Tom Riddle watches every Sorting ceremony with something weaker than despair and stronger than apathy resting leaden in his chest. It does not bother him overmuch – very little does.
He tastes autumn in the air, stronger than ever this year. Death and renewal, but of what he does not know, nor does he care.
Tom has always been missing something. His name means twin and he is alone.
He twists the ring of his grandfather around on his finger, immortality cold and familiar on his hand as he watches the offspring of his contemporaries' offspring walk up one by one to be divided into old and familiar lies.
Dumbledore no longer bothers to watch him, and Tom would laugh if he could remember how.
Tom realised long ago that he was filth, that his house bred nothing but trash and the children under his protection were second-class. Every Sorting he is reminded anew: there is always a smile for an excited Gryffindor, a wise-eyed glance for an eager Ravenclaw, and benign nod for a nervous Hufflepuff, but nothing for the house that sheltered Tom, nothing for children proud of their family and their traditions, hungry to succeed.
It has been a long time since he could feel anything about this.
The scent of autumn is growing stronger, and if Nagini were permitted to accompany him to these feasts he would ask her-
Tom takes what feels like his first breath in forty years as he looks at Harry Potter and his messy hair and avada kedavra eyes, feeling a sense of vertigo because this child –
Isn't important at all.
Can you feel it, he asks Nagini, golden-eyed and heavy on his shoulders, flicking her tongue out to taste the scent of his agitation. Do you know-?
Nagini says still time, quiet time, heavy air before the storm.
No, Tom says, but he indicates with his intonation and the tilt of his head that her news is important – just not what he asked for. New hatchling, smell-taste like predator-prey.
Every new clutch smells like predator-prey, Nagini says, something in her tone that a human might call wistful. Tom cannot tell if she hungers or she broods, only that she desires.
From the clutch of stag-scent and fresh-water-flower, Tom says helpfully, filling the margins of his book with eclectic barely-interconnected notes, distantly amused by the thought of Madam Pince's outrage.
Nagini stills as if prey has wandered within her striking-reach. Hot sharp smell like lightning on a short bright night. That hatchling?
Summer-storm, Tom agrees. Yes.
Yes, says Nagini.
Tom finds himself smiling at Harry Potter, a smile he had forgotten he was capable of until he caught his reflection in the polished shine of a suit of armour. Seeing himself there he thought voldemort and remembered –
"Sir?" Potter says, so very green eyes confused, out of their depth – like an orphan, Tom thinks, unable to articulate exactly why he should think so, for Harry Potter has that indefinable air of self-secure awareness of being cared for and loved that no orphan Tom has ever known possessed.
Tom shakes his head to rid himself of echoes, looks again, and it is only a Gryffindor brat, golden Gryffindor, smugly aware of his worth. "Good day, Potter," he says curtly, vertigo again, for has he not said those words to James Potter countless times, dismissal from his presence after yet another detention –
"Are you alright?" Potter says, words tripping out in a rush, expression like an open book what am I doing and Tom is
Tom is looking at Harry Potter and itching to touch him, to brush back that ridiculous fringe and see
Tom is pressing a hand to his face to block the sight of him out, full of furious anger, because how did he end up here, where did all his dreams go and why-
Tom turns on his heel and stalks away, anywhere, nowhere, just away. The boy is not important at all, he cannot understand why his magic writhes and his head aches and he is suddenly remembering a childish dream from so long ago.
Tom was eleven years old and knew himself for nothing when a Transfiguration teacher told him he was special and in the same moment told him that every summer he was expected to pretend he was not. Every summer he was to cut the core of himself out and allow himself to be trampled into the mud for the sake of the fragile egos of the powerless.
(I can make them hurt if I want to, he said, but Dumbledore did not ask why, only said that it was not acceptable under any circumstances.)
Tom never heard the word half-blood before he went to Hogwarts, but he knew then that he was in two mismatched halves, only one of which would ever be considered precious; he would always have too much magic for the muggles, too much muggle blood for the magical.
He swore he would be powerful, that no one else would ever be able to make him feel like half of something ever again.
