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In the Bleak Midwinter

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In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign...

Poem by Christina Rossetti, published in the January 1872 issue of Scribner's Monthly.

 

A comfortable chair by a warm fire, a snifter of brandy, and the financial section of the evening newspaper, and there was no reason for Tom to worry. His investments were all doing great. It seemed like anything he touched turned to gold, like magic, no, not magic, don’t think about magic. The cold outside was no matter to him, here in his warm house. The wind did not sound like an enraged woman screaming. It really didn’t. It was just wind. Everything was fine. Tom was home again. He could relax. It might take a bit more brandy. He poured himself some more.

He spilled some on the table when the doorbell rang. They weren’t expecting anyone, and who would be out on a night like this? He was tempted to tell Fiona not to answer it, but no, that would be cowardly.

Fiona entered the study and made a perfunctory curtsy. “Are you at home, Mr. Riddle?”

“No,” he decided. “If it’s a beggar, he may shelter from the storm in the shed. Give him some food and send him on his way in the morning.”

“Yes sir.”

She left, and didn’t come back for some time, so that should have been that. He wiped up the spilled brandy. However, she reappeared in his study eventually, looking quite miffed. He put his newspaper down.

“She won’t go away, sir,” Fiona reported. “She says she’ll wait on the front steps until you come home.”

He felt a jolt of panic. “She? It’s not—“

“No sir,” she assured him. “Most assuredly not her. It’s a… woman. I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

“A woman, not a lady?” Tom inquired.

“She hasn’t got any gloves on,” Fiona said disapprovingly. “I could see her hands just fine, and she has no wedding ring at all. And she’s got a little baby with her.”

Tom jumped from his chair. “A baby, out in this weather? Why didn’t you say so in the first place? We can’t just leave them on the steps.”

“She refused to go to the shed,” complained Fiona, but her employer was rushing past her to the door. “People will talk, they’ll wonder why you’re entertaining a young woman with a baby. They’ll wonder whose baby it is, won’t they?”

“We’re the only people who know they’re here, and I certainly won’t spread rumors about myself, so if they do spread, I’ll know their origin,” Tom said with a pointed look at his maid. “Not that it really matters, I suppose,” he reconsidered. “There’s no shortage of gossip about me already, so more wouldn't make things worse. If you wanted to work for a reputable family, you wouldn’t be working for the Riddles.”

They had reached the door. He opened it, and indeed, there was a woman who, most importantly, was not Merope. This woman was taller, which wasn’t saying much. Her face was more face-shaped, and both her eyes looked in the same direction. A lump under her cloak was emitting a faint cry. That was really all he needed to know. “Come in madam, please. I’m sorry to keep you waiting in the cold.”

She started when she saw him, and made no move to enter. “Mr. Riddle?” she asked cautiously.

“Yes, we can do introductions inside where it’s warm,” he said. He didn’t want to keep the door open a moment longer than necessary.

She stepped in with surprising hesitancy for someone who’d come through a storm to get here, and he could finally close the door on the wailing wind. She allowed Fiona to take her wet cloak. His visitor was, indeed, a woman he’d never seen before in his life, so not a resident of Little Hangleton. Her clothes didn’t fit right, hanging loosely on her very thin frame. She was quite young. Her dark hair was not bobbed in the modern fashion, but whirled in long, wild curls, where it wasn’t plastered to her face with melting snow. Her cheeks and lips were flushed bright pink, and her dark eyes were wide and bright as they looked around at Riddle House, which was rather nicely furnished if he thought so himself, and still decorated for Christmas.

She was, indeed, carrying a baby, now quiet, in a sling. The baby’s cheeks were pink as well, and blue-black eyes met Tom’s with an eerie intelligence. Tom found himself unwittingly competing in, and quickly the loser of, a staring contest.

He looked back to the woman. “I have a fire lit in the study. This way.” She followed, with Fiona tailing them suspiciously. “Would you like some tea?” he asked.

“Tea would be wonderful, thank you,” she said, so he sent Fiona off with a look. She stomped sullenly to the kitchen. He couldn’t blame her for trying to protect him from mysterious women, after the last one. But still, the civilities must be observed.

“Please have a seat,” he said, indicating the chair closest to the fire, so she did.

“Thank you.”

He sat near her. “Now we may do introductions.”

“My name is Hermione Granger,” she said. “I’ve just come from London. I brought some news which I think will interest you.” From what must have been a very large inner pocket of her jacket, she drew a folder. She opened it, handed him the paper on top, and closed the folder again.

He’d been expecting some anguished tale of woe from the windswept woman, not this behavior more befitting a solicitor. He didn’t mind the incongruity. He read the paper. It was a certificate of death for Merope Riddle, née Gaunt, dated yesterday, December 31, 1926.

He hid his face in his hands. It would not do to allow this stranger to see his expression right now. He should be saddened by his wife’s death, not greatly relieved. Many would not blame him, he knew, but this stranger wasn’t a resident of Little Hangleton. She didn’t know the whole story. Hell, he didn’t know the whole story. He was free. He was crying. Did tears of joy resemble tears of mourning closely enough that it was safe to uncover his face?

“You have quite a library,” came her voice from some distance away. “I’m enjoying browsing it. So take all the time you need.”

“Thank you.” He drew his handkerchief from his pocket, and soon felt reasonably presentable again. “Please come back to the fire, Mrs. Granger.”

“Miss,” she said as she sat down again.

“My apologies. Thank you, Miss Granger, for going out of your way to deliver this news.”

“I thought you should know.”

“How…”

“The cause of death is listed on the certificate,” she said.

He looked back at it. His wife had died in childbirth. He froze. When he looked at the baby, those blue-black eyes were staring at him again. Perhaps they’d been staring this whole time, for the baby had none of Miss Granger’s discretion.

Miss Granger took another paper from her folder and handed it to him. “Your name is listed on his birth certificate. She named him Tom, after you, with a middle name of Marvolo, after her father.”

“No,” he said, not taking the paper, although recognizing the pointlessness of his protest.

“I’m very sorry to spring this on you, Mr. Riddle. I’m sure it’s quite a shock.”

Fiona arrived with the tea. She’d included some sandwiches and biscuits. She was horrified to find her employer in such a state. “Mr. Riddle sir! Are you all right? Should I call the police? Is this woman trying to blackmail you?”

Miss Granger’s thin hands shook slightly as she helped herself to some tea and a sandwich. She chewed slowly and carefully.

“Stop it, Fiona! Miss Granger brought me important information. Merope is dead. Look, here’s her death certificate.”

Fiona’s face changed slowly until it finally revealed the unabashed joy that Tom could not, with propriety, express himself. “Oh sir! What wonderful news.”

Tom cleared his throat pointedly.

“It’s quite all right, Mr. Riddle,” Miss Granger assured him. “I understand completely. She put you through quite an ordeal. No one could blame you for feeling relieved. 

“So he’s not being charged with abandonment or anything like that?” asked Fiona suspiciously.

Miss Granger paused to rock the baby, his son! With that monster! Who was getting a bit fussy. “That hadn’t occurred to me,” she said eventually. “Although I suppose you have a legal obligation to provide at least financial support to your son, right? I don’t really know. Someone would have to actually take you to court over it, though, and I don’t know who would. Merope’s brother Morfin is in prison, and her father Marvolo, if he isn’t dead already, will be soon. No one else has any interest in this baby. Whether you have a moral obligation is another question entirely, as you never truly consented to his conception. I’d say you don’t. Where it gets tricky, of course, is that this baby has a right to be taken care of, however he was conceived. I’ll need to know if you’re willing and able to do that, or if I need to make other arrangements. You needn’t decide tonight of course.”

The baby was fussing in earnest now, and munching on his fist. Miss Granger put down her sandwich with a longing look and unbuttoned a couple of buttons of her blouse like any common young mother in town on a market day. The baby latched on to her breast, surprisingly full on such a thin frame, and stopped fussing immediately.

“Now wait just a minute!” exploded Fiona, so Tom didn’t have to. “You must be that baby’s mother! You can’t come here with this story about Merope—“

“I am definitely not this baby’s mother,” she said. “I just figured it would be easier to take a wet nurse potion than bother with bottles. Especially since I’m not confident about the safety of the mother’s milk substitutes available these days.”

“A… a potion?” Tom asked, hoping he’d misheard.

“I’m sorry, I know your experience with potions isn’t good,” Miss Granger said. “They’re not all like the love potions Merope dosed you with. Many have good practical applications, when used with consent of course.”

Tom found that he was standing, and backing away. “You’re a witch! Another witch! Like Merope!”

Fiona crossed herself.

Miss Granger sighed. “I was hoping I could delay this conversation, but babies have a way of interfering with plans. Yes, I am a witch. No, not like Merope. Merope was criminally deranged, probably as a result of her abused childhood. I, I like to think that I am not. I consider myself a sane, ethical person, thanks to my parents, who raised me right, although of course you have only my word for it.”

“What are you doing here then?” demanded Fiona. “If this isn’t your baby, what’s he to you?”

“I am trying to set things right,” she said firmly. “Merope was a witch who had a terrible childhood, and she grew up to do terrible things. Her son will be a wizard with great power. If he were to grow up unloved, in that orphanage…” She lost her voice for a moment. “It would be bad. He would commit crimes much worse than Merope’s. But if raised properly, I think he could accomplish great things.”

“How do you know this?” Tom asked.

She hesitated. “I know some things that might happen in the future. Because I’m a witch.”

“That sounded very evasive. What aren’t you telling me?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. Tom had the very unsettling feeling that he had reached the limit of this witch’s patience, just as he sometimes had with Merope. He never knew what would set her off. Terror crept icy fingers up his spine as sparks crackled from the coiling snakes of her hair. Something in the room was about to explode.

“Sorry, do you feel deficient in shocking revelations today?” the witch snipped. “Since I do have plenty more in reserve, but I’m trying to dole them out gradually in hopes of sparing your sanity. I could dump them on you all at once if you prefer.” She switched the baby to her other breast. “Sorry,” she said again, sounding sincere this time. She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she looked calmer. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that. I need to set a better example of controlling my temper, for little Tom’s sake.”

That was her losing her temper? He wasn’t picking shards of glass out of his skin. Nothing was even on fire. 

“I’m glad you have questions,” she continued. “Communication is very important. You’re taking this remarkably well.” She cast a glance at Fiona, then looked back to Tom. “I intend to tell you all the relevant information, so you can make an informed decision about whether you want to be part of your son’s life or not. If you decide not, there’s no need for others to know about this.”

Tom saw the sense in this, and nodded to Fiona. “Leave us.”

Fiona wasn’t having it. “But sir, I can’t leave you alone with that—“

“How do you think you could defend me against a witch? Go.”

Fiona stomped off.

The witch, awkwardly, with the baby in her arms, drew her wand from her sleeve and pointed it at the door. Tom froze, wanting to knock the weapon from her hand, but fearing for his own life as much as Fiona’s, as the witch shot some sort of spell at the door. She sheathed her wand in her sleeve and looked back to him. “Now that we have some privacy—“ 

“What did you do to my maid?”

“Frustrated her, probably. I made the door impervious to sound, to prevent eavesdropping. She’s probably still trying. I know I would. You may check, if you want.”

He did. Fiona fell on him when he opened the door, as she’d apparently had her ear pressed against it.

He set her back on her feet, with irritation and embarrassment on both their parts, then they stepped away from each other. “You should be preparing a room for our guests,” he said. “I’m obviously not sending them out into the cold tonight.” 

“Yes sir,” said Fiona, stomping away.

“Although I will go if you ask me,” said the witch. “I truly do not mean to impose on you, especially after what you’ve already suffered. What Merope did to you wasn’t just immoral, it was illegal by our laws. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has a lot to answer for, in not arresting the Gaunts sooner and stopping them from tormenting you. You owe the magical world nothing. The debt goes the other way.”

These words were a relief to hear. This witch understood what had been done to him, which no one else of his acquaintance did. Probably because she had the power to do it herself, but still. “I don’t really know… What did she actually do to me?”

“I don’t know the details myself,” she said. “I know she had an unhealthy obsession with you. She must have thought it was love, but I don’t want to use that word for this. She probably dosed you with love potions, or possibly used the Imperius curse on you. The first would be legally defined as aggravated muggle-baiting, I believe, and the second is an unforgivable curse. Either way, it was rape. I’m very sorry that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement dropped the quaffle on this. There’s no excuse for that. Unfortunately, their performance can be lackluster when the victim is a muggle. Sorry, a muggle is a non-magical person such as yourself.”

Some small part of him wondered what a quaffle was, but most of him was stuck on the word rape. He was a man, after all, and Merope was a woman, so that couldn’t possibly be the right word. But it was. He felt a combination of horror at the realization, relief to finally hear his experience accurately described, and shame that it had happened in the first place.

“Perhaps her obsession eventually turned to real love, and she chose to stop giving you love potions. Perhaps she realized that what she was doing to you was wrong. This allowed you to escape. I don’t actually know if that’s how it happened, but it seems most likely.”

“When she served me food or drink, sometimes it smelled strange. Good, but strange. Like—“ He abruptly stopped talking when he realized what it smelled like.

“Amortentia is called the most powerful love potion ever invented,” she said. “It can’t create true love, but it does cause a strong infatuation. That’s probably what she used on you.”

“I knew something was wrong. Sometimes I’d try to refuse what she served me. Then she’d point her wand at me and say this word…”

Imperio?” suggested the witch.

He started, to hear that dreaded word again. He nodded dumbly. 

“The Imperius curse is a form of mental rape. It can be used to force the victim to do anything, to go against his strongest principles.”

“She’d make me drink that potion, and… do other things.”

“That’s horrible. She had no right.”

“And then one day in May, she tried making me drink the potion again, and I… didn’t.”

The witch was staring at him. “What?”

“I didn’t. I just got up and walked away, left our flat, didn’t look back, didn’t pack any of my things, left London, came back here to my parents’ house. I didn’t know she was pregnant. I could feel her grip on me loosening as I got further away. The power fades with distance, I suppose.” 

“No. No it doesn’t, not at all. She must have finally given up, released you from the spell. Or… Great emotional strain has been known to weaken magical power. I knew a witch whose powers were weakened by unrequited love. That may be the case here as well. But for you to fight it off in the first place!” She was staring at him, apparently amazed. “That must have been quite a shock to her. The sheer force of will required to resist an Imperius curse is a rare talent. I knew only one other person who was able to resist the Imperius curse, and he was quite an exceptional wizard. He even resisted the killing curse. Once, anyway.” She gazed into the fire, seemingly lost in thought.

She shook herself out of her reverie. “I’d quite understand if you didn’t want anything to do with a baby who’s the product of rape, as you may wish to put the whole experience behind you. I’d also understand if you do want to raise your son, as he is your own flesh and blood.”

The baby had fallen asleep in the witch’s arms. She carefully buttoned her blouse, retrieved her sandwich, took another small bite, chewed, and swallowed. “This hits the spot, thank you.” Looking at her stick-thin wrist, he wondered when she’d last eaten a proper meal.

“If I say I don’t want him, what will happen to him?”

She’d clearly been expecting this question. “I'll find a wizarding family to adopt him. At least, I think that should be possible. I have no contacts here, and it will take some time to acquire them. Then I would want to very, very thoroughly examine whatever family is willing to take him in, to make sure they’re suitable for the job. I can think of several families I definitely wouldn’t want raising a baby. The only wizarding family you’ve encountered was the Gaunts, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Believe it or not, they can be worse.”

“Worse?”

“The evil that the Gaunts could do was limited by their poverty, lack of education, and perhaps insanity and feeble-mindedness caused by inbreeding. They also had no connections, as they weren’t really part of wizarding society. They isolated themselves from everyone. They should not be considered typical examples of wizards and witches. Most other wizarding families are unhampered by these limits.” She stopped to reconsider this. “Well, inbreeding is pretty common, but not usually this extreme. And insanity, definitely. Depending on how you define it, since if your whole society is insane, and you fit into it… Anyway, there are also some wizarding families that are really quite nice. I’d just have to find one.”

“If you know of some nice ones already, surely you could ask them? Even if they don’t want to adopt a baby themselves, perhaps their friends?”

She looked into the fire again. “I knew some very nice ones, yes. They… They aren’t available for me to ask now.” At the sight of tears welling in her eyes, he didn’t pursue this line of questioning. She shook herself out of whatever thoughts had been haunting her. “So you’ve made your decision then? I’ll get to work finding an adoptive family tomorrow.”

“No, I’m just examining my options. So if I do decide to raise him?”

“Then you’re committing to raising a magical child, and a very powerful one at that. He will do magic accidentally before he learns to control it. His tantrums will have the added complication of magic. I recommend hiring a magical nursemaid who knows how to deal with such things.”

“And where would I find a magical nursemaid?”

She shrugged. “I can’t claim I have any experience caring for small children, but I’m a quick study, and unemployed. I don’t mean to lay claim to the job of course. I could help you put a want ad in a Wizarding newspaper, so you can choose from a larger pool of applicants. As with choosing an adoptive family, you’ll want to screen applicants very carefully.”

“A wizarding newspaper?”

“Yes.”

“I’d like to read that, regardless.”

“I’ll get you one. If you’re going to be involved in your son’s life, you should know a bit about the wizarding world. Although if you’re not, the less you know about us, the better. Anyway, raising a magical child gets easier the September after he turns eleven, as he’ll qualify for Hogwarts, Britain’s boarding school for magical children. He’ll come home only for holidays. He’ll be eighteen when he graduates. Now, the difficulty there is that you won’t be able to brag about his academic accomplishments to your muggle friends, as they’d think you mad. Perhaps you and he could make something up.” She sipped her tea. “My parents were muggles. They told their friends I attended a very exclusive school for the gifted. That worked. It would have helped if they’d had more of a guide to the magical world, though. Perhaps I could be that guide for you.”

“Your parents were muggles?”

“Yes.”

“Past tense? So they’re not anymore?” Could muggles learn magic and become witches or wizards? That was quite an interesting idea.

“They’re not anything anymore. They were murdered by a very powerful wizard who was raised in a loveless muggle orphanage and developed a hatred of muggles there.”

“Good God! I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault. You couldn’t have known.”

“Still, I’m sorry for bringing it up. And I offer my sincerest condolences.” 

“Thank you.”

“And I think I now do understand your interest in this baby. You’re quite right, something needed to be done. It certainly wouldn’t do for any son of mine to lead a life of crime. Thank you for taking the initiative to save him from that risk.”

“Ideally, the Ministry of Magic would have a program to help muggle-borns like me and magical foundlings like this, to integrate them into wizarding society, both for their own sake, and to prevent them from inconveniencing others, but they don’t. The Ministry of Magic… I could say much more on the subject than we have time for tonight. I’ve given you quite enough to think about already.”

“That you have. Thank you very much, Miss Granger. Aside from the news, it’s a relief to get some confirmation of what happened to me. When I suspected I’d been bewitched, I thought I must be mad to think such a thing.”

“Of course you can never tell any other muggles this, as they’ll think you mad.”

“I understand that, Miss Granger. There is no need to remind me.”

“Sorry.” She stared into the fire. She looked terribly tired. The haunted look in her eyes contrasted sharply with the angelic perfection of the sleeping baby in her arms.

“I’m afraid I’m not being a very good host. Can I offer you some brandy, Miss Granger?”

“No, thank you, I can’t drink alcohol while I’m breastfeeding a baby.”

“What? Why?”

She blinked, then, surprisingly, laughed.

“What did I say?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m very tired. I should be more coherent after a good night’s sleep. Which I don’t suppose little Tom here will allow me, but whatever. Do you think that guest room is ready for us?”

“I should have asked Fiona to prepare two rooms for the two of you.”

“No,” she said firmly. “This baby will not feel lonely. He will know love all his life.” She drew her wand and pointed it at the door. “Finite Incantatem.”

“—ister Riddle!” came Fiona’s frantic voice from the other side of the door, along with some pounding. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, Fiona,” he said, rushing to open the door. “Keep your voice down. Don’t wake the baby.”

“Sorry, sir.” 

“Is the guest room ready?”

“No sir. I tried moving your old crib down from the attic, but it was too heavy for me, sir.”

“Ah. We’ll move it together.”

“Is this crib painted with lead paint?” interrupted the witch.

Tom and Fiona stared at her. “I believe so,” said Fiona. “It’s quite a nice crib.”

“Please don’t trouble yourself to bring it down,” said the witch, after a fairly long pause.

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” said Tom.

“I said don’t,” she said quite firmly. Tom and Fiona looked at each other. Neither was willing to press the point. 

“As you wish,” said Tom.

They settled her in her room, and she closed the door.

Tom and Fiona looked at each other as they walked away. They were both at a loss for words.

“If you ask me—“ Fiona said eventually.

“I didn’t,” said Tom. He went to bed.

So. He was, at once, free of Merope, and encumbered by a son. It was a good trade, really. An innocent baby was obviously better than an evil witch.

For complex decisions, he often found it useful to consider the factors independently. Had Merope not been a witch, but merely an unsatisfactory wife of an ordinary sort, there would be no question at all. Of course he would acknowledge and raise his own son! He tested this idea. What if his wife had been an ordinary sort of criminal? What if she had committed some truly horrible crime, murdered his parents for example? No, no difference. He could not blame a baby for the sins of his mother.

The only complication was that his son was, apparently, a wizard. Miss Granger had claimed that, at least. She hadn’t had to tell him that, she could have just dumped the baby on him and left him to figure it out on his own, but she had volunteered this information. That was a thought worthy of attention. It said something about Miss Granger’s honesty. Assuming it was true, and it was too ridiculous a lie for anyone to try to get away with, wasn’t it?

The main problem he could see with raising a wizard was not knowing how to do it, not being able to set a good example for his son to follow, not understanding his son’s concerns and accomplishments. He supposed that wasn’t significantly different from fathers whose sons had vastly different interests, coal miners whose sons insisted on becoming playwrights or whatnot. He considered that. He knew this in advance, so he wouldn’t be disappointed by unrealistic expectations. His son would not follow in his footsteps. He could accept that right now. Many fathers had to do this even without the advantage of advance notice. That didn’t seem to be a barrier. He was still his son.

He had at least a vague idea what playwrights did, or hairdressers, or farmers, yet had no clue about wizards. Aside from fairy tales, he was drawing a complete blank. He needed more information. He got out of bed and went to his writing desk, got some stationery and a fountain pen. He wrote a note.

Dear Miss Granger,

I am extremely grateful for your assistance to my son, and for the news of my wife. I would like to provide you an answer, yet I lack sufficient information to make a decision. I have never met a wizard of a type I would wish my son to grow into. I need to know that a better outcome than the Gaunts is possible before committing to a pursuit of this goal. Could you please introduce me to some better examples of wizards?

In the morning, you will meet my parents. You didn’t meet them last night as they retire earlier than I. Please tell them the truth, just as you told me. In particular, your explanation of the techniques Merope used to ensnare me would be most informative to them. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Tom Riddle

 

He slipped the note under her door and went back to bed, feeling rather better than he had before this witch had arrived.

It made sense that there were different sorts of witches, just as there were different sorts of people in general. But if this witch was so different from Merope, so sane and ethical, why did she smell like Amortentia? She smelled like a storm, powerful and terrifying. That was a scent that he should certainly know to avoid by now.

Perhaps it was the smell of potions in general. She had mentioned taking a potion so she could breastfeed his son. He couldn’t criticize that. Still, he felt unsettled by the scent.

He fell asleep eventually, disturbed by a different set of worries than usual. It was a rather nice change.

Chapter Text

Tom didn’t know the etiquette for calling a nursemaid to breakfast, especially a nursemaid who seemed so short of both food and sleep. As with any etiquette question, the thing to do was ask his parents. His mother would tell him what was proper, and his father would tell him not to care.

He joined them in the smaller dining room, where they were already eating breakfast. Fiona served his to him silently, then left the room.

“Good morning mother, father.”

“Good morning,” said his father, not looking up from the morning paper.

“Did you sleep well?” asked his mother, concerned.

“Better than I have recently, thank you,” he said. “Did Fiona tell you of our late visitors?”

“I thought I heard the doorbell,” said his mother. “She certainly is acting like she’s sitting on gossip.”

“Our visitor brought very interesting news,” he said, placing the death certificate on the table.

His mother gasped when she read it. His father put his newspaper down. “You should have woken us,” he said. “This is wonderful news! You’re free! A widower at twenty-one! You have time to make a good match yet, if you can find a girl who hasn’t heard about your past. We could search abroad. I hear there are some new millionaires’ daughters in the States who’d like to marry into an old-world family, no questions asked.”

“Read the cause of death,” said Tom, placing the birth certificate in front of them.

His parents stared. “We’re grandparents?” his mother eventually said. “Where is my grandson?”

“In a guest room upstairs,” said Tom. “A Miss Hermione Granger, who is acquainted with the Gaunt family but not friendly with them, took it upon herself to rescue my son from the orphanage in which he was born and bring him to me. She offers her service as a wet nurse. She’s upstairs with him now.”

“How wonderful!” exclaimed his mother.

“Have you confirmed this story with the records office in London?” asked his father.

“Not yet. I only got the news late last night.”

“I’ll telephone my lawyers,” said his father, getting up and taking both certificates to his office.

“Thank you,” Tom called after him.

“So if it is true,” said his mother, beaming, “when do I get to meet my grandson?”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you,” said Tom. “I don’t know the first thing about babies. Should I knock and risk waking them? And… there’s more to the story. Perhaps I should let Miss Granger tell it herself.”

As if on cue, or probably because she’d been eavesdropping, Miss Granger appeared, with his son in a sling at her side. Her hair was much more orderly and contained now. She wore the same ill-fitting clothes she’d worn last night, although now they were at least dry and clean. “Good morning,” she said with some nervousness.

“Good morning, Miss Granger,” said Tom. “Allow me to introduce my mother, Mrs. Mary Riddle.”

“I’m pleased to meet you,” said Miss Granger.

“The pleasure is all mine,” said his mother, who wasn’t looking at Miss Granger at all, but at the baby. “Good morning, little Tom! We can’t call you that, can we, since we already have one. How about Tommy? Do you like that? Oh, I think he likes that. Look at his eyes! Did you see his eyes, Tom?”

There was no way to avoid noticing those freakish blue-black eyes, which stared with disturbing intensity. Those eyes must be how Miss Granger recognized him as a wizard, not a normal baby.

“Your eyes looked just like that when you were born,” continued his mother. “Before they lost that baby blue cast and turned pure black. I’ve never seen eyes like that aside from yours. He looks just like you did as a baby. There’s no question that he’s yours. I’m sure he’s going to grow up to be as handsome as his father.”

Oh.

“Of course, we’ll see what the records office says,” his mother added apologetically, noting his unsettled look.

“Oh good, you contacted the records office?” said Miss Granger.

“Yes,” said his mother. “Not that we doubt you of course—“

“You have every reason to,” she said. “It’s good to check.”

“Sit down, Miss Granger,” said Tom. “Please have some breakfast.”

“I can hold the baby,” said his mother. “So you can eat,” although that was clearly not his mother’s motivation in making this offer.

Miss Granger handed the baby over with some reluctance, but smiled when she saw his mother expertly hold his son. Then Miss Granger ate breakfast. “This is delicious, thank you.”

“Have you held your son yet, Tom?” His mother seemed poised to inflict those staring eyes on him. 

“No.”

“There is a bit of a trick to it. You have to support his head—“

“Perhaps after we hear back from the records office, and perhaps not even then, whatever they say.”

“Tom! What do you mean?”

“This baby… Miss Granger has more to tell, but I wish her to eat breakfast first.”

“I can tell it now,” she said.

“You might as well wait until my father returns from his office, Miss Granger, so you don’t have to tell it twice. And truly, you should get a whole, proper meal in you before telling the rest, as you might not have an opportunity to finish this breakfast afterwards.”

“What?” objected his mother. “I would never turn a guest out in the middle of breakfast!”

“We might turn out the Gaunts,” said Tom. “And as Miss Granger is acquainted with the Gaunts, it is possible that you will feel the same way about her.”

“I would never!” said his mother.

“We shall see how calmly you take the news,” said Tom.

“Perfectly calmly, I assure you,” his mother insisted.

Tom did not smile, although he was fairly proud of himself for nipping his mother’s anti-witch fury in the bud. He looked away from her to Miss Granger, who was gazing at him with measuring eyes. He looked at his food. This witch was observant.

His father returned with the two certificates. “My lawyers are looking into this. They’ll telephone back when they have news. Oh, good morning. You must be Miss Granger. I am Squire Thomas Riddle. Thank you for bringing this news and baby to us, assuming you’re telling the truth.”

“Thomas!” said his mother.

“Thank you for checking my story,” Miss Granger replied to his father. “I can see you’re very protective of your family.”

“Not protective enough,” his father grumbled.

“You can’t be blamed—“ Miss Granger began.

“Eat your breakfast, Miss Granger,” said Tom. “We can discuss such things afterwards.”

She did, while his mother cooed nonsense at the baby and Tom and his father discussed railway construction.

Miss Granger took a sip of tea. “I am quite full, so if Mr. Riddle will permit me, I will now speak some more. I don’t know if you know this already, but Merope Gaunt was a witch.”

Tom observed his parents’ reactions. His mother seemed nervous, his father, amused.

“She certainly was an unpleasant woman,” said his father, “but such a fantastical insult seems overly dramatic, don’t you think?”

Tom cringed.

“I was not using the word as an insult,” Miss Granger said coldly. “I meant it literally. She was a witch, from a family of witches and wizards. She ensnared your son with magical potions and spells.”

Tom’s mother’s attention was fixed on the baby. She cooed quietly and meaninglessly.

“She had him drink a potion called Amortentia, which is called a love potion, although it cannot create true love. She also used a mind-control spell called the Imperius curse, which is illegal by our laws.”

“Our?” His father had caught the word.

“She was the sort of witch who gives the rest of us a bad name,” said Miss Granger. She took another sip of her tea as this sentence took effect.

“I need proof,” said his father. “You can’t just come in here claiming you’re a witch without proof.”

Miss Granger nodded. She drew her wand from her sleeve. Tom tried to suppress an embarrassing cringe, but he did not have good experiences with wands. “I suppose I should ask you what sort of demonstration you’d like. I’m not going to inflict a love potion or Imperius curse on anyone here.” She waited a moment, as if anyone in her audience was capable of speech, then shrugged, waved her wand in a particular way, and said “Expecto Patronum!”

Tom didn’t know why one might want a glowing silver otter swimming through the air over one’s breakfast table, but if one did want such, magic was probably the only way to obtain it.

After some playful swimming, the otter faded from existence.

His father looked at him. “Did Merope do things like that?”

“Not like that, no. She mostly just made things explode, when she thought I had slighted her. Once when she thought I had looked at a waitress in an inappropriate way…” he found himself unable to finish the sentence.

Miss Granger saved him by continuing her presentation. “Merope was an uneducated witch. She never went to school, and her home education was quite lacking. The Gaunts were very poor examples of wizardkind. You shouldn’t infer anything about other witches and wizards from them.”

“I understand,” said his father, and Tom took a deep breath of relief.

“This is important to understand, because this baby is a wizard.”

His mother, who had been doing a remarkably good impression of someone who was paying no attention, suddenly stopped her meaningless cooing.

“Would you like me to hold the baby again, Mrs. Riddle?” asked Miss Granger.

His mother didn’t say anything, but she kept hold of the baby when Miss Granger went to take him. Miss Granger backed off.

“He is a wizard, and will grow to be a very powerful one. There is no way of preventing him from being a wizard. The only question is, what sort of wizard will he be?”

“Very powerful, you said,” said his father. “That’s obviously the sort of wizard a Riddle would be. What powers are we talking about?”

Miss Granger looked at his father and hesitated. Eventually, she said, “There are various branches of magic. I mentioned potions already. Most potions aren’t as evil as what Merope used. Many are useful in healing, to relieve pain, regrow missing limbs, cure diseases, and so on. I took a wet nurse potion so I could feed your grandson. A skilled witch or wizard can use potions to provide cures that seem miraculous. A potion master can invent new potions, and create cures for diseases which are currently incurable. I should also mention the more frivolous uses of potions, to change hair color, create fireworks that look like animated dragons, and so on.”

His father nodded. “I’m going to take notes.” He got some paper and a pen and jotted some things down. “Continue.”

“I also mentioned mind magic, like the Imperius curse Merope used on your son. It’s worth noting here that according to what your son told me, he was actually able to fight his way free of her curse through force of will. This is quite a rare talent. If his son inherits that force of will, combined with his mother’s magical ability, he will be quite formidable.”

This was obvious flattery, but Tom felt a surge of pride anyway, and saw the same on his father’s face. He read upside down as his father jotted down Mind Magic, Imperius Curse & Resistance. “Any other mind magics?”

“Legilimency, which is mind-reading, and occlumency, resistance to mind-reading. Perfect storage, recall, and sharing of memories. Mind-healing, for those who have suffered trauma. Memory erasure and modification can be useful in this branch of healing.”

“And in other fields, I imagine,” said his father dryly as he took notes. Tom felt a surge of irritation at his father’s transparency. Miss Granger was clearly trying to put a positive spin on magic. It wouldn’t do to seem too interested in other uses.

“Yes,” she said. “The Ministry of Magic uses Obliviation, memory erasure, extensively, to give the impression that we don’t exist. The wizarding world works very hard to stay hidden from muggles. It’s illegal for me to be telling you any of this, according to the International Statute of Secrecy. I personally believe that this law is flawed, as it makes no exception for the families of muggle-born wizards younger than school age. I am breaking this law knowingly and intentionally, as a protest.”

At least she wasn’t the law-abiding kind of goodie-two-shoes, then.

“It is absolutely essential that you don’t reveal this to anyone. If it got back to the Ministry, your memories would be erased, and I’d go to prison.”

“You have my word, Miss Granger,” said his father.

She looked at his mother as if her husband’s word didn’t apply to her too. “And mine, of course,” his mother said.

“We don’t wish to be thought mad, in any case,” added Tom. “It is enough that my own parents believe me.”

“You can’t blame me for being skeptical before,” said his father angrily. “The story’s quite unbelievable without solid proof.”

“I don’t. I agree. I experienced more than enough proof firsthand to convince me. I’m glad you were not subjected to such convincing proof, but could live in blissful ignorance a while longer.”

“I never thought you were mad, Tom,” said his mother. “Only your story was mad. Perhaps I was mad to believe it.”

“I think your madness kept me sane, mother. I wouldn’t have been able to withstand being disbelieved by everyone.”

“So what other types of magic are there?” said his father, pen poised over paper.

“Charms,” she said. “Which is a large, varied category, including the Patronus charm I demonstrated. There’s also a charm to repair objects, for example. I thought it would be a good demonstration to repair some little broken thing, so you can see some useful magic, but nothing here is broken.

His father drained his teacup and threw it to the floor, where it shattered. “There you go,” he said cheerfully.

Miss Granger smiled. “Thank you.” She waved her wand at the pieces. “Reparo.” The pieces drew together like long-lost friends until the teacup was whole and perfect once again.

His father picked it up off the floor and inspected it carefully. He refilled it with tea from the pot and checked for leaks. There were none. He nodded approvingly and set it on the table. “What else?”

“Transfiguration, turning things into other things.”

“Turning lead into gold must be right useful.”

She shook her head emphatically. “Transfigurations are temporary, usually wearing off in minutes to hours. Forging money is highly illegal, and also unethical, as it would destabilize the whole economy.”

“I was joking.”

Sure you were, father.

“Show us a legal transfiguration, then.”

She pointed her wand at the repaired teacup, which turned into a turtle. The turtle slowly walked across the table to the dish of scones and took a bite out of one before it turned back into a teacup, with a small piece of scone floating soggily in the tea. His father picked it up to inspect it again. “It’s a pity we can’t invite our friends over to be entertained by tricks like these. Ah well, at least we can enjoy our own private showing.”

“Then there are ancient runes, which can be inscribed on objects to turn them into magical devices. It would take some time to demonstrate that. There’s also arithmancy, used to calculate other forms of magic precisely. It’s not generally regarded as being interesting to demonstrate. And divination, which frankly is mostly nonsense since the future in not set in stone, but I should mention it to be complete.” She clearly felt very strongly about this. “Oh, and ritual magic, oaths and ceremonies of fealty, honesty, protection and such. Those are the most common types of magic.”

Tom could see his father take a breath in preparation for asking a question, so he spoke first to head him off. “So the question is, do we want to be involved with magic at all? Miss Granger has generously volunteered to search for an adoptive wizarding family for my son, should we feel that we are not up to the task of raising him.”

Both of Tom’s parents stared at him as if they again believed him mad. They both spoke at once.

“You would give up your own son—“ sputtered his mother.

“How could we pretend that magic doesn’t exist now?” demanded his father.

“My grandson, our own flesh and blood—“

“Think of the opportunities—“

It was most gratifying to see Miss Granger, powerful witch, nearly jump from her seat when the telephone rang. It had that effect on nearly everyone. The Riddles were the first family in Little Hangleton to install a telephone in their home, and the reaction of rubes was at least as much of a benefit as the ability to speak with people far away.

“That will be my lawyer calling back,” said his father. “Excuse me.” He left for his office again.

“He’s your son, Tom,” his mother took advantage of the silence to plead. “Your own son.” She held the baby out to him as if this proved something. 

His father returned from his office shortly. “He’s your son, Tom,” he said through his broad grin. “Assuming Merope ensnared only one man. We can’t ask her, as she’s lying in a pauper’s grave near London. The story checks out.”

His mother was still holding the baby out as if she expected him to take it.

Tom tried and failed to meet those eerie blue-black eyes.

“Mrs. Riddle, Squire Riddle,” said Miss Granger. “Your son has good reason to be cautious. He had the misfortune to experience some particularly evil magic firsthand. This danger of magic is not to be taken lightly. This baby will do accidental magic before he learns to control his power. Once he is in the wizarding world, he will face prejudice because of his ancestry. He may create enemies. Those enemies may consider his family targets as a way of hurting him.”

“Back up, you’re saying that people would be prejudiced against little Tommy because his mother was a Gaunt?” asked his father, offended. “They are a lowly family, certainly, but the Riddle name surely counteracts that.”

Miss Granger needed a moment to compose herself before responding to this. “No. The Gaunts may have removed themselves from wizarding society, and been living in squalor of late, but they are still a pureblood wizarding family, therefore generally held in very high regard. They no longer bear the name, but they are descended from Salazar Slytherin himself. He was a very powerful wizard a thousand years ago. Well, about a thousand years ago. Closer to nine hundred, now. Anyway, still famous today.”

“For what is he famous?” asked his mother.

“He helped found a school. He was one of the four founders of Hogwarts, Britain’s school of witchcraft and wizardry.”

“That seems quite respectable,” said his mother. “What a pity the family sank so low. So why would anyone be prejudiced against Tommy?”

“Because of his father. You are muggles. Muggles are people without magical ability. Many wizards don’t consider muggles to be fully human. They believe you are brutish beasts, without souls. Merope’s father and brother hate Mr. Riddle for supposedly seducing Merope.”

“What?! They thought I wanted—“

“They thought you presumed to seduce a pureblood witch high above your station. They thought it impossible that a witch could be genuinely attracted to a muggle man. Many would consider the product of such a union to be an abomination, not because of her, but because of you.”

There was silence, ample room for his outrage, but Tom found that he lacked adequate words to express it.

“I would quite understand if you didn’t want any contact with a society that holds your family in such contempt,” said Miss Granger. “I might even recommend that you sever all ties now, both for your own sake and your son’s. The choice is yours.”

“No,” said Tom, proud of the cold calmness of his voice. “No. My son will know that the Riddle name is one to be proud of. The rest of wizarding society will soon realize it is a name to admire, respect, and fear.”

“Hear hear,” said his father.

“What did you say earlier about wizards targeting the families of their enemies?” inquired his mother.

“Wizarding society has laws,” Miss Granger said, “which favor the old pureblood families, and which are often broken regardless. I made an enemy of a particularly evil wizard. He didn’t approve of the fact that my parents were muggles, although we would have been enemies anyway, as I strongly opposed his pureblood agenda. He murdered my parents to punish me.”

“How dreadful!” said his mother. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Miss Granger.”

“Is this criminal still at large?” asked his father.

“This was in Australia,” she said. “So people here wouldn’t have heard of it. This particular wizard isn’t a problem now, as I took care of the situation personally. I merely gave this as an example of the type of danger you might face in wizarding society.”

Tom admired the coldness with which she admitted taking care of the situation personally.

“Are you Australian, Miss Granger?” asked his mother pleasantly, as if at a ladies’ tea. “I have been trying to place your accent. I’m sure it’s one I haven’t heard before, but I don’t believe I’ve ever met an Australian.”

“I’m English, although I have spent time in Australia,” she said. “As well as some time in Bulgaria, and in numerous other countries, at least in passing. I suppose my travels could account for the fact that my accent isn’t quite like anyone else’s.”

“Well, we are quite delighted to have you here,” said his mother.

“Thank you.” She thought. “Me being from Australia could also explain why no one in Britain knows me. Let that be our story, if anyone asks. I’m British, but have traveled extensively, and most recently lived in Australia.”

Tom had the feeling there wouldn’t be much point asking her more about her past, as he’d merely get a further demonstration of her creativity. “All right,” he said.

“My plan for today,” Miss Granger said, “is to grant Mr. Riddle’s wish to see some better examples of wizards than the Gaunts, to give him an idea of the sort of wizard Tommy might grow into, if all goes well. While I can’t actually introduce you to anyone, I can at least take you to a wizarding district, so you can see wizards going about their business, doing their shopping and such. Would that suit?”

“That would be an excellent start,” said Tom.

“I shall accompany you,” said his father.

Miss Granger looked distressed. “I would rather not attempt to smuggle more than one muggle into a wizarding district at a time. Showing magic to a muggle is illegal. When I break the law, I try to be discrete about it.”

“I see the sense in that,” conceded his father. “Oh all right, Tom may go without me.”

“Thank you, father,” said Tom, who would have felt safer with his company, illogical as the thought was.

“We will travel by a magical method known as apparition, which is nearly instantaneous, but unfortunately quite uncomfortable. I can transport myself, Tom, and Tommy.”

“You could leave Tommy here,” suggested his mother.

“What if he gets hungry?” asked Miss Granger. “We might be out for hours.”

“I could feed him some goat’s milk,” suggested his mother.

Miss Granger pursed her lips. “No,” she said. “Anyway, let’s prepare for our outing. We should dress to blend into our surroundings. I have some wizarding clothes that might fit you.”

“Can’t you just conjure something?” asked Tom.

She shook her head. “It’s much easier to fool muggles with conjured clothing than wizards. Many magical shops have anti-deception charms to prevent theft, that could react badly to conjured clothing. I have real clothes that should serve well enough.” 

“Couldn’t you buy something while you’re there?” inquired his mother.

“I have virtually no money,” apologized Miss Granger. “Just enough for a few minor purchases, I think.”

“You didn’t think we would expect you to pay, did you?” said his father. “The Riddles can pay our own way, I assure you.”

“I apologize. I meant no offense. Then, bring whatever amount of muggle money would be sufficient for a muggle shopping trip. You can exchange it for wizarding money at the bank there. I still think you should start off in wizarding clothing, for the best initial reception.”

“Let us remove to the solarium to examine this wizarding clothing in the best light,” said his father. “Miss Granger, I will show you the room, and you may bring the clothing there.” He rang the bell to call Fiona. “We are done with breakfast,” he told her. They left for the bright, spacious solarium.

“I actually have it all with me,” she said, drawing a small beaded bag from her pocket.

His mother looked at the bag skeptically. “The weather is quite cold, Miss Granger. I don’t believe clothing that could fit in that would be sufficiently warm.”

She laughed. “This bag holds more than you’d think.” She then, impossibly, plunged her arm up to the shoulder into the tiny bag and rummaged around. “It must have fallen to the bottom by now. Accio Ron’s robes.” She pulled out a crumpled wad of fabric that may have once been black, but was now mostly grey. She shook it out. Lint, dirt, and a few dead leaves fell onto the floor. “Sorry. I think this should fit you, Mr. Riddle, you’re tall like Ron was. You can just put it on over your shirt and trousers instead of your jacket. I can get these wrinkles out, no problem.” She did with a spell. “I’m sorry, there’s no getting this bloodstain out, that’s from a cursed wound. This one… What’s this one from? I think this one's just gravy. Scourgify. That’s better.”

Tom was apparently as tall as a man named Ron had been. It would not be appropriate to criticize the gravy stain of a man in his grave, but he could protest the overall concept. “You’re lending me a dead man’s clothes?”

Her eyes were too bright as she looked at him. “He doesn’t need them anymore,” she said somewhat shakily.

“Wouldn’t this be…” extremely creepy “...disrespectful to his memory?”

“I’m sure he’d want them put to good use,” she said. “They were hand-me-downs anyway.”

“Do witches not believe in bad luck?”

“He was wearing muggle clothing when he was killed. In Australia, trying to defend my parents. There’s nothing unlucky about the robes. Well, a lot of his clothes were hand-me-downs, and his brothers, whether they wore these or not…” She trailed off, then rallied her courage and tried again. “The previous wearers were all very brave, honorable men, who would go out of their way to help a muggle if they had a chance. They would all be glad to lend you their robes, I’m sure.”

So presumably, the robes were perfectly safe for men who were neither brave nor honorable. He reached out a hand for the robes, bravely. No, wait. Maybe it was sufficient to leave off just the honorability.

“They look old. Aren’t they out of fashion by now?”

She tried to suppress a laugh. “Wizarding fashion changes extremely slowly, or perhaps not at all. It’s a very tradition-bound culture.”

He was out of objections. He put the garment on. Wizarding fashion apparently was stuck in the Middle Ages. There was a simple elegance to the design, although a definite shabbiness to the execution.

“That looks great on you,” the witch said, causing his estimation of her observational skill, which had previously been quite high, to drop precipitously.

“You look very handsome,” said his mother.

Tom rolled his eyes. “I am well aware that I would look handsome even in a potato sack. My physical attractiveness is apparently what got us into this mess in the first place, as that’s what caught Merope’s eye. It brings me no joy to be reminded of it.”

“Maybe she was charmed by your modesty,” smirked his father.

“I’ll change into my witch’s robes in my room and meet you back here. Then I’ll give you a tour of Diagon Alley. It’s quite a place. I must ask you to stay close to me and follow my lead. I can’t have you getting lost and wandering off.”

“Of course,” said Tom.

“I’m rather glad I’m not going, if that’s the required dress,” said his mother once the witch was out of earshot. Hopefully.

“With all these powers, I don’t see why wizards would have to dress so shabbily,” said his father.

“I believe only the ones who are willing to associate with us do,” said Tom. “The better sort would never lend us their clothes.”

They saw the sense in this. His father went to his office for some money to solve this problem as soon as possible. When the witch returned, she was dressed in dark blue robes which were less faded and worn than the ones she’d loaned him, although by no means new. They still seemed too large for her thin frame.

She took Tommy back in her sling, with an extra blanket. He immediately started rooting for her breast. “After apparition, darling,” she said. “I’d rather you not throw milk up on me. Have you been side-along apparated before?” she asked Tom. When he shook his head, she said, “I warn you, you’re probably going to feel quite motion-sick. I’ll take you to an out-of-the-way alley so you can be sick in peace, then clean you up if necessary.” He nodded, suddenly incapable of speech. “Hold my arm tightly, and I’ll hold yours. It’s quite important we don’t lose each other in transit. See you later, Mrs. Riddle, Squire Riddle. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of them.”

His mother called “Good lu—“ but then he was whirling through emptiness, trying to hold on to Miss Granger’s arm with a hand that either was or wasn’t still connected to his wrist, he couldn’t tell.

Just as suddenly he was throwing… down? sideways? Oh, up. He was dimly aware of Miss Granger cooing, “It’s all right darling, yes, that was very uncomfortable. You may have your milk now, that’s much better, isn’t it?” as he heaved his excellent breakfast onto the ground.

He straightened himself up shakily, and looked around. This definitely did not fit his image of some magical wonderland. It was a dirty alley, with rubbish bins. And vomit on the ground, but he couldn’t really fault it for that.

Scourgify,” said Miss Granger with a wave of her wand, and the vomit was gone from the ground and his person. “Can you walk?” she asked.

He nodded, since she hadn’t asked if he could talk.

“This way.” She led him to a, a…

“Sorry, there’s an anti-muggle Notice-Me-Not charm on the entrance. Take my arm, you should be able to walk through the doorway even if you can’t see it.”

He did as he was told, and soon entered what was obviously a pub, although with a different clientele than he was used to. Everyone was in wizarding robes. Tom noted with a mix of joy and despair that more than half of the witches and wizards were better dressed than their little party. None were as pathetic as the Gaunts. This gave him hope for his son’s future, and simultaneously embarrassment for his immediate situation. It was intolerable for a Riddle to look worse than average at any gathering.

“That may have been the least disagreeable trip I’ve ever taken from Little Hangleton to London,” remarked Tom casually and quietly, for it would not do to seem at all amazed by his surroundings. “The train takes so long.”

“Apparition gets more tolerable with experience,” said Miss Granger as she sat him at a small table. “Try a butterbeer.” She went to the bar and bought two. “It has a tiny bit of alcohol, not enough to worry about.”

He tried it. His mouth liked it, but his recently-emptied stomach didn’t trust it. He gave it some time to adjust. “Where are we?”

“A pub called the Leaky Cauldron,” said Miss Granger. “The gateway to Diagon Alley, and a conduit for all walks of wizarding society.”

The pub had quite a large fireplace. Sometimes the flames turned green, and people stepped out of it, or into it, so that was another doorway. Quite a grand couple appeared from the fireplace, beautifully dressed, sparkling with jewels. They had a peculiar little servant with them, with grey skin, huge green eyes, and furry ears. It was dressed in a rag, the maximum contrast possible to the finery of its masters. It rushed around its lady’s skirt, removing the faintest traces of ashes from the hem.

Tom drew close to Miss Granger, although he caught another disturbing whiff of Amortentia when he did so, like opening a door in a storm and realizing he’d been breathing stale, stuffy air before. The sensible thing to do was to close the door and not let the storm in. He did his best to ignore this and spoke quietly. “That couple over there, that’s the look we need to go for. Where can we get clothes like that?”

“What?” This was not the question she’d been expecting.

“Everyone in this pub treats that couple with utmost respect. Look at how everyone steps aside for them. They didn’t have to wait at the bar for their drinks, they got them immediately. That’s how the Riddles will be treated.”

“But… you’re just trying to blend in unobtrusively. You’re not trying to join the aristocracy!”

“Of course I’m not trying to join the aristocracy,” he agreed. “I’m already in it. The wizarding world must simply recognize that.”

“They won’t!” she said in a furious whisper. “You’re a muggle!”

“My son’s not,” said Tom. “If I’m going to raise him, I intend to do it right, and that means giving him the best possible start in life. No Riddle is going to start at the bottom.”

“This is ridiculous!” she said in her furious whisper. “You should count yourself lucky if your half-blood son is tolerated in wizarding society at all!”

“What’s ridiculous is the suggestion that any son of mine would not start at the top,” said Tom calmly. “I just have to establish that that’s where we belong. I’ll start with the clothes.” 

“You can’t be accepted into pureblood wizarding society by just buying the right clothes!”

“Of course not. I’ll also need accessories, like that little grey thing they have. With the big green eyes.”

Miss Granger closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Eventually, she said, “That’s a house elf. You are not getting one.”

“Maybe not today,” he said agreeably, for she clearly felt strongly about this, and it would not do to have an unseemly disagreement in public.

Tom tried the butterbeer again. It really was quite good. He was tempted to linger over it while enjoying the parade of wizards and witches, but he had to get out of these rags and into something more appropriate to his station. The three of them finished their drinks, of butterbeer and breastmilk, and Miss Granger led him through an enchanted brick wall to Diagon Alley proper.

Tom did not stand there staring like a rube, instead striding forward as if he knew where he was going. “Which tailor shop do you recommend, Miss Granger?”

“I don’t know. Not of the quality you want.”

“Hm. Well, we’ll look.” He changed his businesslike stride to a lazier stroll.

“We need to go to the bank first to change your money,” she said, so he followed her there.

Gringotts Bank was a towering architectural creation of white marble, staffed by...?

“Goblins,” Miss Granger whispered. “Don’t cross them. Never, ever try to cheat them.”

They went to a teller, who gazed at them with huge dark eyes that seemed to be mostly pupil. “I am Grumrog,” it? he? said. “How can I help you?”

“Good day,” said Tom. “I would like to exchange this muggle money for wizarding money.” 

“Do you have an account with us?”

Tom looked at Miss Granger, who shook her head apologetically.

“No,” said Tom.

“Then you will be charged standard rates.”  

“Could you please give me some information about opening an account here?” Tom asked.

Grumrog stared at him for a little while, the said, “We would be glad of your business. Muggle money or wizarding, it’s all the same to us,” and handed him a scroll, which Tom pocketed to peruse later. Then the goblin counted his money. “How would you like that, in galleons, sickles, and/or knuts?”

“Galleons and a bit of change,” said Miss Granger, saving him.

The goblin nodded. “For an amount this large, there is a half-percent fee.”

“That seems quite reasonable.”

What was unreasonable was the large pile of gold coins, with a few silver and bronze, that the goblin put on the counter.

“I’ll carry it,” said Miss Granger, putting it in her bag. What kind of barbarians used actual gold coins rather than paper? Gold was heavy. “Thank you.”

“Oh, and I was wondering if you could recommend a good tailor shop where we could spend some of this,” asked Tom. 

The dark eyes stared for a moment. “Antonio’s“ he said eventually. “It seems popular among wizards who have a lot of money to spend.”

“Perfect, thank you very much, Grumrog,” said Tom. “Could you please give us directions?”

They were instructed to head towards the owl emporium, make a right, look for a glimmer in the air, rotate widdershins thrice, tap their wand on the statue of a rampant walrus, go up a hidden staircase, and ask for Antonio. Tom hoped Miss Granger got all that.

“Thank you,” she said. She led the way. “I’m not a very good guide,” she apologized. “I don’t know anything about what you’re interested in.”

“You’re the best guide I have,” said Tom.

The goblin’s directions proved correct, which surprised Tom, as he’d assumed they had been a joke. But no, soon they were in a tailor shop, one wall of which was covered in moving photographs of witches and wizards in the finest raiments. A short little grey-haired man whose movements were as quick as a bird measured him with a magical self-propelled measuring tape, and offered various fabric swatches and designs for his consideration.

Miss Granger attempted to tell Tom that he should take all the time he needed, as she’d brought a book to read, but he soon dissuaded her of that notion and had her measured and looking at swatches and designs as well. He certainly couldn’t leave her as she was. It was frankly embarrassing to be seen with her. Wizards might dress their servants in rags, but Riddles did not. A woman at a man’s side made for a larger canvas on which he could paint his wealth.

“But there’s no point making clothes to the measurements I have now,” she said. “I don’t want to be this skinny for long.”

“Madam, what kind of tailor do you take me for?” asked Antonio, offended. “Of course my clothing resizes itself to fit as you change. My measuring tape doesn’t measure simply your size now, but your potential range of sizes.”

“Oh. I guess that’s all right then.”

This was Tom’s guide to the wonders of wizardry? “Please excuse my companion,” said Tom. “She’s unaccustomed to tailors of your quality.”

Antonio forgave her faux pas with a nod. “Now we can discuss color, fabric, and design.”

“I need clothes I can duel in,” she said. “That don’t impede my movement at all. Quick-draw wand holster in the left sleeve. And that I can breastfeed in.” 

“I see,” said Antonio. He took some quick measurements of Tommy while he was at it. “You still have many choices for color and design.”

She threw up her hands. “I have no idea. Just pick something for me.”

“Gryffindor red?” suggested the tailor.

She laughed and shook her head. “Good guess, but too flashy for everyday wear, I think. Perhaps a subtler red.”

Tom couldn’t judge that too harshly when he essentially did the same thing. “We’ve heard such good things about your artistry as a tailor,” said Tom to Antonio, “I have complete faith in your choices. We want to impress, without tackiness.”

“Then just tell me where would you like your wand holster.”

“Left sleeve,” Tom said smoothly.

The little man, pleased with their flattery, told them to return in two hours for their clothes. “How should we pass the time? What other shops do you recommend?” asked Tom. “We’ll need shoes, jewelry, and obviously my companion is in dire need of a hairstylist.” Antonio’s suggestions were so numerous, they had to write them down to keep track of them. They thanked him and left.

“You wanted to buy a newspaper,” Miss Granger reminded him. “I warn you, the Daily Prophet is not particularly accurate, but it will give you an idea of what people are discussing. You might as well get a subscription, as you seem committed to this project.” They went to the newspaper’s office, filled out a form to subscribe, and paid. His address, Riddle House, Little Hangleton, raised no eyebrows.

Tom took pleasure in being more comfortable in wizarding shops than his magical guide was. She might know magic, but Tom knew money, which was much more relevant in these settings. He wore her down with shopping until she had no strength left to protest being put in a salon chair and subjected to hairstyling. She sat there numbly as the hairstylist went into raptures about her gorgeous curls. She left with cascades of gleaming ringlets, a silver comb engraved with ancient runes, a collection of potions, a dazed expression, and a scroll with detailed instructions of which products to use daily, which only on the new moon, etc.

Tom checked his pocket watch. “Our clothes should be ready by now.”

The tailor was pleased to see them and show off his work. Tom took his new clothes to a changing room and looked in the mirror. The ragged robes Miss Granger had loaned him looked completely out-of-place on a Riddle, but once he changed, the image that haughtily returned his gaze was perfect. His new robes were true black, as black as his hair and eyes. They had an elegant sweep that the tailor had assured him was obtainable only by the acromantula silk blended into the fabric, which was otherwise yeti fur, warm for winter. Worn open, they revealed the collar of his fine white linen shirt, stylish yet extremely comfortable trousers, and a silver-buttoned brocade waistcoat woven in a pattern that subtly suggested green snakes. Tom had always admired snakes, such graceful creatures. It had pained him to see the one the Gaunts had nailed to their door. He never could stand unnecessary cruelty to animals.

He stepped out of the dressing room so Antonio could see his artistry in action.

Miss Granger started when she saw him, then smirked at Antonio. “Green snakes?”

“I can always tell which house a witch or wizard was sorted into,” he said. “Although this one posed no challenge, so I can hardly take pride in a correct guess. Anyone could see the ambition here.”

She nodded, still smirking.

It wouldn’t do to show any confusion about this. Tom could ask for an explanation later. Instead, he now asked Miss Granger, “Aren’t you going to try on your new clothes?”

“I was hoping you could hold your son while I do that,” she said. He couldn’t very well refuse in front of an audience, so he accepted the baby. No wonder Tom’s mother had cared for him herself rather than hire a nursemaid. Those were eyes that only a mother could love, or perhaps even tolerate. Any potential nursemaid must have been terrified of them.

Tom was now a muggle alone with two wizards, one of whom might attempt to engage him in conversation. What if this tailor attempted to chat about something all wizards should know? News? Sport? Should he scorn such familiarity from a mere tradesman? Perhaps he should avoid catastrophe by taking control of the conversation now.

“What is he wearing?” Tom asked, for the baby was now dressed in a pure white gown embroidered with green snakes, of considerably higher quality than he’d been wearing when they arrived. Tom hadn’t thought it necessary to buy clothes for the baby yet, as he seemed to spend all his time hidden in a sling and wrapped in blankets anyway. 

“I threw in a little extra garment,” said the tailor. “No charge.”

“Snakes again?” asked Tom, amused. “We match.”

“Perhaps I was presumptuous,” said Antonio, “but he does strike me as a Slytherin like his father.”

This, at least, was a subject about which he could speak knowledgeably. “He’s actually a Slytherin on his late mother’s side,” he clarified. “She was the one descended from Salazar Slytherin.”

The tailor did not react as if Tom had simply related a mildly interesting family anecdote. His eyes widened. “Descended… you mean actually descended, actually of the blood of Salazar Slytherin himself?”

“Yes, through his mother’s side, my late wife Merope, of the Gaunt family of Little Hangleton. Now tragically deceased. Terrible business. She was in London, among muggles, when she unexpectedly went into labor without my knowledge. Muggles don’t know the first thing about healing, so she died in their care. It’s a miracle my son survived.”

The tailor was aghast. “Muggles! A descendant of Salazar Slytherin himself dead at the hands of muggles!”

“They meant well,” Tom said mildly. “I’m trying to put the whole tragic business behind me. I have a son to care for now. It’s a good thing Miss Granger happened to be visiting from Australia. She very generously volunteered to care for my son, even going so far as to take a wet nurse potion so she can feed him herself. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“I had no idea I was in the presence of such an illustrious family.”

Now this was more like it. This was the proper reception for the Riddles. “Well, we were dressed in rags when we arrived, so the mistake is understandable. As I was mourning my dear departed wife, I thought it appropriate to dress quite humbly, and put no care at all in my appearance, but Miss Granger convinced me that this would be an inauspicious beginning for my son’s life. She insisted on this shopping trip so I could buy a suit of clothes that represent a fresh start, rather than the robes that remind me of my life with Merope. Perhaps I should replace my whole wardrobe.”

“An excellent idea! How fortunate that you have such a sensible friend.”

“Indeed.”

“My lord—“

Lord? The Riddles were only squires, but the Slytherins apparently ranked higher.

“—may I ask a favor? It would be a great honor, and a boon to my business, if I could take a picture of the young heir of Slytherin and post it on my board of satisfied customers.” He indicated the board, flickering with moving pictures of wizards and witches.

Tom nodded graciously. “It’s no trouble at all. I’m happy to endorse such a talented tailor.”

The tailor fetched a peculiar camera. “Would you be so kind as to stand by that wall, my lord? It makes a good background.”

Tom did, holding the young heir of Slytherin in his arms. If he turned those disturbing eyes to face the camera, he wouldn’t have to face them himself. He gave the camera his haughty best, although he couldn’t suppress a smile, proud of how quickly the tailor had recognized a family of importance.

The magical camera apparently could develop its own pictures, as Antonio pulled a picture out in moments. “You look so proud of your son! The heir of Slytherin! In my shop!”

“That’s my boy,” said Tom, beaming. The blue didn’t come through in the photo of course, so father and son seemed to have matching pure black eyes. They’d be the blackest spots on the board.

“Would you please write your names and titles on it?” The tailor got— A feather and a pot of ink. What was Tom supposed to do with that? How could it be that wizards, with all their marvelous devices, were still writing by dipping a feather in a pot of ink? How could they not be using fountain pens in this day and age?

“My apologies, but as you can see, my hands are full,” said Tom, indicating the observant and eerily silent baby in his arms. Weren’t babies supposed to cry a lot? “Perhaps when Miss Granger gets out of the changing room.”

“If you would permit me, I would be honored to hold the young heir of Slytherin,” the tailor groveled.

Tom looked down at him, which their height difference made easy. “Yes, you would be honored if I would permit that.” He made no move to relinquish the baby to this common tradesman.

“My apologies sir, I did not mean to presume.”

Miss Granger finally came out of the changing room, looking awkward. “It fits, but don’t you think it’s too…”

The fabric was not red, but a dark brown that shimmered with a hidden glow of red, as if buried embers were about to burst into flames. In a surprising nod to modern fashion, the skirt was short, barely covering her calves, revealing her tall brown dragonhide boots that she’d grudgingly allowed him to replace her old worn boots with, as dragonhide was a very practical, durable material, she said. Aside from the skirt, there was no sign that the tailor had ever heard of the 1920s, as this silhouette was as far from the straight, boyish lines of modern fashion as it was possible to be. He had made no attempt to conceal her unfashionably large bosom and tiny waist, but had instead displayed them in a bodice shaped like an hourglass which accentuated both by contrasting them. The effect would have been Victorian, were it not for the complete lack of whalebone or other structures that Victorians used to squish themselves into this stiff shape. Instead, in a way that would have been impossible without magic, the fabric clung to her every muscle and yielded to every movement, leaving her lean, long torso as lithe and free as… an acrobat?… a snake. Yes, a snake, exactly.

“It certainly is very,” said Tom. “But I don’t think it’s too.”

“But this skirt… Look at this.” She spun, and hidden slits in the skirt allowed it to open like the petals of a flower, revealing lean legs clad in nothing but trousers, if they could be called that, of a similar close fit as the bodice. Had she been an attractive woman, with the bare minimum of softness and charming coquetry, the view would have been titillating, but as she more closely resembled a predatory animal, the view was pleasing in the same way as a sighting of a rare wild creature.

“You did specify clothes that would give you complete freedom of movement for dueling,” fretted the tailor. “So I couldn’t use too much fabric in the skirt, but neither could it be tight—“

“You did as I asked. Thank you. These are the most comfortable clothes I’ve ever worn. I just don’t usually wear clothes that look so…”

“Beautiful?” prompted Tom.

“Well, yes,” she said.

“You’d better start,” said Tom. “I’m going to have to look at you whenever I want to see my son. There’s no need to make the experience more unpleasant than it has to be.”

He’d judged correctly. Her expression was amused by his frivolous interest in aesthetics, rather than offended at this slight on her appearance. “All right, if it’s important to you,” she said indulgently, as if he were a toddler insisting that the peas on his plate not touch his potatoes.

“Now if you would be so kind as to hold the baby, Mr. Riddle’s hands would be free to write on this picture for my board,” said Antonio.

“I’m enjoying cuddling my son right now,” said Tom. “Could you write for me?” he asked her.

“Of course,” said Miss Granger, taking quill in hand. She looked at the pictures that were already up to get an idea of the format, then wrote, “Tom Marvolo Riddle, Heir of Slytherin, and his father Tom Riddle, Heir of Riddle.” Her handwriting was much better than Tom’s would have been with that instrument, but not up to the standard of the beautiful calligraphy on many of the other pictures.

“I would also like to get a picture of you of course,” said the tailor.

“I’m not the heir of anything,” she said, looking at the board.

“You needn’t be,” he assured her. “I also serve performing artists, international quidditch stars… I’d love to be able to point to your picture as an example of the sort of work I can do for duelists. Please pose as if you were dueling.” 

She acquiesced to this and stood against the backdrop as requested. “Ready?” she asked.

“Ready.”

Tom had a sudden urge to run for cover as, fast as a striking snake, Miss Granger drew her wand from her sleeve and wielded it at the camera, moving it with precise yet somehow powerful moments. Then she abruptly stopped.

“Oh, that was wonderful!” said Antonio. “And thank you very much for not completing that curse.”

“That would be a poor payment for your excellent work,” said Miss Granger.

Tom suspected that child care was an unusual career choice for witches with Miss Granger’s skill set. Then he reconsidered that. Perhaps dueling skills were required to deal with a tantruming young wizard.

On her picture, she wrote only “Hermione Granger.” Tom would have thought her more creative.

Tom leaned in close to her. “There’s room to write more,” he said. “Write ‘Australian duelist.’”

Her eyes widened briefly, but then she smiled and did as he’d told her.

Antonio beamed, and put her photograph on the section of the board with the athletes.

Tom paid the balance due, pulling coins from his new wizarding wallet, which was more capacious than should have been possible. He promised Antonio more business in the future.

The tailor handed him a parchment scroll. “Now that I have your measurements, you can owl me an order at your convenience. Just authorize the funds from your Gringotts account on this form.”

Tom nodded as he tucked the scroll into one of the numerous pockets of his new robes. “Thank you, I will. Oh, and could you recommend a good restaurant for lunch?”

“Many of my clients enjoy La Truffe Émraude.”

Once their old clothes had been tucked away in Miss Granger’s beaded bag, and the directions to the restaurant tucked into her mind, they bade the tailor farewell and left.

“I’ll teach you how to write with a quill when we get back,” she assured him as she took his baby from his arms.

“Thank you. I could have studied that wall of pictures for hours,” he added. “That was like a who’s who.”

“He put your picture in the section with the old pureblood families,” she marveled. “With the Malfoys, the Blacks, the Lestranges…”

“Where else would the heir of Slytherin belong?” Tom asked rhetorically. “I need to learn all these families to know which are worthy of associating with him.”

“Before lunch, let’s go to a bookshop and get Nature’s Nobility,” she said. “And some other books besides.” 

They did, but Tom soon regretted this decision, as once Miss Granger was in a bookshop, there seemed to be no way to extract her. He had finally discovered one category of things for which she shopped with enthusiasm. Tom was interested in the books as well, but at this hour, had other priorities.

“Miss Granger, not all of us had the privilege of keeping down this morning’s breakfast, and it is now lunchtime. I assure you that these books will still be here after we eat.”

She grudgingly conceded this point. They purchased her selections, stashed them in her beaded bag, and headed to La Truffe Émraude.

Tom was certain that they wouldn’t have been allowed into this restaurant in their former clothing. He was pleasantly surprised that they’d been allowed in without a house elf. Many, but not all of the diners had brought house elves with them, apparently to carry their packages on their shopping trips.

Miss Granger was no help at all navigating the menu, as she had never heard of most of these dishes either. Tom used the same strategy that had worked so well with the tailor, and told the waiter to tell the chef to prepare whatever dishes his heart desired, accompanied by the appropriate wines, as they liked surprises.

“But no wine for me,” said his companion. “Nothing stronger than butterbeer.”

The waiter nodded and left.

“Teetotaler, are you?” asked Tom.

“Not usually, but I’m breastfeeding a baby.”

“So?”

“A baby shouldn’t drink alcohol-tainted milk.”

“Why not?”

She didn’t answer.

“Is this a wizarding rule? If so, I should know it.”

“No. It’s a… It’s just a tradition in my family, all right? Just like we don’t allow lead paint near children.”

This clearly had been made up on the spot, but he didn’t press the matter. Instead he changed the subject. “Why do our fellow diners and shoppers need elves to carry their purchases?” he quietly asked his guide, leaning in close to that disturbing stormy scent of Amortentia. “Are beaded bags like yours rare?”

“Not very. And the beads are optional. But their audience can’t see how much money they’re spending if they use bags like mine,” she said.

“Ah. Seems a bit gauche.”

“More than a bit, if you ask me.”

“Still, if that’s the game, we need to play it. Where can we get a house elf?”

It took a moment for his guide to compose herself enough to answer with the faintest vestige of civility. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. House elves are slaves. I am not letting you buy a slave,” she hissed.

“I don’t need to actually own one. For God’s sake, it’s 1927! Slavery has been out of fashion for centuries. The wizarding world has much to recommend it, Miss Granger, but some of these obsolete customs are quite overdue for updating. Before I change this world, of course, I’ll have to be accepted in it. So for now, can’t I hire a free one? I’d only need one by the hour, for outings like this. I have human servants for home.”

Miss Granger stared at him for a while. Eventually, she said, “I don’t know of any free ones now. Their whole race is enslaved. And often terribly abused. Look at this. How can I eat with this going on?” 

“That’s why you’re so thin, because you can’t eat as long as there’s any injustice in the world?”

She answered this mockery with only a glare.

He looked away from those glaring brown eyes to see what was putting her off her lunch. Most of the house elves were sitting on the floor by their masters’ tables. Some had water and food in front of them, some were being tossed tidbits off their masters’ tables, while others had nothing. One particularly elegant lady was using hers as a footrest.

The waiter brought their salads. Parts were glowing, parts were twitching, and all were delicious. “You can tell this is fresh, since it’s so active,” Tom remarked as he attempted to stab his fork into one particularly vigorous leaf. The dressing made it slippery. “Come on, eat. You should not be the one who feels uncomfortable in this situation.”

“That elf,” she said.

Tom turned his head slightly to look behind him at the lady with the footrest. The chairs were quite comfortable, and her legs were very long, so it was hard to imagine that using a footrest actually increased her comfort. It undoubtedly increased her pleasure, as she seemed to relish pressing her pointed heels into the poor creature’s back, protected only by a thin rag.  

Tom turned away. “I see what you mean about screening potential adoptive families carefully. That one would be right out, if I were still considering adoption. Very tacky.”

“They wouldn’t want to adopt a halfblood anyway,” she said. “I recognize that couple from the board. They were in the pureblood section. I think that’s a Malfoy and his wife.”

Tom looked again, discreetly, because the Malfoys were making such a spectacle of themselves they clearly wanted to be noticed, and he wouldn’t give them the pleasure. The lady was stunningly beautiful, her strawberry-blonde tresses coiled elaborately on her head, her face smooth perfection unsullied by a single freckle. Her jewelry was blinding, and her dress had so many yards and layers of fabric, she could barely eat without trailing her sleeves through her food and wine. Her blue eyes beamed lovingly at her husband as she stabbed her heels into the elf’s back. She looked considerably younger than her husband, although of course with some women it was hard to tell.

Her husband had long dirty blond hair threaded with silver, and robes that Tom could tell had quite a high percentage of acromantula silk in the blend. He gazed at his wife just as lovingly as he fed her a tidbit of chocolate cake. She giggled charmingly, and returned the favor by offering a forkful of cake to her husband. Abruptly, she lurched forward, poking her husband in the lip with her fork. “Drown you in Atlantis, Dobby!” she shrieked. “You made me lose my balance!” She raked her sharp heels along the poor creature’s back, ripping its pathetic grey rag right off it, and leaving red trails in its grey skin. She kicked the rag off her feet.

“You will pay for this, Dobby!” bellowed the man from bloody lips, as he kicked the elf away from their table, rather closer to Tom’s table.

Miss Granger was right. This was truly unappetizing. He now understood that she had recognized him as a man of good family and taste, who might want to wash his hands of the whole wizarding world and leave these savages, these Gaunts and Malfoys, to their primitive customs. There was so much room for improvement here, it could take him years to get the wizarding world into a decent enough shape to be worthy of his son. Still, it had to be done. He couldn’t let his son grow up thinking things like this were normal.

Tom cast a commiserating look in her direction, and was surprised to see her reaching into a pocket of her skirt rather deeper than should have been possible. “Accio Harry’s grey shirt,” she said very quietly. She drew her hand out, holding a small crumpled wad of grey fabric.

Whatever. Tom turned back to the terribly gauche couple. “Excuse me. How much would you like for that elf?” he asked pleasantly.

Malfoy turned to see Tom, relaxing languidly at his table. “What?”

“Since he doesn’t seem to suit your needs, and I happen to be in the market for a new elf, I thought I’d do you the favor of taking him off your hands. How much?”

“Who are you?” Malfoy demanded.

Tom looked surprised at this question. “Tom Riddle.”

“I’ve never heard of you.”

“Oh?” Tom raised one amused eyebrow to let everyone know that this admission said more about Malfoy’s ignorance than Riddle’s obscurity. “Then I will keep this simple and say only that I am the one asking if your elf is for sale. You needn’t trouble yourself to understand anything else about me.”

“My elf is not for sale. The Malfoys do not need to raise money by selling old family heirlooms. When we tire of an elf, we do not sell him. We kill him, which is educational for the other elves. I don’t fault you for your ignorance of elf management, as only true wizards need to know about it. Nouveau riche...“ he momentarily seemed at a loss for which insult to use “...mudblood or halfblood trash” he’d clearly decided to use both to cover what he saw as both the possibilities “are ignorant of such matters.”

“Forgive me for being surprised to hear you brag of your elf-management prowess from lips that have just been bloodied by that elf. I’d think you’d want to save yourself from further embarrassment by relieving yourself of the elf in question.”

Malfoy’s right hand twitched towards his left sleeve. There was nothing Tom could do about this besides casually rearrange his own arms to bring his own right hand closer to his left sleeve, whilst lounging with a superior smirk which expressed an amused disbelief that someone as lowly as Malfoy would presume to cross him.

Miss Granger pursed her lips disapprovingly. “Some of us are trying to eat,” she complained loudly. She got up and picked up the tattered grey rag that had been ripped off the elf. “Make your elf cover his nakedness. It’s enough to put anyone off their lunch.” She wadded the fabric into a ball (had this witch no concept of folding?) and threw it at Malfoy, who caught it before it hit him.

He irritably threw it at the elf. “Go on, put it on,” he said. His attention was still focused on Tom.

The elf scrambled to hide his bloodied body in the rag once more, although it had been so badly ripped, Tom didn’t know how he’d manage.

“The Malfoys do not take advice from mudbloods or halfbloods,” Malfoy seethed.

“Well, the Riddles do not tolerate our lunch being disturbed by mismanagement of elves,” replied Tom.

“Master Malfoy has given Dobby clothes!” shrieked the elf, now wearing a dingy old undershirt. “Dobby is free!”

“What?!” exclaimed Malfoy. He stared at Dobby.

“Master Malfoy threw Dobby a real shirt and bade him put it on, yes he did!” marveled the elf. “Master Malfoy is no longer Dobby’s master! Now he’s just Malfoy! Dobby is a free elf!” 

Malfoy was turning purple with rage. He drew his wand and hurled a spell at—

—at Miss Granger, who wore Tom’s own son in a sling. 

Everything seemed to slow down. Tom was aware of Miss Granger, her own wand already drawn, creating a shield around their table that resembled a faceted iridescent crystal. Malfoy’s spell bounced off one of the facets and hit the cheese cart, which exploded, spattering the dining room with fragments and drips of various undoubtedly delicious cheeses. 

That faceted shield probably would have protected Tom as well, had he stayed at his table. Instead, he found himself charging towards Malfoy, whose fury was now mixed with alarm. Malfoy moved to aim his wand at Tom—

—wizards might have magical powers, but they were as vulnerable as anyone to a punch to the face. Perhaps even more so, as they didn’t seem to be expecting them. 

Tom grabbed the wand that Malfoy had dropped when he’d fallen across his table. He pointed it at Malfoy, hoping he was holding the right end. He tried to speak coldly and clearly, but his voice shook with rage. “It is foolish to cross a Riddle. It is lunacy to threaten my son, the heir of Slytherin.”

Miss Granger suddenly grabbed his arm, and he again found himself whirling through emptiness. 

The salad squirmed at least as much on the way back up.

“I know darling,” cooed Miss Granger. “Apparition is no fun at all, but at least you’re home safe. Have some milk, everything’s all right…”

Tom looked around shakily and fell to his knees. He was in a guest room of his own house, Miss Granger’s room.

He looked up to see the house elf waving, not a wand, but his grey hand to vanish the leafy, twitching vomit. The elf then stared around the room with enormous eyes, trembling.

“This is terrible,” said Tom hoarsely.

“Well, we did make an enemy of Malfoy, but we also freed Dobby, so—“ said Miss Granger.

“No, that’s all fine,” said Tom. “But we left the restaurant without paying. Riddles do not do that. Why did you take me home?”

“What?” she said. “I… I guess it was just a reflex. I’ve been on the run for two years. Reflexes like that have kept me alive. Malfoy looked like he wanted to kill us.”

“I’d already disarmed him,” said Tom, twirling the wand in his fingers. He dropped it, but picked it up again. “And what was his wife going to do, step on me? We have to go back and pay. And preferably get our lunch to go, as the food seemed excellent, although the ambience left much to be desired. We have to apologize to the restaurant staff for the disruption, and explain that the Riddles always pay our debts. We never take what isn’t rightfully ours. Ideally, I’d return to do that now, were it not for apparition being so disagreeable. I’m sure that the situation in that room would not be improved by my retching on the floor.”

A smile slowly glowed from Miss Granger’s face. “I’d be happy to go back and explain that to the restaurant staff in front of Malfoy, now that he doesn’t have a wand.”

“Leave my son here,” said Tom. “Just in case.”

Miss Granger nodded and made to hand off his sleepy son.

“Wait,” he said. “I don’t want to drop him.” He freed his hand by stuffing Malfoy’s wand into his left sleeve, where it fit perfectly, then staggered to a chair and collapsed into it. He reached out for his baby. “Now.”

Miss Granger gently placed his son in his arms. He looked down at the heir of Slytherin.

“Cover his ears,” said Miss Granger. Tom did, and she vanished with a loud crack.

The elf was still staring around with enormous eyes.

“Thank you for cleaning up earlier,” said Tom. “You didn’t have to do that of course. Welcome to my house, Riddle House, in Little Hangleton, Yorkshire. I imagine this is all quite a shock to you.”

The elf stared silently.

“We were not properly introduced, so let us do introductions now. I am Mr. Tom Riddle, son of Squire Riddle of Little Hangleton.” He paused, but the creature was silent. “I heard your former master call you Dobby. Is that the name by which I should call you, or is there another you prefer?”

“Dobby has only one name, sir,” said the creature, which apparently had no first person pronouns.

“Well Dobby, I suppose the first order of business is to ask if your injuries need attention.”

“Injuries sir?” asked the creature, confused.

“Those scrapes and bruises on your back from that woman,” said Tom.

“Oh, those don’t count as injuries sir,” the creature assured him. “Not compared to what they often do. Did. Won’t do anymore. Dobby is a free elf! Dobby’s master presented him with real clothes, he did, and even bade Dobby put them on. Dobby is free!” He looked at the dingy, oversized undershirt he was wearing as if it was the finest raiment a tailor could make.

“Congratulations, Dobby,” said Tom, smiling.

“Dobby is a free elf!”

“Yes, we’ve covered that. Let me know when there’s room in your head for an additional thought, as I have a proposition for you.”

“Dobby is free.”

“Yes, you’re free.”

“Dobby is a free elf!”

“Absolutely.”

“Dobby can… What does a free elf do, sir?”

“Listen to the proposal of the man who punched your former master in the face.”

“Yes sir.”

“How would you like to work for me? Random odd jobs and errands, irregular hours. Absolutely no physical punishment, unlike at your previous situation. Room and board, a uniform rather better than that undershirt you’re currently wearing, and wages of…” he did the math in his head, then divided by two and rounded down to account for the creature’s height and likely desperation, “a galleon a day. What say you?”

“A galleon a day?!” shrieked the elf.

“Subject to negotiation, of course,” Tom backpedaled. 

“Oh sir, a galleon a day is too much for Dobby. Dobby doesn’t know what he’d do with it.”

“I certainly don’t wish to burden you with more money than you have use for. What do you feel would be a reasonable wage?”

The creature thought. It blinked its huge green eyes several times. “A galleon a week?” it timidly asked.

“You drive a hard bargain, Dobby. A galleon a week it is.” He held his hand out to the creature. “We have a deal.”

Tom was afraid he’d offended the elf, who simply stared at his hand for some time. Perhaps he was supposed to bow, as in Japan, or seal the deal with some completely foreign elf custom. These creatures were apparently freed from slavery by being given dingy undershirts, so who knew what other peculiar customs they might have?

Just as Tom was about to withdraw his hand, however, the elf reached up his own to shake it with a hand that felt like leather. “Thank you sir,” said the elf, tears welling in his enormous eyes. “No wizard has ever before deigned to shake the hand of Dobby, sir.”

“Well. It’s about time.”

Miss Granger reappeared with a loud crack, a large paper bag, and a smile. “I’m surprised a place like that does takeaway,” she said. “This is a lot of food, I’m sure it’s enough for your parents as well.”

“Welcome back, Miss Granger,” said Tom. “I was getting a bit worried that I’d sent you to your death for the sake of my pride.”

“There was no trouble,” she said. “The Malfoys had left by the time I got back. I offered to pay for the cheese cart, but the manager said the Malfoys had already taken care of it.”

Perhaps the Malfoys weren’t completely hopeless, then.

“The time-consuming part was suggesting to the manager that elves should not be allowed in the dining area at all, as they pose a tripping hazard. They should be off in a separate room, eating and drinking until their masters need them again. And also talking with their fellow elves, unobserved by their masters, as they have very few other opportunities to gossip and plot, but I didn’t mention that.”

“Thank you for” he shouldn’t say getting me “freeing this elf. He’s been quite overjoyed. He’s accepted my offer of a paid position at Riddle House.”

“Oh good,” she said. “I was concerned that no wizarding family would hire him now.”

Tom should have haggled his wages down further. He looked at the creature, which was looking up at him nervously. “I suppose that introducing you to my other servants will be rather complicated, as they’re all muggles.”

