrange tried to say. He didn’t leave, so the explosion brewing in Tom’s chest still had its target. “Wherever he is, he won’t stay there forever. He’ll go out. Maybe you could wait for him in the places that you know he’s going to visit sooner or later—”

This one had potential, but Tom was too far gone to consider it. The need to destroy something blocked every avenue of rational thought — his magic bubbled with the powerful need for eruption, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Lestrange shut the door exactly the moment it snapped. The room shook under its influence, and only the knowledge that he couldn’t let himself destroy Harry’s room made Tom turn abruptly, directing all the poisonous energy at the window.

The glass shattered. Most of the shards flew outside, but the whirlwind of magic carried some of them into the room, thrusting them in Tom’s direction. They tore into his skin, and surprisingly, the pain was sharp enough to calm him down. The violent pounding of the fury abated, letting his body deflate, and Tom lowered himself to the floor, pressing his hands to his bleeding face.

At this very moment, he felt like he could hold on. Maybe not for long, definitely not forever, but at least for a little while, up until he figured out what to do.

Pain could help.

 

***

 

Fifteen days after Harry was gone, Tom sent him a letter. Then he sat in Harry’s room, wrapped in his blanket, staring through his window. A list with more ideas was lying on the bed nearby, but he felt no strength to pick it up.

He waited, his nails scratching his skin soothingly.

 

***

 

Seventeen days after Harry was gone, Tom sent another letter. It sounded more desperate than the other one, and waiting for a reply was harder. Still, he sat near the window until Apophis returned, carrying nothing.

That night, scratching didn’t help.

 

***

 

Twenty days after Harry was gone, Lestrange tried to talk to him.

“People are still waiting for your appearance,” he pleaded. “It’s been almost a month, you have to see them. You have to return to school.”

Tom was studying the pattern of superficial wounds on his skin absent-mindedly, saying nothing. He wasn’t in the mood to talk.

“If you made an effort, if you started doing what you’ve been planning to, maybe Potter would return,” Lestrange blurted out. “Instead of sitting here like a recluse, you could—”

Tom jerked his head. A surge of potent magic gleefully crashed into Lestrange, throwing him out of the room.

After that, things were quiet.

Apophis didn’t return.

 

***

 

On the twenty-fourth day, it occurred to Tom that Harry was feeling every wound his body sustained. The realisation was belated, but with the numbness that conquered his mind, he didn’t feel surprised.

It changed things. It changed everything. His ignored letters didn’t mean that he couldn’t contact Harry — he could. His ritual had ensured this. Harry might dismiss what he wrote, might stay hidden in his meadow forever, but he would notice if Tom was wounded. This would hurt him just as much. Whether he wanted or not, he’d be thinking about Tom in those moments, and this, this was all he could ask for.

Tom grabbed his wand, pointing it at his hand. Muttering a slicing spell, he carved, ‘I need you,’ watching how blood began to pool in the cuts.

If he tried hard enough, he could almost imagine that this was Harry’s blood. That Harry was here, with him.

 

***

 

In the morning, Tom healed his hand. What felt like salvation yesterday was the glaring proof of his embarrassing weakness now, and even he wasn’t gone far enough to keep it.

But the moment the cuts disappeared, his imagined link with Harry snapped. The shock of it spread through him in a reversing wave, and Tom dived for his wand again before he could think about it, pointing it at his palm shakily.

This time, he made a simple cut. Then he sat on Harry’s bed, pressing his bleeding hand to his chest, rocking back and forth.

 

***

 

He would have liked to go to the meadow. Spending his days in Harry’s room was comforting, but if he could sit in close physical proximity to the real him, even without being able to see him…

But every time Tom tried to step out of the room, panic hit him anew, settling in his legs as a heavy weight and paralyzing them. He didn’t know why — he just knew that he had to stay inside. So he did, and the meadow remained a distant dream he wasn’t sure he could ever achieve.

 

***

 

Three more times, he woke up with no memories. Fighting his self-imposed memory blocks was frustrating, but at least it took time. Tom had too much of it lately.

He didn’t mind spending it on something that wasn’t devastation.

 

***

 

By the fortieth day, he was sick of himself. His hands turned into a scarred mess, and his only entertainment was looking at them and thinking that somewhere, Harry had to be seeing the same marks.

He was waiting. He didn’t know what for, but he was waiting, so he kept himself confined to this room, unable to walk out.  

 

***

 

One morning, Tom woke up from the sharp sting of pain. Frowning, he looked down and froze.

A thin deep cut was spreading on his finger, as if he’d nearly chopped it off with a knife. It wasn’t his, which meant that it could only be Harry’s.

A strange sensation rose in his chest, warming him after eons of cold. Tom stared in fascination.

Harry was doing something out there — he was doing it right now. Probably cooking. Listening to old music, singing along quietly, cutting the ever-present vegetables in the green apron that Tom had given him a few years ago. His finger slipping and getting under the knife; Harry hissing in pain, squinting at the cut and muttering a half-hearted curse.

Now he was probably moving around the kitchen, looking for bandage. Harry had strange ideas about healing — he often resorted to Muggle methods even when he could easily use magic.

The fog of apathy that was filling Tom’s mind began to disperse. His lips twitched in a smile — a sensation so forgotten that it almost startled him. Awareness flickered, and he finally felt like waking up.

What was he doing, sitting here like a pathetic wreck? Why wasn’t he acting on his plans? Harry might be set on ignoring his letters, but it wouldn’t last indefinitely. And if he wasn’t replying, Tom just had to find new ways of contacting him — something other than carving words into his skin.

He stood up, filled with sudden resolution. His muscles wailed from the disuse, so Tom kicked his legs a few times, frowning when they still refused to obey him immediately.

What was that Lestrange had said? Harry wouldn’t be staying in one place all day long. He’d go out. Which places would he visit? What was the likeliest location where Tom could wait for him?

The answer flared even before he had a chance to think about it fully.

Charlus Potter. A nuisance that wouldn’t fade away no matter how many years passed since Tom had killed him.

Harry had strong ideas about family. It didn’t matter that he never knew Charlus Potter personally — he would still mourn his death.

Harry would come to his grave to pay respects. And that’s exactly where Tom would find him.

 

***

 

Leaving Harry’s room for the first time felt strange. Tom’s heart clenched in the anticipation of panic, but it didn’t come, so after brief hesitation, he continued to walk.

Lestrange was sleeping in the living room, drooling on the pillow. At least it wasn’t one from their house — whatever things Lestrange was using, they were either new or conjured. Tom wasn’t about to let him sully his and Harry’s home. It was already bad enough that Lestrange decided to stay here and that Tom had been too weak to order him to leave.

Not anymore. It might have taken him one more cut on his finger, but he was finally wide awake. This time, he hoped it would be for good.

The morning winter sun was bleak, and yet Tom still found it blinding. Shielding his eyes, he visualised a detailed picture of the purebloods’ graveyard and apparated there.

The place was vast and sombre. Only some people were around — they were too far to look at him closely, but Tom lowered his gaze, studying the clothes he was wearing.

It was the same home outfit he’d put on a few weeks ago. He hadn’t bothered to change it or to take a coat, even though the air was chilly.

So maybe he hadn’t waken up completely yet. It was still a start.

Pressing his fingers to his cut, Tom tried to concentrate. He didn’t need his wand for a simple search spell, so after a second, his feet moved, carrying him towards the grave he needed. His head was empty of thoughts up until he found what he’d been looking for, and then they rushed forward, overturning one another.

The grave looked over-decorated. Flowers, toys, even wreaths were embracing it from all sides — the whole thing looked Muggle, and it was absolutely distasteful.

Tom crouched, looking through decorations slowly. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, exactly — the logical thing was to find a hiding spot and wait for Harry there, but something about this clutter kept drawing his attention. There was something familiar here, something that he recognised even without seeing it. What could it—

Tom halted. The thoughts stopped, dwindling down to their previous frozen state.

A ring was glistening in the dim sunlight, half-hidden among the lemon-like flowers. The lion on it was sleeping, and the gold kept catching the sun, which made the ring itself almost invisible in all this yellow.

Harry’s ring. The one Tom had brought him.

Nausea stirred up so violently that Tom jerked forward, pressing his fist to his mouth. He didn’t know what shook him so much, the fact that Harry had already been here and he was too late or that Harry had gotten rid of his gift like this, as if it was irrelevant. Unwanted.

Like Tom himself.

Tom recoiled from the grave. As he scrambled to his feet, nausea continued to crawl up: it filled every gap it could find, infecting it with its churning heaviness. Without thinking, Tom reached and grabbed the ring, and then he apparated away, as far from the terrible realisation as he could.

It followed him.

When his vision cleared a bit, Tom saw that he was back in Harry’s room, but this time, instead of soothing him, it only triggered him further.

Harry rejected him. Harry rejected him again.

It wasn’t an actual rejection, not really — of course Harry would want to give his supposed relative what was stolen from him, and yet it felt and tasted the same.

Harry didn’t care about his letters. He didn’t care that Tom had destroyed his arms repeatedly over the last several weeks. Harry didn’t care that he had carved the words of need into his skin time and time again — but he cared about the boy he never knew to the extent of leaving Tom’s gift with him.

It was irrational. A tiny part that fought the approaching madness tried to push this understanding into his mind, but the veil of hopelessness was already closing in on him, and Tom was rapidly drowning.

Harry truly didn’t want him. Didn’t need him. More than a month had passed and he didn’t change his mind.

I hate you.

The words cut him sharper than any spell, and Tom cringed away from the pain, doubling over and curling around himself.  

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

Harry hated him. His worst nightmare had become his reality.

The world around him flared, flickered, exploded in million sparks, twisted and melted into new unrecognisable shapes. The sounds were muted, like they were coming from underwater — or perhaps there were no sounds, just the constant ringing that wouldn’t leave his head no matter how tightly he squeezed it.

Tom snarled under his breath, jerking in a new direction, but this didn’t help. The pressure in his temples was intensifying, and the lights around him kept shifting in their brightness, bursting and dimming and flaring again until his eyes began to hurt.

