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God of Nothing

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He stares up at the imposing brick, looming like some kind of sprawling, grey beast with sharp black gates as teeth. The words WOOL'S ORPHANAGE  blink down at him, and Harry thinks that somehow the architect managed to find the perfect font to inspire a kind of dull dread in pit of the reader's stomach. That brief glance is all he gets before rough hands tug him forward, and the jaws yawn open to admit them. 

His breath is coming out in icy white puffs, blending into an already colourless sky, and he shivers. He's still wearing his pyjama top under the thin jacket he'd been given by a police officer, can still smell the smoke ooze out with every step he takes. He lost the feeling in his toes a long time ago, and his fingers look raw and red, wet from his breath as he mechanically holds his hands up to his lips every few minutes to try to warm them. 

The police officer told him he was small for his age - panicked chit-chat as the middle-aged father of four ushered him from the creaking black skeleton that used to be his home, face an ashy white. His large hands had shook as they curled around the bones of Harry's shoulder. Or maybe it was Harry who was shaking? In any case, he agrees - the social worker in front of him is a sour, bustling woman, dressed head to toe in thick black wool and Harry only barely comes up to her chest. Her stupid little heels snap every time her ankle comes down on the ground. 

Snap, snap, snap.

"Come along boy," she says, although the words lack any kind of heat. It's the third time she's spoken to him since meeting him at the police station this morning. Harry gets the feeling that she's stopped seeing their faces at this point. He's just the task for the day, a perfunctory box to be ticked, another nameless orphan ferried off to the knacker's yard of the city.

They walk up to the door, an imposing metal arch in the wall, and she raps twice with the back of her gloved hand, frowning as her knuckles come away smudged with dirt. She glances down at him again, as if to check he's still there, and they hear hurried footsteps echo behind the door. The social worker fixes a saccharine beam on her face, her eyes dull.

The door swings open creakily, but whoever's there is hidden behind the hulking shape of his companion.

"Oh." Her tone is surprised, and Harry peers round her waist.

There's nobody directly in front of him, but then his eyes drop and he sees a little girl. She's younger than him - probably around six, in a bobbly grey woolen jumper that hangs down as some kind of dress over her trousers. Her big blue eyes flit from the woman to Harry, before growing wide. 

"Mumma Minnie!" she screams, eyes never leaving Harry's. "There's a new orphan at the door." 

Harry feels a slice of cold cut through his chest at the word. Orphan: his new identity. He forces down the images of his parents, feels the lump in his throat grow thick and hot. He told himself he wasn't going to cry and he won't. It takes a long, slow breath but his fingers unclench and the water lurking at the back of his eyes evaporates into the cold. 

"Yes, well. Hello dear. May we come in?" the social worker says, already stepping past the little girl and into a narrow grey hallway. She grabs Harry's arm in a steel-taloned grip, pulling him in after her like he's deaf as well as mute.

She shuts the door behind them, thankfully cutting off the icy push of the wind, and suddenly all is quiet. Harry hears more footsteps, before a door at the end of the hallway flies open. 

"Hullo there," an old, thin lady says, striding down the corridor. Harry takes her in: tall, slender, probably late forties, kind looking crows-feet adorning hard blue eyes and greying brown hair swept up in an elegant updo. Her dark green dress peeks out from under a thick black shawl. Her gaze is sharp, and she nods down at Harry as she speaks.

"You're a little early, but better early than late I suppose. Nice to see you again, Ms. Dean. Please, follow me through to my office where it's warmer." 

Whatever his social worker - who's name he now knows is Ms. Dean - says in response, Harry tunes it out. They follow Mumma Minnie through the twist of the corridor, up a set of stairs and eventually make their way to her office. It's tucked away at a corner of the back of the building, overlooking a bustling road. Horse and carriages trot past, with the occasional loud bang of a motorcar; Harry drags his eyes away and looks around. It's a rather plain office, with shabby but clean furniture and no paintings on the walls. 

She settles them down on some rickety chairs, and Harry notices they've lost the girl from earlier. Ms. Dean remains standing, doesn't even take off her coat. 

"Now, Minerva, I wish I could stay longer but I simply must head back to the office - I have a whole stack of paperwork regarding this one." She gestures at Harry with her stained glove, without looking at him. "And it's not going to do itself." 

She tinkles out the fakest laugh Harry has ever heard before inching towards the door. "So I do apologise for not seeing him in properly but I'm confident to leave him in your more than capable hands." 

Mumma Minnie has just about gotten out some form of acquiescence before Ms. Dean slips out the door with a "good luck Harry!" echoing behind her.

Both occupants of the room share a look of bemusement, before Mumma Minnie's eyes go sharp and she lets out a small sigh. 

"I'm terribly sorry to hear about your parents, Harry," she says softly, and he's strangely touched by the depth of sincerity in her voice. "I know that whatever I say won't be enough, but from experience, what you're feeling now will mellow. It takes time. And for what it's worth, I'm glad you're with us."

Harry nods - he can't open his mouth or the sob will escape, so he just stares at the ground. The wooden floors are dark and scuffed, and he makes images out of the scratches. A snake. An eye. A knife.

"Now a couple of things to get you started. We sleep the boys in dormitories of six until fourteen - and then it's two to a room. We have lessons from the local Pastor five days a week for three hours, and attendance is compulsory. We have a strict chore rota, so that we all do our bit. Oh, and I expect you're wondering about food. Breakfast is at 7am sharp, Lunch at 12.30 and Dinner is at 6. If you miss it, you miss it - we don't do food at any other time.

Now, we've assigned you a buddy - Abernathy. He'll be waiting outside my office by now, I expect, and can show you around and introduce you. I'm usually away from the orphanage - it takes a lot of work to secure funding - but I'll be around from time to time. In my stead, Mrs. Umbridge, the deputy housemother will be in charge."

Mumma Minnie fixes him with a piercing look. "Anything you wish to say to me can be said to her."

Harry nods again. 

"Now Harry. One other thing before you go." She lets out a little sigh and seems to be casting around for the right words. 

"I've been told your vocal chords are fine, if a little damaged from the smoke - the doctors have told me that overall there's nothing particularly wrong with your voice. I just want you to know... take your time. If you feel like you can't speak at the moment, that's ok. And if you need any help, please come to me." 

Why is this woman being so kind? Doesn't she know what he did? If she knows about his voice then she's read the report - so why is she being so nice?

He just nods, and tries not to let his emotions play out on his face but his anger is feathered by grief and must bleed out anyway as Mumma Minnie's face softens. His mother always told him he was too expressive. 

"Right then Harry. As it's almost dinner you better be off. Abernathy will show you where you'll be sleeping and help you get everything you need. Won't you?" She speaks the last two words loudly, and looks at the door, unimpressed. 

It inches open to reveal a shame-faced, thin boy with tousled blond hair and red cheeks. His white shirt is dirty and haphazardly tucked into navy shorts and thick knee high socks.

"Eavesdropping again, Abe?" Mumma Minnie scolds, shaking her head. "At least I won't have to repeat myself. Be off with you then, boys." 

Harry rises, ignores the luminous stare of curiosity foisted on him by Abernathy, and follows the taller boy out of the room. As soon as the door shuts behind him, Abernathy whirls around, chattering excitedly.

"So, Harry is it? I'm Abernathy, as you probably already know, but call me Abe - everyone does. I heard about what happened, sucks pal. And just to let you know, nobody ever gets adopted from here. I've been here since I was six, like five years ago, and in that time I think one little girl got adopted. But it was all a bit weird to be honest with you, and I don't know if her foster parents were really the right sort, if you get my meaning." 

He pauses to suck in a breath and Harry blinks. Abe beams at him and begins to stroll back down the corridor. "Funny that you're a mute though. I've never met one before. How old are you anyway?

Harry sticks up all his fingers on both hands. 

Abe looks impressed and whistles. "Really. I thought you were a good few years younger - mate you look about seven! Although we all look young for our age. Mumma tries her best but it's not like there's a great deal of food to go around and we get more and more kids every year." 

Harry listens with half an ear, too busy scoping out the rooms they walk past. Some of them are locked shut, some of them are tiny and have two dingy mattresses pushed up against the wall. He peers inside another and sees the metal frames of six beds crammed together, shelves running the wall's perimeter stacked to the brim with odd nicknacks. That must be the dorms. 

Abe notices his look of morbid curiosity and laughs, grabbing a thin stick from where it's propped up against the wall and twirling it round before hoisting it up on his shoulder. "Yeah. Stuck in this set up until we're fourteen, annoyingly. You're with me, after Johnnie - uh, after he ran away, just down this corridor." 

Harry is already struggling to keep up his mental layout of the orphanage. It's surprisingly complicated - it's not the biggest building he's ever seen, but it seems to have dark corridor after dark corridor, and the staircases make no sense. They seem to just pop up out of nowhere, and lead in circles. It doesn't help that the thin winter light dripping through the windows lends a sallow, half-hearted illumination to the place. 

All in all, it's terrifying.

He feels his hand drifting to the locket hidden under his top, and he stops himself just in time, shoving it in his pocket where it trembles. He can't draw attention to it in a place like this; he'll keep it on him at all times for now, until he can find somewhere appropriate to hide it. 

"Now, I don't think you need any clothes - you can keep your fancy shirt. We'll get you a set of pyjamas though. Might be able to find you a jumper or something, but you can just nick one if you get put on snow shovelling."

It sinks in that his ratty, soot-stained pyjama top is of better quality than most of the other kid's clothes. Yeah, he definitely needs to find somewhere to stash the locket. 

"Anyway, here's your bed." They've arrived at a dorm a similar size to the previous one. This one is arranged a little strangely though - one bed at the foot of the room, next to the window and blocked partially by a shelf. There's an extra throw on it too, and a second pillow. Maybe it's for an older boy? The other five are arranged uniformly, like the others, and Abe leads him to a thin mattress caged in by a metal bed frame. It looks like a hospital bed. There's a thin sheet and a scraggly blanket, and no pillow. 

The blonde boy looks weirdly contrite, scratching the back of his head. "Yeah, sorry about that. This bed's been unoccupied for a while, since Johnnie left."

Harry pointedly looks at the nicer bed, the one with the second pillow. 

Abe barks out a laugh. "Yeah, good luck getting that back from Riddle. Take my advice - leave it. You're better off steering well clear of the likes of him."

Harry's brow furrows in question. Abe seems to be getting pretty good at reading his expressions as the bitter smile drops off his face.

"He's another orphan, couple years older than you. He's only been here for four months but already he's got everyone under his thumb. Umbridge loves him. And trust me, he's not one to mess with."

"My my, how you flatter me."

The voice cuts through the room from the doorway, silky-soft and dangerous. 

Harry almost gets whiplash from how quickly he turns to look, feels his heart pick up a furious beat. He hadn't heard a thing, even though the floor is as creaky as a organ pipes. 

Beside him, Abe turns white, very quickly, and stares up in solemn fear. Harry's incredibly curious - the boy doesn't look like much, although Abe certainly is afraid of him. He's tall for his age, supposedly, with curly dark brown hair, a pale face and quick blue eyes. He's unabashedly staring at Harry and Harry gets the feeling he's being sized up, like prey.

Abe mumbles an apology and grabs on to Harry's arm, tugging him along. Riddle smiles and steps to the side, letting them go, but Harry can feel that cold blue gaze burning through his shoulder blades as they speed down the corridor.

 

 

*

 

 

Dinner is almost comically akin to how Harry had imagined it. Some kind of watery stew, with horrible sour tomatoes and celery floating in an oily slick of water. He gulps it down regardless: all the comments on his height have struck a bit of a nerve. Besides, he can't taste anything anyway. Just smoke. 

They're arranged in funny lines of tables, shoved together like pigs at a trough. The older boys and girls have more food and less wobbly chairs, at the top of the room, and the rest of the children just grab what they can. The noise is deafening, shouting, screaming, slurping. Harry tunes it out, lets Abe introduce him to the others. There's a quiet girl with a big bush of chestnut hair and teeth a little too big - Hermione - who gives him a sad smile when he nods, and a rather dirty red-head, freckles splashed over his face like mud from a wheel, called Ron. He doesn't bother trying to contribute to the conversation, just drains the chipped glass of water and tries not to feel overwhelmed by the wall of noise. 

A few minutes later, there's a noticeable dim, and Harry looks up. 

The boy from earlier - Riddle - walks through the doors. It's pretty crazy that that in itself is enough to cause a hush, but despite the number of eyes on him his expression doesn't change. He walks up to the dinner lady and, to Harry's surprise, gets served what is clearly an older boy portion.

As he walks past Harry, Riddle suddenly stops. Harry can feel the heads swivel, the gazes redirect until they burn a hole in the back of his head. He's horribly conscious of Riddle's weight behind him, imagines he can feel the warmth baking off his torso. Next to him, Abe, Hermione and Ron have frozen, Ron with his spoon halfway to his mouth. Harry refuses to turn around, remains steadfastly looking down at the table and ignores the prickling in the back of his neck.

He sees what they mean now. Riddle is wrong, dangerous. There's some instinct buried away at the back of his mind which tells him to beware, watch out, stay on alert

Riddle seems to be waiting for something, and suddenly Harry's had enough. He won't be cowed into submission by a look - especially not by someone who lords himself over his peers and gets his kicks from being a bully. They're all bloody orphans, Harry thinks with a savage humour, it's a pretty even playing field at this point. 

He steels himself, raises his head and deliberately turns in his chair, meeting Riddle's gaze. 

There's some strange undercurrent when their eyes meet, some inexplicable intensity in the connection. Riddle looks almost surprised, before his lips turn up at the corners. Harry feels his own expression darken to a hot anger. Why won't he just move on, and leave him alone?

Riddle holds his gaze for a beat longer, the room so quiet the rattle of the wind through the windows is audible, before he makes his way to the end of the table, depositing his tray and gracefully taking a seat. The children nearby actively shrink away, and one even gets up to leave. 

Slowly, the noise returns to the room, although still not as loud as before. 

"What was that," Ron says, soup forgotten, staring at Harry. "He's never done that before."

"Did you listen to anything I said?" Abe hisses quietly. "He's not someone you want to challenge, Harry."

Harry shrugs at them, picking up his spoon and scraping the last vestige of carrot from the bottom. Ron shakes his head.

"Bloody mental..." he mutters.

 

  

Chapter Text

 

Harry sees nothing of Tom Riddle until bedtime. The orphans all fly back to their room before the clock strikes nine, inspired by the thought of Umbridge's displeasure. Harry understands - his first impression of the acting Housemother is awful. 

He spends the rest of the time after dinner following Abe around as he chats to people, proudly introducing Harry as the latest recruit, and generally avoiding their dormitory until required. Harry bumps into Umbridge on one of these social circuits, passing her in the corridor as he trails after his new friend, who is locked in conversation with a small boy about a missing rabbit.

"You there. New boy."

It's an unmistakably shrill, feminine voice, and Harry has to hold back the wince; the pitch is somehow at the perfect level to squeal inside his ear, making his bones shudder. He looks up and blanches - a round, red face is balanced on top of a heap of unnaturally pink tweed, while black beady eyes peer out from under a waxy brown bob. She sees the look on his face and her mouth tightens downwards. Harry has a sinking feeling that he's just made a very poor mistake. 

"Yes, you," she snipes, staring down at him. Harry waits patiently for her to continue. "Harry, isn't it. I'm Ms. Umbridge, acting Housemother." She waits a beat for his response, but all he can do is nod his understanding. She definitely knows he can't speak, but seems to enjoy reminding them both. 

"Ah yes, you're the mute, aren't you boy?" 

If she knows this then why is she bothering to ask the question? Harry nods again in slight irritation.

"Well, I want you to know that there'll be no special treatment for you here, I do none of that nambypambying around. I don't give two hoots if you're deaf, dumb or blind - you work the same hours and you eat the same food."

Harry bites his lip and blinks at her sour tone. What a horrible woman.

She huffs at his lack of response. 

"Go on then boy, I don't want to see you loitering again, you hear me? I have plenty of ways to make your life more unpleasant that it already is, so no funny tricks. Understood?" Her eyes are cold and smiling, watching him for a reaction.

"At least I won't be having any noise complaints," she adds, chortling. Harry feels his cheeks start to flush, but he keeps his expression placid. Further on ahead, Abe is waiting for him, a look of mild horror swimming onto his face as he realises who Harry has been cornered by. 

Umbridge totters past, barking at Abe to tuck in his shirt, and after a mumbled "Yes Ma'am." he scurries over to Harry. They both stare at the retreating blob of pink, disgusted. 

"I know. She's awful. You really don't want to get on the wrong side of her."

Harry remembers Abe's words from earlier - that she's somehow under Tom's thumb. He wants to ask how on earth he accomplished that - she doesn't look like she'd fit under anyone's thumb - but as usual the words won't come out. 

  

 

*

 

 

Harry is slightly late getting into bed, having gotten lost on the way back from the bathroom. The room is dark and surprisingly quiet when he slips in, curling up on the bed under the ratty blanket. His back aches from hunching up against the cold, and he thinks longingly about the pillow on Riddle's bed.

Then he remembers: this is what he deserves. So what if his neck aches? He's still alive. 

Harry doesn't want to close his eyes. Even though it's pitch black, he's a little afraid to fall asleep, even though the last time he slept was a good few days ago. If he's honest with himself, he's scared of what he'll see. He's managed to avoid thinking about it so far, but his dreams aren't exactly under his control.

He shuffles over to one side, facing the door with his back to the other boys. A bone-deep wariness swims around him, steals it's way across his cold body and starts to sink into his eyelids. He's so tired, both physically and mentally - constant vigilance has eroded his mind away to pretty much just instincts at this point. The low-level panic that's been hitchhiking in his blood ever since he got here has stripped the fight out of him, and Harry can feel his eyes start to creak shut, his breath moving in and out like a tide.

There is no warning - suddenly an arm lies across his windpipe and a body presses down on him. Harry chokes, hands flying up to the unknown assailant, scrabbling on the hard mattress as his air supply is cut off. Whoever it is leans close enough that their hair tickles his cheek, and their breath is hot against his ear. He catches a scent, dark and spicy.

"Stop struggling," the voice whispers, and Harry recognises the strangely well-pronounced accent. There's only one other person he's met so far who is free from the cockney twang that slips into the words of the other orphans. 

Riddle.

The thought of those sharp white teeth anywhere near his throat makes Harry comply. He locks his limbs, counts to ten in his head. He can hear himself wheezing as he struggles to suck air in and he can see bright spots in the darkness that definitely shouldn't be there.

"There's a good boy," Riddle murmurs softly. The pressure slowly begins to ease, and sweet relief crashes over him as cool oxygen flows once again into his chest. 

The dark figure smiles, knobbly knees and sharp elbows still sticking painfully into Harry's side as he crouches over him like some kind of monster from under the bed.

Riddle is content to lounge on top of him like Harry is a convenient piece of furniture, and Harry can't help but shiver at the heavy warmth of his body leaching into his lap. He doesn't know what to do - he's confused, wants to ask what the fuck Riddle thinks he's doing, but of course he can't. 

Harry hears a click in the quiet of the room, conspicuously quiet (the measured breaths of the other boys have disappeared, and Harry knows they're awake, listening).

Riddle hums out a noise of surprise. "Oh, so it's a locket."

Harry's heart drops. He rips his hand away from where it's pinned by Riddle's knee, fingers scrabbling at his neck where the thin metal of the necklace usually curls. There's nothing - he doesn't need to see the silver glinting in Riddle's hand to know that the other boy has managed to unloop it from around Harry's neck.

He wants to scream but settles for lunging up, pushing Riddle off and grabbing for the stolen locket. He manages to unseat him, and Riddle is forced up on his knees to keep his balance. But as people keep reminding him, Harry is small for his age. Although Riddle only has two years on him, he's bigger, heftier despite his lean limbs and orphan-scrawny figure. He has the gall to laugh as Harry's hand casts desperately around for the reassuring grit of the metal that Riddle holds above him; he just pushes him back down on the bed.

It doesn't seem like he tries to push particularly hard, but Harry slams down with such force that the breath is knocked out of his lungs for a second. A little hurt noise escapes from his mouth, and Riddle leisurely lifts a knee and presses it into Harry's throat. He's pinned, again, although at least this time the pressure is lighter and he can pant in shaky breaths.

"Stop that," Riddle comments distractedly, ignoring Harry in favour of studying the photo within, lit poorly with the soft wash of moonlight falling through the window.

"I think I'll take this," he decides, and the sheer fury which blooms up takes Harry aback. It's because he's realised: Riddle doesn't particularly have it out for him. In fact, he doesn't think Riddle is really even that interested in him, or his locket.

He's doing it because he's bored.

Harry's had enough: he grabs the arm holding the necklace and bites down, hard. He can feel his teeth punch through skin, the salty taste of blood well up on his tongue. Riddle curses, instantly shifting his weight and pressing down with his knee until Harry's forced to let go, other hand coming round his shoulder to grip the nerve at the base of Harry's neck and shake him like a dog.

"You little beast," Riddle hisses, before his tone becomes one of wonderment. "You made me bleed," he says, half morbidly impressed and half deadly. 

Abe's warning about him flashes through Harry's mind, but he can't bring himself to regret what he's done. He just grins, teeth red, and clenches the locket triumphantly in his fist. 

 

  

*

 

 

Predictably, after that Harry sleeps poorly. He snatches sleep in fits and bursts, accidentally dozing off before bursting awake, hand clutching the locket and convinced Riddle is standing over him, ready to tear out his throat.

By the time he's woken by the blue morning light, he feels fuzzy and tired, and there's a strange taste in his mouth. All of the other boys stare at him as they get up to use the freezing cold tap that's designated as the boy's showers, including Riddle. Harry realises why when he follows behind them and catches sight of himself in the mirror. His mouth is smudged brown with flecks of dried blood.

Even Abe won't look him in the eye, is likely too afraid to associate with him. He does go as far as to generously corner him as they walk back to the dorms, furtively glancing around before hissing a recrimination.

"What were you thinking, Harry? Why didn't you just give it to him?" He seems distraught, shaking his head as Harry sends him a meaningful glare.

"It doesn't matter if it was important - you have no idea what you've invited. He's not right Harry, we think - well, we know - he killed Billy's rabbit and bloody well put the corpse under his pillow."

But at breakfast - thin, salty porridge which gloops down the back of his throat and is vaguely nausea-inducing - Riddle doesn't seem particularly angry. He does stare at Harry thoughtfully, as he spoons honey onto his food, the golden stream glimmering and twisting as it pools stickily over his bowl. Harry scowls back, notices with some relish that he's wearing a strip of cloth around his arm.

Harry decides he doesn't care. What's Riddle going to do that could possibly make his life worse than it already is? It's unhealthy, Harry knows, but he almost wants to be hurt more.

Come and get me he thinks tauntingly, making sure Riddle sees his sneer. The other boy's expression doesn't change, deep, dark eyes unblinking as he licks the back of the spoon.

Ron shakes his head in disgust or fear, Harry can't tell, and even Hermione's face is grave when she looks at him. 

 

 

*

 

 

In a somewhat beautifully ironic twist of fate, Harry is put on snow shovelling duty, which means he has to clear a path from the front door to the gate. The news of his altercation with Riddle has spread like wildfire, and consequently nobody will talk to him (or at him) and he's unable to find someone to borrow a jumper off - or any kind of weather appropriate clothing.

This leads to him standing outside in air so cold it burns the tips of his ears, accompanied by two big fifteen year old boys who grumble at him to help. They settle into a routine of sorts: the two do the bulk of the shovelling away from the path, and Harry follows behind and pats down the sides of the trench to make sure they don't cave in. They make good progress in this fashion, and the other boys seem to forget he's even there, a shivering shadow behind them, lips blue. It's odd - he's become so cold that although he can see his white fingers wrapped woodenly around the handle of the shovel, he can't feel it at all. All he can do is grit his teeth and keep patting.

This is how he hears about their plan to kill Tom Riddle.

