Actions

Work Header

Serpentine

Chapter Text

In the months leading up to his first day, he had been carefully observing other wizards: their mannerisms, customs, sayings, and the like. He wants to be absolutely sure that he does not fit out like he does back at the orphanage. He wants to make a name for himself his way. To be recognized for the best reasons. And so, Tom parrots them: their gaits and gazes and speech and stance, and so far his chameleon ability has worked like a charm. He is getting along finely with others for perhaps the first time in his life, and he has even started perfecting his smile to look...well, less like a grimace. Tom continues to make allies everywhere he steps in this fascinating and great new world.

Except…

His last name. Wizards, he has found, seem to have some top secret list kept in each of their houses that contain all the family names of all the witches and wizards that have ever been. Riddle, of course, is not one of them. Some on his journey have so far overlooked this, but others have straight up immediately stopped talking to him mid conversation and walked off. They have no time for him, for weakness. He understands. He hates it, but he understands.

Tom grips the edge of the table as another uproarious cheer is heard from the students at the sound of another first year being sorted. He’ll show them. He’ll prove himself to all of them--

The girl previously sitting to his left scoots upwards to make room for an older boy, perhaps about 14; he introduces himself with his name and a handshake. Tom does his best to shake firmly.

“Riddle, right?” The boy has a brilliant smile that reminds him of a politician, “Professor Dumbledore told me about you, asked if I could help show you around.”

Tom tilts his chin upwards in soft bemusement.

“It’s part of a program he wants to start: introducing muggleborns to Hogwarts safely and all that--”

He stiffens at the word, but the older boy does not seem to notice.

“Of course, no offense intended, I know you’re not one of those,” He nods his head over to the newly sorted Hufflepuff student sitting proudly among his housemates, “--Just being in Slytherin proves it.” A comforting hand is rested on Tom’s shoulder, “I’m here for any questions you might have.” A wink and smile.

Interesting.

“What makes you think I’m not muggleborn?” Tom makes sure to use the same word as his new mentor did.

A chuckle, “Ah, Dumbledore didn’t tell you?” The boy rests his arms on the table before them, lowering himself down as if their conversation were now secret, “Well, to put it bluntly, Salazar Slytherin would never allow a muggleborn into his house--Take comfort in that.”

Tom does.

“But don’t feel alone in your not knowing, there’s another one like you,” He turns and points across the table a few seats away to a young girl reading though a tome, “--She’s also an orphan: doesn’t know anything about her bloodline. A year ahead of you, I believe, but you should talk to her.”

An interest is formed almost immediately: attention piqued and curiosity sharpened, the young boy drinks in the stranger down the table, whose self-possessiveness could be felt from even his seat. What was her orphanage like? Was she an outsider as well? Was her magic as powerful as his? Did she also know that she was destined for greater things beyond the walls of her prison? Tom sees the disconnect his fellow Slytherin has with the people around her (even if it wasn’t already obvious by her own hand-me-down robes and appearance), and he knows that he has found kin within his house.

He resolves to talk to her at once.

---

He gets his chance a week later, in the library.

Ink and quills are a bother (he wishes he had brought the nice fountain pen he took from the desk of the matron of Wool’s), but he’s so enraptured in the subject of his papers, that having homework during the first week at school does not bother him in the slightest. For an hour he stays like this: writing constantly and furiously for an essay that half the children in his History of Magic class haven’t even thought about yet.

Out of the corner of his eye: movement.

Tom almost spares no glances to the identity of the student now joining him at his table, until he adjusts the brim of his hat (what kind of school uniform assigns hats for day wear[1]) and sees a flash of dark skin to his left. The recognition is immediate.

Subtly, though not subtle at all, his eyes look over her reading material: a thick and aged book appearing to be entirely written in pictographs of a language and style unknown to him. As he tries to peer closer, he makes out what appears to be a rather bloody scene within the book. A ritual explanation? Instructions?

The last thing he sees is the threaded bracelet on her wrist before he glances upward and is met with sharp darkness.

“What are you reading?” Tom is nothing if not quick on his feet, though he does perhaps need more practice on the innocent act.

Distrust is evident in her eyes (it’s a look Tom knows all too well,) and his housemate takes a moment to size him up before answering in a voice softer (and harder) than expected, “Poems.”

Tom wonders if she’s serious or if he takes him for an idiot. But he’ll save that for a later conversation.

Remembering his manners, Tom extends his hand outward to her, “Tom Riddle.” He tries not to look too unnerving, as he remembers how much his stare would creep out the caretakers back at the orphanage. He even tries for a kind smile.

The distrust is still there, but now it is mixed with something else. Progress, Tom thinks, though he does not know what exactly the other thing is, it makes him feel better than the thing that bleeds into people’s gaze when he tells them his last name.

Sure enough, she takes her eyes off of his hand like it’s carrying a hex and extends her own hand for him to shake, “Ximena.”

He-men-ah?” He repeats, not out of courtesy, but because she had clearly not given him a last name.

But all she gives is a nod before returning to her reading. Though it’s clear to him that she’s vaguely annoyed by his...existence, she appears to also tolerate it, as she does not move from her spot at his table.

Tom resolves to investigate further.

But first: his essay.

---

Barely two weeks into his time at Hogwarts, and Tom feels that he has eaten more than he ever has in his life. Every meal is wonderful and there is nobody there to tell him no, that he cannot have anymore or that he has eaten too much or that he may not have sweets.

He tries not to think about when he has to go back to Wool’s at the end of the year.

Instead he focuses on where he is going to sit for today’s lunch: near his half-annoying assigned guide or by some new chatting classmates? Eye contact and pleasant greetings are made to both options, but Tom soon makes a beeline towards a different table.

There’s a regal air surrounding Ximena to the point that it feels as if she were a teacher sitting down during her lunch--In fact, Tom actually finds himself genuinely asking permission to sit at her table. He is pleased when she responds with acknowledgement of his presence and a nod.

The seat taken is strategic. That is to say, Tom takes a seat directly across from her to try and inspire conversation. To build a friendly atmosphere. Of course, this would work with any normal person. Or any person with manners. His fellow Slytherin, of course, ignores him in favor of her drink. Tom spares it a glance:

A tall glass of something red and dark. Rosy red. Like wine or petals. When she drinks from it, the liquid leaves a pink stain over her upper lip that reminds Tom of blush. Her fingers trail tracks on the condensation of the glass, and it almost makes him shiver to think just how cold it has to be. The food is equally intriguing: simple rice mixed in with small chunks of a green slimy type of...plant? Vegetable? Alongside it is a mound of unidentifiable meat covered in a thick brown sauce topped with some sort of seed. Despite the unusual choices, his mouth begins to salivate at the heavenly foreign smell wafting from her plate. There was something special about this meal. Something sacred.

He clears his throat, “What are you reading today?”

Ximena’s leatherbound book (sat next to her black hat) reads “RAMOS” on the cover in a golden script, and is about two and a half inches thick. The pages are browned from the sun and various sections have the corners folded down,

“Something light.” Her knife cuts through the meat on her plate as Tom begins work on his own meal (corned beef and a side of bread pudding).

“Did you get that book from the library?”

The girl shakes her head, and Tom knows she is done speaking.

For the next few weeks, he would follow her around like a puppy dog--Though not out of loyalty, but more out of curiosity. To her credit, or perhaps discredit, she does not seem to mind or even take notice. Across plazas and library spaces and the Great Hall, Tom can be seen walking along behind her, keeping up rather well with her brisk pace all while the rest of Slytherin house watches with mixed tones of amusement and confusion. A part of him is annoyed at the silly rumors flying around about his “crush” (an absurd notion), but another part is half thankful for the opportunity to talk to the people who think they’re knowledgeable enough in women to give him advice: Tom is savvy enough to talk them into sharing their knowledge on magic.

He sits next to her during lunch, occasionally dinner, and eats quietly while she thumbs through whatever book she happens to be carrying that day. Every once in a while, during the times he is not eyeing her strange meals, he’ll ask a question on what she’s reading or request advice on his studies, and to his surprise (and delight), she always has an answer for him, though it is rarely an answer that is actually useful to him in the moment. Tom finds that she dislikes giving others a straight answer when the person can find it for themselves, or so he deducts when a Ravenclaw sits across from her during one lunch and asks about some sort of potions review. That’s respectable, he concludes, and not to mention useful. Can’t be giving away all your secrets. Can’t be looking arrogant and too involved in yourself.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want special treatment.

One thing he can assure everyone of is that he is not an idiot: He might not be able to understand or decipher the readings of the girl, but he damn well knows it’s leagues different than whatever she should be learning. They don’t teach what she reads at Hogwarts, but maybe she can teach it to him. Only to him. Exclusively.

Ximena,” he prompts in his best meek voice, “it says in my potions book that I need nigella seeds, but I can’t find anything useful on them anywhere.”

She looks up from her page, marked with a grand and proud tree, “Your kind of witches and wizards call them blessing seeds.” Her hand slides over the surface of Tom’s book to point at the picture of a black mound of said seeds, Tom stares at her red bracelet, “You won’t find anything useful about them in any English book.” His eyes glance upward, but her hand and attention return to her own literature before eye contact could be made. “--Try Punjabi.”

Progress.

---

Euphoria is not an emotion Tom is used to. Fear, yes. Sadness, yes. Anger, oh God yes. But happiness?

When Dumbledore arrived at Wool’s and told him that he was different, that was triumph. Satisfaction. He had always known that he was better than the others, that he was special. That day at the beach? When the serenity of the sea met with the delightful vengeance on those two children? Close. Very close. Maybe when he was first sorted, perhaps? His heart did a strange sort of jump up against his ribcage and his feet felt lighter than air...Yes, maybe that was happiness.

But first, let us compile what Tom has learnt after his first month of observing:

One: she is indeed a year ahead of him. A minor setback, but an even greater advancement. There are many places that a first year cannot reach or pass into, so much that even having a year added to one’s age is a huge advantage. Already, he has managed to accompany (sneak in with) her into various fascinating sections of the library and common room and learned a good handful of spells infinitely more useful than the rubbish they were teaching him and the other first years. Though not being the rule-breaking type, Ximena does not say anything about this to the teachers. Possibly because she simply does not care. Possibly because she has not noticed him. The thought of the later, irks him, but there is some good in going unnoticed.

Two: his so-called mentor was wrong: she is not an orphan, she is a foundling. Found with no memories or evidence of a life before her arrival at her given orphanage. This, he learns from Dumbledore, who has taken to having tea with him every week to check up on him. He takes Tom’s curiosity as a good sign, and encourages him to make friends with her. The fool, he’s way ahead of him. Of course, he knows better than to try to bring her past up with her before properly constructing a perfect empathetic story to go along with it, but a part of him doubts that that would even work: the girl is viciously private and guards herself better than the dementors do Azkaban. It only makes him want to pry her secrets from her grasp even more. Secrets that perhaps not even she knows. Secrets that, in their own way, could help him heal and discover about his own past. A longshot, he knows, but if he lives in a world where magic is real, he’s willing to calculate the risk to find out.  

Three: she has no friends to speak of, unless they are outside of the school or within classes only. Every lunch and dinner he has with her holds few similarities: her spot, her demeanor, and his questions. Few enough students speak to her, and even fewer do it with any shred of respect. Tom concludes that wizards aren’t as progressive as they’d like to make themselves out to be. A part of him wonders just how different it would be had the girl been born pale and as English as imperialism[2]. Certainly more popular, he’s sure. What idiots. Their loss, he supposes, and definitely his gain: if he could only wiggle his way into her small and restricted circle of friendship, he is sure that he stands much to win. Luckily, despite dividing his time between classes, studies, and conquering the hearts and minds of his fellow first years, he has not been stagnant on this quest. Ximena, while cold to everyone, has dropped enough added extras into their conversations (if one could call them that) for Tom to know that he is preferred over others at their school. While one person might get an “Good afternoon”, he receives a “Good afternoon” and eye contact. That’s just fine, it only makes sense for two superiors to differentiate themselves among a pack of sheep. As long as he was different.

As for the sheep, well, that was coming along as well as it could. Unfortunately, stupidity was found everywhere, and not just the muggle world. Tom weeds through mediocrity and weakness at such a speed that if he were physically doing it, it would cramp his hands within seconds. Already, he has a fine reputation with his classmates on being the best student to partner up with, and that has helped in his journey to climb to the top. Sadly, even the brightest students among him are only concerned with frivolities: gossip, broomsticks, and Quidditch. No matter, they are still merely children, there is time. At least, and he comforts himself with this thought, he has support. A network. A web. He is no longer alone. We Slytherins are brothers. We Slytherins welcome our own.[3]

What exactly “our own” was, is still up for debate. Many in his house have shown themselves to be of the opinion that even reactionary half-blood wizards have no place in Slytherin, and a small (but loud) fraction of those are particularly bitter at the inclusion of wizards whose parentage hails from less savoury countries. What muck.

This, of course, brings us back to Ximena:

They ask him questions, other students. Questions about her and her strange demeanor. Associating himself with the right people is starting to pay off: his schoolmates see him as something other than another blotch in the painting. Not just another ‘Tom’. As distasteful as it is to leech from the infamy of another, it serves as a nice boost for the people who have not yet witnessed his skill and talent within the classroom. Granted, the questions asked are abhorrently stupid, but they serve more than they slack. “Has she cursed you yet?” “So she can actually talk?” “Got a case of jungle fever, have you?” “She’s so arrogant, how can you stand to be around her?”

His answers take a page from the book of Ximena: mainly, that he gives a straight answer without really telling the person what they want to know. He plays the other students like instruments and gains more and more admirers for his bravery in speaking with a girl with such a savage background. How noble of him. They believe he can civilize her for the betterment of Slytherin house.

Disgusting.

As if he had any obligation or time to build another up like that. He looks out for himself, and that’s that. If any of these fools were truly worth their salt, they would have already seen her potential, which begs the question: can they see his potential? His already natural talent and raw skill? Or do they see a sad orphan with no past and no future?

So returning to euphoria (finally): It is ridiculous, he knows, but he cannot help but see parts of himself in her. No, he is not drawn to her, that’s ridiculous. He has chosen for himself to feel attached to this stranger with whom he shares so much with. The more he sees, the more he is convinced of it: they should join forces. Nevermind that his moments with her are quite nice, that is only because she does not spout buffoonery at all hours of the day and provides him with adequate help and knowledge on his studies.

It is not because it fills him with peace. Or contentedness. Or satisfaction. Or because he likes looking at her. Tom truly has no sense (or tastes, for that matter) regarding beauty, but there is something particularly exciting in the confidence and air she gives.

Alright, so fair to say that he is drawn to power, though in all his watchings and followings, he has yet to catch her uttering a single spell. One afternoon, he had passed by her in the common room and observed that the spoon in her hot drink was moving by itself, but that was nothing. He had done that and more in his time before he knew about his being a wizard, and though others in his year are clumsy oafs who couldn’t bend a spoon if they tried, such magic is simple. No, Tom wanted to see exactly what she could do. Not just what she knows or just what she studies, but also what she is capable of. Rumors heard and digested from other Slytherins do little to satiate his curiosity (and expectations), and really, they only fan the flames of an already minute obsession (the obsession to have the upperhand, of course. Not at all an obsession with her.) While most of the rumors are in fact vulgar slander, a small pocketful are curious notes of interest for Tom, such as the subject of Ximena’s wand. As a matter of fact, Tom hasn’t ever seen her wand. He’d like to inspect it, if he could, and maybe take it for an evening...Without her knowing, of course.

Erstwhile, his mentor, while well meaning, has been of little use thus far: he is busy with Quidditch and chasing girls, of all things. Tom has only had time to speak with him in the darker hours of the Slytherin common room, and even then, he says nothing of value. Oh sure, now he knows about the house elves behind the painting, and what staff to watch out for, and what the best thing to order at Honeyduke’s is, but Tom’s idea of good information involves which students in his year have connections. Which students are particularly gifted and easy to manipulate? Are wizards particularly fond of yearbooks or family documentation?

“I’ve noticed you’ve been talking to Lane.” The older boy prompts, dressed for bed and lounging across a chair as if it were his personal throne, “Getting along good?”

“Swimmingly,” Tom says, back straight, sitting pretty with a book on his lap, “Bit of a strange surname for her, isn’t it? Lane?”

He bites into an apple, snorting, “Aye, you caught that, didn’t ya?” Of course he did. Buffoon. “Muggles give strange names to foundlings.” Agreed, but that’s not what Tom wants to know.

“Where do you think they got Ximena from?” Casual and innocent.

“Mmm,” He chews and swallows thoughtfully, “from what she told me, it was all she could remember about her.” A shrug, “Could you imagine? Having only your name in your possession?”

Tom makes a noise of acknowledgement, but stays still, “You talk with her often?”

A smile. Or a snerk, “Oh worry not Tom, I won’t steal your love away.” Another bite as Tom suppresses a look of contempt, “We’re in dueling club together, though her interest is more method than action.” He shrugs, “She might seem a bit away with the mixer, but she definitely has knickers, if you know what I mean.” [4]

He does. More or less. “Method?” Perhaps he is getting somewhere.

“She’s a bit obsessed with methods, yes. Sometimes I think she’d be better off as a teacher assigning meters of parchment.” A pause, “Lane doesn’t just want to know spells, she wants to know how they work. Why they work. Bit of a waste of time if you ask me, most everyone who pays enough attention to know about her train of thought thinks she’s loony.” He leans in towards Tom again just as he did at their first meeting, another secret: “It’s such a muggle way of thinking, isn’t it? Finding out why things work instead of just using the thing and being done with it.” He shakes his head, “Never satisfied.”

Tom can relate.

Alright, so maybe he wasn’t as special as he thought he was. A minor setback. The way he sees it, it was only a matter of time: his mentor had over a year on him and had known her for longer. It’s not as if he was particularly talented and better than he was. More knowledgeable, perhaps, in the affairs of wizards and in the names of spells and such. But there was no way she respected him as an equal.

Right?

He is not jealous.

He is a perfectly fine and reasonable boy of 11, he is absolutely positively not at all jealous.

 

Chapter Text

The Dueling Club quarters is a long hall near the dungeons that Tom slips into after his satisfactory lunch (A plowman’s lunch and pumpkin juice). It blends in with the surroundings well enough at first glance, but upon stepping in, he is greeted with warmth and earth tones--in the exposed wooden beams and golden sunlight streaming in through the one tall window in the room. Grand banners and tapestries hang from the vaulted ceiling depicting dangerous matches and triumphant wins, it makes Tom think of a proper den for older men to chat and smoke cigars in. Or a cathedral. A few students lounge up in the trusses with their owls and brooms, and some others sit chatting on a harvest table set aside near a quiet fireplace. Relaxed. Not at all what was expected.

His arrival is early and met with friendly faces and friendly conversations. Pretending not to see Ximena reading in the shadow of an obnoxious statue to his right, Tom speaks casually with his schoolmates, and is even introduced to a few new faces outside his usual circle. His smile works wonders on them, and he is even given the title of “adorable” by a few six year girls.

“Mister Riddle, is it?” The professor’s voice comes from behind him, and he turns to a tall, sparrow like woman with a sharp face, “Professor Slughorn told me all about you; here to observe our little show?”

“I hope they were all good things, Professor Willow.” A humble laugh, “I’ve wanted to visit and see for a long time, but unfortunately never had the opportunity due to schoolwork.”

“Yes, I hear you are a diligent student.” A radiant smile stands out brightly on her near black skin, “I can only hope what you see here interests you enough to enroll in my class your second year.”

Already he was being coveted by teachers who haven’t even seen his worth. Tom glows with humble pride as the professor makes her announcements to the students, some of which were barely flickering in with only seconds to spare. People clear the center of the hall, and Tom makes his way to the other side of the forming oblong space to claim his spot alongside Ximena. Her reading material is closed and set on her lap, and when he greets her politely, she blinks at him and replies “Good afternoon.” with a nod. To her other side, he hadn’t noticed, is his half-useful mentor.

“Riddle! Glad to see you here.” A wink is thrown at Tom’s direction as he gestures to the girl beside him with his head. Tom tries not to cringe. “Even came early! Making good impressions everywhere.” His feet come upward to sit cross-legged on the bench, “Willow always starts right on time. Must have been a bloody clock in another life, eh Lane?” His elbow grazes her side as she makes a small noise of acknowledgment.

“What happens if you’re late?” Tom peeps, sitting down with his hands in his lap.

“You have to go first.” His laugh is telling, and as if on cue, a poor Hufflepuff runs in, frazzled and out of breath, looking desperately for any sign of her timelyless.

“So nice of you to join us, Miss Kowalska!” Professor Willow’s tone is pleasing and warm, “And so good of you to volunteer for our first duel! Now, let us find out who will be your opponent,” she turns her attention to the archway where the echos of panicked footsteps could be heard.

“Kowalski[1]? This’ll be good.” Though annoying, his commentary might prove useful, “Who do you think it’ll be, Lane? Weasley? Peterson? Acarya?”

“Acarya is never late.” Ximena points out, appearing tired with the spectacle. Her disinterest is ignored in favor of speaking to Tom again.

“You up for a duel today, Riddle?” Another wink, as if he were trying to imply something, “Heard the commotion you made over there with those sixth year girls--Might impress them.”

What an idiot.

“Only here to observe.” Tom pretends to look shy, “I haven’t been given permission to join yet--I’m a first year, remember.”

“Shame, you’d be good.” A candy bar is picked out from a pocket sewn into his robes, “Heard a lot about you from my little sister--She’s in your Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Little snotface with lots of freckles? Glasses? Says you’re the favourite of the class already.”

Tom has no recollection of the girl in question, but she’s probably not important. Regardless, he nods along with what the older boy says as if he’s proud of his praise, “She exaggerates, but I thank her for her words.”

“No no,” he strongly taps the side of Ximena’s arm to focus her attention on the conversation, “don’t listen to him, Lane, he’s gonna be big.” Ximena appeared to not be listening at all, “We have to snatch up slots as his trusted friends and advisors before they’re all taken up. While he’s still a diamond in the rough.”

“Diamonds are exceedingly common, contrary to popular belief.” A command to shut up.

Tom almost winces. There are a lot of Toms. Words said only months ago

“--Mister Wood! My, you are the eager volunteer, eight times in a row!” The professor’s voice cuts through his train of thought like a knife through clotted cream.

“Augh, Wood, I should have known.” A slap on his mentor’s knee, another hum from Ximena.

Tom stays silent.

---

During breakfast, Tom is bombarded by students. Sitting down at their insistence, there is excited chatter about the duels from yesterday and proper introductions that were not able to be done before.

“Bet you were hoping to sit next to Lane, huh?”

As a matter of fact he was, but he hasn’t been able to catch her at breakfast time.

But luck, though elusive, is still on his side:

“Actually, I was looking for you.”

The girl who is never late turns her attention from Zabini to Tom and feigns vague interest. Tom’s mentor, who had been the one speaking, looks on in curiosity.

“Yami Acarya, correct?” Tom does his best to look like he was holding down his excited nerves,

Her dark eyes pool deeper than Ximena’s, and it makes Tom feel a different kind of on-the-spot. There’s judgement instead of analysis. Confirmation instead of suspicion, “I saw you in Dueling Club yesterday--I I was wondering if you would, um, do me the honor of maybe teaching me some of those jinks?”

---

The early afternoon sun bathes the library in a gentle orange glow, creating the perfect atmosphere for a nap. Tom walks in, eyes scanning for his new tutor, hands clutching his textbooks. He spots her among a small group of third and fourth year girls speaking quietly in a language he does not understand, and approaches curiously, hand grazing over the head of a grey tabby lounging on their table. One of them, perhaps the oldest, notices him first and breaks out of their conversation to address Yami,

“ਦੇਖੋ.” A head gesture to him, “Company.”

She looks surprised to see him there, “You showed up.”

“I would never miss a lesson, it’s bad manners.” The tabby purrs and rubs her face into his hand, “I really want to learn, really really.

A few of her companions giggle under their breath, and the oldest commands them to move and set aside, “Come on, come on, he’s small, but make room for him anyways.”

“Desire is the first step.” Yami starts, sitting back into her seat as Tom takes the chair perpendicular to her, while the other girls settle down, “Magic is not free from passion. Remember that.”

He will.

The rest of the hour runs by like a 101 class: All vocabulary, all theory, all warnings. And despite this, Tom does not find himself bored or frustrated with the information. There are no names or descriptions of spells like he had initially wanted, unfortunately, but there is wisdom. Controlling spells that are notorious for turning on the caster, concentration for spells that required eye-contact, and countercursing when you have no countercurses, to name a few. The whole group contributes their own experiences and advice with him, often giving paradoxical comments and erupting in silly debates: Two of the girls show him proper wrist movement on a hex, while the other two argue that it would be better if he learned how to do without his wand.

“No, that’s too advanced for him!”

“Any idiot can do it if they pay attention.”

“Who are you calling an idiot.”

“Well, not you, since you can’t do it.”

Conclusion: magic is not a one size fits all.

Despite the bickering, he can feel the camaraderie in the air. Their bond. To be this near it, to be (dare he say) a part of it was...Nice.

But it ends. One by one, the group leaves for a class, or for a date or lunch, until he alone remains with Yami and the grey tabby, notebook filled up and hand cramping. The low murmur of students in the room gone and replaced with the turning of pages and occasional humming of the library aide.

“And--Can I ask you something?”

“It’s all you’ve done this whole hour.” What a charmer.

“Why do some of the students avoid wands?”

“It’s common in many places to not use wands.”

But why?” Tell him what he wants to know, Goddammit.

Yami pauses, just for a moment, “When you perform magic with your wand, do you feel a disconnect?”

Intrigue, “What do you mean?”

“Does it not feel like you’re...Breathing through a tube? Wearing gloves while putting on clothes?” She stumbles rather gracefully through words, searching for the right comparison, “Like hot tea through a strainer.”

Tom nods once.

“And when you do magic without a wand, does it feel the same?”

A breath of hesitation, “I can do little magic like that.”

But you can, right?” She sees through him, and Tom nods again. “No matter how small or weak...You feel that connection stronger, yes? Not more amplified...But stronger.” Yami is careful to make this differentiation, “It’s difficult to bond enough with your wand to erase that feeling completely, but you can do it, in the end.”

“You teach like Ximena,” A casual comment, but he looks up at his tutor to see her reaction, “clear and confusing.”

Sepia lips pull back to a look of contempt, “Oh, her.”

“Do you know her?” Leaning forward, he makes sure to sound eager on purpose. Might as well use the ‘crush’ excuse to its full potential. ‘Tell me about her.’ His posture says.

Yami sits straighter in her seat, head rising, dark hair falling over her shoulders to create a thin curtain between herself and Tom. Her eyes look ahead at nothing. “She is shrouded in a veil of hope.” Her gold earrings tremble, but her head holds still, “I’ve only seen such dire need of purification from maledicti.” A shake of her head, eyes shut, pushing the idea aside, “Come, it’s unsavory to gossip, your class starts soon.”

Tom wonders if it’s a common trait among foreigners to speak in riddles.

---

What he learned in the library was worth more than he originally thought. Application to charms and transfiguration were the first to show results, and the last (and most surprising) was flying. Control of your broom and control of a hex dance in similar circles. He’s excited to share his progress and own findings to Ximena, and even more to ask about some things that Yami declined to explain.

Tonight’s dinner is meat stuffed into circular pockets made of something that reminds him of pasties composed with naan. She cuts into them with a knife and fork, and as steam escapes, she picks the halves up with her hands and bites in.

Tom’s plate holds blood pudding.

Exchanging pleasantries, he wastes no time, “Ximena?”

“Hm?” She wipes the corner of her lips with her thumb, mouth half full.

“What are maledicti?” The subtle halt in her eating is noted, and waiting on her answer while she finishes chewing and swallowing her bite is enough to make his fingers tap in antsy anticipation.

“Cursed women.” The food is set down on her plate and washed down with her milk-white iced drink, “You remember the witch from the dueling club meeting, Acarya? People like her, her family, they break these kinds of things. Or alter them.” Specks of something caramel colored swirl in the glass as she sets it down before her hat, “Here,” Her hand presses down on the book of the day (purple and only two centimeters thick) and slides it towards him, “If you’re curious.”

A tremor slithers through his heart and out his fingers as he grasps the edges of the book delicately, “Thank you.” Something like elation or thrill finds its way out of his mouth in the form of a laugh. It surprises him. He opens up the book immediately to drink in the contents, only half aware of the half amusement coming from his seatmate. The half amusement becomes clear when he reads a few sentences: it might as well be an academic paper translated from Ancient Runes, to Mandarin, to Finnish, back to Mandarin, and finally English. That is, it is difficult to decipher and frustrating to even try. Vocabulary and citations he knows nothing of mock him openly as he strains his tired eyes over Ximena’s handwritten notes in the margins, and almost huffs when he realizes it’s not in English.

“Simple translation spell.” As if she were reading his mind, “Few to choose from, but the notes aren’t important to your questions.” That makes the frustration worse. “Don’t worry about it.”

Skimming through a couple of more pages, Tom settles on a detailed illustration spread depicting symptoms of the Evil Eye and begins to read quietly for the rest of the hour.

---

The first few duels of the next meeting are chaotic and dynamic, and met with a newfound understanding of the skill possessed by the older children. Even the lackluster ones, whom Tom had taken for fools, show a cool and concise knowledge that he had not noticed before.

Unfortunately, his guide interrupts his study when he walks up to him.

“Been training up on those jinks, Riddle?” Tom sits to Ximena’s left, looking up at the older boy as he bites into an apple, “Heard you got some special tips from Acarya last week.”

“Just some advice, no real spells.” Disappointment is laced through his words, but he is anything but, “And demonstrations!”

“Aye, I bet that was a sight to see. Well don’t worry about her, she’ll loosen up in no time, Acarya’s a tough nut to crack.” His shoulders roll back in a stretch, “She’s worse than Lane here,” a hand slaps gently on her back in jest. She hmphs. “Didn’t bother to supervise our little house member at his lessons last week?”

“She’s good at what she does.” A simple and honest answer. He prods out more.

“Oi, I know you’re quiet, Lane, but I would call her more than good.” A coy, albeit conniving, smile, “Or are you jealous?” A wink at Tom.

Ximena blinks once, tilting her head back for a moment, mouth ajar in thought, “...No.” She nods once, satisfied with her answer, and returns to her book.

If you say so.” The buffoon is unsatisfied, “Don’t worry, Riddle here knows that one in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What in the Goddamn. “Awful nice of you to finally share him with the rest of us. though.”

For Merlin’s sake, what is he doing? Tom wants to know about her past, not about her feelings.

She spares a glance at Tom as if she hadn’t realized he was there, “I’m not his keeper.” Voice as calm and even as a glass of water on a sturdy table, “Acarya is a good student. He’ll learn a lot from her.” This, Tom knows by himself of course, but somehow hearing it from her own mouth solidifies his faith.

The current duel between two sixth year boys ends in a painful draw, and they clear the area swiftly before the next announcement is made:

“Let’s call on some students who haven’t been active, yes?” The professor drawls out teasingly, turning her wand in her gloved hands, “Miss Lane? Miss Acwellan?”

It takes Ximena a moment to register her surname (she was busy scratching the side of her thumb with her index finger, as one does), and when it finally processes, she looks about as nervous as a first year at their first flying lesson. The crowd, however, feels about as excited as a first year at their first flying lesson.

Miss Acwellan, on the other end of the room, is someone Tom has only spoken to in the classroom. They share a cauldron in Potions, and it took about four seconds into their first conversation for her to swear like a sailor and repel him for the rest of the hour. Perhaps since she’s here as a first year, he was mistaken to do so.

Hedwig[2] Acwellan tosses her hair out of her eyes with a quick headbang to the side, face blank and body language confident. Her sister beside her warns her of cockiness, and is quickly spurned off with a rude hand gesture. That’s better. Tom almost didn’t recognize her without her lack of manners (her silence is uncanny when she wears it, if he does say so himself.) She steps forward to the set dueling area, drawing her ashwood wand from her expensive robes and aims it squarely at her opponent, not bothering to bow first.

Ximena Lane gathers herself from whatever place her head was at before this moment and steps forward to face Hedwig, chin tilted upwards and back straight. The look in her eyes makes Tom tense as she reaches for her own wand in the depths of her sleeve:

A small branch, perhaps about 25 centimeters, with sprigs of leaves appearing to be growing out of it. Two thick and stiff vines intertwining together. To Tom, it looked like two green snakes coiling around each other. Ximena raises it awkwardly, as if she didn’t know what she was supposed to do with it. She does not bow either.

“Begin.”

The match does not erupt in sparks and light as the previous ones did, but rather with held breath and sizing up. Some students are disappointed, and attempts to egg both witches on start. Tom, of course, is silent: eagerly awaiting the next few moments…

Hedwig moves first, with the narrowing of her eyes and a fast flick of her wrist, her well known booming voice fills the room as her first spell is cast,

“Lacarrnum inflamari.”

Spitting fire licks its way to Ximena, who only stands still and causes the hair on the back of Tom’s neck to rise. The chill does not subside as the fire forks in front of the girl to avoid her--Without a movement of her own wand. In fact, Ximena looks to be unable to move out of...Nerves?

“Exerte statum.”

A bright light and gust of wind blaze through Ximena and leave her short hair wild, but she remains unharmed. A few students lingering too close to the parameters behind her were shoved violently back. Still, she does not move.

Bombarda.

Hedwig cannot be discouraged. Her confidence does not wain, and her knowledge of spells is heavy (in fact, it was quite annoying to Tom because they were spells he didn’t know himself and maybe he really was too hasty in writing her off--). With every spell, she has strided forward closer to Ximena, as if physical closeness would help.

A half moon crater erupts before the silent witch, crumbs and chunks of jagged stone blowing in varying directions with dust clouds. The crowd in the front of the spectacle cough and wave their arms, but Ximena remains the same.

At this, students were, to put it lightly, uproariously taunting and cheering on Hedwig all at once. The professor overlooking their session looked pleased and intrigued by the duel, despite her instructions to keep the spells at a first year level[3].

Show her who you are!

“You can’t manage to beat a mute?”

“Where are your knickers, Acwellan!”

Her onslaught continues onward, with spells and hexes of varying natures and levels without much change. His fellow students grow eager. Bellicose. With the tension of a tightly wound lute string, they all seem ready to pounce on Ximena themselves to get her to do anything. Move, speak, cry, attack--

“Don’t get cocky.” Hedwig’s sister’s voice rings as clear as a bell through the chaos, and Tom spares her a glance: she bares the look of the wise older sister. Patient and all-knowing. For a moment it makes his eyes narrow before…

“Expelliarmus.”

The wrist holding up her wand appears to snap to her right like a rubber band before rippling out through her body: Ximena is visibly shaken and she stumbles to find her balance with her eyes on the ground before looking wide-eyed up at Hedwig and the bare wrist still holding up her unusual wand. Hedwig’s smirk is the loudest thing in the room.

“Stupify.”

“Titexicoz.”

So quick and quiet, Tom could barely make out the words, a spell at last leaves Ximena’s lips, forming a bubble-like sphere of particles that rushed outwards to meet Hedwig’s stupifying spell.

White hair is thrown back as the once shield envelopes Hedwig, throwing her back into her sister’s arms, meters away, and fluttering her robes violently. The effect dies a silent death in a silent room as everyone pauses to access what had happened. Tom stays rigidly still, watching and waiting, eyes darting from Ximena to Hedwig. Hand closed tight in a fist.

Again, Hedwig reacts first.

“I--I won.

Audible noises of confusion fill the room as her sister’s hand moves hair out of Hedwig’s face and feels her head for any bumps, “What?

“I won.” She repeats, thinking the other misheard her, surely. “I won, didn’t you see? She finally fell back, she’s disarmed, I won.

A call for the professor is given, and Tom’s gaze locks solidly on Ximena:

Fresh sweat on her brow with heavy breath as if she had ran a marathon, her body appears to curl lightly into itself like a dry leaf. Left hand cradles her right wrist as if it were broken, wand slack in her fingers. The girl stares in disbelief at her own skin, and Tom’s lips wind into the satisfactory smirk of someone who knows more than he should know as he slips the torn beaded bracelet from his hand into the sleeve of his robe.

 

Chapter Text

When Tom wakes up to the sound of rain, the first year boy’s dormitory is empty and cold, and he knows immediately that something is wrong because he’s the only one who gets up early in this place because he’s the only one who takes himself seriously. The answer to why and where is quickly answered, however, as he dresses himself and walks down to the Slytherin common room to a noisy and growing crowd of his housemates cluttering around some poor witch or wizard sitting at a table--His first instinct is to roll his eyes and move past them to head to breakfast, but a piece of dialogue hooks itself to his ear: “How could you protect yourself like that without words or moving your wand?” And of course, he has to investigate. For research.

There are few times, such as now, when Tom thanks his small size as he brushes and pushes past children bigger than he, and is able to squeeze into a space inside Ximena’s nonexistent personal bubble. Her hands are clenched tight around a book in her lap and her body language screams discomfort. It’s almost amusing for him to see.

Mostly though, he wants the attention she’s getting.

Tom opens his mouth to catch her heed, but--“Holy fuck, Lane,” --his thoughts are interrupted by none other than yesterday’s loser, “You really had me taking the piss yesterday, I have to learn that spell you used, it came out of nowhere!” Hedwig slams her hands on the table and leans in uncomfortably close to Ximena, “I didn’t even hear you say it! What, were you hiding it somewhere in that beanstalk body?”

Ximena continues playing with the fabric of her robes and smiles uneasily at Hedwig, shoulders cinching up, “Ahum...I’d be happy to help you.” She swallows a lump in her throat, “Maybe later?”

As the foul-mouthed first year continues on, Tom watches with increasing irritation and growing possessiveness of his teacher.

“Riddle, you’re awake!” He’s suddenly noticed by his mentor, who places a hand on his shoulder in an over-familiar way, “Looks like you’ll have some competition, eh? Nice of you to finally share Lane with the rest of us.” Tom wants to wipe that smile off his face, “Now we understand why you’re so buddy with her.” He laughs, as if he had told a joke.

Yes, now they understand.

---

Heavy rain pelts angrily at the windows of his transfiguration lesson, almost drowning out Dumbledore completely were it not for his powerful vocals. The lecture, though fascinating, inspires little interest at the moment. Tom’s hand moves and takes notes dutifully, but his mind wanders every few seconds. Sometimes to the subject at hand, sometimes to the current situation at hand.

Speaking with Ximena has been an impossibility since dueling club. Few students approached her on her way out of the hall that day, and slowly he noticed more and more of them coming at her. He supposes he should have known better than to be surprised at yesterday morning’s apparent Ximena Fan Club meeting, but if you had only seen how some of these children treated her before this, well…

On their way to dinner the previous night, Ximena had excused herself and shuffled away from Tom before he could get a word in. He wasn’t (and isn’t) concerned at all, but her flighty behavior is cause for curiosity. Usually, she’s as collected and as dignified as a lioness, it’s something he likes about her. But now an animal he would compare her to is a scared sparrow. This morning, even, when he was walking to his DADA class, he had spotted her crouching behind a half-wall in an attempt to hide from what he could only assume were attention mongers: a far cry from the cool and concise girl of only a few days ago. A part of him wants to grow bored of her and her behavior, but another part relishes to see her so uppity. Perhaps if he jumped out at her or spooked her, she would scream or hop in fright!

