September - October 1936
The rest of summer goes by quickly. The warm weather turns dreary and damp, leaving Harry and Tom indoors more often than not. Tom doesn’t mind the rain much, but water tends to damage their already limited clothing options, and Mrs. Cole hates the dirt and muck that gets tracked inside.
September slips them into the beginning of the school year, and so Tom passes the time as much as he can with classes, trying to alleviate his constant boredom. And, when school inevitably begins to drag, he shifts his focus to Harry instead. Harry is a quick study, but his educational rankings leave something to be desired.
The two of them huddle over books and sheets of paper together as Tom goes over the material with Harry. Harry is obstinate at times—he thinks he's not very smart—but Tom knows better. He sees the potential in Harry the same way he sees potential in himself. So Tom praises and pushes until he gets what he wants. The teachers remark on what a good influence Tom is, and Tom smiles neatly in return.
The world is both smaller and bigger with Harry in it. Tom finds he cares less about the other orphans, that he has little incentive to waste his time terrorizing them for his own entertainment. For one, Harry doesn’t like it. For another, it’s time Tom can instead spend on more interesting projects, like trying to pulverize glass marbles in the privacy of their room. Harry never engages in these activities; he merely watches, riveted, as Tom practices the impossible. Tom enjoys the audience, the opportunity to show off without fear of being shunted off to an asylum.
The unobtrusive company Harry provides is calming, Tom decides. He congratulates himself on the decision to make Harry his roommate. It’s easier to think when Harry is in the room with him, it’s easier to do things like shut the cupboard door simply by looking at it. With Harry by his side, all things seem suddenly more possible. Tom has always considered himself special, but having Harry around somehow reassures him that the way he sees things is real, that he's not instead going mad. He can do impossible things; Harry sees them and believes them, and that makes it factual.
And so the month of September flies by, melting into October without much fuss. Harry’s birthday falls on the end of October—on Halloween. But this isn’t the correct date, according to Harry.
They are seated on Harry’s bed as Harry retrieves his shoddy cardboard box from the cupboard. Tom’s caught glimpses of the inside a few times, but he hadn’t thought Harry would take to kindly to any snooping, so he’d left it alone.
“Halloween was when they found me,” Harry explains, lifting up the lid of the box. “Outside on the doorstep.” He pulls out a faded blue child’s blanket with a clear ‘H’ embroidered in the corner, holding it up for Tom’s inspection. Tom gently traces a finger over the crimson letter, gesturing for Harry to continue, but Harry tucks the blanket away into a cardboard box and says nothing further.
“My mother died giving birth to me,” Tom says plainly into the silence. “Mrs. Cole said that she named me after my father, but no relatives came looking for her or me.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry says genuinely. “Maybe your other relatives didn’t know your mother was pregnant?”
“It’s fine.” Tom waves the concern off briskly. “I am certain I will find the truth someday.”
“Did your mother leave you anything to remember her by?” Harry asks softly.
“No,” Tom says flatly, and his tone does not invite further discussion on the topic. He carefully toes off his shoes and lies back on the bed. After a moment, Harry follows suit. Their arms are pressed against each other, only slightly. Tom can hear Harry’s gentle breathing. Sometimes, after too much exertion, Harry’s lungs kick up a protest in the form of wheezing. Tom attributes it to smoke damage from the fire.
“Do you think we’re related?” asks Harry.
Pause. “Why do you think that?”
“Because we can both—you know,” Harry says evasively. “And you think we’re the same, anyways.”
“Because we are the same, and that’s obvious.” Tom crosses his arms and stares petulantly at the ceiling, thinking it over. “That has nothing to do with being related, and it’s not why we’ll stay together.”
Harry goes quiet for so long that Tom begins to wonder if the smaller boy has fallen asleep. But Harry is prone to long periods of silence when it suits him, so Tom doesn’t think it so strange anymore. Tom talks enough for the both of them, and Harry usually responds when Tom asks him questions. It’s familiar, this new companionship, like they had a good measure of each other even before Tom had forced his way into Harry’s life. Even if Harry is too kind, too soft, Tom finds he doesn’t mind it too much. He is sharp enough for the both of them.
