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99 Crickets

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“Gross.”

Upon hearing Hermione's voice, Harry looks up from where he’s sat cross legged in the middle of their living room and smiles sheepishly. “Hey, Hermione. How was your week?”

“Fine,” she says flatly, not moving from the doorway. “How was yours?”

“Honestly?” Harry clears his throat and looks around, gesturing helplessly. “It was a little strange.”

“I can see that.” She moves as if to take a step forward, thinks better of it, and stays where she is. “I’ve only been gone for two weeks, Harry. How on earth did this happen?”

“Well…”

 

Two weeks ago

Harry sighs as he stands behind the register, shifting his weight restlessly from foot to foot. He doesn’t hate working at the inn, but sometimes it gets very boring. While Hateno village has never been what one might call lively, the recent uprising of monsters inhabiting the forests that border the path leading to the village has definitely had an impact on the number of visitors who come by. 

With one notable exception. 

Every three to five weeks, he appears, regardless of lightning storms or monster attacks.

He never says anything, but each time he arrives, he’ll stay two or three nights in the inn, spending his evenings by the fire just watching the people around him before heading out again. Harry would love to ask him where he goes all the time, where he comes from, but whenever he gets close the man looks almost like he’s about to pass out, so Harry stays away.

Which is rather unfortunate, Harry thinks, because his mysterious traveler is really quite handsome.

He sighs again and leans forward so he can prop his elbow up on the counter and rests his chin against the palm of his hand, idly tracing patterns in the wood with the pen he should be using to write the letter his boss asked him to send off.

The door to the inn swings open and Harry sits up straight, smiling reflexively. He’d hate to give a bad impression to their guests, after all.

When he sees who enters, a blond boy he recognizes as a traveler who comes to visit every so often, he waves. He’s a little confused, since he’s certain this boy has a house on the edge of the village, but he figures that shouldn’t stop him from being friendly. Especially since people have taken to calling him a hero. According to the Patil twins, this boy has saved them from monsters at least four times now when they’ve gone out to the forest to hunt for truffles.

“Hello,” Harry says, smiling politely. The boy, although he must be at least Harry’s age so honestly he isn’t really a boy at all, nods in greeting. “How can I help you?”

Instead of answering the question, he asks, “What do you like?” Harry recoils slightly.

Oh no.

Goddess, why is it always him?

For some unknown reason, it’s always him who has to deal with crushes. Although, to be fair, the only other workers in the inn are Slughorn, the owner who Harry likes to think of as an entirely nonsexual being, and Colin, who is far too young for crushes anyway, in Harry’s most humble opinion.

(He once took a mop to a customer’s head for being too friendly with Colin and although the boy had been embarrassed, he’d given Harry a sketch of his favorite flower before he left that night so Harry’s sure he wasn’t too upset about it.)

So, crushes.

They’re great.

Instead of doing his best to gently explain that he’s not really open to being in a relationship right now but he really appreciates the thought, Harry decides to handle this a different way. Maybe, if he says something absurd enough, it will scare the other boy away and he’ll never have to deal with this again.

“Crickets,” Harry tells the other boy, “I really love crickets. My dream is to one day have a collection of one hundred of them so I can keep them in my house and listen to them chirp all night.”

The other boy just nods, unfazed, and Harry watches him leave with a perplexed frown. That was not the reaction he’d been expecting.

Maybe it wasn’t strange enough?

He shakes his head and gets back to work.

 

Present

“Oh my god, Harry. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Hey!” Harry protests. “I was put on the spot, okay? I was stressed and I really don’t appreciate you mocking my suffering.”

Hermione snorts and says, “Someone has to. There’s certainly enough of it.”

Harry wants to argue, but honestly? “Fair.”

Hermione shakes her head but this time he can see the fondness in her expression.

“That still doesn’t explain all of this.” She gestures to the surrounding room.

“Right,” Harry says, blushing. He presses his hands to his face to try to hide the warmth in his cheeks. “This is where it starts to get a little weird.”