His toad, Ambrose, croaks quietly, looking almost longingly out the window at the wet world outside. Tom shushes him lowly.

“...Of course, don’t go looking for any Mandrake leaves,” Dumbledore chuckles, remembering some long ago memory, “The plants are, of course, poisonous and notoriously acidic. We wouldn’t want to fill up the hospital wing with you all. Might I suggest Perilla leaves instead? They’re...”

...Yes, maybe that was the answer. Tom tails Ximena like a ducking to his mother, but every once in a while, she manages to whisk herself away somewhere. Rather than admit that she could outsmart him, it’s only reasonable that she be...

This morning, he had spotted her walking briskly away from a small horde of eager Ravenclaws, loud with questions. Eyes darting around for a proper escape, she brushed right past him without noticing him and turned a sharp corner. When the students caught up to her, they expelled noises of confusion, and when Tom went to see what they were talking about, he saw only a dead end[1].

His quill hovers over the next page in his notes, dripping ink onto the clean sheet. The mar disgusts him.

Dumbledore’s lesson ends with a reminder on an essay due Friday, and as Tom and his fellow students gather up their materials, he calls his name and asks him to approach his desk.

“Have a seat, please.” Tom blinks as a chair that was not previously there presses against the back of his knees. When he sits down, his feet dangle. “Something on your mind, Tom?”

Several somethings. “Sir?”

His professor chuckles, shaking his head, “Only curious, you looked deep in thought, and I was not entirely convinced that it was related to the lecture.” His hands fold over each other, “Getting on well with your housemates?”

“Wonderfully, sir.” He’s a rising star.

“Good, good.” Dumbledore says this less to Tom and more to himself, as if he were assuring himself of something. “I’ve been hearing several fastidious rumors about the Dueling Club’s last meeting,” From who, Tom wonders. “worried about Miss Lane?”

It absolutely irks him how much Dumbledore knows. He looks at Tom, and he feels on display. Like all his stolen goods back at Wool’s were out before him on a table set pretty and organized.

“Mmm.” Dumbledore continues with reserved interest when Tom does not respond, “She has changed little since I came to her a year ago.”

Tom sets down his hands on the table, head tilted, “You found her like you found me?”

“On a rainy Sunday afternoon, yes.” He comments, gazing out the window, “I cannot say the circumstances were exactly the same but...” Withholding information from the boy only makes him want it with more fervor. He wonders if he stops talking to keep him from knowing something or for the sake of Ximena’s privacy. “Miss Lane, I believe, is very alone.”

Professor Dumbledore pops one of the brightly colored sweets from the dish on his desk into his mouth, “Perhaps she does not crave attention, but rather company.” Said as if it were something he had just concluded. He writes out a note in an elegant script before folding it neatly and handing it over to him, “To excuse you for any tardiness on my part, Tom.” He winks, eyes twinkling, “Stay out of trouble, the prefects are always harsher on rainy weeks.”

Strange man, though correct. Even Tom, a model student, finds himself being scrutinized by the older students during rainy days. Back at Wool’s, he always thought it ridiculous that the mood of the matron and caregivers were so affected by something as little as rain. It’s not like they had anywhere to go, anything to do. No automobile to keep clean, no garden to keep safe, no decent shoes to mourn.

He feels an ugly nostalgia overcoming him as he walks through the corridors to his next class, eyes sliding over the grey castle and sky, the dirty puddles of water lingering on the sides of the halls, and the distant sight of Quidditch players practicing in the miserable rain. Tom freezes. He is seized by the terrible, awful thought, that if he blinks, he will be back at the orphanage. His eyes shut tight as he stops in his tracks, counting. One...Two...Three…

A lungful of musky, wet, cold air, he plunges his hand in his pocket and squeezes. Squeezes so tight, he is sure that his knuckles turn white. Safe. He is safe at Hogwarts. Safe away from Wool’s. Safe alongside his fellow witches and wizards.

He opens his eyes and rushes along to the end of the corridor.

---

The sun is elusive the rest of the week, and almost as hard to catch as Ximena. Were it any other situation, Tom would simply use up the time by getting to know more of his classmates or buttering up the professors, but no matter who he talks to during free period or where he sits at lunch, the little witch seems to slip into the conversation one way or another. It’s annoying. Everyone is putting their filthy hands all over his things. Everyone isn’t paying proper attention to him. Everyone seems to know more than him.

His spot has been taken up by all manner of people: first years, half-bloods, Gryffindors, Quidditch players, none of which Tom has ever seen talk to her before. He ease drops when he can and catches the most arbitrary and stupid questions being pegged at her, and he absolutely does not fume in jealousy when she answers every. Last. One. Of. Them.

Sure, alright, her answers were about as helpful as the ones she gave him but that’s different. He has a limited amount of answers and conversation with her that he uses wisely and strategically, because when she’s done talking, she’s done. This is leagues different from the ridiculous inquiries given by the others. “Is silent magic common?” “What are you eating?” “Where did you learn English?” Ximena awkwardly answers as much as she can before she figures out an excuse to hurry away--Often with a first year or two trailing behind. She’s even stopped carrying her beloved books around. For what reason, Tom isn’t sure, but he speculates it has something to do with his hunch that she’s not allowed to be reading them.

He substitutes his time with her by reading the book she let him borrow. By now, he’s figured out that it’s a basic introduction to curses written for someone perhaps three or four years ahead of him. Already, he’s plowed through a good two-thirds of the way through it with his own annotations written in the margins alongside Ximena’s neat, printed script (he, himself, had made sure to only write in his best cursive). As for deciphering her notes, he had to take it upon himself to sneak into the fifth years and above section in the library to find a ‘simple translation spell.’ Her notes now read much easier, but there are some words that absolutely refuse to morph into English. Of course, these are the words and phrases that interest him the most. The ones that are underlined twice or circled to show importance.

For example, Tiger’s Eye will not protect you at sea or at night? And then under it, Nya b’a’n tu’n tchub’ key toj b’e, ku’n nlay ch’iyl twey? Which at first, Tom interprets as Ximena having an aneurysm on paper. The translation spell he chose first has no effect on it, and neither do the second, third, or fifth or tenth ones after it. Irritating. ‘The notes aren’t important to your questions.’ Bollocks. She’s hiding something and he’s going to find out what it is. With or without her cooperation. Or help.

As for what a maledictus is, he hasn’t gotten to that part yet. He expects to reach it soon, as the only two sections left in the book are curses that are hereditary, and curses that transform the victim into something else. It’s in this section that holds the majority of ink from Ximena’s pen, which has him all the more pressed to find a spell that actually works on whatever second language she writes in--He’s damn sure she knows just the right one, but he can’t ask...

It’s okay, though, he tells himself, because eventually her popularity and their separation will be over and things will have returned to how they should be. Ximena will be done with their classmates’ capricious admiration, and be entirely focused on...What she should be focusing on. Which, just so happens to include him. Completely by coincidence.

He expects it to happen by the end of the week.

His solace, and console, is Potions class. Professor Slughorn is a knowledgeable, gullible idiot who seems determined to get into his good graces. As if he were a lord and Slughorn a pathetic, gleeful jester. Occasionally, when Tom is alone in the dormitories, he pretends to order Slughorn (and a few others) around. The adults at Wool’s, older students, world leaders he sees in books and hears about on the radio...He gives out commands and makes him do his bidding. Decrees and laws are laid out for them to follow. Sometimes, Ximena is there, in his imagination, and sometimes she is not. Usually though, she is sitting in his mind, watching him and nodding along in approval or agreement with his actions. His game brings a wonderful thrill to his soul, and makes him ever more impatient to come into his destiny.

“Fuck’s sake, look alive, Riddle.” His ill-mannered Potions partner mutters as Slughorn makes the rounds from table to table, “You’ve had your bloody head in the clouds all week, have you finally lost it?”

It takes more than he thinks to refrain from giving her a nasty hive hex for speaking to him like that, and instead he blinks owlishly, “Sorry, sorry, just troubled.” No room for asserting his power when there’s this many witnesses.

Hedwig nods once, unconvinced, “Alright well, stop being troubled, there’s top marks on the line, yeah?” She blows a loose strand of cotton like hair out of her face before tucking it behind her ear, “And no one is going to stand in my way of it.”

His partner’s ambitions and good-breeding just about make up for the terrible company she makes, alongside her good knowledge of spells. Tom had, in fact, been meaning to ask her for a spare afternoon of her time, but unfortunately Hedwig (along with being gifted and on her way to the top) was also obsessed with the common stupidities of their fellow first years. There is also the matter of her protective older sister, who looks down at Tom for what he can only conclude is his unknown blood status.

Slughorn reaches their table and beams brightly at them him, “What can I expect from you both today, then?”

“A simple healing draught for bruises, sir.” Hedwig answers,

“An alternative to moxibustion[2]?” He raises a brow, smiling at the two of them, “I’ll be eagerly awaiting, then.”

When he steps away to check on the next pair, Tom turns to his partner, a bit vexed, “I thought we agreed on attempting to create a simple sleeping draught.” His voice makes it sound as if he’s upset and disappointed rather than annoyed with the nerve of the girl.

“This idea is better. He’ll be more impressed.” Her fingers dab around their table for the right ingredients, “You’re smart, Riddle, you can adapt.” She’s right, and she should say it, but honestly.

Tom refrains from mocking her under his breath and takes a look at the ingredients set out before him and pieces together in what order and in what quantities they should put in the cauldron. Though his seatmate is brash, he admits that there’s sense in what she said: a few other top students in their class are trying for a sleeping draught. Internal healing is just advanced enough to set them--him--apart from the rest. Luckily, she has half a brain and a good eye for quality ingredients, otherwise he’d have to carry the both of them.

Atmosphere peaceful and studious, Slughorn announces that he would be right back, and that if anyone were to need him, he could be found just down the hall in Professor Alder’s classroom. As expected, the quiet lasts little once he leaves the room.

“Hey, some of my ingredients are missing!” Tom glaces to his left behind Hedwig, to a Ravenclaw making an absolute spectacle out of nothing.

The student’s partner is quick to chime in, “Probably taken by Badi over there,” Cruel and accusing laughter is thrown at the shy, feeble, umber-skinned boy in the corner, “he can’t help it, it’s in his blood[3].”

“Feck off, you stupid sods.” Hedwig throws a spare stirring spoon at their classmate’s head with such accuracy, she could be a future beater in Quidditch, “Leave him alone before I decide to stop being nice.”

“We were just having a jest, Acwel--”

“Did I give you permission to talk back to me?”

Fumbled apologies are hastily given to the Slytherin elite as she huffs with satisfaction and turns her attention to Tom, “It’s so stupid, how they treat him. We’re all the same, in the end.”

“What do you mean?” Tom prompts, full attention on his potions partner.

“Badi is pureblood.” A well known fact, “Magic blood should stick together.” She states very matter-of-factly, sprinkling dried mugwort into the cauldron, “Don’t you think?”

The mugwort releases a smokey brown cloud within the translucent potion, and the smell of burnt wheat fills his nostrils before blooming into the strong scent of sage, blending in with the petrichor from outside.

“Yes.”

---

Finding his quiet housemate is more of a chore than ever, now that there are countless others searching out for her. Tom repeats in his mind the suspicion that, like most fads, that his classmates’ interest in Ximena will die silently in favor of the next big thing. Like a new broom model or an attractive teacher. Luckily, he wasn’t jealous or anything about any advice or tips or lessons or general words of wisdom given to any student who wasn’t him. Luckily. He’s above all that nonsense. Besides, he was here first, and is more important than those...leeches.

Ehem.

Luckily, Tom knows her favourite spot in the library to read in: a secluded corner behind a shelf filled with several dusty Mongolian manuscripts containing detailed instructions for brewing medicine out of mare’s milk[4]. There is a cozy red armchair that maybe one or two people could curl up in and sleep for a few hours because the painting sitting before it has nothing that makes any loud noises (a slow babbling brook and birdsong is just the right thing to lull a tired student to sleep), and more than once, he had followed Ximena to that very spot and sat perpendicular to her as she skimmed through that day’s tome.

When he arrives, however, he does not find her reading.

Since last week, he had noted the changes in her demeanor. Slumped shoulders, bagged eyes, unbrushed hair, and nervous tics, to name a few. Always looking over her shoulder, always sending second looks at any passerby, always double checking underneath her seat or book or arms…Tom first attributes it to her discomfort with all the attention, but that is only because he is very good at lying, even to himself.

“Ximena?” His face softens as his eyebrows rise and press together in concern. When she reacts to his presence with shocked bemusement, he continues, “Are you alright?”

Her lips form a thin line in thought, catching words before she’s able to speak them, “I--have...Have you...” She blinks, and raises herself tall in her seat, looking over his head behind him, “You weren’t followed, were you?” Her paranoia is almost comical.

“No.” He knows better than that. He wants her time for himself. “Everyone is at Hogsmeade.”

A shuddering breath of relief slides past her mouth as she relaxes back into the chair, “Oh thank God.” Her hand massages her temples, “They’re relentless. Beasts.”

“You don’t like them?” Tom walks closer while her head is turned away.

“I...” She begins, “...I am better in darkness.”

He kneels, placing his arms and chin up on the armrest, trying his best to look as cute as possible, “Better when no one’s watching?” His eyes do not leave her form.

A subtle nod, “It is better when eyes pass over me. When no second glances are given. When I am just another face.” She squeezes her eyes shut, “I shouldn’t have dueled Acwellan.”

But you were so good!” His praise isn’t empty. Not really. “I’ve never seen you do magic before.” They both know this is a lie but--

Ximena looks at him directly for the first time in their conversation, eye contact and all, and pauses, “I wasn’t good, I was prepared.” She pushes back her humid, frizzy hair and bites her lower lip hard. It blooms red. “Wand magic, what was I thinking, using--” A deep and sudden inhale of breath as she covers her face, exasperated, “And then I lost it! I lost it and I’m lost too!”

What did you lose? Is next on his list to ask her, but it never comes out of his mouth. “Why is it important?” Ximena is not stupid, she’s caught him staring at it more than once.

“It’s all I have.” Her voice rises higher than normal, “It’s all I had when I arrived at the abbey.” Her hand covers her mouth as she shudders and blinks rapidly, “I didn’t know who I was, but I knew that was from someone who loved me.” Ximena’s voice is a weak and scared whisper, “It’s the proof I have. The proof that I am loved.”

It is here that, if Tom weren’t Tom, he would offer a hug or perhaps a comforting word on how she would find it soon. Of course, Tom is himself, so he does not know to do either of these things. Instead, he decides to lift his hand up and set it down gently and heavily onto Ximena’s free hand. He pats it once. Twice. And waits.

The red bracelet burns in Tom’s pocket. He can feel it. It pulls in Ximena’s direction, longing to be reunited with her naked wrist once again. His other hand encases it. Strangles it. Silences it. It’s his now. His only.

This moment, too, is his only. Her tears, her distress, her aching vulnerability. Her quiet sniffles and sharp intakes of breath are his. There are no ghost or paintings or even insects around with them to share the instance of fellowship. There is only them, the cold air, and the sound of heavy rain outside the castle.

Chapter Text

A-tisket a-tasket
A green and yellow basket
I wrote a letter to my mom
And on the way I dropped it,
I dropped it, I dropped it,
And on the way I dropped it.
A little boy he picked it up
And put it in his pocket.


On the end of the boulevard where Wool’s Orphanage is situated, there is a little used-to-be-white chapel that has seen better days. Built in 1858, its walls are cracked and crumbling, the pews creak when the slightest pressure is placed on them, and it seems as if the original congregation is still around--Or so Tom thinks based on their deeply wrinkled faces. He and the other children find themselves there every Sunday on behalf of the matron, and usually he spends his time there swinging his legs back and forth in his seat and looking up at the grotesque wax statues of saints and saviors long dead. During the rainy season, it always floods terribly, leaving slippery floors and puddles throughout the building. Despite all these factors, it was (and is) a good thinking spot. The clergy there are fond of silence and disdainful of music or any sort of ruckus, and so he associates with it peace. No loud playing from the other children or scolding yells from the caretakers, just him and whatever knick-knack he had taken from another child that week.

It’s this same atmosphere from the chapel that he encounters when he and Ximena return to the Slytherin common room. Even the fire in the hearth doesn’t seem to crackle, and the rain outside has calmed down enough to be properly muted by the Black Lake. There’s a moment of pause at the fork in the room where the corridors divide into the boys and girls dormitories, and Tom looks at Ximena out of the corner of his eye, calculating.

“I’ll see you at dinner?” His question pops the metaphorical bubble surrounding her, and she blinks at him as if she had awoken from a deep sleep.

“...Okay.” No eye contact is made, she turns her body away from him and walks to her designated side.

Ximena.

She turns to him, and makes eye contact.

The silence sinks deeper into the room, into their skin, making Tom feel like a stone being pressed down upon a strong current, lying in a riverbed. A part of that feeling though, he is loathe to admit, comes from the taller witch opposite of him. He’s not sure what part, though. The cold washing over him? The deep pressure he feels against his skin, against his chest? The not being able to breathe? Being able to see what’s in front of him so clearly yet hazily. Separated by power.

“...Nothing.” [1]

---

All of Hogwarts is in an uplifted mood the following day, and when walking through the hall, one can find themselves around cheerfully harmonizing ghosts, chattering students, and teachers with a little dance in their step. Warmth from the sun rays on his cheek is a foreign feeling after the great flooding of the past week, and the warmth from the school around him only contributes to the alienation.

Ximena stands out like an ink stain on a colorful dress.

As usual, Tom is right: the moment the last rain cloud cleared the school grounds, Ximena was left alone for the next big thing. Apparently someone’s cousin in Durmstag was a gifted fortune teller, and was open to receiving questions about the future via owl. While the idea appeals to Tom, he’s not so comfortable with sharing any goals or desires with someone he can’t make eye contact with or keep tabs on. Besides, he doesn’t need to talk to any distant fortune teller: He has decided for himself what his destiny is. Not fate or some God.

Sitting contently besides his...housemate on a bench in the main courtyard, he gives back the deeply studied and annotated book. Ximena, tired and hair tied back, looks up from feeding nearby crows, “Finished already?”

He almost quite literally couldn’t put it down, “I’m a fast learner.” Pridefully modest. Her hands take back the book delicately, and Tom preens when she opens up to the first couple of pages and runs her fingers curiously over his elegant script. That’s a look of approval in his book, thank you very much.

“That you are.” She retrieves a brown paper envelope from the bag at her feet to store and seal the book in.

“--You’re done with it too?” He tries to peek into her school bag.

“For now, I’m getting another.” From where, she doesn’t say, but Tom can tell by her tone and stance that, once again, she will not indulge his curiosity.

What a shame. He charmed the book for nothing.

The crow nearest them caws loudly, and Ximena returns to giving the birds bits of the flat maize bread. Tom eyes them with interest--birds and girl--and changes topic, “May I?” It comes out genuinely eager, and Tom almost makes himself cringe, but the feeling is washed away quickly by her immediate nod and exchange of food. The new giver of nourishment is met with some skepticism, but once he holds out his tiny gloved hand with the still warm morsels, the crows flock around him.

In silence, they stay like this until the hour ends.

---

In compliance with the ridiculous idea that he has feelings for her (it seems to gain him sympathy points from older students), Tom has been looking at other boys’ interactions with the fairer sex and takes note. Since his second week at Hogwarts, he’s found it strange that anything in the world gets done considering how clouded men’s minds get when thinking about a woman. A boy sitting close to him in his Herbology class is already failing due to his inability to keep his eyes away from a girl six seats away (and eleven class levels away). The boy knows that he’s failing, but it doesn’t stop him. Doesn’t he care? Is a pretty face really worth your education? Your future? Will the boy still stare at her when she’s moved on and forgotten about his existence? Grown old and wrinkled like a leather bag? He can’t understand it, particularly because some of the...tastes of his classmates range from questionable to annoying. Tom understands the beauty standards of today, and can perhaps give a small pass on that in regards to judgement, but skill? Potential? It’s almost as if these things didn’t matter.

Granted, it’s been of somewhat use so far in inviting other students to talk to him (as stated before, he’s easily swayed the topic of conversation to more useful things), however, in his observations these past few weeks, he sees no similarities what-so-ever, aside from (maybe) sticking close and initiating conversations, but isn’t that also done with friends? Sitting together at meals isn’t romantic (the candles weren’t placed there by him, they’re the only source of light in the Great Hall), studying together isn’t tender (they’re alone because everyone prefers goofing around to learning), and walking side by side isn’t passionate (besides, she walks fast, and it’s hard to keep up.) What are they seeing that he isn’t? Is he missing something? No, that’s stupid, he’s an excellent observer, what could he miss? They don’t feed each other spoonfuls of food from their plates, they don’t look deeply into each other’s eyes for hours on end, and they certainly don’t send each other lovey-dovey notes during class (the later of which, his mentor is apparently infamous for--he’s been through a few girlfriends).

Ah right, his mentor. He had a few things to say about Tom and Ximena. Even if (if) Tom had a special liking to her, the older boy’s advice was unwanted, unsolicited, and damn annoying (he can court a lady just fine on his own, he’s sure. If he tried. Maybe. Probably.) Every so often, he drops a line about Ximena’s background that sounds promising, but when Tom bites said line, it only leads to more dating advice. What kind of eleven year old needs advice on that sort of thing? Bring her flowers? Learn to dance? Go on a date? They’re children, where is there to go on an outing? What is there to do?

Of course, even idiots have their days.

“Don’t be a prat, Riddle, carry her books once in a while.”

An excellent idea--It’ll be much easier to skim through them, then. Or take them. Whatever comes first. He misses the book he borrowed madly, and wants so much to dig into another one. The hour with Yami four days ago has satiated him for a good while, but his mind grows hungry for more. He’s not entirely sure if he can wrangle up another hour of her time, though. Ever since his inquisitiveness on her and Ximena’s relationship, she’s been as callous towards him as she was before they were properly introduced. Scratch that, she’s been mannerly enough to greet him in the common room, pass him food in the Great Hall, and let him sit at her table in the library, but any attempt at conversation is executed with little fanfare. Something about it being “wrong to speak ill behind another’s back”, which personally just sounds superstitious to Tom, though to be fair, is there really such a thing as superstition to a wizard?

And so, he turned to Hedwig.

It is undeniably undeniable (redundancy deliberate) that he had made a hasty mistake in brushing his contemporary aside because of her uncouthness. Displayed in the classroom, and then a duel, she has managed to prove herself worthy of a second guess. A reconsideration. Even he makes fumbles, he’ll admit, but not very often. Ehem.

Also helping the girl was her status within the wizarding world. Rich and pure-blooded, people are already desperate to throw themselves at her eleven-year-old feet for the slightest chance of being grazed by the underside of her shoe. It was a different sort of commanding presence than Ximena. Two sides of the same knut to be cliché[2]. Ximena is admired silently. Like a pattern on an ornate rug or a beautiful tiara.She’s do-not-speak-unless-spoken-to-and-even-then-it’s-not-guaranteed-that-she’ll-acknowledge-you. She owns herself. Hedwig owns everyone in the room. Hedwig demands respect. Notice. Recognition. It’s annoying. It’s useful. It’s admirable. Being a part of her social circle is...favorable.

And so, he secures a personal lesson during free period.

Contrast to his past personal tutoring sessions, Tom heads outside to the crisp, cool Hogwarts grounds at Hedwig’s request. It’s chilly, still wet from last night’s downpour, but not altogether unpleasant. All the water from last week’s rains have caused an absurd amount of daisy-like flowers to spring up throughout the grounds, making the air sweet and fresh with perfume and dew. Far-flung, beyond the mountains, there is a faint rainbow pouring down from a distant cloud.

Walking along the perimeter of the Black Lake, he spots Hedwig alone underneath a tall willow tree playing cat’s cradle with a bright vermillion thread.

“Did ya bring the goods, Riddle?” Straight to business, as usual. Tom produces the coconut macaroons he had gotten from the kitchens earlier, and Hedwig’s face lights up like a lumos maxima spell, “Fuck yes, I knew I could rely on you.” She takes his payment eagerly and tucks it safely away in her dragonskin schoolbag before picking herself up and brushing off the grass from her elegant robes, “Did ya bring your wits about you, too?”

“Of course.” He never goes anywhere without them.

“Good, good.” She sniffs, rubbing her button nose, “Wand out, let’s get started.”

If Yami is a theoretical teacher, Hedwig is a hands-on one. Her idea of a beginner spell for him is Levicorpus of all spells, and she tells him to practice it on passing Hufflepuffs (‘Don’t worry Riddle, that one’s my cousin, he’s a foul git, I’ll tell him I made you do it.’) Luckily, he had read about a good chunk of them in the sections of the library he had snuck into with Ximena, so he didn’t dilly dally much on wrist movements or enunciation, it was straight to intention. Straight to casting. He’s not bad. Definitely not bad for a first year with no magical upbringing. He tries the spell subtly on the boy walking a few meters away, and really only succeeds in tripping him up a bit in the air, about thirty centimeters (‘Aye that’s the fucking ticket, Riddle, I didn’t think you’d actually hit him on first try.’) He doesn’t have Hedwig’s absurd prodigy skills, but he tries not to let that bother him because she, like many, have years of practice on him: Dumbledore had mentioned the strict laws regarding underage wizardry, and it was obvious to him by now that laws meant nothing to old, rich pureblooded families. Well, almost nothing. Their privilege was just that: a privilege. Not a right, despite what many might try to argue...

As for abstract teachings, the most she has for him are intimidation tactics, of which he has seen before, most notably in the duel against Ximena. When he asks her about this, she sighs.

“Oh yeah, you can’t let people treat you like some kind of minge, you know?” She flips her wand in the air like a baton, “Be boisterous, and be defeated--As my sister can tell you.” Her face gives a sour look, “Lane never did tell me about that spell she used.” A harsh sneeze. Tom spares a ‘bless you.’ “Thanks--I bet she’s been keeping it to herself, the bastard.” Hedwig cracks her neck, “Can’t blame her, though, I’m sure she likes the attention.”

Tom begs to differ, “You think so?”

“Oh yeah, that wallflower? I’m sure she enjoyed her time in the sun.” Another sneeze, “I don’t talk with her a lot, but my sister tells me about her.”

He perks up visibly.

The girl snerks, “Got it bad, don’t you, ya wanker?” A laugh, perhaps cruel and perhaps not, “Sis invited her over during a few holidays in the past. Not sure what for, they spent it away and locked up in her room.”

Tom almost snaps his wand in half, “Was your family alright with that?”

Hedwig snorts, keeping in another sneeze, “You’ll find my sister cares little about what our family wants or thinks.” She practices an impediment jinx on a passing fly, he watches it freeze in midair, “I’m planning to usurp her.”

For a foul-mouthed eleven year old, she sure is well spoken. Tom supposes that’s just what being a high-bred, high-class eleven year old brings you.

His eyes gleam, “Oh?”

“Aye, but it’s no damn secret, I tell her that every night at dinner.” Wand waving, she dances the little fly around as if it were a toy, “We’re always in high competition, it’s how we were raised. I actually fucking think our parents want us to fight to the death one day.”

The impediment jinx wears off, but Hedwig’s control of the fly remains. It wiggles desperately, pathetically, in search for an escape. After a rather violent sneeze, she complies.

“Lane’s unknown blood status doesn’t bother her?”

“Oh na, I mean, what kind of mudblood has those kind of skills, am I right?” She rubs her eyes, “Fecking allergies...And even if she was one...Well, she’s no slag, right? We can make an exception for usefulness. She’s still a witch.”

Interesting.

“I thought maybe your sister didn’t like me because of...” He trails off, implications galore.

“That munter?” Annoyed, but amused laughter, “Ya no, she’s just creeped out by you. Thinks you look like a nonce.”

Ah.

“Oh.” Tom tries to sound hurt, rubbing and playing with the tips of his fingers in sheepishness as Hedwig gets another rush of sneezes.

“No no, don’t mind her, she’s just a pillock.” Rubbing her pink-ening nose, she dismisses his apparent hurt, “Doesn’t trust anyone, that one. Especially men.” A snort, “Not that you’re a man yet, Riddle, no offence.” Some taken. “It’s a wonder she even trusts me sometimes...”

“She trusts Lane, then?”

The allergy ridden girl ceases her wand fiddling, and a slight befuddled look crosses her face, “Huh...You bring up a good bloody point, Riddle.” A sniff, “I don’t think she does, I think she sees her as something to study...We’ll see, we’ll see.”

She switches the topic to spells again, and this time she goes over a few advanced spells taught to her by her family. The majority of them are attack spells, meant for duels and executions--The ones in the later category aren’t demonstrated, but she promised (half laughing) that he would get his chance should there be a war in the near future.

“The bat bogey hex is a big favourite of mine, it’s shut up my little cousins more than once, I’ll tell you that. It’s a little advanced to say the least, but if you practice now, you’ll have the upperhand in a few years.” She points her wand at a murder of crows nearby, “Try it out on those over there.”

A slight moment of hesitation, “They’re so small, won’t that kill them?”

Hedwig shrugs, “Perhaps.” A glance over at him, “They’ve been bothering the owls these past few weeks, attacking them, killing their young, being general pests--Either way, you’ll be helping out the school.” She shoots the hex at one, and it sputters in bewilderment as bats sprout from the nostrils on its beak. Cawing, it flies away to a distant tower.

“Balls.” Hedwig sighs, “Want to give it a try?”

Glancing up in the tall tree where the black birds were situated, Tom prepares his wand, recites the incantation, and deploys the spell at the biggest crow on the branch nearest to him.

It shakes, much like the victim of Hedwig’s hex, but instead of recovering swiftly, it tumbles pitifully to the ground as the formed bats fly away--beak torn grotesquely open. It lies dead and still. Above him, the murder cackles and cries in a chorus.

His tutor for the hour whistles, “Nasty. Good shot, Riddle.” Hands resting on her hips, she approaches the body, “Shit, they’re not going to be messing with you anytime soon.” Wand pointed, a spell he doesn’t recognize leaves her lips, and the body sinks into the ground, leaving only a deep red mark upon the grass, “I think hexes are your strength, have you been practicing before this?”

“I had some help from Acarya.” And a selection of her companions, but mostly her, “I learned a lot about them.”

“Aye, Acarya’s good--She’s a fucking roaring flame, really--but she’s so...” Her right hand rolls loosely by the wrist, “Radical.” A sniff of her reddening nose, “As bad as Lane sometimes, but at least she doesn’t go around spouting blood traitor talk, yeah? Bloody embarrassing, that one.” Shakes of her head send her cotton candy hair outwards like fog. Tom purses his lips in both doubt and amusement.

“What’s a blood traitor?” He can assume but we all know what happens when one does that.

“What? Oh right right, I forget you’re a special case.” Her wand is twirled and spun around her fingers casually, “Wizards who mingle and associate with muggles are blood traitors. Choosing mingings over your own magical brothers and sisters? Considered shameful, to say the least.” Another sneeze, another curse. “Bugger. Learn what you can from Acarya, Riddle, but be careful who you make friends with here: they’ll decide your future in the wizarding world, for sure.” Her hand ceases its twirling of her wand, and it comes to a stop, pointing directly at him.

“Thank you, Acwellan.”

---

In quiet anticipation of Hallowe’en, the Great Hall is decorated with an assortment of decorations, ranging from colorful, warm earth tones to the deepest of blacks. Though macabre, they are rather elegant, and Tom finds himself appreciating the atmosphere created. He wondered how wizards celebrate Hallowe’en: did they fly into towns and terrorize Muggles? Take treats and feast until dawn? Dance in graveyards and summon the dead?

The return of Ximena’s ever-changing books is a sign of normalcy, and he peeps up about it when he sits down next to her during dinner, placing his bowl of hot potato soup beside a skeletal centerpiece on the table. It lies open in front of her, about somewhere in the middle, he reckons, to a page with words he can barely make out in bold, faded letters placed at the top, along with insanely small text situated underneath. There are illustrations of plant life on the opposite page.

“New one already?”

His presence, once again, seems to shock her, “Yes, I just got it.” Her supplier works fast. “It’s good you came,” she shuts her book just as Tom was about to read the elusive header, of which he was only able to read: Pat...Albularyo. The cover of the book is obscured by her arm as she pushes it away.

He blinks and shakes his head, “Sorry?”

She reflects his blink, and it’s the first time he’s noticed how big her eyes are, “I said I had almost forgotten to eat.” Damn. Shouldn’t have said anything. Resting her fingertips at the edge of the table, Ximena’s dinner blossoms before her: A bright green sauce drapes over tube like wrappings of what his nose tells him is chicken. It sits pretty and messily beside firey orange rice and black beans. To the side of her plate lies a gravy boat filled with a thick white cream that Ximena generously pours on the top of her food. Her drink is a steaming cup of foamy hot chocolate. It is the first time Tom has seen the beginning of her meal.

She lowers her head and clasps her two hands together in silence. Tom realises she is praying.

Finished, she finally begins, and his obnoxious guide saunters over before he can ask her about her meal. Sitting across from the two of them, he claps his hands twice, as if ordering an invisible servant around, and a plate with only a roasted turkey leg appears.

“Evening, comrades.” He says smoothly, not bothering to remove his hat, “Good to see everything back to normal.” His voice is laced with amusement, biting into his turkey leg, “The currents of fame are fickle, eh, Lane? Just like last year.” She nods, paying more attention to her food than to him. “Better hope Willow doesn’t call on you again this week, I guess. Or any other time in the future.”

Ximena stops eating. Blinking, she remains paused for a few moments before continuing, “I’ll hope hard, then.” Her free hand taps its nails rhythmically on the wood table. It almost sounds musical enough to be familiar.

“No ambition to be the top duelist? That’s not very Slytherin of you.” A chuckle, perhaps a teensy bit condescending, “I’m joking, I’m joking, I know how you work.” He gave no room for anyone to be offended of his questioning of her house placement, but Tom finds it is just like him to think that everyone around him is his audience.

“I am not a showoff.” Ximena corrects.

“True, true.” He nods, “Red and gold just doesn’t suit you like green and silver, yeah?”

Tom tilts his head, “But nobody wears their house colors.”

“It’s all in the soul, Riddle.” He forms a fist and beats it to his breast, “We’re Slytherins, our souls are made of the same stuff.” How poetic.

Ximena looks unconvinced. Perhaps she is about to say something on the subject, but his docent is called over by a rowdy pack of fourth years. He calls back to them with a dashing smile before he slips out of his seat, “See you later, Lane. Riddle.” A nod to the young boy as he trots away to his friends, turkey leg in hand.

“Chiflado.” Ximena shakes her head and continues eating. Tom isn’t sure if she’s annoyed or amused.

“Sorry?” He prompts again, for the second time that night.

There’s that look again, the look he hates. “Oh? Oh, yes, it um..” Her hand grabs at the air as if trying to grasp the proper translation, “Crazy? Silly? Out there?” A hum, “I don’t mean it in the worst way, really, but sometimes...” Her voice trails.

“I understand.” Completely, “He’s a bit of a buffoon, don’t you think?” He tries for a smile, friendly and relatable.

“A little, yes.” She sucks her teeth, “Useful, though.”

Tom knows how he’s useful to him, but how is he useful to her?

“Did he tell you about the kitchens too?” His hands rest on the table, cradling themselves.

“Kitchens? What?” Having spaced out again, she returns to the conversation, “Oh no no, I, hm.” Blinking rapidly, she tries to orient herself, “His, ah, family, they’re well known for keeping records, you see.” She clears her throat, “Family trees, death dates, trials, that sort of thing.” Her hands reach for a salt shaker, “It’s quite nice for history essays.”

It’s quite nice for other things too.

---

Excusing himself from dinner early, Tom catches a few precious moments alone in the dormitory. That is to say, he catches two of the heaviest sleepers in his year snoring away on the other side of the room. Unsatisfied with this, he brings out his wand to impose an even deeper slumber, and casts a charm intended to bring a restful sleep. His housemates flutter their eyes ever so slightly before falling still, only moving to breathe.

Tucked away in a little corner nook, Tom approaches his bed and ignites his lantern with a flick of his wand. It glows steadily and eerily in the surrounding darkness as he removes his hat and places it neatly on its designated stand. Then, carefully, he slides out his locked trunk from underneath his bed and opens it, reaching his hand inside...

There was no way she would have noticed, he made sure of that. He tested out his charm on six students and a teacher: the book was unmarred by any other eye.

He shares his secret, he shares what he’s done, with the wooden side table at his bed and the burning gaslight of his personal lantern.

Before him: a single page, a single edge ripped. Pale taupe parchment, smooth and fuzzy with time, covered with pitch print and varied comments and footnotes from both he and her. In the strong, concentrated light, the ink from her notation sheens a deep dark red. It’s most heavily concentrated around one of the book’s many illustrations, of which is captioned:

Fig. 1 Cornicello, cimaruta, and lunula: Italy.

And then, neatly below it,

Fig. 2 Traditional azabache bracelet from Latin America.

He lays the bracelet splayed out next to its near mirror illustration and smiles triumphantly, his fingers lining it up perfectly parallel with the black and white drawing. One step closer.

Tom leans his head back to admire the possession.

Soft scarlet red thread twined together with dark beads and silver discs. The discs, inscribed with symbols, shine dully in the lamplight, and chime quietly when Tom lowers them onto any hard surface. While they of themselves were interesting, he himself focuses on the beads: a mix of smokey brown stone--perhaps agate--and jet that lusters so beautifully, it almost looks as if there are rain clouds moving and glimmering inside of them. The painted dots on the surface of the small beads stare back at him. Do they acknowledge him as their new master? Their new charge? He rolls his prize back and forth on his nightstand with a flat palm, enjoying the sensation of the beads rolling against his skin and the coin-like discs flicking and tickling the ball of his hand.

He decides he likes his new toy.

Chapter Text

 

Poor Mary sits a-weeping,
A-weeping, a-weeping,
Poor Mary sits a-weeping
On a bright summer's day.

Why are you weeping,
Weeping, weeping,
Why are you weeping,
On a bright summer's day?

I'm weeping for a loved one,
A loved one, a loved one,
I'm weeping for a loved one,
On a bright summer's day.

Stand up and choose your loved one,
Your loved one, your loved one,
Stand up and choose your loved one,
One a bright summer's day.

Shake hands before you leave 'er,
You leave 'er, you leave 'er,
Shake hands before you leave 'er,
On a bright summer's day.


When the wind blows around campus, it carries with it the scent of pumpkin bread baking. Of star anise and cloves. Of cold nights and mist. It bears the sounds of crackling fires and crunching leaves. The taste of apple cider. When it blows through Tom, it brings him a quiet sort of thrill. Anticipation. The leaves around him turn, and with them, he feels a changing.