Tom wouldn’t have thought it possible for the creature’s eyes to get any bigger, but they did. “Dobby’s not supposed to show himself to muggles, sir. The Statute of Secrecy—“

“I know.”

“Would it help if Dobby disillusioned himself, sir?” The elf suddenly disappeared.

“Oh, well done, Dobby!” said Miss Granger quickly. “I can barely even see your shadow.”

She’d saved Tom from making a fool of himself by shouting “Where did Dobby go?” Instead, he said, “That will be acceptable, Dobby. You will not let yourself be seen by my other servants. I will, however, introduce you to my parents, who will be delighted by this addition to the Riddle House staff, I’m sure. They’re probably in the dining room now. Let’s all meet them there.” Tom got up, feeling only slightly wobbly. It would not do to drop the heir of Slytherin. The Gaunts had been complete fools not to capitalize on their ancestry.

“I can carry him,” said Miss Granger.

“You’re carrying the food,” said Tom. “I can carry my own son.”

“Dobby isn’t carrying anything,” said Dobby’s disembodied voice.

“You are taking a well-deserved break,” said Tom. “Come on. Pretend you’re not here until we get to that part of the story.”

They went to the smaller dining room, where his parents were indeed having lunch. His mother got up from the table and ran to hug him, or perhaps to hug her grandson, as she claimed him from Tom’s arms without even a by-your-leave.

“Back so soon?” asked his father. “Seen it all already?”

“Not nearly, but I’ve seen enough to decide that I do want to be part of my son’s life,” said Tom. “And we brought you some takeaway from a rather good restaurant.”

Hermione placed the bag on the table.

“I see you found some clothes that fit you remarkably well,” said his mother, eyeing Miss Granger’s unfashionable figure.

“I should go change,” she said.

“No need to delay your lunch,” said his father airily. “And Tom, I’m glad you found clothing more suitable for a Riddle.”

“Tailors there work remarkably fast,” Tom explained. “And the price was quite reasonable.” He’d added that last bit just to see Miss Granger’s reaction, and was not disappointed.

His father took the food out of the bag as if unwrapping a Christmas present, but one that he actually wanted. “I trust you can tell us what all this is, Miss Granger?”

“Sorry.” She helped herself to a roll that had been on the table when they arrived. “High-end wizarding food seems pretty weird to me.”

They worked their way through the mix of muggle and magical food on the table as Tom, with some assistance from Miss Granger, related their morning’s adventure. His father was suitably impressed that he’d so quickly got at least some of the wizarding world to acknowledge the importance of their family, when he heard of the prominent position in which their photograph had been placed.

“But it’s all based on a lie,” objected Miss Granger. “He assumed you must be a pureblood wizard, because people can’t imagine that a descendant of Salazar Slytherin could possibly marry anyone less.”

“Don't put words in my mouth, Miss Granger. I did not lie.  I never claimed to be a pureblood wizard.”

“Yes but… You stole Malfoy’s wand and threatened him with it! That does strongly imply that you are at least a wizard.”

“No it doesn’t. I could have been threatening to shove it up his nose. Would have served him right, too. If you hadn’t stopped me—“

“What?!” exclaimed his father, for they hadn’t got to that part of the story yet.

The room was suddenly full of a high-pitched, choking laughter that seemed to come from nowhere. Tom’s parents practically jumped out of their seats.

“You might as well show yourself, Dobby,” said Miss Granger.

The elf became visible in the corner, still laughing. “Dobby is very sorry,” he choked. “Dobby tried to act like he’s not here. But Dobby finally realized that Malfoy was just punched and disarmed by a muggle! Dobby has served the Malfoys for centuries, and never seen a Malfoy bested by a muggle before.”

Now Tom had to tell the story out of order, with rather more interruptions and expressions of concern from his parents than he would have liked.

“So you’ve made an enemy of this Malfoy family,” said his mother. 

“It would be more accurate to say that the Malfoys have made an enemy of us,” said his father. “Firing a spell at my grandson!”

“He may not have noticed I had Tommy with me,” said Miss Granger. “He’s such a quiet baby.”

“That’s no excuse,” fumed his father. “He’ll pay for this.”

“He’s already lost his elf and his wand,” said Miss Granger.

“That’s a good start,” his father conceded. He looked at Dobby. “So what’s an elf good for, anyway?”

“Oh sir! Dobby can do all manner of household chores and errands. Dobby can clean, cook, garden, clean the peacock coop, do the marketing… Well, in wizarding markets, at least.”

“You’re the one we should ask to identify these dishes,” his father realized. “What’s this? Tastes rather like squab, but significantly larger.”

“I believe that is fried diricawl, sir,” said Dobby. “Dobby does not mean to brag, but he can fry it so the crust is rather lighter and crispier than that, sir.”

“You’ll have to prove that later,” said his father. “So what is a diricawl?”

“A flightless bird from Mauritius, very difficult to hunt because of their ability to apparate,” explained Dobby.

“People eat those?” exclaimed Miss Granger, aghast. “Those are very rare! Nearly extinct!” She stared at her plate in horror.

“We won’t order it again if it it disturbs you,” said Tom, helping himself to another piece. “But this one’s already dead. If you’re done, there’s more for me.” 

“Oh Dobby, I’m sorry, I didn’t think to ask. Are you hungry? Thirsty?” asked Miss Granger. “We could get another plate for you, and I’m afraid these chairs are the wrong height for you, but I’m sure you could fix that.” 

There seemed to be no upper limit to how big the elf’s eyes could get.

“I’m having a bit of trouble following this,” said his mother delicately. “I thought Tom just explained that he’d hired Dobby as our servant?”

“As we are already permitting a nursemaid to dine with us, I can understand why she might think that we’d offer any other servant a seat at our table,” explained his father.

“Dobby could not accept such a—“ started the elf.

“Good, because I did not offer you a seat at my table,” said his father.

Dobby sighed in relief.

“Sorry,” said Miss Granger. “I don’t know the rules here. My family didn’t have servants, well, except for a cleaner once a week, and the lawn service, but that’s different—“

“We can tell you are not of our class, Miss Granger,” said his father magnanimously. “There is no need to explain. You are not to blame for your presumption, as it was clearly done in ignorance. The fault is ours for permitting it.”

As Miss Granger glared at his father, a few coiled springs of her hair escaped from the flattering style into which they had so recently been coaxed, and instead stuck out of her head at gravity-defying angles.

“Miss Granger is not our servant,” said Tom hurriedly. “In the most literal sense, we have not discussed salary at all, so she is not in our employ. By taking the initiative to rescue my son from the orphanage in which he was born, she was acting as a free agent, and thus would more properly be called a family friend.”

Tom watched nervously as his father considered this. He finally nodded. “If we are to introduce her as a family friend visiting from Australia, who volunteered to care for my grandson out of the goodness of her heart, and is welcome at our table, she will need significantly better clothing than she was wearing when she arrived. I now see that she cleans up fairly well, so this should be possible. Perhaps any faux pas can be explained as cultural differences between Britain and Australia.”

“That could work,” Miss Granger nodded in approval,  although his father hadn’t asked her opinion.

“Young maidens can serve as wet nurses,” said his mother, “so your role is physically possible, if socially unusual.”

“People expect us to be socially unusual, after the squire’s son married an ugly poor girl,” grumbled his father. “A pretty poor girl wouldn't have been unheard of, but ugly? I doubt anything we do at this point will be considered shocking.

“Mary will take you shopping this afternoon to buy you more suitable clothes,” continued his father. “It makes sense that an Australian lacks appropriate clothing for a British winter.”

“I am not going shopping again today,” said Miss Granger firmly. “I have more important things to do. After today’s events, this house needs stronger security spells than the ones I installed when I first arrived. Dobby, could you please help me with that?”

“Of course,” said Dobby.

“Dobby’s better at magic than I am,” explained Miss Granger. “He can apparate through anti-apparition wards that would stop me, for instance. And he doesn’t even need a wand, he’s inherently magical. I hope you appreciate what a skilled and loyal servant you now have.” 

“We do,” said Tom, for she clearly felt very strongly about this, and he was rather afraid of how she would react to ingratitude.

“Improving the security wards should be done immediately,” she said. “I am done with lunch. Enjoy your diricawl. Dobby, please come to my room so we can discuss the system design together.”

The elf nodded.

“When Dobby is done with that, you are to show him to his new quarters, and give him his lunch and time to eat it,” she said.

As his father was too shocked to respond to this order, Tom replied himself, saying “Yes, Miss Granger.”

“Good. After I’m done with the security system, I’ll take Tommy back to feed him, and then I am taking a nap.” With a look at Dobby, she led him from the room.

“And you mistook her for a servant,” laughed Tom, not caring if Miss Granger was out of earshot yet or not.

Chapter Text

Tom and his parents watched the witch and the elf leave the dining room, the elf disillusioning himself on the way to avoid the gaze of their muggle servants.

“Are we sure about this?” asked Tom’s mother with worry she would never show in front of a stranger.

Tom laughed and laughed.

“Well. I’m glad to finally learn what really happened to you,” she said once his laughing fit was waning. “I knew you weren’t mad, although I couldn’t think what other explanation there might be.”

“Thank you. It seems like quite a stroke of luck that the second witch to take an interest in our family is much better than the first. If this trend continues, the third will be a further improvement, with better clothes and hair.”

“This one looks fine now. I just don’t understand why she’s here. Why come all the way from Australia to care for someone else’s baby?”

“She says that the wizard who killed her parents developed his hatred of muggles by growing up in a muggle orphanage. She’s determined not to let another wizard grow up in that situation again, lest a similar tragedy occur.” 

“Well. That’s quite a specific interest.”

“I thought so.”

“Weren’t there any orphaned wizards in Australia for her to care for?”

“I wondered that myself.”

“How did she know about us?”

“She’s clearly not telling the whole story.”

“Can we trust her?”

Tom shrugged. “For the moment, our interests seem to coincide. She seems truly devoted to Tommy.”

Tom recalled the mark on his borrowed robes that had been identified as a bloodstain from a cursed wound. It wasn’t very noticeable on faded black robes unless he looked for it, but it was clearly there. This was not a good sign. What good was the devotion of a witch who did not have a good track record of keeping even her nearest and dearest alive? She had plainly said that she had no friends left in the wizarding world, and had wasted no time acquiring a new enemy this very day, although Tom had to take at least some of the blame for that. His knuckles were still a bit sore. It felt good.

He drew his new wand from his sleeve and examined it. It seemed very finely crafted and polished. He tried waving it around a bit, feeling silly. It just felt like a stick. Whatever power it had, he could not access. 

“Let me try,” said his father, so he handed it over, and was treated to the sight of his father looking just as silly. He admired his mother’s ability not to laugh.

He stuck his wand back in his sleeve when his father returned it. Then Tom showed off his new wallet, which was not as outrageously impossible as Miss Granger’s beaded bag. She’d quietly assured him this was a good thing, as it was hard to find things in a larger bag without the ability to perform summoning charms. The books he’d purchased were still in her bag, but he didn’t want to disturb her.

He thought it safer to give Dobby a guest room in a little-used wing of the house than house him with the other servants, so he had Fiona prepare that room, telling her he’d hired a new servant who would keep to himself and should not be disturbed. He told her to leave a simple lunch, and indeed all his meals, in his room, as he would not be dining with the other servants. As he said this, he realized what a lonely life the only free elf must live. Perhaps they should dine at La Truffe Émraude regularly so Dobby could socialize with his fellow elves, assuming Miss Granger’s suggestion to the manager was adopted. An elf in Tom’s employ could gossip with elves with firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the most important families in magical Britain. Well. Tom would be giving him very specific instructions about that.

Then there was Gringotts to discuss with his father in some detail, in his father’s office. According to their scroll, he could open a Riddle family account by simply writing a sufficiently large check from his muggle account, which was easier than he’d imagined, and establishing the Riddle family’s identity with a sacrifice of some of his blood, which really shouldn’t have surprised him with its barbarism. He had the option of storing his money and valuable heirlooms in a physical vault, where they would just sit, guarded by an excellent security system including an actual dragon, or having the goblins keep a record of his account, while investing his money with varying degrees of risk and gain. He and his father discussed this second option at length. The scroll was clearly written for an audience that was completely ignorant of such basic concepts as compound interest, and indeed any maths beyond sums, and apparently preferred to have their money sit in the form of actual gold coins doing nothing in a locked vault.

Tom and his father had a good laugh over that. The Riddle fortune had used to consist merely of most of the town of Little Hangleton, and they lived quite comfortably off the rents from their tenants and profits from the businesses they owned. However, they’d been investing quite heavily in the stock market recently, and seen their fortune multiply. Squire Riddle was not of the lazy sort of landed gentry, content to live off the fortune passed down to him by his ancestors. Where was the fun in that? No, he grasped at new opportunities, determined to leave the Riddle fortune greater than he’d found it. That included raising his son to understand that money didn’t just appear in their bank accounts of its own accord. They had to scheme for it. This sudden appearance of a whole new economy to invest in was very exciting.

They decided what portion of the Riddle fortune to relocate to the wizarding economy, an amount they could afford to lose, but enough to play with.

They heard a knock on the door of his father’s office, and let in a tired-looking Miss Granger, and apparently an invisible Dobby, as he became visible as soon as his father closed the door.

“We’ve improved the security system all around the grounds,” reported Miss Granger. “Dobby and I will be notified if anyone tries to enter under the Imperius curse, or disguised by polyjuice or glamours, or in animagus form, or with any Dark magic.”

“Dobby and you will be notified?” asked his father. “Just you two? I am the head of this house.” 

“What do you think you could do if some disguised wizarding assassin came here?” scoffed Miss Granger. “You’d only give away that we know. You just go about your usual business, and Dobby and I will handle it.”

“Thank you,” said Tom before his father could reply.

“Now Dobby deserves a break, so give him his lunch and show him to his room. I’m sure Tommy needs another feeding by now, so I’ll take him to my room for that, and take a nap.”

“He and my mother are in—“ started Tom, trying to be helpful.

“I know where they are, I cast Homenum Revelio. What time is dinner?”

“Six o’clock,” said Tom.

“Don’t disturb me before then.”

“Yes Miss Granger,” said Tom.

The witch turned to Dobby with a rather friendlier look than she’d given to either muggle in the room. “Let me know how they treat you, Dobby. If there’s any problem, I’ll sort it out.” Then she left.

Dobby’s huge green eyes looked up expectantly. 

“Well Dobby,” said Tom. “I’ll show you to your room. I hope it’s satisfactory. If not, of course, you may choose another.” He could feel his father’s eyes boring into his back as he left.

Tom walked in silence alongside the invisible elf, who became visible again once they’d entered his room and closed the door. “So, here’s your room,” said Tom. “I thought the child-sized furniture might be more comfortable for you. It’s been used by a few generations of Riddle children, so sorry it’s rather worn. Your lunch is on the table there. I don’t actually know what house elves eat, so do let me know if you’d prefer something different, and I’ll tell the cook.” 

The elf stared silently for some time. Tom was afraid he’d insulted the creature somehow. Finally, the elf began to cry. Then he punched himself in the face.

“What’s wrong?” cried Tom.

“Oh, Master Riddle is too good to Dobby!” wailed the elf. He punched himself in the face again. “Dobby does not need his own room with his own elf-sized furniture, sir. Dobby is used to sleeping on a shelf in the linen closet.” Punch.

“Dobby, stop that!”

The elf aborted his next punch. “Dobby can’t stop his ugly blubbering sir, and Dobby knows humans don’t like to hear that except when Dobby is being punished, so Dobby has to punish himself!”

That might be the most pathetic thing Tom had ever heard. “Dobby. Listen to me. When I said there will be no physical punishment here, that included you punishing yourself. I forbid it.”

The elf nodded, tears still quivering in its huge eyes.

Tom pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to the elf, for the dingy undershirt he was wearing had no pockets that might hold a handkerchief. “Go on, take it, clean yourself up. Send it down the laundry chute when you’re done. Unless you have some magical way to wash it yourself. Then enjoy your lunch. Take the rest of the afternoon off, explore the grounds or something, familiarize yourself with the property, or just relax, whatever you like. I’ve instructed Fiona to bring your meals here.”

The elf dropped to the floor at Tom’s feet as if he wasn’t short enough already, leaving Tom holding his handkerchief. “Master is too good to Dobby, sir!”

Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to discuss buying the elf better clothes. “Well. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”

“Dobby will take the afternoon off if Master Riddle insists, but if Master wishes anything of Dobby, at any time, Master has only to call Dobby’s name, and Dobby will appear.”

“Right. Well. Enjoy your lunch.”

Tom had hoped for a moment of peaceful relaxation himself, but no, his father intercepted him on his way to the study. “Tom. A word.” 

“Yes father.” They entered the study together.

“This witch, telling us what to do in our own home. Something needs to be done.”

Tom was silent.

“You have experience with witches,” prompted his father.

“Yes. That’s why I’m not daring to cross her.”

“She’s not like Merope.”

“That’s right. She’s much more powerful. Also, her elf is listening to us all the time, as he promised to appear whenever I called his name, so don’t delude yourself that we can plot anything without her being informed of it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to sit and read before dinner.” 

His father grumbled but left.

Tom tried to sit and read what he now thought of as the muggle news, but perhaps a nap had been the right idea. After a while, he left to dress for dinner and went to the drawing room, where the Riddles were accustomed to gathering before dinner.

Miss Granger met them there, with baby Tommy in her sling. In a sense, she had dressed for dinner, as she was again wearing her ill-fitting muggle clothing. That might be the one suit of muggle clothing she had, Tom realized. “Did you show Dobby his room?” she asked when she saw Tom.

“Yes Miss Granger.”

“Now stop right there,” said his father. “We need to get one thing straight.” Tom inched backwards towards the door. “I don’t like the sound of this ‘Yes Miss Granger’ business. We have established that she is not our servant, but neither are we hers. As she is filling the role of a family friend, and you are similar in age, you and she shall be on a first-name basis. Hermione, was it?”

“Yes, Squire Riddle. Or should I say Thomas?”

“I am older than you! You will call me Squire Riddle, and my son shall be Tom to you, and you Hermione to him. Like this: I am sorry the passage from Australia was so long and disagreeable, Hermione. I hope good English cooking will bring the bloom back to your cheeks.”

“I am looking forward to dinner, Squire Riddle.”

“Very good. Now Tom, you say something to Hermione.”

“Um. I hope English food is to your taste, Hermione. I’m afraid we can’t get kangaroo here.”

The witch laughed. “English food will be fine, Tom, although I thank you for your thoughtfulness.”

“Tomorrow I can take you shopping for clothes more suitable to an English winter, Hermione,” said his mother, deflating Hermione’s mood completely. 

“I suppose that’s necessary, Mrs. Riddle,” she said.

“Don’t worry about the expense, you are completely our guest,” said his mother.

“Thank you.”

“Little Hangleton is rather lacking in shops suitable for a lady of fashion, but Great Hangleton is but a short drive. Tom, perhaps you could drive us there?” 

“Of course mother. My offer to teach you how to drive is still open, though.”

“It just doesn’t appeal to me, Tom. I’ll leave the control of speedy vehicles to young men. I never even liked riding fast horses.”

“I know what you mean,” said Hermione. “I’ve never been fond of flying fast on a broom. I mean. Brooms are even faster than cars. What? I wouldn’t say that in public. I’m not going to try to pass that off as an Australian mode of transportation. Don’t worry, I know how to pass as a muggle. I’m not going to embarrass you when we go shopping.”

“You mean to say you can fly on an actual broom?” said his father.

“I really prefer not to.”

Tom’s mother smoothly changed the subject. “Tommy seems so content with you, Hermione. You clearly have experience at this.” If any of them had a chance of extracting details about the mysterious witch’s past, it was his mother.

Hermione laughed. “Not at all. I read a lot of books about child development, though. And I bought the deluxe wet nurse potion, which included infant care instincts. I think I lucked out, because Tommy seems to be a very easy baby. And of course, a sling with a featherlight charm on it, and a self-scourgifying diaper, mean he’s hardly any work at all, at this stage.”

“While I am of course delighted to have you with us, may I ask what prompted you to choose this particular baby to care for? Surely there were orphans in Australia.”

Hermione’s face suddenly went blank. “Yes. There were. Me staying there wouldn’t have helped. I had to do something drastic.” She took a deep breath. “But that doesn’t matter now.

Tom’s mother gave him a helpless look. Perhaps it was time to change the subject again. For comic relief, Tom showed the ladies the Gringotts scroll as evidence of how primitive wizarding mathematical and economic education must be.

“Yes,” Hermione said, seizing the new subject thankfully. “I’m afraid my own mathematical education was neglected once I turned eleven and left my muggle school for a wizarding one. I did what I could to keep up with muggle subjects over school breaks of course, and there is some overlap between maths and arithmancy.”

“These wizards apparently believe that it’s better to have their wealth sitting in stacks of gold coins in a vault, doing nothing, than accruing value and earning dividends as stocks and bonds!” laughed Tom.

“You invest in the stock market, do you?” asked Hermione.

“And we’ve done extremely well by doing so, especially in the last decade or so,” boasted his father. 

“Of course you have,” she said. She then pressed her lips together as if holding something back. 

“Tom here has a particularly good mind for investing,” bragged his father. “At least he did before that damned witch turned his head and he could think of nothing but her. He’s back to normal now, though.”

Tom’s mother cast a nervous glance at Hermione, who was obviously uncomfortable, then addressed his father. “Thomas dear, please remember your audience before using such language. I believe you are making our guest uncomfortable.”

“I’ll call Merope a damned witch if I damn well please,” grumbled his father.

Hermione laughed. “The usual rule against speaking ill of the dead hardly applies in this case. Anything you call her is quite justified, considering what she did to your son. No,” she said, looking at his mother. “Squire Riddle’s language was not what was upsetting me. What was will, perhaps, be a topic of discussion for a later date. For now, all I will say is that keeping one’s fortune locked in a vault instead of invested in the market can be advantageous in some situations.

“We have a more urgent topic to discuss right now,” she continued, looking at Tom. “We need to get your story straight about who the Riddles are, and why no one in the wizarding world has heard of you. I don’t think we could both be from Australia, since our accents don’t match, and your family has obviously been here for a while. How come no one remembers you from Hogwarts?”

“I didn’t attend Hogwarts,” Tom answered. “I was home educated, my parents hiring the finest tutors. That’s customary among the better class of wizarding society who reside in Little Hangleton, as neither did my dear lamented Merope attend school, which is why no one knows her either.”

“Her father didn’t want her associating with muggleborns like me, whom he believes don’t belong in the school their ancestor founded,” contributed Hermione. “Perfectly true.”

“It’s also perfectly true about my home education, and I didn’t attend university,” added Tom. “I often suffered from sudden bouts of ill health, so keeping to a school schedule would have been difficult.”

“Yes, that’s what Merope’s brother Morfin is in prison for now, cursing you with boils and things.”

“What?!” exclaimed the three Riddles.

“I thought I’d mentioned that earlier. He just got a three-year sentence, so he’ll be getting out in 1928, and he’ll undoubtedly be even less sane than he was when he went in. We’ll need a plan for what to do about that by then.” 

Fiona called them to dinner at that moment, which was unfortunate, as Tom felt so shaky he wasn’t confident he could stand.

“Mr. Riddle sir!” exclaimed Fiona when she saw him. “Are you having another one of your attacks? And it’s been so long since the last one, too. Should I call the doctor?”

“I’m fine, Fiona,” he assured her. “I just heard some shocking news.”

Fiona glared at the witch, who gave an awkward shrug. “It’s what I do.”

Once Tom had a moment to get over his shock and they were settled in the dining room, Hermione assured them that she and Dobby had inscribed runes (now invisible) over many of the doors in the house so they would transmit sound only one way, so conversations in certain rooms could not be heard in the halls, and they were in less danger of being overheard by muggle servants. Dobby, of course, could hear his name called from anywhere.

The Riddles didn’t have the energy to address the presumption of this witch who had just ordered their own servant to modify their own house without even a by-your-leave.

“So you’re saying that Tom’s mysterious health problems—“ quailed his mother.

“We called all sorts of doctors! Specialists!” bellowed his father.

“I couldn’t show my face in public,” said Tom. “I’d seem to recover, but then I’d venture out again and be struck down again the same day.”

“Yes,” said Hermione, after she’d had some soup. “Morfin was pretty upset about his sister’s infatuation with you. I don’t suppose it’s much comfort to you that he took his anger out on her at least as much as on you. Her father did too. Like I said, she was abused by her own family. I have no doubt that Morfin was abused by his parents as well. Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes.” She looked down at the baby asleep in her sling.

Tom had never heard that saying before.

The witch looked up and continued. “Morfin was arrested for his crimes against you and sentenced to three years in Azkaban, which might not seem that bad, but wizarding prison is particularly horrific. Three years could be a death sentence. He’ll survive and be out in September 1928 though. His father Marvolo fought the officer who came to arrest Morfin, so he was arrested too, but sentenced to only six months. In those six months that Merope was free from her father and brother, she made her move on you, which her father and brother never would have allowed. So by arresting them, the Ministry of Magic actually made your situation even worse.”

Tom was in no mood to eat the soup in front of him.

Hermione had some more soup, then continued. “When Marvolo got out of prison, expecting his daughter to be waiting at home for him, he instead found a note from her explaining what she’d done. Did you notice any unexpected attacks of poor health or anything of that sort a few months after you were married?”

“No, but I wasn’t really noticing anything at that time,” answered Tom. “It’s all a blur.”

She nodded. “His health was probably broken by his time in Azkaban, so he was powerless to inflict any more suffering on you. I don’t actually know if he’s still alive now. I know he’ll be dead by the time his son is released. I’ll check the shack. If there’s a frozen corpse in it, it should be removed before spring.” She had finished her soup. “Your cook is very talented. This is delicious.”

Fiona knocked, entered, and served the next course to the silent diners. Hermione dug in with gusto.

“If Marvolo is still alive, is it safe for you to visit the Gaunt shack?” inquired his mother.

The witch laughed. “I’ve survived a lot of battles, Mrs. Riddle. I’m sure one inbred, unschooled, weakened wizard will pose no challenge.”

“What will you do to him if he is still alive?” asked Tom.

The witch paused her assault of her roast beef. “What would you like me to do, Tom?” As her brown eyes gazed levelly at his, was struck once more by her beauty, not a soft, delicate beauty at all, but the beauty of a dangerous predator.

She looked back to her meat, and the room was silent for a while except for the clanking of her silverware. “I’ll just observe and report back,” she said once she had finished chewing. “I don’t think I need to do anything. With his health broken by Azkaban and his children not there to care for him, he’ll be dead soon enough without me having to go to any trouble. He’s beyond saving at this point.”

“Six months in this prison are so debilitating?” marveled his father.

“I mean morally beyond saving,” she said. “I’m sure it would be possible for someone who cared for him to nurse him back to health. But if someone did, he’d be just as vicious as he was before, so what would be the point? So anyway, once Marvolo’s dead, it would probably help your scheme, Tom, if I went and got what Marvolo calls the Gaunt ring. It’s actually the Peverell ring, from the ancient pureblood Peverell family, which now no longer exists in the male line, but a Peverell female must have married into the Gaunt family at some point, bringing that ring with her. It’s like the Gaunt family is where ancient pureblood names go to die. That ring will help establish Tommy’s credentials as a member of an ancient and noble house.

“It’s worth mentioning,” she added, after a forkful of potatoes, “that Tommy is not technically the heir of Slytherin right now, while his uncle Morfin lives. Morfin is. Morfin is unable to capitalize on his family’s fame because he can barely speak English. He really should have gone to some hospital for the criminally insane instead of a prison, if the wizarding government had any decency. Anyway, if anyone thinks to check your story, you’re sunk. The real heir of Slytherin is in prison for attacking a muggle named Tom Riddle. That’s a matter of public record. Would you please pass the salt?” Pause. “No problem, I can get it myself.” She reached across the table and grabbed it.

“Once Marvolo dies, the Peverell family ring will legally belong to Morfin. It will be extremely easy to steal, though, once Marvolo is dead and Morfin is still in prison.

“Another heirloom worth mentioning,” she continued, after a forkful of carrot, “is Slytherin’s locket. This would impress people even more than the Peverell ring. It was made by Salazar Slytherin himself, about a thousand— sorry, about nine hundred years ago. Do you recall Merope having that, Tom? Gold locket with the letter S in green. She took it with her when she left the Gaunt shack to marry you. Quite against her father’s will, as he considers Morfin his heir and meant to leave it to him.”

Tom had to remember how to speak. “Yes,” he said. “She always wore that locket.”

“Just before Christmas, Merope sold it to a wizarding antiques dealer named Caractacus Burke for ten galleons. She was desperate for money, and had no idea of its true worth. You might want to buy it. It will be useful if anyone ever challenges Tommy to prove his ancestry, as Salazar Slytherin himself charmed it to open only to— well, people think only the descendants of Salazar Slytherin can open it. Actually I can probably open it too, and I’m certainly no Slytherin descendant. I just know the trick to it. Anyway, it’s an extremely valuable historical artifact, but she didn’t realize that, so it was easy for Burke to cheat her. I don’t suppose he’ll have any sympathy for reuniting it with the son of the woman he cheated. It will undoubtedly be expensive, even by your standards.”

“So, if I’m following this correctly,” said his mother, who of course was following correctly, “If Morfin were dead, Tommy would be the last descendant of the Gaunts, the Slytherins, and the Peverells, any of which would be regarded as very impressive in wizarding society? Yet while Morfin lives, Tommy is merely a spare, not an heir?”

“Well,” said Hermione. “About the Peverells…” She paused to compose her thoughts, while chewing. “There are other Peverell descendants alive today, although the name has died out. My friend Harry was also a descendant of a Peverell. I happen to have a Peverell heirloom in my possession, as I carried Harry’s stuff for him in my beaded bag when we were on the run together. We must keep quiet about the fact that I have this particular heirloom, lest other Peverell descendants wonder how I got it. They think they still have it.”

“What is this heirloom?” asked his father. “May I see it?”

“You cannot.” She smirked. “Because it’s invisible, at least when in use. So there’s not much to see. The Peverells had some interesting heirlooms. Only the ring will really be useful for establishing Tommy’s heritage, though.”

“That reminds me,” said Tom. “You still have that book I bought, Nature’s Nobility, right? I’d like to read that.”

“Oh! Yes, of course.” She took her beaded bag from her pocket and stuck her hand in it. “Accio Nature’s Nobility.” The book she drew forth did not look like the new book he’d just purchased, but was dusty and scuffed around the edges. Did that bag do that to everything that had the misfortune to be placed in it? “Oh, sorry, that’s my copy,” she said. She put it down and stuck her hand in her bag again. “Accio Nature’s Nobility.” The copy she drew out this time looked perfectly new. She handed it to Tom.

He took it. “If you already had a copy—“

“Mine’s out of date,” she said, stuffing it back in her bag.

“Then perhaps it should be discarded,” suggested Tom. “When did you last clean out that bag?”

“It has sentimental value,” she said.

“The book or the dust?” asked Tom.

She laughed. “Just the book. You’re right, I haven’t had time to do basic maintenance stuff like cleaning out this bag for a while. We often had to break camp quickly, and I’d just shove our tent and everything in here fast. Maybe I’ll have time to tidy it now. It’s so calm and relaxing here. Thank you so much for opening your home to me.”

Riddle House had become significantly less calm and relaxing since this witch’s arrival, but no one mentioned that.

She peered into her bag. “And there were those other books besides, and the newspaper. Sorry, I didn’t mean to keep them, I was just so focused on security this afternoon after that business with Malfoy.”

“Feel free to unpack that bag once we are done with dinner,” said his mother, apparently relishing the thought of all that camping dust flying over their dinner table about as much as Tom.

Hermione blinked, then put her bag away. “Right.”

They managed to get through the pudding course without any more shocking revelations, then withdrew to the drawing room.

Hermione pulled out her beaded bag again. “Accio today’s newspaper.” She drew it forth and set it on a small table. “Accio, oh, all the books I put in here today.” The first to come out was the last she’d put in, the scuffed copy of Nature’s Nobility. She set it out of the way on a side table, face down and spine to the wall, then pulled out Hogwarts, a History, The Life And Times of Salazar Slytherin, Who’s Who in the Wizarding World, Guide to Magical Britain, and Guide to Magical Australia. “I should study this,” she said, putting the book on Australia back in her bag. “You three will want to study the rest.”

“Couldn’t you have written the book on Australia?” Tom’s father asked.

Hermione shook her head. “My parents were muggles, so I was more familiar with the muggle world than the wizarding there.”

“About these muggle parents of yours,” said his father. “We need to get the muggle side of your story straight. You are a family friend visiting from Australia. Perhaps you’re the daughter of a business associate of mine. Could you remind me what my Australian business associate does, Hermione? Or did?”

“He was a dentist,” she said.

His father considered that. “Sorry, I don’t think I would associate with a dentist, Australian or otherwise, any more than absolutely necessary. No, your father was, in fact, an opal dealer. And what was his Christian name?”

“Leo.” 

“Leo Granger the opal dealer, of course. We’ve been friends for years. Quite a shrewd businessman. From buying opals directly from miners, to selling them at a considerable markup to London jewelers, he did it all. I was most upset to hear of his death. How did he die?”

“He was bitten by a venomous snake.”

“Tragic. Well, that’s the risk opal dealers take, out in those rough mining towns. And your mother?”

“Snake again. Whilst strolling in her garden as a proper lady should, since of course she didn’t have a career of her own.” Hermione was not actually rolling her eyes, but she might as well have been.

“Another snake?”

“Australia has a lot of venomous snakes.”

“All right, at least that will be easy to remember. Which one died first?”

“I suppose both on the same day would seem unlikely,” Hermione conceded.

“Your mother when you were young, your father quite recently,” decided his father. “When I heard that the daughter of my dear friend was orphaned and alone in that isolated part of Australia, of course I offered the hospitality of the Riddle House. Here we can gradually introduce you to a better social scene than those rough mining towns offered, and perhaps polish your manners, as your motherless upbringing lacked an emphasis on the delicate arts that every young lady needs. Mary will be a great help with that, as her manners are impeccable.”

Hermione did not hex his father, but laughed. “The story works, but you won’t be the one fending off suitors who are after my father’s opal-dealing money. That will be annoying.”

“I assure you I will, Miss Granger, should any become inappropriately forward. Out of loyalty to my dear departed friend, your father, I take full responsibility for your safety. I certainly wouldn’t expect a young slip of a girl like you to defend herself.”

Hermione was grinning broadly.

His father continued. “When the orphanage in London sent Tommy here, mere days after your arrival, you volunteered to care for my motherless grandson out of the goodness of your heart, and of course sympathy for your fellow motherless child.”

Hermione granted his father a respectful nod. “You’re a good liar, Squire Riddle. I can see we’ll work well together.” She glanced around the room distractedly, then said, “Thanks for doing most of the work on that story. I’m still so tired, I’m not really thinking straight.”

“I well remember how difficult it is to care for a newborn, Hermione, and I wasn’t even scheming to infiltrate wizarding high society at the same time,” said his mother. She gently patted the witch’s arm. “As you are serving as mother to my grandson, I shall serve as mother to you, and as such, I insist that you go to bed early. We’ll see you at breakfast.”

Hermione returned the smile, and stood. “Thank you so much for welcoming me into your home.” 

“We are very glad you came, Hermione,” said his mother.

“It’s the least I could do for my old friend Leo Granger the opal dealer,” said his father.

Hermione laughed. “You’re a clever one, Squire. I can see I’ll have to keep my wits about me around you. Goodnight, all.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Once she and Tommy were gone, his mother pulled a scuffed book from the folds of her skirt. “This explains a lot.” It was the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility.

Tom and his father stared as his mother searched the index. “No mention of the Riddles at all.” She turned some more pages. “Nor the Grangers. Ah, but the Gaunts! Here they are. The line ended with Morfin, who in 1943, confessed to the murder of three muggles…” It took a lot to make his mother blanch. “The muggle who seduced, then abandoned his sister Merope, and the muggle parents who had spawned this seducer. It doesn’t even list our names. For this ‘crime,’ why is ‘crime’ in quotes? Morfin was sentenced to life in Azkaban, where he died, ending this ancient and noble pureblood line. There’s no mention of Tommy. For Merope, it lists your wedding day as the date of her death.”

Tom’s father reached out as if to touch the book, then drew his hand back. “Where did she get this?” 

“At a book shop, I imagine,” said his mother. “There must still be book shops in 1997.”

“But how…” said his father.

“She really is even more extraordinary than I first thought,” said his mother.

“A time traveler!” said Tom. “This is like one of H.G. Wells’s scientific romances!”

“Hopefully without the socialist symbolism,” grumbled his father. Then he brightened. “Do you think she brought any horse racing results? Stock market information?”

His mother pushed the book towards his father and pointed to the relevant words. “I’m rather more concerned with avoiding being murdered in 1943. I wonder why Morfin waited, will wait, that long. I don’t know what tense to use. Anyway, we must do something about Morfin before then. It will be self-defense, really. I don’t think I could manage Hermione’s unique method of rendering dangerous wizards harmless. I’m not above using more conventional methods.”

“You're not a witch,” said his father, “so I wouldn’t expect you to defeat wizards the same way.”

“I’m not referring to our guest’s magical abilities, although they are impressive. I am referring to the emotional strength required for the particular method she chose to conquer the wizard who murdered her parents,” said his mother. She waited for her audience to catch on, but was disappointed. She gave another hint. “The wizard who developed his hatred of muggles growing up unloved in a muggle orphanage. We know this murderous wizard’s name now.” She waited. 

“Tom Marvolo Riddle,” realized Tom. “That’s the whole reason she took this trip back in time, to stop my son from murdering her parents. My son is a murderer.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Tom, he’s just a baby,” said his mother.

“But you just said—“

“When Hermione was describing the various branches of magic to us, she seemed particularly dismissive of divination, because, she said, the future is not set in stone. We can only hope she’s right.”

“We won’t only hope,” scoffed his father. “We’ll act. Forewarned is forearmed.” 

“But won’t this create paradoxes?” said Tom. “I mean, now that we know Morfin will murder us, we’ll know to protect ourselves, so hopefully he won’t murder us, but then our murders won’t be in this book, so we won’t know, so then he will murder us, so then they will be in the book…” his point ran in circles until it was tired out.

His mother patted his arm. “We’ll let the time traveler worry about the paradoxes. You look like you could use an early bedtime too, dear. Goodnight.” 

Tom recognized that the children had been dismissed. “At least I have some bedtime reading,” he said, taking the 1997 book with him. 

“I’ll want a turn with that when you’re done,” said his mother. “For me, I’ll start with today’s news before I try tomorrow’s.” She picked up the newspaper. “For example, who is Grindelwald, and why does he warrant such a big headline?”

Chapter Text

At breakfast, Tom found Hermione well-rested and apparently none the wiser about his mother’s theft of her book. The silent baby in her sling would almost have been unnoticeable, if not for his blue-black eyes observing them all with eerie intelligence. He’s not a murderer yet, Tom reminded himself. Well, unless one counted Merope.

“Wizarding Australia seems fascinating,” Hermione said as she loaded her plate heavily, “at least for those with an interest in fantastic beasts. I’m glad I didn’t encounter most of them while I was there.”

A brown owl tapped on the window.

“Oh good, the paper’s here.” Hermione got up and opened the window to let in the owl and a blast of cold air, and closed the window as the owl flew to the back of Tom’s seat, from which perch it glared at him at close range with its huge golden eyes.

“It wants you to take your paper,” said Hermione. “And it wants an owl treat.” She got the package of owl treats from her beaded bag, which explained why she’d said it was necessary to buy them yesterday morning. She fed the owl a treat as Tom figured out how to remove the paper from the owl’s leg. Then she opened the window and the owl flew off. Hermione closed the window, sat down again and dug into her breakfast.

Tom’s mother pulled the paper from his limp hands. When he’d paid for the subscription, they’d mentioned that the price included delivery, but he hadn’t stopped to consider the delivery method.

“Give me the news,” said his father. “You may read the Witch’s Section.”

“Of course,” said his mother, separating the paper and handing over the appropriate section. 

Hermione stabbed at her sausage with extra vigor.

“Grindelwald making a nuisance of himself again,” grumbled his father, eyeing the headline. “What kind of amateurish aurors do they have on the continent? You’ll note he hasn’t dared set foot in Britain, and good for him, too.”

This excellent impersonation of someone well-versed in current wizarding events was interrupted by his mother exclaiming, “You made the society page!” She read aloud: “Widower Tom Riddle, heir of Riddle, was spotted in the company of Australian duelist Hermione Granger on Sunday. Our photographer caught them heading in the direction of the jewelry district of Diagon Alley. Can wedding bells be far away? Riddle has been inseparable from the beautiful Granger ever since the tragic death of his wife Merope, née Gaunt, of the Little Hangleton Gaunts, only descendants of Salazar Slytherin. Merope died at the hands of muggle ‘healers’ while giving birth to Tom Marvolo Riddle, heir of Slytherin. Granger has been filling the role of mother to this motherless child, which of course is a surefire way to his father’s heart.”

“That explains why I was shopping for the traditional engagement gift of cufflinks, doesn’t it?” smirked Tom. “You can’t put anything past these reporters.” Of course, he’d also tried to decorate his companion with some jewelry, but she’d refused.

“Hush,” said his mother. “There’s more. Philanthropist Serpens Malfoy, upon meeting the heir of Slytherin, spontaneously gifted him with a house elf, yet another example of the Malfoys’ famed generosity.”

“What?!” exclaimed Tom. “That restaurant was full of witnesses!”

“None of whom will admit to seeing a Malfoy made a fool of,” said Hermione. “Now you understand what I meant about this paper. The Malfoys control it.”

Tom had just been reading about the Malfoys last night. He gulped. “Malfoy controls the Daily Prophet,” he repeated.

“Yes,” said Hermione.

“Just yesterday, shortly before punching Malfoy in the face, I gave the Daily Prophet my home address.”

“Yes,” said Hermione. “It doesn’t matter. It was inevitable that he’d track you down. I could prevent that, but that would make your family and this whole house seem to vanish from Little Hangleton completely, which would violate the Statute of Secrecy, since you’re prominent enough that the other muggles would notice. Or you could go on the run. I have a tent in my bag, ready to go. But I’ve just been getting used to sleeping in an actual house. It’s nice. Anyway, what you need to know about the Malfoys is that they always try to get on the good side of anyone they perceive to be powerful, and that apparently includes the Riddle family now.” 

“This photograph is very flattering,” said his mother. 

Tom looked at it. It was, indeed. Hermione’s hard leanness somehow came across as slender elegance in the small photograph, and Tom looked quite dapper in wizarding robes if he thought so himself. The black-and-white figures put their heads together so he could whisper another of his stupid questions in her ear without being overheard. She smiled at the ignorance revealed by his question. The photograph was frankly adorable. “This is Malfoy’s apology,” he realized. “He regrets firing that spell at my son, so he’s trying to make it up to me.” 

“As well he should,” said his father. “The only question is, should we accept his apology?” 

“Yes,” said Tom. “Support from someone who controls the press is a valuable thing.”

Hermione, remarkably, paused her eating.

“Do you have a different idea, Hermione?” asked Tom politely.

“It’s just… It never even occurred to me to try to get Malfoy on our side. I mean, the Malfoys are infamous blood purists, and I’m a muggleborn. You’re an actual muggle. Your son is only a halfblood. The Malfoys don’t associate with people like us.”

“It’s true I don’t usually allow people with such crude manners in my presence, but as Malfoy seems useful, I’ll make an effort to overlook that,” said Tom. He was then startled to hear another tapping noise. A magnificent white owl was tapping at the window.

“But we already got the paper,” said his mother. 

“You don’t understand what blood purists do to muggles,” insisted Hermione. “They don’t consider you fully human. It’s illegal now, but some still hunt and torture muggles for sport, like foxes…” no one was listening over the tapping of the owl.

Tom opened the window to let the owl in. “It’s carrying a letter.” The owl perched on the back of a chair and stuck out a leg at Tom for him to untie the parchment. Hermione got it an owl treat. 

“What does it say?” demanded his father. Tom unrolled the scroll and read the beautiful calligraphy aloud, with some difficulty, as the graceful flourishes nearly obscured the meaning: 

“Dear Tom Riddle,

It was a pleasure to meet you and your charming family yesterday. As we did not have time to properly get acquainted, I would like to invite you and your family to Malfoy Manor for a casual lunch this Saturday the eighth, at noon. I feel that a friendship between our families would be advantageous to both. As my younger son Abraxas is about the same age as the heir of Slytherin, they will attend Hogwarts at the same time, so let us help them cultivate a friendship before school starts.

Please reply by this owl.

Sincerely,

Your humble servant,

Serpens Malfoy”

The owl stayed on its perch, staring regally at Tom.

“It’s waiting for a reply,” said Hermione. She fed it another owl treat. “What will you say?”

“I was hoping you could advise me on that. If I accept his invitation, I assume you could accompany me, and guide me through proper wizarding behavior at Malfoy Manor.”

Hermione said nothing. 

“Hermione? I mean, if it’s not too much of an imposition.”

“I would be no use to you at Malfoy Manor.”

“What?”

She looked shaky. “I panicked, at the restaurant yesterday. I thought Malfoy was going to kill us. All I could think about was getting Tommy and Dobby and you to safety. I’d be even more of a mess at Malfoy Manor. You’ll have to go without me, if you’re going at all.” 

“But I can’t do this without you.” 

“That’s not my problem, Tom. I came here to see that Tommy gets a proper upbringing, and that’s it. This idea to befriend the Malfoys is your own project. I’ll help you when I can, but I won’t go out of my way for you. I especially won’t go back to Malfoy Manor.”

“Back?” repeated his father.

“I… Look, it’s a really long story. I’ve been there before. It didn’t go well. At all. Well, some of us got out alive, so that’s something. But I still get panic attacks when I hear peacocks screaming. I should probably see a mind healer about that, but I’ve been busy. Anyway, Serpens Malfoy has no idea I’ve been there, so don’t bring it up.”

There clearly was no way for her to tell the actual story without first admitting that she was a time traveler, and that the events that had unfolded so disastrously had not yet taken place. “Right,” said Tom. “Well. I’m remembering things like the anti-muggle charm on the entrance to that pub that prevented me from even seeing it. If Malfoy Manor has anything like that, I’ll make a fool of myself. I therefore must decline. Simple decision, really. The question is, what sort of counteroffer should I make? Should I invite him here? I could treat him to Riddle hospitality.”

Hermione looked around. “As long as you aren’t trying to impress him with your wealth, that might be OK.”

“What?” said his father.

“This is a very comfortable home. Malfoy Manor is a palace. It looks like Versailles, but more so. It’s a whole other level of ostentation. Sorry, but you’re not at all in the same league.”

Tact could not be counted among this witch’s skills. Tom’s father didn’t seem to mind, though. He grunted. “Thanks for telling me straight before we embarrassed ourselves.” 

Tom looked at Malfoy’s beautiful calligraphy. “Whatever I say, should I even reply in my own handwriting? Roundhand with a fountain pen seems far too modern for his.”

“I can write it for you,” said Hermione. “I mean copy your letter out. I’m not bad with a quill. I don’t have handwriting like a pureblood, though.” 

“Well, I’m not pretending to be a pureblood at least.” He was about to say something about not wanting to represent himself with delicate, feminine handwriting, but realized that that would not be an issue even before remembering that her handwriting on his photograph at the tailor shop had been fine. “I will want lessons later on how to write with a quill, though, so I shouldn’t have to impose on you for this service for long.”

“No problem,” she said.

“As I am done with breakfast, I will go compose a reply in my office,” said Tom. Hermione was still eating. “Take your time with breakfast, then please meet me there. You may use my writing-desk to copy my letter in a more suitable hand.”

She nodded, mouth full.

As he left, he saw Fiona loitering in the hall. Her expression (eyes wide with terror) made more sense once Malfoy’s owl silently snuck up behind Tom and pounced on his shoulder, sinking the sharp points of its talons through his clothes to reach his skin, not drawing blood, just making it clear that the owl was not ruling out the possibility of doing so in the future.

“Ah, Fiona,” said Tom. “The others are not yet done with breakfast, so your services are not required just yet. By the way, in case you were considering spreading any more rumors about the goings-on here at the Riddle House, I do hope you realize that no one would believe you. I wouldn’t want you sent to a madhouse. You’re quite a good maid. We do appreciate your service.”

This triggered an automatic curtsy from Fiona, the banality of which seemed to calm her. “Thank you Mr. Riddle,” she managed.

“When Miss Granger is done with breakfast, please direct her to my office, if she doesn’t know the way already. Of course, she probably does,” he realized. Tom and the owl left Fiona standing there and continued to his office. With some encouragement, the owl could be convinced to relocate to a lamp, which it gripped with its talons as it stared at him. Tom unlocked his desk and rolled the top open and got a sheet of scrap paper and one of his favorite iridium-tipped fountain pens. He thought a moment, then wrote:

Dear Mr. Malfoy,

While I appreciate your invitation, I respectfully decline, as I do not wish to overtax your hospitality, especially now that your household may be understaffed. Thank you again for your generous gifts of a house elf and wand. Instead, I invite you to accompany me to my club, the Drones Club, in Dover Street, off Piccadilly, in Mayfair, London, at the same date and time you suggested, Saturday the eighth at noon. If you are not yet a member of this club, you will not be allowed in unaccompanied, so please wait for me on the street.

As this is a muggle establishment, I trust that you will honor the Statute of Secrecy by dressing appropriately and performing no magic there.

Sincerely,

Tom Riddle

He felt satisfied with this composition by the time he heard a knock on the door and bade Hermione enter. She was accompanied by his parents. Tom read his missive aloud.

Hermione’s face glowed with a surprised grin. Her teeth were perfect. Perhaps it helped to be the daughter of a dentist. “You’re really throwing down the gauntlet,” she observed.

“Any wizard who desires the favor of my company must know how to comport himself among muggles,” said Tom. “Otherwise, he’s not worth my time.”

“You’re trusting that he actually will behave himself,” said his mother. “He’s already demonstrated that he’s capable of starting a fight, in a restaurant, during lunch specifically. Oh Tom, do you really think this is safe?” 

“I’m not going to anger him by stealing any more of his house elves. I mean freeing. He does seem rather short tempered, but, well, he has troubles at home.” 

“What?” said Hermione.

Tom realized that he couldn’t explain without telling the very interesting story he’d read about the Malfoy family in the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility, which he couldn’t do without admitting they’d stolen it, which of course they wouldn’t do in front of the person from whom it had been stolen. “I just meant that his wife seemed awful. Well, didn’t she? At least she can’t come to the Drones Club with her husband, as it’s a club for gentlemen only.”

Hermione pressed her lips together, then spoke. “Well anyway, we can hope he knows better than to violate the Statute. As extra insurance, I’ll inform Witch Weekly that if they send a photographer and reporter to the Drones Club, they’ll find wealthy widower Tom Riddle dining with philanthropist Serpens Malfoy, both dressed like muggles to sightsee in muggle London, as is the fad these days among fashionable purebloods.”

“It is?” asked his father, bewildered.

“No, of course it isn’t,” said Hermione. “At least, not until Witch Weekly says it is. Now, that would be interesting.”

“So Witch Weekly is a sort of ladies’ magazine?” asked his mother.

“Yes.”

“Does Malfoy control that too?” asked his father. 

“I don’t think so,” said Hermione. “I mean, why would he even bother? It’s just a women’s magazine, you know, recipes and hairstyling tips and gossip. Nothing important. Anyway, you might want to mention to Malfoy that you notice a disillusioned photographer spying on the two of you from behind a potted plant.” 

Tom nodded. He could address this alleged unimportance of hairstyling later, as he was in rather a hurry. Malfoy’s owl was sharpening its beak on his lamp. “Hermione, would you be so kind as to copy this in a wizarding hand?” He offered her his desk chair.

She pulled his son out of her sling. “To make sure my writing is as neat as possible, I probably shouldn’t be wearing Tommy at the same time.”

Tom’s mother rushed to take the baby, but she had competition. “I can hold my own son,” Tom said.

“I don’t like the way that owl is looking at you,” his mother replied as she took the baby. Tom had to admit that this was worth considering. He didn’t know if the golden or the blue-black eyes were more intimidating.

Hermione sat at the desk, and reached into her beaded bag. “Accio writing kit. This is just ordinary parchment, not really nice parchment like Malfoy used, but I guess it will have to do.” She wrote quickly and neatly, although without Malfoy’s flourishes. Soon she cast a quick spell to dry the ink, had Tom proofread it (it was flawless), rolled it, and tied it to the owl’s leg. She opened the window, letting in a blast of cold air, and the owl flew away. Tom’s mother curled her body around her grandson to protect him from the draft. Hermione closed the window. “Now we await his reply. Malfoy Manor is in Wiltshire, so it might take a while for his owl to fly there and back.”

“Shouldn’t we have our own owl?” asked Tom.

“If you plan to do much correspondence, one would be useful,” said Hermione. “Although you could also hire them at a wizarding post office.”

“That sounds inconvenient,” said Tom. He sat at his desk again and wrote. “Shopping list: one owl and necessary accessories. A higher quality of parchment, quills, and ink. An instructional book on pureblood-style calligraphy. Salazar Slytherin’s locket. There was something else…”

“A subscription to Witch Weekly,” said his mother. 

“Of course.” He added it to the list. At Hermione’s scornful look, he said, “You needn’t say a word about your disinterest in hairstyling tips, Hermione, as your appearance says it most eloquently. If you seriously hope to be taken for one of our class, you’ll have to put in more of an effort. Just as I respect that magic is one of your areas of expertise, you must respect that appearance is one of mine.”

Tom’s father seemed surprised that Hermione responded to this insult with a simple nod. How could an insult hit with any force if the target didn’t care about what was being insulted? One might as well try to insult Tom by telling him he had no skill at scrubbing toilets. Of course he didn’t. He had better things to do.

“We have a deal,” said Hermione.

“Good,” said Tom. “On that topic, would you please magically fix these owl talon marks on the shoulder of my jacket?”

Hermione peered. “Where?”

“Here, you see, there’s a loose thread.” 

She looked closer. “You mean that little thing?” 

“Yes. If it’s not too much trouble.” 

“It’s no trouble at all, it’s just… You care about one loose thread.” She shook her head, marveling, as she drew her wand, aimed at his shoulder, (he cringed only slightly) and said “Reparo.” The fabric reformed, smooth and whole.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Anything else?”

“No, I think that’s it.”

“I’ll check.” She kept her wand drawn and walked around him, inspecting him thoroughly. Tom regretted starting this as he felt her gaze crawl over every inch of him. No, that had to be his imagination. A gaze was not palpable, no matter how intense. Finally, Hermione finished her inspection and declared “flawless.” She was face to face with him again. Her eyes focused on his lips. “Open your mouth,” she ordered.

“Excuse me?” he said while trying not to open his mouth.

“I need to check your teeth. I should have done this before we went to Diagon Alley. I thought I saw a filling in a molar. Do you have any fillings?” 

“Yes.”

“Wizards don’t have metal fillings, they just grow their teeth back if they get cavities or lose them. Let me see.”

Tom awkwardly opened his mouth to her inspection.

“At least it’s gold, not mercury amalgam, so it’s not urgent. Anyway, I’ll have to fix that before your meeting with Malfoy. Add Denta-Gro to our shopping list. We can get it at any wizarding apothecary.”

“How do you spell that?”

“I’ll write it,” she said impatiently. She sheathed her wand, sat at his desk and picked up his pen. Then she looked at his pen. He knew what that look meant, although it confused him. It was the same look he had given the tailor’s quill. 

“Surely you know how to write with a fountain pen, if your parents were muggles,” he said.

“Of course I do. I’m just out of practice.” She set the pen to paper, and although the first few letters were too pale and thin, she found the correct angle eventually. She traced over her first few letters to give them enough ink. “Not that different from a quill, really.”

Tom made a mental note to invest in whatever invention replaced fountain pens.

“Hermione, if wizarding dentistry is superior to muggle…” started his father.

“I’ll buy enough Denta-Gro for the three of you,” she said. “Let’s see how bad the damage is.” Tom’s parents let the witch inspect their teeth, tsking as if looking at horses she wouldn’t buy. “The economy-sized bottle should do.”

Then Hermione looked at her sleeve, which was sprouting more loose threads than Tom’s jacket. “I’ve never bothered paying such close attention to my clothes, but if your level of perfection is what’s required, I’ll do it. I’ll see what I can do about these in my room. It might take me a while to get ready, and I still won’t be as well-dressed as you.”

“This is just what I wear around the house,” said Tom. “I’ll put on something better to go to town of course.”

Hermione sighed.

Tom continued. “You need look only slightly better to be accepted in the shops we plan to visit today. As we hope to fit into both the muggle and wizarding worlds, I won’t insist you bob your hair, as I didn’t see any short hair on the tradition-bound witches of Diagon Alley. But even at your current length, you can make yourself more presentable. Use the potions and enchanted comb you got at the salon yesterday. We’ll be shopping for more appropriate muggle clothing for you in Great Hangleton today, so you should endeavor to look like a wealthy and at least moderately fashionable Australian. Fortunately, no one here knows what that’s supposed to look like, so you have some leeway. Let us reconvene in the study when we’re ready, then drive to town.”

Hermione nodded and charged off to battle against her ferocious hair.

Tom realized something. “I’m supposed to be in mourning for my wife, but everyone knows we parted on unfriendly terms. What should I wear?”

“Excessive mourning is in poor taste, and seems terribly Victorian,” said his mother promptly. “A dark suit, a tie of dull black silk, and perhaps a black hatband should be sufficient. No jewelry other than black. Perhaps your jet cufflinks and tiepin.”

“Thank you, mother.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t don mourning for my daughter-in-law,” added his mother. “It will be difficult enough to refrain from celebrating with inappropriate joy.”

“I’m happy about that witch’s death and I don’t care who knows it,” said his father. At the look his wife gave him, he added, “What? I could have called her something that rhymes with witch.”

Tom went to his room to dress in the barest minimum of mourning, a dark grey suit and black accessories. He checked his look in his full-length mirror. Sharp. 

In the study, Tom and his mother discussed the wizarding books they’d read, although his mother was distracted by her grandson, who according to her was an adorable little snugglekins, yes he was, yes he was, and Tom was distracted by a disturbing thought. At first, he thought that at least no one would accuse him of courting another girl inappropriately soon after his wife’s death, as Hermione was not attractive enough for anyone to want to court, so their proximity would not generate any rumors. He felt a chill when he realized that anyone who had seen his wife must think he had very peculiar tastes, or perhaps extremely low standards, so Hermione might actually be mistaken for his girlfriend even by people he knew, not just by the Daily Prophet gossip columnist. He’d have to take special care to avoid giving that impression.

When Hermione appeared, sooner than he’d expected, she looked like someone he wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with, and in fact was edging dangerously close to being someone a man would willingly look at. He could hardly complain, after telling her she had to look better.

“Well done,” he said.

“Dobby helped,” she explained. “He made the fabric look newer, and did something to this jacket and skirt so they fit better. He agrees with you that I need new clothes, though.”

“His need for new clothes is even more dire, but he was so overwhelmed by simply being given his own room, I thought I’d postpone that,” said Tom.

Hermione nodded.

“This way to the garage,” said Tom. He, his mother, and Hermione put on their coats, and his mother bundled Tommy in another layer of blankets, and they went outside into the bright cold for the brief walk to the garage. Tom opened the car door for his mother, who preferred to sit in the back seat. “Would you prefer to sit beside me or in back?” he asked Hermione.

Hermione approached the Bentley in the same way that Tom might approach some fantastic Australian beast. “It doesn’t even have seatbelts,” she marveled.

“What?” 

“Much less a rear-facing infant seat. I can’t let Tommy ride in this dangerous contraption.”

Tom did not like to hear his Bentley referred to as a contraption, dangerous or otherwise.

“This will take some work.” She reached into her bag. “Accio Handbook of Do-It-Yourself Broomcare.” She pulled out a small book and flipped through it. “Some anti-collision and cushioning charms at least. They’ll require modification to fit a larger vehicle.”

“Hermione,” said Tom, trying to sound patient. “I’m a safe driver. I’m not setting out to break any speed records today. This is an ordinary, short drive, for an ordinary shopping trip.”

“If you don’t want to believe that you’re capable of making a mistake while driving, you have to at least admit that other drivers might not be so careful. What if another car crashes into us?”

“In Little Hangleton? Unlikely. We’re the only family that owns a car. Great Hangleton is a different story, but really, I’ve done this drive countless times. It will be fine.”

“What if I make another shocking revelation and distract you while you’re driving?”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to cast a silencing spell on yourself?”

The glare she gave him was rather like the owl’s.

“How much time will you need to cast these spells?”

“Perhaps half an hour. You might want to take Tommy back inside.”

“Righto. Mother, if you would be so kind as to take Tommy in from the cold, I’d like to watch these spells being cast.”

His mother took Tommy back in, leaving Tom alone with the witch and his precious Bentley. She got to work, studying the book, then practicing Latin phrases and graceful hand movements without her wand before taking her wand in hand and casting the spells for real. With the tip of her wand, she inscribed runes into various parts of his car. They glowed silver before disappearing.   

Finally, Hermione stepped back and took a deep breath. “That should be safer. Now to test it.” She stepped out of the garage, and soon returned hovering a large rock, one of the ornamental rocks from the garden, before her at wandpoint. “Depulso.” The rock suddenly flew at the car’s engine, only to be deflected over the bonnet and windscreen like a leaf in the wind, skimming an inch over the surface to bypass the car completely and crack the wall behind it. “Reparo.” The wall was fixed before he had time to complain about it being broken.

Wingardium Leviosa.” She hovered the rock again. Then she opened the car door and flung the rock inside with great force with another “Depulso.” It sank gently into the door on the other side as if it were a featherbed. She did this again at various angles, throwing the rock at windows, ceiling, steering wheel, and it always gradually slowed down as if into a cushion. “It looks like the spells worked,” she said. “Just don’t let the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office get wind of this, since this sort of thing is illegal.”

Tom touched the car cautiously. It just felt like a car.

“The spells are activated only by the threat of an imminent collision of sufficient force,” she explained. “They’re not noticeable otherwise.” She levitated the rock back outside, leaving Tom to marvel.

“Thank you,” he said when she came back in. “Merope never did anything like this.”

“This is some rather tricky magic,” she said. “If I say so myself.”

“I can’t help but think of all the great things you could do with skills like this.”

“I survived. Shall we get your mother and Tommy?”

“We could just leave Tommy here with Fiona.” 

“No. I’ve let him out of my sight for too long already. I’m getting worried.”

Tommy seemed to feel the same, as he was fussing when they returned to the house. Hermione rushed to take him back, and unbuttoned her blouse to feed him.

“What would you like to drink, dear?” asked his mother.

“Oh. Water would be great, thank you.”

His mother rang the bell to call Fiona and had her bring water and some biscuits, which Hermione drank and ate with her usual ravenousness. 

Then, finally, they were off. Tom drove down the long driveway that led from the Riddle House, between the tall hedgerows, closer to the dark copse that nearly concealed—

“That’s the Gaunt shack, isn’t it?” said Hermione.

“Yes,” said Tom.

“Stop the car.”

Tom stopped it with great trepidation. “Do you really think—“

“I don’t need fashionable clothes for this. Look after Tommy for a moment, would you?” She handed Tommy back to his mother. “Accio Harry’s cloak.” From the beaded bag in her pocket, she drew forth a much sleeker garment than he would have thought she possessed. “Back in a jiffy.” She swept the cloak around herself, and completely disappeared. Tom looked, but he didn’t see even a subtle shadow like Dobby cast when disillusioned.

He waited a full minute before saying anything. “She’s just trying to postpone clothes shopping, isn’t she?”

“A most unusual girl,” agreed his mother. She then turned her attention back to her grandson, singing him meaningless ditties. She had a beautiful singing voice. She had a beautiful everything, really. Most of Tom’s good looks were probably from her. At forty-four, her fair face was still as unlined as Tom’s, and her hair as black, although he didn’t know if it had some assistance at this point. Eyes that dark and intense weren’t unsettling when they were in his mother’s face, since she was his mother. He’d presumably get used to his son’s eyes, at least once that otherworldly blue cast faded.

Tom reflected that if his father had instead married some ugly rich girl, Tom wouldn’t have been cursed with such handsomeness, which might have spared him Merope's attention… There was no point thinking along such lines. He wasn’t about to borrow Hermione’s time machine to break up his parents before they got married. Breaking up Merope’s parents, on the other hand… Did one have to be an actual witch or wizard to travel through time via Hermione’s method? Did she keep her time machine in her beaded bag? Was her bag boobytrapped? He tried to stop thinking about it and let his mother’s familiar song wash over him.

“Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly

Lavender’s green.

When I am king, dilly dilly

You’ll be my queen.

Who told you so, dilly dilly

Who told you so?

It was my heart, dilly dilly

That told me so.”

After perhaps ten minutes of listening to his mother cooing nonsense at his son, Tom saw Hermione suddenly reappear with a swirl of her cloak. She stuffed the cloak back in her bag, opened the car door, and got in. She held a ring out to Tom. It was a primitive-looking, heavy lump of gold, with a black stone that seemed to absorb absolutely all light. A symbol was scratched into the stone, a triangle and circle and line.

“Go on, take it,” she said. “I did clean it.”

“How did you—“

“We stopped here to investigate because we smelled something bad in that shack. That’s what we’ll tell the coroner, or police, or whoever is in charge of these things. I just looked in the window, I didn’t go inside of course. The door is still locked from the inside, so they should believe that. Go on, just take the ring and let’s get out of here.”

Tom looked at the ugly ring. He much preferred Art Deco. “Couldn’t you keep it in your beaded bag?”

She gulped. “I’d rather not carry it myself.”

“Well I’d also rather not. I mean, you just pulled this off a dead man’s finger.”

“No one will know it’s stolen. Except possibly Morfin.”

“I’m not worried about getting in trouble for stealing it, I just don’t want it. I have no right to it. Tommy will eventually have some claim to it as a descendant of the Gaunts. Give it to him when he’s ready.”

“Please Tom. Please. Take it. I don’t want to be tempted.”

“What? You’d sell it or something? If you need money—“

“No, of course not. It’s just— This stone isn’t just a stone. It’s a unique and very powerful magical artifact. I shouldn’t use it. It wouldn’t be wise.”

Tom looked at the ring with renewed horror. “So you want to foist it off on me instead! Or on my son!

“That’s the beauty of it! In your hands it’s harmless. Even in Tommy’s, as long as I don’t tell him how to use it. It can just be an ancient ring from a pureblood family to impress people with. Please Tom. I’m especially susceptible to its allure. I really shouldn’t have it. It’s too powerful for me.”

The thought of a powerful witch in possession of a powerful ring was rather disturbing. Tom pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and picked the ring up with it, wrapping and tying it in the handkerchief without touching the ring. He’d been a bit concerned that Hermione would laugh at his squeamishness, but she only looked relieved. Tom tucked the bundle in his new wallet, which from the outside looked too small to hold it.

“Thank you,” said Hermione. Then she looked at the wallet he was tucking back in his pocket. “You brought that to go shopping in a muggle district?”

“It looks normal from the outside. And I like it. And you brought your beaded bag, so you’re one to talk.”

She sighed. “Just try not to be too obvious about it.”

“Of course.”

She closed her eyes and slumped back in her seat. Stealing and giving up that ring had clearly been exhausting to her, for all she’d made light of it.

Perhaps it was time for some comic relief. “This doesn’t mean we’re engaged,” he said.

She opened her eyes and stared at him. “What?”

“Even though you gave me a ring, and I accepted it, that doesn’t make us engaged. I didn’t actually put it on.”

She closed her eyes again. “Just drive, Tom.”

“Yes Miss Granger. I mean Hermione.” He drove. With this corpse-looting jaunt and the time it took to enchant the car, this set the record for the slowest trip to Great Hangleton ever. It was only six miles for goodness sake.

“Aren’t you going rather fast?”

“Don’t you trust your safety spells?”

“Yes, but still. I don't like going fast.”

He slowed down.

Of course they had to go to the police station first to report the body. Hermione looked appropriately somber as she told the policeman that she detected the smell of death as they drove past the Gaunt shack, and saw a corpse when she looked in the window. 

“And how does a young lady know what death smells like?” scoffed the officer.

She looked at him.

The policeman appeared increasingly uncomfortable. 

“She’s from Australia,” explained Tom when the silence had gone on for too long.

“I see,” said the policeman, pretending to. “Well, we’ll send the coroner around. Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention.”

That was the last of Hermione’s delaying tactics. They finally got to their destination, Great Hangleton’s most fashionable street. Tom got out, opened his mother’s door and gave her a hand to assist her out, then found that Hermione had got out herself and slammed the door behind her before Tom could perform the same service for her.

“If this were just a few years ago, I’d be taking you to a tailor,” said his mother, “but prêt-à-porter has become much more fashionable recently. Later, I must take you shopping in London to buy you some suits by a wonderful French designer named Coco Chanel, but for now, the shops of Great Hangleton will provide reasonably fashionable clothing quickly.”

Hermione liked the word “quickly.”

“Now Tom,” said his mother, turning to him just before stepping into a shop. “We won’t require your assistance, so if you have anything to do in Great Hangleton, feel free to go do it. Let’s meet back here at noon.”

“Anything to do? I can’t really think of—“

“Anyone to visit, who might be interested in your new status as a widower?”

“Oh! Right. But do you really think—“

“Do it, Tom. Remember what I’ve always taught you.”

“Nothing is impossible if I’ve got enough nerve.”

“That’s right. Now go on.” She gave his shoulder an encouraging pat.

“Yes. Well. Enjoy your shopping, ladies.” He charged off, brain buzzing. It was a rather long walk to Threepworple Manor, but if he drove, he’d be there long before he’d thought of anything to say. Perhaps the walk would clear his head. The day was bright and cold, with remnants of snow brightening the shadows. He first stopped by a florist.

The shopgirl’s gaze flew to his black hatband, and she immediately put on a sympathetic expression. “Need flowers for a funeral, sir? I could make a very tasteful wreath of asphodel and wormwood.” 

“Oh, er, no, I’m not headed to a funeral. Well, perhaps to my own. I’m actually in the market for flowers with which I can apologize to a young lady I have wronged.”

“Oh?” said the shopgirl in a rather unprofessional tone.

“So I was hoping you could advise me on what flowers would be appropriate. I’m unaccustomed to apologizing.”

The shopgirl regained her professionalism. “Deep purple hyacinths,” she said authoritatively, pointing to them. “Symbolizing deep regret and a request for forgiveness—”

“Perfect.”

“—in the Victorian flower language.”

“Oh. Isn’t there a more modern flower language? Perhaps a flower slang?”

“Not that I know of, sir, sorry.”

“I suppose Victorian will have to do.”

He paid for the bouquet and the shopgirl’s good luck wishes, and set out into the cold, walking along familiar Threepworple Road out of town. 

Would Cecilia be willing to meet with him at all? When he’d attempted to speak with her shortly after his escape from Merope, she’d made it very clear that she wanted nothing to do with him. Between his seemingly inescapable marriage to Merope, and Cecilia’s unwillingness to hear his side of the story, the prospect of winning Cecilia back had seemed completely hopeless. He’d been doing his best to put Cecilia out of his mind. But now that one of those obstacles was out of the way, could the other fall as well? If only Cecilia would hear him out!

Of course if she did, what on earth would he say? He couldn’t simply assume that she would take him back after he had been so untrue. His whirlwind marriage to Merope was inexplicable without mentioning magic, and he couldn’t do that without violating the Statute of Secrecy, which presumably would have dire consequences. He didn’t like the sound of that wizarding prison. However, the immediate consequences to himself sounded even worse than that. He couldn’t tell Cecilia the truth, because she would undoubtedly think the story mad. He considered that. Was it better to have the kind of madness that made one believe in witches, or the kind that made one fall in love with a girl who was ugly, poor, and mean? The second suggested an indifference to the superficial, theoretically unimportant attributes of beauty and wealth, which was often regarded as a good thing. Unfortunately, the same people who considered indifference to superficial charms to be a virtue generally also considered a fickle, inconstant heart to be a vice.

He would stick to his story. Merope had deceived him. Everyone thought they knew what that meant. She had pretended he’d got her pregnant in order to trap him into marriage. This story was an admission that Merope could have got pregnant with his child at the same time he was courting Cecilia.  There was no way to make that sound good. At least he hadn’t gone the route of murdering Merope to save his reputation, as some men in his position would do. No, bringing that up wouldn’t be wise, now that Merope was, in fact, dead.

Then there was the additional problem that after she had presumably deceived him by pretending he’d got her pregnant, then he had, in fact, got her pregnant.

He would admit all his presumed wrongdoing, call it a folly of youth, declare himself a changed man, and beg Cecilia’s forgiveness. That was his only chance. As slim a chance as it was, he had to take it.

Threepworple Manor loomed before him, grand and imposing. He could do this. The Riddles always got what they wanted. They had strength of will, which was the main thing. The rest followed.

He walked along the path beside the drive, by the maze formed of perfectly clipped shrubbery. The maze that contained so many private little nooks, perfect for an illicit kiss… No. He would not think about that right now.

He stood at the door for a moment before ringing the doorbell, telling a primitive, stupidly hopeful part of his brain that he could not expect Cecilia to rush into his arms as she used to. He rang the bell.

The footman, Douglas, answered. He was one of the few men tall enough to look down on Tom, and he made full use of this ability.

“Ah, Douglas,” said Tom. “Is Cecilia in?”

Douglas continued to stare down at him from his great height. In that moment, Tom learned that while some might think the Order of Precedence ranks the daughter of a baronet only slightly higher than the son of a squire, in fact there was a great distance between them. This distance was occupied by other ranks that were also higher than Tom’s, including the footman of a baronet, as well as anything that might be stuck to that footman’s shoe.

“I mean Miss Threepworple,” Tom corrected himself.

“I will check. Who should I say is calling?” asked Douglas coldly.

“Douglas, you know my name, I’ve been coming here for years… Tell her the most pathetic fool in the world is here to see her.”

Douglas nodded approvingly and closed the door in Tom’s face.

Tom had walked fast enough to perspire despite the cold weather, and now that he was standing still, felt the chill in earnest as the cold wind sought out any gap in his clothes. Perhaps this was her answer, to leave him in the cold.

However, the door did eventually reopen. Douglas looked down at him again. “Miss Threepworple will permit you to visit her in her sitting room,” he declared, with the air of a servant who followed orders to the letter no matter how ridiculous. “This way sir.”

Of course Tom knew the way and had no need of a guide, but did not make a point of it.

“The most pathetic fool in the world,” Douglas announced formally as he opened the door and ushered Tom in, then closed the door. Tom was keenly aware of the lack of invisible runes over the door preventing eavesdropping.

Cecilia was seated at her writing-desk by the window, with her back to him. She did not immediately turn around, but continued writing. Her blond hair was even shorter than when he’d last seen her, revealing her graceful neck. Finally, she put down her pen and turned to him. Her blue eyes took him in. She crossed her ivory-stocking-clad legs, slender ankles and shapely calves, and Tom completely forgot what he’d planned to say. “I used to have a cat,” she said.

This was not the greeting he’d expected, but she was speaking to him, so that was something. “Mr. Jollywhiskers, I recall,” he said, with much more emotion than the words warranted.

“Whenever he killed a mouse he would bring it into my sitting room and offer it to me as a gift. He thought highly of his mouse and it was beyond him to realize that anyone might have a different opinion of it.”

Tom looked at his bouquet in horror, for he certainly could not meet Cecilia’s cold gaze.

“I gave that cat away,” she added, salting the wound.

“For what it’s worth,” he tried, “I’m not particularly fond of purple hyacinths either, but the shopgirl assured me that they’re just the thing to convey deep regret and a request for forgiveness. If they don’t work, I’ll return them, as they’re clearly defective. That flower shop lacks the standardization and quality control that today’s customers expect from a modern business.”

He anxiously observed the effect of his words. Cecilia tried to suppress a smile, then gave up and tried to suppress a laugh, then gave up even that and let out a sound that was half laugh, half sob. “Oh Tom!” she cried. “How can you come here with two legs and two arms and a head as if you were a human being, when you’ve already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are instead a catastrophe? You’re a train derailment, Tom. An earthquake. The Black Plague. An iceberg in search of an ocean liner. You’re probably responsible for erupting all over Pompeii. It would take more than a bunch of flowers to fix your reputation.”

“So what will it take?” asked Tom eagerly.

Cecilia sighed. “Do you have some list of caddish behavior that you’re running through? Does your wife know you’re bringing flowers to your ex girlfriend?”

“That’s a metaphysical question I’m not qualified to answer. You see she’s dead. Hence my somber attire.” 

“Oh, that’s rich. You’re still flashier than a peacock, Tom.”

“You used to appreciate—“

“I was a singularly stupid girl taken in by your deceptive charms. Well, not singularly, I was just one of the stupid girls. I mean, there was me, and Merope, and how many others?”

“What?! No, there was no one else.”

“Why would I believe anything you say? Now you’re saying your wife is dead? Is that some bizarre attempt to gain my sympathy? You just killed your wife in the hopes I’d feel sorry for you, didn’t you?”

“No! That’s a slanderous accusation.”

“So what did you kill her for, then?”

“I did not kill her! Well. I mean. Not directly.”

“Oh my god.”

“She died in childbirth, all right? So in a way it was my fault, but these things happen. I have the death certificate and everything. And a son, now. Suddenly everything’s different. So I thought, as long as everything in my life is changing so radically and unexpectedly, well, I might as well see if I can get you back in the mix somehow. I know that getting you to trust me again seems impossible, but a lot of impossible things have been happening to me as of late, so why not try for one more?” 

“I didn’t know it was possible for anyone to be this arrogant. You can’t expect me to fall for you a second time. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m older and wiser now.” 

“I am also older and wiser. I promise, if you give me just one more chance, I’ll never betray you again. Of course we can’t go straight back to what we were before, but perhaps we could agree to be civil to each other? Friends? You could give me a chance to prove my sincerity?”

Cecilia peered at him as if he were an interesting beetle. “And to think, you’re allowed to vote already, at age twenty-one, yet I won’t be allowed to vote until I’m thirty. All because men are the rational sex! I say, Tom, whenever the cause of women’s suffrage seems like too big a job, all I need to do is consider that you are allowed to vote, while I am not, and I am filled with such fire that I am absolutely determined to succeed.” She indicated the papers on her desk. “All this organizing is a lot of work, but very important. I might not stop at universal adult suffrage. It might be worth a try to take the vote away from men completely and give women a turn running things.”

“That seems fair,” said Tom, who would have agreed to anything she said at that point.

“So for your indirect contribution to the suffrage movement, I thank you.”

“Glad I could help,” he said. This meeting was going much better than he’d expected. “Would you like any more direct contributions? I could fund some full-page ads in the papers, print up a big batch of badges, whatever you like. Women’s suffrage is extremely important. We certainly don’t want idiots like me running things.”

“You know I don’t need your money.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you for coming to see me, Tom.”

His heart leaped.

“Now I know I’m immune to your charms. I was afraid I’d break down, feeling some old tug on my heartstrings at the sight of you, but no. The feelings I once had for you are gone. I’m free of you, and good riddance. If I happen to see you around town, I won’t even break my stride. Goodbye.” She turned back to her writing. She was done with him, and any moment now, the parlor maid would come to sweep him up.

“Cecilia, before I go, I must say just one thing. I love you.”

“What’s that strange noise?”

“I said I—“

“No, that noise.” She pointed to the window. Malfoy’s owl was tapping on the glass. It had a small roll of parchment tied to its leg, and was glaring at Tom in its usual way.

“That’s an owl,” said Tom.

“I know it’s an owl. Why is a bloody owl tapping at my window? Aren’t they nocturnal?”

“It’s carrying a message for me.”

“It’s what?”

“Look at its leg. There’s a scroll of parchment there.”

“What would an owl have to say to you?”

“It’s a long story, and I’m not allowed to tell it, but, oh hell, I’ll tell you. You deserve to know the truth. I can explain everything. You see, there’s this secret society of witches and wizards, and they communicate via owl messengers rather than telephones and the post. Merope was a witch, and the only reason I married her was that she gave me a love potion and used a mind-control spell on me. It took me months to break free. By then I’d got her pregnant. So now my son is a wizard, as he inherited his mother’s magical ability, although fortunately not her looks. The only reason I know this is because a different witch told me. She claims she’s from Australia, but that’s actually just her cover story. She’s really a time traveler from 1997 who traveled back here to 1927 to try to change her past, our future, so my son doesn’t grow up to murder her parents. I confess the paradoxes there don’t make sense to me either. Anyway, I’m trying to help my son grow up not to be a murderer, and fit into the wizarding world, hence my correspondence with the wizard who owns that owl. That tapping does make it hard to converse, doesn’t it?”

Cecilia had stood up and was inching backwards away from him, bringing her closer to the window and the angrily tapping owl.

“Perhaps we should let it in so I can take that message and send it on its way,” said Tom. “That would stop that infernal tapping.”

“Let it in?!” repeated Cecilia, horrified.

“Or not, whatever you like. It can wait. I know it seems unbelievable, but I’ve got proof that magic is real. Look, I bought this magic wallet in a wizarding shop, it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, I’ll show you.” He took it out of his pocket and showed her. Much of his forearm fit inside it. She didn’t even glance at it. Her worried eyes were fixed on his face. He put it back in his pocket.

“Do your parents know you’re out?” she asked slowly.

“Of course they do.”

“Did you walk all the way here?”

“I walked from downtown Great Hangleton. My mother took the time-traveling witch shopping today, as she didn’t have proper clothes for this era when she arrived.”

“I see,” she said slowly. “Well, let’s get you back to your mother then. Come on.” She led the way out.

Of course, as soon as Tom stepped outside, he was attacked by Malfoy’s owl. It perched on his shoulder and thrust its taloned foot rather closer to his face than necessary. Tom tucked the stupid bouquet of hyacinths under his arm to free his hands, untied the scroll, and stuffed it in his pocket to read later. “I don’t have any owl treats on me, sorry,” he told it. With an extra-furious glare, it flapped away.

Tom looked hopefully at Cecilia. “You see?” he said. “Magic messenger owl. My story’s true. You’ve got to believe me.”

“Oh of course I believe you,” she said in a soothing way that wasn’t believable at all. She led him towards the cottage where her family’s driver lived. She knocked to summon the driver. When he appeared, she said, “Henry, Mr. Riddle needs a ride back to downtown Great Hangleton. I’ll accompany him to make sure he gets back to his mother safely.”

“Yes Miss Threepworple. I’ll bring a car around.” He did, and soon Cecilia was sitting tantalizingly close to Tom in the backseat, gazing at him worriedly, as the driver sped to Great Hangleton.

“It’s true,” said Tom helplessly. “I’m not mad.”

“Of course,” said Cecilia soothingly. “Your story makes complete sense.” They rode in silence after that.

Tom and Cecilia got out in downtown Great Hangleton. Cecilia told the driver to wait for her, and they set out looking for Tom’s mother and the witch. They weren’t in the shop where he’d left them, but the shopgirl conveyed the message that they’d gone ahead to lunch at Flora’s Tearoom, and wished for Tom to meet them there.

Tom’s mother waved at them delightedly when she saw them come in. “Tom! And how wonderful to see you again, Cecilia! Are you joining us for lunch?”

“i don’t know if I should.”

“Of course you should. Oh, waitress, we need two more menus here,” called his mother. She and Hermione had their food in front of them already, and Hermione was descending upon hers in her usual plague-of-locusts style. His mother was absolutely beaming, having a completely wrong impression of what had transpired at Threepworple Manor.