Something was wrong with him. Something was wrong. He couldn’t focus. This time, it wasn’t just panic choking him — it was worse. Something large and ugly was slowly stretching itself inside him, not simply crushing the air out of his lungs but making him forget what breathing was even supposed to be like. His grasp on his own identity was slipping, and this had to be madness, didn’t it? This was how it must feel like.

A part of him ached, and only after he concentrated, he determined that it was his eyes. They were burning. Was he crying? No. No, he couldn’t — he wasn’t alone. Lestrange was supposed to be around. Lestrange, a no one, a nothing, but all he had at this moment because the person he wanted, the person he would give anything in the world to see was gone.

The lights trembled again before suddenly dropping to shadows. Tom reached out for this approaching darkness blindly, pathetically grateful for the chance to taste the oblivion, but then he heard it. Two beloved, forbidden words.

“Harry Potter...”

The shock at hearing this name seared through his every nerve ending, bursting through the shadows and chasing them away. The icy stream of clarity flowed into his mind, and for a short moment, Tom regained the ability to see.

He was still in the room. He hadn’t escaped, despite his attempts — and he was right, Lestrange was here, too. He kept saying something worriedly, waving his hands a lot, and it was clear that he was the one who had snatched his opportunity to forget.

“Shut up,” Tom gasped. His voice was so hoarse, he could hardly identify it as his own. Was he even speaking? Lestrange fell silent, so he must be.

Heaving, Tom tried to get up. How had he ended up on his knees? He couldn’t remember.

“Shut up,” he rasped again. “Don’t say his name. Don’t you ever say his name. It’s forbidden, you are not— worthy of it. It’s my right. Only I have this right, do you understand?”

“Y-yes,” Lestrange stammered. His wide-eyed look sent a jolt of vindictive pleasure through Tom’s blood, but right after that, the world began to glimmer. The madness returned, unfolding in his brain and making him jerk aimlessly, and he was suddenly terrified of losing his mind. He could barely feel his body or understand what it was doing. His consciousness wandered away, but this time, the separation was pure agony.

Harry. Harry, gone. Gone from this world as if he’d never existed, with no trace of him but the ring — he might as well be hiding in another universe because there was no way Tom could reach him. All he had was the meadow and the stream, and he had no idea what lay beyond them. 

The thoughts exploded in his head, pouring pain into every crevice. Tom dropped back onto his knees. He felt like writhing under the impact of this strange, piercing ache — it was everywhere, it was hot, it was unbearable, and all he wanted was for it to stop. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think — he needed a break. Just a short break from it all.

“Kill me,” something that must have been his lips pushed out. “You haven’t tried this spell yet, have you? Do it now.”

Lestrange’s panicked voice said words that Tom didn’t understand. The pain was getting heavier, twisting his bones just as it was ruining his mind, and this couldn’t go on. He couldn’t take it anymore.

With the last efforts, Tom tried to concentrate. The room swam into focus again.

“Come on,” he hissed at Lestrange. “Stop being such a coward.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about!” Lestrange cried out. Fat tears were sliding down his face slowly. “You are not yourself!”

“Nothing will happen to me, you fool! Now do it — or I will do it to you, and unlike me, you’ll never walk out of this room again.”

Lestrange’s body shook as he raised his wand, but then he immediately dropped his hand.

“I can’t,” he begged. His voice trembled, too. “Don’t make me, I can’t do it. Don’t you understand? I love—”

Tom laughed — a high laughter that was too hysterical to belong to him.

“That’s why you’re nothing,” he wheezed. His vision slipped away, with bursts of deliriousness replacing it. “That’s why you can never be him. He’s strong. Under all his weaknesses, he’s strong. You’re an insect. A small insignificant thing that can’t even—”

 “Avada Kedavra!” Lestrange screamed. His words were uneven sobs, but there was green, and then there was peace, and Tom was smiling.  

 

***

 

The emptiness was calm. Healing. He swam through it shapelessly, absorbing the peace and the quiet. He didn’t remember who he was or what he was doing here, but he felt content, and that was all that mattered.

Gradually, though, the peace transformed. It became erratic, colder, and the more time he spent in it, the heavier he felt. Soon, the first glimpses of reality flickered, and with that, Tom woke up.

He was lying in Harry’s bed. It was dark outside, and someone was snivelling from the floor, letting out a myriad of pathetic sounds.

With a frown, Tom sat up, glancing downwards. Lestrange was half-lying there, hiding his face in his hands, crying with such ugly sobs that it instantly sent a surge of irritation through Tom’s head.

“Shut up,” he said curtly. “And don’t stain the floor with your drool. Better yet, get out of here. I’m not in the mood to tolerate you.”

There was a yelp. Then Lestrange was facing the bed, staring at him with the horror that Tom would have found funny if depression didn’t start to sink its hooks into him again.

His reprieve was over. He returned to the real world again. The world where Harry was missing and hating him, and where Lestrange was the only thing willing to keep his company.

“This can’t be,” Lestrange stammered. His eyes were bulging out, shocked and awed at the same time. “You are… You’re supposed to be dead. I killed— You made me kill you! You…”

“Yes, I know. I was there,” Tom snapped at him. He could feel the weight of Harry’s ring in his pocket. The pain purred, slowly travelling up his veins, eager to infuse him with familiar dread and hopelessness. “As you can see, I’m unkillable. So get out. Don’t tell the others yet.”

Lestrange continued to stare. His watery eyes grew misty before warming to a colour of such intense longing and infatuation, Tom’s heart swelled in response, reminding him of his own feelings.

He probably looked at Harry the exact same way. Longing. Infatuated. Enamoured. Content to spend hours just staring, studying his every feature and committing them all to memory.

But memory was fickle. At this point already, it was failing him — he couldn’t recall the exact brightness of Harry’s eyes, the exact width of his smiles. What details would disappear next? What would he have left?

“Get out,” Tom repeated quietly. “I won’t order you again.”

It finally shook Lestrange out of his trance. He jumped up, nodding furiously and wiping the frozen tears off his face.

“I won’t tell,” he swore. It sounded like an oath. “But when you allow it, I will — I will inform everyone how powerful and how magnificent you are. You—”

“Lestrange—”

“You didn’t let me finish before, but I, I have to.” Either Tom had lost his grasp or Lestrange had gotten bolder because contrary to his orders, he stepped closer. His eyes were shining with such fierce devotion that it bordered on worship — Tom could practically taste the magic of it. “I love you. Don’t you see, Tom? I do. And I know that you love… him, but he’s not here. He’s not here — I am. Isn’t it worth something? Didn’t I prove that I would do anything you asked of me? If you gave me a chance, we could do anything! I would never abandon you and I would never make you go through what you did. If you only—”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Tom said apathetically. He wanted to laugh, but the hollowness was conquering his mind again, leaving only devastation behind. All he managed was to quirk his lips in the smallest of smiles. “Because I would never feel anything for you. I don’t care if you live or die. You can be politically useful. This is where my interest in you ends. Do you still want to stay with me?”

Uncertainty, hurt, and determination warred on Lestrange’s face. Tom waited for the outcome, distantly surprised at his own patience, and when determination won, he almost did laugh. The situation felt surreal — he was sitting in Harry’s empty room, wasting minutes on someone who was only somewhat amusing, and laughter was suddenly choking him, trying to burst through his throat. Light-headedness returned with full force, and Tom swayed back, too detached from his own body to resist.

“I do,” Lestrange said. He probably thought he looked earnest, but all Tom could see was hope and despair. “I stayed with you through the worst. I will always stay — I will never give up on you. That’s what love is.”

And all at once, it was no longer amusing. Tom stiffened as something vital was ripped right out of his gut, leaving a hole swarming with anxiety and pain.

I will never give up on you. That’s what love is. 

Tom could relate to this definition. But if this was indeed love, then Harry loved him no longer. He was gone. He wasn’t returning.

A clammy tentacle wrapped itself around his heart, squashing the life out of it. Tom hunched his shoulders before giving Lestrange a long stare.

“I’ll tell you something,” he rasped. His voice was too low, but he thought it sounded comprehensible. “I’ll tell you something, and then you will leave, and we will never have this conversation again. You don’t know me. Even after this last month, you don’t know me. You never will. You and I live on the opposite planes of existence and our paths are never going to cross. Do you know why?”

There was a pause; then Lestrange shook his head. His lips trembled, and this pathetic image embodied him to his core.

“Because you are a follower,” Tom said. He would have liked to be more present, to choose sharper words, but his tongue moved without his conscious permission. “You are weak. You need someone to lead you. Your devotion might be absolute, but it alone doesn’t make you remarkable. You are ready to kiss my feet, and that’s not what I want. At the same time, if you tried being rebellious, I would squash you under my boot without giving you time to even register it. Whatever you do, I will never be satisfied. I will never feel pleased with you and you will never be enough.”

He must have had some impact because Lestrange stepped back. He hugged himself, hiding from the truth, and Tom’s own pain flared brighter in the recognition of the posture.  

He did the same thing. He did it again and again, but it never helped because Harry never returned.

It was time to end this.

“To me, you are no more than a dog,” Tom concluded. His voice was coming from afar. “And I need neither your sloppy affections nor your attempts at rebellion. So go. Do your duty. Don’t come back until I summon you. I might reward your loyalty later, but since I have just done it already, I might also punish you for overstepping your boundaries. I never want to hear what you told me again. Is that understood?”

Lestrange opened his mouth to say something, but no sound came out. He looked devastated, and Tom wished dearly it could alleviate his own devastation.  

It didn’t.

Still without saying a word, Lestrange turned around. His shoulders were shaking. He apparated with a pop, and Tom pressed his knees to his chest, curling on Harry’s bed.

Alone again. Alone for as long as Harry stayed gone.

The silence was getting increasingly oppressive. It pushed against his mind, then against his body, grinding him into the surface of the bed until taking a breath turned into a vicious struggle.