 

 

 *

 

 

Harry's head is a constant litany of self-chastising (he knows it's a stupid idea) but he follows them regardless, lips sealed to stop the sound of his chattering teeth from giving him away. When they're done with their job, the two boys circle back around the building, to where Riddle is apparently on the rather cushy "kitchen duty", where he's responsible for helping the cook wash and carry the big pots and pans that their meals are concocted in. Harry pretends to shuffle back inside, but just waits a beat in the shadow of the doorway before slipping back out and following the deep imprints of twin footprints that they've left in the grey slush. 

Even if he hadn't heard them discussing it so loudly, it's pretty obvious what their plan is - they're still clutching the sharp weight of the metal shovels, faces lit up with a kind of sadistic, scared glee as they inch round the chipped wall to the back kitchen door.

He's pretty sure it's justified. From what he heard, Riddle has been terrorising the orphanage since he got here: pets have turned up dead, food has been mysteriously poisoned, things go missing. Apparently everyone also thinks he's responsible for "Johnnie's" running away (read: murder), although Harry's not too miffed about that considering he gets a bed because of it. 

The two boys are whispering as they settle down behind the frozen bony fingers of a large bush, which camouflages them only in the barest sense of the word. It doesn't matter - it's completely deserted where they are, as nobody willing ventures outside when it's this icy. Harry feels a little twist of apprehension in his stomach. They're big lads, oddly beefy for orphans, coasting through their last year at the orphanage before they're thrown out into the world when they turn sixteen. Both have shaggy, matted black hair, shoulders padded out even further by the thick wool jumpers stretched over them. 

They look mean. 

It doesn't take long for Riddle to appear. He's carrying a dull metal pot with both hands, biceps flexing as he manages the weight out the door and into the little courtyard. Harry's strangely pleased that for all his apparent princedom, Riddle is not exempt from having to do chores like the rest of them, even if his job is the nicest.

With a heave, Riddle manages to tilt the pot slightly so that a thin stream of boiling water splashes out in a steady pour. It melts the snow instantly, with a hiss of steam, and Riddle is so intent on making sure it doesn't burn his feet that he misses the movement of his attackers as they surge to their feet. 

Harry hears a dull thwack as one of the older boys brings the shovel down on Riddle's back hard. Riddle grunts, falling to the floor where he lies still and doesn't get up. The pot falls, still with a bit of water left inside, and hits the floor with a clang. The snow around it instantly changes state, and a sodden patch of brown earth is revealed, a spreading black puddle. 

The two boys trade a look of excited anticipation, and the other one raises his shovel above his head, as if to bring it down on Riddle's motionless, pretty head.

Harry can't help himself. 

If he could speak, he's sure he would be roaring out a battle cry of pure, confused frustration - quite frankly, he's not sure why he does it - but Harry darts over, and swings back his own shovel, using the momentum he's created to deliver a hard blow to the back of the boy's head. 

As soon as he hears the crunch he knows he's done something terrible. The boy's legs crumple, like a puppet with cut strings, and he falls silently into an unnatural heap of limbs. Harry backs away, the shovel slipping out of his hands as he sees bright spots of red start to bloom in the dirty snow. 

He can't look away, not even at the thick yell of rage the other boy makes in response to Harry's effective removal of his friend. Objectively, he knows he's probably going to die - there's the head of a shovel whistling through the air as it flies towards him, but for some reason he doesn't really feel an impetus to move. Just stares at the crimson halo he's created. He doesn't even feel cold anymore.

He's snapped out of it by sheer surprise, as Riddle nimbly twists his body, kicking hard at the remaining boy's knees. He falls over with a shout, missing Riddle who rolls and jumps to his feet, wincing as the muscles of his back bunch. Quickly - unbelievably quickly - Riddle grabs the fallen weapon and whacks it into the boy's head.

Obviously, he stays down. 

Harry can only gape as Riddle crouches down, calmly tugging limbs into strange positions, and prising open the boy's fingers to slip the handle of the shovel inside. When the bodies are arranged to his satisfaction, he straightens up, dusting the snow off his palms and lays the most beautifully sweet smile on Harry.

He coos, striding over and laying both hands on the tops of Harry's arms. He rubs them up and down, eyes sparkling with something strange, cheeks flushed. Harry feels dread start to amass in a hard lump in the pit of his stomach.

"Look at you, you're freezing. Poor thing - let's get you warmed up," he says kindly, leading a shaking Harry back inside. He picks up the empty pot on the way, swinging it from one hand.

For once, Harry is glad he can't speak. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Harry lets himself be tugged back inside the kitchen, listens distantly to Riddle humming something under his breath. The other boy keeps casting delighted glances down at him as he shuts the door softly and places the pot back down on the counter.

The cook is nowhere to be seen, and Riddle seems completely at ease as he walks Harry over to the taps. A burst of freezing water spurts out when Riddle twists the handle, and Harry flinches as his hands are unceremoniously thrust under. The water drips red into the sink until he's clean again. 

"You know, I never thought you'd be so interesting," Riddle says thoughtfully, handing him a rough grey dish towel. Harry's mind is starting to rush back in now, thawed by the heat of the kitchen. The reality of what just happened hits him, and he feels his knees start to shake. 

Riddle notices Harry's eyes growing wet, the horrified downturn of his mouth, and he instantly looks upset.

"No, Harry. Don't. What you did was perfect."

He guides Harry to a short wooden stool, and takes off his jumper, handing it over. Harry mechanically accepts it and tugs it over his head. It's warm, and smells surprisingly good. Glancing up at Riddle, he can see that the other boy's shirt has a smudge of reddy-brown on the back, disrupting the flow over broad shoulders and down a narrow waist. 

Riddle sees him looking and beams. "Don't worry about me - I'm fine." The smile flickers for a second. "Those idiots didn't know what they were doing with that shovel. Good riddance," he spits, before his head snaps up.

He cocks his head to one side, feline like, before his expression sinks into calmness. Harry doesn't know why - he can't hear anything. All he can hear is the sound of his heart beating, too loudly in an unsteady staccato. 

Harry realises then that he can't stop gasping for breath. It feels like no matter how much of the tepid air he swallows, his brain and lungs cry out for more. Riddle's dark brows furrow, and he crouches down so he's level with Harry.

The concern in his eyes is a little scary - the deep blue gazes into him, running over him in alarmed assessment. 

"Breathe, little one. Breath with me. You have to stop or they'll know. Come on - listen to my breath," he whispers gently, cupping Harry's face between his large palms and thumbing at the wetness on his eyelashes. The contact is grounding, and Riddle carefully lifts one of Harry's hands to lie on his chest. Harry feels it rise and fall, warm under his palm. Riddle's breathing much slower than his, and he tries to match it. 

He's just about got it under control, before Riddle straightens up quickly, stepping in front of him. He grabs a knife and the bucket of potatoes, shoving one into Harry's hands and flashing him an apologetic smile.

The next second, a large, matronly woman bustles through the door, dirty apron stretched over her rotund belly. She's either pregnant or very fat, and her puffy mouth sinks into an irritated frown as she spies Harry.

"Tom," she chastises, putting down the dirty bag of what looks like onions. "Who's this then?"

The switch in Riddle's character is remarkable. The line of his body changes, collapses in on itself, and he looks up through the tousled gleam of his brown-black hair. It's amazing how different he seems: gone is the haughty air, the quick, sharp eyes. He looks the image of a shy little thirteen year old. 

"He's the new boy. The mute," Riddle explains softly, casting Harry a quick glance. His eyes are laughing, even as his body language is contrite. "He was lost and I found him in the middle of a fight between the Grubbs brothers. I think they scared him - they were really going at it."

The cook loses some of her flint in her gaze as she takes in Harry's pale face and wet eyes. "Poor chicky," she clucks. "Those boys can be as mean as an old boot when they get a mind to. Always arguing, always fighting."

She wipes the beads of sweat which have been building up on her brow with the back of a dirt-crusted hand. It's warm in the kitchen, especially when coming in form the outside. Harry's own neck feels damp.

"I thought maybe he could help me here, seeing as he doesn't have any other friends," Riddle says cautiously, nodding in his direction. Harry's stares at him blankly, confused, before realising he wants support.

Harry picks up the knife and starts to peel the potato, trying for "pleading" with his eyes. This kind of repetitive, manual task reminds him of home - he'd always sneak downstairs and help with the food. The cook's shrewd eyes cotton on to the ease which which he forms the thin spirals of potato skin, and she thinks for a moment or two.

Tom's face lights up when she nods, sighing.

"This once, you hear? This is not a job for two, Tom, and I can't have you bringing random boys down here. What would Ms. Umbridge say if she found out, hm?"

Tom opens his mouth but the cook barks out a laugh. "I know she's soft on you, but she's not that soft."

As the cook shuffles around the kitchen, prepping, Tom keeps twitching, fidgeting in his seat. It takes a couple minutes of mindless potato peeling before Harry realises that the turning is to keep his back facing away from the cook, and thus keeping the stain out of sight.

Clever. But he shouldn't have given Harry his jumper.

He'd give it back but it's just so... warm. It's the first time he's been warm in ages, and he flexes his fingers and toes contentedly. The small windows of the kitchen are all wet and foggy from the relative heat. Like the rest of the orphanage, the wooden floor is scuffed and dented and the walls are some kind of dirty orange colour that Harry thinks might have originally been cream? It's small but functional, considering it provides for around a hundred orphans. 

Harry stops looking around and focuses on what he's doing with the knife. His brain forms into a kind of rhythm, completely zoned into the task. It lets him work through how he feels, and gives him a bit more of a footing to bury the noise of the crunch somewhere deep, deep down, locked up with the memory of screams and fire.

Harry decides he's ok with it. They were going to kill Riddle. And really, what's one more death on his hands?

 

 

*

 

 

Surprisingly, they don't find the bodies until after lunch. Harry has just finished washing up the last of the chipped plates, back in the kitchen, when the cook runs in accompanied by two other unfamiliar girls. Riddle has disappeared - Harry doesn't know where - conveniently, for the woman runs straight up to him and stares down, hands creeping up to form a mask over her mouth.

"Now, it's not your fault," she whispers shakily, and one of the girls (she looks about seven) bursts into loud wails. "But something awful has happened to the Grubbs brothers and you won't be seeing them again."

Harry's heart sinks but he remembers his new resolve and tries to bleach the feeling out of his thoughts. 

The cook doesn't say much else, but of course the rumours are flying round at dinner. He sits next to Ron and Hermione again, but they rather clearly don't involve him in their whispering. It may have something to do with the thick blue jumper he's now wearing, or maybe it's still left-over caution from his earlier fight with Riddle. It's beautifully ironic, Harry thinks, a little amused, that getting on Riddle's bad side and being in his good graces seem to both cause the same reaction, regardless.

Either way, it's fine with Harry - he doesn't contribute much to a conversation anyway. He sits on the hard wooden bench with his stale bread and lump of cheese, head down but ears pricked up. 

"...Are you joking? It's was definitely Riddle - who else would it have been?"

"Well I heard that they did it to themselves."

"Don't be stupid, Hermione. They had some anger problems, that's for sure, but they weren't dumb enough to do each other in. And anyway, why are they both dead then? They can't have hit each other at exactly the same time!"

"Filch said that it looked like one of them froze to death, and that the other died from the blow. They were out there for a while after all..."

"Yeah, I saw from the window on the second floor - their bodies were weirdly stiff and the blood was all frozen and slushy."

Harry feels a surge of partially digested bread threaten to come up as the others make sounds of delighted revulsion. He stops eating and takes a breath, trying to calm the nausea at the horrible picture those words invoked.

Abe interjects. "My money's on Riddle. It's not even a question," he nods decisively.

"Or this one," Ron says, half-laughing, before dropping silent. Harry's pretty sure Ron means him, and waits for someone else to reply... but for some reason they're all silent.

He chances a quick look up.

Ron's face has drained of colour, and he looks like he's swallowed glass, eyes bulging. Harry's confused - for a second he thinks he caused the stare, as all of a sudden everyone around him is very pointedly not looking in his direction. 

Then a large hand clamps down on his shoulder, thumb rubbing tiny circles into the muscle at the junction of his neck. Harry jumps, twisting to see who it is. There's really no point - it's obvious anyway.

"Harry." Riddle's mouth wraps around the word until it's a soft purr, dangerous enough that the rest of the table stiffens, freezing. Riddle smirks. "Come along," he says, voice brokering no argument. There's a strange steel in his eyes that has Harry's mouth suddenly dry. 

If he could talk, he would strongly object to being talked at like he's a dog. Instead, he gives Riddle a pointed look, but decides to play along. Riddle seems to be in an oddly blood-thirsty mood, hackles raised. It must be visible to the others as well, as suddenly nobody will look up from their food. 

Horribly aware of the stares, he follows Riddle to his throne at the end of the table, where there's a whole loaf of bread, a small bit of ham and a nice segment of cheese. How the hell Riddle has arranged this, Harry has no idea. He can see the big boys eyeing him jealously from their table further on, and feels a little shiver of apprehension. 

What has he done? The children are quite obviously terrified of Riddle, but Harry's still an unknown. And even worse - a small unknown that can't speak, that has no way of telling Riddle if something happens. 

Again, the wave of feeling dissipates, as Harry remembers he doesn't care anymore.

He takes the seat next to Riddle, who grins at him and pushes the plate towards him. Harry's starving - the growl of his stomach has been a constant companion these last few days - and stuffs a bit of the ham into his mouth. It's salty and delicious, full of flavour especially compared to the soup and porridge that they have most days.

It tastes a bit like--

 

 

*

 

 

They call him Riddle's shadow. Sometimes, if they're feeling particularly nasty then Harry becomes the Devil's little brother, or just simply his pet, which in his opinion is rather melodramatic and a little offensive, and he becomes mildly irritated that nobody refers to him by name any more. He can almost see why - he and Riddle look a little similar, both pale, thin, dark hair and hollowed eyes. 

Riddle takes an obvious liking to him immediately. In fact, the word 'like' probably doesn't do it justice: Harry has long since come to understand that since that day in the snow, when Riddle washed the red off his hands, Harry became his. It's a funny situation he's found himself in, Harry sometimes thinks to himself, but it seems to work well. He trails around after Riddle, dryly raises an eyebrow as he chases after mischief, bares his teeth and snarls at those that try to hurt him (there are a few, but they learn fast).

In return, Riddle takes care of him. Harry gets better and more food. He has his pick of the chores. He gets to take the tattered school books out of the locked classroom after lessons to read through by himself. He walks in the night after the incident to see his bed pushed up against Riddle's at the back of the room, a flat vessel for two pillows and a thicker blanket (so that's where he went, Harry had realised). 

Harry hasn't worked out yet what made Riddle the way he is, and it's not exactly like he can ask him about it. He tries to keep an ear out for any rumours or gossip surrounding the older boy, like what happened to his parents, but nobody else seems to know much either. It's a complete enigma, so Harry resolves to keep an eye out for anything he might hear that could serve as a clue.

The only problem is that nobody will risk talking about it in front of him. Harry can empathise, he really can. Even he doesn't trust Riddle. The boy smiles so sweetly, always petting him on the head, crooning to him, stroking his arms, his shoulders but--

But then sometimes, when Harry doesn't move quickly enough, he'll give that same smile, fingers following the bone of Harry's arm down to the fragile taper of his wrist until they clamp down, a tight, punishing manacle, and Riddle will tilt his head, watching with satisfaction as Harry trips over numb feet to follow him. 

It's the same grip he wakes up to sometimes at night, clawing at it in relief as he resurfaces from memories of a hot orange hell. It'll bruise the next day, but he doesn't care, likes to press the finger marks and feel the ache to remind himself that it was just a dream. Riddle never says anything and Harry doesn't know what kind of expression he wears in the pitch-black, but he imagines the other boy staring at him until Harry's, exhausted, tear-stained, eyes slip shut again and he sinks into the warm bath of a dreamless sleep.

 

 

*

 

 

Something changes a few months later. 

At this point, Harry is used to life at Wool's. It's not as bad as he thought - in the sense that it's sure as hell a pretty depressing place, but the children have a lot of freedom (for better or for worse). He's still traipsing around after Riddle, wary but slowly slipping into something approaching practised ease with the other boy.

Unfortunately, his curiosity only increases the more he discovers.

Riddle has everyone scared. He's only thirteen, which is what Harry balks at. Thirteen years old, and he knows exactly which character to play for each person. He flits between the charming, shy little boy to the blank-faced, looming wild-card, to the sneering king. Harry watches the performances with something like awe. 

Riddle always gets what he wants. It's masterful, and Harry must not be able to hide his reaction as well as he thinks, because he slowly realises that Riddle seems to slip into it, almost unnecessarily at times. It dawns on him one day, and he can't help the snort of amazement that slips out when it all comes together: Riddle's showing off.

There is one time though, that Harry thinks he sees the mask slip off. He doesn't remember it well. 

It's spring, the sun freakishly warm as it paints itself all over grey London, managing to make the city look a little less destitute just by way of half-hearted illumination. Harry is lying on the muddy ground three roads away from the gates of the orphanage, eyes closed to the brightness. His head is spinning, and his mouth tastes like what he imagines fuel to taste like - bitter, sour, too-warm. He tilts his head back and tries not to throw up, decides to take another swig from the dark green bottle he has clutched in his hand. A few drops roll out onto his tongue, and Harry greedily swallows them down. The thought of water has never been so attractive, but honestly he doesn't think he can move right now.

The memory of earlier in the day, of Umbridge sneering down at him and calling him an abomination rears up, and Harry grits his teeth against the rage, languishing in the horrible liquid feeling in his limbs. What were her words again?

"This is God's punishment for what you did to your parents, you little freak," she'd spat at him, after he made the mistake of stealing his file from her office.

She had no proof, of course, but she'd still hauled him in and caned him. The welts Harry didn't mind so much, it was what she said that he couldn't stop hearing echoing around in his head. 

Abomination.

It's not like he hasn't tried. By this point he's screamed until his face has blown purple, but nothing but disappointed, mocking air seems to whistle out. Hence why he stole his file. He looked at the write-up that the doctor gave Mumma Minnie, eyes frantically scanning the almost illegible blue scribble. There's nothing physically wrong with his vocal chords, it had said. Just a 'psychological defect' caused by the trauma. 

And being forced to stand there and listen to that disgusting blob of a human-being tell him that he was unnatural, wrong, responsible... the frustration had mounted until it felt like it was curling into every finger, his whole body thrumming with agitated tension until he'd just-- cracked. Harry had snuck through the gates, fuming, walking aimlessly until he spotted the old man passed out in the street. The urge to do it welled up out of nowhere, the thought that it might fix him buried deep within the impotent rage he felt. He hadn't really been thinking, just let the dull pain of the bruises on his back and palms carry him as he stole up and swiped the bottle out of the man's hand. He could have had any number of diseases, looked like he probably did, but Harry had found himself an alley and forced the whole sharp liquid down his stupid, faulty throat. 

Harry swallows, mouth thick, and tries to breathe through the swaying. He needs to throw up. His eyes are still closed, and his body twitches. Has he been sleeping? Or did he pass out? He doesn't know, but all of a sudden the sickness doubles, and he manages to throw his head to one side before it all comes back up. 

He hears the sound of liquid splattering on the cobblestones, is dimly aware that he can't breathe as his body tries to expel the alcohol. He groans, clutching his stomach, feeling tears sneak out the corners of his eyes. His mouth is sour with bile so he spits again weakly. Is he dying? Maybe he's allergic to alcohol and he never knew? Against his back, the brick is cold and uncomfortable, but it's all he can do to sag against it. His eyes are fluttering again and he thinks maybe he can just slip into a nice dark sleep and never wake up--

"Little one."

The words filter in slowly, but he recognises the voice enough to make a valiant effort of blinking. The image lazily comes into focus, still fuzzy around the edges, colours bleeding together. 

Riddle's face swims into view, and if Harry had the energy he'd probably flinch. The older boy looks furious, eyebrows furrowed and eyes black with rage. 

"What have you done?" he murmurs from where he's crouched over Harry. A cold hand darts forward to grip his jaw, turning it as Riddle inspects his face. Harry probably looks a mess, but he can't find it in himself to care. 

Nothing, he tries, but the word doesn't come out.

Riddle ignores him in any case, casting around before he spies the bottle. He reaches over Harry to pick it up, until all Harry can see is his shoulder, black fabric obscuring his view. Riddle shifts, drawing the bottle up to the sputtering street light to read the label. 

"Harry," he asks slowly, voice terrifyingly calm, "why have you been drinking whiskey?"

Harry rolls his eyes. Everything is soft, the sun, his body, Riddle's wide palm where it's lying on his neck. He feels like he's dreaming. 

The pressure increases slightly, enough to hurt his sore windpipe. "How much?"

Harry just lets his smile act as a question, eyes creasing. Now that he's thrown up and Riddle's here, life seems a lot better.

"How much. Did you drink," Riddle grits out, peering down the alley. The shadows are lengthening, hugging the walls, and Harry realises he must have been here a while as it's definitely slipping into evening. 

Harry lets his hand flop to halfway down the bottle.

Riddle swears, and all of a sudden the world moves as he reaches under Harry's arms and pulls him to his feet. Harry stumbles, knocking his shoulder against the brick and can't help the little yelp of pain that he lets out as his bruises throb at the contact. 

Riddle's hands are there immediately, steadying him, and he doesn't hesitate to pull up Harry's shirt, silent as his eyes run over the red lines on his sides. Riddle's silence is worse than his snide remarks, Harry knows this at least from the last few months.

He angrily jerks away from the cold touch, shoving down his top with clumsy fingers. Riddle says nothing, still staring at the where the bruises lie under his shirt. His fists clench slowly, and Harry heaves out a sigh, eyes closing. 

I want to go home, he thinks, body swaying just from the effort of staying still. It's almost comical, and Harry gives in to the urge to laugh without a second thought, huffing out a giggle as he leans closer to Riddle.

Riddle's long arms wrap around him then, and Harry takes a moment to bury his face into the soft skin of his neck, rubbing his cheek into the warmth. It smells familiar, spicy and sweet, and he inhales happily. He hears Riddle mutter something before they're moving, Riddle helping him stagger the short distance back to the main street. If they get any strange looks, Harry doesn't care, is too busy breathing in that comforting scent. 

Quite how they manage to get back into his room, Harry doesn't remember, but after climbing the flight of stairs to the boy's dorm he's exhausted, legs leaden and chest aching.

'Out,' Riddle bites out to the other boys, and the two smaller children sitting on one of the beds instantly leap up to exit the room, casting disgusted glances at him. The sight of his mattress trumps any shame Harry might feel, and he groans as he walks straight into it, flopping down and curling up. The room is glowing orange from the tiny window high up, and the sound of the street outside is as soothing as any lullaby.

He doesn't realise he's falling asleep until suddenly there's a weight on him, pinning him down. Harry struggles, movements thick and clumsy, as he gasps in confusion.

"Let it happen," Riddle is whispering darkly in his ear, knees digging into Harry's arms from where they're pressed tightly against his own body. Harry's scared, remembers the last time Riddle was crouched over him in bed... but even in his half-asleep half-drunk state he knows obeying won't end well for him, especially when Riddle gets that look in his eye. The other boy is only half visible from where Harry's view is obscured by the pillow, but the width of his smile is scary. 

Harry's whole body tenses, thrashing like a fish out of water. He can't move, the hold is too tight and he's already exhausted.

"Suit yourself," the older boy says mockingly, and then a line of pain drags it's way down Harry's shoulder. It feels like a bite, but then Riddle's mouth is nowhere near him, and Harry doesn't try to stop the cry of pain that tears it's way out of his mouth. 

He sobs, shock carving a hole in his stomach. What is he doing? Harry clenches his fists into the sheet, too afraid now to buck up and unseat Riddle, as his skin parts in another cut. Hot, confused tears well up, obscuring his vision and he buries his face in the pillow, muffling his screams as he waits for Riddle to finish whatever act of retribution he's concocted.   

When the weight disappears, Harry's face down, exhausted hiccups escaping into the pillow as he cries himself out of energy. He thinks it's over but then a bright splash of something wet and burning is glugged onto his back, and he manages to let out a quiet scream.

Riddle shushes him, carding a hand through his hair as Harry shakes. "You did so well," he whispers, and to Harry's alarm, presses his lips against the hurt. He feels a tongue, and the strange sick feeling comes rushing back in. "It's ok, you're ok now." 

