Actions

Work Header

Snake Shop

Chapter Text

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.”

“Can’t I?”

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.

Chapter Text

The next day, Tom suffered through school only because his focus was on what he would do after. Class dragged on, more boring than it had been a week ago, before he’d known of the existence of the wizarding world. Now that he knew where he should be, the place where he was became excruciating.

Still, his answers to the teachers’ questions were correct, and his demeanor gave every impression that he was interested in the subject matter.

To his classmates’ consternation, and some of the teachers’ as well, he was an excellent student. No matter who his parents were—unmarried, shameful, poor, stupid are the best the rumors get—he was no dullard.

Afterward, he headed not to the orphanage but to the Leaky Cauldron and beyond. His stomach rumbled quietly; Tom ignored it. This was more important.

He’d stashed the bottomless bag in his school bag that morning. Once he was inside the Cauldron, he put his robes on over his school bag—may as well deter thieves who would be stupid enough to steal the worthless schoolbooks in his bag—and headed in the direction of Knockturn Alley.

For a moment, he had considered asking Tom the bartender about what floo powder did and how he could use it to get to Harry’s shop, but he would rather keep the knut Harry gave him. He had precious little of his own.

Tom was more careful of Knockturn Alley on his second trip. He understood better what could happen here—what very nearly did. Harry had been very clear on that front.

Tom made it to Harry’s shop without any trouble. There was a wooden sign above the shop, curved in a particularly inept approximation of a snake. The sign read Harry’s Snake Shop, with Harry’s name noticeably carved over a different one. There was no bell above the door.

Tom shivered from the sudden change of temperature in the shop. It was so warm inside, so much better than the January temperatures outdoors. Within moments, Tom’s fingers regained feeling from the long trek in the cold. He slid his wand back in the pocket of his robes.

The front of the shop was a winding path of various open cages, nests, potted plants and trees, and even a bird or two that fluttered through the store. The ceiling was taller than it had any right to be from the outside, but Tom now knew that magical architecture was not supposed to make sense.

Tom stepped over three—no, four—snakes on his way to the counter. They greeted him amiably, the sound of hissing a melody to his ears.

It was nice here. It was really nice here.

After two days away, Tom had missed it. And not only because this was the warmest he had been outside of when he was wrapped in Harry’s blanket.

There was no one at the counter. Tom huffed, knowing he shouldn’t be surprised. Harry had been quick to abandon his shop for him the other day and the snakes made no mention of another person working here. To a nearby snake, Tom hissed, “Is he here?”

“In the back,” called out Harry’s voice.

Tom wound his way behind the counter, the way familiar to him. This was where Harry had healed him and fixed his shirt. There was a desk all the way in the back, behind boxes and cages and toys and a mess of all sorts of things, and Harry sat at the desk. He seemed distracted, looking up at Tom from the mess of papers on the desk. A snake nosed through one of the piles.

“Hello, Tom.”

“Good afternoon, Harry,” Tom said, and then made sure to add, “Thank you for your help last time I was here.”

He needed Harry to like him. He was rather good at making people like him, though only for short periods of time, and not when it came to people who knew him since early childhood. Partly because he hadn’t learned how, partly because he hadn’t learned the importance of it.

He knew it now. Oh, how he knew it now, looking at Harry, who even without robes looked more at home in the magical world than Tom. It was in the easy way he used a quill, the way he wrote on parchment without remarking on its difference to paper, the way he was comfortable when surrounded by snakes with more heads than they should have.

Tom was jealous.

He would bide his time; one day, he would be all of these things, and he wouldn’t be stuck in a shop while he did so.

He was going to be great.

“Are you hungry?” Harry asked, setting aside his paperwork. He placed the parchment on top of the snake on the desk, which hissed its displeasure and began to slither away. “I have some soup upstairs. It’s warm.”

Tom wondered if he looked like he still needed warming up. Undoubtedly, an hour’s walk in early January had left its mark on him, with his skin winter-pale except for his red cheeks.

“You look too thin,” Harry said, and oh, that was what he’d meant. Harry shook his head at himself, fumbling with the papers on the desk for a moment. “I always had people say that to me, growing up. Never knew what they meant until now. Don’t they feed you at the orphanage?”

Tom shrugged, trying to find balance between inducing Harry’s pity and not wanting to trample over his own pride. “Not as well as they should. Will Hogwarts be better?”

“Hogwarts will be heavenly.” Harry motioned Tom to join him as he made his way past the clutter and the snakes. “The great hall serves three meals a day, as long as you get up in time for breakfast and don’t study through lunch and dinner. You can eat all the food you’d like. Before my first day at Hogwarts, I’d never seen so much food in one place. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, lamp and pork, Yorkshire pudding, roasted vegetables, all washed down with pumpkin juice. Even the regular days have plates upon plates of food.”

Tom’s stomach rumbled at the thought. It was good that he would be sating his hunger soon; he couldn’t imagine carrying that description in his head on the long walk to the orphanage, where he would be treated to a meager plate. “And I won’t have to pay for it?”

Harry shook his head. “It’s part of the school’s tuition, which is waived if the student’s family can’t pay it.”

“That’s nice of them,” Tom said. “Why would they do that?”

“You’re a suspicious kid, you know that?”

“Suspicion means I have intelligence.”

They turned a corner, where an out of the way staircase led them upstairs. It creaked as they made their way up.

Harry huffed, looking back at Tom, but his lips turned up in a partial smile. “I’ve never thought about it. I suppose it’s because magical education is considered to be a right for those who have the power. Hogwarts is the one to seek out muggleborns; the ministry deals with cases of muggleborns performing major feats of accidental magic, but they don’t do more than obliviate whoever’s necessary and give the muggleborn and their parents a stern talking-to. It’s Hogwarts that really brings them into the magical world, providing everyone with education and a way into this world for good.”

“Major feats?”

“Something that could reveal the magical world to the muggle one.”

“I’ve done magic at the orphanage,” Tom said, thinking back. “No one ever came. I assumed I was the only one.”

The thought of it was offensive; had nothing he’d done been truly major? Had his magic, the one thing he’d prided himself in as a penniless orphan, not been great but below even ordinary for other magical youths?

“Oh. Um, the department isn’t very developed yet. It’s likely that you just got skipped over under the assumption that your magic didn’t cause any wide-scale panic. If no one made a fuss, the office may not have realized you performed any magic at all.”

Tom’s worries about not being exemplary, and thus not deserving of a personal ministry visit, faded quickly as they entered Harry’s flat above the snake shop. The door to Harry’s flat wasn’t locked. Tom despaired at the lack of security in the shop, although he supposed he could give Harry the credit that there could have been magical security. Secret, hidden, magical security, because there was no flash of light or burst of magic as they entered the flat.

It looked like a cross between an antique shop and a junkyard.

“You have a...  unique taste in furnishings,” Tom said, aiming for a compliment. He couldn’t quite manage his tone to reach complimentary levels.

He wondered if all wizards hoarded things or if it was just Harry. That Dumbledore with his strange clothes and mannerisms seemed to be the type as well.

One would never have to search for a place to sit in the flat; there were armchairs and chairs and even a corner where three chairs were precariously stacked one on top of another. There were cabinets stuffed with china and knickknacks, several carpets rolled up and resting precariously against furniture, and at least eight paintings within Tom’s immediate line of sight, featuring various famous scenes in which the people had been replaced by snakes. Most of the paintings were half-hidden behind furniture and clutter, but Tom’s gaze fell on one in which a snake wore a bonnet and curled around a pitchfork.

“Most of this stuff isn’t mine. It was Roberta’s before she left the place to me to take care of. I should put all of it into storage, if only to be able to walk across the room easily, but I’d rather work with the snakes downstairs than deal with all this.” Looking strangely happy, Harry added, “I’ve always liked a bit of clutter. Not this much, of course.”

“Roberta is the one the snakes spoke of,” Tom mused. “The cat lady, they call her. They like you better than they did her.”

“They should—I’m a pushover,” Harry said, amused. “I let them lay on their heated rocks and boss me around all day. This way.”

He motioned toward the back of the living room, where a kitchen area was hidden behind a giant tapestry of snakes wearing medieval armor. A window shined light into the kitchen, though the light was perhaps brighter than Tom would have expected, given that the window was supposed to face another building.

It was clear that the kitchen was Harry’s domain, no matter what whose flat it originally was.

The clutter of the living room did not reach here; or, as Tom assumed, it had been meticulously cleaned out by Harry to make room for a neatly organized spice rack, cupboards that properly shut instead of overflowing as the ones in the other room did, and surface areas clean of everything except for a recently used cutting board and some cooking utensils.

On the stove-top, a large steel soup pot was kept warm by flickers of yellow light. Harry rejected Tom’s offer to help, saying it would be the work of seconds. Tom took a seat in the one chair at the small kitchen table and watched Harry pour them each a bowl of soup and retrieve a few pieces of bread from the bread box.