Slowly but surely, Tom can feel himself creeping his way into Ximena's exclusive circle. So exclusive that, as far as he knows, he is the only one in it-The only one worth noting anyways. Her talks and answers have evolved from being vaguely helpful to generally helpful. The eye contact and acknowledgement is accompanied by her asking how his day is fairing. She still pushes him to do research for himself, but now she gives him the tools he needs. Titles of chapters, authors, manuscripts. Sections of the library, teachers, dates...There's seemingly no end to her encyclopedic knowledge, though she does occasionally stumble in remembering. Memory problems until the end.

Sadly, she has yet to perform magic in front of him since the duel. Hedwig told him she was skilled, so obviously she knows something. More than him. Her talents, what it felt like to be at the receiving end of her spells...Tom asks Ximena himself what spell it was that she used against Hedwig, and why she hadn't taught it to her yet. He got that same look of hesitation and discomfort that she gave the pint-sized witch just over a week ago.

"It's...Not for her to use." She clears her throat. "Some magic is personal. In the blood."

About to ask if she could teach it to him, he manages to stop himself. Something tells him she would say the same. It's not for him. He can't do it. Forbidden.

Naturally, the thought does nothing to kill his want. In fact, it only makes it stronger.

Tom doesn't give up, however: he asks about proper wrist movements and spells he learned from both Hedwig and Yami in the hopes of seeing her cast again. Or at least, see her peculiar wand. Of course, rather than doing exactly what he wants, she demonstrates using a breadstick. Or a napkin roll. And once, a very long fondue fork- 'I can't risk accidentally casting in the middle of school like this, we have to be safe.' Damn.

And then, one day: victory.

It is on a very lucky day that Professor Merrythought asks for a student to deliver a few assorted documents and books to the Second Year Charms classroom just up a floor. She doesn't trust magic on its own to deliver them, thanks to reports of intercepting students looking for answer keys or an excuse to steal property-And of course, the concerning number of crows gathering on the school grounds (they have a taste for paper, it seems). Tom, an upstanding student and boy, volunteers the moment the offer leaves Merrythought's mouth.

The universe conspires with him: he has no trouble with the staircases or any prissy Prefects, and he doesn't get stopped by Peeves.

When he enters the classroom, the Professor is attending to some students on the other side. Ximena does not notice him. Even when he stands, waiting patiently, next to the Professor's desk-only three meters away-she does not look away from the girl sitting next to her, nor the small balloon in front of her on the desk. Her serpentine wand is poised, at the ready. He too, is poised.

"Inflatus."

The red balloon, as expected, inflates quickly, growing big and bright. It stops at just the right moment before it grows too big. She bops it to her seatmate, who giggles,

"Gosh, this is so easy, I feel like I'm still in my first year." She bats it with her own wand like a tennis ball.

"We should just blow them up regular." Ximena sighs quietly, possibly ignoring the frustrated sounds of her classmates as their own balloons pop violently one by one.

"How Muggle." Her seatmate smiles with her teeth, scandalized.

"How useful." Ximena corrects, looking bored.

"-A mudblood like you would know that, wouldn't you?"

Tom's eyes dart to the girl sitting behind the two: alabaster skin and dark jet hair braided elegantly, a glare on her heavy-lidded green eyes that could curdle milk.

There's no moment to breathe, he sees Ximena's eyes narrow dangerously-The snobbish girl's head snaps to the side, as if a ghost had yanked her back by the scalp-SLAP. He hears the bone crack. She bleeds from her nose, to which she carries her manicured hands to cradle carefully, "Ow!"

The seatmate stifles a laugh carefully. Ximena looks nonchalant and plays with the balloon in her hands. Tom himself, is the only one to see the look of utter satisfaction in her eyes.

Like many moments involving her, he keeps this to himself, and does not bring it up the next time he sees her. Finally, real magic. Real feeling. Though she had appeared underwhelmed by the spell, it did not escape Tom how much her classmates were having trouble with it. It did not escape him that she had attacked another student in anger. It did not escape him that she had done so with no words or wave of her wand, which was lying dormant on her desk.

He wonders who the muggleborn girl that was sitting next to Ximena was. He did not recognize her from his house, though he had not yet met everyone in it-He would have to ask around.

Tom does, however, know who the offending student was. Druella Rosier: proud pureblood, proud gossipmonger. On occasion, he had had the unpleasant experience of sharing a common path together, where he was interrogated over his blood status and family reputation. Being an orphan barely got him off unscathed, much less being in Slytherin. The girl, herself, is a Ravenclaw[1] albeit reluctantly, but she uses her position to prove that anyone smart and dedicated to truth will obviously see the inferiority of half-bloods. Let alone mudbloods and muggles.

Having had that nasty experience with her, it gave him a little amusement to see her be the cause of Ximena's annoyance. She is still, however, another potential ally to tuck away into his pocket for later use. Confident in his hold on Slytherin house, Tom wants to branch to the other houses through their ignorance. Prejudice takes his curiosity and questions as interest and agreement, and since he's a Slytherin, well…

Tom puts on his best concerned face at Druella's nose bandage-despite having had her nose fixed hours earlier-and asks if she's alright.

"Oh Riddle! It was horrible!" Her pitch rivals a whistling tea kettle, "I bet it was Peeves, that fiend! He did this to me!"

It amuses him that she would rather pin this on that conniving poltergeist than admit that someone she considered her lesser got the better of her. He had heard lots of what she had to say about Ximena. And Zabini. And Yami. And others like them.

"He doesn't usually like to keep his deeds anonymous. Are you sure it was him?"

Druella looks indignant, "Of course I'm sure!" Her fists tighten. "What second year student knows how to do that?"

Indeed.

Tom tries to see if Ximena would do it again-Or something like it. He brings around conflict and bellicose people to her table at lunch and dinner in the hopes that one of them will incur her wrath, but the most that happens can be written off as them tripping over their own two feet, or spilling their hot beverages on their own. Nothing to prove it was magic like that slap. He even tries to cast it himself a few times. He tries all day and the next, actually, fueling his anger and contempt at minor infractions. All he can manage is a sharp pinch, at least by what he can tell from his victims' reactions.

He knows (he knows) how useless it is to be bothered by the advanced magic he can't do. Brilliant or not, he knows he has his limits. There are many things he can do with ease that his contemporaries don't have a chance at getting down until at least their fifth year. But there are simple things that they can do that he has tremendous trouble with. With the exception of few, he has little competition in his year, at least.

There is Hedwig, of course, who while ambitious, has different ideas of success than he. Well-educated and well-gifted, she glides through their classes with little issue, perhaps only getting stuck when her hubris becomes too much to make up for. Or when dealing with magic not originating within Western Europe. He suspects he is only ahead of her this year because she is not allowed to know what she does about more advanced magic and/or display it freely. It gives him time to catch up to the brat.

There is Nemesis Fawley, another pureblood elite with vast connections despite her young age. She is often the one he partners with in his DADA class for her extreme patience and perception. When she makes a mistake in casting or writing, she doesn't throw a tantrum or let something stupid like embarrassment get to her, she simply corrects herself. While Hedwig works hard, Nemesis works smart. Already, he's changed his note taking style to resemble her minimal, utilitarian format, and the results speak for themselves. Pragmatic and respectable.

Then, there is the student sitting next to him in his Charms class. She is a bearable, mute Ravenclaw, whom Tom suspects is either muggleborn, or just unnaturally excited about every damn thing they learn in class. Still, being mute, she already has an upsetting and unnatural handle on wordless magic at her young age. So Tom bears through his current class in grace despite the auburn haired girl next to him being physically giddy and patting his shoulder excitedly. She seems to be gesturing to the golden shell necklace she bears around her neck (of which Tom believes was a gift of some sort), and pointing hyperly to the assigned reading in their textbooks-Magical Objects.

Tom raises a brow in polite curiosity and tucks that tidbit of information away for later. It's probably not too important-Some protection spell maybe, or perhaps if you put your ear up to the shell, one could hear her parent's voice.

He wishes he had paid enough attention in his first class to remember her name. It's damaging to his image to ask for it now after so many weeks of sitting next to her. Thankfully, she can't carry a conversation with him, so he can get away with 'good morning' and 'have a pleasant day' at the best of times. Maybe he should ask his guide about it…

Speaking of, his guide finds it just so hilarious that he's getting help from women of all people. Tom doesn't hold much of an opinion in the way of whether women or men are more capable of greatness in magic (yet), but he knows the world he was raised in. Back at the orphanage, all the boys were assigned chores like taking out the rubbish, cleaning the gutters, helping repairs, and escorting the younger girls when needed. Girls helped cook, wash, and care for the younger children-Something he was taught came naturally to them. He tends to agree with this, despite a few exceptions: Hedwig acts about as nurturing as a wasp, and Ximena was...Well, she hardly talked to anyone, and in the grand scheme of things, he hasn't been around her as much as he would like. She has patience around the younger students asking her about what electives to take the next year, but Tom's not sure if patience is a maternal trait, necessarily. He wouldn't know.

Girls are more responsible. More mature. They develop faster. Boys will be boys.

This isn't to say he hasn't been picking and searching for his own boys' club candidates-Mulcifer, Black, Lestrange, these were all boys within his year with as much (if not more) connections and potential than the aforementioned girls. They aren't as studious or determined, but they're much easier to charm and get into a first name basis with. A few of them try to bring up Ximena in conversations, but he quickly shuts those down. There's something stimulating about keeping a secret, he has always found, and he wants to keep the events and words spoken between them just so. Besides, she really wouldn't be appreciated with those boys: half of their activities involve being rude to other girls in their year, for starters. Luckily, his reputation aids him, and he doesn't have to brush her aside in favor of looking good to the other boys. His reservation of giving out information about her is vindicated by everyone's delusion of his lovesickness. It's surprising easy to keep up the lie, all he has to do is act naturally.

It is then that Tom wonders if Ximena is aware of his false feelings. The girl is only perceptive when she wants to be, and even if she has noticed his acting, she probably wouldn't feel a need to comment on it...Though, maybe that's why she's been growing nicer to him. Why she let him borrow her book and allowed herself to cry in front of him. A boy around his age back at Wool's once dreamt that another child had a crush on him, and when he awoke, he acted sweet on her for a whole month. If that was the result of a dream, then maybe this could explain her recent actions? Tom frowns. Ximena is also mightily good at not paying attention to what's right in front of her, if she considers it unimportant. It's a good thing his feelings are fake and he does not at all have a crush on her.

"Fifteen more minutes, class." Professor Alder draws out.

Professor Alder is a tall unit of a man who looks like he might be attractive if he ever smiled. He moves and sashays similar to a dancer in all his movements as if living was a performance of some sort. Tom thinks he takes himself and his class too seriously. Still, he's easy to understand and undeniably devoted to his students, despite his tendency to be easily distracted. Useful. Still far from the best.

Professor Merrythought, on the other hand, is wise and capable-A pleasure and privilege to have a teacher, to be sure, though Slughorn currently ranks first as his favorite. Merrythought doesn't underestimate him, but she doesn't let him attempt more advanced spells, even if he knows that he can do them. Slughorn spoils him, really; if it weren't illegal, he'd probably allow him a go at some seventh year level potions.

And then there's Dumbledore. While he clearly plays favorites (according to Slytherins, that is,) Tom isn't one of them. His weekly tea sessions have been a topic of interest with many in his house, though all he has shared has been 'he's just making sure I'm okay' which isn't a lie. What of course, he doesn't say, is that they've been starting to feel like interrogation sessions. Oh of course, the Deputy Headmaster would never treat a student (much less a child) like a suspected criminal, but when Tom looks at him, he feels so damn small. Impussiant. Tom has no doubt that Dumbledore acknowledges his potential, that isn't the problem at all. What is the problem is that he doesn't buy the poor little orphan boy act. Doesn't he know that children grow? Change? Learn from their misdeeds?

When the rain stopped, it was one of the first topics of conversation for them at their appointment. After what they had discussed before, in his classroom, he had been tense to answer just about anything regarding the situation, and he guesses that it showed. Dumbledore had, once again, asked if anything was on his mind. If anything was bothering him.

Damn coot.

What Dumbledore knows now is: Ximena has retreated more into herself than usual. Her short hair, once worn loose, is now constantly tied back with a black ribbon, only baby hairs sticking out defiantly. It's something Tom is sure only he has noticed, but she only puts up her hair for particularly stressful moments. Or bad days. The entire week she was relentlessly pursued by a good portion of the student body, she had had her hair up. It made little difference in terms of management (it was already out of the way, what with it being just above her shoulders), but he observed that it made her look a little older. A little more tired. And that's not mentioning the newly arrived eyebags she sports. Tom wonders if she spends her nights wondering about her bracelet now instead of sleeping.

From beside him, his silent classmate shakes his shoulders a little too aggressively in trying to regain his attention. He tries hard not to tell her to not ever touch him again.

---

For six slow, good weeks, he has known his strange classmate. He's followed and accompanied, eaten with and read with, spoken with and shared silence with. It's a little sad, perhaps piteous, that she is the closest thing he's ever had to a friend. And she's never spoken more than one hundred words at a time at him (probably, he doesn't count every word that comes out of her mouth-). Does she consider him one as well? An almost-friend? A common face among the hundreds here at Hogwarts? Does she perk up when she sees him approach, or groan internally? Tom would take even a negative reaction at this point, her smooth, cool insouciance just about drives him up the damn wall. How can she be so relaxed? Doesn't she play? Run around until she's huffing and out of breath? Skip rope or some type of magical hopscotch?

It's strange, but he misses her despair. It was the first time he got to see her emote properly, and it was fascinating. All this for a bracelet? What did it mean to her exactly? How did she know that it was a gift? What do her notes on the page say?

'Friendship takes time. It takes hard work and patience. Just like love.' He had been very young at the time, barely three years old and silent as the grave. A caretaker had been lecturing him on the subject of his treatment of the other children-Of their treatment of him. Before the woman's untimely disappearance, she had been, briefly, the kindest light in his life. He can't even remember her name.

He pushes the memory aside, he has time, but he was never particularly fond of being patient. If only Ximena were more outgoing and lively, maybe then he would have gotten further by now. He might have more than just her academic level estimated. He'd have...well, anything. A favorite color would do, at this rate. He wants her trust now.

The two of them need time away from an academic setting, he decides. Free from the library and Great Hall and Dueling Club and the courtyard. Just a quiet area where perhaps he can converse his way into some much desired information. Relate to each other and their situations as being two wizards raised in the dirty Muggle world. Superior wizards, he corrects himself. Unsure of their magical heritage.

At first, when he meets her in the courtyard during a shared free period, he suggests having a walk on the premise of the castle feeling too stuffy, and he's delighted when she agrees after a moment of thought, having already thought about going for a stroll. He even offers to carry her books-an offer she takes with great hesitancy before his insistence. Eventually, she relents her lightest book ('Magical Plants and Fungi of the Zetlands') with a small 'thank you', keeping her heaviest one tight to her chest.

They sit together outside, surrounded by all manner of flowers and buzzing insect life. The sky, bluer than perhaps Tom has ever seen, holds up drifting white clouds that trace soft shadows on the ground. It's under the shade of one of these slow clouds that they find themselves under: Tom sitting criss cross, Ximena with her knees bent to the side, book open in her lap. He, himself, has his History of Magic textbook open with a quill laying in between the pages for notes. Alright, so it wasn't entirely non-academic, but he has another paper coming up, and it's impossible to tear Ximena away from reading. He counts it as good luck that they're even out here and at how nice the weather is being on this warmer-than-average October morning.

"Do they know?" He breaks the silence, earning a bemused look from his senior, "The muggles that raised you, do they know you're a witch?"

Ximena presses her lips together, humming lowly in thought, "On some level." She sighs softly, peeling a small clementine she had been keeping in her bookbag. The fresh smell of citrus hits Tom's nose pleasantly.

"Are they nice?"

A slow blink, "In their own way." The peels collect in a small pile on her open book. "They say magic is of the Devil."

Freak. The word echos in Tom's memory.

"That's rubbish." Obviously. But that's not what he wanted to say. Do they treat you unfairly like they do me? Beat you? Yell at you? Lock you away in your room without supper? Are there Muggle children there with you? Have they wronged you like I have been wronged?

His companion glances at him, offering a faint Mona Lisa smile, "You think so?"

Tom feels himself fill with righteousness, "You're special. You're a witch, you're better than they are. They're just jealous."

"That would be something." The clementine is split into sections by her hand, and she pops a wedge into her mouth thoughtfully. He can't tell if she's amused or condescending, "It would have been nice to have you there growing up."

His heart is a hummingbird.

"We would have been best friends," he chooses his tone carefully. Not too eager, not too nonchalant-Hyper enough to be seen as excited and adorable, cool enough to be seen as collected and refined. He can't let emotions run this conversation, "We'd play games, sing songs, never go to class." His ears can't believe what his mouth is putting out, it sounds so genuine.

"What kind of games?"

The last thing Tom wants is to be Muggle-ish, so he racks his brain hard for any mention of magical children's games he might have heard about-Something ridiculous like 'Don't Wake the Dragon' or 'Wands Up!' But nothing comes.

"Anything we want."

"Jacks and skipping rope and pick up sticks?" Her snack is almost finished, "Mumblypeg and blind man's bluff and boxball and red rover?" Another hum as she pops the last wedge into her mouth, "Well, we'd need more to play red rover."

"Nonsense. We don't need more. Just us, with marbles and checkers and hide-and-seek."

"Sounds nice..." The distance in her voice remains as solid as ever. Tom feels his excitement bubbling down as a gentle breeze moves through them, tickling him on the cheek and whisking past the blooming white flora. He breathes in, content. Closes his eyes. Counts. One...Two...Three…

When he opens his eyes, he looks over at his classmate and blinks.

Ximena's eyebrows are cinched together, eyes appearing as if she were looking a great distance away. Her mouth is parted slightly, breath held. Perturbed. Worried. Nostalgic? He has a sudden urge to touch her shoulder, but he suppresses it.

"Ximena?"

"The flowers."

Another blink, he turns his head over to the great patches of flowers overtaking the fields. They bob and sway in the changing wind, from wildly to gently. No longer daisy like, but appearing to be more like orchids. He can spot butterflies and insects he has never seen nor heard of gathering nectar and pollen.

"The flowers?"

"Don't they look like they're crying?"

He stiffens up at the question, both for it being unusual and also sudden. Tom takes a second look: the wind moves the flowers just the same but there's something different now. The arc made by the florals no longer looks like hopping or dancing. It looks…

I lost it! I lost it and I am lost too!

His gaze returns to Ximena, calculating. Her eyes, dark and black as pitch, feel endless. She looks like she wants to reach out. Grab at something. Perhaps even rip out all the daisy imitators from the ground herself. Until soil was imbedded in her nails and her palms red from digging so furiously. Until every last one of the countless flowers was weeded out and dead.

CAW.

Jerking his head to the left, he sees a crow, settling down onto the ground. It preens silently for a moment before hopping over closer to Ximena. In its beak, it brings a gift: a flower blossom. The bottom petals are a bright scarlett, open like an upside down banana peel. The upper, inner petals are a deeper wine color, more closed and bunched together like red cabbage or a small peony. Small and dainty, it is dropped before her as an offering, and she picks it up gingerly, holding it up to her nose and letting the crimson filaments brush over her skin. Something about the flower-about the whole string of events, really-unsettles him. He feels it in his chest: a jittering, a tightening. In his stomach and heart and hands.

It is an exact copy of the white flowers surrounding them, dipped in burgundy.

Ximena appears calmed down, and she lowers the flower and verbally thanks the crow in what he identifies as a Latin language. She moves aside a good chunk of pages in her giant book to press the flower in. When she closes it, Tom doesn't bother to check the title.

The rest of the day, he keeps his distance from her. He is not nervous or worried or on edge about that crow and that damn flower. He just thinks maybe they need some time away from each other. On his terms. He has to think, look up crows, and maybe consider enrolling in Divination next year. Was there an Arithmancy class but for flowers instead of numbers? Do they learn about that in Herbology eventually? Good Christ.

He has to shake off that feeling, the feeling that he did something bad.

After their outing, he steps inside his Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom early and takes his seat at his preferred desk. The only others in the room are two Ravenclaws and Professor Merrythought, humming cheerfully at her desk, looking over essays. The only noise in the room was quiet chitchat and quills against parchment.

Sanctuary.

He rests his hands on his lap, feeling watched. Or on edge. Cramped. His hands need something to do, something to occupy themselves with-Tom opens up the desk in search of paper or something to fiddle with, and he settles nicely with a clear glass ball left forgotten in his desk by a student in the last hour. Inside its transparent center, it holds a white wisp of what looks to be smoke. Curious.

Tom tosses it gently from hand to hand, running the pads of his fingers over the smooth surface that never seems to smudge with his prints. Eyes pinned to a single spot on his desk before him, he stays this way for twenty minutes until the next student arrives.

Nemesis Fawley glides in the classroom like a breath of spring air and sits elegantly next to Tom, offering him a smile and a gentle good morning. He greets her with a nod, returning to the present and tucking the sphere away in his pocket.

"Aren't you early today?" Her posture is flawless and voice as smooth as butter.

"I'm always early, Fawley." Tom adopts a confused tone of voice, as if the other had accused him of something.

"Not as early as I am." Nemesis' aura is all around amicable, "You already beat me in quiz scores, must you also best me in punctuality?"

"Competition keeps one sharp."

"I agree." Her eyes shine, "My father would like you, Riddle. He's a member of the Wizengamot, you know. Right hand of the Chief Warlock." The platinum blonde smoothes a strand of hair behind her ear, wearing her pride like a glove.

"Wizengamot?"

"The high court of wizard law and parliament, Riddle." Her voice does not condescend, "Older than the Ministry itself; a Fawley has always served on it since the beginning, you know. More than the Bones family."

There's apparently a lot he doesn't know.

"Will you be next, then?" He flatters.

Nemesis looks a bit taken aback, though his flattery does land, "A...A witch in the Wizengamot?" Pink tints her fresh cream complexion, "My, that...That would be-" She laughs, "That sounds like a dream, Riddle. A wonderful dream."

---

In the Great Hall, during lunch the next day, Tom chats amicably with Nemesis about a paper in DADA, and is about to throw his net to capture the attention and conversation of Yami (sitting nearby, talking quietly with his mentor) when his attempt is interrupted by a brash Hufflepuff with a booming voice, "Have any of you seen Nott?"

He lets the surprise (and a bit of the distaste) show on his face. Nemesis looks amused. Yami rolls her eyes and his mentor is the one to speak up, "Big Nott? Did he lose another bet?"

The older boy grins playfully, "Something like that." He leans forward on the table, hands on the edge, "Guess who Longbottom decided to have as a date this Hallowe'en?"

"Not you, since you're afraid of her brothers." His guide scoffs.

"You mean all her graduated and far away interning at the Ministry brothers?" There's a slimy smile if there ever was one, "Rethink that one, would you, mate? She's coming with me."

Nemesis lays her head on her steepled fingers, "So you're going to the Hallowe'en Ball? What's it like?" A look of perhaps anticipation or dreaminess frosts her eyes, "I've heard from my sisters it's superb."

"A Hallowe'en Ball is too elegant." He says, pausing, "And you first years are allowed to attend, so therefore it's a Hallowe'en Party." Fair enough logic, "It's pretty tame as a result. Just costumes and fun treats. Ghosts tell about their deaths, pranks are pulled, and at least fifty points are taken away from the most troublesome house. So all in all, you guys ruin the fun."

"There's a curfew." Yami interjects pointedly, "All third years and below are to be in bed by nine, and underage wizards by eleven."

"And at that point, it becomes a ball proper." He gestures finely with his hand, presenting his point to the group. "It's never a ball until Slughorn gets right drunk." The Hufflepuff grins with satisfaction. "I was lucky enough to see it last year with Chang, so I'm excited about it now when I can drink with him."

"That's not very Hufflepuff of you, Kowalski." His docent just seems to know all about the other houses, doesn't he? "I mean, what would your sister think?"

The older boy snorts in good nature, "I think I can handle her just fine."

Yami rolls her eyes and focuses her attention back on the papers out before her, muttering in a language he can't identify. Nemesis leans in closer, full of questions, "Slughorn? Really? He doesn't look like the type to make a fool out of himself-" Tom begs to differ, "-Are you sure you're not making all this up? Lying doesn't suit a Hufflepuff, Kowalski."

And then Tom loses his interest in the conversation, because he spots something out of his periphery. Something odd. He turns his head to look, to search for just what was strange enough to catch his attention. Of course (of course), his eyes settle over where Ximena was sitting just two tables away (again, he can't always sit with her, he has his hands in a lot of baskets right now-), nose in a book as usual. Except…

Someone is talking with her. Animatedly. Not waiting for a response or any sign of her listening, this person continues on chattering-About what, Tom isn't sure, he can't hear properly from here, even if he strains and tries to block out other noises. He likes to think of himself as a bit of an expert on reading her (even if there was hardly anything to read), and finds himself a bit miffed and confused on the lack of annoyance in her face. Actually, if he were being totally honest, her face looks the same as it is when he is keeping her company: indifferent. He sees her thin eyelashes flutter as her eyes move over the pages of her latest tome, of which the title was partially blocked to Tom, thanks to her glass of milk (all he can make out is '...PARA NIÑAS').

As for the person speaking so enthusiastically to her, they looked absolutely unremarkable. Wild hand gestures, indicative of a hyper and uncontrollable mood, continually threatened to spill the glass of milk in his vision's way, as well as the other table placements. Their robes, while neat and in style, aren't anything to behold: they did not have the beautiful silk-satin sheen of Hedwig's expensive robes, nor the velvety suede of Yami's. It was a dull black with no subtle patterns or hints of other colors. Their hat wasn't even off at the table-

And then something a little more remarkable happened. Ximena's shoulders quiver, her head flinches back, and she laughs. A laugh he cannot hear, but can view very very clearly. It lives for about two seconds, but it lived all the same. Bright and modest like she is. Her companion across from her appears absolutely delighted at their accomplishment. Tom wants to chuck his apple at them.

"...and Slughorn's just drooling at the chance to collect her, I know him-Tommy, what are you looking at?" The elder Slytherin boy has an annoying habit of sprinkling in endearments or just straight out dropping his first name every once in a while (older or not, he wants him to stop), but this time around, Tom can't find it in himself to be annoyed, "Oh." Wipe that Goddamn smile off your face, "Prewett? I should think not. Inter-house mingling is like that is, well..."

The younger boy spares a glance away to look up at his guide.

"Nothing to worry about there."

The Hufflepuff boy acknowledges the scene along with Nemesis. Yami eats and minds her own business.

"Ignatius?" Kowalski prompts, "Nah, his tastes are more Black." A snort is spared by his mentor.

"Oh, I don't know," Nemesis leans in a little closer to Tom, "they sure look cozy."

"Yes, continue to gawk at two young children eating their lunch, I'm sure it won't be obvious to all the Great Hall."

Tom is grateful for Yami's words because the group collectively darts their eyes away in a mix of shame, amusement, and nonchalance.

"We were just curious, Acarya, is all." His guide explains, looking absolutely shameless, "It's starting to get boring around here, you know?"

"Then create your own nonsense to amuse yourself with instead of spying on the love lives of Second Years."

Nemesis hides part of her face and smile behind her hand, looking down at her meal. Kowalski chooses this moment to skip away back to the Hufflepuff table.

"You know what, Acarya, I couldn't agree more, which is why I'm glad you're here, see now-" his elbows come up on the table as if he were proposing a business deal, "I was hoping to inquire on who your date was for Hallo-Where are you going?"

Tom tunes out his schoolmates again and spends the rest of lunch thinking about it was a good thing that he wasn't jealous, or things could really turn out nasty.

---

"Who were you talking with earlier?"

"Hm?"

The common room is half full of Slytherins speaking in low voices about the latest on the Grindelwald front. Daily Prophet papers are scattered about, moving photographs depicting the devastating attack. Ximena is looking through one of them half heartedly, holding a half-eaten cookie in the other hand. Tom is sitting on the edge of his seat (an armchair perpendicular to her spot on the sofa), hands on his thighs.

"At dinner, I saw you having a conversation with someone."

"Oh."

"Friend of yours?"

He wonders if his impatience is showing.

"I guess." Ximena looks as if she had never truly thought about it. When she bites the cookie in her hand, he thinks she is done talking when, "He's nice."

"How?"

"He's my partner in Transfiguration, Dumbledore introduced us."

He sits up straighter, "What's his name?"

Then Ximena pauses, brows furrowed, looking as if she been hit with a confundo spell, "Ah...hm...Started with a vowel."

Nothing to worry about.

---

It is Hogwarts one moment, and Wool's the next. He walks down the corridor of teacher's offices, but his steps sound as if he is walking across the courtyard back at the orphanage. He knows that sound very well. A brush past hung tapestries to his left, depicting scenes of witch burnings and hangings, and he does not want to see more. To this right are group photos of the children throughout the years Wool's has been open. The faces in the photos are faded or smeared, and it's impossible to know who each child is. Or if they even are human. Tom doesn't want to look closer, but he does. Eyes and mouth and nose distorted. On every face without exception. In the group photos, in the single portraits, even the people in the way back of the photo who weren't meant to be there: gardeners, passersby, rats.

His eyes search desperately for something-Someone. He finds her in a formal group photo of all the children currently at the orphanage, lined up neat and pretty by height. She's all the way, so far away, on the other side of the photo looking glum. His and her faces are the only ones in the photo who appear normal. Photo-Tom has his head turned, looking at her, but she is not looking back at the boy. Instead, she is looking straight at him. At him. He knows it. Her eyes are dark and alive. Scourging. Tom feels them pulling him in, drowning him. They remind him of cockroaches.

Tom tears himself away. Forces himself to keep walking. Keep moving. Keep your head down. Do your time…

He turns the corridor and walks down the wooden steps of the pier before him: endless in the starless night. Under his feet and the boardwalk lies black water. It is rising. Slowly. Surely. He reaches the end of the pier, and stops short. One two three meters away. His balance is off, he's experiencing vertigo so close to the ground...

Ximena stands, toes over the edge, back to him. Beyond the great black deep river is a green light so bright and menacing, Tom recoils back into the trees, his bare feet touch solid soil and grass, but Ximena remains out on the pier with the rising waters. Her figure moves further and further away from him, and he moves too-The space between them stretches out while he tries so very hard to regain control. To stop being afraid of that terrifying green light of which looms in the distance.

His senior opens her arms out, welcoming it, embracing it, coveting it. She reaches out. She wants it. Wants so bad what is so close but so out of her reach.

Filled with the sudden sensation of wanting to stop her, he calls out. Stop it. Stop it, Ximena. Don't. And of course, his cries go unheard.

When Tom wakes up, he is sweating, and gripping tightly to the bracelet.

 

Chapter Text

Lavender's green, dilly dilly, lavender's blue,
If you love me, dilly dilly, I will love you.
You will be sweet, dilly, dilly, you will be kind
But most of all, dilly, dilly, you will be mine.

If you should die, dilly dilly, as it may hap,
You shall be buried, dilly dilly, under the tap;
Who told you so, dilly dilly, pray tell me why?
That you might drink, dilly dilly, when you are dry.

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen:
Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
'Twas mine own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.

I love to dance, dilly dilly, I love to sing;
When I am queen, dilly dilly, you'll be my king.
Who told me so, dilly dilly, who told me so?
I told myself, dilly dilly, I told me so.

Lavender's green, dilly dilly, lavender’s blue,
You must love me, dilly dilly, cause I love you,
I heard one say, dilly dilly, since I came hither,
That you and I, dilly dilly, must die together.


The first thing Tom looks up the moment he wakes, is dreams. The second is visions. The third is Seers. He almost runs a trail to the library in his powder blue pajamas before coming to his senses: The library is closed. It is not a good idea to go out at this hour. Instead, he confides himself to the much smaller library within his common room. Most of the books are Slytherin records and history, as well as copies of pedigree certificates and detailed family trees, but his luck shines through and he finds two adequate books on the subject. He lays them out, open, alongside the torn page from the book he borrowed from Ximena.

He should probably return the bracelet.

He doesn’t want to.

The page he ripped out of the book explains the basic functions: protection against evil and malicious intentions. Specifically the Evil Eye. One of the books (the smallest one, it’s a detailed memoir from a Slytherin student in 1515 that reads like a manifesto,) is written by a Seer. It speaks about their predictions for the next millennium, cursed objects, and the sanctity of dreams. The second one is a basic dream interpretation manual with woodcut illustrations from 1624 Colonial America.

This is what he concludes after an hour of silent, diligent reading:

Bracelets like hers can rebound when taken away from their owners, particularly if they have been in their possession for a number of years. The magic from the bracelet and the magic of the owner feed off each other. Grow off each other. Communicate with each other. Like a wand and its witch. Even if the owner is a Muggle, the bracelet can bond strongly, and taking it away could result in a curse being placed upon the thief in question.

Luckily, he did not steal it. He found it.

No, he wasn’t so stupid as to think that. He wanted to be, though. Ignorance of his situation is much desired.

As for the curse, it can manifest in various forms. Boils and misfortune are traditional, but he suspects that Ximena’s former bracelet has worse in store for him. That whoever gave her that bracelet has worse in store for him. It does weigh heavy. Heavier than any threaded trinket has any right to weigh, and it does so increasingly as the days go by. Perhaps one day, if he kept it long enough, it would weigh as much as an elephant.

Dreams, he learns, are not often caused by curses, at least, not in any recorded history at the time of the manual. Curses are about prolonged suffering. Dreams are, in the end, harmless after all. Especially if dreamt by those who are not talented Seers, at least according to the author of the 16th century diary. A true Seer ability is rare, particularly amongst Magbobs and Muggles. Most have some sense of clairvoyance about them, but lack the knowledge to interpret or wield their abilities. Even in cases where one dreams of an event that will come to pass, it will be seen as coincidence or precise knowledge and understanding of whatever political, social, and cultural powers that brought said event to be.

A small piece of paper holds his notes, his handwriting rushed and looped. Notes about the black lake in his dream, the dark river, the bright terrifying light, the dark and combined hallways of his school and home...The dream book tells him he has to change. He is having a strong emotional battle. He--Ximena--Wants change. Freedom.

He should give the bracelet back.

But he wants to keep it. He wants to own its mystery. The very aura and history woven in its threads. He wants to uncover the meanings behind the carved symbols on the coin-like attachments--he hasn’t made much of a dent in it at all. He keeps getting mistaken for a Ravenclaw for all the time he’s spent with his nose in a book. His days and hours should be spent on practical knowledge and talking to other students...Not on this.

But he does it anyways.

The last time he had been this entranced over a stolen object, it was a small ring with a pink opal inlay--One that could open up, he later found out, hidden underneath the covers of his bed.-- The ring had belonged to a boy who regularly stole his food at dinner. Apparently it had been his mother’s. Or Aunt’s. Dumbledore had made him give it back before coming to Hogwarts.

A sudden noise rips him from his rememberings, and he freezes for six agonizing seconds before settling back into his seat. He marks his place in all the books and scoops them up into his arms, returning back to his bed in nervous silence.

He doesn’t have a goal yet, at least not a concrete one. He doesn’t want to be the pond scum at the bottom of the gutter, he wants to lift himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself. But how? Gaining friends and influencing others to do what? Will he look up approximately how many people have to die for him to be King of England? Hardly. That was a distant dream once-upon-a-time back at the orphanage when he didn’t know of his magical abilities. His ambitions must be updated. Before, he could only hope to begin his path to greatness after coming of age, but life has given him a head start. He has to use all his cards, but he has to use them at the right time.

Now if only he knew what half his cards were.

In his hands, he currently has his charisma. His show of innocence, his raw talent, his ability to draw people to him. His house: a threshold of power and resourcefulness. Many sneer at his lack of trackable parentage behind the comfort of their common room, but outside, they stand by him. A fortress to the cruel and judging looks from the other houses.

He wants understanding. Knowledge of these obtuse pureblooded customs. Patience for his unknown blood status. A foothold. He wants people to look up to him. Come for guidance and wisdom and favors.

Tom wants to be wanted.

He slips the bracelet back into his pocket.

-

A week passes without him coming into contact with Ximena. He spots her out of the corner of his eyes, heading to class, heading to lunch, heading to the common room, and she looks the same as she always has: indifferent and lost in thought. A part of him, as always, is bothered that his presence makes little difference in her day-to-day life (Does she miss him? Notice that he’s gone? Wonder about his whereabouts?), but another part is grateful that she hasn’t confronted him about his sudden need for alone time. What could he say? That he wanted to pry her secret life from her damn hands, but got scared off because of some strange birds and flowers and dream? That he thinks her lost bracelet is driving him to insanity?

So of course, he confides (without revealing anything) in his house’s resident curse expert. Manages to catch her alone during lunch as she drinks her dark coffee, and pretends his questions have to do with an assignment.

“Ugly business, the Evil Eye.” Yami tosses her long black hair over her shoulder, looking tired, “You’ll see many a witch turn their nose up at it, but it’s far from child’s play: easy to get right, and easier to get wrong.”

Tom feels his hand itch toward his pocket.

“Charmed bracelets are common protection right?” He prompts.

“Oh yes, of course.” She holds up her left wrist to show him her own version of the bracelet hiding in his robes. Gold and red, with a sizable talisman in the shape of a hand with an eye in its palm. He recognizes it from the pages of the tome Ximena lent him, “I’ve had it since I was a baby, as is custom.”

“What happens if you lose it?”

Yami’s eyes narrow ever so slightly, as if she knew that Tom was up to something, but she continues, “I get another--But this one means much to me.” Her hand goes back down, “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about Lane’s lost bracelet, would you?”

Fuck.

“No, why?”

“Her magic energy has changed dramatically in the last two weeks since her duel with Acwellan.”

He blinks, because it is the most forward he has ever heard her be. Blinks because he thought only he could notice the change.

“Did she lose her bracelet then?”

“When Acwellan disarmed her--She got her bracelet instead of her wand.”

“How curious.”

“Indeed.” There is no way Yami knows...Absolutely no way, “I hope I don’t have to tell you the consequences of taking such a sacred object, Riddle. Or worse--Holding it hostage from its rightful owner.”

“I was raised with Muggles, remember?”

The look in her eyes tells him ‘We both know you’re smarter than that’, but she indulges, “Personally, if you were to steal my bracelet, you would die.” She says it so simply. So matter-of-fact, “I suspect hers is set up the same, though slower.” Her lips purse slightly, “Her kind have a special sort of relationship with Death.”

The hair on his neck rises. His fingers tap on the table. He opens his mouth, and…

“Acarya! I see you’ve saved us all seats.” The buffoon.

She exhales sharply through her nose, mouth forming a thin line. Tom empathizes hard.

“I did not save anything.”

“You saved it without even knowing,” He corrects, sitting down with Nemesis and Hedwig in tow along with, and this makes Tom double take, Ximena of all people. She looks a bit shaken up and woozy, holding her hand open to her chest as if she were trying to calm herself. Despite them all coming in a group, she’s strangely detached.

Hedwig places her hands on the table, aggressive as always, and addresses Yami, “I heard you were nominated for the Wizarding Schools Potions Championship next year.”

“You heard correctly.”

“Mentor me.”

Tom blinks. Yami remains unfazed.

“You want to participate yourself?”

Mildly sour, Hedwig purses her lips, “Slughorn is trying to vouch for me, but Dumbledore thinks I should wait--Dippet is indecisive as always.” A yes, then.