Harry feels utterly wrung out, muscles jelly and eyelids like heavy sandpaper. He hates himself but Riddle's palms feel so soothing as they run up and down his back, tracing the marks left by the cane and gently skirting around his shoulder to stroke his neck. He feels himself relaxing even more, the world fading.

He might be asleep as the words drift to him, mind pushing away from the pain and into dreams, but he thinks Riddle answers, so softly, coaxingly, that Harry doesn't know if he imagines it.

"A reminder, little one," Riddle might have said, "that you are not yours to hurt." 

 

 

*

 

 

It takes Harry all of one day to retaliate. He wastes no time the next day getting himself alone in front of a mirror and peering at Riddle's handiwork. 'TR' cuts through the pale skin of his shoulder, the letters angular but remarkably neat considering that Harry was thrashing around for most of it. His mouth falls open and he scoffs, incredulous as he examines the scarred skin.

Riddle has signed him, like a bloody painting. The letters are dark red, inflamed and swollen, so tender that it will definitely throb for another straight week. It's probably what he wanted, Harry thinks, a lasting reminder of his punishment. No matter how many times he dunks his shirt into the sink, scrubbing with the hard block of grey soap, the brown stain on the shoulder of his top doesn't budge.

He lets the anger build and build until it aches, a spitting, sour ball in his chest. He lets the rage fill him up, push out the nerves he feels as takes the penknife from where he know Riddle hides it, just under the bed, slips it into the sleeve of his pyjama top and bids Riddle a sulky, silent good night. 

He stokes the fire, higher and higher, keeping himself awake, alert, watchful even as Riddle's breaths even out and his face slips into one of a thirteen year old boy again. Harry bites his tongue as he makes the first cut, the line of the 'H' dragging down, blood welling up even before he finishes it. Riddle startles into waking immediately, twisting so that the horizontal line in the middle of the H is made without Harry even trying, a diagonal scratch upwards. 

The older boy hisses with pain, fingers digging into Harry's wrist so hard he almost drop the knife. Harry bares his teeth in a snarl, eyes flashing in the darkness. He can either do it all now or wait for Riddle to sleep again, maybe the next night, maybe the night after. But he will finish it. 

The conviction must be evident in his face, as Riddle relaxes down into the bed, sticking out his neck to give Harry more room to work. The soft, quiet breaths of the other boys are continuing, a peaceful tide for the blood seeping into the sheets, a sticky red drip down the white of his back. In the moonlight, the mark Harry's made looks black, and he can't help but wonder if he's carved too deep, if the flash of white is bone or just the reflection of the light.

He must have paused for too long, as Riddle turns his face to look at Harry.

"Finish it then," he says slowly, a challenge in his eyes.

Harry laughs and decides to free the thing that prowls, bloody, caged in his chest. The knife goes in.

 

Chapter Text

When Harry thinks about the term 'turning point', his mind always bring him back to the same day.

It starts deceptively normally, well, as normal as it can be considering the country has just agreed to go to war. Harry is fifteen, and still waiting for a growth spurt, holding on until he's big enough to join Tom with his work outside of the orphanage. They're still living in Wool's, in a room much bigger than the one they had at first. Tom turned seventeen a few months ago, and it's only through his impressive sweet-talking of Umbridge (or intimidation, as Harry sees a little flicker of fear in her eyes now, when Tom croons to her) that he hasn't been forced to leave yet. 

Harry doesn't know the ins and out of what he does when he leaves during the day, but he's pretty sure it involves the booming London drug trade. Tom skulks around the shadier parts of town like he owns them, often coming back with bloodied, torn knuckles and a wild look of animal satisfaction on his face. Darkness and destitution seem to find Tom - or maybe he finds it. He thrives doing things he shouldn't, and Harry would know. By this point it's been over four long years. Tom feels like another limb, and Harry can't imagine what his life would look like without him.

Yeah. If he had to chose, his turning point would be the third of July 1939.

 

 

*

 

 

Harry wakes up to grey London light. It's dirty, struggling to fight it's way through the grit of their grubby little window, and the few beams that make it paint themselves exhaustedly on the floor. Next to him Tom sleeps. It's still early, maybe five or six o'clock. The orphanage is strangely, eerily quiet at this time, before the younger children are awake. 

Their room is already stuffy with summer heat, the gap in the window not enough to let any semblance of a breeze through. His back is sticky against the coarse sheet. Tom's legs are entangled with his, and Harry shifts a little to stare at him.

At seventeen, he's gorgeous. He has everyone he meets wrapped around his quick, clever fingers - Harry has to pull him down the streets now when they walk through the prostitution lanes. Harry's pretty sure the girls are teasing, but it still annoys him when they giggle and slip down their already revealing lingerie, winking. Tom loves the attention, laps up Harry's scowl and preens under it. 

Right now his eyelashes are casting a deep purple shadow on the crescent of his eyes, cheekbones sloping sharply down to meet an angular jaw. His dark brows are perfectly relaxed, a beautifully thick slash which matches the sheen of his brown hair. Tom is strong - muscles well defined, horrifyingly tall especially when compared to Harry. Not that Harry is jealous in any way - Tom is his. Harry's proud of him. 

He runs the tip of a finger lightly across the naked skin of his shoulders, marvelling at the smooth texture, the way a trail of goosebumps follow his finger. He gives in to the urge to trace the two white raised letters, atrociously written but still standing out. 

"Admiring your work?"

Harry's hand freezes, and he looks down. Tom's blue eyes are open, regarding him with curiosity and amusement. Harry nods, unashamedly, watching as the corners of Tom's mouth lilt up. 

"Your handwriting is atrocious," Tom yawns, stretching a little. His arms crack as he pushes them above his head. Harry snorts, turning a little to show his own scar pointedly; Tom's own handwriting is not much better.

Tom reaches out and presses a fingertip to it, watching the white thumb mark fade as the blood rushes back in. It makes Harry shiver slightly, go a little hot. He still remembers Tom pushing his bloodied fingers inside Harry's mouth afterwards so he could taste what he'd done. 

Tom rolls over onto Harry, disrupting the memory, and presses a soft little kiss to his jaw. "As lovely as you are, I have to be off," he murmurs gently. They listen to the noise of the street start to filter in, shouts, the clatter of hooves, and Harry nods, reaching out to pull his best friend closer.

Huffing out a laugh, Tom slides his palm down Harry's chest, to his stomach, applying the faintest pressure as if to hold him still. A strange thought flits through Harry's head - Tom technically just caressed his organs. Harry lets Tom's mouth move from his neck to his lips, smiling through their kiss. Their room seems slightly brighter, although he's not entirely sure it's because of the awakening sun.

"Be good today," Tom teases, rolling out of bed. "Don't traumatise too many orphans, will you?"

Harry grins devilishly, and watches him pull on the thin trousers and shirt. It never ceases to amaze him that the boy who he wakes up with is the same one who's name is enough to make a room go quiet, and who people are afraid to look in the eye. 

Tom looks excited about something today. There's a curl of anticipation to his gaze, a subtle energy thrumming through the way he holds himself. Harry lazily wonders if it's because he plans to kill someone. 

 

 

*

 

 

It's far worse. He does kill someone, but it's because there's a bust. To make it even more complicated, the man he stabs is a police officer.

Harry only knows because he's outside, reading a old, stained book about a genetically-modified dystopia when a dirty street urchin nearly barrels into him with how hastily he's running. He must have been given a good description of Harry because his brown eyes grow wide and he pants out the message straight away.

The normally precious book is left discarded on the ground as Harry follows the child through the heavy iron gates of the orphanage, out onto the street. They dodge the bustle of people, adrenaline letting Harry, for the first time in his life, easily keep up with the twists and turns down alleyways that the kid dances down. 

The police station is an intimidating squat concrete block, with two uniformed men hulking outside. The little boy ignores them, runs Harry around the back where there's a side door. They slip in together, and once again Harry is directed down backdoor corridors until he reaches the cells. If he wasn't so nail-bitingly anxious, he'd probably be impressed with how easy this kid can navigate the city, but as it is Harry forgets to even thank him.

Tom is inside a cell with a few other men, nose leaking black blood and teeth bared. He stops pacing as soon as he catches sight of Harry, fingers instantly coming up to clench white-fisted at the bars. He start talking immediately, dark eyes flitting to the dim hallway where Harry presses desperately against the iron separating them.

"I don't know how much time I have," he murmurs quickly, seriously. His gaze is very black, and Harry's never seen him look so white. "I'm being called up, love. I killed one of their men - the only reason I don't have a bullet lodged in my brain right now is because they have a quota of degenerates to fill." Tom quite visibly swallows his anger, licks the sticky blood from his lips. "I've got a few months of training in Hampshire then realistically I'm probably looking at North Africa."

His stare burrows its way into Harry's reeling head, as Harry shakes his head in wordless denial. Tom runs a hand through uncharacteristically messy hair, gazing sharply at Harry as if trying to memorise everything about him. A clanging sounds from further down, and the men in Tom's cell spring to their feet nervously, muttering. 

"We've got to go guv." The kid that bought him here shifts uneasily and spits the words into the shadows. Uncaring of who sees, Harry grabs Tom's fingers, squeezing them with bruising tightness. He doesn't even feel when they're squeezed harder in return but later he'll see the red crescent imprints of nails that aren't his.

Tom is only fucking seventeen. 

The boy tugs worriedly on his arm, looking pleadingly to Tom. Harry, who has the sense that his world is falling apart, makes a split-second decision and grabs his locket, ripping it off his neck and shoving it through the bars at Tom. The older boy takes it gently, closing his fist around it like a lifeline. He looms as close as he can, waves of dark, bitter frustration pouring off him.

"I'll find my way back to you, little one. I promise," he says viciously softly, eyes boring into Harry's.

He doesn't doubt it. 

Despite - or because of - his injury, Tom breathes in through his nose sharply and gives the kid a nod, without breaking eye contact with Harry. Small hands fasten themselves around his wrist like a manacle and the boy tugs him away with surprising strength. Harry can hear voices growing nearer, lets his feet follow each other down the corridor, and watches as Tom's face grows smaller, eyes fixed hungrily on Harry as he edges away.

And then, all of a sudden, he's back outside, blinking at the light and wishing his eyes would stop watering at the brightness.

 

 

*

 

 

Of course, one year later Harry enlists. 

He's excruciatingly, obviously underage. The balding doctor who does his medical sits behind a shabby desk with his wrinkled fingers steepled for a good few minutes as he wrestles with some internal decision. Eventually, just as Harry's about to get up to leave and denounce this plan as failed, the man sighs wearily, looks at him with something like pity in his dull blue eyes and signs the forms.

Harry can't stop the triumphant smile from spreading across his face as he skips out of the hospital. He can't quite believe it's that easy - things at the front must be going worse than the papers say they are. He doesn't even bother going back to the orphanage. He already has everything he needs in his backpack, and besides, he's eager to escape the explosive rain dropping over a smoking London as quickly as he can. They need the space in the orphanage anyway; it's crammed, filled to the brim with dead-eyed children who don't even cry anymore. 

The next day, Harry lets himself be jostled around as he steps onto the crowded train, full of eager young men, all ambitious to die for their country. He doesn't talk to anyone on the journey, but somehow manages to convey that he's mute to anyone who tries to initiate a conversation (or at least, he gets the point across that he won't be talking any time soon). It's fine by him - he's not here to make friends.

The three hour train journey passes in a blink of green and gold. Harry hasn't travelled outside of London for years by this point, and he can't look away from the blur of hills and fields which sprint past the window. He sees a patch of tiny, ant-like cows low down in the distance , big, beautiful oak trees with fiery coloured autumn leaves, little streams and the occasional blackened husk of a house. It's so different from London's smoggy metal machinery, and he feels the burden in his heart lighten just a bit. Despite the chill in the air and the loud noise of the engine, he keeps the window wide open so he can taste the country breeze. It's sweet, clear, and with each breath he feels like his lungs thank him. 

It's over far too soon - they reach the army base and he is thrust into the grim reality of a nation in the grips of the worst war the world has ever seen. It's intimidatingly organised chaos as soon as they are waved through the gates. There must be a thousand other new recruits, and Harry already feels like a wayward sheep. He follows the directions that are shouted at them as best he can, picking up the uniform, boots, other bits and pieces and signing in. They're directed down a long corridor in the ugly, concrete barracks (utilitarian and painted a strange eggshell blue on the inside) before a few men, including Harry, break off out of the pack of agitated newcomers at dorm 22.

Harry shares the large, domed room with 27 others, most of which seem to have arrived before him. It's strangely similar to the dormitories at the orphanage, and so Harry is pretty nonplussed about the lack of privacy. The only bed left is at the back of the room, on the top bunk. The man underneath doesn't seem that interested in him, just grunts out a greeting and continues pulling on his bedsheets. He's thickset, incredibly tall with olive skin and brown hair. Harry doesn't know his name. 

They have five minutes here, before a young man walks through the door and screams at them to form a line and follow him. Harry joins the back, trying to take everything in and learn quickly - it's the best tactic he has if he wants the dreaded basic training to be as painless as is possible.

Half an hour later and Harry is watching with his teeth gritted as tufts of black hair waft to the floor, where they lie somewhat accusingly on top of blonde, brown, black and even red hair. Nobody has bothered to sweep and there's a weird human carpet forming on the tiles. It makes him feel a bit sick but he doesn't really know why. He's not given a chance to look at himself, but his head feels strangely cold, and he has to stop himself from reaching up and running a hand across his scalp. He looks around noting that the rest of the men suddenly appear older and meaner; it's a little culty, and as he waits for the rest of his platoon to be shaved he quickly realises that he's definitely the youngest.

They're marched back to the room, where they're told to strip, put on the uniform and form a line again. Harry wiggles out of his clothes, ignoring his comparatively somewhat scrawny body (especially compared to his bunk-mate, who is huge), and looks down at the torn and tatty clothes on the floor. Suddenly they don't look like his anymore: they don't fit in with this shorn, tired-looking boy who for all intents and purposes is now eighteen, not newly sixteen. 

Everyone shifts uneasily in the quiet as the reality gradually sinks in. Looking around, they've suddenly shifted from civilian to soldier in the space of an hour, and everyone is still struggling with the cataclysmic switch in identity, and trying not to look as nervous as they undoubtedly feel.

The young man who has been leading them around nods at them and snaps to attention as a big burly man in his forties stalks through the door. His short black hair is shot through with grey, and his eyes are light coloured but piercing as they instantly settle on Harry. Probably because his height causes a notable dip in the line.

"For fuck's sake, I told them to stop bringing me children," he mutters audibly as he walks past. A couple of recruits huff out a quiet laugh but most are too nervous to open their mouths. Harry narrows his eyes, although he can't be too annoyed - after all, he is underage. He better be careful. He's talked to a few veterans before about what to expect and the advice he got was pretty much all the same: keep your head down, don't draw attention to yourself, work hard and just do what you're told.

"Right," the older man booms out, apparently satisfied with his visual inspection. "My name is Sergeant Dawes, and I am now your lord, master and fucking commander, understood?"

They all mutter out a "yessir" and Dawes' eyes light up. Harry begins to suspect that later on he'll have them screaming that word.

"Now boys, you've just taken the first step to becoming a member of the world's most glorious fighting force. This means I have eight weeks to form you into the kind of men his Majesty would be proud of - he wants killing machines, not weak, pathetic scrawny little bastards like yourselves."

Dawes fixes them each with a glare as he patrols up and down. Harry knows that this is necessary, all part of the act, but he can't stop himself from disliking the older man. His constant shouting is grating

"This," he says as gestures around them with a pointed finger, "is not going to be a fucking walk in the park. It's going be tough. You'll hate it - you'll cry, you'll break, you may even try to leave. But I've been given an order to keep you here and pummel you into the shape of a god-fearing, german-killing country-loving member of Great Britain's armed forces. And that I will do."

Harry maintains a straight face but inwardly he's rolling his eyes. This whole bootcamp is not just to teach them practical skills and how to kill their enemies. It's about discipline - cracking open the hard shell of what they think they know about themselves and teaching them that they don't know shit. 

A part of him wishes he could just shut his eyes and wake up in North Africa, but the thought that keeps him on his feet is that Tom would have gone through this too. Harry can imagine him standing here - beautiful face illuminated by the shaved head, expression placid but eyes dark and glinting with the promise of something terrible. Harry wouldn't be surprised if whoever got on the wrong side of him ended up never leaving basic training.

He clenches a fist, takes sip of air and breathes it out slowly. That's who he'll be. He'll be Tom.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Predictably, basic training is hell.

Each long, exhausting day begins with an orchestra of standard issue alarm clocks bursting out into a collaborative shrill wail when their collective hands hit five. Harry jolts into waking, rolls himself out of bed, and joins the rest of the grumbling recruits to clean their dorms for an hour, until the floors gleam with an unnaturally smug shine. They then fumble their way into their exercise clothes and line up nervously for room inspection: Dawes' favourite time of the day, when he enjoys hurling as many creative insults at them as he can. Harry's never seen him resort to physical violence - he doesn't need to. With an order, he can have a recruit doing press-ups until they throw up or pass out.

After cleaning, they train. This is almost always in some extended, cost-effective form of basic physical exercise, and can be anything from completing timed obstacle courses, to running for hours, weighed down with full standard equipment, as well as the usual squats, press-ups, lunges etc.

Harry is usually in so much pain by the end of the day that if he wasn't so exhausted, he's sure he wouldn't be able to sleep for the sheer full-body ache. His feet are the worst - it takes a while to wear the standard-issue leather boots in, and having to run with sweaty, blistered-raw feet is agony until he loses the feeling in his toes and heels.

They learn how to handle different weapons, the best way to throw a grenade and dig a trench. They practise getting their gas-masks on midway through the night, woken up by Dawes screaming 'gas, gas, gas' at them. They're taught a few basic words in german, russian and italian, learn to tell the fighter jets and bomber planes by sound. Harry knows exactly how far he can push himself before the world goes black and spins. 

It's fucking awful, but he's comforted by the singular thought that if Tom did it, so can Harry.

 

 

*

 

 

Harry encounters a slight hindrance to his plan annoyingly early on.

He forces his body to struggle through the exercise, picks himself back up and keeps going even when he finishes last and when the other recruits jeer at him for shaking through the last pull-ups. Luckily it's early enough on that everyone is still figuring out the boundaries, and nobody is willing too push them too far. Harry knows how this goes though. He grew up in an environment where it was every child for themselves. You had to fight for your food, for your bed and for your place in the pecking order, and he knows that give it a couple of weeks for the apprehension to wear off and people will start to test him. He makes for a good target: he's young, scrawny and a fucking mute for god's sake. It's an invitation.

So it surprises him when he fails at something that isn't the physical part. Harry is usually one of the quickest when it comes to their lessons in 'warfare' and the extremely shallow basics they get on strategy and military tactics.

On this particular morning, a week in, they trudge over to a concrete square that seems half-heartedly tacked on to a bit of the shooting range. There are stained concrete blocks (that Harry assumes are seats) arranged in a rough semi-circle. Weeds fight for a breath, peeking out of the slabs on the floor and lending the surroundings a nice derelict feel. They're out of breath; it's early, six am, and they sprinted the whole way here.

As Harry takes a seat in the corner he lets the quiet banter of a few of the men wash over him; it's quite relaxing, hearing them rib each other about snoring or mock someone's Irish accent or chat about life back at home. In fact, the day is incongruously nice, a cloudless pale blue sky with the taste of smoke singeing the cool air. 

His opinion changes when he realises what they're here to do. It's a simple task: learn to strip the gun apart and put it back together before the stopwatch goes off.

Simple, right? 

Harry takes five minutes longer than every single other man in his unit to take his rifle apart and put it back together.

Five minutes doesn't sound a lot, but feeling twenty pairs of eyes rest heavily on him as his fingers struggle to find the catches, he begins to feel the first stirrings of dull worry peek out. Harry isn't one for feeling regret - it's a pretty useless emotion in his eyes - but he can't help but think if now had really been the right time for him to have enlisted. Should he have waited another year, until he was seventeen? He shuts the question down instantly. No. Tom may not have another year.

Someone pipes up from the back as he's hand slips down the barrel of the rifle, something stupid and petty about how he just needs to rub the shaft a bit more and he's welcome to practise on him. It's a pretty poor innuendo, but Harry glares at them so viciously that they shut up pretty promptly.

The feeling only grows as their lessons swings on. It's only an hour, and after that is another run, but no matter how many times he tries or what he does, his fingers fumble over the small catches and he can't keep the sequence straight in his head. Harry is not used to being slow at anything, and he feels his cheeks burn. He's not embarrassed, more frustrated. Why can't he get it? Even the thickest of the bunch - Bisker, undoubtedly - can do it within the allotted time. 

The other men forget about it as the tasks of the day consume them, and he can't exactly rise to the bait. There's no point in teasing him as he never gives them a response. Even Dawes just eyes him appraisingly when the man next to Harry sighs and shows him how to do it again. 

It's a character flaw but Harry loathes being bad at something. Loathes it to the point that he purposefully stays awake for an hour after lights out, waiting for the sounds of snoring and shifting bodies to fill the room. It's a struggle - sleep calls to him, croons to him in a blissfully numb siren song. It's normally the only time in the day that he lets himself think about Tom, and how Harry's face fits in the soft hollow his collarbones, the way he smelt like home, how he would smile so seductively with sharp, dangerous teeth.

Not tonight though. Harry creeps down the thin metal ladder, ever so quietly and ever so slowly, picking his way through the floor (having already memorised where the creaks are) and ignoring the looming pillars of the beds. He's used to sneaking out of shared rooms; he and Tom used to raid the kitchen at night and pick the lock on the fridge door.

He goes to the nearest rifle storage room - they're unloaded, of course, which is why they're worryingly easy to find - and grabs the nearest one. Grimly, he sits down with his back against the cheap plastered wall and mechanically starts taking it apart.

 

 

*

 

The next day is a blur. It took him an embarrassing amount of time to take the damn thing apart the previous night, and in his frustration he'd torn a nail, a dull, blunt pain to add to the rising frustration. A further half an hour of fumbling around later, and he'd just about managed to put it back together again. They don't have to practise taking their rifles apart until the following day, so once again, Harry stays up at night and sneaks out.

He's slightly mollified when the whole process only takes him thirty minutes in total, this time, and he's starting to remember the order. 

The next night, he slashes the time down to ten minutes - slightly below average, but certainly nowhere near as bad as he'd been to begin with.

When he goes to sneak out for the fourth night in a row, he's just tiptoed into his usual practise room when someone yanks on his arm and pulls him to the side. If Harry wasn't a mute he would have woken the whole damn barracks up with how startled he is. Whirling around, he's just about to swing a punch when he realises who it is.

It's his bunkmate: Lewis. 

Like Harry, Lewis is in his khaki army vest, stretched tight over his tree-trunk of a chest, and loose sleep shorts. He cracks out a yawn.

"So this is where you're going every night then Potter," he says quietly, peering round Harry at the rows of weapons. "Huh." 

Shit. Harry wants to slap himself. Why did he think he could climb down a bloody ladder and not wake the man at the bottom? He doesn't know what to do - Lewis doesn't strike him as particularly hostile, but the bloke's a giant, in his thirties, thick corded muscle on every inch of him. He's tanned, with pale hazel eyes, a large, curved nose and a fuzz of brown hair covering the top of his head. He could squash Harry like a fly with one finger.

"You going to tell me what you're doing here, or should I go and fetch Dawes?" 

Harry realises what this looks like and scrabbles to mime an emphatic no. Desperately, he grabs a gun, shaking his head when Lewis loses the sleepy demeanour and backs away slightly, on edge.

Harry crouches to his feet on the floor and as quickly as he possibly can dismantles the thing and puts it back together. It takes him three minutes and he's sweating by the end.

He chances a glance upwards and freezes. Lewis is looking at him with a huge, shit-eating grin on his face, and he chuckles as he starts to clap. 

"Well I never, Potter," he says, surprised, looking at the gun before taking it out of Harry's hand and examining it. He handles it like someone who's held a gun their whole life, not someone who learnt in the last week. It peaks Harry's curiosity - he wonders what Lewis was when he was a civilian. Maybe some kind of police officer? Or maybe darker than that - maybe he was in a gang of some sort?

