“I can’t believe you’re going to do this,” Ginny said, leaning against one of the recently emptied cupboards. Her fingers were toying with the tip of her long, red braid and the look on her face made Harry wonder how exhausted she must be. He shrugged and put down the lukewarm cup of coffee he had been holding.
“Ginny,” he started, but didn’t find the words to continue. She did.
“I heard Hermione talking about it,” Ginny said with a sigh. “I think it’s a pointlessly reckless and dangerous thing to do. You have to be aware of how rash the whole plan is.”
“I know,” Harry admitted quietly. “But I think it’s worth doing anyway. I feel like it’s something that has to be done.”
“Has to be done?” Ginny repeated, and once again Harry found himself thankful for the fact that Ginny wasn’t in the habit of raising her voice, no matter how upset she was. It had been perhaps the first thing that Harry had truly liked about her: the way she spoke. “It’s in the past. It happened decades ago. His life was miserable, but so were the lives of many children. Why save him from it?”
“The consequences were too terrible. You know that well.”
“People deal with the aftermath. We soldier on.”
“I’ve done enough of that to know it by heart, Ginny. I will always do it, one way or another. But if I go through with this plan, no one else will have to,” Harry insisted, hoping that she’d understand.
“Going back in time to somehow fix Tom Riddle may not change anything for the better,” Ginny pointed out. “If you do manage to stop him from becoming Voldemort, do you seriously think that there won’t be another Dark Lord trying to do what he did? Terrible things won’t stop happening even if you stop him.”
“What he did – and tried to do – is just a reflection of who he is. He’s a psychopath, and that’s just not something you can change, Harry. He can’t be saved because he would never view himself as someone who’d need saving. You know that better than anyone."
“I am reasonable,” Ginny said sternly, but not unkindly. Harry’s heart ached. “Don’t try to tell me that I’m not being reasonable. The thought of you using some shady, untested ritual to go back in time to take care of Tom Riddle is nothing short of crazy. I’m the one who’s reasonable here, and if you can’t see the fault in this naïve and idealistic plan of yours, then I—“
“Yes, you’ve made your thoughts on the matter very clear,” Harry interrupted. “But Ginny, whether or not you think it is stupid is not going to stop me. You don’t understand half of the reasons why I want to do this, and I’m not going to explain everything to you. I shouldn’t need to.”
“Ron and Hermione haven’t been able to talk you out of this.”
“They understand how important it is to me. They know I have to do it.”
“No, you don’t have to do anything. You owe nobody anything. You never did!”
“This isn’t about owing anyone anything, Ginny,” Harry said, shaking his head. He didn’t sound upset or angry anymore, just very tired. “I want to do this. For him, and for me.”
“I hope that’s true. Because all I want,” Ginny said, “is to make sure that you’re doing this for your own sake, not for the sake of someone else. Wanting to save the rest of us from something that has already passed is unnecessary. You’re no one’s champion anymore, and you shouldn’t feel the need to dedicate your life to one quest after another just to feel accepted.”
“I want you to stop measuring your self-worth through your achievements. You don’t need to be miserable first to justify being happy later.”
Harry stared at her for a few quiet moments, before he said: “I really don’t deserve you.”
“That’s exactly the way of thinking I wish you’d get rid of,” Ginny sighed, before giving him a sharp smile. “Harry, why are you going to use an untested ritual to send yourself back in time to raise Tom Riddle?”
“I want to,” Harry replied hesitantly, feeling selfish and unsure all of a sudden. “Because the thought of him in an orphanage hurts me and I don’t know why. But when I think of him being so little and cold and hungry and that in the end I killed him, I…”
“You feel like you gave his bad life a bad ending,” Ginny said. “No matter how much he deserved it. I’d call your guilt complex amazing if I wasn’t so angry about it.”
“The orphanages back then were terrible,” Harry continued quietly. “It’d be worse than living with the Dursleys. You know how that was, I told you. And then you hexed Aunt Petunia even though I said—“
“She was capable of living happily while forcing a child to live in her cupboard for almost a decade,” Ginny deadpanned. “She’ll survive having random and loud fits of laughter for the rest of her life. If your uncle was still alive, I would have— Oh well, no need to think of that now. Don’t digress. Let’s go through your reasons.”