Harry set one bowl in front of Tom and placed the plate of bread next to it. “Dig in.”

For himself, Harry summoned a chair from the living room, and began to eat.

Tom took small sips first, growing used to the heat of the soup as it warmed him all over. It was nothing like the pea soup Mrs. Cole made; this one was heavy and filling, with enough ham to have a piece of meat for every spoonful, and spices that only added to the taste. It was good.

Tom blinked away the sudden strangeness in his eyes, swallowing down the way that Harry’s flat and shop was warm, and nice, and so pleasant to be in. He didn’t want to leave. Not because staying would further his plans, but because it was nice here.

Tom reminded himself that eventually, the other shoe would drop.

His sleeve slipped as he raised the spoon to his lips, revealing the bruise that John had left. It was quite a nice one, dark and heavy, easily noticed. Harry’s gaze lingered on it for a moment, but he didn’t interrupt Tom’s meal.

When Tom complimented the soup, Harry waved it away with some false modesty, saying something about getting the recipe from a house elf friend. Despite Tom’s readings, he was only somewhat aware of what a house elf was. Still, that wasn’t the question that was on his mind.

“How did you come to be here?” Tom asked, lowering his spoon. “Where did Roberta go?”

Harry took a piece of bread and dipped it in the soup, looking thoughtful as he chewed. Tom followed his example until Harry spoke again, stealing Tom’s attention.

“I started working here about eight months or so ago. I’m very grateful to Roberta. I came here without a knut to my name and had gone up and down Diagon and Knockturn, asking for work. I couldn’t find any. No references, no funds to go more than a few days without needing to do something drastic. When I stepped into the shop, I didn’t see the owner. Only all these snakes in cages and terrariums. While I waited for her to appear, I chatted with them. She hired me on the spot.”

“That was all it took?”

“She said that either I was a gift from Merlin himself, or that I would run screaming when one of the snakes tried to eat me for not being a true speaker. About a month later, she had some... trouble with the law. Gave me the keys to the shop, told me to look after the place while she was gone, and that it might be a few years. She took her five kneazles with her on the lam. The aurors never did catch up with her. And then seven months later, this kid nearly bled out on my doorstep.”

“That’s not what happened. I would have been fine.” Tom pursed his lips, and added, “I can take care of myself, you know.”

“I know,” Harry said, and Tom forgave him because he sounded sincere. “You don’t need me, nor do you know me. But if you do need some help—even if you don’t want to talk about it—then you know where to find me.”

Emotion crossed Harry’s expression, there and gone in the blink of an eye, replaced quickly with determination.

Tom wondered if he reminded Harry of someone. Another boy Harry had once known, or perhaps Harry himself as a child. He remembered Harry’s comment about the person who had helped him around Diagon Alley when Harry was Tom’s age and wondered if he should model himself after Harry to gain his favor. It would be difficult; Tom was neither open nor kind. But he did like snakes and he had determination in spades.

“Thank you, Harry.” Tom took another sip of his soup, think Harry’s words over. It was too soon to ask what he knew he wanted to ask. A week, at least, would be useful in finding out how deep the well of Harry’s kindness ran, and if there was anything polluting the water. Instead, he asked, “What kind of accidental magic did you do when you were young?”

He hesitated momentarily over the word young because Harry wasn’t old. Not even close. But he wasn’t Tom’s age, either, and Tom wouldn’t want to offend. Not when he had plans that required Harry’s cooperation.

“I turned a teacher’s wig blue,” Harry said with a shake of his head. “I thought there was something wrong with the dye. Same goes for when my most hated clothes shrunk to the size of dolls’ clothes in the washer. And I apparated, once. That is, I teleported from the sidewalk to the roof of my school.”

“What did you think happened then?”

“I thought the wind was strong that day.” Harry ducked his head, grinning. “I wasn’t an observant kid.”

“No, you weren’t.” That wasn’t particularly polite, but Tom blamed it on his shock at someone who had the same talents that Tom did, believing himself to be ordinary. That the happenings that occurred around him had nothing to do with the power inside him. It must be a terrible way to live, in denial of one’s power and self. “I always knew I was special. Always.”

“What magic have you been able to do?” Harry asked. Without prompting, he got up to pour Tom another helping of soup.

Tom took the bowl gladly. “I can speak to snakes, as you saw.” As someone with the same talent, he knew Harry wouldn’t be particularly impressed, and he was right. Harry only nodded. “Is this a rare talent?”

“I’ve never met someone else who could speak to snakes, other than me and you,” Harry agreed.

For the first time since learning of the magical world, Tom felt the pride of being special. Sure, he held this place of pride with Harry, who did not seem to value it as much as Tom, but it was no matter. “I can make things move without touching them, and make my clothes last longer than the other children’s, and make hot water without heating it on a stove or under fire.”

I can make people do things they don’t want to do. I can make them hurt, Tom thought, and kept that thought pressed firmly to his chest. There was no need to scare Harry off. He had learned his lesson thoroughly. It smarted, his first meeting with Dumbledore, but he had learned.

“You’ll learn even more when you start Hogwarts. Something tells me you’ll be at the top of your class.”

Harry was, of course, a stranger who knew little of Tom’s intellect or outstanding academic record. It was unnecessary, the flush of pride that came from Harry’s statement.

“I will be. Anything less would be beneath me.”

“I’m sure,” Harry said, smiling slightly.

Once their bowls were empty, Harry cleared the table. Once the dishes were inside the sink, it began to clean them immediately. Sponges and soap bubbles worked in tandem with a stream of water.

“Can I see your wrist?” Harry’s question was determinedly gentle.

Tom nodded, pulling up his robe and letting Harry inspect the bruise before healing it. Tom watched the sink do its work while Harry worked on his arm.

“What happened here?”

Tom opened his mouth to speak. “Nothing. Just roughhousing. I’m fine.”

He grit his teeth in irritation. At himself, not at Harry, who was only asking the expected questions. Tom had a sob story about his life at the orphanage prepared, but it was stuck somewhere behind his teeth. He hated this. It was awful, knowing what he should say in order for Harry to pity him and offer him more kindness, but not wanting to lower himself to receiving pity.

“You don’t seem like the type for roughhousing.”

“I’m not,” Tom said, scowling at the memory as it threatened to force itself into Harry’s cluttered, cozy flat.

It wasn’t the first time it had happened, nor was it the worst; Tom couldn’t protect himself forever with magic. When he was older, his magic would no doubt have no limits, and he would be a great wizard. For now, he bruised as easily as the next orphan with no one in his corner.

Tom pulled his arm out of Harry’s gentle grasp as soon as the spell was over. He poked at his wrist. The skin was overly warm, but healed. The warmth faded within seconds until his arm was at its natural temperature.

“Did you come here straight from school?”

“Yes.”

“Then how about this. You’ll finish your homework—I think there’s a desk or four in the living room—and then you’ll come down to talk to the snakes and see any of them might fit as your familiar. Your grades shouldn’t suffer.”

“Once summer comes, I will be done with that school forever,” Tom argued. “Whether my grades suffer won’t matter.” But he did enjoy the thought of staying here, so he said, “But I’d like that. I have my books in my school bag.”

Harry moved a few things around, nearly being knocked over by a bookshelf in the process, to clear off a desk for Tom. It was a grand, antique wooden desk from at least a century ago. Well-cared for despite its disuse, or perhaps it was only some kind of magic that gave that impression. His books and worn notebooks looked shabby atop the desk. Even his pen, stolen from a teacher who had since left the school, did not give the impression of grandness.

Tom busied himself with looking busy.

Once the door closed behind Harry, he waited a few minutes before looking inside the desk. A few broken quills and ink-stained pieces of parchment, some notes about the care and feeding of kneazles. He inspected the rest of the room, slowly going around until he had looked into everything within reach. Once finished, he did the same with the kitchen, then ventured into the rest of the flat.

There was a one bedroom with the same attention to clutter as the living room. It seemed to be unused. There was another bedroom with few personal belongings, and various boxes and furniture shoved to the side. Tom looked for photographs or personal papers, but found none. He wished Harry’s belongings were more forthcoming. He knew more about the previous owner of the flat than about Harry.

He should have asked more about how Harry ended up here, but something told him that Harry would not divulge that information easily.

There was another room that had evidently been property of Roberta’s cats. Tom closed the door, uninterested in peering through the various cat toys and beds.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad place, if the junk could be sold or trashed. There was enough room for two people.

Before heading downstairs, Tom pocketed a small snake figurine from one of the display cases in the living room. It was angled away from the path through the room. Harry wouldn’t notice it gone. He packed it in his school bag, taking care to pack it in a way that would keep it from breaking.

