Tom refused to regret turning down Dumbledore’s offer of assistance. He didn’t have much at all in this world, from the clothes on his back (donated to the orphanage) to the small pouch of coins in his pocket (donated to the school to fund those students who required assistance), but he had his pride, and he wouldn’t go anywhere with a man who forced him to relinquish his stolen treasures.
After Dumbledore’s visit, Tom did as Dumbledore asked. He threw his small trophies into the rooms of the children he’d stolen them from. No personal apology. Tom did not yet know the limits of magic, but an apology would leave his lips through force of magic alone.
He wasted no time in seeking out the magical district Dumbledore spoke of, heading out within days of Dumbledore’s visit.
Diagon Alley was beautiful, magical, expensive. Tom passed the cheerful, colorful storefronts and only took one step into Flourish and Blotts before he read the sign on their display. Their first year books bundle would wipe out half his money pouch.
He bought his wand first, yew and phoenix feather, parting with the seven galleons with great reluctance. A wand was necessary, and he was excited, his hands wavering as he caressed it with both hands, but Tom was so infuriatingly poor. He had been so all his life, but the shame of it never stopped stinging.
“Take care of it,” said Ollivander, the wandmaker. “You’ll do great things with it, I believe.”
I would do great things even without it, Tom thought, and said, “Thank you, sir.”
It was that very wand that Tom clutched in his hand when he turned the corner into Knockturn Alley.
He’d spent four hours in Diagon Alley, compiling a list of prices and eavesdropping on conversations. He’d also gotten himself one set of secondhand robes. He found browsing and listening to be easier when he could blend in with the crowd. There was nothing he could do about his height and his youth, but he could slide a serious, confident look on his face as he walked onto the street that witches warned their children away from.
The first few stores hardly differed from their Diagon Alley counterparts, but the further Tom walked, the more disquieting it became. Knockturn Alley was a gloomy, dirty street, narrower than Diagon and less crowded.
An old woman with warts all over her face called out to him and Tom hurried into a shop to avoid her. She was gone when he exited five minutes later and now thoroughly educated on the quality of the store’s flying carpets.
Outside once more, Tom found that the woman had managed to offend someone else, someone more qualified with a wand than Tom currently was. Spell-light flashed through the street as Tom hurried to leave the scene.
He cried out as one of the spells hit him, but neither the woman nor the creepy man she was dueling with noticed.
Tom bit his lip to keep his tears inside, but he was hurt and alone and only eleven years old.
There were no adults who would care if he didn’t return tonight. Mrs. Cole would be glad to be rid of him and Dumbledore would hardly investigate if he didn’t show up at Hogwarts.
Tom was used to being alone, he was, but sometimes... Sometimes he wished there were more to life than this.
He looked up in shock when moments later a young man stormed out of the shop whose windows Tom was leaning against.
“You just hit a child, you bastards!” the man yelled at them as he stormed forward. “Didn’t you see him?”
They had not in fact seen him, but neither did they seem to care until their wands flew into the young man’s hands and they were interrogated on which spells they had used.
Tom watched with wide eyes as for the second time in his life he saw dramatic spellpower, this time in defense of himself rather than the burning of his belongings. He liked this time better. He liked it a lot.
When his defender spun around, his green eyes flickered with something as he saw Tom’s face. Tom made sure to look artfully pitiful, but it was almost as though the young man saw something else when he looked at Tom. His gaze bore through him, until a moment later his green eyes blinked and he focused on Tom.
“Ah, hell,” the young man said as he helped Tom up. “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “My name is Harry.”
“Thank you, Harry,” Tom replied, stepping into the shop after him. He was still clutching his arm and it hurt, but he nearly forgot about the pain as he looked around. There were snakes everywhere in shimmering containers and in the open. Snakes wrapped around the beams of the ceiling, snakes hidden in the leaves of a tree growing in the left corner, regular snakes and three-headed snakes and ones in all different colors. “I’m Tom. What is this place?”
