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Eldritch

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“I will leave you to your lemon-drops then,” murmured Severus. His eyes firmly refused to meet mine.

“Yes.”

Severus rose to his feet quickly and fled the room. I could hear his boots clattering down the spiral staircase.

“I did not think I could hate you more, Dumbledore,” Phineas remarked from his portrait. “Now I find out that I can.” His eyes were glinting in malice. For once, he meant what he said. Fawkes, who usually registered his displeasure of the former Headmaster’s snide comments with a trill, now remained silent. If both Fawkes and Phineas agreed on the subject, then doubtless the world should end then. I wished it would end.

“There is so much to do,” I murmured. “We cannot afford to quarrel over trifles. Harry must be kept safe. The boy is depressed, Phineas. You must keep an eye on him, please.”

“I will,” Phineas assured me, “once I see for myself that there is someone to take care of Severus. My loyalty is owed to Slytherin before it is owed to the school.”

With that parting shot, he disappeared into his frame. Closed ranks, I had often thought whenever I saw those of the Slytherin House. Their loyalty to each other and to the House overrode personal enmities, family and society. Phineas insisted on wearing his House colours. Tom favoured those of Slytherin in his Inner Circle. Severus rarely divulged information which compromised his Housemates, preferring to expose Death Eaters from the other Houses. Slughorn had not been harmed by the enemies despite returning to Hogwarts. I knew for a fact that he still received tokens of regard from those suspected of harbouring Death Eaters.

“I am going for a walk,” I announced to the empty room.

Long, long ago, if I had said that, Aberforth would have asked my mother if he could accompany me. Ariana would have waved to us from the kitchen window. Now I was left with lemon-drops, portraits and a phoenix. This would not do, I told myself firmly. A walk would raise my spirits and that would put an end to the self-pity.

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“Albus!”

He had already seen me. I would have made myself invisible if I had known he would be out and about at such a late hour.

“Unusual to see you at this time of the day, Horace,” I remarked politely, taking care not to smile and wishing that he would take my hint and leave me alone.

He gave me a thoughtful look before saying, “I wished to speak with you on certain matters, Albus. We can walk together to the Astronomy Tower.”

There was more to Slughorn than the cheerful gourmet. I had realised that during Tom’s sixth year at Hogwarts when I espied the scales of a Basilisk in Slughorn’s potions stores. Slughorn had known then, about the Chamber and the Heir. Even so, he had coolly supported Dippet’s edict to have Hagrid expelled. I did not trust Slughorn, but I knew he would do his best to see to it that his charges survived the coming war. So would Severus, but this year would leave him no time to devote to his students.

We had reached the Tower and now stood silently. I did not bother to look at the skies. I knew what I would see. The reddish cast of Mars had been growing stronger over the last few months.

Slughorn abruptly broke the silence saying, “It is your fault, Albus.”

I turned to face him, incredulity and fear alternately gripping my heart.

“You know it is,” he said wearily. “Time and again, I have striven to make you understand that Slytherin is the House of the unloved. You failed to see it, Albus. And you sent them all to their doom. I told you to have a care when you laughed off Charlus Potter and his cronies sneaking into the Slytherin girls’ dormitories. The first Death Eaters came from that batch of students, Albus, and I could understand what drove them to it. I told you to restrain your mistrust of Tom. I told you many a time to expel Black, Potter and Lupin. No, you were brave and noble, Albus, and you were always right because you were brave and noble. So I had to stand helpless and watch the brightest of my children fall into the darkness. Now you have destroyed one more generation, Albus. Severus could have saved them given his influence on them, but he did not. Why? Because he knows they will be treated as second-class citizens if they joined you.”

The house of the unloved, Slughorn had said. How true! The unhappy, the misfits, the frightened and the freaks all flocked to Slytherin. Perhaps it was this bond which held them together and rallied them to each other’s aid above the calls of family and society.

Slughorn and I had had many disagreements in the course of our careers but not once had he openly accused me of playing favourites. Now he did not look righteously angry or vengeful. He looked tired, as if he had already seen the outcome and made his peace with it. Perhaps he had.

I seized the last of his tirade and said firmly, “I have never treated Severus as a second-class citizen. I trust him.”

“I am sure you do.” He laughed coldly. “The poor boy ruined a batch of Veritaserum because his tears contaminated the ingredients. Your trust overwhelms him, does it not?”

“Did he tell you anything?” I asked, suspicious. The plans had been set in motion and both Severus and I could not afford confiding in anyone else.

“You don’t trust him even now, do you?” wondered Slughorn. “Don’t answer, Albus. It was merely a rhetorical question. You have probably set him a task that nobody sane would undertake. I hope he dies cleanly.”

“Horace!” I exclaimed in horror, taken aback by his words. “Don’t jest about matters of death.”

“I sent the boy to Tom to keep him alive and safe,” Slughorn whispered. “How will I jest about his death, Albus?”

He knew something. He would not dare speak so without some inkling of the promise Severus had sworn to me. I knew that neither Severus nor I had confided in anyone. This left Narcissa and Bellatrix, who had been present when Severus had made that Vow.

“Narcissa,” said Slughorn, who had followed my thoughts easily. “She is worried about Severus. So am I. We have been in touch over the summer.”

There was nothing that I could say which would justify the promise I had demanded of Severus. I had made many a mistake as a teacher. I could not afford to sit and grieve about those. I did not have the time to. Harry needed to be trained soon. The Order needed to bolster its defences and gather its strength in secrecy since we could not afford another run-in with Tom.

“Why did you send Severus to Tom?” I asked Slughorn. It had been bothering me. I could have protected the boy.

“Tom was the better choice,” Slughorn answered frankly. “You were fawning over your golden quartet. Tom respected skill and brilliance. He had a soft corner for those from unhappy families. I knew Severus would be safe with him. I was right. Tom did not involve Severus in killings or torture. It was only after Severus heard the prophecy and realised that a child would be murdered, he was stricken enough to seek you. I think it was his greatest mistake. Now he has been living a half-life for years, running your errands and eating your scraps while you offer venison and wine to your golden angels.”

Hearing your mistakes listed out so plainly does not do wonders for your temper. I reined in my anger and let him rant. He had lost so many. Those of my House were being kept safe at the cost of his charges. He had the right to lament. That did not endear him to me. I had taken a walk to escape my guilt. Now there he stood, throwing my guilt into my face and daring me to accept gracefully.

“We must make the best of what we have,” I said quietly. “I cannot change the past, Horace, though I dearly wish I could.”

“If you could,” Slughorn asked, “what would you change, Albus? Would you try to change the decision to overlook the antics and the bullying your favourite charges indulge in? Would you give Tom a chance? Would you try to save Severus? What would you change, Albus?”

“I don’t know, Horace,” I sighed. “There have been so many mistakes. I live with them.”

“They say that Albus Dumbledore believes in second chances,” murmured Slughorn.

I frowned. What was he trying to imply?

“Lucius saved a Time-Turner before they were all destroyed in your little skirmish last year,” Slughorn said quietly. “He had transfigured it into his wedding ring and the prison authorities allowed him to send it to his wife for safe-keeping. Narcissa agreed to let me have it if it would keep Severus and Draco safe.”

Lucius was good at Transfiguration, I remembered. His results were usually economical and elegant. He had once transfigured my duster into a yellow jester’s hat with flowing red tassels. I had reprimanded him and taken ten points from his House. If James Potter had done it, I would have awarded ten points for that flamboyant creation.

“I cannot do it, Horace,” I said bleakly, waving the charred remnants of my hand on which rested the ring. “I am needed here. This is war. I must keep Harry safe and try to weaken Tom as much as I can.”

“You cannot win the war, Albus,” Slughorn snorted. “It will kill many on both sides and drag on for years. Tom is patient. You and I both know that. Word from my former students is that he is in Switzerland to conduct discussions with several Muggles who are placed highly in their financial world.”

“Tom courting Muggles?” I snorted. “He must be desperate for funds, then.”

“So are you,” said Slughorn placidly. “The war will drag on. Both sides will starve to death in the end, Albus.”

I hated it when Slughorn made sensible arguments. How dared he assume my actions when I had been giving blood and soul to this cause for years while all he did was host parties and sit with his plump legs dangling on both sides of the fence?

“Here,” he said quietly, coming over and tying a bracelet about my charred wrist. From the bracelet dangled a moon-white oval pearl.

“Press that, think of what you wish to change and hope for the best,” whispered my companion, looking unusually pale-faced. There were dark circles of sleeplessness underneath his eyes. In the all the years of our acquaintance, I had never seen him so badly affected. He seemed unnerved by my stare and continued quickly, “If nothing, it may at least save someone. Narcissa would kill me if she hears that you saved one of your golden geese instead of keeping Draco or Severus safe. Despite that, I have decided. Severus will see to it that Draco is safe. And Severus himself is nothing more than your tool. He will die when you ask him to. I have to accept his choice. Goodnight, Albus.”

With that, he shuffled away into the dark corridors leaving me standing under the night skies and staring at the golden bracelet about my wrist. The little pearl winked at me conspiratorially.

“No,” I whispered.

A soft trilling awakened me from my stupor. Fawkes was staring at me from his perch on the railing. I remembered that Tom Riddle had been fond of sitting with his legs astride this very railing. For someone who was so obsessed with immortality, he had been quite careless with his health and safety during his schooldays. Hagrid once told me that Tom had often slipped from the railing and levitated himself back up.

“Why?” I had asked Tom once, after my heart had nearly stopped beating at the sight of his thin body stretched lengthwise over the railing. His hands had been crossed under his head and his legs dangled on either side of the rail.

“Sometimes the wind blows, Professor, and I almost fall,” he had said laconically. “Then I realise I am still alive. It is a heady sensation. Near death experiences make you drunk on life, you know. It soars through you and sets every nerve aflame. You see everything in a different light.”

“An eldritch light,” I had told him softly, remembering the overwhelming sensation of life and light that had soared through my veins after defeating Grindelwald. So powerful, so frightening and so right.

“Eldritch?” Tom had asked, a frown coming to nest between his brows. He must have been tired, since he would not have betrayed curiosity in my presence otherwise. I had wondered if he had just experienced one of those near-death experiences. I had never seen him so relaxed and chatty.

“Yes, unnatural light. Unearthly. Eldritch. One of my friends used to say that we see an eldritch light only moments before we die.”

Tom had held my eyes then before nodding quietly. It had been the one moment of accord in our life.

Fawkes trilled again, pulling me from my reminiscing.

“It is nothing,” I assured him. “We should return to the office.”

I held out my hand for him. He came to me and I could not help a smile as his familiar weight settled comfortably on my blackened hand. Then I cried out in horror for his talons were digging into the pearl dangling from the bracelet.

It was that eldritch sensation all over again. Life and light and power soared through my blood until I could no longer stand it. I screamed and gathered Fawkes close to my breast just before I lost consciousness.

 

I woke to find familiar blue eyes glaring at me.

“Aberforth,” I rasped.

“What are you playing at?” he demanded. “Showing up in the dead of the night in my bedroom with your flashy bird? Spying on me, are we, dear brother?”

I blinked twice and looked at his features again. His skin was smooth and his hair still auburn.

“What year is this?” I asked, even as I tried to calm myself. My brother was staring at me. I gathered my beard in my shaking hands and looked at it. Auburn. Twinkling through the brown tresses was the wretched bracelet. The pearl had been torn away from the clasp. And my hand was not charred anymore. The ring was missing.

“You are not drunk,” Aberforth told me as he squatted before me and checked my pupils carefully. I blinked as the tassels of his sleeping cap tickled my nose. He pushed them out of the way and glared at me again. Only Aberforth could intimidate someone when he was in his nightclothes.

“What year is this?” I demanded. “Please, Abe, this is important.”

“According to you, everything you do is important,” he grumbled. “It is September 3rd, 1934. Now go up to the Castle and get yourself looked over by your nurse. If you don’t feel up to it, sleep here on the floor. I can spare a mattress. Make your choice. I have to get some sleep before I open the bar tomorrow.”

I sat up abruptly, promptly lost my sense of orientation and grasped his hand in a bid to keep myself upright. He cursed and shoved me back onto the floor.

“What have you got yourself into this time?” he spat. “For the love of God, Albus, you will be the end of me!”

Fawkes trilled softly.

“Ask that loudmouth to be quiet if you are staying,” Aberforth commanded.

I nodded meekly.

Seeing my compliance, his gaze turned suspicious.

“You are not dying, are you?” he asked, uncertainty and fear flickering over his features.

“No, no, I am not,” I assured him.

I did not trust anyone with my plans. I rarely ever spoke to Aberforth. We had a mutually beneficial arrangement to present a united front against a common enemy. This front hid his resentment, my pride and our shared guilt.

Slughorn had asked me what I would change.

Seeing the concern on Aberforth’s face, I decided what the first change should be. I would trust Aberforth.

So I took a deep breath and began my story. I spared myself nothing as I bared my life and guilt before him. The candle in his room had guttered to a morose pool of wax and the only illumination was Fawkes’s bright plumage. It cast an unnatural light over Aberforth’s pensive face as he fingered the bracelet I had placed in hand.

“An eldritch night,” said Aberforth finally. “The messes you get into, Albus! Your younger self is in the Castle. Sleep now. Take the bed.” As I began to protest, he barked, “I need to think about what you have told me now. Sleep. I won’t need the bed.”

With that, he stalked over to the bedside table and lit a fresh candle before setting it on the mantel. Then he threw open a drawer, pulled out a nightshirt and a sleeping cap and placed them on the bed.

“Don’t pull one of your fancy stunts,” he warned me. “It is dangerous. We will see what can be done in the morning.”

“You believe me?” I asked incredulously. I had never believed anything he said without confirmation from another source. If he had been the one to come up with such a story, I would have used a touch of truth potion in his tea.

“Aren’t you the one who goes on about second chances?” he retorted. “I practise what you preach.”

He left the room and slid the door shut. Fawkes trilled once more.

I was fifty-three years old once again. This was 1934. Grindelwald was at large. Tom Riddle had not started Hogwarts yet.

Tom Riddle. I cursed. I had been thinking of him when Fawkes had activated the Time-Turner and the device had faithfully transported me to this year.

“There is a war going on, Fawkes,” I whispered. “Why did you do it? Harry! I must get back to keep him safe. The horcruxes. The Order. Severus with the weight of his vow. Oh, Fawkes, what have you done?”

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The next morning saw me sitting with Aberforth in the attic of the inn.

“I must steal a Time-Turner from the Ministry,” I said. “It is the only solution.”

Aberforth fixed me with a stern glare. Why my younger brother acted as if he were the elder was beyond my understanding. He had been in Hufflepuff and still had scared the living daylights out of his peers from other Houses with his duelling skills. My mother had once said that Aberforth must have scared the Hat into sorting him into Hufflepuff.

“If you are not there, this Draco cannot try to kill you,” he said. “So your Severus won’t have to kill you to keep his vow.”

“Abe, it is not as simple as that,” I groaned and rested my head on my hands. “Time-Turners are plagued by paradoxes. You cannot just change the fabric of time just as you please.”

“You have done it,” he retorted. “And here you are. Now be a good boy and don’t do it again.”

Was he channelling our mother? I looked at him suspiciously.

He smirked and said, “Your bird is intelligent, or so you keep saying. If that chicken wants you here, then maybe there is a reason.”

“Fawkes is a phoenix,” I muttered. “Do I call a goat a sheep?”

“You can call a goat a phoenix for all I care.” He shrugged. “Now, from what I understand about your Time-Turner lecture, you cannot be in two places at once.”

“Yes.” I nodded, relieved. “So you see why I cannot afford to be here. I must return to my year.”

“We can kill the Albus in the castle,” he suggested solemnly. I knew him well enough to know that he meant it too. I did not reply.

“Why did you pick this year?”

“I think it is because of Tom,” I answered thoughtfully. It had been plaguing me all night. “I had been thinking of him, you see.”

“Doesn’t a Time-Turner retain the traveller’s actual age?” he wondered.

“It was stolen from an ongoing experiment in the Mysteries Department,” I mumbled, looking at my restored hand pensively. “Then it was transfigured twice. Who knows what charms have been tampered with?”

“Albus?” my brother chortled. “You are obsessed with stealing from the ministry, aren’t you?”

“I must return, Abe,” I said quietly. “I cannot abandon Harry now. The boy needs help.”

He drew in a deep breath and said, “You are here now. Any Time-Turner we use cannot restore you to your previous age. Now why don’t you go see what this Tom is doing before we take any drastic measures? You said you had been thinking of him. So the device has sent you to the time it thinks you should meet.”

“He is not old enough to attend school yet,” I told him. “He must be eight years old now. Why would the device want us to meet now?”

My brother sighed and pinched his nose. Then he said flatly, “I have to open the inn, Albus. Eat your toast, transfigure your chicken into a proper goat and then check on Tom. We will talk in the evening. Yes, yes, I will keep an eye on the Ministry channels to see if you can get a Time-Turner.”

I knew that no further discussion would be encouraged right then. I nodded and started nibbling on the toast. He took his leave. I decided to borrow my brother’s best suit and shoes. His taste in clothing was so staid and I nearly charmed the jacket into a lovely shade of purple before thinking twice. Aberforth had always raised hell if Mother added a touch of colour to his clothes. I did not want that, not now. So I dressed myself in the dull clothing, threw the Invisibility cloak on and crept down the stairs. Fawkes had vanished right when Aberforth had mentioned transfiguration and goats in the same sentence. I was not worried. Fawkes was better at taking care of himself than I was.

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London in the early 1930s was a determined city leaving behind gas-lights for electricity and horse-drawn carriages for motor vehicles. In 1931, Ford had opened a new factory in East London employing hundreds of labourers and saving a generation from poorhouses.

In the September of 1934, the city was still flushed with the successful conclusion to the Commonwealth Games. There were rumblings of unrest and persecution filtering through the ministerial channels. Yet the common man in London was thankful for being spared the unemployment and economic troubles that plagued the rest of Britain. This would soon change.

I decided to walk from Charing Cross to the nondescript orphanage. Taking in the long-forgotten smells and sights of London before the war, I was wallowing in my nostalgia and regrets that I did not pay attention to my path. I was torn away from my musings by a wave of wild magic.

Tom.

I rushed in the direction of the source, my wand at the ready. Which poor soul was he playing with now? Yet, even as I ran, I could not help wondering at the uncontrolled nature of his magic. It seemed an outburst of distress and pain. He had always had such perfect control. In fact, this was the first time I had felt his wild magic. It was undirected and harmless.

The magic led me to a small square plot. Perhaps it was one of those recreational areas designated by the corporation. A dozen or so boys were standing in a semicircle, facing away from me, jeering and throwing stones at something at their feet. A cat? Boys had often thrown stones at Minerva while she walked the grounds in her transfigured form.

“What is going on?” I demanded, tapping the shoulder of the nearest boy. The oldest among them looked sixteen and the youngest about seven.

