Tom Riddle was positively charming and helpful.
After the initial freak out (where Ginny had to be restrained by the twins to prevent her violent assault with a knife), Tom froze up in visible shock and confusion. It was a very obvious expression, his jaw slacking in surprise and alarm at the noise.
There were a few minutes where he stood there in dumb shock, barely reacting past the minimal signs of comprehension. Harry could almost hear the way his brain was hurrying to catch up with the information thrown at him- he certainly was adapting better than Harry would have.
There was a visible restart; Tom blinking quickly and nearly twitching as he processed. At some point, something worked, and his entire body and face relaxed into something subtly off.
His posture was relaxed and calm, shoulders rolled and spine slumped. His face was open, the corners of his eyes relaxed into a somewhat innocent expression. It didn’t fit him, not in the way he was nearly spitting venom just earlier.
“I’m sorry,” Tom apologized in a somewhat sympathetic tone of voice, “I...I don’t think we’ve met-.”
Ginny screamed; the twins pulled her out of the room with visible difficulty.
Moody’s grin twisted into a somewhat disappointed expression, looking more annoyed at the lackluster response.
“Er…” Hermione trailed off, not understanding the scene. “I’m..sorry about that?” Hermione chewed her lower lip nervously. “She’s had a rough time.”
Harry felt a chill run down his spine as Tom nodded sympathetically, his face was incredibly convincing.
“Don’t be so quick, Granger.” Moody grumbled sourly, “this one’s trouble.”
Tonks huffed quietly, crossing her arms annoyed although she said nothing more. She puffed out a small breath, playing with a single strand of hair.
“I’m going to head back to headquarters.” Moody rumbled lowly, keeping his magical eye on Tom. “Get in touch with...our head. As well as Dalour, reckon it would be good to bring him in.”
Mrs. Weasley’s hands slipped on the small bowl in her hands. A small puff of flour exploded upwards, painting a sleeve on her arm white.
“Oh,” she breathed in surprise, “Mr. Dalour? Oh you poor dear!” She gasped, turning her attention onto Tom.
Tom bristled before in a split second shifting it to uncomfortable hesitancy. It was nearly perfect how quickly he changed.
“Yeah,” Moody huffed sourly, “definitely Dalour. Tonks will be staying to keep an eye out on you all, call in if anything happens. Don’t be afraid to incapacitate him.”
“Trust me, I’m not worried.” Tonks responded curtly, layering on the thickness of her annoyance.
Ron looked at Harry in outright surprise. “Blimey mate, what did you bloody do?”
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t my fault this time.” Harry defended himself, causing Hermione to giggle softly.
The strange atmosphere didn’t last long. Almost in rhythm, Mrs. Weasley stole them to tackle a new task at hand. Hermione settled on an easier job- setting the table with cutlery. The twins hadn’t returned, likely still calming Ginny down from her fit earlier. Tonks took a steady watchful position near the fireplace. Hermione and Tom (surprisingly enough) was taken into the kitchen to assist in breakfast itself.
Harry didn’t know what the more surprising factor was, the way that Tom incorporated himself smoothly into the operation, or the way he had obvious experience with cooking. Nothing was done by magic either, instead he worked his bruised hands through flour and dough without a second of pause. Kneading and mixing flour and salt with a spoon so old it probably was made before Tom was born. He didn’t argue once.
“Oh thank you dear!” Mrs. Weasley cooed, eyes filled with stars as the biscuits were placed in the oven. Hermione watched as she shredded potatoes, questions obvious in her eye.
“So, Tom!” Mrs. Weasley started, the chipper tone was so amusing to Harry he almost laughed. “Where are you from?”
Tom didn’t blink at the inquiry, although his voice was noticeably lighter than the previous interrogation. “London, ma’am.”
Tonks mouthed it to herself, eye twitching in controlled rage. “Ma’am?”
Mrs. Weasley cooed, oblivious to the distressing elephant in the room. “Oh lovely! Lovely lovely, you must be going to Hogwarts! What was your last name again, dear?”
Tom smiled pleasantly and ignored the question, assisting with the stacks of toast.
He eyed the muggle toaster with obvious distrust, and veered away from its use. Hermione took it up easily, swapping off her fry pan without care. Tom took to it like a fish in water, or maybe it was just his ability to mask his reactions which made it seem so effortless.
Soon, they were sliding heaps of biscuits and hash browns on the table, passing large mounds of butter to one another. The twins returned, a pale visibly seething girl between them.
Ginny threw herself into her chair, the small glass of juice in front of her rattled.
“Don’t throw yourself onto the chair!” Mrs. Weasley scolded firmly, looking ready to toss a dish towel at her. “Tonks dear, are you able to join us?”
Tonks shook her head slowly, not looking away from Tom. “I’d rather not, I have a feeling I’ll be needed anyways.”
Harry quickly glanced at Tom, whose expression had sharpened ever so slightly.
They sat down, Tom’s skin seeming even more waxy with the others sitting nearby. Everyone began to pass the food around, taking servings while offering small talk. Whenever Tom made a word, Ginny began a low nearly feral growling which quickly silenced him into merely smiling. Tonks seemed to share the anger, nearly bristling at every word.
Tom barely ate, instead he pushed the food around on his plate lazily. Harry could see the way his face seemed tighter.
“Tom dear? Aren’t you going to eat any?” Mrs. Weasley asked concerned.
Tom’s face twitched ever so slightly, his fork scraped his plate loudly.
“Of course ma’am.” Tom responded smoothly, obediently. His face paled further as he considered his hash browns.
Tom started to eat, politely and carefully. Once he started, he didn’t stop.
Any sort of reservation he had for appearance seemed to vanish the moment he actually ate; his hands tensed and flexed like it took all sanity he had to keep using an utensil.
Everyone watched with grotesque fascination as Tom ate and ate and ate. He ate like he was starving, more and more with increasing desperation. His servings became empty, he tensed in a hunched position over his plate like he was protecting the breadcrumbs he had left.
Tonks made a small noise, waltzing across the kitchen to grab the nearby rubbish bin. She nearly skipped over, looking very satisfied as she nudged it to Tom’s side.
“Oh,” Harry blurted in realization, looking around at the fairly rich fatty foods he had long since grown accustomed too.
Tom managed a single glare, nearly trembling with the force of his willpower.
Ginny looked smug. Tom’s lip curled into something like a snarl- but then he dropped to the side.
Tonks hadn’t been surprised but it was still something horrific to see someone vomit violently. Tom’s borrowed clothing hung on him, but it didn’t disguise the aggressive cramping and the way his entire body jerked with each painful spasm. The food he just ate came up, dripping in runny yellow stomach acid. Large chunks, barely chewed in his ravenous hunger.
He vomited again and again, until his mouth opened so far it looked on the verge of dislocating. Jawbone moving absurdly far under his skin, shifting visibly under the skin of his temple. His hair was matting with sweat where it had begun to air dry.