He didn’t know what to do. He simply… he didn’t know what to do. He could survive the fact that Harry had returned his ring, but only if he could have something else instead — anything else. Anything to make the situation at least a little more bearable.

But there was nothing. And if Harry didn’t react to the fact that Tom had died, that someone had killed him, then he didn’t care at all.

The pain at this thought was sharp, visceral, merciless in its domineering onslaught. His breathing tumbled into raspy choked sounds, and Tom pressed his forehead against his knees, trying to make himself stop.

It didn’t work. It got worse. A hateful liquid filled his eyes, and then it burned his face, flowing down and leaving its hot traces. His chest continued to heave, and what had been a liberating void only ten minutes ago was now filled with whispered accusations and mocking laughter.

What did he do wrong? What did he do so wrong that it warranted this? Maybe he should have approached the ritual more carefully, but it was what Harry wanted, too! They were both safe now, bound to be together forever — Harry promised he would never leave him, so he would never need anyone else anyway. Why did he react like this? How could he stop loving Tom for something like this? He forgave him for Charlus, but he couldn’t forgive the ritual? It didn’t make sense!

The walls were closing over his head, slowly but surely. Tom wanted to look up, to make sure that there was nothing there, but his mind kept crying out, so all he could do was lie here and tremble. Madness hissed at him, and Tom dug his nails into his arm violently, pushing them in until the skin broke.

He had to stay conscious. He had to stay conscious because if he didn’t, he couldn’t know what would happen to him. Maybe he would wake up mad. Maybe the voices would overtake him. Maybe he wouldn’t remember not only Harry, but also himself. Maybe…

Something bright and radiant flared up in the room. The blinding light broke even under Tom’s eyelids and he jerked his head up, shocked and disoriented.

A dragon. A familiar silvery dragon, with its huge wings and a peculiar mouth tilted in a perpetual smile.  

It stopped several inches from the bed. Tom could sense its electric warmth, the energy it was radiating. He would have reached forwards to touch it if he didn’t feel frozen under the force of his stupor.

Was he hallucinating? Or was the dragon really here? It was a Patronus. Harry’s Patronus. Tom wouldn’t imagine it, would he? If his imagination was so vivid, he would have conjured up Harry himself, not this.

Hesitation kept blooming when the dragon suddenly opened its mouth. Then it spoke in Harry’s voice — annoyed, frustrated, but undeniably Harry’s.

Stop that.

Just two words. With them, the dragon disappeared, leaving Tom to stare at where it had just been.

Harry’s Patronus. He’d seen Harry’s Patronus. He’d heard Harry’s voice.

Harry sent a message to him. Harry told him to stop.

Slowly, Tom’s eyes travelled to his bleeding hand, lingering there. Was this what Harry had asked? For him not to hurt himself again?

He was probably angry at having to suffer the same wounds. And at having died, too.

But it didn’t matter. Harry sent him a message. He sent a message, he sent his voice, and even though it was only two words, they lit Tom up from the inside. They injected him with such a dizzying dose of joy that it rushed through every edge of his mind like a lightning, breaking through the darkness and poison. Madness retreated far behind, and Tom stood up, unable to shake a stupid, painfully wide grin off his face.  

He’d heard Harry’s voice.

With fuel like this, he felt powerful. Energised. Ready for the biggest accomplishments.

A quieter part of him tried to whisper that this burst of happiness wouldn’t last. Time would pass, Harry wouldn’t return, and his voice would become a memory again, knocking Tom back down.

Strangely, the doubts didn’t hurt him. Tom continued to grin, allowing the rapture to thaw every frozen bit of his body.

Harry cared. At least to a small extent. Tom didn’t have the power to control anything here, but for some reason, he was certain that this wasn’t the end.

No, it was the beginning. Harry would contact him again, he believed it with all his heart.

And he knew what he needed to do.

 

***

 

First, he took a bath. Cleaning spells were never fully effective, and a sense of water on his skin brought a small stir of forgotten delight. Tom allowed himself to enjoy it for twenty minutes before he finally climbed out and put on some fresh clothes.

The next step entailed treating his new self-inflicted wound properly — the way Harry would. It would take longer and it would be Muggle-like, but it was the link Tom wanted to feel.

From the moment of that terrible night years ago, when Harry nearly died in his arms after slashing his own throat, he had studied all he could about healing. This wasn’t a branch of magic that came naturally to him, but the sheer force of his power compensated for the lack of innate talent. He’d achieved amazing things — things he was certain would impress even Dumbledore because unlike Tom, the old man had no personal motivation to expand the range of his abilities.

But now… now healing the damage wasn’t the goal. The bond with Harry was. So Tom brewed the salves, took Muggle bandages, and carefully treated his arm, ignoring the dull stings of pain. At this point, they were barely noticeable.

The next stage was more difficult. He had to eat.

His stomach was shut down, just like his throat, so Tom wasn’t sure he would succeed from the first try. But if he wanted to get to the final step, he needed to restore his energy supplies, and doing it through magic didn’t feel authentic after the gift he’d gotten today.

He settled on cooking some mashed potatoes. The yellowish mass on his plate looked dead and unappetizing, but at least it was warm. Tom put a small fork of it into his mouth. His stomach rumbled warningly, and as it twisted into an even tighter knot, Tom swallowed.

It tasted dead, too. He could practically feel how the small mashed ball travelled down in an excruciatingly slow way, trying to reach its destination. When it did, Tom tried another fork, but his throat refused to work. All of a sudden, the simple process of swallowing turned into an unpassable obstacle, and Tom nearly spat the potato back onto the plate in an unexpected burst of panic.

At the same time, panic was joined by a more familiar rage. He wouldn’t let some stupid body rebellion steal his time. He needed to respond to Harry. And to do that, he needed to have his full strength.

Summoning a butterbeer, Tom took a sip, harshly washing the food down. He kept repeating this process up until he managed to lock the potato in his stomach. Something was brewing there menacingly, but it wasn’t his concern anymore — he did what he’d set out to do. Harry would be proud of him.

Now he could finally reply.

Leaving the dirty plate on the table, Tom returned to Harry’s room, wrapped the Harry-smelling blanket around himself, and raised his wand. Concentrated.

Happiness seemed like a distant and forgotten concept, but the events that evoked it were startlingly clear in his mind. Tom thought about the kiss. He thought of how frozen and unresponsive Harry was at first and how he finally kissed him back — hesitantly, slowly, and so sweetly that Tom’s vision went momentarily white from the ecstatic joy of it. Each careful, gentle movement was burned in his memory, and he relived every moment now, allowing them to fill his mind with longing and desire.

Expecto Patronum,” he muttered. A pathetic sparkle exploded in the air, followed by nothing.

With a grimace, he tried again.

Learning Harry’s secret after realising Harry had learned his; seeing the possibility of completing his ritual… The outcome of it was something Tom never wanted to consider, but the isolated memory could work well.

Expecto Patronum.”

This time, there wasn’t even a spark. His mind was suddenly blank, empty of any other happy moments, and the despondency grew like a dark could, cutting him away from the daylight.

The daylight. The sun. Maybe most of his memories were poisoned by the present now, but the brilliance of Harry’s Patronus was still vivid. It was warm and caring and all-encompassing — it was a symbol of love, and Tom latched onto it with his entire being.

Expecto Patronum.”

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing!

His heart began to drop when a silvery shape lurched towards the ceiling — the same dragon as Harry’s, maybe a little dimmer. It made several circles around the room and settled, looking at him with its pale eyes.

It worked! It actually worked!

Tom smiled, unable to contain his giddiness.

“It worked,” he repeated aloud, his voice so soft that it was barely audible. He hadn’t lost his ability to summon a Patronus. Harry would appreciate it… wouldn’t he?

It was time to send a message, yet his mouth went suddenly dry.

What could he say? Why hadn’t he thought of it before?

Tom’s lips parted, but no sound came out. The dragon titled its head in a mute question.

“I— I wasn’t sure your Patronus would remain unchanged,” Tom stammered before flushing, mortified at his inability to speak clearly. “I thought it would be different,” he added hastily, and as soon as the words were out, he cringed.

Gods, he’d only made it worse. He was hopeless. His mind truly had to be in ruins if this was all he managed to say.

The dragon snorted before dissipating, carrying the message to the recipient it knew all too well. Tom’s knees felt too weak to let him walk, so he sat right on the floor, staring at the opposite wall and waiting.

Perhaps Harry would reply today. If he could get just one more answer, even if it was really short again… Tom shivered, pulling the blanket tighter around himself.

He was expecting to keep vigil for hours, hoping he wouldn’t fall asleep, but barely five minutes passed when a far brighter Patronus illuminated the room.

Tom jumped like electrocuted. His eyes were instantly glued to this ethereal shape, prepared to devour it, to devour every word it conveyed.

“Why would it be different?” Harry’s voice asked. It wasn’t annoyed this time — just mild. Neutral. And yet every bland syllable breathed so much exhilaration in Tom that he shook with it, feeling high and grounded at once.

It felt too wonderful to be real. To hear Harry speak to him — it meant so little just two months ago, but now it was the biggest reward Tom could imagine getting.

Hesitantly, he raised his wand. He hoped he had enough magic to conjure another Patronus, but he couldn’t be certain, especially not when the words he wanted to say were already trying to choke him.

One effort. Just one more effort. Harry was talking to him — it was enough to power a dozen of Patronuses.

Expecto Patronum,” Tom whispered. The dragon slithered forwards from the tip of his wand. It was smaller this time, its outlines barely visible, but it still waited for a message, so he hurried to give it.

“Because you hate me,” he said, forcefully pushing each hurtful word out. “I assumed your magic hates me, too.”

His tongue wanted to add something else, but the Patronus glimmered and faded from view before it got its chance. Tom’s brows furrowed in consternation.

Had it gone to Harry or had it been too weak and simply disappeared into nowhere, taking Tom’s message with it? There was no chance to find out — not unless Harry replied.  

The waiting began again. This time, Tom couldn’t sit still: he kept roaming around the room, tense and strangely nervous.