Harry can't quite believe it happens but right then and there he yawns. It slips out unbidden whilst he stares at the other man, and he instantly clamps his mouth shut on it but it's too late. To his shock, Lewis just huffs out an amused laugh, eyes crinkling. He puts the gun down with the others and points at the door.

"I'd say you've done enough now lad. Go and get some sleep." 

Harry nods, chancing a smile of his own. Lewis strikes him as tough but fair - a good person, if a little quiet. He clicks his tongue as Harry shuffles past him, looking down at the ground.

"Ah but you remind me of my son. He's about your age - what, fifteen? sixteen?"

Harry shakes his head and flashes all his fingers and then eight more. It's a blatant lie and Lewis has no qualms in calling it out.

"'Course you are. And I'm the Queen of England," he says sarcastically, thick eyebrows raised. Harry just shrugs.

They walk back to the dorm in companionable silence, Harry not quite knowing if he should be trying to continue on the conversation.

When they reach the room, Lewis chuckles again, shaking his head as he softly speaks.

"Fair play though, Potter. You didn't strike me as the type to give up easily."

 

 

*

 

 

The men know him as a mute, and so far he's gotten surprisingly little shit from the drill sergeant for it. Maybe because they all know he's too young to be here, even if nobody says so. Maybe they're just worried about the war, and the grim reality that in less than two months they'll be going off to fight nazis, woefully unprepared. Much to his bitterness though, Harry is the weakest. This doesn't really pose that much of a problem, until they reach the second week, and he realises that Dawes' has somehow been holding back on them on how he can possibly make Harry's life even worse.

It starts on a Monday morning, when Dawes has them line up outside in their underwear at four am. The sergeant looks particularly gleeful today, and Harry feels dread coat form a hard, unswallowable ball in his throat as he stands there shivering and confused. 

"Well then, recruits. I'm sure you're wondering why you're queuing out here in the arse-biting cold instead of tucked up nice and warm in your beds getting your precious beauty sleep." He hacks out a laugh and peers pointedly round at one of the recruits who has a cauliflowery nose and thickset brow. "God knows Bisker here needs it." 

To his credit, Bisker's face remains blank and he doesn't react.

"This week we're going to form you lot into a proper unit. Now you're probably thinking 'what the hell do you mean Sergeant. Dawes, sir?'." His eyes are sparkling and it might be Harry's imagination but he seems to lock eyes with Harry.

"From now on, your individual performance doesn't count for shit. It's all about your work as a team. This means that when I ask you to do something... I won't stop the timer until every man in your team has completed it. You wake up together, you eat together, you shit together and you sleep together. And any punishment one of you incurs now has to be shared between all of you. So bear that in mind."

Harry shifts on his feet and tries not to let his expression show, even though he can feel the collective attention of his platoon drift towards him. They're probably thinking exactly the same thing he is.

He's completely fucked.

 

 

*

 

 

It comes to a head three nail-biting days later. Their activity for the day is going out on a tab - effectively, a long, exhausting walk laden down with their entire kit, up and down hills before they make camp near a river. Although it's early October, the weather is unseasonably nice, but what appears to be a stroke of good luck very quickly turns into a curse. 

Five hours in and Harry's gasping for breath, eyes stinging with the sweat dripping into them. He's boiling hot, the sun beating down a constant white glare, but they're not allowed to take off their uniform jackets. The other recruits have stopped talking a while ago as they began the ascent, and all Harry can do is put one foot in front of the other and repeat. He's at the back of the line of men, determined not to lag behind, eyes fixed on Lewis who walks a while ahead of him. 

Spitting into the bushes, Harry unscrews the cap of his water bottle, taking a short swig from the warm, metallic tasting liquid when he suddenly feels his knees buckle. For a second there's confusing bright light, and then he comes to on the floor, the taste of grainy dirt on his tongue. It takes a few seconds to realise he had passed out, and he gives himself a self-indulgent moment to curse his age. Most of the men are in their twenties, lean and slowly getting to prime physical condition. Harry is still growing, not used to physical labour. He's not unfit, but he's weedy and pale, even if he's put on a nice amount of muscle in the last week alone.

He coughs out the taste, and pushes himself up to his knees. To his dismay, the line has halted, and he can see the last quarter of the group staring back at him with irritation. Dawes looks delighted, is making his way down to where Harry struggles to his feet, scowling. He already knows what's coming.

"What's this then Potter? Fancied a little nap did you?" he sneers, crossing his arms. The bastard isn't even breathing heavily - it's inhumane, although he's not carrying the same weight they are. 

"Well lads, if Potter's feeling tired, how's about we wake him up a bit?" There is a distinct murderous air now emanating from Harry's unit and he swallows, swaying on his feet and praying to any god that's out there that he doesn't faint again. 

"I want 100 jumping jacks from each of you. Oh no, not you Potter." Dawes laughs at Harry's confusion. "No, you rest. Let your team lend you a hand," he says in mock concern, gesturing at Harry to sit down on the side of the bushy path. "You don't mind, do you boys?"

Harry stares up as the whole line of men curse and spit at the ground before heaving into the exercise. It sounds comically easy but the reality is vastly different; jumping up and down in full uniform with their tents, equipment and rifles on them is no quick task. Most have nearly run out of water, and this is delaying their time to reach the next stretch of stream. 

He's forced to watch as a few of the men have to pause to blink away dizziness, some of them muttering under their breath. He hears at least three 'fuck you Potter's before the final man finishes, sucking in harried breaths and tottering on his feet, and they can continue on. There'll be consequences for this, but for now Harry just tries to stay upright and on the move. Lewis casts a concerned glance back at him but says nothing.

 

 

 

*

 

 

Rain is slashing down at the thin film of his tiny one-man tent like it's Armageddon. Occasionally a crumple of lightning will flash, throwing everything into black and white relief and waking him up from whatever shivering doze he's managed to slip into. He's going to be relieved for sentry duty in probably the next hour, and he's almost looking forward to it - at least it'll stop the mounting frustration at not managing to sleep when these are the only few short hours he has to do so. 

Harry has just managed to sink into something resembling quiet in his head, when he hears something outside his tent. He can hear a wet, scrabbling somewhere  out there in the dark, but brushes it aside in his slow, exhaustion-addled brain. It's probably a tree, or someone messing around going for a piss. Harry shuts his eyes and tries to fall back into oblivion.

It seems like the next second, something is on top of him, sopping wet and smelling like damp dog. Harry recoils, instantly fighting to get out of his sleeping bag and out from under whatever his attacker is, screaming at the top of his mental lungs. He hears laughter, low, gravelly chuckles, and realises that it's a human being - and there's two of them. His blood freezes, and his struggles intensify. If there are two then unless he can fight them off quickly, he's done for. 

They don't even bother clapping a hand over his mouth - he's ripped out of the sleeping bag, arms pressed painfully behind his back.

"So fucking handy, isn't it?" someone grunts, as they start to rip Harry's uniform off him. His shirt gets caught on the bone of his shoulder, and the next hard yank feels like it nearly dislocates it. "Don't even need to shut him up."

Another laugh. "Yeah, how do we know he doesn't want it?"

"Probably does - look at him, staring at us so sweetly all day with those big green eyes." They're not even bothering to keep their voices down, and with another flash, the tents lights up with a growl and Harry sees the dirty, sweat encrusted face of Bisker, whites of his eyes gleaming. He's grinning, hand down his trousers, and Harry finally places the voice of the person holding his hands behind him.

It's Thompson. If Harry wasn't desperately trying to prevent himself from being raped, he'd probably be surprised - the guy seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be a nice enough, if not a little shy, eighteen year old with mousy hair and a quiet voice. 

That kind of does it, the fact that this little fucking twig of a teenager thinks he can get away with this - that Harry will let him. Harry redoubles his efforts, slamming an elbow backwards. With some satisfaction he hears an 'oof', before someone claps in in the face and for a second he sees stars.

He digs his nails in wherever he can, biting down on anything he can find - fabric, skin, fingers. He feels his teeth hit something hard, and a salty taste well up in his mouth. Disgusted, he spits the blood out, before he's slammed down on the hard earth. 

"My fucking finger! You mute freak." The word is accompanied with a kick to his stomach, the force curving into his ribs with enough momentum to knock the air from his lungs.

His trousers are pushed down, and for a second Harry thinks this is it, this is when he gets raped and he can't fucking do anything and he wants to kill them all, raze this entire fucking place down to the ground and burn it-

Suddenly the weight is off him, the two men letting out twin squeaks of surprise as they're hefted up and thrown out of the tent and into the rain pouring down from an unforgiving black sky. Harry hears the thwack of a punch and a following moan of pain. He gasps for breath and scrabbles to right his clothes, looking up. 

"Why don't you both fuck off? Fucking pansies." 

The voice fits the huge, bulging shape in front of him, and Harry realises it's Lewis. He has a distant thought of wondering if Lewis knows he's more of a pansy than either of them, that he's had Tom's cock in his mouth and loved it, before the relief pours down his spine like hot, buttery chocolate.

Bisker and Thompson are now covered in mud, camouflaged in it, and pick themselves up on their feet, shaky curses spilling from their lips. Harry snarls at them and they go.

"They should know better." Lewis spits to the side, disgusted. He's crouched down, half in the tent (which is now sloppy with wet dirt) half outside. He peers inside at Harry, eyes running over him for injuries. Harry can feel one side of his face is on fire, the skin around his left eye puffy and tender to touch. When he wipes his mouth, the back of his hand comes away bloody, an orange stain in the dark purple light.

All he can do is nod. Lewis nods back gravely, and shuts the flap, giving him the obvious illusion of privacy. Harry squirms to the back of the tent, on top of his sleeping bag and watches the entrance without blinking.

He doesn't sleep again. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

When Tom is sick to death of all the pointless blood and gore and pain that he has to look at day in, day out, he lets himself think about the boy he left behind.

Tom has always thought Harry is beautiful, right from the first moment he'd wandered back to his orphanage dorm, bored out of his brains, and stumbled upon a fierce little cub of a boy, glaring up at him so angry and so sad. Harry is his favourite treasure, and has been for six or seven years now (although the gold chain that hangs around his neck, nestled close to his heart at all times, is an important second).

Tom misses being able to look at his eyes, more than anything. Green and vibrant, and so communicative. Tom could always tell what Harry was feeling from the sheer emotion swirling around in those two little rock pools peering out at the world. The second thing he finds himself thinking about often, seemingly for no apparent reason, is the way Harry would get a light spattering of the faintest freckles in the summer sun (so much cooler than this goddamn constant African heat), dotted across the bridge of his nose and only visible when close by. Tom had liked counting them, drawing constellations, knowing that not many people had seen those tiny, intricate dots even though they were right there on the top of his skin.

He thinks about running his fingers down Harry's bare sides, dropping lower to where he'd be soft and loose from Tom pushing inside, watching him squirm away but shuffle closer, look up and overflow with trust. 

Tom sighs.

The war is horrible.

Tom doesn't necessarily mind the killing, not in the same way the other men do. They jerk awake at night to claw at their hair, gibbering and crying and talking of ghosts. Tom has no qualms in ending a life. Sometimes it can be fun, just to see what happens and how far a man can be pushed before he breaks. He quite likes being the last thing they ever see, of ending a living, thinking, breathing, somewhat rational human being containing an entire, whirring universe of thinking, feeling and hoping. It makes him feel powerful to be the one to end it all, so easily - all it takes is a tiny thumbnail of lead alloy to punch a small hole in their bag of skin and flesh and bones, and then their life pours out in red rivulets, swallowed up by the greedy sand.

Death is natural. It's probably the most natural thing about life: it has to end at some point. Everything, everybody dies. Tom has been listening to one of the university professors in his platoon. 'Tom', as he views himself, only exists because a number of atoms are currently ordered in a specific way. He exists on the strange chance that out of all the ways they could be ordered, they fall into place in that particular way. Why should he angry if they float apart or come undone? He's just grateful that they formed him at all, even just for a blink.

And this is why he and Harry are meant to be. This all happened at the exact same time as Harry's atoms formed him. Harry's atoms and Tom's atoms obviously have some strange connection. Maybe they formed part of the same whole at some point in the last eternity. Maybe they vibrate on the same level. Maybe they're just made from the same building block. But whatever it is, Harry and Tom are the same, they're one thing, are perfect. It's obvious just in the fact that they exist (firstly) and that they do so at the same time (secondly), in the same place (thirdly). Their meeting is cosmic luxury.

Sometimes Tom thinks about Harry thinking about him. Wonders if he knows that he's an omnipresent presence, lodged like a sickness right in the back of Tom's head and deep in his heart at all times. He saturates Tom's happiness, his sadness, his anger, his apathy. He's wrapped around the inside of Tom's soul like hot, sticky oil, stained it with himself. 

And then Tom can't help but chuckle. Of course Harry knows. Because Tom is definitely right there in Harry's too: carved into the skin of his shoulder, into the fabric of his being.

He sighs again and fires his gun. He doesn't even flinch at the loud bang anymore, just watches dispassionately as the man who he'd been staring at flops to the ground, tunic already stained brown and limbs finally relaxing out of their clawed agony.

Darling, Tom thinks, kicking the body to make sure the man is dead and gazing into the muddy line of the horizon in the distance, all I want is to have you with me.

 

 

*

 

 

Harry sees his chance and takes it.

For Bisker he wants something painful, something humiliating and debasing, like what he had intended for Harry. He's not worried about the timing, in fact he was willing to wait until they shipped out (after all, a death would be so much more easily camouflaged in the middle of a thousand others) but it's almost like fate smiles over him. 

He's at the back of the line again, ambling on behind Lewis as they keep marching forwards, up and up and up. This time it's more out of choice than because Harry is unfit (his stamina is increasing at an alarming rate) - he doesn't want anyone behind him, wants to be able to see the two of them, way up ahead. Bisker and Thompson won't look him in the eyes or go anywhere near him now. Especially not since Lewis has taken it upon himself to accompany Harry for this last day of their hike. He'd noted with some satisfaction that Thompson's nose was broken, lip split, and that Bisker's crumpled finger was wrapped in a shoddily-applied bandage. Serves them right. Harry himself has a horrible black eye, the colour of a cold sunset, and his ribs hurt if he twists too quickly.

Harry is distracted, dreamily thinking about Tom and about how he's going to kill the two men who tried to rape him. They're walking along a ridge in the hill, forest on one side and a steep drop down on the other where the view widens out to endless pale green patches of English countryside, lines and ridges crisscrossing like some huge, bright quilt. Little tendrils of white smoke curl towards the soft morning sky from ant-size houses.

It's quietly, calmly beautiful.

He looks back to the trees on his left, eyes running over dark blue shadows cloaking the vegetation, tracking the slightest movement (he's understandably a little jumpy). There's a small stream a little further in, ambient noise all but forgotten in the heave of their breathing and the drip drip drip of sweat down his temples. 

Harry comes up short as he realises what he's looking at. It's just about visible, but a little further in there's the unmistakable hulking shape of a dead animal. His heart jumps, and he looks up to see Lewis picking his way around the corner and slipping out of sight.

It's perfect.

Harry blinks, and then rockets into the forest, trying to be as quiet and quick as possible. He falls to his knees, uncaring that soil and icy water are soaking through the stiff material. It's a dead sheep - curly cream fur matted with writhing maggots and dirt. Harry doesn't have time to cover his mouth even though the smell makes his eyes water. It's been dead at least a week, viscera spilling out into the water of the stream. 

Unscrewing the metal cap of his bottle, Harry chugs as much of the clean water as he can before tipping the rest out. He wrinkles his nose but dutifully holds the bottle downstream of the rotting animal, watching as clear water runs in, filling it up. Quickly rescrewing it, Harry shoves it back in his equipment belt and darts out the forest, not looking back. He bursts out into the daylight, back onto the path and strides quickly, catching up with the others.

Lewis is waiting for him around the bend, and raises his eyebrows when he sees Harry half-running uphill. The older man glances down at his knees thoughtfully but says nothing. 

They continue walking on for another few hours until they break for lunch on a grassy plateau. The air fills with the sounds of the men heaving off their bags and their equipment belts, stretching out their aching limbs. Dawes is shouting at people about something or other, striding around and giving directions for setting up the little fires that will cook their rations. By this point, Harry is terribly, terribly thirsty, but for obvious reasons hasn't been able to drink one drop. 

His takes his chance as soon as Bisker turns to say something to one of the other recruits. He's probably still talking about how close he got to Harry's arse the night before - the moron has been bragging to a few of his friends, so excruciatingly smugly that Harry's jaw is beginning to ache from how hard he clenches it. Slowly, he picks his way past the obstacle course of men and bags, before feigning a stumble. His water bottle clangs out of his hands, rolling right next to the ugly, thickset man. Harry wastes no time in bending down and picking up the bottle - the wrong one of course - but Bisker looks up and sneers.

"Back for more Potter?" His eyes are hard and cold, and he gives a little short grin of satisfaction when Harry turns to face him and his bruised cheek comes into view.

In return, Harry lets his blank gaze drift down to Bisker's finger. 

The other man's smile drops off his face. He makes to get up, obviously enraged, but Harry is pulled away by Lewis, who has crept up behind him. He gives him a little push to get him moving back towards where they dumped their kit, and Harry dutifully follows.

"What are you doing, trying to antagonise him?" Lewis hisses, amazed, as soon as they're out of earshot. "Do you have a death wish, Potter?" 

Harry takes a seat on the hard earth, untying his bag and digging a hand in to retrieve the small ration pack. He shrugs and tries as hard as he can to stop smiling.

 

 

*

 

 

All good things come to those who wait. 

Bisker already begins to look a bit pale as they start the descent back to base. Nothing major but he'd been one of the first on the way up, and the more they walk, the more he lags, clearly overtaken by others. Harry vindictively hopes the day gets hotter in the afternoon.

Thompson has been keeping a conspicuously low profile. The moronic teenager has obviously been trying to avoid him, glances nervously first at Harry, and then at Lewis when they do catch sight of each other. 

He knows he's being greedy, and rushing things, but when Thompson stops to go to the toilet, Harry can't help himself. He's only human. The idiot decides that a little flat ledge on the side of the hill is a great place, and Harry watches with disgust from above as he looks around and shoves his trousers down. It's literally like he wants Harry to do it. Maybe he subconsciously knows that he's a waste of oxygen, and this is his way of asking for help?

Harry knows how to walk silently, how to move inconspicuously and unseen. In moments like this, he has to be grateful for his narrow frame and small stature. Once again, he dips away from the group and steals down. From there, it's almost painfully easy to sneak up on Thompson. He's squatting down on the rough grey earth, facing away from Harry's approach and humming softly to himself. It's all too easy for Harry to lunge forward and deliver a short, effective kick to his back. 

The wiry strength in Thompson's legs is actually rather surprising. Instead of falling straight forward as Harry has intended, the boy does a strange crab-shuffle, skidding round the rocky edge of the ledge and swaying. He whirls around, letting out a shout and, as his arms flail, his nails tear painfully at the skin of Harry's face.

Harry grits his teeth and pushes, with the combined weight of his body and his pack.

It's a glorious moment - the sun is shining after the rain of last night, and the echoing scream is the sweetest music Harry's ever heard. Thompson doesn't even fall that far, but it's far enough and at a sufficiently awkward angle that Harry can hear the hard crunch of his neck folding under his head, which slams into the limestone so hard that there's an instant red puddle. He peers down as the body twitches, and huffs out a little pleased smile, taking a deep breath of the fresh country air.

Harry merrily picks his way back up the hill, and manages to rejoin the back of the group pretty unnoticed - they've disbanded from their solitary line after hearing the shout, and in the confusion he slips right back in.

Maybe it's arrogant and dangerous, but he doesn't even bother to feign surprise when they find the body.

 

 

*

 

 

They make it back to the barracks two hours late, all the men as silent as Harry is for a change, and as grey as Bisker, who just looks worse and worse as night falls. Bisker's obviously been running his mouth, as people keep throwing him horrified, distrustful glances, but Harry doesn't care. It seems he's acquired a new nickname, which the men now mutter under the breath as they skirt around him. Nobody aside from Lewis wants to get too close, and Harry makes sure to grin sweetly at them with all his teeth.

They're calling him hellhound now, and Harry is taken aback for a second with how weirdly similar it is to what they used to call him at the orphanage. Does he really scream biblical betrayal to most people? Nearly everyone in the infantry has a nickname, it's almost like a rite of passage. But it's a little amusing that he seems to once again have gotten himself one with connotations to the devil.

Harry sighs. Hellhound. 

Well, he misses his devil; he wonders what Tom would think of it... he'd probably be delighted.

As he considers this, Harry walks back from a cold, evening shower, just turning to enter the dorms when he catches something out of the corner of his eye. The drill sergeant is a tall, motionless shadow, waiting rigidly next to the door to his room.

His eyes, a little more shrewd than Harry has previously given him credit for, seem to catch on the long red scratch curving round his jaw, bright from the shock of the shower. Harry stares at him as he takes a few steps closer, swinging something from his finger.

The sterile light from the strip in the ceiling catches, and Harry realises it's a standard-issue water bottle, a dented metallic cylinder. Dawes hands it to him, a strange expression on his face. 

"Potter. I believe you forgot this," he says, oddly softly. On autopilot, Harry reaches out and takes it, saluting with trepidation as Dawes nods.

Harry looks down and recoils. It's his water bottle - the one he gave to Bisker. He knows this, because the base of the bottle still has the word POTTER that he'd scratched on when he'd first received it.

The sergeant begins to walk away, before he suddenly stops, arms hanging loosely by his sides. Harry watches as his fingers curl into fists. "Private Bisker... is shitting blood and puking out his guts in the infirmary right now. Doc calls cholera and doesn't think he'll pull through the night."

Dawes says the words casually but quietly, with some strange note of understanding in his voice. It clicks then that maybe he's heard the rumours of what happened last night.

To his credit, Dawes doesn't look back to see Harry's reaction. Just keeps walking.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He's so fucking sick of sand.

It coats everything, his food, his hands, gritty against his eyelashes in the morning. His scalp itches, and when he rubs his nails through his (short!) hair the fucking stuff showers down in a light patter. It's inescapable, rubs everywhere possible raw and chafed, to match the sunburn he has on the tips of his nose and ears. The army commission suncream is rationed out like gold - thick, gloopy stuff which smells like antiseptic and is also, coincidentally, turned into some kind of exfoliant as the sand somehow worms it's way into the bottles too. It stops them burning though, and so is prized somehow more highly than cigarettes. Harry dutifully slaps it on his neck, face and collarbones every morning. There are a thousand iterations of white splatters all over his thin desert issue uniform, but at this point their light khaki issued shirt and trousers are so covered in dust and dirt that it's somehow blends in anyway. 

He's been in North Africa for seven months now, and El Agheila for two weeks. After pushing back the Italians, they've been ordered to stop advancing in order for Allied troops to be able to get out to Greece, where they're sorely needed. And to be honest, Harry thinks their best tanks and equipment are slowly being siphoned away for this purpose too. It's not like he knows for sure though, seeing as commands are more like Chinese whispers at this point. It takes an age for any kind of of order to disseminate and consequently they're all just milling around at the moment, buzzing with the familiar low-level stress that's been an ever present companion since they joined the Western Desert Campaign. Potentially being shot at or stabbed at any point can do that to you.

If he's honest, Harry has felt somewhat numb since he stepped foot on the continent. This whole war is absolutely fucking futile. He kills boys, he kills old men - fathers, brothers, uncles, sons. He stands by and feels nothing while innocents get caught in the crossfire and children die. Most of the people he kills have really done nothing to him - they just happen to have been born on the wrong side of this war. They're ordinary people, but they've been caged in with lies and propaganda. They aren't nazis, Harry doesn't even think they give two shits about the jews. They don't enjoy what they're doing. 

It begets some reflection. Simply put, most people aren't motivated by a need to destroy and to cause pain. Most people can only be brought to this level of animalism out of the drive to protect the people they love and the values they cherish. He looks in the face of a scared sixteen year old, younger than he is, and knows resolutely that this boy did not have a choice. But he kills him anyway - that's what it means to fight for a cause.