“Yes?” Tom asks patiently.
Harry hesitates before he speaks again: “Do you think our parents were like us?”
Tom smiles. He likes hearing Harry say ‘us’ aloud—it’s proof that Harry also groups the two of them together. The question, however, requires a bit of thought before answering. “If my mother was like us, she wouldn’t have died,” Tom says confidently, rolling onto his side so he can look at Harry properly. “So if either of my parents were, it must have been my father.”
“That makes sense,” Harry says. His green eyes are staring blankly at the ceiling, caught up in some distant contemplation.
“It is a shame that you don’t know more about your parents,” Tom says sympathetically. “But I will help you find that out someday, too. A birthday present from me to you.” Him and Harry are both abandoned boys. Even if Tom never finds his father or Harry’s parents, they'll still survive, but if Tom can give Harry a little piece of his past, he'll do his best to do so.
Harry squirms slightly on the bed, bumping elbows with Tom in the process. “Okay, Tom.”
“We’ll be safe if we stay together,” Tom promises. “And I will never leave you behind.”
December 31st, 1936
Tom wakes up to Harry leaning over his bed. “Happy birthday, Tom,” Harry says, too loudly, his hands shaking Tom's arm.
“Good morning to you, too,” Tom grumbles, but he allows Harry to tug him into a sitting position.
Harry’s smiling face comes into focus as Tom rubs the sleep from his eyes. Tom yanks his thin grey blanket up in an attempt to stop any lingering warmth from escaping. He can’t remember ever being woken up to a ‘happy birthday’ before; he’s torn between being annoyed at the rude awakening and being ridiculously pleased that Harry cares enough to do it.
“How does it feel to be ten years old?” asks Harry.
“It feels like it doesn’t make sense that you’re older than me,” Tom replies, grabbing Harry’s hand and pulling at it until Harry sits down next to him.
“But I am older,” Harry says smugly, knocking his shoulder into Tom’s.
“October 31st isn’t your real birthday,” Tom retorts.
“But I was definitely born before December 31st,” Harry says. “Because that’s at the very end of the year. And when they found me I was already a fairly big baby, so my birthday is definitely before yours.”
“You’re irritating,” says Tom. “You only ever have a lot to say when you want to bother me.”
Harry only smiles at him. It’s maddening. But a friendly Harry is a sight better than a grumpy, distant Harry, so Tom can let it go for now.
“Do I get a present?” Tom asks huffily. “Or did you wake me up simply to rub it in that you’re older than I am.”
“Maybe,” Harry says. “Did you expect a present?”
Tom shoots him a withering look. “One day I will decide that your antagonistic tendencies are not as amusing as you think they are, and then you will be in a world of trouble.”
“Fine,” relents Harry. “I do have a present for you. But I’ll give it to you later tonight.”
“Hmm.” Tom pulls himself out of bed and gets dressed, his curiosity now sufficiently piqued.
There isn’t much to be done by way of presents at Wool’s, where everything they received was secondhand someway or another. Sometimes there would be some extra candy or a piece of dessert for a birthday child. Tom has never gotten a proper present before, a present that hadn’t belonged to someone else before it reached his hands, and he’s more excited than he’s willing to admit.
The day passes too slowly for Tom’s liking. The matron and her helpers are too fussed about New Year’s Eve to bother much with the petty bickerings between the children. Harry stays close by Tom’s side all day, hovering with a calm, neutral expression, perhaps sensing that Tom would prefer to spend his birthday just the two of them, away from the humdrum and the monotony of the rest.
It’s balanced, the way he and Harry interact with each other, the pull of give and take between them. Harry might prove annoying at times, but Tom never wants to send him away or be rid of him. There’s a fine line that Harry treads: the dichotomy between his quiet, unassuming public demeanour and the sarcastic, sharper version he reserves only for Tom. There’s also the way that Harry tends to wander off into daydreams if Tom doesn’t keep him firmly engaged in the present.
