A/N: This one was very frightening to write... didn't know how close I wanted to get. Many thanks to Violet Azure for pre-reading this and catching my goofs, and for giving me a bit of confidence in this segment.
Of A Sort
August 31, 1938:
Adders, the herpetologists kept saying--often with a level of frustration that was close to tears--were never aggressive. They posed a danger only to humans who came too close, and they certainly didn't seek out such a contact. Traps set to kill them were unnecessary and cruel, and the panic spreading on Bodmin Moor was far out of proportion to the admittedly unusual behavior of a handful of adders in the dilapidated play yard of the local orphanage.
There had only been one attack, they stressed, and the boy who had been bitten was known to play somewhat over-exuberantly. Perhaps he had stumbled over a nest, or stepped too close to a basking snake.
On the subject of why a colony of adders was growing around an area populated by loud and often violent boys, the herpetologists were struck dumb. Most were hesitant to so much as propose a theory. There was no good reason, they said, near-panic creeping into their voices. No good reason at all.
Tom Riddle, on the other hand, knew precisely why the snakes had come: he'd called them.
He'd made the mistake of mentioning this to the matron, a miserable old cow called Mrs. Masters (Tom couldn't imagine what Mr. Masters must have been thinking to marry her), and had been rewarded for this insight by a caning for tale bearing. When she had finally understood that he meant what he said, she'd shipped him off to some cold, sterile place, where they'd wrapped him in a canvas coat that smelled of mildew and had long enough arms to tie behind his back. He'd heard Mrs. Masters whisper to the doctor, "We were expecting it; we've a letter from the mother in the office, and she was quite mad--believed herself to be a witch. She lived up in Bude, and people there say she was always strange. Of course we haven't given him the letter--no need to encourage this sort of thing--but as they say, the apple doesn't fall far..."
Then there was a metal cap on his head, and bolts of pain, and when it was over, Tom decided it might be wiser not to mention the snakes to Mrs. Masters again. He did bring six of them along when he broke into her office to steal his mother's letter in June, but, somewhat to his disappointment, she wasn't there, and they had nothing to do. He hadn't meant for them to attack that idiot Maurice; they'd done that because he was angry. But Mrs. Masters? He thought she'd look a lot better puffed up and gasping, and then she'd know all about tale bearing, not to mention stealing letters.
He'd apologized to the adders for disturbing them and sent them back outside to hunt, then retrieved his letter and read it. Perhaps he would have thought his mother mad as well, except that he knew that some things weren't his imagination, and even if he'd dismissed her then, he would have believed her when an owl arrived two weeks later, inviting him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (He had not shared this information with the matron.) That made everything clear.
He had accepted immediately, before the owl left, and Hogwarts had arranged for the orphanage to believe he'd been given a scholarship to an obscure school outside Aberdeen, and given him directions to a place called The Leaky Cauldron, in London, where he would be given something of an orientation. All was well, except that Tom also had a list of items he was meant to obtain in London, and he had neither the means to get to London nor the money to buy anything. He hadn't thought to include this information in his reply to the school--he had been in too big a hurry to confirm his place there--and had no idea how to contact them if he needed help.
He despaired of this at first, but his mother had come through for him. He liked the woman better with each passing day, and her letter was tucked down his shirt all the time now.
Your father, for whom I named you, owns a house at Summerleaze Beach, she had written. It isn't his only home, but it is the one I know best. He spent all of August there each year...
Then she'd waxed nostalgic about their love affair, for which Tom cared nothing at all. Love at first sight, swept away, so on and so forth, in a rather girlish manner. He read this only because he had so few words from her, and he combed all of them for meaning. He didn't really like the thought of all that sweeping and swooning. Sounded a bit of mess. But he supposed she had liked it, and that was all right.
He'd picked up the two important points: his father had money, and there was a place he could be found at a given time of year. It took him longer than he expected to walk here, and the nights were cold for sleeping, but he had made it.
