When Aurors and inspectors and Order members arrived they found James and Lily Potter horribly dead, Sirius Black laughing with the hysteria of the mad, and no trace of Voldemort.
That's canon. The papers said that. People raised toasts to that, and to The Boy Who Lived. The horror was over. The wizarding world could move on.
What everyone in the know decided to cover up was that the baby was missing too.
They questioned Sirius Black. They pulled memories from the very walls of the house. They were talented wizards, these Aurors. No matter what anyone later said about Albus Dumbledore, and Rita Skeeter would publish a biography that said a lot, no one denied he was gifted beyond measure. They used those gifts and those talents to find out what had happened. A bolt of green light had struck the baby and he had cried out with the furious wail of the injured, then disappeared.
No one knew quite what to make of that. Dumbledore decided to quietly inform a handful of people that the boy was being raised by Muggle relatives and, since it was an absolute secret, soon everyone knew and not long after that everyone forgot.
. . . . . . . . . .
Mrs. Cole looked at the mouse of a girl standing in her office. She tried to keep the irritation off her face but today had already gone badly. Finding money to feed and clothe all the children dumped into Wool's Orphanage was becoming more and more of a challenge and it was hard to see another screaming mouth as a soul to nourish and raise instead of an unwanted expense.
The girl's face contorted into an attempt at a smile. "At least this one dinna come with a dying mum?" she offered. "And he's a pretty little thing. Dark hair. Bright green eyes. Nasty mark on his forehead though. Looks like a burn, poor little mite, and the name Harry is sewn into his nappy."
"Just left on the doorstop," Mrs Cole said. "Not even so much as a note or a blanket." She pointed her gnarled finger at the girl as though she were going to deliver a lecture on what she thought of these mothers but then she lowered her hand and didn't. It wasn't worth the effort. The woman she'd like to upbraid had slipped away, her tot abandoned, and the girl in front of her saw too well the consequences of mistakes. She'd never spread her legs for some smooth-talking boy who'd vanish as soon as she was in a family way. Mrs. Cole moved on to practical considerations the way she always did. "Put him in the same bed at that Riddle boy. We're running out of room."
A nod, a curtsey, and the girl was gone, leaving her to return to balancing books and trying to find a way to wring still more out of the budget.
. . . . . . . . . .
The snake had wrapped itself around Tom Riddle's wrist and was nattering on about sun and mice the way snakes always did. Harry ignored it as he leaned back against the tree, one hand shading his eyes from the sun, and squinted out at the rest of the orphans. Mrs. Cole believed in brisk walks and physical activity and wholesome trips to the shore. Most of her charges didn't object. It was easier not to object. "She's coming this way," Harry said.
"Old bat," Tom said.
Tom hissed at the snake and it took off. It didn't do well to be caught being too friendly with the creatures. Mrs. Cole didn't like them, and she'd killed more than one with a rock. She'd tried to make Tom do it once, and, when he'd refused, she'd beaten him. "Creatures of Satan," she'd said as she wielded her belt. They'd been smart enough to hide their affinity since. She didn't seem to be the sort who'd be impressed they could talk to snakes, even if snakes had boring secrets.
"You two need to get up," she said. "Play a little football. Get some fresh air into your lungs."
"My ankle hurts," Harry said. He smiled as ingratiatingly as he could. "Tom's keeping me company."
Mrs. Cole huffed and folded her arms. She wasn't cross at him, though, so he didn't tense up. He and Tom had both become adept at reading the matron and right now she was in a fussing about other people stage. "Amy and Dennis have wandered off, and now this."
"We could go look for them," Tom said. Harry had to keep the incredulous look off his face. Dennis called them the freaks, and was always quick with an outstretched foot to trip or a carefully faked stumble that resulted in one of both of them shoved into walls and corners. He was equally quick with an apology but the smirk never left his face. Amy followed behind him, the acolyte ready to cheer him on. Harry figured she'd be pregnant by fifteen.
Tom's nudge told him to play along and he sighed but did. When Tom had plans, it was easier to go along. "Maybe a walk would fix my ankle up," he said. "Walk it out."
Mrs. Cole nodded, always happy to have a solution. "You two do that," she said.
She was barely out of earshot when Tom stood up, stretched him arms, and said, "They're in a cave down the cliff a bit."
"Snake tell you?" Harry asked.
"Well, someone's climbing around down there," Tom said. "That's why he left his rock."
Snakes lived in fear of getting stepped on. Harry supposed he couldn't blame them. If he were small and on the ground he'd be anti-foot too. He didn't get up right away, though. "Since when do we rescue Dennis and Amy?"
"Since you have a saving person thing?" Tom suggested with a grin. "You're the embodiment of virtue, Harry."
