Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter. All rights belong to J. K. Rowling.

A/N: First of all, welcome. I left the genre blank because this is more character-driven than anything else, with a bit of self-discovery subtext. So here are some tags instead. There will be magical theory, political undertones, soul-searching, wanderlust. Heavy prose, too...and present tense. I think that covers most of it. If you're still interested, I hope you'll enjoy the story. Onward! :))

"Watch what you're doing, freak!"

The woman's voice is shrill, echoes jarringly inside the pristine kitchen, angry, always angry. Harry flinches and hides his bleeding hand behind his back, fingers curled tight and flesh throbbing. The knife lies flat on the cutting board, metal wet with fresh blood and celery residue.

"I'm sorry, aunt Petunia." It is pure reflex that moves his mouth, forms the words that never quite manage to placate her.

His aunt doesn't care to hear excuses or reasons, at least not from him. Dudley, on the other hand, can get away with anything if he scrunches up his face and whines long and loud enough. A sniff and an upturn of her nose is all Harry merits, and shrieked orders.

"Wipe off that mess. I don't want your dirty blood all over my clean kitchen. God forbid it gets into the food… My poor Dudley could get poisoned or—or worse!" She clutches the coral silk of her blouse with one hand above her heart, as if the thought of such mishap is more foul than the blackest murder. Her eyes fall down on him, narrow with ill-concealed distaste, pupils blown wide. "But take care of that cut first. Who knows what's in your freakish blood… Abnormal, the whole lot of you."

Harry ducks his head and clenches his fist. Blood spills on the white-gleaming tiles, and her nostrils flare.

"Yes, aunt Petunia." He says nothing more and does as he is told—but he is smiling through the pain.

His hand hurts. His head hurts. His mouth hurts. He keeps smiling. Passive-aggression is his dead mother's milk.

It begins with blood, the way all things begin. Blood, pain, something wounded and trapped and screaming for never-given mercy. Deep inside. Close to the surface. A scar upon a soul that can neither close nor open. The Curse and the Vessel. Wrong, unnatural, damned to live between agony and oblivion—and still, wanting to live.

"Get in there, boy! And don't you make any noise or it will be the belt for you."

His uncle's grip on his arm is brutal as he drags him into the cupboard that has been his for as long as Harry can remember. Bones rattle under blotched skin, grinding, nerves blazing excruciatingly. Sensation overpowers sense, and he snarls against the man's violence, but the door is slamming shut and Vernon's monologue mutes out the guttural cry.

"Why we took you in, I'll never know. Eating our food and spitting on our kindness. Not worth the trouble. If it weren't for those freaks of yours… Blackmailing good people and dumping their orphans on our doorsteps. Never paid us either, did they?"

Harry gathers his savaged arm close to his chest and melts into old dust and darkness. Then why did you? And who are they? Why am I here if you don't want me? Wracked with pain, he thinks long and hard, twists and twirls his uncle's words inside his mind until he finds meaning beyond bare loathing. Someone else is out there, someone else like him—that is the last thing he gleans before numbness overcomes him and swallows the pain.

Tom Marvolo Riddle becomes aware of his existence far too late to exist as himself. And more than that, he realizes—he is less of what he was and more of what he could be. A broken shard of soul, made of hate and madness and juvenile mistakes. He doesn't understand what has become of him—what he has done to himself—until he grasps how little of him remains. Believing it is…wrong, that he has been wrong, is another impossibility he struggles to accept. But he does, oh, he does.

Clarity is slow to come within the long sleep. There is pain, nothing but pain, too much and not all his. He latches onto the pain-not-his with the jagged edges of his soul and pulls, rips, mutilates. A soul bleeds through, whole and pure and desolate. Not his, never his, but…he remembers. He remembers this—feeling like this, so very long ago, full of helpless fear that culminates in mindless rage. Unkindness in gaunt faces, childish cruelty, petty, empty words. I don't belong here. Perhaps it is visceral abhorrence for weakness. Or perhaps that he cares not for remembering. You don't belong here, he tells the other-soul, the child-soul not his. Then the memories surge.

Light filters through the large window his aunt favors when she takes her morning tea, gaze focused outward, eagle-keen and twice as predatory. A creature of habit and slow-festering malice. Harry is too young to fathom that scandals are sweeter than the scones she nibbles, brown sugar for self-inflicted misery, but not too young to be unwary of her gaze.

"I'm enrolling you in primary school with our Dudley." An announcement, matter-of-fact.

Seeds of newborn hope sprout inside him, bright green and peeking through the choppy mess of strands that covers his eyelids. School. New people. Friends even. Freedom. School is the promise of friends, wonderful, precious promise.