Speaking of ‘present’, Tom is more ready for evening to fall so he can receive his.
“Soon,” Harry says placatingly as they walk in for supper, picking up on Tom’s impatience.
Harry must have deliberately held onto this gift as a means to rein Tom in for the day. Clever of him, Tom thinks. He knows Tom won’t risk getting into trouble and missing out on whatever Harry has planned.
During dinner Tom picks at his food, but he does make an effort to finish everything after Harry kicks him under the table. He watches as Harry polishes off his own meal quickly, plate tidy and clean, but does not take seconds.
Mrs. Cole bids them all a joyous new year as they file out of the dining room. The chattering children disperse into their own groupings, wandering out to the drawing room or the library. Tom heads directly to their room, Harry keeping pace beside him.
Tom closes the door with a neat click, wishing not for the first time that there was a lock in place.
Harry is already moving towards Tom’s bed, kicking off his scruffy shoes before he flops gracelessly onto his back. His hand pats the space next to him, intending for Tom to join him.
“Alright,” Tom says expectantly, sliding into place next to Harry on the bed.
“I’m going to tell you what happened on the day of the fire,” Harry says, voice so low that Tom has to strain to hear him even though they're next to each other.
Tom can’t help the thrill that goes through him, knowing now that Harry trusts him. Trusts him enough to reveal what he’d insisted on keeping secret for so long. Trying not to look too eager, Tom rolls onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow, the better to watch Harry’s expressions as he talks.
“There were bullies,” Harry begins haltingly. “They liked to pick on me and some of the others.”
This does not surprise Tom, although he doesn’t say so. Harry’s quiet disposition likely makes him an appealing target. Additionally, Harry’s small stature makes him look even younger than he is. Despite Harry’s excellent ability to fade into the background at Wool’s, somehow Tom doubts this was the case at the orphanage Harry came from.
“The matron let it happen. The helpers, too. People fought each other for things all the time and no one said a word as long as it was done out of sight. I spent a lot of time looking for places to hide where no one would find me.” Then Harry grimaces, as though he’s swallowed something particularly bitter.
Tom understands that it must be hard for Harry to say these things, to admit this weakness. Another commonality between them is their inability to admit they’ve been hurt. The last thing Tom wants to do is to abandon the inflated sense of ego that has kept him sane for so many years. Harry, on the other hand, is used to feeling like a burden, like a waste of space, and he will do anything to keep his emotions in check if it means going unnoticed.
“It was like a game,” Harry continues, voice going flat and dull. “If they could catch me before I managed to hide or get away.” Unconsciously, Harry wraps his arms around himself, his eyes going distant.
“They’re brutes,” Tom says soothingly. “And they will never make anything of themselves in this life, Harry.”
“I hope that’s true,” Harry says absently. Then, with more feeling, “They would corner me and hit me. They told me I was a freak.”
Tom’s own breathing goes funny. He can hear the catches in Harry’s throat as the story spills out, spooling into the cool winter air between them. There’s a tightness in Tom’s chest. He doesn’t like the idea of Harry getting hurt. Harry is his friend, and he is going to be protected by Tom. The bullies must have been bad, Tom thinks, because he knows Harry is only giving him the truncated version of the reality he must have suffered before he came to Wool’s.
“But then things changed,” Harry says quickly. He turns to face Tom, face screwed up slightly as he thinks hard on his words. “They weren’t able to catch me, because things started to happen around me—things that stopped them. They would trip over air when they were trying to grab me, or I could hide somewhere and their eyes would slide right over me like I wasn’t there. One time, when they were chasing me, I ended up on the roof. I don’t know how I got there and it was hours before someone found me and let me back inside. They said I disappeared. They still said I was a freak, but I didn’t care, because it kept me safe.”
Harry is breathless now, having ejected more words in one go than Tom has heard over the course of the entire week.