Tom tried to rally his courage. As long as Cecilia was willing to sit at a table with him, there was hope. Tom set the hyacinths on the table, where they sweetly perfumed the air.

“Ooh, I love hyacinths!” said Hermione, pausing her eating to breathe deeply. “So cheerful in the bleak midwinter.”

“I will do introductions,” said his mother. “Cecilia, this is Hermione Granger, the daughter of an Australian business associate of my husband’s. She’s come to stay with us for a while, as she has no family left in Australia. Hermione, this is Cecilia Threepworple, daughter of Baronet Threepworple.”

Cecilia bristled. “I’d rather be introduced with my own accomplishments than merely as the daughter of a baronet.”

Tom’s mother looked bemused, while Hermione looked interested. “And what do you do, Cecilia?” 

“I am working for women’s suffrage,” she said proudly. “We’re partway there. Already, women are allowed to vote once we turn thirty and meet certain property ownership requirements, but that’s not good enough. All women must be allowed to vote at age twenty-one, just like men.”

“I’m glad to see that Britain’s finally catching up with Australia,” said Hermione. “We’ve had the vote there since 1911.”

Cecilia looked blessedly distracted from the subject of Tom’s presumed madness. “And what do you do?” she asked Hermione.

“I’d originally planned to go into my father’s opal-dealing business,” she said, “but since his death, I’m almost starting to suspect that there’s some truth to the old superstition about opals being bad luck. I was at a loss for what to do with myself when I received Squire Riddle’s kind invitation to visit, so here I am. Mere days after I arrived, the orphanage in London send little Tommy here to live with his father, so caring for him is the perfect job to occupy my attention at the moment.”

“So the Riddles assumed you’d be the one to take care of a baby, just because you’re a woman. It’s degrading.”

Hermione shook her head emphatically. “I hope you haven’t bought into the misogynistic idea that the caregiving professions, traditionally occupied by women, are inherently degrading. Caregiving is extremely important, deserving at least as much respect as traditionally male professions such as medicine or law, if not more.” She cast a snide look at Tom. “And I dare say it contributes more to the good of humanity than some forms of employment, such as speculation on the stock market, for example. One can measure the worth of a civilization by how well it cares for its most helpless members.”

“You have a point there” said Cecilia. “But it’s not something I would want to do, anyway.”

“Then don’t,” said Hermione. “Goodness knows we need suffragists to fight for our rights. I wouldn’t want anything to distract you from that. No woman should feel obligated to care for children, just like no man should feel obligated to become a doctor. Either could do a lot of harm in a job for which they have no interest or aptitude. Similarly, stereotypes about the sexes shouldn’t prevent anyone from doing a job for which they have an interest and aptitude.”

Cecilia seemed to find this very interesting. Learning to write with a quill could wait. Tom needed Hermione to give him lessons on how to talk to a suffragist.

The waitress returned to ask Cecilia and Tom what they would like to order, although they hadn’t actually looked at their menus. They picked a couple of dishes at random. Tom didn’t care what he got. Cecilia was actually willing to eat lunch at the same table as him!

“Hermione certainly has both an interest in and aptitude for caring for little Tommy,” said his mother. “I’ve never seen such a happy baby.” Tommy was, as usual, scanning the room silently from his sling at Hermione’s side. 

“He’s such a very easy baby to care for, I can hardly take any credit,” said Hermione.

“He’s such a dear little wooly baa-lamb, isn’t he?” cooed Tom’s mother.

Cecilia’s interest was lagging. Perhaps Tom could do her the favor of changing the subject. “How was shopping? Did you find what you were looking for?” he asked, perfectly sanely. It must have gone well, for Hermione was now dressed in a smart suit of brown tweed, which fit her properly.

“I thought British clothes would be warmer,” complained Hermione. “How can fashion designers expect women to wear short skirts in this weather? They’re so impractical. It’s freezing outside!”

“You mean to say you prefer the massive skirts of Victorian fashion?” asked Cecilia, amused. 

“Of course not,” said Hermione. “I’d rather wear trousers. Now those are practical garments for cold weather.”

“Didn’t you know? Impracticality is the whole point of women’s clothing,“ explained his mother. “Be glad hobble skirts are no longer in fashion. Nor corsets. The 1920s have really offered women the most comfortable and practical clothing ever.”

Hermione grudgingly nodded. “Please forgive my outburst. I’m just not used to this cold. To go from an Australian summer to a British winter is quite a shock.” She smiled. “It’s almost as if I traveled in time.”

Tom suddenly suspected that Hermione chose to travel back to this year, not earlier, to avoid being handicapped by a corset and hobble skirt while working to, say, prevent Merope’s parents from conceiving any children. Had Hermione chosen an earlier era to meddle in, Tom’s life would never have been derailed by Merope. He might be married to Cecilia by now. He was suddenly filled with rage at the fashion industry.

Cecilia looked at him. Her expression was beyond concern, all the way to fear. “Tom?” She looked away from him, to his mother. “I can’t just sit here talking about fashion, pretending everything’s normal. Tom acted very strange when he came to see me. Do you know he’s been acting like this?”

“Acting like what?” asked his mother.

“Well, delusional. He said that owls give him messages.”

Hermione’s eyes locked on Tom’s. “He said what?”

Tom pulled Malfoy’s scroll from his pocket. “Cecilia, you saw that owl deliver this message to me.” 

Cecilia’s gaze slid over the parchment as if it weren’t there, and looked pleadingly at his mother and Hermione. “He was talking about all sorts of things that made no sense at all—“

“I told her the truth,” interrupted Tom. “I told her everything: magic is real, witches and wizards exist, Merope used a love potion on me, everything. Tell her, Hermione.”

Hermione looked at Cecilia’s concerned face. “Tom has been under a lot of stress recently,” she said gently. “We are keeping an eye on him, don’t worry.” 

“Do you really think it’s safe to just let him go wandering about on his own?” asked Cecilia as if he weren’t there. 

“He seemed to have a better grasp of reality lately, so we thought—“ started Hermione.

“He was babbling about witches, and wizards, and—“

Please don’t say time travel.

“—and owls, and he thinks his wallet is magic, and—“

“I guess we were too optimistic about his improvement,” said Hermione. “Thank you so much for bringing him back to us. We’ll be more careful before we let him out again.”

The smiling waitress delivered lunch to Cecilia and Tom. Neither seemed hungry.

“Do eat your lunch,” urged Tom’s mother.

“No thank you. I seem to have lost my appetite,” said Cecilia. “I can’t…” She cast a glance at Tom with eyes that were starting to shine with tears, then looked away hurriedly. “I can’t bear it, knowing what he used to be like, compared to now… It was a pleasure to meet you, Hermione. Good luck with your caregiving. Goodbye.” She left. 

Tom watched her go. He wouldn’t have known Hermione was leaning in close to him, were it not for a faint whiff of that stormy Amortentia scent. “What did I tell you about violating the Statute of Secrecy?” she hissed in a furious whisper. 

“But all seemed lost anyway,” he whispered back. “Malfoy’s owl came back while I was talking to her,” he said, brandishing Malfoy’s scroll. “How was I supposed to explain a messenger owl?”

“You could have pretended you’d never seen it before,” hissed Hermione. “You didn’t have to go blabbing everything.” She sat back. “At least it seems that no harm’s been done.”

“No harm? She thinks I’m mad!”

“Yes. That’s the best case scenario, really. Now I don’t have to erase her memory. It’s easy to maintain the Statute around muggles like this. They can’t see what they weren’t expecting. Put that scroll back in your pocket in case anyone around here is more observant.”

Hermione ate Cecilia’s dainty sandwiches as well as her own, and was starting to eye Tom’s lunch before he ate it himself just to deprive her of it, for he didn’t feel hungry. Petty, he knew, but what else could he do? Then he paid and they left to walk back to the car, his mother carrying the hyacinths, which left Tom’s hands free to carry shopping bags full of Hermione’s clothes. 

“If you had just told her the truth—“ he started.

“Then she would have thought me mad as well, or worse, believed me,” Hermione said. “She would have thought it so important, she would have told others. It would be a big mess for the Ministry obliviators to clean up. It would all be traced back to me, I’d go to Azkaban, and then what would happen to Tommy?”

“But how am I going to win her back now?” fumed Tom. “It was bad enough when she thought I had willingly left her for Merope, but now she thinks I’m not just unfaithful, but mad as well!”

“Oh,” said Hermione. Tom could see the gears of her brain turning as they had when she’d worked out how to modify broom safety spells to fit a car. “I don’t think she’d make a very good stepmother for Tommy,” she finally concluded. “The suffrage thing is great, but she seems particularly unmagical. She wouldn’t be able to relate to him.”

So that was it. This witch had decided to put the final nail in the coffin that held Cecilia’s love for him. Tom suddenly burned with hate for these meddling witches. He glared at Hermione as if that could do any good. She looked back at him with a slight smile, damn her.  He dropped his gaze to his son.

Tommy’s blue-black eyes locked with his, then looked up to the witch carrying him.

Hermione screamed. She grabbed her wand from her sleeve, pointed it at a lock of her hair over her forehead, and said “Extinguo,” which put out the fire it had spontaneously burst into. She looked all around in a panic, then her wide eyes fixed on Tom again. “You…”

Before he knew what had happened, he found himself slammed against the wall of the bank behind him, Hermione holding her wand to his throat in a clear threat. Burnt hair smelled terrible. “What the hell are you playing at?” she demanded. “Pretending to be a muggle! And then you go setting my hair on fire, wandlessly even!” 

“It wasn’t me!” cried Tom. “I swear!”

“Then who?” the witch demanded.

Tom looked down at his son in the witch’s sling. He was smiling a cute, toothless smile. As Hermione followed his gaze, Tommy made a little sound that may have been his first, cute little laugh. They both stared for a while.

“Oh gods,” said Hermione. “Already?” She removed her wand from Tom’s throat. “Sorry.”

Hermione looked around. A paperboy was staring at them, eyes wide. Hermione pointed her wand at him. “Obliviate.” The boy suddenly looked blank. He slumped to sit on the pavement.

“What did you do?” demanded Tom.

“Erased the last minute of his memory. He’ll be fine in a bit. A simple job like this doesn’t require a call for Ministry obliviators. Let’s get out of here.” She sheathed her wand in her sleeve again and hurried to their parking spot, Tom and his mother following. “Drive us back to Riddle House,” Hermione ordered.

They got in the car, but Tom didn’t start it immediately. The car filled with the scents of hyacinths and burnt hair. “So that was Tommy’s first accidental magic,” he said. He looked back to see Hermione nod. “So what’s the proper wizarding parental response? I assume it’s a milestone worth celebrating. Am I supposed to owl announcements to all my wizarding friends or what?

“I suppose,” said Hermione listlessly. “I wouldn’t know, I was raised by muggles. Could you tell me exactly what happened? You were angry at me, right? For not volunteering to help you with Cecilia. And Tommy looked in your eyes at that moment?”

“Yes,” said Tom. “Then he looked at you, to, you know.”

“Right. Well. I have a favor to ask you, Tom. Please do not look in Tommy’s eyes when you’re angry.”

“All right,” he said after a while.

“Well, that’s settled,” she said. “So how did Malfoy respond to your counteroffer?”

“I haven’t had time to read it,” he said. “I’ve had other priorities.”

Hermione had no inhibitions about looking Tom in the eye when she was angry. Tom pulled Malfoy’s scroll out of his pocket, unrolled it, and read it aloud. 

“Dear Mr. Riddle,

Thank you very much for your invitation. I look forward to seeing you there.

Sincerely,

Your humble servant,

Serpens Malfoy”

“I can’t believe it,” said Hermione. “A Malfoy willing to go to a muggle business.”

“You seem prejudiced against Malfoys,” said Tom. “Understandably, of course, but they might rise to meet our expectations if we expect enough from them.”

“That’s… Thats rather amazing, that you’d put it that way. That’s pretty much my plan for Tommy.”

“The baby who just set your hair on fire,” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Hermione.

“Which gives the impression that he might be a bit of a handful as he gets older,” said Tom.

“Oh, I’m sure that was just an accident,” said his mother. “He’ll learn to control his magic soon enough. My darling little Tommy would never intentionally hurt anyone.”

“Exactly,” said Hermione, nodding. “It was simply an accident. Now Tom, if you would start driving, I could draw my wand again and cast a healing spell on my forehead without fear of any muggles spying on me through the windows. I’m feeling a bit singed.”

“Right,” said Tom, starting the car. He drove in silence. He wasn’t angry at Hermione any more, and in fact was embarrassed at how Tommy had manifested his anger. It wasn’t Hermione’s responsibility to help him win Cecilia back. She was here only to care for Tommy. Her ability to prove the existence of magic did not obligate her to do so at Tom’s command.

He needn’t even trouble Hermione to buy some Amortentia. Dobby could get it for him. Cecilia could hardly deny the existence of magic once she had felt its power herself.

Chapter Text

When they got back to the Riddle House, Tom opened his mother’s car door and assisted her out as a gentleman should, while Hermione opened her own door, got out, and slammed it behind her.

“Would you like to take a nap?” his mother suggested to Hermione. “Caring for a newborn is very tiring.”

Hermione nodded. “I think he’s awake more in the night than the day.”

“Before you go to bed, I have a favor to ask,” said Tom.

With the look Hermione gave him, he was surprised his hair didn’t catch fire.

“Could I please borrow a quill, and have some ink and scrap parchment? And if you would be so kind, would you write an alphabet for me to copy? Or I suppose I could copy Malfoy’s letters. I would like to get started developing a suitable wizarding hand.”

Hermione reacted as another woman might when told that she was beautiful. “Oh! Of course. I’m glad to help.” They left Tommy to his mother’s proud cooing and went to Tom’s office.

“One moment, I’ve got to do something about this first,” she said. She drew her wand and pulled at her burnt lock of hair, which uncoiled a great distance until she could get a good look at it. “ Diffindo .” The burnt part was severed, and the rest sprang back to her head. She still had absolutely no shortage of hair, and in fact thinning it had probably been for the best. Perhaps his son would be a hairstylist. He seemed to have good instincts for it. “ Evanesco .” The burnt part vanished. Tom’s first thought was to offer her a mirror, an essential he was never without, to help her style her remaining hair afterwards, but Tom realized just in time that she would not appreciate this courtesy, so he politely ignored the helix that stuck out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

Hermione then gave Tom a very thorough penmanship lesson, including quill trimming, inkwell dipping, and the importance of consistently holding the quill at the correct angle. This last was more detail than he needed since it was similar to a fountain pen in that regard, but he didn’t interrupt the flow of her lesson, which was very well-organized. Then she demonstrated the basic strokes, and recommended he practice those first before moving on to letters and numbers, which she also modeled for him, even going so far as to draw tiny arrows next to the strokes to indicate the direction the quill should travel.

“Thank you,” he said, practicing writing a simple line with a consistent amount of ink. “That was a very helpful lesson. You’ve clearly taught this before.”

“Muggleborn students are really left to fend for themselves,” she said. “I had to demand penmanship tutoring, it wasn’t just given automatically, although it was obvious I needed it. Then of course once I got it, I helped all the other muggleborn students who needed it as well.”

“At your school in Australia,” Tom filled in for her. “It sounds like muggleborns aren’t treated any better there than in Britain.” He enjoyed seeing her blanch when she realized how close she’d come to contradicting her own backstory, although he didn’t let his amusement show. Of course she was British, and had attended Hogwarts like everyone else, but had to hide this fact to explain why no one in this era knew her. “Australia” was a charming euphemism for “seventy years in the future.”

“Yes,” she said faintly.

He had flattered her mind, which seemed to be the only part of herself she took pride in, then unsettled her by drawing her attention to her mistake. It was time. “I don’t want to take up your time with talk of Australia now. I have something more important to say. I owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have violated the Statute of Secrecy like that.” Especially considering the results. “I should have kept silent about the whole wizarding world, as you told me to do. I put you at risk of arrest, as my mistake could have been traced back to you. What I did was wrong. I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.”

She seemed pleasantly surprised by this. “Thank you. I accept your apology.” And now came the concession. “This is all so new to you, perhaps it was unrealistic of me to expect you to understand the importance of the Statute.”

“Especially as you aren’t setting the most law-abiding example for me to follow.”

Hermione gave an embarrassed smile. “Well, I try to be discrete when I break laws, and that’s one that by its very nature can’t be broken discreetly.”

“I understand completely. You can be assured of my discretion in the future.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Would you like those hyacinths in your room?”

“What?”

“You seemed to like them.”

“Well. I mean. They’re beautiful. I don’t want to monopolize them.”

“Consider them yours. Please accept them as a physical manifestation of my apology. Dobby!” 

The elf popped into the room. “Yes Master?”

“What happened to those hyacinths we brought back from town?”

“Mrs. Riddle had Fiona put them in a vase in the drawing room.”

“Please take the vase of them to Miss Granger’s room instead.”

“Yes Master.” The elf popped away. 

“It seems a bit tacky to be called ‘Master,’” Tom remarked. “I'd ask him to call me ‘mister,’ and ‘sir’’ instead, if I weren’t concerned that would lead to confusion when we’re out in the wizarding world. I suppose I’ll leave him be.”

At least he’d got rid of the hyacinths, which had been one of his goals, although a minor one. They smelled like failure and rejection. Had he softened her up enough for the major one? There was one way to find out. “It was quite foolish of me to violate the Statute. I’m afraid that a man in love doesn’t always do the sensible thing.”

“That’s your excuse?” That didn’t bode well. Didn’t this witch have any romance in her at all? Any sympathy? Had she never been in love?

He forged ahead. “I’d been on the verge of asking for Cecilia’s hand in marriage when Merope suddenly derailed my life. Seeing her today, so beautiful, and knowing I can’t have her, it was torture.” 

Shocked silence followed by hysterical laughter was not the response he’d been aiming for.

“Torture?” she repeated mockingly when she could finally speak again. “That’s what you call torture? You innocent boy.”

“Perhaps that was a poor word choice,” he conceded, as he realized, horrified, that “torture” had a literal as well as metaphorical definition. “I’m sorry,” he tried, realizing that it was hopeless. She’d never help him now. “It’s just… I just really want her back, and I thought, you’re so clever, you could figure out a way without risking arrest for violating the Statute...” He hated how pathetic he sounded, so he shut up.

Hermione was laughing hard enough to cry. “The one you love is still alive, and safe, and even happy, and you’re complaining? That’s not love, that’s possessiveness. Accio handkerchief.” He’d been just about to offer, but she didn’t need him. She wiped her face and seemed to calm down a bit. “I’m happy for you Tom, I really am, that this is the worst that’s happened to you. May you never learn any better. Now I really should go feed Tommy again, and take a nap before I slap you. I’ll see you in the drawing room before dinner.” She left, laughing.

He should have quit when he was ahead. Well, at least he’d gathered some more information. This witch’s problem wasn’t a lack of romantic sentiment, but an excess. No matter. He didn’t need her help. His next step was clear. She’d left him no choice. She, and Cecilia, and of course Merope, had set all this in motion, so Tom could not be faulted for what happened next. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?” Tom was growing to like the sound of that.

“I just wanted to make sure that you’re working for me. I am your employer. I've instructed you to also serve my parents and Miss Granger, so long as their orders do not contradict mine, but my orders always supersede theirs.”

“Of course, Master,” said Dobby.

“So if I order you to keep a secret from Miss Granger, you will keep it. Correct?”

Dobby’s huge ears flopped when he nodded. “Yes, of course, Master.” He seemed surprised by the question, as if this was a very basic thing every wizard should know.

“Good. Information about the following plan must not reach Miss Granger.” Another ear-flopping nod. “First, teach me how to use Amortentia.”

——- 

A well-rested Hermione made for much more pleasant company. She entered the drawing room having dressed appropriately for dinner, and with her hair properly restrained. Tommy’s dark eyes peered alertly from her sling.

“How lovely you look, Hermione,” said Tom’s mother. “Thomas, don’t her new clothes suit her well?”

“I can’t very well admit to noticing how a woman other than my wife looks,” chuckled Tom’s father. “You know all other women ceased to exist for me the moment I first saw you.”

“You charmer,” blushed his mother.

It was time for Tom to pay her a compliment. How to twist this? Ah yes. “I see you master any skill you set your mind to, Hermione.”

It worked. She smiled. Then she shook her head. “It just seems so frivolous.”

“I hope you haven’t bought into the misogynistic idea that the art of beauty, traditionally practiced by women, is inherently frivolous,” said Tom. “Beauty is power. A smile is its sword. It deserves at least as much respect as, and I dare say it contributes more to the good of humanity than traditionally male routes to power such as violence. One can measure the worth of a civilization by how well it practices the arts that bring joy to life.”

Hermione stared at him.

That was enough of that. “Thank you very much for the penmanship lesson.” He handed her his work, a piece of parchment with the words “Thank you, Hermione,” written in a hand that he wouldn’t be too embarrassed to have associated with his name.

She took it. “Wow! This is beautiful. You’ve got to be my best student ever.”

“There’s still considerable room for improvement,” he said, “but at least I won't embarrass myself the next time I’m faced with a quill. Oh, and I’ve also been learning how to use this wand. Look.” He took an art nouveau vase out of a cabinet and smashed it on the floor. Hermione and his parents gasped. Them Tom drew his wand from his sleeve, pointed the wand at the fragments, and said “ Reparo .” The fragments drew together into a perfect vase again.

Hermione stared. “What?! How—“

Tom tried not to laugh, as the next incantation was tricky to pronounce. “ Wingardium Leviosa .” He pointed his wand at the vase as it floated up and returned to the cabinet. Then he finally let himself laugh. “Your attention was all on my wand, not looking for Dobby’s shadow in the corner. You may make yourself visible again, Dobby.” Dobby was grinning broadly when he reappeared.

“That was amazing,” said Hermione, looking between Tom and Dobby as her perfect smile brightened her face. “I’m starting to believe you can really pull this off.”

“Of course I can,” said Tom, sheathing his wand in the casual way he’d practiced. “The trick will be learning to say all these magical incantations.” 

“Well,” said Hermione, “casting spells silently is advanced, difficult magic, so if you really want to impress, you don’t actually have to say anything out loud. Wandless magic is another difficult skill. It took a lot of practice to get my summoning spell to work wandlessly. I don't advise pretending to cast both silently and wandlessly, though, as that would strain credulity.”

Tom laughed. “The wizarding world won’t know what hit it. Literally, they’ll have no clue.”

Hermione smirked. “Nice evil laugh you’ve got there.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. That was my triumphant laugh.”

Hermione smiled at the elf. “And Dobby! How talented you are! I had no idea you were the one really casting the spells.”

“So Miss Granger enjoyed the surprise?” Dobby asked, twisting the seam of his shirt.

“Of course! That was a wonderful surprise!”

Hermione’s clear appreciation of surprises set the elf’s simple mind at ease, which in turn set Tom’s mind at ease. He could count on Dobby’s discretion for his other plans as well.

“Hopefully you won’t need such an elaborate ruse,” said Hermione. “Although I’m afraid tomorrow might have to be another wizarding shopping day.” She said this as if breaking bad news. “Considering the shopping list you wrote this morning. It takes time for Denta-Gro to work, so you need to buy and use that soon, and get used to your new teeth by Saturday.”

“That, at least, we can start tonight,” said Tom. “I sent Dobby out to an apothecary for it this afternoon.”

“Oh!” said Hermione. “I hadn’t thought of that. I’m not used to having a servant.”

Three raised eyebrows, one on each adult Riddle, showed her what they thought of that.

“Dobby also recommended a pain-relief potion to go with the Denta-Gro,” said Tom. “You didn’t mention us needing that, but he said the Malfoys never used Denta-Gro without it. Apparently Malfoy’s son is quite a daredevil on a broom, and regularly knocks out his teeth.”

“But isn’t he the same age as Tommy?” asked Hermione. “He shouldn’t have teeth yet. Unless Malfoys hatch with fangs.”

“Abraxas Malfoy is about the same age as Tommy, according to Malfoy’s letter. He’s just a spare. His older brother Corvus stands to inherit the house of Malfoy.” If he lives that long. “I’ve been studying Nature’s Nobility .” Both editions. “Abraxas isn’t in it yet, so he must have been born after it went to press.” The current edition, anyway.

“Oh,” said Hermione. “You do your homework,” she said approvingly.

“Of course,” said Tom. “So why didn’t you put pain-relief potion on the list?”

“I didn’t know you could do that. And it’s not like it hurts all that much, in the grand scheme of things.” Tom didn’t want to know how grand her scheme of things was. “I suppose this pain potion is expensive?” 

“Not really,” said Tom. “No more than the Denta-Gro.”

“Hm.” Knitted brows showed what she thought of that.

When Fiona had called them to dinner and they were settled at the table, Tom’s mother gave Hermione a significant look. Hermione took a deep breath. “Thank you very much for the hyacinths, Tom,” she said. “They’ve always been one of my favorite flowers.”

Thus, a discussion of everyone’s favorite types of flowers was begun, with absolutely no mention of rotting corpses, so everyone was able to eat their dinner.

Dinner concluded uneventfully, as Hermione’s ravenous appetite was no longer regarded as noteworthy by anyone at the table. Hermione decided that they should take their potions after dinner, pain potion first on Dobby’s recommendation, so they went to Tom’s office, where he had locked the bottles in his rolltop desk. She had Dobby fetch six small glasses for them, as if imposing on their servant for some huge favor. Everyone, especially Dobby, seemed embarrassed by her awkwardness. Then she portioned out the potions.

Tom eyed the two glasses before him with trepidation. They did not smell nearly as appealing as Amortentia. The pain potion was an icy-looking, nearly opaque blue-white. The Denta-Grow was grey and smoking. Well, one of the Riddles had to go first. Tom gulped the pain potion down. The initial hit of icy mint was almost pleasant, before it was overwhelmed by bitterness. That was soon replaced by numbness, however. He couldn’t really tell what the second potion tasted like. It seemed to relieve the cold numbness a bit.

Soon, Tom was spitting gold fillings into his handkerchief, and torn between curiosity and disgust at the thought of investigating the strange goings-on with his tongue. “Go on,” he said to his parents, his words somewhat slurred from the pain potion. He felt around with a partly-numb tongue. “It’s working already!”

His parents gave each other a look, then downed their potions.

“I’ll wash these glasses so your muggle servants don’t wonder what was in them,” said Hermione, but Tom stopped her. 

“That’s Dobby’s job.” Dobby obviously agreed, as he took them and vanished with a pop. 

“Another thing,” said Hermione. “Do you have any children’s books? I’d like to get in the habit of reading to Tommy every day, but I brought only one children’s book with me.”

Tom’s mother was finding that she didn’t know the etiquette for spitting out fillings, but was somehow managing to look elegant as she did so. When she was done, she said, “I saved many of the books I read to Tom as a child. I’ll show you where they are in the library.” Hermione followed her enthusiastically.

This left Tom alone with his father, who didn’t spit fillings out nearly as elegantly as his mother.

“I think I’ll go read in the study,” said Tom. “I should be safe from Mr. McGregor there.”

“Wait a moment,” said his father. “Mary told me about your meeting with Cecilia.”

“There wasn’t much to tell,” said Tom. “I accomplished nothing, and if anything made the situation worse. I might as well not have tried.” Maybe the Amortentia was a mistake too. He didn’t have to go through with it. Dobby has bought it that afternoon, and Tom, under Dobby’s tutelage, has stirred it counterclockwise seven times with his little finger, so whoever consumed it would be metaphorically wrapped around his finger for seven days, but Tom had not yet sent an invisible Dobby to Threepworple Manor to add it to the cup of tea Cecilia liked to drink as she wrote at her desk. He could still back out.

“Come now, Tom,” scolded his father. “Remember who you are. Riddles do not give up. I have full faith in your ability to sort out this little misunderstanding. It’s simply a matter of resourcefulness and perseverance.”

“Thank you, father,” said Tom. “You’re right, of course. I will not let this temporary setback discourage me.” He’d send Dobby to Threepworple Manor right after his lunch with Malfoy. One thing at a time. Perhaps he should wait for a stormy day to disguise the smell.

“That’s the spirit.”

——-

The next morning, Tom was pleased to discover that the Denta-Gro had worked as advertised, restoring him to the physical perfection he’d always felt was his due. He opened his window a crack for fresh air and performed his usual Müller system exercises with even greater than his usual vigor, then enjoyed a bracing bath followed by energetic towel-rubbing, advocated by that Danish gymnast as the best defense against tuberculosis. This exercise system was also advertised to give a man musculature like that of an Ancient Greek athlete, and as that part was certainly true (thought Tom as he admired his form in the mirror) claims of the system’s efficacy against disease ought to be true as well. At any rate, exercise in fresh air was the best defense against tuberculosis the world offered, so of course Tom availed himself of it. He considered that. It was certainly the best defense the muggle world offered, but that wasn’t the entire world. He’d ask Hermione later.

Over breakfast, Tom’s mother claimed Tommy and subjected him to her adoration, praising every embroidered snake on his gown, as Hermione planned the day’s wizarding shopping expedition as if it were some sort of military campaign. She went so far as to arrange forks and teacups on the table to represent landmarks on the battlefield.  

“Hopefully, the locket is still at Borgin and Burke’s, an antique shop in Knockturn Alley, which is off of Diagon Alley. It’s in the Dark magic district, so we can’t let our guard down. Once I have the locket in my hand, create a distraction. I’ll need only a moment.”

Tom looked at her, aghast. Scheming was fine, but common shoplifting? “You’re not planning to steal it, are you? I mean really. We don’t need it that badly.”

“No, no of course not. I just have an idea to make haggling easier.”

“Hermione, I don’t need to resort to underhanded tactics—“

“Hear her out, Tom,” interrupted his father. “She’s a clever girl, and she knows what she’s talking about.”

“Thank you, Squire Riddle. So, this locket isn’t just an antique, it’s a unique historical artifact. Imagine if we were trying to buy King Arthur’s sword or something. If Burke demands a fair price for it, I don't think even you could afford it. Of course, he didn’t give Merope anywhere near a fair price for it, so it’s justice that he not get a fair price. If we can convince him that this isn’t really Slytherin’s locket, merely a modern reproduction, he should be happy to get rid of it cheaply.” 

“Of course it’s a modern reproduction,,” said Tom. “We had it made so Merope could seem to wear it in public without fear of losing the real one to thieves. I still have the real one safely locked away of course.”

Hermione blinked at him. “Really?”

“No, of course not really, I’m just playing along with your story.”

“You were very convincing.”

“I’ll have to be for this to work. So, for its utility as a theft-deterrent, I would like this modern reproduction back. It will be more convenient to buy the one that already exists than have a new one made. Ten galleons seems a reasonable price. I might even let him haggle me up to twelve. So how will you go about proving it’s merely a bit of costume jewelry?”

She told him her plan, which seemed a good one. “Excellent,” he said. “Let us don wizarding attire and reconvene in the drawing room.”

In his bedroom, Tom dressed in his wizarding robes with great enthusiasm, and checked his look in his full-length mirror. He adopted a dueling stance and practiced drawing and sheathing his wand. Perfect. He enjoyed the sweep of his acromantula-silk robes as he strode through the halls to the drawing room. His mother was there, holding Tommy, whose blue-black eyes bored into his. Watch and learn, Tommy. The heir of Slytherin must present himself to the world in a manner befitting his station.

Hermione joined him a moment later, in her red-brown robes that were so unfashionable by muggle standards, accentuating her tiny waist and full bosom as if these features were worth showing off, rather than terribly dated. Her hair had been tamed into a sumptuous wizarding style, with long gleaming ringlets cascading down her lithe back. She took Tommy back into her sling.

Tom held himself back just in time before simply praising her beauty. “You’re really mastering the art of presentation, Hermione,” he said instead.

Her smile was without artifice, and added to her beauty. It wouldn’t be so terrible if the wizarding world enjoyed gossiping about the heir of Riddle and the Australian duelist. Hopefully, such a rumor would discourage other witches from pursuing him, as they surely would be unpleasantly surprised if they caught him.

“And you’re at least as impressive in wizarding attire as in muggle,” said Hermione. “If I didn’t know better, I’d assume you were some pureblood who’d hex me out of his way as soon as look at me.”

“But you forget, you are Hermione Granger, Australian duelist, a celebrity among those who follow the sport.”

“But I’m not.”

“Don’t contradict the heir of Riddle. You are so famous, people would be embarrassed to admit they’ve never heard of you. Dueling is a somewhat obscure sport, not as popular as quidditch, but still quite respectable. It’s a perfect persona for you. Anyway, the heir of Riddle needs one more accessory. Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“We will be shopping in Knockturn Alley today, which Hermione tells me is a rough neighborhood. Should it be necessary, can you defend us?”

Dobby’s ears flopped as he nodded. “Of course, Master.”

“You shouldn’t sacrifice any efficiency for the sake of appearances, but if convenient, could you make it seem as if I’m the one casting the spells, while you’re doing something less heroic such as cowering behind my robes?”

Dobby blinked his huge eyes at him. “If it looks like Master is the one casting the spells, then any attacker will concentrate on disabling Master instead of useless-seeming Dobby, sir.”

Tom thought about that. “Thus distracting any attacker from the real fighter, which is you, a deception which would give our party a significant tactical advantage. Yes, this is an excellent plan.” 

“But…” said Hermione, looking confused. 

Tom took the shopping list out of his pocket. “But let’s plan today’s outing on the assumption that this is an ordinary shopping trip, not some daring adventure. We’ll go to the bank first to set up the Riddle account.” He offered his arm to Hermione. “If you would be so kind as to apparate us.”

“I could apparate us straight to the bank, but you’ll need some privacy and time to recover from apparition, so I’ll take you to the alley by the Leaky Cauldron again. Dobby, please meet us there.” Dobby popped away.

Hermione took his arm, and then everything was spinning, which was, Tom assured himself, perfectly normal and to be expected, and would stop soon. Indeed, it did. There was solid ground under his feet, which meant that direction was down. That one clue revealed the identity of other directions via a trivial calculation.

He looked at Hermione’s thin-fingered hand gripping his arm. “Please don’t wrinkle my sleeve, Hermione. Tend to Tommy. Side-along apparition seems to disagree with him.”

She let go, and after a moment of looking at Tom with wide eyes, offered milk to his son, who was fussing, but not very much.

Tom had eyes only for Hermione as they walked through the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron, as his eyes couldn’t focus on anything else, and trying to look where he was going gave him a headache. He could also see Dobby trotting along at their heels in a properly servile way. Once inside, Tom could see perfectly well as all heads turned to the new arrivals. A barmaid rushed to him. “Are you stopping for food or drink, or just passing through?”

“Just passing through this morning,” said Tom. “Perhaps on the way back.”

The barmaid nodded and stepped back, waving aside a couple of unobservant loiterers blocking their path. Tom accepted this treatment as their due without a word of thanks.

They got to the wall that hid the entrance to Diagon Alley. “Try it, just like I taught you,” Tom encouraged Hermione. “You can do it.”

The Australian gave Tom a look that could be interpreted as nervousness, among other things, then tapped the bricks of the wall in a particular pattern with her wand, so it opened and they stepped through. It wasn’t very crowded today. It seemed a fine day for some relaxed browsing.

They headed to the bank first, walking past intriguing shops towards that grand white building. 

“I’ll authorize you to use my account. You may buy whatever incidentals you and Tommy need without bothering me with details.” 

“You don’t have to do that. You really trust me with your bank account?”

Tom laughed. “I’m already completely at your mercy, Hermione. If you weren’t trustworthy, I’d be sunk regardless.”

“I suppose if you look at it that way,” she said.

“Besides, I’m already trusting you with my son, and money is considerably less important than a human being.”

Hermione was beautiful when she was admiring him, but of course that was a good look on anyone. 

“Come on,” said Tom. “I know I have peculiar tastes, but I’m looking forward to filling out forms at a bank. Money management is my calling.”

Hermione laughed. “I’m glad someone enjoys that sort of thing. I brought a book to read.”

There were types of accounts and investments to choose, and parchments to sign, and a ritual dagger with which to slash his palm in order to drip blood into a rune-engraved bowl. Hermione healed his hand with a quick Episkey spell. When her turn came, she slashed her own palm with expressionless efficiency, and healed herself afterwards before Tom and Dobby could attempt any sleight-of-hand. Well, she had warned him never to try to pull one over on goblins.

Finally, his account was set up, and some of the Riddle fortune was working a new job in the wizarding economy. Tom learned that he could pay for his purchases at select, authorized merchants with a simple wand tap on a parchment form, which would deduct the money from his account automatically. He made sure that Hermione was authorized to do that “also.”

After Tom had thanked the goblins and they’d left, he looked at his shopping list. “Let’s go to the bookshop last.”

“Why?”

“So we won’t feel rushed, and can take our time shopping for whatever books strike our fancy. I ask only that you be done with your book shopping by dinner time. Buy whatever you like, just charge it to my Gringotts account.” 

Her eyes were not as wide as Dobby’s sometimes were, but they were still pretty darn wide. Even her pupils were wide open. “Really?”

Tom smiled. Everyone had a weakness, and this witch’s was obvious. He’d tame her and have her as obedient as Dobby in no time. “Really,” he said, baring his newly perfected teeth.

“Let’s get through our other errands fast, then,” said Hermione. “Come on. Knockturn Alley is this way.”

Tom and Dobby followed her to a truly fascinating district, full of shops that seemed even more mysterious and intriguing than those in Diagon Alley. There was a pet shop, for instance, that proudly displayed a terrarium of bright orange, three-headed snakes, not the slightly odd-looking kittens he’d seen in a pet shop in Diagon Alley. Hermione rushed past it, however. Tom decided to be patient. He didn’t have to see everything today.

Tom felt that he could spend all day investigating the peculiar artifacts in Borgin and Burke’s (est. 1863, as the sign proudly said) were it not for Hermione’s impatience. Now was not the time to inquire about the spiky metal instruments hanging from the ceiling, for instance, nor the dusty, wax-sealed brown glass bottle in which faintly glowing figures murkily swam, nor the deep maroon velvet curtains which swayed slightly even though there was no breeze, covering the contents of an ornate gilded picture frame on the wall.

A wizard who looked as ancient as his wares slunk out of a shadow to greet them. “Good morning,” he croaked. “How may I help you?”

“Good morning,” said Tom. “I’m looking for something specific, a gold locket with the letter S in green stones. My wife sold it here not long ago.”

“Salazar Slytherin’s locket!” hissed the wizard. “A unique historical artifact!”

“That’s right, we had it made to look just like the real one. Do you still have it?”

“Had it made?” repeated the wizard.

“As a precaution against theft. My wife was so proud of her ancestor, she wanted to wear his locket all the time, but didn’t want to risk losing the real one to thieves. Thus, we had this reproduction made for her to display, while keeping the real one safely hidden. I’m afraid a family tiff prompted her to sell the reproduction in a fit of pique. I would like it back now.”

The ancient wizard did not look surprised to hear this. Instead, he looked completely blank, which gave enough away.

Tom laughed. “You didn’t think it was the real one, did you? I mean, she never would have accepted a mere ten galleons for the real one, that would be ridiculous.”

Hermione laughed beside him. She had a loud, unrefined laugh, acceptable for an athlete, Tom supposed.

“So do you still have it?” pressed Tom.

“One moment please,” croaked the wizard. He stepped behind a counter and reverently took out a small black case. He opened it to display the locket, gleaming gold and green against black velvet.

“Oh, the case is a nice touch,” admired Tom. “It makes it look real. Is that for sale too?” He took the case, locket included, from the wizard’s hands and looked it over. “I’ll have to check that the locket itself is in good shape of course,” he said. “The hinge had a tendency to get stuck.”

He was then distracted by one of the other items in the shop, an opal necklace with a large sign declaring “Do not Touch! Cursed. Has claimed the lives of eleven Muggle owners to date."

Tom casually handed the case to Hermione in order to free his hands to reach towards the necklace.”Ooh look, Hermione, opals! Do they remind you of home?”

The shopkeeper shrieked and jumped between Tom and the necklace faster than Tom would have thought possible. “Read the sign! This necklace is cursed!”

Tom reread the sign, and made a big show of looking surprised. “That sign just says it kills muggles. You’re saying it kills wizards too?”

“It’s used to kill muggles, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t kill wizards,” explained the shopkeeper as if this should be obvious to any idiot.

“You shouldn’t just leave a thing like that out where wizards can reach it then. Why display this out here where it’s in the way, and lock up that bit of costume jewelry?” Referring to the locket Hermione was examining.

“I like to assume that my customers have some sense,” grumbled the shopkeeper.

Tom shook his head. “Customers like to assume that shopkeepers have some sense. Anyway, Hermione, does the locket seem to be in good condition? Her father was in the jewelry business,” he explained to the shopkeeper.

“Not lockets specifically,” she said. “He dealt more in gemstones. Alohomora ,” she added, pointing her wand at the locket, which was now enclosed in her fist. When she opened her hand, Tom and the shopkeeper saw that the locket was open as well.

“It doesn’t seem damaged,” said Hermione, shrugging. “It opened fine.”

“Maybe she had the hinge fixed before that tiff prompted her to sell it,” theorized Tom.

“Ew, what’s in here, old hair?” said Hermione. Indeed there was, a tuft of short, straight, shining black hair, bound by a twisted strand of dull brown. Tom felt his innards churn when he saw it.

“Seems rather Victorian of Merope, to keep a lock of my hair in a locket,” said Tom. It was all right for his voice to shake. His wife was dead. 

Hermione patted his arm. “And I see she left you this strand of her own hair as a keepsake.”

“Nice of her,” he choked out.

“But…” The poor shopkeeper was having difficulties. “I couldn’t open it with a simple Alohomora , of course that was one of the first tests I tried! Slytherin’s locket can be opened only by a descendant of Salazar Slytherin!”

Hermione laughed. “There’s no way a muggleborn like me could have opened the real thing.” Then she adopted a condescendingly helpful tone. “Are you sure you pronounced it correctly? The main accent is on the fourth syllable, but the second should also be slightly emphasized. Don’t be discouraged. You can do it! Say it with me. Alo —“

“I don’t need a charms lesson from a muggleborn.”

“I don’t expect a discount in exchange for the lesson, I’m just trying to be helpful,” Hermione assured him. 

“I don’t believe this wizard needs a charms lesson, Hermione,” said Tom. “All we need to do is negotiate a price for this locket, and also this lovely black case, which displays it so convincingly. Now, since Merope sold it for ten, I assume you expect to make at least some profit off it, so shall we say eleven? And another galleon for the case, bringing the total to twelve?”

The shopkeeper seemed to have some rather strong emotions seething under his wrinkled surface. “I’m wondering why I was unable to open this locket before, when you can so easily open it with an Alohomora now.”

“Was that sticky hinge giving you trouble?” asked Tom sympathetically. “Maybe Merope didn’t get it fixed after all. If it’s unreliable like this, maybe I should just have a new one made. I’m sorry to trouble you. Good luck selling a broken locket.” He nodded to Hermione, who snapped the locket closed and made to hand it back to the shopkeeper.

“Wait,” said the shopkeeper, not taking it. “I’m sure the locket is in fine shape. I must have simply mispronounced the incantation. I’ll take twelve galleons for the locket, another two for the case, bringing the total to fourteen.”

“I don’t really need the case,” said Tom.

“But it’s pretty,” said Hermione, proving what a terrible negotiator she was, completely without guile.

“I’ll pay one galleon, five sickles for it.”

“One galleon, ten sickles.”

“Oh all right. I’m not going to waste my time haggling over small change.” Tom paid, handed the jewelry case to Dobby to carry, thanked the shopkeeper, received thanks for his business, and left.

They didn’t let themselves laugh until they had walked all the way back to Diagon Alley. Then they caught each other’s eye and couldn’t stop laughing for a while. Tommy’s blue-black eyes looked from one to the other, and he smiled a toothless smile. He may have let out a little laugh of his own, but Hermione and Tom were laughing too loudly to hear him.

Once they’d recovered from their mirth, Hermione led them to a shop that sold stationery, and also magazines. Tom searched the magazines until he found what he wanted: Dueling Illustrated, which he picked up to purchase, and Witch Weekly, which he didn’t touch. “Hermione?” he called, for she was looking at quills.

She came over. “I don’t know if hippogriff feathers are really any better than owl in terms of functionality, but they are more expensive, so maybe that’s what you want. What’s this?”

“Witch Weekly. Would you please be so kind as to get the publisher’s address from it, so if it’s in the neighborhood, I can order a subscription at their office?”

“Why don’t you just do that yourself?” she asked.

Tom looked at her.

She rolled her eyes. “You can punch a Malfoy in the face, but you’re scared of a women’s magazine. All right, I’ll save you from this terrible danger. Reading a witches’ magazine could shrivel a wizard’s wand into a little nubbin.” She picked up the magazine and looked for the address. “Their office is right on Diagon Alley, not far from here.”

Tom laughed. “Thank you. And thank you for humoring me.”

She smiled. “I’m always happy to help the weak and helpless. Now let’s look at quills.”

Once they had purchased writing supplies suitable for representing the Riddle family, as well as some cheap parchment to practice on, they handed their purchases to Dobby to carry, and headed to the office of Witch Weekly. No wonder they hadn’t noticed it before, as it was above a millinery.

They climbed the stairs and Tom addressed the receptionist, who, he assumed, was dressed quite fashionably by wizarding standards. “Good morning. I would like to buy a year’s subscription as a gift for my mother.”

“Very good sir, that will be three galleons. Please write her name and address on this form.” Tom did, handling the quill expertly, quite aware that the secretary was watching him very attentively. He handed her the completed form and the galleons.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Riddle. I hope your mother enjoys this gift.” Then she turned to Tom’s companion. “And what an honor to be visited by Hermione Granger, the famous duelist. Is that what the fashionable witch is wearing in Australia these days? If you have a minute, I’m sure one of our reporters could—“

At the look on Hermione’s face, Tom knew he had to intervene. “I’m sorry, but Miss Granger is tired of being hounded by reporters. We’re here for that gift subscription only. If that form is in order, we’ll be on our way.” 

The secretary looked it over. “This is all in order. Thank you for your business.”

“Good day,” Tom said curtly, and they left.

They hadn’t got far before Hermione drew close to him, her curls writhing around his head as she whispered in his ear. “We’re being followed.”

“Of course we are. Witch Weekly isn’t going to just ignore the most interesting celebrities in Diagon Alley today. Smile for the camera, unless you’d rather look like some dour Victorian. Which might still be the fashion here, I don’t know. We should probably just look candid.”

Her eyes were wide. “How?”

“Less like you’re anticipating an ambush, more like you’re out enjoying a shopping trip. You’re a tourist here, remember. Do they have owls like these in Australia?” They had reached Eeylops Owl Emporium & Magical Menagerie.

The panicked look in her eyes faded once she had owls to focus on. “We have owls back home, yes, but different from these. I’ve never seen one like that,” she said, pointing, and looking genuinely impressed.

A saleswoman stepped forward to hawk her wares. “We got a new batch of eagle owls delivered from the breeder just today, including that rare melanistic morph.”  He was a beauty. The other eagle owls in the shop were already quite striking, with their ear-like tufts and fiery orange eyes, but black feathers were a setting that made orange eyes seem to glow even brighter. He also seemed even larger than most of the other owls. “They’re extremely rare, and rather costly, as they have to be hand-raised. Their parents kick them out of the nest, you see, because they’re not light grayish-brown as chicks like common eagle owls.”

“I’ll take him,” said Tom.

“Her.” 

“Really? How can you tell?”

“Female owls are bigger than males.”

“Of course.”

The saleswoman gave him a distrustful look. “Have you owned an owl before?”

Tom always made a point of never telling a lie that could be easily caught. “No. But Hermione here—“

“Actually I haven’t owned one myself,” she said. “My friends did. I had a cat.”

The saleswoman didn’t think much of that. “Hmph. You’ll need this guide to owl care.” She got a book.

“And some more owl treats,” said Hermione, “And a cage, although we won’t keep her trapped in the cage of course, she’ll have free access to the grounds to hunt. We’ll take good care of her.” 

“Hmph,” said the saleswoman, which meant, “You’d better, or you’ll feel my wrath.”

“And we’ll ask your advice if we have any questions in the future, whenever we come by to restock our owl treats,” Tom promised.

The heir of Riddle eventually convinced the saleswoman to permit him to buy the owl and accessories for a hundred and twenty-seven galleons, a task that felt more difficult than cheating the antiques dealer out of Slytherin’s locket. The owl was gently encouraged to step into her cage, where she stood on her perch, closed her eyes, and fell asleep. Dobby picked the cage up reverently.

As they were leaving the owl emporium, a family was walking past. The parents and their three children were quite well-dressed, and accessorized with an elf burdened with packages, so Tom paid attention. The youngest child, a boy of perhaps ten, was looking around at everything with the enthusiasm Tom felt but couldn’t express without revealing himself as a rube. Such an expression of wonder was appropriate in a child. Tom felt that way, at least, although the child’s parents evidently didn’t. The mother called back to her dawdling son. “Marius! Come on! We have a lot of errands to get through before your brother and sister go back to Hogwarts. Don’t make me regret allowing you to come.” 

“But look at that owl! She’s magnificent!”

The mother continued to stare resolutely ahead, but her daughter, a girl with a low forehead and a nose that she might eventually grow into, turned to see what had excited her brother, and then shared his enthusiasm. “She really is a magnificent owl, mother.”

This softened the woman’s resolve. She stopped and turned her head to look at Tom’s new owl. “Well. All right, in this case you clearly recognized an owl of quality.”

Tom had never been so delighted with a purchase in his life. “A melanistic morph of an eagle owl,” he explained proudly. “Very rare. Would you like to see her up close?”

The young boy rushed forward. He’d been spared the worst of his sister’s features. His hair and lively eyebrows were black, his skin pale, his eyes wide and grey. “She’s beautiful!”

The grey-haired patriarch of the family came over and laid a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder. “Don’t talk to strangers. You have no idea who they are.”

“That’s easily remedied with an introduction. I’m Tom Riddle.” He smiled and extended his hand to the patriarch, who looked at it as if he were being offered a long-dead fish.

“Riddle isn’t a wizarding name.”

“It is now,” said Tom. “You would do well to remember it.”

“Any more owls like that in the shop?” the patriarch asked.

“No, sorry. She’s the only one like this they had.”

The wizard gave a disbelieving snort and walked into the shop. He walked out again in a moment and gave Tom a steely look with appropriately steel-grey eyes. “An owl like that belongs in a noble and ancient family. How much do you want for it?”

“She’s not for sale.” 

“How much? A hundred galleons?”

Tom laughed. “That’s less than I just paid.”

“Two hundred.”

“As much as I hate to disappoint your son, no, sorry. The Riddles do not need to raise money by selling a pet.”

“Three hundred and that’s my final offer.”

“I’m glad that’s your final offer, since your persistence is tiresome. No. Don’t you have errands to run before school break is over?”

The boy was observing this with very wide eyes. The wizard Tom had refused was seething. The air seemed to grow taut around them, like a bowstring pulled back.

“I don’t need a black owl,” the boy said timidly. “A regular grey or brown owl would be fine.”

“I didn’t want it for you,” said the boy’s father contemptuously. “I thought your brother might find it useful for corresponding with his wife.”

“I can just use a school owl,” said the older brother, who’d been slouching in the background. He looked only  about fifteen.

“But you don’t,” said his mother.

The boy shrugged. “Can we get to the broom shop already?” 

The patriarch seemed torn between winning this confrontation via whatever means necessary, and leaving the whole mess behind him. Tom would make the choice easier for him. “We’re not going to the broom shop today,” he assured the wizard, “so you won’t have to settle for my leavings there. I suggest you hurry along before the broom you want is purchased by someone else.” The wizard was turning purple with rage. “Unless you’d rather stay and chat? I’m in no rush, and am always happy to expand my social circle. A disillusioned photographer from Witch Weekly is following me around today, so here’s your opportunity to be photographed next to the famous Tom Riddle. Soon everyone will know of our friendship, which is bound to burnish your reputation. Smile for the camera.”

The young boy stared up at Tom in awe. His father turned and walked away.

“My name’s Marius,” whispered the boy. “Marius Black.” Then he ran to catch up with his family. 

Tom wondered where Hermione had gone. Ah, there she was. She had taken his son to safety, and was looking at astrolabes in the window of a nearby shop, or, perhaps, at the reflection of Tom and his new friends in the window. He joined her, Dobby at his heels. “I clearly bought the right owl,” he said proudly. “And at quite a reasonable price.”

“You…” She hadn’t thought her sentence out before starting it. “That was very brave,” she finally concluded.

“A man has to stand up for himself.” After a busy morning, Tom was ready for a break. “Lunch at La Truffe Émraude?” he suggested. “I want to see if they’ve adopted your suggestion to feed elves in a separate room. I am concerned about taking Dobby away from the company of his fellow elves to serve me. Allowing him to eat lunch with elves would partially compensate for that loss.” Dobby was looking up hopefully at them.

“Oh!” said Hermione. “That’s very considerate of you.” 

“It’s the least I could do,” said Tom. “Dobby and I have discussed this, and he’s looking forward to showing off his new shirt.” Which was barely distinguishable from a rag to all but the closest observer, but it made a big difference to the elf.

Indeed, the waiter explained the new policy of feeding elves in a separate room, as they were a tripping hazard, thus no longer allowed in the dining room. Now elves would drop their masters’ packages at their masters’ table before going to a back room to be fed. Dobby cheerfully went in the direction he was pointed, and Hermione and Tom sat at their table, admiring their sleeping owl, and the lovely decor and well-dressed patrons. The dining room was made even more lovely by the absence of Malfoys, for after reading the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility , Tom would rather not be in the same room as Mrs. Giselle Malfoy if he could help it.

They looked at their menus. “No diricawl, I know that much,” said Tom. “Anything else you want to avoid? A pity we can’t consult with Dobby, but I don’t want to interrupt his socializing.”

“I think this menu is partly in French so we don’t know what we’re actually ordering,” fretted Hermione. “I mean, I know some muggle French, but that doesn’t help when they’re serving magical creatures.” Her forehead was going to wind up permanently wrinkled if she persisted with that worried expression.

Tom put his menu down. He put his hand on Hermione’s menu and lowered that as well. “We’ll tell the chef to prepare something vegetarian for us,” he said. “Unless you have ethical qualms about magical vegetables as well. That salad seemed pretty lively, but I don’t think it was sentient.”

Hermione smiled, which was a much better look for her in case a disillusioned Witch Weekly photographer had followed them this far and was lurking in this restaurant. “That’s a good idea,” she said. “Thank you.”

The waiter took this order graciously, and the food was delicious, although neither of them knew what most of the dishes were. They finally ordered the chocolate cake they’d seen the Malfoys enjoying two days ago. It was exquisite.

“Have you had enough?” Tom asked. “I know you’re eating for Tommy as well.” He looked like an angel, asleep in her sling.

She shook her head. “I couldn’t eat another bite. Did you want anything else?”

“No. Well, not food anyway. This is going to sound silly, but I was sort of hoping something more exciting would happen on this outing. We’d be attacked and have to defend ourselves. That family at the owl shop seemed promising, but they were actually quite reasonable. I mean, it seems a waste to go out with the national dueling champion of Australia—“

“I never claimed to be the national champion, that could be easily disproven—“

“And not get into a duel.”

Hermione looked at him. She was smiling, but not laughing. “I know what you mean,” she said. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and come across a mugging in progress, rescue the innocent victim from the villains.”

“We can hope.” He paid, and summoned Dobby, who hoisted their packages cheerfully. They set out for Flourish and Blotts.

Every other shop had seemed fairly empty this sleepy January Tuesday, but the book shop was crowded. A sign outside provided the explanation: “Author talk and book signing today at 1 pm. Professor Emerett Picardy will present his book Lupine Lawlessness: Why Lycanthropes Don’t Deserve to Live .”

“That looks interesting,” said Tom. “Lycanthropes? That means—“

“It’s more polite to call them people with lycanthropy,” seethed Hermione. “But most people just call them werewolves.”

Tom looked at Hermione with concern. She seemed to have more than merely an academic interest in this subject. “Shall we attend?” he asked. “I don’t know anything about werewolves.”

“Neither does Professor Picardy,” she said with cold fury.

“Oh.” That was disappointing. “There’s no point listening to him then. We’ll just get our books and go.”

“No, I want to attend his talk,” she said determinedly. “I’ll take a front row seat if I can get it.”

This did not bode well. Tom realized with horror that Hermione had been in the habit of taking a nap every afternoon, to compensate for the sleep deprivation that went with caring for a newborn, yet he had not planned that into today’s schedule. “But if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—“

“He needs to be told that. It’s about time someone did.”

Tom followed Hermione into the bookshop feeling like a condemned man walking to the gallows. Mercifully, there were no front-row seats left. There were no seats left at all, and in fact there was barely any room to stand. It was a distinctive crowd. Many of the attendees had a tough, adventurous look to them, with dragonhide jackets that seemed more suited to bushwhacking through brambles than attending an author’s talk.

Hermione and Tom had arrived late enough that they were stuck near the back of the crowd, and Tom felt no inclination to intimidate the crowd into showing their little party the deference due to the heir of Riddle and his entourage. 

Professor Picardy, a thin, slouching, bald man in his fifties, stood next to a pallet of books. He was speaking in a quavery, high voice. “While in its animal form, the werewolf is almost indistinguishable in appearance from the true wolf, although the snout may be slightly shorter and the pupils smaller (in both cases more ‘human’) and the tail tufted rather than full and bushy. The real difference is in behaviour. Genuine wolves are not very aggressive, and the vast number of folk tales representing them as mindless predators are now believed by wizarding authorities to refer to werewolves, not true wolves. A wolf is unlikely to attack a human except under exceptional circumstances. The werewolf, however, targets humans almost exclusively and poses very little danger to any other creature.”

Hermione was nodding along, apparently finding this information unobjectionable. Tom allowed himself to breathe.

Professor Picardy continued. “When the werewolf is in its human form, again the difference is in behavior. Unlike humans, werewolves have no morals whatsoever, and any impression they may give of kindness or decency is in fact a deception calculated to ingratiate themselves with their victims.”

Hermione’s curls were writhing free of their civilized style. Tom’s instincts told him to run, but instead he stepped closer. The air changed, as if he were entering a storm. “Hermione,” he said quietly. “if we leave now you should have time for a nap before—“

She was paying no attention to Tom. “That’s not true!” she yelled at Professor Picardy, so loudly she hurt Tom’s ears. Tom winced from both physical and social pain, and put more distance between them. This seemed like a good time to search the shelves for an instructional book on pureblood-style calligraphy. He nodded to Dobby, who followed him. It should be obvious to any observer that he had never seen this heckler before in his life. Oh no, what if the disillusioned Witch Weekly photographer had followed them this far? Surely he or she would have taken enough photos already and headed back to the office by now.

Hermione continued her rant. “Lycanthropy does nothing to change the morality of the people infected with it. Society shuns them, so they sometimes resort to desperate measures to survive, but this means they deserve our sympathy, not our censure. Even when faced with terribly oppressive prejudice, some exhibit more morality than many humans I could name. One of the kindest, gentlest, bravest men I ever knew happened to be a werewolf. He died defending children, human children, from a Dark wizard. I can’t let you stand there telling lies about my friend, saying he had no moral sense. That werewolf was a better man than you.”

Everyone, Professor Picardy and the crowd, seemed struck dumb.

“She’s right!” cried a new voice. Tom peered around the bookcase that hid him, and took an instant dislike to the scruffy young man who was contributing to this disturbance. From his scuffed boots to his shaggy, sunstreaked auburn hair, he looked like he should be doing some sort of rural manual labor instead of attending an author’s talk. Surely, those calloused hands should be swinging an ax or something— Tom froze, and ceased his mental tally of the fellow’s faults. His left hand was missing. Tom assured himself that he had developed his dislike of this man before realizing that he was a cripple, and thus could not be faulted for being prejudiced against him for his deformity. Instead, Tom disliked him for perfectly valid reasons. But wait. Why was his hand missing at all? Wasn’t regrowing missing limbs one of the wonders of wizarding medicine that Hermione had listed?

“Half of this crowd could write a better book on werewolves than this,” the young man continued. “We, the bounty hunters, the exterminators, the ones who are out in the field every day fighting Dark creatures, we know what they’re really like. Your Defense classes at Hogwarts taught me nothing. The misinformation you gave me was worse than useless!” The one-handed man seemed to have more than an academic concern about this misinformation. “Have you ever even knowingly met a werewolf?” he scoffed.

“I have examined many werewolves!” said Professor Picardy. “My extensive studies at the Werewolf Research Institute—“

The young man sneered, “You’ve studied them only in captivity, and you think that makes you an expert? The only way to truly understand a species is to study it in its natural habitat.”

“I will not be lectured by a Hogwarts dropout!” screeched Professor Picardy. He looked around. “Isn’t there any security at this shop? Remove this man.”

“Security should remove this pretender who knows nothing about werewolves!” shouted the one-handed man. “I bet you wouldn’t even recognize a werewolf if there were one in this shop right now.” 

Someone in the crowd screamed. “Werewolf! He said there’s a real werewolf right here in the shop!”

“I didn’t say there is a werewolf, I just said that if there were one here, or more than one I suppose, this fraud wouldn’t be able to identity—“

“Don’t cause a panic!” shouted Professor Picardy. He drew his wand and pointed it at the one-handed man. “ Silencio !”

The one-handed man rushed to draw his own wand as Professor Picardy cast the spell, but didn’t manage in time. Nonetheless, he was surrounded by a faceted iridescent crystal which deflected the professor’s spell. It ricocheted off the crystal to hit a tall bookcase, which toppled, hitting the bookcase behind it, which also toppled, until the whole row of them fell like dominoes. The crowd moved in a panicked herd away from the disaster, which meant they charged Professor Picardy en mass.

The professor stood there frozen for a moment, staring at this mob, then dived behind the pallet of new books he’d planned to autograph.

“Where’s the professor?” someone called.

“The werewolves must have got him!” called someone else. 

The screams that followed this were difficult to understand as words, but Tom managed to decipher a few:

“Help! Werewolves!”

“They’ll kill us all!”

“You think that’s bad, you know what they do to women!” This was from a dumpy, middle-aged witch. “There’s a whole shelf of books all about it over there!“ Tom looked, and saw a display of books with lurid covers of muscular werewolves ripping the robes off beautiful witches and occasionally sinking fangs into their creamy flesh. The victims expressed their feelings about this with parted lips and heaving bosoms. Tom looked away, feeling like his eyes were dirty.

“No, I’ll save you! I’m an expert werewolf hunter!” This declaration was made by a young wizard in a black dragonskin jacket, who then proceeded to shoot flashy spells seemingly at random around the shop. 

“No, I’ll save you!” shouted another of his type, this time at a young woman with light-brown hair who was not calling for help at all, but instead attempting to creep out of the riot discreetly. “Even if there’s a whole pack of ferocious feral werewolves hell-bent on eating every human here, I’ll kill them all!” The woman cast an unappreciative side-eye in his direction. 

The one-handed man was looking around in confusion, no doubt for the source of the shield that had deflected the professor’s spell, but Tom recognized that spell. Hermione, wand drawn, had taken a defensive position, sheltered behind a jumble of fallen bookcases. She seemed to be in her element. She took a moment to smile down at Tommy in her sling. Watch and learn, she was undoubtedly saying. Tom was starting to question whether she was a wholesome influence on his son.

“You can’t silence the truth!” yelled the one-handed man, whose wand was now drawn. The professor peeked out from behind his books and shot another spell at him, but he dodged and ran, sheltering, as luck would have it, behind the section of books on improving one’s penmanship that was also sheltering Tom.

This formerly peaceful section of the bookshop was worsening quickly. Tom’s instinct was to flee, but the rest of the bookshop seemed even worse. Panicked witches and wizards were running, falling, trampling each other, knocking over bookcases, and shooting presumably anti-werewolf spells in all directions. The more adventurous members of the audience were attempting to outdo each other with their werewolf-hunting prowess, so the air was thick with spells, curses, and business cards. The one-handed man surveyed the chaos and grinned.

Then he seemed to notice that he wasn’t alone. He and Tom eyed each other warily. Tom realized that he had, at some point, drawn his wand from his sleeve, and was gripping it as if he knew what to do with it. His gaze flicked to Dobby, who was cowering behind Tom’s robes, as instructed, but the best way to fight was not to. “I’m on your side,” Tom assured the one-handed man. “I’m no friend of that fraud professor.”

Tom didn’t feel that this had been one of his more convincing lies, but it was believable enough for this audience, as the one-handed man nodded and put his finger to his lips in the universal sign for “hush.” Then he scampered up the bookcase like a squirrel. From that perch, he had a clear shot at the pallet of, presumably, badly written new books about werewolves. He pointed his wand at it.

Tom had lost sight of Hermione, but now she reappeared, zooming over the riot on a broom, hair flying behind her like the tail of a meteor. Little Tommy in her sling looked around wide-eyed. And she’d scorned his Bentley as too dangerous a vehicle for a child! She landed next to the one-handed man on top of the bookcase. “What are you doing?” she asked with cheerful enthusiasm.

“Trying to transfigure his books to snakes, like the snake who wrote them,” he answered. “Just think, they’ll slither away, and then by the time my transfiguration wears off, his books will be in shreds. I figured that was better than just setting them on fire, in a bookshop.”

“Now now, we don’t want this panic to get worse,” she said. “And don’t bother. I already turned all the letters to ants.” With her wand, she drew a lens in the air for him to peer through. “See? They're crawling out from between the pages now. He’ll never get them back in the right order. And see him scratching himself as they crawl up his legs?”

“Brilliant!” said the one-handed man. Then he turned his admiring gaze to her. “Who are you?”

“I’ll explain later. Let’s get out of here. Can you apparate?” 

He shook his shaggy head. “I never had lessons.”

Hermione grabbed the one-handed man’s arm. “Dobby and Tom, we’ll see you back at the house!” she called down cheerfully. With a loud crack, she, his son, and the one-handed stranger were gone.

She’d abandoned him, a muggle alone in the middle of a wizarding riot. Not quite alone. “Dobby!”

“Yes Master?”

“Can you get us out of here?”

“Of course, Master.” He reached a large hand up to Tom, who grasped it in his own. Tom barely had time to register the strange feel of the elf’s hand, like wood, before he was whirling through emptiness, and then trying to find his footing in Hermione’s room. Perhaps the elf was better at apparition than Hermione was, or Tom was becoming inured to it, as the room seemed to stop spinning reasonably quickly.

“Miss Granger!” Dobby cried.

“I know,” said Hermione.

“The alarm! The wards!”

“Yes. Now we know they work. I’ll turn them off.” She waved her wand. Nothing happened, as far as Tom could tell.

“But the Dark magic detector—“

“Yes.”

“—says a Dark creature has entered the house!”

“That’s all right, Dobby,” said Hermione, as she offered some milk to Tommy, who did not enjoy apparition. “I already suspected he’s a werewolf.” She turned her smile to the one-handed man, who had blanched under his tan at the word “werewolf.” “Can you stay for a while? We have much to discuss.”

Chapter Text

Hermione stuffed the broom into her beaded bag.

“Wait, what model of broom is that?” asked the one-handed man, one-handed werewolf rather.

“It was custom-made,” Hermione said dismissively as she closed her bag. “Do you have time to talk? Sorry to pull you away from that bookshop so abruptly.”

“I accomplished what I meant to accomplish,” he said. “With your help of course. And sure, I have time to talk. I didn’t make any other plans for today. I assumed there was a good chance I’d spend this afternoon in prison, or worse.” 

Hermione nodded as if that were a reasonable sentence to include in a conversation. “Would you like some tea?”

“I don’t want to impose.”

This was a cheering statement, but Hermione ruined it by saying, “Oh don’t be ridiculous, you’re no imposition at all. Any particular food preferences or restrictions we should know about? Are you a vegetarian or anything?”

Tom thought it unlikely that their visitor was a vegetarian, and was proven right when the werewolf said, “Oh, anything would be fine. I’m not picky.”

“Dobby, please prepare tea and snacks for our guest and serve it in…” She turned to Tom. “There are a ridiculous number of rooms in this house. Where should we entertain our guest?”

While the shed out back seemed most suitable, Tom didn’t think that Hermione would agree. “The solarium?” he suggested, as that room most closely resembled the outdoors.

“Right,” said Hermione, turning to Dobby. “Tea in the solarium.”

Dobby popped away before Tom had time to veto this order.

“This way,” said Hermione, so Tom and the werewolf followed her through the halls.

“I should tell my parents we have a guest,” said Tom. “We’ll join you shortly.” He left the magical portion of the party and found his parents talking in the drawing room.

“What’s wrong?” his mother asked.

“Hermione made a new friend at a book signing this afternoon, and has invited him here for tea.”

“A wizard?” said his father, delighted.

“A werewolf.”

His mother was so skilled at concealing her emotions, there was no way to tell how she felt about this, but his father was expressive enough for both of them, running through almost every expression except boredom. “A werewolf? Well. I suppose that in the wizarding world, all sorts of strange folk are accepted as a matter of course. What other species are part of this society? If we go to the seashore, will Hermione introduce us to some mermaids? Are the stages of wizarding opera houses graced by sirens?”

“I don’t know about that, but I can say with confidence that werewolves are not accepted members of wizarding society. In fact, the mere rumor that a werewolf might be loose in the bookshop was enough to incite a panic. The security system that Hermione and Dobby set up in this house was immediately triggered by the arrival of a Dark creature when we apparated in, but Hermione didn’t seem at all surprised.”

“What? Then why did she invite him here?”

“Only she can explain her reasoning. They’re in the solarium now.”

Tom’s mother clung to his father as they walked to the solarium, which gave his father even more confidence, which increased Tom’s sense of dread.

They found the witch and the werewolf animatedly discussing the riot, with big grins and gestures. “Oh, hello,” said Hermione when they came in. “We haven’t even done introductions yet.” She turned back to the werewolf. “I’m Hermione Granger. This little darling is Tommy Riddle.”

“He’s a dear little snuggle bunny,” corrected Tom’s mother, taking her grandson in her arms. 

“That’s Tommy’s father, Tom Riddle,” Hermione continued. “These are Tom’s parents, Squire Thomas Riddle and Mrs. Mary Riddle. Squire Riddle was a friend of my father, so he invited me to stay at the Riddle House when my father died. I’m taking care of Tommy because his mother died in childbirth, poor thing. Taking care of other people is the best distraction from one’s own troubles.”

“Oh!” The werewolf looked back and forth at Tom and Hermione, processing this information. “My condolences for your loss, Mr. Riddle.”

Tom nodded to acknowledge this sympathy. “Thank you.”

The werewolf looked at Hermione again. “So you two aren’t, that is to say, together?”

“My wife just died four days ago,” said Tom irritably. And he was in love with someone else entirely, but that was beside the point.

“Sorry I didn’t realize earlier that you were in mourning,” the werewolf said.

“I’m trying to stay cheerful for my son’s sake,” said Tom. “It wouldn’t be right for him to begin life in the atmosphere of a funeral parlor.”

“I see what you mean.” The werewolf looked around at the bright and cheery Christmas decorations. “Yule decorations are a welcoming sight for new eyes. Anyway, I’m very pleased to meet you,” he said, shaking the hands of the men with more strength than Tom thought was necessary. When he reached for Hermione’s hand, he seemed startled that she shook his hand back. Tom’s mother offered her hand for the werewolf to kiss, which he did, bowing low with practiced ease. Hermione looked embarrassed, as she should.

“I’m Ignis McKinnon, exterminator, specializing in Dark creatures. Please call me Ignis.” He pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to Hermione. She read it and put it in her pocket. When the werewolf handed one to Tom, he had to accept it as well. The printing quality wasn’t very good. It gave an address in Orncrag, Cumberland, and listed his Floo-Call address as McKinnon Pest Control. Tom put the card in the section of his wallet designed for such.

His mother accepted one graciously, and his father took one with enthusiasm. “Thank you. What sorts of Dark creatures do you deal with?” Tom’s father asked.

“Boggarts, doxies, hinkypunks, trolls, werewolves, whatever magical pest is bothering you, I’ll relocate or kill it.” Ignis smiled. “You might not need my services, as your house has an exceptionally good security system. I assume your son has told you already why I have a particular insight into Dark creatures.”

Tom’s father nodded. “It must give you an advantage in your work. A pity you can’t list this qualification in your advertisements. I’ll think of you first whenever I need a Dark creature put out of my misery.”

“Thank you,” said the werewolf. “I’d be glad of your business. Of course werewolves are in the ‘relocate’ category rather than ‘kill.’ They’re always thankful to get a warning that they’ve been found out, and grateful for an opportunity to escape. I split the profit with them if they go quietly. It’s a pretty good job for someone with my condition, being my own boss. I set my own hours. When someone tries to hire me to work around the full moon, I just say that I’m already booked that day. And the injuries I acquire every full moon are easily explained as normal consequences of my profession.”

“Brilliant!” said Hermione. “The werewolf I knew had so much trouble keeping a job, but you’ve found a way around that.”

“I probably would have found some way to be my own boss anyway,” he said. “I never liked doing what I was told. But who’s this werewolf friend of yours?”

Hermione took a deep breath. “One of my teachers. In Australia. A small school, you wouldn’t have heard of it.” Hogwarts, Tom filled in. “He was by far the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher we had, and one of the best professors overall.”

“What?” exclaimed Ignis. “How was a werewolf allowed near children?”

“He concealed his condition very well, and the other professors didn’t tell anyone. They just said he was ill sometimes, and filled in for him as necessary.”

Ignis shook his head in disbelief. “I didn’t know Australians were so tolerant of—“

“They’re not, in general,” Hermione said sadly. “His condition eventually became more widely known. He resigned and left quickly, before angry letters from parents could arrive. I did manage to get some tutoring from him afterwards, fortunately. He was an absolutely brilliant duelist. He taught me much of what I know.”

“Was?” asked Tom’s father. 

Hermione was clearly troubled by the memory. “He came to the school’s defense when it was attacked by a Dark wizard and his followers.” Tommy will have followers? thought Tom proudly. Or was this a different wizard? How many Dark wizards were there, anyway? “He died defending his former students. I couldn’t let Picardy insult such a hero.”

“So this school, in Australia,” said Ignis excitedly, “are they still open to werewolves? I don’t mean to teach, I mean for students, as long as they’re discrete about their condition?”

That was the flaw in Hermione’s cover story, that someone might actually go to Australia to check. How would she get out of this one? Tom sat back to enjoy the show.

“No,” she said sadly. “There’s been a complete turnover in staff since then. The school is run very differently now. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.” Well done, Hermione, thought Tom.

“Ah,” said Ignis, deflating.

Dobby appeared with a pop and a large tray of tea and snacks. Once tea formalities were out of the way, Ignis once again complimented Hermione. “He taught you well. That shield spell was absolutely brilliant. How did you do that? Could you teach me?”

Hermione glowed. Tom glowered. This werewolf was better at flattery than he was. “Sure, I’m happy to teach you.” She set her tea down and did so, incantation, wand movement, and, most importantly, intent. She seemed to feel that Ignis was a quick study. Tom and his parents were glad to be spectators in this magic lesson. “And now to test it.”

“Not in the house!” exclaimed Tom. “I won’t have spells ricocheting around in here. Take this lesson outside.”

They did. Little Hangleton was colder than London. Tom and his father went along to watch, while his mother chose to sit with Tommy on her lap, by a window of the drawing room, which overlooked the backyard. The gazebo in the backyard made a pleasant spot for Tom and his father to sit. Hermione quickly inscribed some runes on the pillars of the gazebo. “Thank you,” said Tom. “And the house?”

“Dobby and I already warded the house.”

“Very good,” said his father. “Now let’s see these spells in action.

Ignis gave the impression, initially at least, of someone who was proud of his dueling skills, which made his humiliation especially fun to watch. Hermione did the Riddle House proud. She taught spells, both for defense and offense, then had Ignis incorporate them into duels. The air rippled with reality-bending power as spells shot back and forth. Some of the spells glowed like fireworks in the fading light of a short winter’s day. Their yard suffered the most, as soon there were craters in the lawn, a tree trunk was oozing from throbbing yellow pustules, and one of their shrubs had melted.

Ignis moved like an athlete, quick and strong, dodging and blocking spells and firing back with all his might. He was breathing hard, his breath forming white clouds in the cold air. He called for a break to take off his jacket, slinging it over the railing of the gazebo. “Sorry I’m not putting on a better show for you,” he remarked to the Riddles. “But she’s dueling well enough for the two of us, so I hope that suffices.” He then resumed the game.

Hermione, on the other hand, was smiling indulgently at Ignis as she thoroughly trounced him with the barest flicks of her wand. Ignis’s shield held firm, at least when Hermione didn’t, for example, point her wand at the ground by his feet and say, “ Terraemotus ,” causing a localized earthquake to open a fissure, into which he, shield and all, plummeted out of sight. He reappeared, shieldless, scrambling out of the chasm an instant before it slammed back shut. Once he was safely above ground, Hermione shot a wordless spell at him before he had time to get his shield back up. “You almost got it!” she said encouragingly after her blast hit him in the face, knocking him off his feet and back a few yards, to lie on the frozen ground. He didn’t get up. “Are you all right?”

“Just a broken nose. I’ll fix it.” Ignis pointed his wand at his face and said “ Episkey. Scourgify ” cleaned up the blood. “ Meloflors !” he then cried, wand directed at Hermione, but she was too quick for him. Her shield bounced the spell directly back at him, turning his head into a large orange pumpkin.

Tom laughed. His father joined him, his laugher deeper and even louder.

A muffled complaint that sounded like “Merlin’s balls,” came from inside the pumpkin. 

“That’s a cute jinx,” said Hermione. “I’d forgotten about that one.”

Ignis lifted his heavy pumpkin head off the ground, then slammed it back down again, smashing it to reveal his human head, now covered in pumpkin innards. “ Scourgify .” That cleared most of the orange goo. The rest slowly faded from existence, along with the broken pieces of pumpkin on the ground. Ignis looked about as powerful and impressive as a smashed pumpkin himself. “Thank you very much for the lesson. I think that’s all I can learn today.”

Hermione reached a hand down to help him up. “You did very well.”

Ignis shook his head as he staggered to his feet. “There’s considerable room for improvement.”

“In all of us,” she said, as she cleaned the worst of the dirt and blood off him with her wand. 

“Speaking of room for improvement,” said Tom’s father, stepping out of the gazebo and looking around pointedly at the damage, apparent even in the gloom of a winter’s evening, “I hope you children intend to clean up after yourselves.”

“Of course, Squire Riddle.” Hermione set about putting things to rights, with some assistance from the exhausted Ignis.

“Remember to remove the tentacles from that birdbath,” Tom’s father said. Hermione shot a spell to immobilize it as it slithered across the yard in pursuit of a sparrow, then restored it to its former condition and location.

Dobby appeared with a pop. “Miss Granger, Mrs. Riddle says young Master Riddle requests your presence.”

“Oh! Thank you, Dobby.” She rushed back inside.

Ignis sighed at the mess. “I’m very sorry, but I think I’ll need help with this. That duel took a lot out of me.”

“Of course,” said Tom’s father. “Dobby, fix this mess. Ignis, you deserve a break after putting on a show like that. Come inside.”

They all went inside to the drawing room, joining Tom’s mother and Hermione, who was feeding Tommy. The windows now showed a view of Dobby repairing the backyard.

“Thank you for the fascinating exhibition,” said Tom’s mother.

“Just thank Hermione,” said Ignis as he collapsed into a chair. “She was the fascinating one. My part could have been played by a flobberworm.” 

Tom’s mother laughed daintily at the joke, although she must have no more idea what a flobberworm was than Tom.

“You did very well,” said Hermione. “It’s hard to incorporate a new spell into one’s dueling repertoire so soon after learning it. I’m sure you’ll do better the next time we duel.”

“The next time?” he repeated, surprised.

“Only if you want to,” she said awkwardly.

“I’d be honored,” he said. “I’m just surprised you’d waste time on me. I have so much to learn from you, but what do you get out of it?”

“I like teaching,” she said. “And it’s terribly unfair that Hogwarts doesn’t admit werewolves. I’m glad to help.”

Tom looked at the clock. Ignis didn’t seem to have the energy to get out of his chair. It was getting so late, there was no way to avoid it. “We dine at six,” Tom said. “You are of course welcome to join us. I dare say you worked up an appetite after that duel.” 

“Thank you very much for your hospitality. I mean, to be invited to dinner by witches and wizards who know what I am, and don’t shun me for it…” The werewolf was quite overwhelmed, as was Tom, although with a different emotion.

“There’s no such bigotry here,” said Hermione. “The Riddles were kind enough to invite me, a muggleborn, into their home, so inviting a werewolf isn’t very different.”

Did she have to admit that she was muggleborn? In a story woven of so many lies, what difference would one more make? Surely life would be easier for her if she could pass as a halfblood at least. 

Hermione’s confession of her lowly blood status had a great impact on Ignis, who was having an emotional time already. 

“A… I’m sorry, what? I thought I heard you say…”

“Muggleborn,” said Hermione, steel in her voice.

“But you’re such a powerful witch,” said Ignis, bewildered.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” challenged Hermione.

“Well. Um. No reason.”

“I’ll tell the cook we’ll have a guest for dinner,” said his mother, standing and opening the door. She stood in the doorway for a moment. “Do I hear hooting?” 

“Tom’s new owl!” exclaimed Hermione. “We left her in my room.” She stood, Tommy still at her breast. “She must be waking up for the night.” 

Tom excused himself to tend to his owl, glad that Hermione accompanied him without being asked, as he didn’t know what care an owl needed. Their departure, he realized, left his father alone with a werewolf. While Tom had taken an instant dislike to the werewolf, the thought of leaving him alone with his father did engender some twinges of pity. Would the werewolf be all right in their absence? As he closed the door behind him, he heard his father’s deep chortling. Oh no.

Tom thought fast. He opened the door again. “Ignis, would you like to come along to see my new owl? She’s a beauty.”

Ignis waved him away. “Thank you, perhaps another time. For now I just want to rest.”

No chance of that, but at least Tom had tried. He and Hermione followed the hooting to her room. 

Tom’s new owl had opened her fiery eyes and was attempting to stretch, which wasn’t possible in her small cage, so Tom let her out. She extended her magnificent black wings.

“Welcome to your new home,” said Hermione. “This is the Riddle House, in Little Hangleton, Yorkshire.” The owl paid close attention.

“Can she understand us?” asked Tom.

“Oh yes,” said Hermione.

Tom addressed his owl. “Would you like an owl treat?”

Even though it was a physical impossibility for owls to roll their eyes, she expressed her opinion of this question perfectly well without this ability. Had she known she was being purchased by an idiot, she might have put up more of a fuss at the shop. Of course she wanted an owl treat.

Tom’s prompt delivery of said treat improved her evaluation of him somewhat. After that incident with Malfoy’s owl, Tom had resolved to always have owl treats handy in his wallet. “Would you like another?” he asked. “Or perhaps some meat from the kitchen? Or would you prefer to see what hunting the grounds have to offer?”

The third suggestion clearly appealed to her most. She looked at the window, then looked at Tom pointedly. He opened the window for her. She flew out, tucking her wings to fit through the window frame, then extending them to flap in the cold air. Tom closed the window.

“She will be back, right?” Tom asked Hermione. “Or did I just let all those galleons fly out the window?”

“She’ll be back in the morning,” laughed Hermione. “Owls are proud, but also very loyal.”

“Thank you.” Tom hurried back to the drawing room, Hermione at his heels.

His mother was back, so the werewolf hadn’t been alone with his father for the entire time. His father was, however, chortling, so Tom had to assume the worst.

“How is your owl?” asked his mother.

“She seems happy enough,” answered Tom. “I let her out to hunt for the night. So. What did we miss?”

“I’ve just been telling Ignis about young Hermione’s first bouts of accidental magic,” said his father.