Cold blue pierces through his budding elation. "You will behave yourself. I don't want teachers calling to tell me you've caused trouble. Do you understand?"

No, not really. Harry doesn't have enough fingers to count the many implications of trouble in this house. Despite his waning hope, his broken trust in expectations, he dares believe once more. Maybe, this time, with two of his tormentors absent, things will be different.

"Yes, aunt Petunia."

Silence suffuses the space between them after his hoarse whisper. Tense, suffocating. Resigned, head hung low, Harry stands still and waits for the inevitable vitriol of her tongue. Her lips stretch thin, flesh drawn tight and bloodless, peeling back to show rows of overlarge teeth.

"Harry James Potter." Syllables hissed, venom-drenched. His aunt stares at him as if dreading some kind of revelation.

Confusion furrows his brows—he knows his name is Harry, and Potter rings half-hollow, half-forgotten, but James is unfamiliar to his ears. Oh. Uncle Vernon has mentioned the Potters a few times before, a slurred litany of insults when heavy with drink after dinner. Potter must have been his father's family name then.

Petunia nods curtly the moment realization enters his eyes. "That's your full name and what the teachers will call when taking roll to see if students are in attendance. Remember it, boy."

His chin dips while he savors the fullness of his name, another distinction, another proof his ties to this family are as tenuous as their tolerance.

Another hiss is flung into the lemon-scented air, sourness distilled into sound. Harry's head snaps up and he sees bones outlined on skin that has become too brittle, too wan to veil the skull beneath.

"James was your father's name, you know. Absolutely horrid man…he and his freakish friends, strutting around like gormless baboons, thought they were better than the rest of us normal, hardworking people." Petunia's breath comes out fast and frantic, chest heaving, saliva dripping. Spite personified. "Lily was bad enough before, but he—he ruined her." Something vengeful snakes into her voice, rancor old and unforsaken, trembling on the edge of hysteria.

"And look where that got her. Dead and buried who knows where and you—" She inhales sharply, shattered and cut on all the pieces. Wretched. "Just like her." Shaken, shaking, she turns her back on him. "Get out of my sight."

Harry runs out of the kitchen, fleet on his feet and quiet, mind awhirl with questions. Friends— friends of his parents, just like them. He may not have friends, but Dudley has. His cousin has playdates and children to laugh with. Many of those children's mothers are his aunt's friends, too. Shouldn't his parents' friends want to visit him? Why have they not come if they are just like him?

Harry James Potter is a name he knows well, if only that. Fate-touched, beloved child. Pitiful, Tom learns, suits him better. What does it say for the magical world that this boy, his prophesied vanquisher, has been abandoned to the vicious care of muggles? What does it mean? Nothing is changed. He is no more…and nothing has changed.

They love their saviors and they hate their villains and they are terrified of power. Of the primal magics, wild and instinct-glutted, the kind that break souls and minds and lives, their prices too steep to pay. Terrible, great things, they are. Better they drown their infants lest they become something that cannot be controlled. After all, they drown their magic-less ones. What is one more? Contempt seethes hot and deep inside the cracks of his maimed soul—because he has paid the price. Lily Potter has paid the price. Her son is now paying the price. And the magic is worth all that and more. But them? The ignorant, the shallow, the cowards, the imbeciles? Fuck them, he tells Harry James Potter, the magic-blessed, the magic-cursed like him.

Harry steps into the shower and steels himself for the frigid onrush. Water flows clear and free and washes away everything—the mud, the blood, the warmth, the fatigue. Shivers erupt as the chill slides down the curve of his spine, soaking through muscle and sinew, limbs growing sluggish, alarmingly numb. He lathers his body with stiff, careful motions, teeth chattering, fingers contorted around the bar of cheap soap bought for his use. A sudden rap on the bathroom door startles him and the soap slips through his fingers.

"Hurry up, boy. Vernon will be home soon and you need to set the table."

Picking up the soap takes far too long, his waist and knees too rigid to bend easily. The door bursts open and his aunt strides inside with an ugly sneer mere seconds after he turns off the water. Their eyes meet—

Something thickens the density of the air, crawls along the pathway of his vertebrae, simmers in a mass low in his abdomen. It feels…sentient. Heavy. Power transmuted into nerve-sensation, condensed into fiery essence. Heat wraps around his senses, sizzles down his nerve endings. He shudders, curls his tongue inside his mouth, tingling with the aftertaste of its fury.

"You—what are you—what did you do?"

Steam saturates every tile and surface when Harry regains sight. He gasps, peers at her through damp lashes, bewildered. "Aunt Petunia?"