He was forcibly reminded that being powerful was not the same thing as never being powerless when he stood beside sixteen-year-old Severus Snape and listened with blank-faced rage as Severus was told his life was worth thirty points. Potter was to be rewarded, Black was to be more careful, and Severus was to say nothing or Hogwarts would no longer be his home, and thirty points for recklessly endangering his life and another student's, never mind that the other student had fur and fangs and would have killed him first.
(It was the first time he had let himself feel fury in a long time, and he paid for it with long months of scrutiny, his every suggestion rebuffed politely, damningly, at every faculty meeting, his every complaint rejected, his every commendation ignored.)
Every single one of his children will face the same realisation by the time they leave Hogwarts – that they are worth less for the snake on their robes.
He looks at Potter, perfect Gryffindor like his father before him. Teachers are not supposed to have favourites and the headmaster least of all – how can he when he rarely meets his charges – but the Potters are Dumbledore's favourites.
It would be a delight, Tom thinks, his thoughts glacier-slow and cold, to take this golden boy and tarnish him.
(His ancestor's locket is warm against his skin.)
Tom collects people the way he once collected trophies, sees gold surrounded by dross – sees horcrux in a blank diary – Tom takes them, polishes them, puts them out on display and watches them shine. He asks for nothing in return and so they give him everything.
He is a teacher who knows his subject, who would be popular if he remembered properly how to fake human connection. He is scrupulously fair as only a former bigot can be and he takes care that his lessons interest the students, even when they become primarily revision-based as exams near. When he speaks, people listen.
Harry Potter excels in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and as a teacher it is Tom's duty to nurture a gift.
Nagini gives an approximation of a laugh, an act she has picked up after years at Tom's side. King snake (harlequin) pretending to be milk snake (false coral), how odd she says. He strokes her head gently with his forefinger, drawing swirling patterns over her face.
Potter watches him with wary eyes, but so much can be bought with honest acknowledgement of talent, and the boy is unusually aware – for the scion of a (half)pureblood family, for a cared-for child – of his own lack, and that loved ones will not necessarily tell the truth for the sake of his happiness.
In a moment Tom knows how to win him. All it requires is being willing to tell the truth where others are not.
"You are smiling, Tom."
"Am I, Albus? Forgive me, I'll take care not to do it again."
"That is not quite what I meant, Tom."
"Indeed? Well, it was a spectacular Quidditch victory."
"Really? I thought you had no interest in Quidditch."
"A man can change. You of all people should know that."
Potter stands in the doorway, looking sheepish and exposed, scuffing his feet against the floor.
"I'm not in trouble, am I, sir?"
Tom feels a glimmer of quiet pleasure fill him at the thought that he can make Potter nervous – Potter who came into the school knowing more pranks than the Weasley Twins, full of his own sense of entitlement. "No, Potter. Sit."
The boy does so, watching him like a wary bird, head tilted to one side. "So if I'm not in trouble, sir, why–?"
You are playing dangerous games, Tom, Nagini whispers as she crosses the floor and heaves her heavy body over his shoulders to press her blunt head into his face. Tom caresses the vulnerable area behind her head and doesn't say a word, English or Parseltongue.
Potter's eyes widen to a ridiculous size, fixed on Nagini, her scales sliding across Tom's skin. "That's a–" he looks sharply at Tom. "Your familiar, sir?"
"Are you afraid of her?" Tom asks curiously, smiling. It is a lopsided, somewhat awkward expression that shows too many teeth. It has very little do with amusement.
Potter licks his lips nervously – Tom wonders if the fear in his scent is from Nagini's appearance or his smile – and nods once, jerkily. "It's kinda hard not to be, sir," he says, embarrassment visible in his body. "I know she's yours and everything but-"
Tom laughs, a warm sound that conceals its own emptiness. "She is very large, and you are conditioned to be afraid of snakes. Which is only wise, especially in this case," he says dryly, "for Nagini is both quick and strong, and remarkably poisonous. She will not harm you, however."
I'll leave that to you, shall I? Nagini murmurs, voice like sun-warmed stone. She moves slowly to look into Potter's eyes without startling him. I like this one. He has poison-eyes.
"I called you here to talk about your grades, Mr Potter," Tom says. "You show a remarkable aptitude for my subject, and I understand you already know what you desire to do upon leaving Hogwarts...?"