“I just want you to know that life back then for orphans was terrible,” Harry said, trying to find the words to express what he felt in his heart. “The rooms were dark, winters long and freezing, clothes thin and old, food diluted or already going bad. They rarely got doctors to see orphans when they were ill, the little education they had was given only to the smartest kids by the local churches… if there were any and if they felt like it.”
“And you think that once you appear there, everything will change for the better?” Ginny asked. “If you’re going there to fix someone else, you’ll be dissatisfied until you succeed – if you do. Do you think that’s something you should be doing?”
“It’s a risk,” Harry admitted. “A risk that I’m willing to take. Hermione has already researched the hell out of the ritual and Ron has arranged my finances in Gringotts so I have at least something I can take with me. Please, don’t try to stop me.”
“I won’t,” Ginny said with a grimace. “I won’t try to stop you, Harry, but I do believe that you deserve more than to spend the rest of your days on a quest that may very well leave you with nothing. I wish that when I asked you for your reasons to go there, you’d have told me that you’re doing it for yourself without hesitation. That you want to go somewhere to start anew and take a real shot at happiness.”
“It,” Harry said hesitantly. “It is. I’ll… do my best to be happy.”
Ginny sighed, closed her eyes and shook her head. “Merlin, I don’t even know what to tell you.” She then opened her eyes and scowled at Harry. “Just keep in mind that we love you here.”
“Ginny—,” Harry started, but the woman shushed him.
“Wait, let me finish,” she said. “I know you better than you feel comfortable with, and I know that there are times when you feel like an outsider and insecure about your own worth. What’s going to make it worse for you from now on is that we won’t be there to tell you that you’re being silly.”
“We’ve always loved you,” Ginny said firmly. “We loved you when you were eleven, we love you now, and we will love you forever. Mum, dad, me… all of us. Our love for you is not the kind that requires you to behave in a certain way for us to keep on loving you. Remember that, Harry Potter. No matter what you do, you will always be loved, even if we’re not there to tell you so.”
Harry didn’t cry, but the burn of tears wasn’t entirely absent. “Ginny,” he said, breathless. “Thank you. Thank you, I—”
“It’s fine,” Ginny interrupted, smiling sadly at him. “It… it will be fine.”
Sullen, small, and spiteful. Pale and scrawny, the fine features of his face made sharp by chronic hunger, hard work, and fatigue. Some suffered from reluctant admiration towards the intelligent boy and most of those who did not outright dislike him were too afraid to approach him.
And yet, despite his few redeeming qualities, there wasn’t a single person in the neighbourhood who could swear to their God that they particularly liked Tom Riddle.
Tom knew that he had given his peers quite a few reasons to hate and fear him, and the whispered rumours wildly exaggerated those reasons. He didn’t mind. The little ones stuttered and shook when they saw him and most of the older children chose not to approach him. The caretakers, however, had no reason for fear and all the reasons for anger, and they hated Tom nearly as much as Tom hated them.
The orphanage itself was a miserable, wretched building full of nasty memories and people who hated being there. It was full, noisy, filthy, and people got sick easily. Doctors were rarely summoned and funerals were wasted on orphans, which simply meant that after a period of sickness some simply disappeared.
Tom knew that not even half of the children there were really orphaned, as much as simply abandoned either temporarily or for good. The caretakers were more focused on showing their authority than anything else and the orphans tried to excel in everything they could – especially after the administrators had introduced the new fostering system.
It was odd; Tom didn’t understand it. Why would anyone want to take care of a child not their own? There had to be a reason, a motive for that. What was it?
What Tom did understand, however, was why no one wanted to adopt him. There had been a few who had tried, at first, but were warned away quickly. They were told about the time he had taken Billy Stubbs’s rabbit and hung it from the rafters after some petty argument. They were told about how he liked to steal and burn things and how he liked setting snakes on people.
Maybe they were even told some vague whispers of the Cave Incident where he taught Dennis Bishop and Amy Benson a well-deserved lesson about who they definitely shouldn’t be messing with. It got out of hand, almost, but that didn’t matter. The fools had been and still were too scared to say a word about it to anyone in fear of a repeat performance, even though the after-effects had been delightfully obvious.
Tom knew he was special. He was better than the others around him because he was different. Life had somehow made him unlike the people surrounding him and that must have meant something. Perhaps he was meant for something… something great.