He retched, primal wet gasping noises as nothing else came up. It was easy to tell he hadn’t eaten for a while; the white film on his tongue suggested similarly.
“Oh,” Mrs. Weasley managed, sounding pained, “perhaps we should move on to the living room.”
Tom managed to open one eye, curled over on himself in his pitiful state. Even now, he looked ready to lunge.
Tom deposited himself on a couch, sprawling across it in both a display of distress, and something of boasting arrogance. He seemed to be glaring at Ginny, proclaiming with his body language ‘this may be your house, but this couch is now mine.’
It was true, Tom had an aura that surrounded him that left you unsettled and far too aware of your own body. Every insecurity came to the front of your mind, every vulnerability felt glaringly obvious. Even when Tom Riddle was laying on a couch, stinking of vomit and distress.
Tom looked more annoyed that they had seen his sickness, not that he had experienced it at all.
“Moody will be back soon,” Tonks assured them politely, still keeping guard as they settled awkwardly on couches. “I got an update, Mr. Dalour will be by likely before Moody comes back.”
Mrs. Weasley nodded quickly, “of course of course! I feel horrid, is there anything else I can get you, Tom dear? A nice cup of tea?”
Tom didn’t blink from his leisurely sprawl. “No thank you, ma’am. I thank you for your hospitality.”
Mrs. Weasley flushed, Tonks growled. Tom closed his eyes and looked completely at peace.
They could have mistaken him for sleeping if not for the way his fingers twitched ever so slightly at every noise. At Tonks’ request, Harry remained in the room with her. Maybe it was because he too knew about the situation, or maybe it was because Harry knew him. Ron and Hermione weren’t granted similar permission, and Ginny seemed completely banned from remaining in the same room as Tom unsupervised. The redhead could likely kill Tom with a spoon and pure determination.
After a period of time that felt much longer due to basic situational anxiety, the fireplace flared green and a wizard stumbled out. He wore standard scratchy robes that signified he had some sort of medical position or worked in a medical facility. His hair was trimmed carefully- another symbol of his position.
Tom’s countenance sharpened as he too came to a similar realization.
“Wonderful,” Mr. Dalour sighed, slightly nasally voice entirely unwelcome. He walked further into the room, depositing a small briefcase that looked made from toad leather. He flipped the latches, pulling out an obnoxiously large book and an ordinary never-ending-ink quill. “It’s been a hell of a morning, you’re lucky it's my day off and you’re paying my sick days. What have we here, miss auror?”
Tonks crossed her arms slowly, looking stonily at the room. “Basic evaluation, suspecting a full situation four although there may be other things included. This ‘ere is Harry who’ll be staying as witness. That’s Tom, who you’re working on.”
Mr. Dalour stilled for a second in blatant surprise, then looked at Tom in something of a new light.
“Tom, eh?” The man frowned, wrinkling his nose into a small sniffle, “you must be someone pretty important to call me out so quickly.”
Tom didn’t shift from his sprawled posture. He didn’t move further than the bare minimum required to talk: “So they say.”
Mr. Dalour almost smiled, then went to flip his book to an empty page. Harry peered at the white expanse, and although there were no words written Harry’s mind filled with static like a swarm of bees. He doubted he’d be able to read anything he wrote anyways.
“So, Mr. Tom.” Dalour began with a sniff, “what brings you to my attention?”
Tom didn’t react further. Solid and stationary like an alligator half submerged. “You tell me. I presume that a full situation four is code for a categorical of shock although you seem well versed with it already. Wartime does that, mediwizard?”
Mr. Dalour scribbled down what looked like distorted gibberish to Harry’s eyes. “A category of shock, eh? What makes you believe that?”
Tom’s eyes narrowed slightly, and finally he shifted upright into a seated position. Lazily, long limbs folding and not hitching even with the expanse of bruising across his hands and the prominence of his exposed collarbone.
Tom rose into a seated position, posture tall and strong with the gaunt lines of his face drawing sharper and skeletal. Harry’s breathing became much more laborious as he could vividly imagine scarlet eyes on the half smirk of amusement.
“Oh, you believe you’re so clever.”
Mr. Dalour kept writing, pausing after a particularly large stretch to sigh and look at Tom with a very tired expression.
“Yes, I am clever. I have done this for a long time and frankly this is my day off so I would love to have this finished as soon as possible. Please answer some questions for me, and we can proceed as quickly as possible with this.”
Tom’s smirk didn’t waver; he tilted his head like a curious feline watching a finch in the window.
“Thank you,” Mr. Dolour cleared his throat quietly. “You stated shock previously. Have you been exposed to situations where you believe you’d develop shock?”
Tom’s eyes slowly slid to the side over towards Tonks. “What wards are in place for the confidentiality of this discussion?”
“Perimeter.” Tonks clipped out shortly. “Nothing extensive. Due to the risk of your status. The rest of the house isn’t privy to this but the findings are our information too. I’ve activated a ward on Mr. Dolour’s entry where we’ll know if you lie, but we’re not forcing you to tell the truth either. Don’t make us have to change that.”
Tom smiled and slowly spoke. “My favourite colour is purple.”
There was a thrum, a strange prickly sensation of odd. It made Harry squirm uncomfortably, although Tonks and the new man didn’t seem that surprised by the feel.
Tom seemed to chew something over curiously. “Interesting choice. I’m not familiar with the spell.”
“It would be impressive if you did.” Mr. Dolour sighed, scribbling something down with a critical eye as Tom twitched ever so slightly.
“Please answer the question, Tom have you been in situations where you believe may have led to developing some sort of trauma?”
Tom smiled, curious and sharp.
Tonks bristled slightly as seconds continued on and still Tom said nothing.
“Tom,” Mr. Dolour sighed tiredly. “I understand this situation may be incredibly stressful. I’m trying to help you, and I reckon you aren’t used to that. Have you had many people help you before?”
Tom looked far too curious.
Harry felt like his tongue was swollen and heavy in his mouth.
“Do you think you can help me?” Tom asked politely, calm and blunt. “Truly? Or do you believe that your work with labeling and categorizing madness is all you can contribute. Is this your ideal place in the world, or have you accepted that your worthless contribution means so little you’ve settled for scum.”
Tonks looked ready to take one step forward, Mr. Dolour lifted one hand calmly.
“I see you’re feeling a bit targeted right now, and I’m sorry about that.” He apologized. “I only want to help you, Tom. Is it okay if I help you?”
Tom’s lip curled back ever so slightly. “You are a pathetic contribution to the world.”
The ward didn’t thrum; Tom Riddle’s truthful opinion felt unshakably cold. Mr. Dolour scribbled in his book.
“Do you feel afraid of me?” Tom asked calmly.
“No.” Mr. Dolour didn’t look up from where he was writing. Completely at ease.
Harry wanted to interrupt, to argue that Tom Riddle certainly was dangerous. The man seemed completely unaware.
“I’ve killed a rabbit with a knife.” Tom spoke calmly. The ward thrummed with an unmistakable sense of wrong wrong wrong.