 

Two weeks ago

The day after the cricket incident, as Harry has decided to call it, his mysterious traveler returns from wherever he’s been the past three weeks. This time, however, he practically slams the door open and there’s a wild look in his eyes. He stalks forward, his gaze heavy where it rests on Harry, and Harry instinctively shrinks back. Once he gets to the counter, the man takes something from his pack and proudly presents it for Harry to see.

Harry’s gaze flicks between the man’s face and the thing in his hands, and the man sighs impatiently.

“Well,” he says, and even his voice is beautiful. Fucking hell what did Harry do to deserve this torment. He shakes the object a little, drawing Harry’s attention back to it. It looks almost like a cage. “Aren’t you going to take it?”

Harry reaches out to hesitantly take the box and lifts it so he can see what’s inside. When he does, he sees… crickets?

“What?”

The man smiles, and it looks almost sheepish. Harry has never been more confused in his life, except…

“I know you said you wanted one hundred and this is only fifteen, but I haven’t had much time to look since I arrived yesterday. I’ll get the rest later.”

Oh.

Oh no.

“Oh my god,” Harry whispers. He holds the box of crickets to his chest.

“Are you disappointed?” the man asks. Harry can only shake his head.

“Not at all,” he manages to choke out.

He thinks he might start crying.

“Excellent,” the man says, looking quite proud of himself. He holds his hand out to shake. “My name’s Tom, by the way. Tom Riddle.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harry tells him, feeling as if this is all a very strange dream. His godfather had warned him once to be wary of handsome men giving him pretty things to try and win his affections, and Harry can’t help but wonder if this qualifies. He holds a hand out but instead of shaking it, Tom presses a kiss to the back of it. Harry almost drops his new crickets.

“Don’t I get to know your name?” the man asks. “I did, after all, go to such trouble to get those for you.”

Is this actually happening?

“Harry,” he says. “My name’s Harry.”

“Well, Harry, I would love to stay and chat, but I’m afraid I still have eighty-five crickets to find.” He smiles charmingly. “I’ll come find you when I have more.”

“Great.” What the hell is happening? “I’ll be here. Can’t wait.”

He smiles as best he can and watches incredulously as a blush spreads lightly across Tom’s cheeks.

“You have a beautiful smile,” Tom says. And then he all but runs out the door, leaving Harry standing there at the counter with a box of crickets in his hands.

 

Present

“Why didn’t you just tell him you that didn’t want more crickets?” Hermione asks, and honestly that is a very good question. Harry groans and falls back to lie on the floor.

“He looked so proud of himself,” he says, “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“You are the least functional person I’ve ever met.”

“I’m a mess,” Harry says in total agreement. Hermione sits down beside him and pets his hair gently.

“A mess with a beautiful smile,” she tells him, and Harry makes a happy sound as he rolls over so he can rest his head in her lap. “It’s actually kind of sweet.”

“Liar,” Harry says, peering up at her. “You think it’s weird.”

“Well, obviously.” She scratches lightly at his scalp. “Do you think you’ll ever tell him that you hate crickets?”

“Probably,” Harry says. He closes his eyes. “Eventually. Maybe once we’re married.”

Hermione laughs and shakes her head fondly.

“What happened next?”

 

Two weeks ago

Nearly an hour after sundown, Tom returns to the inn.

“Good evening, Harry,” he says as he swaggers over to where Harry is tending the fireplace, ensuring it will continue burning long after he leaves for the night and Slughorn takes over. The box of crickets sits on the floor by his side. Tom bows at the waist and presents another box, this one bigger than the last and made of slightly darker material.

Harry takes it gently, marveling at the craftsmanship.

“Do you make these boxes?” he asks as he watches the crickets inside crawl all over each other in disgusted fascination.

“I do,” Tom says.