They took one look at my tall form and ran away. The magic ceased. I looked down and cried out in horror. It was not a cat. It was a naked boy. His ribs stuck out painfully against his bruised skin. There were numerous cuts and burns on the pale torso. One hand was shoved into his mouth and he was biting hard on it. I could see the blood trickling onto the dusty ground. The other hand was cupped protectively over his genitals. His eyes were closed tightly and his long legs were clamped together. I was transported to the play-ground where Ariana had been found abandoned after the Muggle boys had finished teaching her their lesson.

Before I knew it, I had already knelt beside him and taken him into my arms. Quickly, I took off my cloak and covered him up.

“It is over,” I soothed the child. “They won’t harm you again.”

His eyes shot open and I gasped as familiar dark eyes roved over my face silently beseeching reassurance of his safety.

“It won’t happen again,” I promised.

“Mrs. Cole says that every time she rescues me,” he rasped and that broke my heart into wretched little pieces. I should have tried to succour him all those years ago. He had saved himself with power and control when nobody else had saved him.

He was now trying to move out of my arms and his long legs struggled to obey his whim. With a deep breath, he murmured, “Thank you, kind sir. I must be going now.”

He wiped his bleeding hand on his thigh. His other hand had not yet moved from its protective shield over his genitals. I did not even want to speculate on why he felt that necessary. Fear and anger were coursing through me. Without pausing to think twice, I scooped him into my arms, stood up and apparated back.

We ended up right in the middle of my brother’s goat-pen. He toppled out of my hands and landed heavily on the wet earth. A goat which eerily resembled Aberforth himself nudged the boy’s nose.

“Why, yes, honoured to meet you, Billy,” he murmured softly.

I knelt beside him and tried to help him up. He shot me a curious look before accepting my hand.

Somehow, he managed to embody quiet dignity despite his injuries and nakedness. Then he fixed me with a piercing stare and asked solemnly, “Am I down the rabbit hole?”

I waved my hand and changed my clothing into the usual flamboyant, vibrantly coloured robes. He took a step away from me, shock flitting across his features before he schooled himself into composure, and he said, “You must be the Mad Hatter.”

Then he promptly fainted.
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“Albus!” Aberforth shouted as he walked to the pen with his long strides. The wards must have alerted him. He stared in shock as I ran my wand over the boy’s body to diagnose his condition. “Albus, you are forbidden to molest young boys in my goat-pen!”

I shot a glare at him before returning to my task. Aberforth snorted and came to join me. He saw the boy’s body and gasped.

“Albus!” he hissed, his voice breaking over the syllables of my name. His hand came to grip my shoulder and he fell to his knees beside me. We were once again in Godric’s Hollow, weeping over Ariana after the Muggle boys had finished their fun with her.

“He is not Ariana,” I whispered, trying to keep my voice calm and even. “He is stronger, Abe. Nothing will happen.”

Aberforth fingered the rosary beads about his neck and did not loosen his grip on my shoulder as I carefully healed the boy. Aberforth had turned to religion for solace after our sister’s death. I had turned to the halls of academia. Now, once again, we were united by the ghost of Ariana as we willed the boy to pull through.

Two hours later, we faced each other across Aberforth’s cot where the boy had been tucked in.

“He heals fast,” I murmured.

“Albus, the child has survived seven or eight years of this. His magic knows that he needs to heal fast if he is to survive.”

True. I told him, “It worries me that his magic was wild, Abe. It did nothing to help him. I knew him as someone with complete control over magic and mind.”

“Wild magic messed with her mind,” Aberforth said softly.

Ariana’s magic and mind had been destroyed by her ordeal at the hands of those boys. It had been the flare of her wild magic which had alerted us to her distress that day. I shifted in my chair. Tom was stronger, wasn’t he? Tom was not Ariana.

Aberforth fingered his rosary beads. I gripped Tom’s slender fingers and willed him to wake up sane and whole.

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“Sir?” A slender finger was tapping my knuckles. “Your brother says you have to wake up.”

I shot to my feet and stared at the boy standing before me. He had quickly drawn his hand away, panicking at my sudden reaction, and was now shooting a desperate glance towards the kitchen from where I could hear the banging of pots and pans. I sighed in relief at seeing him up and about.

“You are better, then?” I asked taking in the sight of him in a cream shirt and plain black trousers. Aberforth must have shrunken his clothes. The boy looked older than his eight years. I decided to get a nice orange suit for him. It would become him much better than these staid colours.

“Yes,” he said firmly. “Your brother asked me to fetch you.”

I hurried into the kitchen and sat down at the rickety table. Aberforth set a plate of steak and kidney pie before me, muttering all the while about brothers who eat decent folks out of home and hearth. I helped myself to a slice and relished the savoury taste, turning a deaf ear to his grumblings. Aberforth was an excellent cook.

Tom had followed me into the kitchen and was now sitting at the table and quietly peeling potatoes. He did that with an adroitness which betrayed long practice.

“I am keeping you,” Aberforth declared as he set a plate before Tom with a large slice of the pie. He shoved the potatoes and the peeling knife to the side and pulled for himself a chair beside Tom.

“I am not a goat, sir,” Tom pointed out.

I had always thought that Tom’s politeness was a facade to the darkness within. Now I was doubtful. The boy had been, for that all he knew, abducted by a stranger and he had no reason to be polite.

“Billy thinks you are a goat, and you guessed his name right,” my brother said firmly. “So that is that, then.”

Tom’s lips curved upward before he quickly averted his eyes to the pie.

“Mrs. Cole will be worried,” he said quietly. “Father Sebastian too.”

“Who is Father Sebastian?” Aberforth asked.

“The priest at the seminary nearby, sir. He lets me feed the pigeons and read his books whenever I visit him.” Tom’s face had a pensive cast to it as he glanced at the window. “They will be worried, sir. Mrs. Cole often locks me in and canes me whenever I make something unnatural happen, but she does care.”

“What are the unnatural things you can make happen?” I asked, all thoughts of second chances evaporating at his admission.

“I don’t get wet in the rain,” he said. “The Sunday roast is burnt when I am grounded. Those who hurt me fall ill.” His composure fell away abruptly and he whispered, “That is all.”

“And?” I asked, knowing well that he was withholding something. “You were about to say something more.”

His eyes flashed and he said, “That is all I can tell you, sir.”

Aberforth said hastily, “Albus, let the boy eat. He needs some meat on his bones.”

Had Tom killed a rabbit? Had he tortured a child into madness? What if the other boys had been ganging up on him for something he had done to one of theirs?

“Tom?” I called him.

He met my gaze unflinchingly. I sharpened my thoughts and probed the boy’s mind. Confusion, determination and hope. His eyes widened in fear as he realised what was happening and a burning harpoon of anger pierced the blanket of my mind over his. The next thing I knew, a scowling Aberforth was helping me back to the chair. Tom was glaring at me.

“What did you do?” he asked coldly. “Whatever it is, please don’t do it again.”

“If you had told me-” I began my retort.

He cut in saying, “Why would I tell you? I don’t even know why you have brought me here or who you are.” To his credit, he looked more puzzled than angry.

“That is enough, Albus. Tom, eat up,” Aberforth growled. I rubbed my forehead. Tom shot me a curious glance before obeying my brother.

“It is the tastiest pie I have had, sir,” Tom said a while later.

“Call me Abe, my lad,” my brother said. “I will write to your Mrs. Cole. We can go and see her next weekend, if that suits you, eh? Albus won’t try his little games on you, I promise.”

“Yes, Abe,” Tom gave in, after giving me a nervous glance. “I promise to work for my food and board.”

“My brother brought you here, didn’t he?” Aberforth asked. “So he can pay for your food and board. You just keep my billy goat company and enjoy your stay.”

He reached across to ruffle the boy’s hair. Tom bit his lips and stayed stoically still until my brother’s hand moved away. Since I was sitting across the boy, I saw the brief flash of panic over his features.

“What about me?” I asked.

Tom looked up at Abe. I had never seen Tom so relaxed with anyone else. Well did I remember Walburga kissing his cheek on St. Valentine’s Day in 1940 and ending up in the hospital wing for a fortnight. Of course, Aberforth would achieve the impossible. I glared at my brother.

“You-” Aberforth pointed a spoon at me “-are helping me with the dishes.”

Tom did not laugh, but his eyes shone in mirth as he looked at my woebegone expression.

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“It took me the better part of an hour to calm him down after he woke up here and panicked,” Aberforth muttered as we sat by the fire with glasses of mead. “You should have at least told him that you were about to apparate. You scared the child out of his wits. And what were thinking when you used your mind tricks on him like that? He is eight years old, Albus! You could have destroyed his mind.”

“He likes you,” I remarked.

I did not want to talk about the foiled Legilimency. It had become second nature to me to probe others’ minds to check the veracity of their words. Aberforth was right. Murderer or not, Tom was still too young to be subjected to battles of the mind. However, I told myself, it had been necessary. I had to find out what Tom had done. Victim he might have been when I had discovered him, but I knew well how resilient he was. Besides, he had repelled my mind easily. I spared a moment to wish in vain that Harry had been equally talented at closing his mind. Poor Severus had been nearly driven out of his wits by their lessons.

“Albus, you must promise me that you won’t go foraging in his mind,” Aberforth growled. “I have given you a second chance. You will give him the benefit of doubt. He has no reason to trust strangers. How can you expect him to confide in you? He is not hot-headed. He is weighing his choices and options. As of now, he trusts me more than he trusts you. That is wise of him since he knows you are the one who abducted him and tried to rifle through his mind.”

“Abducted?” I spluttered. “I was saving him!”

“Yes, make that clear the next time you play the knight,” Aberforth retorted. “The boy thought you were one of those rich perverts who kidnap children off the streets. He was frightened out of his wits when he woke up naked and saw you by the bed. It does not help that you look immoral.”

“I look immoral, do I?” I asked, scandalised. He smirked and I quickly changed the subject not wanting to hear why he thought so. “The boy is wary about predators.”

“Yes, Albus.” Aberforth sighed. “He is as flighty as a colt. Albus, for all we know, he might be hiding memories of that sort. You are not to break into his mind. Even the most resilient can break if pushed too far. I know what you do. You break people and then comfort them with your hugs and touches so that they remain indebted to you. Don’t touch him. Don’t touch his mind.”

“You are the one who ruffled his hair,” I pointed out, while chewing over what Aberforth had said. He might be right. I remembered the way Tom had been shielding his lower body even when he had been out of his mind with pain. My brother had given me a second chance. I had not even given Tom a first chance.

“What will I do now, Aberforth?” I sighed.

I could not return. I did not know which charms were used on the experimental Time-Turner which had brought me here. So how could I bewitch another Time-Turner and make sure that I ended up in my own timeline? My age, my charred hand and the ring. I could not return. Now what would I do with Tom?

“I am keeping him,” Aberforth said firmly. “I won’t let another go Ariana’s way. I think you should stay, Albus. The boy can ease your guilt and he needs a father-figure.”

“Aren’t you the better choice for a father-figure? He has no reason to trust me, like you so helpfully pointed out.”

“Being a father-figure is a punishment, Albus. You can toil to win his trust. Billy and I are the indulgent uncles.”

I decided to ignore the connotations of ‘Billy and I’. It would only serve to give me nightmares. Being a father-figure to Tom? He had killed his father in my timeline. He was the last person on earth to need a father-figure, wasn’t he? Then I remembered how his dark eyes had sought reassurance when I was trying to soothe him in the playground. I remembered Ariana. Second chances.

“What about the Albus in the Castle?” I frowned at my restored hand once more. “Abe, this is a paradox.”

“Shut up and drink your mead,” Aberforth told me. “I will see that proper arrangements are made.”

I had borne the brunt of making decisions all my life. It was a relief to have someone else telling me what to do.

“Very well, then,” I agreed, finishing off the mead. “I am going to bed now.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Godric’s Hollow,” Aberforth decreed, as he stood by the kitchen window and watched the boy who was watering the vegetable garden.

I slammed my porridge spoon on the table and hissed, “No!”

“It is the only place which is safe enough, Albus,” Aberforth told me sharply. “The Castle Albus will never come there.”

Aberforth and I had fled Godric’s Hollow after Ariana’s funeral. He had come to Hogsmeade and I had escaped to Flamel’s residence in France. Neither of us had returned to Godric’s Hollow afterwards.

“You know it is the only choice, Albus,” he insisted. “It is for the greater good.”

“Don’t throw my words back at me!” I shouted. “I cannot return there. I will not return there. The boy can go back to his orphanage and I can hide myself in Africa. Anywhere, except there.”

“How many folks have you cajoled and blackmailed into facing their darkest nightmares, all using your greater good theme?” Aberforth demanded. “Albus, this is no longer about you. This is about the boy. You can give him a home and try to change his future. If you let him return to the orphanage, you know what the end results shall be.”

Tom was a survivor. He would lash out before he was harmed. If he returned to the orphanage now, he would come to Hogwarts as he had been all those years ago - closed off, sadistic and power-hungry in a bid to protect himself from the world. It would be too late to do anything then.

“Look at him,” murmured Aberforth.

Tom was singing softly now. His voice was high and clear. It reminded me of Elphias Doge’s voice before his puberty had set in. The verses he sang evoked memories of my mother and Sunday masses. Perhaps his Father Sebastian had taught him the song. Tom singing of heaven and hallowed fathers? It was incongruous, to say the least! Yet I could not help noticing that the serenity on his features became him well. My mother’s old piano-forte was still in Godric’s Hollow. A picture of Tom’s slender fingers coaxing soulful music out of those ancient keys flashed in my mind.

“A fine singing voice,” Aberforth said. “He has a good head for music.”

“Isn’t it one of your hymns?” I asked Aberforth.

“It is the Lord’s Prayer. He knows quite a few,” my brother told me. “He was singing Ave Maria earlier in the morning. It seems both Mrs. Cole and Father Sebastian are Catholic. Tom told me that he likes the songs though he doesn’t believe in Gods and angels. Reminds me of you.”

“Perhaps irreverent Irish lays may be more to his taste,” I remarked.

“You are not teaching him Leprechaun ballads!” Aberforth snapped.

The boy had finished watering the plants and was now making his way up the path to the kitchen door. Aberforth fell silent and I sipped my tea.

“Good morning!” I greeted the boy as he entered the kitchen. “Would you care to accompany us on a little trip to our old home?”

Tom looked at me suspiciously before shifting his glance to Aberforth. My brother assured him, “No, Tom, there is nothing to be worried about. You have my word that we are not drug peddlers or child molesters.”

Tom nodded and said quietly, “I would like to send a letter to Mrs. Cole before we leave. Would that be against those secrecy laws you spoke about yesterday, Abe?”

“Albus, help the boy write his letter, won’t you? I will go down to the inn and put up a closed sign.”

Tom looked uncomfortable after Aberforth had left. I told him gently, “I apologise for yesterday. I did not mean to harm you.”

“It is hardly the first time someone has harmed me, sir,” Tom replied flatly, his dark eyes wary and focussed on me as if expecting me to assault his mind once again. “May I write my letter, please?”

I conjured a goose-feather quill, an inkpot and parchment from thin air and set them before him with a flourish. He eyed my wand sceptically before drawing the parchment to him. Then he looked at the quill and the inkpot in bewilderment.

“Do you suppose you could make a pencil appear?” he asked me.

“Aren’t you a bright boy?” I teased him. “I am sure you will learn how to use the quill.”

He pursed his lips and did not look at me again. I cursed myself. I should have kept in mind that the boy was only eight. He was not the self-assured, arrogant teenager who charmed Hogwarts all those years ago. Tom was eight, he had badly suffered at the hands of that gang, he had been abducted and now he was in unfamiliar surroundings alone with the man who had tried to break into his mind.

He shot me a triumphant glance then. He had managed to write a sentence with only a few ink blots marring the letters. I could not help admiring his resilience.

Smiling, I conjured a pen and placed it before him saying, “Well done, Tom. Here is the pen you wanted. Mrs. Cole may not appreciate the blots.”

He did not thank me, but took up a fresh parchment and began writing with the pen. The boy was still peeved with me, wasn’t he? I had to keep myself from pinching his cheeks. Cheeks. The boy needed to put on some weight. Eight year olds were meant to be chubby and cute and dressed in colourful clothes. Ariana had been very pretty at eight with her bright red frocks and pigtails.

“We must get you clothes, my boy,” I said happily, carried away by my thoughts. I tried to imagine how he would look like if he had some meat on his bones and a ruddy complexion. I frowned. Tom had never looked very healthy. It was the clothes, I decided. He needed colourful clothing. “Blue, purple and red. We need to buy you a toy unicorn too. It helps you sleep better, you know.”

The scritch-scratch of the boy’s pen stopped. I looked at him, concerned. He was staring at me rather fearfully now.

“Yes?” I asked.

He shook his head quickly and returned to his letter. Sighing, he massaged his right wrist and transferred the pen to his left hand before resuming his writing.

“You write with your left hand?” I asked, startled.

He looked up at me suspiciously before saying, “I can write with both hands.”

“Talented,” I remarked.

“It was necessary,” he replied, pensively staring at the words he had written. “I needed to complete my homework. My right hand was fractured after...a fall. The teacher would have caned me before the school assembly if I didn’t turn in the homework. I had to learn to write with my left hand that night.”

Unbidden, a flare of pity coursed through my blood. Who could be cruel enough to cane an eight-year-old child before an entire assembly? Little wonder why Tom had been maniacal about his privacy in the earlier timeline.

“Were you caned often?” I asked quietly.

He twirled the pen once before saying, “I was rarely caned in the school. It was at the orphanage that I was punished often. They believe I make unnatural things happen because a demon possesses me. They believe if I cry out loud enough, the demon will be expelled from my body.” He twirled the pen once again. Then he said, “Abe told me that you cannot beat the magic out of someone.”

“Abe is right,” I said gently. “You are very magical. No amount of beatings or canings is going to take that from you. It was your magic which brought me to you yesterday, you know.”

He nodded, still deep in his thoughts. I asked him what had been bothering me since I had rescued him, “Why didn’t you harm the boys who were throwing stones at you?”

He flushed before dropping his eyes to the floor.

“Tom?”

“You want the answer. Won’t you look into my mind, then?” he demanded.

I tried to keep my voice even and gentle as I said, “I told you I am sorry for what I did yesterday. I am not going to look into your mind.”

His eyes darted up to hold my gaze for a mere second before they flickered over to the dirty dishes in the sink.

“Mrs. Cole took me to an asylum last week. They injected something which made me very ill. Mrs. Cole said I was frothing at the mouth and kicking everything within reach. ” His voice broke and he whispered, “I was weak after that. The boys don’t usually pick on me, sir. They know better. After I was brought back from the asylum, it has been difficult. They know I cannot do anything to resist. I was trying to protect myself yesterday. It didn’t work.”

I had heard of drugs being used to induce convulsions in mental patients who were committed to Muggle asylums. I recalled the punctures in Tom’s wrists and thighs before I had healed him. How could anyone be cruel enough to put a mere child through that? Now I understood Tom’s passion for using the Cruciatus curse on Muggles.