He does the only thing he can do: he keeps calm and carries on. Keeps firing, running, shaking, going to sleep at night itching away the sand and perpetual thirst. He's been surrounded by other men for so long now that he's forgotten what silence sounds like. But it doesn't matter, because every day he inches closer to Tom.

When Harry thinks about how scared he'd been when they'd killed those brothers, on his second day at the orphanage, how terrified he was of being found out, he wants to laugh. Back then he'd thought he was going to hell, that if anyone ever got proof he'd be sent down to rot in jail. Well now he knows there are worse things than jail and it may be a platitude, but he can safely say he's been through hell already. He kills more days than he doesn't - indiscriminately, to the point where he no longer gets that curl of glee or sharp little bite of thrill. It's more of a task at this point, a box he has to tick to advance. 

He wonders if it's the same for Tom... but then the other boy had always enjoyed it more. He'd always found a way to make it personal. 

"Hellhound!"

Harry looks up from where he's trying to sew up a tear in the worn knee of his trousers. His gaze passes to the other side of the fire (he purposefully doesn't look at it, sits as far away as he can and tries to hold his breath against the smoke when the soft wind turns), to where some unknown man with a babyface and soft blue eyes is beckoning him, eyes bubbling with laughter.

Harry sighs. Lewis is next to the stranger, cheeks ruddy with alcohol and smiling like an idiot.

He cocks an eyebrow and puts down the trousers. He's currently in his spare pair, and they're much too short on him now. He's shot up in the last year, although he's still not exactly what one would term 'tall'. More like he's finally reached the cusp of average. 

"Lewis said you came all this way to find ya friend?" Babyface slurs the words slightly, grinning. Harry resists the urge to roll his eyes. Bloody Lewis and his loose mouth. 

The man in question bats down the stranger's pointing fingers with clumsy paws. "I didn't, Harry," he says, words running into each other like dominos. "I jus' said that your looking for your laddie - and asked Johnnie if he knew of a Riddle."

The thought that this could be the Johnnie that Riddle supposedly scared off so Harry had a bed makes him smile, and unfortunately Johnnie takes it as encouragement. 

"Anybody? Hellhound here's looking for a Riddle-"

"What has an eye, but cannot-"

"Fuck off Chambers." Someone grumbles, and the group of men burst into sniggers as Chambers opens his mouth, affronted.

"I just-"

"Anyway," Johnnie interrupts pointedly, taking another swig from his metal hip flask and spitting at the fire. It gets oddly cold at night here, despite the fact that the sand and sky blister during the day. "Any of you ugly chaps know a Riddle? No? Tall, black hair, little bit strange, bit quiet. Bit like this one here." He waves his hand at Harry.

"But tall," Lewis contributes, and someone snorts. 

They lapse into silence again, listening to the churn of the infantry at night. Talking, laughter, clangs of metal, the sound of tents being zipped up and stumbled into. At this point it's a pretty comforting background noise, and Harry can't even hear it unless he makes himself listen.

Harry unscrews the top of his own hip flask and takes another sip. The cheap whiskey burns on the way down. It tastes like dirt, but it makes his heart feel a little less torn and bloody. Distantly he writes the letters 'HP' in the hot, dry air, and Lewis notices.

"Oh yeah. Got 'HP' carved into his back, courtesy of Hellhound here." 

Harry sometimes wonders if he should have shared that little tidbit with Lewis. It was one night after a bullet had grazed his rib as he turned, and he'd thought he was going to die. He remembers his face wet, hands bloody as they'd bandaged up the deep, singed cut on his side, Lewis giving up his share of whiskey rations to let Harry drown his absolutely filthy fucking fear. He'd been weak and afraid and he'd scribbled out who he was trying to find with shaking hands, tears dripping on the page, telling Lewis if he died find Tom, he needed to know, Harry needed to tell him he was sorry, that he'd tried to find you but I couldn't. 

He'd thrown up his guts and passed out, and the next day the only other remaining man from Harry's unit had died, legs blown off up until the waist, and Harry had watched him look down and see half of himself missing.

He hadn't needed the whiskey again. But it was nice to drink occasionally, when he wanted the world to get quieter. 

He's snapped out of his cold nostalgia as their Lieutenant appears. He looks fatigue stained, and somehow even more tired than they do. His uniform is still strangely pristine though, and his grey eyes are cloudy as he surveys them snap to their feet and salute.

"At ease," he says, voice ringing out clearly, almost at odds with his appearance. "Is there a Potter, Lewis and uhhhh-", he glances down at some paper in his hand, "A Peters amongst you?"

Harry, Lewis and Peters step forward in unison, mumbling a "Sir," and trading apprehensive glances.

"Right. Follow me," he says, and strides off. Harry kneels and grabs his gun, swinging it over his shoulder. A few fat black insects buzz into his face and he irritatedly swats them away. He'll be happy if he never sees another fly again.

Some stranger calls out from his left, a soft voice that he doesn't recognise. "Wait, Harry, I -"

He doesn't get to hear the end of the sentence, as right the Corporal tugs him roughly to his feet. He's young, fresh off the boat, and it's obvious in his awkward aggression. Also apparently moves like a fucking ninja - Harry didn't notice him arrive at all.

"God you're not drunk are you?" he asks, disgusted, shoving a map in his direction. Harry shakes his head, and Lewis does too. Harry eyes him warily: he's definitely drunk, although seems to be sobering up quickly.

"Right, great. Well, follow on then," he says shortly, picking his way through the packs and rifles, and quickly hurrying after the Corporal. 

They make their way to one of the officer's tents, where the Lieutenant is standing with an unfamiliar short man. They have a map pinned up on the green wall, and Harry can't help but look around, intrigued. It's a pretty basic tent but there's a hell of a lot of documents piled up on makeshift shelves, and the furniture in here is a little more well-kept than theirs. The yellow lamps on the walls cast a sickly, pallid glow to the room, a little like a hospital. Harry fidgets, shifting the weight between his feet as they wait for the officers to talk.

They have a mission, the Corporal explains, face stern. It's pretty simple but serious - a group of Italian POWs have fled, and they've managed to take a proximity fuse with them. They can't have escaped for long, but the alarm was just raised and they need a group to kill them and retrieve the equipment. 

None of them argue about the questionable morality of that - it's war. The Italians' chance has dissolved. 

They go back to their tents, dress and make sure they have enough ammunition. They're given a compass and a map and pointed in the right direction, but most of the men can pretty much navigate by constellations at this point - the arid sky is a deep, dark indigo, completely flat and pricked with tiny stars. It's usually pin-point clear at night, and Harry knows instantly which way is North just from the lights way up above them. 

Harry makes Lewis drink a pint of warm, coppery water before they set off, and forces him to eat a ration bar. It should be fine, as they have rifles and apparently the Italians do not, but he still feels uneasy. It should be ok though - they're usually pretty tipsy going into battle anyway, as it's the only thing that gets them to walk into open fucking fire

 

*

 

 

It's not fine.

They find them after two hours of walking, each sliding, sandy step requiring more effort than it should. They manage to sneak up on them, holding the three at gunpoint. Nobody wants to shoot yet - they didn't expect it to be so cold and direct. Harry had wanted to shoot from a distance at least, but the Italians are just kids, down on their knees and praying in a language none of them can understand, bawling.

They're trading uneasy glances, silently arguing about how they're going to do this, when Lewis grabs one by the scruff of the uniform to haul him to his feet and the little bastard screams and pulls out a knife.

The blade goes in, and Harry swears he can feel every single vein it rips through. Time slows down: Lewis goes still, gaping, before gasping in a shuddering breath, face dropping of colour in all of three heartbeats. Red begins to drip out, and he staggers backwards, a horrible, garbled wet noise crunching in the back of his throat as the soldier wrenches the blade out. 

Harry's heart stops and then starts again, pounding with such force that he shakes with it.

"No, no, no." He hears his friend say, watches numbly as Peters fires his rifle with a cry and the boy lets out a scream before he goes down, still smiling. His friends drop to their knees, heads on the floor in supposition. They know they're already dead.

Lewis' eyes turn to Harry but he doesn't think his friend actually sees him. His empty stare is so sad, glinting in the low light, and when he opens his mouth to talk, his teeth are stained red. Some of it dribbles out in little spit bubbles, and drops degradingly down his stubble, and then-  then some strange shift occurs.

Harry has watched men die enough times in the last year to know what it looks like.

Something is screaming in his chest, something so hard and deep and terrible that Harry almost doubles over from the pain. The remaining soldiers are talking at him in quick, pitted Italian, begging as Lewis slumps into the hot earth, body no longer inhabited by his cheeky grin and kind, patient hands. Harry feels something deep inside him break and suddenly the world comes into focus in a way it never has before.

He's never felt this angry - even when Tom was taken away from him, even when Bisker was pulling open his clothes and pawing at him. It's not hot, surprisingly. Harry feels completely calm, feels shrouded in ice and strangely numb. Even when he looks at Lewis' body, strewn in an undignified mess beneath him, the grief slips through his fingers like sand, and his heart is completely still in his chest. 

He turns and looks at the two boys, hears the words fall out of his mouth in a horrible croak.

"I'm going to kill you," he says, and the calmness of the words startles him as much as the fact they came from his lips.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry is crying. His head hurts and his stomach hurts and everything feels foggy and distant, like he's looking up through deep water. His eyes burn and sting with the heat of his forehead, but his limbs won't stop shaking with cold. 

He knows he's very sick. An illness has been going round the orphanage, to the dismay of Mumma Minnie, and it latches onto the children and squeezes them dry, leaves them withered up husks or worse. Four children have been buried so far, and Umbridge is getting desperate - she's started locking them up in 'quarantine' if they so much as sneeze. 

Harry has been in this tiny room by himself all day, locked in like a dog. In the morning he'd passed out whilst scrubbing the floors, and they'd taken one look at his white face and marched him to the far corner of the building, bundled him up and shoved him inside.

He uncurls from the ball he's scrounged his limbs into, pushing his damp hair out of his face. He could have sworn he heard shouts - or was that just the ringing in his head? 

The door bangs open, and Harry is too dopey to even flinch, just breathes shakily through his mouth, watching with sleepy eyelids as Tom crashes through. His face is lit up in fury, and Harry could almost cry with relief. If he's going to die, he wants to at least be able to say goodbye. At thirteen and fifteen, their age difference has never been so obvious; Tom murmurs his name and slips into the bed, gentle hands worming their way under Harry's shoulders and tugging him effortlessly into his lap. Harry still has the slender body of a teenager, and Tom can pick him up far too easily.

Tom's body is warm, and he smells like comfort. Harry buries his hot face into his shoulder and whines through the dizziness of the sudden movement. Cool hands swipe over his cheeks, smearing the tears there, to rest briefly on his forehead and Harry hears Tom bite out a curse. 

"Harry. Harry, wake up," Tom says gently, but Harry thinks he can detect a note of panic in his voice. "How long have you been in here, sweet boy?" he asks, hand gripping under his chin to raise his head.

"Morning," Harry mumbles, followed by: "So hot, Tom."

He thinks about how he doesn't want to leave Tom alone, that if he dies he'll fight tooth and nail to come back and haunt him so at least he'll still have Harry. Harry doesn't want to die, it's not fair - and he doesn't realise he's been saying this out loud until Tom physically shakes him like he can't stop himself.

"You're not going to die," Tom promises him vehemently. "I won't let you, do you hear me?"

Harry finds the energy to grin. That's just like Tom, he's so stubborn that even a little old thing like death probably wouldn't stop him.

Tom holds up the cup of water on the little rickety table, pressing it to Harry's lips, but he doesn't even have the strength to swallow. He's not thirsty, in any case, he's so full and so horrible sloshy already. 

There's a pause, and Harry's mind drifts with the fever, before Tom's kissing him. Harry opens his mouth to it, a little shocked - he's never been kissed before, why couldn't Tom have done it when Harry was a little more able to reciprocate and enjoy it? It's unfair- 

But then Tom's mouth is parting and cool water is flowing into Harry's throat. Tom pulls away, there's some quiet movement and then he's back, another mouthful pushing through Harry's lips.

Harry dutifully swallows, and Tom's arms curl around him protectively. 

"I'm going to make you better," he whispers into Harry's hair, and Harry feels a little better at the words, enough to shift his head to press the tiniest little kiss to Tom's cheek, before he sags with exhaustion. 

He hears Tom let out a little chuckle, but it sounds strange, a little too raw to be anything but fear. 

Harry finds himself falling, surrendering to the numb void of sleep, now that Tom is holding him, anchoring him to the earth.

 

*

 

 

He kind of shocks back into his body, a great heaving into awakening. His heart begins to beat out a machine-gun rhythm, and he becomes aware that someone is talking to him.

It's Peters, he's babbling, and Harry vision starts to coalesce back into definition, shapes taking on their meaning again. The other man has the palms of his hands stretched out placatingly, words bubbling out of his mouth quietly but quickly. Peters' lean frame almost seems to sag with relief when Harry takes a small step back, confused.

Harry distantly takes in the words he's saying, but it takes a few seconds to work them out.

"I know him, he's here, Harry, it's ok, we can find him. He's here, I can take you to him, Riddle's here."

Harry let's go of whatever sticky thing is in his hand and feels his mouth fall open. His throat is on fire and it makes his eyes water.

"What do you mean, he's here?" The words come out hesitantly, in that same throaty hum as before, and he has to cough to finish the question. His voice sounds wrong, like it doesn't belong to him, and the words aren't as crisp as he's used to hearing - his tongue is a fumbling, new-born kitten.

Peters eyes keep snagging on his hands as he backs away, and Harry looks down. Up until his mid forearms are a dark, dirty red, streaked with black dried blood. It looks like he's dipped his arms in some kind of filthy red river and blinks at them for a least a couple of seconds in confusion. What...? Then he notices what's clenched in his hand, and instantly recoils, letting it drop to the ground. 

It's a tongue

Harry looks up at Peters' pale face, and he seems to realise that Harry's back from whatever place his mind had gone, as his watery eyes spill over and he heaves out a sob. "Oh god. Oh fuck," he groans, scrubbing a hand at his eyes as if he's embarrassed. 

"What," Harry gets out haltingly. "Peters, Riddle's here?" He steadfastly ignores the bodies on the ground that he can see in his peripheral vision. He doesn't want to know what he did. He wants to leave - take that fucking stupid proximity fuse and Lewis' body, and go back to the base. 

Peters is sobbing now, great big wracking, silent shakes which worm their way through his whole body. "Fucking Lewis. Fucking idiot." The words tear out of him, and Harry agrees. 

He doesn't push for now, just makes his legs walk woodenly over to his friend and pats him on the back with a flaky black hand. "It's done," Harry says helplessly. "It's done, we need to go." 

Peters doesn't move and Harry can't help but grip tighter, start to shake him. He can hear the black flies buzzing like the horrifying flight of an explosive, and he grinds his teeth. The bodies are still behind him, watching. 

"Riddle," he gasps, trying to anchor himself back in the present and tune out the shaky noise that just seems to be growing louder. He has a moment to wonder about how his scratchy voice still lovingly twists it's way around the word, managing to sound slightly less shudderingly repulsive, before Peters' blue eyes flit to his. 

He swallows and twitches in a nod. His blonde, boyish stubble is wet, and gleams in the moonlight. "He's here in Libya," he says quietly, latching on to the distraction. "I was trying to tell you earlier - he's the psychopath sergeant." 

Harry doesn't even question the strange moniker although a smile flits it's way across his face, ephemeral and smoky. "Where." His throat is burning from use, and they pointedly keep talking as they walk slowly over to the uninhabited mass of his best friend. 

Peters seems to already be holding the proximity fuse, has it shoved in his utility belt. Both look down at the same time, and Harry feels something horrible claw it's way out of his heart, born into the world. Lewis' skin looks white and inhuman. Sandy.

Peters drops to his knees to grab Lewis' shoulder and Harry wrenches him back. "Stop." He can't really explain the revulsion he feels at the prospect of heaving this lump of flesh back to base. He can't touch it. 

It's so stupid, but he can't. It surprises Peters as well when he tells him as much - they'd both thought they'd lost any civilian squeamishness a long time ago.

Harry feels sick when they walk away, and there's a bubble of knowledge tucked away in a distant corner of his mind that the desert is a wasteland, and it's inhabitants are quick to feast when food becomes available. As soon as he gets back he can tell other men the location, and they'll either bury him where he lies, or bring him back on a stretcher to cremate and send home. Either way Lewis' stretch of life has ended, his string has untwined itself with Harry's, and he feels bereft, another piece of him chipped away. 

They walk on the rippled sand in silence, following three pairs of footprints until they reach a calm, wide stretch where they've blow away. He aches with the sudden need to see Tom, to tell him how much this hurts. He wants those strong arms winding around him like a too-tight cage, he wants to be hurt.

He wants Tom.

 

 

 

*

 

 

The men are distraught. One or two more so than others, but there's no time to grieve in war. If you give that much of yourself away for each death, there would be nothing left within a week. They have to forget about it quickly in any case, as the morning after (when Harry is still blinking after a familiar back only to find a stranger's face), they are told they're being swapped out with another, larger, unit which is due to arrive in a few hours, late in the morning.

He hears this at the same time that a blank faced kid comes to tell him that Private Lewis' body has been retrieved. Harry just nods, swallowing the pain in his throat. He doesn't want to waste his newfound words, still isn't ready to give away his voice so easily.

Mersa Bréga is a couple of days march down the coast, and they're going to be stationed there for the foreseeable future. He doesn't really know why, but then when has it ever been explained to him why they do the things they do? Harry wants to stay and find Tom, but there's nothing he can do. He has this irrational fear that because he's suddenly so close, that's when some terrible stroke of Murphy's law will happen and he'll be killed by something completely innocuous, like a cold. He makes sure he drinks his fill of water when he wakes, taking himself off to the beach to wash - they all know the salt's good for infection. 

The sea is beautiful this morning, a flat green tongue lapping at the sand as he picks his way down the path. Every minute the water breathes around the shore and flowers into a field of whiteness, and Harry finds himself starting at it whilst he mechanically scrubs at the grime and tries to shift the last pale pink stains on his hands.

He's grilled Peters' as much as he can. It's still painful to talk, but his voice is starting to settle into something less demonic. Interestingly, he sounds different to how he'd thought he would. The last time he heard himself speak he was ten years old, and seven years have mellowed out his voice to something lower, surprisingly smooth and mellifluous.

Apparently, according to his conversation with Peters, Riddle has earned his nickname (Harry smiles and shakes his head) from his truly terrifying willingness to kill and torture, and not break a sweat. He's one of the best they have at getting information out of the Italians - they always break with Tom. Harry's not even surprised to hear he's now a sergeant, just proud. If anyone was going to be promoted that young, it would be Tom.

He strides back out to the beach, legs pulling through the water and shoulders lowering from the warmth of the sun splashing over him. Turning, Harry lets his gaze settle on the flat, fuzzy line of the waking horizon and feels the weight on him lift just the tiniest bit. The cognitive dissonance of finally finding a piece in the puzzle he's been pouring over for the last two years, versus the grief he feels when he thinks about Lewis, seems to ebb a little, out with the tide. His clothes softly steam in the brightness as he tugs them on and slowly makes his way back to the fort. Looks like the new boys have arrived, Harry notices, stopping to watch the line of men weave past.

The unfamiliar soldiers look as tired and chalky as they do, and he watches their faces as they pass, awash with the standard issue apprehension. Harry had to vacate his tent, pack up all of his things with numb fingers before he left for the beach. His huge bag is bulging, right where he left it, and he eyes it with distaste. There's already confusion in the fort from the hundred or so new men who have streamed in, and Harry's platoon are still trying to figure out where to go and who to listen to: it's mayhem.

The Germans pick their timing impeccably.

He's just in the middle of moving to another part of the base, having been playing bloody musical chairs for a good thirty minutes whilst their commanding officers figure out just how they want to do the handover, when the pop of a rifle goes off. 

It's ignored - could be rifle practise, or shooting cans for fun, or any number of things - but then other bangs follow like a confetti of fireworks. That's not right, Harry thinks, as everyone freezes and silence creaks it's way through the base for a few, heart-breakingly frail seconds. Someone shouts and then it's chaos: the men grab their weapons, suddenly calm in the face of this surprise, and Harry's sergeant abruptly gets his shit together and screams at them to get behind the stone wall towards the back of the base. 

Even with the impressively quick organisation, they're woefully unprepared, thinly spread from Egypt up into Libya, and their men and equipment have been steadily siphoned off to Greece for a while now. They settle, crouching near the corner of a building, trading worried glances. His sergeant spits into the sand, and stares at them, face bleak. They're retreating, he says shortly, picking up twenty or so men with a wave of his hand and telling them to defend the retreat. 

Murphy's law indeed, Harry thinks with black humour as someone shoves him forward. Of course. 

He thumbs the metal of his rifle reassuringly, feeling the hard impassivity of the handle. It's ok. He feels like killing, after what happened to Lewis. There's something prowling around in his head, blood-thirsty and angry, and this is as good an excuse as any to let it hunt. 

He creeps to round to the front of the fort, breaths coming in quick, and kneels, taking aim. A loud slam of noise against his ears and shoulder, and he watches as a german is punched back by the force of the bullet, a scream flashing through the air. It's a strange, dissociative satisfaction that he derives from this. 

He shoots again and has to duck back as there's a babble of harsh consonants and then the stone next to his head chips as they shoot at the corner of the wall. Harry blinks against the sun, sweat running down his neck, before leaning back around and firing again. Next to him, some unfamiliar soldier crashes to his knees, hunching up against the barrel of his gun as he aims. They trade a solemn glance of cooperation, before firing again, this time Harry covers him. 

 

 

*

 

 

Twenty minutes in, he's still alive, but he's had to move back. The tanks have all left aside from two, the achey booms of their shells giving them much needed cover and making his teeth tremble in his mouth.

Catching sight of the sky through a cloud of dust that's been thrown up, Harry's taken aback with how blue it is. It's a beautiful day, and the colour is rich, vibrant, almost over-saturated and crisp against the desert beiges. 

A bullet flies past his leg and he scrambles to the side, sucking in the hot, stale air as quickly as he can. He needs to go, he's just heard the order to leave. The beautifully savage feeling from earlier has left, and now he feels empty and numb to the prospect of his death. 

He dispatches another enemy soldier, before sitting with his back to a wall, reloading. The Germans are weaving their way through, clotting in the narrow paths and surging up towards the path of their retreat. If he doesn't leave now, he'll be taken. Or probably killed. The only problem is that they've been instructed to lay mines in their wake, and Harry's understandably terrified of accidentally getting blow up by a mine his own squadron has left.

Carefully, he picks his way across the path, edging backwards and relying on the receding tanks to cover him. He hears a yell, and whips his head around to see a soldier hit the ground. He can't even tell if it's one of his own. 

It's then that he catches sight of the man across the wall from him, calmly digging into the sand and carefully positioning a mine. There's something familiar about the graceful arch of the neck, the shape of his fingers as he quickly scoops away sand, that has Harry staring, trying to work it out. 

The man shifts position, and Harry breath gets caught in his chest, the noise of the battle fading away until it's pinpoint silence.

He's grown. His face is narrower, jaw and cheekbones more defined, and he's taller, shoulders broad in his khaki uniform. His hair is also strange, seeing as the last time Harry saw him it used to curl thickly over his ears, fall in waves around his face, but now it's short, showing off the delicate planes of his skull.

Even with blood spattered all up one side of his face, Harry still thinks Tom the most gorgeous human being he's ever seen. 

Tom covers the mine with a helmet, before twisting artfully, as if with some sixth sense, whipping his gun back into position and firing. Someone goes down, and Harry gazes wordlessly in shock, can't tear his eyes away.

Tom suddenly stops moving; Harry has no idea how he knows, but the other boy stiffens, rifle lowering, and turns.

Harry can tell the moment he catches sight of him, and that he recognises him instantly, even from a good twenty metres away.

Tom goes absolutely white, even through the dirt, and Harry can't help the beam that explodes on his face, the wetness he blinks back. It's so fragile, this happiness, so horrifying that this moment is happening right when they're probably going to be killed.

Tom doesn't look away from him, and Harry hears his name, in that familiar strangely well-pronounced echo, and then Tom is running, heedless of the bullets and the mines, straight towards him.