“And the fire?” Tom hears himself asking.
“The fire was me.” Harry’s face is ashen, darkness falling across his features as though someone had snuffed out all the lights in the room. “The bullies, they—“ Harry chokes over the words and Tom startles, suddenly concerned and unsure what to do, but Harry swallows thickly and continues, “—they tied me up and gagged me and locked me in a storage cupboard. They dumped bleach on me. And then they said they were going to leave me there until I died.”
“I’ll kill them,” Tom spits viciously, half-sitting up as though he’s been called to action immediately. “Are they here? At Wool’s? I’ll kill them, Harry.”
“They’re already dead,” Harry says shrilly, and he sounds so terrified that Tom stops mid-motion to look back down at him, shocked. “I set the cupboard on fire and it burned everything. And the bullies, they were trapped in the room with me, I could hear them trying to open the door but it was locked. I couldn’t stop it, even though I tried, I tried to stop it, I kept on yelling and trying to get out, but there was still so much screaming, Tom, and I could smell the burning—”
Harry is visibly shaking from head to toe, his skin waxen and sweaty. Tom has read books about people who’ve gone into shock, but he’s never seen anything like it before. Panic crawls down Tom’s throat and knots in his gut as Harry begins to hyperventilate, and his limbs feel heavy as he tries to command his brain to think, to do something.
“Harry,” Tom babbles urgently, reaching to grasp Harry's shoulders. “Harry, it’s alright. It’s fine, you’re not trapped there anymore, you got out.”
Harry is still trembling, great silent sobs wracking his body. His hands cling to Tom, individual fingers vice-like where they hold Tom’s forearms tightly. Tom is half-hunched over, his heart thrumming wildly as he slowly releases his grip, sliding his hands down till he is holding Harry’s biceps. It is an awkward, distance embrace of sorts.
“I could smell the burning as they died,” rasps Harry, his wide eyes fixing themselves onto Tom, and Tom cannot look away. “I threw up in there, because of the bleach fumes. I was coughing so badly it hurt to breathe and I couldn’t see a single thing because they’d blindfolded me.”
Harry’s words regain some of their strength as his breathing begins to even out. His tone takes on a touch of awe as he goes on, “But the flames never touched me, never touched the cupboard. I know I passed out at some point, because I don’t know when the fire stopped burning. When they found me they said it was a miracle that I’d survived. They thought I’d crawled into the cupboard to escape the fire. They said that bleach probably wasn’t flammable and it was what protected me.”
Tom sees the inconsistency in the narrative and feels compelled to point out: “But what about the ropes? Or whatever it was that they used to tie you up.”
“There wasn’t anything there when I woke up.”
So Harry had vanished the ropes, somehow. Harry had set an entire building on fire, burned it nearly to the ground, and had then gone on to free himself of numerous restraints. Tom is both jealous and impressed at the magnitude of what Harry had accomplished.
“They deserved it,” says Tom. “Burning alive. They weren’t going to stop and they didn’t deserve to live. You don’t feel guilty, do you?”
Harry doesn’t argue back, so Tom repeats, “They deserved it.” He’s hovering in front of Harry, kneeling on the bed next to Harry’s waist. “Sometimes you have to use force to get what you want—that’s the way the world is. If you don’t take what you want, if you’re weak, people will hurt you. So you have to be better than them, you have to be smarter and more powerful. I’m glad you’re here, Harry, and that means I’m glad they’re all dead.”
Tom searches Harry’s face for understanding. “Aren’t you glad to be here?” he asks haltingly. Dangerously.
“Yes,” Harry says, then flinches, pulling his arms back across his chest.
“Good,” Tom says, pleased, stretching back to resume his horizontal position next to Harry. “Don’t worry about things like that anymore. They won’t happen again, because I won’t let it happen. And even if someone tried, they’d have to get through the both of us.”
Harry doesn't respond to this. But after a while, Harry whispers, “Happy birthday, Tom,” one more time, finally signaling the end of the conversation.