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i'll try living like this

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tom learned to read at a very young age.

he liked science books most, even looking at the pictures in his mother's old medical textbooks from school. too heavy for a three year old to handle, she would lift the stacks of books from her shelf and onto the floor where her sweet, smart little boy sat with his knees crossed. she would pat his head and read to him, until he impatiently waved her away, trying to read it for himself.

tom was fascinated by the anatomical photos, diagrams of human bones and muscles, and maps of veins. he thought it strange that the insides of people were so mysterious yet their exteriors held no hint of it, not even his. in secret, he would stare at the sections on reproduction, mystified. he could spend hours looking at these books.

his father hated it. he called the boy odd names like 'pansy' or 'nancy-boy', but they only left tom confused. those were not his name. did the man somehow forget what it was?

but how could he?
they had the same name.

not that tom enjoyed sharing /anything/ with his father, because he didn't. not his name, his looks, and especially not his mother.

he didn't understand why she continued to put up with her husband despite his drinking, throwing chairs at her, the screaming... was it some kind of mental deficiency on her part?

no matter, he thought. if she didn't know how to get rid of the man, then he would find a way to solve the problem.

the man never touched tom, despite the violence against his mother. on one drunken occasion, his father said it was because tom was his heir. on another, that it was because he was not a girl. and on yet another, because he was disgusted by the idea of spending too long touching a... (tom can't remember what odd name was used for him then.)

the boy spent his time looking at more and more books, until the day came that he finally understood what the words on the page meant, what they corresponded to in real life and in speech. that was a joyous occasion and a triumph of his intelligence, despite not even having yet attended school.

he knew that the answer would come to him eventually if he kept reading. after all, books are the shared wisdom passed down from generations of humans who have already made mistakes and learned from them, so the reader doesn't have to. and science is how the world works. if he could find a way to manipulate those mechanisms, to learn from that wisdom, then he could find a 'fix' for his living situation.

he devoured books on biology, chemistry, and even physics before moving on to metaphysics and philosophy. for entertainment, he learned about zoology, history, politics, and economics. he did not know it then, but an innocent book on herbology, with its large painted illustrations of herbs and fruits and garden plants, would soon come in handy.

when he turned seven years old, his father threw his mother down the stairs.

her arm and neck were broken and she suffered a concussion, but luckily, she survived. when asked, she would not say anything but that she tripped in the night, having been too sleep-deprived from long hours at her practice. tom sat in the same hospital she usually worked at but was suddenly made a patient of - and held her hand.

he knew he had to put his plan into action soon, or else there would soon be no mother left to save. books littered the house in piles and he had many different ideas he could use, but his deliberation had to be quick. in the end, he went with a tried and true, age-old method - one of many methods that he had been preparing in advance, innocuous though they all may have seemed.

at the back of his closet, he had been hoarding a pile of apple seeds for months. his mother bought him the fruits, thinking them healthy for a growing boy, and he ate them, then stored all their dark little seeds in a childhood mug with felix the cat's smiling face decorating the front.

one hundred apple seeds.

ground up, these contained enough cyanide to kill a human.

the next time his father got black-out drunk, tom went to the kitchen and stole his mother's stone mortar and pestle.

then, went into his closet, and ground the seeds up with the tool.

once they had been crushed into a fine paste, he mixed them into a spare bottle of dark-colored liquor that he had snatched.

and finally, up to father he went, the man barely conscious on the couch. he held the bottle in the extra long sleeve of an over-sized sweater so none of his fingerprints would touch it.

he asked his father if this bottle was his or if it was apple juice. playing dumb.

the man scoffed then, snatched the bottle away and took a swig, telling the little boy that he wasn't yet 'man enough' to handle alcohol like this and to get out, before chugging the entire bottle with a pleased sound, as if the seeds made the taste more intense.

as the bottle was thrown onto the floor with a glassy clatter, tom went up to bed and napped, a calmness enveloping his entire body.