“Why would I help out the competition?” The older girl remains impassive, but Tom feels a sliver of amusement in her tone.

But before Hedwig can respond, his mentor butts his ugly head into the conversation, “Come on, Acarya, think of it as a collaborative effort to advance Hogwarts over the other schools. A bonding of sorts.” His hand tosses and gestures casually, his other one readies a mug of hot chocolate, “Acwellan and you, Britain and India--A bit like estranged brothers no? Cousins?”

“If Britain paid back every last knut they sucked out of India, it would rightfully cease to exist.” Yami sips from her cup of coffee as his mentor chokes on his own drink. Nemesis looks uncomfortable. Hedwig cranes her head and listens. Ximena holds the smallest of smiles on her lips.

“That’s--Bit harsh, isn’t it?” His mentor clears his throat, wanting to quell the spark in the room.

Yami’s eyes are cold fire, “Come again?

He opens his mouth, and before he can reply, Yami cuts him straight off. It’s unbecoming. “Do you know what they did to them as punishment for insubordination? They made them break wizarding oaths. They made them swear on their magic.

The two pale girls appear varying degrees of nauseous. Ximena is unfazed and curious. His guide is just about withering in his seat.

“And that’s not even touching what happened to the Muggles.” Her mug is set down beside her notes, “Don’t try to lecture me on my own people’s history again.” She stays seated and silent. Dignified. His guide takes his cue to shuffle away, bowing his head gracefully in defeat as he apologizes. Nemesis follows suit soon after. Only Hedwig and Ximena stay seated, the younger witch waiting, the older one looking at her bare wrist.

“Now, when is your free period?”

The two plan a set time and day to meet together and discuss the competition. They break off together speaking about asking Slughorn for use of his classroom after hours. Tom blinks across the table at Ximena, “Are you alright?”

His concern makes her baffled, apparently, “What do you mean?”

“You felt a little rattled when I saw you come in.” It’s very unusual for you to be hanging out with that sort.

“Oh, that.” Discomfort

Usually, he would press on despite her clear reluctance. But he doesn’t. Doesn’t find it smart. Right. He changes the subject, “I noticed your amusement at Acarya’s tongue lashing,”

“Mm...It was satisfying.”

“Have you wanted to say similar?”

“Many times.” No hesitation. A tired sigh, “Sometimes it is not worth it. People do not listen, they only wait until you are done talking.”

He thinks on that, for a small while.

“Sorry I haven’t been up and around much.”

Ximena holds up a hand, open palmed, “No need for apologies. I figured you were studying for your midterms. Your education is important you know.”

He nods once, “You’ve helped me out with my studies many times.”

Tom’s not sure what to do with her resulting look of surprise, “--Have I?”

“Oh yes, more than I can say.” Honest words, “Your advice, the places you lead me in the library, the book you lent to me...

Her eyelashes flutter slightly, her fingers lift to her lips in thought. As if she were trying to dig through her memories for any evidence of what he was saying, “So I have...” She looks at him, “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Did you really forget all that?” All the time we’ve spent around each other?

She clears her throat, “No no, I...” A hum, her thoughts buffering, “I didn’t do those things to help you...Not like that, I mean.” Her fingers tap tap lightly over her mouth, “I was just..sharing. Conversing. Like others talk about the weather. Or Quidditch.”

Ah, “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

“Could you...Tell me something?”

She looks at him but does not say anything. He continues, “Can anyone learn to...feel others’ magic?”

“You mean you can’t already?”

That was a good hot stab to his side. It was entirely normal for someone his age to do that then. Either that, or Ximena expects everyone to be able to do something that only comes naturally to her. He’s not sure which one he is hoping for.

“Oh, sorry.” His emotions had shown clear on his face, then, “Well, it’s um, it’s just like getting the feel of a room. You have to just pay attention.”

Tom had once heard that explaining something that comes naturally to you, like breathing, is impossible to explain to someone who has no idea where to start, “What am I paying attention to?”

“Well, just the air around a person. Not with your eyes, but with your own magic.” Her lips form a thin line again, “It’s easier to sense others before your own...Almost like how you can never look into your own eyes, do you understand?” Vaguely. “Some people get good at hiding it, and you can control its range sometimes, if you’re particularly skilled. Give off killing intent and power levels, it’s nice for intimidation during duels.”

“Can you see mine?”

“Yes--In a manner of speaking.” She readjusts herself in her seat, “Physically manifesting your magic takes a lot of work and patience. Power doesn’t hurt either. I can’t see your magic, but others can. It would be like seeing temperatures, or radio waves.”

What’s it like?” Tom tries hard to keep the thrill from boiling over, but it’s so hard.

Despite all she has said about not being able to see it, Ximena squints at his form, “It feels...compact. Tight. Suppressed.” She stops squinting, “It’s hard to tell without using my magic to prod.”

“Why don’t you?”

Something like a blush dusts across her face, “That’s...It’s very personal to do. Intimate. I wouldn’t do that to you without your permission or a warning. It’s something you do...In a battle. To scare and torment. Or to family, to comfort and protect.”

“We’re friends, though, right? Can you show me? I give you permission.” That hopeful note in his voice is the cherry on the cake. She looks compromised. Hesitant. He only has a few seconds after her reluctant nod before he...perceives that she is even doing anything.

Softly, something brushes up against what he would call his personal space. It does not touch his skin or clothes, but it touches him. As if his feet were sharing a pool with someone--something--and they moved. It tickles. He holds back any temptation he has to giggle.

The thing presses deeper. It doesn’t feel like a ripple anymore, it feels like a gossamer caress. A fluffy cat cuddling against his essence, or a snake slipping over his soul. It’s cool, like a stone by a river. It pushes and pulls gently against...something. Was this his magic guarding him? What would happen if he parted it and let the mysterious thing through…?

Tom slips into his magic like a wet glove. It stretches out, uncertain of what is happening, and snaps back skin tight, fitting perfectly. A reverse shedding of skin. For a moment, the imagery of crawling into a cocoon comes into his head. The comparison comforts him.

“There...That’s it...Can you feel it?”

Her voice surprises him. It almost feels like he is deep underground with how distant the sound is to him. But as his magic conforms to him, it becomes clearer: the thing that had been pushing up against him. Water.

I feel it.

He wishes he hadn’t said it. Her magic retreats back to her at once, and he is left with just his own awareness of his own magic, dancing pleasantly about him.

“It’s black.

“Black?” He didn’t know magic had colors.

“Endless...A night sky.” Ximena bears a look that Tom knows means she is thinking a million thoughts a second, “It’s very grounded. Rooted. Strong.” He likes that. “Your magic is very elegant. You have a lot of potential.”

Most nothing is greater than the want to feel her own magic, but he doesn’t ask. He knows what her answer would be.

-

Dumbledore, back when he first visited him at Wool’s, had made a small jest over his skill of getting himself into situations where he has no one to blame but himself. Well, he didn’t word it like that, but Tom knows what ‘troublemaker’ means coming from the mouth of an adult.

The point is: he’s in a place that he only is responsible for.

It was his mentor’s idea, he swears. Something about socializing more (more than he even does now?) and ‘Having a bit of fun, Riddle, you’re such a squeaky clean student’. Normally, Tom would never (never) allow himself to be bullied or pushed into such a thing but...It’s not like he’s having to participate in Mischief Night, right? Nevermind that that was something he actually was more curious about--What irked him was having to do something (anything) on the terms of others. But these are the cards he has been dealt, and he will play them perfectly.

A part of him feels a bit silly at dressing up, but another part (a much louder, stronger part) feels excited. It’s his first proper Hallowe’en, and he wants to do it right. He wants to look good and play and talk with his fellow wizards and witches. Be a part of their world. Hallowe’en at Wool’s was always uneventful: a few of the older children would sneak out and return with goodies for the younger ones, but Tom was usually left out from those raids (oh, he took all the sweets and pastries he wanted later, mind you.) The most dressing up anyone did was with old pillowcases and donated clothing. Children were ghosts, nuns, and all other sorts of unimaginative people. Unpleasant.

Tom’s costume is a dream: A tunic entirely sewed from starflowers and skeleton  leaves, of which he had help in creating thanks to a few charmed older girls--His usually neat and combed aside hair is styled wild with a few sprigs of leaves pinned. He is the absolute portrait of boyishness.

Needless to say, few of his pureblooded companions understand his disguise. Uncultured swines. Hedwig guessed something along the lines of a wood sprite. His mentor thought he was some Shakespearean character, which was considerably closer, but not on the nose. Muggles, as ugly and stupid as they are, still have some value...If only in their works.

“Something’s missing,” He mutters to himself on the way to the party, rubbing a strand of his short hair between his fingers.

“What, did you have a hat or something too?” Hedwig, dressed as the Goddess Morrigan, turns to look at him impatiently.

Tom shakes his head, “It’s my hair. I wish I could make it longer. More red.”

“Is that all?” She pulls her wand out and points it at his head, “Mum’s the word.”

“Can you really?” It shouldn’t have surprised him at this point, really, that wizards could do such a thing, but it does.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” She smirks at the excitement in his voice, “Colovaria.”

A tingling all over his scalp. On the edges of his vision, he sees brown burn into a bright auburn. He can’t stop his grin, especially when Hedwig continues with a lengthening charm.

“Not too bad for a first year, eh?” Humility really doesn’t suit her, “Simple cosmetic charms--You learn those in sixth year. Don’t tell anyone I know how to do them, they’ll lose their fucking heads over nothing.” She tucks her wand away, “That should last a few hours, hopefully, if I did it right.”

Trickling students trail along the way to the lesser hall dressed in all manner of strange and fantastic dress. Fabric, accessories, and hair twinkles and shines and seems to move with a life of its own. He tries not to stare, he wants to act as if he’s seen such wonders all his life. He wants to play pureblood. Or at least half-blood. He wishes he had not let the status of his parentage out so quickly or at all. But he has time. He always has time.

The hall is lovely. Dark and gloomy in a way that only Hallowe’en could make fun. There appears to be various parts of the hall sectioned off with hanged veils and curtains that shimmer and obscure the people and objects beyond. All that can be seen behind them are the flickering flames of the floating, migrating candles that make their way through the hall. They glow effervescently, their radiance visible despite obstacles and distance.

He spots Ximena alongside his mentor, and another girl, looking out of place.

“Good God, woman, what are you supposed to bloody be? Did you even dress up?” Hedwig’s astonishment feels misplaced to Tom: the older girl is wearing a modest, sensible, black long sleeve dress with an attached capelet. It reminds Tom of the photograph hung in the Matron’s office back at Wool’s.

Ximena blinks, “I’m in mourning.”

His mentor laughs, “You never change, Lane.” Two years is a little too short a time to know a person before saying that, but maybe Tom should wait two years before passing judgement, “Didn’t think I’d see you here, you were looking sick towards the end of your last period.”

A small shrug, resigned and tired, “I had something like an obligation.”

The muggleborn girl--the one Tom saw previously, so long ago--raises her hand, admitting guilt, “I made her come! She’s my secret weapon.” The girl is dressed as Frankenstein’s bride, quite convincingly too. He wonders if her costume will be misunderstood as well.

“Secret weapon?” His mentor is amused, he speaks condescendingly, “What, are you going to use her to spill punch on Rosier’s dress?”

The girl, while somewhat aware of his mentor’s opinion of her, Tom’s sure, smiles right back, “It’s a secret for a reason.”

Their conversation continues, with Hedwig chiming in, and Tom turns to Ximena, complimenting her appearance, “You look nice.”

“Thanks. You do too.”

“Can you guess who I am?”

“You’re Peter Pan.[1]” Ximena comments as he swells with satisfaction. Of course she would get it. She would understand. He thanks her wholeheartedly, confirming her guess, and asks another question, “Was she really your obligation?”

A pause before she processes what he said, her eyes flicker to her companion briefly, “..No.”

“Riddle! I thought that was you.” Tom turns and finds Nemesis smiling under a golden tiara of stars, “Come with me, I have some friends that want to meet you--”

Nemesis, as thin and frail as she seems, has the grip of a heavyweight champion. He turns his head to properly excuse himself to Ximena, but when he looks, she is already gone. Dissolved into the crowd like mist.

Though he likes that there are people vying for his attention, he doesn’t like the clear control they have over him. Being able to push and pull him away from things and people. He supposes he’ll have to have a talk with his classmate about that, ‘Next time, just ask, please.’ A flash of pleading eyes and a comforting smile, and he knows Nemesis will concede and apologise--She’s a bit of a pushover sometimes.

Tom expects the people she wants to introduce to him are the same. Birds of a feather. She had told him friends, but he suspects that was shorthand for ‘people my parents want me to build relationships with’, considering the blatant differences in generation. They all look like pillars of staggering height and ages, but all made of the same expensive material. Old money. Old blood. Alongside them, he is rudely introduced to highblooded society and customs: eating with the right fork, sneezing correctly, and insulting someone the way it should be done: behind their backs. It’s not anymore tiring or annoying as his usual catering to egos, but God, it’s ugly. He doesn’t even wholly enjoy the company of his classmate, who is so boring at a damn party that she could rival a brick wall. All she keeps talking about is whose cousin is whose wife or brother or grandparent. She keeps talking about her honorable uncle, the Minister for Magic, whose name causes discomfort on other’s faces when brought up. She keeps talking about her father this and her mother that, and all her older siblings and their spouses.

Fortunately, the bore does not last long. Or longer than it should. Once people see him around other pureblooded students and staff, they acknowledge him. Look him in the eyes. Size him up. He smiles, charms, and slides into people’s consciousness. What an adorable young lad. So sharp! So witty. It fills him with a pleasant buzz. And with every added word of praise and adoration, it grows increasingly stronger.

He’s having fun. People smile at him and compliment his costume (though they don’t know what he is), share their food with him, and talk about what a great asset he is to Slytherin House--To Hogwarts. At one moment, Slughorn finds his way to him and recounts a story that happened in the classroom just a few weeks ago to other teachers. Tom sees the admiration and impressed looks, and he basks in it. Colors and sounds swirl by him in a flurry, it feels as if he’s caught in a blizzard of cheer and mischief. Students and teachers begin to dance to whatever haunting tune is being played and echoed throughout the chamber.  His head feels heavy and his feet light, drunk without a single drop of wine fallen on his tongue. Drunk on the smiles and candy and socialites. Why did he ever feel like he wanted to skip this event? Was it pompous? Was it pure buffoonery? Was it a waste of time? Absolutely. Oh, but he loves it.

Excusing himself from Druella, her cousin, and Nemesis, he stumbles through boisterous laughter and shifting bodies to find the drink table--Or a spare house elf holding more of that fizzy, fruity pop soda that made his mouth tingle and dance with flavor. Rather than that, he finds something else entirely:

A secluded, dimly lit corner of the room veiled by gold, filigree, semi-opaque curtains. As he passes them, he feels the sheet, the mask of drunkenness lift from his eyes. A few students lean on the marble columns whilst standing, others sit criss cross on the tile or on sparse floor pillows.  Ximena herself, sits tall and elegant on a cushy, velvet bench, hands in her lap. He sees her mouth move, but he cannot hear anything until he gets just close enough. Just beyond the last thin curtain.

There’s something different happening. Different because there is a moderately sized group of students--strangers-- surrounding the girl giving their full attention, and Ximena appears in a trance. At ease. Rather than scatter and scramble as she did only a few days ago, his senior takes the attention professionally. As a public figure would. There is no sweat on her brow or seizuring in her fingers or nervous eyes moving back and forth for an escape. There is only stillness.

“...there was a terrible flooding that spring, mudslides destroyed so many homes around us. It was too dangerous for me to go to the well.” As she presses her lips together before continuing, Tom settles in close but out of sight, “So I went to the river.”

Briefly, his gaze flickers to the faces of the other students. They hang eagerly to her every word. He looks back.

“It was swollen. Grown about five or seven meters in width.” Though her voice remains even, suspense builds with every passing second, “I thought it would be violent. Torrenting and strong and fast, but it wasn’t. It was calm and almost still. Like it was sleeping.”

Her eyes are the same way they were the morning they spent out in the grounds. Distant and nostalgic. Yearning.

“The edges of the river were too shallow for me to collect water. There was dirt and drowned insects, it wasn’t clean.” Another press of her lips, “So I stepped in further.”

“I hiked up my clothes so they wouldn’t get wet, but it felt futile. The moment my feet submerged in that river, my whole body--my soul--was soaked.” Her hand, the missing bracelet hand, presses flat against her chest, “The river was cold and miserable. It was heavy. The more I waded, the stronger the current became. It was like it didn’t want me there.”

Tom wants to check on the faces of the others, but he can’t take his eyes off Ximena’s form.

“And then I heard it: distant at first, mistakable for the wind.” A minute shudder runs through her neck and shoulders, “Softly half-crying, softly half-singing. It was the most defeated, pitiful, tragic sound I ever heard.”

What was she saying? He wants to ask. But of course, much as of late, he does not voice anything. He merely sits and waits in silence for the story to continue.

“But it was beautiful. A beautiful song-wail. Comforting and haunting all at once. I wanted to find it. To capture it somehow. Keep it bottled and near me for always.” A blink and the subtlest of frowns, “It was a woman calling for her children.”

Gooseskin rises up on Tom’s arms and neck.

“When I saw her, she was waist deep in the river, wearing the most colorful, gorgeous clothing I’ve ever seen.” Her eyes shut briefly, as if she were picturing it in her mind’s eye, “Embroidered flowers, leaves, birds and people dancing on her blue frock. A green shawl covered her head, she looked like a saint. So warm. So sad. I wanted so badly to reach out and touch her. I wanted to tell her it was okay. I was here. Her child is here. I’m here. I’m here and I love you. I love you.” Her eyes open again. Looking out, past and through the students in front of her. Out in the distant beyond. Everyone listening to her story is leaning in ever so slightly, mouth parted.

“And then I drowned.”

Tom releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding hostage. The students around him seem to do the same.

Ximena waits. Suspense is everything, “When I woke up, I was thrashing in the arms of one of the sisters, coughing up water and soaked to the bone on the edge of the river.” Her shoulders relax, “I was nine.”

In the quietness that follows the end of her story, he tries his best to process the information as quickly and efficiently as possible. It wasn’t just a story, it wasn’t just a story that you claimed happened to you or someone you knew, that was real. She rode with the Grey Lady. Was atop the Pale Horse. Was under daisies. She died. Death took her and she came back.

His thoughts are interrupted by a high whistling of his mentor, “Merlin, Lane, you told it better this year.” His classmates around them blink out of their daze and gather their wits.

“Make it a Hallowe’en tradition, yeah?” Prewett pips up, smiling bright.

Tom does not stay to comment or congratulate. He books it straight to the library.

The few Prefects poor enough (or boring enough) to be assigned to watch duty are just bitter and tired enough for Tom to sneak past them with little difficulty. The library is dead silent and empty, save for the fluttering of a few books flying overhead to a different perch.

His feet take him to the Myth and Legend section in the upper floors, and his hands reach out, as if on instinct, to grab a royal blue book, Magical Diffusion in The New World. He doesn’t want to wait to go back to the common room, he wants to open up the book now and study in the library furiously until he finds it, but he waits. Waits until he climbs all the stairs down into the dungeons, until his hair returns to its earthy brown and his costume trails skeleton leaves behind him. Tom sits up in his bed and reads. Reads wildly as his classmates enter the dormitory and fall to sleep, one by one. Reads as the clock strikes midnight and dark figures swim past his windows. He studies righteously until he finds just what he is looking for. And when he finds what he is looking for, he gets a triumphant gleam in his eyes. Gooseskin. A satisfied night’s sleep.

When he talks to her again, it is November the second, and he has regained his footing. He finds her sitting quietly at a desk in a small nook in the deserted common room (as the first snowfall of the season had called everyone outside to fool around). A pair of enchanted scissors cut rapidly at some colorful paper whilst she reads through what Tom identifies as a cookbook. Curious choice in his opinion, but he’s not here to get distracted.

Pulling up a chair to the right side of the desk, he asks her permission to join her. When she gives it, he sits down comfortably, eyeing the movement of the silver scissors.

“Crafting?”

“Something like that.” She turns the page in her book to a colorful moving illustration of a dancing bag of sugar.

“How do you get the scissors to do that?” His voice sounds almost transfixed.

Ximena’s eyes finally come off the book to look at what her magic has created, “A simple charm.”

“I don’t think that’s very simple.” The cutouts and nips on the paper are precise, despite the speed. So far, it looks as if it’s going to be a snowflake of some sort.

Ximena exhales strongly and sharply. It’s the closest thing he’s heard to a laugh from her, “Well, it’s simple to me.”

“We can’t all be as powerful and skilled as you are.”

The words are meant as flattery. And teasing. A test of their relationship. He feels a bit deflated when she doesn’t react much to it.

“Power is nothing when you have no smarts.”

He’s not sure what she means, so he goes on, “You sound like a Ravenclaw.”

“Oh, not that again.”

“--Not what again?”

“That kind of talk, that I don’t belong in Slytherin house.” She sighs, “Houses are stupid. They only divide us.”

He can’t say he disagrees. It’s much harder influencing those outside his house when they don’t share a class period with him, “...When he said that fame was fickle and changing, just like last year, what did he mean?”

Just as he thought, she did remember those words. Something told him she would. Despite her inability to recall names or memories, he knew that she would remember this. It was a phrase connecting them, like ‘Remember the boat show last year?’ or ‘This is just like when auntie forgot to cook the goose!’. It established a bond between them. A memory.

“I was a hatstall.”

The word, the name, bears meaning. Strong meaning. He can tell. Heavy and solid like a weight. He has no idea what a hatstall is, of course.

“I took more than five minutes to sort.” She continues, looking at him.

“--Oh.” The words Is that uncommon is about to come out of his mouth, but thankfully they never do. He would look like an idiot if they had. He remembers his own sorting. How quick the hat had rightfully placed him among his own, as fast as firing a pistol. How the longest sorting had been only thirty seconds, outside of one classmate: Nemesis. Five minutes exactly.

“How long? Which houses?” He’s dying of curiosity. His hands grasp the edge of the table, leaning in closer.

“I’m not sure. I don’t remember.” Of fucking course. “I sort of...dipped out of my consciousness. Disassociated with the moment.” He can understand that. Having all those eyes on you was unnerving when he underwent it, he can only imagine how she took it.  Standing alone on a stage with hundreds of eyes watching and waiting. Calculating. Sneering at your unfamiliar, non-magical name.

“What I do remember is the end, when the Sorting Hat said Slytherin.” And then she huffs up her voice in imitation, “Stubborn child! Slytherin!” Her shoulders slump back, her eyes still revisiting the memory, “When I came to, people were quiet. They didn’t clap. No one told me how long I was up there. I didn’t even know I was a hatstall until three months in.”

“Who told you?”

The buffoon.” She shares with him, smiling at the private joke. It’s an unfamiliar sight on her face, but not unpleasant. Her teeth, he notes, are perfect, “He’s the one who really showed me the ropes regarding wizard customs. Made it easier to keep my head down.”

And he tilts his head at this, “Why do you hide?” It comes out softly and full of curiosity.

“Attention brings problems, more often than not.”

“Like with the duel?”

Hesitation. “Yes. Like with the duel.” By now, her attention on the book was long lost, her spot on the page marked only with the red bookmark she had been using to keep her place.

“But everyone was so nice to you!”

Ximena presses her lips together, “Nice is not always kind.”

She ended the conversation with that. Her stop to it was practically tangible. He opts for changing the subject, “Any plans for Christmas?”

A small little sigh and an even smaller shrug, “Just being at home.”

“Like last year?”

A hum, “Perhaps. Might be nice to stay, but they might miss me.”

“Might?”

“Might.”

Tom didn’t know you could stay at Hogwarts for the holidays--He’d have to ask Dippet about that, because Dumbledore neglected to tell him.

“Would you like to write to each other? Like pen-friends?”

Ximena looks to be taking careful consideration of his request, fingers laced together atop the table as if she were deciding something leagues more important. Like the colors for new curtains in the parlor, or whether or not to cut her hair, or which one of her children she liked better.

“I would like that.” She decides.

His chest swells with satisfaction.

Things were once again, as his mentor would say, back to normal.

-

Over the Yuletide holidays, Tom finds himself blessed enough to be allowed to stay at Hogwarts after a timid inquiry at Headmaster Dippet. And of course he would be allowed to stay over the vacation, Hogwarts would be happy to have him.

The castle is peaceful and lonely. A perfect backdrop to his current state.  The halls are mostly empty and silent as an old movie. Only the wind groaning through the walkways and his own footsteps keep him company. Every once in a while, he’ll spot another student out of his periphery, but they all keep to themselves. Some will congregate in small groups with each other, but Tom hasn’t approached any yet. None of them are in Slytherin anyways. He’s fine by himself, as he always has been. In fact, he openly revels in the solitude (not that there’s anyone to see it): his gait mimics that of a king as he struts around the deserted Slytherin common room, pretending to own the place. The chaise and chairs in the lounge? All his, it’s where he does his important thinking. The beds in the first year dormitory? All his, he switches between them as he pleases. The small library and fireplace? All his, because there is much to learn and show for his success. It’s such a delight. The only thing that would make it better is if there were others there to play with him. Be his servants and confidants and fellow noblemen.

The grounds, blanketed with blinding snow that crunches delightfully under his shoes when he walks on it, resemble a Christmas postcard. Tom wishes he could paint it on a piece of bristol paper and send it back to Wool’s, showing off how much better he is here. Away from them. Back at the orphanage, they will be setting up for Christmas Eve by now: putting up moth-eaten stockings, attending services at the chapel, and decorating the saddest, ugliest tree in London. Last year, it had caught fire from the candles hung on it thanks to a mischievous stray cat that had somehow wandered in (It was Tom. He had let it in because the matron is allergic, and she had been foul to him earlier. No regrets.) They should have known better, really, it wasn’t freshly cut. It had been donated, if his memory serves him, by some rich patron who had wanted a nice photo opportunity for Sunday’s post. They came along sometimes, but not often enough to be remembered. He prefers the donations from church members who felt they were making a sort of difference in his life, but even they eventually move on to better ventures.

Then there are the past residents.

The older orphans, now adults, who had nothing but warmth and gratitude towards Wool’s for housing and feeding and loving them when the world wouldn’t. They are a sight often seen in and out of the place all throughout the year, frustratingly enough. They offer toys and clothes and food. They offer apprenticeships and jobleads. They offer a way out. But most annoying of all,  they come back for their siblings. Time after time, Tom has seen the children that grew out of being an orphan return for a brother, or sister, or more. Come! I have found our family! Come! I have arranged for you to marry my employer’s son! Come! I have made my fortune! Why would they want to return to such a place? Why would they come back for their sibling? The moment Tom comes of age, he is going forward and never looking back.

Going where? He’ll sort out that detail later. The world of magic has opened a hall of doors for him. Each possible future more tantalizing than the last. Just a matter of working for the keys. Or taking them from others. He’s not picky. He’ll work as a damn shopkeeper, for God’s sake, as long as he can stay here. Where he belongs.

Again, he tries not to think about the end of the year. When he has to return to home.

Tom shakes his head. No. It’s absurd to ever think that Wool’s was his home. It is a dwelling. A temporary shelter. A space that only exists when he has need of it. Just need. Not want. Not ever want. Hogwarts is his home now. For now. He will find--build a better one. Surely. A citadel far more safe and grand than Hogwarts. Luxurious and comfortable.

...Maybe he could ask Dippet if he could stay over the summer as well.

Admittedly, he is a bit miffed and confused that Ximena did not stay over the holidays as well. He had been under the impression (under the hope) that she held as much repugnancy for her abode and the people around her there like he holds for Wool’s. Was he wrong? Maybe she has some sort of obligation there--Or she’s hiding something (another something), like visiting the Acwellans again. The thought makes him sour. Should he ask her about it? Then she would know he was prying--Or can he play it off as just casual conversation between him and Hedwig? No. He’ll simply ask if she...went on any special trips. Yes.

The first letter to Ximena is rewritten three times. The first, because he felt he was rambling on about boring subjects. The second, because he had spilled ink when Ambrose speed walked over his hand in an attempt to catch a wandering beetle (he put him back in his tank with a good scolding. One that would make the matron at Wool’s proud.)

The third time around, he decides to be short. To the point. Let her decide the topics--But don’t let her be the one to initiate conversation. Knowing her, becoming pen-friends has probably already slipped her mind. Not at all because he is unimportant to her, surely, but because...Well, she’s Ximena.

Atop the west tower, Tom clutches the letter deep in his pocket, shielding it from the bizarre winds of the afternoon. Prying open the cold wooden door (it frequently got stuck thanks to caked owl droppings that dried on the floor before it), he peers in carefully. Never having been inside the owlery before, he doesn’t know what to expect--But the strange boxed displays of owl perches were not exactly...Well, where did they nest? It can’t be very comfortable…

But no matter. Tom steps forward, and absolutely does not flinch at the sudden flapping of wings above and around him, towards the few owls set aside by the school for student use. Hedwig had mentioned to him that the best bird for the job was a barn owl named Hattie because “sodding owl delivered my mother’s baked goods through the worst damn blizzard of the fucking century, she’s no cock-up, my sister swears by her”, and well, with an argument like that, how can he choose otherwise? It wasn’t as if he knew enough about sending mail by owl to see the marks of a good flyer. Maybe there was a class on that in his Care of Magical Creatures class?

Almost (almost) timidly, he calls out the name of the owl and is rewarded with a plump looking owl fluttering up in his face--Pulling away in surprise, he sticks the letter out automatically, not quite knowing what to do. He had seen others tie their parcels onto the birds’ feet, and other times, they would simply hand them over for the owl to carry in their beaks. Luckily for him, Hattie appears to be an experienced owl and simply nips the letter in her beak delicately, does a little body shake in preparation, and waits for Tom to tell her where to go.

He clears his throat, feeling awkward despite being alone in at the top of the tower, “Bring it to...Ximena Lane.” A name alone should work (damn girl was still religiously private, so an address was out the window) but Tom adds on at the last minute before Hattie could disappear from view, hoping it would help, that it wasn’t too late, “My friend, Ximena Lane.”

The wind shifts violently, almost throwing Hattie right out of the sky. Instead of being knocked down, however, she recovers, and is soon nothing but a distant speck in the horizon.

Chapter Text

Hattie returns, not worse for wear, from the south. Her feathers are damp from remote rains, and she croons into his hands as he scratches the sides of her face. The letter is a stiff piece of paper folded and tied closed with a piece of twine. He opens it immediately without waiting to walk to a more comfortable space (he was in the middle of the main courtyard), and reads through Ximena’s neat handwriting. The contents are surprisingly ordinary: a mention of the weather, scattered answers to his questions (‘I’m well’’, ‘hot oatmeal with cinnamon’, ‘no’, and ‘I think I’ll stay home this winter.’), and an off-hand comment on the current book she was reading though (another surprisingly ordinary sounding book, though she did not give the title.) It felt as carefully composed as his own letter. Overall, a disappointment.

It is set aside later, on a table back in the Slytherin common room, in favor of the more informative letters of his elite schoolmates. Topaz Selwyn and Abbas Yaxley are the most interesting of the bunch, avoiding topics like sports teams and girls, and sticking to wizarding traditions during Yule--As he found out from their confused writings, most purebloods had never heard of Christ or Father Christmas. A shock, to be sure, but it’s easy to adapt. The boys even speak about one day inviting him to their families’ Wild Hunt recreation. God only knows what in the goddamn that is, but Tom is excited to find out.

Hedwig sends a small postcard from the Rhineland speaking of a Wild Hunt as well (Da says I’m still far too young, but I’m going to sneak on a fucking horse anyways and go out with the rest), and asking him if muggles have hunts around Yuletide as well. There is no mention of Ximena being re-invited to her family’s home.

Next, inside a carefully wrapped package is a tin of cookies, each more peculiar and delicious than the last. It is from Nemesis, who sends her deepest and warmest regards along with a little toy knight charmed to march about and listen to his orders. ‘An early Modranicht present’ whatever that means. He sets the little knight up before him to feast his eyes on it: the metal used in his armor as intricate and detailed as a real one. He wonders how much it cost. He wonders if it made any real dent in her money budget for the holidays.

He orders it to jump off the table. It does so immediately, and clamors down on the stone floor with a moderate clang. Splayed out like a dead man. It picks itself up easily, though, and stands again, ready for the next order. Tom decides he likes it.

Sending his new little soldier around the common room to search for treasure, he decides to put off writing back to Ximena until later, he focuses on writing back to the more interesting classmates--the more important classmates. But his mind wanders, skips and saunters back to his senior...Had she really changed that much in such short a time? Gotten more and more boring? In her reading choices and personality and--

Tom gazes down at the bracelet, set before him beside his goblet of juice. Was it this that had interested him so much all those weeks ago when he accessed her during his first night? This mysterious thing with such a basic origin? Yami had said that Ximena’s own magic had changed, and such a thing in such a short amount of time is...It’s not possible is it? On one’s own? It’s not like changing one’s clothes or cutting one’s hair, surely it’s like developing height or weight over a length of time...

Something moves in the common room and he turns to search for the intruder so fast, he gets whiplash. His eyes search desperately for any sign of life--Or death, it could very well be Peeves attempting to scare him (again). But all he sees is blackness--Damn place was so dimly lit. Tom can hear his heart beating in his ears, it’s so silent. And then…

Caw.

He is met with a crow.

It hops over to him, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, with a small envelope attached to its little foot.

Tom is cautious, “How did you get in here?”

It says nothing, of course. It merely looks at him and crows again. He extends his hand out--And is nipped at. His hand retracts back, bleeding slightly. Cursing, he is tempted to swat away the stupid bird, but he stops himself.

The tin of cookies is given a second glance.

This time, Tom offers it up first: a shiny little refractive biscuit that feels like someone broke off a piece of the moon. The little messenger accepts it happily, and willfully lets Tom untie the envelope from it. There is no signature at the bottom of the letter inside, but he knows who it’s from.

I don’t trust the owls from Hogwarts. Please write to me using my friend.

The crow makes another sound at him, as if confirming that it was, indeed, the friend written about.

It’s not serious. I am not in any danger. I am not in hiding. But my letters are all read by the Abbess. I can’t disguise my words, it would be very difficult for you to decipher them.

He’s offended. He’s a very smart boy of eleven, thank you very much, he could have figured it out. Even if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind that her first letter could possibly be encoded. He would have definitely figured it out if it was. Eventually. Yes.

She already suspects something strange about this school. It took forever for another sister to convince her that owls are an alternative for messenger pigeons. Thank goodness she never leaves the abbey.

He leans back in the comfortable armchair, drinking in her words greedily. The crow has taken to helping itself on the tin of sweet biscuits. Tom does not mind or notice.

I’ve never written to a person before, so maybe she was just suspicious. It is very uncharacteristic of me to be so sociable. I don’t even know what to write. You didn’t give much in the way of prompting. That is very unlike you.

What was that supposed to mean? Nevermind.

What do you really want to say? To ask?

A lot. It would take a few pages.

What are you afraid of?

What indeed.

Tell me.

So he did.

Throughout all of his letters to Ximena that winter, he writes with complete honesty. The abridged...censored...and highly edited version of honesty, anyways. If she can have secrets, why can’t he?

He repeats a few of his observations from the book he studied about curses to her, and asks what she thinks of them in the first letters. He’ll deny anyone who accuses him of fishing for compliments on his intelligence, but validation feels good. And he would like to see if he’s on a good track with some of his theories and views.

It’s amazing, just when Ximena was getting boring to him, something happens that manages to make him keep his attention on her. Is she aware of it? Is she rationing out parts of her just enough so that he stays around? No, he’s not so hopeful or stupid as to believe that, but it is a nice thought, nonetheless. ‘Friendship takes time.’ The words repeat themselves in his mind. Friendship takes time.

The letters take time too. His questions take time.

‘What were you reading that first day we met in the library?’

Even now, he can picture the page in his mind’s eye, though the image is blurred. What did she say it was? Sonnets? Whatever it was, it had to have been a lie. Or a truth so vague and broad that it might as well have been a lie. She’ll tell him now, right? She has to, things are different with them now. He has won her friendship over many weeks of pushing for it.

He wants to write--to ask if she trusts that idiot of a mentor more than she trusts him. So many little intimacies about her he only knew from that buffoon. And he only knew those directly from the source. She had told him, once, that his guide was useful. Was she as manipulative as he, then? Back when he had started attending Dueling Club as much as he could, he had hoped to catch something between them. A passing glance or a few dropped sentences, but he never got much beyond a few little quips and comments. And Ximena has yet to duel again, so he couldn’t even look forward to that.

‘Why are you in Dueling Club when you don’t like dueling?’

Yes! That was a good thing to write, he knows it. It’s bold. Just. Rational. He knows that any person with context would be impressed with him upon reading it. Okay okay, he stops lingering on the sentence to focus on what to write next, but he can’t. Instead, he stays on that one sentence because goddamn, why doesn’t she like dueling? Tom can’t wait until he’s able to be up there himself showing everyone what he’s made of. What he’s capable of. Tom can’t wait to further prove himself to those outside the classroom. To not have to rely on the stories and recounts of teachers and students. He wants his time now.

‘Did Dumbledore find you like he found me?’

A question that holds a little more ernest sincerity. And perhaps, he hate hate hates to admit, a little more vulnerability. He already knows the answer, of course, Dumbledore told him himself, but he wants to hear her version. In her own words. Was he nicer to her? Did he also demand she stop any illicit activities like theft?

It’s strange. In a way he wants to collect her. Not keep her in a glass display case like at a museum, but collect her essence. Her thoughts and memories. Her magic. Bits of her to leaf through and study and admire. Not like a butterfly pinned down or a pretty penny polished and shined, but like an idea. Or a tune to a song. Immortalized.

He wants to see what parts of her match him.

His name, he knows, and thinks with great disgust, is common. His mind, though, is not. Not his personality or goals. Her name is not common. At least, not in the United Kingdom. Her history and personality and goals are still unknown. Being in Slytherin is one thing: a lot of people can be ambitious and resourceful and cunning and driven. A lot of people can be group oriented and self-serving. A lot of people follow their own set of rules and personal laws to a tee. But how many people can actually use that ambition properly? Be resourceful towards practical things? Not be caught deceiving while being cunning? Or be driven towards the correct things?

It bothers him that he can’t even vaguely place Ximena in a certain category of people, like he has with the rest of his classmates. She’s no fit in ‘Easy to Manipulate’. No fit in ‘Rich and Powerful’. No fit in ‘Perfect Scapegoat’, ‘Networking Ally’, or ‘Useless’. Very few people have yet to be sorted in this manner, and for them it is only a matter of time. For Ximena, he has placed her in a special box of her own. One labeled with ‘Like Me, But Not Like Me’.

Like Me, But Not Like Me.

Maybe it upsets him that there can even be someone out there on his level? Or near it? On a parallel plane from it? Maybe it scares him that this someone was so easily found within months of learning that it was magic that he can do? That this other person raised so similarly to him was already leagues ahead of him, despite only being a year older? How far will he be in his second year? The same? Further? Further behind?