“It’s a snake shop,” Harry said without really explaining. Instead he tugged Tom along to the back room, which had only half the number of snakes as the front room. The majority lounged on rocks under the glow of an artificial sun, only looking up at Tom for a moment before returning to their business.
“Do people really need so many snakes?” Tom asked, barely remembering to focus on the young man so that he didn’t hiss his question.
“They’re good companion animals, familiars, and wizards use snakes in all sorts of ingredients. Pull your sleeve up, please.”
Tom did so. “You kill them?”
He didn’t know why it bothered him so much. Snakes were dumb animals for the most part, but still, some of Tom’s better conversations had been with snakes. They were independent and noble; they didn’t try to steal his breakfast or make demands on him. Much better than any rabbits or cats the other orphans took a liking to in the past.
“The former owner used to, but now that she’s left town, I changed the rules on that,” Harry said as he removed his wand from his pocket. “After taking care of them for months, I’d never kill one of my snakes if I could avoid it. I make sure that anyone who buys one isn’t doing so with the intention of harvesting it for ingredients. I don’t get much business that way, as you can imagine.” Harry crouched in front of Tom and pressed his wand against Tom’s arm. “I’m going to clean the area first. It might sting a bit, but you need to tell me if it hurts.”
“Okay.” Tom watched with interest. Blue sparks circled his skin, twirling around his arm until they reached the gash on his upper arm. The whole area was cleaned of dirt and blood until all that remained was the broken skin.
Again, Harry said, “Tell me if this hurts. It should heal the wound completely, but if it doesn’t, I have some healing powder somewhere around here that’s good against scars.”
At Tom’s agreement, he continued, and Tom’s skin stitched closed before his eyes. He hadn’t been worried about a scar and there hadn’t been any need to, anyway; his skin was completely healed when Harry returned his wand to a back pocket.
“Amazing,” Tom murmured as he tugged at his skin. It hurt a little, the skin new and raw, but nothing like it had earlier. “I didn’t know magic could do this, too.”
“It’s not all flashy lights and fire,” Harry agreed. He tugged Tom’s sleeve down and warned him before conducting a cleaning spell, which removed Tom’s blood from his shabby robes, but frowned at the tear across his sleeve. “I don’t know any sewing spells, but I’ve got some thread lying around somewhere.”
“You’ve already done so much,” Tom demurred even as he shrugged the robe off. If Harry was offering, then he would take it.
Harry gave a tiny huff of laughter as he took the robes from Tom. Underneath, Tom was wearing his best outfit, but he knew it screamed muggle to a proper wizard. Especially one from Knockturn Alley.
Tom tensed, wondering how to explain, when Harry said, “It’s alright. Do you want to sit with the snakes while I mend this?”
It was an order more than a question, but Tom didn’t mind it so much coming from someone who had already helped so much. He did as Harry asked, taking a seat on an empty rock and hissing quietly in conversation with the snakes lounging there.
Tom had never had a whole conversation with a group of snakes before. The most he’d ever found were two snakes, and they hadn’t liked each other much anyway. They’d only had found themselves in the same area by accident. These snakes were friends of a sort. Or at least very used to each other, idly hissing insults but not truly arguing.
Tom quietly asked them about Harry, glancing back to make sure that Harry was busy with searching for the thread. He wondered if Harry had the talent, too. Dumbledore had said the ability to talk to snakes was rare in the wizarding world, but it made sense for someone who worked with snakes to be able to speak to them.
The snakes confirmed it, praising Harry for being intelligent enough to understand and speak to them. They told Tom that Harry had arrived a few months ago when the former owner still operated the shop. The snakes referred to her as cat-lady, although Tom couldn’t get a proper reason for why. Ever since Harry replaced cat-lady, things had been much better. They were given the option of being returned to the wild or to just stay here instead of being sold, though Harry was in the process of setting up a large snake habitat somewhere outside of London. The shop no longer smelled of death, which pleased the snakes greatly.
Tom knew full well that some people weren’t what they seemed to be, but the longer he spoke with the snakes, the more he believed that Harry could be as kind as he seemed. It was an odd thought.