That was such a lie Harry didn't move. He just looked up at the boy standing over him and waited for the truth. They looked like brothers, some days. They had the same dark hair, though Tom's was always tidy and his always a mess. They both had striking eyes. But what made most people see them as a pair was the way they both seemed to shimmer with something extra. Things went wrong around them. Things broke. People who insulted them ended up falling down stairs while both boys were safely under the watchful eye of the matron. Tom could control it. Harry didn't want to be bothered. Working to master what made them different wasn't on his list. As far as he was concerned, they were freaks in an orphanage of the unwanted and all he cared about was that he had the one friend.
Being the only freak would have been hell. People like Dennis went after freaks and oddities and outcasts and when there were two, you were safer.
"Or," Tom said in a voice that was almost wheedling, "since they're alone and we have permission to go get them. Caves are dangerous places, you know."
"You planning on killing them?" Harry asked. He stood up and pretended to stretch out his ankle in case Mrs. Cole was watching them. "Because I'd rather we not."
"Just scaring them a little," Tom said. His pretense at coaxing Harry to join him had disappeared, replaced with smug pleasure as he contemplated Dennis Bishop isolated and vulnerable. "Maybe try the thing I was working on the other night."
"On a person?" Harry eyed Tom. The old board he'd found had splintered into a dozen fragments, its destruction the result of a squinched brow and muttered Latin cribbed from some old Catholic hymnal.
"Maybe," Tom said. "Or maybe just the cave."
"If that thing collapses around us," Harry began, but Tom had already taken off and, with a sigh, he followed.
. . . . . . . . . .
The walls of the cave didn't collapse. They found the pair happily exploring an underground lake, and Tom leaned up against the wall and smiled in a way that shouldn't have frightened everyone who saw it. He looked like a cat with one paw on an injured mouse. He looked the way Harry supposed a rich boy might look on Christmas morning when he got a room filled with presents wrapped in bright paper instead of a grim lecture on frugality and a box with something practical and grey. He looked excited.
"Well," he said. "Look who got lost."
"Shove off, Riddle," Dennis said. "No one invited you."
"Loser," Amy chimed in. "No one ever wants you around. Not either of you."
"Freaks, both of you," Dennis said.
Tom's smile got brighter and toothier and even more pleased. He waved his arm in a wholly unnecessary bit of theatre and Harry sighed even as Dennis clutched at his arm and shut the mouth he'd had open. Tom waved again, and this time Dennis doubled over, his face contorted. "What did you say?" Tom asked.
"Freaks," Dennis managed to gasp out before whatever Tom was doing struck him again and he fell down to his knees and made a horrible keening whimper.
"Stop it," Amy said. Her voice shook with a combination of fear and anger. Had she really thought she'd be able to just pick on them forever with no consequences? Had she missed the way lesser bullies had tripped over nothing or developed boils or just taken ill? Her reaction now suggested she'd never thought this through. The way she picked up a rock and stepped toward Tom suggested she wasn't the brightest star in the sky. Tom pulled another pain filled sound from Dennis and she threw the rock.
It hit Tom.
She wasn't clever, but she'd always been good at games, and her aim was true. Tom grunted with surprise and some pain from the impact, and she broke his concentration enough for Dennis to get up and lunge forward. He had his hands around Tom's neck almost at once and Harry could feel the wild surge within him that always presaged chaos. Amy screamed almost at once and Dennis fell away from Tom. Both began to swipe at their skin with frantic, desperate motions.
Tom straightened his spine and brushed at his clothes as if he were an aristocrat instead of an orphan in hand-me-downs taken from church collections. "What did you do?" he asked.
Harry shrugged. "Don't know," he said. He didn't. He never did. He didn't care either. They'd gone after Tom and as far as he was concerned they deserved whatever they got as a result. He didn't look for trouble but if trouble insisted on coming around so be it.
Tom squinted at the pair. The light in the cave wasn't great and while it was clear they were both scrubbing at their skin, almost hysterical, the reason wasn't apparent. "I guess we bring them back to Mrs. Cole," he said. He squatted down at grabbed Amy's chin and made her look at him. She tried to pull herself away but he just tightened his grip until she was whimpering from that pain as well. "I can make it worse," he said. "And if you tell, I will. I'll figure out what Harry's done and you'll feel it every night until you move out."
"Make it stop," she said. She begged. The pleading tone did something cruel to Tom's eyes, but he just tossed her down and kicked her where she lay.
"No," he said.
It had worn off by the time they'd picked their way back out of the cave and up the cliff face. "Ants, I think," Harry said to Mrs. Cole by way of explanation when she frowned at the crying pair. "Or some kind of bug."
"Stinging," Dennis whispered. "Everywhere."
"Serves you right for wandering off," Mrs. Cole said. "You're old enough to know better."
. . . . . . . . . .
Harry didn't trust the man who'd arrived at the orphanage. Most people looking to adopt children didn't bother to hide what they really wanted were unpaid servants. This man seemed different and different, in his experience, was bad. He dressed differently too, in a coat too large that didn't sit right on his shoulders, as though he'd put on a costume he couldn't quite get the feel for, and his beard was too long and too wild to belong to a proper Englishman.