when his mother came back from the hospital the next morning, she and her brother found a corpse covered in vomit seated on the couch among a mess of bottles. they shook him, thinking he was simply drunk, until she found he had no pulse and began to panic. it was her shouts to call the police which woke the little boy up from his blissful sleep.

the mortar and pestle were hidden underneath a floorboard in his room, the cup was washed clean, and apple seeds by themselves were not dangerous to touch the surface of in the first place. his conscience was clear and his hands looked clean.

the investigation did not even go far enough to reveal poison. it seemed like the man had simply died of alcohol overdose in his sleep.

not to mention, the only other person in he house with the drunkard at the time had been tom, and no one would even dare to suspect foul play from a seven year old child.

at the funeral, he played the part of a stone-faced boy to the relatives, one who had trouble expressing his feelings and was confused at why his father was gone. how they kneeled and hugged him close, sobbing into his shoulders as if he could use them as a conduit for heavy emotions. it had to have been more useful for his mother than it had been for him.

he still did not understand why she cried for that man. or why anyone did, including his own relatives. perhaps they were ignorant about his true self. that had to be it. but to tom, who did know, the man had no redeeming value and was finally discarded, as he deserved.

after the funeral, still in his black suit, tom lay back on his bed and laughed happily.

-

following his mother, merope riddle-gaunt's widowing, she was offered her father, marvolo's mansion by her last living relative, her brother, morfin. he already had a home of his own in the city and the old mansion was quickly falling into disrepair, so for it to be out of his care and into her usage could only be considered a good thing.

morfin made her the offer in the hopes that she would move out of tom's father's ratty shack of a house and back to somewhere more decent for a woman of her noble lineage. and that she would be well-taken care of and stop crying as well.

he seemed honestly concerned for her, despite their disagreements over the man she ended up marrying on threat of elopement. morfin could never understand what she saw in him, while merope forgave and suffered him everything. 'love', she said it was. tom hoped she never loved again, if her decisions were meant to always lean towards such awful choices.

beneath it all, he hoped that he did not end up like her. 'love' was not something he understood anyway. if someone treated him poorly, then they were not useful to him. simple as that. tom was practical that way. using his strong intellect and keen judgement of people, he thought that perhaps he could manage to avoid such a dumb fate. almost certainly.

morfin came by the riddle house to help move their things, disgusted by the mess of garbage and bottles of liquor littering the floors, before they rode in his car through thick woodlands and up to the gaunt mansion. tom had always been ashamed of his father's filth and nameless impoverishment. looking up at the mansion in amazement, he thought that this luxury, on the other hand, was what he deserved.

it was enormous and isolated; they seemed to have acres and acres of forest to themselves. the mansion itself was dark carved stone, all sharp angles and long spires, like hands grasping up at the sky. it looked divine, more like perhaps a castle or a cathedral than any of the 'mansions' tom had ever seen in his life on drives through the countryside.

at the entrance was a tall stone fence that was equally as intricately carved as the mansion itself, a three-tiered fountain with cherubic statues to greet visitors, and a butler, named fyodor, who bowed his head in respect. tom could not help his eyes bulging out of his head at the beauty and magnitude and grace of the building, with its huge sweeping windows, each with balconies, and above them, high-flung flags with the gaunt coat of arms.

snakes were a prevalent detail in both the flags and the carvings around the area. as his mother conversed with the butler, he looked around at the fountain, the fence, the windows, and found many small serpent carvings in the stone. snakes eating their own tails, biting at metal components, hissing in a display of intimidation... even the front door had an ancient door knocker made of iron, shaped in the form of two snakes intertwining.

tom loved snakes. they were one of his favorite creatures. but to have a mating display on the door... there was something about it that made him feel uneasy.

either the architects did not know what two snakes did when they were wrapped together or they did - and they were trying to make a statement.

he hoped it was ignorance. if not, he could not guess what it meant.