He spent two hours in Harry’s shop, meeting all the snakes and volunteering to clean rocks, move light sources, and otherwise making himself useful. Most of the snakes were intelligent and fascinating, but Tom didn’t feel a particular pull to any one of them. He needed to choose carefully. But most importantly, he couldn’t choose soon.

“I haven’t chosen my snake,” Tom said as afternoon became evening and Harry began closing up the shop.

Harry looked back at him, turning over the open sign by flippant gesture alone. “It’s alright. You can come back and choose it later.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow.”

And Harry, to Tom’s approval, did not disagree.

Despite again arriving at the orphanage after dinner was over, Tom’s stomach was full, and a spell for warmth lingered on him halfway through the evening.

Tom continued to return to the snake shop every day for the next week. He talked and listened, worked with Harry on his various projects, and took note of how he could be helpful. After nearly two weeks of knowing Harry, he knew that in the grand scheme of things, he still knew very little of Harry. He knew the broad strokes of his character, not the finer details and the defects. Still, he knew that Harry lived a quiet, simple life, and he had neither a temper nor an alcohol problem, nor any other issues that Tom could discern, except for a penchant for solitude, which suited Tom.

This was enough for what Tom had planned.

Chapter Text

As Tom approached Harry’s shop, the wooden sign plainly in sight, a screaming woman ran out of the shop. Tom, who had rarely seen any customers at the snake shop, looked at her with curiosity. She was a large woman, with sandy hair and an over-developed set of lungs that left Tom’s ears ringing.

“There’s a man being choked to death in there!” she yelled out into the street. “By a snake!”

Being that it was Knockturn Alley, few people turned to look at her. Those who did likely did so from the surprise that anyone would call out to them for help, or the expectation that they would help at all. The woman looked between each of the passerby, who hadn’t stopped, before huffing and stomping away.

When she passed by him, Tom overheard her muttering about snakes being a sign of the devil and that not even in Knockturn should they have a shop specializing in snakes. Of course, her choice of phrasing was much cruder.

Her initial words had made his stomach clench with something that was startlingly close to concern, but if there was one thing Tom knew, it was that Harry was not going to be killed by a snake. Harry’s snakes adored him.

Still, Tom stepped carefully into the shop, just in case of danger or of snakes lying in stepping range. He was sure that a big white one always lay in his way on purpose, just for an excuse to bare its fangs at him.

Harry was not hard to find. He was sitting behind the counter with a great big snake curled around his entire upper body.

“Isn’t it heavy?” Tom asked, dropping his school bag on the floor to get a better look at the snake.

The snake gave him a lazy look, barely scenting him before hissing, “I am small for my kind. There is enough room for all of me here.”

Harry huffed, rubbing the snake’s scales on the coil closest to his hands. “You’ll be bigger before you know it. Tom, did you see a lady on your way here? I should go and apologize to her. She just came in for directions. Didn’t seem prepared to see all the snakes.”

“She’s gone already,” Tom replied, hoping that would be enough to keep Harry from asking him to track her down.

He had no interest in calming down a stranger when he could instead ask Harry questions about the snake around his shoulders.

The rest of the world always seemed to fall away in the comfort of the shop. It was so warm here that Tom had grown used to throwing off his robes and his coat upon arrival, claiming a coat hook on the stand near the door. It was scuffed, scratched silver, and the hook’s head was a snake head with sightless silver eyes. Sometimes Tom had to move a snake that had climbed up the coat stand to make room for his things.

Outside, afternoon had already begun to dip heavily into evening. It had been Tom’s turn to help clean the classroom after class and he was later than usual at his now regular after school haunt. Tom hadn’t wanted to waste a second in the winter’s chill, nor had he wanted to stay at school, or hear the matron’s voice at the orphanage.

He’d just wanted to come here.

Here, where Harry never had a cruel word for him or expected much more from him than his help with looking after the snakes and helping him eat his meals. Harry always claimed to have cooked too much for only one person.

“You came in through the front door again,” Harry observed, untangling himself from the snake after patting it twice. “I keep telling you that Knockturn Alley is too dangerous for a wizard your age. The barman at the Leaky would be happy to let you use his floo.”

“It’s not more dangerous than sitting around with a snake around your throat,” Tom replied, crossing his arms. “I can’t avoid every dangerous thing in the wizarding world. I have to be prepared. Besides, it’s interesting here in Knockturn. I’m not afraid.”

“Keep that up and the hat will put you in Gryffindor.”

Tom stared at Harry for a long moment. None of his introductory materials mentioned some kind of all-seeing hat. As much as he hated to seem ignorant, he hated not knowing more. “What is this hat?”

Instead of making fun of him for his lack of knowledge, Harry only grinned. “That’s one hell of a story. I’ll tell it to you over tea. And biscuits, and sandwiches. Come on up.”

Tom glanced back at the shop before he made his way up the stairs. It was empty of people, but full of snakes.

You need an assistant, Tom thought, but didn’t say. It wasn’t the right time; it wasn’t the right setting.

The tea was over-steeped, but Tom drank it and ate one sandwich after another, and followed it all down with three biscuits as he listened to Harry’s story. It was a good one, of Harry as a boy, meeting his best friend on a train and the wild theories this Ron had about how they would be sorted into Hogwarts houses. Harry spoke of the fear and distaste he’d had of being sorted into Slytherin, then hastened to say that not all Slytherins were bad, of course.

The meal was followed by homework, as per usual. It was the end of the third week of their acquaintance and they had fallen into a rhythm over the days.

Today, Harry chose to sit down with Tom, filling out his bookkeeping ledger while Tom did his homework. Tom paid more attention to Harry than his own work; he could do his it in his sleep, while Harry worked slowly, taking care with each number.

As evening properly settled and it was time for Tom to return to the orphanage, Tom made a point of mentioning how tiring it was to walk an hour to and from Harry’s snake shop. The city was massive, especially including the hidden magical areas. It was dangerous in the dark, too, wizard and muggle areas alike.

“I’ll walk you home today,” Harry offered as he eagerly closed his ledger. “Then I’ll be able to apparate you each time. If this past month is any indicator, you’ll be here a lot.”

“You don’t have to,” Tom replied, already standing up and sliding his belongings into his backpack. “I’m sure you have a lot to do. Much more accounting, for one.”

“Nonsense.” Harry slid the ledger under a heap of other papers, then added some more on top of it for good measure. “If wizards were meant to be accountants, Hogwarts would teach maths.”

Tom peered at him with disbelief. Of course, he had noticed the lack of maths textbooks on the packing list, but it could have been that the professor wrote his own curriculum. Trying hard not to grumble, Tom said, “I’m very good at maths.”

“You can take arithmancy starting in third year,” Harry said, shaking his head. “I never understood it, but my friend Hermione said it was like enchanting numbers to dance, that it was the closest you could get to magic without a wand.”

Tom privately decided that this Hermione had the right way of things. As they exited the shop, he asked, “Which subjects did you study?”

He would have feigned interest even had Harry chosen boring subjects, but he didn’t have to because the magical world was such a strange, fascinating place. To think that in a matter of months, he would attend a school that taught all sorts of magics instead of writing and geography. Tom could hardly contain his excitement.

He was on the precipice of a new world. And better yet, he was not entirely alone.

“Are you hungry?” Harry asked, fifteen minutes into their walk.

Tom peered at him with confusion. “...if I say yes?”

Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out a lumpy, paper-wrapped object. “Corned beef sandwich.”

Tom took it and stuck it inside his school bag for later. He wasn’t in the habit of turning down food, not when the walk back to the orphanage always roused his appetite and there would be no proper dinner for him. Harry didn’t comment on Tom not eating the sandwich in front of him. Instead, he went into a long, rambling story about the rest of his first week at Hogwarts after his sorting.

Tom listened, though a part of him stayed inattentive, attuned to the next step of his plan. Despite the camaraderie Tom made sure to foster between himself and Harry, there was no guarantee that his plan would work.

As they neared the orphanage, Harry grew quiet, his tale of the strange wonders of the Hogwarts greenhouses cut off as he looked at the building. Tom shied away from looking at it with a stranger’s eyes; he refused to pity himself and he would only bear with Harry’s pity if it drew him closer to his goals.

“I wish I could stay with you,” Tom said, quickly, in an impulsive manner that he’d practiced in the mirror yesterday. “I hate it at the orphanage.”

To Tom’s relief, Harry’s answer wasn’t an immediate refusal. “Tom, do you mean that? This is a big decision. You barely know me.”

“You barely know me, too,” Tom said, not quite an argument.

Harry shook his head ruefully. “I know you well enough, I think.”

All Tom could think was no, you don’t. Harry didn’t know about Tom’s past at the orphanage or the inner workings of his mind. He didn’t see the depth of Tom’s desire to have more, to have everything that had been denied to him as a penniless orphan.

This wasn’t quite going to plan, but that was fine. Tom would put them back on track.