“What?” said Hermione.

“Oh yes, your father told me all about it at the time. Hermione’s father may have been a muggle, but he was a good friend,” Tom’s father explained to Ignis. “When I explained the significance of these seemingly impossible incidents around little Hermione, he was quite shocked. Muggles have no idea how to cope with a young witch in the family. It’s a good thing I could offer some guidance. Tom, Hermione, don’t worry, you didn’t miss it all. There’s more to tell.”

Hermione was turning pink, which fit the putative situation perfectly.

“One day,” his father continued gleefully, “when the Granger family was in Sydney, Hermione’s nursemaid took her to a park. Of course, she had dressed her charge in clothes befitting a child of her station, which Hermione wasn’t happy about, the weather in Australia being beastly hot. So do you know what little Hermione did?”

“Squire Riddle, he doesn’t need to hear—“ interrupted Hermione.

“Of course he does, it’s an entertaining story. Imagine the nursemaid’s embarrassment when she found that little Hermione’s clothes had vanished completely!” 

Hermione covered her face in her hands as the room filled with laughter. “I was only two,” she said. “Toddlers do things like that.”

“Your nursemaid gave you quite a scolding, and demanded to know where you’d hidden your clothes,” continued Tom’s father. “She was adamant that all proper ladies must wear clothes, and presented herself as an example. She wore clothes, so you had to as well.” He smiled. “So you vanished all the clothes right off her. You always were a logical child.”

Hermione turned even pinker as everyone laughed.

“Oh Thomas,” Tom’s mother sighed. “There’s no need to embarrass the girl.”

“There’s nothing embarrassing about a young witch’s accidental magic,” insisted his father. “Especially a witch as powerful as this one. Magic’s something to be proud of, isn’t it? Anyway, the sudden disappearance of her nursemaid’s clothes was, shall we say, surprising to the other nursemaids and children gathered in the park that day. The obliviators had a lot to do. Even after they’d set things to rights as best they could, the nursemaid quit. The Grangers had the hardest time keeping a nursemaid in their employ. They never lasted long. Perhaps that’s why she grew up so wild.”

“I still don’t see why people wear uncomfortable clothes,” said Hermione. “But I don’t just vanish them now.”

“Maturity for which we are grateful. As for young Tom’s accidental magic,” his father continued, fixing his twinkling dark eyes on him. 

“Father—“

“Would you rather tell it yourself?” his father asked politely. “Don’t leave out any of the good bits, or I’ll have to fill them in.”

“Yes,” said Tom. “I think I would.”

His father nodded and sat back in his chair to listen.

“Unlike Hermione,” Tom began, “I always appreciated quality clothing. I remember being so proud of my new suit one Easter, my attention was all taken up in admiring my clothes, so I had none left to look where I was going. I fell in a mud puddle.” All true, so far. The tragedy still ached. If he’d had magical powers, however: “I was so upset, I made all the mud on my clothes vanish, so I looked as good as ever.”

“And you still pay more attention to your appearance than to your surroundings,” said Hermione. 

“I’m sorry, did someone say something?” said Tom. “I was too busy admiring my new emerald cufflinks to notice.”

That went over well, judging from the laughter.

“That wasn’t one of the better stories,” grumbled his father. “Insufficiently embarrassing.”

“You think that’s not embarrassing, wasting magic on a frivolous thing like that?” said Hermione. “You Riddles are shameless.”

“They are nice cufflinks,” laughed Ignis. “I’ll try to resist succumbing to their hypnotic sparkle, as it must be my turn to tell a story by now.” 

“Indeed,” said Tom’s father.

“Well. Only my family knows about this one, as fortunately I wasn’t found out. You've seen those traveling carnival freak shows?”

“No,” said Hermione disapprovingly. Was she fishing for more details from Ignis for the Riddles’ sakes? But her tone implied she wouldn’t be welcoming of more details.

Ignis seemed knocked off his stride.

Tom’s father came to his rescue. “I have,” he said. “Bearded ladies and such. Great fun.”

Now Ignis looked confused. “Bearded ladies?”  With a sudden gleam in his eye, he drew his wand, pointed it at Hermione, and cast “ Barba !” Hermione immediately grew a beard as curly and wild as the rest of her hair. “Got you!”

Hermione laughed through her beard. “ Finite Incantatem .” Her face was visible and smooth once more. “Good shot. I think Ignis is talking about magical carnivals, Squire Riddle, not the muggle kind. The muggle kind wouldn’t interest a wizard.” 

“That's not true,” objected his father. “Have you seen a muggle ‘magician’ with his sleight-of-hand tricks? It can be fascinating to try to figure out how they do it without magic. And wizard or muggle, any red-blooded man would enjoy the sight of those acrobatic ladies in their leotards and tights. And muggles can perform many impressive feats of skill. I saw a sharpshooter look in a compact mirror to aim a pistol over her shoulder and shoot the ashes off a volunteer’s cigarette.”

Tom’s mother lifted an eyebrow at her husband. “Are you practicing for a new career as a carnival barker?” 

He glanced at her, then looked back to Ignis.  “But I believe you were talking about a magical carnival.”

“Yes,” he said. “I didn’t know muggles had carnivals too. Anyway, my family went to one. I don’t remember how old I was. I must have been very young. This carnival barker made a big deal of this ferocious beast they had, a snake that could disguise itself as a beautiful woman to entice its human prey. We were just in time for its weekly feeding. It would look like a woman, then reveal itself as a snake to swallow a sheep whole.”

Ignis was holding his audience’s attention. “So we paid and went into the tent where indeed, there was a beautiful woman pacing in a large, sturdy-looking cage, looking yearningly through the bars at the audience members. After the barker talked quite a lot about how dangerous and deceptive this beast was, all while this woman was feebly pulling at the bars of her cage, I’d had enough. You see, I didn’t believe the barker. I thought he’d just trapped a woman in that cage. I was so angry at the injustice of it, I glared at the cage, and the next thing I knew, it had shattered.”

“So you’ve been starting riots since you were a boy,” said Tom, imagining the scene.

“I suppose,” said Ignis. “As with today’s riot, part of the problem was people trampling each other as they tried to escape, and part was people trying to be heroic by shooting spells at this monster, now free from her cage. She ran backstage pretty fast, though. She wasn’t hurt, thank Merlin. The sheep panicked and was running all over the place, though.”

“Poor sheep,” said Hermione. Of course she would think of the sheep. She’d invite one to tea tomorrow and give it a dueling lesson.

“And then there were people like my dad,” continued Ignis, “who wanted to know why this supposedly dangerous beast had run instead of attacking humans, advertised as her natural and preferred prey, as soon as she was free of her cage.”

“That’s exactly what I would have done,” said Tom’s father. “Did he get his money back?”

“Well, the barker tried to put on the show anyway, once the sheep was caught. He even offered to put the cage back together, but the audience weren’t interested. He did convince the woman to come out from backstage, and she apologized for the shattering cage. She’d paid to have it built herself, you see, for her show, and I’d shattered it so thoroughly, and then the pieces had got trampled, and probably many of them got taken as souvenirs, so it might not be repairable, so she was out rather a lot of money. She said she would understand if we wanted refunds, but she’d really rather we didn’t insist on them since this was her only source of income. She did transform into an enormous snake and swallowed the sheep whole, but she was obviously just an animagus, not a dangerous beast, so the audience weren’t impressed.”

“Animagi are rare,” said Hermione. “I believe I’ve met only three, that I’ve seen transform.”

“Rare, yes,” said Ignis. “Freakish exotic beasts, no. But I felt sorry for causing so much trouble, so I took my parents aside and told them it had been my fault, and that I didn’t want a refund. My mother said I’d meant well, and my father said I’d been right that she wasn’t really a dangerous beast, so they weren’t angry. My brother was impressed. I think they were proud my magic had had such a powerful effect. They didn’t demand refunds either.”

“You did get an exciting show for it, even if it wasn’t the one advertised,” said Tom’s father.

Fiona knocked, then opened the door and announced “Dinner is served.”

“Oh, you have human servants as well?” said Ignis as she was leaving.

Fiona froze, then hurried out with renewed speed. 

“Yes,” said Tom’s father, standing, then assisting his wife to her feet and escorting her into the dining room. “I do a lot of business with muggles, so this has to pass as a muggle house, for entertaining business associates. Before you arrived, we had a muggle guest at lunch, which explains our strange attire.”

“Business with muggles?” exclaimed Ignis, following. “But the Statute—“

Tom took Hermione’s arm to escort her into the dining room as well, which was a more formal way to process in to dinner than was usual at the Riddle House, but they did have a guest. Also, Tom was concerned that Ignis might attempt to escort Hermione in to dinner himself. Hermione blinked at him, but didn’t protest.

“I always honor the Statute of Secrecy,” huffed Tom’s father. “My muggle business associates never have the slightest suspicion that I am anything more than a fellow muggle.”

Ignis was still confused. “But… Why associate with muggles at all?”

“That’s where the money is,” said Tom’s father, pulling out his mother’s chair for her. “The muggle economy is so much bigger than the wizarding, there are more opportunities in it. The goblins at Gringotts exchange pounds for real money easily enough.”

Ignis nodded to concede this point.

Tom pulled out Hermione’s chair, which earned him a confused look, but she sat without complaint. Once the ladies were seated, the gentlemen sat, and they had their soup.

“That soup was perfect for this cold day,” said Ignis as Fiona cleared away the empty bowls. “Is your cook human as well?”

Tom was concerned that Fiona would drop a soup bowl, but no. She served the next course silently and left.

“Yes,” said Tom’s mother. “Hester’s been with us for years.”

“She’s very good. Sorry, it’s a bit awkward, but…” Ignis drew his wand and pointed it at his food. “ Diffindo .” His food was now neatly cut. He sheathed his wand and picked up his fork. “At least I still have my wand hand.”

“You seem to manage quite well,” said his mother.

“Well, it’s been three years,” Ignis said.

“What happened?” asked Hermione, heedless of the look his mother gave her. 

Tom took the precaution of ceasing to eat.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Ignis said ruefully. “For my first transformation, I knew I didn’t want to get loose in my wolf form, but I didn’t really know how to do containment spells yet, so I bound my left wrist with a steel shackle.” He paused.

“And then after you transformed, you gnawed your own paw off to get free,” completed Hermione. She drew her wand and pointed it at her food as Ignis had done. “ Diffindo . That’s very convenient when I’m holding a baby; I can cut my meat one-handed. Thanks for the idea.” She ate.

Ignis nodded and continued his story. “Fortunately I passed out from blood loss before I got very far, so no humans were hurt. My howls attracted a feral werewolf pack, who healed me once we all regained our human forms in the morning.”

“They didn’t do a very good job,” observed his father.

“There’s no undoing the damage caused by Dark magic,” explained Hermione. “Werewolves are Dark creatures. You can’t just regrow the hand as if it were taken off by a hippogriff bite or something.” 

“You slept through that lesson in Defense class, did you?” laughed Ignis. “Most of what they teach about werewolves in school is bunk anyway. You didn’t miss much. It makes me wonder what other nonsense I was taught.”

“I always suspected my teachers were idiots,” said Tom’s father agreeably. “If they were so smart, what were they doing teaching, eh? Why weren’t they rich?”

“There are much more important goals than wealth,” objected Hermione.

“Thank you Miss Obvious,” teased his father. “Family, for one. And what’s the use of wealth if a man can’t marry the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen?” He lifted his wineglass to his wife, who blushed prettily.

“Oh Thomas,” she smiled. “I believe we were discussing teaching.” 

“Teaching is an important profession,” continued Hermione. “I’ll admit that not all teachers are qualified for the job. That Professor Picardy should really be in a different line of work.”

“I always hated Picardy’s Defense class,” said Ignis. “It didn’t make any sense to learn about these exciting topics from dusty old books and a dusty old professor. So whenever I could, I’d learn on my own, seeking out Dark creatures…” His voice faltered. “That may not have been the best way to go about it either.”

Hermione patted his remaining hand. “You stayed true to yourself. Let’s see, driven to learn the truth, and very brave while doing it. Ravenclaw or Gryffindor?” 

Ignis laughed. “Both excellent guesses. I was almost a hatstall, but it eventually went with Gryffindor.” He looked at her. “I suspect the Sorting Hat would have put you in Gryffindor had you gone to Hogwarts.”

“Thank you,” she said, beaming.

“While I would have enjoyed your company had you attended Hogwarts, I can’t begrudge you your opportunity to learn from a Defense professor so much better than mine. I’m glad you’re here now. Humans who would invite a werewolf to dine with them are really in the minority here in Britain.” And at this table in particular, thought Tom. Actually he might be wrong about that. His father seemed to be siding with Hermione, and his mother was unreadable as usual. The werewolf turned to Tom. “Slytherin, right?”

“Excuse me?” said Tom.

“I’m pretty sure I remember you from school. Of course, Gryffindors associate with Slytherins as little as possible. I never thought I’d sit down to dinner with a Slytherin, but beggars can’t be choosers, eh? You must have been a year or two ahead of me, class of ‘22 or ‘23? I got bitten when I was sixteen, so I skipped my final year, but there would still be some overlap.” 

“I didn’t attend Hogwarts at all. I was home educated.” Both those sentences were perfectly true. 

“Really? I could swear I saw you lurking around the dungeons. You’ve got that Slytherin look about you, anyway. No offense intended.”

“None taken.” This wasn’t a person to impress with Tommy’s status as heir of Slytherin. This wasn’t a person worth impressing at all. In fact, he probably didn’t even legally count as a person. What was he doing here?

“So you didn’t complete your schooling? You never took apparition lessons?” asked Hermione.

Ignis shook his head. “Bitten over summer holiday, just before my seventeenth birthday, so I had to drop out before my last year of school. I thought of studying apparition on my own as I study other subjects, but I can’t afford to lose any more limbs, and I’m afraid that if show up at St. Mungo’s carrying a detached leg, they’ll send me straight to the Werewolf Research Institute rather than reattach it. The feral werewolves told me some horror stories.”

“But apparition is such a necessary skill…” Hermione looked resolved. “I’ll give you lessons. I’m a pretty good field medic. Something straightforward like reattaching a splinched limb is easy enough. I’ve done it before, so you have nothing to worry about practicing under my supervision.”

Ignis’s blue-green eyes were wide, not by Dobby’s standards of course. “Really? That’s… That would be wonderful! How could I ever repay you?”

Hermione took a deep breath. “I have a proposition for you. Now, I don’t want you to feel obligated to do this. My apparition lesson offer still stands, no strings attached. But I need a werewolf test subject to drink a potentially dangerous potion.”

Ignis’s enthusiastic look was replaced by wariness. “You think you’ve got a cure, then,” he said bitterly. “Every amateur potioneer thinks they’ve got a cure. I’ve read those ads in the back of the Quibbler promising amazing results, so long as you give them the entire contents of your Gringotts vault and then drink some potion that ensures you’re too dead to sue them afterwards. The ferals warned me about those too.” 

Hermione was shaking her head hard enough to incite her curls to riot. “No. I don’t have a cure. I wish I did. All I have is a treatment to relieve one of the symptoms. You’ll still suffer the agony of transformation, still physically become a wolf, but you’ll keep your human mind. You won’t be driven to hunt and bite humans. You won’t bite yourself in frustration if you’re locked somewhere without humans to bite. You could spend full moon nights asleep, or reading if you can turn pages with your paws, er, paw, or pass the time using your wolf senses to hunt rabbits or something.”

Ignis looked at her warily. “That’s different.” He thought. “You mean I really wouldn’t be a danger to others? I wouldn’t injure myself trying to break free to bite humans?”

“Exactly.”

Ignis fought to get his emotions under control. “That still sounds too good to be true. I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

“But you’ll try it?”

“What actually is it?”

“It’s a terrible-tasting potion that has to be drunk every day for seven days, ending on the day before the night of the full moon. Every month. The main ingredient is wolfsbane, which is deadly poisonous of course, but it’s combined with other ingredients that protect the human part of you from its toxicity. It’s very tricky to brew. I hope I can complete it in time for this month’s full moon.” 

“The seventeenth,” he said.

“I know. I always keep track.”

“But where did you learn about this potion? Did you invent it?”

She shook her head. “The Potions professor at my old school brewed it for the werewolf professor of Defense I mentioned. He was a brilliant potioneer.” 

“If he’s so brilliant, why hasn’t he published his work?” said Ignis. “If this potion works, why isn’t it generally available?” 

“He’s dead. He didn’t have time to publish it before he was killed.” 

“By the same Dark wizard who killed his werewolf friend?” inferred Tom.

Fiona knocked, them came in to clear away the dishes and serve pudding.

“They weren’t friends,” Hermione said. “Just coworkers. But yes. They died in the same battle.”

Fiona hurried out.

“This school of yours—“ began Ignis.

“I’d really rather not talk about it,” she said while fighting back tears, or at least giving a very good impression of doing so.

“Of course, dear,” said Tom’s mother.

“I’m sorry,” said Hermione. “The potion works if brewed correctly, but I’m not as good a potioneer as my old professor, so it’s possible I’ll do it wrong. You don’t have to take it. My offer of apparition lessons is still open, whether you drink this potion or not.”

“If you want an experimental subject to take your potion, Hermione, it doesn’t have to be this particular werewolf,” said Tom. “Ignis, you mentioned a feral werewolf pack. Are you still in contact with them? Perhaps you could inform them of Hermione’s offer, not with your endorsement of course, just passing along the information. One of them might be brave enough—“

“Stop,” said Ignis. “You know exactly what you’re doing when you ask me to pass this information along to someone brave enough. A Gryffindor can’t let an insult like that stand. Of course I’ll drink this potion myself before I let anyone else drink it. You know the old saying: There are no old Gryffindors regretting chances not taken.”

Tom thought that “Gryffindors are stupid” would be a more concise way to convey the same idea, but he didn’t say this aloud. “Spoken like a true Gryffindor,” he said instead.

“Thank you,” said Ignis.

“Thank you for your bravery,” said Hermione.

“I’ll still lock myself in my cage in the basement of course,” said Ignis. “In case it doesn’t work.”

When they had finished their pudding, and Ignis had praised the Riddle cook once more, they retired to the drawing room.

“Can I interest you in an after-dinner drink?” said Tom’s father. “I have some excellent brandy.”

Ignis looked at the clock. “Is it really that late? Goodness, how time flies. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

Too late for that, thought Tom.

“Thank you very much for your hospitality,” Ignis continued. “Which of your fireplaces is hooked up to the Floo network? This one?” He approached it and looked for something on the mantelpiece, but didn’t find it.

“I’m terribly sorry, but the Riddle House Floo connection is out of order,” said Hermione.

“It’s so difficult to get repairmen to show up,” grumbled Tom’s father, who must have had no more idea what a Floo connection was than Tom did.

“Aren’t they awful?” agreed Ignis. “There was a ridiculous amount of paperwork just to change the name of my Floo address to something more memorable for my business.”

“I’d offer to side-along apparate you home, but I’ve never been to Orncrag,” said Hermione. “I could ask Dobby if he knows it.”

“Don’t go to any trouble. I’ll just hail the Knight Bus. It’s no problem, I ride it all the time. Mrs. Riddle, Squire Riddle, Hermione, Tom, thank you so much for dinner, and everything.”

“Thank you very much for brightening a dark winter’s evening,” said Tom’s father with enthusiasm. “You’re always welcome here, particularly if you’re willing to be trounced by a witch for our entertainment.”

Ignis laughed. “I hope my dueling skills will improve until the show becomes a bit more interesting than that.”

“We enjoy your company, Ignis, no duels required,” said Tom’s mother, smiling. Damn.

The werewolf bowed to address Tom’s son in Hermione’s arms. “Little Tommy, it was nice to meet you too. You stayed so quiet through all of this. What’s going on behind those dark eyes of yours?” 

“He’s thinking about milk and cuddles, because he’s a baby,” said Hermione firmly. “I’ll keep in touch about apparition lessons, and that potion.”

“I’ll get the door for you,” said Tom, who felt that goodbyes were taking too long.

“I’ll wait for the bus with you,” said Hermione.

“Me too,” said Tom, who had never seen a wizarding bus. 

Once outside, Ignis didn’t go far, just stood by the driveway and held his wand out as if he were hailing a taxicab. Shortly, Ignis and Hermione clearly saw something that Tom couldn’t, which was very annoying. Ignis stepped forward. “Evening, Melvin,” he said.

Brief pause.

“How much for a ride home to Orncrag from here?” 

Pause.

“Thank you.” Ignis counted sickles from his wallet as he continued to walk forward. He handed the coins to an invisible person and walked up a few invisible steps, vanishing as he did so.

“Goodbye,” called Hermione, as if answering his farewell. 

“Goodbye,” copied Tom. He watched Hermione’s eyes track the retreating bus, which apparently moved very fast.

“I bet you don’t see a bus like that every day,” smiled Hermione.

“I didn’t see it today either,” complained Tom. “It must have some anti-muggle spell on it.”

“Oh! I’m sorry. It would have to. It’s a bright purple triple-decker bus that moves outrageously fast. You could say you don’t like riding it, if anyone suggests it. It carries people who can’t apparate, the young, infirm, drunks, and so on. And it lurches very uncomfortably.”

“So what you’re saying is, I’m not missing much,” said Tom as they went back in to the warm house. “Thank you.”

“Hermione!” said his father. “Thank you for inviting that most entertaining guest. Such a pity we can’t throw a dinner party for all our friends with Ignis as a guest of honor.”

Tom sighed. He looked to his mother.

“A very interesting young man,” she said. “Rambunctious, but reasonably well-mannered. Not all his dinner conversation was suitable for the table, but Hermione did ask, so he wasn’t entirely to blame.”

Hermione snorted. His mother would have to fix that too.

“At the bookshop where we met him, he was more than just rambunctious,” said Tom. “He started a riot. On purpose.”

“I helped,” said Hermione. “Don’t give Ignis all the credit.”

Thus, Tom and Hermione finally explained the circumstances under which they had made their new friend.

“So, one pallet of books has been destroyed at least,” said Hermione, “but Picardy is still spreading his lies. I’m sure he’ll print more books, and of course he’s still teaching at Hogwarts, poisoning impressionable young minds.” She sighed. “He claims that werewolves have no souls, no morals. Even in their human forms, they’re always plotting to kill humans. It’s a complete falsehood. Most werewolves go out of their way to avoid biting humans. They lock themselves up over the full moon, biting only themselves. If Picardy has his way, werewolves like Ignis will be hunted down like vermin.” She looked suddenly resolved. “I have to stop him.”

“Why you?” asked Tom.

“Who else?”

No one stepped forward to volunteer.

“Won’t you be busy taking care of Tommy?” asked Tom.

“That seems pretty easy, really. I’m sure I can do other things besides.”

“And aren’t we also working on making the Riddle name a bit more prominent in the wizarding world?”

Hermione shrugged. “That’s your project. Good luck with that. I mean, I’ll help as long as it’s not too much trouble.”

Tom knew better than to even bring up the topic of Cecilia. 

“I’m sorry, I just promised that potion to Ignis without asking your permission to buy the ingredients for it,” she said. “They’re rather expensive.”

Tom dismissed that concern with a wave. “Please don’t worry about the expense. If Ignis is willing to drink this potion, I’m glad to help provide it.”

Hermione’s face brightened with a relieved smile. “Thank you, Tom. That’s very generous.”

Tom smiled too. There was still hope. If Hermione accidentally poisoned her new friend, she’d save him from the terrible fate of living long enough to regret it, which would really be for the best, for everyone.

Chapter Text

I The Daily Prophet headline screamed, “RIOT AT FLOURISH AND BLOTTS!” It was illustrated by a moving photo of Hermione, wild hair flying. She curled a protective arm around Tommy while with her other hand, she cast a shield spell that formed a crystal around them both. It deflected the shower of books that tumbled from a wobbling bookcase, then the heavy wooden bookcase itself, then part of the ceiling that crumbled under the assault of some off-camera spell. This brief scene played over and over.

“That Witch Weekly photographer must be glad she followed us,” remarked Tom. “I think I’ll do most of my shopping by owl-order from now on,” he added. “We don’t seem to have good luck with retail.”

“I’ll need to go to Diagon Alley today, though,” said Hermione. “I’ll be setting up a potions lab, so I’ll need cauldrons, scales, ingredients, everything. Is there a space here I can use for a lab? Some of the odors from it won’t be very pleasant, so you won’t want it near the living spaces.”

“The shed out back?” suggested Tom, feeling that he’d finally fulfilled a long-treasured dream, as that was where he’d originally tried to send her.

“That sounds perfect, thank you. It will have to be absolutely off-limits to everyone else. I’ll have some very dangerous potion ingredients in there.”

“Understood,” said his father.

“That includes Tommy I’m afraid. Mrs. Riddle, could you look after him while I’m working?”

“I would be delighted,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“It’s silly to thank me for caring for my own grandson. It is you who deserve thanks for caring for a child not your own.”

Hermione considered that. “You’re right of course, but he’s starting to feel like my own. I’m growing quite attached to him. That must be an effect of the wet nurse potion.”

“Or a natural reaction to what a darling little snugglekins he is,” cooed Tom’s mother.

“Possibly,” said Hermione. “Anyway, I’ll miss him while I’m working over the next few days, but it must be done. The full moon is Monday, January seventeenth, so Ignis will have to start taking the wolfsbane potion on the eleventh. Today’s Wednesday the fifth. I’ve got to work very fast.”

“If you don’t make this month’s deadline, there’s always next month,” said his father.

Hermione shook her head. “You don’t understand how agonizing a normal werewolf transformation is. Under the influence of a full moon, werewolves do anything to bite humans. The ethical ones like Ignis, who lock themselves in basements or similar before they transform, have their wolf-minds driven to madness by their captivity, slamming themselves against the walls, and biting themselves in frustration. When they come to their human senses in the morning, they’re lying in a puddle of wolf blood, with Dark injuries that can’t be thoroughly healed even by magic. If there’s even a slim chance of saving Ignis from another bout of that, I’ve got to try.”

“Hermione dear,” said Tom’s mother. “Do you remember what I said earlier about appropriate conversational subjects for the table? We are trying to eat breakfast.”

Hermione gave an inelegant snort, then turned to Tom. “Have you named your owl yet?”

“I’ve had other things on my mind, so no. Any ideas?” He looked around the table.

His mother spoke. “When one thinks of owls, one thinks of the owl of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom. But is Minerva cliche?”

“I don’t think so,” said Hermione. “I knew a witch named Minerva. It would feel odd to call an owl that.”

“Then Athena, the Greek version of the same goddess,” said his mother, and it was so.

“She came back at dawn today,” said Hermione. “We should move her cage out of my room, to yours or some dedicated owlery. I don’t need a second beautiful creature disturbing my sleep.”

“Which location do you think she would prefer?” Tom asked.

“Let’s ask her.” 

So after breakfast, they did, Tom’s parents coming along to see his new owl. She opened her eyes at their entrance. “Would you like to be called Athena?” Tom asked. “After the goddess of wisdom, justice, and strategy?” 

The owl considered this, and fluffed her feathers in a way that seemed to indicate approval.

“Then Athena, I would like to introduce you to my parents, Squire Thomas Riddle and Mrs. Mary Riddle. They may ask you to carry letters for them as well.”

Athena nodded to acknowledge these introductions.

Tom continued, “I would like to move your cage to my office, unless you would prefer an outdoor location.”

She looked at him in a way that let him know she was willing to entertain the possibility of relocating to his office, so he hoisted her cage.

“You would charm a hippogriff,” said Hermione. “You’re very polite.”

“A gentleman is never unintentionally rude,” said Tom.

“If you’re rich enough, you can get away with being as rude as you want,” said his father.

“I am as rude as I want,” said Tom. “The amount of rudeness I want to exhibit is generally zero, unless behaving otherwise would be to my advantage.” He could feel his mother smiling proudly at him.

His father harrumphed. “Anyway, that is an impressive owl, at least as good as Malfoy’s.”

“Thank you.”

“She’s beautiful,” said his mother.

“I have work to do in my own office,” said his father.

“And I have sewing to do,” said his mother. “Enjoy your new owl.”

Tom, Athena, and Hermione-and-Tommy, who moved as a unit, went to his office. He found a spot near the window for the owl cage. “Is this suitable?” he asked Athena.

She looked content and closed her eyes to sleep.

“Would you like me to charm this window so she can come and go at will?” Hermione asked.

“You mean open it?”

“Open it only to owls, not to cold drafts and rain and such.”

“Yes please.” He enjoyed watching her work, inscribing runes on the window frame with confident strokes of her wand.

“Now you can just leave her cage open. She’ll mostly hunt for herself, but she’ll appreciate some food from us too. I should do this to a window in the dining room too to make it easier for the paper delivery owl.”

“Thank you. Owl care seems easy.”

“You’ll have to clean her cage regularly of course.”

“No I won’t. Dobby will.”

“Oh. Of course. Anyway, now that Athena’s sorted, show me this shed of yours. I’ll inspect it, then head to Diagon Alley,” said Hermione.

“I’ll come too,” said Tom. “I never did get that penmanship book I wanted. Although I suppose the shop might not have reopened yet.” 

“I don’t have time to show a tourist around,” snapped Hermione. “I have a lot to do.”

Tom might be able to charm a hippogriff, whatever that was, but Hermione was not so easily tamed. Some wild creatures required more patience. He led Hermione to the shed. It had been used for hobbies of various Riddles over the years, but neither Tom nor his father tied fishing flies or carved duck decoys. The stock market was much more interesting.

Hermione looked around and declared the space satisfactory. “I’ll just clean it and fix it up a bit and it will be fine.”

Tom sighed. “No you won’t. Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“Miss Granger will be using this shed as a potions lab, so repair it as necessary, move those targets to the garage, clean it, and put some security spells on it. What does it need, Hermione?” 

“Please ward it so that no one except you and I can enter it,” she said to Dobby. “Don’t improve the look of the outside at all. It should remain looking unused and uninteresting.”

“Yes Miss Granger.” Dobby got to work immediately.

“Thank you. I’ll be back in a bit.” She disappeared with a loud crack before Tom could advise her not to start any riots this time. At least if she planned such, she should have left Tommy at home.

Tom returned to his office to catch up on his work. If the tenant was to be believed, the reason the rent had not yet been paid on the Edgemere property was that the drainage system repairs that the Riddles had promised had not yet been done, which meant that the contractor Tom had hired had not done his job adequately. Someone in this situation was lying. This called for an investigation, which these days was generally Tom’s job.

As Tom bundled up against the cold and got in his car, he reflected on what a hassle it was to be a landlord. It seemed that any tenants who weren’t busy trashing the Riddle properties were instead demanding repairs. The stock market was so much cleaner. Perhaps Tom’s father would come around to Tom’s idea to sell their real estate and put the money in stocks instead. The market was doing so well, it would be a much better return on investment. Squire Riddle was a forward-thinking man, as landed gentry went, but he had a sentimental attachment to the properties that were the source of the Riddle family’s wealth.

There were worse things to be than a landlord, Tom supposed. At least he wasn’t a werewolf. He laughed as he drove. The wizarding world would keep him so busy, perhaps now wasn’t the time to advocate for a change in his muggle affairs as well.

As he drove past the Gaunt shack, he made a mental note to check on who, if anyone, was paying its property tax. Tommy stood to inherit it, at least once Morfin was out of the way. Getting Morfin out of the way, well, Tom would take care of that little problem somehow. He’d no doubt be weak when he was released from prison. Tom would have Hermione handle that problem.

He returned home after a day’s work, which he discussed with his parents in the drawing room before dinner. Hermione swept into the drawing room shortly after him, wearing faded black robes that were not particularly flattering. She took Tommy from Tom’s mother and fed him, smiling down at him. All right, perhaps those robes weren’t completely unflattering.

“You’re in good spirits,” said Tom. “Start any riots today? Offend any powerful old families? Free any slaves?”

“Not today,” she said cheerfully. “But I found everything I need for the wolfsbane potion.” She handed him a stack of small parchments. “These receipts should just be one-time expenses, for the equipment.” She handed him another small stack. “And these are for the ingredients. If this works, I’ll have to buy these every month.” 

“I assume Ignis will be willing to pay for this potion, once you prove it works,” said Tom, glancing at the receipts before putting them in the section of his wallet designed for such, to enter into his accounts later. “Don’t insult the man by treating him like a charity case. He’s a tradesman.”

“You’re right. I’m used to werewolves being destitute.”

“What other werewolves do you know besides your old professor?” asked Tom’s father.

“Well, he was the only one I knew well, and he was destitute after he lost his teaching job. He had it only a year. He was older than Ignis. Thirty years of monthly Dark injuries as a werewolf had left his body too broken to do most muggle jobs, and no one in the wizarding world would hire a known werewolf. Even if he had survived that battle, I don’t know what would have become of him. After he resigned, I convinced my parents they needed to hire him as a private tutor for me over holidays. I learned quite a lot of course, but it was also worth doing since I really think he may have starved otherwise.”

“A man with magical powers, starving?” protested his father. “What was stopping him from just taking whatever he wanted?”

“Ethics,” said Hermione. “Not to mention the law. A werewolf caught breaking wizarding law doesn’t just go to prison, he’s put down like a vicious animal. Emphasis on caught. The few werewolves who really do act like vicious beasts give a bad name to all the rest. And they’re hard to catch.” Hermione, after starting the conversation so cheerful, seemed to be sinking into her dark memories again.

Fiona called them in to dinner.

Tom neatly segued into a happier subject as he offered his hand to Hermione to assist her from her chair and escort her in to dinner. “So once you have a working product and an endorsement from a satisfied customer, how do you plan to scale up? How does wizarding potion patent law work?”

Hermione blinked at him, too distracted by his words to object to the formality of their procession in to dinner. “Patent law?”

“You said the creator died before he had time to patent or publish it, so finders keepers. The formula is yours. Just think of the market: werewolves could live long, happy, productive lives instead of short, painful, destitute ones. Your cut of that would be sizable.” He pulled her chair out for her, then pulled out his own and sat. Tonight’s soup was excellent.

It took her some time and several spoonfuls of soup to form a response to this. “There really isn’t much of a market, not in terms of money. Werewolves are so poor, generally, they can’t afford potions. And the ferals don’t really use money at all, they live in packs in the wilderness, foraging off the land. Most don’t want to, but they have nowhere else to go when they’re driven out of human society.”

“But they could hold jobs, with the help of your potion.”

Hermione shook her head. “Disease symptoms are only part of the problem. Prejudice is at least as big a factor keeping werewolves from gainful employment.”

“We’ll have to get rid of that then,” said Tom logically. “If prejudice is keeping you from making a profit from your potion, it’s got to go.”

Hermione stared at him, no doubt in awe of his business acumen.

“Let me be your first investor,” said Tom. “Assuming Ignis finds your potion satisfactory.” And there was no reason he wouldn’t, considering that Hermione had obviously brought a known successful formula from the future. “I’ll have my lawyer write up a contract for us, leaving blanks for us to fill in with words like wolfsbane and werewolves. We’ll hire Ignis or some other werewolves to help with marketing and distribution. No doubt they’ll work cheaply, as there’s little competition for their labor, for now at least.” Tom thought. “I’ll ask the Gringotts goblins to recommend a wizarding patent lawyer.”

“I wasn’t planning to patent or sell it,” said Hermione.

Now it was Tom’s turn to stare. “What?”

“I thought I would just give it away for free to werewolves who couldn’t afford it.”

“How many werewolves can you help with a plan like that? How would you even afford the ingredients? How would you afford the massive advertising campaign it will take to turn anti-werewolf sentiment around? Such a campaign would pay for itself once it works.”

“But… That’s impossible. You can’t just change a whole culture.”

“Hermione. This is 1927. Have you any idea how much culture has changed in just the last few years? After millennia of only local news, we have radios, and can hear news from around the world, instantly. Mass production is bringing luxuries to the masses. After centuries of stasis, women are moving freely instead of being trapped in corsets, baring their legs in public, bobbing their hair, voting… If changes like this are possible, nothing is impossible. Changing attitudes towards werewolves will be easy as pie.”

Hermione stared at him for a while. Then she finally said,  “I guess I just wasn’t thinking with enough… ambition.”

“Damn right you weren’t. Stick to potion brewing. I’m in charge of the advertising campaign.” 

“The patent will be in my name,” she said after a while. “I’m not giving you control of that.”

Tom nodded. “Fair enough.”

Hermione finished her dinner and yielded Tommy to his doting grandmother. “I have the first stages of the potion underway. I’ll go tend them.”

“Did you spill something on your new robes?” Tom asked. “Is that why you’re wearing these old ones?”

She shook her head, although possibly her curls were shaking her. “No, I just wore those nice new robes to go out. I changed as soon as I got back here. Some of these potion ingredients are caustic, and I don’t want to risk damaging my new robes by working in them.”

“I’ll buy you more robes,” said Tom. “You needn’t wear these rags even to work.”

“There’s no need, for just around the house,” she said. “It’s not like anyone important can see me here.” She addressed Tom’s mother. “I’ll be back to take Tommy to bed in a little while.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of my precious wiggle worm,” said the grandmother of said worm.

“Think she brought any more patentable inventions from the future?” Tom’s father asked once Hermione had left the room.

“We can hope,” said Tom. “Some that appeal to a wealthier market would be nice. But we’ll make do with what we have.”

——-

Witch Weekly arrived during breakfast Thursday morning, delivered by an owl with talons painted purple. The Daily Prophet owl cast a scornful look at the Witch Weekly owl, which flew away quickly.

That Witch Weekly photographer must have sold exclusive rights to the riot photos to the Daily Prophet, but photos of their relaxed shopping expedition graced the pages of the magazine. There were Tom and, apparently, Cygnus Black, whose back was to the camera. Tom was laughing at some joke his dear friend Cygnus had just told him.

“The Black family is among the oldest and most powerful in Britain,” said Hermione.

“And Cygnus’s brother Sirius might be the most vehemently blood-purist voice in the Wizengamot,” added Tom’s father. 

Hermione looked at him.

“I keep up with the news,” he said. “If he can make reference to muggleborns contaminating our society in the middle of an otherwise unrelated speech on the requirements for kneazle breeders’ licenses, I know he’s serious.” He chuckled at his pun, which everyone else had the tact to ignore.

“The wizarding world is so backwards, valuing bloodlines,” said Tom. “What’s really important is how much money people have.” He looked at the magazine. “Witch Weekly, at least, seems to understand that. Their society page isn’t just aristocrats, they have famous musicians and athletes too.”

“What lovely robes!” exclaimed his mother, looking at the moving photographs in the magazine. “These would look beautiful on you, Hermione.”

“I already have robes,” she said.

“The society photographers will tire of seeing you in the same robes all the time,” said Tom.

“That’s their problem,” she snapped.

“These would look lovely on you as well,” said Tom’s father to his mother, who blushed prettily. “We must pay a visit to this tailor.”

“I don’t have time to take muggles clothes shopping,” said Hermione. “At least until the full moon, I’ll be very busy.”

“I wasn’t presuming to impose upon your time,” said his father. “Dobby can apparate us there.”

“You’ll love Diagon Alley,” said Tom. “Knockturn Alley is also very interesting. The antique shop where we bought Slytherin’s locket is like a museum, and it’s near a pet shop we didn’t have time to visit on our previous trip.” 

“Aargh!” Hermione pulled at her hair with disastrous results. Tom made a mental note to avoid triggering her to do this again if at all possible. “I don’t want to have to worry about three muggles wandering around Diagon Alley, much less Knockturn Alley.”

“You’d worry about us?” asked Tom.

“Tommy needs his family,” said Hermione. “That’s the whole point of me bringing him here, so he can be raised by his family. I can’t allow you to take unnecessary risks.”

“Allow?” repeated Tom’s father. “It is not your place to allow or—“

Tom’s meaningful look wasn’t getting through, so he had to resort to spoken words. “Father,” he interrupted. He had his attention. “What Hermione means to say is, please don’t deprive her of the pleasure of taking our family on this outing herself. She’ll be happy to give us a guided tour after the full moon, when she has more time.”

Tom’s father looked at Hermione. “Was that what you meant?” he asked, knowing full well it wasn’t.

Hermione sighed the sigh of one who didn’t have time for these games. “Yes.”

“Good,” said Tom’s father.

Hermione ate the rest of her breakfast in silence. As she laid her fork down and transferred Tommy to Tom’s mother, she said, “Let me know if Tommy needs me. I’ll be in my potions lab.”

“You are excused,” said Tom’s father, earning him a look from Hermione that made Tom nervous, but she clearly didn’t have time to dignify that remark with a reply, much less a spell. 

Tom excused himself from the table shortly after, and broke into a run only once he was safely out of the dining room. He caught up with Hermione just before she entered her lab. “Hermione. Please wait. This won’t take long.”

She stopped and turned to look at him. “What now?”

“I want to apologize for my father’s behavior. He’s proud, and can be petty. Please don’t let that trouble you. It’s what makes him so easy to manipulate.”

She paused before opening the door to the shed. Neither of them were dressed to be outdoors in this weather. Their breath formed visible clouds in the morning light. “Oh. Thank you.” She went inside the shed and closed the door behind her, so Tom returned to the house.

——-

Twelfth Night passed unmarked by any particular celebration. The Christmas decorations came down. Hermione worked on her potion, coming out of her lab only for meals, her own and Tommy’s, and to sleep, and to wand-tap the Gringotts authorization fields on owl-order forms by request.

On one of her breaks to feed Tommy and nap, Tom followed her to her room, carrying a bundle.

“I took the liberty of ordering some new witch robes for you.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Wouldn’t you like to see them?”

“I’m sure they’re fine. Just put them in the closet.”

He did. “So. How’s the potion coming along?” He looked out the window, for she was opening her faded, scruffy robes to feed Tommy, with no sympathy for her audience’s sensibilities. It would be different if she were attractive. She and Dobby were the ugliest sights in the house, although also Tom’s most useful resources.

“Aargh!” The noise prompted Tom to turn to face her again, a move he regretted, for she pulled at her hair with her free hand, proving that it actually could look worse than it had looked before. “This is the trickiest potion I’ve ever tried to brew! It makes polyjuice look like a pot of tea. I don’t know if I can do this on my own.”

“Could Dobby help?” Tom suggested.

Those bright brown eyes finally looked at him. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“We’ve established that you are not from a class that employs servants. Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“Can you assist Miss Granger in brewing a tricky potion?” 

Dobby nodded. “Dobby has brewed tricky potions before. Mistress Malfoy was always having Dobby brew very tricky healing potions for young master Corvus when he needed healing after his broom accidents, and they always helped him recover sir.” No doubt disappointing Mrs. Malfoy, thought Tom.

“Thank you Dobby,” said Hermione. “I’ll call you to my lab after my nap.

“Yes Miss Granger.” He popped away.

“Sleep well,” said Tom when Hermione flopped on her bed to feed Tommy in her sleep. Tommy, at least, was beautiful, especially with Hermione’s angular arm framing the adorable roundness of his features.

“Close the door on your way out,” she said, so he did.

——-

At breakfast Friday morning, Hermione buried herself in a book titled Lunar Phases and Herbology: Consequences for Potioneering. She’d tied her hair back in a simple ponytail, no doubt a practical style for a potioneer. Her curls exploded out of the binding at the back of her head like fireworks. Tom made no comment about this.

“I’m meeting with Malfoy tomorrow,” he said.

“Hm,” she said around a mouthful of egg.

“Any words of advice?”

“Hm.”

“I said any words of advice?”

“What? Sorry, I’m just wondering if I titrated the lunar caustic properly. The herbalist assured me that the moonseed had been harvested on the night of the full moon, but if it wasn’t—“ 

“Never mind. Just one quick question then. Am I taking the train to London tomorrow, or could you or Dobby apparate me there?”

“I’ll take you,” she said after some thought. “It will take just a minute. I should get out of the lab occasionally. The fumes are getting to me.”

“Thank you,” said Tom. “Please don’t work too hard.” 

“But if I fail, Ignis will be in agony at the next full moon.”

“If you fail this month, you’ll succeed next month. It’s not your job to fix every problem in the world.”

“Someone’s got to.”

“Hm. Anyway. Could you drop me off in Mayfair, London? Dover Street, off Piccadilly, or thereabouts. I asked Dobby first of course, but he doesn’t know his way around Muggle London. He offered to take me to the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. In a pinch, I could have him do that and take a cab from there.” 

She nodded. “I’m familiar with Mayfair.” Like all Australians. “I can get you closer. I’ll take you to Berkeley Square Gardens, by those huge old London plane trees.”

“Perfect.” It was nice to know those trees would still be standing in seventy years. “A quarter to noon would give me time to recover from any motion sickness, and walk to my club.”

She nodded. “Meet me at the door to my lab. And when should I pick you up?”

“I think two in the afternoon would give me enough time. Can I assume that if this meeting goes disastrously wrong, and I don’t meet you at the appointed time, you would endeavor to rescue me?”

She thought.

“Or at least send Dobby after me, if I am unable to call him myself?”

“I’ve got him tending a particularly delicate stage of the preparation,” she said.

“Hermione,” said Tom’s mother.

“But I’ll interrupt him if I have to,” Hermione continued. “We’ll work together to rescue you, if it comes to that. He should be able to find you anywhere, since you’re his master, and he can apparate me with him.” She sighed. “The potion will just have to be a month late.”

“Thank you,” said Tom’s mother.

——-

Tom found it difficult to concentrate on his muggle work, so he spent the morning in his office reviewing his wizarding materials: books and newspapers, history, current events, and popular culture. He would be indistinguishable from a wizard. A wizard from a provincial family, perhaps, as previous generations of Riddles had done nothing to distinguish themselves in the wizarding world. They had been content to rule over the unsuspecting local muggles. Tom, however, found this game too easy, thus was finally making his presence known to his fellow wizards.

He was feeling satisfied with his preparations by the time he met the others for lunch. Even Hermione noticed.

“Aren’t you worried about tomorrow?” she asked.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” replied Tom.

She thought. “Well, to start, as soon as you shake his hand, he could forcibly side-along apparate you to the dungeon of Malfoy Manor—“

“Stop.”

“I made something for you.” She set a black feather, dropped by Athena no doubt, on the table in front of him. It didn’t seem sanitary to put an owl feather on the table.

“I assume you didn’t grow that yourself, so what do you mean by you made it?” 

“It’s an emergency portkey. Speak the activation phrase while in contact with it, and it will transport you back to the Riddle House. It’s sort of like apparition. I’m afraid it’s rather uncomfortable.”

“Are all magical forms of transportation uncomfortable?”

“Yes, all I’ve experienced. Anyway, the activation phrase for this portkey is ‘I believe I can fly.’ Remember it, and don’t say it accidentally while you’re in contact with it.”

“You’re sure it will work for me?”

“Portkeys work fine on muggles, the magic is all in the portkey, not the user. Muggles sometimes use them accidentally, which creates work for obliviators.”

Tom felt uncomfortable being referred to as a muggle, but couldn’t really say anything about it.

——-

Saturday morning, Tom knocked on the door of Hermione’s lab at 11:45 precisely. Hermione opened the door. She was wearing a tweed muggle outfit Tom’s mother had bought her, and her hair didn’t look as bad as usual.

“You look lovely,” said Tom, practicing lying.

“I didn’t want any muggles to notice us,” she said. “I don’t know the neighborhood that well, so I don’t know of a really muggle-proof apparition point. We’ll apparate under the invisibility cloak, just in case any muggles are around. Accio Harry’s cloak,” she said, pulling the silky garment out of her beaded bag. She stepped close to him and swept the cloak around them both. “Hm. Crouch down a bit, our feet are showing. Sorry, this isn’t really meant to cover two people.” He did. She wrapped her arm around his waist. “Hold on.” He wrapped his arm around her waist, assuring himself that this was not an overly familiar gesture in this context. She was so thin, she hardly counted as an entire person, so they did both fit. He could have wrapped his arm around her twice if he’d had more elbows. He’d barely had time to take one breath of that stormy Amortentia scent, now mixed with an unpleasant herbal harshness, before she said, “Here we go,” and they were whirling through disorienting emptiness.

The thing pressing the soles of his feet through his shoe leather was a gravel path, which marked that direction as down, and as the trees of Berkeley Square Gardens were very old, the slender sapling he was clinging to for support was, instead, Hermione. As soon as he was able, he let go, although he couldn’t put a proper amount of distance between them within the constraints of the cloak. “Thank you,” he said.

“Sh,” she whispered. “Muggle.”

He stifled his affronted reaction, for of course, she hadn’t been referring to him. He looked around until he saw one, walking a little dog through the park. They stayed silent until she was gone. Then Hermione whirled the cloak off them and stuffed it back in her bag. “Now show me where this club is. I’ll scout out some closer apparition points. There must be some dark alley that would be more private than this.”

“Although the cloak works,” said Tom. “And the fresh air makes recovering from apparition easier.” 

“We can’t be too careful.”

Tom thought that they, in fact, could, but now wasn’t the time to argue. “I’d planned a leisurely stroll, for a full recovery from apparition. I dare say a leisurely stroll would do you good as well.”

“Not too leisurely. You have only fourteen minutes.”

It felt good to be back in his old haunt in London, on one of the poshest streets, without the fear of a sudden stinging hex from his wife if she suspected him of looking at another woman. That was all behind him. Now he was back on top of the world, no, two worlds.

Tom stopped. “He’s there already, at the door.”

Malfoy was standing some distance away from the doorman, and they were eyeing each other suspiciously. His suit was perhaps ten years out of fashion, and the arrangement of his tie made one suspect that his valet had been partaking of his master’s alcohol. However, these oddities would not be sufficient for the denizens of the Drones Club to suspect him of being a wizard, for indeed, it was difficult to engage the attention of those men unless one were a cocktail, lamb chop, or hot tip on a fast horse.

Hermione tensed. “He actually did it,” she marveled. “But is that your club? There’s no sign.”

“It’s a private club,” Tom explained.

Malfoy had spotted them. Tom greeted him with a friendly wave.

“I’ll meet you back here at two,” said Hermione. “Good luck.”

“Thank you. Good luck with your potioneering.” He strode forward, leaving Hermione to find some dark alley to skulk in.

Tom approached Malfoy with a smile. “Thank you for coming. I hope you weren’t waiting long.” He checked his Rolex. “We’re three minutes early.” 

“Then I can’t complain about waiting. The wait may have felt longer than it was,” Malfoy admitted. 

“I would have been a bit earlier, but Hermione was making a fuss. It’s funny, she approaches life as if it were a duel, always looking for traps. She said that when I shook your hand, you might try to forcibly apparate me to the dungeon of Malfoy Manor.” Tom laughed at the absurdity of it.

Malfoy joined him. “Ha. Ridiculous.”

Tom held his hand out to shake Malfoy’s. “Completely. You wouldn’t risk splinching yourself when I fought back. I told Hermione not to insult your intelligence.”

Malfoy’s pause before reaching out to shake Tom’s hand was almost imperceptible. His hand was as dry as parchment.

“Let’s go in,” said Tom, leading Malfoy to the doorman, to whom he nodded.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Riddle,” said the doorman, holding the door for them.

“It’s good to be back, Alfred.” Tom swept in, Malfoy following. He signed in at the front desk. “I have a guest with me today.”

“Very good sir. Please sign in here.” The attendant offered Malfoy the book and fountain pen.

Tom relished the look Malfoy gave the fountain pen. When the pause got too long, Tom sympathetically asked, “Is your arthritis acting up again? I could write for you if you’d like.”

“No, I’ll manage,” said Malfoy, taking the pen and, after a few false starts, scratching his name and address into the book in the style of a medieval chicken.

The attendant accepted the book and pen. “Thank you Mr…” he squinted at his handwriting. 

“Malfoy.”

“Of course. Welcome to the Drones Club, Mr. Malfoy.”

A waiter appeared. “Your usual table, Mr. Riddle?

“Yes please, Andrew.”

The waiter led them to Tom’s preferred table, good for private conversation. Unfortunately for this particular day, it required them to first parade through the club in view of all the diners.

“Tom!” came a shout from a table. Oh dear. How quickly could he fend him off?

 Malfoy’s right hand twitched towards his left sleeve as the muggle rose from his table and approached them, stumbling in some combination of enthusiasm, drunkenness, and innate ineptitude.

“Hello, Algie,” said Tom, for there was no mistaking those bulging eyes and weak chin.

“Where have you been?” exclaimed Algie. “It must have been, what, at least a year since I saw you last?” 

“My business in Little Hangleton has been taking up a lot of my time.”

“You and your business! You’re always busy, but you used to find time for a friend now and then. You used to tell me when you’d be in London. And what’s this rumor I heard about you getting married?”

“I haven’t even done introductions yet,” said Tom. “Serpens, this is Algernon Clamdowne-Clamdowne, son of the Earl of Lichford. Algie, this is Serpens Malfoy.” That didn’t seem quite sufficient. “The philanthropist,” he added.

“Oh. Pleased to meet you,” said Algie, holding out his hand to Malfoy, who, with some trepidation, shook it. 

“Likewise.”

“Anyway, Algie, I’d love to catch up, but I’m short of time right now. I’ll telephone you later.”

“But—“

“Later.” Tom walked determinedly to his table, accompanied by Malfoy and the waiter. “We’d like two Buck’s fizzes to start,” he told the waiter as he and Malfoy sat down and took their menus.

“Yes Mr. Riddle.” The waiter glided away.

“Sorry about that,” said Tom. “I was maintaining a presence in the muggle world for a while, but slacked off of late. Married life, you know, it cuts into hobbies. I’m glad to be back here.” He looked around at the beautifully-furnished room, a setting for the pinnacle of British aristocracy. “Don’t look suspicious, but I believe a disillusioned Witch Weekly photographer is spying on us from behind a potted plant. Notice that subtle shadow?” He didn’t specify which potted plant, as he saw no suspicious shadows at all, but Witch Weekly had seemed grateful for the tip he’d sent them. Shots of Malfoy dressed as a muggle would make quite a splash in their magazine. 

“Really?” said Malfoy dryly. “I wonder who tipped them off that we’d be here.”

“Oh, there’s no controlling the press,” said Tom. “You might as well try to control the Daily Prophet.” When Malfoy smiled, he continued. “Thank you for that lovely shot of Hermione at the riot, by the way. You missed an opportunity, though, to identify the baby in her arms as my son, the heir of Slytherin. I’m sure your readership would have been even more thrilled to see a baby from such an illustrious family saved from danger in that dramatic fashion.”

“You get right to the point, I see,” said Malfoy. “You haven’t even bought me lunch yet. How cheap do you think my favors are?”

Tom laughed. “I value your time as well as your influence, and don’t take either for granted.

“And why shouldn’t I look suspicious of a mysterious shadow behind a potted plant?”

“You sometimes get this line between your eyebrows that wouldn’t photograph well. A photograph of the illustrious Serpens Malfoy modeling muggle fashion will no doubt earn a prominent place in that magazine, and I trust you’ll want to look your best.”

Malfoy sat back in his chair and looked at Tom with an expression that would probably come across as befuddled in the photograph. “Are you trying to blackmail me with incriminating photographs?”

“What? Being photographed eating lunch with me is not exactly incriminating. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that these photographs would reflect poorly on you. I just wanted to do a favor for the magazine, which they’ll return at some later date.”

“But photographs of me in this ridiculous costume—“

“You actually don’t look half bad. Here, let me fix your tie.” Tom reached across the table and did so. Now the perfect tie was a marked contrast to Malfoy’s disordered face. “There. That’s much better. What, are you concerned that you’re too old for muggletouring? There’s no maximum age limit you know, although it is more popular among the younger set. You’re clearly young-at-heart. You’ve married a young wife, at least.” Tom thought. “There’s more of a minimum age limit, or at least it shouldn’t be attempted by anyone who can’t control his magic.” Tom chuckled and shook his head ruefully. “We tried to take little Tommy out on a muggletouring jaunt the other day, and he set Hermione’s hair on fire, right in front of a muggle. His first accidental magic! She may have finally met a worthy dueling opponent. He took her completely by surprise. Unfortunately he can’t obliviate muggles on his own yet, so we had to handle that for him. Such a little scamp.”

“Congratulations on your son’s first magic,” said Malfoy.

“Thank you.” Tom picked up his menu. “Let’s order soon. I have another appointment at two, so I can’t dawdle here too long.”

Malfoy picked up his. “I’ll need some assistance deciphering this menu.” 

“Of course. Let’s start with some consommé to warm us up. Then I recommend the beef Wellington if you like puff pastry. The mutton is also very good. You might also like the squab; it tastes very similar to the diricawl at La Truffe Émraude.”

After Malfoy spent some time studying the menu, the waiter delivered their drinks and took their lunch orders. 

“Try your Buck’s fizz,” said Tom, noticing that Malfoy hadn’t touched his. “Don’t worry, it’s just champagne and orange juice, I’m not trying to get you drunk.” He sipped his own.

Malfoy hesitantly followed his example, then drank with more enthusiasm after his first taste.

“Buck’s a good bartender, said Tom. “Very creative. If you like this club, you could look into becoming a member. You’d need recommendations from two current members, and the membership fee is reasonable. I could have one of my friends vouch for you, that would be easy enough.”

“Other wizards belong to this club? Or you have muggle friends?” Malfoy didn’t seem to know which was more absurd.

“When I say friends,” said Tom, “I think you know what I mean. They’re very useful.”

Their consommé was delivered and consumed.

“That muggle who greeted you—“ Malfoy continued.

“Algie, who will be the Earl of Lichford after his father. I’ve helped him out of a tight spot on occasion, and he has helped me in return.” Help a fellow escape from a constable who was not amused to have his helmet stolen, and get an invitation to a ball to which the mere son of a squire would not normally be invited, but which offered an opportunity to dance with the beautiful Cecilia. It was a good deal. Malfoy didn’t need to know the details. “Most of my investments are in the muggle world, so contacts here are necessary. Of course, it’s also nice to have a native guide for a spot of muggletouring. Algie always knows which new shows are worth seeing.”

The waiter delivered their food. Malfoy searched, but could not find fault with his beef Wellington. He tasted it and seemed pleasantly surprised.

“I hope that’s not all you have to offer me,” said Malfoy. “Membership in a muggle club in exchange for my endorsement of your son’s presumed status as the heir of a long-dead line.”

“A long-dead name, yes. The line isn’t dead. The gift of parseltongue, for instance, is still very much alive. Little Tommy isn’t speaking anything at this age of course. I would understand if you prefer to withhold your endorsement until he’s clearly speaking parseltongue, so you have proof. I plan to get him a pet snake to practice on.”

“You seem confident about that.”

“His mother certainly had the gift.”

Malfoy paused to eat some white asparagus. “You seem confused,” he eventually said, “about the difference between endorsing an idea because it is true, and endorsing an idea because such an endorsement is advantageous. There is a considerable difference.”

Tom nodded. “Of course. I am up against the age-old conundrum, what gift to give the man who has everything? You seem to lack for nothing, which leaves me short of ideas for how to return a favor.”

“Oh, I always have little errands to run, little jobs to do. I’m sure I could think of some tasks worthy of a wizard with your skill set, which seems quite unusual.”

“Thank you,” said Tom, beaming. “I hope we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“I certainly don’t know of any other wizards who would brave the muggle world for fun. This dish is good,” Malfoy admitted. “Although I wouldn’t say it’s worth the danger of venturing out among muggles.” 

Tom laughed. “Danger? From muggles? Or do you mean from the Ministry if we violate the Statute of Secrecy? Surely you have enough self-control to refrain from using any magic for a couple of hours. You’re not a child.”

“I mean danger from muggles, of course. We’re seriously outnumbered here. What if the brutes mobbed us? Trying to apparate away would cause the DMLE to make a fuss. I could call in some favors to calm such a fuss over my own actions, of course, but you don’t have that kind of influence.”

“Stop, stop!” choked Tom. “I can’t eat when I’m laughing so hard. Mobbed us? Why on earth would they do that?”

 “If they knew what we were. Didn’t you study witch burnings in history?”

“I did. They didn’t. If they learned anything about witches and wizards at all, they learned it in fantasy stories. We’re fiction to them. They don’t believe we exist. I assure you we have absolutely nothing to fear from—“

A bread roll flew through the air on a direct course to impact Malfoy’s temple. Tom snatched it out of the air just before it hit. He’d always had quick reflexes for that sort of thing. The wizard’s eyes were wide with terror at this unexpected muggle attack.

“Sorry about that,” said Tom. “Some of these lads get a bit rambunctious. Excuse me a moment.” Tom, roll in hand, went over to talk to the culprits, who were incriminating themselves with their giggles.

“Algie,” Tom said firmly. “I told you I would catch up with you later.”

“It is later,” said Algie.

“Yeah, it is,” giggled Algie’s companions.

Tom acknowledged them with the minimal amount of courtesy. “Nigel. Francis. I believe this belongs to your table.” He placed the bread roll on it. 

“Whoo, you have your ammunition back,” hooted Nigel. “Try to get closer to your target next time.”

Algie picked up the bread roll and tossed it in the air a few times. “Tom, you can’t just vanish with no explanation. Did you really get married?” 

“To that suffragist?” asked Francis.

“No, she’s still single,” said Algie. “You want her?” 

This got a good laugh from the table. Algie continued. “Girls these days are always marching in protests, waving banners, presenting petitions, chaining themselves to things, generally carrying on in most unladylike ways. They’re bloody terrifying. Tom, you must tell us how you managed to escape from Miss Threepworple. I thought she’d sunk her claws pretty deep into you. You found a sweet little thing to replace her with, eh? A proper wife?”

“Algie,” said Tom. “I promise to fill you in later, but now I truly don’t have time.” 

“Aw come on.”

“Algie. If you don’t leave me alone I’ll tell your father what really happened the night you lost your shoes.”

That got through to him. “You wouldn’t.”

“I assure you I would.

Algie withered under Tom’s glare. “All right.”

“Hey!” said Francis. “You’re just going to let him go?”

“Francis, your aunt Viola would be curious to know what really happened to her rose garden just before the tour group arrived,” Tom continued.

Francis gasped. “How do you know about that?”

“Algie told me.”

“Algie! I swore you to secrecy!”

“Well,” said Algie. “It’s an amusing story.”

Now that Algie and Francis were taken care of, Tom turned to Nigel.

“What have you got on me?” Nigel asked.

“Would you like to find out?”

Nigel gulped.

Tom turned his smile back on. “The important thing to remember, lads, is that I do not want to be disturbed today, and as we are all friends, you will do me the favor of leaving me alone when I ask, just as I do you the favor of keeping your secrets. Is that understood?”

The three nodded.

“Good.” Tom went back to his table.

“Well done,” said Malfoy. “And unless you were very subtle about it, without even using magic.”

Tom shrugged. “That would be cheating. It’s not hard to outwit a bunch of inbred aristocrats.”

Malfoy pushed Tom’s drink closer to him. “I’m glad you’re back. I don’t drink alone. Come on, you’ve got to drink too or you’ll have me at a disadvantage.” 

It would take a real lightweight to get drunk on just one Buck’s fizz. Tom chuckled and finished his drink.

Malfoy watched and smiled as Tom set his empty glass down. “Is your son really the heir of Slytherin?” he asked.

“No,” Tom heard his own voice say. “He’s just a spare. His uncle Morfin is the real heir. What the hell am I saying? The truth, obviously, but why am I saying it? Mofin’s in prison now for attacking me. The man’s insane, doesn’t even talk, just hisses. He couldn’t stand that his precious pureblood sister Merope wanted me. He thought I was beneath her.” Tom thought with frantic speed. He had to get out of here. Hermione’s portkey! He’d vanish from sight of a crowd of muggles, but Statute be damned. This was an emergency. All he had to do was say—

I believe I can—

I believe I can—

Tom did not actually believe he could fly. Even trying to think the sentence gave him a terrible headache, since it was a lie. The portkey was useless to him now. He’d have to just run. He was about to bolt from his seat when he noticed Malfoy’s right hand casually at his left sleeve. Tom wouldn’t get more than a few yards before Malfoy stopped him in some no doubt unpleasantly magical way. He’d already made a point of bragging that violating the statute would have virtually no consequences for a wizard of his status.

Perhaps Tom could at least direct his babbling. “As if she were some sort of great catch,” he continued after a mere moment’s pause, the time it took to catch his breath and despair of his lack of escape routes. “Hideously ugly girl, inside and out. Their whole inbred family is hideous. Eyes don’t even point in the same direction.” He could list Merope’s faults for hours, but if Malfoy got bored, he’d interrupt with another question, and Tom couldn’t allow what. “She’d never have had a chance with me if she hadn’t used both Amortentia and the Imperius curse, but I broke free.”

“You’re saying you broke free—“

“Sheer force of will. Riddles are rather famous for it. We get what we want. It’s not helping me now of course. You put something in my drink, didn’t you? You’ve got me babbling the truth.”

Malfoy chuckled. “An interesting thing about veritaserum is that it has no effect whatsoever on people who are already honest.”

“You bastard.”

“Now that’s not true at all,” smiled Malfoy. “My pedigree is above reproach. Is the veritaserum even working?”

“Yes. I meant ‘bastard’ in the sense of someone who should never have been conceived, regardless of his parents’ marital status. Dammit, how can I fight this?”

“I’ve heard that exceptional skill at occlumency can resist it, but you don’t seem to have that. Don’t worry, I already knew this supposed heir of Slytherin had to be a halfblood. Riddle certainly isn’t a wizarding name. I’m glad to learn that the real heir of Slytherin is a pureblood, and where to find him. Thank you for a very interesting lunch. I won’t waste any more of your time when the real heir of Slytherin is languishing in prison and would no doubt welcome visitors. He’s not in for life, is he? When is he getting out?”

“September 1928.”

“Excellent. He clearly needs help getting the wizarding world to grant him the respect the heir of Slytherin deserves, if he was sentenced at all. I’ll be glad to help him with that sort of thing in the future.” He knocked back the rest of his Buck’s fizz and thudded the glass down on the table with an air of finality.

Tom thought fast, recalling the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility. “Don’t concern yourself with the Slytherin line of succession, when the heir of Malfoy is in danger.”

“What?”

Tom spoke quickly before Malfoy had time to ask any more questions. “There’s a murder plot. Your firstborn son, your heir, Corvus, he’s going to be murdered. Your second wife, Giselle, she wants her son, Abraxas, to be the heir of Malfoy, and she’ll do anything to make that happen.”

“Can this be true?”

“It’s as true as what I said about my son not really being the heir of Slytherin while his uncle lives. You spiked my drink, remember? I can’t lie. Giselle buys Corvus gifts, the fastest, most dangerous brooms, but they haven’t worked to kill him yet, he only gets more skillful at flying. She was trying to establish a pattern that Dobby is clumsy so she could blame Corvus’s death on him. When that doesn’t work she’ll resort to poisoned chocolate. She’ll be found out, but only after your son is dead. Age ten, just before he gets his Hogwarts letter. She’ll die in Azkaban, but she’ll have got what she wanted, her son Abraxas as heir of Malfoy.”

“Are you a seer? Malfoy demanded. “Where did you get this information?”

“No.” Tom flexed his force of will and spoke as carefully as he could. “Hermione Granger hates divination, so she wouldn’t like to be called a seer, but she does know the future. Or a possible future. I don’t understand it. She says the future’s not written in stone. I hope it can be changed.” 

Malfoy abruptly stood up. “Please excuse my sudden departure, but my wife is home with my children right now, and I have some veritaserum left.”

“Quite understandable.

“What apparition point around here do you recommend?”

“The facilities through there provide privacy from muggle eyes.”

“Thank you very much.” Malfoy charged off. Soon after, Tom heard a muffled crack. A busboy rushed to investigate the noise, but came out shrugging at a waiter.

Tom’s waiter came by. “Is everything all right?”

“Everything? In the universe? No. I mean, where should I even begin?”

The waiter gave a polite laugh. “I meant at your table, sir.”

“At my table I have a terrible headache.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Can I get you anything for it?”

“Privacy. Leave me alone until I call for you.”

“Yes sir.”

Tom pulled out a pad of paper, hunched over it, and scribbled on it furiously, making it very clear that despite his new solitude at his table, he was still not available for conversation. After eight anxiously timed minutes of intermittent attempts, he was able to quietly say, “Merope was the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Chapter Text

Tom’s relief at having survived lunch with Malfoy was dampened when, shortly after he stepped out of his club, he was yanked into a dark alley he’d never noticed before. The wild-haired, bony witch pressing the point of a wand into his throat was just Hermione, though, so that was all right. “When did you first hold your son?” she demanded.

“Excuse me?”

“This is a security question, to check that you are who you seem to be. Answer!”

“At the tailor shop, so you could try on your new clothes. Is this really necessary?”

She lowered her wand. “Yes. Any security questions for me?”

“I could hardly do anything to defend myself from an impostor, so I might as well assume you’re genuine.”

“You could punch me, like you punched Malfoy. That was brilliant.” 

“I couldn’t hit a woman!” Even one who insulted him so.

She looked surprised. “Why not?”

Tom was speechless, even with the dregs of his spiked drink in him.

“Well anyway, how was lunch?”

“Excellent. I had mutton.”

“And?”

“And mint jelly.”

“Tom! What did Malfoy have to say?”

“I thought you weren’t interested in my affairs, Hermione. I don’t mean to keep you from your work.” 

She pointed her wand at him. “Specialis Revelio.” She looked him over in that palpable way she had, then exclaimed, “Traces of veritaserum!”

“Yes. It’s worn off by now. Your hair is flat and limp. See?” Saying it out loud made his tongue ache, but he could do it.

“What happened?”

“After neglecting to guard my drink, I let slip that Tommy is just the spare of Slytherin, not the heir while his uncle Morfin lives, but once I realized what was happening I managed to distract Malfoy before I revealed anything else of importance. He still thinks I must be a halfblood or muggleborn wizard because Riddle isn’t a known wizarding name.”

“How did you manage to distract him?”

Tom was enjoying this. “I truthfully told Malfoy that he shouldn’t worry about the Slytherin line of succession when the Malfoy heir might be in danger. That was sufficient to derail whatever questions he’d planned. I recalled Dobby’s story about Mrs. Malfoy ordering him to brew very tricky potions to give to her stepson, Corvus. That seemed rather suspicious to me, considering that she could afford to buy such potions professionally-made, if she actually wanted them made correctly. The logical explanation seemed to be that she did not, in fact, want the potions made correctly, but instead wanted to poison her stepson so that her son Abraxas could take his place as heir of Malfoy. She wanted to make his murder look like an accident.”

“And you were confident enough in your suspicions that you could say them aloud under veritaserum?” Hermione asked, shocked. 

“That was why he believed me. I’m sure he wouldn’t have believed such an accusation otherwise. He left in a hurry, as his wife was home with his children, and he had some veritaserum left. I had to wait eight minutes for the veritaserum to wear off. I was worried I’d say something embarrassing to a waiter.”

She was awestruck. “But how…”

“It was easy, to someone with sufficient force of will of course.” 

“So you didn’t need the portkey?”

“No, not really. I thought of it, but even if I had needed it, I couldn’t have used it. I don’t actually believe I can fly. Damn, I should have thought of aeroplanes. Or a hot air balloon. I’ll keep that in mind for next time. Anyway, I’m sure it’s for the best that I didn’t just vanish from a club full of muggles. I don’t want to violate the Statute.”

“I’d be the one to get in trouble for giving you the portkey in the first place.”

“And we don’t want that.”

“Anyway, as you don’t seem to be boobytrapped, it should be safe to bring you back to the Riddle House.”

Tom considered telling her to go home without him, as it was pleasant to be back in London, and he was overdue to catch up with his muggle friends, but decided against it. He had a lot to do in Little Hangleton. “If you would be so kind as to apparate us.” Tom offered Hermione his arm as if asking her to dance.

She smiled with her perfect teeth and took his arm. They whirled into emptiness, Tom letting the disorientation wash over him like music, until he found his feet on the floor of the drawing room of the Riddle House. “Thank you,” he said, releasing her arm. 

“You’re adapting very well to side-along apparition,” she said. “It can be disorienting even for wizards. I wonder how you’d handle Floo travel.” 

“Oh yes, you told Ignis something about our Floo being out-of-order. What is it, and how can we have it repaired?” 

“The Floo is a transportation network, so people can travel from fireplace to fireplace, or just make Floo-calls, like telephone calls.”

“Ah, like the fireplace at the Leaky Cauldron.” 

“Exactly. It works even for children, squibs, and the infirm, as it doesn’t require the user’s magic, so it should work for muggles as well. We’d just have to buy some Floo powder and get a fireplace here hooked up to the network.” 

“And how do we do that?”

Hermione sighed. “I’ll have to go to the office at the Ministry of Magic, stand in a queue, fill out forms, then probably stand in more queues. It could take hours, but that’s the Ministry. I should have time Wednesday the twelfth. Ignis will have to start taking the potion the eleventh, so if I’m not done by then, it will be too late anyway.” 

“Do something enjoyable when you’re done at the Ministry,” urged Tom. “Go to a bookshop, buy yourself something nice. You’ve been working so hard, you deserve a break. I’m not going to ask you to herd a gaggle of muggle tourists around either. Just take some time for yourself.” 

Hermione smiled. “Thank you. I think I will.”

Tom smiled back. So, Hermione would be away for hours Wednesday. That would be the perfect time for Dobby to add some Amortentia to Cecilia’s tea, without Hermione getting in the way with any tiresome arguments about ethics. 

“But for now, back to the lab,” she sighed. “Dobby has been very helpful. Thank you for suggesting him. Hopefully, future batches won’t be nearly this difficult. Part of the problem is the learning curve. These instructions are written in a fiendishly unclear style, which I think must have been intentional, and my potioneering education wasn’t very good. My potions professor was a great potioneer, but a terrible teacher. I’m having to teach myself a lot as I go along.”

“I admire your ambition to even attempt it,” said Tom. And her practicality in testing a potentially lethal potion on a werewolf who would be no loss. 

“Thank you.” She didn’t look so terrible when she smiled. 

“Now I should tell my parents I’m back. Do you know where they are?” 

Hermione drew her wand. “Homenum Revelio.” She looked around, apparently through the walls. “They’re in the study.”

“Thank you.” He headed there. His father rose from his seat when Tom opened the door. His mother looked up at him with her shining black eyes. Tommy on her lap did as well.

“Welcome back,” said his father. “How did it go?”

“I ran into Algie, Francis, and Nigel,” said Tom. “I haven’t seen them for a while.”

“Tom,” said his mother, so he aborted his plan to amuse himself by tormenting his audience with descriptions of mint jelly. He told all, including the good news that Hermione seemed to have bought his explanation for how he knew the heir of Malfoy was in danger, and did not suspect their theft of her book.

His mother moved an ottoman, rolled up a small oriental rug, and unlocked the panel underneath it to retrieve the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility. She looked in the index under M, then turned to the relevant page. “If he acts in time, you’ve changed the Malfoy line of succession. Or prevented it from being changed. This book will become increasingly inaccurate as time goes on.” 

“Indeed,” said his father. “The Riddles will have earned a prominent place in that book by 1997.”

——-

Next morning, the Sunday Prophet had used its largest typeface to scream, “HALFBLOOD ARRESTED FOR MURDER OF NJINGA MALFOY.” That wasn’t quite the headline Tom had been expecting. He read the article aloud to prevent everyone from crowding around his newspaper. “Halfblood Giselle Malfoy, née Selwyn, 31, was arrested yesterday for the 1923 murder of pureblood Njinga Malfoy, née Shacklebolt, whose death was previously believed to have been an accident. Selwyn’s tampering with the levitation charms on Njinga Malfoy’s flying carpet led to her crash and death. The confession was extracted from the halfblood after her confession and arrest for plotting the murder of Njinga’s son, Giselle’s stepson, the pureblood Corvus, heir of Malfoy, 10.”

Hermione groaned. “Did they have to lead with the word ‘halfblood’?”

Tom looked through the paper. “They have a special feature here on Giselle’s grandmother, a muggleborn who insinuated her way into wizarding society with her seductive beauty and deceptive charms.”

“That sounds interesting,” said Tom’s mother, so he separated the page and handed it to her.

“If only her grandmother was muggleborn, wouldn’t she more properly be called a three-quartersblood?” asked Tom’s father.

“Wizards don’t really do maths,” replied Hermione. “Any witch or wizard with a mix of magical and non-magical or muggleborn grandparents is a halfblood. Any witch or wizard with four magical, non-muggleborn grandparents is a pureblood.”

“That means Abraxas, son of Serpens and Giselle, is a pureblood by most wizarding standards,” said Tom. “The Malfoys aren’t the extreme blood-purists the Blacks are. These family trees are very interesting. The Blacks seem to prefer to marry their cousins, but the Malfoys go out of their way to avoid inbreeding, which is difficult within a small society like wizarding Britain. Malfoy went abroad for his first wife, the late Njinga Shacklebolt.” He glanced at the paper. “There’s an article on her too. Quite a powerful sorceress, if this is to be believed. A lioness animagus.”

“Becoming an animagus doesn’t really take exceptional magical talent, just bravery, since self-transfiguration is so dangerous,” said Hermione. “The Hogwarts Board of Governors excluded animagus training from the curriculum, but it’s still offered as an elective at Uagadou.”

“That’s the most prestigious wizarding school in Africa,” Tom’s father explained to anyone who hadn’t read this in the introduction of Hogwarts, a History, which in this company meant only Tommy. Tommy didn’t seem interested in the paper. His blue-black eyes instead focused on the eyes of the four adults at the table, boring into each in turn from his vantage point in Hermione’s sling. Were babies supposed to do that?

“Yes,” said Hermione. “Anyway, I hate to think what sort of backlash against muggleborns and halfbloods might be triggered by a headline and news coverage like this.”

“That could complicate your planned outing Wednesday,” said Tom, concerned. “You don’t have to venture into the wizarding world if you think there’s any danger to a muggleborn such as yourself. We’ve gone this long without a Floo connection, we can certainly go longer. And if a shopping jaunt to a wizarding bookshop won’t be as relaxing as I thought, do something else. Something in the muggle world, perhaps. Visit a museum or castle. England has many sights to delight an Australian tourist.” He had to get this meddling witch out of the way so he could work his plan on Cecilia. 

Hermione smiled. “Thank you, Tom, that’s very thoughtful of you. But now I’m even more resolved to visit the Ministry of Magic. Besides arranging that Floo connection, I’d also like to do a bit of spying to see if the Wizengamot is working on any new anti-muggleborn legislation.”

“That’s what you do to relax?” laughed Tom.

“I can’t relax when there’s work to be done,” said Hermione. “Anyway, thank you for another excellent breakfast. I’ll be in my lab.” She handed Tommy off to his doting grandmother and left. 

Tom’s father shook his head. “What’s the point of having magical powers if one can’t even relax and enjoy them? Magic is wasted on her.” 

“Now Thomas,” said his mother, “we must keep in mind that magic seems to have brought Hermione more trouble than pleasure.”

“I’d gladly relieve her of the burden,” said Tom’s father. 

After breakfast, Tom went to his office and continued to study the Prophet, familiarizing himself not just with news, but also minutiae of advertisements, sport, book reviews… Tom could be indistinguishable from a wizard, but what good would that do? Malfoy now knew that Tommy was just the spare of Slytherin. He knew that Tom had lied about Tommy’s importance, and that the true pureblood heir of Slytherin was languishing in prison. As soon as Malfoy sorted out this business of his wife’s arrest, his next task would undoubtedly be assisting his fellow pureblood against this presumptuous halfblood trying to steal his title. Would Malfoy arrange for Morfin to be released from prison early? Morfin’s attacks had been bad enough when he’d acted alone. Now with Malfoy supporting him, could Tom withstand such an assault even with the protection of Hermione and Dobby? Would Morfin murder Tom and his parents earlier than the 1943 date given in the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility?

Tom also had muggle work to do, so he set his wizarding troubles aside and tried to concentrate on returns on investments until lunchtime.

Tom left his office and joined his family in the drawing room. Tommy’s blue-black eyes fixed on his. “Hello Tommy,” said Tom. He pulled his gaze away. “Mother, father.” He forced himself to discuss his muggle work rather than his wizarding concerns.

Hermione still hadn’t arrived by the time Fiona called them in to lunch. “Hermione told me we shouldn’t wait for her, but to go ahead and eat without her,” said his mother. “She’s working on yet another tricky stage of the portion.” So they went in to the dining room without her.

“Eh,” said Tommy. It was so rare for him to make a sound, he attracted everyone’s attention.

“It’s all right, my sweet little crumpet crumb,” cooed Tom’s mother. “Hermione will be here very soon.” She wasn’t eating, just focusing on Tommy. Tom wondered if he should call Dobby to call Hermione. He couldn’t very well eat lunch while his mother and son were going hungry. Look at the poor baby, sucking his tiny fist.

Fortunately, Tom didn’t have to risk interrupting Hermione’s work, for she soon swept in, making a beeline for Tommy. She unbuttoned her blouse to feed him, then fed herself one-handed. 

“I’m glad you could join us,” said Tom.

Tom’s mother asked her, “Would you care to join me for a walk after lunch, Hermione? I’m sure the fresh air would do you good.”

Hermione shook her absurd hair. “No time until the potion’s complete. I’m getting very close.”

“Hermione,” said Tom’s father politely enough to make Tom nervous, “As Ignis will need to start taking his potion Tuesday the eleventh, what time should we expect him? Perhaps we could invite him to lunch or dinner, so we don’t leave him with only a bad taste in his mouth.”

Hermione shook her head again. “There’s no need for him to come here. The Knight Bus isn’t a comfortable way to travel. I’ll apparate to someplace with a public Floo, then Floo to the address on his card. I’ll owl him first to ask what time I should show up with his potion. Tom, may I borrow Athena for that?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you. Once I’ve been to his place, I'll be able to apparate there for future visits. Or if we get the Floo here connected, I could use that.”

“Or he could use it to come here,” said Tom’s father.

“He wouldn’t need to,” said Hermione. “I can deliver his potion. And give him apparition lessons at his place.”

“Hermione,” said Tom’s father, “When your father entrusted you to my care—“

Hermione laughed.

“—I promised I would raise you as a proper young lady,” Tom’s father continued.

“Did you actually promise my father anything?” asked Hermione. “Considering that he was already dead by the time I arrived here?” 

“This was a pact we made years ago,” Tom’s father explained blithely. “We had such rapport, we agreed that if anything were to happen to your parents, you would come live with us, and of course conversely, if anything were to happen to Mary and me, Tom would have gone to Australia to live with your family.”

Tom burst into laughter. His mother’s musical laugh joined in.

“I’m sure you would do very well dealing opals,” his father assured him. “Leo promised me he would give you a good start in the business.”

Hermione was laughing too. “Doesn’t Tom have any closer relatives who could have taken him in? Any other family businesses he could have gone into? Hypothetically?”

Tom’s parents looked at each other. His mother didn’t say anything.

Tom’s father continued. “My point, Hermione, is that we are responsible for your care, and thus cannot allow you to damage your reputation by visiting a young male werewolf on your own. I’m sure you can understand why that wouldn’t be appropriate. He is welcome to visit us here, or one of us could escort you there. I would be honored to chaperone you myself, and thus ensure that your reputation remains spotless.” He sat back and smiled.

Toms father probably thought he’d just finageled himself a free ride into the wizarding world, where he’d poke his nose into everything while Hermione and Ignis were otherwise engaged. What sort of interesting equipment might an exterminator of magical beasts have in his place of business? Tom watched Hermione’s curls coiling like snakes preparing to strike, and backed away as far as possible without actually leaving the table. Perhaps he should leave. He had work to do in his office.

“Squire Riddle,” said Hermione, lowering the temperature in the room several degrees. “It is not your place to allow or forbid me from visiting whomever I want.” 

“Hermione,” said Tom’s mother gently. “Perhaps things are different in Australia, but here in England, a young lady’s reputation is a treasure to be guarded carefully.” 