Tom smiled. He stood now at the top of a dune, looking down across the Sea Pool at Summerleaze Beach. A row of fine-looking houses was across from him, one of which seemed to be hosting something of an end-of-summer party.
At his feet, twenty four adders that had come to him as he crossed the Bodmin Moor slithered uncertainly on the alien ground. He looked down at them and said, "I'm going."
They hissed up, not precisely in words, but Tom could feel them wanting to leave the gritty sand, perhaps curl up on the rocks beside the Sea Pool. That was all right. The rocks were close, if he needed them. He let them go.
When the snakes were clear of his feet (and he heard a few surprised little screams from ladies in short, kicky swimsuits), he started down around the Pool. The ground was uneven and rocky, and he twisted his ankle nastily before he reached the far side, but by the time he'd made his way to the row of houses, he was at least certain that he'd come to the right place. Shiny automobiles blinked in the afternoon sun, and swing music blared from a scratchy phonograph. Someone called out, "Hey, Riddle... you're a bit low on the sauce, chum!" and someone else answered, "Oh, bugger it, you can open my father's crates in the basement. Better stuff anyway."
I just heard my father's voice.
Tom stopped dead, a new and unpleasant feeling seeping across his chest like a running wound. His throat filled up with it and he bent over to try and sick it up, but nothing came.
My father's voice.
When Tom had read his mother's letter, he'd felt a mild curiosity, followed by a growing fondness. He thought it fair enough to say he'd come to love her, as much as a person could love someone who had only seven hundred and sixty two words to share with him. But he hadn't longed for her or felt anything particularly upon seeing her handwriting. But...
My father's voice. The man who is my father is in that house, bellowing about spirits and not knowing that his son is standing outside, listening to him.
The voice--even in its casual belligerence--had awakened a kind of gnawing hunger inside Tom, and he didn't like it at all. He had a job to do here, and it wasn't to daydream about
(My son? I never knew! All of you, look! This is my son!)
anything. He had to be at school tomorrow, and there was a great deal to do before he got there.
For a moment, Tom stood balanced at the edge of a narrow road his back to the Sea Pool, his heels hanging slightly over the edge of a slope, enough to stretch the tendons in the back of his legs. A very calm, reasonable voice spoke into his mind: Don't go there. Steal a car to go to London if you must, or better yet, ask a stranger for a ride, but don't feed your hunger with what is before you. It is poison.
He took a deep breath. He didn't need to go there. The school had seen to his needs so far, with its cover story and its instructions; surely someone would take pity on him and...
His jaw clenched. He was not going to accept someone's pity. If whatever was in that house was poison, so be it. It was his poison, and he had the right to drink it if he wanted to. It belonged to him.
He stepped away from the edge of the road, and took a determined step toward the house.
The door burst open, and a tall man with sandy brown hair staggered outside. He leaned over the porch rail and vomited into a hydrangea bush, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and swayed down the steps toward the Sea Pool. He didn't look up until he was almost on top of Tom, and when he did, there was no particular recognition in his eyes.
Well, maybe he'd know, anyway.
"Excuse me, sir," Tom said, ignoring the stench of brandy, "but I'm looking for Mr. Riddle."
"Which Mr. Riddle?" the man said.
"Mister... Well, Tom Riddle."
The man wiped his mouth again. "What d'you want with him? Who are you?"
Tom frowned, not wanting offer an explanation to a complete stranger. "I'm Tom Riddle," he said, without elaborating. The man would make of it whatever he wanted to, but it would perhaps be enough to gain entrance.
The man's drunken gaze narrowed, and he pulled himself upright. "You don't say."
The manners which had been drilled into Tom by Mrs. Masters for when he met with various sets of potential adoptive parents came back to him with ease, even if it was only a drunk he was speaking to. "Yes, sir. I would like to speak to Mr. Riddle, if I may."
"Well, you're doing fine at it so far." He sniffed. "Where did you come from?"