“I’ve noticed that you could use some help around the shop. I can be that for you. I have a good head for numbers. I can speak to snakes. I can smile at customers. All I need is shelter in exchange.” Tom lifted his chin, trying to look determined and desperate. Which he was, but it sat better with his heart when it was for show, rather than when he thought of it as truth. “You don’t know what it’s like at the orphanage. I’d rather take my chances in a snake den.”

“Are you sure?” It was dark, but there was just enough streetlight to see the gentle set of Harry’s expression. “I’m not— I don’t want to screw this up, Tom. The shop is in Knockturn, which is dodgy at the best of times and actively dangerous at worst. I have secrets. A past. I’ve never looked after anyone like this.”

“I told you what I want,” Tom grumbled, looking away from Harry. “If you don’t care about me, fine.”

All throughout Tom’s life, he heard hushed warnings. People were urged to stay away from orphans, lest one found themselves with one who didn’t leave, who mistook a little kindness for love. But Tom didn’t need love; all he needed was a place to stay while he acquainted himself with the wizarding world. Somewhere warm, where there was food, and he could be unbothered.

If Harry turned him away, Tom would make do. He could return to the orphanage and forget Harry.

Harry probably wouldn’t care. Within days, he would forget about Tom and go back to his snakes. Kindness was a passing thing in orphans’ lives, there and gone in moments, and there was no blood tie between them. They were in a pattern of Tom accepting Harry’s kindness and Harry providing it, but if Tom were to exit the picture, there would be other strays in Knockturn Alley for Harry to feed and invite to look at the snakes.

To Harry, Tom was not special, not in the way Tom knew himself to be. It was galling, but it was true. Tom was used to having to look out for himself. No one else was going to step up to the job.

Instead of making Tom’s fears a reality, Harry crouched down in front of him and caught Tom’s gaze. His voice was soft. “I care, Tom. Of course I care.”

Tom couldn’t bear the gentle force in Harry’s green eyes, but he looked anyway. No one had looked at him that kindly in years—maybe not ever. He wondered, heart stuttering in his chest, if maybe his mother looked at him like that before she died.

“Prove it,” Tom said to him.

Harry only chuckled, then stood up to his full height. “Okay. Why don’t you collect your belongings and I’ll have a word with Mrs. Cole?”

Tom nodded. He let Harry through the gate of the orphanage and through the front door, leaving him with Sandy, one of Mrs. Cole’s helpers. He looked back once before he made his way upstairs.

If Mrs. Cole said no... Tom would make her. He would do it instantly, without regret or care. But he couldn’t see her saying no, not when she could get rid of him even earlier than Dumbledore promised.

As quickly as possible, Tom filled his bottomless pouch with everything that was dear to him—and everything that wasn’t. He took everything that wasn’t furniture, from the small collection of books he’d managed to acquire from other children’s rooms and nimble fingers at street sellers’ carts, to the lumpy pillow he’s slept on for years. He took with him old clothes and pencil stubs, old snake skins and older handwriting practice papers. Tom didn’t leave a single thing to be passed down to the other orphans. They didn’t deserve his things, and besides, his bottomless pouch had more than enough room.

Once he was all set, Tom made his way to Mrs. Cole’s office, ignoring the children lingering around, drawn by the unexpected guest at the orphanage.

Tom listened at the door instead of entering.

Harry was speaking, and his voice was harder than it was the last time Tom heard it. “How has he been treated here?”

That’s what you want to know? Now, you see here, that boy is—”

“I know,” Harry said, and Tom’s blood ran cold despite all reason, all logic, because truly Harry could not know. Harry knew him as the boy who came to him for help. That was it. “My question was clear.”

“Tom Riddle has been a blight on this orphanage since his very arrival.”

“He’s just a child,” Harry said. There was a movement in the room; Tom imagined him pacing. “He’s not a monster, nor a blight. He’s an eleven-year-old boy. Children lash out with the only tools they have available to them.”

“Are you blaming his behavior on him not knowing any better? That’s no excuse.”

“No. I’m saying you should have given him different tools. I suppose you’ll be happy to be rid of him.”

“I am. You can have him. And if you end up with rabbits hanging from your rafters, know that we won’t take him back.”

“There won’t be any of that. If anything, it would be a snake.” The sound of a chair being pulled out.

“I want to go,” Tom said, stepping into the room. He made no attempt to look like he hadn’t been listening in. “I like working in his shop and it will prepare me for Hogwarts. I’d like to learn some real-life skills in addition to my numbers.”

Mrs. Cole looked at him with hardly concealed distaste, matching Tom’s own look. “Hmph. I didn’t think you were the type. You’ve always been a scholarly child.”

“I still am,” Tom added.

“He’s a good kid,” Harry said. “He’ll do well at the school. All I want is to keep him from getting into too much trouble.”

“Speaking of that,” Mrs. Cole said, looking between the two of them.

Tom stiffened. He didn’t want to hear her say it, but not even the fiercest of his glares could ever keep Mrs. Cole silent. He didn’t understand. Didn’t she want him out of the orphanage? She never liked him, always thought him odd and cruel, and it had to be against her best interests to tell Harry the truth.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Harry said, firmly. “We all have a past. Let Tom leave his here, please.”

Mrs. Cole looked doubtful. “You’re making a mistake.”

With a rueful shake of his head, Harry said, “I’ve made a lot of them. Enough to know which mistakes are worth making.”

By then, Mrs. Cole had had enough of them. She drew up Tom’s exit paperwork within a matter of minutes, all but throwing it Harry’s way. Under her breath, she muttered something along the lines of good riddance.

Tom’s ears burned. His jaw tightened. If Harry weren’t here, he would do something. Mrs. Cole would sure regret it. But Harry was here, and Tom was leaving, and that would have to be the end of it.

“Do you have all your things?” Harry asked as they stepped out of Mrs. Cole’s office.

Tom patted his bottomless pouch. “I have them.”

He felt strangely shaken. Harry’s words echoed in his mind. His protective tone, his defense of Tom, a boy he barely knew. Tom would happily take Harry’s defense of him, but he knew he didn’t deserve it, not truly. It was his good fortune that there were people such as Harry in this world, to defend one such as him.

“Do you want to say goodbye to anyone?”

Tom looked at the faces of several orphans peeking out of their rooms, at Sandy, who wasn’t cleaning the hallway so much as watching them with curiosity. He thought back to his small room and lumpy mattress and John’s fingers bruising his wrist and the cellar where misbehaving children were sent. He wondered if Harry had a cellar.

“No,” Tom said, and turned his back on it all. “I’m leaving.”

Harry’s hand was warmer than his, bigger than his, as he took Tom’s hand. They apparated straight to the upper floor of the shop, where Harry lived. Where Tom would now live.

“It’s been a long day. We’ll sort the rest out tomorrow, alright?” Harry offered, letting go of Tom’s hand. “I’ll help you clear out the junk from your new room tomorrow, but at least it’s got a bed. I have clean sheets somewhere.”

Tom nodded. This was what he’d wanted from the first day he met Harry, but now that he had it, he felt off-balance instead of triumphant. He did not know how to act around Harry anymore.

“Thank you, Harry.” It seemed like an appropriate thing to say. Not just for taking him in, but for not listening to Mrs. Cole. “I’ll be good. I promise.”

“That’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one,” Harry said, but his lips tugged at a smile. He patted Tom’s hair. It was a gesture Tom had previously seen, but not experienced. Tom didn’t hate it. “You’ll be you, and I’ll be me, and we’ll muddle through it.”

Ten minutes later, Tom was tucked away in bed. He stared up at the ceiling, tracing shapes in the dark. Mistake or not, he’d made it here. Tom gathered Harry’s warm blanket up to his ears and closed his eyes. Sleep came quickly.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Tom woke early. He was disoriented for a moment. The light was all wrong. The mattress was too soft. When he opened his eyes, he realized he was far from his old orphanage bedroom. Instead, he was tucked away in the cluttered spare room above Harry’s shop.

He lingered in bed for another moment, satisfied to never hear Mrs. Cole’s voice yelling at everyone to wake up ever again, before getting up.

There were no chores to do, no screaming children or yelling matrons to avoid. The door to Harry’s room was closed. Tom headed to the kitchen, where he made himself some tea. Or rather, he pulled a cup out of the cupboard and stifled his yelp as the kettle levitated to pour him tea.

The space felt too quiet. Tom wanted to like it—and he would, soon enough—but he wasn’t used to it.

He wasn’t used to anything about this.

It was both terrifying and exciting. He had stepped off the ledge of a cliff; now he would find how steep the drop would be.

Tom sat there for a long, quiet moment, hands warmed by the hot cup of tea, until he heard movement in the next room.

A little while later, Harry came out, yawning as he did so.

“G’morning, Tom.”

“Good morning.” Tom peered at him, wondering if Harry was regretting his decision to take Tom in. Not because he cared, but because it would be terribly inconvenient and embarrassing to be returned to the orphanage like an unwanted child. “Did you sleep well?”