Within half an hour, Tom was clothed again. Harry even shortened Tom’s robe once he noticed it was long in the arms. He flicked the lights off as he guided Tom to the front of the shop, and said, “I’ll walk you out of Knockturn Alley.”
Tom glanced back and frowned. That wasn’t what he had expected. “You can’t.”
He wouldn’t be maneuvered around like a naughty schoolboy. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He was allowed to be in Knockturn Alley no matter how much some people didn’t like it.
“I need to buy my school things and Knockturn Alley is cheaper than Diagon Alley.”
“Knockturn is dangerous. I know you don’t fully understand the wizarding world yet, but you have to have learned that lesson earlier. There are wizards with no morals here, dark wizards, ones who wouldn’t think anything of taking you away. There are vampires and werewolves and hags, who aren’t dangerous as a whole, but the ones who visit Knockturn are rarely up to anything good.”
Tom shivered. That was all well and good and terrifying, but he was on a mission. “I know. I’m staying anyway.”
Harry’s bright green eyes watched him seriously for a long moment before his mouth tugged up in a small, rueful smile. “I never listened much to adults when I was eleven, either. Alright, you can stay in Knockturn, but you’ll have to stick with me the whole time. Do not leave my side or go off with any strangers, and listen to me.”
“I’m not a baby,” Tom grumbled. He didn’t mention that Harry was nearly a stranger too. Harry was stupidly kind, so he could be forgiven. “I’ll listen.”
He waited as Harry stepped back inside to grab a brown leather-like pouch the size of a handbag, which he called a bottomless bag, and handed it to Tom. “For your supplies.”
It was charity again. Tom accepted it anyway.
Tom knew not to go alone with strangers who showed too much interest in him. But Harry wasn’t a creepy old man; he was barely older than Tom, a teenager rather than a proper man. He could almost fit into the group of teens that sometimes sat on the corner of his street and jeered at the orphans as they headed home from school. Almost, but not truly, because there was a hesitant sort of kindness in Harry’s expression that Tom had rarely seen directed at him.
He was familiar with the way some become obsequious when Tom was particularly charming, and he knew fear and anger when Tom forgot himself or grew tired of the charade of being friendly to those who were beneath him. His patience grew with his height, but those at the orphanage were more familiar with his true self than he’d like. They knew him too long to fall for his smiles.
Tom knew he had no excuse for the mess with Dumbledore, though. He’d panicked, plain and simple, at the thought of Mrs. Cole finally living up to her threats of sending him to an asylum. Once Dumbledore had revealed he was a wizard, Tom had been high on the euphoria of a sudden connection and the fact that he wouldn’t have to flee the orphanage to avoid being placed in a straitjacket.
But he was Tom Riddle. He would make do on this pauper’s satchel—in which there was more money than he had ever held in his life—and he would build a better life for himself with everything he had. And everything everyone around him had, of course.
Tom was not so proud that he wouldn’t accept Harry supplementing Tom’s money pouch with his own, which Harry did without even any prodding. It was baffling.
“Why are you doing all this?” Tom asked as they picked up Tom’s potions ingredients from a tiny little shop on the corner of Knockturn and Nocturne. “It’s not just because you’re scared I might get kidnapped.”
“No, it’s not,” Harry admitted. Instead of facing Tom, he picked what was labeled as a boomslang skin from the shelf and inspected its quality. “I didn’t have my parents either when I first found myself in Diagon Alley. I just had help in the form of the kind man who delivered my Hogwarts letter. With him there, I wasn’t so scared or lost. I’d like to carry his kindness forward if I can.”
Tom wrinkled his nose. “That’s so sentimental.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a little sentiment,” Harry breezily replied.
Tom thought Harry had more than his fair share of sentiment, if he was this kind to every orphan he encountered. But maybe it evened out; Tom certainly had less than what people believed should be his share.
Once everything on the list was bought, Harry walked Tom back through Diagon Alley. He looked oddly wistful as they passed the menagerie.
With a deep breath and an uncertain look, Harry asked, “Will your orphanage allow you to have a pet? It’s customary for wizards to bring one to Hogwarts with them.”