Tom blinked, completely nonplused and at a loss for words. This was the man for whom he was named? This common sot? There was no moment of recognition, no sign that he was any different from any of the other louts Tom had met in his life. His mother had died for this? There was nothing, no instant knowledge, no flash of fire in his blood, no connection at all. He was just a strange man who stank of brandy and vomit.
"Well, talk," he said. "Where did you come by my name?"
"My mother gave it to me."
"And who would that be?"
"Your... " Tom tried to hide his consternation. Who else would it be? He drew the letter out of his shirt. "Your wife. Mertysa..."
"Oh." Riddle snatched the letter disdainfully. "Her. Right, I'd forgotten." He read it briefly, then tossed it onto the sand.
Tom scrambled for it before the wind could catch it and throw it into the water. By the time he got up, his father had ambled down toward the water. He seemed to be sobering quickly, at any rate.
Riddle reached into his pocket and drew out a cigarette. He lit it with his hand cupped against the wind and looked out to sea. After a minute, he fumbled for another and held it out to Tom, who had caught up with him. "Care for a smoke?" he asked.
Tom wrinkled his nose. It was a filthy, smelly habit.
Riddle snorted. "Well, you look like her and you make the same faces. I suppose you've inherited her, er, other talent as well, haven't you?" He shrugged. "Probably not so dangerous in a boy. Give you a good bit of fun, anyway."
"I'm a wizard," Tom said shakily. "If that's what you mean."
"Then you knew she was a witch?"
"Knew?" Riddle pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it toward the Sea Pool. It landed on a rock beside one of Tom's adders, which coiled up into an alert position and hissed angrily. Riddle didn't notice it. "Of course I knew. Bloody little wench must've put some sort of spell on me. As soon as she told me what she was, I figured it out. Sent her packing."
"She loved you. She says so." Tom held out the letter like a barrister offering evidence in a courtroom.
"They all say that." Riddle reached for the cigarette that was no longer in his mouth, then muttered something and lit the one he'd offered to Tom instead. He took a long breath, then blew out the smoke in a noxious cloud that flew into Tom's face. "Listen to me, boy, because this is the only man-to-man conversation you and I are ever going to have, whatever fantasies you may have to the contrary. Women make good amusements, but you'd be wise to know what they're really about if you're going to be around them. They want money. Mertysa was quite good-looking and I'd have been happy to show her a good time for as long as she showed me one, but she wanted more. Tricked me, as I said... they all will if they can, and she could." He took another drag. "I let the silly tramp convince me to live away from my family home, and she played at being the little wife, in command of all she surveyed. I told her I didn't want any little brats around, but she tricked me again, and here you are, big as life and looking just like her. Guess that bit her back some, though, didn't it?"
Tom curled his hand around the letter. What sort of woman had his mother been, marrying someone like this? His stomach clenched. This fool, this cruel buffoon, was part of him. He wanted to rip it out. "She died," he said, his jaw painfully tight.
"Mmm. Yes, she was a bit of an idiot. The doctor told her it would happen when she first got herself--"
"You KNEW?" Tom's hand tightened on the letter, twisting it into scrap. He shoved it into his pocket before he could do any more harm to it. "You knew about me? About her? About...?"
"I'd forgotten, as I said, but yes, I knew." Riddle blew another cloud of smoke. "Couldn't very well not know, with her asking for this money or that money, and couldn't I come and be there with her. Ruddy annoying. I told her I didn't want anything to do with it. I haven't changed my mind about that, so whatever you think you've come for, think again."
Tom felt the earth spinning beneath him, like someone had opened a whirlpool in the sand. He hadn't anticipated a warm reunion and didn't want one, but how could he... he was... what kind of man was this? "You left me in that place," he whispered. "They cane me. They..."
"I told her to take care of the problem," Riddle said casually. To Tom, it sound like it was coming from far away and long ago, echoing against the water. "Even found her a doctor willing to do it. It was her, deciding to bring you into the world. If you want to have an argument, have it with her."
The wind was cold, wrapping him in an isolating chamber. Nothing outside of it was real. He was drowning. No one could reach inside to help. He stepped backward and lost his balance on the slope, sitting down hard on the rocks and almost sliding down toward the Sea Pool. His father looked blandly down at him. The letter was poking out of his pocket.