"I want to be an auror, sir," Potter says. Like my dad, he does not say.
"I will be frank," Tom says, and Harry's eyes harden with determination, just as he suspected they would. "There is more to being an auror than a high grade in Defence Against the Dark Arts."
"I know," Harry interrupts, "I've been told, but-" he looks at Tom, discomforted only for a moment before he finds his determination again. "I can do this, sir, I know I can. I just –" he pauses, seeking something in Tom's expression. "I just need-"
"Help," Tom says. He tilts his head, testing in his mind the veracity of Potter's bold statement. "Very well," he says softly, and very carefully does not smile, feeling something like triumph whispering through him.
Potter looks at him, startled, and does not seem to understand his meaning. "Dad said you were the one to make sure he knew what he was in for, that you were the one to bring him up to scratch, so... I thought..."
"I have already agreed," Tom says.
I like this one too, he murmurs to Nagini, when the boy has left.
Nagini came to Tom when he was dying.
Hatchling is far from his nest, she said, winding around him in abstract patterns, feeling his frantic heartbeat in the air.
I have no nest, Tom said dully, thinking of his father, of his mother, filled with the ashes hate leaves when it has burned out.
Nagini did not start or recoil, gave no sign that she was surprised the prey spoke back. All little human hatchlings have nests, she said. Even when they think they have not. There is always some bolthole they curl up inside.
Hogwarts, Tom said after a long moment, blinking dazedly up at the star-bright sky.
There, Nagini said, and nudged his head gently. Tom did not fool himself, felt how she estimated the size and weight of him, wondering if she was capable of consuming a prey so much larger than herself without risk.
I do not think I am going to die today, he told her, half-surprised and half-disappointed. I thought I was dying, but it appears not.
Hatchling has never been through a shedding before? Nagini wondered, sliding over his motionless body to look into his face.
Of course, Tom said, thinking of the day he received confirmation that he was different, he was special, the day he left the orphanage and entered Diagon Alley and made himself fit, made himself feel at home there. But it was not – painful.
It is not meant to be, Nagini agreed, and turned her head from side to side to show how the moonlight gleamed on her scales. But humans are very strange. Very not-snake, and they do not act like proper predators or prey either. They don't fit.
Yes, Tom said, and thought of his father's face, of green light. That was probably not-snake too. I am – Tom, he said, convinced it would be the last time he ever felt such hesitation about using the so ordinary name. He imagined a world a hairsbreadth away where he would say Voldemort with pride, having shed Tom this day instead.
Tom, Nagini said, and if she felt anything about his name she did not say. In parseltongue it acquired layers that almost made it worth listening to, but Tom was too tired and ill and could not distinguish them. I am spreads-her-hood-to-cover-light.
Nagini, Tom said, remembering mythology that had so fascinated him when he first learned of his gift. He closed his eyes and felt her flickering tongue against his mouth, tasting his words. Nagini, will you stay?
I might, she said.
Abhadda kedhabra, Tom whispered, avada kedavra, I destroy as I speak, disappear like this word. I wish I could.
When Harry has a difficulty with a spell – he has the most bizarre mental blockages sometimes, struggling so hard over a simple accio while being capable of casting a corporeal patronus – he comes to Tom.
Tom is a mirror, he knows how to show what others wish to see.
He was pureblooded in Slytherin – anyone could see that, despite the unfortunate circumstances that led him to be muggle-raised. His control of his magic was prodigious and precocious, and did he not wear a ring showing the sign of an ancient and exclusively wizarding group? The Hallows sign, the questers' sign? If he was connected to one of those families, he was old blood, no matter how he had misplaced his heritage. It hardly mattered that Riddle was not a wizarding name – he might have had a muggle grandfather. Or great-grandfather. It might have been given arbitrarily by the muggles in charge of the orphanage. Tom had liked the idea of that, of it being nothing to do with him – the power of a name rendered null.
Tom was the right sort of blood then, but that is not what he needs now, when Potter doubts himself.
"Do you know," Tom tells Harry, "that true magical prodigies tend to be among those of mixed heritages? Wizard and muggle, witch and muggleborn."
"No, sir," Harry says, watching Tom with that look he sometimes gets, like he can feel what is missing in Tom, like he too feels an echo when they converse.