In truth, Tom didn’t know. He wanted one. And he could maybe convince Mrs. Cole into allowing him to keep one. But the problem was money, as it so often was. He would need a self-sufficient pet in case he couldn’t afford to feed it and unfortunately there was no convenient hunting ground in the middle of London. A cat or an owl would have to compete with city cats for mice.
Buying an owl would be pointless; Tom had no use for one. He certainly wasn’t going to go around sending letters to Dumbledore or Mrs. Cole. A toad or cat didn’t appeal to him.
But a snake... He would like a snake. “Could I choose from your snakes? And keep it with you until Hogwarts?”
“You don’t want to keep it with you?”
“I can’t afford it,” Tom admitted. “We don’t have much at the orphanage.”
Tom had been playing that card all day, but there was still something sad in Harry’s eyes at those words. He was easily manipulated, this man, but Tom hadn’t needed to lie.
“You can pick out whichever you’d like when you return,” Harry promised and removed a knut from the pocket of his robes. “Here. Buy some floo powder from Tom at the Leaky and you won’t need to go through Knockturn to get to my shop.” At Tom’s expression, Harry chuckled. “Be good, Tom.”
“Maybe,” Tom allowed, and vanished through the moving bricks.
Muggle London was utterly dull in comparison. The noise of Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron faded quickly behind him. Tom trudged back to the orphanage, plans spinning in his head as he considered Harry’s kindness. There was a limit to it, there had to be, but so far Tom had not reached it. He wondered just how far he could press. And, as he thought back on the many beautiful snakes in that shop, he dreamed of his future familiar.
It was an hour’s walk to the orphanage. No one bothered him, nor noticed him, and his new belongings were safely hidden in Harry’s bottomless bag. Tom slipped inside the back door of the orphanage at ten minutes to curfew and ignored the curious looks of his fellow orphans.
“You missed dinner,” said Mrs. Cole as he passed her in the hallway. “Where were you?”
“Shopping for school supplies, ma’am.” Tom held up his pouch. “Professor Dumbledore’s school gave me a small allowance for pens and such.”
She nodded, brow furrowing. “You already went shopping? He said that you can’t start until September. That’s nearly a year away.”
“I like to be prepared,” Tom replied.
It was enough for Mrs. Cole to leave him alone, though she gave him one last disapproving look before continuing on her evening rounds.
Tom let himself into his room and let the rest of the world fall away. He was one of the few to have a room of his own, due to the fact that he ran his previous roommates out of the room and nearly out of the orphanage, too. It suited him better to have the room to himself.
He deposited the bottomless—and it was a fascination, the idea of bottomlessness—bag on his bed and left only to wash up in the boys’ bathroom area, elbowing his way to a sink along with the other last-minute stragglers.
Afterward, he lit a small candle and turned off his room’s main light. The candle’s light wouldn’t be unnoticed, especially if the evening shift matron glanced up toward his window as she came in, but he was usually allowed to do as he pleased. The story around Billy Stubbs’ rabbit was firmly entrenched in the minds of the orphans and their caretakers. It had gained a mythos of its own throughout the two years since it was found hanging from the rafters, the story told to each new orphan along with a warning. Dennis and Amy were living reminders of what Tom can do. Both orphans never breathed a word against Tom since that summer. And of course there was the matron that fled from employment here entirely, screaming that Tom was the devil’s own child on her way out.
Tom had made no friends here. It was as it should be; he had always known himself to be better than the other children. He may have been younger than the adults, but he had no high estimation of their intelligence. This place was where knowledge came to die. It was a pitiful, shabby place, always low on funds and everything was always, always secondhand.
Unable to resist the allure of his new belongings—being secondhand, they may have been old to some, yet to Tom they were new and captivating—Tom opened the bottomless pouch. To his vision, there was nothing inside. Tom poked at it from the outside while looking in. It felt full to the touch. Not lumpy. More like there was a small balloon inside to fill the space and make it seem like the bag was full, even if he couldn’t see it.
When he put his hand through the opening, he could feel the spines of his books and the tip of his wand against his fingers.