-

merope's mental state grew increasingly bizarre.

the size and remoteness of their new home made her act more imperious and commanding, and at other times, more vulnerable and desolate. her moods were mercurial, all-consuming, and impossible to predict.

she also started to become much more controlling of her son. merope called it 'protectiveness', but tom did not understand what he needed to be protected from in a place so far away from everything.

"you are so beautiful, my little boy," she said, kneeling down and taking him by the shoulders, "and there are people out there who want to destroy beautiful things like you. they want to /corrupt/ you. and i won't allow it to happen. do you understand?"

he shook his head no.

he was also confused as to why his mother described him as 'beautiful', when it was a rather effeminate descriptor, as opposed to 'handsome'. he did not know what she meant in the slightest. but then again, he had not known a lot of other people in his admittedly short life. his father had been a jealous and violent man who demanded his wife do nothing outside of work but come home and give him her hard-earned money. tom had not been allowed to go out much as a result either.

perhaps most other people /were/ evil, if they were anything like that man.

"oh, tom," she said, with a sniffle. she embraced him and held his head in place gently. "maybe you'll understand when you're older. you look... just like your father. so handsome."

tom froze in place when he heard those dreaded words.

"other women were always trying to steal your father away from me," she continued quietly. "men too. i wouldn't let them. and now that he's gone, i won't allow them to take you either."

he wanted to go back to his room and play, but his mother gripped at his back as if her hands were claws.

"you're mine, tom," she said, sounding far away. "aren't you? my sweet boy."

"yes, mama," he had said, hoping to end this conversation more quickly.

to be compared in any way to his father was sickening, even if it was a compliment. he did not enjoy this. he hoped his mother never spoke of this again.

he had no idea how sorely he would be disappointed.

-

merope sent the butler away for a week.

it was during this week that she called her son over to a room that opened up like a secret passage, which he had never seen before, and told him that he needed to live there.

"from now on, i don't want anyone to see you," she said. "not any guests who come here, not the servants, not my brother, not any teachers, not anyone. no one will see you but me."

tom stared at her, disbelieving.

"come on now," she said, ushering him inside. "go on in. you'll be safe in here. no bad people will corrupt you or hurt you in here. no one can take you away from me. i can keep you safe."

"but," he started. "--but mama, i was already safe. there's no one around. this mansion... is all alone."

"it won't always be," she responded patiently. "i know you never quite got along with your father, but what if another man just like him came here and tried to take you away. would you like that?"

"no," he said, automatic. though he did not completely believe this could happen either.

"then just try it. just for a day," she said sweetly. "if you don't like it, we can try something else later."

"but... but i don't want to."

he was afraid. the secret passage was so hidden deep within the house that he feared if he were to live in that room, he would not be able to find his way back to anything.

"now don't be like that, tom," she said, picking him up in her arms and carrying him.

he panicked and started to struggle. not very hard, so as not to hurt her, but he could scarcely believe she was really doing this.

she plopped him on the bed within the room and immediately stepped back and shut the door.

the room was large and roomy and as elegantly decorated as the rest of the house, but it had no windows. it had no access to any other part of the house except its own small bathroom. it was like a prison cell.

a multitude of clicking noises sounded out throughout the room and tom realized that he was being locked inside. he was being imprisoned by his own mother. he could absolutely not believe it.

he started to yell and scream and bang upon the door as hard and as much as his tiny hands and feet could manage, but the door was hard and sturdy, perhaps being made of metal, and would not budge in the slightest.

he fell to his knees and started to cry. he felt like a fool. he had trusted his mother to listen to him and she had betrayed that in order to do what she liked with him.

soon after, she came back to bring him the rest of his belongings in a toybox and to chain his legs to fixtures in the room's walls so that he could not escape. he fought hard against her, kicking and screaming this time, but she slapped him in the face and knocked his head against the bed's headboard until he became weak and dizzy. he felt like he was in a nightmare. this couldn't be happening.

right on the ankles, between his socks and his trousers, did she attach thick metal cuffs with lengthy chains that attached to metal loops on the far walls. the chains were just long enough that he could go to the bathroom comfortably and back to the bed without any trouble, but not long enough to leave even a foot outside of the room.

where had she even acquired these things? he wondered, dazed and face bloodied. had she gone to a home improvement shop and bought chains?

but then he noticed the small serpent detail on the metal, as well as how old it looked, and stared at it in awe. there was no way. what had they been doing in this mansion? and to who?

his mother took a handkerchief from her dress pocket and dabbed at the boy's bloody nose with tears in her eyes.