Tom’s expression didn’t change. “I’ve hung a rabbit and watched it die because I wanted to.”
The wards didn’t thrum.
Mr. Dolour stopped writing instantly.
“Tom,” Mr. Dolour asked calmly, although it was a forced level of professionalism. “That’s something quite impressive. Why did you want the rabbit to die?”
Tom didn’t rise to it, instead he stared at the man with something difficult to read.
“You don’t need to be here, you know.” Tom dismissed without acknowledging his questions. “I understand why they summoned you. They think I’m mad, I’ve heard it often enough. I don’t need a mediwizard.”
Mr. Dolour sighed heavily. “The idea may be a bit uncomfortable, but perhaps you could try? You may feel better talking. Do you feel sometimes like you are alone?”
Tom’s eyebrows shifted ever so slightly, curious. “I don’t need a doctor.”
Mr. Dolour looked ready to rub his temples. “Tom-.”
“Have you ever been terrified?” Tom asked quietly, eyes bright and unsettling. “Have you ever believed you were going to die, doctor?”
There was a cold atmosphere that descended on them, that chilled them deeper than any admission would. The easy way Tom asked that, like nothing mattered in perspective.
“...No I haven’t-.”
“I have.” Tom spoke with a smile that did not fit on his face. A sharpness to his expression that made even Tonks twitch. “I’ve watched men like you squirm like rats.”
Tom’s smile exposed his gums; his teeth were starting to yellow and his gums looked inflamed and sore.
“I would love to watch you rot.”
The wards didn’t thrum.
A thick heavy suffocating silence weighed on them, oppressing. It laid over them like heavy cream, sweet and saccharine.
Tonks cleared her throat and Mr. Dolour exhaled shakily, closing his book with somewhat shaking fingers.
“Right.” Mr. Dolour spoke, his voice hoarse and somewhat shaky. “I’m going to...I’m...tell Alastor that I’m removing myself from this case I don’t...Don’t contact me again I…”
Harry wasn’t surprised at all when Mr. Dolour scrambled off, unsettled and shaken by the honesty of Tom’s words.
“Forgive me father,” Tom grinned feral, “it has been a while since my last confession .”
Tom was living proud, calm and confident. Mrs. Weasley didn’t understand why Mr. Dolour, the order mediwizard for referrals left so suddenly. Normally the man was quite professional- perhaps a bit skittish but nothing that would explain his hasty departure.
Tonks seemed even more frustrated, tense and scathing over the smallest things. It wasn’t even noon yet and Mrs. Weasley was unsure of how to continue with the day.
The floo surged with fire, a small puff of ash and two figures were emerging.
“Moony!” Harry blurted, lunging to his feet with a breathless grin. Tom, having taken to his couch in a defensive sprawl. He watched with a clinical eye, not rising to any sort of mock niceties considering his morning so far.
“Hello Harry.” Remus smiled back, accepting the hug from the smaller boy. It was more of a collapse against the man’s larger frame, but he caught him instantly.
“Harry!” Remus hurried in a hushed but worried voice, “are you alright?”
“I’ve had a really tiring day, Moony.”
Remus patted his back twice, looking very uncomfortable.
“Remus!” Tonks grinned, rushing from her guard post with a relieved whoosh of air. “ Please tell me Moody is coming back!”
Remus looked equally startled by her own exhaustion. “I- yes. He’s fetching A- oh. I had…” Remus trailed off, finally catching eye of Tom.
Tom stood, slowly rising to his short lanky state. He hunkered slightly, swaying and blinking quickly once he stood tall before he adjusted to the sudden change in altitude. Then he prowled, striding across the short distance of the living room.
Remus took an instinctual step backwards, dragging Harry with him. Remus made a low rumble, something deeper than a whine but quieter than a snarl. Tom’s eyes glinted like a sharp stone. He said nothing.
The fireplace burned brightly again, a plume of green fire. A wizard stepped out, casually brushing soot off his bright maroon robes.
“Oh dear,” Albus Dumbledore spoke calmly, observing Tom with a hard look built into his face, “it seems this is quite a situation.”
Tom’s face froze in shock, unable to comprehend. Worse than before, like an epiphany had formed in all the worst ways.
“No.” Tom blurted, word slurred slightly with the numbness of his mouth. “No, no. You aren’t- you- you’re bloody kidding me.”
Dumbledore smiled thinly, not friendly but not outright cruel. “Hello again, Tom. You’ve aged well.”
Tom made a whine, a low noise of distress before the smooth composition of his words shifted into the rough rhyming slang of his cockney from before. He spluttered over pure sounds, hissing syllables before he spat out a furious line of “ I manage ter get oray and I end up wiv this crap, isit?”
Albus Dumbledore blinked quickly in surprise before he chuckled quietly, almost fond. “Ah, I missed that accent of yours. It vanished by your sixth year if I recall correctly.”
Tom recoiled; his mouth opening and closing before he hunched in fury. “I 'ope yer choke on yor stewpid candies yer goat.”
“Ah,” Dumbledore sighed in relief, “what a beautiful sound.”
Remus smoothly tried to interrupt. “Albus? Perhaps we should…”
“Ah, yes. You’re most certainly right, my friend.” Albus nodded carefully, stroking his long beard- braided off on one side messily. “Molly? A cup of tea would be splendid.”
“Oh yes!” She hurried, searching for a well worn kettle.
Tom’s nostrils flared and he walked backwards, not retreating but instead returning to his couch to watch the proceedings in his natural state; angrily.
“I understand we have had quite an interesting day.” Albus confessed, lowering himself on a nearby chair with a sigh of his old bones. “Ah, I see young Harry here has been keeping you company.”
“The more I hear about him,” Tom began in the once more composed tone, careful British. “The more I find his existence irritable.”
Remus choked on a laugh, and Harry found himself nearly grinning at the hilarity of the situation. Oh Merlin, he couldn’t wait for when the boy learned about the scar on his head.
“Ah, I see.” Dumbledore nodded in sympathy, “this must be quite alarming for you, Tom. What was the last thing you remember?”
Tom glared with unadulterated hate. “Don’t go betraying your intentions now, professor. One may mistake it for compassion.”
Dumbledore nodded slowly, accepting the saucer of tea that Molly quickly gave him. She skirted off, leaving the group in their tense stand off.
“I apologize for any mixed signals I’ve given you,” Dumbledore apologized slowly, “I have your best intentions in mind.”
Tom tilted his head, nostrils flaring. For however cruel and sharp he was with Tonks and Moody, it was nothing compared to the glowing coals of fury that raged behind Tom’s eyes.
“Don’t lie to me now, professor.” Tom grinned behind sharp bared teeth. “You were always fond of your white lies and half baked truths.”
Dumbledore’s face wrinkled in confusion. “I am sorry I don’t understand-.”
Tom’s face twisted into something that could never be considered pretty. Pinched and strained, waxy skin over a taught canvas that painted him in shades of blood.
“Did you hope I’d die?” Tom asked him, low in a snarl. “Is that why you sent me back? Again and again?”