“You are not returning to them,” I swore. “What they did was wrong but fate will punish them.”

“Is wanting revenge wrong, then?” he asked me. His face was emotionless and his fingers were splayed comfortably on the table top without betraying the least amount of his tension.

I could not tell him about good and evil. Father Sebastian’s preaching had not made an impact on him. I knew Tom well enough to realise that he would not see in shades of mere black and white. He saw the world in eldritch colours.

“I think it is wrong,” I told him carefully. This would be important, I knew. How I wished that Aberforth was here with us! He seemed to know how to answer Tom’s questions without making the boy withdraw into himself.

Tom held my gaze fearlessly and said, “I don’t know if wanting revenge is wrong or right. I only know that revenge feels good.”

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Chapter Text

“You cast the charm?” Aberforth demanded.

“Yes, I did,” I said impatiently. “I cast the charm properly. Are you going to ask me again? It would be the sixth time then.”

“We can’t take any chances,” he muttered.

We were standing in the alley behind his inn. Aberforth had a firm grip on Tom’s shoulders and I looped my arm through my brother’s. Knowing that Aberforth would do anything to delay our journey, I closed my eyes and focussed on the destination.

“Dear God,” whispered Aberforth. I opened my eyes only because I couldn’t keep them closed forever.

We were in the backyard of our house in Godric’s Hollow. Ariana’s lemon-yellow frock hung tattered on the clothesline, torn by the winds and bleached pale by the sun.

“It is like going through a pipe,” Tom said thoughtfully.

“Have you been through a pipe, then, young man?” Aberforth looked down at our charge, clearly grateful for the distraction.

Tom stiffened. I chuckled and said, “We will forget that you mentioned anything of the sort.”

“We had best get this out of the way,” Aberforth said bleakly.

My eyes punished me with the image of that tattered frock once again. I clenched my fists. Aberforth shifted uneasily. Tom cried out in surprise and ducked from my grip on his shoulder. My brother’s palm came to rest on my forearm as Tom ran to the tattered frock lying limp on the clothesline and let his hand slip into the neck of the dress.

“Tom!” I called out, my voice low and furious.

Aberforth’s grip bit into my forearm but he said nothing. I could feel the sadness, guilt and regret rolling off him in waves of misery.

A garden snake, about two feet long, slithered out of Ariana’s frock onto Tom’s wrist. I shuddered as its forked tongue flicked the delicate skin as if measuring the boy’s pulse. Tom was hissing at it, his face alit with the joy that only children are capable of. I had not thought that Tom would be capable of such a pure emotion as happiness.

Aberforth laughed weakly and asked, “Well, my boy, what is it saying?”

Aberforth had a phobia of snakes. He had killed more snakes than flies or mosquitoes with his wand. I was surprised by his forced calm now. I could smell his sweat on the morning breeze. I was glad that I had warned him earlier about Tom’s peculiar ability to communicate with snakes. Tom, I noticed, did not seem perturbed about his ability. Was he used to speaking with snakes? Was he under the impression that this was, perhaps, yet another quirk of the magical world Aberforth had told him about? Despite everything, despite second chances, despite the benefit of doubt I swore to give Tom, I wanted to force open the doors of his mind and read his darkest secrets.

Perhaps the boy was right not to trust me.

The green coils of the snake formed a bracelet around Tom’s thin wrist, contrasting sharply against the dull white of his shirt. We needed to buy him proper clothing, I reminded myself.

“He told me that he is sleepy,” the boy informed us. He dropped to his knees and coaxed the snake to slither away. The care he took to untangle the looped body of the snake from his wrist unnerved me. I could not help thinking of Nagini and the horcrux she had been made into.

Tom rose and patted the soil off his clothes. “I hope I will see him again,” he said, his eyes following the snake into the thickets.

Aberforth had once rescued a little sparrow from a stray cat and mended its wing. It had flown away after the wing had healed. As Aberforth had watched it take off into the spring sunshine, he had had the same expression as Tom was wearing now.

“He didn’t want you to keep him, then?” I asked, trying to sound indulgent.

“Why will he want someone to keep him, sir?” Tom asked, puzzled. “He can take care of himself.”

Self-sufficiency. That dratted self-sufficiency which Tom wore like a cloak all the time. I knew his brilliant mind would have moved quickly to his own situation by now. I braced myself, expecting him to demand to be returned to his orphanage since he did not want anyone to keep him.

Aberforth must have known it too, since he asked, “Snakes take care of their young ones, don’t they?”

“Rarely,” Tom said pensively. “Most eat their young ones.”

“Well, goats take care of their young ones,” Aberforth stated.

“I am not a goat,” Tom pointed out.

“Nor are you a snake,” Aberforth said firmly. “You are a human. Humans take care of their young ones. Now come along. Let us enter the house.”

I found myself standing on the porch, as Aberforth fiddled with the large brass key. Tom was observing me with a measure of wariness.

“Are you worried that I will snoop into your mind if you turn your back to me?” I asked him.

That part of me which had always revelled in easily gaining and holding the trust of others was hurt by his wariness. I told myself that this was Tom. Trust was not a word that figured in his vocabulary.

Tom’s eyes darkened further and he said, “I can’t afford to be weak, sir.”

Since his weakness had led to his suffering at the hands of that gang, the logical part of me was not surprised that he would cling to his suspicions. Yet, the sentimental part of me felt wounded by the notion that there was a person who did not trust the word of Albus Dumbledore. Grindelwald had called me a man of honour. I wanted to tell Tom that even my enemies trusted me. I wanted to demand that he trust me unconditionally, for how else could I know how deep his darkness was?

And wasn’t it the same issue of trust which had caused our enmity the first time around?

“The snake said that there is a graveyard nearby,” Tom said, a spark of curiosity lighting his eyes.

My mother was buried there. Ariana was buried there.

“Yes,” I said tersely. Then I changed the subject. “When did you become aware that you could communicate with snakes?”

“I could understand their tongue before I could understand English,” Tom answered, a true smile curving the corners of his lips. “There is an ill-tempered adder in the bushes around the playground near the orphanage. Oh, you should hear some of the comments she makes about humans! The snakes speak a well-developed language, sir.”

“I am sure,” I said wryly. “The thickets in the backyard are infested with snakes, Tom. Not all of them are going to be as friendly as the garden snake. You will make sure that they are non-venomous before you play with them, won’t you?”

He said politely, “Yes, sir.”

I was sure that he was merely humouring me. I would not be surprised if he sought out the venomous snakes simply because I had asked him not to. I had taken particular pleasure in doing the forbidden at his age, much to my mother’s dismay and my father’s amusement.

Aberforth had finally managed to turn the key and the door cracked open with a weary groan.

Tom looked at Aberforth who was leaning on the door-jamb. My brother’s expression was hollow. Bile rose in my throat. Shoving my dread into a tiny little box deep within my mind, I mopped the sweat off my forehead and strode forward to join Aberforth. Tom had already entered the house, betraying the typical curiosity of an eight-year-old.

“Wait,” Aberforth muttered. “It must be dark in there, Tom.”

“It is very dark and musty,” answered Tom. “This place smells like time and tears.”

Aberforth flinched and I gripped my brother’s shoulder trying to draw from him the strength I sorely lacked. Before I could conjure light at my wand-tip, there was the tell-tale clatter of the living-room window being forced open and bright morning light streamed in. Tom stood by the window, a pale ghost in this mausoleum, unaware of our plight as he blew the dust off his palms. Then he turned to look at us and his eyes widened at the stricken expression on Aberforth’s face.

He offered quietly, “My cot at the orphanage smells like time and tears.”

That jerked Aberforth out of his despair and my brother said firmly, “We are going to make this place smell like goats and roses, Tom, my boy.” He strode to join Tom by the window. “Albus, don’t you keep standing there, lazy man. Come in and use your wand for something useful. I’ll make us some tea. Tom, stay here with Albus.”

I was relieved. I did not want to be alone right then. I also did not want Tom going upstairs. Ariana’s room was upstairs. Time and tears. How had he known? Aberforth would not tell anyone of our sister. Our family was a taboo subject for us. Tom was too perceptive and I did not want him finding my secrets before surrendering his own. Dear me, was I afraid of an eight-year-old boy dressed in Aberforth’s castoffs and dependent on our goodwill?

After Aberforth had trudged away into the kitchen, Tom looked up at me expectantly. I glanced about the room. The shattered teacups and the books strewn on the carpet testified to the bursts of destructive magic which had erupted during my quarrel with my brother after Arianna’s funeral. The room looked as if a hurricane had passed through.

I sat down heavily in the nearest armchair. It was the ratty affair that my father had been so fond of. My mother had brought it with her all the way from Mould-on-the-Wold because she believed he would return to us one day and lounge about in his favourite armchair while regaling us with tales of how he frightened the Dementors with his wit and merry ways.

Aberforth fussed about in the kitchen. Tom remained standing by the window. Ariana’s frock fluttered in the breeze like the tattered pennant of a fallen nation. In a fit of angry energy, I waved my wand and the room rearranged itself into perfection.

“Why do you need a wand to do magic?”

Good, the boy’s curiosity was strong enough to override his natural distrust of others. Now, how would I answer him? What exactly had Aberforth told him about magic? While I was glad that my brother had handled the boy’s first exposure to the magical world, it left me at a disadvantage. Muggleborns usually gave their loyalty to the person who introduced them to their first taste of the magical world. Tom would always look up to Abeforth. On the other hand, I thought wryly, I had been Tom’s gateway to the magical world in the earlier timeline and it had done neither of us any good. He certainly had not looked up to me.

“You need a wand to direct your magic, Tom,” I told him. “The tip of the wand is like the tip of a matchstick. Your magic comes out through that tip to do your bidding.”

“If all it does is directing this force you call magic,” Tom mused, “then a matchstick and a needle can serve equally well as your wand.”

I racked my brains for a suitable example.

“Electricity,” I told him, trying to remember what little I knew of the Muggle sciences. “Your wand is like an electric wire for your magic. Only some materials can carry electricity. It is so with your magic too. Only some things, like a wand or a staff, can carry magic.”

“That makes sense,” admitted Tom. He looked down at his thin fingers and said, “I think my magic comes from my fingertips. Sometimes, when I am really frightened, magic comes from every part of my body. Is that dangerous to my health?”

How quintessentially Tom to worry about his health before being concerned about how those around him might be affected! Benefit of doubt, commanded my conscience. I had sworn to give the boy the benefit of doubt. In the darkest corner of my mind bloomed a gnarly flower of envy for the command he had over his mind and magic at such a young age.

“Sometimes,” I told Tom. “Your magic can be dangerous to you when it is uncontrolled.” Poor Ariana. I pushed my grief and guilt away as I continued, “That is why there are schools for teaching young people how to use magic without harming others or self. You will go to one of them when you are eleven and you will learn to control your magic through a wand.”

Tom looked doubtful. Perhaps he did not believe that he needed a wand to control his magic. Too confident for his own good, I told myself.

When I looked up again, his curiosity had taken him to the large piano-forte which occupied the entire length of a wall of the room.

“Go on,” I told him, conjuring a stool for him. One of Ariana’s bursts of magic had broken Mother’s stool into smithereens.

“I don’t know how to play, sir,” Tom said, letting his fingers wistfully hover over the ivory keys smoothened by use and time.

“You are a good singer,” I said. “So you should find this easy once you start learning.”

Good singers do not necessarily make good piano-players. I knew that even though I had not learnt music the way my mother had. Neither had Aberforth. Perhaps Ariana had been the inheritor of our mother’s musical acumen. I would never know. Yet, as I watched Tom’s fingers flutter over the keys with a touch as fine as gossamer, I knew instinctively that he had music in him. It must have been his Muggle father’s contribution, for I did not think that the Gaunts were likely to be musically inclined at all.

“I have to be a good singer,” Tom said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We sing for our supper on Sundays when the benefactors visit us.”

“You are not returning there, Tom.” I said sharply, upset by the notion of the boy singing for his supper. “So talk about it in the past-tense, won’t you?”

His eyes shifted from the piano keys to the sunlight streaming through the window and he remarked, “I will have to talk about it in the present-tense once I return there, once your brother tires of me.”

“Must you be so suspicious of every man and his motives?” I asked, frustrated beyond words at his lack of trust. “Not believing what I say is one thing. Not believing what Aberforth tells you, that is stupidity, Tom! Has he lied to you?”

“Not yet,” Tom replied calmly.

Not yet? Did that mean he expected Aberforth to lie to him in the future? How many times should a man prove himself before earning the wretched boy’s trust?

“Tom!” It was Aberforth, calling from the attic. “Can you spare some time to arrange the books here?”

At the word books, Tom’s eyes lit up and he called back, “Of course, Abe.”

He nodded to me politely and left the room. I picked up the nearest object, which turned out to be a table-lamp and threw it across the room where it smashed into the glass-face of the dishware cupboard and showered the room with shreds of broken glass.

“Temper, temper!” Aberforth scolded me as he entered the room and sprawled into the armchair across mine.

They believed that Albus Dumbledore was a cheerful man incapable of the least measure of violence. Only Aberforth knew better. Once, in a fight with him during our schooldays, I had snatched his school-bag and thrown it into the Lake at Hogwarts.

We could hear the boy singing Silent Night, his clear voice refusing to be muffled by the attic-floor. I reminded myself to teach the boy something other than carols and hymns. He would sing for himself from this day. Sing for his supper indeed! Did he think that Aberforth would make him return to such an awful place? Why was he so confident that we would tire of him? Had he been adopted before? Perhaps he had frightened the couple who had adopted him. They must have returned him to the orphanage. What might he have done to them?

Benefit of doubt, counselled the most reasonable part of my mind.

“It worries me how easily he accepted my explanation about magic,” Aberforth said thoughtfully, deep frowns marking his forehead.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It was so the first time too, Abe. He accepted the existence of magic because he felt it made him special and he had convinced himself that he was the most special boy.”

“He is confident,” Aberforth admitted.

“He isn’t easily frightened. He is too confident. He is exceptionally perceptive. He questions everything.” I shook my head. My suspicions quelled the benefit of doubt principle. “He doesn’t care a whit about rules, Aberforth. Such an attitude will lead him down the wrong path.”

“Pshaw!” Aberforth ejaculated. “Don’t be an idiot, Albus! You were equally bad. You were overbearing, overconfident and very clever. With all that you have done in your life, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on when it comes to enforcing rules on others.”

“There is something dark about him,” I insisted. “I wish it weren’t true, Aberforth, but wishing isn’t going to change the truth.”

“Billy likes him,” Aberforth said calmly. “You need to stop regarding him as an enemy. He is a boy, just like he was the first time around when you antagonised him.”

“He had stolen from the others,” I said, exasperated. “I was trying to warn him.”

“You cannot relate to him because he resembles you too much for your comfort,” Aberforth muttered. “Let us drop the subject, shall we? We aren’t going to see eye to eye on it. Why don’t you take a sip of Polyjuice and take him shopping?”

“What do we do about the Castle Albus, Abe?” I clutched at my beard in frustration. “We must remain hidden here until he is no longer a factor. How shall we explain it to Tom?”

“As I said, stop worrying about that,” my brother said sternly. “There are three years to spare before Tom’s letter comes. It is going to require some thought. You should be positioned at Hogwarts at least a year before he starts there. It won’t do any good if both of you are trying to fit in. Besides, you need to be the one who writes Tom’s letter from Hogwarts. We cannot afford anyone noticing our involvement.” He pinched his nose. “For now, why don’t you concentrate on hiding properly and getting the boy to trust you?”

“I don’t suppose lemon-drops will do the trick,” I lamented.

Aberforth raised his eyebrows, but did not grace me with a retort. The soulful strains of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in Tom’s clear voice wafted down from the attic.

An invisible imp of mischief bit me right then and I conjured my voice to resound in the attic demanding, “Say, my boy, I am the spirit of the house! Can you sing anything else? Anything magical?”

“Albus!” Aberforth hissed.

The boy’s voice stuttered away into silence and I chuckled. It felt immeasurably good to scare the boy a wee bit. He was far too composed and blank-faced and that unsettled me. Aberforth groaned in vexation at my mischief. Then the boy’s clear voice took up a familiar Irish strain of my childhood days with renewed confidence.

Ó imreas mór tháinig eidir na ríoghna,
Mar fhíoch a d'fhás ón dá chnoc sí,
Mar dúirt an tSídh Mór go mb'fhearr í féin,
Faoi dhó, faoi dhó ná 'ntSídh bheag.

The Blind Carolan was one of my father’s favourites among the Irish composers. My mother would sing only Carolan’s songs on bonfire nights. ‘Si Bheag, Si Mhor’, the lay that the boy was now rendering in his child’s voice, evoked memories of my mother’s low, velvet tones spinning the tale of the war between the two fairy armies. The army of the little fairy hill and the army of the big fairy hill, Father had explained one bonfire night after my mother had finished the song. Ariana had been a three-year-old golden bundle nestled in Abeforth’s lap. I had been sitting with my legs drawn to my chest and my head resting upon my kneecaps.

“Dear God, Albus,” Aberforth whispered, even as he rolled the rosary beads between his fingers. His eyes were shadowed by grief as the boy’s song relived our memories of our family before the Muggle boys had destroyed everything with their thoughtless cruelty.

I did not reply.

“It is good to know that there is one person who won’t be charmed by you,” Aberforth muttered.

“Abe, your house talks,” Tom announced as he entered the room. Dust covered him from head to toe and his eyes twinkled in mischief as they held my gaze. The imp looked like one of those fairies he had been singing about: elfin and eldritch.

“Do you know Irish, then?” I asked, deciding to be graceful in defeat for now. Once Aberforth was out of the house, the true battle of wits would start. Ha, the boy would rue this!

“No, sir. Not a word,” he said, a puckish smile playing on his face. “The cook in the orphanage is Irish. For every song I learn from her, she smuggles me a meal on the days I am grounded.”

“You sang the Irish lays in your benefactors’ presence?” Aberforth asked, amusement playing on his features. “It is a sensitive issue, Tom. Many of our folk still believe that we shouldn’t have signed that treaty in ‘21.”

“I have heard them speaking about it, Abe,” Tom answered. “So I make sure to sing the Irish songs only when I know English patriots are attending the dinners. It puts them off adopting me or recommending me to other patrons of the orphanage for a trial stay in their homes.”

“There is a book somewhere in my collection which has translations of a few popular Irish ballads,” I told him, impressed despite myself by his excellent parroting of a language he did not know at all. “I can lend it to you if you are interested.”

“It will be an improvement on singing the verses blindly,” Tom said, failing to hide his excitement behind his usual mask of stoic composure.

I would have the boy eating out of my hand soon enough. Then, he would trust me and I would learn his secrets. Aberforth’s cough punctured my little balloon of hope.
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“The two of you will behave,” Aberforth commanded. “Albus, you are not to frighten the boy with your amateur skills at magical ventriloquism. Projecting your voice from the attic-walls, indeed!”