Tom sat, shaking, waiting for an answer, and when it came, it was words of the letter, but it was not in the soft voice he had imagined for his mother. The voice that spoke was high and cold. There is so much for you to know, it said in his mother's words, so much you are and so much you can become. You are descended from Salazar Slytherin, one of the greatest wizards ever to live, and I see his power in your eyes even as my own fades away from me...
The shaking stopped. This dolt who dared to look down on him wasn't worth the pain he was causing. It was an accident, a freak of nature that they shared the same name.
Tom stood up. He took a deep breath. He had come here for a reason, after all, and he should never have allowed himself to be distracted from it. "I need money for school," he said.
Riddle shook his head. "I saw that coming."
"I need money for school," Tom repeated, speaking slowly.
"I imagine you do. I don't see where it has a thing to do with me." Riddle took a final drag on his cigarette, then stomped it out on a rock. "Why don't you magic some of it up?"
Tom didn't bother answering him. Instead, he looked at four of the adders basking on the rocks, and whispered, "Surround."
"What do you think you're say--?" Riddle's eyes went wide. The snakes reared up out of the grass, behind and in front of him, to his right and his left. He started to move, and one of them dove at his foot. He jerked backward and nearly fell into another.
Tom watched him calmly. "I need money for school," he said again. He looked back at the other snakes and whispered, "Come on, then." They slithered forward, hissing and rearing their heads.
Riddle stood still. He was apparently bright enough to understand his situation without explanations. "You thieving little bastard," he said.
Tom just stared at him, not bothering to answer the insult. Then he shrugged.
Riddle reached into his pocket--not the one the cigarettes came from--and drew out a money clip stuffed with ten-pound notes. Either he was a fool or richer than Tom could imagine. He peeled off five of them and tossed them over the snakes' heads. Tom gathered them and put them in his pocket. He waited patiently.
"That's all you're getting," Riddle said.
"Angry," Tom whispered the snakes. More began lunging. Riddle kicked sand at them. A few of them started to attack without instructions, so Tom said, "Stop."
They fell docilely to the ground, waiting, coiled and hissing.
Riddle pulled the rest of the notes from the clip and threw them. Tom picked them up. He didn't know how much his school things would cost. "The clip, too," he said. "And your watch." He looked at Riddle's hands. "That emerald ring, too." He added up in his head what he thought he could get for it all, didn't think it would be enough for seven years, but decided that any further might be pushing it.
Riddle tossed the requested items out onto the stones. "This is the last you'll ever get from me," he said.
Tom shrugged again. "We'll see." He turned his back on his father, calling to most of the snakes to follow him. The original four, he left on guard duty.
"Your mother was nothing more than a tawdry tart with a crystal ball!" Riddle called after him. "And you're no part of me!"
At least we have that sentiment in common.
Tom turned around to look at him one last time, a waste of a man held in check by four common adders. Tom called the snakes, letting the last one snap a good one to Riddle's ankle. One adder bite wouldn't kill him, and he'd have something to remind him that he had a son, in case he forgot again.
"Bastard!" Riddle yelled.
Tom let it roll over him. Being called a bastard by the man who'd made him one didn't have that much sting. He turned and walked away, his back to the setting sun.
Outside of Bude, a man in an automobile picked him up. They talked their way amiably to a bus station, and Tom caught a late bus to London. The man told his wife over dinner about the charming young boy he'd met, and when the bus driver clocked out that night, he was smiling... in these rude days, it was a relief to find a polite young person.
Tom spent the night at the bus station, not sleeping, and made his way as quickly as he could to the pub the school had written him about. A harried innkeeper told him that he'd missed the orientation--"It was a week ago, lad!"--but had his boy take Tom through an archway into another world. The errands, by necessity, were quick, and Tom enjoyed watching shopkeepers and bankers snap to their jobs to make sure he would make the train at eleven. A part of him wanted to run about, to see everything in this marvelous new place, but there was no time, and he wasn't a tourist here, at any rate. This was his world. It belonged to him to see whenever the chance presented itself.