"I myself am half-blood," Tom says, candidly and without a trace of shame, though he despises the word, the implication in it – half the blood, half the magic, half the right, stuck halfway between two worlds, half empty. "A pureblood witch for a mother, muggle for a father."
Harry's expression brightens with this little confidence, though it is little enough. In his eyes is kindled a belief that Tom understands Harry and therefore Tom will care, because he too knows what it is to be divided in two. Of course he does. Then he blinks, startled, as one great flaw presents itself. "How did you survive in Slytherin?"
"Cunning," Tom says slyly, when the obvious answer is I did not. I remade myself into what they wanted.
"Oh." Harry says. "Okay."
Tom writes a short sequence of runes on the nearest piece of parchment, exchanges and reorders them idly before he tries to see how they will work in another tongue. His thoughts are snake-thoughts and he waits.
"I'm sorry," Harry says after a long moment, coming back to their original topic. "I don't think I'm up to being a prodigy."
Tom's fingers itch with the urge to slap the self-doubt out of him. He knows it wouldn't work, would in fact be detrimental to the goal, but he cannot stand Potter's self-sabotage, his refusal to be all he can be, his contentment with being ordinary. As if Tom would bother with someone as weak as Potter convinces himself he is. Surely he knows by know that Tom only really bothers himself with the best and brightest.
"I just don't get it," Harry complains, voice raw with frustration, and Tom sighs. Normally he finds he does not mind Potter's intrusions so much, because he is, truthfully, quite a fascinating subject. He would be as capable as Tom in his youth, if he were to put more effort into it - something Tom must correct in due time – and yet he stumbles over some of the easiest spells.
"Show me what you are doing now," Tom says, and watches. When success eludes the boy once again, he stands and alters his stance and grip with light, impersonal touches. Such things ought to make little to no difference, but it is time to see if Harry believes that they will – intent is everything – "Now try."
"Accio! Oh! Thank you, sir."
"It is my job, Potter." Tom says, and smiles because it is the only expression he can think of.
"Yeah, but you didn't have to, you know, tutor me."
"No," Tom says, "I didn't."
When Tom dreams, he is always what he might have been. Voldemort is cold and cruel and powerful; the sight makes something twist inside Tom. It is the power, he thinks, the total lack of insecurity, the freedom he does not hesitate to use.
He is a monster, but he is vividly alive, and Tom is human but walking dead.
Tom knows the moment he would have been shed, the moment Voldemort would have stepped out of his skin and taken over.
Tom's father died fifteen years ago. Natural causes.
"Would you consider obliviate a dark spell?" Tom asks his protégé – as Pomona insists on calling him, particularly when Minerva is likely to hear.
Harry pauses to consider it, a promising sign. "I... aurors use obliviate sometimes, and it's pretty standard use when the Ministry has anything to do with muggles, isn't it?"
"Yes, but do you consider it to be a dark spell was the question."
"No... I mean, it must be light –-"
"Why?" Tom says.
"There's no regulations against it..."
"That's because it is useful," Tom says dryly. "Because those of our kind who have to go among muggles cannot bother to learn their ways, and so slip up and inevitably have to use the charm to keep our society safe."
Harry frowns, but says nothing, no automatic attempts to defend his father or the views he was raised with. A steady improvement on his part, and one Tom is quite pleased with.
"The memory is the source of self – without your memory, who are you?"
"I'm still Harry," he argues, "even if I've lost the last five minutes."
"But suppose the wizard took more than the last five minutes of your life from you? Suppose you could remember nothing? Who are you then but what other people tell you? I could tell you that you were my child and you would not know if I lied or spoke truly. Or suppose the charm was used in such a manner that it not only wiped the intended event from your memory, but permanently damaged your mind's ability to recall anything? What if, when replacing your memories, they made you believe you were capable of murder, had already committed murder? Are you still Harry when your personality has been thusly altered?"
"I don't know," Harry whispers. He reaches out and pats Nagini absently when she stretches towards him curiously, feeling the weight of the conversation flowing around her.
"Using the memory charm, it is possible to alter a person's entire life, their habits, hobbies and beliefs, and it is up to the caster whether this is for good or ill, moral issues with the actual charm aside. Light or dark, good or evil, the intent of the caster is the thing."