Competition keeps one sharp. He knows. Yet he doesn’t want to compete with Ximena. Not publically, at least. He knows which way the professors will favor if it ever came to that. His gender and race are enough to guarantee a smooth enough ride to the top, but with her, she has already managed to gain a considerable amount up without such things. Without trying. Or seeming to try. It’s hard to tell with her.

None of this, of course, is placed in any of the letters he writes back to her. It is kept in his head to stew over in the dark hours of the night before sleep takes him. Kept on the backburner of his mind while he reads through her short responses to his questions. Each barely satisfying enough to quell the curiosity, but just enough to properly answer the question. ‘I’m not sure exactly what I was reading, I’m translating it’, ‘I don’t want people to know how I fight’, and ‘Yes, he came here on a rainy Sunday afternoon and told me I was a witch’. There are more details after those sentences, but they are too much useless information for him to bother with.

“Do you know what she’s hiding?” He asks the crow one day, his feathers shiny and black as the night sky, “Can she talk to you like I talk to snakes?”

The bird judges him with beady jet eyes and does not respond, but he lets Tom scratch it on the top of its head.

Quite possibly, he is making an entire ordeal out of nothing. In reality she is as boring as they come, and as common as the next student. But there’s something in his gut. His core that says otherwise. The same thing that goes off when he knows that an adult means him harm. The same thing that alerts him to Prefects when he is up past his bedtime in the library. The same thing that told him to make those two children in the cave pay. It says to keep talking to her.

Reading through her writings is almost alike to speaking to her face to face, save for the lack of sudden pauses and her forgetting that he’s there. They’re short, but not as short as her sentences when she speaks aloud. It is as if Ximena is amplified on paper. Without barriers or filters to mess up his reading of her speech.

And there is something else...

It is an insignificant detail. Something absolutely no one would have noticed but him, of course. It is the rare, off-handed mentions of her food. Straightforward, boring meals--Porridge, salad, gelatin. Crisps and chips and carrot sticks. Nothing as grand or as interesting sounding as the meals he witnessed her eat in his time here. Of course it’s easily excusable with the fact that perhaps the nunnery doesn’t have the means to make such meals. Of course, Tom knows it can’t be that easy.

He receives a clue in the form of a letter from Abbas, whom was speaking on an entirely different topic, “My brother always eats his favourite meals at Hogwarts, and I can’t figure out how he did it! All he tells me is that you have to teach new foods to the cooks, but nobody cooks the food! It just appears!” Idiot. That’s what you get for slacking on your Transfiguration homework.

Speaking of, Dumbledore has backed off his little tirade. Hopefully he’ll stay that way. A few days after his last tea meeting was held, Ximena was becoming more openly social with her fellow students, alleviating Dumbledore’s apparent worry, and irritating Tom. If she doesn’t have time to pay attention to him, she shouldn’t have time to pay attention to anyone. She’s a reclusive, studious, ambitious girl, it’s what he likes about her. Now, she’s never given any indication of any such ambitions, but Tom can just tell these things. Ximena definitely has some sort of goal in mind. Without a doubt. He just has to figure out what it is...

But back to the food: there is absolutely something weird about it. Suspicious in a way that is completely not suspicious at all. Ximena does not know about the kitchens. House elves here have no place knowing about those sorts of recipes. He bookmarks the thought in his mind to return to it later.

It is now later.

He tickles the pear.

The kitchens are low activity and uncrowded, contrast to how he imagined it to be. A few house elves scuttle and scurry around, mostly paying him no mind. Some appear to be a little unsettled by his presence, and others simply carry on with their day--After a curt greeting. It’s his first real interaction with such creatures, and it’s odd for him. The animals in his Care of Magical Creatures class don’t speak. They don’t have autonomy. The house elves at the Hallowe’en party didn’t speak either. They only held trays and cleaned up after messes. Here, they walk about comfortably, completely in their environment.

It isn’t until one confidently, yet timidly, asks him if he was here to cook as well, that he notices he isn’t alone. His head cranes to try and listen...

There’s another student here, humming away happily like Snow White. The smell of freshly baked bread reaches him, as well as something sweeter. He ignores the house elf, turning the corner and spotting the culprit: an older girl with mousy brown hair cut in a bob, and pasty skin. When he runs into the corner of a counter, pushing some pots over into an empty sink, she turns to him--And her look of shock is familiar.

Kowalska.” He acknowledges, and the plain faced girl smiles, a little uneasily, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just curious as to what you’re doing.”

“Oh, just baking a little.” She tips some sugar into a bowl, on-the-spot, “I was homesick.”

He can’t relate, “Can I watch?” This opportunity might prove useful, and maybe she’ll share whatever she’s making with him.

“Oh--Oh yes of course you can, um--” A hesitation, “Riddle, correct? Tom Riddle?”

His hand is extended, “Yes. You’re--”

“Ah, Elle Kowalska is fine.” She clears her throat, shaking his hand gently, “It’s a middle name I prefer.”

Curious, but Tom can somewhat understand. Out of anyone here, he can understand reservations about names.

He pulls up a stool.

“Pris? Bring me some of that butter now, please.” Her voice raises slightly to reach the ears of a house elf a few meters away.

“Right away, Miss Kowalska.” The house elf disappears. Tom’s eyes widen.

“Never seen a house elf disapparate, I see.” He shakes his head, “You’ll learn how to do that in your seventh year.” He’ll what.

“Will I really?”

She chuckles, “Of course. It’s dangerous, but wicked fun, I hear.” Another hum as the house elf reappears with a platter of butter, “Thank you, Pris! That’ll be all.”

“Pris is honored to help Miss Kowalska.” A bow, and she disappears again.

“--You’re so nice to them.” It’s out before he can control it. But Elle doesn’t appear to be upset at his words.

“Kindness is much needed these days.” A sigh as she sets the platter aside towards Tom, “I don’t like being cruel.”

He can’t relate, “What are you making?”

“It’s an old recipe from my grandmother--kołaczki.” She mixes the dry, powdered ingredients with a wooden spoon, “They’re like cookies.”

“Are they magical?”

Elle chuckles again, Tom feels like she’s making fun of him, “In a personal way, yes.” She looks up in thought, “It’s a type of old magic. So old, even some muggles can do it.” She sounds as if she knows what she’s talking about, but Tom doesn’t believe it regardless. Muggles can’t do magic. That’s why they’re muggles, “When you make food, especially from an old recipe, it has...something special about it. When you make food meant for sharing, it...becomes more than just food. Sharing food, breaking bread, is sacred. To do so under a foreign house would guarantee your safety. Families in the East share food to show love and community. To miss a meal is to miss a communion. A ritual.”

Tom blinks, “Is it really all that?”

She is determined to prove her point, “When you ingest food, you are nourishing your body: your temple. When you share food, especially food that you made or food from your culture, you share a piece of you. You nourish others around you. You’re creating a bond.” She clears her throat, “It’s why students here all eat from the same kitchen: Hogwarts wants us to be a whole. To work together as a school.” Spoken like a true Hufflepuff.

“So then, there’s magic in our food?”

A pause, “The whole ritual has magic, really.” She finishes mixing the flour, “Pass me the butter, please, Tom.”

He does so, “I’ve never shared a meal before. Not really.”

“Oh that’s a shame,” She’s pitying him, and he hates it, but he takes it, “It’s lovely. Really intimate--Hard to describe.” Her shoulders shrug as she pinches the butter into the flour.

“--Why don’t you use magic to do that?” He peers over the bowl curiously.

“I like getting my hands dirty.” A soft laugh, “Magic is good, but this is better.”

There is a small moment of silence, “It’s almost like when you use magic without a wand, isn’t it?”

Elle perks up an ear, peering at him curiously.

“You can point a wand and make your dough knead itself, but when you do it with your hands, it’s direct--Do you understand?”

A smile and a nod, “Yes, exactly.”

“Your food magicks are lovely,” Tom compliments, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff herself.”

Her face burns, red bleeding into her pale skin rapidly in a way that made Tom think of radishes, “You really think so?” Elle looks as if she were reassuring herself on his statement, “I’m working on a thesis for it, but none of the teachers, save for Dumbledore, will take me seriously...” She sighs, “Maybe it is an idea for a younger generation.” A smile, “More people should be as open-minded as you, Tom.”

If more people were like him, then he wouldn’t be--couldn’t be--special. “Your words are gracious and kind.”

Elle smiles, “And such manners! I wish my little cousin could be more like you.” The dough is kneaded out on the flour-covered surface of the counter before her, “She’s over in Ilvermorny right now in her first year.”

“Ilvermorny?”

“Oh right, you’re...” She cuts herself off, clearing her throat, “Uhm...It’s a wizarding school in the States.”

The words ‘there are other schools in other countries?’ almost comes out of his mouth, but luckily they do not. Of course they have other schools! How stupid. He just never really...thought about it. No one had mentioned it to him.

“What’s it like there?”

“Strict and authoritarian, if her letters are to be believed.” Elle chuckles, but there’s a stiffness about her that leads Tom to conclude that she was worried for her cousin, “You know, it was founded by an Irish witch? A descendant of Salazar Slytherin himself.”

This interests him greatly, “No, I didn’t know.”

“The school is very proud of its founder and history, it’s gotten very picky with which students to let in each year.” The dough is flattened with a rolling pin before she begins to cut into them to place on a tray, “I think they want a lot of potential under their roof to bring greater glory to the school.” Elle lays the cut pieces of dough on the tray, perfectly spacing them out evenly and neatly.

“A bit like Slughorn, no?”

A snort, unladylike and very strange coming from her, “Yes. Yes, I should say a lot like Slughorn and his little collection. He’s a perfect Slytherin.”

Yes...He is...Praising and nurturing and grooming the magical world’s next politicians, influencers, and sports stars. Funneling their fame, fortune, and prestige back onto him. He’s always the first in line because he’s allowed to cut it. Always the one listened to because he was given a podium. Always knows what cards the other players are holding because they willingly show him.

An understanding clouds Tom’s mind. Elle places the tray in the oven and lights the logs underneath with a flick of her wand.

“...No instant heat spell to make them bake faster?” He already expects a certain answer, but he baits her regardless.

“Good things take time.” A firm nod. “Anticipation makes the satisfaction better.”

Tom wraps his head around the idea, but finds himself too impatient to really absorb it, “Who taught you to bake?”

“Like most girls, I learned from my grandmother.” She sits on a stool she conjures, her hands sit folded and intertwined on her lap, palms down. “I’m told I get my magic abilities from her too.”

The sentence strikes a chord of curiosity and confusion for him, “She’s the only witch in your family?”

Elle seems a little uncomfortable, perhaps. It’s not the right word, but it’s the first word to come to Tom’s mind. “No, but she’s certainly the most powerful one.” Her voice lowers a bit, against her own will. She clears her throat but does not speak.

Tom wants this conversation to continue moving forward, but looking at her face and at the cards in his hand, he decides it’s not the right move, and instead goes back to his original mission, “Did you teach the elves here how to bake your special foods?”

“Oh yes--They’re very good listeners, and they learn quick. I’ve taught Pris and the rest all they know about kosher Polish cooking.” Elle’s chin is raised high, “Before this, my brother had to make due with English kosher foods.” She makes a face as if she had smelled something foul, “No offence intended, of course, but food from home is best.”

He’s not sure how to take offence to that. He’s English, sure, but he’s never particularly felt prideful about it. If anything, the Hufflepuff’s words are proof for him that everyone (no matter now nice) has their own private prejudices. Elle’s is on food, Hedwig’s is on blood. “None taken. Can I try some?”

Her hand rests on her heart, “My goodness, you’re so cute--Of course you can! Once they’re done baking.”

His head turns to the oven to his left, and he waits.

-

When classes resume at Hogwarts, he is surrounded by Slytherins in well and content moods, speaking to one another about the delightful Yuletide Holiday Feast that the Parkinsons hosted this year. From what Tom can gather of their conversations, somebody had poured an entire bottle of Daisyroot Draught into the punch meant for the underage wizards, which caused a hilarious scandal and a hideous humiliation on behalf of the Averys. The stories and jests are so lackadaisical, that Tom can’t help but resent their pompous joy. One would think these people had never experienced a real disaster in their lives. His thoughts are confirmed further when Nemesis catches up with him on his way to Potions, red nose up in the air and flipping her slick hair over her shoulder and showing off whatever new silver trinket hangs around her neck.

“It’s such a good thing you weren’t there, Riddle, it was a total disaster.” She sighs, “It almost ruined my entire holiday.” Nemesis...Nemesis is so smart, but she concerns herself with such stupid things. She doesn’t care what people think, but cares about what people say. She doesn’t let a mistake ruin her tasks in the classroom, but lets a damn prank ruin her entire holiday.

Hedwig says something similar as he sits by her, though considerably less cringeworthy, “I wasn’t there when it happened, thank Merlin, but I heard that Missus Parkinson cried from having her ball ruined. Several house elves were punished.”

Tom looks upon this information with displeasure. Hedwig sneezes, “Ah fuck, Eric said that I would get sick after the break--”

“A premonition?”

She snorts, taking her seat at their table, “Don’t be daft, Riddle, all the purebloods get sick after the holidays.”

Slughorn begins his lecture with a warm welcome to all the students, going on to speak about the increase in difficulty that they will soon bare through. Hedwig snorts at his speech. Tom is tempted to do the same, but he holds back. Got to keep up appearances.

The two are set to brew a pepperup potion as they continue to converse.

“I can’t believe you got to spend Yule here all by yourself, Riddle, how did you not tear your fecking hair out?”

“I liked the quiet. I could think clearly.”

“What do you have to think about? You’re eleven.”

Twelve,” an immediate correction, “my birthday was on the thirty-first.”

“Well happy fucking birthday, Riddle, let’s celebrate late by getting top marks for this damn potion.”

At this point, Hedwig’s cursing is almost comforting as it is familiar. As the fumes and steam from the hot peppers rise up from the cauldron into his lungs, Tom finds himself a bit lightheaded, as he thinks about seeing Ximena again.

-

During lunch, here’s no luck with finding her, though Tom does see and catch up with Abbas, who invites him to sit down with him, Topaz, and Ian Rosier. He lasts exactly twelve seconds before Ian asks his bloodstatus. Typical. He is suspicious, at first, when Tom tells him that he was raised in a muggle orphanage, but the suspicion leaves when he hears about Tom’s excellent grades and magicks. No mudblood could be that good at magic. Ian makes no mention of half-bloods, but Tom doesn’t bring it up.

“There’s so little respectable skill in our year, we’ve had to dig him up.” Abbas jokes, “I bet he could easily outsmart anyone--Anyone at all, just name them.”

“What about Lane?” Topaz asks. Tom’s ears perk up.

“She associates with mudbloods.” Ian’s nose crinkles, “Druella and I see it in Charms. That’s enough to write her off.”

His first instinct is to defend, but he waits.

“Baker is her assigned partner in there, you can’t blame her for speaking to her during class.” Topaz chuckles, popping a few chips into his mouth. Ian makes a face that says I sure as hell can, and frowns.

“Association means nothing.” Abbas begins after a moment of thought, “Take the Weasleys...They’re self-proclaimed pro-muggle, right?” Ian shows nothing but contempt and Topaz nods, “Yet when was the last time one of them married one? Married a mudblood? Or a half-blood for that matter?

A pause at the table. Gears turning. The talk is familiar, Tom’s heard it from many sources. Hedwig being the loudest. His mentor being the most clear-minded.

“...Huh.” Topaz is besides himself, “You know, now that I think about it, you’re right.”

And?” Ian is a hair away from being scandalized, Tom can tell.

Abbas rolls his eyes, “And, as long as people are keeping the dirty blood out, who cares who they speak to?” He bites into an apple, “Bwesuhds,” some chews and a swallow, “muggles have their uses.”

Muggles have their uses. Hedwig spoke of keeping some as potential replacements for house elves. Tom himself thought about some of the more nicer cultural works that muggles have contributed to society. What did Abbas mean?

“As what?” Topaz prompts.

“Moving hex targets?” Tom finally speaks up, cracking what he hopes will be a successful jest.

It lands successfully. Topaz and Abbas erupt in chuckles, and even Ian cracks a smile, despite himself, “Well they would certainly be better to strike than firsties.”

“Debatable.” Abbas says, still smiling, “But yes, that’s an example.” Another bite of the apple, “...Tom, you know Lane personally, right?”

A spotlight rests on him. Metaphorically, of course.

“We speak sometimes.”

“Is she a true Slytherin, then?”

There’s no need to ask what that means. Tom knows. Does she bring good publicity and honor to their house? Does she look down on her inferiors? Does she have dirty blood?

“She is as much a Slytherin as I am.”

Abbas smiles.

-

When he sees other students reunite in the Great Hall after a long winter break, they hug. Smile and cheer and embrace each other tightly. Even the Slytherins do it. Tom watches them all silently. Observing. What kind of emotions spring up from touching someone like that? How does it feel physically to touch another like that? It looks strange. Unnatural. Uncomfortable. He’d understand it if it were some sort of social requirement to be done and over with as fast as possible, but the hugs always linger. People always hold fast to the other person, often reluctant to let go.

He turns his head down from people watching and scans the room. Dinner at Hogwarts, the first night back, is chaos. A loud shouting match erupts from the Gyffindors over on the other side of the hall, and Tom jumps in surprise. Good lord, they act like a pack of baboons. What are they yelling about now? Probably some Quidditch nonsense. They’re chanting someone’s name--Vane? Cain? Doesn’t matter. Ignore them.

His eyes search for his housemate, and he finds her quick: Treating herself to a large platter of vibrant baked goods, Ximena sits alone; content in her solitary state, she is paying little to no mind to the absurdly loud commotion over at the Gryffindor table. Tom slides in next to her, giving a polite greeting.

“Mmf--” Her mouth is full, crumbs littered around her lips and cheeks, “hehwo.” A hand comes up to cover her mouth as she chews and swallows the food. Cute. How is it that he always catches her unguarded?

“Sor--” A rough cough, “Sorry. Hi.”

“I thought you were going to choke yourself there.”

“I almost was.” Her throat clears, “I guess you scared me.”

“Me?” His head tilts, voice raising high--Little old me?

“Well I suppose that’s why I’m not in Gryffindor,” a half smile, “I imagine most aren’t easily started by eleven year old first years.”

Tom sits up a little straighter, “Twelve year old first years.”

A blink, “You’re twelve?”

“It was my birthday on the thirty-first, remember?” He had written about it rather explicitly.

“Oh,” she pauses, lips pressing together briefly, “here then.” She picks up a small plate at her side and sets it before Tom, “Take some of my sweets. It’s not a birthday cake, but it’s something.”  

For whatever reason, Tom hesitates before reaching out tentatively and snagging a large, round cookie with colorful sprinkles spattered on top like stars in the night sky. He takes another one, this one soft and shaped like a flat pretzel. The last one is a dark brown, cake-like cookie that’s shaped like a pig. When it hits his plate, he notices Ximena eyeing him closely. The focused attention makes his face feel warm for some reason. He likes it. Somewhat. Finally biting into the first treat, he realises that his housemate is watching for a reaction.

The sweet is light and fluffy. Melts in his mouth into a buttery pleasure. His teeth crunch the little round sprinkles, and they pop about his mouth pleasantly. It’s leagues away from the heavily sugared baked goods that he is used to eating here at Hogwarts.

“Do you like it?”

“I love it.”

She looks relieved. Shoulders relaxing, a breath leaving her mouth, Ximena returns to her own little after-dinner snack, offering up her warm mug of chocolate for Tom to dip his own treats into. He does, and though the foamy hot chocolate threatens to burn his mouth, he delights in it. It tastes bubbly and spicy and feathery, and he wants to drink up the whole thing down.

All is well.

“Do you know how to make these?” He lets the question raise up naturally, wiping a few crumbs from the corner of his lips.

“Me? No.” Her voice sounds dejected. “I can bake bread, but not much else.”

Disappointment. But somehow he thinks she isn’t lying this time. Isn’t hiding something. “Ever wanted to learn?”

Confirmation in the form of a nod, “Mmhm. I’ve been searching around back home for a baker to apprentice under, but no luck yet. They don’t want me out and about by myself, you see.”

“What a shame.” His tone is sympathetic. “I think you would be good at it.”

“You think so?” The last time she had asked him this, it ended in a strange omen of flowers and crows, so he hesitates at his next words,

“I know so.”

Stillness. He waits for something to happen again, just like last time. Nothing does. Ximena merely continues eating and humming contently as the rowdy Gryffindors start up again over Merlin knows what.

“..When is your birthday?”

“Hm?”

“Your birthday. When is it?”

“April the thirtieth.”

His eyes roll up, trying to count how long until then.

“Three months. Fifteen weeks.” Ximena cuts him off.

“You’ll be thirteen?”

“I’ll be thirteen.”

A pause, “We were born in the same year then. Why are you ahead of me?” He’s not sure how his voice portrays his emotions, but he’s sure it’s not the way he wants them to come across.

“You have to be eleven when the first term starts at Hogwarts,” she begins, “so the September first when I started, you were still ten.”

He was still ten. Still ten and oblivious to the fantastic world he was meant for. Still ten and trying to be adopted. Still ten and alone. His little fist tightens. Something like bitterness rises in his throat.

He stuffs more cookies into his mouth.

-

The one thing Tom did not look forward to when the school started up again after the holidays, was his weekly meetings with Dumbledore. True, they often prove informative, but he was beginning to debate with himself on whether the information and free sweets was worth the scrutiny he withstood from him. Christ, it was like the man had him on trial for something he didn’t even do--Or for something that wasn’t even that big of a deal. Petty theft of a few loosey goosey items belonging to awful children at the orphanage is hardly anything to hold over the head of a child for the rest of his life. The situation with Billy and his damn rabbit is another matter entirely, but it’s not as if he hung Billy from the rafters. He’s above murder. And Dumbledore doesn’t know about that anyways, there’s no way he would know. And yet...

It does seem as if Dumbledore is overly concerned over him. It was that moment, that one moment back at Wool’s, when they first met, when Tom demanded that he tell him where to get a wand of his own. He knows it. He should have been patient. He should have stayed silent and polite the whole way. But he couldn’t help it. How could he? For so long he had been wanting an answer to his questions. A means to get ahead. Above everyone else. A way to be sure he was never stepped on again.

And because of his loss of temper, he has an exceptionally powerful wizard on his damn tail every second of everyday. Well, that’s an exaggeration. He at least keeps him under watch during his lessons, and their weekly tea. Both times where Tom feels at his tensest. Most like he has to put on some type of performance. It’s like Dumbledore is playing a strategy game with him, though he does not know the rules.

These thoughts, he shares with his guide a few weeks into the new semester.

“It is a little noteworthy that Dumbledore has taken care to make sure you’re adapting well to Hogwarts specifically.” He pauses in his essay writing, “I think he sees something of himself in you.”

“He sees himself in me?”

“Think about it: you’re both exceptionally gifted warlocks, both a little mysterious, and let’s face it, Tommy, you’ve both got a little ego too.”

Tom scowls a little. He had thought that he did his hubris well. Not once had he done or said anything to show that he was the least bit arrogant or proud. Not at Hogwarts, anyways.

“Don’t look at me, like that. We’re Slytherins, having an ego is somewhat of a requirement.” He chuckles, “Of course, what separates us from the Gryffindors is that we know we have an ego. Most of the time.” The younger boy can agree with that. Most of his housemates have some sense of self-awareness, but many others do not. “Anyways, don’t think he’s attacking you or anything. I think you just interest him on a personal level. There’s not many orphans in the history of Hogwarts with your history. Or lack of one, really.”

Gee, that makes Tom confident about his situation.

“Your surname is an interesting one, you know. Riddle. A mystery. An enigma. It suits you.”  He shifts his weight to his elbow, bent on the table, “It’s curious. I’ve never heard it among wizardkind or muggles.” Tom doesn’t know how to feel about that. “Luckily it doesn’t hurt with your popularity. I think it enhances, it actually.” He leans back in the armchair, “I’ve heard Shafiq and Kingsley muttering about it, actually--”

This is news to Tom. Shafiq and Kingsley are seventh years: a group of students he has had no real access to, or chance to acquaint himself with. They were speaking about him? Name dropping him in their conversations? Tom compresses the need to preen visibly, it would be bad for his humble orphan image.

“--you’re a character straight out of legend. You could be anyone. A scion of an ancient house, a mythical hero...Sure, you could be some muggleborn nobody, but that’s not as exciting.” Eye contact and a raised brow, “And not as realistic.”

Salazar Slytherin would never allow a muggleborn into his house.

“I feel so ordinary, that’s hard to believe.”

“I mean it when I say you’re going to do great things, Riddle. I have an eye for these things, I told you and Lane remember?” A scratch under his nose, “Speaking of, what have you brought Lane?”

Huh?

“What do you mean? Why would I have bought her something?”

Merlin, Riddle, it’s no wonder you haven’t gotten anywhere with Lane.” His guide’s criticisms are completely unwarranted. He’s gone plenty. “Nothing for her birthday? Not even flowers?”

Oh. Does he always concern himself with the troubles and lives of boys more than four years his junior? Doesn’t he have finals to study for? Besides, Ximena doesn’t want anything. She told him herself a week or so ago.

“She said she didn’t care about her birthday.”

“Women say that all the time, Riddle! It’s a test!”

Ximena once tested him on a DADA review, but it wasn’t really something issued personally (she was helping another first year with it, and their lunch table ended up becoming a small study group). But this? A test of what? They aren’t married. And birthdays don’t really mean anything outside of becoming older and stronger. There are never any parties at Wool’s whenever a child has the privilege of knowing when they were born, and instead there is maybe a song and maybe a little game. But only if the child is well loved. No gifts. No cake. No creating lasting memories. What’s the big deal?

“Why is she testing me?”

He expects something like ‘to see if you’re worth it’ or ‘to see if you’re genuine’, but his mentor continues to disappoint and surprise, “I don’t know, Riddle, women are crazy.”

Tom thinks the opposite sex has strange methods of going about things. But so far, they’ve been very efficient in their studies compared to the boys he’s spoken to. He really needs to speak to different boys.

“I think you’re overreacting.”

He looks offended, “I see you’ve never been on the bad side of a woman scorned on her birthday, Riddle.”

When would he have had the opportunity to?

“You need to trust me, Tommy boy. I saw it last year, she was real upset on the day. Crying. Found her in the Astronomy Tower.”

Something like experience tells Tom that she wasn’t crying about people forgetting her birthday. Every emotional birthday he has been through has been a result of...Remembering where he is in life. How far away he was from adoption and leaving Wool’s. Of course the other children and adults wouldn’t care or know about his date of birth. Nevermind that some of them were alive when his mother gave birth and died on the steps of that awful place. Why would anyone remember it? Or celebrate it.

“Was she okay?” Concern is laced through his voice perfectly.

“Dunno,” shrug, “she wouldn’t say anything. Just weeped. Ruined my perfectly good new robes too.”

Tom coughs suddenly, feeling like something crawled into his throat and died.

“Whoa there, breathing right, Riddle?” His guide pats his back, half soothing, half rough. It makes him stiffen up at the contact.

I’m fine. I’m fine--Thank you.” Tom lets the bewilderment wash past him to try and focus on the conversation, “So she was that upset, then.”

“Oh yeah, it was pretty bad. She’s a clinger, so you’re in for some softening up if you ever want to get close.” He jests, lightly smacking Tom’s shoulder.

His words are not appreciated. They are close. Or at least, closer than she is to others, he would like to think. Granted, she’s never done anything like cry into him, but he doesn’t want that. Amy Benson was a messy, ugly crier. She clung to Dennis Bishop in that oceanside cave for dear life, snot coming out of her nose and salty tears streaming down her wrinkled face. They got what they deserved.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to...at least remember the date. Get a chocolate frog or a bookmark? He’d have to get it from somebody, he has no money--

“In fact, here,” The older Slytherin digs into his pocket and brings out six sickles, “have one on me.” The silver coins pour into Tom’s open palms, his eyes wide and glistening,“That should be enough for some flowers, yeah?” Daft idiot, this is enough to feed him for two months.[1]

In the end, Tom decides on pocketing four of the sickles to save up for later (how much do you need to have to open an account at Gringotts?) and using the remaining two for something simple: a package of saltwater taffies and nice looking wrapping paper.

The sweets are acquired via owl, through some fancy shop Hedwig suggested when he asked about where to get good candy. The shoppe, as it turns out, is in Nice. That explains the price, he was expecting something like that. Still, when Hattie comes back to him with the most luxurious little paper package, he can’t help but be impressed and captivated by the shining gold details on the design that dance and shimmer around the light blue box like eels in water. A part of him wants to indulge himself and eat the whole box, but he refrains, and instead eats another helping of hotcakes with chocolate sauce. The saltwater taffies are tucked into his school bag for later.

The wrapping paper is made. Under guidance of Nemesis, he turns the plain butcher paper into a jewel toned green shade with a lovely shine. A bright, cool color, but not obnoxious. He lays it out on a table in the library next to the gift, Nemesis at his side.

She eyes it with a little gleam in her eye, “So what are you up to with this, Riddle?”

Honestly, he’s not sure. Investing, mayhaps. “Wrapping a gift.”

Her amber eyes sparkle, “A gift? For whom?”

It’s not like her to be nosy. At least, not with others, “Lane. It’s her birthday on Sunday.” The cuts and measuring on the paper start. This has to be seamless. Perfect.

“Oh.” She watches his little hands carefully folding over the wrapping paper, “Want me to teach you a auto-wrapping spell?”

“I would like that very much, thank you.” That honestly sounds like a useless spell, but he wants to know it anyways. He wants to know everything. “Not for this, though.”

“Why not?” Her pitch raises up a little, “It would be much faster. Instant. Easier.” She clears her throat, voice returning to normal, “No risk of papercuts!”

“Thank you for your concern, Fawley. But I like doing some things by hand.” He lays his eyes on her, offering a gentle smile, “It makes it special, doesn’t it?”

For a split second, her lips purse before breaking into a grand saccharine smile, “Yes. It does.”

-

April 30th is a colder than average Sunday. Mist hangs in the air and rolls onto the grounds, covering the courtyard and open corridors in a cool fog so thick, you can’t see three meters in front of you. Prefects and Professors keep the spaces clear for the most part, but since it’s Sunday, there are not many students out and about. Most of them are in Hogsmeade, and the rest are in their testing classrooms for the start of the end of the year exams.

Quiet murmurs and conversations hang loosely in the Slytherin common room. When Tom returns from breakfast, he nods his greetings at a few classmates on his way to the dormitories when he spots the familiar mop of curls he’s grown to know well.

He halts.

Frozen. It is definitely not terror or nerves, he finds he can’t speak aloud. Reach out to her. Go and simply give her the neatly wrapped present (tucked away in his school bag). Not even a little hello.

In her own little world, Ximena pays no mind to the eyes on her. Humming softly under her breath and reading through the open book on the table before her, she is an image of studious peace. A Ravenclaw by any other name. His body stiffens when she rises up from her seat and wanders over to the little library to her left, a few meters away.

This is his chance.

He is quick and nimble just like Jack, and the gift is taken out of the bag and left on the table near her workspace. Right beside her parchment and inkwell. He hides--moves to the other side of the table, sitting nonchalantly and reading through a spare newsletter. Ximena returns from the bookshelf absolutely none the wiser and sits herself down quietly with a new book.

She doesn’t notice the gift.

Aggravated, he’s tempted to ask ‘oh, is that yours?’, but impatience has never gotten him anywhere. How could she not notice the gift? It’s right there! It’s bright green! It stands out like a gnome in a vacant garden! For a moment he thinks he sees her eyes flicker to it--Is that a smile? It’s hard to tell. But Ximena only picks her quill up, taps out excess ink, and continues writing whatever assignment it was she was working on (Tom saw some quip about bezoars, so perhaps it was potions). His fingers tense around the paper in his hands the longer she goes on without acknowledging it. He blinks sweat off his lids--It’s not even hot in the room, it’s just a lot when you’re trying to see the look on someone’s face while not letting them know you’re looking at them.

He moves it. With magic, of course, he’s never needed a wand to do little things like that. Nothing fancy like flying it into her face painfully, just a little nudge. A little flutter...There! She saw it now! ...She glances away again, the little grin on her face plain as the green interior of their shared common room. She is ignoring it. She is pretending she doesn’t see it. She--

Hedwig trots up out of nowhere (where in God’s name did she come from?) “Hey, free gift!” Her voice travels loud and far, it almost makes him flinch. The cotton-haired witch picks up the package which she helped select and shakes it violently, turning it over in her hands, inspecting it in such a comically exaggerated way that Tom wants to rip it from her grasp and run away.

“Oh, this is for you.” Fuck’s sake, “Here.” She passes it onto Ximena.

“Mm?” A relaxed blink as she takes the assaulted package gently, “Who’s it from?”

“What, you need me to read for you now, slag?” Hedwig shakes her head, hands on her hips as she walks away, mumbling, “I have to do everyone’s job around here, I swear to Salazar--

To Ximena’s credit, she isn’t bothered by her junior’s words or actions, she simply continues to keep that content gaze on her face as she reads the carefully written out label on the parcel, tucking a curl behind her ear.

“Hm.”

When she starts opening the package, the tension in his hands do not cease. Every little moment she does to insure the paper does not rip is as carefully choreographed as the performances in an opera house. Meticulous and detailed (something he can appreciate)... It’s the kind of care and attention only a mother can give to tucking a child away for bed.

Tom shoves that comparison right out of his head.

An eternity passes before finally the jewel colored paper is fully unwrapped, and the gift is out in the open, bared before her like a humble offering to a god--And God, even the way she picks it up and inspects it is careful. Like she were handing robin’s eggs or fine china. It opens up with a soft puff of powdered sugar, and rather anti-climatically, she pops one into her mouth. Does she like it? Does it please her?

A noise of delight.

“You want one?”

He’s actually startled that she addressed him, his guard must have been high up. He relaxes his shoulders as he contemplates her and her outstretched hand with the little decorative bag of taffies. Tom can’t speak, suddenly, so he nods, feeling dumb, and reaches his small hand inside the bag.

-

During lunch his final week, he plans to sit amongst a few Slytherin elites. He doesn’t want to wade through their spoiled ramblings on their summer holidays, but he does want to know more about said holidays. He makes a beeline towards the Slytherin tables, at first, when he notices another student: sitting stray and content, off to the side.

A moment’s consideration.

His path deviates, and he walks firmly towards the lone student, determined.

“Excuse me? Prewett, right? Might I sit with you?”

Ignatius Prewett is, in the end, no one. Middle-class, pureblooded and Gryffindor, he has set his sights on a more impossible pedestal than Ximena: Lucretia Black. That’s cute. And interesting. She’s a pureblood Slytherin a bit more tolerant than most (which perhaps isn’t saying much while also saying everything), and whose pedigree doesn’t show as blatantly on her skin (luckily for her pretty pale face, the last case of kissing cousins in her direct line was five generations ago). When asked, Ximena described her as “pleasant but egotistical”. His guide was more crude, going with “all members of house Black have madness in them, it’s what you get when you lie in bed with cousins; even the good ones like Lucretia are a little batty”.

He remembers Cygnus Black from his first night at Hogwarts: unpleasant with a temper, and wary of him. It took a few weeks of proper speech and excelling grades to convince him that he was worthy of being spoken to. It took mere hours to show him that he was his superior in intelligence and skill. Thus, placing him securely in his pocket for later use.

It is later. He asks him about his opinion on Ignatius one evening in the common room. He is not disappointed.

“Prewett?” A sneer, “I’ve seen how he looks at Lucretia. Doesn’t know how to mind his damn eyes to himself. House Black has no need of blood like his.”

That’s a little bold, “All this you got from looks?”

Cygnus backpedals, “I know what a look leads to, Riddle.” He clears his throat, “Lucretia is bright young woman from the most noble and ancient house. She needs to have company that reflects that.”

Tom smells Cygnus’ need to justify himself. He pushes, “Prewett is pureblood, though, is he not?” From a long standing dynasty.

“Certainly not as pure as we are.” He huffs, jaw clenching, “Besides, he’s a Gryffindor. And Gryffindors have no business speaking with Slytherins.”

What nonsense. Ignatius, while not exactly prime wizard material, checks off more than enough requirements for being worthy of a highblood.

“So, what you’re saying is, not all purebloods are equal.”

“Exactly, Riddle.” Cygnus nods, satisfied with the conversation, “You’re smart. I wouldn’t be surprised if you yourself had a little Black in you, somewhere.”

“A high compliment.” Tom inclines his head ever so slightly, “Thank you, Black.”

Next, he speaks to Lucretia. She’s found in the library one afternoon studying Ancient Runes and sneaking honey-pumpkin cracker jackers while the librarians aren’t aware. She is guarded, at first, but she soon melts at the mention of the Gryffindor boy.

“Prewett is different.” She plays with the quill in her hand, “Gryffindors are so brash and awful, you know? It’s like speaking to rowdy children. But him? He’s just so...” A vague hand gesture, “He is...He is what Gryffindors should be. He could single-handedly bring true glory and nobility to his house.” A sigh, “It’s just hard to speak with him outside of class, you know?”

“Why?”

“You know why!” She exasperates, “You’ve been here long enough, being in different houses is like being on different sides of a war. You can talk but you can’t talk.

An exaggeration, but still accurate, nonetheless, “But we’re not at war. And you’re both purebloods, what’s the problem?”

What would people say?

Good lord, is she serious? What would people say? Her family has limitless power, money, and influence, and she’s worried about what others will say? Nemesis herself told him that a member of house Black would never step foot in Azkaban due to their damn status. Stupid girl.

He could say something motivational. Something inspiring. Something about how true love will find a way. Will conquer all. Will power through. He doesn’t, of course, that’s not who he is.

Instead, he leans over in secret, “I can help.”

His plan is simple, but a long wait. When discussed with Lucretia, she gives him that guarded look again. That look of distrust and doubt, but his words move her eventually. Spark something like determination or hope in her. Of course they do. They can make anyone believe in him. In his ideals and dreams.

And all he asks in return is a simple favor.

 

Chapter Text


Something about his last week at Hogwarts makes his skin itch to a point where he wishes to scratch it all off. Several somethings actually.

First, it’s his last week. Obviously. It has come too soon and too fast, and it feels as if he had arrived only yesterday. The past few months have been as thick and indulgent as a dream, making him comfortable. Complacent. It still hadn’t really hit him that he would be leaving soon until he overheard some student casually mention some book he brought to read on the train ride back home, and now he feels like a clock hangs over him constantly, ticking down to the day when he must step back into that awful, musty, dirty place he could never call home.

Second, and really this doesn’t make him want to scratch his skin off because he doesn’t care at all, not even a little bit, is that Ximena is holding conversations with people. At lunch and dinner, he’ll spot or overhear her discuss something or other with their housemates, and it’s not always about academia. It’s not always about a Transfiguration review, or advice on studies, or editing an essay. Lately, it’s been about fashions, broom models, and which professor is the most attractive (Alder and Willow are in the lead, but that’s not important--). Granted, Ximena does not chime in much to these talks, but she actively listens and replies when spoken to, which is more than could be said of their conversations just a few weeks ago. Where had this confidence come from? Was it even confidence? Or was she just trying to be more social? Probably Dumbledore’s doing, then. Some plot to get her to speak to anyone that wasn’t Tom. Because that’s what good, responsible, caring adults do to children. They separate them from Tom.