Not knowing whether Harry got his message was worse than simply waiting for a reply. He would have checked, but there was no way he’d be able to trick his mind into feeling happy enough. Not now, when it was ravaged by anxiety and uncertainty.

An hour passed. Then two. After the third one, Tom took a deep breath and finally made himself stop.

It wasn’t ideal, of course it wasn’t — but it wasn’t the opposite of ideal either. What he had today was more than what had been available to him yesterday. When he went to bed this night, he would be able to recall Harry’s voice with perfect clarity. He’d be able to savour its undertones, its lilts, its contradictory soft gruffness — most of all, he’d allow himself to sink into the warm realisation of the fact that Harry’s Patronus still reflected him. Whatever emotions he was experiencing, however strong his hatred was, it wasn’t the only thing he felt.

Today, he could live on this. Perhaps he could even live tomorrow and the day after.

With another deep inhale, Tom straightened his shoulders. He put the blanket onto the bed very carefully, as if it was something fragile. Then he walked out of the room, pleased with how his heart didn’t even accelerate. The panic was kept at bay by the blinding light of Harry’s Patronus Tom kept imagining. If he tried hard enough, he could almost see it wrapped around him, protecting and comforting him.  

He changed the bandages on his wound, made himself a vegetable salad, and washed the dishes. After a small inner fight, he turned on the radio and listened to several Christmas songs. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it wasn’t horrible either. He could almost imagine Harry sitting nearby, sipping cocoa and moving his head with music, smirking whenever Tom rolled his eyes at him.

Tom’s mood was lighter. When he finally went to sleep, he was almost proud of himself.    

He hoped Harry would be, too.

 

***

 

In the morning, he was greeted by Apophis. It’d been a while since Tom had seen him, so he frowned, unsure whether he should be relieved or annoyed.

“Where were you?” he asked. A yawn distorted his words, and Tom shook his head to get rid of the drowsiness. Apophis replied with some offended sound before dropping a letter on his stomach.

“What is that supposed to mean? Did Lestrange send it? I swear, if you went to stay with that idiot—” Tom’s words stumbled into a gasp when he saw the handwriting.

The handwriting. The most unique and the most loveable handwriting that only one person had.

There was a steady roaring in his ears, but Tom barely noticed it. He clutched the letter in his hands, afraid to blink and to move his eyes off it because… what if he was wrong? What if he blinked, and when he looked again, the handwriting would be completely different?

Before this could happen, he pushed his face into the parchment, shuddering when a wave of familiar scent washed over him in a dizzying wave.

Sawdust. Turmeric. A subtle trace of lilacs. Safety. The exact combination he’d smelled a million times in their home; the same scent he got from his Amortentia, when it hit him with an earth-shattering realisation that was astonishing and expected simultaneously.

He had always known that he wanted Harry to be his. He just hadn’t realised on how many levels he wanted it.

And now this scent covered the letter, sending his heart skittering and turning his breaths erratic. Tom strengthened his grip on it. His thoughts were already racing forwards in their obsessive quest to determine how many lines the letter had, how many ink stains were present; where Harry had pressed too hard on the quill, what he could be thinking in that moment…  

Tom hissed at himself. The sound was loud enough to pull him from the depth of his mind — even Apophis jumped back, staring at him suspiciously.

It wasn’t the time. He would consume every little detail about this message later. Right now, he needed to read it, for better or for worse — to read and to survive it.

The tips of his fingers felt numb. A thick mist descended on the surrounding world, with the letter being the only thing Tom could still see clearly. Taking a long, shuddery breath, he let his eyes touch the first lines.

Tom. I don’t hate you. I don’t think I could.

But it doesn’t change anything.  

You have no respect for me. You betrayed me in so many different ways at once that I wouldn’t know where to start addressing them all. What you did shows how far we are from being able to understand each other. I still had hope, I had it for years, but you have gone too far. This isn’t something I can accept.

I don’t know what I’m feeling right now. You challenged my worst expectations of you and I feel lost. I’m no longer certain what was real. Did you even perform that ritual because you wanted me? Or did you want my immortality? You always say one thing and mean another, and at this point, I’m not sure which is what. I’m not sure if you started this whole thing because you wanted to protect me or to protect yourself. I’m not sure if you even see me as an actual person.

You forced me into something that had to be given willingly. And I might have understood it if it happened at any other point of time. I might have recovered if I spent enough time thinking about it and trying to justify your actions. But the moment you chose? You learned that you killed not only my relative but my father, that you took all my hopes of meeting him some day — and I forgave you. I was willing to give you a chance and to try to resolve everything. Instead of showing — not even gratitude, but at least some basic humanity and comprehension, you violated my trust again.

Was it worth it? Do you enjoy being immortal? Does the idea of my fidelity make you happy even when you don’t have a chance to see it for yourself? The fact that I cannot belong to others doesn’t mean that I’m going to belong to you, Tom. If anything, you ensured this.

But being hurt by you doesn’t mean that I want to see you hurt, too. So stop destroying yourself. You wanted to be in politics — do that. Make the world a better place. Show me that I wasn’t wrong entirely and that my love for you has brought at least something good into the lives of others. Maybe one day, it’ll be enough.

Harry    

For minutes, Tom stared at the letter. He read it again, reached the end, went back to the beginning, and kept repeating this process until he memorised each word, felt its burn scorched across his brain.

He felt… stunned. Exhilarated. Crushed. Incredulous.

Hurt, happy, and angry. So very angry.

It was a horrible letter. It gave him hope and it was Harry’s, but the assumptions in it were so outrageous that Tom would never believe Harry could think that if he wasn’t holding the proof in his hands.

Immortality? Harry suggested that he’d done the ritual because of immortality? What was even— it made no sense! Why would he think that? And what was that about killing his father? Was this who Charlus was — some direct relative, a grandfather?

Inconvenient. Perhaps it explained Harry’s state a little better. He should have paid more attention to those memories.

Immortality, though… If Harry wasn’t certain of something this basic, then Tom had ruined far more than he’d believed. And he had to correct it. Whatever it took.

His fingers spasmed, itching to start writing. Tom stopped himself only by pouring every bit of self-control he had left into his own body.

He wouldn’t rush his reply, not this time. He’d think before he wrote his letter because he needed to express too much, and there was always a chance that Harry would stop reading at any point. Every line had to be meaningful.

Tom forced his fingers to loosen. Putting the letter on the pillow with utmost care, he summoned his clothes, put them on, and apparated into the woods he and Harry used to frequent.

There, surrounded by the trees and taking a directionless walk, he began to think.

 

***

 

Harry,

It was never about immortality. It was always about you.

You know what your life means to me. You must — you yourself have made it a bargaining chip to control me. If your safety wasn’t the primary motivation in everything that I do, why would you rely on it in your rewards and punishments system?

What I said was true. I developed my plan almost immediately after your first ‘practical demonstration’ to me. I wanted to keep you safe. How can you doubt it? Why would I be interested in immortality so strongly in the first place if you weren’t involved? I’m strong enough to keep myself safe. Unlike you, I’m not self-destructive, so I wouldn’t be that concerned about protecting myself.  

I didn’t know about your father. I admit, my focus wasn’t sharp when I was watching the memories you had shared. I also admit that even if I had known, it wouldn’t have changed anything because I wanted to complete that ritual. I don’t regret my idea, but perhaps I regret doing it the way I did.

I do respect you. I do. I respect you more than anyone. Sometimes I want the future with you so badly that the present loses its significance and I stop being able to think clearly. I need you — I don’t think you can imagine the extent of it. And I need you to be only mine, to know that you will never have a chance to seek any meaningful connection with someone else. It is important to me. You promised that no one else would be as vital as me, so why are you so against me ensuring this? I don’t understand. Yes, I did it without your explicit permission, but why are you so angry? Is it a matter of principle? How could you leave over it?

I’m not at school. I haven’t left our home for the most part, so I’m not sure I can re-enter the world of politics and pretend that it matters to me — it doesn’t, not without you.

Tell me that you’ll come back. You have to. If I’m going to change the world for the better, I need you by my side.

Tom

 

***

 

Maybe he’d overdone his letter a little bit. He shouldn’t have said some of the things he had, he shouldn’t have been that pushy.

On the other hand, Harry liked honesty. He could appreciate it.

During the two days he spent waiting for a reply, Tom changed his clothes, ate, and even went for short walks. He went to bed with Harry’s letter in his hands, relentlessly re-reading the last passage, the last sentence in particular.

Maybe one day, it’ll be enough.

A small hope made a nest for itself in his chest, sending encouraging bursts of optimism whenever panic started to close in. His shaky stability quickly grew to depend on it, so Tom managed to hold on without resorting to mutilating his healing hand.  

He wasn’t living yet, but he was also not merely surviving. It was a progress.

He hoped the future would bring more.

 

***

 

Tom,

The second half of your letter is terrible. I can’t believe you wrote that and thought there was nothing wrong with it. You really don’t learn from your mistakes.

You cannot talk about respecting me when in the same passage you accuse me of overreacting. I don’t think you get it, so I’m going to keep explaining until you do. If you respect a person, it means that you respect them as a whole. You respect their thoughts. You respect their reactions. You don’t try to invalidate them and make them about you — you listen to what they say and you think about it.

You said you wanted to ensure my love for you and that I shouldn’t mind because I’ve promised you’ll always be my priority. So let me ask you this: if I promised that you’ll be my priority, why did you feel the need to ensure this? Were my words not enough? Was your trust in me that weak? You can’t say you respect me when you feel like this. It’s the opposite of respect.

Also, ‘meaningful connection’? Meaningful connections don’t have to be romantic, Tom. I survived my first life because of friendship, not romance. We already talked about it, and I don’t know what other words I can use to make you understand. Me loving someone in addition to loving you wouldn’t make my love for you lesser.