Hermione turned her glare to his mother, who was unperturbed by it. “Mrs. Riddle, I have much more important things to worry about than my reputation. I will go visit Ignis on my own on Tuesday. After that first trip, I may continue to visit him on my own, or he may come here if that’s convenient for him and our Floo is connected, but your opinions about my reputation will have nothing to do with my plans. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” said Tom, as no one else was saying it.

Hermione ate the rest of her lunch silently. Then she handed the sleeping baby back to his mother and stormed from the dining room.

After lunch, Tom went back to his office. Soon, he heard an assertive knock on his door that could only be Hermione’s. “Come in.”

She did, carrying a scroll of parchment.

“My owl is at your service,” said Tom.

“Thank you.” Hermione woke her gently. “Athena, I have a letter for you to deliver to Ignis McKinnon. Please wait for his reply.” She tied the scroll to Athena’s leg, and then the owl, after a few blinks of her orange eyes, seemed to fly straight through the glass of the closed window.

“Hermione,” said Tom. “I must apologize again for my father’s—“

“No,” she interrupted. “He was right, according to the customs here. I’m not in Australia anymore. British wizarding society is obsessed with blood purity, so they don’t allow young witches to wander about unaccompanied any more than muggles do. Not respectable young witches, anyway. I must adapt. I’m sure Ignis will respect me more for being a properly-guarded young witch.” This was accompanied by an eye roll. “Your father managed to fool Ignis already, so he should be able to do it again.” She looked out the window and sighed. “I’ll have to apologize to him.”

“Apologizing is a great way to get people’s guards down,” said Tom helpfully. “Let him think he’s won, then he’ll go along with whatever you suggest next.”

She looked at him askance. “Ignis was right. You really are a Slytherin, whether you attended Hogwarts or not.”

Tom smiled. “Thank you. So, how will you use the goodwill your apology buys?”

“I’m not apologizing to buy goodwill, I’m apologizing because I was wrong!”

Tom blinked at her. “Then what advantage do you gain by apologizing?”

She shook her head at him. “Oh Tom. I don’t have time for this discussion. I have a potion to brew.” She left. 

After an afternoon spent investigating whether a tenant’s request for a roof repair was justified by anything other than the fact that the tenant’s cousin’s husband was a roofer, Tom went to the drawing room to await dinner and watch the show. 

Hermione arrived promptly, took Tommy to feed him, and took a deep breath. “Squire Riddle, I need to apologize. I was wrong. If it’s the custom here that a young woman doesn’t visit a man without a chaperone, I should follow that. You may accompany me when I deliver Ignis’s potion to him Tuesday.”

Tom’s father beamed. “Thank you, Hermione. I accept your apology.” 

Hermione continued. “I think I have some wizarding robes that will fit you. They need repair, but they started out of good quality, at least. I would have offered them to Tom, but they would have been a bit too short and broad. Accio Neville’s robes.” Tom, for perhaps the first time in his life, regretted being so tall, as this Neville person had much higher quality robes than this Ron person. The robes were a rich brown, coordinating well with a dark maroon waistcoat. “Dobby might be able to get these singe marks out,” said Hermione. “And no one will see this bloodstain on the shirt as long as you keep the waistcoat buttoned.”

“Perhaps I’ll wear one of my own shirts,” said Tom’s father. “Clothes stained with another man’s blood aren’t my style.”

“Oh, it’s not his,” she assured him. “This is from when he tried to carry Ginny to safety. Not that that’s any better, I suppose.”

“How did all these clothes come to be in your possession?” asked Tom’s father.

“I had the biggest bag,” she said. “I carried everyone’s stuff in here.”

“Everyone?” asked Tom’s father.

“All of us who escaped from the school. And then the country. We really didn’t wear our wizarding clothes much once we went on the run. It was safer to try to pass as muggles. Well, at least until… Anyway, I think these might fit you. A muggle shirt should be fine, maybe if Dobby can change the style.” 

“I feel a bit left out,” said Tom’s mother.

Hermione looked at her. “Oh, I know.” She reached into her bag. “Accio Cho’s robes.” She drew forth a beautiful garment in royal blue, and looked it over. “Cho was good at repair spells,” she concluded.

Tom’s mother looked not just delighted, but relieved as she took the clothes. “You could have worn these for your first outing to Diagon Alley.”

Hermione looked at the beautiful clothes. “They’re too long for me. Cho was taller than I am.”

“Raising a hem isn’t a difficult— I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so crass.” She set the clothes aside and patted Hermione’s hand. “Thank you very much for offering to share these clothes. If this is too difficult for you, we don’t have to—“ 

“It’s fine,” said Hermione, although she was fighting back tears. “I’m sure they would be fine with sharing their clothes. We shared everything we had, near the end. All of us who were left. And we always helped muggles. Whenever we found one alive—“

“Dinner is served,” announced Fiona quickly before fleeing, clearly not wanting to be in the same room as a distraught witch.

Tom stood and offered his hand to assist Hermione to the dining room. She stared at it blankly for a moment before taking it and allowing him to lead her, as she cuddled Tommy with her other arm. “Thank you,” she said as he pulled out her chair for her. She sat looking at the peacefully nursing baby for a moment, then started her soup. “Anyway,” she said after a few spoonfuls. “That’s neither here nor there. There’s also the matter of acclimating you to side-along apparition and Floo travel. I’ll have Dobby side-along apparate you in advance several times. It would probably be best to start with short distances and gradually work your way up to longer ones.”

“You weren’t so considerate of my comfort when you first side-along apparated me,” said Tom. 

Hermione shrugged. “I didn’t know you’d have the patience for such a project. Now I know.”

“Just around the grounds, to start with?” asked his father.

“Just across a room would be a good trip for a beginner. You and Dobby can increase the distance gradually. I’ll still need him for help with the potion occasionally, though.”

“Of course,” said Tom.

“If Dobby can transport two people at a time,” started his mother.

“Of course,” interrupted Hermione. “He can acclimate you both at once. As for the Floo portion of the journey, well, perhaps you could pretend to be a bit tipsy or clumsy or something to account for any stumbling as you step out of his fireplace.” 

Tom’s father was so excited to try apparition, he rushed through his dinner. When he put down his fork, he asked Hermione, “Is Dobby busy with the potion now, or may I call him?”

“He’s busy, but I’ll go relieve him soon,” said Hermione, putting down her own fork. “I’ll explain his task to him and send him to you.” She yielded Tommy to Tom’s mother and left. 

Dobby popped into the dining room shortly. “Miss Granger instructed Dobby to acclimate you two to sidelong apparition,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Tom’s father. He offered a hand to assist Tom’s mother from her seat. “Let’s start by apparating around the drawing room,” so they withdrew. The clothes that Hermione had offered to his parents were still there, draped across some furniture.

Tom’s mother turned to Tom. “Tommy has no need of this lesson, so if you would…”

Tom took his son in his arms and sat on a chair by the fire. Tommy was so tiny, a blob bundled in blankets.

Dobby took his parents’ arms. Tom looked into his son’s blue-black eyes. Hermione and her small band of fugitive friends had escaped from their school, escaped from their country...

Tom started when his parents and Dobby vanished with a loud crack, to reappear on the other side of the room, wobbling. His father reached out a hand to the wall to steady himself. Tom felt unsteady as well. Hermione and her friends had provided what assistance they could to any muggle they found alive…

“Are you ready for another trip?” asked Dobby.

“No,” said Tom’s father loudly.

“Are you all right, Tom?” his mother asked.

“Fine,” he said.

“Tom,” said his mother.

“It’s just… The clothes of Hermione’s friends there…”

Dobby took an immediate interest in them, as Tom’s parents sat to recover from apparition. “This stain will never come out,” he declared. “That blood was spilled by Dark magic.”

“Could you tailor one of my shirts to resemble a wizarding one?” asked Tom’s father. “Or piece together one good wizarding shirt out of this and one of mine?” 

“Dobby has some skill at sewing,” said Dobby. “Dobby thinks he can.”

“Good,” said Tom’s father. “And see what you can do about those burn marks.”

Dobby made quick work of them. He even magically smoothed the wrinkles out of the beautiful blue witch robes.

Tom’s mother touched them reverently. “I’m afraid to ask Hermione what happened to the previous wearer, but I’ll honor her as best I can. I also plan to have my own witch robes made as soon as possible.” She looked to Dobby. “I believe I’m ready to apparate again, perhaps a bit further this time, say, to the study.”

Tom’s father looked skeptical of this, but he stood and allowed Dobby to take his arm again. The three of them vanished with a crack, leaving Tom alone with his son.

Were Tommy’s cheeks getting rounder in the short time Tom had known him? He looked like a cherub in some insufferably sweet Victorian illustration. 

They must have been running from some other Dark wizard, not Tommy. No son of Tom’s would commit such crimes. Hermione had travelled back in time to stop a minor criminal, who was only moderately evil… Tom couldn’t convince himself. He was a good liar, but not that good. It didn’t matter. The future wasn’t written in stone. Hermione had said so herself.

“You will bring glory to the Riddle name, son,” said Tom. “Not infamy. Glory.” Was that a faint toothless smile as those strange blue-black eyes bored into his? “You will bring enlightenment to the barbarians of wizarding society,” Tom explained. “No one will dare to cross a wizard of your influence, with your connections. Once you’re in power, you’ll be making the rules, not following ones made centuries ago by savages.”

Perhaps it was silly to talk to a baby like this, although those dark eyes were staring at him, completely transfixed. What was one supposed to do with a baby? Ah yes. Tom pulled a lullaby from his memory. “Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly. Lavender’s green…” Tommy’s eyelids got heavy, and eventually closed as he fell asleep. 

Monday and Tuesday, Tom saw very little of Hermione, as she rushed through her meals and her feedings of Tommy. Tom busied himself with his muggle work. He also read the muggle newspaper, which he’d been neglecting. He’d have to seem like a muggle to Cecilia. A perfectly normal, sane muggle, who could discuss the current news.

After dinner Tuesday, Hermione, in the beautiful new witch robes that Tom had bought for her, handed Tommy off to his grandmother. “We’ll be so quick, there’s no need to subject Tommy to the discomforts of apparition and Floo travel.” She seemed to regret her decision as soon as Tommy was out of her arms, though. “Take care of him.”

“Of course, Hermione,” said Tom’s mother. “What a sweet little snugglecrumpet.”

“Right,” said Hermione. She turned to Tom’s father. “Squire Riddle, dress in your wizarding attire and meet me at the door to my lab. I’ll fetch the first dose of Ignis’s potion, and we’ll apparate to the Three Broomsticks. That’s the closest wizarding pub I know. It has a public Floo.” 

“Thank you,” said Tom’s father. “I’ll see you shortly.” 

Hermione left for her lab, and Tom’s father, grinning, went to change into the wizarding robes that Dobby had so expertly improved. Tom’s mother, holding Tommy, accompanied him. Tom had not yet seen his father so attired, so we waited outside his parents’ room. 

His father came out soon, looking proud, accompanied by his mother, holding Tommy. Even Tommy looked impressed, although his blue-black eyes were fixed on his grandfather’s eyes, not his clothes.

“Don’t these robes suit him well?” said his mother. “He looks so handsome.” 

“Thank you, dear,” said Tom’s father.

“They look natural on you,” said Tom.

Tom’s mother wrapped Tommy in another blanket and the Riddles headed out to wait by Hermione’s lab.

“Yeti fur is such a practical material,” Tom’s father remarked, admiring his robes. “Very warm.”

“Kiss for luck,” said his mother, and Tom had to look away.

“We’ll be back soon,” said his father, so Tom knew it was safe to look. “I have to come back, after a kiss like that.”

“Oh Thomas,” blushed his mother.

Hermione came out of her lab and pulled the door shut behind her. She was holding a small box with a handle. Faint swirls of blue smoke were puffing from the edges.  

“Doesn’t that fit in your beaded bag?” asked Tom.

“Smell this,” she said.

Tom brought his nose only slightly closer, and understood why she didn’t want it in with the rest of her stuff. “I see. I smell, rather.”

Tom’s father offered his arm to Hermione. “Take my arm, Hermione, and I’ll apparate you to the Three Broomsticks.”

Hermione blinked at him.

“I wouldn’t expect an Australian to know her way around Britain,” explained Tom’s father. “I’m sorry our Floo is out-of-order. Apparating you to the nearest business with a public Floo is the least I can do.”

“Right,” said Hermione. “Well. Thank you. Here we go.” She took his arm and they vanished with a crack.

Tom, his mother, and his son retired to the study to wait. Tom’s mother read The Tale of Tom Kitten to Tommy. Tom has always found that tale disturbing. Tom attempted to read the paper, but gave up. There were too many ways his father could be getting into trouble right now.

His father and Hermione were back in half an hour. Hermione rushed to reclaim Tommy. Tom’s father wobbled to a wingback chair by the fire and sat down. Tom’s mother rushed to his side as soon as she was free of Tommy, and Tom had to look away again. When Tom heard his father say, “Thank you for that very warm welcome home,” he knew it was safe to look. 

“How did it go?” Tom asked Hermione, for “Did you kill the werewolf?” didn’t seem polite.

“The McKinnons are a charming family,” said Tom’s father before Hermione had a chance to speak. “I do believe Mrs. McKinnon would have hugged me, had our obvious difference in class not made such familiarity inappropriate. Our hospitality to their werewolf son made quite an impression on them. I did get some very enthusiastic handshakes, and some quaintly simple refreshments out of this. It seemed rude to leave so quickly, but Hermione was in a rush.” 

“But how does Ignis like his new potion?” asked Tom.

“He managed to drink it,” said Hermione. “I instructed his mother to give him a bezoar if he has an adverse reaction, but he seems all right so far.” 

“Good,” said Tom.

Hermione leaned back on the settee, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “So,” she said faintly. “Tomorrow morning, Ministry of Magic level six, Floo Network Authority. Oh, we need to decide which fireplace we want to hook up. Not one of the more public ones, you don’t want any muggle visitors to be startled by a Floo-call.”

“My office?” suggested Tom.

Hermione nodded. “Then as long as I’m there, I’ll don the cloak and see what I can find out about any new legislation the Wizengamot’s working on.”

“With Tommy?” inquired Tom’s mother. “Or do you plan to leave him here?”

“He’s so quiet, he won’t interfere with my plans,” she said. “Then back here to pick up the next dose of wolfsbane. Then off to Ignis’s place to deliver it. That’ll be quick, I can leave Tommy here for it.”

“What do you plan to do with whatever information you gather from the Wizengamot offices?” asked Tom. He waited what he considered a respectful amount of time for her to compose her thoughts, but received no answer. “Hermione?”

His mother pressed a finger to her lips to shush him. “Don’t wake her,” she whispered. “The poor girl needs her rest. I don't think she slept at all last night, she was so busy finishing the potion.”

Indeed, she and his son were both asleep on the settee. “Are we just going to leave them there?” Tom whispered in disbelief.

His mother shook her head. “It’s not a fit place for a baby to sleep. I’ll take Tommy, you help Hermione to bed. It might be possible to carry her without even waking her. This reminds me of when you were a little boy.” 

Tom and his mother approached the sleepers cautiously. Tom gently moved Hermione’s left arm away from Tommy so his mother could reach him.

Tom woke, with a pounding headache, on the floor. “Sorry,” Hermione said.

“What…” he tried.

“You startled me,” she said accusingly as she sheathed her wand. “Don’t do that. Never do that.”

“Understood,” he said. He got up with difficulty. Hermione offered him her hand to help him up, and he was not too proud to take it. Her hand was shaking, though, and not very helpful. “Sorry,” he added. He felt in need of a handkerchief, and was horrified to bloody it.

“I fixed your broken nose while you were unconscious,” explained Hermione.

He reached for it in a panic, but it seemed as straight as ever.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t use any Dark magic,” she assured him. “There’s no permanent damage.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry to disturb your rest, Hermione,” said his mother, “but I’m glad of the opportunity to see your reflexes in action.”

“Being a witch is impressive in its own right of course,” said Tom’s father, “but reflexes like that are an exceptional talent in anyone, witch or muggle.”

“I didn’t acquire them for your entertainment,” said Hermione.

“Of course,” soothed his mother. “Now please allow us to assist you to bed. I dare say you need rest after all your hard work.”

Hermione allowed Tom to support her as she walked up the stairs. She was still shaking, her thin bones almost rattling. His mother carried Tommy.

“Thank you Tom,” said his mother when they got to the door of Hermione’s room. “You may leave us now. I will assist Hermione to bed.”

“I don’t need to be tucked in,” said Hermione, steadier now. “I’m not a child.” she took Tommy back emphatically.

“Everyone needs mothering sometimes,” said Tom’s mother.

“You’re not— Thank you, but I’m fine. Goodnight Mrs. Riddle, Tom. I’ll see you at breakfast.” She entered her room and closed the door behind her with a bit more force than necessary.

——-

Wednesday morning, Hermione showed up at breakfast beautifully dressed as a witch. She’d made full use of her hair potions. “I wonder if I’ll get better service at the Ministry if I look like someone important.”

“Of course you will,” said Tom. “Just act like you deserve better than the common sorts of riffraff.”

Frowning was not a good look on her. “But is it really ethical for me to manipulate the system like this, just because I can?”

“Yes,” said Tom firmly. “See if you can cut in line ahead of any purebloods. The more bigoted the better.”

Smiling suited her face much better.

Once breakfast was over and Hermione and Tommy had apparated away, Tom got to work. He headed to the garage. “Dobby!” 

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“It’s time. Fetch the Amortentia. I’ll take you to Threepworple Manor, and point out where Miss Threepworple drinks her tea.”

“Yes Master.” Dobby popped away and was back in a moment, the tiny vial clutched in his grey hand. 

“As I understand it, you can’t apparate us to a place you’ve never been?”

Dobby shook his head. “I’m sorry Master.”

“It’s no trouble at all. I’ll drive us there. I’ll park in Great Hangleton and we’ll walk the rest of the way. You can disillusion me as well, correct?” 

“Yes Master. The spell isn’t perfect, especially in bright sunlight—“

“Which we don’t have today.” The weather was quite grey and dreary. Hopefully, the stormy scent of the air would be enough to disguise the Amortentia. “I’m sure it will be fine.” He opened the passenger door for Dobby. “Come on. Get in.”

Dobby got in with great trepidation. “Dobby has never traveled by muggle machine, Master.” 

“Don’t worry. Miss Granger inscribed some runes on it to make it even safer.”

Some of the tension melted from Dobby’s furry ears.

“Here’s the plan,” said Tom. “All of which must be kept secret from Miss Granger. Once we get to Threepworple Manor, I’ll point out the window of Miss Threepworple’s sitting room. It overlooks the rose garden. I defer to your expertise regarding magic, but perhaps you could climb the vine that grows on the wall, wait until the room is empty, open the window when you won’t be observed, and wait inside until the maid delivers her tea. Add the Amortentia to the tea, stay to see that she drinks it, and then apparate home, preferably when no one’s around to hear you. It is of course quite important that it’s drunk by the right person, Miss Cecilia Threepworple. Here’s a photograph of her.” It was from a newspaper article about a suffrage speech she had made. He used to have better pictures of her, but Merope had told him to burn them all, and he gladly had. Even that relatively small loss ached.

Dobby studied the scrap of newspaper. “This is a photograph?”

“Yes. Muggle photographs are different from wizarding. But you get the idea. She’s very beautiful, isn’t she?”

“This is a picture of a human female?”

“What? Of course it is.”

“Dobby thought human females had long hair. That’s how Dobby tells humans apart. But this human’s hair is shorter than Dobby’s old Master Malfoy, and he’s a human male. Is Master sure, not that it makes a difference to Dobby—“

“She just bobbed her hair, all right? It’s a muggle fashion. I think she looks beautiful in modern fashions.”

Dobby peered critically at the photograph. “This human doesn’t have any teats.”

“What?” 

“For feeding her young. The Malfoy wives have always hired wet nurses, but even they had—“

“I assure you that Miss Threepworple has delightfully— Anyway, that’s just the way her dress is designed, with a fashionably streamlined look. I am not going to discuss this. I don’t want a critique of her beauty, I just want to know that you’ll recognize her, so you can deliver this potion to the right person.”

Dobby studied the photograph. “She has a very long neck.”

“An elegant, graceful neck, yes. And blue eyes, which you can’t tell from the photograph of course. Blonde hair. You’ll recognize her, right?”

Dobby peered at the picture. “Humans all look sort of alike to Dobby, to be completely honest, Master. But Dobby will try to give the Amortentia to the right human.” 

“Well. I guess that’s the best we can hope for. Now disillusion yourself, so no muggles see you if they happen to look in the car windows.”

Dobby obediently disappeared. Tom saw no sign of him but a slight depression in his seat cushion, and a faint shadow cast by nothing. He did hear a brief, high-pitched shriek when he started the car and drove off. He resisted the temptation to speed down the hill. Instead, he drove at a reasonable speed, pointing out landmarks along the way. “That’s the Gaunt shack, through the woods over there. And now we’re entering downtown Little Hangleton, such as it is. Bakery, general store, farm supplies. We’re just passing through on our way to Great Hangleton. And here we are. Petrol station, cobbler shop, dentist’s office, cinema… I’ll park here; anyone who recognizes my car should assume I’m watching a moving picture.” Tom parked, and heard a sigh of relief from his left.

“Muggle transportation isn’t so bad, is it? Now, if you disillusion me in the car, then any bystanders will see my car door opened and closed by no one, which might look suspicious. So. Dobby, I’m taking you to a moving picture. Nice and dark. I’ll buy a ticket for one, you’ll follow me in and sit beside me, then disillusion me once the theatre is dark. I suppose we’ll have to hold hands or something to enable us to leave together while we’re invisible. I’ll walk you to Threepworple Manor. We should be able to talk without being overheard once we’re out of town. Does that sound like a good plan to you?”

“Yes Master.”

“We’d better both get out the driver’s side door.” He opened it, got out, and paused, looking up at the stormy sky. Once a faint shadow of nothing was shimmering on the ground beside him, he closed his door and walked into the theatre. He bought one ticket for this morning’s showing of The Triumph of the Rat. He didn’t walk far into the theatre, which was almost empty. He sat near the back, and heard the seat beside him creak as well.

The young pianist hired to accompany this morning’s showing would not have been Tom’s top choice as Dobby’s first introduction to muggle music. 

The lights went down. Tom felt a peculiar sensation, as if Dobby had cracked an egg over his head and it was dripping down over him. He put his hand in front of his face and found that he could see the screen just fine through it. He read the title card on the screen: “But it’s a hard thing for a man to hitch his wagon to a star as this story sets out to tell.” Dobby’s disillusionment had worked. As an extra benefit of Tom’s plan, he would not feel deprived to miss such a trite moving picture.

Tom felt a hand gripping his sleeve. Good. Holding hands with an elf in a cinema would have been at once too similar and too dissimilar to watching a moving picture with Cecilia. Tom stood and led Dobby out of the theatre, out of town, along Threepworple Road. Once they were in the countryside, walking between the hedgerows, Tom spoke. “The Triumph of the Rat is seventy-four minutes long. That should give me plenty of time to show you to Cecilia’s sitting room and get back to the theatre. Will my disillusionment wear off by then?”

“If you like, Master.”

Threepworple Manor rose before them.

“Master,” said Dobby. “Is that a muggle house?”

“Yes.” 

“Dobby didn’t know muggle houses could be so grand.”

“Is it as grand as Malfoy Manor?”

“No. But it’s much grander than the Riddle House.”

“I know, Dobby. There’s no need to tell me.”

“Yes Master.”

“That’s not why I’m giving her the Amortentia, because she’s rich. I don’t care that she’s rich. I love her. She’s the most amazing, beautiful, passionate, intelligent, ambitious… There’s no reason for me to tell you all this.”

“Master may tell Dobby anything he likes. Master is Dobby’s master.”

“That doesn’t mean my love life is interesting. What about you? Have you ever been in love?”

There was a pause that made Tom wonder if he’d lost the invisible elf, but no, he still felt an invisible hand gripping his invisible sleeve. “You needn’t tell me,” he backpedaled. “It’s none of my business.” 

“Thank you, Master.”

They continued their walk in silence. There were no gardeners in the rose garden this dreary day, so Tom and Dobby could converse in perfect privacy. “There’s the window of her sitting room. There’s no point to me pointing an invisible finger, is there? Her window is the one with the balcony around it, with the vine growing on it. Her window is dark now. You see?”

“Yes Master.”

“Good. Can you break in unnoticed? When the room is empty of course, so no one notices the window opening?” 

“Dobby detects no magical wards at all on this manor. Getting in will be very easy.”

“Good. I hope you aren’t waiting too long, She does often drink tea in that room while she works. Apparate home when you’re done. Good luck.” 

“Yes Master.”

Now that Tom was standing still, he started to feel the cold, but he waited and watched the vine on Cecilia’s balcony shake slightly. The window opened, then shut, and it was out of Tom’s hands.

He walked back to town, his heart pounding. This was it. It would work. It had to work. Amortentia had caused him to lose Cecilia’s love, so it had damn well better help him win it back.

The sky started to precipitate on him. It was unable to decide between rain, sleet, and snow. Tom looked with horror at his sleeve, still invisible, but the flakes that stuck to it were briefly visible before they melted, forming a very faint outline of his arm. He broke into a run, the air harsh and cold in his throat as he breathed harder. 

He made it to the cinema’s awning and brushed the snow off himself. I’m a small whirlwind, he thought, suppressing a giggle. There’s a completely ordinary explanation for anyone who sees me. Then he noticed his footprints leading to the cinema, barely visible in the light dusting of snow.

He looked around. No one was watching him. Anyone who had to be out in this weather was rushing to their destination as fast as possible, paying no attention to any odd behavior of the snow

Sneaking back into the cinema while invisible was as easy as pie. He followed some people coming in for the next showing, walking past them as they loitered in the lobby. Tom sat in the very same seat he’d occupied before. He held his hand in front of his face to check if it blocked his view of the screen. It didn’t, unfortunately, as the screen showed a scruffy man lurking around a fine restaurant full of well-dressed diners, then stealing a bone from a dog and gnawing on it hungrily. Tom paid no more attention to the moving picture, for his view of himself was much more interesting. He saw his hand appear, ghostly at first. By the time the lights came on, he was as opaque as ever.

He left the cinema, walked back to his car and drove home. Even Hermione could find no fault with how he’d handled this. The Statute of Secrecy was perfectly intact.

Chapter Text

Tom’s mother greeted him at the door when he got home. “Cecilia telephoned while you were out,” she said, beaming.

The Amortentia had worked. Tom felt faint. “What did she say?”

“She wanted to talk to me about whether your symptoms had improved, or whether you were still suffering from madness. I told her you were as sane as ever, but she didn’t seem satisfied with my opinion, saying I was too close to you to make an objective assessment. She informed me that only a family member can involuntary commit a patient to a mental institution, and seemed to think that your father and I are being negligent in our care of you by not getting you the professional help you require. She said she’d seek more expert advice, and ended the call in a huff. But this still seems like a promising development, that she would call us at all.”

“Indeed.” There was only one thing to do now. “I’ll call her back from my office,”

“Good luck.”

Tom floated there, sat at his desk, lifted the receiver off the switch hook, and raised it to his ear.

“Number please,” said the operator.

Tom spoke into the mouthpiece. “Hangleton zero zero one.”

“Sorry sir, that line is busy,”

“Oh. Thank you.” He returned the receiver to the switch hook. He got the same results the next three times he tried to call, waiting ten minutes between attempts. He attempted to pass the time by looking over some accounts, but couldn’t concentrate. He made a fourth attempt.

The phone was picked up immediately. “Hello?” Cecilia’s voice, very brisk and businesslike. 

Tom’s heart caught in his throat for a moment, but he found his voice eventually. “Cecilia. It’s me. Tom.”

“Oh Tom! It’s so good to hear your voice.” Her businesslike manner was gone, replaced with a breathlessness he almost didn’t recognize.

Tom felt that his heart was about to pound out of his chest. “It’s wonderful to hear your voice as well. I’m sorry I was out when you called. How have you been?”

A bit of that businesslike efficiency came back. “This morning, I’ve been very busy—“

Tom felt a sudden cold draft, then a large white owl landed on his shoulder, battering his head with a wing. He dropped the telephone receiver and scrambled to pick it up and return it to his ear. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that. I’m having a bit of difficulty over here.”

“Oh Tom, I know you are! Poor dear.”

“A rather large owl just flew in the window.”

“Oh darling, it must be terrifying to see things that aren’t there.”

Tom tried to fend off the vicious bird’s talons, but it was thrusting a scroll in his face very emphatically. A talon snagged in his sleeve and ripped a gash down it. “Cecilia, may I call you back? I’m very sorry, but it turns out that this is a bad time.”

“I feel that I don’t really get a complete picture over the telephone. May I visit you later?”

“Visit? Yes! Of course! You’re always welcome. Well, I mean, you’re welcome again,” for he had a terrible memory of turning her away on Merope’s command. That hurt more than the talon that caught in his forearm as he tried to defend himself from the owl.

“I’ll see you later then,” said Cecilia. “I have some important things to do beforehand.” Tom recognized and admired the resolve in her voice. 

“I’m looking forward to your visit,” he said.

“Goodbye. I love you.”

“I love you too.” It was automatic, and felt so familiar and natural, but it wasn’t what he’d meant to say. He’d planned everything so carefully, but Malfoy’s owl had ruined everything. He placed the telephone receiver back in the switch hook. “You pugilistic poultry, couldn’t you see I was on the telephone?” He took the scroll off the owl’s leg while competing in a glaring contest with it, then looked away to read the scroll:

Dear Mr. Riddle,

I hereby acknowledge the life debt I owe to you. My father refused to hear my suspicions of my stepmother until you confirmed them. I wish to meet the wizard who saved my life and formally pledge my debt, as well as find a way to repay you. Please let me know when and where I can meet my savior in person.

Sincerely,

Corvus Malfoy

Tom needed to consult with an expert about this. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“First, thank you for your excellent work this morning. Second, fetch some meat for this owl, some tough joint to keep it busy for a while.” 

“Yes Master.” Dobby popped away and was back soon with a hunk of something raw and gristly in a dish. He set it in front of the owl, which seemed equally happy to attack that.

Athena, who had been sleeping peacefully through all this, finally opened her eyes now that something interesting was in the room

“And another dish of meat for Athena,” said Tom. “Although I see owl loyalty doesn’t extend to defending their masters.”

Athena hooted at him. 

Dobby popped away again and was back quickly.

Once the owls were settled, Tom turned again to Dobby. “Third, I need you to explain what a life debt is.”

Dobby blinked his huge green eyes at him. “That’s human magic, Master.

“Yes, but what is it? What am I supposed to do about this boy owing me one?” He handed the letter to Dobby, whose eyes scanned it slowly as his grey lips moved silently.

Dobby eventually looked up at Tom. “Dobby knows how to cook and clean and mend things, Master.” He held the letter out to Tom. “This is powerful, ancient human magic. Dobby doesn’t know human magic.”

Tom took the letter back. His plan to get Hermione out of his way for the day seemed less clever now. An expert on human etiquette was the next best thing. “Dobby, ask my mother to join me in my office. My father too, if he’s not busy.” Dobby popped away

Tom’s parents arrived soon. Tom showed them the letter.

“The boy has beautiful handwriting,” said his mother.

“Hard to read,” sneered his father. “Too many flourishes.”

“His handwriting isn’t the point,” said Tom. “What on earth is a life debt?”

“Whatever it is,” said his mother, “this boy seems to have made this decision to contact you without consulting his father, who must be busy with his wife’s trial. That seems froward.”

“We can discuss the heir of Malfoy’s talents and faults later,” said Tom. “This owl clearly expects a response.” Tom started on a rough draft with a fountain pen on scrap paper. The white owl gave him a quizzical glance, then resumed ripping its meat to shreds.

Dear Corvus Malfoy,

I am glad to have been of service. There is no urgency to the repayment of any life debt. I would not ask you to discuss such an important matter without your father’s guidance. As he is undoubtedly occupied by other matters now, our discussion can wait until a time of our mutual convenience.

For future correspondence, please instruct your owl to wait calmly if I am not available to take your letter immediately. Its insistence was very inconvenient this time, as it arrived while I was otherwise engaged.

Sincerely,

Tom Riddle

Tom crossed out that second paragraph. As a wizard, he should undoubtedly be able to defend himself from a belligerent owl with no trouble.

As Tom’s parents had no suggestions for improvements, he copied his letter onto parchment in a wizarding hand with quill and ink, tied it to the owl’s leg, and said, “With the greatest respect, please deliver that to Corvus Malfoy.” The owl flew out the window.

Tom collapsed in his desk chair. It had been a long morning. He looked at his owl-ravaged sleeve. “Dobby, could you fix this?”

“Of course, Master.” Dobby started with his perforated forearm, that Tom hadn’t really noticed, then his blood-spotted and ripped shirt, then his ripped jacket sleeve. Everything looked as good as new. What was Tom supposed to do now?

“Have you had lunch?” his mother asked.

Oh, right. “No, and I suppose I should. Thank you.”

His parents had eaten already, but his mother sat with him as he ate. He didn’t know what he was eating. Cecilia would be visiting him soon. He should check his hair. No, it didn’t matter what his hair looked like to someone under the influence of Amortentia.

“I wonder what prompted Cecilia’s suddenly renewed interest,” said his mother.

Whatever Tom had just taken a bite of formed an unswallowable lump in his mouth. It could have been his serviette. Whatever it was, he fought it down well enough to say, “She was bound to come around eventually. Merope’s out of the way, and she’s had time to think. Mother, when she arrives, if I could entertain her on my own—“

“Of course, dear,” said his mother. “My presence in the house is quite enough to maintain propriety in this liberal age.”

“Thank you.”

After lunch, there was nothing to do but clean his teeth, check his hair, don a fresh and slightly more fashionable suit, run through the plan with Dobby, instruct Fiona to prepare some light refreshments, and stare out the window, waiting for Cecilia’s car to appear from the grey January gloom.

The Riddle family’s Bentley 3 Litre saloon was a fine car, but the Bentley 4½ Litre that was now conquering the steep, slushy drive up to the Riddle House was obviously a more powerful beast. Tom rushed to the front door, for he didn’t want to waste a moment of Cecilia’s company on a servant, particularly not a servant who had already seen one victim of Amortentia, and might recognize another.

The car parked in the drive. The driver got out, opened Cecilia’s door, and assisted her out. As she stood, the sun seemed to break through the grey clouds, illuminating her golden hair. 

Cecilia walked to the front door, while her driver went around back to the servants’ entrance. Tom opened the door before she had time to ring. 

“Cecilia! Thank you so much for coming. Do come in.”

She seemed in a daze, blue eyes drinking him in, as she stepped inside. “Tom. Tom. Oh, it’s so good to see you. You look well.”

“As do you, lovely as always. May I take your coat?”

“What? Oh. Yes, I suppose. Thank you.”

Tom did and hung it by the door.

The tailoring of her suit was enough to make a strong man weep, and the curves of her ivory-stocking-clad legs were too graceful for this earth.

Nonetheless, Tom remembered how to talk. “Shall we talk in the study? I have a fire there, and tea.” Dobby had charmed the teapot to keep the contents hot and fresh until Cecilia’s arrival.

“All right.”

Tom led her there, and closed the door against drafts. Once Cecilia looked around and saw that they had the room to themselves, she rushed to him, so it was all Tom could do to grasp her upper arms to hold her at his arm’s length. The feel of her: her beautiful wool suit, the slipperiness of the satin lining as it slid over her blouse and soft flesh, nearly drove him mad, but he stuck to his plan. He gripped her tightly to prevent her from coming any closer. “Cecilia, stop. My mother’s right in the next room.”

She gave him a longing look but backed off. He forced his hands to let her go. “I love you, Tom. I never stopped loving you. I tried, I lied to myself saying that my feelings for you were gone, but I can’t stop loving you. I’m so sorry I abandoned you.”

“You didn’t abandon me,” said Tom. “Quite the reverse. I married another woman. That’s more than sufficient justification for you to stop loving me.”

“I abandoned you to your madness!” she cried. “That’s just as bad as abandoning a man because he’s stricken with any other disease or injury. So many men came back from the war with missing limbs, with shell shock, but did their sweethearts abandon them? No! Only those who had never truly loved them. My love for you is true, Tom. I’ll never leave you again. I’ll get you the help you need.”

“Help?” Tom wondered.

“I’ve been researching modern treatments for madness,” she explained. “There have been great advances in psychiatry in recent years. I’m sure you can be cured.”

“Cured?” Tom had quite a different topic to discuss, but he knew from experience that it was pointless to attempt to derail Cecilia once she was on a topic of interest to her, so he simply listened.

“Yes, cured. There’s a lot of help available. The London Clinic of Psychoanalysis was just founded last year. I’ve been speaking with the founder, Ernest Jones. He seems very interested in your case. He thinks he may be able to resolve your issues with talk therapy, if you really admit your feelings about your mother.”

“I don’t think I have any particularly noteworthy feelings about my mother.”

“Well. There are other options too. For instance, there’s electronarcosis, passing an electrical current through your brain.”

“That sounds shocking.”

“And a Swiss psychiatrist named Klaesi has had good results drugging patients with barbiturates so they sleep for ten days straight, giving their brains time to rest and recover.” 

“My work schedule would not permit such a long vacation,” objected Tom.

“And malarial therapy has gotten very good results as a treatment for general paresis of the insane, and has only a fifteen percent death rate.”

“Cecilia. I appreciate the time you’ve put into researching these therapies, I really do. In fact, that ties right in with what I want to explain. You understand that drugs can affect the mind, yes?” 

Cecilia nodded, pleased that Tom seemed to be following her argument about treatments for madness. 

“I tried to explain love potions to you earlier, but you didn’t understand, as drugs with such precise effects are outside your experience. I know you to be a very intelligent and skeptical woman, Cecilia. Of course you wouldn’t believe in magic potions without proof. The only way for you to understand their power is for you to feel the effect of such a drug yourself. Thus, I surreptitiously added a love potion to your tea this morning. You don’t truly love me. Your emotions are being controlled by the potion.”

“Oh Tom!” Tears welled in her eyes. “To see you so deluded—“

“Cecilia, you must recognize that your feelings for me aren’t truly your own. Such a sudden change—“

“No! I won’t listen to this. I will not humor your madness!” Cecilia stood straight and fixed her steel-blue eyes on him. “I have no choice. Marry me, Tom!”

Tom stared at her.

“A woman may propose to a man you know,” she said.

“Of course,” he said. “It’s only fair. That’s not why I’m surprised.” Tom checked for incoming owls that might account for the chill he was feeling, but the room was free of avian invaders. He looked to Cecilia again. “You’re not saying that because you want to be with me. You’re saying that because only a family member can have me involuntarily committed to a mental institution.” 

She smiled, even as she wiped a tear from her eye. “Oh Tom, you’re as sharp as ever, even in your current deranged state. Yes, I am willing to make this sacrifice for your sake, although I suppose it won’t work now that you’ve figured it out. It was the only way I can think of to get you the care you need, as your parents seem unwilling to face the truth about your condition.”

“Cecilia, that’s… That’s brilliant, really. I’m sorry to spoil such a creative plan. But no, I couldn’t marry you in this state. I am truly sorry, but I must respectfully decline.”

“I checked, and there isn’t any actual sanity test involved in getting a marriage license. Perhaps there should be. That would have saved you from that…”

“That witch,” Tom completed her sentence for her. 

Cecilia stiffened.

“She was,” said Tom.

“Oh, just call her a bitch and be done with it,” said Cecilia.

“That would be an insult to canines,” said Tom. “She was a witch. She trapped me with a love potion, the same type I gave you this morning. Don’t you see, Cecilia? Your sudden obsession with me is unnatural, just like my obsession with Merope.” 

“Oh Tom, this is the same delusion you had months ago.”

“I tried to explain what I’d suffered months ago, but of course you couldn’t believe me without proof. You shouldn’t believe without proof. But now that I’ve proven that love potions are real—“ 

Cecilia turned determinedly to the door. “Excuse me, I need to talk to your mother.”

“Here, have the antidote, you’ll notice the change immediately.” He nodded to the subtle shadow of nothing in the corner, for asking Cecilia to accept the existence of elves at the same time as potions seemed unrealistic.

Cecilia suddenly jerked in surprise as an invisible Dobby intercepted her on her way to the door and stuffed the invisible antidote in her mouth without warning.

Cecilia swayed on her feet, then stabilized. She blinked and looked around the room, finally fixing her glare on Tom. “You’re hopeless, Tom! I tried and tried, but it’s like you don’t even want to get better. I don’t know why I bothered. Madness like this can’t be cured.”

“Cecilia, don’t you notice this sudden change—“

“I don’t know why I thought anything could be done. Your whole family’s mad. Your parents are mad not to recognize your madness. For cases of hereditary, congenital insanity—“

With a loud crack, Hermione appeared, dressed in her beautiful new witch robes, complete with pointy hat, and with Tommy in her sling. She noticed Cecilia and started. “Oh shit.” She drew her wand from her sleeve and pointed it at Cecilia.

Tom jumped between them. “Hermione, wait!”

“I just apparated in front of a muggle, Tom! That’s a Statute violation! I can’t let her remember this.” 

“Hermione!” exclaimed Cecilia, peering around Tom despite his best efforts to block her. “I’m so glad you’re here. Tom needs a good responsible person to take care of him, and better you than me. Perhaps you can convince him witches don’t exist.”

Hermione stared. “But Cecilia, you just saw me. Or you must have heard me at least.”

Cecilia laughed. “Oh, I heard you all right. Don’t worry about using unladylike language around me, Hermione. A modern woman needn’t limit her vocabulary any more than a man does.” 

Tom rushed for the door. As he left, he heard Cecilia ask, “Is that what they’re wearing in Australia these days?”

Tom quickly went to his office, for he had to look over the accounts of the Woodlawn houses. They’d required so many repairs recently after that business with the falling trees, perhaps it was time to raise the rents in order to bring their return on investment more in line with their other properties.

He’d barely had time to gather the relevant papers when he heard a knock on the door. He was too busy to answer.

“Tom,” called Hermione. After a pause, she added. “I know you’re in there.”

“Go away,” he said, horrified at the sound of his voice.

“When I said I’d rescue you if necessary, I didn’t just mean from Malfoy. I’m coming in.”

“No!” Tom said, but it was too late, she had opened the door and seen the state he was in.

As if she was fit to be seen herself. Her hair clearly believed that gravity was for other people. She must have left Tommy with his mother. She looked strange without him. Tom turned his face away from her because she was so ugly.

“You shouldn’t cry alone,” Hermione said authoritatively after surveying the damage. “A sleeping owl doesn’t count as emotional support. It’s much better for one’s mental health to cry on someone’s shoulder.” It was bad enough she’d seen him like this. She didn’t have to salt the wound by criticizing him for crying wrong. “I’ll fetch your mother,” she added. 

“No!” Tom choked out as he turned to plead with her. “Don’t!”

Hermione gave him an irritated expression, although perhaps that was just the way her face was shaped, as she seemed to have that expression a lot. “She’s perfectly nice, Tom. And she’s your mum. This is part of her job. Unless you’d prefer your father?”

“No! She’d tell me not to be discouraged! She’d say anything is possible if I’ve got enough nerve! My father would be even worse. He’d say Riddles always get what we want, that she’s bound to come around if I just persist, show her I’m a real man who doesn’t take no for an answer. But they’re wrong. I’ve lost. I’ve lost Cecilia forever.” He shook with sobs as he scrubbed at his eyes with his handkerchief, which was getting disgustingly full.

Accio handkerchief.” Hermione pressed a dry one into his hands. He took it gratefully. Once that was done, why was she still here? Crying was ugly, and Tom hated being ugly. Hermione must be taking some perverse pleasure in seeing him brought so low.

He felt a thin, hard hand lightly touch his back. Then, shockingly, she pulled him into a hug, pressed his head onto her shoulder. It was like being hugged by a bird, all thin, light bones, aside from her unfashionably full breasts pressing against his chest. She smelled like a powerful, terrifying storm, and also, slightly, of milk. She steadied him as he sobbed. He felt his body instinctively let go, no longer trying to hold back his sorrow.

“I know,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you it’s all right when it’s not. I have another handkerchief here if you need it.” He did. She didn’t let go until he was drained of tears. He felt curiously free, no longer encumbered by hope.

Hermione leaned back enough to look him in the eye. She smiled. “Congratulations,” she said. “I think you’re finally growing up.”

Chapter Text

Scourgify.” The handkerchiefs that had held the evidence of Tom’s weakness looked freshly laundered.

“You didn’t have to—“

“Don’t be silly.” They put us their handkerchiefs away. “You were about to tell me I should have Dobby clean up, but won’t impose on him for a little thing like this. I clean up after a baby all the time, anyway. It’s no trouble.”

“Right. Well. Thank you.” Tom looked at the papers on his desk. They seemed unimportant. “Cecilia left?”

“Yes. She’s amazing, I didn’t even have to obliviate her. Some muggles are very good at rationalizing away any evidence of magic.”

“I see that now.”

“After you left, she tried to convince your parents that you should be involuntarily committed to an insane asylum.”

“How did they take that?”

“Your father seemed to agree.”

“Of course he did.” Tom sighed. “I’m glad to provide him with such entertainment. He’s even worse when he’s bored.”

“I think he helped get rid of her, actually. Once she got the impression someone agreed with her, she seemed to feel that she’d done her part, and could now wash her hands of the whole business. I played along.”

“Of course.”

“I’m sorry, but it seemed—“

“I know. It was the right thing to do. It’s not like anything you could do could make her assessment of me worse than it already is.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. For getting rid of Cecilia by telling her I’m insane. And not trying to cheer me up.”

“You’re welcome. Oh, and I bought some Floo powder.” She took a jar out of her beaded bag and set it on the mantelpiece.

“Thank you again.”

“You’re wel…” The phrase turned into a yawn. “I’ve had a busy day. I have time for a nap before dinner. See you later.”

“Sleep well.

Once she’d gone, Tom opened the book of wizarding calligraphy he’d owl-ordered, inked a quill, and practiced letters, losing himself in the beauty of the archaic forms.

He’d completed several pages when the telephone rang. There was another telephone in his father’s office, so Tom waited for his father to pick it up. The telephone stopped ringing. Tom focused on writing a perfect capital X, a letter with virtually no practical use.

Dobby popped into the room. “Master, Squire Riddle says the telephone call is for you.” Dobby seemed perplexed by this message

“Oh. Thank you Dobby. You may leave now.”

Dobby popped away. Tom picked up the telephone receiver and put it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Tom! What ho! How’s the ticker tape running?”

“Hello Algie. It’s good to hear from you.” Tom heard a click as his father hung up.

“What’s this I heard about you wearing a manacle?”

“You heard right. I did get married. To a Merope Gaunt, a local girl, from a family with no fortune or title.” 

“That’s surprisingly sensible of you,” said Algie. “A sweet wildflower, not one of these hothouse orchids you usually go for.”

“Yes. Well.”

“Or perhaps I should say Venus flytrap. Congratulations on breaking free of that Threepworple girl. She’s a terror.”

“Now Algie, we may no longer be on such close terms, but I won't have you speaking ill of Miss Threepworple.”

“That’s mighty big of you, Tom. Anyway, I’m glad you found a proper wife. What did you say her name was again?”

“Merope Gaunt.”

“Interesting name, Merope. Distinctive. I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone’s ancestry, but with a name like that, one suspects her parents of being poets. Can’t blame a girl for that, though. I’m sure she’s wonderful. One look at her rosy, dimpled cheeks, her innocent smile as she herded the geese out to pasture one dewy morning, and you were smitten, no doubt.”

“Something like that.”

“Oh Tom, you’re so lucky. You should see the girls my family’s trying to set me up with. The last one looked like a horse and asked me what I thought of the coal miners’ strike. Can you imagine having an opinion about something so dull?

“Well, it did unsettle the markets.”

“That’s right, that is the sort of tale that sets your heart aflutter. Anyway, when do I get to meet this sweetheart of yours?”

“I can’t say. Merope and I had a little over a year of married bliss and then—“ Tom let his voice break “—she died. Giving birth to our son. On New Year’s Eve.”

“What was that? This connection’s a bit crackly.

Tom was irritated to have to repeat his performance, and ran through it faster the second time. It got through.

“Nerts!” exclaimed Algie. “Well, that's blaah, isn’t it?

“Yes.”

 Neither spoke for a moment. Then Algie said, “So when I saw you at the Drones Club—“

“I had to entertain a business associate to discuss an important matter, although I wasn’t feeling like socializing. I’m sorry to have been so brusque with you and the others.”

“That’s all right. Totally understandable now that you’ve explained. So. Is there anything I can do? Take you out for a night in London? A night of alcohol, showgirls, and jazz distracts from anything. Once the hangover hits, you won’t even remember what your troubles were.”

“That’s very kind of you, Algie, thank you. But I feel that I won’t have the energy for such in the near future.” Tom’s old hobby of collecting blackmail fodder on scions of the aristocracy had less appeal these days, partly because it was too easy. They put themselves in embarrassing situations so willingly, it seemed unsporting. Besides, his collection was surely sufficient for any practical purpose.

“Well, let me know if you change your mind. I miss having you along. You’re so encouraging.”

“Of course. What are friends for?

There was a pause, then Algie spoke. “So, you’re a father now.”

“Yes. Merope wished our son to be named after me, so now there’s another Tom in the house. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I could hardly begrudge my dying wife her last wish. We call him Tommy.” 

“Little Tommy. I’m sure he’s an adorable little blob. So you’ll turn all responsible now, what? Soon you’ll be lecturing him to straighten his tie and pay more attention to his studies.”

“If he’s anything like I was as a boy, he’ll be begging for more fashionable ties and more interesting books.” 

“You’re a funny egg, Tom. Well, do give me a ring when you’re in the mood to drown your sorrows.”

“Thank you Algie, I’ll do that.”

They said their goodbyes, and Tom returned to his calligraphy. 

He met the others in the drawing room before dinner. He was the last to arrive. Hermione was still in her beautiful new witch robes. Tom hadn’t noticed earlier when she’d appeared so suddenly in the study, but she was wearing Tommy in a new sling made of a rich deep red fabric with subtle glints of gold. Once they’d all bade each other good evening, Tom addressed Hermione. “That coordinates very well with your robes.”

“Thank you. I thought you’d approve. I went to an upscale baby accessory shop today. I got some books to read to Tommy, too, A is for Astrolabe and the like. I came straight to the study to put them away when I got back. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—“

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Thank you for the books, Hermione,” said Tom’s mother. “I’ll enjoy reading them to Tommy.”

“So how was the rest of your outing?” asked Tom.

“The Floo could be set as early as tomorrow morning. I told them to connect the fireplace in your office.”

“And was your other errand successful?”

“I did manage to sneak in to overhear part of a Wizengamot session. There’s a proposal to screen all applicants for Ministry jobs with a standardized test, to ensure that jobs are awarded by merit, not favoritism.”

“That sounds good,” said Tom’s father. “What would it actually do?”

Hermione smiled wryly and continued. “It will include a test of wizarding customs and culture. I’m sure it will be designed to screen out muggleborns and halfbloods.”

Fiona called them in to dinner, so Tom escorted Hermione in to the dining room as his father escorted his mother. After the gentlemen had pulled out the chairs for the ladies and all had sat down, Tom said, “Oh, and while you were out, I received an interesting letter.” He drew the scroll from his pocket and handed it to Hermione. 

Hermione read it and turned pale. “I’m trying to eat here,” she complained.

“What’s the problem?” asked Tom.

“You and your entanglement with Malfoys. Aargh.”

“At least tell us what a life debt is.”

She paused to compose her thoughts. “I have some experience with life debts. A wizard called Wormtail owed a life debt to my friend Harry. It compelled him to save Harry’s life, at the cost of his own. Malfoy must hate that his son is in debt to you.” She scrutinized the letter. “The older Malfoy must’ve written that. I mean, sure, the handwriting looks like a child’s, but the composition must be his father’s. It’s a trap. I’ve got it! Malfoy will try to kill you, in some situation in which young Corvus will be compelled to save your life. Corvus will be free of his debt to you if he succeeds.”

“If?” repeated Tom’s mother, who wasn’t eating.

“Would that really count as repayment?” asked Tom’s father. “I’d think a good wizarding lawyer could argue that that was not a true repayment of the debt that the house of Malfoy owes the house of Riddle.”

“I don’t know,” sighed Hermione. “This is an obscure field of magic even for me.” She brightened. “I’ll do some research tomorrow.”

“Thank you” said Tom.

Hermione said to Tom’s father, “Squire Riddle, I’ll deliver the second dose of wolfsbane potion to Ignis after dinner. Do you really need to accompany me? I know it made sense before we knew he lived with his mother, but if it was proper for Cecilia to come here accompanied by no one but her chauffeur, I don’t see why—“

“It’s true that Mrs. McKinnon gave her chaperoning duty the attention it deserved yesterday, so if she does the same job today, my presence would be redundant,” Tom’s father admitted. “It doesn’t matter, as I already decided not to accompany you to the McKinnons’ this evening.”

Hermione blinked at him.

“Mary will chaperone you instead,” he explained.

Hermione turned to Tom’s mother. “Oh. Well I guess that’s all right. But Tommy—“ 

“I will look after Tommy,” realized Tom. “There’s no reason for him to suffer through two apparitions for such a brief visit.”

Thus Tom wound up with Tommy on his lap, reading a new children’s book Hermione had bought for him. “A is for Astrolabe.” The moving picture showed a mechanical marvel, with interlocking brass rings turning to point to colorful planets that moved against a black background twinkling with silver stars. “Hermione chose well. I’m really appreciating this book’s printing quality. B is for Broom. Look at all these children flying around on brooms. Don’t look at me, look at the book. Well, I’m sure it doesn’t matter at this age. There will be time enough for you to enjoy books, and brooms too. Would you like me to buy you a broom? I will, when you’re ready for one. I had a hobby horse when I was a boy. That’s somewhat broom-like. It may still be in the attic. You’re welcome to play with that as well, once you can walk and such. I’ll tell you here and now that I draw the line at buying you an actual pony, so don’t get any ideas. There used to be some practicality to familiarizing children with horses, but there’s no real need now, as they are becoming obsolete as a mode of transportation. Trains, bicycles, and cars are the future. Horses these days are used by either country folk who can’t afford cars, or old aristocrats who still engage in fox hunts. To maintain a stable of horses, with all the attendant expenses, seems unnecessarily extravagant when the horses are used for nothing but pleasure-riding. Although I’ll grant that cantering along on a beautiful day...“

With Cecilia, on her family’s horses, Cecilia showing off her skill by galloping ahead of him, laughing, challenging him to a race, the sun gleaming on her golden hair—

Tommy let out a loud wail. 

Tom started. He’d never heard Tommy make anything like this noise. “Hush, hush, Tommy, it’s all right. Hermione will be back soon,” but Tommy kept wailing. Tom got up to carry Tommy around the room. Babies liked motion, didn’t they? “Let’s look at the moon. Isn't it pretty? It’s getting close to full.” Tom took Tommy to the window, which shattered under Tommy’s gaze. The cold wind blew shards of glass and ice into the room. Tom was out of his league. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master? Oh, the window, Dobby can fix—

“Never mind the window, do something about Tommy. He’s crying.”

Dobby obediently reached to take Tommy. The fur sprouting out of one of his huge ears burst into flame. Burning elf ear hair smelled even worse than burning human hair, so the cold wind wasn’t a completely bad thing. Dobby extinguished the flame with a quick gesture of one grey hand and reached for the baby again. The hair sprouting from his other ear burst into flame. He quickly extinguished that too, and reached again for Tommy.

“You don’t seem to be calming him down,” observed Tom, having to speak loudly to be heard over Tommy’s wails.

“Dobby will try, Master, and Dobby is tough, better able to withstand accidental magic than a human. Dobby can outlast a tantruming child.”

“But what will it take to calm him down?”

“Sometimes babies just cry, Master. Sometimes it just takes patience.”

“Stay here,” said Tom. “But I’ll hold him. Tommy, I’m sorry I stopped reading. That’s what set you off, isn’t it?” He sat down and picked up the book again. “Look, I’ll turn the page. C is for Centaur. Let’s get away from the horse theme, shall we? D is for Dragon. Look Tommy, a dragon. This printing is marvelous. Look at the puff of fire. Maybe that’s too inspiring. E is for...Erumpent? What’s an erumpent? It looks a bit like a rhinoceros. Someday I’ll take you to the zoo. We’ll see a rhinoceros, lions, an elephant… Would you like that?” He suddenly remembered Ignis’s story about shattering a cage. Perhaps he shouldn’t make promises like that. “Enough with the book, you weren’t looking at it anyway. Would you like to hear a song? My mother used to sing this one to me. Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly. Lavender’s green…” Tommy’s wails quieted.

As Tom sang, drawing on the memory of his mother singing to him, Tommy’s dark eyes bored into his, and he calmed. Tom was dimly aware of Dobby fixing the window.

Tom sang Lavender’s Blue until Hermione and his mother returned. Hermione reached for Tommy immediately. Tom handed him off gratefully. Her witch robes were convenient for feeding him.

“How did Tommy do without me?” she asked.

“Fine. I read to him. The printing quality of this book is marvelous. Thank you for buying it. He also seems to enjoy my singing. So how’s Ignis?”

“He’s tolerating the potion well enough. He says it makes him feel a bit strange and weak, but it will be worth it if it works. We’ve decided to postpone any apparition and dueling lessons until after the full moon, since he wants to be in top form for those.”

“Seems sensible.” He turned to his mother. “And I trust that your chaperoning task was successful?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Ignis is a perfect gentleman, who stayed polite even while drinking that vile potion, poor thing. A normal werewolf transformation must be terrible if drinking such a potion is preferable. And it was so nice to visit with the McKinnons. Ignis’s older brother and his wife have just had a baby. You should have heard Mrs. McKinnon go on about what a little darling her granddaughter is! It seemed excessive.” She turned to Tommy. “Did my bright little snidget miss me?”

That was a new one.

——-

Next morning, Thursday, the purple-taloned owl delivered Witch Weekly. Tom’s mother offered it an owl treat, which it ate while eyeing the bacon on the table. Tom’s mother got a small plate and put some bacon on it. “Thank you very much for delivering my magazine,” she said. “Please accept this as a token of my appreciation.”

The owl hooted, fluttered its wings, did a little jump, then tucked in

When the Daily Prophet owl arrived to see the Witch Weekly owl eating bacon, it hooted indignantly. Tom got a second dish of bacon for the Daily Prophet owl, and took the newspaper off its leg as it ate.

Tom’s mother excitedly said, “Here’s an article on how to get one’s hair to look like that of an Australian duelist. It’s not a simple matter of potions, although it does require several, conveniently available from their advertisers. It also requires a serpentine animation charm, and then a levitation charm… They advise their readers not to attempt this hairstyle alone because of the risk of strangulation. Or of course, rather than attempt this style oneself, one may wish to leave it to the professionals at a quality hairstyling salon, such as their advertisers. The model in the photographs looks beautiful, but I think you wear it better, Hermione.

Hermione laughed and reached for the magazine. Tom’s mother yielded it graciously.

“I can’t believe it,” said Hermione. She shook her head, her curls flailing much like the ones in the photograph before her. She turned a page and let out a shriek

“What?” demanded Tom. “Are this spring’s fashions so exciting?”

“Look!” said Hermione, reading the title of a photo spread. “Pureblood Spotted Muggletouring! It’s you and Malfoy!”

Tom leaned in to Hermione’s stormy Amortentia scent to see. She handed the magazine to him. He took it eagerly. “Oh, so now you’re not afraid of a witch’s magazine,” she smirked. “You had a different attitude in the shop.”

“We’re not in public,” Tom explained. “No one important can see me here.” Her smirk could not dampen his spirits, for the moving photographs of Malfoy and himself were glorious. Well, the images of him, at least, were glorious: kindly fixing Malfoy’s tie, protecting him from a flying bread roll, looming ominously over a table of cowering muggles… Malfoy, by contrast, looked timid and befuddled.

Tom would have preferred the pictures to be more flattering to his companion, but the photographer hadn’t had much to work with. He checked the credits. Anne Perks was a good photographer, and impressively discrete. He searched his memory of Nature’s Nobility for the name Perks and came up blank, so she wasn’t a pureblood, unless that was her married name, in which case she at least wasn’t a blood purist. Perhaps she’d intentionally portrayed the presumed halfblood better than the known pureblood.

The text that accompanied these photographs was brief but enjoyable. Tom read it aloud for pleasure. “Joining the muggletouring trend, Serpens Malfoy, philanthropist, was spotted lunching in a muggle club Saturday. Sorry ladies, the Drones Club is for men only, or of course witches who can manage a good disillusionment spell or own a quality invisibility cloak. Did Malfoy choose this club to avoid his wife, Giselle, who was arrested later that afternoon?

“Mr. Malfoy was joined by Tom Riddle, heir of Riddle, and a good thing too, for not only did Mr. Riddle explain the finer points of muggle fashion to Mr. Malfoy, but he also defended them against an attack by three muggles. As these photographs show, the heir of Riddle is a contender for this year’s Most Charming Smile award!”

Tom looked up from the magazine to see his reading's effect on his audience. His father was buried in the newspaper, ignoring such a frivolous thing as a witches’ magazine. His mother was beaming at him proudly, but she always did that. Tommy was staring at him intensely as usual. The owls had finished their bacon and flown away.

Hermione’s smile would not win any charm contests. “Enjoy your magazine. I’ll research life debts today. I’ll visit the British Wizarding Library this morning. If all goes well, I should be back this afternoon, and will deliver Ignis’s third dose of wolfsbane potion this evening.”

“May I accompany you to the library?” Tom inquired as he handed his mother’s magazine back to her, although the next article (after an invisibility cloak advertisement) promised interesting tips for perfecting the complexion. “And perhaps even help? I’d love to do research in a wizarding library.”

Hermione considered that. “Thank you very much for the offer; I’m sure you’d be a help. But I think it would be best if you stayed here today. At the Floo Network Authority yesterday, they said they’d do their best to connect the Floo here today, so you should be here to show them your office, and perhaps answer any questions about how you’d like the Floo set up. I doubt they’ll work that fast, though. That’s not like the Ministry.

“You may be pleasantly surprised,” said Tom.

So, after breakfast, Hermione and Tommy apparated away to the library, and Tom worked in his office. The British railway industry seemed to have done most of its growing already, so perhaps it was time to sell some of those stocks and invest in an industry whose growth was ahead of it. An American company called General Electric had a subsidiary called Radio Corporation of America that seemed promising. He wished he could ask Hermione about it. He imagined her reaction to a confession about the theft of her 1997 book, and winced.  The doorbell rang, a welcome distraction from thoughts of an angry Hermione. Tom waited for Fiona to answer it and tell him if it was someone important

She arrived at his office in a huff. “Mr. Riddle, a workman says he’s here about the fireplace, but—

“Oh good. Please show him to my office.”

“But Mr. Riddle, he seems very—“

“That’s how I know he’s legitimate. Send him up.”

Fiona stomped away and soon returned with a balding wizard, in a peculiar uniform lightly-dusted with ash. Neither he nor Fiona looked happy about the situation

“Leave us, Fiona,” said Tom, so she left.

The workman looked around Tom’s office, seeming slightly reassured by the sleeping Athena, but confused by the fountain pens on the desk and Tom’s muggle attire. He stuck out a calloused hand. “Owen Burbage at your service.”

Tom searched his memory of Nature’s Nobility for the name Burbage and came up blank. He shook the man’s hand. “Tom Riddle. Thank you for coming so promptly.”

“Are you sure this is the right address? The Riddle House?”

“Yes, we requested a Floo connection yesterday. I didn’t make the request in person. Is that a problem? I was busy, so I sent my friend Miss Granger to your office in my place.”

“That’s fine, it’s just, I mean, I’d get in real trouble if I connected a muggle house by mistake.”

Malfoy’s magnificent white owl swept through the seemingly-closed window. “Perch there, please,” commanded Tom, pointing to the back of his chair. The owl obeyed. “Excuse me,” he said to the workman. Tom tossed a treat to the owl, which caught it in midair.  Then Tom took the scroll off the owl’s leg, unrolled it, and read the beautiful calligraphy:

Dear Mr. Riddle,

Thank you for Saturday’s interesting lunch. I apologize for my abrupt departure, and also for my delayed apology. I’m sure you understand that I have had little time for social niceties of late. Of course, understanding is not forgiveness. 

My heir, Corvus, wishes to meet his benefactors: the seer who discovered the information, and the wizard who conveyed it to me convincingly. The best location for such a meeting would be Malfoy Manor, as it is fortified with sufficient childproofing spells to contain Corvus’s youthful exuberance, and also, if I may say so, capable of providing suitable hospitality to guests of refinement and taste. Thus, I would like to invite you and Miss Granger to lunch and a casual afternoon’s entertainment at my home this Saturday the fifteenth, at noon.

If you would prefer a more public meeting place, I could treat both of you to lunch at La Truffe Émraude, or a restaurant of your choice, at the same time and date. My son would not be able to attend.

A third option, which I include at Corvus’s insistence, would be lunch at Darin’ Dragons. I feel that its chaotic atmosphere, while appealing to children, would not be conducive to serious conversation, but I am willing to make the attempt.

Sincerely,

Your humble servant,

Serpens Malfoy

Responding to this could take a while, and the owl had gulped the treat down already, and was glaring at him meaningfully. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“Fetch some meat for the owls.”

Pop. Pop. Dobby was back with two dishes of meat.

Tom addressed the white owl. “You’ll get your reply soon. Enjoy this while you’re waiting.” The owl hooted at him, then started ripping its meat to shreds. Athena woke up and did the same to hers, after subjecting Malfoy’s owl to a good stare.

Tom finally was available to turn back to the workman, who was twisting his hat in his hands in an apologetic manner. “Sorry sir, I just, you know, I don’t want to get in trouble about the Statute.”

“I understand completely. My family takes similar precautions, as you noticed.”

“Would you like an anti-muggle notice-me-not charm on this?”

“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. I rarely allow muggles in my office. Set it up so that even a squib servant can use it.”

“Yes sir. You realize that means a muggle could use it by accident?”

“Yes. They’re easily obliviated, if it comes to that.”

“Very good sir.” Owen got to work, first casting Extinguo to put out the fire currently blazing

Tom sat at his desk and mulled over Malfoy’s letter as the room cooled. He didn’t dare respond on Hermione’s behalf without consulting her, but neither did he dare ask Malfoy’s owl to await her return from the library.

Was it wishful thinking, or did he hear a crack of apparition, muffled by the walls of the house? Could Hermione have returned so soon? “Dobby, stay here to assist this workman as necessary. I need to check something before replying to this.

“Yes Master.”

Malfoy’s owl seemed content to stay with its dish of meat, and didn’t follow Tom from the room

Tom knocked on the door to Hermione’s room.

“What?” she demanded through the door.

“May I please come in?”

“All right.” She opened the door. She was wearing her beautiful witch robes, Tommy in her new sling, and an irritated expression. The air crackled with a stormy sense of menace.

“I’m very sorry to disturb you,” said Tom, feeling that this might not be the best time to ask her anything. “You’re back earlier than I expected. Did you find what you sought?”

“I can’t get a library card without proof of residency, which I as an Australian don’t have.”

“Oh! I’m sure we can solve that later.” He showed her the scroll. “I have more interesting reading material for you now. Malfoy is offering us lunch.”

She read it in horror. “The gall of that man! How can he expect you to trust him after last time? Are you even going to write back to say no, or just send his owl back with no reply?”

“I’ll convey your regrets if that’s your answer, but I’m inclined to say yes.”

She stared at him with her bright brown eyes. Tommy in his sling stared with his blue-black ones. “What? Why?”

“He could be very useful. If the Daily Prophet continues to acknowledge Tommy as the heir of Slytherin, wizarding society will grant him the respect a son of mine deserves. If the Prophet labels Tommy a mere halfblood pretender, he’s ruined. I must stay on Malfoy’s good side, for Tommy’s sake. Do you have any advice on wording my reply to make it clear that I harbor no grudge over our last meeting? And should I mention the life debt?” 

She threw the letter back at him. “I advise you to learn from your mistakes, hold a grudge, and never trust a Malfoy again. Tommy doesn’t need fame and titles, he just needs a peaceful childhood.”

Tom caught the letter and tried to smooth the wrinkles out of it. “That’s not very helpful.” 

“If you don’t want my advice, don’t ask for it.” 

“Thank you. That’s advice I’ll take.”

Tom returned to his office, nodded to the workman, Dobby, and the carnivorous owls, and sat at his desk to think. Considering Hermione’s idea about Mr. Malfoy endangering Tom’s life to set up a situation in which Corvus would hopefully rescue him, allowing Corvus to join them at this meeting would be unwise. That ruled out the first and third options, leaving only the second. That made the decision simple.

Tom didn’t write a draft with a fountain pen, but wrote straight onto quality parchment with a quill. It was distracting that his office smelled a trifle like an abattoir, but it was better than being assaulted by Malfoy’s owl.

Dear Mr. Malfoy,

Thank you very much for the invitation. Lunches with you are always interesting, so I would be delighted to meet you for another, this time at La Truffe Émraude.

Miss Granger, regrettably, will not be joining us.

Sincerely,

Your humble servant,

Tom Riddle

He tied the scroll to the leg of Malfoy’s owl. “Please deliver that to Serpens Malfoy.” If flew through the closed window.

The workman had ceased his work, and stood silently through this. The fireplace looked larger.

“How’s the Floo connection coming along?” Tom asked.

“It’s done, sir,” he replied. “I didn’t want to interrupt you.”

“Thank you.”

“You said you wanted even a squib servant to be able to operate it, so it can be opened and closed with this lever here, no wand required. Three positions: open to all, open only to Floo-calls, and closed to both calls and travel.”

Tom nodded. “Well done, thank you.”

“And how many remote switches would you like?”

What? “How many do you recommend?”

“One for each user in the household would be practical, sir, but they’re four galleons each, so—“ 

“I’ll take five.”

“Very good sir.” Owen took five switches, like miniature versions of the lever by the fireplace, out of his toolbox and waved his stout oak wand over them. Then he tested them all. Flipping one switch flipped them all, as well as the lever. 

Owen set the lever to the fully-open position. “I’ll just test it.” He ignited the fire with a flick of his wand, then took a pinch of Floo powder from the jar Hermione had provided. When he threw it into the fire, the flames turned from orange to green. “Floo Network Authority,” he said, then stuck his head into the flames. “Testing new Floo connection, The Riddle House. Right. I’ll come through then.” He pulled his head out as the flames turned back to orange. Then he took a larger pinch of Floo powder, threw it in, said, “Floo Network Authority,” again as he climbed into the green flames, vanishing completely. The flames turned back to orange.

Just as Tom was wondering if that was it, the flames turned green again, and out Owen stepped, dusting a bit of ash from his uniform. “It works,” he declared proudly. 

“What would have happened to you if it hadn’t?” Tom couldn’t help but ask. 

“Oh, I knew it would work, I’ve been connecting Floos for years,” which didn’t answer the question. Tom paid for the switches. Owen gave Tom a parchment to sign acknowledging that the work had been done properly, then handed him a receipt. 

“Thank you.” Now the question: was he expecting a tip? 

“Beautiful home you have here, sir,” said Owen, twisting his hat in his hands.

That answered that. The only question left was, how much? Tom took a couple of galleons out of his wallet. “I hope this doesn’t insult you, but you do excellent work, so you deserve to be rewarded for it.” 

Owen didn’t look at all insulted as he took the money. “Thank you sir. Good day.”

“Good day.”

And with another pinch of Floo powder and swirl of green flames, Owen was gone. Tom moved the lever to accept calls only.

Receipt in hand, Tom went to knock on Hermione’s door again, and was greeted with a familiar annoyed “What?”

“I have proof of residency,” he called through the door. “For myself at least. Let’s go to the library together.” 

She opened the door, and Tom was once more scrutinized by four eyes, the brown and the blue-black. Tom held the receipt before him like a shield. “This should grant me a library card,” he said. “And hopefully you as well, with some persuasion.”

“Oh. Thank you.” It took a beat for her mood to switch, but she seemed cheered.

“I’ll go change and meet you back here.”

“Don’t take too long. This is a library, not a fashion show.”

“All the world’s a fashion show. Do something about your hair before we go. We want to make a good impression.”

“But I already—“

“That inanimate look is out. Do try to look a bit more serpentine. It’s the latest fashion.” He made his escape quickly. 

He returned in wizarding attire in a perfectly reasonable amount of time, and discovered that Hermione had taken his advice, freeing a few snakes to writhe down her narrow back. Tom nodded approvingly. “Well done.”

“Thanks. And you’ve got that haughty pureblood look down.”

“Thank you. So where is this library?

“It’s in Oxford,” she said. “It’s been there since before the Statute of Secrecy. There are anti-muggle charms on the outside, so I’ll apparate us directly into the lobby.”

“Could we Floo? I’m eager to try our new connection.” 

“All right.” 

“And let’s take Dobby with us to carry our books.” 

“But I don’t need—“

“You need cooperation from the library staff, don’t you?” 

Hermione grudgingly nodded. They went to Tom’s office. Dobby was still there.

“Good job cleaning up,” said Tom, for he detected no evidence of the owls’ meals, nor any of the ash the workman had tracked on the floor. 

Dobby’s scrawny chest puffed with pride.

Tom continued. “Your next task is to accompany us to the British Wizarding Library. We’ll travel by Floo. I got a remote switch for each of the humans in the house. I need to get you some clothes with pockets, Dobby, so you can carry one of these as well if you like.”

“Pockets?!” squealed Dobby. “Oh Master, a mere house elf doesn’t deserve—“

“Let’s discuss this later,” interrupted Tom, so Dobby stopped talking. Tom handed one switch to Hermione, took another for himself, and flipped the switch to open the Floo. He locked the other switches in a drawer of his desk, as his parents and son didn’t need them yet. He looked at his newly-enlarged fireplace, then addressed Hermione. “Any specific instructions? I saw how the workman operated it.”

“Speak clearly,” she advised. “Keep your elbows tucked in, and you might want to keep your eyes closed. And take care keeping your balance as you step out. It can be disorienting. I’ll go first and catch you if necessary.”

“I’d hate for that to be necessary. Dobby, could you stabilize my exit in some subtly magical way?” 

“Yes Master.”

“Good. You go first, then I… Unless there’s some ‘ladies first’ tradition? What’s proper?”

Hermione just blinked at him, so Tom turned to Dobby.

“The first to arrive might be walking into danger,” said Dobby. “So elves first, then wizards, then witches. The first to arrive can turn back to warn the others, or defend them.” 

“Thank you, Dobby,” said Tom, although Hermione didn’t look grateful. “So, you first Dobby, then me, then Hermione. Off you go then. The Floo powder is up there.” 

“Dobby doesn’t need the powder, sir, since Dobby is an elf,” he said, nervously twisting a seam of his shirt while correcting his master.

“Thank you Dobby, I appreciate these corrections, here where only our household can hear you. These insights into wizarding culture are one of the most valuable services you provide to me.”

Dobby’s green eyes were so huge, they took up most of his head. “Wizards don’t thank elves,” he said. “Elves just work and try not to get punished, sir.” 

“That’s good to know. I won’t thank you in public, then. I hope you don’t mind if I continue to thank you in private, however.

Dobby thought, a process that required much blinking and ear-wiggling. “Dobby doesn’t mind,” he finally concluded.

“Good, as gratitude for such excellent service is a hard habit to break. Now Floo to the British Wizarding Library and be ready to stabilize me if necessary so I don’t fall.” 

“Yes Master.” Dobby turned the flames green with a wave of his hand, said,“British Wizarding Library,” and vanished into the fireplace. 

Tom’s turn next. Powder, flames, eyes closed, elbows in, “British Wizarding Library” with perfect diction, and he was off. While the trouble with apparition was the lack of reference points that one might use to orient oneself, the trouble with Floo travel was the excess of sensation. It felt as if someone had connected all the chimneys in Britain into a sort of railway network, along which Tom was propelled as if on a very fast train.

This train abruptly dumped him out of a fireplace in a grand, ancient entry hall. Tom stepped forward to get out of Hermione’s way, grateful for the sensation of some invisible force propping him up. 

Dobby quickly removed the faint dusting of ash from Tom’s robes, then Hermione’s. Tommy fussed a bit, but quieted when Hermione fed him. Tom flipped his remote switch to close the Riddle House’s Floo in their absence.

This lobby was furnished with racks of magazines and newspapers, some chipped wooden chairs, and a counter staffed by a librarian who looked as ancient as the building. Many an inexperienced undertaker would have started embalming him on sight, although a wiser one would have simply recommended a closed casket. His robes had probably started off a shade of lavender last seen on men in the eighteenth century, but they were so faded and yellowed, it was hard to tell. He inspected the new arrivals with rheumy eyes. 

Tom strode forward, followed by the rest of his party. “Good morning,” he said with a smile. “We’re here to get library cards.”

“And who are you?” creaked the librarian.

“Tom Riddle, of the Little Hangleton Riddles. I have my proof of residency right here.” He presented the Floo receipt to the librarian’s slow perusal.

“This seems to be in order,” the librarian reluctantly conceded. “If you are who you claim to be.” Faster than Tom would have expected, not that he’d expected this at all, the librarian had drawn his wand and pointed it at Tom. “Specialis revelio. Hm. No glamours at all,” he marveled, so Tom was glad he hadn’t asked Dobby to try any of those complexion charms described in the magazine on him. He then did the same to Hermione, who cringed, but didn’t fight back. “Well, you’re not any known criminals in disguise,” he conceded.

Tom spied a current copy of Witch Weekly on the magazine rack. “If you need confirmation of my identity, you’ll find it in your own library.” 

“What?

Tom got it off the rack and opened it to the relevant page.

“Well!” exclaimed the librarian. “Sorry sir, I don’t keep track of all you young society types.” He seemed particularly taken with the picture of Algie, Nigel, and Frances cowering under Tom’s gaze. He gave a nostalgic smile. “Bit of old-fashioned muggle-baiting, eh?”

“That’s a slanderous accusation!” protested Tom. “You’re accusing me of violating the Statute of Secrecy. Mr. Malfoy and I were merely muggletouring, exploring a different culture.” Then Tom winked his left eye, for Hermione was on his right.

“I see,” smiled the librarian with more teeth than Tom expected in such an old face. “Well, you do seem the right sort, so you should qualify for a library card. I’ll just owl the Department of Records at the Ministry to check that you’re on file.” He approached a moth-eaten, dusty owl that Tom had assumed was a stuffed decoration, but which was presumably alive, and addressed it affectionately. “Rouse yourself, dearie. I’ll have a letter for you soon.” The owl didn’t move. 

“We’re in a hurry,” said Tom. “There’s no need to wake your owl.” Or, more likely, discover that it had died some time ago. “Isn’t there some way to expedite this?”

“Oh, I know she seems slow,” sighed the librarian. “But in her day, she was quite the flyer. Would you believe she delivered an entire 1885 edition of the Encyclopaedia Magicus from here to Hogwarts? One volume at a time of course. Nowadays, well, the postage budget barely suffices for a diet of the cheapest owl treats, but they give her indigestion. She prefers capon. Delicate stomach, you know.”

Tom was already reaching for his wallet. Would two galleons suffice? They had for the Floo workman. He handed over the bribe to the librarian. “Buy your owl something nice.”

The coins vanished into the librarian’s dusty robes so quickly, magic must have been involved. “Thank you very much sir. She’ll appreciate it. Yes, let’s give the old bird a rest today. I’ll get a card for you straightaway.”

“And for my friend Miss Granger,” said Tom. “Although she’s not British, I vouch for her. Could her library account be a subsidiary of mine?” 

“I’ll give you a family account,” said the librarian, “with you ultimately responsible for any books she borrows.”

“Perfect, thank you.”

In a moment, they had signed their cards and the British Wizarding Library was theirs. Tom put the thick parchment card in his wallet and Hermione put hers in her beaded bag, and they left the librarian enjoying Witch Weekly

Once they were hopefully out of earshot, Hermione complained in an angry whisper, “That owl was stuffed. Couldn’t he just post a price sheet saying what bribes he wants for what services?”

“Where’s the fun in that?” said Tom. “I like the old coot. He’s creative. There may not even be a rule that only British residents may use the library. That sounds like the sort of obstacle he’d put in your way just to be obstructive. Did you try bribing him yourself?” 

“No. I don’t want to encourage this sort of corruption.”

Tom shrugged. “But you want to use the library. Let the old man have his fun. They probably don’t pay him enough anyway. Now let’s find the books.” 

They found a yellowed old map on the wall, labeled with book categories. “I’ll look in the History section,” said Hermione, pointing to the map. 

“I’ll meet you there soon,” said Tom. “I’d like to explore.”

“Be careful.”

“I won’t get lost, and I’ll take Dobby with me if you don’t need him.”

“I mean be careful with the books. They can be dangerous.” She pulled a book off a shelf at random and showed him the inside front cover. In writing even more ancient-looking than the wizarding hand Tom had been practicing, he read:

For him that stealeth, or mutilateth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from this library, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let his entrails be for ever gnawed by bookworms that dieth not.

“I see,” said Tom.

“Good. Library curses are serious,” said Hermione. She carefully closed the book (titled Underwater Basket-Weaving the Merfolk Way) and returned it to its shelf. 

“Thank you for the warning,” said Tom. “Although I certainly wasn’t planning on stealing or damaging anything, curses or no curses. What sort of savage would damage a library book? I simply want to explore, to get an overview of the sorts of books available here.”

Hermione nodded. “Have fun.”

“I will.” Tom set off. In a library this vast, ancient, and little-used, no one would notice Tom looking up back issues of Witch Weekly.

After much fascinating reading, he pulled himself away and went to the history section. He found Hermione seated at a table piled with half a dozen books, reading one very fast.

“You found what we needed?” he asked. 

She jumped, and Tom feared for a moment that she’d draw her wand on him for startling her, but she didn’t. “Oh! Yes, I did. These are fascinating. Did you find anything?”

“I want to read everything, but I figured that books on this one subject would be sufficient for this trip. I couldn’t resist this book on different calligraphy styles, however.” He opened it to show her some beautiful examples.

“Nice,” she said. “Well, let’s hope there’s no trouble checking these out.” Dobby levitated their stack of books to the checkout counter.

Indeed, they showed their library cards and checked their books out without incident. The librarian handed the books to Dobby. “These are due back in three weeks, Thursday February fourth.”

“Thank you very much,” said Tom. “And I hope your owl enjoys her capon.”

Tom flicked his switch to open the Riddle House’s Floo and they went home. He stepped out of the Floo with a bit more grace this time. It felt like stepping off a moving train. Dobby magicked away the faint traces of ash on their clothes and books, and set the books on Tom’s desk. 

Hermione rushed to the books. “I can’t wait to read these.”

“Yes you can,” said Tom. “Didn’t you say that Tommy keeps you awake at night, so you need to nap in the afternoons? Have some lunch, then go to bed. Dobby, deliver these books to the study.” Dobby popped away. 

Hermione grudgingly nodded. “You’re right. I can read better when I’ve had enough rest.”

Tom was glad he hadn’t said anything about beauty sleep. Instead, as they headed to the drawing room, he said, “I’ll read while you sleep. I might as well keep these wizarding clothes on the rest of the day, as they seem appropriate for such reading material. Then I’ll chaperone your visit to Ignis after dinner. We can Floo there.”

She nodded. “But someone who looks like such a haughty pureblood wouldn’t typically pay a social call to a werewolf.”

“Or a common tradesman,” added Tom. “Which is more of an issue, but I’ll ignore it for now. Strict adherence to what you would call unimportant frivolities allows us to violate much more important social norms without censure. No one seems to care that I’m a muggle as long as I look like a wizard.”