“They’re very well made,” Harry tells him, biting back a grin when he notices Tom stand taller at the praise. The next time Tom leaves on an adventure, he’ll have to arrange a convenient accident for the crickets while making sure to keep the boxes. They’d be perfect for storing ingredients.

“I’m glad you think so,” Tom says, “I managed to find fifteen more crickets since I last saw you. I hope you like them.”

“Oh, yes,” Harry says, smiling brightly up at Tom as he lies through his teeth, “I really do.”

Tom kneels beside him before the fire and grabs the bigger box, holding it in his lap and fidgeting with the corners. “You know, when I first heard you wanted one hundred crickets, I was a little surprised.” Harry laughs nervously. “I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to talk to you since I first saw you, so I sent that other boy to find out what the perfect gift would be.”

“I’m glad you did,” Harry says, entirely sincere except for the fact that Tom doing so has led to this whole mess of a situation. He decides to ignore the fact that he was the one who said he loved crickets in the first place.

Tom clears his throat and pats the box of crickets he’s holding.

“I was wondering,” he says before stopping, looking down. Harry leans forward. “Would you like some help carrying your crickets back to your house?”

“I would,” Harry says, clasping his hands together and trying not to look too eager. He and Tom stand up, and Harry takes Tom’s hand, carrying his box of crickets in the other as he leads him out of the inn and toward the house he shares with Hermione while she and Ron save up to buy a place of their own away from the Weasley household.

The walk is only slightly ruined by the sound of crickets chirping from inside the boxes they carry.

Once they reach his house, Harry releases Tom’s hand and rocks forward on the balls of his feet, unable to keep a silly smile off his face.

“Thanks for walking me home,” he says, suddenly grateful that Hermione isn’t here. If she witnessed this, he knows she’d laugh him right out of the house.

“You're welcome,” Tom says. He steps closer and raises his free hand to cup Harry’s cheek. “May I kiss you?”

Harry feels a blush spread across his face. He would love to kiss Tom, but he feels like he should hold out at least a little bit longer. He lifts a finger and presses it to Tom’s lips, as if shushing him. “Hmm, no,” he says, “I don’t think so.”

“Oh.” Tom looks disappointed.

“Bring me ten more crickets. Then we’ll see.”

At that, Tom perks up and strikes a rather heroic looking pose, only somewhat hampered by the box of crickets he’s holding.

“I can do that,” he says.

Harry unlocks the door to his house and takes Tom’s box. He sets the crickets down by the door and turns around to see Tom watching him, looking almost hungry.

“Well, goodnight,” Harry says somewhat reluctantly. As much as he’d love to invite Tom inside, they really haven’t known each other for more than a day, their mutual pining over the past few months notwithstanding. Inviting him in now probably wouldn’t be very smart.

Tom bows again before turning on his heel to stride determinedly away.

Instead of taking the path back to the inn, however, he veers off to head for a nearby field, and Harry watches him, bemused, until he can no longer see him in the dark.

Just over an hour later, as he’s beginning to drift off into a nice dream of Tom without a single cricket in sight, he’s startled awake by someone knocking on his door. He groans in protest but gets out of bed anyway, stumbling toward the door.

“What,” he practically growls as he snaps open the door, ready to murder whoever just woke him up. Then, he gets a good look at his visitor. “Tom?”

“I brought twenty crickets,” Tom tells him plainly. He holds up another box and really, where is he keeping them? “You can count them, if you like.”

Harry tries to think of something to say, but in the end he settles for a rather eloquent sigh.

Tom is unfazed.

“Would you like me to kiss you now?” Harry asks, “Or should I wake you up in a few hours and give it to you then?”

“Both would be much appreciated,” Tom says and god, Harry thinks, he actually means it, doesn’t he?

“Come here, you dork,” he says. Tom looks briefly insulted but evidently decides kissing Harry is more important than protesting.

 

Present

“I hope you’re aware of how strange this man is.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Harry says, “I think he’s cute.”

“Yeah well, you think thestrals are cute, too. That’s not saying much.”