Your obsession with fidelity is ridiculous, how can you not see it? If you waited until the graduation and I agreed to take our relationship to another stage, I would have been faithful to you. I’m not a betrayer. However, if I chose against it, then you wouldn’t have benefited from my enforced fidelity anyway because I wouldn’t be with you. I might have no other romantic options now, but why would you think it matters this much? I can still make friends. I can still be on my own — I’ve never been big on romance in the first place. So is this about pettiness? Or is this about your lack of trust in me and your short-sightedness? By doing what you did, you tried to force me to be with you — you took my choices for this exact reason. So how is this respectful?  

You aren’t self-destructive, really? Then was this last month about?

I won’t make you any promises. You tried to be honest in your letter, disastrous as it was, so I’ll return the favour. Right now, I’m almost at peace. I’m trying to heal myself. I’m not going to come back until I believe that you’ve changed, and I’ll believe it only if it actually happens because you won’t be able to lie to me again. I won’t trust words alone. I won’t trust your fake perfection. If I see that you finally managed to overstep your selfishness and your immaturity, I might consider returning, whenever that happens. Until then? Not a chance.

Watch those memories. Don’t contact me until you do. Watch them and tell me again that you don’t understand why I despise being controlled.

 

 

***

 

Tom stood before the Pensieve, watching the images in it swirl in vague spots of colour. He would have preferred to write a response to Harry, to argue and to justify himself, to plead and implore if he had to… but doing this instead wasn’t a bad alternative. Having a specific plan of actions, even a short-term one, satisfied the starving gap in him: for now, he was content to follow Harry’s preferences. It wasn’t logical, but he felt like he was doing something right, and it soothed his ache as a healing balm.

Watching Harry’s past, seeing his first life... Tom had a very vague recollection of it — he’d caught only the glimpses that he deemed most vital at the time. Distaste and curiosity were now entwining in his chest, fighting for dominance.

On the one hand, he didn’t like the idea of Harry having a life that didn’t have him in it. Everything in him rebelled against this idea, hissed at the threat of seeing it.

On the other hand, it was something only Harry knew. No other person in this universe was aware of his secret, and if Tom received a chance to witness it, he would never be strong enough to refuse.

And Harry wanted him to see it. This was everything he needed to know.

With a deep breath, Tom bent towards the liquid surface, allowing it to engulf him.

After a blink, he saw himself standing in a meagre garden. The sun was shining so mercilessly that he squinted automatically before realising it couldn’t affect him much. Still, he could almost sense the cloying heat that would have tried to seep through his clothes if he’d actually been present in this place.

A quiet sigh caught his attention. Tom turned his head and frowned. A small boy was crouching on the ground, digging holes and planting something in them. Layers of sweat were glistening on his face and neck, but for some reason, he refused to take off his long-sleeved shirt. It was so baggy that it looked absurd on his thin form, so Tom looked away, studying the house instead.

Where was Harry? This was his memory, so he was supposed to be nearby. Was he watching this boy? The last time, Tom had lost his interest very quickly, so he couldn’t tell what was supposed to happen and where Harry was supposed to come from.

The boy sighed again. He stood up, stretching his legs, and then he looked up at the sun, squinting against its harsh brightness. Green eyes flickered behind the idiotic glasses, and Tom’s heart dropped to his feet.

He knew these eyes. He knew this face. It was much softer, round with childish simplicity, but the familiarity of it hit him with the speed of a lightning.  

Harry. His Harry. How old was he? Tom would say at least seven based on the seriousness and tiredness of his expression, but physically, he looked smaller. What was he doing here in this heat? Was he this obsessed with gardening? Adult Harry enjoyed it, too, but Tom had never noticed any passionate fervency in him — not the one required for working in this kind of weather.

A car screeched to a halt all of a sudden. A massive man stormed out, his face distorted in a mask of worry and anger.  

“Go inside, boy!” he barked. “Inside, now!”

Harry blinked at him owlishly. His face was flushed, his eyes almost glassy, and even though decades separated them, Tom could instantly tell he was unwell.

Something dark gathered under his skin. The feeling intensified when the man reached Harry and grabbed him by his wrist, pulling him in the direction of the house so easily, as if he weighed nothing.

“Have I done something wrong?” Harry wondered. He sounded small but not bewildered, like there was nothing surprising about being manhandled like this.

Cold rage began to boil in Tom’s blood, fuelling his already furious magic. He would have let it snap if he didn’t know it was useless — he couldn’t do anything to protect Harry now. He could only watch, seething with absolute hatred.

“Petunia!” the man yelled as soon as he entered the house. “Mr. Bowman is going to pay us a visit in ten minutes, he’s already on his way here!”

“What?” a thin blonde woman came running from one of the rooms, waving her hand with painted nails frantically. “But he was supposed to arrive tomorrow!”

“He changed his mind and his wretched secretary didn’t warn me!” the man opened the door to a small cupboard under the stairs and pushed Harry inside. Harry stumbled, hitting his hand, and the small pained noise he let out made Tom growl. He blindly followed him inside before even realising it, his magic spreading in a powerful protective cloud. Only when the door slammed shut and the muffled voices started to argue about something did he come to his senses again.

A memory. He was useless in a memory.    

“…if he makes noise!” the woman was saying.

“He won’t,” the man promised. “If he does, we’ll think of something.”

“This wasn’t supposed to happen, Vernon! Does Mr. Bowman even know you have a nephew?”

“I’m telling you, the boy won’t make any noises! Boy!” A fist crashed into the door. “Be quiet from now on. I don’t want to hear you make a peep until your aunt comes to let you out! Is that understood?”

Harry rolled his eyes, mouthing something in a way that could only be mocking. But his voice was clear when he replied, “Yes, uncle Vernon.”

The voices retreated. Harry flopped down on a very narrow bed, staring at the dark ceiling with a wondrous smile that was absolutely inappropriate in a situation like this.

“Technically, a guest is coming for my birthday,” he murmured. His voice was barely audible, but Tom’s ears had long been trained to catch the smallest sounds Harry made. “This is not my guest and he’s not coming for me, but technically… this is a correct sentence.” A frown creased his forehead suddenly, dimming his smile a little. “Or should it be “on”, not “for”? Or maybe even “during.” That’s a new word but I think I used it right.”

For a moment, there was silence. Then Harry turned on his side, with a content smile lighting his face.

“The chores ended early,” he pointed out. “No more heat today. A guest that’s not mine but still a guest. No Dudley to make noise. Even a breakfast was nice. It’s a good birthday!”

Still smiling, he closed his eyes.

Tom’s skin crawled. The heavy weight of this tiny dark space was pressing against him with almost physical intensity, and if this was real — oh, if only this scene was real. If only he could grab Harry and get him out of here. Then he’d come back for his relatives, and for his non-existent guest, and for this Dudley, whomever he was.

A familiar heady sensation began to fill him, creating small islands of darkness in the gaps that bared themselves only in moments such as this. Violence accumulated under his fingertips, preparing for an explosion. It was inevitable even despite being useless — Tom learned to recognise the signs. Nothing he thought or felt could stop this rush of longing to hurt and maim, but all of a sudden, Harry opened his eyes again, and the deadly hissing in Tom’s mind came to an abrupt end.

Harry didn’t look upset. His expression was still pleased, and some of its light shot right through Tom’s darkness, dissipating it until it resembled a pale shadow.  

This had never happened. He had never stopped. Not when he felt like this.

Except once, with Grindelwald. The moment Harry stood up, Tom’s rage lost its lethality, and he fired a disarming spell instead of a killing curse.

The memory shifted. In a blink of a second, the abysmal cupboard with Harry’s small shape was gone, but before he could be pulled into a new moment, Tom withdrew entirely, stepping away from the Pensieve.

Chaotic thoughts danced in his head, and his fury grew before retreating and flaring again.

He’d always known Harry didn’t come from a good home. He’d never asked for details: first because he didn’t want to know about the life that didn’t include him, later because he genuinely doubted he could handle hearing something terrible. Sometimes, at night, his imagination pushed horrifying images into his mind, and each of them had left him shaking in rage. But somehow, he had never imagined this.

This kind of abuse was… quiet. Quiet and soulless. A clearly unwanted child being treated like an animal that outstayed its welcome, turned into a servant and hidden away when more important people came for a visit. The life went on, and no one ever wondered if something wasn’t right because the signs were too small to pay attention to them.

Feeling strangely wrung out, Tom took the armchair, threw his head back, and closed his eyes, trying not to remember the images he’d seen.

That Harry’s family was abysmal wasn’t a surprise. But his reactions unsettled Tom more than the neglect and casual cruelty he’d witnessed.

It was like Harry had consciously replaced the grim background of his everyday life with brightness. He had to realise the injustice of how he was being treated — his covert defiance proved it. And yet instead of allowing it to poison him, like Tom had, Harry made up reasons to be happy about.

This was incomprehensible. This made Tom feel unworthy for reasons he couldn’t fully wrap his mind around.

Before he could think about this longer, he stood back up and approached the Pensieve again. The second memory was already waiting for him, and as he let it touch him, he was instantly sucked inside.

Harry was a little older this time. He was wearing something that looked like an awful school uniform that didn’t fit him at all: it was large and baggy — he was almost drowning in it. His glasses were held together by a tape, and his hair was pulled back enough to reveal his scar. Contrary to the adult version Tom knew, this Harry seemed proud of it, baring it for everyone to see.

A small involuntary smile touched Tom’s lips. He watched Harry fidget, looking at the big clock in an obvious impatience. This place was a school library of a sort, but it was almost empty, with only some other students roaming inside. For whatever reason, they gave Harry a wide berth.

A new child entered and Harry instantly perked up.

“Good morning, Tony!” he called, waving his hand. “I’m here!”

The boy walked towards him in a purposeful stride. Harry’s excited smile widened. He opened his mouth to say something else, but the next second, Tony’s small fist crashed into his face, knocking the already broken glasses off his nose. Harry recoiled with a pained cry, and Tom jumped from the shock of this. His brief surprise instantly melted into a fury so intense, his vision went black for a while.