“They don’t know. If they knew, they’d be aghast.”

“They won’t even suspect as long as I take adequate care with the unimportant things.” 

Tom’s parents were already eating lunch, so they joined them, and filled them in on the day’s events. 

“I can’t believe you left without the book on underwater basketweaving,” said his mother, to the amusement of all.

“We’ll need our own library cards of course,” said his father. “And these periodicals in the lobby; do they have international newspapers? I’m getting quite concerned about this Grindelwald fellow. The Prophet seems so insular. They devote more ink to British quidditch games than to international politics.”

“They may have had them,” said Tom. “I was just getting an overview. The place is marvelous. I’ll give you a tour tomorrow.”

After lunch, Hermione and Tommy went to their room to nap, and Tom went to the study, where he sat in a comfortable chair by the fire to read histories of life debts. What a gruesome collection of stories they were! Judging from these stories, wizards spent all their time attempting to murder one another, when they weren’t engaging in more peaceful pursuits such as risking their lives with pointlessly reckless stunts. 

What a waste of magic! There was no reason for wizards to be in conflict with one another at all. They could instead use their magic to dominate as many muggles as they wished. It would take subtlety, now that the Statute was in effect, but would surely satisfy any desire for power…

No it wouldn’t, any more than Tom’s childhood pastime of manipulating anthills would satisfy him now. Muggles were beneath wizarding notice. Wizards were too insular to look outside their own society for new worlds to conquer. 

Hermione, with Tommy peering from his sling, joined him later.

“Welcome,” Tom said. “Here, this chair is the warmest spot in the room.” He got up and sat in the second warmest chair next to it. The library books were easily accessible to both of them on a small table. 

Hermione stared at him blankly for a moment before sitting down in the chair he’d offered. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome. These histories are fascinating,” he said. “It seems that life debts aren’t always repaid in kind. The debtor often grants other boons to his creditor, such as giving him advantageous business deals, or rather more personal and intimate favors. There are cases of creditors exploiting this, treating their debtors almost as slaves. A creditor who threatens suicide if his every wish isn’t granted can manipulate a debtor into anything.”

Hermione shuddered. “I hate to think what Malfoy will do to try to get his son out of debt.” 

Tom shrugged. “You’re such a pessimist. I’d rather think of how I can use this debt to my advantage.” At Hermione’s glare, he clarified, “I don’t want a wizard child as a slave. I thought I’d made my opinion of slavery clear. But to have influence over the heir of Malfoy—“

“Just let me read,” she said, so he did. The room was silent but for the turning of pages and the crackling of the fire.

They read until it was time to gather in the drawing room for dinner. They filled Tom’s parents in on their reading as best they could without putting them off their dinners.

Soon, Fiona, with an affronted look at Tom and Hermione’s attire, called them in to dinner, so the gentlemen escorted the ladies in to the dining room and pulled their chairs out for them as usual.

Once all were seated and eating their soup, Tom addressed Hermione. “As I am the only member of this family who has not yet done my duty of protecting your virtue from a werewolf, I shall accompany you to Ignis’s home this evening. Guarding an innocent young damsel in a wolf den will add another life debt to my collection. Don’t look at me like that, I’m joking.”

“Aren’t jokes supposed to be funny?” asked Hermione.

Tom’s father chortled. “She got you there.”

Tom explained, “A dry delivery accentuates—“ 

Hermione interrupted. “Because that sounds too much like what many people say in earnest, both about the predatory nature of werewolves, and the helplessness of women, to be funny.”

Tom took a deep breath, then released it slowly, which enabled him to say “Sorry,” in a steady voice at a reasonable volume.

There were no sounds but the clinking of soup spoons for a while.

“Mrs. McKinnon serves delicious tea,” said Tom’s mother. “You must try it, Tom, if she is kind enough to offer it to you.”

“I will,” said Tom. “My intention to visit Ignis isn’t a joke. Aside from the necessity of keeping up an appearance of propriety, I need more experience interacting with wizards if I hope to be accepted as one. Ignis is one of my few acquaintances in the wizarding world, and as such sets an example of wizarding customs. In some respects, a wizard of my own age would be a better model to emulate than a wizard of my own class such as Mr. Malfoy.”

“I certainly hope you use Malfoy only as an example of what not to do,” said Hermione.

“Neither wizard is ideal for my purposes,” conceded Tom. Lycanthropy aside, did Tom really want to model his behavior on that of a tradesman? Ignis would do for now, but Tom would have to acquire some higher-class friends his own age soon. 

After dinner, Hermione handed Tommy (who was a darling little erumpent today, apparently) to Tom’s mother. “I’ll go get the potion from my lab.” She turned to Tom. “I’ll meet you in your office to Floo there.”

“We should see this Floo in action,” said Tom’s father, so they agreed to all meet there in a few minutes. 

Tom arrived after a brief detour to his room to check his clothes in his full-length mirror. He should put another one in his office by the Floo. He explained its operation to his parents, and gave them each a remote switch.

Hermione joined them shortly, carrying a box with faint jets of blue smoke puffing from the edges. “Ready?” she asked.

“I’m glad it’s not my job to keep that box upright on this trip,” he replied.

“Oh, it has an anti-spill charm on it,” she assured him.

“Dobby!” called Tom.

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“This evening, we are Flooing to the McKinnons’, so as before, you will go first—“

“Wait!” interrupted Hermione. “What? Why would you bring Dobby?”

“To accompany us, clean the ash off my robes and such.”

“Tom, you can’t bring a house elf everywhere, especially not to the McKinnons’.”

“Why not?”

“It’s terribly pretentious. They don’t have an elf. It would seem like you’re flaunting—“

“Oh all right. Dobby, you have the evening off.”

Dobby blinked at him. 

After two pinches of Floo powder, two careful pronunciations of “McKinnon Pest Control,” and much disorienting whirling, they emerged in a room that looked more like a middle-class drawing room than a tradesman’s office, although an exterminator probably didn’t need much of an office. Ignis probably had a storeroom elsewhere for his monster-slaying equipment. Tom was glad he had a moment to steady himself before anyone greeted them, for they were alone in the room. Hermione quickly magicked the light dusting of ash off Tom’s clothes, then her own, then sheathed her wand. 

A plump woman wearing an apron over her witch robes bustled in. “Welcome! I was expecting you to come by apparition, but then I heard the Floo.” 

“We had our Floo repaired today,” explained Tom. “Our address is the Riddle House. That should make visiting easier. My card.” He handed her one. The address printed on it worked for Floo as well as muggle visitors.

“Oh good, thank you,” she said, pocketing it. “I’m Clara McKinnon, Ignis’s mother. You must be Tom. Ignis has told me so much about you.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. McKinnon,” said Tom.

“And Hermione, how nice to see you again.”

“Thank you. How is Ignis tolerating the potion? Any side effects?”

Speak of the devil, and he charged into the room. “So, you’re finally braving the wolf’s den, eh Tom?” he laughed. “Got to protect the fair maiden from the ferocious beast.” 

Hermione laughed.

Tom seethed.

“I do hope you can visit for a little while,” said Mrs. McKinnon. “Please, sit down,” so they did on the slightly worn and faded chairs. 

“Let’s get the potion-drinking part of the visit over with,” said Ignis, so Hermione opened the smoking box and handed Ignis a full goblet. He gulped the potion down, contorting his face into a comical grimace. “Ugh! Third time isn’t the charm. It’s still horrible. I didn’t know anything could taste worse than polyjuice potion.”

“Oh?” asked Hermione. “When have you had occasion to drink that?” She scourgified the goblet and put it away.

Mrs. McKinnon got a glass of water for Ignis to wash down the taste of the potion.

Ignis made some more amusing faces as he swished the water around and gulped it down. “Well, it’s an embarrassing story,” he said, so Tom’s ears perked up.

“I’ll make tea while you young people chat,” said Mrs. McKinnon, leaving.

“Thank you,” said Ignis. He continued. “In school, my friends and I got this idea to disguise ourselves as Slytherins to play a prank. We planned to dance on the Head Table (that’s where the professors dine in the Great Hall) in, well, an inadequate state of dress, so it would look like they had done it. Those Slytherins would have got in so much trouble if it had worked.”

“What went wrong?” asked Hermione.

“Little did we know that a group of Ravenclaws had their own plan to prank the exact same gang of Slytherins we’d targeted, at the same time.” 

“Oh no!” exclaimed Hermione, but her eyes were laughing.

“We got only as far as the Entrance Hall when we found ourselves pursued by flying buckets of dragon dung.”

Hermione gasped.

“Not fresh,” he assured her. “Composted, so it didn’t burn, much. They must have got it from the Herbology greenhouses. Still rather pungent. We ran outside and dived into the lake to wash, and by the time we got it off, the polyjuice was wearing off, after all the trouble we’d gone to to brew it, so there went that prank. The pondweed grew very lush that year. We never told the Ravenclaws their prank had hit the wrong target. I heard them laughing at the Slytherins, saying they were idiots to pretend they hadn’t been pranked when everyone knew they had.”

Hermione laughed. “Oh, you poor things. I had a similarly unfortunate experience with polyjuice potion. You see, I thought I’d found a hair of the girl I wanted to impersonate, but I’d actually found a hair from her cat.”

“But polyjuice doesn’t work for interspecies—“

“I know.” Hermione shook her head ruefully. “I was thirteen, and didn’t yet realize how much can go wrong. Fortunately the school healer set me right. Getting rid of the tail was unpleasant.”

“I can imagine,” laughed Ignis. Tom hoped that Ignis wasn’t imagining Hermione’s tail in too much detail, since that seemed like the sort of thing that Tom as chaperone was here to prevent. Her dueling robes left little enough to the imagination as it was.

“So how should your prank have gone?” Ignis continued.

“Well, it wasn’t for a prank I’m afraid,” she admitted, embarrassed. “We just wanted to spy on a certain student, so we wanted to disguise ourselves as his friends. You see, we suspected him of being the one who was writing threats on the walls in blood.”

“I’m sorry, what?” 

“Anti-muggleborn threats.”

“In blood?” 

“Not human blood. Rooster blood, we later learned. Anyway, it was all for nothing, since once my friends were disguised and talking with the suspect, they found that he was as bewildered as they were about who was doing it.”

“Did you eventually catch the culprit?”

“Well, my friends did. I spent much of that school year in the hospital wing, so I didn’t actually do much.” She shook her curls. “It took ages to catch up in my studies.”

“It took that long to undo the polyjuice damage?”

“No, that was quick. Recovering from the basilisk attack is what took the time.”

Ignis blinked at her. “I’m sorry, I thought I heard you say basilisk, but—“

“Yes, a parselmouth was controlling a basilisk, using it to attack muggleborn students.”

“You’re saying a basilisk was slithering around your school attacking students?”

“Yes.”

“Wicked! I wish I’d gone to your school,” said Ignis, confirming Tom’s assessment of him as an idiot. He’d been bitten by a werewolf only because he hadn’t managed to find a basilisk first. “Hogwarts never has anything nearly that exciting. All we have are ghosts and a poltergeist and ordinary stuff like that. But your school had both a basilisk and a parselmouth to control it? I’ve heard Durmstrang focuses on the Dark Arts, but your school sounds even Darker.” He clearly meant “Dark” in a good way.

“Parselmouths aren’t necessarily evil,” objected Hermione, champion of werewolves and whatnot. “My friend Harry was a parselmouth too, and he’s the one who slew the basilisk.” The Peverell descendant, Tom realized. The owner of the cloak. 

“There were two parselmouths in your school that year?”

“Yes.”

“I thought they were very rare.”

“They are.” 

“A convenient skill for anyone wishing to slay a dangerous serpent I suppose,” conceded Ignis. “Just told it to throw itself off a tower or something, eh?”

“No. I don’t know if that would have worked, when the other parselmouth was controlling it. Harry reached into its mouth with a goblin-made sword to stab its brain.” 

Ignis’s wise turquoise eyes narrowed, and he sat back on his chair to look at Hermione with a different perspective. “How big are you saying this basilisk was?”

“Very big. I saw its corpse later.” She stretched her arms out wide. “About this big across.” 

Ignis turned to Tom. “She’s putting me on, isn’t she?”

Tom waved his hands to indicate his ignorance. “I’ve never been to Australia, but I’ve heard it has some very dangerous snakes.”

“Wait here,” said Ignis. He abruptly got up and started to charge out of the room, but wobbled and stopped. Hermione rushed to his side to steady him. “Do you need a bezoar? I’m sorry, the potion must have—“

“I’m fine,” said Ignis. “I stood up too fast is all.” He looked at Hermione’s hands gripping his hand and arm, shot a furtive glance at Tom, then looked back to Hermione. “Let’s not give your chaperone cause to cut this visit short.” Hermione let go. “I’ll be back in a bit.” He charged off.

Tom heard some creaking doors. He and Hermione looked at each other.

Ignis was back soon. “This is a basilisk!” he said. He was, indeed, carrying a dead snake as long as his leg. “You can’t fool me, Hermione. I slay dangerous beasts for a living. I have an ad in the back of the Prophet saying I’ll kill basilisks for free, since I can sell the venom. I know basilisks. Don’t go telling me some story about a huge...“

Hermione was opening her beaded bag. “Accio basilisk fang.” It was secured in a sturdy box, which she opened. “Don't touch, it's still full of venom. So useful for destroying Dark objects, isn’t it, and more convenient than fiendfyre.” The fang was the size and approximate shape of the head of a pickaxe. It was nearly as long as Ignis’s entire snake.

Ignis stared for a while. He compared the fangs of his specimen to the fang in the box. “All right. I stand corrected. Actually I think I need to sit down again. I’ll put this back in the cooler first.” He left again, having to drape the snake over his arm so he could open the door with his one hand.

“Poor thing,” said Hermione quietly once Ignis was gone. She latched the box closed and returned it to her beaded bag, which looked too small to hold it.

Ignis soon returned without his snake. “Your school just let you keep that fang?” he asked after he’d collapsed into his chair once more.

“There wasn’t much left of the school by the time I salvaged this.”

“What?“ 

“But you were telling me about your pranks on Slytherins. Tell me more about those, please.”

“But I must know more about—“

“Hermione would rather not be reminded of absent friends right now,” interrupted Tom, for she seemed to be sinking into her dark memories again. “And I, too, would like to hear about these pranks on Slytherins, and any retaliation they may have managed.”

Hermione shot Tom a small, grateful smile.

Ignis looked back and forth at the two of them and sighed. “Did your friend survive, at least? After sticking his arm in this giant basilisk’s mouth?”

“He survived that, yes. Phoenix tears worked as an anti-venom.” 

“Phoenix tears. Good to know. I’ll make a point to chop an onion and offer my handkerchief the next time I see a phoenix. My school stories aren’t nearly as interesting as yours.” 

“That’s why I want to hear them. I want to know what a normal school experience is like, since I didn’t really have one.”

“I’m not even good for that,” said Ignis. “I skipped my final year. Had to of course.”

“So did I,” said Hermione. “Although for different reasons. But please, tell me what life’s like in a school that doesn’t have a giant basilisk roaming the halls.”

“Well, that Ravenclaw prank inspired us to play another prank on the Slytherins involving dragon dung, but we went one better and used the fresh stuff. One of my friends had a cousin who had a supply.” 

“Fresh? That seems a bit mean,” said Hermione, although she was smiling. 

“You have to remember, these are Slytherins I’m talking about,” said Ignis. “Your school didn’t have Slytherins of course, but take my word for it, they deserve all that and more. They’re the most horrible, stuck-up—“

Tom interrupted. “I won’t fault you for words spoken in ignorance, but you should know that you have met the heir of Slytherin, descended from Salazar Slytherin himself.”

Ignis laughed uproariously. “That’s a hilarious impression of them! Yes, that’s exactly the sort of ridiculous thing those pretentious wankers would say. Oh, man.” He wiped a tear from his eye. “It’s your dry delivery that kills me. How can you say a ridiculous title like ‘the heir of Slytherin’ with a straight face?”

Hermione was laughing too.

Tom sat back to bask in the glory of his well-delivered joke. He decided to be quiet for a while. He’d leave his audience wanting more.

What Ignis and Hermione’s conversation lacked in the dry delivery that is the mark of true wit, it made up in liveliness, for the two of them were trading anecdotes so fast, and on such unfamiliar topics, that Tom couldn’t follow. Tom couldn’t have asked for a better example of a typical wizarding conversation. It was worthy of close study, both for content and style, even if the style was not to Tom’s taste.

Hermione was in a significantly better mood in the McKinnon house than the Riddle, so Ignis’s crude charms were unarguably effective. Just listen to that coarse laugh, see that easy smile, those broad gestures, hear those words tumbling over one another in incomplete sentences. 

“I said, would you like some tea, Tom?”

Tom started as he realized he’d missed Mrs. McKinnon’s initial offer. “Oh, yes, thank you.”

She poured and served. It wasn’t a tea he was used to, so he was tempted to ask about it, but refrained to conceal his ignorance. “Thank you. This hits the spot.”

“I grew the herbs myself,” she said proudly, opening up tea as a subject of conversation.

“Oh?” He took an appreciative sip of the tea. “Then I must request your recipe, for this is delicious.” 

“It’s a family secret,” she said with a triumphant smile as if anyone cared about her bloody tea recipe.

Tom donned a disappointed expression.

“You’re taking your chaperone duty very seriously,” she said. “But I assure you that you are allowed to look away from those two occasionally. Remember to blink. It’s good for the eyes.”

“Thank you.” Tom looked at his steaming tea. If he practiced in front of a mirror, he should be able to get his smile to look that guileless. He shouldn’t count on his natural good looks alone to win Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile award.

Chapter Text

At breakfast Friday morning, Tom’s father announced, “Hermione, Tom will take Mary and me to the British Wizarding Library today. We’ll bring Dobby. Do you care to join us?”

“Thank you, but not today. I’d like to focus on these life debt books before getting any others. It’s very tempting to try to read everything.”

“I know what you mean,” said Tom. “Yesterday, I wanted to devour that library entire. Now that I know it’s there, it will be hard to do anything but read.”

“Fond of books, are you?” smiled Hermione.

Tom laughed. “That’s a huge understatement. That library looked to contain a significant portion of all the knowledge in the wizarding world. How could I not want it all? Knowledge is power. Q.E.D.”

“That’s not a complete proof,” she argued. “You haven’t demonstrated why you should want power.”

Tom suddenly found himself at a loss for words. It was as if she’d asked for a mathematical proof of something blatantly obvious, like 1+1=2.

“Anyway,” said Hermione, “I’ll finish reading those life debt books today, to make sure I have a good understanding of the concept. That should keep me busy. I’ll deliver the fourth dose of potion to Ignis in the evening. You three may draw lots for chaperone duty, I don’t care.”

“Or he could Floo here,” said Tom. “Perhaps it’s our turn to host. We could even invite his family to dine with us.”

“I’ll Floo-call to ask which he prefers,” said Hermione.

So after breakfast, Hermione demonstrated Floo-calling, squatting inelegantly to stick her head in the green flames. Tom could hear only her side of the conversation, and that faintly.

The green flames turned orange as she withdrew her head. “Ignis and his mother will join us for dinner at six,” she said cheerfully. “Although they say they owe us the next one.”

“Wonderful,” said Tom’s mother. “I’ll tell Hester to prepare for our guests.”

After that, it was the work of a moment for the adult Riddles to don wizarding attire and gather in Tom’s office. His parents arrived before him. His mother apparently had been expecting Tom to take a while getting dressed, as she’d brought her knitting to pass the time. There she was, dressed in beautiful blue witch robes, knitting a little hat.

“I don’t take that long to dress,” said Tom.

“Of course dear,” she said, putting her knitting in her basket and leaving it on top of his rolltop desk. “Shall we go?”

They did. Tom’s father, as the senior, insisted on Flooing immediately after Dobby. Tom and his mother followed.

Tom’s parents obtained library cards easily, after sponsoring another capon for the librarian’s owl.

Tom’s father made a beeline for the international newspapers. Tom’s mother and Dobby wandered the stacks, no doubt in search of more nicknames for her grandson.

Books on fine cuisine were Tom’s priority. He’d lunch with Malfoy tomorrow, and didn’t want to do the wizarding equivalent of trying to eat a whole artichoke. He found a few books full of illustrations that were fascinating if not appetizing, then headed to the Potions section.

The Riddles met in the lobby to check out together. Tom’s father had, in addition to reading the newspapers, found books on recent wizarding history and government. Tom’s mother had found—

A Brief History of Time Travel ?” Tom read. “ Advances in Time Travel Theory ? Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling Through Time ? Where did you find these?”

“They were in the restricted section.”

“How did you get into the restricted section?”

“I asked. The librarian is so helpful. I also found these two in the non-restricted section.” The Young Witch’s Guide to Etiquette , and The Young Wizard’s Guide to Etiquette. “It’s about time we caught up.”

They checked out their selections, and Tom stashed the time travel books in his wallet to avoid any awkward questions from Hermione. Dobby carried the rest. They Flooed home, stepping out of the fireplace more gracefully than before.

His mother picked up her knitting basket and held it out to him. “Time travel books here, please.”

“You planned this,” observed Tom as he hid the books under the wool.

“Of course dear. Dobby, put the rest of the books in the study. I’ll go put away my knitting, and then I believe it’s time for lunch.”

Hermione, carrying Tommy, joined them in the drawing room shortly. “Potioneering books?” she asked. “I was in the study when Dobby dropped off your new finds.”

Tom explained. “Assuming your potion works on Ignis, he’ll help advertise it to the other werewolves, so we’ll have a profitable business supplying them. We need the names of good potioneers. Once you have proof of concept, you surely don’t intend to manufacture this potion yourself every month, especially as we scale up. We’ll hire a professional.”

“A qualified potioneer would be expensive,” said Hermione. “I can do it myself.”

“Your time is valuable, and the market is potentially large,” said Tom. “Ignis spoke of his acquaintance with a feral pack, and there are many other packs, here and abroad. I’ve seen references to them in the newspapers. And we don’t know how many are trying to pass in wizarding society, but there must be more than just Ignis. This calls for a large-scale manufacturing process, to take advantage of efficiencies of scale.”

“I could brew a larger batch in the shed.”

“Hermione,” interrupted his father, “While a lab is all right, I don’t fancy our shed being turned into a potion manufacturing plant, considering the smell.”

“But the expense—“

“Is a worthwhile investment,” said Tom. “If there’s a market for even quack cures, there must be a market for something that actually works.”

The look Fiona gave their wizarding attire as she announced lunch was not strictly professional, Tom thought.

Once they were settled in the dining room and Fiona had left, Tom said. “I have to study wizarding etiquette and cuisine to prepare for my lunch with Malfoy tomorrow, so the potioneering books I borrowed today will have to wait. Even learning how to hire a professional potioneer to scale up this potion will take some research.”

“I’ll do the research,” said Hermione.

“After your nap,” said Tom.

She seemed about to argue, but didn’t. “All right. Thank you.”

“I’ll get started on it,” said Tom’s father.

“Thank you, Father,” said Tom.

Hermione turned to Tom’s mother. “And what will you do?”

His mother replied, “I’m going to sit in my room and knit another hat for my strong little bludger. Tom, when you were a baby, your head was just like that. It started off sort of pointed and soon grew more round.”

“Ah,” said Hermione.

After lunch, Tom went to the study to read. When he felt that he had a pretty good grasp of the subjects, he went to knock on the door of his mother’s sitting room.

“Enter,” she said pleasantly.

He did, to find her knitting. “How’s the hat coming along?” he asked.

She smiled, put her knitting down, and reached under the wool in her basket for the time travel books. “My wool is somewhat tangled. Advances in Time Travel Theory is far beyond me. I lack the background in arithmancy to understand it, so it might as well go straight back to the library.” She returned it to her basket and took another. “ Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling Through Time is particularly disappointing, as it’s all warnings about why time travel is a bad idea. I believe the title is intentionally misleading, designed to discourage potential time travelers from acting on their ambitions. It purports to explain why research into time travel was severely restricted after the disaster of 1899. It attempts, without success, to explain the disaster of 1899. The English language’s lack of tenses suitable for such a description might be at least partly to blame. If I’m reading this correctly, the experiments of a reckless researcher named Eloise Mintumble caused several people to be unborn. Mintumble herself died from a sudden attack of old age when she attempted to travel forward from the fifteenth century to her own time in the nineteenth.”

“Do you think Hermione is trapped here?”

“I believe so. This was a one-way trip.”

Tom mulled that over. Why couldn’t one of those unborn people have been Merope? Tom could have lived perfectly happily as a muggle, untroubled by witches… And never known that magic existed. He’d have married Cecilia by now. Tommy, with his cheeks like a cherub from a Victorian soap advertisement, eerie blue-black eyes, and powerful accidental magic, would never have been born.

It was time to stop thinking about that, for his mother’s book report continued: “This book seems to be working from an assumption that there are aspects of one’s original timeline that one wishes to preserve, which for Hermione seems not to be the case.” She returned the book to her basket and retrieved the third.

“A Brief History of Time Travel seems more objective. The only legal form of time travel is the closed loop, in which the traveler moves backwards by no more than a few hours, in order to ensure that what has already happened, happens. This creates no paradoxes. Time-turners for this purpose are available by special permit from the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic. Every time-turner comes equipped with multiple layers of safety spells, ensuring that travelers don’t go more than a few hours. Tampering with these safety features is dangerous and illegal, as it has the potential to create major paradoxes.”

“Dangerous and illegal are two of Hermione’s specialties,” noted Tom. He still wasn’t satisfied. “So creating paradoxes isn’t impossible, just illegal? How does that work? And don’t just say ‘magic.’”

“Paradoxes result from ruptures in the barriers that separate parallel universes.” She was able to get more knitting done as Tom contemplated that.

He needed help with this. “Parallel universes? ‘Universe’ isn’t supposed to have a plural form.”

“I would have to study the theory book much more thoroughly to truly comprehend it, but it seems that reality branches like a tree. How often it branches, and what triggers the bifurcation, are subject to debate among academics. At any rate, only two branches concern us now, so I’ll discuss those two. On the branch Hermione came from originally, everything is progressing just as Hermione remembers it. Poor little Tommy is being raised in an orphanage instead of by his family. Hermione’s illegal use of a time-turner may have created this entire branch. Her presence here is a paradox. She ruptured the barriers between the universes to come here. This is potentially very dangerous, according to the academics who study such things. Excess ruptures between parallel universes, at least theoretically, have the potential to damage the fabric of reality. Enough paradoxes, and causality itself could cease to function. Actions would no longer have consequences.”

“That doesn’t sound all bad.”

“Tom! This isn’t a laughing matter. Hermione has done something very dangerous.” She sighed. “And she didn’t save anyone in her own universe. The causal chain that propelled her here still exists, or she wouldn’t be here. But her misuse of a time-turner may have created this universe we’re living in now, so I suppose we should be grateful.”

“Oh god,” said Tom. “Er. Goddess? Not what I imagined an almighty creator to look like.”

“Hush. Of course, there’s also a theory that irreversible damage to reality has already happened. This would account for the existence of magic in the world, which seems to defy normal laws of cause and effect.”

“But if it took magic to damage reality like this, how could magic have appeared only after causality had already been damaged?” asked Tom. It took only a moment to realize how pointless that argument was. “Never mind. Thank you very much for sharing your findings, mother. I think I need to go to my office now and do something that makes sense. Sums, for instance.”

“Have fun, dear.”

In his office, Tom opened the Floo, then sat at his desk, calculated profits to be made off wolfsbane based on different sets of assumptions, and awaited the McKinnons’ arrival. They appeared in a swirl of green fire at six exactly. They had made some attempt to dress for dinner, and used their wands to remove the traces of ash from their dress robes.

“Welcome,” said Tom. “The others await us in the drawing room. This way.” He closed his rolltop desk and led them there.

“Thank you for the invitation,” said Mrs. McKinnon. “What a beautiful home you have.”

“We’re happy to host,” said Tom. “We enjoy your company, and there is much to discuss.”

They arrived in the drawing room none too soon, for Hermione was blushing and Tom’s father was chortling. Hermione smiled to see them and heaved a sigh of relief. “Oh good, you’re here. I’ll get your potion.” She turned to Tom’s mother. “Could you look after Tommy while I go to my lab?“

“Of course.” Tom’s mother welcomed her bright little snidget into her arms, although he didn’t seem happy to leave Hermione’s arms. “Oh, don’t fuss little one, Hermione will be back very soon. Would you like me to sing you a song?” Tom was getting tired of Lavender’s Blue, so he was glad she sang a different one, although Molly Malone was so common he was somewhat tired of that too. The first two verses were fine, but was she really going to sing the third verse in this company? Yes she was:

She died of a fever

And no one could save her

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone

Now her ghost wheels her barrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels

Alive, alive-o

Alive, alive-o

Alive, alive-o

Crying cockles and mussels

Alive, alive-o.

Tommy was no longer fussing, looking up at those pure black eyes.

“You sing beautifully,” said Mrs. McKinnon.

“Yes,” said Ignis. “I’ve never heard that song before. Is it—“ but his mother had shot him a look, so he aborted his inquiry. “Oh. Sorry. I mean, it wouldn’t matter, if it were, and of course it’s beautiful when you sing it…” He had the sense to shut up under his mother’s glare.

Hermione returned shortly with a smoking goblet. Ignis drank the potion with his usual assortment of amusing expressions. “It’s clearly doing something,” he said after he handed the empty goblet to Hermione, who scourgified it. “I’d like to just sit here for a bit before dinner.”

Tom’s mother handed Tommy back to Hermione, and the group passed the time with small talk about the decor, which was greatly admired by their guests.

“I understand why you hide your Floo in your office,” said Ignis, “but even with precautions like that, can this really pass for a muggle house?”

“What do you mean?” inquired Tom’s mother.

“It’s so beautiful. And aren’t muggle houses dirtier than this? Do you scatter some dirt around whenever muggles visit to make the illusion more convincing?”

“We don’t find that necessary,” said Tom’s mother smoothly.

“Your school didn’t teach Muggle Studies, did it?” asked Hermione coldly.

“It does, as an elective,” said Ignis. “I didn’t bother with it. Not much to know, is there?”

“Well, the teacher was probably as knowledgeable about muggles as your Defense teacher was about werewolves,” said Hermione.

Fiona, apparently resigned to the fact that her employers were throwing a fancy-dress party, called them in to dinner, so they processed into the dining room. Tom escorted Hermione before Ignis got any ideas about offering her his arm. Tom needn’t have been concerned, for Ignis escorted his own mother and pulled out her chair for her properly.

Tom felt that the subject of muggles was quite played out, so he changed the subject to werewolves. There was no lack of conversation, for the Riddles’ ignorance of the details of werewolf life was typical of wizarding society, and did not incriminate them as muggles. Only their interest in correcting their ignorance was remarkable.

“How many werewolves in Britain would you say are living as you do, passing as human?” Tom inquired. He needed these numbers for his calculations.

“There might be a hundred. More than you’d suspect. We can’t be properly counted of course. We don’t go admitting our condition to a census-taker.”

“Of course,” said Tom. “And assuming this potion is effective, how would my customers learn of it? Would they read adverts in the paper?”

“There are so many quack remedies, I doubt many would believe it,” said Ignis. “Some desperate ones would, of course.”

“Perhaps if it had the endorsement of some authority? St. Mungo’s? If you were examined by healers there…” Ignis looked so uncomfortable, Tom had to stop talking. “Sorry.”

“If I set foot in St. Mungo’s, some healers might be sympathetic, but many would turn me in to the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures for the bounty. I’m classified as a dangerous beast, as vermin to exterminate.”

“Ah. Never mind,” said Tom. “So if this potion can’t be distributed through official channels, how can we get it to those who need it? Do you know other werewolves? Can you give me their names?”

Ignis was silent for a while. “It’s not that I don’t trust you...“

Tom’s father laughed. “You trust us too much already. You’re already drinking a mysterious potion on nothing more than Hermione’s word.”

“But that’s just trusting you with my own life,” said Ignis. “Trusting you with others’ lives is different.”

Tom observed, “So you’re willing to risk your own life, but not others’ lives on the chance that I’m actually a bounty hunter, using you to ferret out well-disguised werewolves so I can turn them all in for the bounty. That makes a sort of sense.” Ignis might be a Gryffindor, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. “I imagine the punishment the werewolf community would inflict on such a traitor would be severe.”

“What?” exclaimed Ignis. “It’s not that I’m afraid of what they’d do to me, it’s that I don’t want to betray my friends.”

“Whatever the deterrent, let me assure you that my business plan is not nearly so short-sighted,” said Tom. “There’s much more profit to be made supplying this potion for a werewolf’s whole lifetime than accepting a one-time bounty, unless the bounty is huge.”

“It’s fifty galleons,” admitted Ignis.

Tom responded to that with a dismissive snort. “There’s much more money to be made by selling a potion to a customer for decades.”

“Decades?” repeated Ignis.

“Yes, for customers’ entire lives, or until a cure is developed,” said Tom.

“Our lifespans aren’t usually measured in decades,” explained Ignis slowly. “More like years, and months.”

“What?” Tom was annoyed. He’d have to redo his calculations of the lifetime profit to be made from each werewolf.

“It’s the Dark injures we accumulate every month,” Ignis continued. “Those of us who lock ourselves up every full moon, we bear the brunt of the curse ourselves. It’s different for the ferals of course. They save themselves the self-inflicted Dark injuries by roaming free on full moons, to infect humans.”

“It’s so brave of you—“ started Hermione, but Ignis interrupted her.

“Don’t mistake this for some sort of heroism. I’m lost either way. Either death from the gradual accumulation of Dark injuries, or lose my humanity to the wolf, hunting humans like a wild beast. I don’t care to live a few more decades if all I do with the extra time is spread this infection, or get hunted down by the Werewolf Capture Unit. So, you know, six of one, half dozen of the other.” He attempted a chuckle, but no one else seemed amused. Mrs. McKinnon’s breath was shaky.

Ignis patted his mother’s hand. “You knew I’d go out in a blaze of glory the day you got my letter saying I’d been sorted into Gryffindor.”

“Gryffindors don’t all fit the stereotype,” said Mrs. McKinnon.

“Many of us do.”

Hermione spoke. “I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, but if this potion keeps you from injuring yourself in your wolf form, it might slow the progression of the disease. Your life might not be as short as you think.”

“I’d hate to lose my customers so quickly,” said Tom. This conversation was drifting away from important matters. Tom pulled it back on track. “Anyway, it’s good to know that confidentiality is important to my customers. I respect that. If you could keep track of them, there’s no need to trouble me with details such as their names. This means, of course, I’m offering you a job. Would you be willing to work on commission? I’ll pay you for every werewolf you refer to me. We’ll write up a contract.”

Ignis gave him a blank stare. “I…”

“You wouldn't have to close your pest control business, you could just start this as a sideline,” said Tom.

Tom’s father laughed. “Keep the same business cards. They’re the perfect cover.”

Ignis found his voice. “I wasn’t thinking of making money off this. I mean, if this works, I’ll just want to tell all the werewolves I know.”

Tom’s father laughed even louder. “Unless you’re independently wealthy, which I think I would have noticed, you’ll need some source of income.”

“Which I am happy to provide,” said Tom. “I’d rather you use your working hours helping my business than your own, so as you reallocate your time to advertising this potion, your commission from me will increase accordingly. How many werewolves do you think you could refer to me, should you find that this potion is worth your endorsement?”

“Potentially many. We can sense one another. No matter how well we fool humans, we can always identify a fellow werewolf.”

“You’re clearly the right fellow for the job then,” said Tom’s father.

“I certainly hope this potion is worth my endorsement.  I find myself impatient for the full moon.” Ignis set down his dessert fork. “Thank you for a delicious dinner and very interesting conversation.”

“Let us withdraw to the drawing room,” said Tom’s father. “I would like to offer you a tastier after-dinner drink than wolfsbane. Brandy?”

“Perhaps a drop,” said Mrs. McKinnon.

“Yes, please,” said Ignis.

Soon they were settled with their drinks. “So precious,” said Mrs. McKinnon, looking at Tommy, silently observing from Hermione’s sling. “Look at those eyes!”

No one needed any reminder to look at those eyes. Tom had once read an article about objects in space with such a strong gravitational pull, even light couldn’t escape them. He hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time, as he hadn’t seen any way to profit off this information, but perhaps if he’d studied the article more, it would have prepared him for Tommy’s eyes.

Mrs. McKinnon continued. “I know we Gryffindors have a reputation for bravery, but I think it takes a great deal of bravery for anyone to have a child. To feel so much love for something so helpless! It’s safer to love something strong, one’s country, or an abstract principle like justice, something that will outlast us, but to love a child! It breaks one’s heart.”

“I know what you mean,” said Tom’s mother.

“To love any person, really,” said Hermione. “Anyone mortal.”

“Let’s arrange delivery of tomorrow’s potion,” said Tom.

“Of course,” said Mrs. McKinnon. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get all maudlin. The brandy on top of that excellent wine with dinner may have been unwise.” Tom suppressed a cringe at the sympathetic looks the McKinnons gave to him, the recent widower.

“I have plans tomorrow,” said Ignis, “so perhaps I should just come here very briefly at, say, four o’clock to drink my next dose? I’m afraid I won’t have time for much of a visit.”

“Don’t apologize,” said Tom. “I know your time is valuable.”

“I’ll be waiting by the Floo for you,” said Hermione.

“Then perhaps Sunday you’ll let us host your family for dinner. Say, six o’clock?”

“We would be delighted, thank you,” said Tom’s mother.

“And then there’s Monday,” Ignis said darkly.

“Moonrise is at 3:43 pm,” said Hermione, “So I’ll drop by at, say, two with your final dose of potion for the month.”

“Thank you. These long winter nights are the hardest.”

As they said their goodbyes, the McKinnons expressed their gratitude for the dinner so effusively, it was almost embarrassing. Finally, they left, and Tom set the Floo to accept calls only.

“Hester outdid herself,” said Tom’s father. “That was an exceptional meal.”

“That wasn’t what they were grateful for,” said his mother. “I wonder what engagement Ignis has tomorrow. Is it with people who know he’s a werewolf, of people from whom he must hide his condition?”

Saturday morning, they discussed their day’s plans over breakfast.

“I realized something,” said Hermione. “In all those stories of life debts, the authors seem to gloss over how the debt actually forms, what makes someone have a debt to one person and not another. As with so much else to do with magic, intent is key. If a person knows in his heart he owes his life to someone, even if he doesn’t want to consciously admit it, a debt is formed.”

“That’s very interesting,” said Tom. “I’ll keep that in mind at lunch today.”

“I need to go to Diagon Alley too,” said Tom’s mother. “Mrs. McKinnon has already seen me in my one set of witch robes twice. I’ll get some new ones today, at that tailor who did such good work for you and Hermione.”

“Good idea,” said Tom.

“I’ll join you,” said Tom’s father. “A visit to Diagon Alley has been on my mind since first I heard of it.”

“You plan to go wandering around Diagon Alley while the tailor makes your new clothes,” sighed Hermione. “I suppose I’ll have to go with you and try to keep you out of trouble.”

“Of course not,” said Tom’s mother. “We’ll order our new robes, Floo home for lunch, and wait until Tom and Dobby return from their outing. Then Thomas and I will Floo back to the tailor shop, with Dobby. We wouldn’t go wandering about a fashionable street without an elf to carry our purchases. Dobby won’t be available until after lunchtime, as he’ll be lunching with his fellow elves. And of course, Thomas and I will need clothes suitable to wear in public.”

“I see where Tom gets it,” muttered Hermione. “All right, I suppose you can’t get into too much trouble in a tailor shop, so you can be on your own for that. I’ll accompany your outing to pick up your new clothes this afternoon, and then your wanderings. I must be back by four. I told Ignis I’d be here.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t impose on you for that,” said Tom’s mother. “You and Tommy need your afternoon nap.”

“But… I really shouldn’t let unaccompanied muggles loose in Diagon Alley. This is such a huge Statute violation.”

Tom’s father was about to say something, but a look from Tom’s mother silenced him. His mother spoke. “You are of course welcome to join us, Hermione, if you don’t think you’ll be too tired. I don’t plan to spend more than two or three hours looking at hats.”

That broke her will. “All right, all right, you’re on your own.” She turned to Tom. “You still have the portkey I gave you?”

“Yes. And I believe in airplanes, so veritaserum should be no obstacle to its use.”

“Good luck.”

“While we’re out, you could read The Young Witch’s Guide to Etiquette.” said Tom’s mother. “I found it fascinating.”

Hermione sighed.

Tom Floo-called Antonio’s Tailor Shop (the official Floo-call address according to the adverts in Witch Weekly ) to ask if he was available to measure some new clients. Antonio was delighted to give him an appointment at 11:00, so Tom thanked him, promised they would Floo then, and withdrew his head from the fire. He preferred telephones.

They spent most of the morning reading, then prepared for their outing. Once the adult Riddles were all in wizarding attire, Tom briefly reviewed the plan with Dobby, for it wouldn’t do to discuss such things where wizards could overhear.  Then Dobby, Tom’s father, Tom, and his mother Flooed to the shop. Tom wobbled only slightly upon arrival. He got out of the way of his mother, who stepped out with her usual grace.

After Tom did introductions, the tailor admired his parents’ current robes. “What stylish designs, and not by a wand with which I am familiar. Who made these?”

“These robes are from Australia,” said Tom’s mother. “I don’t think you’d be familiar with the tailor.”

“Very interesting. Thank you.”

“I used to do a lot of business in Australia,” Tom’s father explained. “But I plan to do more in Britain in the future, which calls for some new robes in a more British style.”

“Of course,” said the tailor. “The differences are very subtle at any rate, but I know just what you mean.”

“I’ll see you at home after lunch,” said Tom to his parents. He and Dobby left them to their fittings.

He looked at his wizarding pocket watch. He was quite early. A stroll around the neighborhood would be a pleasant way to pass the time. He bought some more owl treats, then simply wandered.

A young lady stepped out of a hairstyling salon, or perhaps her hair writhed out of its own volition and pulled her along. Her hair was red, but otherwise resembled Hermione’s in serpentine willfulness. She wore her jade green cloak open and her pointed hood down, showing off the lining, soft white fur inviting touch. She was accompanied by an older, stouter lady, her mother no doubt, with blonde hair less outrageously styled. Her mother was in loud raptures about how gorgeous her daughter was, and how well the new style suited her. The daughter was blushing.

Tom smiled to see this living proof of Witch Weekly’s influence.

Like a sighthound locating prey, the young lady’s gaze met his. The black pupils of her brown eyes expanded as if to swallow him whole before she lowered her long-lashed eyelids demurely. She whispered something to her mother, and the two turned and walked away from him. Her red hair looked at least as absurd from the back.

As the young lady walked, she dropped her handkerchief, a lace-trimmed, pure white confection that clearly had never seen a bogey.

Tom played along. He darted forward to pick the handkerchief up off the cobblestones. “Excuse me, miss, you dropped this.”

The young lady turned and smiled at him. “Oh! Thank you very much.” She accepted the handkerchief with a curtsy.

The young lady’s mother stepped back to admire a window display of feathered, pointed hats some distance away.

“I almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” the young lady said once her mother was a decent distance away.

Tom raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.

“Your normal clothes I mean,” she said, blushing. Pink clashed with orange. “Your wizarding robes. You’re Tom Riddle, aren’t you? I saw those pictures of you and Mr. Malfoy in Witch Weekly. I didn’t know muggle clothes could look so dapper. You certainly wore them well.” She sighed, which did interesting things to her lace-trimmed decolletage. This January day was chilly, so she was wearing plenty of clothes and wintry accessories, yet for all her layers, a significant portion of her skin was bared to the elements. “I wish I had someone to take me muggletouring. It seems like such a thrilling adventure.”

“You have the advantage of me, Miss…”

“Prewett. Tessie Prewett.”

Tom searched his memory of Nature’s Nobility . A pureblood family, of just the sort he was trying to infiltrate. “I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Prewett.” He bowed low to kiss her soft, perfumed hand, trying to add a bit more style to Ignis’s gesture. He was rewarded with a musical giggle.

“Please call me Tessie.”

“Thank you Tessie. Then you may call me Tom.”

This triggered another lace-trimmed sigh. “Thank you, Tom. I was so excited to read about your adventure among the muggles.”

“Adventure? I treated a friend to lunch.”

“Oh Tom, how brave you are to make light of the danger!”

Tom tried to perform the expected reaction to this flattery, but his heart wasn’t in it. He changed tack, and instead said, “Perhaps I was reckless, but sorrow over my wife’s recent death is undoubtedly clouding my judgement.”

Tessie’s reaction was entertaining. “Oh. Of course. Yes, I did read about that. I offer my most heartfelt condolences.” She raised her hand to her heart or thereabouts to draw his attention to her sincerity.

“Thank you.” He reused the line that had worked before: “I’m trying to keep up my spirits, so my newborn son isn’t raised in the atmosphere of a funeral parlor, but it’s difficult. Trying to celebrate a new life while mourning the loss of another…” He shook his head.

“Oh, I can imagine. It must be very difficult.” The poor girl looked around awkwardly. “I should introduce you to my mother. She’s right there. I’m not one of those girls who goes out on her own.”

“Of course. It would be foolish to leave such a treasure unguarded.”

The compliment had the predictable effect. She smiled, and led him to her mother, who was beaming. “Mother! It really is Tom Riddle!”

Tom thought that the word “it” was more applicable to his wallet than his person, so it was the correct pronoun in this case.

“This is my mother, Edith Prewett.”

Tom bowed to kiss the lady’s hand, as soft and perfumed as her daughter’s. “At your service.”

“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Riddle. I don’t believe I’ve seen you at any of the society galas.”

“My wife Merope and I—“ It was completely justifiable for his voice to break “—enjoyed each other’s company so much, I’m afraid we neglected the rest of society. I’m feeling that isolation keenly now. With the sudden loss of the most important person in my life, it would be all too easy to sink into despair.”

“Oh!” said Tessie, overwhelmed with sympathy. “How terrible to suffer such a loss without even the solace of friends!”

Tom nodded. “My parents have been a comfort of course, and my newborn son. But it’s high time I built a larger network of friends.”

“If you would ever like company on a muggletouring jaunt, I would be delighted to join you,” said Tessie.

“That’s very kind, thank you. Yes, let’s plan something. My Floo-call address is simply The Riddle House, in Little Hangleton, Yorkshire. Have my card.” It listed his address, although did not specify that it was for Floo-calls. From their reaction , you’d think he’d just handed her a diamond ring.

“Thank you! Mine’s Shell Cottage. Here’s my card.”

Tom accepted the perfumed white rectangle. It said simply Tessie Prewett, Shell Cottage, Tinworth, Cornwall, with no telephone number.

Tessie was peering at Tom’s card with a befuddled look. “What’s this? Teal—“

“My telephone number, useful for communicating with distant muggles. You can just ignore that part, unless you’re planning to get a telephone.”

The two witches blinked their big brown eyes at him.

“Now if you would excuse me, I’m meeting Mr. Malfoy for lunch again today, this time in more familiar environs.”

“Oh! Mr. Malfoy! What a pity about his wife.”

“Yes. A widower must be cautious about any woman vying to be his second wife, particularly if he is a man of means who already has an heir. Good day.” Tom turned and left the witches behind, feeling their gazes on the sweep of his black robes.

He turned a corner, then abruptly stopped to read prices of potion ingredients for sale at an apothecary. In a few moments, he heard, faintly, a high-pitched squeal, then “You just scored the heir of Riddle’s Floo-call address! And he’s so handsome!”

That had been an amusing way to pass the time. As Tom continued to the restaurant, he made a mental note to check his food and drinks for the scent of Amortentia.

Tom and Dobby entered La Truffe Émraude, and were separated according to the new policy. A waiter led Tom to Malfoy, already seated at a secluded table. Tom looked for a subtle shadow of nothing behind a potted plant and was not disappointed. He made sure to give the photographer a good view of his aristocratic profile, and a graceful swish of his acromantula-silk robes.

Malfoy nodded to him. “Thank you for joining me.”

“Thank you for the invitation, Mr. Malfoy.” Tom sat.

“Please. Call me Serpens.”

Tom did not drop his menu, although it was a close call. “Thank you, Serpens. You may call me Tom.”

Serpens looked at his menu. “Oh good, the lettuce-stuffed flobberworm is back on the menu. Spring is on its way.”

Tom looked at his own menu. It was not much more comprehensible than before. “The last time Miss Granger and I were here,” he remarked, “she was indignant that they serve rare magical creatures such as diricawl. She seemed to feel that these rarities are too precious to serve as mere food. I’m tempted to order the diricawl to enjoy in her absence, but attempting to sneak around behind a seer’s back seems unwise. I’ll ask for something vegetarian, or at least completely free of magical creatures.” He set his menu down, free of any obligation to understand it.

Serpens set his menu down likewise. “Then I will do the same,” he said. “I’m not so addicted to the pleasures of the flesh that I would risk offending a powerful seer for them.”

Their waiter noted their downed menus and glided by to take their order, then vanished into the kitchen.

With their meal choices decided, conversation seemed to lag. Tom had the solution. “I have a little gift for you.” He extracted the small case from his wallet and set it in front of Serpens.

“Thank you.” Serpens looked at it, looked at Tom, looked at the case again, looked around the room, and finally opened it. He did not touch the contents. “What is it?”

“A new model of fountain pen, a Parker Senior in black-tipped jade. I thought you might want to practice with one at home, should the need arise for you to use one again. It doesn’t take regular ink, it needs a thinner kind that won’t clog the nib, so I included a bottle of that. It has an ingenious filling mechanism. Here, I’ll show you how it works.”

Malfoy stared as Tom demonstrated the button mechanism to neatly fill the pen with ink. “It’s best to carry it nib-up,” Tom explained, “so it doesn’t leak ink when the air pressure changes, as might happen when flying high on a broom or aeroplane.”

“Excuse me, what was that second thing you mentioned?”

“An aeroplane. A muggle flying machine.”

“A muggle…” but Tom was handing him the pen, so he took it and looked at it. It was an impressively bright green, with swirls of different shades writhing sinuously around it. “What is this made of?”

“The Parker company calls it Permanite, which is their trademarked name for celluloid.”

“What?”

“Celluloid. A type of plastic.”

“What?”

“A new kind of material. Muggles invented it.”

“But is this a sort of ivory, or tortoiseshell, or—“

“Plastic. There's a great future in plastics. Look, my pen is plastic too, a different sort called ebonite.” Tom drew his Mabie Todd Swan. “The nib is gold, but all the black parts are ebonite.” Serpens seemed overwhelmed, so Tom returned his pen to his pocket. Serpens put the pen and ink back in their case, which he put, nib-end up, in a pocket of his robes, although with a bemused expression.

It was time to discuss something familiar. “Oh, for future communications, feel free to Floo-call me.” Tom handed Serpens his card. “The Riddle House is my Floo address.” And visiting and mailing address, for muggles. He hadn’t even had to print new cards.

“This number…” asked Serpens.

“My telephone number. Useful for calling distant muggles. They have a system somewhat like our Floo-calls, but it conveys voices only.” It was clear he’d lost Serpens completely. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t drone on about my esoteric hobbies.”

“That’s quite all right,” said Serpens. “A welcome distraction from my own thoughts.” He took a card from his own pocket. “I don’t usually have to hand these out in this country, as this address is common knowledge, but my Floo-call address is simply Malfoy Manor.”

“Thank you.” Tom put the card in his wallet. Tom hadn’t committed much of an error or made much of an apology, so Serpens’s forgiveness was equally insignificant, but Tom would work with what he had. “Let us discuss more familiar matters. There’s the matter of your son’s life debt to me.” And whether it could be traded for the Daily Prophet’s continued endorsement of Tommy as heir of Slytherin.

“What?” If Serpens had looked befuddled at a plastic pen, he looked even more surprised by this, before restoring his face to a calm expression.

Thus, La Truffe Émraude played host to the convention of People Pretending They Aren’t Surprised, as Serpens tried to pretend that this wasn’t the first he’d heard of this life debt business, and Tom tried to pretend that Serpens’s shock was not a surprise to him. Hadn’t Corvus sent the letter at his father’s command? This frowardness was clearly a sign that young Corvus had not been brought up properly. Tom decided then and there that he would raise his own son to respect his father more, and thus avoid any similarly embarrassing surprises. Tommy would not send important letters to strangers willy-nilly.

But that was a project for the future. First, Tom had to settle the issue of whether Serpens acknowledged this life debt. “I confess that it might not have occurred to me to call this a life debt had I not received this.” Tom drew Corvus’s letter from his pocket and handed it to Serpens, who examined it.

“That does look like his handwriting,” Serpens admitted. “Too many flourishes.”

“It’s beautiful handwriting,” said Tom. “My mother particularly admired it.”

“His handwriting isn’t the point,” grumbled Serpens. “What did you reply?”

“That he should not discuss such an important matter without your guidance, and as you were undoubtedly busy, I would await your convenience. I thought that was why you arranged this meeting.”

Serpens didn’t bother hiding his relieved sigh. Tom, meanwhile, despite the calmness of his outward demeanor, was mentally kicking himself. He’d just thrown away his chance to negotiate with a foolish boy. Now that boy would have the assistance of a somewhat cunning adult, which made the game closer to fair than Tom preferred.

The waiter delivered some salads. Serpens impaled and ate a forkful of greens while ruminating on this information. “I am not entirely convinced,” he eventually said, “that if my son owes a life debt to anyone, he owes it to you. An argument could be made that he owes it to me for acting on the information you provided, or even to the aurors who arrested Giselle. I will have to look into this.” While chewing another forkful, he suddenly developed an expression that made Tom wonder if his salad had contained a small rock on which he had just cracked a tooth. “Merlin, he might even owe it to that mu— muggleborn seer, Miss Granger. She was the original source of the information. For a Malfoy to owe a life debt to a muggleborn…” An even more disturbing thought apparently occurred to him, judging from the look he gave Tom. He spoke carefully. “I have been somewhat neglectful of my original plan, which was to research your origins, not just the Slytherin family genealogy. At our last meeting, you very effectively distracted my attention from the subject. In my limited spare time since then, I have been making some inquiries into your origins, and have made no progress whatsoever. If my son owes a life debt to a muggleborn…” The poor man couldn’t even finish the sentence.

“Let me set your mind at ease,” said Tom. “I can assure you that I am not a muggleborn wizard. I would have said the same under veritaserum had you asked.”

Serpens did not seem entirely convinced.

“Let me save you some trouble.” Tom lowered his voice even further. “The founder of my line was born to muggle parents. He was not impressed with the reception a muggleborn wizard received in wizarding society, and so he had nothing to do with it. That explains why you have not heard the Riddle name before.” Tom sat back and smiled. “Fortunately, a wizard needn’t win all of wizarding society to his side, but only one witch, to live a happy life. If he isn’t picky about blood purity, a satisfactory wife is easy to find. Thus, the Riddles have lived quite happily for generations, keeping apart from greater wizarding society, and subtly ruling over the local muggles while honoring the Statute of Secrecy to the letter. You won’t find any record of us in greater wizarding society.”

Serpens nodded. “I can see how those of lower blood status more easily find marriage partners. British pureblood wizarding society is so small, the only witches of pure enough blood to be suitable brides for a pureblood wizard of importance are also his cousins. This really should eliminate them as possibilities, but for many families it doesn’t. My first wife, Njinga, was from the kingdom of Aksum. Her pedigree was impeccable, yet contained virtually no British wizarding blood. We had just a few years together and then…” He couldn’t finish his sentence.

The waiter removed their salad bowls and brought something unrecognizable.

“I offer my condolences,” said Tom.

“Thank you.”

They ate in silence for a while. Then Serpens spoke. “I would say that we never know what the future might bring, but of course that isn’t true. I have a request. I would like an introduction to the seer, Miss Granger, who provided the information that saved my son’s life.”

“I will convey your request to her, but I can make no guarantee that she will grant it. She took an instant dislike to you when you had that little misunderstanding with the exploding cheese cart. Unfortunately, she’s the type who holds a grudge.”

Serpens sighed. “I made a terrible mistake in angering such a witch. I would like to convey my apology in person, if she will allow me to do so. I owe an apology to you as well. I truly did not notice that she was holding your baby when I drew my wand on her.”

“He is a remarkably quiet baby,” said Tom, “so that’s understandable.”

“But to threaten a man’s heir, even accidentally!” Serpens’s pale skin turned ruddy. “That’s the worst threat I could have possibly made.”

“The important thing is that ultimately, no harm was done,” said Tom. “My reaction at the time was, perhaps, childish.”

“No. It was perfectly understandable. I’m grateful you used your fist rather than your wand.”

“Thank you. Well then, let us consider the matter settled, and not let any lingering resentment come between us.”

“I completely agree. And now for another topic I wish to discuss.” Serpens steeled himself with another sip of his drink. “I went to visit my wife in prison the other day.”

What on earth was the proper response to that? It was bad enough consoling a man for his wife’s murder. Tom’s mother would know what to say, but she wasn’t here. “How is she doing?” he hazarded.

“Not well,” said Serpens. “The Dementors... I brought chocolate for her.”

“That was very nice of you,” said Tom. “Considering.”

“I thought so,” said Serpens. “It was the chocolate I found among her belongings, after the Aurors came to arrest her.”

Tom considered that. “Did she eat it?”

“No. She said she’d bought it as a special treat for Corvus, so I should give it to him.”

Tom reeled. “She’s still trying, even from prison! That…” there were no polite words to describe her.

Serpens shrugged. “She’s loyal to her son, not to Njinga’s. I’d do the same if I were in that situation. I explained that there was no way I was letting any child of mine eat this chocolate, and again offered it to her. As a mercy, you understand, to get it over with all at once, rather than have her life slowly sucked out of her by the Dementors. Again she declined. So I said goodbye.”

Tom felt terrible on Serpens’s behalf. Serpens himself seemed to be speaking without emotion.

“And then, as I was leaving, I heard something very interesting,” said Serpens, smiling slightly. “A snakelike hissing. I’ve heard of Parseltongue of course, but never heard it spoken. I approached the cell from which the sound came. The man inside could only have been your brother-in-law. He looked just as you described. There can’t be many wizards who have the misfortune to look like that. So. In the spirit of friendship between your family and mine, I offered your brother-in-law some chocolate.”

Tom shivered. He couldn’t speak for a moment. Then, “Did he take it?”

“Yes. Gulped it down like an animal. I unwrapped it for him so as not to litter his cell with the wrapper of course. Then I left.”

Hiding his relieved expression was more trouble that it was worth. “Thank you,” Tom said.

“Are we even?” asked Serpens, offering his hand to shake.

Tom considered that. Even wasn’t quite what he had in mind. “We’re equals,” he said, shaking Serpens’s hand before he had a chance to withdraw it. It felt as dry as parchment. Tom envied how Serpens hadn’t broken a sweat. That was another thing to aspire to.

 

Chapter Text

Back in his office, as Dobby cleaned the Floo-ash from Tom’s robes, Tom asked. “How was your lunch, Dobby? Did you get a chance to chat with your fellow elves?”

“Oh, yes Master, thank you. The other elves are amazed at Dobby’s change of situation, sir. Most elves fear being given clothes, but Dobby proved that an elf can be free and still work, which set their minds at ease.”

“Who was there?” Tom asked. “Did Malfoy bring a different elf?”

“Yes Master, the Malfoys still have several elves. Pinky accompanied Master Malfoy today, so she could relate news of all of Dobby’s old friends. Master Malfoy has been angry, but life in Malfoy Manor has been easier since Mistress Malfoy was arrested.”

“I can imagine. And who else was there?”

“There was Blinky, she’s owned by the Greengrass family. She’s been busy preparing for the engagement party...” Tom opened his rolltop desk and took notes of Dobby’s news, for there was more than he trusted his memory to hold.

“Very interesting, thank you,” Tom said when Dobby had reported all he’d heard. “We’ll have to go to La Truffe Émraude frequently, so you can keep in touch with your friends.”

“Thank you Master.”

“Now where are my parents and Hermione?”

Dobby looked around, apparently through the floor and walls. “In the solarium, Master.”

Tom headed there, Dobby trotting at his heels.

In the solarium, Tom’s father was relating what he apparently considered to be an entertaining anecdote to Hermione, who was tolerating this reasonably well as she nursed Tommy. Tom’s mother was knitting.

After they exchanged their afternoon greetings, Tom asked, “How do you like Antonio?”

“A true artist!” his mother exclaimed. “We’re quite looking forward to returning to see what he’s made for us.”

“Dobby just had a pleasant lunch with his peers, so he should be well-rested and available to carry your packages,” said Tom. “I’m tempted to accompany your wanderings around Diagon Alley this afternoon, although I also have work to do here.”

“We’ll be fine, dear,” his mother assured him.

“How was lunch?” asked his father.

“Excellent,” said Tom. “La Truffe Émraude’s vegetarian fare is fully as good as their magical beasts. Serpens followed your example, Hermione, at my suggestion. The diricawls are safe from us.”

Hermione’s reaction to these words was as entertaining as Tom had anticipated. “What?”

“You call him by his Christian name?” his mother noticed.

“Oh yes,” said Tom. “At his suggestion, since we are friends, it’s only natural that we call each other by our Christian—“

Hermione had her head down in her hand (the one that wasn’t supporting Tommy), but she looked up to interrupt this. “Your given names,” she corrected. “The church and the wizarding world have a long-standing enmity.”

“Thank you,” said Tom with a polite nod. “Of course, witch burnings and the like. That’s good to know. Do wizards follow other religions I should know about?”

“Generally not, except for some muggleborns and halfbloods who keep the muggle religions they were brought up with,” explained Hermione. “The purebloods regard that as superstition. Purebloods sometimes seem to worship their own ancestors. They generally revere the great wizards of history.”

Tom nodded. He had a momentary suspicion that Hermione, a muggleborn, might try to indoctrinate his son in some muggle superstition, and considered replacing her with a pureblood nursemaid, who’d set a better example for an impressionable young mind. However, on further reflection, Tom had never seen Hermione displaying such a sign of her lowly origin. She’d spent Sundays with them without complaining about the Riddles’ lack of religiosity, so she was nearly as good as a pureblood nursemaid. Tom decided to keep her for now. “Thank you. As I was saying, my friend Serpens and I agreed to call each other by our given—“

“That wasn’t what you were saying,” interrupted Hermione.

“It amounts to the same thing,” said Tom.

“Did you use the wrong word with Malfoy?”

“No.”

Hermione seemed almost disappointed, but rallied. “Well, good. Because a slip like that—“

“I would like to hear more about this meeting,” interrupted his father.

Hermione, who’d been leaning forward in her wicker chair, flopped back on the cushions and hugged Tommy a little tighter. “Talk,” she commanded Tom.

“As I was saying before I was interrupted, Serpens gladly agreed with Hermione that rare magical creatures should not serve as mere food.”

“Last time he ate there,” said Hermione, “he had no qualms about kicking a house elf, so why is he now so considerate of—“

“Last time, he didn’t know of your concern for the welfare of magical creatures,” explained Tom. “Now he does. He wants to please you.”

Hermione’s brain seemed to have seized up, as if Tom had thrown a spanner into fast-running machinery. “What?!”

“At our previous lunch, when I related my suspicions about his murderous wife to him, I wanted to add some authority to my words, so I implied that I’d received the information from a reliable source. Specifically, I said that you dislike divination, so you would not like to be called a seer, thus implying that I’d got the information from you instead of figuring it out myself. I did not technically lie.” He wasn’t even lying now.

Hermione’s eyes were not as wide as Dobby’s often were, but they were impressive for a human. “You misled him while you were under the effects of veritaserum?!”

“It gave me a headache,” said Tom. “But yes.” His actual accomplishment had been easier than the one he was suggesting, but there was no need to go into details.

“Force of will like that…” marveled Hermione. Then she shook her head to clear it. Her face settled back into its default indignant expression. “So now Malfoy thinks I’m a seer. Of course he’s sucking up to me. He wants more prophecies. Honestly, Tom, how could you do this to me? I hate divination.”

“Whatever the reason, Serpens greatly regrets his earlier disrespect to you, and would like to apologize to you in person,” said Tom. “Surely this is an improvement over his previous behavior.”

“Of course he regrets shooting that curse at me,” scoffed Hermione. “Now that he thinks a lowly muggleborn could be useful to him, he’ll deign to associate with me. As if I’d give him the chance!”

“I hope you don’t intend to waste this opportunity,” said Tom. “Serpens could be very helpful to us. He did the Riddle family quite a favor already.” Tom related Serpens’s tale of how he had ensured that Tommy was now the official heir, not merely the spare of Slytherin.

Afterwards, there were various types of silence in the room. The silence of his parents was the relieved, overjoyed kind, while Tommy’s was his usual eerie observation.

Hermione’s was outraged shock. She found her voice first. “What could have motivated him to kill a man in cold blood like that?”

“Well,” explained Tom, “he feels indebted to me for saving his son. At our earlier lunch, I mentioned that Morfin was in prison for attacking me, and was the true heir of Slytherin, so his life relegated Tommy to the role of mere spare. I said that my family was inconvenienced by Morfin’s continued survival, but I didn’t actually—“

“You as good as asked Malfoy to kill him for you,” accused Hermione. “‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’” she quoted.

“Morfin was no Saint Thomas of Canterbury,” Tom objected. “And I’m no King Henry II. The situations are completely different. And that wizard had already attacked me, repeatedly. Who knows what he would have done when he was released?” Everyone in the room except Tommy knew what he would have done, and Tom wasn’t sure if Tommy should not be counted among the informed. His dark eyes seemed to absorb everything. Anyway, Hermione must have read about Morfin murdering the Riddle family in the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility, just as Tom and his parents had. Tom had expected Hermione to be more understanding of an action that saved the lives of Tom’s parents, not to mention Tom’s own. What would she have Tom do instead, go back in time to adopt Morfin and try to raise him to be less murderous? Had she wanted that done, she should have done it herself.

A disturbing thought occurred to Tom. She hadn’t been looking forward to Morfin murdering the three muggle Riddles, had she? Did her plan require them to be out of her way? No, no, Tom couldn’t believe it. Betraying a family after accepting their hospitality was so monstrous as to be inhuman.

Even in her fury, Hermione gave a convincing impression of someone who didn’t know that Morfin would have eventually murdered them. Tom was impressed. “You’re acting awfully happy about a man being murdered in cold blood,” she said. “He didn’t even have a chance to defend himself! Poisoned in prison, helpless… Is making Tommy the last heir of Slytherin really so important?”

Perhaps Hermione was envious. She didn’t seem capable of doing anything in cold blood; her blood ranged from a simmer to a rolling boil. As she raged, her hair, which had not been particularly orderly to begin with, grew increasingly agitated. Tom wondered why Tommy was not translating Hermione’s emotional state into a more physically destructive form. Perhaps that worked only for Tom, some sort of father-son bond. Great.

“I’m sorry to have upset you with this news,” said Tom, “but what’s done is done.”

“Sure, this particular murder is done,” said Hermione, “but who’s next?”

“I beg your pardon,” exclaimed Tom.

“This sort of callous disregard for human life doesn’t stop with just one murder,” said Hermione. “When someone else’s continued survival inconveniences the Riddle family, will you again—“

“Now stop right there!” bellowed Tom’s father. “I won’t have you insulting my son in my own house. You can’t just come here and accuse my son of being some sort of common criminal. I assure you we raised him better than that.”

“Then why did he tell Malfoy—“

“He’d dosed me with veritaserum!” exclaimed Tom. “I can’t be held accountable for anything I said while—

“You just bragged that you can control what you say under veritaserum,” argued Hermione. “That’s no excuse.”

Tom’s father was ruddy with rage. “If you believe anyone in my family could possibly do such a thing as arrange for a man to be murdered, you are free to leave, and not come back. We can hire another nursemaid for Tommy. You are replaceable.”

“As if I could leave Tommy here!” said Hermione. “What kind of influence would this family have on an impressionable child? Murder shouldn’t be the first solution that comes to his mind whenever he has a problem.”

Now it was all clear, but Tom still didn’t know what to do about it. Tom had been called many unflattering things by tenants whose rents he was raising, or those he was evicting, but he’d never before had to defend his family against an accusation that they were predisposed to murder. An argument formed in his mind automatically: of course the adult version of Tommy that Hermione knew from her own universe was murderous, but the fault was all on his mother’s side. Poor Tommy, if left to his own devices without the guidance of his loving father, would take after his murderous uncle. In this universe, however, the Riddles would raise Tommy properly, and cure him of any tendency towards criminality. Presenting this argument to Hermione was, of course, unlikely to succeed, for admitting that they’d stolen her book would not inspire confidence in their law-abiding natures.

“I wonder,” said Tom’s mother quietly, “if perhaps, Hermione dear, you are predisposed to see murderous intent where none exists. Your experiences in Australia no doubt gave you an accurate impression of the state of affairs there, but please, let me assure you that Britain is a safer place. Here, people are much more likely to be opposed to murder than in favor of it. I’m sure that Tom didn’t even consider how Serpens might act on his remarks about Morfin, because murder was the furthest thing from Tom’s mind.”

Tom looked as innocent as possible when Hermione’s gaze flew to him. He said nothing, but waited anxiously to see the effects of his mother’s words.

Hermione, after first drawing breath as if to prepare to argue, instead deflated back into her chair. “You’re right,” she said faintly. “I’m sorry. I’ve been judging your family unfairly.”

Tom let out the breath he’d been holding.

“That’s quite all right,” smiled his mother, even though it bloody well wasn’t, but Tom held his tongue. Even his father did as well, although his face was still ruddy with pressurized anger. Tom’s parents had been married long enough that his father knew when to defer to his mother’s expertise, and this was definitely one of those times.

“Hermione, have you been getting enough rest?” Tom’s mother asked. “Caring for a newborn is a big job, and you’ve taken on many other difficult tasks besides.”

Hermione let out an exhausted little laugh. “My friends always told me I worked too hard. They said I was starting to get paranoid, near the end. But how can you tell if you’re paranoid if everyone really is out to…” She shook that thought out of her head, curls flailing chaotically. “You’re right, Mrs. Riddle. I have to remind myself that you’re a perfectly nice British family, not like some people I knew in Australia. I need to learn to relax, and stop being so suspicious.”

“I’m sure a more optimistic outlook will become second nature in time,” said Tom’s mother. During this heated conversation, she’d put her knitting down on her lap, but now she picked it up again, needles clicking rhythmically. Tom felt the tension drain out of the room.

“What are you knitting?” Hermione asked.

“A jumper for Tommy,” his mother replied. “It's part of this darling little layette set.” She indicated the printed pattern. “I’ve done the bonnet already. I don’t wish to bore you with it. I’m sure that a modern woman such as yourself has no interest in such an old-fashioned pastime as knitting.”

“Oh no, I love knitting,” said Hermione, which may have been her most shocking revelation yet. “My grandmother taught me. It’s so relaxing. I just haven’t had time to do it for years. Could I help? I’m sure this is just the thing to calm me down.” She took the pattern from the knitting basket and studied it. “Ooh, I could knit these adorable little booties to match. I see you have the double-pointed needles for them, and this yarn is such a pretty color.” And before anyone could stop her, she’d taken the wool out of the basket and seen the books underneath.

After such a brief respite, the tension rushed back into the room. No one spoke for a while. Hermione set the pattern and wool down. The four bone needles clattered on the little table as she reached for the books. “ A Brief History of Time Travel ?” she read. “ Advances in Time Travel Theory ? Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling Through Time ? Where did you get these?”

“At the British Wizarding Library,” said Tom’s mother, not interrupting the rhythm of her knitting needles at all.

“Why…” asked Hermione, brows drawing together.


“I’ve always been fascinated by scientific romances,” said Tom’s mother, continuing to knit. Was she really going to try to bluff her way through this? Could she possibly succeed? “Have you read The Time Machine , by H.G. Wells? I don’t know how many British books make their way to Australia, but it is a very popular one. We have a copy in the study if you would like to pass the time with a thought-provoking novel. I know that nothing in muggle science would make such a machine possible, so I wondered if the magical world was more advanced in this field.”

The tip of one of Hermione’s curls twitched like the tail of an alert cat.

Tom stood. “Enough!”

Everyone stared at him. His mother’s knitting needles stopped clicking. Tommy’s dark eyes pierced his. Tom hoped Tommy wouldn’t make this any more exciting than it had to be.

“Enough lies, enough secrets, enough deception,” Tom continued. “Hermione, we know. Let’s stop this charade.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Hermione.

It occurred to Tom that Hermione might be feeling as guilty for hiding information from them as Tom felt about stealing that information. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage. “Would you like to confess your deception first?” he asked dryly, for he’d be damned if he was the only one admitting guilt.

“Confess what?” she asked indignantly. “I have nothing to confess. I haven’t deceived you at all. We’re in this together. I thought we were honest with each other. I’ve certainly been honest with you.”

“That’s rich,” chortled Tom’s father, who, after recovering from his initial shock, seemed to be enjoying the excitement. “We’ve been more forthcoming with you than you with us.”

That got through to her. “But… it’s not like I’ve been keeping you in the dark on purpose! You’ve never seemed to enjoy surprises, so I’ve been doling them out gradually, as needed. I planned to tell you everything, eventually.”

“Ah,” said Tom. “I must admit that we’ve not always given your revelations the best reception. From now on, please consider us inured to shock, so tell us the truth as it occurs to you.”

Hermione nodded as if she agreed, but was silent.

“Will it help if I tell you we figured it out already?” asked Tom. “We know you’re a time traveler. Tommy here is the wizard who grew up unloved in a muggle orphanage and eventually murdered your parents.”

“Don’t say that in front of him!” Hermione paced, clutching Tommy to her. “Don’t even think it!”

Think? Because thoughts influence emotions, or...

“That’s the terrible thing about divination, the self-fulfilling prophecies,” Hermione continued. “Tommy is an innocent baby. He hadn’t done any of that, and he isn’t going to. We are absolutely not going to poison his sense of himself by telling him he has the potential to… No. I’m not going to say it. He’s a baby. He likes milk and cuddles and lullabies and his bath water just the right temperature. That’s all there is to know about him now. I’m not saying anything else.”

“All right,” said Tom eventually. “May we discuss Morfin then? Considering that he’s already dead?”

“What about him?” asked Hermione.

“I don’t regret relating my troubles with Morfin to Serpens,” said Tom, “and I can’t pretend I’m unhappy that Serpens took it upon himself to act upon the information I provided. I’ll do anything to protect my family, Hermione. Something had to be done. Had he lived, Morfin would have murdered my parents and me!”

“What? No! He never did anything worse than hex you, and I’m handy with counterhexes.”

Tom looked to his mother, who looked back innocently. Tom sighed. “We have your book,” he confessed. “The 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility. We read that Morfin murdered the three of us in 1943. Will murder. Well, won’t now of course. Aargh. I need more tenses. So killing him before that was self-defense, really.”

“Morfin?” exclaimed Hermione. “Of course! You think Morfin was the one who killed you!”

“He confessed!” bellowed Tom’s father. “It’s right there in the book! I’ll show you!” But even as his father charged for the door, Tom realized that the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility hadn’t actually named Morfin’s muggle victims. Had Morfin murdered three other nameless muggles instead? Tom realized, with sudden horror, that he may have caused Morfin’s death to the benefit of some other family, not his own.

Hermione waved her hand at Tom’s father dismissively. “Don’t bother, I know what it says. It doesn’t actually say Morfin killed you. All it says is that he confessed.”

“But—“ said Tom’s father.

“He was framed by the real murderer, who edited Morfin’s memories so he believed himself guilty, and proud of his supposed crime,” said Hermione. “It probably also took some work to get him to confess in English rather than Parseltongue. Morfin’s another victim here. You just killed an innocent man.”

“So are you going to tell us who really killed us?” demanded Tom’s father.

“No, and that’s not the point,” said Hermione.

“I think the fact that our murderer is still out there somewhere is a rather important point,” said Tom’s father. “Besides, you just said we’ll be honest with each other.”

“I’ll tell you eventually. Not now.”

“But in 1943,” said his mother, “he’ll be only sixteen. Can a wizard really edit someone’s memories, at only sixteen? That seems like advanced magic.”

Hermione, clutching the baby to her breast, bolted from the room.

Tom stared at his mother.

“You have the same name,” she said. “It wouldn’t be that hard for a sixteen-year-old to track you down.”

“Wouldn’t it have been considerably easier,” said his father after a pause, “once Hermione had this completely helpless baby in her clutches, to simply kill him before he grew up to murder at least five innocent people? Instead she’s taken on this job that will take years of her life, with no guarantee of success.”

“You’re not so innocent if you’re talking about murdering a baby,” said Tom. “Hermione has ethics.”

“I feared as much,” sighed his father.

“So maybe Tommy was right to kill us,” said Tom.

“I beg your pardon,” said his father.

“I mean, from a certain point of view, we’re a family of villains, aren’t we?” said Tom. “Parasites exploiting the labor of the proletariat and all that rot, and your baby-murdering plot is just the icing on the let-them-eat-cake. Maybe Tommy’s a Marxist.”

“No grandson of mine—“ started his father.

“If he grew up poor, though, abandoned by his relatives who lived in luxury without him? I’d be feeling rather murderous myself in his place. And then he framed his uncle, who couldn’t be bothered to take him out of that orphanage either. Smart kid.” Tom beamed with pride in his resourceful son. “I wonder how Hermione knows more about the crime than the author of that book, though. Assuming she’s telling the truth.”

Another thought struck Tom. “Unless I’ve got it all backwards. We’ve been assuming that her parents didn’t deserve to die.”

“I beg your pardon,” said his father again.

“I mean, look at her,” said Tom. “She has no qualms whatsoever about lying and breaking the law, only about getting caught. She brags about how many fights she’s survived. What kind of criminal masterminds must her parents have been to raise a girl like this?”

“She did say her father was a dentist,” said his mother.

“Well, there you have it,” concluded Tom. “Evil. Who could blame Tommy for simply doing what had to be done?”

“I don’t believe—“ his mother began.

“It was just an idea,” said Tom. “All right, my first impression was probably correct. Hermione has all the makings of a heroine, so the Tommy of her universe was a villain. She didn’t tell us because she was afraid we’d think less of Tommy for being a murderer. But I admire him all the more for it. My son’s no milquetoast. He’s got my force of will!” Tom proudly clenched his Malfoy-punching fist. “We just have to make sure to raise him to be the same type of villain we are, so that force of will is applied in the correct direction.”

Tom’s father was blessedly speechless at that.

Tom realized he hadn’t explained his reasoning yet, so he addressed his mother. “Hermione already suspected us of being a family of villains. She won’t help us if she realizes her suspicion was correct. She seemed on the verge of absconding with Tommy when she thought I’d purposefully arranged Morfin’s murder. The only way to convince her otherwise was to come clean of this small deception, so she won’t suspect us of our greater ones later. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to consult with you.”

“Antonio must have finished our robes by now,” said his mother. “Come along, Dobby.” Dobby followed her from the room, as did Tom’s father, although with a worried backwards glance at Tom.

After sitting and thinking for a bit, Tom followed them to his office. The flames in the fireplace turned from green to orange as he watched.

Tom unlocked and opened his rolltop desk and sat, trying to familiarize himself with wizarding patent law and the major potion manufacturers as he’d planned.

He was distracted, so he changed his plans. He went to the study, moved the ottoman, rolled up the rug, unlocked the trap door, removed the 1997 edition of Nature’s Nobility , put back the trapdoor, rug and ottoman, and returned to his office.

His earlier reading had given him the impression of a trend, so he wanted to check it. There seemed to have been a disproportionate number of deaths in the late twentieth century, particularly in the 1970s through 1981, and again in the 1990s. The Black family, one of the most respected in Britain, would cease to exist in the male line with the disappearance of Regulus Black in 1979 at the age of eighteen. The McKinnon family, a relatively new, minor pureblood family, less prestigious than the Blacks or Malfoys, thus not deserving of detailed stories in Nature’s Nobility , had been completely wiped out suddenly in July of 1981, causes of death not listed. Ignis had escaped this wholesale slaughter only by dying considerably earlier. He had never married.

Anecdotes weren’t data. It was a matter of simple maths to tally the deaths per year and graph them. Tom found two large peaks, one steadily rising through the seventies to peak in 1981, then precipitously dropping, another rising from 1996 and peaking at the book’s publication in 1997.

Tom heard a knock at the door. He checked his wizarding pocket watch. A quarter to four. “Enter.”

Hermione entered, carrying a smoking goblet. “Ignis gave the impression that he’d be short of time today, so I thought I’d come early to make sure I could meet him.” She set the goblet on the mantelpiece. “Tommy’s asleep in my room. I’ve cast an alarm to notify me when he wakes.”

“Ah,” said Tom. He eyed the goblet. “Is there some magical way to contain the odor of that thing?”

“Oh, right.” After some precise movements of her wand, the tendrils of blue smoke could be seen bumping against the inside of an invisible sphere that contained the goblet.

“Thank you,” said Tom.

“Thank you,” she said. Tom knew what she was thanking him for.

“Please, have a seat,” said Tom, indicating the wingback chair by the fire. She moved it further away from the fire and sat. “We need to leave room for Ignis,” she explained.

“Of course.” Tom moved his desk chair to sit with her, taking care to position it so Ignis wouldn’t stumble into them. “I’m sorry it took so long for us to confess that. We were afraid you’d be upset, but I thought you’d be more upset the longer we waited, so—“

“I understand,” she said.

“And we understand why you didn’t want to tell us,” said Tom. “I assure you that my love for my son is unchanged, no matter what a different version of him may have done under different circumstances.”

Hermione let out the breath she’d been holding. “Thank you.”

“One can hardly blame the child for not knowing right from wrong, considering he was raised by who-knows-what sort of incompetent orphanage staff. I daresay many of the muggle children raised in that place would have done the same, had they had the magical power to act on the resentment they acquired from such an upbringing.”

“Exactly,” said Hermione. “But this time…”

“This time, this place, this universe, whatever you want to call it, will be different. Your parents, and mine, will be safe.”

Did her face ever lose that worried look? At least it lessened a bit. “I hope so.”

Tom wanted to make some comforting gesture, but which one? Would today’s liberality continue into Hermione’s time, or would Victorian prudery return? He took the risk and gently took Hermione’s cold, bony hand in his own. He must have guessed correctly, for she didn’t pull back in offense. “Please trust us, Hermione. We’ll help you. We want the same thing,” approximately. “You’re not alone.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

“And if we’re honest with each other, we can work together so much better. Am I correct in assuming that your parents aren’t the only people you aim to save?”

Hermione nodded shakily.

Tom continued. “That one book from the future provides tantalizingly incomplete information. I made this graph…” He let go of her hand, got the paper from his desk, showed it to her and explained his methodology. “Which of these peaks is our main concern?”

After a pause, Hermione said, “Both.”

“Both?” Tom worked hard to conceal his pride. His son’s accomplishments were not worthwhile of course, but they were nonetheless impressive.

“Well, your family was here of course,” she said, pointing to 1943, a boringly flat part of the graph. “His side seemed to be winning in the seventies, but suffered a major setback in 1981. He regained power in the nineties, though. My parents are off the graph, in 2000. You’d need to add another piece of paper to make this graph taller if you wanted to continue it past 1998. That’s when he worked on hunting down the resistance, no matter what country we fled to.”

“You didn’t go to all this trouble to prevent a few murders,” said Tom. “You’re here to prevent something like the Great War.”

Hermione nodded, eyes bright.

“All these dead purebloods,” marveled Tom. “Their high status couldn’t save them.”

“They’re all this book shows, of course,” said Hermione. “The death toll was much higher among muggles and muggleborns and halfbloods.”

Tom wished he had more complete data.

“You might be wondering why a halfblood would set out to subjugate his fellow halfbloods in the name of pureblood supremacy,” said Hermione.