Only the wand maker seemed to take his time, but it was the last stop. Tom rather enjoyed the attention he got there, the determination to match "such a powerful young wizard" with just the right wand. Yew and phoenix feather, thirteen-and-a-half inches. Tom could feel it almost burning in his hand, and when he closed his eyes, he seemed to see it glowing with a green, eldritch light.
"This phoenix has never consented to give a feather before," the wand maker said importantly. "It is a powerful bird and this will be a powerful wand. I look forward to seeing what you do with it."
"So do I," Tom said. Quite reluctantly, he put the wand into his traveling bag. He found his hand wanting to touch it again every few minutes throughout the day.
He'd saved a ten-pound note in Muggle money for a taxicab, which dropped him at King's Cross with ten minutes to spare, and was whisked by a teenage girl he'd never seen before to a brick wall. She pushed him through it unceremoniously, and appeared a moment later. She was a bit of a shrew, bespectacled and bony. "Sorry for the rush," she said. "We've been keeping an eye for you. You have to be careful these days, as a half-blood, it can get you in--"
"I'm not a half-blood," Tom said, the phrase catching in his mind like a barbed hook. Half-blood? He was the descendent of a great wizard. The man in Cornwall with a healing snakebite on his ankle was no one who mattered.
The girl stopped. "Aren't you Tom Riddle?"
"I'm a prefect, Minerva McGonagall. Don't worry, no one else has been told, but we're to make sure that you're safe, what with Grindelwald's people about, and--"
"I'm not a half-blood," Tom said again, then put on the best smile he could find. "I'm purely me."
"Yes, all right, then." The prefect-girl looked at him oddly. "Well, you'd best get on board. You'll need to find a seat."
She disappeared into the bustling crowd of students bidding farewell to their parents, and Tom Riddle boarded the Hogwarts Express.
Novelty had always worn off quickly for Tom, and once it did, the train ride was unremarkable. Tom used it to watch the older students, and see how they behaved with one another. By the time he had arrived at Hogsmeade station, he'd joined a group of slightly older boys who lived in Slytherin House. He'd chosen them because of the serpent embroidered on their house badges--he felt a bit alone without his adders, though no one would drag such information from him--but the name flared in his mind as soon as they spoke it. He didn't ask the meaning of this (no reason to give away the fact he didn't know) but he stored the information. Salazar Slytherin, the great wizard, the one from whom he was descended. What did it matter if the man whose name he actually bore was nothing more than a common Muggle lout, when he had a forefather like that to look to?
He didn't notice who was in the boat with him as he crossed the lake, though he did his best to be charming and affable. The gamekeeper dropped them off at the foot of the stairs, and Tom looked eagerly upward.
His breath froze.
At the top of the stairs stood a red-haired wizard with piercing blue eyes. He frowned deeply when Tom met his gaze, looking puzzled and a bit disconcerted. It seemed to take a long time for that gaze to move on to the next student.
Finally, the wizard spoke. "I am Albus Dumbledore," he said. "In a few moments, your life at Hogwarts will begin as you are sorted into your houses. There are four: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each house is ancient, each has produced witches and wizards of great acclaim. While you are here, your house will be your family..."
Tom smiled. He had no idea how true that was.
The door opened, and Dumbledore led the first years inside. Tom paid no attention to the others; he was too busy taking in the Great Hall, the enchanted ceiling, the rich tapestries, the fine robes of the teachers at the head table. He didn't register that Dumbledore was giving instructions again until that hard, cold stare fell on him, and silence in the Hall fell with it.
Tom looked up, expecting a scolding as he might get from Mrs. Masters, but Dumbledore didn't issue one. He simply looked at Tom, and waited for attention, then went on about his business. He set a tattered hat on a stool.
To Tom's great annoyance, the hat began to sing.
Long ago but quite close by
Four sorcerers agreed
To build a school for magic youth
And teach them what they'd need.