“Hey Riddle,” a nasal, unfortunately familiar voice called. Tom turned to see a tall, lanky boy with freckles and somewhat faded burn scars on his face walking closer. He knew who the boy was: Jennings, who had been sweet on Benson and hated Tom with a passion that overwhelmed fear and common sense. “I’m going to get taken in by a family today.”
“Good riddance,” Tom replied. Did the other really think that taunting him with something Tom didn’t want anyway was going to work? Adoption? That fostering system? Tom didn’t want it! The orphanage was bad but he was sure that whatever would be waiting in a foster home was bound to be worse.
He had heard and seen those kids who were brought back after they were adopted. He had seen what happened to those Unsuccessful Placement-people who were returned even more broken than they had been before. Ellie something-or-other had been a lively girl on her way out. The echo of her laughter could be heard in the wind long after she had disappeared into the distance with her new parents. Six weeks later she was back with cropped hair and bruised eyes and a fear of men she had not had before.
“I will have a family,” Jennings insisted. “I won’t be alone like you.”
“If that’s what you want to believe,” Tom said evenly, “then far be it from me to tell you otherwise.” He looked at Jennings, and couldn’t help the disgust he felt towards the boy. People like Jennings shouldn’t even be alive. Too dumb to be of use and too stubborn to obey those who knew better. And despite their lack of worth, they were so noisy and loud. Always trying to be noticed, never apologising for existing.
Tom hated people like that.
When Jennings left, Tom forgot him soon after. Children were being adopted on a regular basis; some returned, some died, some were never heard from again. Tom never thought about himself as a subject for adoption – never yearned for it, never saw its point. Who cared about family anyway, when all the children at Wool’s were proof of how fickle families were?
Not Tom, that’s for certain. He didn’t care for a family.
The day when everything changed started normally enough.
The fourth of November was a dark, cold day. The sharp wind swept through the hallways, smothering traces of warmth and burrowing into the residents of the orphanage. Tom was shivering as he ate his breakfast of thin porridge and diluted milk. It wasn’t as if winters were beautiful – the snow was dirty brown, the wind merciless, the cold unyielding, and the place was cramped since no one was willing to spend their days outside like during the summers.
Laundry duty was certainly the worst part of Tom’s day. The children had to take old and rusty buckets outside to fill them with snow that would melt into icy water, after which they would wash nearly never-ending piles of dirty clothes. “Making good use of what nature gives us for free,” the caretakers had said, enjoying the warm wool they had wrapped around their hands.
Tom’s hands were numb as he washed clothes from the pile in front of him. Dunking the fabric into the cold water and scrubbing it hard, as if the stains could truly disappear. He was crouching in a row with nine others who had laundry duty for the week, and Tom resented the mere thought of having to do this. He hated this filthy task, having to wash the dirty clothes of someone else – this wasn’t something he should have to do.
“Change the waters!” hollered the woman keeping an eye on them. Her face was as stern as her voice, and her arm holding a heavy clock was steady. Her small beady eyes wearily watched the children as they scrambled up and went outside to dump the dirty water and replace it with fresh snow.
Tom was filling his bucket when he felt someone approaching him from behind, and expecting an insult of some sort, he didn’t turn or pay attention to the person in question. When the bucketful of freezing cold, dirty water washed over him, he cried out in surprise and pain. He tried to stand up with limbs that were suddenly too numb to move only to get pushed into the snow.
“Sorry, I misaimed,” a voice giggled, and Tom shuddered, feeling the cold sweep instantly through his clothes, soaking him completely. Gritting his teeth, he glared up at Ben Buck who was already running inside with a bucket full of snow.
‘I’ll kill you,’ Tom thought, the hot fury inside him doing nothing to fight the cold that was sweeping into his bones. ‘There’ll come a day when I’ll butcher you like an animal.’
“It’s going to be so bloody odd to not have you around anymore,” Ron sighed, slouching on his chair with a sad look on his face. “I’m too used to you. Merlin, I’ll probably miss you a lot.”
“Cheers,” Harry replied, not looking away from the runes Hermione was drawing on the floor. “How do you even know how many swirls those things need?”
“I know what I’m doing,” Hermione assured him. “I’ll be done soon and then we can go for a cup of tea while the runes settle.”
“While the runes settle. I don’t even know what she means by that,” Ron said. “You still sure about this, mate?”