Tom glanced toward the door. There was little chance of anyone coming in. Still, there was no lock, and it made him wary of pulling out anything truly magical. He could replace the covers of his magical books with regular ones—it filled him with glee to think of doing so with the Bible’s cover, but the matrons would be more suspicious of him reading that book than him not—while the wand would have to stay inside. Having such a strange, ornate wooden stick around would bring too much scrutiny, no matter how comfortingly warm it was in his hand.
He waited until an hour after curfew, then got to work, sliding book covers on his new textbooks. He didn’t have enough, so he stuck to the interesting ones first: Charms, Potions, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. They now appeared to be a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales, a mathematics textbook, and an inane book about a young boy’s summer camp adventures. Tom had been running out of books to borrow. At least these textbooks would mean that he wouldn’t have to resort to finishing the book and finding out whether Terry was reunited with his runaway dog.
The robes came next. Tom checked each one for holes or other issues, marking down each spot to mend later. He was used to mending his own clothes and was quite good at it. He couldn’t do much about his poverty or his lack of parents, but he could look as put-together as he possibly could.
Afterward, he opened his case of potions supplies and made sure nothing got lost in the bottomless pit of his bag. Thankfully, all of his ingredients were dead, although they were unappealing to a one, all beetle eyes and slug guts and such. If Tom had gotten caught pulling eyes out from beetles, he would have been yelled at by the matrons, and now he was asked to purchase them from a store and would be using them in class.
He pulled out the rest of his supplies.
It was silly, completely silly, but he needed proof that they were real. He had really, truly found the magical districts of London, bought magical items for a magic school, and talked to a dozen snakes.
The cauldron he left inside the bag. It had been enough of a problem getting it inside. He’d rather not deal with it until he unpacked at Hogwarts itself.
Despite having pulled out all his supplies, Tom’s hand brushed up against something else in the bag.
It was a blanket, Tom found when he pulled it out. Its color was a deep, dark red. The wool was soft to the touch, much softer than any blanket Tom had ever felt, and when he wrapped it around himself he felt utterly warm.
There was snow falling outside his window and the winter chill seeped in despite its closed and locked latch, but beneath the blanket, Tom couldn’t feel anything but warmth. He stayed up late reading his textbooks under candlelight. When his eyes could no longer keep up with the words, he blew out the candle and slid Harry’s blanket under his own blankets, which were scratchy and nowhere near as warm.
He was used to feeling cold at night. This time, he already knew he wouldn’t be cold as long as he held the blanket tightly in his sleep.
Tom curled up in his bed, finding a position that gave the illusion of comfort on his lumpy mattress, and didn’t sleep yet.
Instead, he closed his eyes and considered his options.
In the morning, Tom woke to Mrs. Cole banging on his door and yelling, “Breakfast time!”
Tom hid his bag under his blanket and headed out. If he was not there on time, he wouldn’t have breakfast, and he was hungry after missing dinner yesterday. He’d taken too long in Knockturn Alley, staying long past the time he should have gone home. But it had all been so fascinating that Tom hadn’t been able to pull himself away until Harry walked him to the barrier between the muggle and magical worlds.
Now, Tom was firmly in the muggle world, stuck here until he could make his way to the Leaky Cauldron again. He should have asked if there was a faster way to get to Diagon Alley; the thought of another hour’s trek didn’t appeal to him, although he was excited to be there again.
It irked him, the way that much of his excitement was tied to seeing Harry again. Tom would use him, of course, but it was irritating to be excited, to want more.
Every time he had wanted more than this orphanage, he had been disappointed. Even magic came with a price. The image of his wardrobe alight with fire at Dumbledore’s word was burned into Tom’s mind.
Breakfast was boring, tasteless.
Chores were even more so.
The orphanage wouldn’t get any newer no matter how much scrubbing it got, and neither would the orphans’ clothes gain more thread and color. Tom put up with it because the alternative was another series of lectures that he could already see on Mrs. Cole’s tongue or her punishments. She feared him, but fear didn’t stop her from trying to put him on what she considered the right path.