Side by side they worked for years,
And toiled upon the land
They gave in equal measure
And each lent an equal hand.
But even friendships of the great
Can be shattered bare by strife
And so among the Hogwarts four
Was hatred sown so rife.
Slytherin wished for purity,
And Gryffindor, impure, his pride.
Ravenclaw set herself apart
And Hufflepuff took no side.
The founders argued long and hard
But could not make amends
Finally, they turned to me
Lest Hogwarts meet its end.
To see that no mind was excluded
Each gave me some to hold
And now it's my sad duty
To separate the fold.
But do not think to turn your back
On the brother at your side
Or the sister standing by him
No matter where they will bide.
For Hogwarts and all Britain
Are beset with hate and war
And only with our unity
Can we survive the storm.
So come and hear me whisper
The place where you belong
Love it, yes, but do not forget
The warning of my song.
Tom looked to the walls for a clock and was startled not to find one. He'd never been in an institution like this without clocks on the walls. He'd have to get a watch if he was going to--
Again, his innards felt cold, and he looked up to see Albus Dumbledore watching him. He manufactured a smile, and Dumbledore looked away, but he didn't give Tom the returning smile that he'd usually get.
The hat went on.
Gryffindor the bold sought out
The bravest for his own
And loved the daring students
Who made his heart their home.
In other words, Tom thought, Gryffindor House was for show-offs.
Hufflepuff built with care and love
And her House still bears her sign
In Hufflepuff dwell the tireless ones
All striving to be kind.
Tom wrinkled his nose. He'd read better verse on the wall of the boys' lavatory at the orphanage.
Ravenclaw was home to wisdom
To love of learning true
If learning is your first love
Then to Ravenclaw with you!
Tom checked himself before he started looking for a clock again. So far, there was a house for playground bullies and a house for chumps. While Ravenclaw sounded livable (Tom genuinely enjoyed learning, and had taught himself to read at four) he hoped that the remaining house--his family house--would be better.
Slytherin chose the sly ones
Who would do what must be done
To gain the great advantage
To see their battles won.
That was more like it. Slytherin, Tom thought hopefully. That's my House. He felt a rush of pride. All his life he had been the outcast who came from nowhere, but now... now he was part of a thousand years of history. Not a small part either, if one of the school Houses was named for his ancestor.
The best of the Houses.
So come forward now and hear me speak
The name of your new home
But don't forget the larger truth:
All Hogwarts is your own.
Everyone clapped, so Tom clapped as well. It seemed to be expected. Then Dumbledore began to read out names in alphabetical order. Tom kept track only of Slytherins, hoping that the house would not be over-assigned before he reached the R's. He didn't learn the names of the other first years.
Finally, after an endless wait for the hat to decide that Quinlan, Elizabeth was in fact a Ravenclaw, Dumbledore paused. Again, he looked oddly at Tom, but when he spoke, his voice was as mild and distant as it was with everyone else: "Riddle, Tom."
Tom didn't run to the stool. He walked slowly, not wanting to chance embarrassing himself by tripping, but mostly not wanting to let anyone see eagerness. He picked up the hat and lowered it onto his head, letting the darkness fall over his eyes.
"Well," the hat said, "aren't you interesting."
Tom didn't answer it.
"Normally, I'd put you in Slytherin in a trice, but you may have trouble there in our present times... perhaps you would prefer to be in Ravenclaw, where--"
Slytherin, Tom thought.
"It is your home by birth," the hat mused. "But a half-blood will have difficulties..."
I am not a half-blood.
"But your father--"
Doesn't matter at all. I've seen him. He's none of me.
"You'll find it more difficult than that to--"
I can handle things. That ugly prefect girl said they didn't know, anyway.
"They will hate you, Tom Riddle, if they learn that you--"
Then they won't.
The hat didn't say anything else for a long, long time. At last, in a resigned way, it said, "There is no other house for you. I tried. Be wise, Riddle. And be careful in
To be continued... in 1965.