“I bet Luna would agree with me.”

“Probably. That doesn’t really help your case.” Harry presses a hand to his mouth to muffle his giggles. “Please tell me you didn’t let him stay over.”

“No, no, I didn’t,” Harry reassures her. “He left after we kissed, and I didn’t see him for a couple days. I actually thought he’d left.”

 

Earlier that week

Harry is on his way back to the inn after running an errand for Slughorn when he sees Tom again. He calls out a greeting and when the man looks over at him, Harry waves and trots over to stand beside him. “Hey,” he says breathlessly, “I thought you’d left again.”

Tom tsks at him, shaking his head in mock disappointment. “I couldn’t possibly,” he says. “You see, I promised you one hundred crickets. I can’t leave until I’ve delivered.”

“Alright, then,” Harry says, unable to fight the smile on his face at this ridiculous man. “Do you have any more crickets for me?”

“I do, actually.” He gives Harry another woven box, this one made of wood that’s deep red in color. “Twenty, if you were wondering.”

“Hmm,” Harry peers at the pattern on the side of the box, trying to make out the shapes, “Only thirty left. I’m impressed.”

Tom shrugs, as if the fact that he’s collected seventy crickets for him isn’t ridiculously absurd and also strangely wonderful. Clutching the box in his hands, Harry stands on his toes and presses a kiss to Tom's cheek, just because he can.

At Tom’s questioning look, Harry just smiles.

Over the next five days, Tom hunts him down periodically, giving him more crickets, two or three at a time.

“You know,” Harry says the second time Tom ambushes him to give him a single cricket, “If you keep doing this, you’re gonna be stuck here for a very long time.”

Tom doesn’t answer. Instead, he presses a kiss to Harry’s forehead and vanishes as silently as he’d appeared. The more this happens, the longer he tends to stay afterward, and the more certain Harry becomes that he doesn’t want Tom to leave again at all.

Friday afternoon, Tom finds him sitting in a field atop one of the cliffs that overlooks the sea.

“Only one cricket left,” Harry says in greeting. He rests his head against Tom’s shoulder. “Did you bring one?”

“I’m afraid not,” Tom says. He takes Harry’s hand and grips it tightly. “They’ve grown quite impossible to find, suddenly.”

A cricket lands on his foot, and they both watch as it chirps twice and then jumps away.

“Are you disappointed?” Tom asks him, looking straight ahead.

Harry doesn’t bother trying to hide his smile.

“Not at all.”

 

Present

“Admit it, you thought that was adorable.”

“I admit nothing,” Hermione says as she crosses her arms, not quite pouting but close.

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Ugh, fine,” she says with a glare, “that was really cute, and I’m happy for you.”

“Great!” Harry claps his hands together. “Because he’s coming over for dinner tonight.”

“What? Harry!”

“Which means we can’t get rid of all these crickets yet, so you’ll just have to live with them a little while longer.”

Every shelf and table in the room is covered with cricket cages, and some even hang from hooks in the ceiling. Hermione shudders. “I feel like they’re watching me.”

“Don’t worry,” Harry tells her, “I looked it up, and crickets don’t actually live that long. They’ll all be dead in like, two months tops.”

 

 

One year later

Harry peers over his shoulder to look at Tom where he’s curled up beside him on the bed.

“Hey, Tom?” he says, his voice hoarse from sleep and other nighttime activities.

“Mmmyeah?” Tom’s voice is barely audible.

“Do you like crickets?”

“God, no,” Tom says with a grunt of disgust, “I hate them.”

“Oh.” Harry looks forward again, a pleased, fluttery feeling overtaking him. “Good. Me too.”

Tom sighs heavily and drags him closer to lie against his chest. Harry basks in the warmth of his body pressed against his own as he tangles their legs together.

“Sleep,” Tom orders.

Outside, the crickets continue to chirp, and Harry closes his eyes, deciding to do as Tom says.

Just this once.