"don't be bad anymore, okay tom?" she said, voice trembling. "you know i hate hurting you. i love you so much. you just need to listen more. listen to your mother like a good little boy."

'love' was a word which struck tom in quite the wrong way.

he already knew his mother was not very good at that.

himself, not at all.

-

every time his mother came in, tom begged her to let him go.

he told her that he would be good from now on, that he would stay safe, that he would hide from anyone who came near him. but it was never enough.

she came in to bring him food and to bathe him and to read him bedtime stories and then she would leave him utterly alone yet again.

he had not even plotted to truly kill her - at least, not yet. he was still attached to her, attached to the dream of living a happy life with her and no father that he had had upon first entering this mansion. he had worked so hard to kill his father not only for his own sake, but for hers. he had watched her sleeping and bruised in the hospital. he had held her hand.

and so, tom did not yet want to give up on his mother, even if it was foolish.

he thought that perhaps if he gave in to her demands a bit, then perhaps her mindset might change back to normal eventually and she would let him go - or that at least, she might become more lenient with him. perhaps, let him go outside sometimes. he didn't know what had gone wrong with his mother, if perhaps the death of her husband had damaged her mind more than tom would have expected, but he still had hope that she might improve if he did as she said.

so he did.

he stopped begging merope for anything and passively received what she gave him. he stopped fighting and screaming and hitting the door, hoping the butler might hear. in time, he stopped expecting anything at all.

it was not so bad to just let his mother pamper him when she had the time to come in and do so.

but he wanted to see the sun again, to breathe fresh air, to feel it all on his skin. he felt pale. his skin did not look healthy anymore after a few months. he did not voice these desires, but shook with their strength, how they ate away at him, particularly at night as he went off to sleep. he dreamed that he could see the outside world and look at the sky, extending forever beyond him.

eventually, he even wanted someone to talk to besides his own mother. even if it was just the butler. anyone would do. even the schoolchildren who had been mean to him before, mundane though he had once thought them to be.

a year passed.

tom did not know the exact amount of time but it felt like an immeasurably long time had passed for him.

then his mother brought him a birthday cake, a number eight decorated on the top in cream.

his face dropped at the sight. that was when he realized that he had hoped for nothing. he had held out for so long, only for nothing to change.

he began to scream again, to kick and run to the door and to struggle as his mother held him back.

the cake fell to the floor, smashed.

-

at twelve years old, tom was a shell of a person.

he had read all of the books in his room, had played with all of the toys, had cried and screamed for years until his voice was gone.

yet he could not bring himself to kill his own mother.

for what reason, he did not know at this point.

perhaps it was that wretched feeling that she spoke of, 'love'. it was not rational or practical or sensible. it could not be reasoned with. his hopes of a normal life had been dashed to pieces long ago. he barely tolerated his mother's presence anymore. he only did so because being alone was even more crazy-making. but still, he allowed her to live and to keep him prisoner.

if she did die, would anyone even be able to find him here in this underground room? would he just rot to death all alone in this silent little hell? would anyone ever hear him scream even if he tried for a hundred more years?

most of the time, he sat on his bed and stared at the wall. it was peaceful to think of nothing. absolutely nothing. he had read a few books on spirituality and meditation before and this could be comparable to a form of meditation as well. it helped to both pass the time and to keep him sane that he could just disappear completely into the nothingness of his own mind when the pain became too much.