A whimper answers his call. Petunia is kneeling on the floor, rocking back and forth, the white of her sclera streaked with carmine, patches of skin boiling on her face and arms and legs. "Stay…stay away from me…freak." She sounds…afraid. Her gaze flits to his then jerks away violently. Devil…she murmurs and crosses herself. "Into your cupboard. Now!"

Harry reaches for the towel near the mirror, body seized with shock and gooseflesh—and he sees. Blood-fire reflected in the misted glass. He blinks, and it is vanished.

That night, he dreams of hair and eyes the color of perdition.

Lily Potter lives inside her son's blood—magic given sentience and memory. She burns. She loves. She hates. No subtlety, no inhibition, that war-fire red. Tom can't even begin to understand what her sacrifice has invoked, and he isn't sure he wants to know. Life-force devoured, from mother to child, bound to blood and skin, writhing and coiling around the boy's magic. Molten wrath in swollen veins. The taste of her… He laughs and laughs and laughs. It is fortuitous that she is shackled inside her son—or she will set the world on fire. He will not be the first to burn, oh, no.

Sometimes, Tom sinks his teeth into her heart, feels her beating on his tongue, slick-red and smoldering—Petunia Dursley's skin glows with sunburns on those days.

Hunger has ceded way to nausea and migraines two days ago. Harry has spent hours upon hours huddled on his sullied mattress begging for the littlest crumb of bread. Now…now he wastes with one side of his face mashed against the locked door of his cupboard. Openpleasepleaseopen—

A succession of clicking sounds drills into his ears. Disoriented, he barely catches himself before he is sent sprawling to the floor. How—? No. Food. Food first…while his relatives are still sleeping. The path to the kitchen is too short and too long, but he manages, cautiously, on the tips of his toes. After he has come and gone, with his hunger sated and cheese and bread spirited away under the floorboard, he contemplates the miraculous occurrence.

In the end, the how eludes him, but Harry never goes hungry again. Two months later, he laughs and names it magic, if only to mock his aunt's manic proclamations of its inexistence.

The first month of school is an amalgam of wonder and disillusionment—infant words of praise, language challenges and math games, scratches and bruises under the umbra of recess. As for friends… Harry tries and tries and tries, but Dudley's attitude mars his brave overtures. Unless he corrals his cousin into behaving, the promise of friends will remain a distant, hazy dream. And so he plans.

There is a strict policy against bullying, and he has seen it enforced in other children's favor. Public exposure with many witnesses elicits the best results, but unfortunately, even simple-minded Dudley has learned that lesson quickly. Still, Petunia has taught Harry that adults like their routines just so, and the science teacher likes to take his lunch near the window overlooking the third bench in the school yard.

Dudley makes the mistake of assaulting him in full view of Mr. Wilks five times before another lesson sinks in.

Harry wakes in a circle of fire and white emptiness, two figures with him, silent, waiting. The woman—she is the fire. Vivid embodiment, an otherworldly elemental, threads of flame twined around slim arms and legs, rebelling, flickering in and out of form. Light shines fulgent and star-bright out of her eyes, the bone structure of her face too delicate to be molded into shape. He watches the sinuous fall of her hair as it slithers and ripples, mesmerized. The man, in contrast, appears perfectly human. Except his eyes—

A spark of memory strikes his mind. Petunia burning, burning, fire-blood-hair-eyes in the mirror.

His heart is pounding against his ribcage, an uneven, restless tempo. Harry swallows thickly, once, twice. "Mum? Dad?"

A smile tempers the hard set of the man's lips. "Not quite. But if you'd like that for now, we can be."

Not quite denial. His gaze traces the patterns of dazzling, brilliant flame that is not quite his mother. "What are you then?"

"She takes the form known to the magic. It carries the caster's will until her purpose is satisfied." His voice is smooth, cultured, patient. Nothing like Vernon's. One hand beckons him forward. "Come closer, Harry. She will never hurt you."

Harry takes one stumbling step, and another, until he is running, running, leaping into her open arms. Breathless, blind, enveloped in searing warmth. She croons to him—my precious boy—a lullaby of two thousand nights—I love you—soft and sibilant—my beautiful baby—and strokes his hair with hands of fire. He burrows deeper and lets her dry his tears, salt-heat on his cheeks and scorching kisses on his forehead. "I love you, too, mum."

An eternity passes. The sound of fabric rustling reminds him that there is another person near. Harry stays curled in his mother's lap but tilts his head to study the man that is not quite his father. His thoughts must be transparent.