Remus tensed, Tonks shrunk and Dumbledore aged like something exposed to the horrors of the world.
“Oh,” Dumbledore breathed quietly and tired. “Oh I am so sorry. Tom, the war is long finished. Grindlewald was arrested many years ago. There are no more bombs to threaten you.”
Tom rolled his neck, cracking it audibly. His collarbone shifted under the parchment of his skin.
“Maybe for you it did.” Tom answered after a pause, tasting the words in his throat like stale bread over a tiring day. “It feels to me that I’ve left one war only to join another. This time, only I am against the world.”
Dumbledore looked downward with a small nod, sighing through his nose. He clutched his cup of tea tightly, the thin wafts of steam trickling upwards.
“I apologize, for all the ways I have failed you.” Dumbledore admitted, “and with that I feel it is of utmost importance to inform you of the situation.”
Tom looked ready to lunge across the room, no weapon be damped, to try and assault his way into solitary confinement.
“You see, Tom.” Dumbledore pressed one old weathered hand to his temple. “You succeeded.”
Tom froze and his blood chilled.
“Albus,” Remus whispered alarmed, unsure.
“I failed you.” Dumbledore confessed to the room. “I failed to address your trauma, your injuries and your requests for aid. I failed you, and you succeeded to become the most feared Dark Lord of all time.”
Tom looked sickly pale, looking ready to vomit once more. “You’re lying.”
Dumbledore smiled thinly, face nearly as gaunt. “No. I’m not. After leaving Hogwarts, you traveled on a crusade and partook in rituals and magics so dark it tainted and befouled you into something hideous. Perhaps you were beyond my hope long before, but I view this as my chance to correct the flaws of my past.”
Tom shook his head jerkily. “I- I do not-.”
“You murdered people.” Harry blurted, the well of rage that he normally did not feel flooded over him and saturated his bones. “You murdered Cedric. You murdered my parents!”
Tom kept shaking his head in numb shock.
“You’re a bloody monster!” Harry screamed, jolting to his feet. Tonks grabbed his arm, holding him back.
“I didn’t-.” Tom began, quiet and unsure. Eyes wide and perplexed, disoriented and lost and so very confused. “I didn’t-.”
“I am so sorry for you, Tom.” Dumbledore confessed quietly. “For all your pain and suffering. I have ignored you and in your negligence you have suffered far more than anyone should ever.”
Tom reclined back, closing his eyes simply so he didn’t have to look at Dumbledore’s face any more.
His lips were twitching, thin and twitching on his sickly face. Harry was too far away to hear, and the blurry tears in his eyes distorted his vision too much for him to read his lips.
Tonks could read whatever it was, and it left her to exhale in a shaky sob.
Tom made a low noise, something small and hurt. It rose in volume, until it started to warble into something of a scream. It rose and rose into a pitch so high, Harry could feel the hair on his skin crawl and his teeth rumble with the vibrations of it.
Dumbledore waved his wand, whispering words quietly. It must have done something, because Mrs. Weasley and Ron and Hermione and everyone else who sprinted into the room froze just on the threshold of the room.
Tom’s head was tilted back, throat barred and jerking with the viciousness of his voice. Louder and louder, like death throes of a dream now impossible to ever reach.
Tom Riddle screamed, because it was the only thing louder than sobbing.
It was impossible to describe. The level of isolation impossible to ever experience.
You could pack your things and run, take your name and your money and cross countries and continents but you were never truly alone. You would always leave memories behind you, a spiderweb of people who knew your face and your voice who could repeat it fondly or with scorn. You could always return to a place you once knew as home, a place where people would remember you regardless if they wanted to or not.
You had a name, an identity. Proof of your existence through the eyes of the world around you. You were alive, you were alive at one point, you were alive always.
(How excruciatingly isolating it was, to realize that even memories no longer proved your existence.)
There were various philosophical debates on the concept of individuality and existence. The notion that personhood could only be obtained in a specific instances of altering factors. If X and Y are achieved, then a person is indeed, a person.
Tom Riddle had no past, no patron saint to swear his loyalty. No head of house to assure that he was their student, no establishment to claim he belonged. He had no family, no friends who would recognize someone that defied the absolute of time. He had no plans, no ambition that or goals attainable not out of inability, but out of pure impossibility.
(A person existed if they could X and Y. Was Tom a person, when variables were no longer symbolic? When letters were foreign splashes of ink which meant nothing to him, as he meant nothing now to the world?)
Tom sat on the couch, legs curled close to his body as he stared at a wall. Not glancing away even as the house began to thrum with activity. Dumbledore sat there with him, calm and patient. Sipping his third cup of tea. Perhaps if Tom waited long enough, the caffeine would send the man into cardiac arrest.
Tom had no future ambitions. His political route was blocked now by the thoroughly tainted and foreign structure of the ministry. He had worked through the unstable hysteria of wartime politics, the immoral greed of those in powers. If the war was over, then it would be something utterly new. He had no vantage points, no steps along pureblood names to gain height along the social structure. Abraxas may be dead now; he always had that insufferable wheeze. Orion seemed like a distant thought, too scatterbrained to ever be of much use. Where would he be now? Married off and softened with domesticity? Had Cygnus fallen into the madness that claimed his father and his father before that? Would the others have died and moved on without ever considering where Tom had vanished to such a long time ago- a student they once knew in a passing memory.
Where would he go? Where would Tom walk when he had no motivation to step forward?
Tom stared at the wall, and welcomed the tide of black nothingness he normally felt at nights in the muggle world. When the sirens thrummed and the walls shook and he cared so little he didn’t stir from where he slept.
If he was wearing the beads he found on an abandoned prayer bench, he’d twirl them between his fingers in sacrilegious pondering.
What had he brought with him? A bag full of useless muggle objects, his diary and his wand. His trunk was stashed under a shattered staircase, nearly impossible for most to reach. Impossible for anyone to open without a knowing hand on its torn leather fasteners. His books, his research, his potions and schoolwork were all lost to time.
He was alone, abandoned in way so completely different; he believed he were accustomed to isolation but he knew now he was privileged.
“Granted the situation, it seems unfair to withhold you from a proper education.” Dumbledore admitted calmly. “Fortunately, I am now the Headmaster of Hogwarts so your admission into our school is well within my abilities.”
Tom stared at the wall, and wondered when the family that lived here before filled the cracks in its mortar and smoothed it with paint. He wondered how deep the rot of its beams ran, or if they warded it and locked out the bombs like the selfish wizards did to everyone else.
“...It is convenient that you had your wand on you at the time of your appearance.” Dumbledore continued, not caring that Tom had yet to respond. “It is a truly tedious task to find an alternative wand.”
Tom wondered where Dumbledore was, if he stayed in the castle as Tom was locked out of bomb shelters by jeering children.
“We will be able to sort you of course, after we have run proper medical tests and other treatment if necessary. It wouldn’t do to have you walking around with injuries.”
Devil-spawn! Die in the fire devil spawn!