Third: Dumbledore. Tom had tried to get Dippet to allow him to stay at Hogwarts for over the summer, but Dumbledore quickly shut it down just when he was beginning to get somewhere. Or maybe that’s just his hope telling him that, and Dippet wasn’t ever going to even consider the idea. No, regardless, it was worth it to try. Try to make him see. Dippet treats him favorably, it’s only a matter of time before he has him wrapped around his finger. What was Dumbledore’s issue, anyways? What would be so terrible about letting him stay here? Missing new ringworm infections?

The end of term obviously solves the problem of the later two, but what about the first problem? Should he wish that the Muggles finally go to war? Perhaps only then will they keep the muggleborns and himself at Hogwarts for safety. Shouldn’t be too farfetched of a wish, Chamberlain is a downright idiot if the radio and adults at Wool’s are to be believed…

He desperately wants a distraction. Anything to get his mind off the inevitable. The fact that it even is inevitable.

Nemesis’ loud squawking laughter draws him away from his thoughts--She’s sitting at the end of the row of tables, alongside a group of young Slytherins and the witch of the week. He leers bitterly. No doubt Ximena has just said something scandalous to the other Slytherins (probably discussing which professor was most attractive again), and Nemesis is giving her commentary on it. She’s been quite chummy with her these last few days, it makes Tom think she’s caught on to just how useful Ximena could be.

As for the older witch herself, she appears mildly uncomfortable with the attention, but she also looks like she’s desperately trying. But what for? Why does she need to try? She doesn’t need them--Not like he does. Has flocking with him ignited some sort of similar goal within her? To rise above others? It’s a thrilling thought, if not unrealistic. He’ll try to push her on it later.

Half of the group disperses, and Tom relaxes again--It’s nothing like how attention was showered on her all those weeks ago, thankfully. It’s more like a subtle shoreline. Coming in and out. Waxing and waning. It comes in phases. One day, she would be alone and solitary as always. As he likes her. As he knows her. As he met her. Another day, she might be located around dozens of other students. Quiet, as always, but listening. He wishes that he hadn’t had been so obvious or open with his interest in his classmate. That she had instead become his special secret, rather than whatever nonsense this was. It makes him wish that he had given her something more concrete than some candies for her birthday. Something permanent and meant to be shown to others…

The reminder of the bracelet burning a hole in his robe pocket is enough to make him shake his head vigorously in order to banish the idea. The candies were enough. They did what they were supposed to, and they did not attract attention (useful as this crush facade is, it is annoying to high heaven, and he’s not sure what he would have done if there was a large audience privy to the gift exchange.) Ximena enjoyed them and they shared food for a second time, though he’s not sure what, if anything, was established between the two of them (are there rules for how much food is needed? Is it only foods that are handmade by the persons sharing? Does it count less because they were sweets and not a full meal?).

As for the remaining money, he’s not sure when he’ll be able to swing by Diagon Alley to open an account at Gringotts, much less if what he has is enough. The thought of squeezing money out of people pitying him for his situation at home is repulsive. He has pride. He does not need financial help. He has his own small collection back at Wool’s (a bundle of bills and coins stuffed under his thin mattress), of which can be converted to proper wizard money. Eventually.

“Alright there Riddle?” Ian Rosier’s ugly face is just what he needs to see. Moreso with his cousin and company in tow.

The Rosiers, from what Tom has gathered in his time here, are somewhere between respectable and social-climbers. Opinions change every century. Their family branches out to nearly all corners of Western Europe (in part thanks to a horrifying tradition of arranging their children in marriages at a young age), and their reputation ranges with every kilometer. His interactions with the second-year siblings hasn’t left much of an impression beyond ‘mildly useful’ (Ian) and ‘annoying’ (Druella) with him, but he’s yet to speak to the one in his own year.

“Salazar, that last practical was a nightmare, I’d much rather have faced off with a bogart.” Their company is Cygnus and Lucretia. Perfect.  

“Don’t give me that, Cygnus, you’d run in the opposite direction the moment it took the form of auntie Vinda.”

The Blacks are a curious bunch. People hush when a member is speaking, and people chatter about them when they leave the room. The ones he has met walk about as if they own the earth beneath their feet, and quite frankly, most would agree that they have the right to. It’s a sort of authority he craves, but it’s also the sort of ego he despises and can’t stand to be around. Cygnus is the worst of it, and so far, Lucretia is the most tolerable, if not easy to sway.

“Oi, your bogart is aunt Vinda too?” Druella jests, setting her books down.

“Only when it’s not cousin Augusta.” Lucretia teases further, eyes down at her reading material.

“Augh!” Ian shivers, and Tom wants to roll his eyes because he is definitely overreacting, “Wretched gir! Heart of a lion and soul of a banshee!”

“What do you expect from a Gryffindor, Ian? It’s why we have the houses, it’s to keep the dignified people away from those...well, less dignified. No offence to dear Augusta.”

Tom gleams. He watches Lucretia calculate.

An opportunity. She strikes.

If you ask me, this sort of rivalry is childish.” Lucretia says in a manner that is both nonchalant and prim. Druella blinks at her. Ian appears to be confused. Cygnus, as usual, looks as if he wants to justify himself.

“What the founders themselves wanted is childish?” Druella sounds like she wants to be accusatory, but really it is more like she’s unsure of what she’s saying.

Lucretia lifts her chin up from her book, and Tom is reminded of what family she hails from, “I know you’re a Ravenclaw, Ella, but do try to not let your pomposity weigh down how you think--You know you’re only allowed to sit here with us because of your family and brother.”

Druella’s face is beet red from anger, it’s a little amusing to Tom just how easily she changes color like a chameleon. Ian himself is indignant, “Excuse me?”

“You all put such weight in where a person is sorted, and yet still openly socialize with your falcon sister. I just think it’s interesting.”

This time, Cygnus intervenes, “It’s different, Lucretia, you know that. Blood is blood.” He tries to make eye contact, to make her see.

The Black girl is seemingly indifferent, “Oh yes, blood is blood. But we are all of magick blood, are we not?” Her arms gesture out wide at the whole Great Hall, “Excluding the obvious ones, of course.”

She’s a radical.” Druella whispers so harshly into Ian’s ear that Tom’s sure that the Gryffindors on the other side of the hall can hear her.

Cygnus clears his throat, “Yes...There is good blood here in this room aside from...us.” He gives a pause, looking over the table, and Tom knows he is pausing over him, “But what of their minds? How do we know that their thinking is correct?”

“How do we know that Ella thinks correctly?”

I come from a long and proud line of Slytherin house members!

“--So why aren’t you like them? Not correct thinking enough?”

Druella looks ready to leap across the table and hex Lucretia. Ian, while appearing to hold her back, is prepped to do the same, surely.

“I am spreading our noble cause to the other houses!” She defends herself, “Collecting Ravenclaws to march under one banner is like herding cats, mind you--Some of them don’t even care that they share rooms with mudbloods!”

Apparently this is some sort of shocking scandal, because Cygnus and a few overhearing students react to it quite dramatically.

“You are right to do so, Ella, and I applaud you for it.” Lucretia is a better saleswoman than Tom expected her to be. He wonders if that just comes naturally to pureblood families, “But what has come of it? Do you have allies within your house? Do you sit with them at lunch and during classes?”

Druella stiffens up--She of course has been sitting at the Slytherins’ table for all her two years at Hogwarts (according to both Ximena and Lucretia, that is), and absolutely shit talking the rest of her house.

“That’s...That’s--”

The other girl reaches over the table and sandwiches Druella’s hand in between hers, gives a comforting look, “I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry Ella, I’ve gone too far.” She bites her lip, “It was a silly question, I was just...I don’t know.” A sigh, “Sometimes I think we end up alienating potential supporters that await us in other houses...You know I’ve heard that the Sorting Hat never makes mistakes, but lately, I just don’t know.”

Cygnus purses his lips, not completely convinced, but also deep in thought. Others around their table stay silent or speak in filigree whispers. The commotion, as he had hoped it would be, appears to have been overheard by the Hufflepuff table next to them. He sees two of Nemesis’ siblings and Elle’s brother give lingering stares at Lucretia. She has done her part well, if not for a stupid reason. All this for a boy? And a lackluster one at that? Good grief.

Regardless, everything is going better than expected.

All they need is an idea planted. A little drop of rain water. A small push. A glimpse of words as a book is skimmed through. They will mull over the words and ideas on their train ride back home. They will toss it and turn it over in their heads as they sit down for their first dinner with their families, and listen to their parents’ rave about purity. They will spread the idea around, as gossip or debate, to others. Their siblings, their friends, their caretakers.

Yes. All they have to do is wait. All he has to do is wait.

-

The dawn of his final day brings unease. As he sits for breakfast, he might as well be sitting on death row. The luxurious sweet oatmeal laid out before him is as appealing to him as the paste back at the orphanage. He doesn’t eat. He knows he wouldn’t be able to keep it down, even if he was hungry. Instead, he toys with the bits of fruit set on the side, meant to be placed atop the oatmeal. Squishes them in between his fingers and flicking them across the table, leaving colored puddles at his place, and sweet markings on his hands. It’s a pastime he used a lot back at Wool’s to distract himself from the mundane, but now he finds no joy in it.

He moves through the next four hours like a dead man.

Yes, he exchanges information with others, says goodbyes to his teachers, and the rest, but he does it all with no light in his eyes. He does it automatically, with no real effort or feeling. It’s probably something to be worried about considering that even Dumbledore himself looked concerned over his demeanor...Too late to take back your insistence on keeping him in that hole, old coot. Congratulations on that victory.

When his feet step foot onto the train, he manages to delude himself into pretending that this was his ride to Hogwarts rather than away. That everyone merely already has their robes on and are chatting about home because (like him) Hogwarts is their home. Their real one. It’s a hard lie to slip into, but Tom is nothing if not an amazing actor. When he accepts a few of his fellow future second years’ invitation to sit with them, they do not notice a thing.

Sitting with others is...different. Stark contrast to his first time on the train. He had managed to find a whole compartment to himself, and spent the entire time wringing his hands together and staring out the window at the passing scenery, expecting to see something magical in the countryside. Tom had done quite a bit of pacing as well, being restless and eager to arrive. Why the damn was a magical train so slow anyways? They left promptly at eleven and arrived well after sunset.

The other first years don’t seem to share his view. They like the hours spent on the train, it feels like mere minutes to them. Gives them a chance to catch up on all the latest gossip and happenings from over the summer. They try it on him when he sits in the compartment, sharing their families’ plans for the holidays, what they think the next year will bring, and other such complete nonsense. If anything, it makes his time feel like it’s crawling by. What does he care about Iris Parkinson’s potential transfer to Beauxbatons? About the students trying out for the Slytherin team next year? About the goddamn summer solstice festival outfit anyone plans to wear? He’s glad no one can read his thoughts, all they seem to be lately is complaints towards his highblooded classmates. Who knew children could care so hard about idiocities? He can’t wait until they’re all grown and past such things.

Tom lasts three hours. Noble effort. His personal record. But Nemesis’ recount about her ruined time at her eldest sister’s wedding broke him. Faster than he could have thought possible, he lifts himself up from between two other boys and excuses himself as politely as he can, stating that he’s going to go meet with some other friends on the train.

“Say hi to Lane for us!” Blow it out your ass, Bulstrode.

The leisurely pace he sets for himself as he goes through the train aids in clearing his brain. Few of the students are out and about as they were a couple of hours ago, leaving the aisles bare and free of annoyances--Minus the occasional tap tap on a window to catch his attention: other children inviting him inside already crowded compartments is politely denied with a sorry smile and a silent gesture that he was already heading somewhere else. That someone is waiting for him.

This is complete hogwash.

He wants another empty space to himself, being around so many people in such close quarters was exhausting. At least in his classes, he’s not forced to constantly socialize he can focus in silence on his work and selectively speak to others. He doesn’t feel so drained afterwards. So much like taking a nap.

The sight of the empty berths is enough to make him hear heavenly choruses--Picking up his pace a little, his hand shoots out right for the handle and slides the door open, and as he does, his mood lifts because it is not as empty as he thought.

She sits, as if in her own little private roomette, hands in her lap, staring into space. Tom expected for her to be looking out the window, it seems like something she would do. Be wistful. Nostalgic. Yearning.

He clears his throat and asks to sit, because though he has made much progress, there is still something holding him back. Her aloofness, maybe. Her separation. When she gives him permission to sit in the cabin with her, he chooses to sit beside her rather than across from. A different sort of intimate. Something of a powermove. He wonders if she notices it.

“You look happy, excited to go home?”

It’s like she dumped a whole bucket of ice water on his mood.

He is being torn away from his home. His real home. Torn away and placed back into that horrid, retched hole called Wool’s. How could anybody do this to a child? Give them all the food, heat, and shelter they were missing from their lives and then cruelly take it away? He feels like someone stabbed their hand into his stomach and twisted it all up before pulling back and taking some of the contents within it. Without a doubt, he should probably eat something, but he knows that it will only come back up.

“What’s wrong?” There is real concern in Ximena’s voice, at least, it sounds real, and Tom avoids eye contact.

“Stomach ache.”

“Eat something bad?”

He shakes his head no, wanting the subject to drop.

“Nausea?” Another shake. “Cramps?” Another. “Nerves?”

Hesitance. A nod.

Immediately, her hands dip through her school bag. He hears the clanking and chiming of glass and metals and the rustling and scrapping of books and pencils. His eyes are about to raise up to try and catch a peek, when her hand juts out holding a small vial of…

“What’s this?”

“Take it. It’ll help.”

It’s stupid to think that Ximena, or any other student at Hogwarts, really, would poison him, but regardless he’s still slow at taking it from her soft hands.

There’s two gulps worth of whatever medicine she gave him inside the translucent brown vial. When he pops it open, the smell of citrus, mint, and ginger wafts up. A moment of consideration, and he sips it. Sweet and prickly. It stings pleasantly on his tongue and leaves a trail of cool stillness down his throat into his stomach. He takes a gulp. The ugly twisting fades. He blinks. “What was that?”

Ximena looks excited in a quiet way, “Something I’ve been working on! I started it the day after the duel, actually.” Her lips press together, “It’s still a work in progress, it’s not as good as the go-to potion for nerves, but I’m glad it helped.” She gives a little wiggle, smiling softly, “You’re the first one to take it aside from me, actually. You’ll keep the secret, right?”

It pleases him that he be the first and only one to know about her little experiment, but he’s not so thrilled at being part test-subject, “I won’t tell.” Are students not allowed to invent potions? Slughorn laid out strict rules for the first years about brewing without supervision, but… “It’s wonderful. You have a gift.”

Satisfied with herself, Ximena settles back down into her seat, taking the vial Tom hands back and tucking it away into her bag.

“Do you plan to be a potioneer?”

A press of her lips, “I haven’t really thought about careers yet.”

“It’s still early.” He sounds reassuring.

She nods, “It might seem that way, I’m sure...But time flies. Before we know it, we’ll be graduating and leaving Hogwarts for good.”

Tom doesn’t like that. The stomach nerves threaten to come back.

“What a sad thought.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.” Her chin raises up slightly, and she turns her head to stare out the window.

“--At least you’ll be leaving with friends.”

“Hm?”

“Friends. You’ve been more talkative lately.”

“Mm. Yes.” It’s strange that she is not surprised by his observation. Tom expected a ‘have I?’ out of her, “I wanted to try it. To try making friends.”

Is he not enough? “Why the change of heart?”

Ximena opens her mouth and closes it. Hesitates. “That’s a curious saying, isn’t it? A change of heart.” Perhaps. A deep breath. “Someone in our house has my bracelet.”

It takes everything Tom has for him not to stiffen up visibly. Not to break and tell and reveal his secret. But why? He’s been doing so well. So good. She had no idea. How could she have--

He leans closer, at attention, voice full of concern, “What? How do you know?”

Another press of her lips, “It’s not important.” It damn well is, “I think...I think maybe if I can get a little close, I can catch them.”

“So you don’t think they have it by mistake?”

“No. Not at all.” Her eyes stay forward and hardened. Her fist in a ball. “Stealing property like that--It’s natural. All they’ve ever had for me was disregard or disrespect.” The edge to her voice is enthralling. It’s so close, so related, to rage, that Tom almost wants to egg her on, were it not him that she would be angry at. Had she been keeping this contempt deep inside her all this time? Suddenly, her cool indifference wasn’t so interesting. What was was this anger. Deep and red like petals. “It’ll come back to me. It’s only a matter of time.”

A gulp, and he resists the urge to shove his hands in his pockets where the bracelet lay so close and yet so far from her. He knows having it touch his skin would both give him comfort and also burn. He knows she would notice.

“Can I help?” If there’s anything he’s brilliant at, it’s gaining the trust of others. Maybe he can pin this little borrowing on someone else.

Ximena shakes her head, “No. It’s my responsibility,” A pause, “I don’t know if I trust you yet, but...” She’s searching for the right words. Trying not to offend him or give him the wrong idea, maybe, “It’s my duty as your senior to not share my burdens with you.” Ximena sounds satisfied with that. To Tom, it sounds rehearsed. As if it were written in some prefect guide. It probably was.

“If you’re sure,” he wiggles a little in his seat for added effect, appearing restless and eager to help.

“I am.”

How strange for such a wallflower to be so solid in her stance. For such a quaint little girl to be filled with determination. He sits up straighter in his seat, still coming up short in reaching her height (when are boys supposed to get their growth spurt again?), “You’re diligent.” He compliments.

Ximena finds light amusement in his words, “You have a very good vocabulary; what’s diligent?”

“...Hardworking. Responsible.”

“I see--thank you, I am still learning English.”

What.

“Your English is wonderful.”

“You may stop trying to flatter me now.”

Alright, fair, but Tom wasn’t lying about that. Never had she given him any reason to believe that English wasn’t taught to her since birth. Lord, even her accent is light, showing itself only on sharp vowels and R sounds, “I’m being honest. You speak better than most natives.”

Her head turns to look directly at him, and he feels chills. He stares back at himself in her black eyes.

“...How do I sound?”

“--Pardon?”

“When I talk, how do I sound to you?”

“Uhm, you sound natural. English, with a little flavor.” Oh, he shouldn’t have used that word, it made her quirk a brow at him. Damn highbloods and their infectious diction, “I mean, like you moved here a long time ago, and your English was changed.”

The older girl stays looking at him for a small while, and the longer she does, the more Tom wants to fidget. He can’t sense anything in her stare. Not distrust or anger or doubt. Not relief or thankfulness or affection. It’s awful. He hates it. Anything would be better than a blank slate. Even hatred.

“I see.” She turns back and rests against the seat as Tom releases a breath he very well knew he was holding in, “Just wondering.” Her fingers drum lightly on the top of her thigh, the intensity of her aura taking a nosedive.

“...Do you know what your first language is?”

Open mouth. Hesitance. Closed mouth.

“That’s an interesting question.”

He almost snorts.

“Spanish? I assume?” Or whatever language you wrote in that book that I can’t figure out…

“I think...Spanish is one of them.” She presses her lips together again, “but I’m not sure. My name aside, I was taught it at the abbey.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, the Mother Superior is Spanish and saw to it. It paid off, in the end.”

Tom has never heard anyone speak who was from Spain. He wonders if their Spanish would sound like Ximena’s, “How so?”

“It’s worked wonders in Divination; most texts are originally in some sort of Latin language, and knowing one of them makes it easier when using translation spells.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, Tom chooses to unpack the smallest, prettiest luggage, “You take Divination?”

“Yes--I’m doing well, but I’m eager for next year, when we’ll be practicing and not just theorizing.”

“Didn’t think you were the type.”

She clears her throat, looking a little sheepish, “Ah. You’ve been speaking to The Buffoon again, haven’t you?”

“Guilty.”

Something like a smile, “He’s bettered our house’s opinion of me, for all it’s worth. But he talks too much.”

So much. He chuckles, “Was he your assigned guide then?”

“Hm? Oh, no, that was Acwellan.” [1]

“Hedwig?” He jests, but he knows better. Of course he does.

“Funny.” But she’s not laughing, “It was Dumbledore’s idea. I guess he saw we could have something in common?”

Tom contains his eagerness to know more, “Was he wrong?”

A pause, “...No.”

More. Say more. “...”

Neither of them continue the conversation.

Ximena takes to leafing through one of her textbooks and Tom does the same, propping his own book open wide and taking little annotations on the side of the page, occasionally peeking to see if she notices what he is doing. She does not. He does not sulk. He focuses on his textbook instead. As he should. His studies will not be neglected. The playing field must be leveled. He won’t be playing catch up with the pure and half bloods for long. By the start of term, things will be different. Better. There will be no more doubt surrounding his genius. His skill. He will be more than just a lucky prodigy quickly forgotten about when the learning curve evens everyone out.

The assigned readings for summer homework sounded trivial at first, and his suspicions were half-confirmed when his eyes skimmed over the opening paragraphs (these subjects were already breached by himself on his own time). The difficult part came with practicing. What kind of idiot made it law to forbid students from casting outside of school? How are they supposed to learn on just theory? How on Earth can anyone expect their skills to stay up to par over the summer like this? ‘The students who come from magic families, I’m afraid, have a bit of an advantage over the other half-bloods and muggleborns. More so if the families are prominent.’ Dumbledore’s words echo in his memory. Despite knowing this information as fact, the only students Tom saw as truly utilizing this advantage were few. The rest did not apparently see fit to study harder or work at magic before coming to school. Well, either that or they were really that talentless.

Tom thinks it’s a bit of both.

Coming to Hogwarts has been more than an eye opener to the shades of grey that his previously black and white life held hidden. Children who were given everything on a platter: finances, resources, reputation, education...They are not all that they made themselves out to be. Not even half of them. They’re not even grateful for these gifts, for the silver spoon in their mouths, for their family name. The world owes them, not the other way around. At least his dirty orphanage held people who knew the value of these things. Of home. Money. Family. They had nothing, and knew what it was like to suddenly receive that nothing. It makes them--him--appreciate what little good they were able to grasp.

Even Hedwig, who is the exception, not the rule, chalks up her talent to blood and family, and nothing else. Haughty and brash, Tom knows he can make her grow complacent. Make her stop caring about top marks and besting him. Oh, you don’t need your grades, not with Acwellan pinned to the end of your name. Why bother with being first in class? You’ll be first in society. Laughable.Tom can hear her response in his head: ‘Stop talking nonsense, you stupid pillock, that might work on a Malfoy, but it won’t work on me, now pass me the woodworm.’

A small snort escapes his otherwise neutral composure. Ximena doesn’t comment on it.

Composing himself, he tries to focus on the reading again: an introduction to charming objects to do simple tasks. Roll over. Fold in on itself. Resist water...Standard for second years, he had already started practicing before he left (managed to get a pebble to twitch once, and have his quil to swirl lazily in the air), though undoubtedly he would have gotten further if he had more time (and for him, it always comes down to time). It would have been better if his damn partner was more helpful as well. Will he share charms class with Ravenclaws again next year? He had forgotten to ask, and he wants to plan ahead to try and butter Alder into letting him pick his seat. Charms will be easy, as will Potions (even if he wasn’t allowed to choose his seat there, Slughorn would indubitably bend the rules for him and Hedwig), but the real challenge will be Defence Against the Dark Arts. Merrythought has a strict alphabetical seating chart, despite allowing students to partner with whomever for practicals. His seatmate is so incompetent, that he feels like he practically leaps into Nemesis’ arms when it’s time to partner up (on that note, maybe that’s why she’s been a little too friendly, he’s conditioned her somehow…)

“Do houses stay the same in regards to sharing classes?” His little voice breaks the silence so suddenly, it seems to almost startle Ximena. It’s not like the times she has forgotten he was there, thank Merlin, but she does look a little miffed at being pulled from her book. Ah.

“It depends--Some years there’s too many in one house for the classes to be halved fairly. They change it as needed after sorting.”

“So, it only changes for the first years?”

“Mm...Not exactly.” He can tell he’s hooked her because she’s lowered her book just the slightest bit, “You see...and this is something Dumbledore told me...Our professors watch us. Our interactions with the houses in our classes and at meal times. They pair houses up in certain classes that have a good history of working well together.”

“Like Hufflepuff and Slytherin in Herbology?”

“Yes!” There’s that quiet excitement again. It excites him as well. “But, sometimes students within a certain year will defy that history, and they’ll switch and move our classes around until we reach harmony.”

Efficient. Doesn’t sound like something Hogwarts would do at all.

“Has there been a case of mixing class years? First and second years together?”

The book lowers further, “I believe in those first few years, when the school was founded, that they were more relaxed with that sort of thing. They were still figuring things out, I suppose.”

“Nothing in more...modern times?”

“Oh, there’s electives with few enough enrollments to see to that.” Her fingers drum over the hardcover, “Mmmm...Medicinal Sorcery, Muggle Studies, Gobbledygook--”

“What?”

“--It’s Goblin language, Casting and Textiles, Midwifery--”

“No no, sorry, I mean, Muggle Studies?

A blink, “Yes, of course.”

Tom’s face twists into something sour, “Why would anybody want to study Muggles?

Ximena looks as if she’s not quite sure how to answer, “It’s natural to be curious about what you don’t know about.” She pivots the book back and forth towards her chest and away, “It’s mostly for students who’ll choose a career that involves high Muggle traffic--Or remedial classes for the students who are the loudest about their...prejudices.” She clears her throat, “There’s talk about making it a required class.”

Amazing.

“And what about the muggleborns? The half-bloods?” He can’t help it, he can hear the worry slip into his voice.

“Most of them will take the class for an easy pass.” Her tone is that of disapproval, “They’re in for a nasty shock--Muggle culture...human culture isn’t all the same.”

“...It’s not a monolith.”

Her eyes are on him again, and he is pleased.

“Monolith.”

“Indivisible. Uniform. One.”

She nods, “Human culture is not a monolith.”

He’s want to disagree--Humans...Muggles are filthy, selfish creatures. But he’ll keep that thought to himself. At least, that was the plan, but he’s so riled up. So impassioned. So goddamn bewildered that even in his safest of all places...Even in his haven, his sanctum, his asylum, he might be forced to be reminded of his life before. Of what he has to go back to term after term for the next six years of his life. To read and be preached about how ‘we must co-exist with Muggles’. He opens his mouth and is immediately interrupted by the train’s whistle, announcing their arrival. It is an ugly sound. Cursed. He can’t even remember months ago when it was a blessed one, broadcasting his coming to Hogwarts.

The change in wind is evident. “...My first year is over,” his gaze hardens as the train approaches the station, “it’s over and gone.”

“Was it all you wanted it to be?”

Maybe. Memories of the last few months flying through his thoughts; it seems to him that the year could have given him anything and he’d be completely happy with it. Anything is glorious compared to where he came from. “Yes.”

“Most feel that way--Especially after flying for the first time.”

Tom’s first flying lesson was interesting. The broom provided by the school didn’t seem to care much for him and instead much preferred to do whatever it wanted. If only he could just fly without a broom, that beautiful rush of wind and adrenaline was addicting.

“--I liked receiving my wand for the first time.”

“Yes, I hear it’s a very impactful moment.”

“You hear?” His fingers itch, he feels restless.

“Oh.” She’d spoken too much? What was that tone? “Right.”

“You didn’t buy your wand at Olivander’s?” He had an inkling, but no confirmation. Others’ wands don’t look like hers, but few and far inbetween have wands as unique as hers. His partner in charms had one made of coral, of all things.

“No.” Was that shame in her voice? “I--”

The sharp whistle of the train cuts her off, and he feels like giving a loud exclamation of frustration, but is stopped by his composure. The whistle saved him once, and damned him another.

The happy chatterings of all the students on the train mock him. The eager faces of friends and family on the platform are the faces of a jeering crowd. The cold empty space left beside him as Ximena rises to grab her trunk serve as the last awful awful reminder that he is on the last leg of his trip. He is finally on his way back to Wool’s. For real.

When he says good-bye to Ximena on the platform, he looks about as vulnerable as a boy of twelve can. A few meters back, he can see a nun dressed in blue and white with a jade rosary, and he assumes she is here for his classmate. Tom resists the urge to set her on fire.

“We’ll see each other again.” He drinks in the words. They come as a surprise.  He knows they are true, but somehow it feels like a lie when they come out of her mouth.

“I know.” A little frown, “You won’t forget me, right?” A teasing, light jest. Hiding a very real concern.

“I can’t promise that.”

Tom doesn’t like that.

It is raining in London. This itself, is not at all noteworthy. Tom has seen many rainy days before this, and he will (regrettably) see many more after. The drops and streams that form on the glass of the taxi window are unremarkable. He races some drops against one another absentmindedly, only half paying attention to the grey world outside and the people in it. Their faces pass by in blurs, he’s unable to identify any real features, and after a while, he grows uncomfortable at the thought that maybe they were all staring at him.

He turns his head forward for the rest of the trip.

Surprising him is how surprised he is that Wool’s has not changed in the slightest in his absence. A part of him has been hoping it had burned to the ground or was destroyed in a freak earthquake, but that wasn’t a part of the surprise. The surprise came to him in part because as he attended school, Wool’s began to feel more and more further away. A bad dream. An imaginary place. But standing here at these iron gates shows him that this place is as concrete as the blocks it was built with. It is not leaving anytime soon. It is not changing anytime soon.

Even his room is as he left it, everyone being too afraid to step inside it in his absence. A light layer of dust blankets over his bed and desk, and as he runs a finger along the later, he muses over his study spots back at Hogwarts. Will they too be dusty when he returns to them? Or will they be kept spotless by some sort of magic? Will house elves dust them off just before students are allowed to return?

He sets his trunk on his bed (a cloud of dust erupts and makes him cough) and sifts through his possessions: school books, letters, and the secondhand robes he obtained in Diagon Alley. He spends the entire afternoon organizing and settling back into the room and tidying up. The last thing he puts away at the bottom of his dresser, deep in the corner, is a small, flat, grey box. Then, he opens the pouch in which he has been keeping the bracelet, lays back on his bed (it creaks under his weight,) and holds it up in the fading glow of the sun.

A featherweight charm had been placed on it prior to leaving Hogwarts, but even now he can feel it wearing off--He knows he did it right, it was flawless actually. It should last weeks--months at a time. But now, hours after departing his home, the bracelet has fought back. It weighs as much as a can of beans now, he reckons. In a few more hours, it will weigh more than him.

It’s strange, if he holds it close, holds it right in his grasp and concentrates. Closes his eyes and shuts out all other thoughts, he can still sense Ximena’s magic on it. Flowing and dripping. It grows faint but remains strong. The light of a distant star. If he holds it right under his nose, the bracelet smells of mint and soap. Clean. Fresh. Meanwhile, his own trunk smells of mothballs and cotton. He’d have to see if there’s any scent charms to help out with that.

He does not leave his room until dinner.

Summer at Wool’s is unbearable. Now that he has had a taste of where he truly belongs, it makes the ugly walls of his prison even more horrible. There is only relief in having the other children go even more out of their way to avoid him. They look at him like someone come back from the grave. Good. He spends the rest of summer communicating with his classmates at Hogwarts.

Ximena does not send a single crow to Wool’s.

 

Chapter Text

The summer offers ample enough distraction from his upperclassman’s silence. Granted, most of those distractions are his current terrible living conditions, but beggars can’t be choosers, right? Wrong. He damn well can and will. Finding loopholes in this damn underage magic restriction is at the top of his list, followed by multiple letters to and from his other, more attentive classmates. In the background of the other children playing or talking, he’s out trying to harness more of wandless magic, like he could before all this happened to him. He plays with his own magic, trying to feel a texture. A temperature. Anything. There’s varied success: Tom is now well aware of his own magic, but only just. On boring afternoons and sleepless nights, he can gently prick his skin with it (it resembles bird feet hopping all along him). Sadly, he has yet to manage to intimidate anyone with it. At least, not without losing his sense and temper. It’s a little to start, but it’s something. He reminds himself of where he started on the hard days: not just on this but also on other things like literacy (his reading comprehension and handwriting, for example, had been comparatively abysmal thanks to the orphanage’s shit education system. Thank heavens for libraries.)

Tom refuses to stay stagnant over the summer and fall behind. The problem is that Tom also refuses to forget that he’s being ignored. Allegedly. Perhaps something happened. Perhaps she found out. Or forgot him. Is he that forgettable? Is the time and energy and a...attention that he spent on her so easily thrown away?

If he could write first, he would. Unfortunately he has no owl of his own, and no means to get one. He has no guardian to take him to any public owlery, and absolutely no real money to spend on a decent one for himself anyways (those sickles need to be saved, dammit). He could borrow one of his classmates’ owls and use them to send to Ximena instead...Alas, that’s tricky for a multitude of reasons. ‘But my letters are all read by the Abbess. I can’t disguise my words...She already suspects something strange about this school.’ Cursed woman. Tom hasn’t ever met her, and he already despises her. Would his letters be intercepted? Even if they weren’t, he can’t expect that any of his classmates’ owls would be able to make the trip to Ximena, and then come back for his reply to their owner and then fly over back home. Poor exhausted creatures, he’d be raising suspicion immediately.

Oh, he could be open about it. Ask Abbas or Nemesis for an owl to borrow in order to write to someone...Without a doubt, they would help him.

But then they would ask questions.

Is it too much to ask to keep Ximena all to himself? Surely not.

So he waits.

Everyday, he goes through the motions of his routine. He wakes, eats, plays by himself in a corner of the yard, studies his books until lunch, eats a miserable lunch, retreats to his room to read (or prepare for an adoption interview, depending on the day), fiddle with the charmed bracelet, and then sit down at dinner.

After dinner would depend entirely on whether the matron was feeling generous or not: sometimes she allowed the children and workers to gather in the main room and listen to her radio. The music and programs were a nice change of pace, but Tom likes the shows the best. The acting and suspense in every broadcast always has him on the edge on his seat for more...When he was younger, he wished he could meet the radio stars. Be their friends and go on their show. He wanted to show them his room.

But the closer September 1st comes, the more the radio talks of war.

His fellow orphans speak excitedly about it and, perhaps shamefully, so does he: none of them have any real concept of war. To them, war is a game to be played during a recess. With the old, feathered playing cards that have passed through many hands. The adults, on the other hand, speak lowly about it when they think the children aren’t listening. They are old enough to remember the last war. One of them lost their brother, another a husband, another a son. The groundskeeper of Wool’s, an older man with a heavy limp, was injured in Marne (the first and second battle.) He’s the one who worries the most, because when the broadcasts speak of Hitler, Tom sees his hands tremble.

He has to get out of here.

-

Tom stands in a field at Hogwarts, the same field that he and Ximena sat in together all those months ago. The blooming flora surrounding him are releasing thousands upon thousands of petals a second, converting the air around him into some bizzare floral blizzard. Though the wind is strong, it is not forceful. He is able to stride forward to the tree with ease.

There’s a few people around the tree, whose trunk is wide and strong. Roots and branches stretching out infinitely, twisting playfully. What attracts his attention, however, is that this magnificent tree has no leaves, bares no fruit. Instead, it holds something strange, something that he has to look at twice. Thrice. Cotton? Mist?

Ximena is one of the people around the tree, she reaches up at a hanging branch and plucks out bits of the soft, cloud-like substance. She places it in her bag, burlap, and continues, reaching high on her tip toes. To her right, he sees Hedwig, jumping up to do the same. Further, he sees Yami and his mentor. Nemesis and Lucretia. Professor Merrythought and Dumbledore.

He walks up to his upperclassman.

“What are you doing?”

When she turns to face him, there’s something off about her face, about her eyes. She’s dazed or tired. Hypnotized.

Wool gathering.

The witch continues to pick off the parts of the tree that look like Hedwig’s hair. The wind blows harder, but it only seems to affect him. He shields his face with his arms and cowers.

Tom’s clock reads 3:45 AM when he wakes up on Friday, September the first, 1939.

An hour later, the yells of the caretakers wake him up.

He rises from his bed, disoriented and still partly asleep, what are they yelling? His ears pick up the wails of one of the babies and the authoritative commands of the women who worked at Wool’s. He hears them speak to the older children, to take care of the little ones, to guide them and not let them out of their sight.

“Tom.”

Someone in the doorway, a new hire: a young woman still too new to know to be wary of him.

“Did something happen?” Sleep laces through his voice as he rubs his eyes and tries to smooth back his unruly hair.

“Tom, get dressed, take your mask.”

‘Where are we goin--“

Now is not the time to ask questions, gather your needs and come outside.

He is not one to be intimidated, especially by someone who hasn’t yet established themselves as an authority, yet something in the woman’s voice chills him. Something about the dream he had before waking changes his mind. Makes his heartbeat spike. He gets out of bed, barefooted against the cold floor, and does as he is told.

The night before, he had laid everything out, anxious for the day. His clothes and books and trunk lay neat and prim. His gasmask (old and used) lies in his wardrobe, its warped face hidden away from him.

All of Wool’s is aflame with noise. Rapid footsteps, confused children’s cries, and orders to stick together. He hates it. He hates this commotion, he cannot concentrate on what he’s doing. He messes up the buttons on his shirt for the tenth time before he loses patience and simply pulls a vest forcefully over it. Neatness be damned, he’ll just change on the Hogwarts Express--

His mind blanks. Wait--

This time, it is the matron who comes into his room, black dress sweeping her ankles. She grabs him by the upper arm with one hand and grabs his things with the other. In his hands, he has the gasmask and the bracelet, held tight. He protests, at first, and she pays him no mind. Her eyes are set ahead, fearful and uncertain. It is a look he has never seen on a person before so he closes his mouth and trots along as well as he can.

Outside, the world is dark. Awake. The children are arranged outside in lines by age, looking like little toy soldiers, wrapped in shotty coats and old hats. Each of them has a sorry excuse for a trunk: either a sack by any other name, or a worn out bag. Some of the kids his age or below are crying, while others just look tired and bemused. The older children, the ones closest to sixteen, look solemn. Angry.

What catches his eyes are the other children walking down London. Hundreds of them. Some alone, some in flocks. Some with mothers, some with only their elder siblings. Some children wear fine clothes fit for nobles and the rich. Others wear plain travel clothes or just their pajamas, wrapped up in coats. They each carry their one piece of luggage and gasmask. It is then, that Tom understands.

Where are we going?” He asks the matron in a voice he hopes will convey just how not afraid he is.

“Euston Station[1].” She sets his trunk down beside him, eyes overlooking the crowd.

All of us?

She looks at him, suddenly realizing what he means, “Tom...this is about getting you somewhere safe.

Hogwarts is safe!” He yells, surprised by the volume of his own voice, “It’s out in the country, away from everything, I’ll be safe!”

For the first time since Tom has known the matron, she looks at him with sympathy. With pity, “I’m sorry, Tom--

No. He can’t believe this. Absolutely not.

The slack grip of the matron does not go unnoticed by him. He picks up his trunk, thanking his lucky stars that he had placed a featherweight charm on it weeks ago, snaps his arm away from her, and runs.