When he finally regained his ability to see, Tony was walking away from Harry towards a group of other children who were waiting at the entrance. Their leader, a huge boy with very small eyes, high-fived him and offered him some big toy Tom couldn’t distinguish from his place. Tony beamed at him happily.

The leader muttered something and then jogged towards Harry with a satisfied smirk on his lips.  

“See that?” he hissed. “Even new kids won’t be friends with you! Everyone can see what a freak you are!”

“Everyone can see the number of your toys and the size of your brain,” Harry retorted. He straightened now, glaring at the boy despite the blood trickling down his nose. “So they’ll befriend you and laugh at you behind your back.”

“Shut up!” the boy ordered loudly, a flush colouring his face bright red. Harry smirked, his eyes flashing with self-destructive defiance Tom knew all too well.

“Poor Dudley,” he mocked. “Too stupid to make friends by himself and needing his toys to do all the work for him.”

With a roar, Dudley pushed him against the shelf. Harry crashed into it, losing his glasses once again.

“I have a lot of friends! You won’t have friends at all because I won’t let you!” Dudley announced furiously.

By the time Harry finally managed to retrieve his glasses, he was alone. The challenge on his face died down. His shoulders sagged, his lower lip trembled, and then he burst into tears with despondency that made Tom’s heart stop.

This was… no, he couldn’t watch this. He couldn’t. It was too much. It was like a model of hell designed specifically to torture him — watching Harry suffer and being unable to stop it, seeing others hurt him and finding himself incapable of even making his presence known.

Not waiting for the end of the memory, Tom fled. Then he fled the room with the Pensieve, entering his own bedroom for the first time in months and hiding behind the door as if it could shield him from what he’d seen.

He didn’t know how Harry picked these memories. There had to be a reason for why he’d chosen this one in particular, and no matter how hard Tom tried not to let the realisation break through his mental barriers, it was hopeless. Awareness was flooding him in huge overwhelming waves, leaving him no chance at denial.

The red face of that child distorted in its ugly expression, the controlling words, the very act of chasing away every person who wanted to befriend Harry… It reminded Tom of himself.

He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to believe that Harry could honestly compare him to that little entitled monster.

But Harry had. That’s why he’d included this memory.

And now Tom had to understand how to deal with it.

 

***

 

He wasn’t like Harry’s relative. He just wasn’t.

Tom found himself standing in Harry’s meadow, right where his hidden house was located. Such physical closeness soothed the distress that was rapidly rising in his body, so Tom cleared some snow, conjured a small chair, and sat down on it, shivering against the chilly wind.

Whomever that boy was, he hated Harry. He stopped him from having friends because of this hate. Tom’s actions, on the other hand, were dictated by love. Probably.

His mind winced under the new onslaught of uncertainty, and a frustrated sound escaped his throat.

The comparison Harry wanted him to see was too stark, almost crude, but it worked — and Tom hated it. Because while the circumstances and the levels of sophistication in his plans and the actions of that… Muggle… obviously differed, their essence bore a striking resemblance.

They both didn’t want Harry to have anyone significant in his life. They both took actions to ensure it.

And Harry cried. Tom could still hear the sound of it — it kept echoing in his ears, making his adrenaline spike in a powerful urge to do something, anything, to make it stop.

Harry hadn’t cried after the ritual. But he left, which was just as awful. And, by his own admission, he was hurt.

He’d made a mistake.

The blow from this comprehension was strong enough to make Tom slide down his chair, dropping right into the fresh snow onto his knees.

He made a mistake. He was wrong. He’d acted like Harry’s childhood nemesis and now Harry hated—

No, no. Harry said he didn’t hate him. But he despised him, and he wasn’t going to come back because Tom had poisoned their life the exact same way Dudley had.

He was no better than some Muggle.

The half-forgotten sensation of nausea filled his stomach, pouring acid into his mouth. Bitter magic began to flow out in uncontrollable bursts, and Tom bent his head, trying to breathe through his nose.

He’d been fighting this knowledge from the moment he escaped the memory, but he couldn’t keep doing it indefinitely. He wasn’t sure he understood it all — at least one part of him continued to feel at a loss. It was unable to come to terms with the idea that someone who had admitted to loving him above all could still want other people. But other parts were being crushed by the weight of the parallels he had witnessed, and the more of them flattened, the more panicky Tom felt.  

Something had changed. Something had shifted. Harry’s last letter, its accusations and reasoning had seemed perplexing half an hour ago, but now they suddenly began to make sense. Tom couldn’t put it into words, and the gap in logic was quickly filled with terror. Because if he was wrong… it meant that…

A Patronus appeared right in front of him, seemingly from nowhere. Tom blinked at it stupidly, shivering when another gust of icy wind hit him.

“Stop destroying my future garden,” Harry’s voice said. It sound half-annoyed, half-concerned. “Why are you here? What happened?”

Confused, Tom looked around and spotted dark marks scorched in the ground. His magic had melted parts of the snow and poisoned the grass again. He should have directed it elsewhere — Harry liked gardens. He couldn’t and wouldn’t take it from him.

He had to reply. He had to admit— he had to say that—

Tom raised his hand, hoping to concentrate but already knowing he wouldn’t be able to do it. Right now, conjuring a Patronus was an impossibility. No happy memories or fantasies would help.

Expecto Patronum,” he said hoarsely. Like he’d expected, there was nothing, not even a spark.

He felt drained. The truth kept sinking in, and it was ugly enough to turn everything it touched into ash. In this state, he wasn’t certain that even a levitation spell would work.

He had no paper, no Apophis, nothing to send his message to Harry. All he had was himself.

Slowly, Tom stood up, turning to face the emptiness where he knew Harry’s harbour had to be hidden.

“You were right,” he said blankly, staring at the invisible shapes. “You were right to—”

The last word froze on his tongue. He tried to push it through, but it refused to move. No matter how true the thought was, something in Tom wanted to deny it with vehemence, and voicing it meant confirming it.

“I think I understand,” he said instead. “Not entirely. But I do.”

Only the moan of the wind answered him.

He had no idea if Harry had heard him, but this was the best he could do. Turning away, Tom stumbled towards the trees, unsure where he was walking but knowing he had to get out.

He was wrong. Harry was right. And this wasn’t something Tom knew how to even approach.

He could lie and feign repentance; he could pretend and manipulate. But how on earth could he genuinely earn forgiveness? How would he even start? And how could he prove it was authentic this time when it had never been before?

The wind kept on howling. Tom continued to walk.

 

***

 

When he finally managed to apparate home, his mood didn’t improve. Desolation was eating him alive; every cell of his body shivered from cold and from something else, something that pierced far more than a surface.

Even if he couldn’t talk to Harry now, he could still write. Perhaps this would help.

Bringing the fireplace to life, Tom sat at the table near it and took his quill. His hand began to move even before he consciously commanded it.

I understand some things now, he wrote. But I don’t know what to do with them.

His hand stopped. Tom stared at the lines, and to his frustration, his mind went entirely blank.

No, writing wouldn’t help. He had no idea what else to say, how to express and explain the chaos that Harry’s memories had sowed in him.

But perhaps he could talk about Muggles? This was easy. The words were already on the tip of his tongue because this wasn’t something he had to apologise for.

Tom turned over the parchment and lowered the quill again.

There are things I don’t understand, he wrote this time. How can you be… you?

This required elaboration. And maybe the words wouldn’t be enough, after all, but he had to try.

Accusations usually worked best.

How can you be kind? How can you love Muggles? What they did to you cannot be ignored. You might have done everything to not let them shape who you are, but their influence cannot be erased entirely. They hurt you. It means you will always remain hurt by them.

Then again, accusations worked on other people, never on Harry. It wouldn’t be wise to continue them.

Tom watched the parchment for a while, wondering. Then he resumed writing.

I would never dismiss it, not if I was in your place, but especially not when it was you in it. Hypothetically, how angry would you be if I hunted down the relatives of your uncle and made sure he is never born? I’m not talking about murder. But there are many other things I could do that would bring the same outcome.

Although perhaps it is pointless of me to ask because I know what you are going to say. ‘They are all different. Every group has bad people.’ That might be true, but it still doesn’t help me to understand you. If you don’t hate them, it’s one thing. But you go out of your way to help them. You made me worry about you incessantly when I was stuck in Hogwarts knowing that you were out there, doing ridiculous heroic things. And it was over this? The very kind of people who hurt you? What made you choose them when you could concentrate on the wizards?

Muggles mistreated you. They mistreated me, too. How many children like us are there now, were there at the time of your first existence? Are you less concerned about them because they remind you of you? Is that why you choose to protect the kind that abused you over the kind that resembles you — because of your self-loathing? Is it even possible for me to make you see how unique and how important you are?

I can’t stand the idea of you being hurt. Not even if it happened a long time ago. I want — no, I need to do something about it. What can I do?

The thoughts quietened. Tom put the quill away, re-reading what he’d written as his heartbeat kept echoing in his ears dully.

He wasn’t going to send this letter. Not yet — Harry had told him not to contact him until he watched all the memories. Tom had technically broken this demand already by coming to the meadow, but he didn’t want to risk it further.

He wouldn’t give Harry a possibility to accuse him of not respecting him. Never again.

 

***

 

Tom forced himself to return to the Pensieve two days later. He hadn’t made much progress other than developing a cough and proving how pitiful he was — his mind was still in a numb disarray, his body was failing. He couldn’t even control his magic properly when he felt distressed, and when had that happened? He used to be stronger. He used to be more resilient.

Harry hadn’t sent him anything, so Tom still wasn’t sure whether he’d heard him at the meadow. The best chance to find out was to send another letter, and to do that, he had to finish watching the memories.

The Pensieve gleamed in a way that would have been beautiful if it wasn’t so threatening. With a grimace, Tom bent down, and the misleadingly peaceful surface instantly rushed at him.