Tom’s lips moved numbly as he whispered to himself ever so quietly, “Ipse venena bibas. Ipse venena bibas.”
Ipse venene bibas! Drink the poison yourself! Rid yourself of this child, Satan!
Tom inhaled slowly and deeply, his chest expanding as he exhaled and thought. “You’re claiming to shelter me although an unmarked individual will never achieve much in the world.”
Dumbledore didn’t look bothered by the statement. “That’s true. It’s fortunate that our friends can claim identity for you. An exchange student, a child seeking asylum from less happier lands.”
Tom didn’t look away from the wall. “A lie. A forgery of identity. I do not exist, I’m nobody.”
Ipse venena bibas!
Dumbledore’s fingers shifted on the teacup in his hand. “That may be true. Perhaps use this chance as an opportunity to achieve that which you never could. Use this as redemption. In your religion, if I recall correctly, this may be called redemption.
Tom smiled at the thought. At the old man trying to use the words and chanting carved into his skull from the desperate and the afraid.
The way that candles burned him, how wax made his skin crawl and rosemary and hawthorn made his back itch.
Would the man use religion against him if he knew the lengths men went in the face of fear? How men found the devil in the body of those who constantly defied.
“Redemption.” Tom tasted the word. It tasted like stomach acid, burning his gums and mixing with blood.
'No one is as good and merciful as the Lord. But even He does not forgive the unrepentant.'
Tom would drink Dumbledore’s poison, because he knew not else what to do. A dozen lashes, a cross held in shaking fingers as bombs shook the earth like a roar from some demonic creature.
‘Please God let me live.’
“I’ll play your game.” Tom spoke, slowly dragging his eyes from the wall. “Do not mistake me. I do not believe in God or that petty worship.”
A hundred lashes. Spit oil and flame to baptize the monster from his skin. A hundred lashes. Pray until your knees bled and the priest beat the devil out of you.
Dumbledore looked surprised or at least as much as he showed. “Ah, forgive me. I meant no offense, I had mistakenly presumed you were religious in the muggle Catholicism.”
Tom smiled thinly. Any longer, and he would bite his cheek to spill blood down his face. “What tests are you mandating I partake in, Dumbledore.”
Dumbledore calmed, looking well versed in this particular path. “Ah, well, we have arrangements to make, Tom.”
Tom Riddle smiled sharply, and wished the collar of thorns on his leg would bleed him dry.
“This is Tom Riddle,” Dumbledore pleasantly introduced to everyone in the Burrow, smiling happily although Tom was succeeding in giving a rather vicious glare just over his shoulder. “Due to unforeseen circumstances, he is our new guest for an undetermined amount of time. I hope you help make him feel welcome, and yes Ginervra I am well aware of his identity. You see, Tom Riddle here is fifteen years old, and through an anomaly he has appeared in our time.”
The twins inhaled in surprise, glancing at each other in delight. Hermione looked alarmed and very worried. Harry could understand that considering all of the drama they experienced with a time turner.
“Tom here comes from when I taught Transfiguration,” Dumbledore chuckled heartily, “what a wonderful time. Due to how our timeline appears to have remained in tact, I believe that this has altered into an alternate existence where information will not destroy our own existence. However, you see, Tom’s older self unfortunately went on to be named an adversary of ours.”
Ginny lunged forward, it was only Tonks’ quick instincts which prevented the younger girl from clawing her nails across Tom’s face. Tom took a half step back almost as fast, carefully remaining out of reach.
“You monster!” Ginny screamed, face turning blotchy and red. “I hope you die!”
Ron gaped, Hermione looked stricken. Mrs. Weasley had yet to understand exactly the situation.
“Yes well, that may be a similar interest of many.” Dumbledore admitted in thought. Remus looked pained and ready to leave without acknowledging the elephant in the room.
“He’s Voldemort.” Harry found himself saying, cracking the stick of tension that had developed the moment Dumbledore showed up. “”I mean, he isn’t yet, but he’s Voldemort from before he turned Voldemort.”
“What?” Tom asked quietly, although now faced with a half dozen horrified faces. “Vol de mort? Theft of death?”
Dumbledore hummed in thought, “curious. I had always beloved you intended to use the homonym, flight of death sounds much fancier in French, don't you agree?”
Tom’s face quickly changed into carefully restrained desire for manslaughter.
“Harry.” Hermione blurted in stunned confusion, “I...that...you don’t mean that, truly?”
“Err, he is.” Harry uncomfortably confirmed, “I’d recognize that face anywhere.”
“Yeah! Like when you tried to bloody murder me!” Ginny screamed, thrashing in Tonks’ arms.
Tom huffed and soured, “You likely deserved it you gink.”
Ginny’s face twitched slightly at the unfamiliar word before she assumed correctly it was an insult and returned to shrieking.
Dumbledore sighed tiredly, waving one wand with a mutter to silence the room.
“Now then.” He smiled politely, “I understand that Mr. Dolour was here earlier?”
“He quit.” Tonks informed curtly. “Bastard scared him off.”
Remus looked at Tom with a small downwards tilt to his mouth. Tom ignored him.
“Ah, I assumed such would happen.” Dumbledore nodded wisely. “Mr. Dolour was only an investigative referral. It was unlikely he would accomplish much other than providing the name of the professional we’d be best with. Fortunately, I thought ahead once I was informed of the situation and already contacted Madam Dimitriu for her services.”
Remus choked quietly and looked alarmed. “Albus? You contacted Crina Dimitriu?”
Dumbledore blinked innocently, “why, of course. I thought a spectacular occasion would warrant a spectacular woman.”
“Wonderful.” Tom drawled although it sounded aggressive, “another mediwitch?”
“Of course not.” Dumbledore chuckled fondly, “she’s a mindhealer and practitioner of high regard. Merlin knows, she’s ever so fascinated with my stories of Fawkes!”
Tom grimaced and glanced away quickly.
“What about Hogwarts?” Mrs. Weasley interjected worriedly. “I know the holidays merely just started but I can’t help but be concerned-.”
“Do not worry, Molly.” Dumbledore soothed, “If necessary, I will provide guardianship over Tom-.”
“ No you wouldn’t dare!”
“-and provide the required mentoring he sorely needs.” Dumbledore assured calmly. “I believe he will need no further monitoring after a gentle summer break. Although I do believe a shopping venture is sorely required.”
The amount of rage on Tom’s face could not be contained. He looked ready to lunge, to scream and try and murder Dumbledore with his hands alone. Harry took a step back, already shaken by the unfathomable display of anger and hatred. The fireplace thrummed and the kitchen area was even more cramped with the emergence of Moody once more.
“Ah, wonderful timing.” Albus beamed. “Off you go, Alastor will be escorting you to Diagon for necessities.”
“Wait, now?” Mrs. Weasley squeaked in alarm, “oh dear! I have things to-.”
“Don’t worry about it, Molly.” Tonks beamed, finally releasing the seething Ginny to bump into Remus’ side. “We’ll take the squirt.”