“He wasn’t frightened,” I reminded my brother. “If anything, he frightened me with his fairy song. The imp!”

Aberforth seemed torn between gleeful mirth and his newfound adherence to imposing discipline. He cleared his throat and continued, “Teach him something useful. I will be back on Friday night. Don’t try to kill each other, please.”

“I am taking him shopping for clothes today afternoon.”

“Remember to take the potion. Remember to Apparate away at the first sign of trouble. Remember-”

“That is quite enough, Aberforth!” I exclaimed. “Go play parenting with your goat.”

“Billy is my soul-mate,” Aberforth said with such a serious mien that I did not know if I should believe him or not.

Aberforth was still in his parenting role when he bid Tom goodbye. They stood in the little courtyard, forming a quaint picture of the solid and the slender.

“He is mischievous but I promise that he won’t cause you harm,” Aberforth was telling the boy. “You will listen to him while you are outside, Tom. Remember what I said. The market is a dangerous place for little children.”

Tom bristled near imperceptibly when he was classified into the category of little children. However, he nodded politely and promised Aberforth that he would listen to my instructions while in Diagon Alley. Tom had an innate knack for pulling off subservience when it suited him to be obedient. I snorted at his fine act and turned my attention to the cookbook Aberforth had given me. A little voice in my mind reminded me of the benefit of doubt. I sighed.
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After two Cleaning Charms, Tom’s resemblance to a brown fairy was considerably reduced. With a swig of the Polyjuice Potion, I turned into an unremarkable wizard with mousy brown hair, drooping eyebrows and beady, brown eyes.

“How do you make it?” Tom asked, as he peered, fascinated, at the little vial of the potion. I was glaring at myself in the mirror I had conjured. I looked normal. How dare Aberforth make me look so plain and so dull? I missed Severus, who had a knack for picking out the oddest choices for me. Once, his potion had turned me into David Bowie. It was the only time I had given him a raise without being haggled into it.

“What does it taste like? Can I try some too, later, after we get back? Can you teach me to make it?”

The boy was fascinated by the vilest tasting potion ever in the history of mankind. A pack of Exploding Snap, I decided, would set his priorities right. I was sure that we had had a pack or two in the house. I would search tomorrow.

I chivvied him outside, turned the old brass key in the door and warded the place thoroughly. Even Castle Albus would not be able to easily break down my protection magic. Feeling inordinately pleased with myself, I beamed at Tom (who looked worried by the return of my effervescence) before pulling him close and Apparating. We ended up right before the Leaky Cauldron.

“This, my boy, is the entry to the market!” I announced to the boy who looked rather queasy. A side-effect of Apparation. I patted his head condescendingly, chuckled when he ducked away from my palm and then I led the way through the busy Leaky Cauldron to the wall beyond. Tom hurried after me, obeying Aberforth’s instructions to the letter.

“It doesn’t need blood,” Tom sounded disappointed as I tapped the brick with my wand. I stared at him suspiciously.

“The spinning loom fairytale,” he explained, fidgeting uneasily under my stare. “The princess pricks her finger on the needle and falls asleep. Magic needs blood as payment.”

“That-” I stated firmly “-is a fairytale. Real magic doesn’t need blood to work. It needs only your energy and intent. There is little scope for symbolism.”

“Symbolism?” Tom was now jogging to keep up with my long strides.

“You don’t need to conduct rituals on full-moon nights that involve sacrificing little children or pets on ceremonial altars to create magic. Those acts represent symbolism. It is a branch of abstract magic but what it achieves can be more easily done by plain, everyday magic with your wand. Would you rather sacrifice a snake or wave your wand?”

Tom looked thoughtful. I sincerely hoped that he was not contemplating ritual sacrifices.

“Why do the fairytales describe this symbolic magic than the normal magic?” he asked after a few minutes of silence.

“That is a discussion to be had after we return home,” I said hastily. “Now, here we are! Madam Malkin’s. We will get you some proper clothing. Since you are too young to know what suits you, I believe I will be choosing for you on this occasion.” I resisted my urge to rub my hands in glee.

He shot me a leery glance before nodding assent. Paranoid imp! I would astound him with my selection.

We entered the shop and a bright-eyed young woman came to serve us. Halfway through her recital of the shop’s many salient features, my attention drifted away. I was thinking about Fawkes when I heard Tom saying, “You will have to forgive my uncle, Madam. He was in the Muggle War. He finds it difficult to sleep at nights. So he is always weary and distracted.”

“Poor man!” the woman sympathised and her buxom torso heaved in accord. I cringed. Tom’s lips were curved upwards indicating his mirth.

“You are a kind woman,” I told her weakly, hoping that she would not come any closer. Her perfume smelled like rotten cabbages. Quite overpowering it was. “Tom, my boy, you should not bother such a fine lady with your prattle.”

“My good sir, he is the most well-behaved boy I have seen since I started working here!” the woman protested.

I conceded the round to Tom.

“Two sets of robes for the most well-behaved boy,” I ordered briskly. “Six sets of day-clothes. Three sets of nightwear. That will be all.”

“Come, Tom, we will get you fitted in no time.” The woman dragged him to a stool. With a motherly cluck, she picked him up by the armpits and made him stand on the stool. He squawked in protest and I chuckled.

“How thin he is!” the woman lamented. “Sir, you should feed him more and work him less.”

“I intend to, my dear,” I promised her. Tom was quite unnerved. Perhaps his exposure to her perfume would turn this game in my favour.

His eyes widened in horror when she drew a squirming measuring-tape from the depths of her ample bosom.

I was torn between sympathy and glee. I decided not to interfere. He was quite capable of taking care of himself, after all. Besides, I wanted to see how long his tight rein over his composure would hold. Divine retribution for the insomnia suggestion, I told myself.

“Stand still!” the woman was scolding him. “How can you expect the tape to get your measures right if you wriggle about so much?”

“Do listen to the lady, Tom,” I said sanctimoniously.

“Can’t we use a normal tape, please?”

Then he squealed, as the tape slid under his kneecaps.

“A normal tape?”

“He means a Muggle tape,” I said helpfully. “He is unused to our ways.”

“We don’t use them here!” the woman said, scandalised by the very idea. “How improper!”

“Certainly,” I agreed.

The tape was sidling up Tom’s spine now. I could not help my laughter as he danced like a marionette. Then suddenly he cried out in alarm and all the clothes in the shop went up in puffs of smoke. Well, well, well, the dear boy had proved that there could be smoke without fire. Flamel’s wife had accidentally caused every flower in her vicinity to droop when Nicholas had kissed a Veela. It had taken him six months and six thousand galleons before she had forgiven him. However, this was no time to take a trip down my memory lane.

I cast swift Disillusionment charms on Tom and myself, a rapid Obliviation spell on the poor woman and dragged the boy outside the shop into a rundown alley which probably led to the main street of Knockturn market.

Tom and I stared at each other. The terror in his eyes was too potent. Feeling very, very guilty, I said gruffly, “We need ice-cream.”

Tom blinked.

“It solves everything,” I promised him.

Alcohol would have been a better suggestion. However, I was reasonably sure that children Tom’s age were not supposed to imbibe whiskey. Ice-cream it would have to be, then. Sighing, I dragged him along to Fortescue’s. There was massive hue and cry on the streets. I thanked my stars for the Polyjuice and I thanked my former Charms Professor for my adroitness at casting Disillusionment Charms.

Fortescue’s was empty. Florean was closing down his shutters when he saw us at the entry. He looked quite displeased. He must have been planning to go down to Malkin’s to see the disturbance for himself. He never could resist a crowd. Being the jovial man he was, he quickly got over that and ushered us in. In between telling us about the Special of the day and ratting off the ingredients, he asked excitedly, “Did you hear? A little child single-handedly made half the clothes in Madam Malkin’s disappear.”

“How strange!” I said dutifully, even as Florean went on about the wild magic display.

“It seems there was a large spike in the magical activity in the Ministry records because of this. The child must have such potential,” Florean finished. “The Aurors wanted to investigate but the woman doesn’t remember anything. A powerful Memory Charm. Do you suppose the child cast an Obliviation spell without being aware of it?”

I resisted the urge to preen at the mention of the Obliviation Charm. I had always been rather good at that one.

“Don’t they teach it in school, sir?” Tom asked, and those were the first words to come out of his mouth after the ordeal.

“Why, yes, they might be teaching it at the higher levels of classes!” Florean exclaimed. “This was a little one, though. If it was a school student, the Ministry would have immediately found the little culprit by tracking his or her wand.”

“I see,” Tom said shakily.

“What ice-cream shall you have, my boy?” I interjected in haste.

“Whatever you are having.”

“Two Specials, please.”

Florean showed us to a little table and set off to fetch the ice-creams. Tom was staring at his fingers. I was left wondering how to address the topic. Placating him saying that everyone loses control one time or another was not an option. He treasured his control and if I implied that he had lost control in the shop it would end our temporary truce. Strangely, I did not want the fragile truce to end.

Taking a deep breath, I said, “I turned my mother’s hair purple after she tried to give me a haircut. I think I had been nine years old then.”

Mother had refused to make my favourite carrot-cake for months after that. It had taken that long for her hair to return to its original lustrous auburn.

Tom did not look up when I told him the anecdote, but the trembling of his fingers calmed. I congratulated myself.

Florean came to the table and placed our ice-creams before us. He ruffled Tom’s hair and asked the boy why he was so gloomy with an ice-cream before him. Tom gave him a wan smile and Florean strode off to the counter.

“He is right, you know,” I told Tom as I shoved my ice-cream into my mouth with large spoonfuls. “Ice-cream is supposed to perk you up. Now eat quickly, before it melts.”

Tom picked up his spoon half-heartedly and dug it into his ice-cream. He brought the spoon to his nose and sniffed cautiously. Even Mad-Eye Moody would have screamed in outrage at Tom’s paranoia. It was ice-cream, for mercy’s sake! Did he expect it to be laced with drugs or poison?

Tom was now peering at his spoonful as if he could divine every ingredient by sight alone. Then he brought it to his mouth and his tongue made a quick flick of the fast-melting ice-cream before retreating. It reminded me of the garden-snake’s antics on Tom’s wrist.

He was a strange boy. I frowned. I had been called a strange boy in my youth. I had been awkward and strange and socially inept until Grindelwald had come along to the sleepy hollow where we lived. As the moon shines in the sun’s reflected glory, so had I basked in Grindelwald’s shadow. I would not be what I was without his influence in my life. He had seen an equal in me where others had only seen an awkward, clever eccentric.

A sigh broke me from my musings.

Tom seemed to like the savour for he had now closed his eyes and was savouring his mouthful in quiet contentment. As quickly as it had appeared, the expression fled his face and he was now staring at the ice-cream with increased suspicion.

I looked at him quizzically.

“Anything that looks good is probably dangerous,” he informed me. I resisted the urge to pinch my nose.

“It is melting,” I warned him.

He took the next spoonful with equal care, and the next. His suspicion had fled away by the third spoonful and now his pleasure showed as he lingered over each spoonful with such devotion that it was as if he believed each spoonful would be the last he was going to have in his life. My heart wrenched at the sight as I realised something.

It was his first ice-cream. I could not ask him to confirm it. He would only withdraw into his mind and hide himself behind his cold mask of polite charm. Yet, I felt that I had to say something to assure him that he would eat an ice-cream again.

“We will come here regularly,” I told him gently.

“Then it will not be as special as it is now,” he pointed out, though his eyes had lit up at my words.

The trick was to pay only nominal attention to his words while focussing on his eyes. I nodded to myself and resisted the urge to rub my hands in victory. I had finished my ice-cream and was watching him eat. Florean was doing the same. I could see the pleased astonishment in the shopkeeper’s eyes as Tom worshipped each spoonful. I made a silent wager that we would not have to pay for the ice-cream today. Florean seemed to be basking in Tom’s appreciation of his ice-cream.

“Is the shop insured?” Tom asked abruptly, his eyes on the receding ice-cream level before him.

“Malkin’s is insured,” I assured him. “All the shops in Diagon Alley are insured.”

Tom’s stiff form eased visibly. So he had been worried about losses, hadn’t he? Of course, I would have preferred him to be more worried about people’s lives than property insurance. That was not the point. The point was that he was capable of concern.

“We are going to Twilfit and Tattings,” I told him. “It is the only other clothing store nearby. You need clothes, Tom.”

“Do they use dancing-tapes there?” Tom enquired, his tone carefully made bland.

“If you come with me to the shop and let them take your measures, I will teach you Irish.”

“You will teach me to play the piano, too,” Tom stipulated.

“Very well,” I acceded.

Tom was as pliable as putty in the hands of the tailors at Tattings. He even stayed put with a charmingly shy smile while two young women clucked over his thinness and ruffled his hair while I chose his clothing materials and colours.

As soon as we entered home after the adventure, he went over to the piano and gave me a calculating look. Though every part of me wanted to go to bed, I went to join him and began teaching him. It would not do to unravel the fragile link of trust we were building by refusing to teach him now. The bargain had to be honoured. He should know that I was worthy to hold his trust.

“No, no,” I told him as his skittish fingers got the C Major wrong again. “Here.” I held his hands in mine and arranged his digits over the keys. To my surprise, he did not stiffen at the touch. Had he begun trusting me? Perhaps he was simply too excited by the piano lessons to take note of my actions. That was more likely, I admitted to myself ruefully. Tom Riddle’s eagerness to master anything new had been legendary in the earlier timeline, after all.

The old house creaked and Tom immediately shot a suspicious glance at me. I resisted the urge to bury my head in my hands. Dear Alastor had nothing on Tom when it came to true paranoia.
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External source text: Si Bheag, Si Mhor is available with a rough translation at http://suburbanbanshee.net/irishptr/iresongs/sibeagsi.html. It is a hauntingly lovely song, just like most of Corolan’s works.

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Chapter Text

Notes: Gratitude owed to Heart of Spells for the beta-work she is doing for the story.


 

A routine of sorts set in over the next few days. I would wake up around seven o’ clock in the morning and put the kettle on. Breakfast usually consisted of toast and scrambled eggs. Aberforth’s cookbook, helpfully titled ‘An Idiot’s Primer to Basic Cuisine’, had explicit instructions and moving pictures illustrating the preparation of the simple fare it contained. The author’s tone was so contemptuous and superior that I could not help wondering if the man might be Severus’s ancestor. Once one overlooked the author’s sarcasm, the book proved to be a treasure-trove of helpful hints and shortcuts to a beginner in the culinary arts.

Once breakfast was prepared, I would embark on my most difficult activity of the day: waking Tom. He had appropriated the attic for himself once he had finished cleaning it, turning down my suggestion that he could take Aberforth’s old room. A cot had been set up by the arched window on the eastern side of the attic. His choice of room, his penchant for reading in bed by moonlight and his reluctance to be up before midmorning made me conclude that he had more in common with owls than snakes. To wake him before nine o’ clock, I usually charmed his bedclothes to start singing ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’. This often earned me sullen glares and incomprehensible muttering. It was reassuring to see him like that, so unguarded and ruffled.

Today was no different.

As he rubbed his eyes and mumbled under his breath, I teased him saying, “You speak in tongues in the mornings, dear boy.”

He shot me a glare as he stretched in the warm sunlight streaming through the attic window. It was surprising how he could sleep so solidly with the sunrays toasting him at this hour of the morning.

A few minutes later, he joined me downstairs for breakfast in a clean yellow cardigan and black short pants. When he had first seen the clothing I had purchased for him, he had smiled wryly at the profusion of lime-greens, marigold-oranges and canary-yellows. However, he had made no objections and wore them without qualm. It was strange to see him so attired in bright, vibrant colours when my memories of him were in shades of grey and black. Sunny colours did not become him well. I realised that as soon as I saw him in the clothes I had chosen for him. I had offered to change them into browns and greys but he had refused. He was probably waiting for Aberforth to arrive and rail at me upon seeing what I had clothed the boy in.

For the first two days, despite having The Idiot’s Primer, my culinary attempts were spectacularly horrible and I had not been able to stomach more than a bite of what I had cooked. Tom, however, had made no complaints and had eaten everything I set before him. That had made me wonder what sort of food he was used to.

“It is very good, sir,” he said, between bites of breakfast.

I pushed the jug of orange juice towards him. The Idiot’s Primer had decreed that children were to be given a large glassful of milk with breakfast. Tom had taken his milk without making a face on the first morning. I had been impressed. Mother had had to bribe me with sweets to make me drink milk during my childhood. Even as I had been about to mention this to the boy, he had shot up from the dining table and rushed to the sink, where he proceeded to vomit out his guts.

“What happened?” I had asked him, stroking his back to help ease his heaving, frightened that my cooking had harmed him.

“Nothing,” he had rasped. “It is the milk, sir. I can’t-”

“Hush!” I had told him. “Now take a deep breath and get cleaned up, will you? No more milk, then. You shouldn’t have had it, my boy.”

From the next day, I had substituted milk with orange juice. I wondered why he had drunk the milk despite knowing he could not keep it down. Had he been trained to eat anything set before him, regardless of quality and preferences?

“Whom do you talk to in the mornings?” Tom asked, pulling me from my musings.

I frowned. Then I remembered.

“Ah, my boy, it is the cookbook shouting its instructions aloud! I hope it did not disturb your sleep.”

“I find it strange,” Tom said quietly. “Books are not supposed to talk and pictures are not meant to move. It is very distracting to see the pictures move when I am reading the text.”

The first magical book he had seen was my old copy of Beedle the Bard. He had leapt back like a startled colt when the grim figure of Death materialised on the first page of the Tale of the Three Brothers. The boy’s panic had immediately made me draw an unpleasant parallel with Voldemort’s fear of death. It had taken all my control to rein in my impulse to find out what exactly he had been thinking when he saw the portrait of Death.

Tom’s fingers still trembled whenever he opened a magical book. More than once, I had to unfreeze the pictures after he willed them frozen and still.

“Aberforth will be coming today evening,” I told Tom. “He will be quite surprised to see the house is still standing.”

Tom’s eyes flashed in mirth as he continued sipping his juice.

His eyes were his most expressive features. Though careful scrutiny could reveal his feelings from the curve of his lips, it was easier to observe the emotions dancing in his dark eyes. So unlike Severus, whose eyes revealed nothing of his thoughts and feelings. Did this mean that Tom did not have Severus’s natural flair for Occlumency? Perhaps that was why Severus had managed to hoodwink Tom during those years of spying.

“We are going to visit the orphanage tomorrow,” I told the boy.

“Mrs. Cole will ask what your occupation is,” Tom remarked. “She writes down details like that in a file. She has to show the file to the benefactors who come for inspections.”

So the boy wanted to know what I did for a living. How like Tom to couch his question so! I suppressed a smile and replied, “I will give the details to her when we visit her this weekend.”

Tom’s eyes reflected his chagrin. He knew that I had seen through his ploy to obtain answers. I waited patiently.