Is there anything I should know? Tom thought and did not say. Harry’s decision had been spontaneous. Tom hardly knew the word; he was a planner through and through. He wouldn’t take in an orphan at one measly request. But, Harry was nothing like Tom, which worked in Tom’s favor, so he would never complain.

“I did,” Harry said, smiling at him as he passed into the kitchen. “I felt more restful, knowing that you were here instead of at that miserable place.”

Tom’s fingers tightened around his mug. Warmth seeped into his fingers and not only from the hot tea inside. “My sleep was adequate. The room smells of cat.”

“We’ll air it out today. Omelet?”

“Yes,” Tom said, and settled into his chair, allowing Harry to cook for him.

Harry bustled around the kitchen in companionable silence. Not making conversation out of focus on his work, not the cold silences at the orphanage. To the left of the stove was a set of cooling cupboards that housed the milk, dairy, and vegetables, as well as various leftovers from yesterday.

“With tomatoes,” Tom said to Harry. “And ham.”

“Spinach?”

Tom shook his head. “Mushrooms.”

“I should still have some lying around.”

By the time Tom’s teacup was empty, breakfast was finished. The kettle floated around to refill Tom’s cup, then Harry’s once he pulled one out of the cupboard.

“If you don’t want it to refill, just push it away,” Harry advised. “Otherwise, you’ll have a fresh cup of tea no matter what. It’s charmed to the cups.”

Tom studied it carefully, but it looked like a regular kettle, albeit with lilies on the side. “Does Hogwarts teach you to do that?”

“In the upper levels, it will. Lower level charms are mostly turning porcupines into pincushions and the like.”

Tom returned his attention to Harry. And to the omelet, which was delicious. “What else should I know about this place?”

Between bites of omelet, Harry explained to him the shop’s operations, as he saw them. “The shop is open ten to five, Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. I’m down there after breakfast every morning, open or not, to check on the snakes and make sure they haven’t mutinied on me overnight. You can help me on days you don’t have school. I can apparate you to school each morning and pick you up at the end of the day; you’ll just have to give me a set time. I might be late. Sometimes we have a customer here.”

Tom, who had rarely seen a customer enter the shop, gave him a doubtful look.

Harry only huffed. “We do. Now, what else…” He trailed off, looking around the flat. “I’ll help you with your room. Maybe with the rest of the flat, too. I don’t want any of the furniture towers to fall on you.”

“That sounds very sensible,” Tom said, approvingly. He didn’t want a furniture tower to fall on him either. “Is everything here Roberta’s?”

Harry nodded. “All I had when I started working here were a few knuts, the clothes on my back, and my wand. I’ve bought a few things here and there, but just about everything is Roberta’s. I imagine she’ll want it back someday if she decides to come back. Which I doubt—those aurors were rather serious about whatever it is that she had to skip town over.”

“If she comes back… will I have to leave?”

“No,” Harry said. The immediacy of his response calmed a part of Tom that he hadn’t realized was worried. “No, if anything, she would like you. She’s always had a soft spot for people who need some help, in her own Slytherin way. She wouldn’t have hired me otherwise.” Harry paused for a moment, then added, “Yesterday, I told you that I had secrets.”

“Yes, you did,” Tom said, leaning in.

Harry’s lips twitched before he grew serious. “From the day I was hired here on, you can ask me about anything and I’ll tell you. But anything before that, I’m not going to talk about for a long time. Maybe not ever. I need you to understand that so that you won’t be disappointed or angry when I don’t answer.”

“Why is it such a big secret?” Tom asked.

He wasn’t particularly disappointed. Secrets weren’t secrets unless one dug them out, carefully yanking them out of a person. It was only his first day of living with Harry. He would discover them all eventually.

Harry shook his head. “No comment.”

Tom shrugged. “Fine.” He tapped his fingers against the table, looking at Harry so thoroughly that he was surprised he couldn’t see his soul. He wanted to know. “You’re not a criminal?”

“No. It’s nothing like that.”

“You’re not running from a criminal?”

“You’re quite imaginative.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“I know.” Harry took a bite of his omelet, then another. “I’m not running from anyone, not exactly. It’s just that some things have a way of coming back to you. Like magnets, pulling at each other the way their natures dictate. The more I talk about it, the more I’ll worry. So that’s that on the subject.”

Tom nodded in outward acceptance and inward thoughtfulness. He wanted to pick at Harry’s brain, but carefully, without too much pain. Harry already looked pained enough by mentioning these memories that plagued him. “What other rules do you have?”

“Hm.” Harry looked around as if looking for ideas. “Dinner together unless there’s a pressing engagement. And… do you want a curfew?”

Tom scowled at him.

Harry only laughed. “I doubt you’ll listen to me if I gave you one. But look, if you’re not in by nightfall, I’ll worry, alright?”

Tom couldn’t think of a thing to say to that. Agreement meant confirming that he believed Harry, and that was… Would Harry really worry over him if he came home late? Mrs. Cole wouldn’t even open the doors if an orphan came home after curfew. They would sleep in the outdoor gardening shed and accept punishment in the morning.

It was embarrassing how much he preferred to be fussed over instead of ignored. Tom wasn’t a baby. He had to remind himself of that.

“That’s it?” Tom asked. “Dinner and not asking you about your past?”

“That’s it,” Harry agreed. “Do you have any rules for me?”

Tom’s fingers tightened around his fork. He wanted to believe Harry. And he did, almost. Harry made him breakfast and took him in and cared. If Tom made a rule, would Harry listen to it? Or would he use it against Tom?

Tom stared down at the last bits of omelet on his plate, the one that Harry had so happily made for him. He didn’t look up as he said, “You can’t go in my room unless I tell you. And you can’t destroy or throw away anything that’s mine.”

“Okay,” Harry said, gently. “I promise.”

You can’t stop being nice to me. You can’t send me back. You can’t hate me. Tom swallowed down the words. Harry couldn’t promise him any of that. It would be needy, childish to ask for empty promises.

He finished off his omelet, looking up to find that Harry had done the same.

“Why don’t you decide which furniture you want for your room? You can choose anything here.”

Out of gratefulness, Tom decided not to push his luck and try to nab the furniture in Harry’s room, although it would serve Harry well to be more careful with his words. Tom dropped his dishes in the sink, which began bubbling and cleaning without any more prompting, and gave the living room a keen look.

In the weeks since he met Harry, Tom had explored the flat above the snake shop with gusto. The few unexplored areas were either locked, too high up, or so precariously piled that Tom hadn’t chanced trying to approach.

“This desk,” Tom said, pointing to the one at which Harry cleared off for Tom to do his homework on during his second visit. Then he motioned across the room. “That bookshelf, along with the books on the shelf, but not the cat figurines.” He deliberated for a second, then added, “This painting, too.”

“It’s a good one, isn’t it?” Harry agreed.

In the background of the painting, the castle that Harry told him was Hogwarts was nestled against misty mountains. In the foreground, the several snakes lurked at the edges of a dark forest, and a herd of centaurs occasionally came into view.

Tom nodded. He had never had a painting of his own before. And, “It’s nice.”

Over the next few hours, Harry helped Tom add and remove furniture from his new room as he saw fit. Tom settled on the desk, the room’s original bed, a wardrobe, a small chest of drawers, a comfortable chair, and two bookshelves. His bookshelves were mostly empty now, with only his textbooks and Roberta’s old books on their shelves, but Tom was content to imagine them filling over time. He didn’t know how much time he would have here—it was terribly good fortune, living here with Harry, but could it last?—so he would make the most of it while he had it. Here, Tom didn’t need to hide his textbooks behind fake book covers or worry about someone stealing his wand.

Harry knew several cleaning charms, which he put to good use on the floors, drawers, and curtains. Tom recalled the hours and hours of forced cleaning at the orphanage and it burned in him, how easy it was to do it all with a wand.

While Tom settled on an arrangement of his books on his new shelf, Harry spent an inordinate amount of time sitting cross-legged by the small closet next to the bathroom, a thick old spellbook in his lap. Tom tuned out his casting after a while since it was half cursing anyway.

“Aha!” Harry eventually said. “Got it.”

Tom poked his head out of his room to see Harry levitating a chair into the closet. “What did you do?”

“Expanded the closet,” Harry said, looking pleased with himself. “I’ll give it a day to make sure the charms don’t collapse on me, then move the extra furniture in here. Roberta can decide what to do with it if and when she returns. I might clear out the third room. Make it into an office or something.”

Tom wondered what it said about Harry that he hadn’t cleared the junk away in over half a year. He decided that what it said was that Harry needed someone like Tom in his life, to propel him into action.

“Let’s see about your window, too,” Harry said, picking his spellbook up off his lap and standing up.

“My window?”