Time seems to unbunch all of a sudden, and Harry can't move as his best friend crashes into him, hands grabbing him in a painful, bruising snatch. Harry loves it, hugs him back just as tight, thrusting his face into Tom's sweaty neck and breathing him in with a sob hitching in his throat.

"Harry." Tom sounds like he's been punched, like it hurts him just to utter that one word.

"I found you," Harry stutters out, watching as Tom's eyes grow wide and he looks at Harry like he's never seen anything so beautiful, he looks like he's fallen head first into a strange mixture of intrigue and reverence, like Harry's priceless.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He looks like he's just been stabbed. 

"Your voice..." Tom chokes out, words slipping out so brokenly it's like he didn't meant to say them, "you can talk?"

Harry can't help but laugh as he nods, eyes shining.

"I can," he says, rather redundantly, as Tom's hands come up to cradle his face, holding it so lightly and gently, beautiful dark eyes staring at him in amazement. In the midst of all of this chaos, he's somehow shy, a little nervous for Tom to hear this new, fledgling part of him.

"Harry," Tom laughs, pressing their foreheads together and closing his eyes, "It's beautiful," he says. "You're beautiful."

His long eyelashes looks suspiciously wet from this angle, two gleaming black commas in the pale hollows of his eyes. Harry wants to taste, but Tom's fingers begin to tremble from where they cup his cheeks and it's all he can do to wrench his hands up and cover Tom's, feeling unfamiliar calluses on the familiar fingers. Harry's throat is thick, and he's unprepared for how unexpectedly full his heart feels - it's too much and he opens his mouth to reply- 

They're interrupted as the ground beside them erupts, soil spitting out and ricocheting over their legs. The world bleeds back in, the screams and smoke and danger. It takes him a moment to tear himself away, but the thought of losing this makes him move.

"Let's go," Harry shouts over the noise, grabbing Tom and dragging him along. "Fuck," he spits, hating the timing, "we need to get out of here."

Tom seems to snap out of whatever shocked daze he's in, grabbing his hand and pulling him out the way of seemingly random objects, leading a strange, twisting path out of the base. He must be avoiding the mines he knows the location of, Harry realises, and he defers to Tom's directions, lets him lead them in a dance over strewn bodies and uneven ground. They stop to shoot a few times, only when they need to. Tom's aim is unbelievable - he fires reflexively, without even really taking the time to aim, and each time the body hits the floor after one bullet. His hand only drops Harry's for as long as it takes to steady the gun, and then it's instantly back, gripping even harder as if Tom's scared it's all a dream.

Hazy in the distance, the rest of the soldiers shimmer into view, crawling soberly over the flat landscape. They've been reformed into a shaky order by the officers, and even from here it's obvious that they're missing a hell of a lot of equipment that they've had to just leave. It's a good thing some of it had already been sent ahead earlier in the morning, or Harry is pretty sure the Germans would be celebrating a hell of a lot harder. 

They manage to use the tanks as cover, slowing to a gradual stumble at the back as soon as it's safe to stop sprinting and weaving. The soldiers won't chase them - it's an obvious retreat, and they're too busy streaming into the base and setting up to really care about picking off the stragglers who are already making their escapes.

Harry's head starts to ring as the adrenaline dissipates, ears hurting from the continuous gunfire of the last hour. He doesn't quite know what to say, still hasn't let go of Tom's hand which is fastened like a noose around his own. He's still shaking, heart slamming against the wall of his chest. He scrubs his fingers across his head, hot and sweaty from the bleaching sun above them, and tries to ignore how gritty his eyes feel from the swept up sand and dust. Next to him, he can hear the reassuring pant of Tom's breaths, can't stop stealing glances at him and chewing off the snags of dry skin on his lips in nervous frustration.

They stop walking, in sync, still staring at each other, and Tom grabs something from his belt - his water bottle - and hands it to him. Harry's about to refuse, but when he glances down to grab his own, he realises it's been lost in the ambush.

"Thanks," he says quietly, swigging down just enough warm water to wash the taste from his mouth and handing it back. It tastes like chlorine tablets, but he's so used to the bitterness that he barely grimaces anymore.

Tom just nods, taking a sip and reholstering it, studying him unabashedly. He towers up against the noon brightness, still unfairly beautiful, but there are little idiosyncrasies that weren't there before, unveiled by his entrance into his twenties and through the last few years spent fighting a war. As he swallows, Harry's eyes are drawn to the thin white slip of a scar across his jaw. He can't help himself, slowly reaches out a hand and traces it, fingertips gentle on the soft skin. Tom's eyelids close and Harry is quietly appalled at the loss - against the heat, the blue of his eyes glow, two diamonds set in the tan of his face.

"How did you get it?" he asks, dropping his hand as an unfamiliar soldier jogs around the side of the tank and disappears again, obscured by the yellow clouds of dust kicked up by the vehicles.

Tom huffs out what could be a laugh, teeth sharp. "Training. Not a German." His eyes flash with something, and Harry feels that tiny little thrill skip down his spine, the one he used to get whenever Tom would come home flecked in someone else's blood.

"Still alive?" Harry asks, and it's more of a joke than a question.

Tom's head turns a fraction, and his smile grows wider. Harry takes it for the answer it is.

He can't stop touching the other boy, leaning towards him so that their arms meet with every small shift, fingers brushing and linking for the briefest of seconds. A bead of sweat drips down Tom's temple, and Harry is surprised by the punch of want that shudders through him, at how much he wants to catch it with his lips. It's been three, terrible years, and it seems like his body is somehow even more attracted to Tom. Maybe he's lost the immunity of having seen him every day, or maybe he's older now, more certain about what he wants.

Whatever it is, Tom seems to be aware of it. His eyes burn a little darker, and the corners of his mouth turn up, brows raising a fraction. 

"Psychopath sergeant?" Harry can't help but blurt out, trying desperately to change the subject before he does something embarrassing.

Tom looks taken aback for a moment... and then both of them are chuckling. 

"What did you expect?" Tom asks, looking inordinately pleased. "It's not even my fault," he answers from Harry's raised eyebrows. Tom is too used to reading his face and filling in the blanks of his voice. He doesn't need to speak, not with Tom.

"Tell me," Harry says, deliberately, and beams.

  

 

 *

 

 

They make it back to Mersa Bréga exhausted, sweaty and having walked all day without stopping to eat. Night has fallen, wrapped itself around the desert like a smug bath of darkness, and they can hear the sea panting rhythmically against the shore. They're told to set up camp in the pitch black, men grumbling and wolfing down food where they can. 

Harry is lucky: even with the unexpected influx of infantry, Tom has his tent set up for him in it's own little space away to the left of the enlisted men. After they've managed to sequester a meal they don't waste any more time, stealing in, closing the entrance curtain and falling into each other. Harry's dead on his feet, covered in grime and swaying but it's like he's not in control anymore. He can't help himself; whatever thin veneer of civility that has been wrapped around him in public shatters as soon as Tom strips off his shirt, wincing as it sticks to all the tiny, cumulative abrasions of the last week. Delicate on his neck, the metal of the locket glints, peeking out from the shelter of his clavicle.

Harry stills as he notices, can't help but smile as he realises that Tom's worn it all this time. Tom grins, following the line of Harry's eyes, and reaches back to take it off but Harry stops him with a hand to his arm.

"I don't need it back," he says softly, and Tom nods, stepping closer.

"I'd feel weird without it," he admits, fingers reflexively creeping up to hold the pendant. There's a moment where they regard each other, a delicate, quivering slice of time and then Tom seems to snap.

He uses his height to his advantage and backs Harry into the tiny bed, prowling forward until Harry's knees hit the mattress and he crumples, falling backwards. Tom lunges forward, won't stop pressing little hot hungry kisses everywhere - across the thin skin of Harry's bruised eyelids, down his collarbones to where his pulse flutters like a dying bird in the hollow of his throat.

"How did you know I was still alive?" Tom gasps out quietly into his neck, a shuddering laugh of joy.

Harry couldn't stop his hands running over every available inch of skin even if he wanted to. There's something hot and light and effervescent bubbling up in his throat, and he feels his eyes grow wet even though he's the furthest thing away from sad he could possibly be. It feels like something has been returned to him - a fundamental piece that's been a missing ache for years, and he feels so fucking light.

"I'd know," Harry whispers into his ear, resolutely. It's true. "If you died, I'd know," he says fingering his initials, beautifully contrasted against Tom's unexpected tinge of sunburn. There are a few freckles dotting the wide flat expanse at the top of his back, just visible in the moonlight, and Harry can't quite believe something so lovely is underneath him, is real and breathing, blood bringing oxygen to all those cells and synapses, and it's so perfect that he half wants to treasure it, half wants to destroy it.  

He can't stop the impulse and his nails dig a little harder into Tom's back. He feels the skin give way, feels that hungry thing inside him shriek with glee. Tom bites down on his collarbone, hard in retaliation, and Harry can't help the noise that runs out of his mouth. He has just enough time to vindictively hope it scars before Tom is moving, twisting Harry so he's on his front on the thin cushion of the mattress, hands pulled up behind him in a tight grip. He can't move, pinned underneath the other boy in a parody of the first day they met. Tom's body blankets his, squeezing the air from his lungs, and Harry wants to suffocate under it until he can't breathe.

He feels Tom, hard and hot on the small of his back, and can't help but shift his hips backwards, grinding up into him. A strange, vulnerable noise is choked off behind him, and Tom pulls his arms just a little higher, until the pain burns.

It suddenly feels like they're back in their tiny room in the orphanage, lazily experimenting with each other as teenagers, like simultaneously nothing's changed but everything has. Harry has this strange, heart-breaking feeling like it's all going to shatter, and all of a sudden there's an inexplicable sense of urgency lying heavily in the air around them.

"Come on," Harry urges, trying to free his hands so he can pull the other boy in. Tom lets him, releasing his bound hands just the smallest amount so Harry can tug his wrists back and wriggle his body round so they're finally face to face. 

Tom's eyes are two huge, dark pools, coaxing him in like he's selling his soul to the devil. They devour him, suck him up until Harry starts to feel his body flush with heat, squirming under the intensity of the stare.

"You're perfect," Tom decides quietly, simply, before he leans down and covers Harry's mouth with his own.

Harry gasps into the kiss, lips burning, trying to convey how much he wants this, how he needs to have this reassurance, this physical proof that they're finally together, skin-to-skin. Tom lets him, pushing his knee between Harry's legs so he can grind down on the weight of it, gives in to the frantic need for more and allows it to consume him.

Then Tom pulls back, mouth hovering tantalisingly closely, millimetres away, just enough so that Harry can feel him, warm and perfect above him, but can't move, can't get what he wants.

He whines, too caught up in this already to berate himself for how embarrassingly needy he sounds. He bucks up, trying to get back to Tom's lips, but he's pinned down again.

"Tell me you're mine," Tom demands, cruelly, rubbing his lips against Harry in the barest imitation of a kiss, "you're mine, you belong to me." 

"Tom, Tom please. I'm yours, everything, it's yours," Harry sobs out, before Tom's mouth is back on his and he can't think anymore. Quick, clever fingers, so good at dismantling mines and guns and men, slip under trousers, tug them down. Harry's kicks them off, hands greedily searching out for Tom's own and yanking.

Tom groans into his mouth as Harry's hands find him, and Harry's mouth splits in satisfaction. He's not as weak as he once was, even though Tom is still larger than him; the years in the war have left him lean and lithe. He waits until Tom's hips are following the motion of his hand before releasing him and quickly using his strength to flip their positions until Tom is stuck beneath him, their hips in contact. Every little shift Harry makes is a delicious fire, and he savours the sight below him: Tom is flushed, even in the low light, hair mussed and lips slick. He gazes up like he can't quite believe Harry is real, and it makes him smirk.

"I won't let you go again," Harry tells him, hand trailing over his throat. Tom stretches his head back, displaying the pale column of his neck, eyes half lidded and intent on him. 

Harry widens his grip and puts the faintest pressure on his windpipe, and to his surprise Tom allows it, does this beautiful little roll of his hips that has Harry gasping, distracted. It's all the break Tom needs - he lunges up until they're face to face, with Harry balanced on his lap. Tom presses tiny bites into the space just behind his jaw, below his ear, and Harry can't stop sucking in oxygen, letting these halting little sounds escape each time he bites down.

"I'm counting on it, little one" Tom murmurs when he's satisfied, and it takes a few seconds for Harry to realise that Tom's replying. 

Harry smiles into the kiss, preens as Tom's hands run across his body, feeling where he's changed, the heat of his bare skin. There's this horrible, filthy need inside him, to get even closer, and Harry dives into it, makes himself leave Tom's mouth and pull back. Tom watches him go, gaze heavy, confused, as Harry slips down the bed. Then he understands: his hands loosen as he watches as Harry kneel between his thighs, caged in, and Tom shifts his legs open the tiniest amount. 

Harry teases him a little with the ghost of his hot breath, slowly rubbing his lips over the tip of him, before he takes Tom in his mouth. Tom bites out a curse, and Harry swallows him down, hard and heavy on the back of his tongue, sips in breath through his nose. It's a beautiful sight: Tom shuddering above him, repeating his name like a prayer.

"Harry," Tom begs, fingers coming up to tangle in his hair and tug, a reassuring weight, "so good darling."

Harry closes his eyes, tongue already so wet, gives into the secondhand pleasure and lets Tom move him as he wishes. He feels dizzy and overheated, completely unthinking, just focused on how good he can make this, as he licks up the length and swallows. He lets a hint of teeth flash in his mouth, and Tom curses again, seems to grow even harder where Harry's lips are wrapped around him.

Between his own legs is a gorgeously heavy ache, and Harry thinks he could come just like this, Tom's good boy kneeling at his feet. 

 

 

*

 

 

Afterwards, when they're both warm and sated, Harry hums as Tom trail his fingertips across his chest, enjoys the prickle of goosebumps that rise up with his touch. Tom is curled into him, pressing him down, and Harry's mind drifts peacefully, existence bruised with Tom.

They don't talk about the war. There's no need to - they both know what they've had to do, who they've had to become. Instead, Tom tells him about where he's been: the view of the sea from the boat, how the dawn goes honey gold when you're that far out to sea, and the blue is like a blanket, as far as the eye can see. He tells Harry about Morocco, where he went at first, about the hot spices and the dusty souks, and wild, hissing cats and the green, clever little lizards that patter across the ceiling when the stars are bright at night.

Harry can't hold himself back, soft and sleepy with Tom wrapped around him like chainmail, whispering words into the shell of his ear like particularly persuasive smoke. He talks about Lewis, and Bisker and Thompson, about what happened last year in the storm in his tent, and sees Tom bare his teeth in a snarl, body stiff. He lets Tom hold him tighter, and smiles when he tells him how they died. Tom huffs out a pleased laugh when Harry tells him about the cliff edge, and how easy it was.

"I wish I had been there," he murmurs into Harry's hair, "I would have killed them for you."

Harry chuckles, "I know you would have," he agrees, squirming closer, although they're so intertwined it's not really possible. 

"I hope they died hurting," Tom says after a pause, and when Harry glances up it's to see a faraway look in his eyes. He pokes a finger into the soft skin of Tom's armpit and he squirms away. 

"They did," Harry promises simply, eyes creasing. 

Tom sneers and gives him a kiss.

 

 

Chapter Text

Being introduced to Tom's men is strangely nerve-wracking. It shouldn't be - they don't really give a shit. There's not enough energy going round to care about other people's problems (or resolutions), and so the most he gets are a few gruff nods, and maybe a couple of curious half-smiles before their attention flits solely back to Tom. It seems like Tom hasn't really ingratiated himself with them, despite his rank of Sergeant, but Harry gets the vibe that there's at least an air of grudging respect. If not outright fear. It seems the men quite like having someone with them who isn't afraid to do some truly terrifying things to the human body; the rumours have spread far and wide by this point, and now their unit has a reputation that Harry thinks they quite like.

It's easy enough to see where it comes from: Tom doesn't walk, he sidles like some inhumane creature which has sprung up in the middle of the hot sand and death, beautiful features folded into a stone cold mask. Harry can still taste a little giddy frission of fear sometimes, feels the ground disappear from under his feet, heart suddenly swooping into his stomach when Tom raises an eyebrow at him, eyes too black.

It's probably not a good sign that he loves it.

The next week passes all too quickly. Logistically, the men at the base have a lot of work to do - they have to account for the fact that the small-ish settlement now has twice the men to cater for, and also the tiny fucking problem of the Germans attacking again at any moment when they don't have enough tanks to hold them off if they so decide to.

It's only due to the nature of this purgatorial period of waiting around for someone to actually figure out what their response to their potential ambush is that they get to snatch so much time together, naked in the desert heat and limbs stickily entangled. Harry can't get enough. He's seventeen, after all, and Tom is beautiful. He even gets stared at by other men when he goes to fetch their water rations, vest stretched across his lean chest, wet with sweat. They flinch and look away as soon as the whisper of his nickname becomes audible and Harry can't stop the bubble of glee that rises up in his throat. 

It's annoying, but although they're technically going through a bit of a lull, they can't spend as much time together as Harry wishes they could. Tom has to keep darting off to meetings for hours at a time, and debrief his men afterwards, which is fine... but after twenty minutes or so, Harry will start to feel a familiar fear begin to seep in, some amorphous, roiling form of separation anxiety. He loathes it. It makes him feel like a pining teenager, impotent and pathetic. The problem is that he's scared it's all some sick hallucination. It may be a symptom of the war, but nothing quite feels real anymore; along his arm are a row of tiny red smudges, bruised capillaries from how hard he pinches himself. He should probably feel some measure of shame for admitting this, but he needs Tom. Needs his soft, hot lips and calloused fingers, his amused chuckle and his scarily intense gaze, running over Harry with just a little bit too much possession. And if the other boy's response is any indication, the want, the scrambling need is mutual.

It's been a long three years. Both of them have changed, grown up, grown leaner, harder, a little bit more savage. After the frenzy of the first few times they tumble into the tent, Tom makes them slow down, holds Harry down as he shakes and maps out his body like he's searching for something. He rubs his mouth against the scar on Harry's back, feeling the texture, kisses every new hurt and sucks purple bruises into the old ones. 

It's almost overwhelming. Over the last week, Tom has carefully ensured that he is seared into Harry, scarred deep in him again, to the point where Harry's wet emotions bleed into each other like lightning, and all he can think of is how can he possibly protect this intricate clockwork of a man?

It's five o'clock in the morning, exactly seven days after the battle. This part of the base is quiet for once, as if by unspoken mutual agreement they've all decided on what counts for a lie-in these days, trusting the sentries and the scouts to do their jobs. A light breeze is blowing outside, lifting up the sand and rhythmically spraying it across the material of Tom's tent in a soft patter, a steady tide going in and out.

Harry's vision is soft and gauzy, shifting chinks of morning light filtering sleepily through the green material like they're under some vast, shadowed canopy. He's dozing gently, warm and comfortable from where he's nestled up against Tom, who lazily drags his fingers through Harry's short hair.

He doesn't really remember what they were talking before, or even if they were talking at all, lulled into a half-sleep by the feeling of Tom's thumb pressing delicious little circles into the ache of his temple. But the feeling of contentment stills a little as the hand falls from it's clever massage of Harry's head to his throat, touch whispering against his Adam's apple.

"What happened here?" Tom murmurs, stroking his throat, voice soft and warm like the air around them. 

Harry's eyes open, and he stares into the dark shadows at the ceiling of the tent, tastes the dawning heat in the stuffy interior as he draws a breath. Tom waits, patiently, as Harry think about what to say. 

He doesn't want to shatter the moment, but Tom should know the truth. Lewis deserves it, if nothing else.

"There was a man. Lewis. My friend," he corrects, before his mouth gets dry and he has to pause. It's crazy to think that Lewis' death was only a week ago, and suddenly he feels like a shitty person for not thinking of it more often, for letting himself get so utterly distracted.

Tom strokes his arm encouragingly but says nothing.

Harry sighs and keeps going, not bothering to try to scrub the grief from his words. "We were asked to go out on a mission by the Lieutenant. It was just to get a stupid piece of equipment back from some Italian lads that had nicked it and ran. We found them. It was just Lewis, Peters and I, but they left such an obvious trail that we got cocky." 

His mind flashes back to Lewis' stony face as they'd crept up on the three boys, hard, huge body moving swiftly and compactly, trained to kill. 

"He was drunk. Probably. It doesn't matter - he grabbed onto one of them and he. He stuck a knife in him. I watched him bleed out." Harry tries to repeat this at monotonously as he can so that his voice doesn't crack. 

"Darling." Tom's voice is tentative, a curl of concern like the way he shifts into Harry, holding him a little closer as if to protect him against his own memory. 

"I had to leave him there." He turns and presses his face into Tom's, lets Tom's shushing wash over him, soothing in its nostalgia. Tom would always hold him like this whenever he tripped or hurt himself as a kid, cradling away his pain and tears. Soon Harry's eyes are growing dryer, heart paving over with something hard in the small fluttering place Lewis used to occupy.

He wriggles his way on top of Tom, arranges himself until his body is mapped onto the other boy's, limbs directly on top of limbs, face buried in the sleep-smell of his neck. Tom allows it, lets Harry push him down into the ground until his mind drifts.

He dreams that he sinks down into Tom, becomes him, cells wetly popping into each other, colliding and merging into one fluid filled membrane. He dreams that the bloody mess of their circulatory systems unpick themselves from the bone like sputtering, stringed animals, spider's arms of veins wrapping into each other, tangling deeper and deeper until their hearts rejoin.

 

 

*

 

 

Later in the day, Harry finds himself standing near the ration line with Peters, rolling a cigarette and purposefully not mentioning the one name they have in common.

Ash trickles inside his lungs as Harry drags on the paper, nicotine staining his hands. The brown colour flashes red just before his eyes close, and as Harry blinks he can suddenly smell copper for all of one second. And then it's gone. 

He fists his hand in his pocket and blows out, smoke curling in lazy waves in the dry heat and dissipating into the peacock blue of the sky. He can't even taste it anymore, just enjoys the feeling of saturated lungs and something heavier than oxygen stroking his throat as he breathes.

Next to him, Peters snorts, and Harry turns to see Watford tackle Clock to the ground with a cry.

"Bloody idiots," he mutters with a chuckle, and Harry feels a smile lift the corners of his mouth. Privately, he thinks the two might be more than friends, has found their escalating rivalry cute, if not entertaining, to watch. 

"Five smokes on Clocks," Harry says dryly, taking another drag. 

"You're on, Hellhound," Peters mocks, taking Harry's proffered hand and grabbing him close to thump him on the back. The cigarette falls out of his fingers as he's yanked forward and he pushes Peters away, laughing.

"My cig, you pillock," Harry complains halfheartedly, squatting to fish his sandy half-finished stick off the ground. It's already sputtered out, the weak orange glow replaced with a tombstone grey. He sighs.

"Here you are princess."

The other man bends to light a match, mousy brown hair flopping into his blue eyes, and Harry grunts out a thanks. He opens his mouth to comment as Watford gets Clock in a headlock on the ground, but as he turns to Peters he catches a familiar figure staring at them across the rows of khaki tents. Tom's got three other men talking to him in heated discussion, with a strange frown on his face. Harry cocks his head in curiosity as Tom's eyes hold Harry's for a moment, before he drags his gaze back to the person addressing him.

Hm. Strange, Harry thinks, and then his attention is diverted by the shout Watford makes out as Clocks manages to get on top of him, blood blossoming around his nose but grinning triumphantly.

"Well look at that," Harry says around a mouthful of smoke, grinning as Peters swears and mutters. The line is moving again, thank god, and they retreat further away, still watching the two men struggle on the ground.

"Aren't you boys meant to be on patrol? I saw Johnson booting up?"

The voice comes from a couple of guys strolling over and stopping to join the queue. They look confused, and Harry glances down at the cracked face of his watch and feel a curse slip out. 

"Shit. It's three," he realises out loud, trading a horrified look with Peters, who sighs, looking forlornly at the kitchen in front of them where the smell of cooked meat is drifting out, tantalisingly close.