To his deepest relief, the next three scenes were fairly neutral, even though some moments still managed to send bolts of protective anger through his numbness. He watched Harry shiver under the thin blanket in a strange shack, with a bewildering dreamy smile on his face; he saw a giant named Hagrid pay a visit to him. It felt surreal to realise that Tom knew this man as a boy, had frequently seen him in Harry’s office. But it also explained why Harry had singled him out, and Tom smiled in satisfaction before he could stop himself.

Harry’s breathless enthusiasm at seeing the world of magic for the first time resembled his own. His happiness was infectious: Tom still carried the warm glow from it as he entered the next memory, where Harry met his future — past — best friends.

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger were entirely unremarkable. Tom tried to see someone strong, someone worthy of Harry and his friendship, but he couldn’t find anything even when he forced himself to watch them objectively. The boy was an idiot with a low self-esteem; the girl was a know-it-all with an inflated ego. They were merely the first people Harry had met, and if Tom had been there, he was certain that they wouldn’t be his competition.

Annoyance at himself instantly clashed with his distaste over being forced to watch a friendship he could never touch. Biting the corner of his lip, Tom waited for the memory to pass, preferring to focus his whole attention on Harry.

How Harry kept managing to remain so light was a mystery to him. It wasn’t comprehensible. Watching him now, in a train, surrounded by other wizards, Tom doubted he would have been able to tell what kind of home Harry had come from if he didn’t already know the truth. The signs were there, but they were minuscule. Cheap inappropriate clothes. An unabashed delight at having someone spend time with him, listen to his thoughts and ideas. The way Harry closed his eyes and opened them again repeatedly, as if he was waiting for the happy images to disappear. 

Tom recognised it because Harry was his and because he knew him. Other people didn’t, including his new friends. Would they ever know? Would he ever tell them? Knowing Harry… he wouldn’t. And if he would, he’d never be generous with details.

With a sigh, Tom leaned against the door, and that’s when the memory flickered again.

Harry’s first school year passed in a rush. The images were chaotic, like Harry had been hesitating what he should and shouldn’t include. All Tom understood was that Dumbledore was still a meddlesome fool, Harry was known by everyone in a way that wasn’t about him at all, and Voldemort was plotting something through a stammering professor who wasn’t fit to teach.

He wished he remembered more about Voldemort from when he first watched the memories. Right now, all Tom could recall was that he was a powerful wizard who’d made more Horcruxes than any sane person ever would. He targeted Harry because of a ridiculous prophecy and was responsible for him becoming an orphan.

Frankly, with all Voldemort’s stupidity and insanity, Tom had no idea why any version of him would want to ally himself with a man like this. He’d seen himself only briefly in Harry’s memories, and apparently, he was already half-dead by the time Harry killed him — in his second year no less. It was embarrassing. What could have motivated him to become a follower instead of a leader? In this life, he’d never felt any desire to join Grindelwald, so what had made that Tom Slytherin follow Voldemort? He was powerful. How more powerful could Voldemort be?

On second thought, didn’t Voldemort speak Parseltongue? What did that mean? Were they relatives in some way? Tom really hoped he hadn’t magically transferred his abilities to some other wizard out of misplaced loyalty. And why would he be loyal to anyone in the first place? If that version of him didn’t have Harry, then it had no one at all. The next person deserving his loyalty was Tom himself, not some abomination with a strange name. 

His thoughts screeched to a halt when the memory darkened, with Quirrell stepping forwards.

“Well?” he spat impatiently. “What do you see?”

Harry was pale with his fear, and yet he still raised his chin proudly.

“I see myself shaking hands with Dumbledore,” he stated. “I — I’ve won the house cup for Gryffindor.”

Tom cringed at such an obvious lie, and his magic twitched anxiously in an impulse to wrap itself around Harry and protect him from the possible consequences.

“He lies,” a high voice hissed. Idiot Quirrell just blinked, so the voice repeated itself. “He lies!”

Silently, Tom watched how Harry remained rooted to a spot, how he still held himself with bravado he clearly didn’t feel. His green eyes were huge and terrified, and if Tom had a chance to materialise there for even a second, he would have torn both Quirrell and his owner apart.

Voldemort’s disfigured face glared at Harry, and Tom almost made a wary step back.

This wasn’t a man. This was a creature that couldn’t use its own powers properly. Was this truly the future of anyone who’d made several Horcruxes? This ugly shell? Was this what he had almost condemned himself to?

Tom watched the rest of the memory silently, moving when Harry did and stopping with him. He knew it was useless, but standing nearby still gave him a degree of satisfaction, some false certainty that this way, Harry wouldn’t be too hurt.

Harry… he was magnificent. There was deadliness in this child version of him that Tom recognised very well. He had it himself, and he had caught glimpses of it within his Harry, too.

His Harry could kill when he wanted to. The way he’d attacked Grindelwald was breathtaking — Tom only wished he could have seen it all from the beginning. And how he threw himself at Quirrell now was equally captivating: his face was alight with grim determination, his speed surprisingly lethal for a child his age.

No matter how old Harry was, he was blinding. And he might feel the need to kill very rarely and for a different reason, but this was still something that united him and Tom — when pushed, they were both ready to do anything to get their way.

Harry would never agree with this, but a warm light still took residence in Tom’s chest, giving him a small hope. He might have ruined many things, but Harry was still talking to him. Harry was still giving him a chance.

Their future would still come — for them as partners, for them together. This was all he could imagine ever wanting.

The memories rushed forwards again. Harry’s second year was accompanied by more violence — it seemed to haunt him like a ghost, seeing something so irresistible about him that it simply couldn’t stop.  

Then Harry found a faded diary with a smudged “T. M. Riddle” marring its first page, and Tom’s heart skipped a beat.  

The first time, he’d paid loose attention to what was coming. He’d assumed that he would be a frequent figure in Harry’s life, not someone who died the same year they met — this allowed him to focus on his plans and dismiss the rest. Now he had a chance to witness everything anew.

This time, he wouldn’t look away.

 

***

 

Talking through a diary was an interesting idea. Tom wasn’t sure what kind of magic this was, but now that he’d seen it, he could figure it out. He and Harry would be able to have immediate conversations instead of relying on letters or Patronuses.

Then again, considering what this diary had led to, perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. The last thing Tom wanted was to add himself into Harry’s collection of negative associations in one more way.

He didn’t see how Harry had managed to get into the Chamber of Secrets. One moment, he was staring at the bloody inscription on the wall; the next one, he was standing in an entirely new vast space. Tom still had no idea where it was located or how to access it.

His heart sank in disappointment, but when the full implications hit him, it stopped entirely.

Harry had excluded this memory on purpose. He didn’t trust Tom with the knowledge of where the Chamber was. He showed him the core events but not the details because his trust and his faith were already gone by that point.

And the ritual made it even worse.   

An uncomfortable itchy heat began to radiate from Tom’s chest. The sensation was entirely unfamiliar, so he pressed his palm against it, confused and hoping to squash it down.

He couldn’t name it, but it felt a little like shame. He’d never experienced it to this extent before, and it was never mixed with this kind of almost desperate hurt.

He’d been trying. For years, he’d been trying to be someone Harry would approve of. The craving, the longing for his acceptance stayed his hand so many times that now Tom couldn’t count them all — he even allowed that scum Morfin to blackmail him, no matter how maddeningly outrageous the whole situation was, simply because he refused to risk Harry finding out.

He’d made mistakes, but they were minimal in comparison to what he would have done if he hadn’t been trying. And yet Harry still didn’t trust him.

The shame began to curl away, giving way to dejection. Loneliness suddenly felt sharp and uncompromising, and Tom wrapped his hands around himself, watching how Harry’s head snapped up.      

“She won’t wake,” a voice said. It was soft but cold, so it took a moment for Tom to recognise it. His eyes quickly moved towards one of the pillars, and something in him shuddered from what he saw.

It was like watching his reflection in someone else’s dream. Something was wrong with the boy he was looking at, and it wasn’t just about the fact that his physical contours were blurred, as if he was being held together by magic alone.

No, he was simply different. He didn’t have the splendour Tom prided himself on. He was thinner and hollow-cheeked; his clothes, while neat, came from some cheap store Tom would have never stepped into. He was but a shadow with empty vicious eyes and greed that swarmed around him in a cloud — greed Tom wasn’t sure he could relate to.

He longed for things. He longed for Harry. But even from here, he could read the shallowness and the arrogance written all over his twin’s face, and he didn’t like it one bit.

This wasn’t him. This was Tom Riddle. Someone he could have been.

“Are you a ghost?” Harry asked. He was staring at Riddle with such earnestness, like he trusted him entirely and couldn’t see what a hollow shell he was. This was the first time Tom would disappoint him — the first in a long line of failures and betrayals.

“No,” Tom murmured to himself, shaking his head briefly. He couldn’t keep blurring himself and Riddle — that way madness lied. Despite some superficial similarities, they were completely different people. He might have let Harry down, too, but their story was different. This abomination was dead and could never touch it.

“A memory,” Riddle replied. His voice was quiet, but its sinister and bitter undertones were as loud as shouting. “Preserved in a diary for fifty years.”

Tom’s brows furrowed. What? A memory? That must have been some ritual. Why would he condemn himself to this kind of existence? To give Voldemort more power? Maybe Voldemort had managed to subdue his will and make him into a brainless soldier somehow. This was more plausible than any version of him feeling such loyalty to some monster that he would follow him blindly and sacrifice his life force for him.

How did one become a memory in the first place? Even Tom with his knowledge about all possible forms of dark arts couldn’t figure it out.

Riddle burst into an animated, mostly one-sided conversation, and several minutes later, Tom had to admit that listening to his own voice was surprisingly challenging. Riddle’s arrogance was distorting his words; his excitement over successfully breaking an 11-year-old girl was embarrassing — Tom had felt less enthusiastic when he killed Charlus, and that happened back when he was a child himself. His first impression had been accurate: Riddle was worlds away from him. He was stupid, and Tom would have never believed it if he wasn’t witnessing it with his own eyes.   

“I have been waiting for you to appear since we arrived here,” Riddle said pleasantly. His eyes were fixed on Harry in an intense, hungry way — and well, they did have something in common, after all. “I knew you’d come. I have many questions for you, Harry Potter.”