Harry offered to look into charming the window to be whatever scene Tom preferred instead of the glimpse into a back street of Knockturn Alley. Tom refused on account of not knowing which scene he wanted to see instead, but he secretly didn’t mind the view; it was like his personal glimpse into a human zoo, one filled with violence and secret dealings. His only concession was to allow Harry to make it a one-way window.

“There’s some weird people in Knockturn Alley,” Harry explained as he flipped through the spellbook until he found the proper spell. “Better to stay out of their line of sight until you’re older and can protect yourself.”

Tom did not, as a rule, enjoy anyone telling him to wait until he was older, or when people pointed out things he could not do. But instead of lingering on that, Tom asked, “Can you teach me to protect myself?”

Harry looked up from the book, green eyes wide behind glasses. “I— sure.”

“Unless you’re not good at defense.” That was the class title at Hogwarts: Defense Against the Dark Arts. Tom had read so himself in Hogwarts, A History.

“I’m not bad,” Harry demurred. “Ah, there it is. Are you sure you don’t want a cheery meadow instead?”

“I’m sure,” Tom said. “It wouldn’t be real.”

“Real is relative, when it comes to magic,” Harry replied with a shrug, but did as Tom asked.

Before the day was out, Tom dragged a bedside table into his room as well, piling it with three books he intended to read this week. By the end of the week, most of the hoard of furniture and boxes and belongings from the living room were wedged into the closet. A quite comfortable armchair had been discovered behind a desk and the couch was more appealing when it didn’t also hold a century’s of newspapers. There were still altogether too many snake paintings on the walls, which Harry refused to remove, but Tom considered it an acceptable compromise.

As the days passed, something inside Tom settled. Harry did not unveil any terrible habits or awful demands. Neither did he declare it all a mistake and send Tom back to the orphanage. Tom had a lock on his door and food on the stove and a book in his hand. That much was already enough, but he had Harry’s unyielding, incessant kindness, too.

Harry, who always asked about Tom’s day and never forced him to clean up after the snakes when Tom was in a mood. Harry, who didn’t consider Tom stupid for all the things he didn’t know about the wizarding world.

Tom hesitated in asking questions during Harry’s defense lessons at first, until Harry sat down next to him one day and said, “You know, you can ask me all the questions you want. Especially about magic. I don’t mind.”

“I know that,” Tom grumbled. “I just... I don’t like not knowing things.”

“And not sounding smart?”

Tom whipped his head up. “I didn’t say that.”

“Alright,” Harry replied. “It’s alright, Tom.”

Tom hated him for it. For his care, for his concern, for his easy ability to express things that Tom could not. He’d never been able to figure out feelings, but he had anger down.

If there was one thing Tom hated more than being ordinary, it was being below ordinary. Stupid. There were children at school who thought that just because he didn’t have parents—that his parents didn’t want him, or his mother was a prostitute, or the rest of the stories that were made up about him—that he was dumb. Tom wasn’t, to their disappointment, but he hated giving the appearance of stupidity.

He doesn’t enjoy having to ask questions. Not obvious questions, the kind a regular child should already know had he grown up in the wizarding world.

Hogwarts was going to be worse. At Hogwarts, most of the children would have grown up with magic in their houses and perhaps gone to pre-Hogwarts magical schooling, while Tom only had a few wandless talents he’d practiced and thought he’d excelled at before he learned of all he could do with a wand.

He’d thought himself extraordinary, talented, great. And it turns out that he isn’t. Not by far. The hags roaming Knockturn Alley knew more about magic than he did.

The lack of knowledge left him both moody and determined.

He decided to live and breathe in the secondhand bookstore across the street, which he informed Harry of the very next day. Roberta’s selection of books was slim and dull. The shop downstairs had a small section of books for sale, mainly devoted to the care and feeding of snakes.

It was in this spirit that Harry’s intention for Tom to attend muggle school didn’t last a month.

Tom lasted only for as long as it took for him to settle into living with Harry, then announced, “Hogwarts doesn’t require for me to have finished my muggle schooling before I start my first year. I would learn a lot more information that’s relevant to my life if I didn’t spend five days a week learning maths.”

“I thought you liked maths?” Harry asked, patting a snake on the side before returning it to its perch.

“I like maths. I don’t like my classmates or my teachers, and they don’t like me. I don’t like being told what to say and write. I don’t like pretending all day. I don’t like school.”

Harry turned to him, sounding plaintive as he said, “School is important.”

“For what? I’m not learning anything.” Tom decided that his argument was in need of refinement. “I’ve read my textbooks cover to cover. I rarely learn anything new at school.”

“Oh, Tom. You need to socialize,” Harry finally said, sounding exasperated. “You’ll be all alone here.”

“I’ll socialize with the snakes. Some of them are good conversationalists.”

“I meant with other children.”

“I already don’t socialize with other children,” Tom replied, scoffing. He crossed his arms, feeling defensive. “I don’t need to. They don’t understand me, anyway.” He smiled. “Not like you and the snakes do.”

Harry huffed. “The snakes would sell you out for a tasty snack.”

“They’re clearly smarter than my classmates. And the children at the orphanage were hardly different; I’m sure they would have happily exchanged me for a bowl of porridge, let alone something that tastes good. I don’t receive any positive influence from socializing school or the orphanage. I don’t see why you’re so concerned about this. It’s only muggle school.”

“Only that,” Harry said, shaking his head. “You still shouldn’t drop out of school.”

“I’m not dropping out. I’m putting my official learning on hold while I self-study for Hogwarts. If I attend muggle school, I’ll waste valuable time that I could have spent learning the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane.”

“They’re the same thing,” Harry said, then seemed to realize that he wasn’t quite making his point. “I should discourage this.”

Tom almost smiled. He restrained himself. “But you won’t.”

“I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want to do. You know your mind better than I do and it won’t hurt anyone if you don’t attend school.” Which was a strange way to put it, but Harry continued on to say, “I would be a hypocrite if I forced you into it, anyway.”

You could try, Tom thought, scoffing mentally at the very thought. But he was more curious about the implication of Harry’s words. “How so?”

Harry hesitated, obviously deliberating over saying something, then said, “I dropped out of Hogwarts after my sixth year. There were extenuating circumstances, but…” Harry shrugged. “I never did go back.”

A precious, intriguing piece of Harry’s mysterious past.

“You dropped out of school?” Tom asked, aghast.

Harry nodded, giving Tom a pointed look. “That’s what you’re doing now. Ten years old and already a school dropout.”

“I’m eleven. And I can self-study at Mrs. Warrts’ secondhand bookstore. I will get a lot more out of it than going to muggle school.”

“You phrase it like a compromise, but I’m sure you were already going to soak in knowledge like a sponge.”

“Maybe so,” Tom said. He peered at Harry. “What were these extenuating circumstances?”

Harry shook his head, though his lips twitched into a smile. “None of your business. If you’re quitting school, then you have time to clean the mess the snakes made behind the counter.”

“That sounds like an actual compromise,” Tom grumbled, making a face at what he expected he would find if he looked behind the counter. The snakes got up to no good without Harry or Tom around.

Harry sounded entirely too cheerful as he said, “I expect you to tell me all about what you learn each day. I could use some more information on the wizarding world, too. And if I catch you picking up any dark books in that shop…”

“You won’t,” Tom said, and hoped he sounded convincing.

There was nothing for Harry to worry about anyway. Like all of Knockturn Alley, the bookshop held secret and dark knowledge, but many of the books at the shop were high above Tom’s magical level and maybe even above his reading level, though Tom hated to admit it. He would learn the basics first, then branch out into other interesting branches of magic.

All of a sudden, Tom was struck with happiness over the fact that he was here at all, that Harry would so easily give into Tom’s wishes. He chalked it down to his excellent manipulations, but it was luck, too, that brought Harry’s life into Tom’s.

“I found a book about magic in Ancient Rome yesterday,” Tom said, ignoring the slight hesitance. No one had ever cared to hear about his reading. Certainly Mrs. Cole never encouraged it.

But Harry’s expression was keen, warm. “Tell me all about it.”

And so Tom did.

 

*

 

“I could use another pair of hands for the shopping,” Harry said one morning after breakfast. He was jotting some notes down on a scrap of parchment while his tea went cold next to him. “Since you’re no longer gainfully attending school.”

Tom sighed, his nose already in a book. “Are you ever going to get over it?”

“Maybe one day. I can’t believe myself for harboring a grade school dropout.”

Tom groaned and glared in Harry’s direction. He found that Harry looked entirely unrepentant, smiling at him over his cup of tea. “You don’t need more hands. You have a wand.”

“If you go with me, you can help me choose our meals for the next week. What do you say?”

Tom crossed his arms and tried not to make a face. “I could help you choose now. In the warmth and privacy of this flat.”

“That’s no fun,” Harry told him. He was far too awake for this time of the morning. “You’ve never been to a wizarding marketplace. It’ll be a good experience.”