“I’ll come too.” Harry blurted suddenly, “er, I wanted to visit my vault.”
“But mate-.” Ron started, only for Moody to cut him off.
“Great! Let’s get going then.” Moody grumbled, using his cane to shove Harry away and towards the fireplace, “nice and easy. Quicker we do this the less painful it is.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” Tom gritted out in a low seething voice. He looked like he was being escorted to trial, the only thing he was missing was the shackles.
They marched into the fire, barely having enough time to prepare.
Diagon was busy at noon. The summer events weren’t yet in full swing, the patio furniture wasn’t outside and the fountains weren’t flowing. The traffic was less, but still active enough that witnesses were around.
Tom looked around quickly, calm if not for the frantic gleam in his eyes. Windows were new, stores were vacant or painted in bright foreign colours advertising things uncommon. The cobblestone was clean, the sky didn’t glimmer with bomb repelling wards. It felt like a dream.
“You er, okay?” Harry asked unsure. He knew deep in his gut the strange level of culture shock. He could almost feel the nausea that was twisting the other teens stomach, leaving him cramping with anxiety.
“...I’m fine.” Tom clipped out abruptly, harshly with how vibrant and joyous the day was. The air smelled clean, a small smell of baking bread drifted down from further up the alley. It was still a bit cold enough to wear a slight jacket. Tom had only the shirt Harry brought him, hanging off him wrongly.
“First up, clothing.” Remus skirted the three towards the closest clothing store, not Madam Malkins but something cheaper. They were on the Order’s budget after all, they had to make due. Tonks and Moody stuck outside, leaning against the doorway imposingly. Tom huffed so quietly Harry wasn’t sure anyone else noticed it.
The woman at the register looked alarmed by Tom’s state, or maybe by the clothing he was wearing. His shoes weren’t even proper, instead they were charmed to be bigger so they wouldn't fall off. In moments the poor woman had run off for the manager, looking overwhelmed with the situation.
The manager emerged, and looked just as frazzled as the attendant before.
“Hello, we’re looking for a full wardrobe.” Remus smiled although it looked pained. “Complete.”
“Oh,” the manager gaped over a second, swallowing quickly, “ah...house fire, dear?”
Tom’s yellowish waxy skin and slight bloodshot hue to his eye suggested anything other than a house fire. He didn’t dignify her with an answer.
“Of course,” She nodded, shaken by his cold dismissal. “We have various sizes, arranged by sizes and style of course. Do you know your size-.”
“Fatigue jacket. 34 long.” He clipped out sharply.
Harry, Remus, and the manager blinked at the foreign sizing. Tom exhaled through his nose, shouldered past them, and began snatching things without care.
It an unnecessarily long time to find something that fit decently, didn’t cling so tightly it emphasized the unnatural shape of his ribcage, and to argue that his boots should not be a size larger than his actual foot size.
Harry felt thoroughly exhausted by the time Remus and Tom managed to get in a spitting match over the necessity of multiple jackets. Merlin have mercy for however Tom Riddle did his casual shopping.
The shirts they managed to settle on did fit better, although Remus informed that he was looking around Sirius’ house for old outdated clothing that may fit better. Donations were better than nothing, and nobody saw the point to give Tom a dozen different shirts to wear when he arrived wearing clearly stolen garments.
They stormed out of the store with significantly less money than when they went in. It didn’t seem like too much for Harry, but having lived with the Weasleys for a while he had grown used to the standard monetary funds for purchases.
“Bookstore.” Moody grumbled, jerking his head to another secondhand store. Harry hadn’t ever been inside, but Tom followed without another word. Harry noted that Tom and Tonks really really did not seem to get along.
They had free reign once inside; Tom practically bolted into the forest of shelves and cobwebs. Harry couldn’t even blame him.
Moody stayed near the front, but Remus and Tonks slipped to the sides to watch and follow him down the rows.
Something about it felt wrong, it felt disgustingly so. Harry couldn’t place it, but it made him feel like peeling off his skin. The blatant distrust, the lack of regard over Tom’s own ability to shop.
Tom was in a new place, a new world with no wand or allies. Why was he under such a harsh guard? Why was he being escorted around like a prisoner? Sure Voldemort had done horrible things, but this was Tom Riddle, someone who apparently was randomly thrown into a pool filled with sharks. It felt wrong to treat him like this. It felt wrong to make him believe he was the enemy in another war.
Harry steadied his breath, then followed down the path of the book store Tom took.
It took a while to find him, and when he did Tom was pressing his forehead to one of the shelves. Harry couldn’t place any of the titles of the books, some in a completely different language while others were in runic forms. Harry didn’t understand, but something about Tom’s posturing looked very vulnerable.
“...What books are you looking for?” Harry offered, breaking the quiet. The shelves creaked a little, the lights buzzed with a huff of gas through piping.
Tom inhaled with a rattling noise, peeking one eye open with a glazed look. “Why are you following me.”
It was deadpan and curt, and Harry felt very guilty.
He cleared his throat quietly, and stuck one of his hands out awkwardly. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. My names Harry Potter, and uh, you’re Tom Riddle.”
Tom looked at him from the corner of his eye. “Most presume I go by Voldemort.”
Harry kept his hand outstretched. “Do you?”
A creak of the shelves, then Tom pulled away from where he leaned against the bookshelves, eyes scanning over the titles and names of the books.
“They’re different.” Tom muttered in lieu of his name, nodding towards the spines facing them. “It doesn’t seem like it, but I checked. If it was only English titles then it would be an ordering choice, but other languages are different. Censored.”
Harry squinted at one book that looked like like doodles than letters. “Er...you read this?”
“Yes.” Tom bit out curtly, trailing a bruised finger along the books. “French. Latin. Passable in Gaelic, I can read Coptic and Arabic. A few others. These books are all censored by the Ministry. You had a purge.”
Moody appeared at the end of the row, although Tonks and Remus were still out of sight.
“Eh! Looking for texts already?” Moody asked with a satisfied snarl, drawing his wand in a blatant threat.
“Your government is a worried one, isn’t it.” Tom muttered instead, tapping on something that was clearly Latin. “What else is outlawed now. Livestock rearing? Knitting?”
“Brat.” Moody seethed, muttering something which flashed and suddenly Tom was buckling. His left leg twitching visibly. Tom growled, and Harry found himself feeling sick once more.
“Pick your bloody books.” Moody spat, scarred remnants of his nose upturning, “we’re leaving soon you Death Eater scum.”
Tom said nothing, his leg kept jerking. Once Moody passed around the corner, Harry reached down to help Tom upright.
“I’m fine!” Tom hissed lowly, visibly limping as he forced himself further into the lines of text, yanking what appeared to be random books off the shelf. “Leave me alone.”
“What were you looking for?” Harry asked awkwardly. Tom looked at him skeptic, on the verge of ignoring him again.
For some reason, the boy found something in Harry’s honest question. His hand twitched around the two books in his arms, but he spoke nonetheless.