other times, he would re-read his books, cataloguing different ideas on how he might be able to escape or to kill his mother, if needed. escaping might be a stretch though. he had never even managed to detach the ankle cuffs before. they were old but still strong. maybe if he were older and stronger too, then he would have the muscle to pull them off somehow. but not right then.

at twelve years old, his mother was beginning to give him strange stares.

especially when she bathed him.

she had always enjoyed viewing him, telling him how good-looking he was, like his father, and that would always make him grimace.

but this was different.

it made him deeply uncomfortable. he asked her to not stare so much already but she sweetly told him much of the same drivel as always.

one day, after bathing him, she did not dress him afterwards. it was the first time, but it would come to happen many more times after that.

she led her son back to his bed after wiping him dry and told him to lay down. her hand touched at his chest and made its way down and down until.

"what are you doing?" he asked.

he did not want to say the word 'mama'. not then.

"you're older now, tom," she said quietly, a bit dreamy, completely unreachable. "you've gotten even more handsome. and i've been... so alone. haven't you felt lonely too?"

he said nothing. not even about how it was her fault that he was alone in the first place. he could only stare, full of dread. he felt more alone than ever when she was in the same room with him.

"be a good boy," she said. and he did not move.

she slid down her dress and.

his eyes clenched shut.

tom could feel her moving, on him.

he trembled. it felt good, but he didn't want to live anymore. he wanted to vomit. he wept uncontrollably. he felt afraid but she did not stop.

he shielded his face with his hands and spluttered and sobbed into them.

he cried out at some point and felt wet and sticky when she pulled away.

she left, and then a damp rag rubbed at him, washing the dirt away.

he could not stop crying. he could not understand why she had done that to him. he had not wanted it. he felt ill and unclean and used. he had become merely a thing to her, instead of a person.

his mother didn't bother speaking to him as she left, perhaps guessing correctly that he did not want to hear her words and that he would not understand anything anyway.

-

through the process of walking around in his room aimlessly and bumping into things, tom discovered that there was an air vent whose screws were loose enough to open and which was large enough to enter through. it was also low enough on the wall that he could reach it and crawl up and out to some other place, even if it was just within the house.

now if only he could find some way to open the ankle cuffs. that was his biggest issue. they were very thick and trying to pick the locks on them had never yielded any results. as long as they tied him down, he could not escape.

curious, he twisted the loose screws out of the panel with his hand and they fell out easily. upon inspecting the inside of the air vent, there were sounds coming from within. little squeaking noises and the pitter-pattering of tiny feet. he could not see anything within the darkness, but it had to be mice.

he came up with an idea.

it was a risky one, which if his mother somehow found out about, would probably hinder her trust in him and cause her to restrict him even more, but he decided to give it a shot.

what else did he have left to lose? if worst came to worst, he decided he would try to kill himself later.

he proceeded to gather the ingredients he would need for his plan: scraps of food off of his floor, pieces of string or rope or shoelace, small papers that could be rolled up, and a writing utensil (he ended up using crayons).

his mother was still a doctor working at a hospital, and as such, she was often busy and not at home. tom did not know what lie she had made up so the butler thought her son was someplace else, but that man and any other servants that she had hired were probably the only other people on the mansion's grounds most of the time. this assured him that he probably had enough time to do what was needed and that there was some kind of probability that his plan might work.

first, he wrote messages on three pieces of paper, all variations on the same theme:

'please help me.

i'm being kept in chains in a secret underground room in the house. it has a picture of a long-haired bearded man in front.