"Fuck it. Come on," he groans, and Harry follows after him as he starts to jog towards their patrol point to join the rest of their men. Their sergeant flashes them a dirty look but the bloke is nice enough - or probably just doesn't want to have to deal with the paper work of writing them up as ten minutes late - so just nods them on, mouth a tight line.

It's a rather uneventful patrol, and they don't venture that far out, walking silently for the most part until they spot something interesting. Harry finds a little scrap of metal buried under the sand that he pockets, probably left over from the frenzied march over, but aside from that it's pretty bleak landscape. It's quite peaceful, to get away from the noise of their base and go exploring, and it feels good to stretch his legs even as the sweat pours down his back from the afternoon sun. His rifle is a black magnet of heat, hard and heavy, a worn groove over his shoulder.

The three other men he's with only mention Tom in passing, mocking but also slightly envious that he's managed to find his friend so relatively quickly. Everyone knows people in the military, but the chance of bumping into them is horrifyingly small. Especially in North Africa.

Four hours later and the heat has dulled a little, just as they make it back to the camp, eager to wash the sand and grime from their faces. Peters has an arm wrapped around Harry's shoulders as they trudge back in, hot and tired, whispering how he's willing to bet a whole pack that Watford's going to be banging Clocks into the bedsheets and they're sure to catch them in the act if they go over to the tents tonight. Harry pointedly rolls his eyes and shrugs him off. It's too hot for human contact right now - all he wants is some cold water and to speak to Tom.

He catches sight of the man in question, eyes riveting him out immediately. It seems he's been waiting for them to return, as he breaks away from where he'd been chatting to a supply clerk. He's still got that weird look on his face and he gestures with his head in the direction of his tent. Harry sighs gratefully and mock salutes the rest of his unit.

"Gonna talk to Tom," he says simply, and they nod, flinging off their utility belts. Peters returns the salute with hyperbolic gusto, and Harry distantly wonders if he's made a new friend - that sharing what happened to Lewis has opened a strange door that he'd thought was nailed shut at this point. 

When he meets Tom at the tent, he's standing there with a bowl from the canteen, and Harry nearly cries, walking straight into him and breathing him in, hugging him close in thanks. He's starving, and Tom only looks mildly horrified at how quickly he starts to shovel pasta into his mouth.

He eyes him for a second warily before leaning back against the metal structure his tent is leaning against, folding his arms and regarding him warily.

"Who was the man you were with?"

Harry pauses his eating, squinting up. "Who? Peters?" he asks mid-mouthful, digging his scratched fork into the bowl of pasta he's wolfing down. It's surprisingly good for their usually terrible rations. "Why?"

"You seemed awfully close with him."

Harry treasures these brief moments where he realises how delightfully human Tom can be, little flashes of sunlight on the surface of a cold, dark sea. He holds them in, close to his chest, stores them carefully in the compartments in his head and lets them loose to play in the moments before he goes to sleep, dreaming of Tom whispering I love you into the delicate whorl of his ear.

"Maybe I am," he can't help but tease, raising his eyebrows at Tom pointedly.

Tom grins, teeth sharp, and eyes black. "Would you like me to kill him?" he asks conversationally, body still.

Harry has known Tom too long to think he's joking, but on the flip side he's known Tom too long to care.

"No thanks," he says dryly, putting down the bowl and heaving to his feet. He wants to take his boots off, wants to stretch his toes, but that can wait. 

Tom watches him, a lazy curl of hunger in his eyes as Harry approaches, until they're standing close together, height difference annoyingly apparent. Harry slides his hand over Tom's hip, leans in and fights the smirk when Tom's crossed arms tighten, biceps flexing.

He brushes his face into the lovely space between Tom's neck and his jaw, presses a little kiss just underneath his ear, in his favourite place where the skin is thin and soft. 

"Would you, if I asked?" he murmurs, breathing him in. Above him, he hears the deep rumble of Tom's small chuckle.

Tom's arms uncurl, coming up to wrap around his waist and pull him in. "I would even if you didn't," he answers, nipping at Harry's neck in retaliation.

It's stupid, however far away their tent is, it's still dangerous. In war people turn a blind eye to some questionable forms of legality, but to flaunt it overtly is just asking for trouble. They both know it; Tom grips the back of his head by the short curls of his hair, shoving him forward towards their tent. Harry hisses, but acquiesces, tugged along until they're ducking inside and Tom is pushing him down on the bed. 

"Really love," Harry dares, as Tom starts to unbutton his shirt, one hand flat on Harry's chest, pinning him to the mattress, "you must realise this is a terrible incentive." 

Chapter Text

 

He can't breathe, there's something lodged deep in his ribs and no amount of coughing will get it out. His eyes are stinging before he's even opened them, and there's a strange roaring in his ears that is so loud and complete that it must be coming from inside his head.

"Mum?" Harry wheezes out, the word small in the smoke. "Dad?"

There's a silence, and he crawls out of bed. Red fog is pouring through the crack under his door, squeezing through and rising up like the sea. Harry feels panic settle over him, stands there stupefied for a few seconds, blinking, before he lets out a scream.

"Mum!"

He peeks through the gap in the door and stares, frozen with shock. The flames are angry and orange, eating away at the inside of their house, gleefully running up and down the curtains and dripping with melted cotton. He realises, rather redundantly, that their house is burning.

Harry gasps in ashy air, and goes to touch the doorknob with shaking hands. His tears fall and sizzle as they hit the metal so he backs away instead, coughing, leaving the door ajar.

"Mum!" he screams again, terrified, feeling a wave of dizziness cascade though his head. His limbs feel fuzzy from all the smoke he's sucking in, and only the pain of the heat on his skin as the fire laps too close to him snaps him out of it. 

The window, he realises, jumping on top of his bed and pulling at the latch. It doesn't budge - it's locked, because they live in a nice house in a rough part of London, and Mum always make sure she locks the house every night before they go to sleep.

He yells in frustration, heaving against the pane to no avail. This won't work. Harry looks around, at the wallpaper near the door starting to blacken and crisp at the edges. He needs something to break the glass, something heavy, maybe metal? 

The fire moves quickly, pours over his carpet until his bed is a tiny island in a sea of heat. His room is a loud, screaming beast now, and it's hard to see through the smoke and the lashes of yellow tongues which lick around his walls. He sobs, casting around even as he pounds on the glass with his fists, smearing the condensation. It's no use - his arms grow weaker and weaker and his head spins faster and faster. Harry draws his knees up, making himself as small as possible, pushes himself as close to the warm glass as he can, and stares out at the black sky through the smudges of visibility left by his struggles.

He doesn't want to die like this. Not like this. 

Snot and tears drip down off his chin, as he gives one more feeble punch, before the world fades into red and orange and all he knows is a terrible, ravenous heat.

 

 

*

 

 

He sucks in a breath, nearly crying out with pain - it feels like broken glass is lining is throat, and he coughs and coughs to get it out but it's still stuck there. He's disoriented, confused, why is he floating? Something's digging into his stomach, and it takes a good few seconds to realise it's a shoulder, that his head is aching because he's upside down and all the blood's rushed into his face. Groaning, Harry hears adult voices shouting, just audible over the dim roaring in his ears. 

Suddenly there's a bounce and the world moves again. He's set down on legs which immediately crumple, and large hands hold him steady, depositing him gently on the side of the road.

It's a man, he looks like a policeman, and he's kneeling in the mud, freezing brown slush covering the knees of his neat uniform. Harry wonders why he's doing that, where he is. Is he dreaming?

"It's alright, son. Look at me, it's alright now. You're alright," the man murmurs with a cockney twang decorating the vowels, and Harry squints at him blankly, still coughing. The man looks pained, casting around and retrieving a water bottle from somewhere. Harry takes with both hands, sips in the liquid. He's so thirsty but it hurts and his entire mouth tastes like coal.

Within the first two gulps his mind starts to switch back on, and he realises he's outside, the sky a strange blackish-red with no stars. The noise isn't just in his ears, there is indeed a wall of sound behind him, light, as bright as the sun. 

Harry turns and nearly pisses himself with horror. His house, his entire street, is burning. 

He opens his mouth but nothing comes out, just a silent scream. Something obscures his vision, shapes moving past that he can't make out through the tears in his eyes, but he blinks and it focuses - stretchers, with mounds of fabric piled up on top that look like...

Harry's gaze falls to the blackened hand, the tarnished wedding ring that his Dad has never taken off, peeking out from under the blanket that's been draped over the body as some sort of measure of dignity, and promptly turns around and pukes up last night's spaghetti.

The man in the blue jacket is gripping him to his side, so tightly that it hurts, but Harry doesn't know what to say, how to speak. It's like the words get stuck coming up and then he catches sight of the lump under the sheets again, and then he doesn't know what the words even are.

He remembers, suddenly, the memory slamming him into the earth so hard he loses the breath in his lungs, he remembers--

Turning on the oven, putting the bread in there to warm it up as a midnight snack, the footsteps of his father on the stairs, heavy and commanding, remembers bolting out of the room before his cheek can sustain another slap, remembers lying tucked under the covers waiting for the bedroom door to slam open for the shouting, remembers waiting and waiting, getting hot under the blanket, feeling his eyes prick with sleepy tears and his pillow feeling so soft under his jaw, cradling the cup of his skull, filled to the brim with exhausted fear--

He chokes out a sob as he remembers, bile a sour bite on the back of his tongue. 

It's all his fault. The blackened hand. The creaking skeleton of his house, swaying, ash raining around them like dove-grey snow.

The tightfisted hold on his arm starts to ache in earnest, and Harry tries to shrug the officer off, tries to say you're hurting me, but when he looks up, it's to the sticky black face of his mother, grinning down at him and he opens his mouth to scream--

 "Harry, darling, I know you're scared but you need to move."

The voice shudders into cognition, and Harry heaves awake to see Tom's face filling his line of vision. Tom's fingers are the ones digging into his shoulder, shaking him, eyes black and wide with fear. 

"Come on," Tom says, and yanks him up, to his feet, thrusts Harry's boots at him and grabs his jacket. 

"What?" Harry manages to stutter out, unthinkingly obeying when Tom sounds like this, stepping into the boots and tying them on autopilot, still panting, feeling like everything is moving a million miles an hour.

He understands when the whole earth shakes beneath them and a loud wall of noise slams into the both of them. Hard chunks of rain patter harshly over the roof of the tent, and Harry wakes up a little bit more, realises it's not a storm - it's an explosion.

They're being bombed, he realises with a distant horror, and then Tom can't wait any longer, pulls him out the tent and into the chaos.

All around them people are screaming. Harry sees legs a few metres away, tangled up and ownerless like a purple twisted wishbone, and once again feels that deadening calm descend on him like morphine. It's war, and when light and heat and sound explode into existence around you, comets falling from above, you have to shift into the mindset of survival.

Only... his mother's face keeps appearing in front of his eyes every time they close, and now the smoke and the flames are real and it keeps jolting him back into the same mindless, animalistic panic he felt when he was ten and he'd just burnt down his house. He tries to keep his grip on the calm, soldier's rationality, but it repeatedly slips through his fingers like sand, stained with the blood of his parents, the orphan he killed, Bisker, Thompson, Lewis, the thousand other unnamed boys he's slaughtered and stabbed and butchered in the name of peace.

"Harry!" Tom's voice is shot through with frustration and Harry realises he's frozen, standing staring at the bodies on the ground and the fire ripping through the base.

What the fuck do we do? Where the fuck do we go? 

The soil a meter away explodes with a high whine, and something cuts his cheek, a little slice of searing pain.

"Harry! With me!" Tom is screaming, grabbing him and hauling him along, past the row of burning soldiers, over the twisted, burnt metal. Harry half-limps half-runs, frantically casting around for the rest of his unit, the men he's spent years with. He can't see them through the desert smoke, can only pray and hope to hell that they're getting out. There's no doubt in his mind that the Italian infantry will be scurrying forward, armed to the teeth, as soon as the air attack stops.

They're lucky. Tom's tent is on the edge of the base, further inland, and as they run, knees weak and chests heaving, the distance between them and where the bombs are falling grows. It does nothing to calm him. If they're spotted from above, easy enough in this bleak, monolithic landscape, they'll be gunned down within seconds. The sky is a velvet black but the moon is out tonight, a large, weighty sticker, half-peeled in the sky and throwing everything into bright relief.

Tom understands. The whites of his eyes gleam out from a face covered with dirt and sweat as he stares at Harry. They can't stay anyway, they'll have to make a run for it. There's a tributary to the sea a five minute run away, and if they follow it inland it should at least set them on the right road to rejoin the main base.

Sprinting into the sand, feet sliding and dust coughing into their lungs, they follow a few of the other lads who seem to have had the same idea, scurrying low. His limbs feel like they're encased in lead, and he tried to keep his eyes open, scared what he might see if they close. Hopefully their camo works - he's left his fucking gun behind in any case. 

 

 

*

 

 

 

They make it to the bank of the tributary, crawling on their bellies for the last section, like pale snakes slithering along the warm desert ground. Only the occasional sporadic boom of the shells now lights up the night with an eerie green flash, but aside from that it's quiet, sand whispering with the wind. 

Harry gets a sudden wave of dizziness, a twist of fear which runs through his body and disappears as quickly as his next breath. He freezes, grabs ahold of Tom's arm next to him.

Tom looks down in confusion, clutches Harry's arm right back. 

"We have to keep going," he whispers, "we need to move, they could find us at any--"

His sentence is cut off by a howl from one of the other soldiers, just behind them. Harry has no idea what the words were, but he shouts again and Harry looks around and sees the other fifteen or so men freeze, stock still, looking around at each other with the exact same expression of what the fuck was that and then Harry knows what the word is, deep in his heart, reaches out for Tom and grabs him close as tightly as he can because he knows that the man just screamed

"BOMBERS!"

The earth is wrenched from beneath his feet, a deep ringing starting in the tips of his toes and fingers which start to tremble, until it's so loud and deep that he can't see, doesn't know which way is up.

The world is a disorienting blur, and he feels himself weightless for a heartbeat and then the hard ground rises up to meet him, sand doing nothing but shear off a layer of skin as he skips across the dune like a stone on water.

The next second he opens he's eyes and he's somehow on the ground, soaking wet, body slipping down the mud and into the river. He hits a little pale twisted tree, mutilated by it's thirst and it throws him until he's rolling down on his side until he comes to a stop.

Harry coughs, feeling his ribs ache like he's been stepped on by a giant. It hurts to draw breath, and he has that awful moment of having to take stock of his body, feels for all his limbs, checks to make sure he's not leaking blood. There are scrapes from the rocks all up his side, and his knee has a nasty gash that's torn through the flimsy material of his uniform, but other than that he's fine.

He crawls to his hands and knees, instinctively looking round for Tom, but a spray of bullets lights up the ground next to him and he dives away, muffling the scream.

They're caught. From his vantage point, he sees men with guns approaching, can already hear the hum of the planes above. Clinging to the rocks, his eyes cast around, desperate to find Tom. He sees a lump to his left, a few metres away, and his heart almost stops before he sees blonde hair spilling out from the red pool.

Not Tom

But wait, just on from the dead blonde boy he catches sight of something familiar. The pale lines of a graceful arm, tapering down to slender fingers covered in red. The rest of the body is obscured by the sand and by the boy on the ground and Harry doesn't even think about the bullets, lunges forward up the bank until he can grab Tom, turn him over, eyes frantically running up and down the length of him, sprawled out on the ground, trying to diagnose. How much of that blood is his?

He doesn't get the chance to confirm his fears. Rough Italian breaks through the air, barked out so loudly it reaches him from a good twenty meters away. 

Harry's head is whipping from side to side, trying to figure out what to do. They're trapped, an easy target from above - although now that the soldiers are moving in, the planes will most likely leave He feels like he can't breathe, and next to him Tom lets out a little gasp of pain, eyelids fluttering. His face is too pale, and Harry makes his decision.

Into the water.

He grits his teeth, drags Tom's body back down the bank, watching the current rush. There's someone else's pack nearby, discarded, the owner probably dead, and Harry grabs it. The warm water is a translucent brown, clogged with dirt and sand and probably the worst thing to enter if Tom is wounded as badly as Harry is trying not to think about... but it's better than the surety of a bullet. He wades in, carefully tugging Tom to lie on top of the pack, which is at least providing a bit of buoyancy. It's not really enough though, and Harry has to manhandle him on top of his own body, sucking in careful wet, salty breaths to keep them both afloat. It's in his eyes, obscuring his vision, and he blinks, watching as the bank shrinks away from them and they're carried downstream.

Tom's blood is swirling in the water, and he's pale, even through the sunburn. In typical Tom fashion, he doesn't make a sound, despite the incredible pain he must be feeling. He always used to do this when they were younger - when Harry first came to the orphanage he used to burst into tears whenever Tom was sick or hurt himself. To be honest, it's selfish but it lets Harry focus on keeping them afloat - if he could hear Tom groaning it would be that much harder to keep them going without screaming. Tom's limbs are a sprawling wet weight pressing down on him, and there are river midges attracted by the blood seeping out of his stomach. Harry ignores their biting, doesn't even try to wave them away. The current here is fast and uncaring, pushing them ever closer to the corner, round which Harry prays they don't run into any Italians. Or Germans. Or crocodiles, although at this point he's not sure which he'd prefer.

Harry looks down at Tom's eyes rolling back in his head, grits his teeth and presses the sodden cloth of his shirt over the wound. They're moving quickly now, in the last ten minutes already maybe a mile or two away. 

The sky above them is breaking into dawn, a pearly pink shot through with cracks of burnt gold cloud. It's unfairly beautiful, and it makes Harry realise that he doesn't want to see beauty again if Tom is no longer there to see it too.

He'd rather see black for eternity.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The stars are blue and shiver in the distance under the quiet wash of dawn. The night is waning, morning light still diaphanous like thin white wine, and it burns his throat, makes his eyes water.

His hands are stained. His heart is breaking under his breastbone, splintering into painful pieces with every wet rise of Tom's chest as he grows paler and stiller beneath him. Harry is half-drowned at this point, breathing in as much horrid, salty water as warm dry air, but he doesn't notice anymore. He forces his shaking limbs to keep them going, afloat, fingers trembling like a butterfly as they press the cloth harder. Tom's blood slips quietly, constantly, into the water like ink onto a page, and Harry longs with every fibre of his being, hard and deep enough to move the stars to pity, for time to reverse, for him to have had his middle ripped apart instead.

They can't keep going like this. He's surprised they're not already at the sea by this point, and Harry thinks distantly that the tributary must be twisting and weaving through the arid land for it to be taking this long, bisecting the endless sand in some kind of mockingly complex arc.

Then they round the corner, and those slippery jagged shards of his heart pull themselves together long enough to drop deep into his stomach.

There are figures on the bank, mirage-like, and Harry blinks away the river, straining too see which uniform they're wearing. Not like it matters - there's nothing he can do at this point, and in a sense it's better to die like this then drowned and bloated in the sea. 

It takes a surprisingly little amount of time for them to be whisked forwards, and as they near Harry realises that these unfamiliar men aren't wearing a uniform at all. Instead, it's the pale, ragged cotton garbs of the nomads; there are four of them, lining the bank like white, twisted trees. Behind them, a little way out, are a couple of children and their camels, laden down with unfamiliar looking leather bags, more ragged cloth and strange clay objects that he doesn't recognise. The two children stop playing, standing as stationary as two little meerkats, heads pricked up attentively, watching.

All of them still as Harry and Tom draw closer and closer until he can see the harsh lines in the brown faces of the men regarding them. Dark impassive eyes bore into his own, the rest of their features partially obscured by shifts of faded linen, and he has to sob out a prayer that they won't just let them drift.

It seems he has luck on his side.

One of the men, young, about the same age as Harry, waits until they're close enough before wading in, a little crease forming between two thick eyebrows. He patiently widens his stance against the current, immobile until they're close enough to grab onto and Harry can reach out and grasp ahold of his arm. Tom groans at the impact and Harry grinds his molars together a little harder. The current is surprisingly strong, and it takes another man to join in to drag them out fully onto the bank. 

Harry forces himself to move as they stagger up the dusty slope until they're finally on a flat surface, limbs shaking like he's run a marathon. His eyes run over the bodies surrounding him - there are eight people, including the two children, but he can't give them more than a cursory glance. Settling Tom is the priority: he falls to his knees, gently moving Tom's wet, black hair out of the way and kissing his forehead. 

"You're ok, we're ok, we made it darling, almost there," he whispers into a slippery cheek, stroking Tom's arm.

The men are silent, watchful. He looks up at them, trying to swallow past the thickness in his throat and hopes he doesn't sound as punishingly desperate as he feels.

"Please help him," Harry croaks, beseechingly. "Please, I'll do anything, you can have anything. Just help him, he's hurt." 

He doesn't know if they understand him, but his begging must do the trick as one of the older men crouches down on cracking knees, into a squat, and passes him one of the scarfs. Harry takes it immediately, thanks tripping out over his tongue, and uses it to mop up the blood. It shifts the sodden slap of material away from Tom's torso, and he almost throws up when he sees the wound.

It's bad.

It's really bad. Tom's stomach has a large, deep gash in it, organs peeking through the skin. Harry's no stranger to wounds like this, but it feels like he's looking at someone he doesn't know all of a sudden. It's the only way he can rationalise it - because he knows.

Wounds like this you don't come back from.

The old man clicks his tongue against yellow teeth, and rattles something off to the onlookers. The language is dark, throaty, and Harry can't understand a word, can't even tell anything from the tone. 

Someone else crouches too, grasps Harry's arm that's holding the compress and tugs it gently. He speaks quietly and seriously, eyes flitting between Harry's searchingly.

He's helpless - he has no idea what the man is saying, but allows his wrist to be moved and withdraws the shaky pressure he had on Tom's stomach. The strangers crowd around him, talking to each other in quiet, pitted voices. One of them beckons over a child shyly clasping a leather water pouch in his tiny hands, and he hands it to him, watching with big eyes as he squirts a small amount of their precious drinking water over the wound. The same man takes something from his pocket, some kind of strangely green leaf or seaweed, chews down on it for a few seconds then spits it back into his hand. Harry half wants to stop him as he packs it against the blood, but to be honest he's willing to try anything at this point, anything at all that might mean Tom can survive. 

They wrap him up, tightly, and four of them lift him, supporting him onto one of the camels. Tom is silent now, pale and sweating, and Harry drags his eyes away to stare at his red hands. 

"F-fuck," he bites out, running his fingers through his hair to get it out of his eyes, uncaring that he's painting his own face with blood. 

One of the children - a little girl, can't be more than ten - tugs on his arms, stares up at him with a serious expression and says something. Harry looks down at her uncomprehendingly, but she doesn't seem to mind, just pulls him closer. The men are getting back on their camels, packaging up their goods with swift, hurried movements. She leads him over to a camel, a huge, smelly beast that kneels rather begrudgingly for him to manoeuvre himself on.

The journey is a short one, for which Harry is thankful. To his surprise, they don't follow the river, instead cutting a perpendicular path from where they started, into the hot midst of the desert. They ride for maybe a couple of hours, until the sand is white with heat and Harry has all but given up. He sways from his perch on top of the camel, the animal snorting beneath him, and keeps his eyes on the shape of Tom in front of him, supported by another of the men.

Eventually, the children start to talk again and Harry pushes through his exhaustion, forces his eyes to focus. The smooth lines of the horizon begin to resolve into compact shapes in the distance, and as they draw nearer, he realises that what he's seeing. Camouflaged into the middle of the desert, is some kind of archway, a marker, with a door leading down into the earth. It's completely obscured by shadow, and even though Harry squints he can't see a thing.

The pit of his stomach draws up and he can't help the shaky exhale as the camel plods closer and closer. What the fuck is down there? Why bring a dying man across the desert to a deserted stone? Is it a crypt?

There's nothing he can do but bite down on his dry lips and keep breathing. Now that the adrenaline is wearing off, he's started to realise his shoulder is a consistent ache, and every movement that jostles it just increases the throbbing, until it's so loud he can hear it in his ears. Ignoring the pain, he slides off the camel, stumbling into the sand in front of the strange arch as the rest of their party stops and dismounts. 

He can't tear his eyes away from Tom, wrapped up like he's about to be buried. Hell, maybe he is. 