“Sections on magical theory are removed.” Tom explained bluntly. “Light magic theory and environmental remains. Mental and dark magical theory aren’t here anymore.”
Harry had never heard about mental magical theory. Dark magic was...dark magic. Things that murdered people.
“If you open your mouth and say something based off biased opinion instead of fact, I am sorely tempted to throw this book at your face.” Tom snapped out impatiently.
Harry blinked quickly, “err, sorry. I uh, I thought dark magic hurt people. I didn’t know that there was magical theory behind it.”
Tom’s shoulders trembled with the force of his irritated breathing. “Lord forgive me. Why can I not escape utter ridiculous government propaganda. What have I done to deserve this.”
“A lot,” Harry impulsively blurted. “You did say you killed a rabbit.”
Tom closed his eyes and spoke very slowly. “Harry Potter. I have a feeling, that you are going to be a truly exemplar prick in my side.”
“Oh,” Harry very wisely said, “you really don’t want to know.”
Tom made a small noise of dismissal, grabbed another nearby book and stomped dramatically to the front of the store. He was still limping.
Harry didn’t think the cursing was justified.
(Tom hadn’t done anything to deserve it.)
Maybe in a few years if someone asked Harry to look back on it, and to say when things changed, he would say this.
There were a lot of moments that people remembered. Things or quirks about people you always fondly talked about. A tone of their laugh, the way their eyes lit up. Maybe the sound of their screaming, or the first time you heard them cry.
When Harry thought about Tom Riddle, he thought he’d think of the high pitched screaming; of a basilisk chasing him with intent to feast. He thought he’d recall the bone deep fear, the terror that made his teeth rattle.
But he didn’t think that anymore. Sometimes there were moments which stuck out more than any emotion or sight. A quiet isolating event or something shared that impacts you like a knife between the ribs. Something you could explain but when put in words it became meaningless, like ash on your tongue.
Tom Riddle sat on the ground, dirtying his new clothes on the floor of a vault layered with thick dust. Not a coin or bauble in sight. The gentle rise and fall of his breathing echoed over everything he now owned; nothing.
Harry didn’t know how to explain it. When he thought of Tom Riddle, he thought of a thin boy kneeling in a future where he had lost everything from the very start.
They returned back to the house, a bundle of bags and books that meant nothing. A sign of knowledge that now promised nothing but a distraction from time. A way to avoid life itself.
The household was sharp and tense, the atmosphere had darkened and dampened into something sour. Dinner was rapidly approaching, and Tom snuck away to the room assigned as his like a fox hiding in a badgers den. He didn’t emerge, instead he stuck to the small stool in the corner with his newly acquired book and ignored the world around him. His door was lodged open, Harry was partially impressed Moody hadn’t simply removed the door from the hinges. Nobody really followed him yet, not when the imposing mystery lady would arrive later that evening to meet Tom. A highly qualified mindhealer for a highly troubled case.
“If you’re going to stare.” Tom murmured lowly from his place in the corner, small and unassuming. “‘You best do it out of my line of sight. It’s distracting.”
Harry felt alarmed that his staring was that obvious, but then he felt that was one of the politest things Tom had ever told him.
“Sorry,” Harry apologized just to break the atmosphere. “The book is interesting.”
Tom didn’t look up from the book. “This is Latin. You don’t know Latin.”
Harry shifted uncomfortably, “maybe I do?”
Tom peered over the book at him with a bored expression. “ Matulae.”
Harry blinked at the foreign word, “er, pardon?”
“A pot.” Tom translated bluntly. “Or rather, a vessel for liquids. I’m sure you identify with it quite well. Also translated as blockhead.”
Harry flushed and scratched the back of his neck. “Are you going to use Latin just to insult me?”
“No, I also use it to explain how I take my tea.” Tom deadpanned sourly. “ Leave.”
Harry felt suitably embarrassed but also rather curious. It was an interesting sort of conversation, or dialect that Tom seemed to use without pause. A struggle to understand some articulations or reasons behind why he structured a sentence the way he did, but it was fascinating. It reminded Harry of a few conversations with Hermione, interspersed with the blatant humour of Ron when he was tired.
“You mentioned something about dark magic theory.” Harry felt like he was butchering the explanation already despite having said nothing at all. “I’ve never heard about it.”
Tom looked ready to groan. He closed his eyes and lifted one hand from the book to press against his temple. “If you’re asking me to educate you, you’ll ask proper or ask not at all.”
Harry felt properly scolded; almost embarrassed by the informal approach.
“Er, sorry.” Harry winced at his own apology. “...Could you ah...educate me?”
Tom stared at him bored. Harry felt the urge to throw on a ‘Sir?’ afterwards.
“You really are a blockhead.” Tom deadpanned with a sigh. “Light and Dark magic theory. You understand that some styles of magic require different techniques to properly use. Basic introductory spells mandate proper annunciation and wand movements while others require intent and focus.”
Harry visibly brightened. “Like the Patronus charm! Yeah, you need to use a happy memory for that but there isn’t really a wand movement.”
Tom looked surprised. He closed his book, setting it to the side to give Harry his full attention. For some reason, it felt very important.
“...yes.” Tom admitted slowly, cautiously. His eyes flickered to the doorway for a second before back at Harry. His head tilted ever so slightly, interested. “The patronus charm is a difficult spell which is heavily inclined towards light magical theory. Do you know why?”
Harry’s mind blanked. “Because you...need to be happy?”
“A moron,” Tom mused contently, “you are an absolute moron. No you daft cobblestone. Light magic theory applies internal emotional processes into external effect. The patronus charm requires you to experience joy and then externalizes it.”
Harry was suddenly aware that his jaw was dropped.
“...what?” He asked, dazed.
Tom looked at him in disbelief. “Light magic theory and the tie to emotions. You must be bloody- you surely know that. There was a lesson on it in my second year.”
“I have never heard that before in my entire life.” Harry admitted uncomfortably. “Light magic has to do with your emotions?”
“No no,” Tom groaned quietly, more in disbelief over the situation, “light magic theory externalizes your emotions. Dark magic theory conjures or creates emotions based on environment. They’re inverse of one another- have you never heard of this?”
Harry shook his head, and Tom stared at the Latin book in dismay.
“...What are the regulations on dark magic artifacts?” Tom asked suddenly, shifting the topic abruptly.
Harry’s mind scrambled. “Err...in my second year they were going to a few pureblood houses to search for illegal artifacts?”
Tom inhaled heavily through his nose. “The names of the houses. The old houses or all pureblood estates? The London ones or also the country homes?”
Harry scrambled, “I...I don’t know? Draco got- err- the Malfoy’s had their house searched. I don’t know what they found but I know a lot of people were complaining about it.”
Tom stared at a wall, and didn’t look away. “Abraxas would have argued. The Wizengamot would never have...he...what about the other families. The Blacks, Lestranges. Rowle.”
Harry struggled with the position he was in. How do you tell a young Dark Lord that all the families he knew were either insane, imprisoned, or wanted by the law for various shady dealings.