“Yes,” Harry said. “I am.”
“Well, it might do you a world of good,” Ron admitted. “Living away from all the bloody reporters and crazy fans. Remember that guy who tried to break into your house and said that he wanted to be a part of your life?”
“He peed in front of my house,” Harry groaned. “It’s hard to forget someone who does that.”
“It was so funny.”
“It really wasn’t.”
“All right,” Hermione suddenly said, standing up. “It’s almost done. Just a few minutes and it’ll be ready. Does anyone want some tea?”
“I’d like something to eat,” Ron said. “Grilled chicken and roasted potatoes.”
“I’m not going to make any of that,” Hermione replied, heading towards the kitchen with both Ron and Harry walking behind her. “But I’ve got some lemon tarts that I made this morning. Tried out your recipe, Harry. They turned out pretty well.”
“Glad to hear that,” Harry said with a grin and sat down by the table. “Got the recipe from Molly, actually. I hope that I’ll be able to find the ingredients in the 40s, too.”
“Speaking of that, do you have everything you need?” Hermione asked, gesturing for Ron to pour them some tea. “Muggle money, too, I mean. How much did you take?”
“I didn’t empty the vaults, if that’s what you were wondering,” Harry replied. “I couldn’t – there are apparently limitations to that kind of request. I took enough money to last me a few months, but I’ll look for a job as soon as I arrive.”
“Finding a job would be great, but it might be difficult. Be careful, Harry, and if something confuses you be subtle about it. I bought you a few books to read—“
“You must realize that raising a child like Tom Riddle won’t be an easy task,” Hermione said seriously, leaning closer towards her friend. “I’m not sure how old he’ll be when you get to him, but he started going… bad very early. It could be the environment – we can hope that, since problems caused by the environment are fixed more easily than the other option.”
“And the other option is…?” Harry asked, not really wanting to know.
“That the madness brought by generations of inbreeding combined with the potions Merope made the muggle Tom Riddle consume before impregnating her could have done something to addle his mind. Worst and most probable case is, of course, that he is a victim of all three: misuse of potions, genetics, and environment,” Hermione explained with a sad sigh. “No matter what, though, read the books and then burn them – you don’t want someone asking about the publishing date.”
“I will do what I can,” Harry promised. “How do you think he will behave? I mean, Dumbledore toldme about some things Riddle did at the orphanage – hurting animals and burning things and stealing. He’s apparently a pathological liar, too.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Hermione said, smiling gratefully at Ron when he set down a cup of tea in front of her. “He was a very troubled child. Harry, I have to admit that while I’m certain that you’d make a wonderful father, I think that Tom Riddle could be, perhaps, a hopeless case.”
“I’m not going there to turn him into a saint,” Harry reminded her. “I just want to point him towards healthier coping methods that do not include things like world domination and murder.”
“Fair point,” Ron said. “I can see you succeeding if that’s the plan.”
“We should start soon,” Hermione sighed, pulling her hair into a tight bun. “The runes are likely to be settled by now and they shouldn’t be left that way for too long.”
“Right,” Harry said, feeling nervous. He stood up and looked at Ron and Hermione with a troubled expression, unsure of what to say. Final farewells were out of the question.
“Your luggage is with you?” Hermione finally asked after a period of silence, reaching to hold Harry’s hand. “You sure you’ve got everything you need?”
“Shrunken and in my pockets, don’t worry about the luggage,” Harry assured her. “And I’m sure I’ve got everything. Guys…”
“Don’t say it,” Ron said, his hand heavy on Harry’s shoulder. “Don’t say goodbye.”
“I won’t,” Harry replied. “Instead just promise me you won’t name your kid Harry. Pick something else. A name people can’t link to someone who fought in the war. Name him Emil or Hugo or something like that.”
“Got it, mate,” Ron smiled. He didn’t look particularly happy, though. “Good luck. Give ‘em hell.”
“Be careful,” Hermione hurried to add. “And yes, good luck, Harry.”
Harry had no idea where in England he was. The streets were narrow and crowded, and the buildings that towered around him were unfamiliar. The square Harry stepped into reminded him more of Diagon Alley when he had first seen it than of Surrey.
The midday sun was high and bright whenever the clouds of smoke, dust, and fog allowed it to shine through. Despite the brightness of the day, the sun would start setting soon – the winter days tended to be short and chilly. Ice and filthy snow were covering the pavement and Harry could see people moving carefully to avoid falling. A cold, unpleasant wind was slowly picking up.