Tom knew his path. It wasn’t this.
He shined a dozen pairs shoes on her orders, quietly seething. Once he was done, he headed to his room, where he could finally close the door and pull out his new books with the deceptive covers.
Only his door opened again.
Tom looked up. It was John, another orphan, who squeezed himself though the door, barely opening it and glancing back to make sure he wasn’t seen.
“We’re playing hide and seek,” John said, shutting the door behind himself. He was bigger than Tom and two years older, which gave him the courage to say, “I’m hiding here.” Age did not give him wisdom. Neither did it provide him with something to do other than a children’s game. “Deal with it, Riddle.”
“I don’t have to,” Tom replied. He glared, but John was too dumb to understand what a bad idea it was to anger him. He wished, badly, that there were locks on the doors. The only doors in the orphanage that locked were Mrs. Cole’s office, the kitchen, and the cellar, which locked from the outside and was used mostly for punishment. He shut his book with a thwacking sound and stood up, chin raised but still not tall enough to make anyone cower from his physical stature alone. “I don’t want you here.”
He reached for the door, but John was faster, not wanting to get caught. As though the game mattered more than Tom’s privacy. John’s hand collided with Tom’s wrist, pressing it harshly against the door. Tom bit his lip hard and glared. It was not a game anymore, and it wasn’t ever fun.
“Don’t be such a baby,” John said. He didn’t let go of Tom’s wrist. “We’re just playing.”
Tom had enough.
“Get out,” he said, pushing power into his voice. Magic, now that he knew what it was. Magic, might, anything that would get John to leave.
“Fine,” John replied. His voice was wooden, his eyes unfocused. He pulled open the door and was immediately caught by his friends, who asked him what was wrong. Nothing, John said to them, and Tom leaned against his closed door and stared up at the ceiling.
There was a chance that John or John’s friends would tattle to Mrs. Cole and claim that Tom did something freakish again. As usual, Mrs. Cole would have no proof, and as usual, Tom would be punished anyway.
He wouldn’t have Harry’s blanket if he was forced to spend the night in the cellar. Neither would the voice work on Mrs. Cole. It always backfired, working for a little while until she blinked back to awareness and realized that for some reason she had gifted Tom her silver pen or allowed him a privilege the other children don’t get.
Tom’s wrist was red. It ached deeply—John must have grabbed him harder than Tom realized—but there was no point in going to Mrs. Cole.
Tom poked at his reddened skin, ignoring the pain. It should bruise by tomorrow.
He still hadn’t decided, but it would be good to have some props ready no matter which way he decided.
Tom spent the rest of the day organizing his books, only leaving his room when his body required him to. He didn’t dare to skip a meal—there was little enough food allotted to them anyway—but he ate quickly, pulled back to his books with an almost magical tie.
Once in his room, he touched his wand frequently, unable to help himself. Each time, he remembered the sparks that shot from its tip in Ollivander’s shop. This wand chose him. It marked him as magical. He was a member of the wizarding world no matter where he lived, no matter how little he knew.
Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, even Knockturn Allley, those were his places, not Wool’s Orphanage. Curled up under his blanket with a book in his hands, Tom was transported to faraway places with names he would have to listen for someone else to say first, just to make sure he was pronouncing them correctly.
He remembered Dumbledore saying Hogwarts, so he knew he had that one right. Dumbledore and Harry said it in different ways, even if the pronunciation was the same. Dumbledore with pride, Harry with what might be called nostalgia.
Harry was kind of strange, Tom thought, but Harry wasn’t cruel. Tom wasn’t in danger of Harry lighting Tom’s cupboard on fire.
Tom turned over, trying to find a comfortable spot on his mattress. It was impossible. The mattress had been barely bearable three years ago. Now, it was old and flat except for the hard lumps. It was probably older than Tom himself and smelled of dust. A snake might find the mattress comfortable, although Tom refused to reconsider the matter. What he’d said to Harry held true: he couldn’t properly care for one of Harry’s beautiful snakes here. It stung, like so much did when Tom was faced again and again with his circumstances.
There was no way out but through.