“Er...they’re in jail I think.” Harry tried to remember. “Lestrange is. Azkaban.”
“The ‘ell?” The low brass cockney emphasized just how stunned Tom was.
“Yeah.” Harry grimace, “there’s a lot of uh, illegal dark magic going around. It’s hurt a lot of people and now there’s laws to prevent people from being hurt.”
Tom stared at Harry, his face impossible to read. There was something in his eyes, an exhaustion that was so deep Harry couldn’t explain it if he tried.
“No, Potter.” Tom sighed, looking very very tired, “this is war propaganda.”
The bombs didn’t drop during the day. The Zeppelins and planes stayed away in the morning hours, when the overcast sky and dull sun would light up the destruction from the night before. The sunlight was security from a foreign threat, and the start of a domestic one.
The streets that weren’t as destroyed always filled quickly with the people that remained. The people with money and vouchers, the tickets for food and clothing and the vanity that came with it. They were the ones that the police would still come for, the areas where the muggings and theft didn’t frequent. It was also the area where Tom was most likely to be caught, to be thrown to the side for abandoning the cause. He was young, but he looked older.
Tom slid sideways, pressing against a few of the houses with walls still in tact. The air smelled like ash, a wet mildew smell from the fires in the night that were put out with sewage water. It was nearly harder to find freshwater than it was to fine safety.
Tom walked, ignoring the chill in the air. His coat was fine, it wouldn’t need to be patched for a while still. His boots on the other hand were starting to fall apart, the stitching decayed from the days they spent under compost. He’d need new ones soon or he’d risk something much worse.
Tom glanced upwards with a frown. He couldn’t see it, but ever since the disaster with the opposing front a ward had been placed up. A safety net and a call for surrender all at once. Tom couldn’t ever see it, but he could feel it thrum under his skin. Under the bloodied bits of his nails. Sure, the trace on him removed itself once he came of age but in the war-zone, all magic could be detected. Since the murdering, the explosions of fire and Germans, all magic was to be illegal in muggle populated zones. Cast a spell under the ward of war, and lose your finger to the agony of ministry caliber magic.
Lose a finger, or lose both feet to rot. The choice was alluring, and he knew the spell to locate the recently dead. The corpses that were still warm.
(He hadn’t done magic in a while, not even when the rattling bombs made him flinch. A finger or his feet. A finger or his feet.)
Tom kept walking, scuffing his boots on the dusty plaster that rained down from a broken building. Soon the churches would fall, their delicate stained glass would shower them with hail. Tom wondered if the planes had targets in mind during the night, or if they let their explosions rain like hellfire with no cause.
Tom kept walking, a small bit of cobblestone rattled. He heard a cough, a wet one filled with phlegm or mucus. Tom was interested immediately.
It was hard to navigate the bombing zones, where a single step could mean your last. Bits of exposed metal could pierce your leg and infect you. Rats could scurry free with the madness that left them frothing. Fires sometimes never stopped burning in the core; shifted rubble would send it ablaze. It was a dangerous life for the urchins of the world. Tom hadn’t the chance to bathe in a while now.
He located the coughing, a man who had chosen to sleep in a random house. It was struck, and Tom ignored how the likelihood of he being in the same situation increased every night. The man had rubble on him, splintered wood piercing his skin and clothing. It too, was fraying on the edges.
Tom walked in the remnants of the house, mindful of the broken glass on the floor. He would have taken any bottles of drink the man had hoarded, his throat was parched.
The man wheezed, glancing at him tiredly. Blood on his face, internal bleeding then. He’d die soon.
The man said something, gibberish to Tom’s starving mind. It took a second for Tom to think, to associate sounds with words and meanings.
“Le français?” Tom asked, slurring a little on the language. The man wheezed again, voice deep and wet.
“Parlez vous français?” The man gurgled out, accent in his mother-tongue unmistakable.
Tom breathed in the ash and plaster in the air and shifted his language to another he learned out of necessity. “Yes, I do.”
The man laughed, amused beyond words. His skin was waxy and shiny, he looked old but not so old grey could speckle his hair yet.
“How special am I,” The man wheezed out, hand sifting and curling in the sawdust at his side, “to have company on my deathbed.”
Tom eyed him carefully, looking around the small shelter the man had spent the last night in. “I like your boots.”
The man wiggled his feet, the relatively undamaged shoes scuffed the floor. “Bah, they’re yours once I’m dead.”
Tom nodded, and settled himself on the floor. It wasn’t safe to be out during the day when the crime started.
The man wheezed, and Tom started searching through his bag. It was easier to take inventory during the sunlight, even when his bag was as deep as it was.
“What have you got?” The man asked him, voice wetter than before.
“Nothing for you.” Tom deadpanned, and ignored the man.
The sun moved overhead, the shadows stretched. Tom wondered if the man’s jacket would fit him, maybe he should take it too.
“You not go to war, boy?” The man asked, slurring but still comprehensible.
“Too young.” Tom responded curtly.
“Ah,” The french man nodded understandingly, “street rat. Smart to stay out of sight. Dangerous during the day.”
“Dangerous during the nights.” Tom countered lazily, not paying the man any thought.
“Dangerous always,” the man cackled, pausing to heave and retch. He had eaten something, it made his vomit less watery and more grey than yellow. Tom would have to search to find whatever food he had stashed. “Dangerous world.”
Tom ignored him and kept taking inventory. He’d need to find water soon; the canal was too rancid to bother with but the stench may have kept people from the near houses.
“Dangerous dangerous world.” the Frenchman mumbled to himself. “Fled here, France too dangerous even for a poor Frenchman like myself.”
Maybe the man had water hidden around here somewhere, jars of it or an area he cleansed it of worms.
“Terrible thing, war.”
“Good and evil always fight.” Tom retorted lazily, ready to recite bible passages that had been shoved down his throat. He could recite them easily, even before the war. Spoken over and over so many times his throat had paper-cuts and his lips were red like the flesh of an apple.
“No!” The man laughed as if Tom’s words were particularly funny. “I have seen monsters, but they wear many faces, boy. No such thing as good and evil in this world, no such thing.”
Tom tilted his head slightly, the mad ramblings were of a curious sort. “What then? What of the front and the soldiers in battle? Who are we fighting?”
The Frenchman's eyes were glazed, his breathing irregular and strained. “Not evil, and we are not good. Only power for men, and we fight for it because we are strong enough for it.”
Tom hummed and watched as the man started to shiver, whispering to himself over and over. “Only power...power and those too weak...weak to seek it.”
Tom ignored him, and gave him the decency of privacy when he died. Tom removed the jacket and his boots as the death rattles still shook his body; before his muscles stiffened and he became as hard as cobblestone.
Tom huffed as he noticed the jacket wasn’t the right size, it would only get in the way. He draped it over the man’s face, another casualty that people would forget. The rats would feast on him now, and maybe in the eyes of starvation someone would feast on the rats.
Tom took his boots; he was right, they were his size.