Tom didn’t trust good experiences, but he gave in anyway. Harry claimed to know how to make chicken and mushroom pie. Tom didn’t want to miss out on that sort of thing.

He accepted a cloth bag with faded ink proclaiming it to be from Flourish and Blotts’ old inventory sale of 1902, while Harry’s shopping bag was a newer one with the dangers of drunk apparition stamped in glaring red ink.

“They were giving them out for free outside the ministry,” Harry says, apparently content to be a walking advertisement for common sense. “Want to trade?”

“No,” Tom replied. He clutched his own bag closer to himself.

The floo destination was the Marvelous Marketplace, which Tom scoffed at but consented to say. He enunciated clearly and stepped forward when Harry gave his nod, heedful of Harry’s warning of ending up in Borgin and Burke’s shop if he wasn’t careful. Tom knew he needed a little more magical training under his belt before he could explore the depths of that particular shop in Knockturn Alley.

When he opened his eyes, he found that the fire had deposited him in a damp cavern lit by a row of torches on each side of the sloping tunnel. It would have been eerie if not for the cacophony of voices and other sounds ahead. There was even music playing: some fast, sharp tune that was new to Tom’s ears. Harry stepped out of the floo a moment later.

“Where are we?” Tom asked.

He took a step closer to Harry as they walked forward. Having read all about the various magical creatures that dwelled in caves, many with rows of sharp teeth. Harry was the bigger, meatier target, and thus a good shield.

He was also very knowledgeable. “This is where the winter marketplace is held. In the summer, we’d go the other way through the tunnel, up to the surface. The ministry won this territory in the last goblin war and the goblins have never quite forgiven us for it. Roberta showed me this place ages ago.”

The tunnel opened into the source of the noise: a large cave chamber with a high, sloped ceiling depicting the goblin war in a fascinating, gruesome way. But beneath the ceiling was a bustling, busy marketplace with more than a hundred stalls and shoppers of human and non-human variety. Tom spotted half a dozen house elves and two surly goblins among the majority human shoppers.

Despite his earlier reluctance, Tom enjoyed himself.

He received a pouch of coins from Harry, who thankfully didn’t expect Tom to stay by his side, and lost himself in the rows and rows of stalls and blankets with goods laid out. He didn’t like the throng of people and the loud, pushy kids that ran past and nearly knocked him over each time, but he liked looking at everything.

And better yet, he liked the knowledge that he could buy a few things himself. Not a lot. Enough.

He bought two ripe, tasty peaches from one of the sellers, who was happy to wash them for him and conjure him a napkin to hold them with. Tom ate both as he walked around, peering at knickknacks and opening every book he saw.

He passed Harry once when he took a look at the fresh food stands, but for the most part, he was happier with a book in hand.

“Remember the mushrooms,” Tom said, peeking into Harry’s bag, which is suspiciously empty of fungi.

“I know, I know,” Harry said with a laugh, and waved him off to another stall.

It was an hour later that Harry joined him again, holding a baked pastry in each hand. He handed one to Tom and took the other for himself, sitting down next to Tom and resting against the wall of the cavern.

Tom had gotten bored of the crowd and fled to the edge of the marketplace a while ago, enjoying a book whose price he’d haggled down.

“What’s inside?” Tom asked, then took a bite anyway. He was hungry.

“Beef and potato, some vegetables. Did you like the marketplace?”

Harry was smiling, so he already knew the answer, and Tom huffed as he admitted, “I like my book. And the peaches were good.”

Thank you, he thought, and didn’t say, but Harry looked at him as though he heard it anyway.

Good fortune was a fleeting thing, something he didn’t yet trust, no matter the fact that Harry had allowed him into his shop and his home. Tom felt like he had eaten more in the past month than in the year combined. He was fed, and warm, and it might not last, but it was enough for now.

It made him wistful, made him wonder what would have happened if he’d somehow met Harry earlier. A year, two, three. He would have liked to have years of this instead of the seven months he had until he would be off to Hogwarts. But any earlier and Harry would have been a boy himself. He maybe wouldn’t have known how to make ham and pea soup or talk so kindly or take care of snakes. He wouldn’t have been the Harry who Tom met, who wasn’t allowed to walk out of Tom’s life, no matter how much Tom feared it.

Tom was adopted once.

He didn’t like to think about it; he had spent so much time not thinking about it that the memories were blurrier than the rest of his memories. Even at a young age, his memories had been clear. These were bits of memory, sounds and voices. A week in all. One during which he’d received his own room in a stranger’s house. A man and a woman who claimed they would be his new parents, until they realized that there was more to Tom than a cute face. That there was magic. They left him there and adopted Lena instead. Lena, who picked her nose and cried often and never returned.

This didn’t feel like an adoption. Harry made him no empty promises of forever, said no words of love, but treated him with a level of care that was foreign to Tom.

“I like this,” Tom said into his pastry.

He was no crybaby, but he felt… He felt. He leaned in just a little, until his shoulder rested against Harry’s side.

Harry wasted no time in putting his arm around Tom’s shoulders. “I like this, too. I’m glad I’m here. I wasn’t happy for a while there. I was lost. But it looks like all I needed was to have you around. You’re such a good kid, Tom.”

Tom felt the tips of his ears grow warm. “I’m really not.”

“Yeah, you are. You’re mine, so I get to be biased. It’s a rule.”

Since Harry was content to be biased, Tom decided he would be too, just a little. Just enough to enjoy the warmth in his chest, the pastry in his hand, the book in his lap, the bustle of the market that seemed so far away.

It was a good day. He’d had a lot of them, recently.

Chapter Text

A runespoor was a snake with three heads. The left was the planner, the middle was the dreamer, and the right was the critic. It was the first noticeably magical creature Tom encountered at Harry’s snake shop, back during his first week helping Harry.

He came to learn later on that it was rather uncommon to come across a runespoor with all three heads intact. Most often, the planner and the dreamer would turn on the critic, deliberately wounding itself because the three heads couldn’t get along, and thus shortening its life.

Many months later, it was just a nuisance rather than cause for exclamation. It was Tom’s least favorite snake, despite his initial excitement of seeing something so obviously different, so magical.

Each time Tom found himself in its presence, Tom could feel his own sanity and life slipping away the longer he was forced to listen to the three heads argue.

“Stop that, you overgrown garden snake,” Tom snapped, glaring at the runespoor. It was wrapped around one of the rafters in the room, higher than the rest of the snakes tended to climb. Tom assumed that the other snakes drove it up there so that they wouldn’t have to hear the runespoor’s arguing. “You know we can’t feed all your heads on the same day. It won’t go down correctly in your digestive tract.”

“But I am hungry,” the planner hissed, and the argument started again.

For once, the planner and the critic were on the same side, staring hungrily at the dreamer, who was sated and quiet. Never mind that they shared the same digestive tract and would not go hungry. Tom ignored them for a while until it looked like violence would break out. Tom didn’t particularly have anything against violence, but Harry would be sad to see the snake in pain.

Tom picked up his wand and said the spell with a flourish. It was one of the first work-related spells that Harry taught him. Within seconds, cones appeared on each head of the runespoor, preventing them from attacking each other.

“Harry will be very disappointed in you.”

If snakes could pout, all three of them would do so. The critic glared at him. “You don’t have to tell Harry.”

Tom hummed, pushing aside his textbook. “What will you give me in exchange?”

“Nothing,” the planner said in reply. “We’ve heard the news. You won’t be here long.”

Tom’s stomach gave a lurch, just a small one, but one that irritated him all the same. “I will be back. You needn’t worry about me.”

“We won’t,” said the critic.

“We will,” said the dreamer. “We’ll be so bored without you, Tom. Won’t you take us with you? We’ll be good.”

The planner and the critic exchanged a look, then extended their necks toward Tom. The planner seemed particularly intrigued. “There’s an idea…”

“Absolutely not,” Tom said, firmly, ignoring all further protests.

He still hadn’t chosen a familiar among Harry’s snakes. It wasn’t for any lack of trying; in the months since Tom began helping out at Harry’s shop, he had spoken with or handled every snake in the shop. From runespoor to boomslang, from rattlesnake to common adder, Tom knew them all. He’d read book after book on snake handling, even managing to improve Harry’s system.

Tom had used the excuse of helping out at the shop to convince Harry to take him in, but months later, it was no longer just an excuse. Not with how much work Tom had put into the place and how well he knew the snakes, even if he still quibbled about the name.

But they were all Harry’s snakes, not Tom’s. 

There was a deadline for all of this, and Tom had stumbled against it almost without realizing it, growing so comfortable in his life in Knockturn Alley.

Tom lingered downstairs before deciding to drop the problem squarely in the lap of the person who started it by bringing it up the first time they met.

Also, the faint smell of pancakes was unmistakable.