It’s easy for him to slip between children like a snake through grass, he’s so small and used to running away from others. People don’t concern themselves with some runaway, despite proclaiming to the plurals [2] to stick together. His little feet barely touch the ground, that’s how fast he feels; time is spent mostly in the air, searching for the way out. In all the collected chaos, he can still hear her screaming after him. As if she were truly concerned for his well being. Liar.

The route to Euston is memorized by now: he had done so in the weeks preceding his first day at Hogwarts. Every path, shortcut, alley, and street are mapped out in his brain like the layout of Wool’s itself. It will take him longer than a taxi, but goddammit, he will get there. Even now, as his breath hangs heavy and his heart is slamming up into his throat, and sweat is beginning to form and drip into his eyes, and the burning pins and needles prick at his feet and legs, and he’s just waiting to hear those horrific sirens, he will get. back. home.

By the time he reaches the blessed station, he has run so hard, his lungs feel about to explode, and there are pennies in his mouth. He forces himself to swallow the blood and keep going. There are crowds of children all around him, as far as the eye can see. Bumping into him, rubbing against his side, or accidentally making eye contact while searching for another. He feels lost in a sea of minnows, all staring out with wide, naive eyes, waiting to be devoured by sharks.

(Behind him, a boy cries out for his mother. The mother cries back.)

When he reaches Platform 9¾, he half falls, half pushes through in exhaustion.

Despite the early hour, the other side is as tense as the Muggle side.

Whistles and shouts command muggleborns and concerned parents to information stations. Many of the Muggle parents, and magical spouses of Muggles, are pleading at the station attendants--Why aren’t you helping? Why can’t we all leave early? Don’t you have other means of getting to the damn school?

He moves away from the entrance to a wall off to the side in order to catch his breath. To settle his heart down and ease the throbbing in his head. His trunk, though light thanks to his magic, might as well be a thousand kilograms. When he slumps down on the ground, it hits hard, but makes no noise. Tom hits hard too, hurting his tailbone in the process. Head back, resting on the wall, he shuts his eyes and tries to breathe through his nose.

The wards around us will protect us from any potential air raids.

But what about the poor people outside the platform?!

The Muggles. Yes, what will become of them? If the Germans come in and bomb London, they will be entirely at their mercy. If he hadn’t had ran, could he have…?

Tom shakes his head. Banishes the thought. He’s alive. He’s safe. He is on his way to Hogwarts. He’s alive. He’s safe. He is on his way to Hogwarts. He’s alive. He’s safe. He is on his way to Hogwarts. He’s...

Another sharp whistle. More children rush through the portal.

He and the other students are allowed to board early. The children still too young to attend, or just not magical at all stare at their siblings in a strange mixture of envy, worry, and relief. Their parents bark, furious with the attendants. What do you mean my child can’t get on the train, bombs could drop on us at any minute!

We are not a shelter for children, we are a school.

Tom finds a compartment as fast as he can and locks it. Closes the blinds, curls up in the corner, covers his head, shuts his eyes so tight that there’s ringing in his ears, and rocks. Back and forth, back and forth. A steady rhythm. In control. One two. One two. One two. The floor below him is solid. It grounds him. Will he be able to hear the bombs drop from in here? The air raid sirens? The screams? Will no more people come through the portal because everyone is dead on the outside?

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Chamberlain was supposed to have everything under control. War is a distant dream. Distant nightmare. He’s not going to die he’s not going to die he’s not going to die. He is not going to be sent away far away to strange place in a strange house with strange people who might treat him as a servant or labor horse.

Deep breaths. He’s okay. Everything will be okay. There is no war. There will be no air raids today. He’ll be allowed to stay at Hogwarts this time. Dumbledore will agree: it’s too dangerous for the muggleborns. He will be returning to his home and staying there. Among his kind. He’s just overreacting. That’s it. That’s it.

He sleeps.

When he awakens from a dreamless sleep, his neck is sore and he’s calm. He notices the train is already moving.

At 11:02 AM, he is on the train to Hogwarts, safe and sound.

Tom composes himself. He’s a strong boy of 12, something like war and air raids should never affect him. Never. He can’t get scared. Only babies and littluns get scared.

The atmosphere outside the room is lukewarm. When he walks through the aisles and the cars, he can tell immediately which rooms are full of muggleborns and which ones are full of purebloods. The usual groups of students who have a healthy mix have separated for the day. The wildcards are half-bloods, who are either comforting and keeping with the muggleborns, or desperately trying to separate themselves from today by sitting with purebloods. This gives him pause: where will he go? Back to his compartment to be alone with his thoughts? Sitting among people who have gone through the same scare as he did this morning? Listening to their tearful retellings of being separated from their loving families? Painful. Sitting with purebloods and their mocking of the Muggles and their war and then complaining about their problems? Equally painful.

A tap that’s more like a slap on his shoulder, “You look like a right prat blocking the aisle and staring out into the horizon like that, you stupid git.”

“Hedwig.” Tom blinks at the small witch, half thankful it was her that found him and not someone else, “I was just thinking.” He begins to walk alongside her.

She looks unimpressed, “Yeah, I heard Muggle Britain had some sort of scare--All the mudbloods on the platform looked like they saw the Elf King himself.”

A note to remember later. What on earth is an Elf King? “It was a very eventful morning.” To say the least. He hesitates on saying just what was going on. What would she say?

“I’ll say. When we aparated at the platform, it was like arriving at the waiting room at Saint Mungo’s. Gaunt faces everywhere. Something about bombs? What are those, anyways?”

Is she...Is she serious?

“--Oh here’s my seat, come sit with us, you look like you need a distraction.” Hedwig slips into the roomette to their left, stopping him from giving a small lecture: how can one know the bombarda spell and not know what a bomb is? Has to be sarcasm. There’s no other way.

His hand rests on the edge of the sliding door, and just as he’s about to step in, a brush of coolness runs past his back. Familiar. Safe. Immediately, his head turns, searching, “Ximena!” It comes out more excited and needy than he had wanted, and he internally cringes at himself for sounding like some giddy boy. He almost downright chastises himself for actually reaching out and tucking at the passing witch’s robes. A plea for attention. For validation. Surely she too experienced this morning’s scare? Shares the fear of war and being separated from magic with him?

“--Yes?” A blink and a passing glance at the people inside the car compartment, “Can I help you?”

Tom mirrors her blink, “--You didn’t write to me all Summer.”

Genuine confusion in her eyes. Her brows furrow and raise in surprise and bemusement. “I--Oh.” Rapid blinking, “Oh.” Perhaps there is embarrassment, guilt, regret, or sympathy. That all comes second to the sheer, blatant forgetfulness in her stance, “Right. Sorry.” Her lips press together as she sits up a little bit straighter.

“Are you okay?”

Ximena looks as if she had awoken from a deep slumber. Emerged from kilometers underwater to the light of the surface after being encased in darkness for millennia. She does not remember. Not one bit.

“Umm, I...” On the spot, she looks like she wants to ball up and hide, “Yes. Fine. Thank you.” She rushes off down the car, escaping.

A whistle, “Riddle, when you’re done yearning eternally out there, we’re available.” Oh, right.

He drags his eyes away from the end of the train corridor to inside the space where Hedwig and company sit, keeping his composure and trying to make sense of what happened. What happened? Maybe someone had shot her directly with a confundus spell just seconds before encountering him? She looked tired, she was probably woken up far too early before it was proper in order to catch this train...She was still sleepy. Disconnected. The early evacuation in her city threw her off. Yes.

Fingers snap harshly in his face.

“You still in there with us, Tom?” Hedwig demands his attention, “Stop being a dunce and intro-bloody-duce yourself.”

There are times when he wants to praise Hedwig...Other times when he wants to trip her into a pit of sharp rocks…

He bows his head politely, the way a proper boy of good blood should, and states his name and house. The girls in the compartment do the same, all except one.

Hedwig’s sister is just as Tom remembers her from last year: slender and boxy, sporting a broken nose that Hedwig proudly takes credit for. Her straight, wheat colored hair is kept out of her boyish face with a black headband. Aside from her bright hazel eyes, she looks nothing like her younger sister.

“Eric Acwellan.” She does not offer her hand.

“We’ve met before.” Tom is determined to keep pleasant but on his toes, especially after that sucker punch Ximena delt to his psyche.

“Have we?” Eric tilts her head, smiling naturally in a way that tells him she was condescending him and that she wanted him to know it.

“Stop being a munter, Eric, we all know you have an ego the size of your nose.” Hedwig pats the space next to her, “Close the door, Tom, you’re letting my sister’s superior air out.”

Tom does as Hedwig says, ignoring the discomfort on the faces of Eric’s companions and the amusement on hers. Must never have experienced Hedwig this close.

Introducing himself to the sixth years is something strange. Two of them he has spoken with in the Slytherin common room, and the other he only knows as the older aunt of one of his classmates. They all, however, seem surprised that Eric had allowed him to sit in their compartment. She doesn’t trust men. Did Hedwig tell him that?

“Happy to see you’re not keeping the company of Fawley anymore, Hedwig.” Eric begins, crossing her legs at the ankles.

“I’m not an idiot.” Hedwig crosses her arms, “She was getting annoying anyways,” A look towards Tom, “she has it bad for you, you know.” He does not. The surprise must have shown on his face, because Hedwig laughs at him, “Merlin, Tom! You could see it from the moon! Too distracted by Lane?”

“Don’t feel bad,” one of the girls, a Lestrange, speaks to him trying to sound comforting, “She’s pretty, sure, but that family won’t take you far.” A sad, albeit condescending look crosses her face, “The Fawleys are a lovely, proper group of Purebloods, yes, but they’re weak.” The other girls in Eric’s group nod their heads, “It’s a shame, really, I had hoped that she was the first in her family to be placed in Slytherin for a reason.”

Tom blinks--Nemesis is only twelve. Talented or rich or not, she still has time. Has she really been so easily tossed aside and forgotten? She’s a child. A child of proper background. If it can happen to her, can it happen to him?

“What happened?” He asks.

“Her uncle resigned, didn’t you hear?” One of the other sixth year Slytherins, a Travers, says, leaning over, “Her whole family’s a bit of a target of ridicule right now. Try not to bring it up if you can help it.”

Amazing. All this talk about ostracizing a twelve year old girl because of something completely out of her control--Something that has nothing to do with her.

“Serves the lass fucking right for bragging about it and shoving her family’s status down everybody’s Merlin-damned throats like bloody sausage.” Always the sensitive one, Hedwig, “And serves him right for leading us all like fecking sheep to slaughter, what a gormless cock up! Acting as if everything’s sunshine and daisies while we have a bloody imperialist on the loose.”

“Now now, Hedwig, doesn’t Grindelwald’s ideal world match up with that of our family’s?” Eric’s smile is wicked.

“I didn’t fucking know a goal of that nonce was to give you a proper cock.” Hedwig sniffs, “Daddy will be so happy to finally have a boy.”

Eric can’t help herself--She laughs, it sounds like she’s on the verge of hiccuping. The other students in the car grow more uncomfortable. Tom is indifferent to the sisters’ babble, but is on edge about what was said about Grindelwald. Will the wizarding world be pulled into war too?

“Well...Wouldn’t it be nice to not hide anymore?” One of the girls asks meekly, looking around the compartment at what she probably hopes will be agreeing faces, “Take the world as our own?”

“And do what with it, Dorea? Hunt Muggles like your deranged cousin campaigned for? Further divide up magic blood based on the amount of inbreeding one has and not skill? Set the punishment for being a squib as death?” Eric scolds, tsking her little head, “The most noble and ancient house seems to be lacking in teaching about politics.”

Dorea’s expression is a mix of embarrassment and anger, “I just meant--”

“We know what you meant.” Eric interrupts, “I admire your intentions, just as, I’m sure, we all do here,” The other girls and Hedwig nod in varying degrees of conviction. Tom mimics them. “But terrorizing half the magical world with such abhorrent and violent acts is...Unpleasant. As I’m sure your parents and other relatives have discussed.”

The girl halts in her anger, thinking over what the other has said, before nodding and settling back down. Tom marvels at Eric’s cool and concise control over the compartment. Over her friends (allies?) It’s attractive.

“Besides,” Eric continues, “some muggles are quite useful, I’ve found. Outside of being footstools, I mean.”

All of her friends have their mouths open in shock. Hedwig rolls her eyes and looks unimpressed.

“You--You mean you’ve seen a muggle up close before?”

“Is it true their skin is oily and sticky?”

“Oh you didn’t look them in the eyes, right?”

Tom is, to say the least, befuddled. What the hell did these girls think a muggle was other than a magicless human? Some kind of slimy troll? How have they never seen one?

“I’ve interacted with them on occasion...Pathetic creatures, really, but some of them are talented.” The gasps from the sixteen year old girls are unreal, “Those ones are usually the ones descended from squibs, of course.

The girls nod, agreeing with her words. Tom looks to his right at Hedwig, who mouths “every fucking day, it’s like this” at him.

After the treat trolley passes the first time, Eric spends the rest of the train ride discussing her encounters in the muggle world. Of sneaking out and observing and studying. Of obliviate spells, toying, and near discoveries. It is a strange and fascinating train ride, to say the least. He is torn between correcting these highblood’s assumptions about muggles and simply shutting his mouth and nodding along. He doesn’t need to rock the boat. He just needs to find the captain and take their place.

“I think the worst, the absolute worst part of their culture are their photographs: they don’t move.”

“What?”

“Weird!”

“--Muggles have photographs?”

“Yes they do, you stupid chit, did they drop you on your damn head as a baby?”

Dorea looks highly offended and on the verge of an emotional outbreak. Amusing, but it makes Tom uncomfortable to look at her. He turns his attention to the world outside instead, lamenting at the light shower of rain that had just begun moments ago. Oh, he doesn’t let something as trivial as the weather dampen his mood, it’s just that he’d prefer to be able to see the outside scenery more clearly. It would help him see any oncoming planes.

Luckily, the train arrives with no trouble. No danger. It takes everything in him to not immediately speed off the train and platform. Instead, he composes himself and rises up alongside Hedwig, her sister and the rest, and calmly gets off the train. Dignified. Not at all like a firstie. He’s above all that. Yes. When the horseless carriages come for the students, he does not marvel at them like other second years do. He takes his amazement silently and climbs on, listening to others discuss how nicely the weather cleared up.

His homecoming is glorious and joyous. The moment his eyes take in the castle again, his arms are pure gooseskin. The September chill enters through his lungs as he breathes in that magical air and filters it through his heart and veins throughout his whole body. Nothing will ever beat that first perfect thrill he felt the first time, but the second time is...well, a close second. He was home. He was safe.

-

“A new student?”

“Two.”

“From where?”

“America. One of them’s an Indian! Oh, no, sorry Acarya, not that kind of Indian, I know--”

“They sure picked a shitty time to come over, do you think their parents will withdraw them now?”

“Not bloody likely, Hogwarts is the best education you can get.”

“Can you see them? Abbot’s damn hat is in the way.”

“Ya, he looks like a right tosser.”

“He’s American. That’s sexy.”

“It’s repugnant.”

“Do they have Quidditch in America?”

“Yeah, but they call it something else.”

The commotion attracts little attention from Tom until he hears how unusual it is to receive a student like this who was not going into their first year--It would be all the more unusual if they had arrived during the middle of the term, and obviously that is not the case. It has half his attention, but none of his care. The only alternative to listening in to others chit chat about the new non-first years at Hogwarts is listening to those who are old enough to reason what’s happening in the Muggle world right now.

“What do you think will happen to the German and Polish Beauxbatons students?”

“I can’t imagine they care--The students that is. I would have aparated out of there instantly the moment I realized what was happening.”

“Will the school close?”

“Maybe. Maybe this is the first of many foreigners coming into Hogwarts.”

“Great. More filth.”

“Oh Flint, don’t start up with that nonsense, Acarya will hear you and hex you again--”

The actions of Muggles are strong enough to make a grand school of sorcery close? To displace the lives of witches and wizards who surely have more power than any gun or tank or spray of mustard gas? Impossible.

He wishes he had more of that drink Ximena gave him on the train back in July. Actually, if he were going to be wishing for things, he might as well wish that she actually turn to look at him. She’s six chairs down, across the table, biting her fingernails. Is she nervous too? Does she hear the talk that the older Slytherins are spouting? Look at him, dammit. Look at him.

Dippet rises from his seat, and Tom knows the first years are about to come in. He watches them curiously, wondering if he looked as small and frail as they did just the year before. The two older students are already at the front, side by side, not speaking, sticking out like posts in an empty field. It reminds Tom of the children who are left among the littluns during team picks for boxball--Because those are the ones picked last due to some kind of impairment rather than being too young to understand the game being played. These two students don’t look impaired, but they could be stupid. Only time will tell.

The sorting begins, and the hat sings his song. By now, the novelty has worn only a little off, and only because Tom finds the song annoying. Dumbledore calls up the first student--First years first, as is their right. The Sorting Hat divides them up surprisingly even between Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. In an odd turn of events, Slytherin gets the most. Useful additions to his house, one can hope.

Finally, it’s time for the two teenagers. The first name is called, the girl, and Tom pays little attention, as mildly curious as he is. Would she take longer to sort due to her age? Or are the hat’s all-seeing mind reading powers so good that it can look over everyone’s minds, regardless of development, and see which house they would do best in? He vaguely remembers his own conversation with the hat because it wasn’t a conversation so much as a brief touch with an all-seeing entity that immediately saw fit to place him in the best house.

At two minutes, the hat calls out Hufflepuff. Noted, will probably be forgotten. His housemates have had little to nothing to say about said house, good or bad. ‘They’ve got good heads on their shoulders, but warped priorities’ according to his guide from his first year (who, speaking of, is seated a few chairs down from him, commenting lewdly about the appearance of the newly sorted girl. Animal.)

The boy is called. Tom can’t register his name clearly, it feels like Dumbledore’s mumbling it...Last name is something with a Y perhaps. Are his ears ringing?

Hedwig, sitting immediately to his left, gestures with her chin, “My cousins on mum’s side wrote to me about him coming. Says he’s an annoyingly happy wizard dumb as a box of chocolate frogs.”

Gryffindor is called out triumphantly.

“Sorting Hat confirms it.” Tom comments, earning snickers and laughs from his housemates sitting around him. All derive humor from his words save for one.

Ximena stays gazing, lost in thought, straight at the new student.

-

His and the other second year boys’ new sleeping quarters aren’t much different from the ones last year. They enjoy one less flight of stairs to climb up in the mornings, and a nicer view of the Black Lake where the water was clearer (one can see the last bits of sunlight dripping from the surface). Tom’s bed is no longer oddly placed to the side of all the others, but rather collected alongside those of his yearmates. He sleeps next to Evan Rosier.

“What’s all this talk I hear about Muggles going to war?” he asks him the first night, laying on his right side, head on his palm.

A pause, “It’s not a war yet. And it’s not all Muggles. Just a few.”

“Hm. Think it’ll get bad?”

Tom calculates. Both members of House Rosier that he has had the displeasure of meeting have had very straightforward opinions of Muggles. Evan (from the current conversation and passing observations) seems a bit more level-headed.

“...We’ll see.”

“My mum said it looks like the Muggles will exterminate themselves. She looks forward to it, actually. Holding a bet with my dad about how long the war will last.”

How unpleasant, “Do they know what caused the conflict this morning?”

“Not at all. None of us do.”

When he tucks himself in that night, Tom dreams of sheep roaming Hogwarts.

The first day back is like sliding back into an old routine. A soldier coming home from war, perhaps. Or perhaps not, considering the current circumstances. September the 2nd is filled with a divided Hogwarts, with half the student body tense and the other as lackadaisical as usual. He spots clusters of them crowding together whispering, the tense half that is. Goldstein. Merkin. Kowalski. Elle is not as bright as she was the day they spoke in the kitchens. Her eyes are red and tired. She and the others speak of withdrawing from school.

Saturday is turning out to be a slow day. Passing like a migraine. Against his stomach and good sense, lunch is skipped. The hall is lively and irritating where he usually sits, and morbid and dreary in the other areas. To be overstimulated or understimulated. Bad question. He just wants a clear mind.

He does not avoid lunch because he’s afraid of seeing Ximena. That is ridiculous.

Instead, he opts for a small study session. Books have always been a lovely distraction, even back at Wool’s when he could barely read, and all the material available was falling apart and full of mold. There is no war when you read through potions ingredients, mage history, or transfiguration charts. There’s no war. No war.

Hedwig joins him in his trek, speaking offhandedly about her Potions mentoring with Yami (It’s embarrassing to need help from her, but hell if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so fuck my pride, eh?) It’s fascinating to him that she could put aside her hubris like that (he had been thinking it impossible for purebloods to do so), not to mention people’s lack of teasing her about it (the lessons aren’t exactly a secret, he hears Mulciber and Lestrange gossip about it before bedtime occasionally). Yami is an exception, it seems. Not proof that blood traitors are just as skilled, but a mere exception.

“Is the only reason she’s...a blood traitor that she sympathizes with Muggles?”

Hedwig sniffs, “The details are a lot more complicated--Pureblood fucking politics are rarely as bared and simple as black and white, you see.”

Of all the things he thought he’d be learning at magic school, politics wasn’t even on the list. He wonders if he would have a better understanding of it all if he had skimmed through a few basic politics books before his first year, “Oh?”

“Here in Britain, most see her as a blood traitor, including me and my family. Willingly seeing Muggles as human is the dealbreaker for most.”

“So is it a checklist?”

“Of sorts. You can have feck all to do with Muggles n mudbloods, but still be a blood traitor if you, say, don’t follow the traditions laid out for your family and class. Things like oaths, marriages, religious obligations...Real ritual nonsense like that.” She cleans a bit of dirt from under her fingernail, “Back in Southern Asia, the Acaryas are the pinnacle of what proper purebloods should be. Expect it’s the same in Northern Africa as well.”

“Muggles are more accepted in those places?”

“Salazar no--They just use them as personal servants and nursemaids. Can you imagine? Having a Muggle bring up witch young? My mother would have a heart attack.”

“...Isn’t that violating the statue of secrecy?”

A snort, “Wizards don’t often follow the laws they help enact. ‘Sides, most of them are squibs or Muggles not in the know. Memory wiping is handy when they do see something, though.”

It doesn’t sound like a very happy existence, “Sounds miserable--Does that really classify her family as blood traitor?”

“Maybe if it were just that no, but the biggest offence is that they’re matriarchal. Women in charge, as I think it should be--Full offence, you men are all ponces.” He can’t really argue against that, though he knows he’s the exception, “Warlocks don’t like that. Damn sausage party is already angry at Missus Zabini’s campaign to gain a seat in parliament. Proper witches stay home to bear and raise proper magical children.”

A witch in the Wizengamot?...That sounds like a dream, Riddle. A wonderful dream.

Dream indeed.

They start the descent down the moving stairs, “You’re alright with Acarya’s matriarchy, then?” What’s the damn problem.

“I am. But they don’t honor ancient blood rites or treaties. No long standing loyalty with that family. They’re as dangerous as a bogart in the dark. At least I can rely on a Black to look out for me thanks to old contracts--”

A voice is heard as an older student slips forcefully through he and his classmate, cutting her off, “Oop! ‘Cuse me, guys, gotta get over to DAH-DAH, haha.” The yankee accent, as thick as his hair, would hurt if Tom were more pretentious. Or elitist. Luckily that’s why he has Hedwig around.

“We’re at the top of the stairs, ya fuckin idjit! You could have pushed us over and splattered us on the ground like cake batter! Maybe take your head out of your ass before I shove my foot up it, stupid tosser!”

The American boy laughs, already meters away--Likely taking Hedwig’s scolding in stride, had he heard it.

A student a few feet away chuckles, “Honestly Acwellan, physical violence? Are you a witch or are you a Muggle?”

“Shut up you knob, don’t you have an asshole to go shove your nose into?”

Tom had forgotten how delightful it was to see bigger students cower at a small little girl. The older Gryffindor who commented on Hedwig’s speech slips away, cowarding.

“Afraid of heights, Hedwig?”

“Afraid of Americans, more like.” She sneers at the foreigner’s distant form, “Little git.”

Little is not an adjective that Tom would use for him, “I’m sure it was an accident. We’re both fine, right?”

Hedwig rolls her eyes, “Morgana, Tom, you’re too nice. How are you a Slytherin? Did the hat really make a mistake or something?”

“I hear Hufflepuffs and Slytherins are more alike than meets the eye.”

“Ya, and grass is green.” She snorts, turning a corner with him, “At least you’re not dead from the neck up: I’ve noticed you gathering up a little boy’s club.”

“Something like that.”

“Oh, now you’re going to try and claim that they’re all your best mates? I’m not daft, you know, you are in the best house for a reason, despite your shortcomings.”

“What else could they be?” What sort of ambitions could a mere boy of twelve have?

“An investment.” Sharp. “Insurance.”

This is why he speaks to Hedwig. Shame she’s not a boy.

“Oop! Sorry!” The distant yell of the transfer echos through the castle. Are his lungs that powerful or is he just close because he got lost on the way to DADA?

God, I hate that stupid plonker. No fucking way his voice is like that, you know, it’s like hearing a terrible actor try to be American.” Hedwig is always full of critique.

Tom spares a thought at the new student, who was previously strutting around like a giddy labrador all over the moving staircases. He’s never knowingly interacted with any Americans, so it’s hard to say just how exaggerated the boy’s accent was. How long was he supposed to be staying here again? If his accent is fake, then maybe it’s some kind of prank or joke he’s trying to pull. He hears they have the strangest sense of humor across the pond, “You’ve met Americans before, then?”

“Mum and her side of the family.” Hedwig almost sounds personally offended, “Freak. He needs to stay away from me.”

“Never thought I’d see the day someone would get under your skin like this--Have you gotten soft over the summer?”

“Sod off, Tom.” Fair.

They part at the library entrance.

While his classmate goes for private tutoring (her relationship with Yami has considerably grown, it seems, but Tom can still see resentment in Hedwig’s face when she mentions it), Tom searches for distraction in the library. He finds his book fast enough (Westcar Papyrus) and finds himself a lone seat at one of the only clear tables in the library. Halfway through a story of finding a green jewel lost in a lake, he gets the very odd and very sudden urge to look up to his right.

His heart jumps up at the sight of her, sunlight streaming in through the window behind, creating a golden halo atop her dark hair and around her witch’s hat. She’s walking towards his table. Tom shuts his book to leave. He’s mad at her. Or upset. Or distressed. Or all three wrapped up in one. How could she forget? They had spent months together. Hours in each other’s company, silent or speaking. Memory problems be damned, there has to be some sort of damn curse on her--

The weight in his pocket grows heavier, as if reading his mind.

Fuck.

The sound of wood scraping against wood, Ximena has sat down before he could make a dramatic escape. Before he has time to think over what his almost revelation was implying.

She sits across from him, to his left, with a heavy book, just as she did the first time they spoke to each other. Her face up close is much the same, but not. The previous curves of baby fat on her face are slowly waning away into sharp, angular cheeks and jawline. It’s...nice.

His head whirls back to his book so fast, he swears he felt whiplash. No, he is ignoring her. He’s mad. His still little fists tighten and tremble with emotion--He can’t even properly ignore her because she does not notice him. She never does. Never wi--

There you are.

Her head, and his, switch upward, searching for the owner of the voice, lightly baritone and sweet. Happy.

A tall, slender framed teenager is walking towards their his table. Bright faced and boyishly charming in every sense of the word. He is at Ximena’s side in an instant, leaning close with a hand on the back of her chair (close to her shoulder) and another on the desk (close to her hand.) Yankee accent as thick as his hair.

“Jesum crow, you walk fast for such a little lady.” He’s acting as if he had ran here, but he’s not out of breath, “You dropped your book on one of those damn staircases, I almost broke my neck returning it!” He laughs, as if his near death were a joke, reaching into his robe pocket and pulling out a small paperback to hand to Ximena.

“O-Oh.” He is much too close to her, he can tell, “Thank you, um.”

“You know, you really should pay more attention, I was yelling and whooping n’ hollering after you. Head in the clouds?”

“--Something like that.” Her fingers wrap around the book protectively, using it as a divider between herself and the American.

“Figured. Got that look in your eye, y’know?” Finally he retreats, moves back, “See ya around.”

“Good-bye.” Her voice is quiet. Her eyes stay lingering on his figure as he walks away.

Tom clears his throat.

Black pools on him.

“--Oh.” There was that tone again, “Oh, I--” She drops her book (again) on the table, and sets her hands down, “I--I’m sorry.” The phrase is new and fresh. It brushes up against his bruised feelings, “I’m just...Hello.” Scatterbrained. She’s gathering her thoughts, “...This summer was terrible.”

He can relate, “You forgot me.”

“I didn’t, I just...You slipped my mind. I misplaced you.” Misplaced. He likes that word better than forgotten. It implies he has a spot in her mind. In her heart. “I...It’s hard to explain.” Her eyes go to the people surrounding them. Lack of privacy?

He doesn’t know what he sees in her eyes, but he likes it. It’s the only semblance of power he holds over her. Guilt? Nevermind that she holds something heavier over his own head.

“...We’ll talk about it later?”

A sigh of relief, “Yes. Later is good.”

Tom is most definitely not elated at this. He is not joyous that they are speaking again and that she did not forget him. His shoulders loosen up. Tries not to look vulnerable, though it would surely only aid him.

He changes the subject.

“...What do you think of the American?”

“Which one?”

The one you just talked to.”

Caught off guard “--He’s interesting.”

Tom crosses his ankles, “Interesting?”

“Oh you know. Different.”

To him, he looks about as ordinary as every other background student at Hogwarts. Ximena hums lightly and nods. Her presence is calming, he forgot what a good effect it has on him. Tom continues, “It’s hard to talk to him, I hear. Has a lot of students crowding around him just wanting to hear his accent. Might not get a chance to learn his name, it seems.”

“Oh I actually met him this morning at breakfast.”

Well,

“He sat down next to me and we talked the whole morning--I actually missed my Ancient Runes class.”

Well well,

“I, um, I think he’s very sweet. I’m going to watch him try out for Quidditch this week.”

Well well well,

Tom clears his throat, straightening up, “I see. What’s his name again?”

“Adam.” Her response is so quick, he swears it almost knocks him off his seat.

“His family name,”

“Oh, Miller.”

“Muggleborn?”

“Yes.”

It’s not exactly news that Ximena is alright with muggleborns, but it does hurt his reputation if he’s seen being close with her while she willingly associates with them. He’ll have to see what he can do about that, “I’m glad he’s nice. Don’t need any more arrogant lions.”

An amused exhale as she slips a snack from out of her bag (bread, if his nose is correct), “That’s funny.”

He’s glad he’s funny, “What is?”

“That you say that...We were talking about it earlier: He said he was very confused at how seriously everyone here takes their houses. Apparently Ilvermorny treats them as little more than sports teams. He’s enthused about breaking through all the house barriers here.” Her knuckles press up against her cheek and chin, “He wants to change it”

“...”

“I heard about what happened last year with Lucretia. I’m not sure where she found the courage, but...I really think she’s started something big. Something wonderful.” Her thumb rubs the side of her index finger, “All the houses speaking together and mixing. Perfect harmony.”

“...”

“I don’t know, it would be nice. To speak openly and often to others outside my house. Him especially. I like him. I don’t think I would have been so alright with our talk if it wasn’t for Lucretia.”

“...What do you like about him?”

“It’s...nice to not feel like the only one who doesn’t belong, you understand?” She rips off a chunk of the hot bread she snuck in the library, “I feel alike to him. It feels good to be seen with some kind of familiarity. Some kind of memory. As a person. Not a novelty.” Her eyes return to Tom, “I remind him of a neighbor he had back home.”

“Does he remind you of anyone?”

A pause, “No.” Another pause, “Maybe.”

“Maybe…?” He tries to lead.

“He feels like a memory of a memory. Of a dream.” Her lips press together a tad before she bites into the bread, “...Like I met him once, in a previous life.”

“You believe in that stuff?” His tone is not condescending.

“Something like that.” A well known phrase, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence [3], right?”

Right.

-

On September the 3rd, England is at war.

Tom had been hoping to leave that nonsense behind him. That it wouldn’t come following him into his sanctuary. Ink should not bleed into stone. Blood should not bleed into stone. But it has. It’s seeped in like tea in water, dying the air around him red.

He had heard the news early in the morning, on his way to lunch. And curse curse curse his stupid curiosity and need to know everything that’s happening around him, because he ceased on his path for the sole purpose of checking out why the goddamn was Chamberlain’s voice ringing through the halls. Stopped in front of a classroom, he peeked in and saw a large number of students all gathered around the oldest radio he’s ever seen. Walking in was natural, of course, he had to figure out what was going on. And as he did, more of the classroom made sense to him: the maps on the walls, the movie posters, the modern gadgets....So this was the Muggle Studies class? Quaint.

More students had flooded in behind him, pushing him forward towards his prime minister’s voice.

“...I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany...”

His heart leaped into his throat. It remains to this hour.

The rest of the day passes not like a migraine, but like a fish swimming through mud. Slow and thick. Like a dream.

He’ll...He’ll be able to stay at Hogwarts now. Safe from the bombs. The air raids. The panic. The death. For as long as this war rages on, he will be safe. Here. Home.

This, he repeats to himself. Through every class. Every hour. Every spare moment he has. If he says it enough, it will come true.

For a moment, he considers thanking a God or two. Thanking Merlin? That’s what the others do, right? Witches don’t have Gods, they have each other. They have their magic.

Tom can work with that.

His train of asking, reassurance, comes to a halt as he enters the Great Hall for dinner. Another day (another hour?), another crowd.

A happening is occuring again. At the far left side of the hall, where the Gryffindors sit, is a cluster of students of all years, all houses, all blood. He worms his way to the front and is only partly surprised when (of course) the source of the commotion is the new boy himself (Ximena standing right near him) fiddling with...Is that a...Is that a gramophone?

“What is that?” Druella sounds horrified, not just at the prospect of a Muggleborn being anywhere near her, but also at the contraption that said Muggleborn brought out.

“A phonograph, hon.” If the Yank can hear the condescension in her voice, he doesn’t acknowledge it, “You use it to play music.”

“That thing is an instrument?” A Gryffindor prompts looking at the device as if it were to explode.

He laughs, melodic and short, “I guess it does look like a horn, doesn’t it? But no, no it’s not an instrument.”

“Did you get Headmaster Dippet’s permission to bring this in the school?”

“I didn’t think phonographs were bonafide illegal contraband in this here country.”

Well no, but if his classmates’ stories ring true, then bringing in something as Muggle and electric as that would make Druella’s worry justified.

A Hufflepuff speaks up, “My mum has one of those! It’s like a radio!”

Something like understanding filters through the hall.

“Are we going to listen to a broadcast?”

“Is it on the Muggle war?”

“How strong is your owl to have carried that all the way here?”

Adam chuckles at all the questions, “Y’all here are as fascinated by this thing as my grandfather was--And that’s saying something.” He tinkers with the inside a bit, Tom can hear clinks, “You all need to learn how to have fun.”

“--Fun?

Similar exclamations shoot up in the small crowd.

“Yeah. Fun, you eggheads.” A spark. In the device and in his eyes, “You’re not as behind on the grind as Ilvermorny, thank Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but at least half of you need to let loose. Blow your wig a little.”

An uncomfortable silence on behalf of the Muggleborns and half-bloods, but Tom knows he’s talking about the uppity highbloods who are currently torn between jeering more at him or curiously watching. It almost makes him sneer to see that it was the purebloods who were gathered the closest to the commotion. According to his docent (well, former docent, really, he has no need of a guide in his second year but--), radios were still new and rare in magical households. Resistant to change, most purebloods stuck to live music and physical newspapers (nevermind that there were still complaints about using photographs in said papers).

“How are you going to get that thing to work?” Ignatius prompts, standing next to Lucretia.

“Magic!” Boisterous laughter. Hilarious.

A squeak. The flat disk on the device moves. The hall jumps and gasps collectively, even on the side of the few lucky enough to have witnessed how one of these actually worked (the matron had one, once, before a trio of older boys broke it when Tom was six. His only memory of it working was listening to Turandot one winter afternoon)

“Aha!” He sits up, triumphant.

“--Is that it?”

He holds a finger up, and Tom finds himself envious and impressed at how well and long he can capture people’s attention, “Wait.”

His hand guides the needle over the wax record at a speed that makes the entire hall still. The needle drops.

Thump. A few precious seconds of silence. Sand spilling gently onto the floor. Low bass. Easy, lackadaisical plucking. Brass in harmony. Music. The sound rips through the student body like a knife through paper, shocking his classmates as if they had been dipped in ice water. Melody light and airy, it is vaguely familiar. A sound he has only heard in passing. On walks past barbershops and slums and flats where young people live. Tom finds he does not dislike it.

“Wh-What on earth is this?” Druella’s shrill voice sounds almost afraid of a little noise.

He’s sure that the Yank’s smile is going to make him famous one day, “Jazz.

Abraxas Malfoy, a seventh year Tom hasn’t had the pleasure of speaking to personally, steps forward, “Is this what...Muggles listen to?”

“All the snazzy ones yeah. It’s pretty big with wizards back home too. Some prefer swing, but that’s a little wet for me.”

“...Swinging?” That’s Nemesis’ voice.

The smile widens, “Oh boy, am I gonna have a juicy time with you all.”

There’s little more conversation after that. The music catches the attention of passing ghosts, who linger and tilt their heads at the strange new sound. Purebloods and sheltered half-bloods slowly find themselves tapping, bopping, swaying to the beat. It’s infectious, this jazz. He spots the other transfer, the girl, towering over a few of her housemates, staring at the commotion with a mix of wonder and amusement. A few Muggleborns have taken to actually dancing, clearing up a small space to jerk and twerk their legs out and about, causing more than a few exclamations from the purebloods.

“What are they doing?” He hears Abbas and Weasley ask, both in entirely different tones.

“They’re dancing, you ponces.”

“...Together? Just them?” Again, said by more than one wizard. In entirely different ways. Scandalized. Fascinated. Horrified. Curious. It confuses Tom until he remembers last year’s Hallowe’en: witches dance in circles. In groups. Hand in hand, switching partners, distance kept, one long dance. He didn’t find it strange at the time, it was a holiday. It was probably just some kind of tradition. Just like everything else.

“It’s like watching gorillas doing a mating dance.” Evan comments beside him, “How fun.”

The Muggleborns pay the whispers and comments no mind. They are entirely in their environment now, with the music many of them grew up listening to in their households. Many of them are quite skilled in their dancing: they move and turn with such expertise that it feels like they’ve been doing it since forever. It makes him want to try too.

“You wanna dance?”

Tom’s head turns in time to properly see Ximena sputtering at the Yank’s invitation. A quick denial, red dusting on her cheeks, just barely appearing on her brown skin. The girl next to her, the Muggleborn Ravenclaw from that Charms class once upon a time, slips in instead, hand extending to grasp Adam’s, “Show me what you got, Yank.”

More laughter, “Alright Martha, let’s go.”

First name basis? How uncouth. He’s been here for a day and a half.