“What is it that you do, sir?” he asked after a long silence.

A direct question. Curiosity must have been burning him from within. Tom did not shy away from asking questions about magic. However, he preferred to obtain his answers in an indirect manner when it involved personal matters. I was determined to cure him of this habit. He ought to ask his questions frankly. A little voice in my mind pointed out that I was in the habit of gleaning information from others in none too direct a manner.

“I am a teacher at a school for magic, Tom,” I answered. “I teach a subject called Transfiguration. It is the branch of magic which shows you how to convert buttons into pumpkins.”

“Do they teach how to make the potion you used to change the way you looked?” Tom asked, enthusiasm lightening his mien.

I chuckled. Then I said, “Of course they do. It involves chopping worms and bugs, Tom. I don’t think it will suit your fastidious nature.”

“I am not fastidious!” he protested, even as he daintily mopped his forehead with a neatly-folded handkerchief.

After entering Hogwarts, I had become obsessed with cleanliness. In our naiveté, Elphias Doge and I had believed that the intellectualism we so dearly aspired to called for fastidiousness. We had hated Herbology and Potions because of the stains of mud and worm left on our fingers and uniforms after those lessons. There had been no more mud-fights with Aberforth or building sandcastles with Ariana. It was only after Gellert’s arrival that I had loosened up from my prim nature to enjoy a spot of tussling or a game of lawn-tennis.

I carried the dirty plates to the kitchen. As I charmed the plates to wash themselves, I glanced out the nearest window. I could see Tom lying on his stomach on a sunny spot of grass in the backyard and devouring my father’s copy of Robinson Crusoe. I Summoned his cap and sent it to him. He grabbed it right before it whizzed past his ear, then shot an acknowledging glance towards the window by which I stood and returned to his reading.

In the afternoon, after a light lunch, I conjured for myself a yellow beach-umbrella, a plush armchair and a purple footstool right beside Tom’s spot. He was frowning intently as his eyes flicked rapidly over the words on the pages before him. I wondered why. I had quite liked Robinson Crusoe in my childhood. Deciding not to interrupt his reading, I closed my eyes and settled in for a nice afternoon siesta.

“I see the house is still standing!” Aberforth’s hearty voice exclaimed.

“We thought you might say that,” I replied, half-asleep. “Have you seen Fawkes, Abe?”

“No, I haven’t seen your chicken,” he said dismissively. “Dear me! What possessed the boy to choose such a ghastly colour?”

“You know very well that I chose for him,” I muttered. Abeforth opened his mouth to utter a bon mot but I hastily cut in saying, “Not a word. I was going to change the colours to browns and greys but Tom wanted to keep them until you had seen them.”

“Quietly,” Aberforth ordered. “The boy is sleeping.”

I sat up straight and looked down. Tom’s slender body was curled in a foetal position about my footstool on which lay Robinson Crusoe and his cap.

“He crawled into the shade,” I remarked. “That is unusual. He usually seeks out the sunniest spots to bask in.”

Aberforth waved his wand briskly and Tom’s frightful orange apparel turned a cool dark blue. “Robinson Crusoe, eh? Isn’t it the book where that man raises goats on an island?”

“I wish the cannibals had eaten him up,” Tom murmured, his eyes still closed. Aberforth bent down to tweak the boy’s nose. A smile flickered on Tom’s lips and when his eyes opened, they contained true gladness as they beheld Aberforth.

“Why do you want the cannibals to eat Crusoe?” Aberforth asked as he sat beside Tom on the grass.

“He was more of a savage than they are, isn’t he?” Tom mused. “He was on their land and he interfered with their customs.”

“They were eating prisoners, Tom,” I argued. “How can anyone civilised stand by without trying to stop that?”

“It is not his land,” Tom said passionately, rising to his feet and pacing up and down with a frown on his features. “He does not have the right to make a colony out of that island. He does not have the right to proclaim himself master of Friday. He certainly does not have the right to convert his servant to his religion. He saved Friday’s life. True. Does that mean he owned Friday from the moment of rescue? Wouldn’t it have been kinder to let Friday perish?”

“My boy,” I began, “he was trying to redeem Friday by gifting him religion, which Crusoe believed was salvation. He meant well.”

“How could he be so narrow-minded?” Tom argued. “If he had been rescued by Friday and if he had been given some ridiculous name, and if he had been forced to convert to another religion, would he have liked it? I doubt that.”

There were high spots of colour flushing Tom’s cheeks now. I had never seen him so affected. In the earlier timeline, when I had visited him to give his Hogwarts letter, he had not been this passionate. After that, he had scarce shown emotions at all. I wondered if this was how he had spoken at Death Eater meetings. It would explain why so many had been lured in by his charisma. He stood now, a lithe statue of passionate argument in the evening sun, flushed with righteous indignation at what he perceived as unfairness. Had he taken up the cause of the Purebloods with the same righteous anger?

“That did not happen, Tom,” I contended. “We cannot speculate on what he would have done.”

“He would have been outraged, sir.” Tom stood his ground implacably. “His character had him dominating those he thought beneath him. It is just as they do in London. The benefactors will pat us on the heads only as long as we are less clever, less talented and less pretty than their children. They see us as tomorrow’s labourers, working under their children’s dominance, as slaves to masters. The other inmates in the orphanage look down upon those living in the streets with the same derision that the benefactors and their children show us. Those living in the streets look down upon the coloured children in the docks. They are all wrong, just as Crusoe was wrong. Our place in the society, given to us by those who consider themselves our betters, does not make us. It cannot.”

I stared at him, flabbergasted by the way he had spun his argument. He reminded me of Amelia Bones, who had been a powerful speaker in our Common Rooms from her First Year. None of us had been surprised when she grew up to become one of the most respected speakers of the Wizengamot.

I gathered my wits and said, “Be that as it is, Tom, Crusoe’s narrow-mindedness still does not dictate such a harsh punishment as being killed by cannibals, does it?”

“He doesn’t deserve to live, sir,” Tom said simply. “People like him worsen the situation. They are bullies. They don’t benefit society in any way. They must die. Only then will things change for the better.”

I clutched the arms of my chair as I looked up at the boy’s fevered features. He meant what he said. This was not the adolescent angst exhibited by children. Tom believed every word he spoke.

“Really!” Aberforth interjected, preventing me from expressing my horror and disgust at Tom’s words. “It is just a story. Come in for tea and we shall talk about something more interesting than cannibals and religions. My Billy chewed off a young man’s beard! Come in, now, and I will tell you all about that.”

Slipping easily into the role of pacifier, Aberforth led us back into the house and fed us tea and tales. Determinedly, he kept us well away from the topic of Crusoe and cannibals.

Later, after Tom had retired to the attic, Aberforth and I sat by the fire sipping the excellent mead he had brought along with him.

“Out with it, Albus,” he told me. “Let us get rid of your righteous fury which has surely been stewing in your head after Tom’s little speech advocating genocide of the narrow-minded.”

“He meant it, Abe,” I whispered, haunted by the spectres of Grindelwald who had taught me about the Greater Good and Voldemort who had caused bloodshed with his movement to purify our world. What chance did Aberforth and I have with Tom? Nothing, my mind lamented.

“He lived in an orphanage, Albus,” my brother ruminated aloud. “He has fought for his right to survive all his life, against bullies and benefactors alike. He looks for flaws in men before he looks for virtues. That has saved him so far. You cannot expect him to see differently all of a sudden merely because you have been feeding him thrice a day.”

“Right to survive?” I set down my glass of mead heavily. “Why does he think that he has to kill everyone else in order to survive, Abe? How easily he spoke of murder!”

“He has spent more time with snakes than with children his age,” Aberforth said. “He has imbibed some of their ways of thinking, Albus. I have been reading up on the nature of snakes. They have to kill their own kind to survive. It is in their nature. The boy needs friends of the human sort.”

I shook my head in disbelief at my brother’s naive explanation. Did he sincerely believe it? Tom was not influenced by the opinions of men. How could he then be influenced by the ways of the snakes? He was, and always had been, utterly self-reliant and had no use for others’ counsel.

“There was a book that our Ariana liked. It had a little boy who was raised by wolves. He was influenced by their ways and acted more like a wolf than like a human.”

“Mowgli,” I remarked, with a wistful smile. I was grateful to Slughorn for this. My relationship with my brother had healed enough to the point where we could raise Ariana’s name without an argument erupting between us. “It was The Jungle Book, Abe. It came out in 1893 and you walked all the way to town to get the book for her because you knew how much she loved animal stories. She liked Baloo the bear the most. You used to say his lines in a false voice to get her to eat.”

“Yes, yes.” Aberforth stared into the fire. Then he said, “We had model parents, Albus. Even then, we did slide down the wrong path after Mamma’s death.”

We did not slide down the wrong path. Only I had. My brother had evened the blame, even though there was no cause to.

“Tom didn’t have anyone in his life to look up, unlike us,” Aberforth continued. “We cannot expect him to adhere to a conventional child’s way of thinking. We are here now. We must do the best for him, without judging him.”

“Aberforth-”

“No, Albus. We can only do our best and hope that it is enough for him to make his choices wisely enough when the time comes. We cannot manipulate him to our way of thinking. We cannot command him or force him. All that will only lead to woe.”

I did not reply. His words did contain a kernel of uncomfortable truth: manipulating Tom had never got me anywhere in the past. Perhaps a new approach was indeed called for. How had Slughorn managed with students from such backgrounds?

“He needs playmates his own age,” my brother remarked.

“We are in hiding,” I pointed out. “I can’t conjure playmates for him from thin air, can I?”

“God forbid! You might conjure purple-clad, pumpkin-like boys and girls who eat sugar-mice for breakfast, dinner and tea,” Aberforth said solemnly.

I let the insult pass since I was still floating on the high of our renewed fraternal affection.

“Someone Castle Albus doesn’t know,” Aberforth mused. “Someone Castle Albus isn’t likely at all to meet in the normal course of things. I will have to think on it, brother. Meanwhile, what of tomorrow? We need to show proof that we are the boy’s relatives. I have brought along Morfin Gaunt’s hair. No, don’t ask me how I procured it. One of us can drink the Polyjuice and pass as Tom’s uncle. Morfin does have more than a passing resemblance to the deceased Merope.”

How had Aberforth obtained Morfin’s hair sample? It did not matter, I decided. Aberforth seemed to be just as resourceful as I was. His schemes had proven themselves less prone to martyrs and sacrifices.

Then came the more important concern. Who was going to drink the potion?

“I am not drinking Morfin’s Polyjuice!” I shuddered. “I can pass as a nondescript, boring government official who will say that the papers are all in order.”

“I am not doing your dirty-work,” Aberforth said firmly. “Too often have you sat back on your throne and watched others do your bidding. You aren’t going to do that with me.”

His stern blue gaze allowed no mercy. When Aberforth was stubborn, he was as immovable as the most stubborn old goat on earth. I sighed and waved my hand in surrender saying, “I will take the Polyjuice.”

“Good. I cannot imagine you acting the part of a boring government officer. You are too colourful a character.”

“I can dress plainly,” I protested.

“You would still cause a stir. You always have,” Aberforth said dismissively. “Now that we are agreed on tomorrow’s agenda, I should get to bed. How can the boy sleep in the attic? The wind howls on nights like these.”

“He is an owl,” I remarked. “Every morning I ascend to wake him up, I expect to see him perched on the rafters.”

“He wasn’t entirely wrong, you know,” Aberforth said, his eyes gazing into the flames. “So many become victims of the careless cruelty of their betters. Saving yourself from being a victim is not easy, and is almost always done at the expense of others.”

I had abandoned Aberforth and Ariana for pursuing fame and glory with Grindelwald because I had felt overlooked and unappreciated. In the earlier timeline, Tom had tortured little children to intimidate the bullies in his orphanage before they could harm him. Severus, friendless and called ugly, had been humiliated by a spell of his own invention by four boys I had dearly loved. Witches who refused to give up their magic had been burned to death at the stake by Muggles during the Spanish Inquisition. A little man from Corsica had torn apart a monarchy, made himself an Emperor and died alone a madman on an island.

The right to survive, Aberforth had called it. Tom believed that the Crusoes of the world did not have the right to survive.

Aberforth pensively rolled his rosary beads. I replayed Tom’s passionate words in my mind over and over again. A log shifted in the fireplace, Aberforth’s fingers passed from one bead to the next, my mind continued its miserable musings, and above in the attic slept a young boy who believed in his right to survive.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“You are his mother’s brother, you say?” Mrs. Cole was staring at me suspiciously. “So she wasn’t in the circus, then?”

“Bad business,” I growled in Morfin Gaunt’s voice. “It was bad business, I say. We searched high and low for the lass after she ran away with that toff who came to the village.”

Mrs. Cole looked torn between her doubts and her wish to be rid of Tom. Finally, she scowled and said, “We have had him since he was born, Mr. Gaunt. Where were you all these years? How dare you spirit him off without a word to us? It isn’t done, sir. No, it just isn’t done!”

“It was his eyes, Miss,” I said earnestly, waving a hairy hand towards where Tom stood. The boy’s eyes were sparkling in mirth though his face remained blandly composed and I hoped that Mrs. Cole would not see through the act. “He’s got my father’s eyes, you see. I forgot myself when I saw him. All I wanted to do was to take him home and raise him well. I don’t know much about right and proper. So I thought, Morfin, my man, you need someone clever to help you when you go to the orphanage to make things right and proper by the government. So I brought along Abe. He’s a good man, our Abe.”

“Abe?” Mrs. Cole raised her eyebrows in a manner eerily reminiscent of Minerva.

“That would be me, madam,” Abe bowed and proffered a little rectangular card. Mrs. Cole looked relieved as she took the card from him. She assiduously placed the card in her file and waited.

“Abe Whitney, Solicitor. I assure you that I shall take care of the paperwork and other matters,” Abe said confidently. “Though Mr. Gaunt here behaved right boorishly by taking Tom home without your permission, I can vouch for it that he meant no harm. As he said, he was reminded of his father and his sister upon seeing the boy and in his emotional turmoil outstripped his sense.”

Right boorishly, indeed! Aberforth would pay for that. I was not the one who lived in a goat-pen.

I shot a look at Tom who was still the epitome of composure. His eyes were cast down modestly. I knew better. He was hiding his amusement at Aberforth’s speech.

After a few more minutes of persuasion, Mrs. Cole rubbed her nose and said, “Two weeks, Mr. Whitney. After a trial period of two weeks, if both Tom and Mr. Gaunt are agreeable to the arrangement, I will endorse it and you may then file the papers with the government.”

“One week is already over,” Aberforth pointed out.

“Two more weeks,” Mrs. Cole said briskly. “If the welfare inspector comes along, he may see the file and take it upon himself to pay a visit to Mr. Gaunt’s home to see how the arrangement is faring. He fetched Tom from an adoptive home once during the trial period of two weeks when it looked as if they wanted a servant-boy instead of a child.”

So Tom had not harmed the couple. My suspicions calmed. As for this welfare inspector, we would have to place wards on Morfin Gaunt’s shack to prevent the Muggles from visiting him.

“I would like a word alone with Tom,” Mrs. Cole requested.

“Of course, of course!” Abe Whitney agreed readily.

He gave me a curt nod and we departed the room. As I crossed the door, I cast a spell to eavesdrop. Tom might feel the magic but he would not understand what it signified. It was not powerful enough for him to feel threatened by it. Mrs. Cole would not feel a thing.

“That is very rude, Albus!” Aberforth hissed.

I did not reply. I knew it was very rude, but I had to find out what Mrs. Cole was going to tell Tom. For all I knew, it might have some bearing on the unnatural things Tom used to cause at the orphanage.

“You are looking well,” Mrs. Cole was saying. “I hope you are not giving your ‘uncle’ any trouble.”

“He is taking care of me,” Tom replied.

“He will send you to school, won’t he?” Mrs. Cole enquired in a tone of grudging concern. “If all he wants is a good-looking servant-boy, we needn’t agree to this, Tom. God knows that you caused no end of trouble here, but if he isn’t going to see you educated you may as well as stay here. We will manage.”

“Mr. Whitney is an educated man, Mrs. Cole, ma’am,” Tom answered. “He promised me that I will be sent to school. My uncle listens to Mr. Whitney.”

“I don’t know, Tom. There are no women in the house. You know what happened to Gary Miles who was adopted by his maternal uncle. It isn’t the sort of situation I wish to see you in.”

I frowned and told my brother worriedly, “The shrew isn’t convinced, Abe. We might have to place a Confundus Charm on her.”

“Will you stop eavesdropping?” Aberforth growled. “If the boy discovers it by chance, he is going to do the same whenever we talk behind closed doors.”

I hushed him irritably and concentrated on the conversation going on between the woman and Tom.

“Ma’am,” Tom was saying, “you know that I wouldn’t let anyone harm me. If I find myself in trouble, I’ll make a run for it, I promise.”

“You do have a cat-like knack for falling on your feet whatever happens,” Mrs. Cole admitted. “It is just that uncle of yours has slipped me a hundred pounds. I don’t trust any man who gives such an amount without blinking once.”

Aberforth had warned me not to give the amount. I had not paid heed. Hadn’t I given the same amount to the woman in the earlier timeline? She had graciously accepted then. Of course, the war had already started and she had been hard pressed to make ends meet. She had begun drinking heavily and no longer had the welfare of her charges foremost in her mind.

“I promise to take care of myself, Mrs. Cole,” Tom said. I could well imagine the charming smile he must have had in place as he spoke those words.

“Oh, very well, Tom,” the shrew relented. “Write to Father Sebastian or to me if you are in trouble. We will do what we can, not that it will be much. Three new children have come after you left. Girls. Jews fleeing from the Continent. I don’t know how long we can keep things as they are around here. The donations have been going down over the past four years, what with the depression cutting hard into the benefactors’ pockets.”

“Mr. Whitney says that another war is coming,” Tom murmured.

“He seems an all-right sort of fellow,” Mrs. Cole opined. “But I don’t know about your uncle. See, he reminds me of your Ma, he does. Circus types. You can’t trust them at all. His father’s eyes indeed!”

Tom did not say anything. Mrs. Cole sighed and said, “Come here, then. Take this, will you? It is the Douay–Rheims Bible. Father Sebastian wanted you to have it. He can’t see you today. Someone in the parish is dying and needs the last sacrament. Speaking of churches, who knows what sort of church your uncle goes to? You will be true to what Father Sebastian taught you, you hear me? Make sure you read a few pages of this Bible every night before you go to bed. Say your prayers at meal-times. Don’t get up to anything unnatural. You have only been caned by the school-masters and me. That is nothing compared to a whipping. Your uncle looks like one of those who whip children. So don’t cross him, all right?”

I had sympathy for Tom if he had spent his whole life restricted by this woman’s ordering about. There was concern in her voice. There was also relief at finally seeing Tom about to leave the orphanage. What sort of trouble had the boy caused her?

The door opened and Tom walked out clutching a black book.