"Where?" Harry can't stop himself asking, even though he knows he won't get a response. "Where are you taking him?" 

To his complete surprise, one of the older men turns to regard him, thoughtfully. His eyebrows are white and bushy, and settle heavily over glinting eyes, face so wrinkled that the lines look like carved clay.

"You want heal him, no?" he says, pointedly, the accent so strong it hardly sounds like english.

Harry nods, carefully. "Anything," he reiterates, watching them carry their precious cargo down the steps, ground into the sand, deep into the darkness.

The man wheezes out a cough, lungs sounding like a wet engine.

"Then follow."

 

 

*

 

 

Walking down, down below the sand, he can't focus on anything but the tiny gusts of air coming in and out of Tom's mouth. He couldn't tell you what the interior of whatever passageway it was looked like - it was both too dark and too inconsequential for him to notice, but sooner or later, they break out, into something like a circular arena. Surprisingly, it's bright with noon light, the floor a sea of sand glittering in the sun. Harry has to close his eyes against it after so long in the dark, but when he does his gaze is instantly drawn to the strange altar in the middle of the circle.

The pit they're standing in is opened up to the outside, sides of packed sand towering up and up until the blue of the sky is a small moon way up above them. Somehow the light manages to glance down, murkily reflected off the huge slabs of white stone that prop up the walls, to throw the space into dappled illumination.

It's one of the most unlikely things he thinks he's ever seen - the sheer scale, and the fact that there's nothing else around for miles (he assumes) just make it... inconceivable. 

"Where are we?" he mutters, stopping in his tracks as the children rush past him, chattering quietly.

His hands start to shake again as he watches two of the younger men carry Tom over to the strange centre stone, carefully lying him down on the surface and stepping back. Harry heaves in a breath, blinks back the acidic feeling in his chest and reaches into his pocket to grab his cigarettes. It takes him three tries to light the match, either because it's damp or because his fingers are so numb, until finally the flame gasps in it's first real experience of existence only to swallow itself into nothing. He breathes in, the smoke painful on his dry tongue, and tears his eyes from Tom's pale, slippy stomach, torn into and apart. He forces himself to focus on the ashen mouth of the cigarette instead, crumbling tears of dust into the bright air like snow.

Someone - a woman, he notes with an attempt at surprise - walks up to Tom's sprawled limbs, peering down, and uncorks a bottle, trickling whatever liquid it contains into his mouth. Harry can't get his legs to work, doesn't quite trust himself to move closer. All he can do is pray that this godforsaken place contains a doctor. Or medicine. Anything. There must have been a reason they bought him here -  surely it's not just to die.

As if reading his mind, the man who spoke to him earlier appears by his side, silently watching him smoke with granite eyes. He seems to be questing after something, looking deep into Harry's face like it has an answer for him. Harry ignores him, keeps sucking in smoke like it's air, eyes fixed on Tom and the brown liquid overflowing down the sides of his mouth. Please be some form of morphine, Harry begs in his head.

The stranger nods. "Sacrifice." His tongue curves around the word, whistled out between gaps in his yellow teeth, and he says it like it's dirty, lips stretching in a mocking grin. 

Harry doesn't care anymore. Why is he even speaking to these people? They could be about to butcher them both. 

He shudders. "Yes," he says tiredly. "I've told you. Whatever it takes, as long as he lives." What does 'sacrifice' mean, anyway? Is Tom the sacrifice?

He's run out of time in any case. They can both see it - Tom's breaths are getting softer, less regular, and the blood is dripping into the sand, through the material, a steady tap on the floor.

The man turns away to look at the little girl, who's still watching them curiously with huge brown eyes. She's holding something behind her back, runs over and hands it to him. Harry's eyes widen as he turns to take it, but she only smiles, small face lighting up.

It's a knife, a horrible, rust-scaled blade, curving wickedly upwards. It looks like it was made a very long time ago, but the edge still looks thin and razor sharp, dark silver glinting like teeth. 

Harry looks between the old man and the little girl blankly, weighing the handle in his palm. Both are cautious, considering him as he stares at the weapon. A bead of sweat drips down the man's temple, sneaking out from under his head wrapping. He wipes it away with the back of his fingers and speaks a few words to the little girl. She reaches out, grasps onto his shirt again and pushes him forward, towards the stone Tom is lying on. 

"Go. Bleed," the man croons, the word sounding like something else entirely.

Harry stares at him, confused. He gets out the beginning of a question before the little girl points to the blade and then to his arm, mimes something terrible, and Harry realises with a lurch of horror what she means.

"You want me to bleed?" he asks, desperately. Surely he didn't come all this way just to kill himself in front of a group of madmen? His legs are so weak that the girl easily leads him with little pushes, directing him until his knees knock up against the raised slab and he's close enough to see the pale blue shadows under Tom's eyes.

"I'm not going to- to kill myself." Harry's shaking his head in denial, eyes finding the other people watching on from where they lean against the walls of the pit. None of them are smiling. 

"See." The man's sweat-coloured sleeves run through Tom's blood as he reaches to gently touch his face, pale with death, the red liquid seeping into the cotton in beautiful blooms. "Nearly finish. Bleed." 

His gnarled fingers grab onto the sun-stiff material of Harry's uniform, and push back his sleeve to reveal his forearm. Harry nearly shoves him back before pausing, staring at the white sheet of the skin on his arm, lying softly, belly up. It seems to whisper to him, to dare him to open it up, ruin its unblemished perfection. 

"Bleed," the man says again, and Harry turns to see that Tom's face has strange marks painted on, in something blacker than blood, covering every inch of available skin. He nearly drops the blade with shock - not a moment ago, his face was clear. 

"What in God's name..." Harry whispers, heartbeat rising. He looks back to the man, who grins again, and suddenly Harry notices that his pupils have gone. The whole eye is black, shiny, and he can see himself in there, an ant-sized reflection, horror-stricken and oh-so-pale. 

There's a buzzing that's infiltrating his temples, filling up his head until he can't think anymore. All he can see are those black eyes, the black marks on Tom's soft skin, and the dangerously thin edge of the blade suddenly hovering a hair breadth away from his wrist. He takes a deep breath in, fills his lungs with as much warm air as he can, until they burn, saturated, blocks of ice in his chest.

"Bleed then," the man whispers lovingly, accent suddenly gone.

The sharp bite of metal plunges, and Harry is surprised that he feels nothing but a kind of morbid curiosity as his skin parts red in a beautiful arch right up until the crease of his elbow. A strange buzzing begins in his fingertips, a cautious hum until all of a sudden purple numbness gleefully races up his fingers into his hands and the knife drops before he's aware of his fingers opening.

Then the pain filters in, a horrible, hungry beast with a gaping, open mouth, vomiting out blood as if in ecstasy. It pumps, boiling hot and wet down his hands, all over his collarbones, dripping over whatever unnatural black circles that have, somehow, been carved carefully into Tom's bare chest, and coating the locket from where it lies on his neck.

It's strange to think, but Harry hears his own heart rate slow down, a sluggish clap, like sarcastic applause, hollow in his head. 

He doesn't realise his knees have crumpled until suddenly he's looking up at the sky, always that same, horrible shade of bright blue, and with buzzing lips and monumental effort, he turns his head.

The last thing Harry sees is Tom, eyes fluttering, red irises fighting their way out from the shell of his eyelids.

 

Chapter Text

 

He wakes up to the feeling of hands stroking through his hair. It's a tiptoe into waking, limbs still loose and tongue soft. He rubs his cheek into the warmth underneath him, consciousness filtering in just enough to feel the ache thrumming throughout his whole body. It hurts, a deep, bone-weary ache, and although Harry tries desperately to sink back into sleep, it seems his body has woken up and doesn't care. 

The hands freeze as he lets out a little groan, trying to curl up further into a ball, before there's a gentle, questing touch at his jaw. 

"Darling?" he hears, and why is Tom trying to wake him up when he feels so bad? Harry frowns, breathing beginning to become unsteady as he notices the sharp, obliterating pain in his left arm. What the hell has happened? It swells to the point where he feels like he can't breathe, stomach twisting as his eyes fly open.

He's still disorientated, so the sight of a thick, ugly red scar stretching the length of his arm sits blankly in his brain for a minute before the horror kicks in. He must make some kind of noise of distress, as suddenly Tom's face swims into his vision, blocking out the sight.

"Shh, shh, my love," Tom croons, cupping his cheeks with cold fingers. "It's ok, you're ok." 

Harry fights to regain some measure of awareness, blinking as he struggles his way up to sitting. 

"What happened?" he croaks, head pounding. Tom's chest is hard where it's supporting his body, Harry cradled between his knees. Suddenly, the memory comes rushing back in - that strange buzzing in his head, the strange leaking feeling of watching his blood splatter out of him, Tom's eyes--

He turns, or at least he tries to. It's like his limbs are encased in iron, too heavy to move, and the best he can do is weakly twist to stare at Tom. 

The familiar face is exactly the same, but the eyes are as red as he remembered. Warm and dark, gaze sticky like honey. He watches them move, tracking over his own expression which he's sure is part horror, part relief. Scratch that, he starts to think, Tom does look different. He looks awake, alert. Hungry. There's so much energy crackling in the lines of his face, the slope of his jaw, that it's almost overwhelming. 

To his frustration, Harry feels his muscles go loose again, and he sags further into Tom, the back of his head resting in the space between his shoulder and his neck. 

"Don't try to move," Tom murmurs. "You'll be weak for some time." He kisses the top of Harry's head, arms coming to wrap around him. "It's ok - I've got you."

Harry chuckles weakly, a slightly hysterical undertone breaking through. "You're alive. How is that possible? I watched your breath stop--" he stops when he feels his throat close up, pressure behind his eyes. Tom's alive. 

"You saved me, Harry." Tom says. "And then I saved you."

"How is this possible?" he whispers, more to himself than to Tom, letting his gaze settle on their surroundings. It looks like they're still in the ravine, sloping sandy walls rising up all around them. The sky is pitch black though, and the quiet feels almost oppressive. Tom is content to sit there in silence, nuzzling the back of his neck and planting little relieved kisses on him. 

Harry glances down and notices the blood.

It's all over him, a crumbling red film that coats his naked torso and the ground underneath him. It's all over his hands, Tom's hands, a black patch of sand creeping out like a infection from where they're sitting. His brow furrows. It's too much to be his alone, too much to even just be Tom's. He follows the sticky, winding trail with his eyes before freezing.

There's a human sized lump sitting a way away from them. It's cut clean in half, torso separated from the legs by about a meter. He can see the spine glinting silver in the moonlight, a pale fist of bone protruding from the hips. His eyes catch on another - it's the man who helped him. Or, at least, his head. For a flash, it looks like Lewis, like Lewis' severed head it staring accusingly up at him, until he blinks and it's back to the leathery face and dark unseeing eyes. Harry distantly realises his breath is coming in short, sharp pants, and that Tom's arms are a steel band around him, as he weakly struggles to get away.

"What-- what did you do?" he gasps, pushing ineffectually at Tom, eyes tearing up at the strain it puts on his arm.

"Well, I couldn't let you die," Tom says lovingly, stroking his face. "You were bleeding to death, little one. To save me." Harry catches something like fury simmering just below the surface of the words. "I woke to watch you leaving me, with this strange knowledge in the back of my head of how to stop it. You know it too - this kind of magic requires blood."

Harry forces himself to look away from the bodies littered around them, forces himself to ignore the sticky bitter smell hanging in the air, and looks up at the sky instead, trying to find a familiar star. There are none. It's just endless blackness. 

"What 'knowledge'?" he asks, going limp. He wishes he could see Tom's facial expression, but he's held in place too tightly.

He hears Tom start to chuckle, chest vibrating. "Oh darling. I wish I could show you. Those fools didn't know what they were doing with that kind of ritual. They'd found a book they should have left well alone, convinced themselves they were shamans. If you could have seen their faces when they realised what they'd done--" 

"What did they do, Tom?" Harry asks, nervousness threading its way through his voice. 

He feels a tongue lick a stripe up his neck. "They used your blood to rip through to another place. A place no one is supposed to go," he starts, and Harry feels a little queasy as he realises his neck is covered in his own blood. 

"They cut off a bit of my soul and used it to barter for something else, something to come back through and take it's place,"

"Your soul?" Harry wants to laugh, but he watched it happen. He saw those strange markings, saw the man's eyes bleed black. All he can do is wait for Tom to continue, the pain keeping him caught awake.

"Only a bit, only enough to keep it interested."

'It', Harry wants to scream, what have you done?

"It told me how to save you," Tom said. "Voldemort." He tests the word out in his mouth quietly. "But the sacrifice was larger this time, to open it up again. I had to feed it more than before, and it took more than before."

No, Harry thinks. "Your soul?" 

He feels the wetness of a tongue on his neck again, can't quite comprehend it. With what seems like monumental effort, he reaches up, touches his fingertips to the spot where Tom's been licking. It's painful, sore, the skin dipping in divots, and he traces the crescent with horror building in his chest. His hand falls and he stares down at it, at the fresh blood. 

"I managed to barter it down," Tom says silkily, next to his ear. "Their souls, in exchange. But of course, Voldemort wasn't satisfied. It took another slither of mine too, just because it could." 

Tom is drinking from him, Harry forces himself to think. Even the words sound stupid. 

"What does it mean, to have less of a soul?" Harry slurs. The world seems less and less real, and his eyes keep fluttering. Even breathing is becoming a monumental task, body heavy.

"It means I can't stop when I want to," he hears as a murmur. There's the sound of something strange, a little like the sound of a peach being ripped open, but the importance of that too fades.

Time unanchors - it could have been seconds, or hours, but the next thing Harry's aware of is Tom's cold lips on his, and all of a sudden his mouth is bursting with copper. 

Half conscious, he kisses back and swallows.

 

 

*

 

 

When Harry comes to next, the first thing he realises is that he's in a bed. This, in itself, is strange enough to have him instantly cautious, despite the warmth encasing his body. He feels amazing. He hasn't felt this well-rested since... well, since before the war. He's still scared to open his eyes though - the only reason he would be in a bed is if he was in hospital. For a second, he lets himself dwell vindictively in the panic - what if he's lost his legs, or his hands - before cracking open his eyes. Sunlight glitters on his eyelashes, soft morning light streaming in like liquid to fill the room with a gentle glow. To his relief, he seems to be there in entirety. He can see his feet poking out from the edge of the white sheet, his arms and hands undamaged as he raises them in front of his face and stretches. 

The next realisation quickly filters through: he's naked. This isn't particularly shocking; he's comfortable with his body, you have to be when you're in the military, but it does raise some questions. 

He sits up a little, looking around. It's a large enough room, a three bladed fan lazily chopping through the air above him. The window is open, the breeze ruffling through the white linen curtain and carrying with it the sound of an unfamiliar language, the beeps of cars and the brays of cattle. The room is pretty sparse, but obviously of a high quality - a bookshelf, spines faded, a huge china vase with a froth of some kind of green plant spilling out, a wardrobe, a little sofa done up in a strange geometric pattern. The bed itself is huge, four posters with a delicate swoop of white canopy hanging overhead. 

"Where am I?" Harry murmurs to himself, staring. The painting opposite the bed is of a beautiful naked lady with dark cat-like eyes, draped in extremely impractical red silk and fanning herself by what seems to be an oasis. The title of the picture is written in Arabic, engraved across the bottom of the huge gold frame. 

So still in the desert, he thinks grimly, and then freezes as he remembers.

Tom. Voldemort. The blood - his arm. Hastily, Harry turns his arm up, scanning the skin for the huge, horrifying scar. It's not there. Well, not like he remembers. There's a thin white line dragging its way up his forearm, and he can see where it starts to curve at the end, where his grip on the knife had faltered. It looks like a wound that he's had for years, not... well, not days. That gets Harry thinking - what day is it? How did he get here, and where is Tom?

"Egypt," a voice calls, and Harry's head whips to the side. On the left of the bed, in the corner of the room behind him is a grand chair, a familiar body arranged elegantly within. 

It's Tom. He's dressed casually, white linen shirt rolled up to his elbows and light, cream trousers, slender feet bare. Harry immediately looks at his eyes. The red irises are darker than he remembers, not quite such a thrilling red... but they're still the colour of wine, not the blue he expects. It's unsettling how much of a stranger it makes him seem.

"How did I get here?" Harry asks after a moment, watching Tom watch him. How did he not notice him? It's easy enough to answer, Harry acknowledges. He sits with an unnatural stillness, not making a single sound. In fact, Harry can sense his eyes trying to pass over him, to forget that he's there. He clenches the sheet in his fist and forces himself to look. 

Tom rises fluidly, stalking over until he's kneeling on the bed next to Harry. His nostrils flare and he stares at Harry's throat, swallowing.

"I walked us here," Tom says. "It took three days to get to the closest town, and then I stole a car."

Harry is begrudgingly impressed, before he realises this means he's been out for what must be five days, or more. His fingers find his neck again, but the skin is smooth, unmarred. Did he imagine it? 

Tom shifts above him, nosing closer until he's within reach, and Harry's arms automatically wrap around him, bringing him in. The other boy smells like soap and sandalwood, and something that just reminds Harry of home - of Wool's Orphanage, back in London, where the intricate, polluted mess of a city gave them each other.

Out of nowhere, he's hit by the strangest urge to cry. He buries his face into Tom's neck, and tries to breathe steadily, force down the ache in his eyes.

"I thought you were going to die," he croaks out, voice low. "I don't care how you're alive, I don't care about Voldemort. Just promise me you'll stay," he hears himself say, and as he speaks the words he knows they're true. Harry doesn't care if Tom murders the whole of fucking Egypt, burns the whole world, he doesn't care

Tom draws back, framing his face between two hands like he's delicate, something to be treasured. The look in his eye is hungry, possessive, but he angles his jaw and presses his lips to Harry's oh-so-slowly, gently kissing him.

"I promise," he says vehemently, staring into Harry's eyes as if he can will the other boy to believe him.

Harry nods, and grips Tom's arms, holding on even as he feels something slide down his cheek. The fan above them beats out a steady, comforting rhythm, blowing strands of Harry's hair into his eyes. He has so many questions, but there's a relief bubbling low in his stomach which is wiping out the rest of his thoughts. Tom is with him, after he nearly lost him, again. Everything else can kindly go to hell for a little while.

Harry opens his mouth, letting Tom's tongue find its way in. Tom kisses him just the way he knows Harry loves, and Harry leans back, lets the familiar heat flood his veins. He gasps as Tom lets out a low noise, pushing his knee in between Harry's legs and knocking them open, looming over him and pinning his arms to the pillow next to his head. The bones of his wrist creak together, hard, and he can't help the flinch of pain, biting down on Tom's lower lip by accident. 

Immediately, Tom draws back, brow furrowed. "I can't control it very well," he murmurs apologetically, watching in fascination as already the pink prelude to a bruise begins to well up. Harry couldn't give less of a shit.

"I don't care," he bites out, surging up and tugging on Tom's shoulders until the other boy lowers himself onto Harry. He can feel Tom's body, hard, warm muscle against his, and suddenly it appears grossly unfair that he's the only one naked.

"Get this off," he demands, fingers scrabbling at Tom's shirt. Tom leans back, smoothly pulling it off over his head, and Harry can't drag his eyes away from Tom's torso as it's revealed, the pale muscles tapering down to his waist. Tom kicks off his trousers too, and Harry gives in to the urge to touch, tracing the scars that run down his sides, his shoulders. 

"Beautiful," he murmurs, watching Tom's eyes go molten with longing. It should scare him, having something which is no longer quite human looking at him like he wants to consume him, red eyes scorching with want. But it doesn't. He just smiles, eyes catching on the blood welling up on Tom's lower lip from where he bit him earlier. Entranced, Harry reaches up and presses the pad of his thumb to the wound, stomach turning to liquid as Tom sucks it into his mouth and he feels the velvety scrape of tongue. 

"I should be saying that," Tom says, voice deep, and runs his eyes over Harry. The sheet is on the floor, and he should feel self conscious, but he doesn't. He preens, stretching out, watching as Tom starts to look more and more like he's on the verge of losing control.

Lunging, the other boy pins him again, mouth hot and insistent on Harry's, swallowing his moan. Tom's hands skirt his body, fingers reaching all the sensitive spots he didn't know he had, skimming his inner thighs with a touch so barely-there it has Harry bucking up into him, chasing the contact. He nudges Harry's head to the side, pressing wet, searing kisses to the side of his neck that have him squirming, blinking at the curtains dancing in the breeze. He's dizzy with it, cheeks hot and eyes half-lidded, not even bothering to try to tamp down on the noises he's making, the little gasps that punch out of him as Tom slowly, so slowly, increases the pressure of his teeth until the skin breaks under him.

Arousal simmers in his hips, pressure building as Tom sucks, the little flame of pain completely at odds to the feeling of his hand grasping hold of Harry where he aches, stroking lightly enough that he wants to scream.

"Fuck," the word is ripped from him as Tom draws back, eyes almost all black, lips finding Harry's as he finally shifts, pressing his hips down until Harry's rutting up against him, choked out noises driven from him at the feeling of Tom's hardness, perfect pressure against his own. He won't last long - not like this, not when his entire body is buzzing with the sheer fucking relief of having his soulmate back, safe, in his arms again.

Harry can't help it, he sucks on Tom's lip again, not sure if he's tasting Tom's blood or his own, struggling against the hands pinning him down. He wants to touch, wants to be able to move more than just his hips, but it seems like Tom isn't even aware - or maybe he's just unaware of his own strength. Either way, Harry is held still, entire consciousness sucked down through his body, veins thrumming, as the pressure builds and builds.

The copper tang in his mouth is the only thing he's aware of, a strange warmth fizzing from his tongue into the rest of his body, and the hot flush is enough to push him over the edge. He can feel his entire body drawing up, pulsing as he lets go, falling into the pleasure, and Tom's mouth draws back so he can hear Harry cry out. It only takes a moment or two more for the other boy to grunt, and Harry feels wetness on his stomach, chest heaving as he manages to breathe through the sensation. 

Tom lies there for a minute, panting, before he rolls away, just enough so that Harry can catch his breath but so they're still intertwined, legs tangled. They lie there together, listening as the sounds from outside return. Harry lets his mind wander.

The feeling of fingers leisurely stroking his throat, up and down in a hypnotic tease, starts to bring him back, and Tom's voice breaks through the syrupy doze that's settled on his brain.

"Darling, did you swallow any of my blood," he murmurs, thumb rubbing at the corner of Harry's mouth. Harry opens his eyes, nodding. 

"Probably," he manages to slur out, nuzzling into Tom's hand. He's awake enough though, to watch the look of concern flit across Tom's face. 

"How much?" he asks, voice controlled. His eyes are intent on Harry's face.

"Just a tiny bit, when I bit down," Harry answers, feeling a little awkward. "Why?"

Tom reaches out, pulling Harry even closer and kissing him again. He draws back, eyes soft. "You can't do that, my love. It's dangerous for you."

"What do you mean?" Harry asks, thoughts beginning to coalesce again.

The other boy sighs, staring at the ceiling, and is quiet for a moment or two. "I don't know... I just know you shouldn't have too much. It could drive you insane," he says, brow furrowing. "I don't know how I know that though."

Harry instantly tries to recall how much he had. "But... before, when we were in the desert. Didn't I drink some then?" He remembers the horrible, bitter taste in his mouth before the world cut out. That was blood, wasn't it?

"You needed it then," Tom says slowly, like he's afraid of Harry's reaction. "I couldn't hold myself back when I woke up, I--" he cuts off, fingers squeezing around Harry's. "I took too much from you, and I only realised when you passed out."

Harry can't stop the intake of breath, remembering the strange dark regret in Tom's voice, the way it didn't sound quite human. 'It means I can't stop when I want to.'

"But you stopped now?"

"I've had a week to figure it out," Tom replies, reaching over to grab the sheet off the floor. He gently runs it over the mess on Harry's stomach, wiping away stickiness before pushing his hair back off his forehead and turning to hold Harry's questing gaze. "I'm much more in control now."

"Are you some kind of vampire," Harry blurts out, and then feels his cheeks heat with mortification. 

Tom snickers, eyes creasing. "Vampires don't exist," he says, before the smile fades. "I think what I am is worse. Much worse."