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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 before the 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.