-tom riddle'

that last detail had been one that he always kept in mind since he had first come to be imprisoned. as far as secret passages go, he hadn't thought much of it when he had first seen it, the portrait resembling many others in the mansion, depicting relatives he had never met - but it was still an important detail if it could help in some way.

then, he rolled these small bits of paper up into three individual balls and wrapped each one up with the strings.

after that, he took a handful of the food scraps he found on his floor and placed them on the edge of the open air vent. he waited and waited. he could hear the faint squeaking and steps of the mice, as if they could smell the food, but they refused to come closer.

all except for one.

a small, brown mouse came forward to nibble at a scrap of bread.

tom offered his open hand, full of more food scraps, for the mouse to climb onto. he barely moved, aware of how unlikely it was that it would trust him enough.

minutes passed, the mouse's beady eyes looking up at him and then down at the hand. tom watched it in despair, barely even breathing, his arm going stiff.

at last, the mouse moved into his hand to eat more. tom managed a small smile at this. how incredibly fortunate.

while the mouse was occupied eating from the palm of his hand, tom's last task required only to attach the roll of paper to the mouse's back. the string holding the message into a ball also extended outwards in a circle, with a knot that was tied in such a way that once he got the circlet over the mouse's head and down to its abdomen, all he had to do was tug the string taut, before the message was tied around the animal's midsection in a (somewhat) secure fashion. he had made the work easier on himself by preparing the simplest and quickest method of fastening in advance.

tom was surprised he had even gotten this far in his plan. this mouse was either very used to people or some higher power had blessed him on this day.

once finished, he stuck his hand into the open air vent, where the mouse with message attached on its back like a backpack could go free again.

the best case scenario for the creature was for a servant to find it and/or the note and to already be aware of the location of the portrait he was referring to.

the worst case scenario was for merope to find it.

whatever happened, tom had to keep trying.

he was exhausted after sending out just that first message and, doubtful that he could repeat his success anytime soon, he reattached the air vent panel and its screws by hand before hiding away the remaining notes and supplies in a box underneath his bed.

he would try again later.

again and again, for as long as it took.

-

it would take months for all three messages to be sent out.

long, agonizing months where every time his mother opened his door, tom would wonder if she would scream at him because she found out what he was doing, or if she had just come by that day to violate him again.

he had begun to pray to the mice, to whisper to them through the air vent panel in the hopes that they might hear him, that they might feel for his plight in some way.

he felt near death at times. the stress of not knowing whether his efforts would ever pay off or whether they would just backfire on him was taking its toll. it was difficult to sleep. at times, he could barely eat and just hoarded the food away beneath his bed in order to lure more mice later. there were days where he could not sustain an erection and his mother pursed her lips at him and simply left.

after nearly a year, something happened.

tom could hear muffled sounds through the door. he had no idea how; they must have been incredibly loud. they were sounds like a door being slammed into, like men yelling, like chaos.

he could just barely hear the frightened voice of his mother, loud and pitched higher than normal, obviously stressed.

this thrilled tom. life had been so boring. he didn't know what was happening, she could have been burglarized or robbed for all he knew, but whatever it was, it was an exciting change of pace for him.

suddenly, the door to his room burst open.

tom had been laying on his bed when it had happened.

the noise and light as policemen rushed in, as servants came to hold him and cry, was too much for the young boy and he had to shield his eyes and ears. he was used to endless solitude, not this.

"i got your message, young master," he could hear fyodor say. at least, he thought it was the butler. tom had not lived in this house freely for long enough to be able to distinguish between the servants well. especially not after all this time. "i'm so sorry," he continued. "your mother told everyone that she sent you far away to a boarding school for poorly behaved boys."

he could hear photos being captured, commands being yelled, expressions of concern and rage and shock as he was held in various peoples' arms.

then fyodor apologizing again and again.

tom's senses continued to ring with pain, but he felt happy for once, like a bird being let out of a cage.

merope called out for her son and shrieked as she was arrested, but tom paid it no mind. he no longer had to make the decision to kill her or to lose more hope than he ever thought possible. she would not be his problem anymore.

an officer pulled the boy's hands away from his eyes gently and looked into them with concern.

"are you okay?" the man asked.

tom looked back into his eyes, which were so pale and bright that they looked the way lakes did when they were frozen in winter.