“Like what?” Harry spat angrily. He didn’t look intimidated in the slightest — his anger and righteousness made him appear taller, and his blazing eyes were furious enough to stop anyone in their tracks.

“How is it that you, a skinny boy with no extraordinary magical talent, managed to defeat the greatest wizard of all time?” Riddle wondered. The pleasant notes were disappearing again under the piles of bitterness and odd envy. “How did you escape with nothing but a scar while Lord Voldemort’s powers were destroyed?”

By the end of it, a red gleam entered his eyes. It looked unnatural enough for Tom to make an instinctive step towards Harry.

This was unnerving. Magic was one thing, but what would turn his eyes — Riddle’s eyes — red? Humans couldn’t do that, it went against all laws of nature. Unless… Unless Riddle wasn’t human.

If so, what was he?

“Why do you care how I escaped?” Harry asked slowly. His own gaze was narrowed in a dawning realisation that Tom couldn’t decipher. Did Harry have a theory? How could he — he was only twelve. “Voldemort was after your time.”

Riddle smirked at him, looking almost giddy, and Tom had to amend his opinion. This impostor wasn’t simply stupid, he was crazy. He grew excited over irrelevant things and reacted inappropriately to every logical question Harry asked.

“Voldemort,” he uttered, “is my past, present, and future, Harry Potter.”

Pulling a wand out of his pocket, he slashed the air with it, writing three rapid words.

Tom Marvolo Riddle

Tom studied them, his stare lingering on “Marvolo.” Something about it stood out. Something was strangely familiar.

Before he could follow the clues, Riddle waved the wand again, rearranging the letters. The syllables shifted and clung to each other briefly before assuming their designated places.

I Am Lord Voldemort

His mind went utterly blank. Time stopped. The existence of the world lost its meaning. Tom stared at these words, re-reading them again, and again, and again.

I Am Lord Voldemort.

Tom Riddle. Voldemort. 

He was Voldemort.

He was Voldemort. All this time, he was watching himself, and he didn’t even realise this.

The bottom dropped out of his stomach. Tom recoiled from the damning words so violently that he lost his balance and collapsed onto the wet floor. His body didn’t feel the impact — it couldn’t, he didn’t even have it here, but it still burned, it still groaned and shuddered, as if the weight of his mind and his feelings was too much for it to bear.

“It can’t be,” he tried to speak. No words reached his ears, so he did it again. “It’s not possible. I’m not him.”

Still nothing.

Acid burned at the back of his throat. His stomach contorted in pained shock, and then the terrible screaming something filled his ears, crawling in them until it was the only sound they could perceive. It was violent and shredding — it echoed in his very bones.

He was Voldemort. All along, he was Voldemort. He’d killed Harry’s parents. He tried to kill Harry. He made so many Horcruxes that he had gone insane, losing his mind along with his powers, losing the respect of his followers, leaving only fear in its place.

He wasn’t the right hand of Harry’s nemesis. He was his nemesis. Harry had spent his entire first life hating and fearing him — he had single-handedly ruined Harry’s existence so thoroughly that Harry was forced to escape into the past. To accept guardianship over someone who tortured and destroyed him.

An icy fist closed around his lungs, clawing and squeezing the remains of air out of them. Tom gasped, his body jerking in odd abrupt movements that he had no control over. The next second, the contours of the Chamber of Secrets faded, melting back into Harry’s bedroom. The phantoms of the past were gone — they stayed trapped in the Pensieve, but their terrible echoes remained with Tom. They latched onto his mind with hungry vengeance, throwing an image after an image of the pictures he had seen when he was first watching Harry’s memories.  

It didn’t matter then. Those pictures were just that — the images of a monster he didn’t know and had no direct relationship with. But recalling them now and putting his own face onto them…

His mind rebelled. Tom pressed his hands to his ears, trying to silence the screaming, but it kept getting louder. It hurled accusations and mockeries, painted every crime he committed, every time he hurt Harry and raised his wand against him.

There was no silencing something like this. The only thing Tom could do was outcry it, so he screamed, too.

He found that he couldn’t stop.

 

***

 

That night, he added just one sentence to his letter.

Why would you love me?

 

***

 

The sleep didn’t come. The desire to tear into his skin and shred it until physical pain remained the only sensation was strong, but every time Tom raised his wand or his hands, he stopped.

He wanted to hurt himself. He didn’t want to hurt Harry.

It was easier before. In Harry’s absence, for a long time, he’d been putting his own hurt above everything, even above Harry himself; he’d marred his skin without care, wanting, needing acknowledgement.

But he couldn’t do it now. The thought of leaving even a small scratch on Harry made him sick.

That cursed ritual.

Tom managed to stay physically intact throughout the night, yet he spent it curled into a tight ball, shaking under the pressure of ache and grief and emotions he couldn’t identify. They were so many of them — they were crowding his chest, interfering with his heart, making him feel like he was about to explode with them.

When the morning came and nothing changed, Tom made himself get up. He cooked breakfast, then stared at it silently, knowing that he could never eat it without vomiting it back.

He needed… something. Something comforting. Harry wouldn’t return; Harry’s blanket and things no longer produced the same soothing effect, so it had to be something new.     

If he could capture Harry’s Patronus into some vial… if he could consume the letters Harry had written him…

The letters. He still had the letters. They were the last thing he’d gotten from Harry — they had his personality, his handwriting; they had a whole part of him because Tom could easily trace the story of their creation. From the pressure Harry had applied to a quill in different instances, it was evident where he hesitated, where he took a break, where he got anxious or passionate. It was the closest thing to him Tom had in his possession now.

Without thinking further, he returned to the bedroom and grabbed the last letter. His eyes immediately zeroed in on three specific half-lines.

…I’m going to keep explaining until you do.

…I’ve promised you’ll always be my priority.

…I might consider returning.

A promise of future communication.

The use of future tense.

Future possibility.

This was evidence. Whatever Tom was, Harry didn’t give up on him. Harry still loved him. He might still return.

Tom closed his eyes, nuzzling into the letter, and finally, for the first time in hours, the ache lessened. The sick feeling grew dimmer, too, and he felt solid and grounded again. When he pulled back, his gaze dropped to another passage.

Watch those memories. Don’t contact me until you do.

Tom pressed his lips to these lines, trying to breathe them in, feeling how their rough surface scratched his mouth.

Permission to contact Harry. He still had it. He was simply supposed to meet Harry’s condition.

That meant that he had to return to the Pensieve. The sooner he was done, the closer to Harry he could feel again.

Carefully, Tom folded the letter and put it in his pocket. If things got bad again, he could always touch it and remind himself of the future.

The memories weren’t a punishment. They were a chance to improve things.

Tom couldn’t really be certain, but he preferred to cling to this notion.

This made things easier at least to a small degree.

 

***

 

He chose to return to the start of the memory. Silently, he watched his shadow speak with Harry, lingered on how it hissed the words of self-admiration and hung onto its useless pride.

“I fashioned myself a new name,” Riddle boasted breathlessly, “a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world!”

“You are not,” Harry said quietly. Despite his age, his resolution was steely, and if Tom had to choose whom he admired more at this moment... it wouldn’t even be a competition.

“Not what?” Riddle snapped. Insecurity and rage were twisting his ghostly face — it was a pitiful display. If the words of a 12-year-old boy had the power to affect him, then he had not only failed at greatness, he was also a failure of a sorcerer.   

“Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore,” Harry said hotly. “Everyone says so!”

The reasoning was… like that of a child. Even though his stomach was clenched into a tight knot, Tom smiled a little, suddenly overcome with a rush of gentleness and fondness for this particular version of Harry.

He was trusting. He was pure in a way that even his Harry wasn’t — he didn’t see death and destruction yet; he was not betrayed by Dumbledore.

He was not betrayed by Tom.                             

The smile disappeared, leaving Tom hollow.

When Dumbledore’s phoenix burst into the Chamber, carrying the Sorting Hat, Riddle laughed, and Tom laughed with him — only his laughter was hysterical because all pieces in his head suddenly clicked into one clear picture.

Dumbledore. Of course. Of course it was Dumbledore’s plan all along, how did he not see this from the start?

Harry hadn’t sneaked into the Chamber secretly — Dumbledore allowed him to. Dumbledore was likely watching him even now, invisible, waiting for the outcome.

Harry was a Horcrux, and Horcruxes could be destroyed with basilisk’s venom.

This was a test. Dumbledore wanted to see if he could get rid of the Horcrux inside Harry without necessarily killing him. The Hat was here to give Harry the Sword — with his mindless bravery, it was not a surprise that he could pull it out. The phoenix was here to decrease the chances of Harry dying and to heal him after he was stabbed.

Clever. And enraging. Because for Dumbledore, Harry was a game piece. For Tom, he was the world.

He would have let Voldemort live for a thousand of years. He would have allowed him to destroy this universe until nothing was left if it meant he could keep Harry safe. Dumbledore would never prioritise one over a billion, and for that, Tom hated him.

“Kill him,” Riddle hissed. The words sent a jolt of automatic panic through him, and Tom moved between Harry and the basilisk before he could think rationally about it.

The snake was magnificent, there was no denying it. Even the first time, when he’d been distracted to the point of ignorance, he stopped to watch it because it was breath-taking in every way.  

There was only one drawback. It wanted to kill Harry, and it meant that Tom would see it destroyed.

Harry broke into a run with his eyes shut. He managed to half-cross the room when he tripped and crashed down, his chin colliding with the cold stone. The sound of it launched Tom into immediate action again before he could stop his stupid feet.

Feeling this protective for such an extended period of time was exhausting. His heart kept hammering relentlessly and his hands were itching with magic, needing to pour it somewhere to protect Harry and to make sure he never got hurt again. How could anyone live in such a state?

The basilisk roared from pain when Dumbledore’s phoenix attacked it. Its tail whipped across the floor, approaching Harry with deadly speed, and Tom’s heart stopped. It stumbled