He looked at Abe and said wryly, “I don’t know what your brother was doing but I could feel his magic in the room. It was itchy.”

“Never mind him,” Abe said. “By now, you know well that he is touched in the head.”

“I am not touched in the head!” I exclaimed. “Tom, what did the shrew want with you? Can we leave now?”

“Mrs. Cole has agreed for now,” Tom said. “If you give me a minute, I will fetch my things from the dormitory.”

“Go on, then,” I waved him off.

“You really should rein in your desire to know everything about everyone,” Aberforth told me sternly. “It is only going to make the boy equally curious. Who knows what skeletons he will find in your closet?”

A little girl entered the corridor just then, and paused, looking at us wide-eyed. Her hair was tugging loose from its fat pigtails and her blue frock was creased by plump, little fingers kneading the material nervously.

“You are taking Tom away?” she asked, her voice lisping words adorably.

“I’m Tom’s uncle,” I told her. “You are his friend?”

“Amy,” she lisped. “Tom isn’t my friend. He isn’t anyone’s friend. He sings for us if we ask him nicely.”

“Why isn’t he anyone’s friend, Amy?” I enquired.

“Mathew says Tom is dangerous!” Amy said in a hushed voice. “We aren’t supposed to talk to him alone. He will do something nasty to us, Mathew says. Only, I don’t think so because Tom can sing really well.”

“I am ready,” Tom called, as he approached us carrying a shabby suitcase.

“What do you have in there?” I asked him. He had no need of clothes. Had he stolen something from his dormitory mates?

“You wretched Doubting Thomas,” Aberforth muttered. “Tom, you needn’t.”

Tom looked up at the ceiling as if to implore patience. Then he set the suitcase down on the floor, knelt to open it and sat back on his heels to watch me inspect the contents. There were about two dozen books and a few exercise notes.

“Father Sebastian bought some of the books for me,” Tom said. “The rest are from the school. They award a book of choice every year to the student who scores the highest in the examinations.”

“Tom always gets that award,” Amy piped up. “The boys in my class say that it is because he sucks up to the school-master. It isn’t true, though. The school-master doesn’t like Tom at all.”

Tom looked pleasantly surprised by her defence and he asked me quietly, “May I close the suitcase, sir? It is nearly lunchtime and the children will soon be all over the corridors.”

I nodded. So the boy had expected me to ask him about the contents of the suitcase. Did that mean he knew he did not have my complete trust? Did he care about gaining my trust and goodwill?

“Pick a song, Amy,” Tom said as he set the suitcase by the wall. “Quick now, I have to leave.”

“You will sing any song I want?” Amy squealed in shocked delight. “Any song?”

“Yes, yes, pick a song soon.” Tom rolled his eyes as she squealed again.

“The one that keeps ending with rosemary and thyme!” Amy decreed. “Please, Tom? Please? It is just that you sing it so nicely! Benny has been singing for us last week. He can’t get the tune right.”

Tom leaned against the wall and cleared his throat before beginning to sing softly the old English riddle song Scarborough Fair.

“Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine.”

Little boys and girls came creeping into the corridor where we stood. Silent and still they remained as Tom’s young voice sang to them the challenges issued by the mischievous man to the woman who loved him. Aberforth was tapping a shoe in accord with the song. I felt a degree of possessive pride as I watched the boy charm us all with his merry ballad. It was not the usual warmth that I felt whenever I saw a favourite student performing well. No, this was different. This was akin to the pride I had felt when Ariana had spoken her first word. I shot a worried glance at Aberforth, who was still immersed in the song.

Mrs. Cole had joined us and was now keeping a careful eye on the young girls, led by Amy, who were executing an impromptu dance to Tom’s song. I caught Tom’s eye then and did not begrudge the smug amusement in his eyes as he performed with a flair equalling that of the legendary Piper of Hamelin.

He winded down with one last refrain of And then she will be a true love of mine. The spell was broken and the children stood uncomfortably now. Only Amy felt courageous enough to whisper, “Thank you, Tom.”

He nodded curtly and picked up his suitcase. Most of the boys and girls shuffled away into the dormitories. Only the older boys and Amy remained. Mrs. Cole had left for her office. One of the boys, whom I recalled from the playground incident, came forward and spat at Tom saying, “You are a pansy boy, Tom. You sing like a pansy and dress like a pansy. Good riddance! We don’t want any of us catching your ways.”

Aberforth stepped forward, but Tom shook his head and turned back to the other boy saying, “You will regret that, Mathew.”

“What are you going to do? Sing us to death?” Mathew drawled, looking so very like young Sirius Black right then that I was overwhelmed.

“I might,” Tom said mildly. But the darkness in his eyes gave away his deep hatred for the boy who was bullying him.

“You are a freak!” Mathew shouted. “A freak and a pansy! Now get lost. When we see each other again, I’ll teach you your proper place.

I could see Tom’s fingers trembling. Mathew gasped suddenly and his hands flew to his throat. Gurgling and choking on his spit, he reeled backwards and slumped limply against the wall.

Tom said quietly, “Goodbye, Mathew. If we see each other again, it will go worse for you.”

Little Amy was crying silently. Mathew’s pack of friends carried him down the corridor. Tom’s fingers were shaking badly. Aberforth went across to the boy and clasped his shoulder saying gruffly, “Come along, Tom. Idiots like him talk filth all the time. You shouldn’t bother to listen to such. We will be leaving now. Say goodbye to Amy and we can go.”

Tom took a deep breath and nodded.

Amy said softly, with her big blue eyes tearful and frightened, “You really are unnatural, aren’t you? Mathew was right. I kept telling him that he was wrong, that you were a good boy, but he was right all along.”

“Amy-” Tom began. He took a step closer to her, lifted his hand as if to tuck a curly lock of hair away from her face. She shrank against the wall and cried out in fear.

“No!” she shouted. “Don’t touch me, freak!”

Crying, she ran away down the corridor and into her dormitory. The door banged behind her and Tom hid his fingers in his pockets. Aberforth gripped the boy’s shoulder and steered him outside. We walked silently down the street and Apparated home from the eastern corner of the playground where I had first met Tom.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Tom was pacing in the backyard. His hands remained in his pockets. I stood by the kitchen window and watched him sadly. Hearing Mathew’s cruel words and seeing how they had affected Tom had struck an unfamiliar chord in me. I had never bullied anyone or been a part of a gang that delighted in such an activity. Nor had I been at the receiving end of bullying. As a teacher, and later as Headmaster, I had assumed that this was part and parcel of a teenaged child’s school-life in these modern times. I had not devoted much thought to it and had always supposed that students like Severus and Myrtle were overreacting to their fellow students’ teasing. For bullying was simply good-natured teasing, wasn’t it?

After coming upon Tom’s predicament in the playground, and after witnessing today’s altercation between Tom and Mathew, I knew I would have to revise my opinion on bullying. It was not harmless. It was hurtful to be on the receiving side.

Why hadn’t I recognised that before, despite seeing so many instances of it? Why hadn’t I ordered Tom to stop hurting Mathew?

“You are a strange bird, brother,” Aberforth said as he joined me by the window. “This moment, you want nothing more than to prove that he is a murderer in making. The next moment, you are a quiet, blazing torch of protective fury. I wonder what the boy makes of it. It must be terribly confusing for him.”

“I am not protective,” I muttered.

“Then?”

The boy was pacing, his hands still in his pockets. It was a cold evening and he was not wearing anything over his cotton shirt and short pants. I Summoned the winter-cloak Aberforth had bought for him and sent it outside to the boy. He clutched it and stood still, his face hidden in the evening shadows. His knuckles were taut and white against the charcoal-grey of his cloak. I wanted to drag him inside, make him wear brightly patterned socks and seat him by the fire.

“I don’t know, Abe,” I said hoarsely. “I want to trust him. For that, I must know everything about him. I must see everything in his mind.”

“Will you satisfied with that?” Aberforth wondered. “Perhaps you will want to know what he is thinking during every moment of his life.”

“How else will I trust him?”

“You don’t simply wish to trust him. You want him to yearn for your trust. You want him to surrender his secrets and his deepest thoughts so that you will grace him with your trust. Dear God, Albus, it is very well that you are not a parent. Your children would have had the hardest time what with your desiring to know everything about them.”

“Abe-”

“Don’t be a fool, Albus. If you know every last one of his secrets, then your trust in him is not a blessing. It is simply payment.”

The kitchen-door slid open and the boy walked in. He hung the damp coat on the cloak-stand by the door.

“What do you think of trust, Tom?” I asked him.

He cast a wondering glance Aberforth’s way and then answered me, “It is usually the excuse for people’s curiosity, sir.”

Aberforth chuckled, I gripped the window-sill tight and Tom looked bewildered.

“Tom, why don’t you go up and change?” Aberforth suggested. “I’ll put the kettle on. There are scones.”

“I liked the scones you made yesterday,” Tom said.

“Those were pumpkin scones,” Aberforth said. “I have made cinnamon scones today. These taste even more delicious. Hurry up, before they go cold.”

After Tom left, Aberforth turned to face me and said solemnly, “I am going to chisel on a fine piece of wood: Trust is usually the excuse for people’s curiosity. Then I am going to give it to you for Christmas. What do you say?”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Most mornings found Tom in the backyard poring over his basic algebra textbook and scribbling furiously on the sheets of parchment I had given him. I had only known his passion for magic. It seemed as if he was equally ardent about Muggle subjects. He was able to hold his own in arguments about history and politics. He said he owed his knowledge of history to Father Sebastian. Politics, he wryly remarked, was because of the orphanage benefactors who had little else to discuss during dinners. While he could find his way all over London, he was woefully ignorant about the geography of the world. Aberforth had tried to show him with the help of a globe, but the tutoring session had devolved into a debate on Robinson Crusoe and colonialism again.

“Really, my boy,” I had said incredulously, “today’s bullies of the schoolyard do make tomorrow’s invaders of lesser countries!”

“It would only be logical,” Tom had argued.

I had not continued the debate. I had decided to study the issues which led to bullying and the consequences afterwards in depth before coming to a stand on the matter. My lack of comprehension about the subject echoed my ignorance on the subject of marriage. I had never done it. I had never had the cause to think about it.

I was busy with my origami project when Tom burst into the kitchen and joined me by the table.

“Why are you making paper swans?” he asked, curiosity lighting up his eyes.

“Origami. The Japanese art of paper-crafting,” I explained. “I could teach it to you, if you like.”

“No, sir,” he said hastily. “I would rather learn to play the flute.”

“Origami is equally art and science, Tom. You need nimble hands and sharp eyes for this. Perhaps you will understand its significance one day. What brought you here now?” I asked him.

“I am going out,” he said. “Hero said he will show me around the village.”

“Hero?”

“The garden-snake, sir,” he explained. “His name is Hero.”

I recalled the sleepy green and yellow striped snake and asked dubiously, “Who named him?”

“He named himself, of course,” Tom replied. “It is the way of the snakes. They can’t really wait around until their parent names them. They will get eaten up.”

That made sense. Had Tom renamed himself in the earlier timeline because of this reasoning? I had thought it a follow-up of teenage grandstanding.

“Don’t speak to anyone,” I told Tom. “And make sure you aren’t seen when leaving and entering this place, will you? The place is under a charm, but we wouldn’t want to take risks.”

“Yes, sir,” he agreed. “May I leave now?”

“Bring your books in,” I reminded him.

“I am taking them along. Hero said there is the cosiest place in the graveyard grounds where it is most enjoyable to sun yourself. I will be back before lunch, sir.”

With that, he set out. I remained engrossed in my thoughts about names and the power invested in them.

“Why are you making paper swans? Where is the boy?” Aberforth asked, towelling his hair dry after his Sunday bath. He was clad in a musty brown bathrobe that smelled strongly of goat. He bathed only on Sundays. It was just as well that he had never married.

“He went on a guided tour of the village,” I remarked. “That garden-snake, remember? It seems the snake named itself Hero. When I asked Tom, he said it is the way of the snakes. It explains a lot. Well, he has taken along his algebra books. He said there is a sunny spot in the graveyard and that he is going to work there till lunch. Some walking will do him good.”

“Graveyard?” Aberforth rasped, his eyes wide and his towelling coming to an abrupt stop.

I blinked. Then I remembered. I had been so deep in my musings about names that I had forgotten the rest of Tom’s words. Cursing, I grabbed my cloak and rushed out.

Tom was there in the graveyard, right beside Ariana’s tomb. His books were spread all over the tomb and he was chatting with his serpentine companion. When he saw me striding towards him, he stopped his conversation with the snake.

“Why this grave?” I asked him hoarsely. Of all the graves scattered about the place, why this one?

“Hero was telling me the story of the girl,” Tom said quietly, his eyes limpid pools of contemplation in the bright sunlight. “Are you replacing her with me, sir?”

I let my fingers hover over the granite of her headstone and whispered, “You are nobody’s replacement, Tom.”

He looked disbelieving, but he nodded anyway and rose to his feet. Then he gathered his books and hissed something to Hero who slithered away into the thickets.

Tom looked up at me. I tried to stop my frame from trembling. There had been flashes of spells cast. There had been shouted recriminations. There had been Gellert, righteous and fiery. There had been Aberforth, frustrated and angry. There had been me, foolish and proud. And there had been a little girl who ran into our midst begging us to stop.

A note of unusual gentleness marked Tom’s voice when he said, “Let us go home.”

Was he putting on a facade to lure me into a false sense of trust? Was he smug because he had unearthed my wretched secrets buried in this grave with a little girl who had begged three boys to stop shouting?

A flicker of uncertainty passed through Tom’s eyes and his fingers swept over mine rapidly in a clumsy gesture. I relaxed. He hated physical contact. If he had initiated it now, it meant he had done it for me. To comfort me. His eyes were grey and solemn in the sunlight as they held my gaze.

“Sing for me, will you?” I rasped, casting an improvised sound-containing envelope charm on us both. Together with the Disillusionment Charm I had cast on myself, the spell would sap my energy. I did not care. “Something to lift my mood. Something flighty. Something improper.”

Tom cocked his head in thought before nodding. Then he began.

What'll we do with a drunken sailor,
What'll we do with a drunken sailor,
What'll we do with a drunken sailor,
Earl-aye in the morning?

I laughed out loud at the ridiculous sea shanty he had chosen. Then I cleared my throat and joined his high, clear voice with my baritone.

Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Put him in the long boat till he's sober,
Put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him.
Put him in bed with the captain's daughter.

Tom’s teeth flashed white despite his best attempts to not grin. We had reached the house. I stopped the spells and shot a daring look at him. With good grace, he joined me in the last chorus.

That's what we do with a drunken Sailor,
That's what we do with a drunken Sailor,
That's what we do with a drunken Sailor,
Earl-aye in the morning!

“Consider yourselves grounded, gentlemen,” Aberforth decreed when he heard us.

I laughed and hugged my brother before making for the teapot and the pie. Tom was left to answer a bewildered Aberforth’s queries.

I was home.
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External text source
1. Scarborough Fair : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarborough_Fair_(ballad)
2. Sea Shanty: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drunken_Sailor
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Chapter Text

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Notes: Gratitude owed to Heart of Spells for the excellent beta-work she is doing for the story.

Warnings: Violence.

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September made way for a bleak October, which was followed by a windy November. Aberforth placed excellent Muggle-repelling wards on the Gaunt shack, Obliviated Mrs. Cole and forged documents showing the custody transfer.

Fawkes had not still turned up.

Tom took long walks in the afternoons to explore the country under Hero’s redoubtable guidance. He would return in the evenings, mud-spattered, bright-eyed and tousled, chattering merrily with his serpentine companion. Hero would slither off into the backyard and Tom would make for the bath. Despite the fact that Tom had spent all his life in the hustle and bustle of the city, he adapted without fuss to the slow pace and solitary nature of their life in Godric’s Hollow.

That was not the case for me. Living in hiding did not suit me. Silence did not suit me. I was used to clamour and spotlight. Living as we did now was difficult. It was intolerable. It reminded me of the frustrating days I had spent at Godric’s Hollow after my mother’s death, before Grindelwald had come bearing tales of intrigue and conquest. I missed conversations and portraits. I missed large halls and people. I missed walking down the streets as Albus Dumbledore. I missed Fawkes. Where was the wretched bird? There were only so many books I could read and there were only so many recipes I could be bothered to experiment with. Gardening and walking were not pursuits I particularly liked. There was nothing else to distract myself from this overwhelming ennui which had set in.

My brother spent his weekdays at his inn and came to stay with us for the weekends. Once he brought along Billy the goat for a weekend visit and I had nightmares for six consecutive nights. Tom, who seemed to have an unusual tolerance of anything dysfunctional, had introduced Billy to the garden-snake. Aberforth, despite his phobia, had taken a liking to the innocuous snake which was usually found draped along the length of Tom’s wrist. Billy had followed suit.

I was yet to find a way to erase my memories of seeing my brother arranging Hero about Billy’s horns like a laurel wreath while Tom feted this impromptu coronation with his rendition of Blake’s Jerusalem. It had been grotesque to watch Billy baaing and Aberforth clapping in accompaniment when Tom sang of arrows of desire. Needless to say, that scene played over and over in my nightmares.

“Who taught you that?” I had asked Tom as soon as he had finished the song.

“Father Sebastian, of course,” Tom had replied easily. “He refused to give me a glass of water until I could recite the poem perfectly. I doubt I will ever forget it.”

Father Sebastian, I had discovered from conversations with Tom, was not a facsimile of the cheerful friar from the tales of Robin Hood. On the contrary, Father Sebastian was a hard taskmaster. Tom had alluded to creative punishments and the expression on his face then had not been pleasant at all.

“You don’t hate him, do you?” I had asked cautiously.

“He taught me quite a lot, sir. The lessons were worth the punishments. The school was not a challenge for me. Father Sebastian’s lessons were.” He had glanced pensively at his knuckles. What memory was he reliving?

When I spoke of this conversation with Aberforth, he had fixed me with an unusually kind look and said, “Albus, there are many things you are better off not knowing about.”

I had been tutored by Flamel. That had been a beautiful period of my life. He had been the nearest thing to an uncle I had known. I had assumed that the relationship between Father Sebastian and Tom had been similarly avuncular. Tom’s vague words on the matter and Aberforth’s warning had shattered my naive hope that Tom had been looked after all these years by a kind man whose only motive had been the boy’s welfare. I still could not fathom what the man’s motives had been. I found that I had no wish to learn more about them.

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When we marked the first of December, I had not ventured into the outside world for eight weeks. Fawkes was still absent.

As December progressed, Tom abandoned his walks in favour of spending his afternoons in the backyard. He occupied himself with a variety of activities and most involved the sundial he had set up by modifying the plinth which held the bird-bath in the middle of the yard. He had covered the bowl and, with my brother’s help, had made it into a proper plane. Abeforth had whittled a gnomon from smuggled ivory and helped Tom mark the hour lines. It was a common sight to find Tom comparing the hour marked by the sundial and the hour marked by my pocket-watch. He would carefully make observations and then pore over my English translation of Biancani’s Latin text on making the perfect sundial before returning to the plinth to make modifications. Whenever he spotted a discrepancy between the hours, he would ask me to verify the translations. Once, after he had asked me for the umpteenth time, I lost my patience and told him that I was going to cease his Irish lessons and instead would teach him Latin. He had hastily apologised and begged me to continue with the Irish lessons.