“Not at all,” said Tom. “He identified preexisting prejudices of your society and exploited them. Clever of him. He had followers, in your universe,” inferred Tom. “Those who committed atrocities on his orders.”

Hermione nodded again.

“How many of them do you plan to adopt?”

Hermione laughed a little and shook her head. “If I can change just this one thing—“

“It won’t be enough to remove one tyrant from history,” said Tom. “The forces that brought a murderer to power would still be in place. Someone else will step into the power vacuum.”

“We don’t know that,” she said. “We really have no idea what effect my interference will have. That’s one of the reasons I decided not to simply murder a baby, although some of my friends advocated that. To murder an innocent and not even get the improved version of history we seek would be monstrous.”

“People still need someone to lead them,” said Tom. “We already know that Tommy has the potential—“

Hermione, who’d been gazing at the fire, suddenly looked at Tom. The firelight reflected in her eyes changed from orange to green. Tom hurriedly stuffed the graph in his pocket as Ignis, dressed like a common tradesman, stepped out of the fire.

“Oh, hullo,” said Ignis when he saw his audience observing him at such close range.

Tom was glad he wasn’t still holding Hermione’s hand.

“Hi Ignis!” Hermione jumped up to get the goblet of potion from the mantelpiece, first releasing it from the spell that had contained its vile blue smoke, and handed it to him.

“Thanks,” said Ignis. “Sorry I’ve got to rush, but I made these plans a while ago.”

“We understand,” said Tom.

Ignis drank the potion, contorting his face into grimaces that would have entertained even the back row had he performed them on a vaudeville stage, and handed the goblet back to Hermione. “Ugh! Thanks.”

“Thank you,” said Hermione. “I sure hope I brewed it right.”

“Just two more doses to go, and we’ll know,” said Ignis. “Sorry, I hope to get back before my absence is noticed.”

“That’s quite all right,” said Tom. “Floo powder is up there.”

Ignis tossed a pinch into the fire, declared “The Three Broomsticks,” and vanished in a swirl of green flames.

Tom flipped the switch to accept calls only, then looked back to Hermione. “So when was wolfsbane potion invented in your universe?”

“1983, by Damocles Belby. I hate to steal his work, but...“

“You’re freeing him to work on something else,” said Tom. Then he was silent. He had much to ask her about the future, but such a skittish creature required a light touch.

Hermione suddenly started. “Tommy’s awake.” She hurried out.

Tom jumped up to accompany her. “May I join you? We have much to discuss.”

“Sure. You must have a lot of questions.” She smiled. “We have time.”

They heard a muffled crash.

“Bloody hell,” said Hermione. “I’m coming, Tommy!” She vanished with a crack.

Tom decided to leave accidental magic to the specialist, and returned to his office.

Researching the prominent potion-masters of the day occupied Tom’s attention until dinner time. His only companions in the drawing room were Hermione and Tommy.

“I hope your parents are all right,” she fretted. “I should have given them emergency portkeys.”

“I’m sure they're fine,” Tom replied. “Dobby is with them, so he could get them out of trouble if necessary.”

Fiona seemed disturbed that she called fewer of her employers in to dinner than usual.

“My parents are out,” Tom explained. “I assume they’re dining elsewhere.”

“Yes sir,” said Fiona. “Although I didn’t see them leave, and the car is still in the garage.”

“Yes,” said Tom. “This is one of the things you will not mention to anyone.”

“Yes sir.” She served dinner without further commentary.

When she was gone, Tom asked, “So, what sort of trouble did Tommy get into when he woke up and discovered that his sole source of sustenance was gone?”

“Not much,” said Hermione with an affectionate look at the baby in her sling. “He just broke the mirror, and damaged the wall behind it a bit. I fixed them, no problem.”

“Thank you,” said Tom.

“So,” said Hermione. “What have you been up to?”

“I’ve been researching the potion manufacturing business,” said Tom. “As with so much else in the wizarding world, it seems stuck in the dark ages, more of a cottage industry than modern assembly lines. But I’ve chosen some candidates to take the brewing job off your hands. Perhaps you could help me interview them. You’ll still have work to do the first month, teaching someone else to brew the potion, but you should be free after that.”

“But, don’t you have a list of questions about the future for me?”

Tom shrugged. “I live in the here and now. My most urgent task is to mass-produce this potion, to help as many werewolves as possible, and relieve you of the burden of brewing it yourself. I couldn’t possibly pester you with questions when you’re already so overburdened. Once I lighten your load, then it would be reasonable to start asking you questions. I assure you, I have many, but I also have the power of restraint.” He donned the sincere look he’d been practicing in the mirror. “From today forward, I’m working on the assumption that we are honest with each other. If there is anything I need to know about the future, you will tell me without prompting, just as I tell you the truth unprompted. No information from the future is as important as you.” And how to manipulate you.

“You don’t have even one question for me now?”

Tom thought. “What replaces fountain pens?”

Hermione laughed, and reached into her beaded bag. “ Accio ballpoint pen.” She drew forth a slender hexagonal instrument as clear as glass, revealing a thin tube of ink within, and accented with blue. She handed it to him without ceremony, missing an opportunity, Tom thought.

He accepted this piece of the future reverently. It was labeled Bic, he noticed. Invest in that. “What’s this made of?”

“Plastic.”

“What kind of plastic?”

“I don’t know. I guess there are lots of different kinds.”

“May I try it?”

“Of course.”

Tom reached into his wizarding wallet. “ Accio notepad.” He pulled it out and set it on the table.

Hermione looked confused.

“Did I do something wrong? I’ve been working on my wandless magic.”

“No, that was very convincing.”

“Thank you.” He tried to write, with unsatisfying results.

“You have to press harder.”

Tom did, and managed to write, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” He preferred even quills to this. “How does one vary the line width?” he asked.

“One doesn’t.”

He stared at her. “But...”

“Handwriting changes a lot in the next few decades. It did in my universe, at least. Those thick and thin lines you do look like fancy calligraphy to me.”

He handed the pen back to her. “I’m not doing this justice. Please, show me how to use it properly.”

She wrote, “Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.”

Tom tried to find something polite to say. He said, “That’s a better pangram than mine,” but that didn’t address her handwriting.  “It’s readable,” was all he managed on that topic.

“It’s not beautiful like yours,” she acknowledged. “It doesn’t matter. Anything of importance in the future isn’t handwritten, it’s typed. Or typed and edited on a computer and printed.”

“A computer? That’s a sort of typewriter?”

She took a deep breath. “That’s a big topic.”

“Then we’ll save it for later. We’ll discuss just this pen for now. How do you refill it?”

“You don’t. You just throw it away when it runs out of ink.”

“Throw it…”

“That’s another thing, plastic pollution. Muggles produce all this plastic without a thought for how it will affect the environment. I’ve got to do something about that too.”

“I’m sorry I brought it up. I’m all for fixing important things, once you’re sufficiently recovered from your ordeal to make an objective assessment of which things are mportant. But please don’t run yourself ragged trying to fix everything at once.” More ragged than you already are.

Hermione smiled. “You sound like my friends.”

“I’d like to count myself as your friend,” he said, while concealing his trepidation over what had happened to the previous ones. He soldiered on. “Just as you’re determined to save the world, I’m determined to save you from burning out like a shooting star.” Perhaps he’s laid it on too thickly, for Hermione looked beside herself. “For example, I’ll remind you to eat. Come now, we mustn’t make Hester think us unappreciative of her cooking.”

Hermione smiled and got back to work with her knife and fork. “I’ve never been friends with a Slytherin before.”

“I’m not technically—“

“Oh, you definitely are, wizard or not.”

Tom smiled. “Thank you. And you, of course, were a Gryffindor.”

She smiled. “I still am.”

Tom raised his wineglass. “Then let us toast this partnership between a Slytherin and a Gryffindor. Your water glass will do. To peace and prosperity!”

“To peace and prosperity!” Hermione repeated. They clinked glasses and drank. The wine was, as always, excellent.

After dinner, Hermione decided to read to Tommy, and Tom returned to his office to study the potion industry. His reading was interrupted when the switch on the side of the fireplace flipped to the fully open position, the fire turned green, and a heavily-laden Dobby, then Tom’s father, then his mother stepped out. His parents were dressed so beautifully, Tom had to resist the urge to bow.

“Welcome back,” said Tom. “I see your shopping trip was successful.

“Oh, we were just getting an overview, to start,” said his mother. She instructed Dobby on where to put away his various parcels.

Dobby vanished with a “Yes mistress,” and a pop.

“And how did you fare?” asked his father. “It didn’t seem wise, leaving my only son alone with an angry witch. I might as well have left you in the lion cage at the zoo.”

“The lioness is tamed,” said Tom. “Some charm and reassurances were all that were required. Carefully calculated honesty can be more effective than lies.”

“Glad to hear it,” said his father.

Tom’s mother fixed her dark gaze on him. “You were right,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Tom.

“Antonio is an excellent tailor,” she continued. She’d done that intentionally.

Tom smiled. “Of course. You taught me everything I know about style.”

“Now if you’ll excuse us,” said Tom’s father, “we have some purchases to unpack.” He turned to Tom’s mother. “And I’d like to see you model some of these new—“

“Oh Thomas,” she said, blushing. Fortunately, they left Tom’s office quickly.

——-

Sunday evening, Tom was concerned that they might be late to dinner at the McKinnons’, as Hermione vetoed the Riddles’ first choices of attire as “too pretentious” and insisted they change. She sighed over their second choices as well, but apparently gave up on trying to fix them, as she didn’t voice her objections. She herself was modestly attired in some of the new witch robes Tom had owl-ordered for her to wear around the house. The red and gold sling in which she wore Tommy was the flashiest thing about her.

Tom’s father, then Tom, then Tom’s mother, then Hermione and Tommy Flooed to the address known as McKinnon Pest Control, although it was the McKinnon family’s house at least as much as it was Ignis’s place of business. It made sense, of course, that even a family of limited means, that couldn’t afford two Floo connections, would do all they could to get their son’s career off to a good start. Tom would certainly help his own son in his career as much as possible, especially considering that his career was bound to be interesting.

Unfortunately, they had an audience as they stepped out of the Floo. Not only Ignis, but also two older men who resembled him were seated on the faded furniture. The one who was significantly older held a baby on his lap. Tom supposed it could be called a baby, as it was wearing a lacy bonnet like one, although to Tom’s eyes it looked huge.

Hermione drew her wand, and Tom was concerned that she would curse first and ask questions later, but no, she seemed to take the presence of these strangers in stride. “I’ll be your elf,” she laughed, cleaning the ash off Tom’s robes. “Can you believe they wanted to bring an elf?” she said as a mocking aside to Ignis.

Tom drew his own wand in annoyance, but Hermione had finished before he could do anything. He put his wand away.

Ignis laughed. “Cleaning a bit of Floo-ash off your own robes is below you, eh Tom?”

“Take care with the hem,” said Tom’s father, flouncing his robes in Hermione’s direction. “If you insist on dragging us out without our elf, you’re committing to performing the services of that elf.”

“Or, um, I could,” said Ignis. “I suppose it’s our fault our fireplace isn’t as clean as it might be.”

“It’s fine,” said Hermione, although her glare at Tom’s father as she knelt before him with theatrical subservience disproved that.

“Funny how one becomes so dependent upon servants,” mulled Tom’s mother. “I’m out-of-practice with domestic spells.”

Ignis rushed to perform the work of an elf for her, for which she thanked him. Tom judged Ignis better at that than at dueling, so at least he had some use. “Anyway,” said Ignis, putting his wand away, “I don’t think you’ve all met my whole family, so I’ll do introductions. This is my father, Merrion, and my brother Solis. That’s Solis’s daughter Mirabelle on my father’s lap. She was just born in October.” Ignis turned to his family. “These are the new friends I was telling you about. Tom and Hermione helped me incite that riot over werewolf rights at the bookshop.”

Tom suppressed his cringe over this introduction.

“And Squire and Mrs. Riddle have been wonderfully hospitable,” Ignis continued.

“Welcome to my home,” said Mr. McKinnon. “And thank you for the kindness you’ve shown my son.”

“Hey,” grunted Solis.

Tom’s family offered the appropriate greetings. Tom’s mother made a beeline for the baby. “What a darling! Look at those eyes!” Mirabelle’s wide eyes were a perfectly ordinary shade of sky blue, common in babies, nothing to get excited about. Tom did not consider himself a connoisseur of babies, but even he could tell that Tommy was by far the more beautiful child.

“My mother and sister-in-law are putting the finishing touches on dinner,” said Ignis. “Would you like some tea while we wait?”

The Riddles and Hermione accepted this offer and enjoyed their tea, which was warming and unusual.

“I don’t think we have these herbs in Australia,” said Hermione.

“They’re rare even here,” said Ignis. “They grow only on sheer cliff faces, so my mother has to tend her garden from a broom. I’m sure she’ll be happy to tell you all about it.”

Soon, Mrs. McKinnon called them in to dinner, and they all crowded around a table heavily-laden with dishes that, while they lacked the elegance of the fine cuisine at La Truffe Émraude, the Drones Club, or the Riddle House, were nonetheless appetizing. Mrs. McKinnon and a young, round-faced woman levitated a few more dishes into the dining room.

Ignis, after looking pointedly at his brother for a moment, apparently gave up and did the introductions himself. “And this is my sister-in-law, Angelica.” He introduced the Riddles and Hermione to her. “Thank you for your help with dinner. My brother could have married you for your cooking skills alone.”

Angelica’s round cheeks blushed. “I’m glad to help. Oh, did Mirabelle miss me?” She reached for the plump baby. Mr. McKinnon handed her over. All the Mckinnons except Mirabelle had rough hands.

Mrs. McKinnon levitated a large serving platter to the table. “I hope you like dahu,” she said proudly. “This is one of our own, I just slaughtered it myself.”

The roasted creature on the platter looked and smelled delicious, rather like lamb. “It smells wonderful,” Tom said, for he wasn’t going to reveal his ignorance by asking what a dahu was. His parents made similarly appreciative noises.

Hermione came to their rescue. “I’ve never seen those in Australia. I suppose this is a British specialty.”

“Our stock came from the Swiss Alps, originally,” said Mr. McKinnon. “The dahu is a breed of goat perfectly adapted to mountainous regions such as this, as its legs are shorter on one side than the other, enabling it to stay upright as it walks around steep mountains. I made sure to buy only the dextrogyrous dahu, with shorter legs on its right side. It walks around mountains deasil. The laevogyrous dahu, with shorter legs on its left side, walks around mountains widdershins. Either would do, but it’s important that all the animals in a herd be the same type. If a laevogyre meets a dextrogyre coming around the mountain, neither will get out of the way to let the other pass. They’ll just lock horns until they starve to death. Very stubborn creatures, dahus. Another important reason to have only one type in the herd is to prevent miscegenation. Mongrels between the two types can have the legs of the same length on the diagonal, which is quite impractical. My herd is all purebred dextrogyre,” he said proudly. “Haven’t had to cull a diagonal in years.”

“So this is a magical creature,” said Hermione. Her curls started to twitch like disagreeing dahus.

“I removed all the parts used as potion ingredients, of course,” said Mrs. McKinnon, affronted. “There’s absolutely no danger that eating the meat would leave you lopsided in any way.”

“The right-side hide also sells for a premium,” said Mr. McKinnon, seemingly not noticing Hermione’s distress. “It’s sheltered by the mountain for the dahu’s entire life, so it makes the very finest leather goods.”

Some of the salesman’s spiel at the shop where Tom has purchased his wallet suddenly made sense.

“It’s good to see domestically raised magical creatures on the table,” said Tom, “instead of the exotic rarities offered at restaurants like La Truffe Émraude. I’d rather eat a good British-raised dahu than a wild Madagascar diricawl any day.”

This compliment was well-received. The praise of the food was not flattery, but merely objective appraisal, as everything was delicious.

Ignis and Solis engaged in some good-natured fighting over who got a longer dahu leg.

“Oh boys,” sighed Mrs. McKinnon. “Do you have to keep doing this? I’ve half a mind to switch over to raising ordinary mountain goats to avoid this fight.”

“They’d fall off the cliff face,” said Ignis, “and anyway, fighting’s fun. It’s a tradition.”

“Firstborn gets the longer leg,” said Solis. “Stands to reason.”

“Just because the firstborn inherits the farm,” argued Ignis, “doesn’t mean he’s heir to everything.”

“You don’t even want the farm,” said Solis. “Farming’s boring, you said. Dahus aren’t ferocious enough.”

“But I do want the longer leg,” said Ignis, “so—“

Their mother, sighing, put the longer leg on Ignis’s plate and the shorter one on Solis’s.

“Hey, we were just getting started,” complained Ignis.

“We have guests,” said Mrs. McKinnon.

“You always give Ignis everything,” complained Solis. “Ever since—“

Mrs. McKinnon silenced him with a glare. “We. Have. Guests. We’re going to have a nice civilized dinner for once, and not squabble over food like wild animals.”

Ignis looked a trifle bemused at that accusation. Solis’s triumphant look at him didn’t help.

“You know I didn’t mean it like that,” apologized Mrs. McKinnon. “You were wild before, too. I just meant the Riddles don’t want their dinner to be disturbed.”

“Don’t mind us, this is entertaining,” said Tom. “Like a safari to see a pack of wild McKinnons in their mountain habitat.”

Ignis laughed. “See? Just like I told you, Tom isn’t as stuffy as he seems. That dry wit kills me.”

“I don’t recognize this herb in the potatoes,” said Hermione. “It adds such a nice touch. What is it?”

Tom’s mother smiled at Hermione proudly.

Light conversation about Mrs. McKinnon’s adventures in growing and harvesting some of the more obscure herbal ingredients provided sufficient entertainment for the rest of the dinner. Tom noted that Hermione’s usual appetite overwhelmed any hesitation she may have had about eating a magical creature, as she ate seconds, and even thirds, of the dahu.

Finally, they could eat no more, left the table for the parlor, and sat sipping after-dinner drinks, milk in Tommy and Mirabelle’s case.

Hermione got to work. “I'd like your report on the potion’s effectiveness as soon as possible after the full moon,” she said to Ignis.

“I’ll give you a Floo-call as soon as I recover,” said Ignis.

“Full moon is tomorrow night,” said Hermione, “so Tuesday will be your recovery day. You have someone to take care of you?”

“I’m fairly good at healing,” said Mrs. McKinnon.

“You’re too modest,” said Ignis. “She does an excellent job healing the Dark injuries I accumulate every month.”

“Let’s make an appointment for Wednesday,” said Hermione.

“Wednesday,” repeated Ignis. He and Mrs. McKinnon exchanged a worried look. “I might be sufficiently recovered from my transformation to make a report that early, but call ahead to make sure. I may be in no state to talk.”

“If the potion works, you should be fine by Wednesday,” said Hermione.

And that, after the Riddles had thanked the McKinnons copiously for the delicious dinner, was that. They Flooed home.

“Dobby!” called Tom.

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“Clean this Floo-ash off our robes,” ordered Tom, and all was right in the world.

——-

Monday, Tom said “Enter” when he heard the knock on his office door.

Hermione carried in a small box with puffs of blue smoke leaking from the corners.

“Good luck to Ignis tonight,” said Tom.

“Winter nights are so long,” fretted Hermione. “I hope this is strong enough.”

“I’m sure it is.” Tom indicated the parchments on his desk. “Ignis coming through this full moon unscathed is a mere formality. Once that’s done, I’ll put Athena to work sending these letters to potioneers, for the next stage of the project.”

Hermione looked. “You have beautiful handwriting. I hope you didn’t just waste good parchment.”

Tom laughed. “I’m sure I didn’t. I believe in you. I know a good investment when I see it.”

“Thanks.” Hermione, smiling, Flooed to McKinnon Pest Control.

——-

The morning of Tuesday, the 18th of January, Tom devoted his attention to his muggle business, poring over his accounts.

Suddenly, the fireplace blazed green, and Tom heard a faint, hoarse voice call from it. “Hermione! Hermione!”

Tom quickly closed his rolltop desk and rushed to the fireplace to see Ignis’s head, made of flames, flickering above the coals. “Ignis! Are you all right?”

“May I come through? I must speak to Hermione.”

“Of course.” Tom flipped the switch and Ignis staggered through. Tom caught him as he fell. He smelled like an unfortunate combination of sweaty man and wet dog. Tom lowered him into the leather wingback chair by the fire. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes M—“

“Bring Hermione to my office immediately.”

Pop. Pop. “Hey!” protested Hermione, clutching a nursing Tommy to her bare breast. She dropped her book to the floor and adjusted her blouse, which was good, as her swollen breast looked odd on her bony ribcage. Tom feared that his instructions to Dobby had lacked nuance, but her indignation was soon replaced by concern. “Ignis!” She rushed to Ignis’s side and waved her wand over him.

“My mother already looked me over,” he assured her in a voice both hoarse and giddy. “I’m fine, I’m absolutely fine. Well, the transformation itself was as bad as usual, so I’m still pretty wrung-out from that, but other than that I’m fine. Absolutely no new Dark injuries. Well, I sort of hurt my front leg when I tried to walk on three paws, but I don’t think that counts. Your potion works, Hermione! I was myself the whole night. Thank you! I had to tell you. I’ve got to tell everyone.” He looked to the fireplace. “Could you please help me back to the Floo?”

Hermione tried, which was ridiculous since she was still nursing Tommy, so Tom took over the job.

“Are you sure you’re ready to travel?” asked Hermione.

“I can’t stay still with news like this.” Ignis threw a pinch of powder into the fire, said, “The Eyrie,” and vanished in a swirl of green flames.

As soon as Tom flipped the switch to accept calls only, Tom and Hermione looked at each other. They each let out an exultant cry. “Yes! Yes! It worked!” Tom restrained himself from embracing the witch in celebration, which might have been inappropriate, although he got the impression she was feeling the same way.

Instead he went to his sleeping owl on her perch. “Wake up, Athena. You’ll soon deliver enough letters to earn your keep.” She opened her fiery eyes and stretched her black wings. Tom offered her an owl treat. She plucked it daintily from his hand.

Tom got to work writing today’s date on the letters on his desk, and tied one to Athena’s leg. “I trust you’ll help me interview prospective potioneers?” he asked Hermione. “And teach the one we select how to brew this, once a contract is signed?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You know better than I what interview questions to ask them...” Business talk occupied them for the rest of the day, and much of the following month. They interviewed potioneers over business lunches at La Truffe Émraude, as Dobby gathered intelligence on the most prestigious families. Of course, Dobby had strict orders not to tell anything about the Riddles or Hermione. Other families somehow neglected this basic precaution, perhaps considering elves beneath their notice. Once Tom and Hermione chose a potion mistress (a muggleborn named Miss Veronica Vinter), they had her sign a contract in blood with the help of goblin lawyers recommended by Gringotts Bank. This ensured her secrecy, both legally and magically.

The severity of magical contracts reminded Tom to return their library books on time. While he was there, he borrowed some books on mind magic. Resisting the imperius curse and veritaserum were obviously important topics to study. He also wanted to figure out why Hermione had been so adamant that the Riddles not think certain thoughts around Tommy.

Meanwhile, Ignis reported that he’d found several more werewolves willing to pay a low introductory price for a supply of wolfsbane potion that would get them through February’s full moon unharmed. Ignis’s commission, plus the cost of making the potion itself, meant the business was running at a loss, but raising the price later would fix that. Also, increasing volume later would reduce their costs per dose, as some of Vinter’s expenses were fixed.

Hermione was nearly as busy as before, teaching Miss Vinter the tricky details of brewing a potion that was mostly deadly wolfsbane, yet harmless to humans.

“She knows,” reported Hermione one evening. “Vinter’s figured out what the potion’s for.”

“Is this likely to cause us any problems?” asked Tom.

Hermione shook her unfortunate hair. “I don’t think so. She can’t tell anyone what she’s doing, of course, and I think knowing the purpose of the potion makes her even more interested in the project. Remember how worried she seemed in the interview about making a potion that’s mostly poison? She seemed concerned that we’d use it for evil.”

“I remember.” Tom had been annoyed at her objections, and had agreed to hire her on Hermione’s recommendation only because, as a muggleborn, her services were a bargain. Pureblood and even halfblood potioneers seemed to charge a premium for their blood status.

“She said that the inventor of this could be famous. I explained that we’re not interested in fame, just in helping people.” Good. That was just the sort of story that would get the cooperation of someone with inconvenient scruples.

Once Hermione felt that Miss Vinter had a good grasp of the potion’s intricacies, she declared that it was high time she fulfilled her promise to Ignis and gave him apparition lessons. Ignis decided that apparition was a more immediately useful skill than dueling, as it would help him deliver wolfsbane potion to his customers.

Hermione said that Ignis’s home would be the best place for him to start practicing, as apparition was easiest if one had a thorough familiarity with one’s destination.

“I’ll chaperone you,” said Tom.

The ungrateful witch sighed.

——-

A cold morning in early February found Tom, Hermione, and Ignis discussing apparition in the McKinnons’ parlor.

Tom sipped tea as Hermione lectured. “The real key to apparition is having complete awareness of oneself in space, so you make sure you take every last bit with you, and assemble it correctly at your destination.” She looked at the stump of Ignis’s left wrist. “Hm. I wonder if that will affect matters.”

Ignis awkwardly moved as if to hide his deformity, then gave up. “I’m used to it by now,” he said.

“I wonder. I mean, if your body schema includes a part that isn’t there anymore, that could be problematic. Do you still get phantom pains in your left hand?”

Ignis started. “Yes,” he said. “The itches and tickles at random times might even be worse. How do you know?”

“Many of my friends lost limbs to Dark magic,” she explained. “Have you considered a prosthesis?”

“I tried a hook for a while, but it was more annoying than useful.”

“I meant a magical prosthesis.”

“Are there such? It’s so rare to lose a limb to Dark magic instead of more ordinary means, there isn’t much of a market.”

“Really? It’s a common mishap where I’m from.”

“Australia sounds like a very interesting place.”

Hermione smiled. “Anyway, I know a spell for making a magical prosthesis. Shall I?”

“Sure, I’ll try it, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. And it should make apparition easier if your physical form matches your body schema.” With some intricate and precise maneuvering of her wand, a silver blob appeared floating in the air before her. She directed it to engulf the stump of Ignis’s left wrist like some sort of ravenous amoeba, making him gasp. Then he suddenly let out a short scream.

“That was the nerves connecting,” explained Hermione.

The silver amoeba formed into an approximation of a glove.

“Oh good,” said Hermione. “I was afraid you’d lost it so long ago, your memory of it would have faded by now, but it seems there’s still enough information to make a copy.”

Ignis pulled up his left sleeve to stare, not at the silver, vaguely-glove-shaped blob, but his forearm, which was bulging as if invaded by snakes slithering under his skin from the stump of his wrist towards his elbow.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” said Hermione. “The arm muscles that used to power your hand have no doubt atrophied, so the spell is replacing those too. I wondered if you’d need physical therapy to regrow them, but I guess you can skip that.”

The silver glove slowly closed into a loose fist, then opened again. The fingers gained more details, looking less like a glove, more like a hand. Ignis closed his silver hand into a tighter fist, opened it again, articulated individual fingers. He touched his new left hand with his old right. “Merlin,” he breathed. “I can feel.” He suddenly lifted his gaze to Hermione and stared at her in a way that made Tom uncomfortable. “Thank you. This is incredible.”

“It’s just magic,” she said dismissively. “I’m glad you like it.”

Ignis used his new hand to touch his clothes, his hair, all with an expression of amazed delight. Tom supposed that was understandable, although there was nothing delightful about his clothes or hair. Ignis snapped his silver fingers and laughed. He took his wand in his left hand, and his delighted expression faded. He passed the wand between his left and right hands a few times. “What a strange sensation. It feels like my wand in my right hand, but in my left it feels like barely more than a stick.” He held it in his left. “ Lumos .” it glowed very faintly. “Not that I’m complaining. It’s much better than no hand all. I’m still very grateful.”

“Try mine,” said Hermione, offering him her wand.

He sheathed his own wand and stared at hers, not taking it.

“Go on,” she urged. “Your new hand is made of my magic, not yours, so maybe it will work better with my wand.”

He took it in his right. “This doesn’t feel like much to me, although I know it’s very powerful in your hand.” He switched it to his left, then stared at it. “You’re right. Lumos .” The tip of her wand glowed like a torch. “ Nox .” He handed her wand back. “That’s interesting. So this means… Well, it doesn’t matter.”

“It will vanish when I die. And yes it does. I’ll teach you to cast it yourself, although it is a very difficult charm. It will take serious study.”

“It’s not urgent of course,” said Ignis. “Apparition is a higher priority now. And you’re not much older than me, right? Even if I live a normal wizard lifespan, witches generally live longer than wizards, so this prosthetic you made will probably last as long as I need it. ”

“I’m twenty,” said Hermione. “But learn it anyway. You’ll need to know it sooner than you think.”

Tom had thought her older than that.

“Let me assure you that Britain is safer than Australia,” said Ignis.

“Just learn the spell,” she said, clearly not wanting to discuss the matter.

Ignis nodded and changed the subject. “How do I take it off for my transformations?”

“You don’t. It’s part of your body now. I knew of an animagus who had a right hand like this. It transformed into a rat’s paw just fine. It has no form of its own, it just bases its form on your body schema, so as that changes, the prosthetic changes to match. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for werewolves as well as for animagi.”

“I don’t actually want my wolf form to be able-bodied. That just increases the damage I can do. Although I suppose it doesn’t matter when I have your wolfsbane potion. I’ve never walked as a quadruped. This will be a new experience for me.”

“I could remove it if you want me to, but you can just leave it on all the time,” said Hermione. “Of course, don’t let any muggles see it. That’s a Statute violation right there. You needn’t remove it for that, just put a glove on it and you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t spend time with muggles anyway,” said Ignis, lips curled in distaste. “I last ventured into muggle territory to buy that uncomfortable hook, since I’d heard that muggles are better at making that sort of thing. With no power to regrow limbs lost through even ordinary means, they do have more experience making replacements. But why would I waste any more of my time on muggles when witches can do things like this?”

Hermione smiled. “May your loyalty never waver.”

Chapter Text

Tom did not enjoy chaperoning Hermione to the McKinnon farm for Ignis’s apparition lessons. The location afforded beautiful mountain vistas, and Tom’s yeti-fur robes and Hermione’s discrete warming charms made the cold wind feel bracing rather than painful, so it should have been a pleasant outing. Hermione’s skill at healing the werewolf after his apparition accidents was impressive, but Tom would have preferred hearing concise summaries of the accidents afterwards to witnessing them in person. Several times, Tom had to look away, admiring the mountain scenery, as Hermione, with calm efficiency, reattached a splinched limb, or returned an internal organ to its proper place.

Tom attempted to foist chaperoning duties off on his parents, but even his father, upon hearing Hermione’s description of the lessons, insisted that Tom should spend time with people his own age. “I wouldn’t dream of taking this opportunity from you,” he chortled.

Tom even tried telling Hermione that this old-fashioned custom of chaperoning young ladies could be dispensed with, but Ignis, damn him, wouldn’t hear of it. “I’d rather not have apparition lessons at all than risk damaging a young lady’s reputation by being alone with her,” he said, so that was that. Thus, Tom (with a disillusioned Dobby), Hermione, and Ignis apparated around Orncrag together. The fresh mountain air was the only thing that kept Tom from losing his lunch.

——-

Tom was safely in his office, calculating wolfsbane numbers, when the telephone rang. Tom ignored it. Tom and his father, after much discussion, had agreed that Tom would take on most of the wizarding tasks, while his father would take back the muggle tasks that he had so recently handed off to his son. Tom’s father was not completely happy with this, wanting more involvement in the wizarding world himself, but he’d grudgingly agreed that this was a practical arrangement. Thus, Tom took most Floo-calls in his office, while his father took most telephone calls in his own office.

The phone stopped ringing. Tom focused on his wolfsbane sales projections.

Pop. Dobby appeared. “Master, Squire Riddle says one of your inbred aristocrat friends is on the telephone.”

“Thank you, Dobby.” As Dobby popped away, Tom lifted the telephone receiver off the switch hook, brought it to his ear, and spoke into the transmitter. “Hello?” He heard the click as his father hung up.

“Tom! What ho! How are you holding up?”

“Hello Algie. How are things in London?”

“Now Tom, when I ask you how you’re holding up, in this case I actually want an answer.”

“As well as can be expected,” Tom replied.

“That bad, eh? I haven’t spoken to you for ages, so I was just thinking of you, you know. Listen, would it help if I came up to visit? I don’t mean to drag you down to London for a night of debauchery if you’re not feeling it, but perhaps some company up there would help?”

“Has the Royal Society commissioned you to lead an expedition to the wilds of Yorkshire?” asked Tom. “Have you hired sled dogs and sherpas yet? Be sure to pack sufficient phonograph records and champagne, for you may have to traverse miles of barren terrain between jazz clubs in this desolate land.”

The only son and heir of the Earl of Lichford had a laugh like a duck. “I’m glad you’ve kept your sense of humor through this. Yes, I am willing to leave my beloved London to visit you. Friends make these sacrifices for each other, you know. Let me take you out to whatever the locals there do for fun. Um. What do people actually do up there? Morris dancing or something?”

“Thank you Algie, that’s very kind of you. Even your voice has cheered me. I think I am ready to meet you in London.”

“Oh thank God. No offense, but—“

“None taken.” Tom drew Tessie’s card from his wizarding wallet. It smelled like the ephemeral flowers of spring. “You’re not the only one urging me to go out to get my mind off my troubles. That’s exactly what some of my other friends have been saying. Do you know the Prewett family?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, sorry.”

Of course it didn’t, but Tom had to go through the motions. “I thought you might have run into them at some society gala.”

“Whenever familial duty requires me to attend such stuffy events, I get sozzled as quickly as possible, so if I have been introduced to them, I don’t remember.”

“Anyway, my friend Tessie Prewett agrees with you that I need a change of scenery. She’d like to accompany me to London, as she knows I used to enjoy myself there, although she doesn’t know her way around it herself. She spends most of her time at their country estate.” Wizarding culture permitted witches a surprising amount of autonomy within the constraints of their blood-purity obsession, so Tessie had Floo-called Tom without shame, taking him at his word that he wanted new friends to distract him from his troubles. “Let’s all go out together. Tessie is a respectable girl, so her family doesn’t allow her out without a chaperone. Her brother Axel will join us.”

“The more the merrier. So, that’ll be you, me, and this Axel Prewett fellow, so that makes, what, three blokes?”

“Yes, Algie, your calculation is correct.”

“And only one girl. That’s not right. There won’t be enough dance partners to go around. Got any more girls?”

“I could ask Hermione, I suppose. No, I’d better not, she’ll be busy with Tommy.”

“Who?”

“Tommy, my son.”

“No, who’s the girl?”

“Oh. Hermione Granger, the daughter of a business associate of my father. She’s visiting from Australia. She happened to arrive around the same time as Tommy, so she’s taken it upon herself to care for my motherless child. She’s a recent orphan herself, so she feels for him.”

“What, you hired an Australian nursemaid?”

“No. She’s the heiress of her father’s opal-dealing fortune, now starting a new life in Britain, as she desired to get away from the memories of her dead parents.”

“You never mentioned your family having any connection to Australia.”

“Yes I did. I mentioned my father’s meetings with his Australian business associates frequently. Don't you remember me saying I was glad he was finally branching out from his old-fashioned focus on real estate? He did very well speculating in the Australian opal market. You must have been drunk and not paying attention.”

“Probably,” agreed Algie. Creative lies weren’t necessary to fool Algie, but Tom believed in art for art’s sake. “So how old is this girl?”

“Twenty.”

“Tom. You’ve been living with an exotic twenty-year-old heiress and keeping her all to herself? This is suspicious behavior for a new widower.”

Tom laughed. “Oh Algie, your suspicions would be immediately relieved if you met her.”

“Why, what does she look like?”

“She’s…” Tom found himself at a loss. “Well. Of course, it would be rude to insult the appearance of our guest.”

“That bad, eh? What, she’s got eyes that look in different directions or something?”

Tom shuddered. “No, nothing like that. She’s fine, I suppose. Skinny, though. Well, but sort of top-heavy if you know what I mean. And she hasn’t bobbed her hair.”

“Old-fashioned girl, eh?” surmised  Algie.

“Not at all. Exceedingly modern. I think she refuses to follow fashion out of obstinacy or something.”

“So what’s wrong with her?”

Tom thought. “It’s as if she doesn’t care if she’s beautiful or not. She’s not even trying.”

“She may have set her sights higher than the son of a country squire.” That stung. Conversing over the telephone freed Tom from any obligation to suppress his scowl. “Her loss,” continued Algie blithely. “Anyway, you must at least show the girl a good time while she’s here. Imagine visiting an exciting country like this and being stuck in Yorkshire.”

“I suppose I could ask her. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

A few minutes was all it took. Tom called Algie back. “Hermione gives her regrets, as she has, I quote, ‘No interest in being the only sober person in a group of drunks.’ Also she says she’s busy with the baby.”

“Ah. Teetotaler, is she?”

The simple answer to that was “Yes.”

“Poor Tom, having to put up with such a houseguest on top of everything else, in that tiny house.”

“The Riddle House isn’t tiny. It’s the biggest house in Little Hangleton.”

“Well, anyway. Sounds like we dodged a bullet. That’s all right, I’ll invite a couple of my friends. Have I introduced you to Lulu and Nancy?”

Tom couldn’t recall. Algie’s female friends all seemed to blur together. “I don’t think so.”

“They’re great, a couple of chorus girls at the Regal. Honest girls, you know, but fun. They can dance. Their next show is in rehearsal, so they have evenings off. How about this Friday the eleventh?”

“I’ll ask the Prewetts if they’re available. I’ll call you back soon.”

“Righto.”

Tom hung the telephone receiver on the switch hook and threw a pinch of Floo powder in the fireplace. “Shell Cottage.” If there was an elegant way to stick his head in the green flames, he hadn’t found it yet.

Mrs. Prewett answered the call. “Oh, Mr. Riddle! How delightful to hear from you! How are you?”

“I’ve decided to go muggletouring this Friday evening, and hope that Tessie can join me.”

“Wonderful! Tessie’s available Friday. Of course her brother Axel will chaperone her. We never let such a treasure as Tessie out unguarded.”

In the background, outside his field of vision, Tom thought he heard, faintly, “But didn’t Axel say—“

“They’ll be so excited when I tell them,” said Mrs. Prewett quickly, so Tom couldn’t hear the rest of what the faint voice had said.

“Thank you,” said Tom.

“What should they wear?” asked Mrs. Prewett.

“It doesn’t matter what they start out in. Please have them Floo to the Riddle House at seven. I’ll lend them some muggle clothes before we go out.”

“Wonderful! They’ll be there Friday.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Good day.”

“Good day.”

Tom withdrew his head from the fire. Telephones had much to recommend them over Floo-calling, he thought as he looked with dismay at a dusting of ash on his collar. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“This ash. Get rid of it.”

Dobby did, quickly.

“Thank you.” Tom called Algie back. “The Prewetts are available Friday.”

“Perfect,” said Algie. “Meet me around eight at the Café de Paris, on Coventry Street, you remember?”

“Probably better than you,” said Tom. He always made a point of being less drunk than his companions. He couldn’t understand Hermione’s aversion to the situation.

“Righto.”

——-

When they gathered in the drawing room before dinner, it took some explaining to get Hermione to understand Tom’s plan.

“Dancing,” she repeated, with an uncharacteristically befuddled expression.

“Yes. You know. Music. Movement. Alcohol optional but recommended.”

“But why are you taking a witch and wizard with you?”

“I am making friends. This is the sort of thing friends do together, go out and have fun. If I hope to fit into the wizarding world I need some friends, and one doesn’t need many murderers in one’s social circle. Serpens fills that role adequately. I’ll get to know the Prewetts and see what they’re good for. A muggle setting provides a convenient excuse for me to refrain from casting spells. How did you make friends in the wizarding world?”

“We fought a mountain troll together.”

Tom laughed. “That sounds a bit too exciting.”

Hermione shrugged. “It worked for me. I didn’t really have any friends until I did that.”

“I’ll keep your suggestion in mind in case dancing doesn’t work out. Anyway, may Tessie borrow your new muggle clothes?”

“Sure. Your family bought them anyway. I don’t know why I even need so many clothes.”

“I’ll help her dress with style,” said Tom’s mother. “Dobby?”

Pop. “Yes Mrs. Riddle?”

“Can you magically tailor muggle clothing to make it temporarily fit others?”

“Yes Mrs. Riddle.”

“Perfect.”

“And I’ll loan her brother one of my suits,” said Tom. “This will be great fun.”

——-

Friday evening soon arrived, along with the Prewett siblings. Tom met them as they stepped out of the Floo. “Good evening,” he said. “Welcome to the Riddle House.”

“Good evening,” said the young wizard as he cleaned Floo-ash off himself. He had the physique of a young man who did not engage in Müller system exercises, or indeed any regular calisthenics, so Dobby would have his work cut out for him in modifying Tom’s suit to fit him. On second thought, Tom changed his plan. One of his father’s suits would require less adjustment than one of Tom’s own. After a skeptical look at Tom, the wizard apparently resigned himself to his fate and stuck his hand out to shake. “Axel Prewett.”

“Tom Riddle,” said Tom, shaking his hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

Tessie, once she’d stepped out of the Floo and cleaned ash off herself, looked around Tom’s office with great interest, her gaze finally settling on Tom. “Oh, my,” she said breathlessly. “I mean, good evening, Tom.” She pulled her gaze away to briefly look at her brother. “You see, Axel? You had no cause to worry about wearing muggle clothes, when wizards can look as handsome as that in them.”

“Results may vary,” said Tom. “This way to the drawing room. I have some muggle costumes for you, which our elf can adjust to fit.”

Tom was pleased to see that the Prewetts seemed impressed with their surroundings. In the brief time that Dobby had been in Tom’s employ, he’d burnished the Riddle House to an even higher glow. There was nothing that blatantly violated the Statute, but the perfection of every surface would have been hard to achieve without magic.

In the drawing room, Tom introduced the Prewetts to his parents (elegantly attired in robes) and Hermione (presentable in muggle evening dress, and wearing Tommy in a sling.) Tom sent his father off to fetch one of his muggle suits for Axel.

Tessie, upon meeting Hermione, squealed. “The Australian duelist? I’m so excited to meet you.”

“Oh,” said Hermione. “Hi.” She looked like she might apparate away right then.

“I have so many questions!” Tessie continued. “To start, who does your hair?

Hermione blinked at her. “I do.”

“Really?” Tessie was in awe. “The serpentine animation charm and everything?”

At that point, Tommy’s slobbery little fist snagged one of Hermione’s wayward curls as if he wanted to claim credit for her style, so Hermione gently extracted it. “I know you don’t mean it, but you must let go of my hair.”

“And this must be your son!” Tessie said to Tom. “He’s adorable! May I hold him?”

Hermione clutched Tommy a little tighter.

“I know how to hold a baby,” Tessie assured Hermione. “I have so many cousins, I hold babies all the time.”

Tom nodded to Hermione, so she grudgingly gave up Tommy.

As promised, Tessie held Tommy expertly. “He’s absolutely perfect! Look at those chubby cheeks! You must have hired a good wet nurse for him,” she said to Tom.

“I took a wet nurse potion myself,” said Hermione.

“Of course,” said Tessie. “I’d have done the same. Oh, look at those eyes! He looks just like you, Tom. He’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you,” said Tom. “But I think any objective observer would say that my son is more beautiful than I am. I haven’t yet managed to perfect the drooling technique that comes naturally to him.”

Tessie laughed. “Oh Tom, you’re so witty!”

Tom’s father returned with a suit for Axel, who accepted it with trepidation. “I’ve fooled plenty of muggles in that,” Tom’s father assured the wizard. “I’m sure it will work for you.”

“Thanks,” said Axel.

“Here’s a dress of mine you could wear tonight,” said Hermione, so Tessie had something else to squeal over. She exchanged the baby for the dress, which first required untangling her hair from Tommy’s slobbery fist.

Tom’s mother had purchased a dance dress for Hermione just in case, but Tom had not yet seen her wear it. It required much magical adjustment to fit Tessie’s figure, which had a lower, more stable center of gravity. Dobby got to work magically altering it. Tom’s mother provided guidance to Dobby about the effect he should aim for, which was good, as Hermione was useless at that. When Tessie emerged from behind the privacy screen in her costume, she looked like a beautiful and even fashionable muggle, except for her hair, which unfortunately followed the new Australian duelist fad currently sweeping wizarding Britain.

Tessie was delighted with the fringe and crystals ornamenting her dress, but Axel was aghast at its shortness. At Axel’s insistence, Dobby lengthened the skirt to cover the tops of Tessie’s shapely, ivory-stocking-clad calves. Tessie’s bright coral lips pouted at her brother’s lack of fashion sense, but she acquiesced to his demand.

“Thank you, this is beautiful,” said Tessie to Hermione. “But don’t you want to wear it yourself?”

“Oh, I’m not going,” said Hermione, who seemed much more interested in the baby in her arms than in their guests. She looked up from counting Tommy’s tiny fingers as if Tessie had interrupted something interesting. “I’ll stay here and read tonight instead.”

“Really? But this adventure sounds so fun!” said Tessie.

“You’ve got sense,” muttered Axel to Hermione. “Unlike some girls.” He seemed less than thrilled with the suit Tom’s father had loaned him. He’d looked better in the medieval drapery of his wizard robes than in the more revealing fit of a muggle suit, and he hadn’t looked that good in robes.

“Axel!” scolded Tessie. “Don’t be such a grump.”

“Don’t be such a Gryffindor,” he retorted. “Strolling into danger on a lark.”

“I’m sure it’s not all that dangerous,” said Tessie. “I mean, Tom’s done it many times. He can defend us from any muggles if necessary.” She looked up at Tom adoringly. She must have practiced with a mirror.

“Heroics are quite unlikely to be necessary,” said Tom. “I’ll be sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t expect to encounter any great danger on this outing. Muggles don’t just randomly attack their fellow muggles, which they will assume we are.”

“You see?” Tessie said to her brother. “Tom knows all about it. We have nothing to fear from muggles. They’re just like people.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Axel.

“That’s what the drinks are for,” said Tom. “They dissolve bad feelings and wash them clean away.”

“Can’t apparate if I drink,” complained Axel. “What if I need to escape in a hurry?”

“You can barely apparate when you’re sober,” teased Tessie. “Remember when you forgot your elbow?”

Tom winced. He did not need a reminder of splinching accidents.

“At least I can count on none of my mates seeing me in this getup,” said Axel, glancing at the full-length mirror before hastily looking away.

Tom decided not to mention that he’d already told Witch Weekly where they could photograph some entertainingly attired purebloods this evening. Axel would probably enjoy the outing more if he wasn’t aware that it was being documented.

Dobby put the finishing touches on their clothes and accessories and, with the guidance of Tom’s mother, wrangled Tessie’s magically exaggerated hair into an approximation of a modern style. However the rest of the evening went, Tom felt that this fitting might be sufficient entertainment to count the event a success, for Tessie seemed to derive great pleasure from having a house elf wait on her. She tried to accept such service as her due, but Axel’s awkwardness gave the impression that such luxury was a novelty for their family. Prewetts might be respectable purebloods, but this particular branch was a shoot off the main line, not the heirs to the familial fortune. They seemed to have invested much of their wealth in their daughter’s appearance. Tom respected that investment plan. The payoff was potentially large, for a relatively small initial outlay.

“You can still change your mind,” said Tom to Hermione. Then, as they had arranged, he offered her his arm. “Let me side-along apparate you there, so at least you know where it is. Feel free to join us later, if you tire of reading.”

Hermione, with a last kiss of Tommy’s cheek, handed Tommy (who was apparently a dear little diricawl chick today) to Tom’s mother, then took Tom’s arm.

“Dobby, disillusion yourself and apparate the Prewetts to the alley by the Café de Paris,” said Tom. Earlier, Hermione had apparated Tom and a disillusioned Dobby to an alley in London’s West End, and Tom had taken Hermione and Dobby to the club in a taxi so they could scout out a discreet apparition point near it.

They all arrived in the alley. Axel didn’t seem to find side-along apparition any more comfortable than Tom did, although perhaps his disgusted expression had more to do with his surroundings than the means he’d taken to get there. Tessie seemed steady on her feet and looked around with interest.

“This isn’t our final destination, don’t worry,” said Tom, leading them out of the alley. “The Café de Paris is this way. We’re meeting a muggle friend of mine tonight. He goes by Algie. He’s a particularly good first muggle for you two to meet, as he’s so unobservant, he might not even notice if you flew a broom around the ballroom. Although I do advise against that. He said he’d bring a couple of friends with him, and they may be more observant. They could hardly be less.”

“Algae?” asked Axel. “Like, pond scum?”

“Short for Algernon Clamdowne-Clamdowne, son of the Earl of Lichford. Everyone likes Algie, most immediately upon meeting him, the rest as soon as they learn how wealthy he’ll be upon the death of his father.”

“Did you say his father is an earl?” asked Tessie, eyes wide. “Real nobility, like in storybooks?”

“Not exactly like in storybooks,” said Tom. “Axel may have been closer to the mark with his pond scum idea. But yes, Algie is the real deal, the heir of a noble muggle family, for what that’s worth. He knows I’m a recent widower, and is determined to cheer me up, just as you are. It seemed efficient to gather my well-wishers together.” Tom turned to Hermione. “Sure I can’t tempt you to join us? You need cheering up at least as much as I do.”

“I have reading to do,” she said. “And I’ve seen all I need to see to apparate here, if I ever want to. I’ll see you at breakfast at the Riddle House. Come on Dobby.” She and a vague shimmer in the air headed back to the alley.

“Well, she’s full of sunshine, isn’t she?” scoffed Tessie quietly once Hermione was gone.

“She’s a recent orphan,” said Tom. “We can’t fault her for her lack of cheer, but it’s true that she’s not the most pleasant houseguest.”

“The society column in the Prophet suggested that you and she—“ started Tessie, before Tom interrupted her with a laugh.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” said Tom.

Once the doorman had deemed them sufficiently well-dressed to enter, Tom led his companions towards the sounds of throbbing drums and howling horns, to the basement ballroom, which was sumptuously decorated, glittering with electric lights. Tom gave the Prewetts a moment to absorb the scene. Tessie’s eyes glittered as brightly as the lights as she looked around excitedly at everything. Axel seemed to be trying to retreat into the collar of his borrowed clothes.

Algie waved at them from his table. He was accompanied by a couple of pretty young things who were snacking on some appetizers.

Tom led his companions to Algie and introduced them. “Good evening, Algie. These are the friends I was telling you about, Tessie and Axel Prewett. This is my friend Algernon Clamdowne-Clamdowne, Algie for short.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” said Algie with his usual friendly enthusiasm. “And these are some friends of mine, Lulu Legrande and Nancy Baker. We had to have an even match between us blokes and the fairer sex for this outing, of course.”

“I’m glad you were able to entice such charming companions to join us,” said Tom to Algie. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Legrande, Miss Baker.”

The girls giggled. “Call me Lulu.”

“Call me Nancy.”

“All right. Then please call me Tom.”

Lulu turned to Algie. “Is this one of those stuffy aristocrats you were complaining about?”

“No, Tom’s all right. He just tries too hard since he’s from the middle of nowhere. You should have heard his Yorkshire accent when I first met him. Maybe if we get him drunk enough we’ll hear it again. That’ll be a treat. Now he sounds stuffier than my elocution teacher.”

Tom put on a smile. “I was being polite out of consideration for my friends, who are unaccustomed to the West End’s informality.”

“Oh, don’t stand on ceremony for our sakes,” said Tessie. “Please call me Tessie.”

Now it was Axel’s turn. He quaked under the stares of these wild muggles. “Um. Please call me Mr. Prewett.” Everyone but he laughed.

“OK, now Tom seems like the cat’s pajamas in comparison,” laughed Lulu.

Tessie laughed a little too loudly at that, making up for Axel, who didn’t laugh at all. Once she caught her breath, she squealed “I love your clothes!” at Lulu and Nancy. “The sparkle, the fringe, the hem so daring, everything! Where do you shop?” The three girls were soon engrossed in discussion.

Algie turned to Tom. “Now Tom, I’m the butter-and-egg man tonight. What poison would you like to drown your sorrows in?  I dare say you need a snootful as badly as ever a man did.”

“I find myself in the mood for champagne.”

“Really? Don’t the circumstances call for something stronger? Gin perhaps?

“I wish to celebrate the arrival of my son, despite the unfortunate circumstances of his birth.”

“Righto.” Algie flagged down a waiter and ordered Bollinger (extra sec) for the table. “Or would you prefer something else?” Algie asked Axel. “Mr. Prewett or whatever you call yourself? Hello? Operator? Is this a bad connection?”

“Um.” The revealing dresses of Algie’s friends seemed to have made just as strong an impression on Axel as on Tessie, but of a different kind. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Would you like anything other than champagne to drink?” Algie explained patiently. “I’m buying.”

“Oh. Um. Whatever is fine.”

“Righto.” Algie sent the waiter away with instructions to keep the champagne and snacks coming until told otherwise, or until everyone at the table had passed out, whichever came first. The waiter promptly delivered the champagne in a bucket of ice.

Once everyone was supplied, Algie raised his champagne flute. “A toast! To Tom, and his son, and the future! May it be brighter than the past.” All clinked glasses and drank.

Algie turned his satisfied smile to Tom. “So, here we are. You’re fully supplied with wine, women, and song, so you can’t help but cheer up, what?” He gestured expansively at the female half of the party. “Take your pick of dance partners. I’m sure any of these girls would be happy to help you forget your troubles.”

Tom took another sip of his champagne. “Not yet. I’m still getting my bearings. Feel free to dance with them yourself.”

Algie shrugged and turned to Tessie. “With gams like those, you must be quite the hoofer.”

“Excuse me?” she replied. Her wide eyes shot a nervous glance at Tom.

“You know,” continued Algie blithely. “You must cut a rug. Waltz? Tango? Foxtrot?”

Tessie blinked her big brown eyes at Algie.

Tom rescued the poor girl. “He’s saying that a young lady with such a graceful form as yours must be an excellent dancer.”

“Oh!” She blushed pink, clashing with her orange hair. “I’m sorry, I don’t know these dances.”

“Really?” said Algie. “Your family must not let you out much.”

“That’s right, they don’t,” she said, with a glare at her brother, who withstood it stoically.

“I find it useful to have a vine growing around one’s bedroom window that one can climb down,” suggested Algie. “If they cut that down, a knotted sheet will do in a pinch. But really, the thing to do is get your own flat if you can swing it. My family is much happier when they have no idea what I’m up to. At least you’re here now. Come on, I’ll teach you.” He took her hand and assisted her up. “Feel that music.”

“I’m listening to it. It’s wonderful.”

“Don’t just listen to it, feel it. Feel the beat. Like this.” Algie took both her hands and bounced on the balls of his feet. “Found it? Not all that syncopated stuff on top, the beat is down here.”

Tessie, after a few false starts, was bouncing along as if she and Algie were riding one bicycle over railroad ties.

“You’ve got it! Now keep that going while you do this.” He led her into a turn, eliciting an excited squeal. Axel looked on suspiciously.

Soon they were part of the vibrating mass of humanity on the dance floor. Algie danced with a lightness not weighed down by any superfluity of brain. He danced like no one was watching, giving himself up completely to the music.

Tom had, in the past, tried to emulate Algie’s style. Tom knew the dance steps, and could perform them perfectly adequately, but when it came to copying that impression of joyous spontaneity, he came close, but ultimately failed. He’d come to the conclusion that the only way to dance like no one was watching was to genuinely not care that everyone was watching, which seemed an impossible task, since if dance wasn’t a performance to impress onlookers, what was it for?

Tom mulled over this conundrum as he watched Algie lead a giggling Tessie thorough a foxtrot.

Lulu set down her empty champagne flute. “Aren’t either of you going to ask me to dance? Algie said he needed a couple of girls to entertain a couple of blokes from out of town, but you two are just sitting there like bumps on a log.”

Tom and Axel looked at each other. “I don’t know these dances,” said Axel quickly.

“That’s all right, I’ll teach you,” said Lulu. She held a hand out to Axel, who didn’t take it. “Come on, don't be shy. The worst that can happen is you fall down and everyone steps on you.”

Axel’s brown eyes widened in horror. Lulu laughed.

“She’s joking,” explained Tom, although Axel didn’t look very relieved.

“All right, stay glued to your chair if you want,” said Lulu. She next addressed Tom. “You know how to ask a girl to dance, right?”

That would leave Axel alone at the table, foiling Tom’s plan to befriend the wizard. “I’m sorry, but I think I need some more champagne first.”

Lulu, hands on her hips, glared at them. “Algie’s friends are usually livelier than this. Come on Nancy. We don’t need them to have fun. We’ll dance with each other.” The two girls went off and did so, both with exceptional flair.

Tom looked at Axel, whose eyes practically popped out of his head as Lulu deeply dipped a laughing Nancy. He turned away to look at Tom. “These muggle girls,” he complained. “They ought to cover themselves up better. Their robes are so short, when they dance, sometimes you can see—” he leaned in close so he didn’t have to say the word louder than a whisper “—their knees!”

“Dresses,” said Tom. “Not robes, dresses. Muggles have different words for their clothes. Short dresses are the fashion now.”

“Whatever they call them, they’re indecent.” He looked away from the dancers and suspiciously dissected a canapé from one of the platters on the table. “Muggle girls seducing purebloods, trying to drag us down into the mud with them. Diluting our pure stock. My father warned me. Wizards will die out if we don’t resist.”

Tom was reminded of Mr. McKinnon’s talk on breeding dahus. “She only asked you to dance.”

“That’s how it starts,” Axel said ominously. He tried without success to reassemble the canapé.

“I suppose a wizard who’s unsuccessful with females of his own kind might be unusually susceptible to the attractions of muggle women,” said Tom.

“What?”

“Never mind.” Tom generally preferred to keep his thoughts to himself, and resolved that this was his last glass of champagne for the evening. He flagged down a waiter and ordered mineral water for the table. “Anyway, these muggle dresses really make one appreciate the modesty of a well-dressed witch,” he said agreeably to Axel once the waiter had gone.

“Speaking of which…” said Axel, peering through the crowd.

“Over there,” said Tom helpfully. “She and Algie seem to be having a fine time.”

“But you will dance with her yourself, right?”

“Of course. But Algie is a better dancer than I, so I thought I’d have him break her in for me first.”

“What?!”

“Teach her to dance, you know.”

“Hmpf.”  The pause after this grew long. Just as Tom took a breath to speak, Axel asked, “Think the Chudley Cannons have a chance against Puddlemere United?”

Tom had studied the sport section of the Daily Prophet well enough to hold his own in this type of conversation, although it was one of the duller aspects of the wizarding world.

Algie next led Tessie through a bunny hug under the disapproving glare of her brother. Tom sipped his water and wondered if the champagne Axel was drinking would make his personality better or worse.

Algie eventually led Tessie back to the table. Her cheeks were flushed bright pink, and her eyes were sparkling. “This is amazing!” she exclaimed once she’d refreshed herself with some champagne. “I love dancing!”

“You’re a natural,” said Algie. Once he had refreshed himself with some champagne, he said, “Excuse me, I must go iron my shoelaces,” and headed for the WC.

The band struck up another tune and Tessie practically jumped from her seat. “Ooh! This music is so exciting!”

Tom offered her his hand. “Are you ready for another dance, or do you need to rest?”

This time she did jump from her seat as she took his hand. “I could dance all night!”

Algie’s assessment of Tessie’s dance ability had been accurate. She seemed almost to fly, as nimble as the notes of music in the air. She was an excellent follower, responding instantly to whatever move Tom led, from sudden spins that showed off the fringe of her dress, to a close hold that let them glide through the press of the crowd.

It wasn’t Tessie’s fault that her perfume smelled like failure and rejection. The fragrance of hyacinths was generally regarded as pleasant. They even grew in colors other than deep purple. Pink. Lilac. No, everything Tom could imagine clashed with Tessie’s orange hair.

“What’s wrong?” asked Tessie. “I’m sorry, I don’t really know these dances. They’re so different.”

“No, your dancing is fine,” said Tom. “More than fine, really, you’re learning remarkably fast. The fault is entirely mine. I was just reminded of someone with whom I will never dance again.”

“Oh!” Tessie’s eyes brightened with unspilled tears. Tom was impressed with her control of her tear ducts. Her left hand on his shoulder, and her right in his hand, pulled him closer. “Oh Tom, you don’t have to do this if it’s too soon. Whatever you need, a shoulder to cry on, anything, I’m here for you.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry, I thought that perhaps a diversion with friends...”

Tessie hugged him, and he found himself at a loss for words. She was undeniably an attractive girl, for those who liked that type. Being a widower had its advantages. “It’s all right to be sad,” she assured him. “People can’t just bounce back from a loss like that. I don’t expect you to dance like you used to.”

“I hate to cut this dance short, when you were so clearly enjoying it.”

“Oh don’t be silly. Taking me here in the first place was wonderfully kind of you. You have no obligation to entertain me even more, especially considering you have your own troubles to deal with.” Tessie, with every indication of regret, released Tom from the embrace with which she’d been comforting him. She did not, however, release his hand, instead using it to pull him back to their table.

It took all of Tom’s self-control to maintain the expression of a mourning widower when faced with the sight of Algie trying to teach Axel to dance.

“You need to give weight on the rock step, your arm’s all floppy— Oh hello. Back so soon?” said Algie.

“Oh Algie,” said Tessie, “I know we both had the same thought to cheer Tom up with a night of dancing, but perhaps we’re wrong. It seems cruel to expect him to put on a happy face here, of all places, when it just brings up memories of his wife.”

Algie looked from Tessie to Tom and back in confusion. “But he never—“

“At any rate, I don’t wish to ruin your evening,” said Tom to Tessie hurriedly. “I know you were enjoying dancing, so please, don’t let me stop you.”

“Oh, no, I mean, I was enjoying dancing, but I’m not here just for that. I’m here for you! I mean, to be a friend to you, however I can help. Do you want to talk about her? I’ll listen.”

“I don’t wish to burden my friends by getting all maudlin,” said Tom. “Ruining your evening would make me feel even worse. Please, get back on the dance floor. Perhaps you can give your brother a lesson.” He looked at Axel. “Unless you’d prefer to dance with Lulu. She seemed very interested.”

Axel gulped, and looked to his sister. “Come on. Show me how this dancing thing works.”

Tessie, with a worried look back at Tom, led her brother to the dance floor.

“What an appleknocker,” remarked Algie once the Prewetts were out of earshot. “His sister’s a bit of all right, though.” He looked to Tom. “Is she right? Was it a stupid idea to try to cheer you up?”

Tom, watching Axel try to dance, could restrain his laughter no longer. “Look at that oaf,” he managed to choke out. “It’s clear who got all the dancing skill in that family. I’m feeling better already.”

Algie appreciated a slapstick performance as much as anyone, but his laughter was tempered with concern. “This is fun and all, but have some sympathy for the poor girl he’s dancing with.” He stood. “I’m going to cut in.”

“Mr. Prewett might not take that well,” said Tom. “That might not be wise.”

“Well,” said Algie with a defiant swig of his champagne and emphatic click of his glass on the table. “I’ve never been accused of being wise.” He charged off. Axel, unaware of what was going to hit him, continued to blunder through a dance, not merely stepping on his sister’s feet, but even kicking her in the shin.

Tom wondered if this table would make an effective shield for any stray spells, if he flipped it onto its edge and hid behind it. That would spill the champagne, besides blocking his view of the show. It shouldn’t be necessary as long as Tom believed he could fly. He kept that phrase in mind in case he needed it in a hurry.

The confrontation was less interesting than Tom had hoped. Axel seemed relieved to have an excuse to leave the dance floor, and Tessie was obviously grateful to her savior.

Axel slouched back to the table and dropped heavily onto a chair. “Well, I tried,” he said. “How late do you usually stay at these things, anyway?”

“Until midnight, perhaps,” said Tom.

“Oh Merlin.” Axel flopped his head down on the table, but soon lifted it back up with a groan. “Can’t fall asleep, gotta keep an eye on my stupid sister. Not stupid, sorry. I mean beautiful, charming sister. Very refined. Definitely good wife material.”

“I can see that,” said Tom agreeably, admiring Tessie and Algie, moving together on the dance floor as if they were one playful, four-legged beast.

The band eventually took a break, and Algie led Tessie back to the table. Tom looked around for Lulu and Nancy and found them engrossed in conversation with other revellers at a different table. Tom couldn’t blame them. He and Axel had not proven to be agreeable companions.

Algie poured some more champagne for Tessie, then himself.

“Thank you,” said Tessie, eyes sparkling as much as her dress.

“Thank you for the dance,” said Algie. “And thank you, Mr. Prewett, for letting me cut in.”

“Oh no!” exclaimed Tessie, looking down at a run in her stocking, then angrily at her brother. “Axel, look what you did to this stocking! It must have been like this for that whole dance and I didn’t even notice. That’s so embarrassing.”

Axel shrugged. “It wasn’t my idea to dance with you anyway, or for you to bare your legs to the world. Wear a longer skirt next time and you won’t have this problem.”

Tessie reached her hand up her skirt, drew her wand from what must have been a thigh holster, and pointed it at her stocking. “ Reparo .” The stocking knit itself back together. Then she suddenly shot a guilty glance at Tom and said “Oh.”

It would be inaccurate to say that Algie looked at Tessie keenly. He was not capable of looking keenly at anything. But his normally calm face was perturbed by an unfamiliar expression indicating thought. As Tessie returned her wand to its holster, the impossibility of her action did not seem to concern him. “Funny,” he said. “I thought earlier there was a run in your stocking. Must have been a trick of the light. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your legs at all.”

Tessie’s giggle sounded nervous. Her gaze flicked to her brother.

Obliviate .” Axel put his wand away as Algie slumped out of his chair towards the floor.

Tom rushed to catch Algie before he hit, and wrangled him back into his chair. “You can’t claim you’re all that concerned about the Statute if you just obliviated a muggle in public,” he hissed furiously.

“No one saw me obliviate him,” growled Axel.

“He didn’t even notice me fixing my stocking!” objected Tessie. “That was totally unnecessary!”

“This whole outing is totally unnecessary. You can’t impress your rich halfblood widower by letting a filthy muggle paw at you all night. We’re going home.” Axel grasped his sister’s arm, then turned to Tom. “Where’s a good apparition point around here?”

“That hallway leads to the facilities, but take care no muggles see you,” for Tom wasn’t about to duel a wizard over a witch’s honor. As satisfying as it would be to punch Axel in the face, he’d have to say “I believe I can fly” immediately to escape before Axel retaliated, and who knew what trouble he’d get into with the Ministry for portkeying out of a crowd of muggles?

The Prewetts caused an embarrassing scene as Axel dragged his sister away. Tessie glared at her brother so angrily, the suit Tom’s father had loaned him started to smolder. Well, it had been a bit out-of-fashion anyway.

The ballroom was so loud, Tom had to listen closely to hear the crack of apparition.

Tom looked at Algie, slumped awkwardly in his chair. He was drooling slightly. Tom blotted at Algie’s chin with a serviette. Tom’s reading on obliviation had informed him that the subject could regain consciousness immediately, or later, depending on the skill of the practitioner and the severity of the erasure. So far, it appeared that Axel had not been skilled or the erasure had been large, or both.

When Lulu and Nancy returned to the table for some refreshments, they expressed concern over the unconscious Algie.

“I’m afraid Algie overindulged,” said Tom.

“But all we had was champagne,” said Nancy, confused. “That’s like milk to Algie.”

“Perhaps he started early,” said Tom.

The girls nodded, recognizing that as the sort of thing Algie would do.

Nancy looked at the crowd on the dance floor. “Where’s Tessie?”

Tom explained. “Axel seemed perturbed at how Algie was dancing with Tessie. He’s unfamiliar with these modern dances, and seemed to think that Algie was being overly forward. Axel took his sister home over her protests.”

“But Algie’s a perfect gentleman!” objected Nancy. “And she was having such a good time!”

“That bastard brother of hers!” Lulu exclaimed.

“Lulu!” said Nancy, horrified at her friend’s language.

“I know a bastard when I see one,” continued Lulu. “That girl’s got to get out from under her family’s thumb. Move to the city, change her name. Lots of girls do it, I could show her the ropes.”

“What…” said Algie, fluttering to consciousness.

“You had too much to drink,” Tom explained.

“What…”

“I’ll get a cab for you,” said Tom.

Algie shook his head. He seemed at a loss for how to stop shaking it, but figured it out eventually. “No need, this early.” He looked at his watch. “The night is young, the band is hot, the champagne is cold, why stop now? There are plenty of girls to dance with. Lulu, and Nancy, and…” He looked confused. “Didn’t you say you were going to bring friends tonight?”

“We’re two blokes and two girls, so we have the right ratio for dancing, what?” said Tom. “We don’t need anyone else.” He heard himself picking up Algie’s speech pattern now that the witch and wizard were gone.

“Right,” said Algie. “Right,” he repeated uncertainly. He reached to refill his empty champagne glass but Lulu stopped him.

“Have some mineral water,” she said, pouring a glass for him.

Algie seemed about to protest, but thought better of it and drank the water without complaint. “Perhaps you’re right,” he conceded. “I feel a bit out-of-sorts.” His head started to bob to the music. “Nothing a bit of dancing won’t put right.” He looked from one girl to the other. “To whom do I owe the next dance?”

The girls looked at each other. “You take him,” said Lulu.

“Thanks,” said Nancy, taking Algie’s hand.

“If he’s going to be sick, better on you than on me.”

“Hey!” objected Nancy.

“I’m fine,” Algie assured her. “I don’t even feel drunk, exactly, just odd.” He pulled her onto the dance floor, where they danced with their usual style.

Lulu looked at Tom.

He offered his hand. “Shall we?” They did.

Lulu was a skilled dancer. At this close range, she seemed older than Tom had thought at first. Tom enjoyed the evening. It was pleasant to dance with an experienced girl like Lulu, and a sweet young thing like Nancy, and various other girls who were vaguely familiar from his pre-Merope days, and girls he just met. None approached Cecilia in beauty and ambition, but they did exist.

Eventually the girls all blurred together into a big mass of not-Cecilia. “I think I’ll call it a night,” he said to Algie. “Thank you for this. You did cheer me up.”

“I’m glad I could help,” said Algie. “You’re welcome to use my flat tonight.”

“Thanks, but I’ll take a late train instead.”

“Really? That seems uncomfortable.”

“It’s less crowded than the daytime trains,” said Tom. “And I like the chance to think.”

“Suit yourself,” said Algie. “Let’s do this again soon.”

“Definitely.” Tom left, and ducked into the alley near the club.  “Dobby,” he called.

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“Take me home.”

——-

A Floo-call to the office of Witch Weekly ensured that they would publish the flattering, rather than the incriminating, photographs of that muggletouring jaunt. Tom’s threat to cease tipping them off with the whereabouts of the photogenic and adventurous heir of Riddle had weight. At Tom’s request, the editor owled him the magical photographs of both Prewetts drawing their wands in the midst of a crowd of muggles, so that Tom could destroy the evidence and thus protect the reputations of his friends. Tom chuckled as he filed them in his rolltop desk.

——-

At breakfast Tuesday, February fifteenth, as Tom and Hermione discussed how they would gather data from Ignis’s anonymous clients after the full moon on the sixteenth, they were interrupted by the arrival of Malfoy’s magnificent white owl. Their system was well-practiced by now. Hermione served the owl a dish of bacon as Tom untied the scroll from its leg.

Tom unscrolled the letter. “Oh no.”

“What?” Hermione jumped to read it as well.

Tom angled it so they could both see it. “Look at this,” he complained. “I won’t be able to use Malfoy’s letters as examples of pureblood calligraphy anymore. He wrote this with a fountain pen.”

“But what does he have to say?” demanded Tom’s father. “You haven’t had him kill anyone else for you, have you?”

Tom didn’t dignify that with a response. Instead he read the letter aloud:

“Dear Tom,

I hope this letter finds you well. Thank you for this muggle pen. I find it not only a useful instrument, but also a novel conversation piece.

If you have not yet made plans for the Ides of March, I would be delighted if you and Miss Granger would accept the hospitality of Malfoy Manor. Feel free to bring your son. Our families can celebrate the holiday informally together with lunch and an afternoon’s entertainment on the grounds. Please reply at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Serpens”

Tom set the letter down.

“Isn’t the Ides of March the day Julius Caesar was assassinated?” asked Tom’s father.

“Well, yes, in muggle history,” said Hermione. “But the holiday is much older. It's the day for settling debts. It’s not a major holiday, really, just an excuse to have a picnic. A lot of families don’t even do the traditional sheep sacrifice anymore.”

“It sounds delightful,” said Tom’s mother.

“And I have time to research any wizarding customs about it,” said Tom. “I’ll obviously reply yes.” He looked to the white owl. “Would you like some more bacon while I quickly write a reply?”

The owl responded by dipping its beak in Tom’s tea.

“Ah,” said Tom. “Well, that’s yours now. Enjoy.” He looked to Hermione. “I assume I’ll again convey your regrets?”

Hermione said nothing, although her expression spoke of inner turmoil. Tom waited. “You mean to go alone?” she eventually said.

“Well, it would be tacky to bring Dobby, considering his history, and the invitation didn’t include my parents, so—“

“Tom,” Hermione interrupted, but she didn’t say anything else.

“Yes?” Tom prompted eventually.

“You’ve been so helpful scaling up the wolfsbane potion, and so kind to Ignis despite his condition, and of course it’s wonderful to see Tommy being raised by a loving father…”

Tom waited for the bad news, although he anticipated what it would be.

“...So I can’t let you go to Malfoy Manor alone,” she concluded predictably.

“Let?” repeated Tom’s father, prompting Tom’s mother to lay a soothing hand on her husband’s. Tom’s father looked at her and was silent.

Tom smiled at Hermione. “It’s true that entering a murderer’s lair is a job for a Gryffindor. Do you know of any I could bring with me for protection? And please don’t say Ignis. Although I daresay he could distract Serpens from any evil scheme by staging a dramatic splinching right in front of him. I could make my escape while Serpens is being sick.”

Hermione let out an explosive laugh, powered by a sudden snap of the tension that always filled her. “All right,” she said. “We’ll go together. Someone has to look after you.” She looked at Tommy, who was currently in the arms of Tom’s mother. “We won’t go for long,” she said. “And of course I’ll leave Tommy with you, Mrs. Riddle.”

“I’ll be happy to watch my fluffy little puffskein,” said Tom’s mother.

“I’ll write back to Serpens,” said Tom. “You’ll have your reply soon,” he said to the owl, which was busy with its bacon and tea. “Excuse me.” Tom went to his office. After some thought, he set to work with his Mabie Todd Swan, flexing the gold nib in proper muggle style:

Dear Serpens,

Thank you for the invitation. Miss Granger and I look forward to joining you for the Ides of March.

Tom

Tom brought the letter to the dining room, from whence the owl carried it away. “Thank you,” Tom said to Hermione.

“I hope this isn’t a mistake,” she said.

“What happened the last time you were there?” Tom asked.

Hermione looked pale. Even her hair seemed frozen.

“Never mind,” said Tom. “That will never happen in this timeline, since you’ll prevent such things. This is your chance to form better memories of Malfoy Manor.”

Hermione shivered, although the room was warm.

“I’m sure Serpens will be a perfect gentleman,” said Tom. “And besides, the two of us already beat him in a fight. We could easily repeat our performance in a rematch.”

He’d finally said the right thing. Hermione smiled at him. “Thanks. I know, we’ll probably be fine.”

After breakfast, Tom worked in his office. He wanted a rough estimate of the werewolf population in various countries, but wizards seemed to have an aversion to statistics.

Pop. “Master, Squire Riddle says some loud-mouthed bint wants to talk to you on the telephone,” said Dobby.

“Thank you, Dobby.” Tom picked up the telephone receiver and put it to his ear as Dobby popped away. “Hello?” He heard the click as his father hung up.

“Tom?!” much too loudly. Tom held the receiver further from his ear.

He spoke into the transmitter. “Who is this? And you don’t have to shout.”

“Sorry! I mean, sorry. It’s me, Tessie.”

It took a moment for the name to ring a bell. When it did, it rang loudly. “Tessie?! Sorry, I wasn’t expecting to hear your voice over the telephone. Why didn’t you Floo-call me?” He was in no great rush to get the muggle costumes back, and he’d expected to arrange that by Floo.

“I didn’t want my family to overhear. They don’t know I’m here. I went to a muggle pub and asked to use their telephone, all on my own, can you imagine? These muggles are giving me strange looks, and I sure hope I’m not doing anything to violate the Statute, but I had to talk to you.”

“But what do you have to say to me that your family shouldn’t overhear?” He’d been under the impression that her family fully approved of her throwing herself at the heir of Riddle.

“It’s about Algie,” she said. “How can I see him again?”

Chapter Text

“Algie?” Tom repeated. “The muggle?” With the bulging eyes and weak chin?

“I don’t care that he’s a muggle!” Tessie exclaimed. “I love him.”

“He is richer than I,” Tom noted. 

“Tom! How dare you! You might as well call me a, a—“

“I’m not calling you anything, I’m just wondering if you could work that angle to get your family to appreciate his finer qualities.”

“You’re not jealous?”

“Tessie, I’m still mourning my dear departed wife. I have no romantic claim on anyone alive.” Certainly not a flibbertigibbet like you. “My darling Merope went against her family’s wishes to marry me, as they felt that only the purest of purebloods was worthy of a Gaunt. Nothing her family did could separate us. True love is unstoppable. I wouldn’t dream of standing in its way.”

“Oh Tom! That’s so romantic! You’re wonderful!”

Tom wondered how much leverage he’d have over the more important branch of the Prewett family once he had evidence that their pureblood cousin was consorting with a muggle. “I’m happy to help. You’ll need another introduction, as thanks to your brother, Algie doesn’t remember you at all.”

“I know! How is he? Is his mind all right? My brother can be so heavy-handed. I wanted to splinch him when he insisted I apparate us home.”

“Algie’s mind seems as sound as ever.” For what that was worth.

“Oh merciful Circe!”

“So how can we arrange this? Are there any potential chaperones who would be less likely to obliviate a muggle than Axel?”

“There’s no one in my family who’d approve of me falling in love with a muggle!”

“Oh Merlin, you’re not planning to be honest, are you? Of course I’m not proposing you actually tell anyone you’re in love with a muggle. I’m just saying that, under cover of your somewhat respectable courtship of the heir of Riddle, you could actually court Algie, if your chaperone is sufficiently unobservant. Your mother seemed to have a good sense of when to tactfully step back to give young people a semblance of privacy.”

“Oh!” Tom gave her time to think about that. “That might work. Oh Tom, but to lie to my mother like that—“

“I certainly don’t plan to lie to her. As I said before, I, a recent widower, do not intend to replace my dear departed wife any time soon. I am not proposing anything as serious as an engagement between us. I am merely trying to cheer myself with pleasant company, which you undoubtedly provide, as I enjoy my usual hobby of muggletouring.”

“Oh, thank you, Tom! How can I ever repay you?”

“I’ll think of something. Now I suggest you sneak back home before anyone notices your absence. I’ll Floo-call to arrange our next muggletouring jaunt as soon as I know Algie’s schedule.”

“Wonderful! I’ll await your call. Now, um, how do I—“

“Hang the receiver back up on the switch hook.”

“Right. Um. Like this?” Tom heard a click. 

Tom pressed his own switch hook down with his hand, then released it to call Algie. After he gave his name to Algie’s manservant, who summoned his employer to the telephone, Tom heard a cheerful “Tom, what ho!”

“Good morning, Algie. I hope I’m not calling too early.”

“Oh no, I was up like a lark with the dawn and I’m having breakfast already.” Tom looked at the clock. It was a quarter past eleven. “And how are you?”

“Considerably improved, thanks to your cheering influence.”

“I knew it!” crowed Algie. “Wine, women, and song are a panacea.”

“I think I’m due for a second dose,” said Tom. “My other friends are urging me to cheer up as well. Do you know the Prewett family?”

Algie was uncharacteristically silent after this. 

“Is this telephone connection—“ Tom eventually said. 

“No, I’m still here, I was just thinking. I’m unused to such exercise, you know. I may have sprained something. I was wondering if I might have run into them at some society gala. Not that I’d necessarily remember if I had. Whenever familial duty requires me to attend such stuffy events, I get sozzled as quickly as possible, so if I have been introduced to them, I don’t remember.”

“Well, my friends the Prewetts—“

“Hold on, I’m feeling a bit out-of-sorts. Pardon my French, but is this what they call déjà vu ? Most peculiar. You know Tom, I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should cut back on the alcohol.”

“Really?” 1927 was absolutely full of surprises. 

“Really. You know the last time we went out to the Café de Paris, I think I drank too much. That whole night is a bit of a blur. It’s like there are parts missing. Uncomfortable feeling, what?”

“I can imagine,” said Tom, who was glad he’d never been obliviated. 

“I’m not going to quit completely, of course, that would be madness. I’ve been talking with my friends, and some, at least, agree with me. Lulu says two drinks a night are plenty for her. She says any more, and she might not be able to defend herself if a chap got too fresh. Nancy agrees, but she’s agreeable to most things Lulu says. Nigel and Francis are horrified at the idea.”

“Of course, they would be,” said Tom. 

“What do you think?”

“For me, one drink is plenty, if I want to keep my wits about me.” Algie was sure to provide entertainment even when less drunk than usual.

“I suppose with all your wits, you’ve got to keep after them like a sheepdog. Anyway, I figured that if two is a good limit for girls, I could do three. Could you please help me count them the next time we go out?”

“Three, fine. I’ll hold you to that.”

“Thanks, Tom. You’re a good friend. I knew I could count on you.”

“Let’s do the experiment this Friday. Are you available to meet at the Café de Paris again?”

“Sure! Lulu and Nancy won’t be, though, their show opens tonight, so they’ll be busy evenings for the run. The Apache at the Palladium, a right treat, you should see it. I saw the dress rehearsal, it was the bees’ knees. I could call some other girls.”

“No need. As I was saying, my friends the Prewetts agree with you that I should go to London to cheer up. It would be efficient to gather my well-wishers together. Miss Tessie Prewett and her mother Edith would like to meet me there. Tessie is an excellent dancer. I don’t know about her mother, but Tessie doesn’t go out without a chaperone, as they’re an old-fashioned family.”

“This is starting to sound like the sort of company I try to avoid. Couldn’t she bring a younger chaperone than her mother?”

“I’m afraid her mother is the best option in that family.”

“I’m sure I could rally some showgirls instead. Perhaps you could go out with these Prewetts of yours a different evening.”

“I’m sure it will work out. Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course I do. You’re one of those salt-of-the-earth country folk, trustworthy to the core. All right, bring your stuffy Prewetts, but I take back what I said about my three-drink limit. I may require more alcohol to get through an evening in the company of a fire extinguisher.”

Tom ended the call and decided to give Tessie a bit more time to sneak home before Floo-calling Shell Cottage. 

He looked over his calendar after penciling in Friday’s entertainment. February’s full moon would be tomorrow night, the sixteenth. If the scaled-up batch of wolfsbane potion worked as it should, several werewolves should have a much better full moon than usual. Tom smiled at the thought of so many satisfied customers. It was time to raise the price. 

When everyone gathered in the drawing room before lunch, Tom did Hermione the courtesy of inviting her along for Friday’s muggletouring jaunt, and received the expected refusal.

“I’d be happy to look after Tommy while you take a break,” Tom’s mother assured Hermione. “Even only an hour of dancing would be a pleasant diversion. You could apparate back before Tommy even notices you’re gone.”