He walked more slowly than usual, committing the snake shop to memory. Upstairs, he slipped behind the giant tapestry of snakes wearing medieval armor that separated the kitchen from the living room, which Harry refused to take down and Tom reluctantly found charming.

There was already a plate of pancakes in Tom’s spot at the table.

“Syrup?”

“Butter,” Tom said, swiping it from the counter.

The butter was excellent, but each time they ran out, Harry spent entirely too long talking to Maisie Prewett about her cows and butter-making spells. When Tom was gone, who would stop Harry from making a nuisance of himself at the Marvelous Marketplace? Maybe Tom would have to write him a list of instructions, so as not to return to find that Harry had up and gotten married in Tom’s absence. The only new additions to their life that Tom would accept were snakes.

Speaking of…

“I haven’t chosen a familiar,” Tom said instead of eating, which said a lot considering that these were Harry’s pancakes.

“There’s no rush,” Harry replied.

He plated one final pancake, then turned the stove off with a wave of his wand and sat down across the table from Tom.

Tom made a face at the amount of syrup Harry poured on his stack of pancakes. As if to spite him, Harry added more with a twitch of his lips.

“I wanted to bring a snake to Hogwarts,” Tom grumbled.

He’d had all sorts of plans, from impressing his housemates with his parseltongue—the rarity of which he’d had to learn from a book instead of from Harry, who had the audacity to not care at all about being a parselmouth—to complaining about all the annoying people around him. Instead, Tom hadn’t been able to settle on a snake.

Harry dipped his fork into his plate of syrup. “Is it that you think you’ll be too busy for a pet?”

“No.” Tom shook his head. “It’s not that I can’t choose, either. I’m just… still waiting for the right one. It has to be perfect.”

He was waiting for his snake. As silly as it sounded even in his own head, Tom felt as though he would know his snake when he met it, and he had not met it yet. He knew that with a certainty that drowned out any thoughts of simply picking a snake and being done with the question.

Harry heaved a sigh, looking overly dramatic as he said, “As long as it’s not a basilisk.”

“I would be living up to my legacy,” Tom replied, just because. In truth, a basilisk sounded very inconvenient. Where would he get enough food for a snake that size?

Harry waved his fork at him. “No more pancakes for you.”

In a way, it was true. Tom looked down at his plate and started eating while he still could. While he was still here at Harry’s snake shop instead of grand, exciting places that he’d prepared for but didn’t quite feel ready for.

“You don’t have to decide now.” Harry’s voice had gentled. “I mean it. When you get back, we can visit every magical menagerie in the country to look for your perfect snake. You have so much time, Tom. It doesn’t all have to happen immediately.”

For so long, Tom had grabbed all he could, when he could, because he’d never known if he’d have another chance. If there would still be any food later at the orphanage, if there would be any notebooks and pencils later in the donation box. But he didn’t have to choose now because he would be back. Harry said so himself. And Harry would know.

Tom gave a short nod. “I’ll hold you to it. Every magical menagerie.”

“It’s a promise.”

Breakfast was over before Tom knew it. There were only a few morning chores to be done today, and Tom did them without complaint, saying goodbye to his favorite snakes.

“You didn’t say goodbye to me,” said the critic, dropping down from the rafters.

“He was getting to it, surely,” said the planner.

The dreamer blinked at him. “He doesn’t have to say goodbye if he takes us with him.”

“I hope you’re sold before I return,” Tom said to all three of them, although he didn’t hold out hope. Runespoors were coveted enough that Harry wouldn’t sell without being assured that the snake wouldn’t be chopped up for parts or otherwise mistreated. “Goodbye.”

The dreamer flicked its tongue out at him.

Tom didn’t give in to the urge to do the same.

Once he was done, he headed upstairs, giving his room a once-over. His bed was made. It would be empty for months.

“You’re not allowed to adopt anyone while I’m gone,” Tom called out, suddenly having to make sure. “Or get married. I expect everything to be the same when I get back.”

Harry’s laugh could be heard down the hallway. “Where do you come up with these things, Tom?”

Harry.”

“No orphans, no marriages.”

“You can have a friend,” Tom allowed, graciously. He wouldn’t want Harry to get too lonely without him.

“Thank you, your highness. Have you got everything?”

Tom looked around again. His trunk was packed. His bookshelves were empty. His wand was in his pocket. His heart was beating fast. He was ready and he wasn’t ready and it didn’t matter because it was time. Tom’s future had arrived, and Tom would be there to meet it.

“I’m ready,” Tom said.

Harry bustled around for a quarter of an hour longer, throwing a pack of snacks into Tom’s trunk and rereading the Hogwarts shopping list as though Tom would have allowed him to forget anything.

Tom crossed his arms and repeated, “I’m ready.”

“Maybe I’m not,” Harry replied. He ran a hand through his hair. “Do you want a sandwich for the train?”

“Yes.”

Tom sat down on his trunk while Harry prepared it. He wondered what the little flat above the shop would be like when he was gone. He wondered if his bed wouldn’t be as comfortable or if the students would be more irritating than Tom was ready for.

When they were finally ready, Harry took Tom’s hand, and the living room disappeared in their pop of apparition.

The next time Tom opened his eyes, it was to the bustle of the train station.

The Hogwarts Express stood before him, grand and tall and metallic. Steam blew from its top and its tail stretched out behind the train, longer than Tom could see. The conductor was an older man who was helping a student get her trunk through the first open door. Tom had grown used to the magical society of Knockturn Alley, despite Harry’s wishes, but here on Platform 9 and 3/4, it was all different.

Tom looked around the station and felt a thrum of excitement. These were the students he would compete against in class, the purebloods he would best. He was looking forward to it.

The only downside was that he couldn’t return to the snake shop after a long day of learning, but Tom would deal. He turned back to Harry, feeling strangely hesitant despite his excitement.

“I suppose this is goodbye,” Tom said. He clenched his hand around the handle of his trunk.

“Only for a few months. You’re coming back for Christmas break,” Harry said, the closest thing to an order he’d come to since they made their rules.

Tom didn’t mind. He didn’t even pretend to think about it. “I’ll come back.”

“And Easter break,” Harry added.

Tom nodded.

“And you’ll write to me. And you’ll tell me and a professor immediately if anyone tries to bully you.”

“I’ll bully them back,” Tom huffed, rolling his eyes.

“That’s not a solution to the problem,” Harry fretted. “I should have gotten you an owl, but at least there are school owls. I’ll send you some owl treats if the post owl doesn’t eat them all.”

Tom sighed. “I’ll be fine, Harry.”

“Don’t worry about the sorting ceremony, either. It’s a lot of nonsense. Any house is as good as the other.”

“I’ll be a Slytherin. I’ve already decided.”

“I know.” Harry smiled helplessly. “But I still have to hold out hope, don’t I? Maybe you’ll change your mind and remember your Gryffindor side.”

“No, thank you.”

Tom looked forward to donning silver and green. They were the colors of his ancestors—also, he looked quite good in them. Nothing like red and gold, which couldn’t possibly look sophisticated.

“Then you’ll be the best Slytherin Hogwarts has ever seen,” Harry said, sounding fond. “The smartest, too. Just don’t forget your heart, Tom. I know it’s there.”

Harry reached out his hands and Tom didn’t pretend not to realize what he was doing. He stepped into Harry’s arms, letting Harry hug him as tightly as he wanted to. It was all for Harry’s benefit, really, including the way Tom tightened his arms around Harry’s torso. His ear was pressed against Harry’s chest and Tom imagined that he could hear Harry’s heart beating.

“I won’t forget,” Tom agreed, even if he only meant it when it came to Harry, not anyone else.

Harry’s embrace was so warm. Tom couldn’t remember ever being hugged before, but no one else’s hugs could have compared anyway.

Hogwarts was so far away from London.

Tom couldn’t make himself let go. Harry couldn’t seem to either, until eventually he appeared to force himself to let go.

“It’s not goodbye forever,” Tom said for both their benefit.

He believed it; he believed that in a few months, Harry would meet him at the station. That no matter what happened, Harry would be there.

“Just for now,” Harry agreed. He straightened, giving Tom’s shoulder one last pat. “Go on. I’ll be here until the train leaves.”

Tom nodded, heart lodged somewhere in the vicinity of his throat. The trunk was light in his grip, levitating next to him, and he crossed onto the train with ease.

He turned back just once to see Harry waving at him. Tom waved back and then he took another step, continuing on into the train. He would write to Harry soon, Tom decided, already crafting his letter in his head. He would write to him of his Slytherin sorting and new housemates, and of his classes and professors, and everything and anything. Perhaps he would leave a thing or two out when matters necessitated it, but he would write.

It was quite a wonderful thing, to see parents tearfully waving their children off, and to not feel a spark of envy.

Tom had Harry, and Harry had Tom.

Tom would take Hogwarts and the wizarding world by storm. And then he would return home for Christmas break, because he promised.