A car drove by – loud and nothing like the Toyota the Dursleys had had. It startled Harry, who then realized that standing still was not going to help him forward at all. He took a deep breath and looked around him again, paying more attention to the stores and boutiques in the area. Closest to him was a coffee shop that boasted to be open twenty-four hours a day and served ‘original French drip coffee’. It was a starting place as good as any other, and Harry quietly made his way towards it.
Perhaps, should he get the chance, a cup of coffee would be a good thing to get down. At least it’d warm him up for a moment or two.
Inside the coffee shop was quite empty. The top shelves behind the counter were filled with bags of sugar and flour, and the tables near the window had empty flower vases on them. A young woman with steely blue eyes and a forced smile had just handed a customer a cup of coffee.
“Excuse me,” Harry started, stepping closer to the counter. “May I have a moment, please?”
“A moment with or without coffee?” the girl asked, pushing her clenched fists deep into the pockets of her dark grey cardigan. Harry offered her an awkward smile, unsure of how to respond. She squinted at him, shivering slightly.
“Depends,” he finally replied. “Do you know if there are any flats for rent nearby? And, perhaps, if you know of any places that are hiring right now.”
“If you haven’t got a job, I doubt you’ll be wanting coffee,” the girl said. “It’s six pence a cup these days.” Her stern expression softened slightly, and she managed to even smile at Harry.
“I don’t know of any flats,” she then continued. “I doubt we have free ones here in this side of Deptford. I wouldn’t know about that, though. But say, if you know how to hold a needle and sew buttons, I suppose you might as well drop by Maggie’s. It’s two streets down, corner store. She’s looking for an assistant.”
“Thanks,” Harry said. “I’d like that coffee, then.”
“Confident, are we? That sure you’re getting hired?”
“Take a coke then,” the girl told him. “Four pence. This French drip just isn’t worth the six. Not even in this bloody weather.”
“Thank you,” Harry said again, his smile a bit more genuine now. “I’ll have a coke, then.”
After drinking his coke and leaving the coffee shop, Harry cast a warming charm on himself before making his way down the street to where he hoped to find the place the girl had referred to as “Maggie’s”. Much to his relief, it was relatively easy to find.
Maggie was, apparently, a dressmaker. Her boutique was small, clean, and elegant, and Harry felt very much out of place in her tiny store. The woman herself was tall, sharp-eyed, and reminded Harry vaguely of Aunt Petunia.
“I need you to do something for me before I hire you,” she said, her pale green eyes assessing him with a cold look. Here stood a woman who wouldn’t hesitate to chuck him out should she find him useless. She handed Harry a needle, some thread, and a folded piece of fabric. “Here, sew a line for me.”
Harry had rarely had to sew for Aunt Petunia, but simple things he certainly could manage. Maggie – who told him to call her Modiste Maggie – seemed to be rather satisfied with what he could do, and nodded approvingly.
“With cotton it’s fine to use that needle,” the woman told him, observing his work. “With satin you’ll need a finer one. Some fabrics are very sensitive to the puncture marks needles leave behind, and considering our very distinguished clientele, we provide them only with the best of the best. You’re fine, I suppose, with seams and such. What’s your name?”
“Harry,” Harry said. “I recently came to this area… I’m still looking for a place to live.”
“N— well, I have a little brother. He’s not yet here with me, though, but will come once I find us a place to live.” Harry smiled nervously, thinking of Riddle. He’d need to find the boy as soon as possible and convince him somehow to leave the orphanage.
“You won’t need much space, then,” Modiste Maggie said. “Once you’re done here today, go down to Fishers Road and look for Amanda Millington. She has a flat she’s renting out for four shillings a week, if I remember correctly. I’ll be paying you three pounds a month – I assure you it’s far more than most people here would pay their assistants. I believe in rewarding hard work, you see, and in order to stay here you will work hard. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” Harry said. Modiste Maggie nodded, visibly pleased.
“We have quite a few orders to complete. You will do no more and no less than sew seams for today, and strictly follow the instructions I give you.”
It certainly wasn’t the kind of job Harry had ever imagined himself doing, but he was well used to doing whatever he must in order to get by.
For now, it was all right.