"I'm not your biological father despite the similarities between us, but I've poured so much of myself in you, that it doesn't matter." Fondness in his slanted eyes, in the pads of his fingers as they map the ridged bolt of tissue above his brow. "Bonds are important, Harry, however they come to be."

Harry leans into the soothing touch and sighs. Yes…it doesn't matter. What matters is—

"This isn't a dream, is it? Why couldn't I meet you before if you are—" Dead. But not what he wants to say. So he just smiles.

"Always with you?" Harry's smile is met with a mirthful hum and a glint of challenge. "It is the other way around. You shouldn't have met us at all, and you wouldn't have, if your mother and I hadn't…come to an accord."

Harry's smile broadens even as his brows knit. Talking with this man is equally fun and frustrating. He teases and baits with little morsels of knowledge until Harry reaches the right conclusion. "You are the reason that I…changed?"

"In part." A quirk of lips is his reward, a mixture of pride and ruefulness, and Harry flushes with delight. "You were always a clever child, and in time, you would have developed the kind of shrewdness needed to survive in such a hostile environment. Resilient children learn to be resourceful given the right motivation—I would know." He laughs then, his laughter pleased, if a bit bitter.

Thinking back on all the bouts of meticulous scheming and cool, precise calculation, food pilfered into the night and bullies exposed by their own hand, Harry understands. "But you and mum helped me."

"You were never alone. It is a wondrous feat of magic that resides inside you."

His grim reverence, the blood-rust in his eyes, how he accents that word are grave truths. Magic shadows his aunt's nightmares, nourishes her false-images of alcoholics and car crashes. Disharmony—she lies—a haunting echo resonating—take me instead—wisps of fire looping and tightening around his chest and stomach. A sob. His mouth fills with ash and slow-chocking sorrow. "Is that why she died, to be with me?"

"It was what she chose." He stares at him quietly, closely, red, red eyes and an immutable, ruthless reality, and when he speaks again, his tone is stripped of emotion. "I came for you that night. I killed your father because he stood in my way, but nobody killed your mother. Her choice took her life before the curse left my wand. My choice…it cost me one slice of my soul and this bond." Something passes through his eyes but it is void, void in dark-hungry eyes, void under history and magic cresting endlessly. "After that, there are not many choices. Rejection for all of us—or assimilation. We could be birthed anew, if you wanted."

Harry stills. This bond, this touch, this man he cherishes, he—not quite his father. He doesn't wear the face of a murderer…his dad's murderer. Why—why take his dad's face for his own? Why then tell him? Whywhywhy

Mind spinning, turning, reeling, pitch-black behind his eyelids. Just…just don't…don't ask…don'twanttoknow. The blaze of his mother's presence licks his throat, breathes fire into voice gone frail with doubt. "Is that what you and mum agreed?"

An inscrutable expression has spread over the stark angles of the man's face, but he dips his chin all the same. Maybe, maybe he too, wants to pretend.

"She holds the power to cast me out—that was her purpose, the reason her magic still lingers in your blood."

What goes unspoken, what is being implied…devastates. Lightheaded, breath caught inside his lungs, and yet thought has never been more clear. "You mean that…she will leave me either way." Harry sucks in another breath, stalling despite all futility, as if the puzzle isn't already rearranged, waiting for the final piece to be slid into place. "And what you said before…you meant that we wouldn't have met if I didn't have to decide. So…here we are." One last indrawn breath, and he takes the leap. "Why do you even want to…complete this bond? What would happen to you?"

The man smiles, sharpness peeking through, and it is boon, and entreaty. "This is but the final step of a process that has already begun. If you reject me, I will perish. All that I have ever been will become nothing. There are still parts of me tethered to this world, but they are…corrupted, drunk on mad ambitions and gone too far. They are not what I should be." A soul-tearing stare, and Harry is overwhelmed by the implacable force that is his nature. "You could become that. You can become that. A second chance, if you will."

You will leave me, too. The insinuation hangs between them like fate, tenebrous and preordained, divine intentions imposed upon the children of men. "You want to live…even if it is through me? What if I don't—don't become what you want?"

There is that slant of smiling eyes again, that tender press of fingers on rune-carved skin. "It doesn't matter."

From the beginning, Harry has known, that it has never been pretense. No lies in open souls. "All right." Calm washes over him as resolve settles deep in his bones. "What happens now?"

His father laughs. "Now we sleep."

Laughter in tandem with three heartbeats—sleep, my darling—a halcyon, fluttering rhythm—hush, my baby—dissolving in fire and white emptiness.

Harry James Potter wakes up on his eighth birthday knowing terrible, great love.