"But-" Harry says.
"But?" Tom prompts when he does not continue. He watches Harry Potter's entire world view shift just a little, just enough to let him see things from Tom's point of view.
Harry shakes his head and begins again. "So, what you're saying is... there is no good or evil?"
"Exactly so." Tom says. "There is only the choices you make, your decisions."
"I'm not sure I like that," Harry confesses.
"Why?" Tom asks. "Do you feel you make the wrong ones?"
Harry has no reply.
Potter discovers girls as another species in his fourth year. He watches Miss Chang longingly with puppy eyes, laughs and smiles with an edge he did not have before, a sudden loss of innocence or naivety.
His brief phase with Patil is over before it has truly begun, ended by his misapprehension of the amount of effort a teenage relationship requires. His few dates with Hannah Abbott stop when he notices how Longbottom watches her. His time with the Ravenclaw – Lovegood, what a delightful name, it must make Dumbledore smile – was probably his happiest, since she hardly cared about running him through the traditional rigmarole females seemed to use as a judge of nature.
The youngest Weasley follows his every move with wistful eyes – in that sense Harry is as oblivious as he ever was – and sighs.
Tom wonders when Harry will notice that his best friend is also a girl, pretty enough in her own way, intelligent, loyal, and always ready to explain the complexities of the female psyche. Poor Granger, he expects, has loved him and called it friendship since the day he hexed a boy for making fun of her eagerness in class and desire to prove herself.
He had forgotten what a great trial adolescent hormones could be, having learnt not to bother himself with the bizarre, complex business. All of a sudden he is aware of it again, has been dragged back into that murky world where he had to guard himself constantly from some teenage girl's imagination.
He is discussing Dementors and the Patronus charm when he catches sight of Potter blushing furiously at whatever the girl next to him has said. He wants to roll his eyes or shake his head in exasperation except – except that throughout the lesson that follows, Potter watches him with a curious look in his eyes, something embarrassed, something speculative, something new.
He understands what it is the next time they speak alone in his office, as they have a hundred times before, and Harry blushes as he meets his eyes. Tom's first thought is oh. His second is this could work.
Potter's godfather is killed in an auror raid in his fifth year.
His grief is hideous and raw, makes him move like something broken. It fascinates Tom to see it.
He watches the shaking in the boy's shoulders as he hunches over, staring out at the lake, and says nothing.
"He bought me my first real broom," Harry says slowly, after a long, empty moment. "Mum screamed at him for hours, but Dad thought it was really funny."
Tom moves a step closer.
"He used to call me puppy, and I thought it was because I followed him around like one – he was like the coolest uncle ever, and he kept chocolate frogs in his pockets, just for me – and it was years before I realised it was because he was the black dog that used to follow Dad home from work."
Once he starts it seems he cannot stop; his memories spill out of him like water from a broken dam. "He taught me my first jinx, and took me to Quidditch matches whenever he babysat me, even though he wasn't supposed to. He liked to enchant the Yule decorations, he said Dad was too serious now to get them right, and once he kissed Mum under the mistletoe when he was drunk out of his mind and Mum hexed him so hard he couldn't look at her for a week. They never knew I knew. He promised to teach me how to become an animagus, and – and – and–"
Tom touches his shoulder lightly, lets him feel comfort in the touch, if that is what he wants from it. It means nothing.
Harry twists beneath his hand, flings his arms around him and sobs like the child he is.
Poor hatchling, Nagini says one evening, as they watch Harry in the firelight, head bent over his parchment as he writes his homework essays. He does not look up. He is spending more and more time with Tom, the quiet haven his office provides seemingly irresistible.
Tom never asks him why. Harry's still lingering grief makes him prickly and defensive, and he can feel Harry's gratitude piling up in layers every time he lets him in without question.
His scent changes, Nagini says curiously. It begins to taste of you.
When Tom creates spells that rely on the emotions of the caster he prefers Norse, a language of blood and power, thunder and war. When he creates spells that require great power he prefers Aramaic, remembering the source of the infamous Avada Kedavra. When he creates spells that can be used in multiple ways he prefers High Latin, cold and formal and distant, designed for ideas rather than emotions, meaning diffindo can be used to split a fruit just the same as a man's flesh. When he creates spells for himself to be used in a duel he prefers a mix of gutter Latin and Medieval French, rich and vulgar and unceremonious, close enough to the everyday to instil false familiarity, just far enough from it to unsettle and overwhelm.