"can you hear me, young man?" the officer continued. "can you... understand me?"

tom did not want to speak, so he nodded very slightly. the world was painfully bright and loud, now that it had broken into his room, but this new sight was worth the pain, he thought.

the man had messy dark hair and he smiled at tom wide with relief, as if he had achieved the meaning of life just by meeting him.

the boy started to cry and surged forward to bury his face in the officer's chest, uncaring of anything but letting it all out.

the officer wrapped tom in his arms and his body and allowed this, as the outside world swirled around them in its haste.

-

there was much proof of tom's imprisonment: the notes, the photos of him chained up, his testimony, the suspicions of the servants, as well as the suspicions of the houseguests who thought merope's obsession with her son odd - and even more so, the fact that he had not been seen in years.

despite her riches and good name, even her most loyal friends did not want to stand beside her once all the evidence was on display. it was only too obvious what had happened. they had asked tom if she had touched him and where, and he had told them, vaguely at first, and then more bluntly when pressed, only to vomit all over the court room floor.

the days of the trial had been a blur to him.

at the end of it all, his mother had been sentenced to a lengthy prison term with no bail, as she screamed and cried and reached for him. he cried watching her as she was taken away - not because he missed her or loved her or even felt pity, but because he would never again be able to hope for the thing he had so thoroughly lost: a peaceful life with her.

it was a loss so complete, a hope so definitively lost, that he sobbed inconsolably in his regret. he knew he had been a fool to spare his mother, to waste all those years of his life so that he would not /have to/ kill her, but he could not help but feel relieved that she would continue to live - far away from him.

the officer who had first checked him in his room now spoke with him in a small, quiet office about what would happen in the future. harry, he was called. he seemed very invested in this case, or perhaps, just concerned about the small child involved.

the man draped his police jacket over tom when he had shivered with cold. he hated how pale and sickly he looked and how much energy doing anything took out of him, including speaking, but harry seemed very patient, like he was willing to wait for hours if that was what it took to hear tom out. he was caring but never condescending. the boy appreciated that.

"it's going to be okay, tom," he said. "your uncle morfin has agreed to take you in. he says he's disgusted by his sister and what she did and never wants to see her again. he'll take care of you from now on."

tom nodded, holding the jacket around himself protectively.

"can..." he started, feeling oddly shy. "--can i see you again too? mr. potter?"

"of course," the man said, climbing out of his chair and standing with his arms open. he was so charming that even a boy like tom, who had once been a cool-headed loner, could not resist his warmth. "you can come down to the police station and see me whenever you want, little guy. i'll always be here for you."

his embrace was so different from merope's, firm but not suffocating, tender but not greedy. it was generous and heartfelt. to tom, it felt so good to see and touch and talk with someone other than his captor for the first time in so many years. the trial had been overstimulating for tom in many ways, but in others, it had been blindingly beautiful. every experience felt new, every connection with another person was like a spark.

"i will," tom said fervently. "thank you, mr. potter, thank you."

"no need to be so formal," the man said. "you can call me 'harry', tom."

"thank you, harry," tom repeated - and he continued to do so and hug the man for a long moment.

-

years passed.

tom had to undergo physical therapy to gain back the strength he lost from so many years without movement beyond the walls of a single room and a lack of sunlight to stimulate his growth or bone development. he also had to have a child psychologist visit in order to help him overcome the trauma he had lived and the nightmares that it still caused him.

morfin was a surprisingly good father to tom. he talked with him about his sister, about the problems she had had when she first fell for tom's father. about the problems he had had with their relationship. he had regrets. he shouldn't have worried about the money or about riddle's name - but his sister's unhealthy obsession with him.

tom listened to his stories about their youth.

he finally went back to school. he was placed in honors classes and even skipped grades from how gifted he was. he made friends around his age and relished the feeling of being able to see other human beings, of being able to talk with others, and to do anything he pleased within reason.

he went to the police station every day to see harry.

the man always grinned at the sight of him.

tom loved him, he thought.

his heart beat for him.

his feelings were not like those his mother felt for his father or the way tom had felt with her.

this was pure. their friendship was full of laughter. they made each other happy. they let each other go freely.

and they always came back together of their own will.