And he wanted to meet with Tom alone.
Harry and Tom didn't do alone. Since they'd been dropped into the same crib they'd stayed by one another's sides, and Tom seemed as wary of being hauled off into a private room with this man as Harry was of having him go.
Some people wanted orphan kids with no friends or family to look out for them as servants.
Some people wanted those kids for something else, and neither Harry nor Tom were naive enough to think the best of strangers.
"He says he's got a scholarship for you for some posh public school up in Scotland," Mrs. Cole said impatiently. "Go on now."
Tom just crossed his arms and glared at this Dumbledore without moving and, with a frustrated noise Mrs. Cole stomped away, leaving Harry in the room. Dumbledore seemed a bit put out by the entire situation, but said, once the matron had left, "The thing is, Tom, you're a wizard."
Tom narrowed his eyes. "I'm a what?" he asked in polite disbelief. "Are you touched?" But Harry could see he was already putting the word wizard together with what they could do and reaching the logical, inevitable conclusion. They weren't alone. There were more people like them, people who knew about them.
People who'd left them to rot here.
Dumbledore launched into an explanation about this school, named Hogwarts, and that there were rules, and funds for him to get supplies, and that no one who wasn't a wizard could be permitted to know. He went on for quite a while until Tom cut him off, not bothering to be polite. "How do I know you aren't lying?"
Dumbledore waved his hand and the wardrobe caught on fire.
Tom looked over at Harry.
"You do understand," Dumbledore said, "I have been tolerant, but your friend cannot come to Hogwarts, and he will have to be made to forget this conversation."
"I'm not going without Harry," Tom said flatly.
Dumbledore's smile grew ever so slightly strained, but it was clear he'd had variations on this discussion many times. Children probably often insisted they wouldn't go without their best friend, their sibling, their cousin. In the end, they surely all went. Who would turn down a magical school? "Muggles cannot even see Hogwarts, Tom," he said. "I am not being unkind. Harry will not even be able to see the building, much less attend the school."
"Muggles?" Harry asked.
"Non-magical people," Dumbledore said.
"Harry's magical," Tom said. "If I am, he is too."
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled. "I'm sure you'd like that to be true," he said, "but it isn't. Whenever a magical baby is born in Britain, his or her name is written on a scroll at Hogwarts. Tom Riddle is right there, on the list, and has been since December 31, 1926. There is no Harry born around that time."
Tom shrugged but his mouth tightened. "Then your list is wrong."
"Tom," Dumbledore began.
"Maybe his real name isn't Harry," Tom said. "We only call him that because of the nappies."
Dumebledore looked over at Harry who shrugged. "They were probably hand-me-downs," he said, "but someone had stitched the name 'Harry' into the nappies I got dumped here in." He didn't think anyone who'd leave a baby on the doorstep in the middle of the night was the sort to care enough to go embroidering her child's name into anything. His mother hadn't cared about him. That was the one thing he knew in life. That and that he could trust Tom. "Harry Doe, at your service," he said with bitter irony. He didn't even have a surname of his own, just a placeholder.
"Harry can talk to snakes too," Tom said. "And when he gets angry - "
"When someone threatens you, you mean."
" - he can hurt them."
The twinkle left Dumbledore's eyes. "Talk to snakes?" he asked. "Too?"
"Is that not normal for people like us?" Tom asked.
"It is… an unusual gift," Dumbledore hedged. "Often misunderstood." He launched into a lecture about hurting people, and how that was not allowed, and how if they were to do it they'd be summarily kicked out of Hogwarts. Tom and Harry flicked glances at one another. The conversation had gone from the idea that only Tom would go to this school to 'they' had to watch themselves. It was good enough. By the time they shook his hand and promised with all the sincerity they could muster to be good little boys and never contravene any rules at all and golly, they were so chuffed to be able to go to this school, Harry's mouth had started to hurt from forcing a smile.
Tom fingered the pouch filled with money they man had left, and the list of things they were to buy. Wands. Books. Cauldrons. Then a magic train to a magic school. If they hadn't spent years making things happen, they'd both think they'd spent an hour with a crazy person. The look of anger that burned low in Tom's eyes would have scared any of the other orphans. Harry just poked at him with one foot. "You mad?" he asked. He knew he was. He was so angry he was surprised the wardrobe hadn't caught fire a second time.
"They left us here," Tom said. "You heard the old man. They've known I was here since I was born and they did nothing. Mrs. Cole. Dennis. Not enough food. Nothing new ever. They can burn for all I care."
"At least you're on their sodding list," Harry said.
"Bugger their list," Tom said. He took Harry's hand in his, a shockingly unusual gesture of solidarity. "Bugger all of them."
. . . . . . . . . .
A/N - This grew out of a conversation I had with turbulenthandholding, dulce-de-leche-go, and disillusionist9 at MistiCon. I hope you enjoy the horrible wrongness that is dark!Harry and his one true friend, Tom Riddle.