“Latin is important for your magical education,” I had told Tom. “Most spells are crafted from Latin.”

He had looked doubtful. Then he had said, “I don’t like Latin. You told me that intent is what matters. Surely, the magic is not going to distinguish between spells crafted from Latin and those crafted from other languages?”

A part of me was relieved by his lack of interest in magic. He did not ask me to show him magic or ask to hold my wand. Perhaps he was still in denial about magic? No, that was impossible. He knew about his unnaturalness before I had brought him here. He had shown nary a reaction when we introduced him to the magical world. So he knew that he was magical, that there was a magical world, and that he belonged there. Why then was he unenthusiastic and disinterested in learning more about that world? Was he researching this secretly? Was he breaking into my warded library and learning spells powerful and dark? Was he learning from the snakes? Why was he reluctant to learn Latin despite being told that it would be a powerful tool to harness his magic? Why was there no interest about magical education and wands? Why didn’t he ask about the reasons behind our hiding? Where were the questions about my motives? Was he as unbothered by the custody change as he seemed to be?

What was he hiding?

On the sixteenth of December, Tom was jumping in the backyard, his features solemn and focussed.

“What are you doing?” Aberforth asked incredulously when we saw Tom jumping about.

“The winds, Abe!” Tom exclaimed, panting and flushed with exertion. Then he turned his back to us and began his jumping again.

If Tom had been a normal eight-year-old, perhaps we would not have been so concerned by this activity. However, both Aberforth and I knew enough of the boy’s nature to mark that prancing was not acceptable for Tom Riddle.

Aberforth and I exchanged worried looks before I suggested, “Why don’t you come in, my boy, and tell us all about it over tea?”

It was only after Aberforth shot me a glare that I realised how condescending my tone had been. Fortunately, the boy was too engrossed in his jumping to take notice. After a few more jumps, he stopped and bent down to scribble something on the parchment conveniently weighed down by a sleeping Hero’s coils.

“When I jump with the wind, it requires less effort,” he explained, between pants. It was the first time I had seen him sweating. He continued thoughtfully, eyes skimming over his scribbles, “Newton was right.”

Aberforth frowned but I immediately placed the name. Issac Newton, the Muggle scientist.

“Newton had to be right,” I told Tom. “That is why his idea is in your textbook. They are not going to print something that is wrong, are they, my dear boy?”

“It is as you say, sir,” Tom said agreeably. “There is no harm in checking again, though.”

It made me feel less slighted by Tom’s lack of trust in me. If he did not trust even scientists, men who were sworn to the pursuit of truth, then I had no cause to complain, did I?

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Aberforth closed his inn for the Christmas week and busied himself in our kitchen. I helped him bake the pies and Tom was charged with stirring the pudding. In a fit of impulse, I trudged into the woods three days before Christmas and searched for a suitable tree. Both Tom and Aberforth were surprised when I returned with the tree.

“Decorations!” I ordered them.

Aberforth promptly unearthed goats’ bells from his winter cloak and I decided I did not wish to ask why he was carrying them about.

Tom contributed, “There are some old festival trinkets in the attic. I found them while cleaning.”

Aberforth had bought the trinkets for Ariana. Ariana had loved Christmas. After the attack and Father’s incarceration, Christmas had been the only festival which could erase the tragedy from her mind for at least a few days. She had loved decorating the tree and stirring the pudding. She would clap and giggle when Aberforth and I sang carols in boisterous cacophony.

“Fetch them, Tom,” I said. Aberforth was glaring at the fire. Tom complied. I turned to face my brother and said, “We still need to buy a goose for Christmas day dinner.”

The tension left his features and he said briskly, “I will see to that, Albus. Why don’t you help Tom decorate the tree? I need to go over my accounts.”

Accounts. Secluded here with Tom, and detached from the daily drudgeries of life, I had forgotten about money and necessities. Aberforth had been providing for us. All my life, I had never known poverty or financial hardship. My brother ran a tavern. Surely he would not be earning enough? Was he in debt?

“Don’t worry,” Aberforth said gruffly. “We will manage.”

So he was in difficulty, then. I racked my brains for something that could help.

“There are books,” I blurted. “We can sell them, Abe. Knockturn. No questions will be asked.”

“You have never sold a book in your life,” Aberforth said, not unkindly. “You are not starting now. As I said, don’t worry. I had some money put aside. It will tide us over for a year without trouble.”

“After that?” I asked, worried and frustrated by my helplessness. “I could write articles for Transfiguration Today. Anonymously.”

“And draw attention to the anonymous contributor whose technique resembles Albus Dumbledore’s?” Aberforth scowled. “Why don’t you stop worrying about it and plan a proper Christmas, hmm?”

Father had gone to prison and Mother had been a poor financial planner. Aberforth had stepped in and made sure that enough was put by to ensure our education was completed. I had not known paucity. I had always brought my books and robes first-hand. I had brought expensive potion ingredients to experiment with. I had planned to go for a Grand Tour with Elphias. Aberforth, on the other hand, had spent his summers helping at a local tavern and saving enough to buy trinkets and whatnots for Ariana. I had spent my vacations dreaming of glory and recognition, which would definitely be accompanied by riches and a rise in social standing. I had thought that I would take my mother and Ariana to live in a castle of opulence and comforts, that the world would hail my intellect and accomplishments, and that Aberforth would admit he had been remiss in neglecting his studies and refusing my aid.

“The angel’s left wing is broken,” Tom remarked.

He was holding a clay figurine of an angel. Gabriel, my mother had told us. Ariana had been playing with the figurine while Aberforth and I had hung streamers and inflated balloons. Aberforth had asked me to help Ariana hang the figurine at the top of the tree. I had refused and asked my brother to do it instead. It had devolved into an argument and Ariana had started crying. Mother had tried to intervene, in vain.

Then Ariana’s magic had flared in distress, the tree had toppled down, and the balloons had burst in tandem. Ariana had wept inconsolably over the broken clay figurine lying at her feet and Aberforth had taken her outside to calm her down.

“I will buy a new one,” Aberforth said now, and his fingers were hovering over the broken clay doll which stared at us with its accusing blue eyes. I looked away.

Tom’s fingers delicately traced the figurine’s left side and then he said pensively, “I like this one, Abe. Father Sebastian told me once that scars and bruises add to your character.”

“What do you say, Abe?” I asked, unwilling to spoil my brother’s festive spirit.

“Very well, then,” Aberforth caved in easily. I tried not to notice that his eyes remained glazed by the past. Instead, I waved my wand and the angel with the broken wing attached itself to the top of the tree.

“It adds character to the tree,” I gamely murmured, more for Tom’s sake than my brother’s.

It was worth saying that to watch the surprised pleasure in the boy’s dark eyes at my approbation of his opinion.

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“Here, stir this, will you?”

Aberforth had been ordering me about the kitchen all day. I exhaled a put-upon sigh and complied. Ever so often, he would peep over my shoulder to check if I was doing it the right way. He had always been a perfectionist in what mattered to him: cooking, festivals, family, account-keeping and goat-rearing.

I glanced out the kitchen window, and hummed in disapproval when I saw Tom without his cloak and scarf. With a flick of my wand, I Summoned the items and sent it to the boy, who caught them as they whizzed past him. He shot an acknowledging look at the window and returned to his tinkering with the sundial.

“It is as if he hates magic,” I murmured.

“Don’t be foolish, Albus,” Aberforth said tersely. “He is trying to make sure that he won’t be at a disadvantage if he is thrown back to the Muggle world. He has been told by any and all that he is a freak. He is worried that the Magical world will be equally intolerant of his freakishness.”

“That doesn’t explain why he concentrates on Muggle sciences, does it?” I enquired. “He ought to be more interested in learning about our world. It would help him fit in.”

“He doesn’t need to learn magic, he thinks. You told him that intent and control over magic are what matters. He is confident that he has both. The Muggle sciences are more challenging, and hence, more fulfilling.”

“Yet-”

“Albus, the boy is too young to be taught anything powerful and too powerful to stay content with learning Cheering Charms. It is for the best that he shows little interest in the magical world right now. This is not Hogwarts. We cannot afford to have an underage wizard’s magic drawing attention to our whereabouts. Until his Hogwarts letter comes, I, for one, will be very happy if he runs about making sundials and pulleys.”

I made a noncommittal voice and returned to my stirring. Aberforth shouted instructions, clucked over my shoulder and pointed out why my stirring technique was appalling in such colourful language that I started to feel a strange resonance with all students, current and past, taught the art of potion-making by Severus.

A shrill squawk from the yard broke Aberforth’s tirade and we turned abruptly towards the window. Fawkes had appeared in the yard, fiery and golden, flapping his wings and squawking in distress. Tom was screaming. I could see the familiar sparks of a Stinging Hex.

“The chicken must have frightened him out of his wits!” Aberforth barked, before making for the yard. He had not seen the sparks of the spell then.

I followed him after casting the Disillusionment Charm on myself and was about to incant a spell to unveil human-beings in the surround when a familiar harsh voice spoke.

“Who are you, boy? How did you break into Albus’s house?”

Ollivander.

“Here, the boy is with me!” Aberforth was saying, as he hurried to put himself between Tom and our unexpected guest brought along by Fawkes.

Ollivander looked sickly and drawn in the moonlight. His strength must have been depleted by the drain on his body caused by the forced Apparition through the strong wards as Fawkes brought him along.

 

I should have known. Fawkes had always got along well with the wand-maker. I was rapidly fabricating a scenario in my mind to convince Ollivander and get him out before he could think of alerting anyone else. Obliviation might be needed. I ran my fingers over my wand and took a deep breath. Aberforth looked panicked. That was why he had remained a bar-keeper while I had become a duellist. He hesitated too much.

Hero took the opportunity to slither towards Tom, who was supporting himself against the sundial plinth and rubbing his scalded wrist. The garden-snake hissed and Tom bent to offer his other wrist.

“Parselmouth!” Ollivander shouted. A whip of fire shot from his wand to catch Hero by the tail and flung the snake, ablaze, onto the grass. A strangled sob escaped Tom as the smell of burning flesh spread rank on the night air. The garden-snake thrashed and hissed as it burned in Ollivander’s spell-fire.

“No!” Aberforth shouted, but his best Aguamenti proved ineffective as I knew it would. Ollivander’s repertoire of fire charms had brought down many a duellist.

“Aberforth, I don’t know what you are playing at, but this must stop. We must take him to Albus! A Parselmouth!”

I removed my Disillusionment Charm. Tom yelped and Aberforth quickly turned back. I cursed and ran towards the boy who had stuck his hands into the fire and was now gripping the thrashing, burning, dying snake. I could not see the expression on his face but Aberforth could, and watching my brother’s features morph into that peculiar shade of terrified pity made me draw my wand. From somewhere, Fawkes emitted a low cry of warning. Sparing no time, I erected a strong Shield Charm before Ollivander. Not a moment later, something wild and dark and hateful crashed against my Shield Charm. Ollivander’s eyes widened and he added his own Charm to the protection. Tom had risen from his crouch and his fingers, burnt and shaking, stretched out towards Ollivander. Aberforth was saying something in a raspy voice and I turned my attention to him. I never did hear his words as Tom’s wrathful magic ripped its way unsystematically and blindly through my Shield Charm taking instinctive advantage of that moment’s distraction. Ollivander screamed and dropped his wand as flames engulfed him whole. For a petrified moment, I watched in horrified fascination as the locks of his beard coiled and charred even as he clawed at them. Aberforth was conjuring water. I rushed to his side and together we put out the flames. Ollivander was rolling on the ground, clutching his face with his hands and sobbing. The air stank of burning flesh and hair. Aberforth was clutching my shoulder tightly. I pushed his hand away and knelt by the wand-maker. It was the most grotesque sight I had seen.

Fawkes was crying over the wand-maker’s body. The burns did not heal though the man’s groans decreased in frequency. Ollivander’s hands fell to his sides and bile rose in my throat when I saw the distorted features.

Long, long ago, I had wondered about the legend of Sati in India. Widows jumped into the burning pyres of their husbands to join them in death. If they refused to jump, they were pushed in. How did it feel, I had wondered, to burn to death? There had been a book in the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library which showed a depiction of Sati with moving images.

Now water oozed out of the flailing limbs. Cloth and flesh had morphed together. Ollivander’s hand sought mine and I pulled back instinctively.

“Dear God!” exclaimed Aberforth, pulling me backwards. “Albus, you must leave. I have to take him to St. Mungo’s.”

“I can-”

Cracks of Apparition broke our conversation. We stared, horrified, as the familiar figure of Aloysius Moody clad in Auror robes stepped forth, his wand pointed at Aberforth and his countenance grim.

“I can explain,” I began, quickly moving between Aberforth and Aloysius. The Auror had been the one who had caught Aberforth after the goat scandal. They had been rivals at school and Aloysius knew how to cling to a grudge.

“I certainly look forward to your explanation,” remarked a familiar voice and my wand flew from my loose grip into the newcomer’s hand. The Aurors made way for the advancing figure. Bright yellow robes and half-moon glasses. Castle Albus. “Dear God,” repeated Aberforth.

“What have you done now, Aberforth?” asked a nondescript man who was tagging behind Castle Albus.

Kendrick Bode, Department of Mysteries. Ollivander was being carried off on a stretcher conjured by one of the Aurors.

“I have got myself a new experiment, haven’t I?” Bode said quietly. I turned to look at the hunched form of Tom. The boy was stroking the charred skeleton of the dead snake. I noticed that the burns on his palm and fingers were missing. Had he healed them? Had Fawkes healed them before vanishing?

Bode was saying, “So young, so wicked, so hateful. Rearing a Dark Lord in your backyard, Aberforth?”

“Keep your hands off him,” Aberforth spat. Aloysius gestured to his Aurors and they flanked my brother. Aberforth snarled but handed over his wand. Castle Albus had sidled up to me and had now fixed me with a curious stare.

“The goats lasted four days, Aberforth,” Bode said, malice colouring his voice. “How long will the boy last?”

“Albus!” Aberforth beseeched. “Not the boy!”

“You can write him letters from Azbakan.” Aloysius promised. “A pity that he will be in no shape to reply once the Unspeakables get started on him, eh?”

The Aurors dragged Aberforth outside and Apparated with him in tow. Aloysius lingered behind.

Castle Albus said, “I will take care of the impostor.”

“Albus-”

“You may leave, Aloysius,” Castle Albus said firmly.

Aloysius shot me a glare before following his Aurors. Bode was approaching Tom.

Tom would have killed Ollivander if we had not been at hand.

“Where did Aberforth get him from?” Castle Albus wondered.

Tom was paranoid. He would defend his mind until he was broken into madness. I took a step forward and felt something crunch underneath my boots. Looking down, I saw Aberforth’s rosary beads. I picked it up and carefully folded it into concentric coils. The garden-snake had coiled itself about Billy the goat’s horns, Aberforth had clapped and Tom had sung Jerusalem.

“Please,” I turned to face Castle Albus. “The boy cannot go to the Department of Mysteries.”

“Would you rather he went to Azkaban on an attempted murder charge, then?”

Bode said tersely, “Tell the boy that he can come along quietly or that I can put him in a Body Bind.”

I shot another desperate glance at Castle Albus, who twiddled his fingers and examined the sundial. Had I acted that oblivious to another’s suffering?

“Tom,” I whispered, angry and wretched and frightened. “Tom, you must go with Mr. Bode, for now.”

Tom did not look up, but his fingers stilled their stroking of the snake-skeleton. Then he said quietly, “I want to sing goodbye to Hero.”

“The snake was his pet?” Bode asked blandly. His disinterest would have been convincing only to a person who had little knowledge of Unspeakables. I knew his kind well. And I feared the lengths to which they would go to reach their ends.

“Let the boy sing, then,” Castle Albus ordered. “The sooner it is over and you take him away, Bode, the sooner I can get my explanation from the impostor here.”

Tom’s fingers fluttered over the skeleton and he closed his eyes before beginning to sing.

Lacrimosa dies illa
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem!
Amen!

Lacrymosa. The Catholic Requiem. Of their own accord, my fingers had started rolling Aberforth’s rosary beads. Tom shoved his hands into his pockets and rose from his kneeling position. Then he walked to Bode’s side. I flinched in sympathy as Bode roughly caught him by the elbow and conjured shackles about the boy’s slender wrists.

Anger shot through me, cold and implacable, and my hands curled into fists. I was taken aback by the intensity of the emotion, for anger rarely overcame me so. Then I felt youth and hope and fear and paranoia. Tom. Tom was trying to touch my mind. His eyes remained downcast but I could feel his single-minded concentration bearing down upon me.

Lie, he said. Lie for Abe.

Aberforth would be in trouble for violating several secrecy and Time-Turner laws. He had not reported my arrival. He had been a conspirator in fetching Tom from that orphanage. He had hidden a Time-Traveller and a child in a house that belonged to Castle Albus. So many laws. Ollivander.

Aberforth would be sentenced to the Kiss if the judges were convinced that he was trying to rear a Dark Lord. It would be too easy to convince the judges.

Yet, how could I lie convincingly to Castle Albus? I had an instinctive knack for detecting lies. Could I win against myself?

Bode dragged Tom away and I was left with the fading imprint of the cold brush on my mind.

“Such an interesting boy,” Castle Albus remarked. “Aberforth always did manage to find the most interesting pets. This time, however, he has surpassed himself. An imposter posing as his brother and a young psychopath in the making. Dear, dear!”

“He is your brother,” I said, knowing well that it would be in vain. I had been him once. I knew he would do nothing without a price.

Sure enough, his blue eyes twinkled in predatory anticipation as he asked, “Why don’t you come with me and tell me all about it?”

Lie, Tom had said, and he had been taken by Bode to the Mysteries Department who would mess with his head and dispatch him to the permanent ward at St. Mungo’s. Hide, Aberforth had said, and he would be screaming as he relived Ariana’s death while the Dementors tormented him in Azkaban. Father had died there.

“Lemon-drop?” asked my companion.

 

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External Source Text:
Biancani’s famous sundial technique – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Biancani
Jerusalem - http://www.progressiveliving.org/william_blake_poetry_jerusalem.htm
Lacrymosa: http://www.leoslyrics.com/listlyrics.php?hid=97fiY5NmhKk%3D
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Chapter Text

Gratitude owed to Heart of Spells for the excellent beta-work she has been doing for this story.

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“Lemon-drop?”

It was 1934 and Albus Dumbledore was the pride of wizard-kind. He was courted by Grindelwald and Minister both. He was pioneering cutting-edge research in Alchemy and Transfiguration. He was in the prime of his life and hallowed by popular goodwill. Drunk on the nectar of his power over magic and men alike, he was a force unconquerable.