Hermione shrugged her bony shoulders. “I don’t see the point.”

That topic of conversation having come to an impasse, they instead discussed how to properly clothe Mrs. Prewett for her outing into muggle London. Tom described the challenge of modifying one of his mother’s dresses to fit Mrs. Prewett, which was a larger problem than the slight tailoring that had been required to outfit the younger Prewetts. 

“I’ll talk to Dobby,” said his mother. 

After lunch, Tom Floo-called the overjoyed Mrs. Prewett. 

“I’m so happy to hear from you, Tom. After the outing Friday ended sooner than I expected…”

“I’m afraid Axel didn’t enjoy himself,” said Tom. “Although Tessie, I must say, seemed both delighted and delightful. Her company was so cheering, I hope for a repeat of the outing, with a different chaperone. I wondered if you could join us.”

“Oh, you don’t want to drag around an old thing like me,” giggled Mrs. Prewett.

“On the contrary, your company would add to the gaiety of the evening,” said Tom. “Anyone who sees me will be filled with envy, as it will look like I’m out with a couple of beautiful sisters.”

Mrs. Prewett giggled even more. “Oh Tom! You rake. I see I’ll have to keep a close eye on you around my innocent Tessie, so of course I’ll join you.”

“Thank you. Please Floo here at seven Friday evening to don muggle clothes. My elf can tailor them as needed. I believe Tessie still has the costume we loaned to her, so she may wear that.” And she might as well keep it, for all the use Hermione was getting out of it, but Tom would do Hermione the courtesy of asking before taking back the gift.

“We’ll be there. We’re very much looking forward to it,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

“Don’t you want to confirm with Tessie that she’s available Friday?” Tom asked. 

“No need,” said Mrs. Prewett. “I keep track of her schedule, so I know she’s available and will be delighted.”

“How lucky she is to have such an attentive mother,” said Tom. 

Once they’d ended the call, Tom marked his calendar in pen for Friday the eighteenth. Then he went to tell his mother that Mrs. Prewett would indeed need to borrow one of her dresses, and found his mother and Dobby already engrossed in a discussion of expansion charms and the application of the geminio spell to beaded fringe, so that project was in good hands. 

——-

Thursday morning, the Daily Prophet and Witch Weekly delivery owls eyed each other over their bacon as Tom and his mother read their respective publications. As the man in the house with the most direct interest in the wizarding world, Tom had dibs on the Prophet , while his father would read the muggle paper. Then they would switch. 

As was her habit, Hermione brought a book to breakfast and would read the papers later, having declared her disinterest in “You Riddles and your silly power plays.”

Tom read about a proposed increase in the tariffs on imported flying carpets, and the potential for retaliatory tariffs on British brooms. It seemed unwise, but then again he didn’t know who was getting kickbacks. He read a gardening column that seemed to be a thinly-veiled advertisement for a particular brand of composted dragon dung. He even read the bloody sport pages. All the while, his mother serenely turned the pages of her magazine. 

Tom finally yielded. “Anything interesting in your magazine?” he asked. 

“Here’s a new recipe for a potion to make one’s eyes more dark and alluring,” said his mother, “But isn’t belladonna poisonous?”

“Mother!”

She laughed her musical laugh. “Of course you’re in it.”  She handed her magazine over. 

Hermione snorted in laughter. 

True to their word, Witch Weekly hadn’t published any incriminating photographs of the Prewetts violating the Statute of Secrecy. Instead, a large spread was titled Prewett Siblings Dance Muggle-Style , although the word “dance” was questionably applicable in Axel’s case. 

“Note that as a convenience to their readers,” his mother said, “They printed that big picture of you and Tessie dancing as a centerfold, so anyone who is so inclined can easily remove and frame it.”

“Someone should shoot you now,” said Hermione. 

That got through Tom’s admiration of the picture, he and Tessie cutting a perfect figure across the dance floor. “I beg your pardon,” he said. 

“That photographer should do a photo shoot right now,” Hermione explained. “You’re practically glowing. It would be quite the celebrity endorsement of their magazine.”

Tom hastily handed the witches’ magazine back to his mother as if a photographer actually were lurking in the Riddle dining room. He made a mental note to inform the magazine’s office of tomorrow’s outing. 

——-

At four in the afternoon Friday, Ignis’s face appeared in the fireplace in Tom’s office, asking, “Tom, may I come through? I have a full report.”

“Excellent, please do.” Tom closed his rolltop desk, flipped the Floo switch, and received a tired-looking werewolf carrying a sheaf of parchment. “Have a seat.” He indicated the chair by the fire. “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?”

“Tea for our guest, and invite Miss Granger to join us in my office.”

“Yes Master.” Pop. 

“I have good news,“ began Ignis. 

“Wait for Hermione to get here so you don’t have to repeat yourself,” said Tom. “Where’s Dobby with that tea?”

Pop. 

“And some snacks, Dobby,” added Tom. 

Pop. 

“Thanks,” said Ignis, helping himself to tea. He used his new silver left hand with perfect ease. “I now realize I forgot to eat lunch today. Well, the werewolves offered me food, but it didn’t seem right to accept when they have so little.”

“It makes sense to save your appetite when you know better fare awaits you here,” agreed Tom. 

Pop. Dobby reappeared with another tray. Ignis took a dainty triangular sandwich, but put it down when Hermione, carrying Tommy in a sling, walked in. 

“Come, hear the good news,” said Tom, directing Hermione to another chair, and gesturing to give Ignis leave to speak.

“Everyone got through the full moon fine!” exclaimed Ignis. “I’ve apparated all over the place today, and every single werewolf has been thrilled with your potion. All of them want the same for next month.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Tom. “One hundred percent satisfied customers!”

“I’ve got quotes from them here,” said Ignis, indicating his parchments. “They all chose code names for themselves. That seemed the best way to keep their identities confidential. Look at this. The werewolf calling herself Thestral Eye says, ‘At last, I don’t have to worry about biting anyone if my wards fail.’ And Unicorn Pants, I’m sorry, I didn’t think to specify what the code names could be until it was too late, anyway, he says, ‘’For the first time, I had no new Dark injuries on the morning after the full moon.’ Everyone is thrilled, and grateful. They all asked me to convey their thanks.”

“I can read,” said Tom as he took the sheaf of parchment. He held it so Hermione could read as well. Ignis redirected his attention to the food.

In their own words, their own handwriting, Tom’s customers conveyed their thanks. Every letter, every curve and line was full of gratitude. “Wonderful!” Tom repeated.

“I’m so glad,” said Hermione. “I was afraid the formula wouldn’t scale up properly.” The tension that seemed to always bind her loosened its grip for a moment, and she melted back into her chair with a sigh. 

Tom set the parchments down. “With customer satisfaction like this, we can clearly discontinue the low introductory price. Thirty galleons a month would more accurately reflect the value of this potion to my customers.”

Ignis had difficulty swallowing his latest bite of sandwich. 

“Not to you, of course,” Tom clarified. “As my employee, you get the potion for your personal use at cost.”

Ignis choked down the bite of white bread and cucumber. “I’m not concerned about myself,” he said as if that were a legitimate sentence. “The introductory price is already very difficult for most werewolves to pay. I was turned relatively recently. Many of the others have much more trouble finding work. Even if they’re still able-bodied, they’re so visibly scarred that no one will hire them.”

Ignis reached for the parchments, shuffled through them until he found the one he was looking for, and read from it. “‘I’m sure my dear father, rest his soul, would understand me selling the watch he gave me on my seventeenth birthday, if he knew how much pain and injury it saved me from.’ That’s a quote from Spleenwort. He had only the one watch to sell. He’s already worried that it will be impossible to scrape together enough money to buy next month’s potion, but if the price gets even higher…” Ignis sorted the parchments into two stacks. He indicated one stack. “I’m sure those werewolves couldn’t afford to pay thirty galleons a month.” He indicated the other. “Those probably could, for a little while at least.”

Tom counted the parchments in the two stacks and made a note of the numbers. 

Ignis shuffled through a stack for a parchment. “Broken Daisy gets a small allowance from her aunt. She’s already decided that since she can’t afford this potion every month, she’ll buy it only for the longest nights in autumn and winter. She’ll save her money and go without for the short nights of spring and summer, and start buying it again in October. If she’s still alive.”

Tom nodded. “Thank you, that’s very useful information. It’s good to know that the market is somewhat seasonal, so we can adjust production accordingly.”

Hermione stood and glared at Tom. “How dare you!”

Tom felt himself nervously reaching towards his wand as if that would do any good. “Hermione? What’s wrong?”

“How can you think of money when people’s lives are at stake?” she demanded. 

“How can I not think of money?” asked Tom. “We’re running a business.”

“I’m trying to help people!” Hermione retorted. 

“Oh goodness, is that the time?” said Ignis with a glance at the clock. “I’d best be off. Nice seeing you.” He threw a pinch of power into the fire and jumped into it almost before it had time to turn green, shouting “McKinnon Pest Control” as he vanished. The stack of parchment he left behind on the table rustled in the sudden breeze of his departure, then was still. 

Tom opened his rolltop desk and found the relevant paper. “Look at these numbers! I’m raising the price just enough to turn a profit. Sure, we’ll lose a few customers, but the profit margin from the other customers more than makes up for that. Then we’ll have more resources to devote to the marketing campaign. Public relations to change attitudes towards werewolves, and lobbying to change laws, will be expensive.” The paper in his hands burst into flames. Tom threw it into the fire rather than drop it on something nice, and watched his calculations go up in smoke. 

“Dobby!” Hermione cried. 

“Yes Miss Granger?” said Dobby, who’d been lurking with the tea things. 

“Take Tommy to Mrs. Riddle, or look after him yourself, whatever. I’m too angry to be with him right now. And Mr. Riddle here’s not a good influence on him.”

Dobby’s huge eyes swiveled to Tom, who nodded. “Go ahead, Dobby, take Tommy somewhere peaceful.”

Dobby, cooing “It’s all right, young Master Riddle,” carried Tom’s son out of the room. 

Now Tom was alone with the witch. The air itself seemed to grow taut, as if a storm were building. The electric light bulb in his lamp grew brighter, then burnt out, so Hermione was lit only by the orange flames of the fireplace, Tom by the fading winter light from the window. “I’m sure we can discuss this rationally,” said Tom. 

The dark light bulb exploded, only the lampshade protecting Tom from flying broken glass. 

Hermione, with a wordless cry, stormed from the room. 

Tom, after sitting in his darkening office for a while, called “Dobby!”

Pop. “Yes Master?” Tommy wasn’t with him, so he must have had time to take him to Tom’s mother. 

“Can you fix this lightbulb?”

Dobby looked at the broken fragments. “Dobby doesn’t understand how light bulbs work, Master,” he said apologetically. 

“Never mind, it’s not important. Just get rid of the broken bits. The bit still stuck in the lamp will need to be unscrewed. Wait, let me turn off the switch first.”

“Oh, like thumbscrews,” said Dobby as he figured out how the bulb was threaded into the lamp.. 

Soon, it was done, and Tom dismissed his elf. He rang the bell for Fiona. 

She arrived with reasonable speed for a human. “Yes Mr. Riddle?”

He pointed to his lamp. “Fetch me a new light bulb please.”

“Yes Mr. Riddle.”

She came back to change the bulb. “But where’s the old—“

“I ate it,” explained Tom.

“What?”

“Don’t ask questions, just install the bulb. Then clear away these tea things.”

“Yes Mr. Riddle.”

Once she’d left, and Tom’s office was once more illuminated by the bright, steady light of muggle industry, he looked at a blank paper on his desk. Was there any point to redoing his calculations? No, not at the cost of an angry witch. 

Soon, it was time to gather in the drawing room before dinner. His parents and son were there already, his mother cooing over her dear little wyrmling. 

“What’s a wyrmling?” Tom asked. 

“A baby dragon,” Tom’s mother explained. “Tommy set the curtains on fire, but Dobby soon set them right. He’s such a sweetheart, I’m sure he meant no harm. I remember when you were a baby, Tom, your chubby little legs once kicked a teacup out of my hand, so it shattered on the floor. Simply an accident, of course. Oh, you wore the darlingest little white booties in those days!”

“Tastes change,” said Tom, hoping his mother wouldn’t get any ideas about applying expansion charms to his old booties.  

When Hermione arrived, Tom was prepared. “I’ve thought it over,” he said. “You’re right.”

Hermione’s coiled curls relaxed like the rest of her. 

“What’s this about?” asked Tom’s father. Tom ignored him. 

“I mustn’t be impatient to make a profit off this,” Tom continued. “This business is still in the early investment stage. We’ll continue to sell wolfsbane potion at a loss while working on the other part of the business, improving public perception of werewolves to make them more employable.”

Hermione seemed at a loss. She looked around the room and settled on Tommy. Tom’s mother handed over the little wyrmling, who latched on to Hermione without setting any more fires. 

Tom filled the silence by continuing to talk in terms Hermione would find agreeable. “It would be unethical to have a treatment for some terrible disease and not share it as widely as possible, even if it is a disease I didn’t know was real until recently. I mean, to put it in more familiar terms, if someone had a treatment for, say, tuberculosis, and didn’t get it to patients who need it, that would obviously be unethical.” He waited. 

The room was silent for a while. Tom studied Hermione’s face. Jackpot. She was lousy at concealing her emotions. “Hermione?” he asked gently. “Do you have a treatment for tuberculosis?” 

Several different emotions were warring on her face. “Not just a treatment. A cure.”

His mother gasped. His father leaned forward in his chair.

“There’s a magical cure for…” said Tom. Too late, he realized the flaw in his scheme. “Of course there is, and anyone who tries to treat muggles with it goes to prison for violating the Statute of Secrecy.”

“That does complicate things, I’ll admit,” said Tom’s father. “But there must be a way to distribute this cure through some sort of shell company, funneling the profits through a Swiss bank—“

“Not a magical cure, no.” Hermione was giving Tom’s control of his expressions a challenge.

Tom worked it out. “Not a magical cure… A muggle cure, invented in the future!”

“Yes,” she said sheepishly. 

“Tuberculosis has killed one out of every seven people who ever lived,” said Tom’s father. “And you’ve just been sitting on—“

Both Tom and his mother shot his father a look that shut him up immediately. 

“If you can provide the cure…” Tom felt breathless. It was mind-boggling. 

“The polio vaccine would also save a lot of lives if it were introduced before the epidemic,” Hermione mulled. 

“What do you mean, before the epidemic?” demanded Tom’s father. “There’s an epidemic now.”

“I mean the big epidemic in the fifties,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to save lives, but I've been doing it piecemeal, fighting Dark wizards. But disease kills more innocent people than wars and murderers ever have, so if I really want to save lives, that’s the enemy to fight. I guess until now I never had enough…” she fixed her bright brown eyes on Tom “ambition.”

“Do you realize what this means?” Tom felt giddy, delighted laughter bubbling up in him. 

She nodded, eyes wide. 

It was obvious, but he said it aloud just for the pleasure of it. “We are going to be phenomenally rich.” 

Those bright brown eyes blinked at him. 

Fiona had to call them in to dinner twice before they noticed. The look she gave their wizarding attire was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. 

Once they were settled in the dining room and Fiona had left, Tom asked, “These cures, can you brew them in your lab?”

She shook her head. “It’s a potions lab, not a chemistry lab. We’ll need a real chemist to do it. I’ve never actually done anything like this, I just grabbed a whole lot of medical books that seemed like they might be useful before I left home. I’m pretty sure I have some detailed books on antibiotics. That’s the class of medicines needed to cure bacterial diseases like tuberculosis. And vaccines, those are useful against viruses like polio. It will take me a while to extract the relevant information” from all the other extremely valuable information from the future she was keeping to herself.

Tom forced himself not to look at the pocket in which she kept her beaded bag. Instead he looked at Tommy, who extracted a chubby little fist from his sling and waved it around. It snagged in Hermione’s hair and got stuck. 

Hermione attempted to free her hair from Tommy’s fist. “Please let go, Tommy. Thank you.” Then to Tom, “I hope this doesn’t distract from our wolfsbane project.”

“The muggle world is considerably larger than the wizarding,” said Tom’s father. “This is a major endeavor.” He directed a self-satisfied grin at Tom. “As we already agreed that you’ll handle the wizarding business while I deal with the muggles, this is clearly my department. I’ll need to hire experts in muggle medicine for this. I’ll ask my lawyers to recommend someone knowledgeable in international patent law. We’ll need chemists to make these medicines, and researchers to demonstrate that they work, in proper trials, published in the most prestigious journals. This is a much surer thing that any stock we could buy, so is much worthier of my attention.”

“Thank you, Father,” said Tom calmly. If Tom were a wizard, his father would be on fire right now. 

Consumption of dinner was considerably slowed by the conversation, for everyone was very excited about the new project. Even Tommy flailed his little fists with extra energy. 

Dobby appeared with a pop. “Master, the Prewetts are in your office.”

Of course, it was seven. Tom rushed to stand and stuck his arm out at Dobby. “Apparate me there.” He regained his feet in a moment. He was glad he’d left the Floo open, for there were Tessie and her mother. “Good evening,” said Tom. “I’m so glad you could join me.”

“We’re delighted,” said Mrs. Prewett. “Aren’t we, dear?”

“Yes, of course,” said Tessie. “I’m so glad to see you again, Tom. You’re looking well.”

“As are you. Muggle clothes certainly suit you.” Tom needn’t have worried that Dobby’s temporary tailoring would wear off in the time Hermione’s dance dress had been in Tessie’s possession, for not only had the dress retained much of Dobby’s tailoring, but it had also acquired some new features. The skirt was back to its short, original length, or perhaps was even shorter. The neckline also seemed to have dropped, exposing a greater expanse of Tessie’s pink skin. This lack of surface area had necessitated some rearrangement of fringe and crystals, accentuating the features of her figure of which she was justly proud. She’d even constrained her hair in an approximation of a muggle style. 

“Thank you. And I’d like to return this, with Axel’s thanks.” Tessie handed over Tom’s father’s suit, which had apparently been cleaned and repaired since Axel had worn it, and was free of any scent of singed wool. Tom accepted it with thanks. 

“You arrived prepared, but I still have to don my costume,” apologized Tom. “Dobby, ask my mother to help Mrs. Prewett get ready for the outing. I’ll be back soon, suitably attired.” He set off to return his father’s suit and change into his muggle costume. Clothes. His muggle clothes. His normal clothes. Whatever. 

He took his time changing, and returned to find both Prewetts dressed like fashionable muggles, with his mother and Dobby doing their best to conceal Mrs. Prewett’s long blonde tresses in a modern style.

Tom’s father was also there, entertaining the Prewetts with his usual comments. “Don’t you young ladies need a chaperone?” he asked. “Does your family really let you out on your own? Scandalous.” The witches blushed and giggled. 

Finally, both ladies were properly attired, from shoes to hair, and the air was rich with perfume and flattery. It was time to go. Tom explained his disinclination to apparate. “I may have overindulged in wine at dinner,” he apologized. “Starting the festivities too soon. I’d offer to side-along apparate you, but there’s no need to take even the slightest risk of splinching when I could just have my elf apparate us instead.” He reached for Dobby. “Disillusioned, of course.” Dobby took Tom’s hand, and reached another hand up to Mrs. Prewett, who took it thankfully. “Tessie, would you prefer to apparate there yourself, or have Dobby do it?”

“Oh, I can do it myself,” she assured him. “I’ve done it loads of times.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Mrs. Prewett, but Tessie had vanished with a crack. 

Tom nodded to Dobby, who turned into a vague shimmer in the air, then pulled Tom and Mrs. Prewett through uncomfortable squeezing nothingness to a familiar dark alley. 

“Return to the house, Dobby,” said Tom to the vague shimmer, which vanished with a pop. 

Mrs. Prewett continued her interrogation of Tessie. “What do you mean, you’ve done this loads of times? Do you mean you ventured into muggle territory alone?“

“Oh, no, I just meant I got my apparition license a while ago,” said Tessie, “so if I’ve been to a place once, I know it well enough to go there again. Don’t be silly.”

“Of course. I apologize, dear,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

Tom led the witches to the club, down the stairs, to the basement ballroom. He gave Mrs. Prewett time to adjust to the brilliance of the electric lights, the opulence of the decor, the pounding of the drums, the odd harmonies of the wailing horns, and the elegance and energy of the dancers, before leading her through the crowd to the table from which Algie cheerfully waved, for she seemed as if she might swoon. Tom waited patiently. 

“How extraordinary!” she finally remarked. 

“You see?” said Tessie. “Just like I told you.”

“I thought you were exaggerating,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

“Does she often stretch the truth?” Tom inquired, feigning concern. 

Mrs. Prewett’s reaction was as entertaining as he’d hoped. “No! I didn’t mean that at all, she’s always been a paragon of honesty. But you must admit, it’s hard to believe that such elegance is all the work of muggles.”

“Muggles have made great progress in recent years,” said Tom, who judged that it was now safe to start leading the Prewetts through the ballroom. “They’ve made great innovations in science, industry, art… But let me introduce you to a real live muggle. You can’t expect any great innovations from this one, but he’s entertaining nonetheless.”

They came within earshot of Algie, so Tom banned the word “muggle” from his vocabulary. “Algie! So good to see you.”

Algie stood. “I’m glad you could make it, Tom. You’re looking well. Only you could get off the Yorkshire train with nary a wrinkle in your suit.”

Tom laughed. “Let me introduce you to my friends, Edith Prewett and her daughter Tessie. This is my friend Algernon Clamdowne-Clamdowne, son of the earl of Lichford.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” said Algie, who confused Mrs. Prewett and entertained Tessie by shaking their offered hands. “Please call me Algie.” He pulled out a chair for Tessie, leaving Tom to draw one for Mrs. Prewett. 

“Call me Tessie.”

“You’re really the son of an earl?” gasped Mrs. Prewett, delighted to see this rare beast in the wild. 

Algie scoffed. “Yes, but must you introduce me with that stuffy old title, Tom?”

“Let me know if you ever do anything more interesting than be born to a noble family,” teased Tom. “It’s completely within your power to have me introduce you as Algie the fishmonger, Algie the ditch-digger, Algie the famed inventor of the edible umbrella—“

Algie laughed. “All right, considering the alternatives, I suppose I’ve found my niche. This is the age of the specialist, and years ago I settled on my career. The one thing I really have a talent for is inheriting things. I’m a natural. I’m like one of those show dogs, so perfectly bred towards one ideal that I can’t breathe.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Tom, who started to fear that this was too much. 

“No, it’s true,” laughed Algie. “Maintaining nobility is a pastime of the British public, like pigeon-fancying but messier. I can’t claim I’m one of the prize-winners, though. I’m so inbred I could be a sandwich. Speaking of which, let’s get some refreshments. I’m paying, so order whatever you like.”

“You paid last time, so this is my turn,” said Tom. 

“This is still part of my overall mission to cheer you up,” said Algie, “so the tab is still mine.”

It would take only one more move to put Algie in checkmate and win this, but Tom considered the larger game. He was trying to impress Mrs. Prewett with Algie’s wealth, not his own. He conceded with a nod. “If you insist.”

Algie grinned to have won so easily, then turned to the Prewetts. “What’s your poison, ladies?”

Four big brown eyes stared at him. 

“He’s asking what you’d like to order,” Tom explained. 

“What do you recommend?” asked Mrs. Prewett. 

“I love champagne,” said Algie. “It’s the perfect drink for a night in the city. There’s no need for stars when every popping bubble is like a syncopated note of the music, what?”

“Then champagne we shall have,” said Mrs. Prewett enthusiastically. 

“Let’s also get oysters Rockefeller, and caviar canapés,” said Algie. 

“And mineral water,” said Tom boringly. 

Algie rolled his eyes. “Suit yourself.”

They placed their order. The band concluded their lively one-step and started a tango. Tom stood and offered his hand to Mrs. Prewett, with a slight bow. “May I have the pleasure of this dance?”

His expression gave no sign of how much her girlish giggle grated on his ears. “Oh Tom, you needn’t waste time on an old thing like me. Don’t you want to dance with Tessie?”

“It would be unseemly for a recent widower to focus too much attention on one young lady. It is far too soon for that. Besides, if my intentions are honorable, I need to impress the young lady’s family at least as much as the young lady herself. Thus, I ask the mother to dance first, in honor of her importance, and will ask the daughter second.”

“Oh! How gentlemanly of you,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

“I’ll be fine, mother,” said Tessie. “I’ll dance with Algie.” She turned to him. “If—“

“Of course,” Algie said. “It would be my pleasure.” He nodded his thanks to Tom, then led Tessie to the dance floor. 

Tom led Mrs. Prewett there and gave her a basic dance lesson. It was a pity Lulu wasn’t there, for Tom could have used her advice on how to fend off a dance partner who got too fresh. It took several tries to convince Mrs. Prewett that, while a tango could be danced in a close hold, it really wasn’t necessary to be as close as that. 

As a cascade of jazz chords poured from the band, each step in the progression stranger than the last, Tom stole a glance at Tessie and Algie. Tessie looked up at Algie with wonder in her eyes. Algie led a turn, enabling Tom to see his face, which held a similar expression. Tom’s attention was soon drawn to his own foot as Mrs. Prewett trod upon it, so he had to assure her that it was quite all right, he hadn’t even noticed. It wouldn’t do to be photographed looking annoyed at a respectable witch. Tom gave Mrs. Prewett a photogenic smile just in case.

But for which angle should he pose? Tom glanced around, under cover of looking for an open spot on the floor to dance in, but actually looking for a vague shimmer in the air. The ballroom contained so much glimmering and shimmering in general, it was hard to tell. There, behind two arguing waiters! No wait, perhaps there at the edge of the dance floor? Would Witch Weekly have sent two photographers?

Another heavy step on his foot returned his attention to his dance partner. “I apologize for my distraction,” smiled Tom. “Tessie is dancing beautifully, just like her mother. I look forward to dancing with her.”

“Oh yes, she’s always been so very graceful,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

When the band finally concluded their tune and Tom led Mrs. Prewett back to their table, he smelled more strongly of Mrs. Prewett’s perfume than he would have liked. Their refreshments had been delivered. “Champagne?” offered Tom. 

“Yes please.”

Tom filled Mrs. Prewett’s champagne flute, then his own. “To Tessie,” said Tom, clinking his glass against Mrs. Prewett’s. “For the cheer she’s brought to my life.”

“To Tessie!” Mrs. Prewett smiled, and they drank. “But where is she?”

“Still talking with Algie,” observed Tom. “They might be planning a second dance together.” He considered his friendship with Algie. It wouldn’t do to make him less useful by subjecting him to a dance with Mrs. Prewett. “Let me introduce you to some other muggles.”

“Oh!”

Tom pulled Mrs. Prewett through the crowd to a familiar face, who’d just returned a dance partner to a chair and was on the hunt for another. “Francis!” Tom exclaimed happily. “How good to see you.”

“Tom! Algie said you’d be back in London, and indeed you are! So sorry to hear about your loss.”

Tom waved these condolences aside. “I’m trying to lift my spirits,” he said. “Thus this outing with friends. I’d like to introduce you to my friend Edith Prewett. This is my friend Francis Ballsworth, second son of the Viscount Ballsworth.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

“How do you do,” said Francis perfunctorily. “Listen Tom, I’d love to catch up with you someplace quiet enough to really talk, but right now I’ve got to find a new dance partner before the band starts up again.”

“Let me set your mind at ease,” said Tom. “Mrs. Prewett is also in search of a dance partner.”

Francis looked at Mrs. Prewett. 

“How’s your aunt Viola’s rose garden doing?” Tom asked. “Did it ever recover from that—“

Francis looked at Tom. “Fine.” He sighed and offered his hand to Mrs. Prewett. “Shall we dance?”

“I’d be delighted!” squealed Mrs. Prewett. 

That got rid of her. Tom returned to the table and helped himself to a canapé. He surveyed the dancers with a smile. The sparkling mineral water with which he’d refilled his glass looked similar enough to champagne that it would be indistinguishable in the photographs. 

Tessie and Algie, laughing and glowing, returned to the table eventually. Algie poured champagne for Tessie, then himself. “Thank you for the dances,” said Algie. “Now I’d better return you to Tom before he accuses me of monopolizing you.”

“She’s not an asset to distribute,” said Tom. “Although I would like to dance with the girl I brought.” He held his hand out to Tessie. “If you’ll have me.”

“Of course,” she laughed, setting down her champagne flute and taking his hand. 

“I’m afraid Mrs. Prewett has a partner already,” said Tom to Algie, “But perhaps you have time to find one.”

“No, I think I’ll sit this one out,” said Algie, reaching for an oyster. “Have fun.”

Tom led Tessie to the dance floor and through a foxtrot.

Tessie stood on tiptoe and pulled at his shoulder, and Tom bent down so she could whisper in his ear. “Does my mother suspect anything?”

“Considering that her attention seemed otherwise engaged, I can confidently say she had none left for you and Algie,” Tom whispered into Tessie’s pink ear. He looked around. “Oh, there she is now.” Francis must have introduced her to someone else, for she was dancing with another muggle, and having a grand time. “She doesn’t seem to be watching us at the moment, but let’s put on a show for her just in case.” Tom held Tessie close and led her through some figures sure to impress the Witch Weekly photographer with Tessie’s sparkling, swaying fringe. Tessie followed his lead perfectly. 

When the foxtrot was over, the band started a waltz, so Tom danced that one with Tessie as well. An old-fashioned, less popular dance, it left more room on the dance floor, which would give the photographer a better shot. 

After that the band took a break, so Tom led Tessie back to the table and drew her chair for her. “Thank you for the dances,” he said. 

“Thank you,” she replied. “For everything.”

In a moment, Mrs. Prewett was returned to the table by a muggle vaguely familiar to Tom, and about her age. “Thank you very much for the dance,” he said. “I’ll catch you for the next one after the break. Promise?”

“I promise,” said Mrs. Prewett.

The muggle nodded and walked away. 

“Muggles have this raw physicality to them, don’t they?” panted Mrs. Prewett. “So primal and vital.” Then she drank the champagne Tom poured for her. “Not that there’s anything wrong with wizards of course.” She patted Tom’s hand affectionately. “I saw you two dancing together. I must say, you seem very well-suited to each other.”

“You’re too kind,” said Tom, but then Algie approached, so talk of wizards had to cease. 

“Ran into a friend,” Algie explained. “Had to see her back to her table.” He sat and helped himself to refreshments. “We should do this more often, Tom, whenever you’re willing to come down to London. And do invite your lovely friends again.”

“Oh, we’ll be back,” said Mrs. Prewett. 

Tessie glowed in her pink and orange way. 

Mrs. Prewett turned to her daughter. “Tessie dear, where does one powder one’s nose here?”

“I’ll show you,” said Tessie, and the two ladies left. 

Algie watched them go. “Where did you find a girl like that?”

“She’s certainly something,” said Tom. 

“Something? That’s all you can say? She’s amazing. The whole world seems brighter around her.”

“Her hair is certainly a very bright red. It illuminates the whole ballroom. Management switched off the electric lights for sake of economy.”

“Tom! I’m serious.” Then he looked at Tom suspiciously. “You’re not courting a new girl already, are you? Although if you are, I must admit you’ve chosen well.”

Tom laughed. “She’s a friend, nothing more.”

Algie looked in the direction that Tessie had vanished in. “I feel like I somehow met her before, but of course I haven’t. I would have remembered. It’s strange, I feel like she’s what’s been missing from my life.”

“Have you felt that something’s been missing from your life? You never mentioned that.”

“It’s a fairly recent feeling. Maybe just in the last week. I hate to ask you, but you would know. What does it feel like to be in love? How did you know that Merope was the one girl for you?”

“Did you notice your champagne tonight smelling odd?” Tom asked. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sort of like a storm?”

“What are you talking about? It just smelled like champagne. I’m talking about Tessie here, Tom. Please stay on topic.”

“All right.” Tom thought about Cecilia. “Do you feel like your whole life would be meaningless without her? Like even the memory of her is more important than anything in the here and now?”

Algie thought, which took a while. “I don’t think that’s really applicable,” he eventually said. “I mean, Tessie exists in the here and now. She’s just so fun, you know? When she enjoys things, it’s like I enjoy them double. And she’s beautiful. I can see spending the rest of my life with her.”

“She won’t stay that beautiful forever. You’ve seen her mother.”

“My eyes won’t be this sharp forever, so it should all work out.”

“I don’t think any advice I could give would be relevant. It seems that you know your own heart already.”

“I’m dizzy with the dame,” Algie agreed. 

Chapter Text

Ignis stepped out of the Floo in Tom’s office right on time for their appointment.

“Thank you for coming. Have a seat,” said Tom with a gracious flourish of his hand. “Tea?” for Dobby had already provided such.

Dobby darted forward to magic away the ash on Ignis before the werewolf had time to do it himself, then retreated to lurk in the corner, awaiting further orders. 

Hermione, seated by the fire with Tommy in her sling, put down her sandwich to smile warmly at Ignis. “It’s good to see you again. You’re looking well.” Perhaps it was the smile, but Hermione’s cheeks looked less hollow than before. 

“Thank you,” said Ignis, helping himself to tea. “Although refusing your invitations isn’t really an option, is it?” he added grimly. “I’m dependent on the potion you provide.”

“First,” said Tom, “I apologize for my miscalculation at our last meeting. Hermione was right that it is too soon to raise the price of wolfsbane potion.”

Ignis didn’t spill his tea, but it was a close call. “Thank you,” he said, although he was looking at Hermione when he said it.

“You’re welcome,” said Tom. “However, I do require compensation from my customers, in a form only they can provide. Have you read a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin ?”

“Can’t say I have,” said Ignis, setting his teacup down before it suffered any accidents. “Are you an uncle?”

“No,” said Tom. “This book predates me by decades, and takes place in the United States. I have a copy here for you to read and share with any interested werewolves.” He handed the book to Ignis, who accepted it with interest. “It was very influential in its day,” Tom continued. “It’s a sentimental muggle novel about some cloyingly virtuous negro slaves, and the terrible treatment they receive from slave owners. It was loosely based on real events, told in a style calculated to convince readers to support the abolitionist cause. It worked. Thirteen years after this book’s publication, slavery was officially abolished in the United States. Of course, slave owners generally didn’t tell their slaves they’d been freed, but that’s beside the point. My point is, books can influence public sentiment, inspiring people to clamor and even fight for change.”

“A muggle book?” said Ignis, putting it down and wiping his hands on his serviette. 

“Yes, a muggle book,” said Tom. “Muggles write books, and grew the tea you’re drinking, so if you prefer to avoid muggle-made products you’re under no obligation to take tea here.”

“Sorry,” said Ignis, looking at, then quickly away from his tea. He picked the book up again. “It’s just not what I usually read.”

“I’m the same,” Tom assured him. “But if we hope to change attitudes towards werewolves, we must familiarize ourselves with the tools for the job. I’m sure a sufficiently maudlin book could tilt public sentiment in favor of werewolves, just as this book inspired sympathy for negro slaves.”

“What are negro slaves?” asked Ignis, casting a brief glance at Dobby. 

Tom thought his sentence structure had been perfectly clear, but he rephrased. “Enslaved negroes.”

“But what are negros?” Ignis persisted. 

Tom had known that wizards were provincial, but he hadn’t expected to have to explain this much. 

Hermione came to his rescue. “People with dark coloring, whose ancestors came from Africa.”

“Oh, so it’s a descriptive word like brunette?” said Ignis. 

“No,” said Tom. “Brunettes are still members of the white race. The negro race is different.”

“The white… race?” repeated Ignis. He looked to Hermione for help, but she was too busy stifling her laughter to speak.

“Yes, the white race,” said Tom, although he had a terrible feeling that he was losing control of the conversation. “People with white skin, like you and me.” He was about to include Hermione in that group, but a sudden realization about a possible explanation for her hair, and the fact that her apparent tan was not, in fact, a product of Australian sun as he had first assumed, made him decide to leave that potentially complicating example out of the discussion. 

“White skin?” repeated Ignis. He looked at his right hand, tanned and lightly freckled, for his silver left hand didn’t count. “My skin isn’t white, it’s sort of a pinkish light brown.” He reached out for Hermione’s hand. “My coloring’s closer to Hermione’s than to yours, Tom. I suppose if anyone has a claim to white skin, it’s you, and Mrs. Riddle of course.” He smiled at Tommy, who was expressing the giggles Hermione was stifling. “And is Tommy a member of the pink race?” He let go of Hermione’s hand to tickle Tommy’s chin, eliciting an extra giggle. 

Tom tried to salvage the conversation. “I’m speaking, of course, from the muggle point of view, to familiarize you with the concepts you’ll need to understand this muggle book. Muggles sort humanity into different races according to their coloring.” 

“Muggles think humans are different races just because they’re different colors?” Ignis repeated. 

“Yes,” said Tom, glad he was finally getting through. 

“But if it goes by coloring, you and I can’t possibly be the same ‘race’ because our eyes look completely different,” Ignis objected. “Blue-green and black should obviously be sorted into different categories, if we’re sorting by color.”

“Eye color doesn’t count,” said Tom. 

“Why not?” asked Ignis. 

“Good luck explaining that,” laughed Hermione. 

Ignis turned to Hermione. “He’s putting me on again, isn’t he? It’s that dry delivery of his.”

Hermione wrestled control of her voice from her laughter. “No, it’s true.”

“But surely even muggles aren’t that stupid,” Ignis insisted. 

Hermione shrugged. “People in general are rather stupid, I’ve found. It’s awful.”

“How so?” asked Tom. “It’s much easier to manipulate stupid people than smart ones.”

“Anyway Ignis,” said Hermione, “you and Tom would both be white by muggle standards.”

Ignis looked at his hand again. “But I’m not—“

“The word ‘white’ doesn’t describe a real skin color, it means that if you lived in America before emancipation, you’d be in the class of people who couldn’t legally be enslaved,” explained Hermione. 

“It wasn’t stupidity that led whites to classify themselves as a different race than negros,” explained Tom. “It was self-interest. That classification enabled their whole system of slavery.”

The meaning was finally sinking in. “Muggles enslaved their fellow muggles?” Ignis exclaimed, horrified. 

“Yes,” said Hermione. 

“But how could they do that?” objected Ignis. “Haven’t they got any muggle solidarity?”

“They could do that by—“ Tom’s pause was nearly perceptible, but he needed a moment for the wizarding outlook to settle into his mind “—convincing themselves that the people they were mistreating were fundamentally different from themselves. Whites felt no guilt over enslaving their fellow humans, because they hardly considered negros humans. This book changed that. It convinced whites that negros were real people, who deserved better than enslavement. It didn’t convince slave owners of course, as their wealth depended upon their continued ignorance, but people with no financial interest in maintaining slavery were easily swayed.”

Ignis shook his head in amazement and disapproval. “I hadn’t realized quite how bad muggles were,” he said. “Imagine treating humans as if they were no better than house elves!”

“These weren’t British muggles,” clarified Tom. “The United States is quite a different country.”

“Now you’re doing it,” said Hermione. “Acting as if Americans are really any worse than Englishmen.”

“It’s not as if Australia has much to brag about, with your treatment of aborigines,” said Tom. 

“I wasn’t bragging,” said Hermione. “Humans are the same everywhere, sorting themselves into groups to justify mistreating each other.”

“Not like wizards, who sort people into real races, like humans and werewolves,” said Tom. 

“Exactly,” said Ignis. 

Tom looked at Ignis. “That was my dry delivery,” he explained. “I was joking.”

Ignis looked at him blankly. “Sorry, I don’t really get Slytherin humor.”

“The classification of werewolves as beasts is nonsensical,” said Tom. “I mean really, you’re obviously just a human with a disease, not fundamentally different from someone with spattergroit or dragonpox. Humans who catch other diseases aren’t reclassified as beasts, so there’s no reason you should be.”

“But… I am a beast. I grow fangs and a tail and everything.”

Tom dismissed that objection with a wave of his hand. “Once a month. That’s hardly anything. People with dragonpox aren’t reclassified as dragons, however many sparks they sneeze.”

“But legally...” objected Ignis. “I mean, the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures certainly doesn’t consider us human.”

“Regulations can change,” said Tom. “Laws can change. All that’s required is enough people clamoring for change.” He tapped the book. “So we need to make them clamor, just as they clamored to abolish slavery.”

Ignis looked at the book. 

“It isn’t an absolute requirement the Ministry reclassify werewolves as humans,” said Tom, “although I think it would be a good end goal. Even convincing people that you’re innocent creatures, not monsters, could lead to some improvement. If you can stomach another sentimental novel, here’s pretty much the same thing, but for horses.” Tom handed Black Beauty to Ignis, who accepted it in a daze. “That book inspired British muggles to clamor for new laws against cruelty to animals, which resulted in much improved treatment of them. So if you’re willing to settle for improved treatment as an innocent animal rather than a vicious beast, that’s within your grasp. I consider such a goal insufficiently ambitious.”

“Of course you do,” said Hermione. 

“I think we can completely change society’s attitudes towards werewolves,” said Tom. “Or as they will soon be called, ‘people with lycanthropy.’”

“But can a book really—“ started Ignis. 

“These novels were bestsellers,” said Tom, “two of the most popular books of the nineteenth century, translated into multiple languages, with great influence on society. There’s no reason this method wouldn’t work for werewolves as well as for negros and horses.”

Ignis looked at the books. “You want me to write a novel? My memoirs, as it were, but fictionalized? I don’t want anyone to be able to identify me from—“

“The end product needn’t contain any incriminating specifics,” said Tom. “I’d like as many werewolves as possible to contribute sympathy-inducing anecdotes, the more pathetic the better, with a particular focus on tragedies caused by society’s prejudice against werewolves. I’ll hire a professional writer to combine them into one tear-jerking narrative. The end product should be so far removed from reality that there will be virtually no risk that any of the contributors will be identifiable.”

“That’s… an interesting idea,” said Ignis. 

“Can I count on you?” asked Tom. “I’ll also need you to convince the other werewolves to contribute. I have no way to contact them myself.”

“I’ll write… a version of my story,” said Ignis, “that doesn’t incriminate me or my family. I can’t promise I’ll succeed in convincing the other werewolves, but I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you,” said Tom. “We’ll do our parts as well. Hermione, with her gift for research, will of course be the one to read the currently popular novels in the tear-jerker genre, to identify the author best suited for the job.”

“Merlin’s pants,” said Hermione, burying her face in her hand. 

“I thought you liked books,” smiled Tom. 

Hermione sighed, but then her eyes blazed. “I’ll be busy!” she crowed victoriously, “with our muggle project.”

“Muggle project?” asked Ignis.

“Not your concern,” said Tom. He nodded to Hermione, conceding defeat. “All right, I’ll read the sentimental novels. It makes sense, as I’ll be the one negotiating with the authors.”

Hermione bared her perfect teeth in a smile. 

“But what author would want to be associated with such a book?” asked Ignis. 

“Anyone who wants to be known for writing a bestseller,” said Tom. “If I can’t find someone willing to use his or her own name, a nom de plume would do.”

Ignis smiled. “You seem to enjoy celebrity. Would you credit yourself as author?”

“Goodness no. I’m already risking my reputation by associating with muggles. There’s no way I’d risk further damage by publicly having anything to do with werewolves until their own status is on the rise. I’ll come out later as having been moved by this book to help you poor unfortunates.”

“Should we mention wolfsbane potion?” Ignis asked. 

“No,” said Tom. “Let’s not be too obvious that this is an advert.”

Ignis finished his tea. “All right. Sounds like a plan. A strange plan, but the only one we have, so I guess I’ll follow it. Anything else?”

“Just scheduling appointments for you to pick up March’s supply of wolfsbane potion,” said Tom. That was quickly arranged. Then they said their goodbyes and Ignis left, carrying the two muggle books, and looking considerably happier than he had when he’d arrived. 

“You didn’t invite him to join you and the Prewetts for muggletouring,” Hermione noted once the fire had turned back to orange. 

Tom laughed. “I don’t think he’d be interested.”

“He said himself he can’t really say no to us. He won’t bite the hand that feeds him wolfsbane potion. You should make him go. He needs to get over his prejudice against muggles.”

Tom shrugged. “Why? His opinion doesn’t matter. He’s a nobody, a commoner. Witch Weekly isn’t going to let an exterminator set trends. Anyway, I’m off to the library and perhaps a book shop to research sentimental novels. Care to join me? You could pick up something less drippy for yourself.”

“I never thought I’d say this, but no thanks,” said Hermione. “I have to copy the information about those muggle drugs from my books.”

“Thank you,” said Tom. He nodded to Dobby. “Come with me to the British Wizarding Library.” Tom checked his wallet to make sure he had sufficient money to sponsor another capon for the librarian’s owl, and checked his wizarding attire in the full-length mirror by the Floo. Perfect. 

As expected, the librarian most helpfully recommended several books by the three authors who currently dominated the tear-jerker genre. Tom limited his selection to the most recent publications by each author, so Dobby’s burden was not terribly large.

They Flooed home. “Set those books here on the table,” Tom ordered. 

“Yes Master.” He did, then stood looking at them. 

“I don’t expect I’ll need your services again today,” said Tom, “so your time is your own.”

“Thank you Master.” Dobby kept looking at the books. 

“Fancy an evening of reading?” Tom asked. “Help yourself to these books if you’d like, I certainly won’t need them all at once.”

“Master.” Dobby’s bulbous green eyes looked up at Tom. “Slaves were freed, somewhere?”

Ah. “Yes. Human slaves, in America.”

“All because of a book?”

“Well. It took a lot more than just a book, I’m afraid. The book inspired people to fight a war, one of the bloodiest in history. The problem was that so many powerful people had a vested interest in keeping negros enslaved.”

Dobby’s gaze sank to the floor. 

“Improving the lot of werewolves will be a relatively easy job,” said Tom. “Hardly anyone gains anything from the current bias against them. Elves, on the other hand…”

“Of course, Master,” said Dobby. “Foolish idea. Stupid, stupid Dobby.” Before Tom could stop him, Dobby had banged his head on the table. “Bad Dobby!”

“Stop!” Tom grabbed Dobby as he bounced off the table, before he could hit again. His skin felt so strange, more like boot leather or polished wood than flesh. 

“Bad Dobby!” the elf repeated. “Thinking things elves must never think. Dobby must be punished.”

“Dobby, I’ve given you strict orders on this subject already,” said Tom, feeling dirty as he said it, but it was efficient. “There are no such punishments here.”

Dobby trembled under Tom’s hands, but make no more attempts to bang his head on the table. 

“And you may think whatever you wish,” Tom added. “You’re a free elf now.”

“Dobby is grateful,” said the elf. “Master Riddle is a good, kind master.”

Tom judged that it was safe to loosen his grip, and released the elf. “But it feels strange being the only free elf, when your friends are still enslaved,” he said. 

Dobby nodded, his eyes welling with tears. 

“I can’t go around punching every rich pureblood in the face,” said Tom. “As enjoyable as that might be, it’s not sustainable in the long term. I’ll need a different strategy.”

“Master?”

“So here’s what we’ll do,” Tom decided. “Same plan as with werewolves, a tear-jerking novel. I’ll need contributions of pathetic stories from you and as many other elves as possible.” Which incidentally could contain so much dirt on the upper classes, they might be worth as much as Hermione’s formulae for muggle drugs, but Tom would think on that later. “After much tactful editing, the resulting novel could at the very least lead to improved treatment of elves, much as Black Beauty ended the use of bearing-reins on horses. Emancipation would be a much more difficult goal, but this will be a start. What do you think?”

Tom waited as Dobby sniveled into his dingy grey undershirt, then magically cleaned it. “Master Riddle wants Dobby to write a book?” he finally asked. 

“Not by yourself,” said Tom. “Please write down some anecdotes, and ask your fellow elves to do the same. It may take a while for you to get the message out, and for the other elves to sneak their writings back to you. Just like the plan with the werewolves, I’ll commission a professional writer to combine these anecdotes into one coherent narrative. Of course, the project must be kept secret from anyone but elves. If word gets out that elves are plotting to write a book, I will have never heard of such a bizarre thing, so the idea was entirely yours. Understood?”

Dobby’s eyes were huge. “Master, Dobby doesn’t know how to write.”

“Ah. That complicates things. Sorry, I should have realized, just as American slave owners generally forbade their slaves from learning to read and write.”

“Oh, Dobby can read,” the elf assured him. “An elf that does the shopping must read labels. But Dobby never had reason to write, sir.”

“Oh! Then the solution is simple. I’ll teach you to write.” Tom gathered quills, ink, and cheap practice parchment from his rolltop desk. “Is now a good time? We have a few minutes before dinner.”

“Yes Master.”

“Let’s go to your room, the elf-sized chair and desk are there.” 

They wasted no time in getting there. The room lacked an adult-sized chair, so Tom sat on the floor by Dobby’s desk. The floor was of course immaculate, so Tom had no fear that his robes would pick up a speck of dust. 

Just as Hermione had taught him, Tom instructed Dobby on quill-trimming, inkwell dipping, and the correct grip and angle to hold the quill. He taught how to form each letter of the alphabet, drawing tiny arrows to indicate the direction of each stroke. 

Dobby held the quill in a trembling hand, so his first attempts were shaky. 

“An excellent first try,” said Tom. “Now it’s just a matter of practice. You’ll be teaching your fellow elves soon enough.” He thought. “You’ll need a wallet to hide under your shirt, so you can sneak writing supplies to your fellow elves, and sneak their writings back here. All the elves you’re working with should have them too, to conceal their writings under their rags.”

“Dobby could disillusion them,” said the elf. 

“Perfect,” said Tom. “I’ll send you out to buy the wallets and writing kits on your own, to maintain plausible deniability for myself. Get small ones, with extension charms of course. Charge them to the Riddle account. Remember, this is completely your idea. If this gets out, I’m guilty of nothing worse than failing to pay close enough attention to my accounts, and permitting embezzling.”

“Yes Master. Oh, Master Riddle is a great master!”

Tom waved aside this praise in annoyance. “I should have thought of it sooner.”

Tom wished Dobby luck with his penmanship practice and headed to the drawing room to await dinner. Hermione and his father were there already, glaring at each other. The air was so thick with tension, Tom was inclined to turn right around and run, but resisted this urge. He sat near the door just in case. “Good evening.”

“Is it?” scoffed his father. “When Miss Granger here has broken her word?”

“I am trying to anticipate possible problems that might result from me introducing these drugs early,” said Hermione clearly and slowly, as if to an idiot. Was she trying to antagonize his father or was she actually that oblivious? “The vaccines should be fine, but the antibiotics—“

“Can save millions of lives, you said that yourself,” said Tom’s father. 

“Millions of lives now, yes, but if bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance earlier than they did in my timeline—“

“I have no idea what you just said,” interrupted Tom. “But I assume it’s important.” He turned to his father. “Can you explain what she just said in words I can understand?”

“No,” his father admitted. 

“Please explain, Hermione.” Tom sat and listened attentively, silently willing his father to follow his example. 

He did.

Tom didn’t bother hiding his sigh of relief. 

Hermione organized her thoughts for a moment, then addressed Tom. “You exercise, right?”

“Müller system exercises every morning. You should try them. Health is very important.”

“You’re probably right.”

“I could get you a book on it,” said Tom. “Müller wrote one for women too.”

“Maybe later. I’m very busy now, as I said.”

“It can take as little as fifteen minutes a day, including the exercises performed in the bath and whilst towel-drying, so there’s really no excuse not to.”

“Tom.”

He shut up.

“I’m just talking about exercise in general, not my lack of fitness in particular,” she continued. “Exercise is a challenge that makes you stronger. Too much exercise could kill you if you’re not prepared for it, but just a little strengthens you. You could eventually get so strong that the amount of exercise that could have killed your unprepared self becomes easy. You’re following?”

Tom nodded. 

“Antibiotics are like exercise,” she said. “The right dose kills bacteria. The wrong dose makes them stronger. If people essentially set up an exercise program for bacteria, the bacteria will become so strong, these antibiotics will become useless even at the correct dose. I can’t let that happen. These are the only weapons we have against these diseases.”

“You speak from experience,” Tom said. 

She nodded. “I didn’t pay much attention to this at the time, but reading these books on antibiotics this afternoon made me realize that introducing them early would be a bad idea. There’s so much information on how bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance. Many of the early antibiotics had already become useless by my time. They kept having to invent new ones as bacteria became resistant to the old ones. Antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis became a big problem in my time. If I just make it evolve earlier, I’ll have done more harm than good.”

“Thank you for the warning,” said Tom. “We obviously won’t introduce these drugs if that would make this timeline worse.” When his father started, Tom pinned him to his chair with a look. Shut up before you do any more damage and let me handle this, you blustering blowhard. His father got the message. 

Tom continued. “If vaccines don’t have this problem, we’ll introduce only those.”

“Those are harder to manufacture,” said Hermione. “It requires tissue culture techniques that don’t exist yet.”

“So we introduce those first,” said Tom. “You have details in your books?”

“Yes.”

“Did you loot a medical school library?” asked Tom. 

“Yes. I saved as many books from the burnings as possible.”

“The—“ started Tom, but Hermione interrupted. 

“Anyway, that won’t be an issue in this timeline,” she said hurriedly. 

Fiona knocked and entered when Tom’s father gave her permission. “Dinner is served.” She looked around, no doubt noting the absence of the lady and heir of the house, but correctly said nothing. 

“You’ll find the others in the study,” Tom’s father explained. “Go inform them about dinner.”

Fiona curtseyed, said “Yes Squire Riddle,” and left. 

Hermione stood as if she intended to go into the dining room by herself. 

“Aren’t you waiting for the others?” Tom’s father asked her. 

“Oh. Yes, I suppose.” She sat again. 

They didn’t have to wait long, for Tom’s mother, with Tommy in her arms, soon arrived. Tom’s father stood to greet her. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you for taking Tommy away from that discussion,” said Hermione. 

“Oh, it was no trouble at all.  I’m always happy to read to my little hopping pot.”

Tom stood and offered his arm to Hermione so they could process into the dining room after his parents. Once the gentlemen had drawn the ladies’ chairs and all had sat down and begun their soup, Tom resumed the conversation. “Introducing these vaccines should keep us busy for a while. Perhaps the most important information you can provide us from the future is how scientists overcame distrust in vaccines, and convinced the general public to adopt them.”

Hermione blinked at him. 

“Perhaps I should explain,” said Tom. “These days, while modern medical advances are welcomed by forward-thinkers, they’re still distrusted by some. The anti-vaccination leagues have slowed progress considerably. I trust that such superstition will be forgotten by your time.”

Hermione took a breath as if to speak, but didn’t. Her brow furrowed in a most unattractive way. 

“Ah,” said Tom. “They are a hard sell, of course. Preventing a disease that one might catch seems a lot less necessary than curing a disease one already has.”

“Yes,” said Hermione. 

“Even a cure, coming from such an unlikely source as us, would be greeted with skepticism, but a preventative?” Tom continued. “It will be much harder to find volunteers to test such a drug. Anyway, we’ll find them somehow. We’ll avoid cures completely, no matter how much easier they are to test and market. It’s not worth the risk. We’ll just wait for their original inventors to invent them. How did things go wrong with them in your timeline, exactly?”

“Well, people were so excited about these new drugs, they used them too much,” said Hermione. “Not just on humans, but even on other animals.”

“I can understand wanting to save the life of a pet,” said Tom’s mother. 

Hermione shook her head. “They were mixed with farm animals’ daily feed, because that made them gain weight faster. They were sprayed on fields of crop plants to fight plant diseases. They were prescribed indiscriminately to patients, even if the patient had a virus, which antibiotics have no effect on whatsoever. Patients with bacterial diseases would sometimes take antibiotics for just a few days, which would knock back the infection so they felt better, but not kill it. Then the bacteria would grow back resistant to the antibiotic, The more antibiotics in the environment, the faster the bacteria evolved resistance to them. Bacteria’s vulnerability to antibiotics was a resource that people just squandered.”

“They didn’t know any better,” said Tom. He set his spoon down. “But we do.”

Hermione looked at him. Of course, everyone was looking at him, but Hermione was the important one. “It would be unethical to allow that to happen again,” he continued. “To allow people to squander the vulnerability of bacteria as they did in your timeline. We have to warn them.” He gave Hermione time to consider this as he had some more soup. 

“But why would people believe us?” she asked. 

“That’s the problem,” said Tom. “As we just discussed with Ignis, it’s impossible to get people to understand something if there’s money to be made by staying ignorant.” Tom gave the impression that he was thinking the problem over. “I’m afraid I can’t think of a solution that doesn’t involve Riddle Pharmecuticals owning the patents.” He directed one of his sincere looks at Hermione. “Can you think of a better idea?”

Fortunately, she couldn’t, although she looked suspicious. “Parents expire,” she said. “You’re only delaying the inevitable.”

“But Riddle Pharmaceuticals will have established a reputation as the experts on medical matters by that point,” said Tom. “We’ll make a splash as our antibiotics cure diseases. That will make it easier to market out vaccines. Once we’ve saved many lives, we’ll have the clout to do what we want with our antibiotics. It might take some grand gesture to really demonstrate our commitment to saving lives, establish us as philanthropists. I know! We won’t even patent one of the vaccines, some important one. We’ll give it away at cost. That will prove we value human life over profit.”

“Like the polio vaccine,” said Hermione, eyes blazing. 

“Perfect. Terrifying disease,” agreed Tom. “After that, would you like laws banning the use of antibiotics on livestock and crops? Done. Even once our patents expire, we’ll still maintain some control, via laws and reputation.” And their company would dominate the industry. It was time to invite his father back into the conversation. “Are you up for the task? Can you get politicians to pass laws to protect our business interests?”

His father practically inflated. “How can you be so crass as to think of money when people’s lives are at stake? Of course we need to preserve bacteria’s vulnerability to our medicines so they continue to save lives. The fact that this also serves our business interests is a mere coincidence.” He waved his spoon at Hermione scoldingly. “We can’t allow the same mistakes to kill innocent people in this timeline as in yours.”

Hermione nodded. “You’re right. But will it really be possible to keep such tight control over antibiotics to prevent their misuse?”

“All that’s required to maintain control is money and power,” said his father. “So as long as we have those, saving lives will be easy.”

“Oh Thomas,” sighed Tom’s mother. “You’re so heroic.” Her dark eyes were sparkling and her cheeks blushed pink. 

Tom’s father took her fair hand in his ruddy one. “You inspire me to greatness, my love.”

Tom’s parents were so embarrassing. 

——-

Friday, March 5, Mrs. Prewett and Tessie arrived at the Riddle House early, as planned, so they could meet Algie for dinner at Boulestin before their usual dancing. Once they’d applied the finishing touches to their muggle costumes, they apparated to London with Dobby’s help. 

Algie had suggested this restaurant, but he had not yet arrived, so Tom and the Prewetts got a table, admiring the circus-themed murals, carpets the colour of spilt claret and curtains of yellow brocade as they waited. 

“Have you made any plans for the holiday?” Tessie asked Tom. 

“Because if you haven’t, we were wondering if you’d accept the hospitality of Shell Cottage,” said Mrs. Prewett. “We aren’t planning anything too fancy, just a cozy little celebration.”

“I’d love to, but I already promised to spend the holiday at Malfoy Manor. I hope I can visit you another time,” said Tom. 

“Holiday?” asked Algie, who had arrived unnoticed. “Is someone going on holiday?” He drew a chair and joined them at the table. 

“The Ides of March,” Mrs. Prewett explained, to Algie’s confusion. 

“How does your family celebrate the Ides of March?” Tessie asked Algie with interest. 

Algie blinked his pale blue eyes. 

“Have you read any good books lately?” Tom asked Algie an instant later. Tom didn’t feel that this had been one of his more inspired distractions, but it worked. 

“Can’t say I have,” Algie said to Tom. “You know me, I rarely read anything longer than a menu.” He picked up his menu to demonstrate. “Have you decided what you’re getting?” Deciding their order and conveying it to the waiter took up the next few minutes.

Once that was done, Algie asked Tom, “How desperate for reading material must you be to ask me of all people for book recommendations?” 

Tom shrugged. “You’re the master of diversions. The evenings seem so long and dark these days, I’ve been reading novels to pass the time. I’ve been drawn to tragedies. Perhaps this helps me put my own troubles in perspective, to consider that others have it worse. Three authors were recommended to me.” He addressed the Prewetts. “Have you read anything by Diadema Vane or Nico Murgatroyd?”

“Oh yes, such edifying books,” smiled Mrs. Prewett. “They teach good morals to the young.”

“They are not to my taste,” said Tom. 

“Of course not,” agreed Mrs. Prewett. “Terrible writing. Absolute rubbish.”

Tom told Mrs. Prewett what her negative opinion was based on before she embarrassed herself with any more guesses. “They seem to gloat that those who suffer brought their misfortune upon themselves, so they deserve what they get. I can’t agree with that. But I’ve found one author, Lerina Kettleburn, with a more sympathetic style. She acknowledges that fate can be cruel, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty, with no rhyme or reason. I must say, given my experience, this seems a more realistic outlook. I can’t honestly say I deserved to have Merope in my life in the first place. The loss of her was equally a surprise.”

Tessie was moved to place a comforting hand on Tom’s and heave a sympathetic sigh. “Oh Tom! Truly, fate is fickle to strike one as noble and selfless as yourself with such tragedy!”

Tom laid his other hand on top of Tessie’s soft one to acknowledge her sympathy, and thrill Mrs. Prewett, who looked on in delight. Mrs. Prewett laid her hand on top of Tom’s. “I know it’s hard to believe now, but it does get easier,” she said. “I lost my husband nearly two years ago, and I still think of him every day. But the pain lessens with time.”

“Thank you,” Tom said. “At least I can surround myself with friends, who keep me from despair.”

“Yes, well, we’re your friends through thick and thin,” said Algie, eyeing their hands as if considering adding his own to the stack, but choosing not to. His gaze flew around the room like a gnat. “Drink’s a comfort too, and here it is.”

Indeed, it was. They received their drinks and food with enthusiasm, and for a while they did nothing but eat, drink, and praise the restaurant. 

Mrs. Prewett moaned in pleasure rather indecently, attracting some looks from her dining companions. “It isn’t easy to cook quail so the skin is crisp yet the meat is still moist,” she explained in her defense. 

Poor Tessie blushed magenta. “Oh mother, it’s only food.”

“Only food!” Mrs. Prewett repeated, outraged. “This is art! This is transcendent!”

“Boulestin is an artist all right,” said Algie. “My father tried to hire him away to be his personal chef, but no amount of money could entice him away from London. Had my father succeeded, visits to the ancestral home would be more bearable, but no such luck. Anyway, where are you when you’re not in London?”

“Our house is called Shell Cottage,” said Tessie, for her mother was too busy eating to converse. “It’s on the outskirts of Tinworth, in Cornwall.”

“Cornwall!” exclaimed Algie. “That’s so far. So where do you stay when you’re in London?”

“We don’t, generally,” said Tessie. “We go straight home.”

“What? You ladies mustn’t ride the train that late, it won’t do!” exclaimed Algie. “I’d offer a spare room in my flat, but that wouldn’t be proper. Let me put you up in a hotel tonight.”

The Prewetts looked at each other. 

“A nice hotel, like the Savoy, if available,” said Algie. “Help yourselves to room service and breakfast, just charge it to me. I’ll telephone from here right now to reserve a room. You can telephone home so no one worries. All right?”

“What does the Savoy serve for breakfast?” Mrs. Prewett asked.

“Whatever you like,” said Algie. “It’s the Savoy.”

“So the food there is sort of like this?” asked Mrs. Prewett. 

“Yes, similar quality,” said Algie. 

Tessie said, “We couldn’t accept such generosity.”

At the same time Mrs. Prewett said, “That sounds delightful, thank you.”

Mother and daughter looked at each other again. 

“Your mother is right,” said Algie to Tessie firmly. “I won’t hear of you two ladies venturing out on such a long trip late at night. I’ll telephone the hotel right now.” He strode off. 

“That’s extremely generous of Algie,” said Tom. “The Savoy’s the most luxurious hotel in London. A room there must cost the equivalent of about a hundred galleons a night. Of course, to him, such expense is nothing.”

“Salazar’s serpent!” exclaimed Mrs. Prewett. 

Tessie smiled. 

“Are muggles usually so generous?” asked Mrs. Prewett. 

“No,” said Tom. “Algie is an exceptional muggle.”

“Such a pleasant young man,” said Mrs. Prewett. “Very polite,” which was a nice euphemism for filthy rich. “They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps, and I must say, Tom, although you do associate with muggles, no reasonable person could hold that against you.”

“Thank you,” said Tom. “Anyway, we need a plan. If you seem to telephone home about the change in plans, that implies there’s a telephone at Shell Cottage, and then you’d need an excuse not to give your telephone number to Algie, which would seem like a natural thing to do after his generosity.”

“Is it strange for muggles to not have a telephone?” asked Tessie. 

“It’s like not having a Floo connection,” said Tom. “Many people don’t of course, if they can’t afford it.”

The horrified looks on the faces of the ladies made it clear that seeming poor was not an option.

“Of course, Algie is just a muggle,” tested Tom, “so it’s not as if his perception of your wealth matters.”

“But, but, it’s the principle of the thing!” sputtered Mrs. Prewett. She refilled her wine glass and drank with a determined air. “I’ve got it! My late husband, may he rest in peace, was an old-fashioned, retiring sort who didn’t want a telephone, and I have honored his wish even after his death. We could, of course, afford one if we wanted. And maybe we do want one, come to think of it. We’ve gone without long enough.”

“Do you really mean it, mother?” asked Tessie. 

Mrs. Prewett drank more wine. She was flushed quite pink. “Of course I do. Tom, you’ll help me arrange that?”

“Of course,” said Tom. “There’s still the immediate problem of what to do tonight.” He sipped his mineral water. “I’ve got it. You will tell Algie you’re telephoning a neighbor to convey the message to Shell Cottage. In fact, I will Floo-call as soon as I get home, to let the rest of your family know where you are.”

“Just Axel,” said Tessie. “He’ll be so worried.”

They’d made their plans just in time, for Algie soon returned. “It’s all arranged. I got you a suite,” he assured the ladies. “I wouldn’t let them stuff you in an old Edwardian one, I made sure you got one of the new Art Deco ones.”

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Prewett. “That’s very kind of you.”

“We are in your debt,” said Tessie. 

“No no no, it’s nothing, really,” said Algie. “It’s the least I can do to ensure the safety and comfort of two such charming ladies. I hope to make this outing less onerous for you, so you’ll choose to grace us with your presence again, what?”

The ladies giggled. 

“Now I must telephone a neighbor to tell Axel about the change in plans,” said Tessie. “Algie, where is this restaurant’s telephone?”

He directed her and she strode off confidently. Mrs. Prewett apologized for their inability to give Algie their telephone number and explained the situation, as well as her plan to solve the problem as soon as possible. Tom admired her performance, which was completely convincing. 

Algie noticed that Mrs. Prewett’s glass was empty and tried to refill it for her, but the wine bottle was empty. Tom had fulfilled his promise to keep track of Algie’s drinking. He and Algie were still on their first glasses, which they'd barely touched, so they weren’t the ones who’d emptied the bottle. 

Algie took note of Mrs. Prewett’s disappointed look and summoned the waiter. “Another bottle of the same.”

Tom doubted the wisdom of that, considering that they still had a whole evening of dancing and more drinking to get through. Of course, it wasn’t Tom’s job to make sure other people were wise, and he preferred the odds tilted in his favor as far as possible. 

The breaking point, when it arrived, wasn’t very interesting. Once the waiter had uncorked the new bottle and refilled their glasses, and Mrs. Prewett had raised her glass to her flushed face, Tessie said, “Mother, do you think that perhaps you’ve already had enough?”

“Nonsense dear,” said Mrs. Prewett with an emphatic gesture of her hand, unfortunately the one holding the full glass. Red wine sloshed onto Tessie’s décolletage and down the front of her dress. “Merlin’s bollocks, so sorry dear. Don’t worry, I’ll just—“

“No!” Tessie grabbed her mother’s hand before she could reach into a pocket of her skirt. “Remember where you are.”

“Oh!” said Mrs. Prewett. “Right. Then how—“

“I’m sure some cold water from the tap would get that wine out of your dress,” said Tom. “In the WC. There should be privacy there, and towels to blot it with, so it should soon be good as new.”

“Really?” asked Mrs. Prewett uncertainly. 

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Tessie. “Please help me with it.” She hauled her mother away. 

Algie watched Tessie walk away. She was good at it. She eventually vanished from view, so Algie was capable of speech again. “I’m behind the eight ball,” he said. “I mean, if you and Tessie...“

“We’re not,” said Tom. “Although Mrs. Prewett would certainly like us to be. The Prewetts’ fortunes would be considerably improved by Tessie’s marriage to a man of means such as myself.”

Algie slumped. “She should just marry you then. You two seem to get along great, anyway.”

“Algie! Are you a man or a mouse?”

“If those are the only two options, mouse. I can’t stand up to my father. Oh Tom, you haven’t heard the man bellowing at me that I’d better not let some chorus girl trap me into marriage.”

“Tessie’s no chorus girl,” said Tom. 

“But she’s a nobody,” despaired Algie. “If she’s not listed in Burke’s Peerage , she might as well not exist. If I act on my feelings towards her, I’ll be disowned. Her mother is right in aiming lower and setting her sights on you.” Tom’s silence after this assessment gave Algie ample time to continue giving voice to his heartache. “Maybe I should just let him disown me. Plenty of people survive without an inheritance. I could work.” 

Tom was too startled to suppress his skeptical snort. 

“Fellows do work,' Algie assured Tom. 'I was lunching with a man at the Bachelor's only yesterday who swore he knew a fellow who had met a man whose cousin worked. But I don't see what I could do, don't you know.”

“You’re talking nonsense,” said Tom. “You’ve been watching too many romantic comedies. Real people don’t give up their fortunes for love.”

Algie sighed. “But what can I do? A girl like that’s going to get snatched up by some other fellow while I’m waiting around for my father to die. And he’s hale and hearty! Still hunts with the hounds regularly.”

It occurred to Tom that he could count an experienced murderer among his friends, one whose methods might be undetectable by muggle means. No, that would be cheating. “I’ll think of something,” Tom assured Algie. “I’m sure it will all work out. And you needn’t fear that Tessie will become unavailable in the near future. I’ve made it clear that I’m not looking to replace Merope any time soon, but I’ve implied that if I ever did want a replacement, Tessie would be a likely candidate. This keeps Tessie in reserve.”

“Thanks Tom. You’re a good friend.”

Their conversation was silenced by the return of the ladies. Mrs. Prewett looked abashed, or perhaps just sober. Tessie looked even more radiant than before, and showed no sign of her mishap. “Were you talking about us behind our backs?” teased Tessie. 

“But of course,” said Algie. “Are there any other worthy topics?”

The ladies giggled coquettishly. 

The rest of dinner was enjoyed without incident. Tom couldn’t have chosen a better restaurant to demonstrate the sophistication of muggle cuisine.

Tessie crunched into a profiterole, her pink tongue darting to catch an escaping jet of cream. She giggled. “Ooh, these are messy, but they’re so good!”

Some mothers might have urged their daughters to lick cream in a less suggestive way, but considering that Mrs. Prewett was too busy eating to notice, Tessie’s tongue was free to do what it wanted. 

“I’m so glad you like it,” said Algie. “We must eat here again. Where do you want to go after this? We’ve danced at the Cafe de Paris a few times already. Would you like to try a different club?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Mrs. Prewett. “There are more places like that?”

Algie laughed. “Yes, several.”

Mrs. Prewett gave the idea serious thought. “That would be lovely, but tonight I am so looking forward to hearing the band at the Cafe de Paris again.”

“I’m sure a different band would be good too,” said Tessie. 

“Next week,” said Mrs. Prewett firmly, with a pointed look at her daughter. 

“All right, if you feel so strongly about it,” said Tessie. “I’m easy. I mean, about where we go tonight.”

“Well. The Cafe de Paris it is,” said Algie. 

Tom put up a token protest to Algie paying for dinner, and paid only for the cab to the club. The ladies were wide-eyed when Tom hailed a cab and opened the doors for them, but got in without comment, trying to hide their ignorance of automobiles.

Dancing was as delightful as usual. Tom made sure to dance with Tessie enough to satisfy her mother, and with Mrs. Prewett herself to show her the respect she deserved, but there was plenty of time to dance with others.

Algie and Tessie cut a charming figure across the dance floor, embodying every playful bounce of the music. Pain eventually lessens, Mrs. Prewett had said. The loss of Cecilia would become merely an old ache, not feel like an actively bleeding wound. In the meantime, at least others had a shot at love. 

Tom eventually apologized to the Prewetts and Algie, saying he felt a melancholy that these lively environs couldn’t cure, and hoped to catch a earlier train home than usual. He left the ladies in Algie’s capable hands. 

Tom had Dobby apparate him home from a dark alley. Once he was in his office, he threw a pinch of powder into the fireplace. “Shell Cottage.” He stuck his head in the green flames and, when a bleary-eyed Axel appeared, told him to expect his mother and sister to return home sometime the next day, for they were staying at the Savoy tonight. 

“What?” exclaimed Axel. “You just abandoned them in a den of muggles?”

“They decided to stay as guests at quite a luxurious hotel,” said Tom. “They’re capable witches, and are perfectly safe. Now goodnight. It’s very late.” He withdrew his head from the flames, made sure the Floo was set to accept calls only, in case anyone important needed to reach him, and left his office, ignoring the green glow and shouts behind him.

——-

Helping the Prewetts get a telephone installed in their home (a small, charming cottage at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the sea) was a bigger job than Tom had anticipated. Their home had to be made temporarily suitable for the muggle workmen. Tom inspected it carefully, and found many items that would violate the Statute of Secrecy, if viewed by a muggle. “This portrait must be hidden,” Tom said. 

“I can keep still,” objected the portrait of a stern-faced old witch. 

“I heard you sneeze,” said Tom. “And I don’t wish to impose upon you to keep still, when it would be easier for you to relax in privacy.”

The portrait, thus mollified, consented to being temporarily relocated. Mrs Prewett carefully removed it from the wall and levitated it upstairs.  

“Although I wouldn’t mind if Great Great Aunt Gertrude stayed in the attic,” Tessie whispered to Tom once her mother and the portrait were out of earshot. “She always disapproves of my clothes.”

“You look beautiful in them,” said Tom. 

“That’s the problem, according to her.” She leaned in even closer to Tom. “Thank you so much for this,” she whispered. “I can’t believe my mother is making it so easy for me to talk with Algie. She thinks she’s ingratiating our family to you by adopting your interest in muggles. She has no clue what I’ll really use this telephone for.”

“It does seem almost too good to be true,” said Tom. 

Mrs. Prewett appeared before them suddenly. Tom had somehow been expecting the attic stairs to creak, but of course there was no reason they should in a wizarding house. 

Tessie, who’d been leaning in very close to Tom, stepped back at once. 

“Oh, don’t mind me,” smiled Mrs. Prewett. “I’m not one of those chaperones who’ll cast a stinging hex if you get too close. You know, it occurs to me that telephone calls, like Floo-calls, don’t require a chaperone, so you two should feel free to talk about whatever strikes your fancy over the telephone, in perfect privacy. And with no ashes getting in your hair! What a wonderful invention.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Tom. 

“Yes, mother,” said Tessie. “Thank you so much!”

Once the telephone situation was sorted, Tom returned to his office to work on the details of the contract he would offer to the novelist, Kettleburn. She had agreed to a business lunch at La Truffe Émraude, and Dobby had prepared writing kits to distribute to his fellow elves in the back room. Ignis hadn’t yet submitted many writings from his fellow werolves, but when he’d picked up the wolfsbane potion, he’d reported that many werewolves were interested in contributing to the project, and would hand in their stories soon. 

Tom’s father, carrying a thick folder of parchments, came to visit Tom in his office. “I thought you might be interested in the latest developments in our muggle business.”

“Of course,” said Tom, setting down his quill and offering his father a chair. 

“I’ve made an appointment with a chemist who comes well-recommended, a Professor Waxwigge, in the chemistry department at Oxford,” said Tom’s father. “He should be able to translate these parchments into testable antibiotics.” He grimaced at the parchments. “If only they didn’t look like they were written by a medieval scribe. Hermione said this was the easiest way for her to copy it, but this isn’t a style that gives one confidence in medicine.”

“We could rewrite it, I suppose,” said Tom. 

“That would undoubtedly introduce errors,” said his father. “Especially considering that this isn’t your field of expertise, or mine, so there are many unfamiliar words.”

“I’ll claim it’s my handwriting,” said Tom. “I can match Hermione’s style.”

His father looked at him. “You’re just trying to get involved in the muggle side of the business, despite our agreement.”

“Yes.”

His father smiled. “That’s my boy. All right, you can be the one to deliver this ridiculous calligraphy to Professor Waxwigge and claim it’s your own.”

Tom wasn’t sure if he’d just won that argument. 

——-

“This came to you in a dream?” said Professor Waxwigge, looking through the parchments in his office. 

“Yes,” lied Tom confidently. “I wrote it down in a sort of trance as soon as I woke up. In the way of dreams, I knew I wouldn’t remember the details afterwards, and indeed I don’t.”

“Do you have a background in chemistry, Mr. Riddle? Or medicine?”

“No. I don’t have enough background to understand what I wrote. But I woke with the certainty that it is not nonsense. It’s very important.”

“And you wrote it with…”

“A quill, on parchment. Not the most efficient, I know, but it was what I happened to have on my bedside table for writing down my dreams.” Tom was embarrassed to claim this, as it was tantamount to admitting to writing poetry, but it did work with the story. 

“This is your handwriting?”

“Well. I wrote it in a rush. My handwriting’s usually neater than that.” As the professor looked skeptical, Tom took a quill, bottle of ink, and bit of scrap parchment from his wallet and wrote “This is my handwriting,” in Hermione’s witchy style, just as she’d taught him, without the pureblood-style flourishes he’d adopted recently. It was a pretty good match. Not wanting to be limited by this, he put his wizarding writing implements away, took out a fountain pen and a scrap of paper, and wrote, “This is also my handwriting” in roundhand.

Professor Waxwigge examined the handwriting samples before him. “As your handwriting doesn’t seem to match itself, I'm clearly no expert in handwriting, so I’ll just leave that issue aside for the moment.” Then he studied one of the pages Tom had only skimmed. “This isn’t nonsense,” he concluded. “This reads like a chemistry text, but the information itself… If it actually is what it seems to be… No. It’s too good to be true.” He tore his gaze away from the parchment and peered at Tom over his glasses. “I suppose you’re looking for investors. That’s your game, isn’t it?”

“No,” said Tom. “Absolutely not. The Riddle family will fund all the research and share the profits with no one. I’m looking to hire chemists to test if this actually is what it seems to be. If it isn’t, you’ll have lost nothing but time, and possibly damaged your reputation slightly for following a false trail. But you’ll be paid regardless.”

“Time…” repeated Professor Waxwigge with a thoughtful look at Tom. He hurriedly looked down at the parchments. “Anyway, there’s no shame in disproving a false hypothesis. And if it’s true…”

“We could save millions of lives. The most important part is this.” Tom took the folder back and turned to the part on the evolution of antibiotic resistance. “I woke from the dream knowing this is where things could go terribly wrong, if bacteria evolve resistance to these drugs. You might want to consult with some professor of evolution to understand this part. It is absolutely essential that these drugs are administered in a way that prevents this problem, or they will become useless.”

Tom waited as the professor read that part. It took a while. “I see,” he finally said. “Well. That does seem important. If any drugs actually work against bacteria, which breed and mutate so fast, this seems like an important principle to keep in mind. This idea is worthy of publication in its own right. I’ll need to talk with a microbiologist about coauthoring a paper. Are you sure you didn’t copy this out of someone’s lab notebook? Or a scientific journal or textbook?”

“Nothing in my possession.”

“But in your dream? Insights into chemistry through dreams are not unheard of. The German chemist, August Kekulé, famously discovered the structure of benzene through a dream of an ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. However, until now I hadn’t heard of anyone transcribing an entire advanced chemistry book from a dream.”

“Neither had I,” said Tom. “And I never had any particularly noteworthy dreams until this one. I don’t really remember the dream now. There may have been a book.”

“My concern, you see, aside from the obvious one that this is all nonsense and a waste of time, is that it’s not nonsense, but is someone else’s unpublished research. I wouldn’t want to be guilty of academic espionage and plagiarism.” He looked at the thick sheaf of parchment again. “But an enormous amount of work must have gone into these discoveries, which makes it hard to believe that someone would have done all this research and not published any hint of it along the way. This much work would take multiple research teams decades. Each individual step here, if real, is worthy of multiple papers in prestigious journals. There’s no way all this could have been hushed up.”

He peered at Tom over his glasses. “This book, if there was one, in your dream. What was its publication date?”

Did he dare? “1997.”

The professor didn’t look surprised. Tom was impressed. “That sounds about right.” He looked at the parchment again. “So if we do this wrong, like they apparently did the first time around, we’ll develop these miraculous drugs over the next few decades, and then by 1997 they’ll become useless as bacteria evolve resistance to them, so medical science will be defenseless against these diseases once more. But if we do this right, we can avoid that problem, and keep saving lives for years after that.”

“Yes,” said Tom, greatly relieved. 

“This didn’t come to you in a dream, did it?”

“That’s immaterial,” said Tom. “The important thing is that these drugs can save lives.”

“It’s just that I know some physics professors who would be very interested in how you managed to travel through time.”

“I didn’t,” said Tom. He stood, taking the folder. “I am not discussing where I got this information. If you’re not willing to take on the job, I could find a different chemist.”

“Sit down, Mr. Riddle,” said the professor. “Please. You can’t blame a man for being curious about the most interesting phenomenon he’s ever seen.”

Tom sat. “So. Are you willing to take on the job? I have a contract right here. You might want to have your lawyer look it over before you sign.”

The professor read it. Tom looked around at the various books, diplomas, and awards decorating the walls. 

“You’re keeping a very tight hold on all this information,” the professor concluded. “This isn’t how academics usually work.”

“I’m not an academic,” said Tom. “I’m a businessman. I did give you freedom to publish on evolution of antibiotic resistance, and also on the efficacy of the drugs in medical trials. The restrictions on publishing the chemical specifics aren’t solely out of greed on my part. I don’t want these drugs being misused. That could cost lives.”

The professor nodded. “And would you like my soul gift-wrapped?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I assume you want my soul in exchange for the most amazing medical discovery of the twentieth century.”

“I have no use for your soul. I’m not even using my own. All I need is your scientific expertise and connections.”

“That does seem like a good deal.” Professor Waxwigge signed. 

Tom sighed in relief. “One more thing.”

The professor jumped in his seat. “I was joking about my soul.”

“So was I. This has nothing to do with the contract, really. Well, I suppose it sort of does. I have an appointment Monday, March 15. Should that appointment go very badly, my family will inherit this contract, so you’ll report not to me, but to my father, Squire Thomas Riddle, and possibly my friend Miss Hermione Granger. Don’t be too alarmed if this happens. They have all the information they need to contact you, should I be unavailable.”

“You sound very calm about that.”

“I like to prepare for all possibilities. This can’t be done of course, as surprises can come out of nowhere, but I do what I can. Thank you very much for taking my offer seriously, Professor Waxwigge. I’ll leave that folder in your capable hands. I expect you to guard the information therein as outlined in the contract.”

They said their farewells, and Tom set out to look for a secluded place from which he could call Dobby. 

The lobby was like a small museum, full of scientific displays. This was too public a spot for Tom’s needs, but he lingered to admire his reflection in the glass of a display case before finding some private corner from which to apparate. He looked perfect in his tasteful muggle suit, his lightly brilliantined hair. With a turn of his head and an adjustment of his focus, the glass turned from a mirror to a window, through which a taxidermied snake stared at him with vertical-pupiled glass eyes.