When he creates spells for the joy of creating he prefers French, a language of delicacy, subtlety and precision. The exactness is what pleases him most – the reason there is a saying 'that feeling you can only say in French'.
When he was young and full of fire (carefully controlled, he was not a Gryffindor) he crafted a spell that he thought would encapsulate himself. He used cold, formal, magical Latin because nothing had ever pleased him more to know he was a wizard – volo, I wish, I want, I will. He used French because when he unravelled and reconstructed his ordinary name to fit himself it spoke in that language: vol de mort.
It has been fifty years. Longer, perhaps. Less, perhaps. He had almost managed to forget the incantation until he had Harry Potter before him, black hair and green eyes, shining like his sign would have against a night sky.
"Morsmordre," he whispers, watches the skull and snake bloom on the parchment before him, imagines how it would look branded on Harry's skin.
Harry watches Tom all the time now, a wary kind of wonderment in his eyes. He seeks something in Tom that he does not know how to articulate, and so Tom lets it lie until he can. When he smiles now, Harry looks away, or flushes a brilliant red.
Nagini tells him of deep sea fish with little lights, luring other fish into their open mouths.
They begin to leave discussions of magic behind, schoolwork and magical theory, and begin to wander into personal realms.
Tom tells him how to find the Room of Requirement.
Harry tells him of all the secret passages in and out of the school.
Tom confides that he is a parselmouth, something he has not told anyone since he left school.
Harry says that there is something about Amortentia that reminds him a little of Nagini – a dry, reptilian smell. "Like your office," he adds quickly, back-pedalling frantically in an attempt not to associate a snake with a love potion.
Tom does not point out that his correction is hardly any better.
This is a long game, he explains to Nagini as she winds around him, absorbing his body heat, asking why he only circles, never completes his little movements towards his favourite prey.
Take care you do not let the prey escape while you play, she warns.
Tom laughs. He would not leave even if he realised.
Harry argues with his parents over the Christmas break and returns to Hogwarts.
Christmas morning he wakes Tom with a knock at his door. His eyes are determined, though his hands shake with nerves. He presses his lips to Tom's, quick and light, then turns and runs, vaunted Gryffindor courage only getting him so far.
Tom smiles like an old dream.
Their routine changes very little.
Harry gains courage every time he goes out of his way to touch Tom and is not rebuffed, every time he looks at Tom like the lovesick teenager he is and is not corrected.
He kisses Tom one spring morning and Tom has him pinned beneath him before he comes back to himself. He recoils, as close to automatic as makes no difference, closes his ears to something cold inside him, saying want saying destroy saying mine.
Harry argues fervently against common sense and realism, pressing artless kisses against his frowning mouth, clutching at his robes. Tom allows himself to be convinced.
"I love you," Harry says on the first day of May, smelling of fresh air, of new flowers and innocence and hope. His expression is defiant, as if he thinks Tom will tell him he is being foolish.
"I know you do," Tom says. He saves his laughter for when the boy has left. He howls with something approaching madness and he cannot explain it to Nagini no matter how he tries. There is no word in parseltongue for love.
Bright red blood dotting the sheets, the boy trembling beneath him like a new fawn, like prey he thinks distantly, snake-like, as he presses his teeth to his neck, strokes his skin like a snake's scales, makes him writhe and twist and gasp open-mouthed.
"I love you," Harry says quietly, made sleepy and stupid and maudlin with afterglow. Tom presses an open-mouthed kiss to his throat to watch him shudder from head to foot, whispers morsmordre into his wrist before he bites.
Tom writes on Harry's skin a story of ownership, not caring who might read, scratches and bites and bruises saying mine, saying I claim this back.
Will you keep him? Nagini asks one evening, curled at his feet like a hairless dog because he told her once that it amused him, to see the expressions of other people when they saw it.
Tom smiles lazily, sated, his eyes gleaming red in the firelight. When he licks his lips to answer he can taste Harry. Of course not, he says.