It was 1934, and Castle Albus was offering me a lemon-drop. I stowed away Aberforth’s rosary beads in one of the many pockets of my coat and took the sweet. I could not daunt this man before me with power, nor could I lie with impunity. Age had softened my Legilimency to a smoother, less painful approach that at least allowed my opponents to throw me out of their minds if they registered the invasion. In 1934, I had gloried in the dark sensuality of the mind arts and taken particular pleasure in ripping apart the minds of Grindelwald’s supporters until all their secrets were gathered in my hands.

“Curious. Most curious,” Castle Albus murmured, his eyes darting up and down my visage.

I weighed my options. I could attempt to overpower Castle Albus in a duel. While his youth and power would benefit him, I had the canniness that comes to a duellist only by experience. It would not be a matched duel, but I still stood a fair chance of winning. What next? Could I take on the Dementors of Azkaban single-handedly and rescue Aberforth? Could I convince the Wizengamot and the Aurors that I was Castle Albus? Could I free Tom from the clutches of the Mysteries Department? What of Ollivander? I could overpower my companion, but that would lead me no closer to salvaging the situation.

I needed an alliance.

It was 1934, and Albus Dumbledore had a reputation for being rather narcissistic. He was also vulnerable on the side of flattery.

So I asked, with the right note of wonder in my voice, “How did you find Ollivander so easily?”

He laughed; a generous full-bellied laugh that I well remembered had been the cause of many a seventh year girl’s crush.

“I sent Ollivander.”

Fawkes had always trusted Ollivander. In 1934, Albus Dumbledore had been one of Ollivander’s closest friends. Ollivander would have mentioned the phoenix to his friend. Albus would have investigated.

“Curious,” Castle Albus remarked again. “The phoenix took to me remarkably quickly. We wondered. Strange events, one following another. A mishap at Madam Malkin’s which sent the Aurors into a flurry. A powerful Obliviation spell and I was called in by the Ministry. Imagine my surprise when I realised that the magic was not unfamiliar, not in the least. Breaking the Memory Charm resulted in the most illuminating revelation.”

“Tom,” I murmured, remembering his panic and the outburst of his powerful magic.

“I called in Ollivander, and he was able to confirm what I suspected. Firstly, that the magic which had tethered the Memory Charm on the poor woman had been my own. Secondly, that your young charge seems to be an untapped reservoir of dark magic. Ollivander said that the boy is the most dangerous example of inbreeding he has seen: an unstable mind and uncontrolled magic. The Senior Aurors in the Ministry were equally worried by the boy’s nature. It took us months, but we finally traced the magic to London, to an orphanage.”

He chuckled and continued, “And there the woman asks me, Are you Solicitor Whitney’s brother?”

Mrs. Cole had been persuaded to talk about the uncle who had adopted Tom, by a silver tongue or a coaxing spell or both.

“We spoke to a few children there. Why, they had the most interesting opinions about young Mr. Riddle!”

Freak, they had labelled the boy.

“Ollivander and I went to visit the charming Mr. Gaunt. We ran into Aberforth’s not very creative wards. Then again, Aberforth has shown an appalling lack of originality in any matter that does not concern goats.”

Aberforth, in 1934, had been twice the man I had been. It had taken me more than half-a-century, two Dark Lords and countless deaths on my conscience to realise that.

“I am afraid that Ollivander came away from that experience with quite an aversion to Parselmouths and snakes. You see, Mr. Gaunt has an affinity for stirring his serpentine companions into cruelty.”

Ollivander had learnt of Tom’s matrilineage. He had seen for himself Gaunt speaking Parseltongue to order snakes to attack. Ollivander’s father had died of a snakebite while on an expedition to a marsh in China for procuring fresh dragon heartstring.

“Questions have been asked in the Ministry chambers ever since the Malkins incident. They say the boy will be the next Dark Lord. He is a Parselmouth. His magic is layered with hatred and ambition. There is something unnatural about him.”

I had felt the same. Aberforth had not.

“We did not know about you,” Castle Albus mused. “Aloysius would not let me take chances and arrived with a full team early this evening. The phoenix, we had established, would be our portal to your hideout here, since its attachment to me proved that it would be equally attached to you. We frightened it and the bird flew to the safest haven it knew – to you. The wards were broken enough for me to deconstruct them easily.” His face hardened then and he said, “By the time we broke through, your little assassin had already set Ollivander on fire. It will be Azkaban for him if Ollivander does not make it.”

They harmed Fawkes in a bid to break the wards? How dared they touch a phoenix? At least, Ollivander should have known better. Yet, I lamented silently, not many could withstand the will of Albus Dumbledore. Certainly not Ollivander.

“Ollivander killed Tom’s snake,” I said tersely. “I don’t know if he meant to. He set it on fire. By the time Abe and I reached here from the house, Tom’s anger had resulted in a spurt of wild magic.”

Not strictly true, since my brother and I had set Shield Charms to save Ollivander. They had not served the purpose. Yet telling Castle Albus of that would only result in condemning Tom further. I had to get the boy released into my care. Aberforth was strong enough to endure Azkaban whereas being exposed to the Department of Mysteries might be what snapped Tom’s tenuous grip on integrity and sent him careening into the Dark Arts.

“Wild magic?” Castle Albus was asking. “That boy is a psychopath. He meant to kill Ollivander and you know it.”

Did I? Did the boy mean to kill Ollivander? Yes. The boy had believed that the life of a snake was worth the life of a human-being.

“He is not a psychopath,” I said quietly. “He is young. Too young to know what he is doing.”

“Genghis Khan killed his brother when he was a ten-year-old.”

“Ollivander should not have set the snake on fire.”

“It was just a snake,” Castle Albus remarked. “Did he try to kill the children who stole his toys, too?”

I can make things happen, Tom had said. I can make animals obey me. There had been more. He had not given up the rest of his secrets.

Castle Albus had fallen silent and was now looking at me expectantly. I lowered my eyes to Tom’s sundial and asked, “You are not curious as to my identity?”

“I paid a surprise visit to Aberforth last week,” Castle Albus said cheerfully.

Using Legilimency on my brother, and on all my informants, had helped me build the Order of the Phoenix during the Voldemort wars. I had known whom to trust.

“You are me,” Castle Albus was saying, as he walked to the kitchen-door. I followed him. He said, “You were me. Such a pity that you have lost the Time-Turner.”

I would be made to disappear. With his influence, Castle Albus would have little trouble in feeding the Aurors a suitably tailored story.

He threw open the door. I could see the tree, with its broken angel looking accusingly at the pair of us. Castle Albus faltered. Inside hung heavy and smothering the thousand injustices that had happened to a young girl. Outside were the stars and the sundial left by a boy who talked to snakes. Castle Albus stepped out, closed the door with a soft thud of finality, cleared his throat and turned his gaze to the sundial.

Closure. Tom had found Ariana’s grave, lured me there and unwittingly brought me a degree of closure.

“Grindelwald,” I said.

Castle Albus flinched, as I had known he would. He might have the strength to carefully cloak his emotions and thoughts anywhere else, but not here, not after he had returned here for the first time since Ariana’s funeral.

“What of him?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice.

“You think you can defeat him.” I dangled the bait.

He narrowed his eyes.

“What he has dabbled in constitutes more than a street-conjuror’s tricks,” I remarked. “Power you have.”

“And skill to match,” he said coolly. “If I had not survived him, you would not have lived to see your old age.”

“Who said that I survived him intact?” I demurred.
Suspicion. Anger. Resentment. And, ah, there it came – fear. Then came his probing mind seeking my secrets. I adopted something I had seen Severus do many a time whenever we played games of Legilimency as others played Scrabble: I played coy. Teasing the invader with glimpses that trailed away into wisps of murky confusion, randomly yielding a significant memory and following that siren-call with a hundred odd trivialities – it was a delicate exercise to keep the questing mind eager, satisfied and trustful of what it registered. At the moment, I was grateful for Severus’s quirks, one of which was that he preferred these strange games of the mind over board-games or duelling. Wands, he often had insisted, are meant for teenagers and Aurors.

Castle Albus might be lacking in experience, but he had a healthy intuition and was now glaring at me suspiciously. I hummed Good King Wenceslas because I hated that tune and it was extremely satisfying to watch my companion fidget and scowl.

“Riddles,” he muttered. Once, so long ago, Father had taught me fishing. The first time I had felt the line tugging, I had known what true euphoria was. Now there it was again. The bait had been taken. “You are only as useful as your riddles remain.”

“I want Abe and the boy,” I said calmly. “I want protection.”

“Aberforth will be fine,” Castle Albus said dismissively. “If I could save his hide in that matter about whatever happened with the goat, I can cajole the Wizengamot into letting him scot-free now. There might be a fine involved.”

“The boy,” I pressed on.

“The boy,” Castle Albus repeated. “What is your interest in him? Tell me, why all this bother for a boy who is far down the path of darkness? You are not as naive as to believe that he can be saved.”

“No,” I said frankly. “I don’t think he can be saved.”

But Aberforth hoped. Tom had sung Lacrymosa for his dead serpentine friend, and he had tried to kill Ollivander. He had not minded being harmed or degraded as long as Father Sebastian taught him. He had been a cowering wreck of an orphan in the playground biting his wrist to stifle his cries. He had peeled potatoes at Aberforth’s kitchen-table and debated with me about Robinson Crusoe. He had sung my father’s favourite Irish lay and grievously harmed the boy who had called him a freak. I had bought him his first ice-cream and helped him make his sundial.

“He gave Aberforth and you a common purpose,” Castle Albus observed. Amusement played in his eyes. He was so young. I had been so young. Then, I had not realised how the rift with my brother would haunt me in my twilight days. I was so grateful for what I had with Aberforth now. For this renewed, stronger bond.

“I want the boy released into my care, immediately,” I stipulated in a tone that brooked no debate.

He would always put his motives about those of the Ministry. If he found me intriguing enough, he would allow my terms.

“We can’t want him running unfettered,” Castle Albus said. “He is a potential danger to our community. The Aurors know that. I know that, and you know that.”

I remembered the anger that had harpooned into my mind when I had sought to employ Legilimency on the boy.

“Look into his mind,” I told Castle Albus. “Tell the Ministry that you see nothing dangerous. Your word will be enough for them to release the boy.”

“I will see something dangerous,” he said darkly.

Yes, he would. Tom bore grudges, fantasised about revenge, hated many people passionately and was curious about power and control. Perhaps that was why I had not tried to invade his mind after the first time. He was only a child. I could have pinned his mind and extracted his secrets had I wanted to. I did not do that. I had not wanted to see.

“You have warped the flow of time,” Castle Albus said thoughtfully. His eyes were not twinkling now. “It will be futile to use old markers to measure new lengths. I will choose caution over action for now. I shall look into the boy’s mind. What I see, I shall keep to myself. For now. Yet if in the future I see him acting upon the darkness emanating from his mind, then-”

“I understand,” I said quickly, trying and failing to hide my doubt under a veneer of calm.

“Protection,” he said. “A Ministry-vetted identity. I will see what I can do. I am going to the Mysteries Department now. You will wait here.”
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Waiting was not, had never been, one of my strong suits. That week, with only the snow and the sepulchral creaking of the old house for company, I was slowly being driven out of my wits. Castle Albus did not deem it a prime concern to update me about Aberforth’s trial or Tom’s status or Ollivander’s condition.

Christmas Eve saw me dolefully standing by the hearth and glaring at the broken angel figurine. Its blue eyes remained distant and accusing.

Crisp knocking broke me from my dreary thoughts. Shooting the angel one last glare, I swept around and made for the front-door.

I opened it to find myself facing Hyperion Malfoy. His dramatic widow’s peak and rapidly thinning once-luxurious mane lent his pale features a distinctly cadaverous look. I had only seen him once or twice before at the Ministry. Now clad in fine robes of green silk and clutching a scroll, he was peering at me myopically. Of course, he would consider a monocle beneath his elegance.

“Mr. Percival Dumbledore?” he asked in a high, quavering voice.

Had Castle Albus a hand in this? Keeping my suspicions off my features, weighing a hundred possibilities in my mind, I nodded assent and asked, “You have the advantage of me, good sir.”

“Hyperion Malfoy,” he replied. His eyes were quickly darting to and fro, taking in the yard and whatever he could see of the house over my shoulder. A faint scowl marred his features before he schooled into aristocratic blandness. “I was visiting a chum in the Department of Mysteries.” He was greasing their hands with bribe, no doubt. He continued, “I have been told to give you this by young Riddle.”

He extended the scroll.

Casting him a wary glance, I took the proffered scroll and unfurled it.

A hike in the import duty on Magical Carpets would considerably hamper...

“Blood-magic, I am afraid,” Hyperion Malfoy deigned to explain with a smirk. “It would not have passed the Security otherwise. They are being cautious, unusually so, given that they believe they are keeping the next Dark Lord in their department.”

Of all the people whom Tom could have met in that Unspeakable pit, it had to be Hyperion Malfoy who excelled at blood-magic whom he trusted with a scroll. What had he done to impress Malfoy? For the man was impressed, unduly so, since he had lowered himself to deliver a message. Was this the first seed sown to raise a dark army?

I made a small cut on my palm with my wand, let a drop of blood drip onto the parchment and healed my palm. The observations on the import duty placed on Magical Carpets vanished leaving behind a sentence in the cramped cursive of Tom Riddle.

Am I a Lilliputian in a man’s world or a man in Lilliput?

Gulliver’s Travels. The little imp. The little, clever imp. I could well visualise the Ministry as Lilliput, and the Minister as the ridiculous Emperor. I could also see in my mind’s eye the boy’s puckish half-smile.

“He looked exceptionally pleased with himself,” Malfoy said curiously. He was too well-bred to outright ask about the contents.

“It is a reference from a Muggle novel,” I said smugly, delighting in Malfoy’s displeased scowl.

“Muggle?” he demanded.

“Didn’t he tell you, then?” I asked. Had the boy done some grandstanding or the other about his mysterious wizarding lineage?

“I didn’t ask,” Malfoy muttered. “He is only a frightened child.”

“Frightened?” I asked. Panic and disbelief fought for precedence. Tom, frightened? I tried not to think about the state I had found him in when I had followed his wild magic to the playground.

“Yes,” he said. His eyes softened and he continued hastily, “He is fine. New surroundings and new people unsettled him. My son is the same. They all are.”

The son. Abraxas. The child of Hyperion’s waning years. The same age as Tom. That explained why Malfoy had deigned to act messenger without bothering to ask about blood purity. Though, I would not put it past him to assume that all budding Dark Lords were compulsorily of pure wizarding lineage.

However, this was an opportunity. Malfoys rarely had Achilles’s heels, being the self-absorbed creatures they were.

“My cousin is working on fetching him home,” I said quietly, taking care to trace Tom’s cursive with appropriate wistfulness. “It is the boy’s first Christmas away from that horrid orphanage.”

Malfoy looked conflicted. Then he cleared his throat and said briskly, “The Wizengamot is closed for the holidays. I expect they shall convene to hear your brother’s charges and decide on the boy’s future only after the New Year.”

My knuckles tightened on the scroll and I turned half-way to look at the Christmas tree. Malfoy cleared his throat again and said, “Such a charming boy. Polite and clever. The Ministry are being idiots. If you hadn’t told me otherwise, Mr. Dumbledore, I would have assumed your cousin has had a hand in stalling the boy’s discharge from the Mysteries Department.”

“He was justifiably worried by the boy’s actions,” I demurred. “He works so hard to protect us from the darkness.”

That last line probably exceeded the limits of acceptable exaggeration. Malfoy looked dubious.

“Tom made the sundial,” I digressed. “He is a very clever boy, sir.”

“I know,” Malfoy said. He was being truthful, I realised. This was not the usual flattery one expected from a Malfoy. “Your boy will be home for his birthday, Mr. Dumbledore.”

“Birthday?”

Of course. The boy had been born on New Year’s Eve. I had forgotten all about that.

Malfoy offered me a wan smile, and said, “It must be a nightmare.”

Aberforth was in Azkaban. Tom, Malfoy had told me, had been frightened by whatever was happening in the Department of Mysteries. Ollivander might not survive. I was stuck in this house with the ghosts. Castle Albus was an unknown card in the game that could make or break us. Now, on Christmas Eve, there was a balding Malfoy on my doorstep trying to empathise. Perhaps this was his one good deed for the year. Yes, it was a nightmare.

“I will take some of my son’s storybooks with me the next time I pop into the Ministry,” Malfoy said.

Tom did not like wizarding books because of the moving pictures. The sort of books Malfoy children read were certainly likely to involve moving pictures to an unacceptable degree, if only because the publishers embellished with artwork custom copies of children’s books ordered by the cream of society.

“If you give me a second,” I told Malfoy, “I shall get some of his books.”

I retrieved Peter Pan from Tom’s bed on the attic. Carefully, I placed the bright orange marker I had conjured on the page he had left it open. Scanning the other books on the little desk Aberforth had made for the boy, I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom might have preferred Andersen’s stories but I considered most of them morbid, if not judgemental, and not suited for the environs of the Mysteries Department.

Malfoy had a sour expression on his face. I ought to have invited him in. When he saw the tomes in my hands, his face darkened further. Lips pursed, he extended a gloved hand rather unwillingly, probably fearing the contagious diseases borne via Muggle books. I decided that taking my frustration out on him was not appropriate Christmas Eve behaviour. He had vaguely promised to see to Tom’s plight, after all. That was more assurance than Castle Albus had given. I did suspect that Malfoy was hoping to earn the suspected little Dark Lord’s favourable notice by running this errand. It would be par on the course. He was a Malfoy. His fingers made a twitch as they came into contact with the books. Taking pity, I conjured a voluminous purple handbag adorned with pearls and placed the books in it. He looked horrified, but considered this an improvement over direct contact.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely.

“It is nothing,” he managed, looking extremely appalled by the accessory. He made a ridiculous sight with his foppish gloves, expensive robes and the purple handbag. Such a pity that he did not carry a cane to complete the picture.

With a pained nod, he started down the path to the gate and I watched him with perverse glee until he Apparated out of sight. Pettiness was more comfortable than the depressing thoughts of how Aberforth would spend the holiday in prison. Tom, at least, was cynical by nature and would not be as heartbroken as my brother would be. Aberforth had hoped to have a real Christmas for the first time since our mother’s death.

Castle Albus was right. The timeline had been warped. Never meddle with time or women, Father had once told me.

Seeking distraction, I read the scroll once again. Tom’s script flowed impish on the parchment as it teased me with the reference to the children’s classic.

“Wretched boy,” I muttered. Then I conjured a plush armchair and followed that by casting a charm to fetch my dog-eared copy of Gulliver’s Travels.

My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years.

In 1934, on Christmas Eve, I fled to the land of Lilliput.

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External Source Text:
Gulliver’s Travels – a classic novel written by Jonathan Swift.
Good King Wenceslas – popular Christmas carol

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