The two move loosely but in sync with each other. Buzzing bees whose feet prick and sting at the ground below them, preferring to stay in air. In movement. Ms. Baker is not a bad dancer, and Adam--He’s rather phenomenal. Tom looks at him and he sees that Jazz itself is in his soul. His skin.

Eyes to Ximena again.

She’s relieved, he can tell. Attention like the kind Adam and Martha are receiving is the opposite of what she wants (but perhaps exactly what she needs). When she looks at the two together, there’s a certain wistfulness there. Nostalgia. A ghost of a smile. Amusement. She hugs her book to her chest tighter. Yearning?

Does she wish to dance too?

By the time the song ends, and the record is flipped, there are something like dance lessons happening. The easier-going magicians from magical families are trotting along like clumsy horses to the instructions of Adam and other Muggleborns and half-bloods. The Blacks, Yaxleys, Rosiers, and the rest openly (loudly) hate it but they do not leave. They stay and watch. Watch and learn too, as they leer.

They miss the king’s speech to the nation. Thankfully.

-

Dippet makes no move to console any of the students. There’s no talk or explanation as to what’s going on with the war. Undoubtedly, there’s questions, from both staff and students alike, but no word is given. And really, isn’t this just confirming what others here have taught him about magical authority? The Muggles’ business is their own. We’re not involved. Neutral. Only Muggle Britain is at war with Muggle Germany.

Disgusting. Understandable. Still disgusting.

The closest thing to comfort is given by Dumbledore, of all people, at the end of his next class (and to all his classes, Tom assumes). Though he speaks vaguely about the transpiring events, it is direct. It is to all the people within the classroom. Help will be given if asked.

Liar.

He’s the first to leave the classroom in a huff. If he stays any longer, he’s liable to try and hex his professor.

“Tom! Tom!” Nemesis. He turns, easing up the scowl on his face, “Oh goodness, you walk fast, in a hurry?”

“--Yes.” In a hurry to leave.

“Going to see Lane?”

That...might actually alleviate his mood. Her voice, he’s found, eases headaches. Her explanation for her behavior over the summer is bound to be interesting as well, he hasn’t had time to meet with her or memorize her new schedule.

“Do I look lovesick to you?” He jokes, flashing a smile at her. He remembers what Hedwig told him about her. He wonders if it’s true. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was, it would be useful, actually.

“I wouldn’t know, I have no frame of reference.” She clears her throat, “Your free period is next, correct? Might you please go over some charts with me for Astronomy?”

He’d actually be alright with that. Charts are lovely. He might be able to see just what the hell was the big deal with her family’s so called downfall. If the minister for magic was an idiot, why did that bleed into the rest of his family's faults?

The two of them walk side by side to the library, deep in the tallest sections, for their publically available star charts. From this high up, the students down below look like little beetles with a singular horn or tusk (their required hats, of course). The migrating books’ flight paths are well below his and Nemesis’ position.

“Never been up in this section, have you?”

He looks back from his leaning position over the smooth banister: the fading sun sprinkling in through the glass dome atop the both of them, “I’ve yet to clear the first floor, actually.”

She pulls out a large flat drawer with graphs and maps, sifting through them for the right chart, “That’s pretty ambitious. Most just jump and pick which areas to go to.”

He’s not like most.

“I found it, come here--I think I saw a table nearby...”

The small, oak table that she had spotted is taken. Oh, it’s big enough for all four of them, but well.

What do you mean Muggles have technology that could harm wizardkind?” Druella.

“I wasn’t aware that you grew deaf over the summer, did you spend all your time with Black’s tongue in your ear?” Yami.

Druella might as well be a steam engine with that look on her face. Nemesis looks ready to try and find another place, but Tom’s curiosity is more important than her discomfort with confrontation. It’s been a while since he’s spoken with Yami, regardless.

“Debating outside of Model Wizengamot?” His tone is teasing, but everyone can tell that he’s trying to placate the two witches (if they’re being honest, the only one needing placating was Druella).

Stay out of this, Riddle--

“Ah, Riddle. Fawley. Sit.”

Yami commands the table as the eldest and the one with most composure. Nemesis does not deny her senior’s request, and she chooses a spot besides Druella who looks irritated that she chose that spot. Tom plops down beside Yami: it's not often she extends an invitation like this to him.

“You should be nicer to the underclassmen, Rosier, don’t you want to make prefect someday?”

“You shut your dirty bloodtraitor mouth, Acarya--”

A sharp turn of her neck, Yami’s gold jewelry jingles, her eyes narrow at Druella, “Do I have to call your brother here? I’m sure he’d be proud of your words and very interested to know what you were up to this summer.”

The red in Druella’s face drains, making her milk white like the glass ball Tom had found in DADA last year. The impossible is done. She’s shut up.

The fifth year speaks to him and his yearmate, “Do you think the war will affect us here at Hogwarts?”

Slytherins are not usually so direct. How off putting.

“G-Grindelwald is so far away--”

“No. The Muggle war. Not Grindelwald.”

Nemesis swallows. She’s walking on cracked ice.

“I...I don’t know enough about that situation.” A safe answer, “What’s the name of Muggle Germany’s leader again? Herr Hitler? He seems...powerful.”

Druella snorts.

It’s Tom’s turn to speak now.

“It will affect many of the students. It’s impossible to hide from war.”

It is the answer Yami is looking for, if her face is anything to go by.

But Druella disagrees. Disagrees so clearly, that she reaches out to a passing student, browsing through atlases:

“You, Indian girl--”

The transfer, the girl, turns around with eyes ablaze. Her brows raise a little at the sight of their group, or rather, at the sight of Druella.

“Hon, if you call me Indian one more time, I’m going to have to cut your pretty little droopy face off.” She gives a cloying smile, “I have a name. Use it.

Druella snaps her mouth shut. Yami appears amused. Nemesis plays with her hands. Tom watches carefully, alert.

“Oh now, don’t let your friend’s rude little mouth ruin the party.” She opens outstretched hands as she leans over the back of a chair, “As for you two, I’m Mali.” When she says her name, it almost sounds like Mary, “Or are you also stuck on calling strangers by their last names?”

“It’s, it’s just a form of respect.” Nemesis feels nervous around this girl. How interesting.

“Ah. How cute. Stick to Mali, please.”

His yearmate clears her throat, “Nemesis Fawley.”

His cue, “Tom Riddle.”

“Pleasure. What are y’all doing on this fine afternoon?”

“Just some studying. Some friendly debating.” Nemesis says, fiddling with her fingers nervously, hoping the tension in the air would disperse, “You’re the new American right? The calm one, not the uh, other one. We’re not fond of him.”

“Oh Adam? Yeah, I can see why. He’s amusing. Kind of stupid, though.”

“Most mudbloods are,” Druella purses her lips, trying to recover. Tom can see Yami roll her eyes. “But was he this much trouble back at Ilvermorny?”

“Oh I’m not from Ilvermorny.” Mali corrects.

“Wait, what do you mean you’re not from Ilvermorny?”

“I mean I’m not from Ilvermorny.” Mali repeats, looking like a cross between amused and annoyed, “You didn’t think it was the only magical school in North America, did you?”

“The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland only has one school.” Nemesis states, confused.

A little roll of the eyes, “Your whole countries combined are smaller than the size of Texas. It makes sense for there to only be one for all of you. Your population is what...forty million? US is one-thirty.” Mali clicks her tongue, “Besides, I’m not allowed there.”

Yami’s face has a look that says I knew it. Druella blinks away her confusion, “But some of Ilvermorny’s first students were Indi--You’re a pureblooded witch, why wouldn’t they allow you in?

Mali looks at Druella as if she were looking at a toddler too stupid to understand how their own legs worked, “Times change. I’m not wanted there thanks to good old MACUSA. Adam’s only allowed in because his mother’s some scion of a powerful family...Actually, as I understand it, MACUSA is working to keep girls out now.”

Druella blinks, taken aback. Nemesis is staring down at her hands on the table.

“Don’t look so surprised, it happened to Hogwarts too, briefly.” At her words, Tom looks to Yami for confirmation, as do the rest in the group.

“During the Muggle Hundred Years War.” She recites, “There was a small span of such chaos and confusion that the headmaster at the time thought it best to only accept young men into Hogwarts so as to help protect Scotland and the school. It was only about seven years, but it happened, nonetheless.”

A sneer comes onto Druella’s face at being upstaged by Yami on intelligence. Yami ignores this.

“I like you,” Mali declares, smiling, “I didn’t have a chance to to talk with you in Alchemy earlier. Acarya? I know your sister.”

Yami visibly tenses.

“Her name’s Yama, yeah? Heh, not too original there with names.” It was a purposeful tease, “But of course, I’m sure it means something better in your language.”

“Get to the point.”

Tom’s eyes move from one witch to the other, wondering what was going on.

“I’ll get to it later--When the kids are away.” A wink. She takes her leave.

Yami sits and waits for a few seconds. Then stands up straight from her chair, almost throwing it down from the sheer speed at which she rose, gathers her books, and follows behind furiously.

“--Did she just call us kids?” Druella squeals out, huffing, “How dare she, that-that absolute savag--OW!

Tom flinches. Druella’s nose is broken again. Did he do that? Must have been concentrating hard on it--Or maybe it was just luck (he wasn’t feeling particularly angry at her). Perhaps Ximena is hiding somewhere nearby?

Nemesis comforts Druella and escorts her to the hospital wing. She tells Tom she’ll see him later.

He’s left alone in the library.

He frowns, what the hell was that?

More and more, Tom becomes convinced that it’s impossible to be aware, to be knowing of everything that happens around him. He breaches a border of knowledge, only to be faced with ten more to break through. What’s worth knowing? Something that might end up being meaningless gossip? Should he narrow down his thirst for knowing to only a small niche like some kind of Ravenclaw?

Mali...He’s never spoken with her before this. Seems more composed than the other American. Too malicious to be a Hufflepuff, if that tone that she spoke with Yami was, in fact, malicious. What else could it be? For what reason does someone dangle information like that if not for blackmail? For bait (bait which Yami readily took, he’s never seen her in such a state)?

Hedwig had once called Yami radical...Brought up by non-magic blood. Nursed, clothed, and watched over by some Muggle. Or some poor son-of-a-bitch not magical enough to be considered a witch. Is that so radical? So lenient towards Muggles as others want to think? Leaving them to labor instead of killing them actively? If he’s not mistaken, that was the sort of talk that Abbas and Topaz were spouting only a few months ago...Talk that even Ian Rosier was willingly (conditionally) open to...Something’s amiss...

Tom takes his thoughts for a walk, placing back the unused star charts and meandering out of the library towards the front courtyard. Letters aren’t enough to keep in the know over the summer and winter holidays: there’s so many nuances missed simply because he’s not there in person to witness it. How would someone tell him about what happened in the library in ink and paper? ‘Rosier and Acarya arguing. Nemesis tries to quell. Rosier brings female Yank into it and gets a nasty slap of reality. Female Yank baits Acarya successfully and Rosier gets her nose broken.’ Terrible. He’ll have to pull at Hogwart’s gossip mill to pick what’s true and what’s nonsense--Or hire his own little spies to gather information.

When Tom reaches the main courtyard, he stands still, eyes forward and focused intensely on the single figure out before him, a few meters ahead. Though she is bulked up, back to him, little more than a silhouette, he can recognise his senior. He could find her in the dark or pick her out of a crowd of millions. Strange.

Seconds pass. A minute. Two minutes. Neither of them move.

He steps forward.

A crow rests on her bare finger (isn’t she cold?), happily accepting her little scritches and pets. If his mind isn’t paying tricks on him, she’s speaking lowly to it. Little coos and praises? Or telling secrets?

“Good afternoon, Ximena.” He’s snuck up on her again, he can tell by her little jump.

The crow flies away.

“Oh, hello.” Her throat clears, “I thought that was you.”

Blink, “I didn’t surprise you?”

“No, ah, you did.” Evidently, “Subconsciously, I mean: I sensed your magic.”

It’s oddly satisfying that she could recognise his magic signature, “Really? From how far?”

“Ahum...Hard to say...Maybe a few meters back?”

Did she know how long he was standing there just watching her? “Is that normal?”

“For me, it is.”

Noted.

“I’ve been practicing sensing magic myself!”

“What have you found out?”

Much. But not enough, never enough, “You don’t need physical contact to feel magic, but it helps tremendously.”

“And to see colors?”

“--I haven’t gotten that far yet”

“It’s nothing to be upset about.” He begs to differ.

“I feel left behind.”

Something like helplessness shows on her face, like she wants to comfort him, “I understand. I do. I--” A press of her lips, “Those things that purebloods take for granted. The skills and knowledge...It’s awful.”

It is. It’s bad enough to be shunned out of your heritage for the first 11 years of your life, but to then have it be used against you? When you’re already so much more skilled than those who were raised with it? Unbearable.

“I knew you’d understand.”

The helplessness stays, but her concern is replaced with a bittersweet smile, “I wish I didn’t,” and then, “I wish you didn’t either.”

He feels warm.

‘--I noticed your resting magic...I mean, I didn’t notice it, is what I want to say.”

She nods, “I always try and hide it. To help go unnoticed.”

Always hiding. She never changes, “I see. Can I show my control?”

Eager. He’s too eager. She nods again, “Please.”

Tom can’t sit still. He brings his hands out of his robe pockets and out of his gloves (the cold wind immediately makes him want to dig them back into said pockets), and flexes his fingers. Flexes his magic.

He feels tingling at first, starting in his chest and shimmering outwards to the tips of his hands. He’s not sure what it feels like, but it’s good. Comfortable. What color did she say it was? Black? Is this what black feels like?

Her palms come up from under his own outstretched hands, but they do not touch skin. His magic palpitates anyways. Hers reaches out and touches his.

A rush of joy to his head makes him dizzy as if it were blood. He remembers her magic as if it were hours that he last felt it. He wants to grow familiar with it. As if he had grown up around it. Spends everyday around it. It’s something to look forward to. To aspire to.

He wants to dip into it like stepping into a pool, but he doesn’t. She’s only doing this because she feels guilty, and he hates that, but he’ll take it. Take it but he won’t push his luck. Instead, he forces his magic to stay still. To stay skimming the surface of hers like a lily pad over a pond. Barely touching. It’s hard. Temptation is dangling right in front of his eyes but what would he have to win? A few moments of curiosity satiated? And what would he lose? What little trust he has from her?

Damn.

“Your control is amazing.” Her compliment swells his pride, “You did all this in just a few months?” Of course he did. Only he could do it. “You’ll be a maester of control in no time.”

He knows. But he still likes hearing it from her.

“Hey, ‘Mena!”

Water recedes. Her hands lower. His hands feel the September chill again.

Adam’s voice is extremely recognizable at this point, and just as irritating. Mena? Too familiar. He’s barely known her for a week. Tom waited at least a month to try using her first name. “See, Hedwig, told you I’d find her--”

Tom blinks at the smaller witch, more than dwarfed by the tall Yank, “I thought I fecking told you to not call me that, you disrespectful arsehole.”

Ximena blinks, “You were looking for me?”

“Tom, actually, but he’s usually where you are.” Thanks, Hedwig. “This bloody fuckwit has the nose of a fucking bloodhound, I guess.”

He does a mock salute, “Anytime, kitten.”

Tom doesn’t need to be on high alert to sense the power spike in Hedwig’s magic. As she begins cursing the transfer out, Adam turns to Ximena and he, and speaks to her only, “I was looking for you too! Though not to find little Gat over here.” A head gesture to him, so he’s Gat? What is that? Some type of creature? His classmate seems confused as well.

“Wh-what did you need?”

She had forgotten to reel her magic back in again. He tries to nudge her arm or side, to try to remind her, but...

From beside her, Tom can feel her magic fluttering nervously and...bashfully. He looks from the transfer to her and back--There’s...There’s no way.

Adam smiles bright, and the shade of red that blossoms on Ximena’s face could dye miles of fabric. It’s the same blush that appeared on Lucretia’s face when Ignatius was mentioned. Tom takes that thought and shoves it in the rubbish bin.

“I’m feeling stuffy. I gotta get out of these walls--What’s that little village you all go to? Hogshead?” His elbow is offered, creating a barrier between Tom and his friend.

“Hogsmeade.” Ximena corrects, taking his arm gently and quietly, “I’ve never been, so I can’t say I can show you around.”

“We’ll explore it together.” Adam’s voice carries genuine good hearted intentions. Tom wants to kick him as he walks her away from the spot.

“Oh sure, go on ahead, good fucks, we’ll be just fine!” Hedwig calls, but the two don’t appear to hear, “Tough break Tom, guess she likes older men, ya?” She snorts.

“...It’s distasteful.”

“You’re jealous.”

“He is practically an adult, and she a child!”

“You’re jealous.”

“Sixteen and thirteen! He’s sick.”

You’re jealous.

I’m right.” Tom corrects.

Hedwig snerks, “You’re jealous.

His mouth twists into an unpleasant, sour scowl. Looking out for his friend and fellow Slytherin is not a sign of jealousy, Hedwig was just really growing to enjoy the taste of drama. “Say what you like, but that is inappropriate.”

Hedwig rolls her eyes, “Don’t muggles have age gaps in relationships too? Malfoy’s rumored to be engaged to an eleven year old.” Her arms cross over her chest, “My own parents have a seventeen year age gap.”

Good god. “Not all muggles have arranged marriages or are upper class.”

A blink, “Oh right, I forgot about that: marrying for love.” She hums, “A distant dream!”

“...How old is your mother?”

“Nosy little git, aren’t you?” Merlin, why is Hedwig like this? “She’s thirty-four.”

“Then your father’s fifty one?”

“On the nose, Nosy.”

“...So then, she had you and your sister when she was...Twenty-three and eighteen?”

“You’re good at this.”

“...Your father was thirty-five when your sister was born--No one saw anything wrong about this? No one in your family?”

Hedwig looks bored with the conversation, “Why would they? It’s how all the good purebloods marry off their daughters.” A yawn, “Need to groom them into being their ideal wife, yeah? Rumor has it they found someone for my sister. Some teacher at Durmstag.” She rolls her eyes, “I give him ten minutes at the first meeting to turn tail.”

Tom gives him two, “It’s very old fashioned.”

“Wands are made out of wood.”

He allows a chuckle to escape his mouth, “Point taken. Wizards like tradition.” And marrying off young daughters to men twice their age, “I forgot that.”

“Well don’t. You’re one of us. You have to start acting like it.” As if he hadn’t caught onto that by now, “You’re gonna have to take on a young bride too, I bet! Since you act so posh.”

The thought almost makes him nauseous, “Would my future bride just be turning two, then?”

“Bloody hell, no, she’s not even an itch on her father’s bollocks!” Hedwig cackles, “That’s another thing you have going for you Tom: You don’t have to be afraid of who your parents engage you to, just who your heart wants.” A glance out at where the two exited, “Or rather afraid of who your contemporaries hate.”

He stares out as well, “Hm. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh right, the whole reason I found Sir Overcoat [4].”

A look.

“It’s one of the words for mudbloods n squibs in America. Means ‘magic coffin’.”

Because magic dies when it sprouts in a mudblood or squib, “--Did he tell you that?”

“Ya. Said he prefers it to mudblood. Freak.”

Indeed, “So what did you need?” Hedwig is rarely if ever scatterbrained.

“Professor Dumbledore asked for you. Something about tea?”

 

Chapter Text

Sitting before Dumbledore in his office is a familiar, yet queer situation. He had been under the impression that there was no more need for weekly tea, as Tom was adapting quite well to Hogwarts. He has plenty of friends and high grades.

Occupying his time with swinging his legs gently back and forth (his feet just barely reach the floor), Tom stares at the jar of sweets on Dumbledore’s desk as the man sets down a silver tray with two cups, sugar, cream, a teapot filled with hot water, and a small container with loose leaf black tea. In silence, his professor prepares their tea and sets down a cup before Tom, leaving him to prepare it himself (undoubtedly, Dumbledore remembers how he likes it, but he also remembers that he prefers to do it himself because he is not a helpless little boy).

Dumbledore asks if Tom knows why he was called here, not in a way that makes him feel like he’s in trouble, but in a way that makes him feel like he’s about to tell him about the death of someone close to him.

“You want to talk to me about the war, sir.”

“Indeed, Mister Riddle.”

Tom’s mood sours more.

Headmaster Dippet has indeed sent back word to his orphanage of his safe arrival to Hogwarts. This, he has done to all Muggleborn families (and Tom cringes at that word) before breaking the news that no, they cannot be kept at Hogwarts over the summer.

The disappointment seeps into Tom like spilt honey on wool.

And then Dumbledore explains the decision. It is not a talk that is given to every other student trapped in the Muggle world, he’s sure. This is a talk exclusively for him. Made and catered to him. And he’s not sure how to feel about that.

Old laws biting him in the ass, is the summary of what Dumbledore is telling him. In her history, the statue of secrecy had just begun, and the Ministry of Magic saw fit to become involved in Hogwarts policies, to the extreme charging of pureblooded families, who didn’t trust their children to the Ministry. Any opportunity not spent learning or studying was a chance for the government’s propaganda to infiltrate their heads, if it wasn't already doing so within the classroom. They had been hoping the statue was just a temporary hack. A mistake to be corrected.

They couldn’t allow their precious heirs to be left at school for so long. To be corrupted. Influenced. Swayed.

He knows that what he is learning is little more than a summary of the real history, but he still believes the words coming from the Deputy Headmaster. What reason does he have to lie to him?

But then, something awfully strange happens:

Dumbledore sighs, appears resigned, and leans back in his elegant chair, debating with himself, “I cannot appoint you a set of parents, or new family, Tom, but I can, perhaps, suggest a temporary guardian?”

His hands tremble as he stills in the mist of sipping his tea (four sugars, no cream).

What.

The cup is set down in its saucer and rested on his lap as he clears his throat and composes himself, “Excuse me, professor?”

“It is as I said: Should the war...truly take as dark a turn as the Muggle Ministry feels it will, I believe I can help secure you an apprenticeship. With, of course, the permission of the matron at Wool’s.”

This...this has to be some sort of trick. Surely, Dumbledore means to keep him under watch. Under lock and key. The person he suggests will be abusive or mad or incompetent or completely under the thumb of the Deputy Headmaster. Everything Tom does, says, eats, breathes, will be reported back to Dumbledore. It would be miserable. So much that it would be better to stay at...at the orphanage.

But...if this isn’t some trick? If he’s finally throwing him a bone (much deserved, thank you) and seeing that he’s wasting away at that hell space, then...Then the matron will not give any sort of permission. It’s a miracle she even lets him go here (Tom suspects some trickery on the school’s part, but he’s never asked). She would absolutely refuse anything that encouraged his ‘freak’ behavior. Even if it meant separating him from the orphanage, as she’s always wanted.

His distrust must be obvious on his face, because Dumbledore merely tells him to think it over. There’s no time limit. No real one anyways, unless the bombs drop tomorrow and kill him, but he doesn’t say that.

Then, he asks about Ximena.

Ximena? Oh no sir, he tells him, they haven’t spoken in months, she’s been very reclusive, not speaking to anyone. He says this almost like he’s hoping for Dumbledore to force them together on some sort of project. Sorting or grading papers, perhaps. Hadn't he once encouraged Tom to pursue friendship with her? But no, of course, no such thing happens. Instead, Dumbledore looks concerned for a second, nods, and speaks.

“I see. I had hoped that Mister Miller might have encouraged her to come out of her shell.”

Tom can feel his body language stiffen up at the new information.

He drinks his tea.

“But, that is talk for another meeting, another person.” Dumbledore waves away the low hanging fruit from Tom’s reach, and offers him some of the candy on the desk.

And to think he had forgotten all about Adam’s little witchnapping.

“...Sir, if I could,” Tom starts, catching Dumbledore’s attention, “I wanted to ask about Eric Acwellan and Ximena--I mean, I was wondering, how do you decide who to match Muggle-raised students with?”

Though a brow is raised, Dumbledore gives his question careful thought, before deciding to indulge him,“It’s a curious pair, as I’m sure you thought when Miss Lane presumably told you.” More than curious, “When I started the idea, the goal was to bring together two sides of the Magical Community together in harmony. An easy settlement for Muggleborns to come into the world. Miss Acwellan volunteered for the program herself, and she had--and has--no history of abuse or bullying towards Muggleborns,” Sounds fake, “I had hoped at the time that she was opening up borders for noble magical families.”

There’s something like reflection in Dumbledore’s eyes, and Tom’s not convinced it’s not regret.

“When I met Miss Lane, she seemed a bright young witch in need of proper guidance. Miss Acwellan seemed a good match in stature, talent, and temperament.” Alright, now he knows for sure that Dumbledore is an old coot, “But just different enough to learn from Miss Lane as well. Grow. Just as your own assigned guide was similar, but not too similar.”

Tom wants to protest: he is not at all like that idiot. And he was useless in all the ways he wanted help in (well, save for help in useless things, but--)

“Do you know why my past guide volunteered?”

To his surprise, Dumbledore chuckles, “I believe it was a futile attempt to woo Miss Acwellan.”

Some things never change.

Once dismissed, Tom spends the rest of the day not sulking. Merely being worried over his fellow Slytherin, of course. Fuck what Hedwig says, he would know if he had something ridiculous like feelings for another person. At most, he has one feeling for Ximena at a time, and when it's not curiosity, it’s frustration.

Even if he is jealous, he has a right to be. Too many people are keen on taking away his teacher from him, just when he's getting somewhere with earning her trust. He saw her first, saw her for her true potential. Everyone else is just a copycat. Who else can say they understand her situation like he does?

What does she see in Adam, anyways? Silly girl. He had hoped she was above getting stupid crushes and feelings for people, but he was clearly wrong. Tom supposes it’s only natural for a thirteen year old girl to feel like that, especially towards someone as boyishly good-looking as Adam, but it doesn’t make his mood any better. Really, it only makes it worse that he can understand why someone might like him: he’s infallibly magnetic. Charismatic. In a genuine way. Tom can spot a faker a kilometer away, being a bit of one himself, and the Yank is just that happy-go-lucky. His handsome face doesn’t hurt either. Balls.

Tom could be boyishly charming. Not naturally, he would have to work at it more (do a bit of growing), but he could eventually get there. Reach teenagehood, gain a couple of centimeters in height, develop a pleasing low voice...He’s already a beautiful boy, he knows, he could grow into a handsome one. He could study people and what makes them happy and laugh and blush.

...Could he learn how to make Ximena blush like that?

The cawing of a crow alerts him to her presence, but not fast enough to avoid walking into her whilst turning a corner, headed out of the dining hall. The sky’s dulled down to a muted grey-blue, and most of the students are on their way to dinner, opposite of his way. His cold face is pushed into her shoulder, right at a soft, nice smelling clean wool scarf. The corner of his chin, however, is scratched by something.

“So-sorry.” She clutches a book tight to her chest (the assailant to his chin), “I was lost in thought.”

He’s not sure if he wants to see her or not, but decides to deal with the event that fate decided would happen to him, “I’m fine. ‘Tis but a scratch. I’m sturdier than I look.”

An amused exhale, he’s glad his jests lands, though at the expense of his short height. How tall was Ximena? “Still, I should have been paying attention. I’m glad you’re okay.”

A nod in confirmation, before he breeches the subject, “How was Hogsmeade?”

Fingernails drum against her book, “Uneventful.” Can’t say he blames her for wanting to keep the...outing with Adam private. He would want to as well. Doesn’t mean he won’t still blame her.

“Is it really that boring?” Of course it isn’t,

“Oh you don’t want to hear about my time there.” Her tone is a familiar one: one spoken by adults to children who don’t want to bore them with adult stories and details. Tom doesn’t like that.

“I enjoy hearing about your day.” His hands go behind his back as he rocks gently back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet, “I miss our talks.” Because you’ve been neglecting me. “I miss you.”

Guilt again. Her voice softens, “I’m sorry. I’ve been stretched thin lately.” Stretched over one person, more like, “Third year is so much more...good for me. So much to learn, so much to invent.”

Tom wonders if she’s been brewing potions again, “We can talk about it back at the common room, just us.”

Consideration, she holds her fingertips to her lips, “It’s been a while since we’ve had a talk, isn’t it? I think that’s a good idea.”

Tom is light on his feet as he walks alongside her, not behind. He decides to forgo the usual shared silence for more conversation, he has to play catch up:

“Have you met the other American?” He wants so badly for her to just forget about Adam, just for a few minutes.

“Oh, Mali?” Ximena says the witch’s name like Mary as well, “Yes, we have Summoning together, as a matter of fact--A shame, considering how advanced she is compared to the rest of us, but it’s a blessing for me.”

Damn. Tom didn’t sign up for Summoning, “What do you do in that class?” Besides the obvious, but he can blame that on his upbringing.

“Well, what I and the other beginners do is all theory: history and readings and essays, none of the stuff that will get your hands dirty. Intermediate students are learning circles and sigils.”

“And Mali?”

There’s that quiet excitement again, he’s hungry to see it, “She demonstrates! Professor Pannikin doesn’t have a proper lesson plan for someone of her level, so she mostly serves as an aid for the lessons. An assistant teacher, if you will.”

What does a talented Summoner want with a girl from a renowned cursebreaker family?

“...What do you summon?”

“Oh, lots of things. Mostly druids, harmless fae, each other.” He raises a brow, “You can have people at your beck and call in theory: a matching symbol on them and on your summoning circle, and you should be able to call them from anywhere on the Earth.”

“Do the magical creatures do your bidding?”

“Well, for a price, yes.” Figures, “Most of them want simple, easily attainable things like flowers, honey, or good quality fabrics. Some want abstract things, like your name or your memories.” She shivers silently, and Tom understands why, “I don’t know if anything I need or want will be worth my memories, but the class is fun.”

“Do you take it just for fun, then?”

“Mm. For knowing. Summoning, in theory, is supposed to be used to gain knowledge or power or aid. To be able to request an audience with someone or something that you might otherwise might never be able to encounter properly in this life, or the next.

“Do you think you’ll have use of that, then?”

“Better safe than sorry, right?”

He agrees with her.

“...Do you know what Mali plans to do with her skills?”

“Mm, I think she means to bring forth some of her Gods for counsel back home, but I’m not sure. It felt private, so I didn’t push it.” A witch with Gods? Proven ones? That’s new. “Apparently Summoners are rare in the States, and ring up a pretty penny. She already has clients.”

“What a talented witch.”

Ximena agrees eagerly, “Isn’t she? We get along great, swimmingly, really. She feels like home.” Great. Another wonderous American come to take his teacher away, “I think she’ll be my Puff.”

“--Puff?

A blink, “Your guide for First Year didn’t tell you?”

“He mostly talked nonsense and gossip.” Not a lie.

“Ah, right. Um, well, most Slytherins have a Puff--That’s to say, a Hufflepuff to themselves, for friendship or advice or tutoring. We’re close, our houses. They call us their snakes. I believe younger Acwellan’s Puff is her cousin?” The boy she made Tom curse all those months ago because ‘he was a right prat’? Sounds about right.

A Puff...Older Kowalski was probably that to his past mentor, then. Explains the buddy buddy relationship well. Did that make Elle his own Puff, should he try to pursue one? He’ll have to investigate.

“How...Fraternity-like.”

“Isn’t it? I thought it was a little silly at first, but Mali has been so welcoming. And helpful! It’s like...It’s like having a sibling, I think. Her company soothes me.”

--What about him? His company?

No, he can’t say that, even last year when he was often following behind her, he would go days or weeks without really speaking to her. Or looking in her direction. Damn his ambition to create a proper network of people in school. He’d have to adjust accordingly, but he can't spend every waking hour on her.

“I spoke with her earlier, she has a good head on her shoulders. Maybe she could be my Puff as well?”

“It’s not unheard of for that to happen, but I don’t think she’ll teach you what she knows. It’s not for you to use.”

Some magic is personal. In the blood.

“Ah. I understand.” Really, too many times, he has understood. Understood when he has not wanted to. Why isn’t this magic for him to use? Why is he barred from it? Why isn’t Ximena?

“Mm.” Ximena nods, “You have time for a Puff, if that’s what you’d like. You’re very social, I’ve noticed, so you shouldn’t have much trouble.”

“I’m social?”

“Oh yes, absolutely. I think in your first week, you must have spoken to more people than I have my entire time here.”

“I didn’t think you paid much attention to me--Your surroundings, I mean.” The slip up was on purpose, of course.

“Oh I don’t.” Oh, “But I’m good at hearing things through the grapevine. People don’t tend to notice when I’m sitting nearby.”

How does that not bother her? When Tom walks into a room, he wants to command it. To have everyone acknowledge his existence.

Furthermore, people talked about him? How delightful. He had thought only the few Slytherins within his guide's circle and Dueling Club were mumbling about him, but knowing that his work to be seen has reached out further than the club makes him preen.

He can't, of course, ask about what she heard through the rumor mill. He has to appear humble, like what others say doesn’t bother or interest him.

“I don’t see how anyone couldn't notice you.” A half-lie. Ximena is fascinating and full of promising knowledge, but she’s also quiet, like a fruit stain on a patterned robe.

“Oh it's easy. People don't want to see what they don't like.”

The heavy words sink into his psyche. He remembers his first few weeks here, at the ugly questions people would ask him about her. The things they told him. The reason she thinks someone is keeping her precious treasure away from her. A part of him wants to ask about the bracelet. Another part of him vividly remembers the neglect he faced back home as a toddler, and wants to share that. To connect with her. Instead, he changes the subject.

“Will you be in Dueling Club again this year?”

A nod and a hum, “Sitting in the back, as usual, but yes. Will you be going? I know you were eager to join the rest up there.”

He didn’t think she noticed his want to fight. It makes him happy to know she did, “I hope so, the sport interests me greatly.” Upstaging everyone interests him greatly.

“Will you become a professional duelist, then? Compete in the World Championship in Bangladesh?”

Perhaps. His future is not sealed yet, but he likes the image of him as a powerful duelist: he would wear such nice clothes, much nicer than what he has now and definitely not secondhand, “Do you think I could do it?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never seen you duel.” Fair, “Professor Merrythought talks about you in my class, though.”

He displays his humble pride again, “Me?”

“You’re a jewel, according to her. Uses you to encourage everyone because half of them are behind you, or close to it.”

Is...is she telling him this because she feels bad or...is she just being talkative today? With him? Is there some sort of reason she’s buttering him up? Is she going to say something soon that’ll ultimately hurt him? Or is she...is she just being conversational?

“Professor Merrythought is too kind.” He fiddles with his robes, “I’m lucky to have such a teacher as her. Really, I’m not as grand as she says.” He probably is. He wonders if he’ll be able to duel the third years successfully, then.

“You shouldn’t be so humble. It’s okay to carry yourself with pride.”

It’s not that he needed her permission to do so, but her words make him feel safer at the idea of polishing off his ego and displaying a little of it to others, “Are you humble, then, Ximena?” He remembers the ease at which she cast the spells back in that Charms class last year. The strange, foreign spell that left her lips during her duel with Hedwig.

Ximena shakes her head, “Being humble implies I’m good at something.”

What kind of nonsense was this? “And what about that potion you brewed last year? For nerves?”

“That was nothing, I--Anyone could have done that. Really.”

“It’s okay to carry yourself with pride.”

A pointed look, but one of amusement. Success. “Point taken. But I stand by what I said: anyone with knowhow could have mixed that together.”

“Even me?”

“Well, if I did it my second year, why couldn’t you? Professor Slughorn speaks about you high enough.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“If you’d like.”

Excitement sparks in his heart.

“I’ll tell you what: if you can figure out how to make the potion for nerves that I brewed by the end of your second year, you win.”

“And what will I win?”

“Satisfaction.”

He can work with that.

They step into the dungeons.

Inside the cool common room is mostly empty, save for some spare firsties playing a game of chess towards the entrance. The two magicians find a comfortable space behind a large bookcase, on a rug surrounding an elegant coffee table. Ximena opts for sitting against a leather armchair, legs to the side, and Tom grabs a large velvet floor pillow to sit on criss cross, right across from her.

Ximena opens her book on the table.

“--That’s the same one you were reading when we first talked.”

“Hm? Oh yes, it is.”

“Almost done translating it?”

A soft smile, “Almost. I’ll share it with you when I’m done, if you like.”

Absol-bloody-lutely he would like it, “Please.”

“--You know, it’s good that you’re so interested and willing to read books outside your curriculum; most people I study with think this stuff is a waste of time.”

“People in your classes?” When I’m not able to talk to you?

A nod, “It makes sense: they all want jobs here in Europe, so foreign pieces like these are mostly useless to them.”

“...Do you want to leave Europe one day?”

“I want to leave as fast as I can.”

Hm.

“It’s...just miserable here. And now with the war starting...Well, I don’t want to be around if Germany comes.”

“You would leave Hogwarts?”

“Hogwarts is...it has been many things to me. Good and bad. A good escape. A bad dream. But I feel trapped.”

He can’t say he understands, but he definitely doesn’t not understand, “Where will you go?”

The quiet excitement he saw on the train last July returns to her face, “Latin America.

Ah. He doesn’t know much of that area of the world, Muggle or Magic. He’s sure they have their own problems and wonders, “Is that where you’re from?” He figured, after his research on the bracelet and all, not to mention her little Hallowe’en story from last year.

“I believe so.” Her finger pads rub together as she thinks, “It’s not so much memory as...feeling.” Eye contact, “When I perform magic from that land, I feel...whole. Complete. The food I eat here, it brings me so much more joy than any other cuisine.”

“Do you know the names of the dishes you eat, then?”

“No...not all of them.”

This intrigues him, “Do you think Hogwarts just knows what you would enjoy best then?”

“...You know...I’m going to sound so...I actually never thought about it before.” That’s a first, surely, “I just...when I first sat down to my meal, and I got something wildly different, I was too happy to really process why.

“House elves must be very knowledgeable, I guess.”

A moment’s confusion before realization dawns, “I might have known.”

“Skip that chapter of Hogwarts: A History?”

“I skimmed the book.”

Oh? “Didn’t like it?”

“It felt too revisionist for me.”

“You’ve been working on your vocabulary.”

“Trying to. Thank you for noticing.” Of course. Only he would notice.

“So why is it...revisionist, did you say?”

“I...It was just a feeling, at first, like most things. It talks only about the good. The glorious. Nothing about...muck. It practically glosses over Salazar Slytherin’s decision to leave the school.”

...Now that he thinks about it, he was wondering about that. Oh he can induct based on the talks of others, but no one ever really told him the story.

“I was curious, so I tried searching in other books. Most were similar. It wasn’t until I found personal journals in old languages that I found something satisfying.”

“--You went into the sections for older students didn’t you?”

She doesn’t even look ashamed, “Of course. Baring knowledge from people is unjust.”

“Is that why you let me follow you into the second year sections of the library last year?”

“I...confess, much of that time, I was too focused on my task to notice you were tailing me.” Ouch. “But the moments when I was aware, yes.” That makes it better, he supposes, “You value knowledge well. That’s good. It’s admirable.”

As nice as it is to be in her company, his ego is likely to burst at some point, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.”

“Do you think, then, that someone told the house elves how to make that food you always eat?” He presses.

Finger pads gently tap tap tap on the pages of her book, “I...suppose that’s only logical. I can’t say I would know who but...Maybe Dumbledore?”

He can’t help it. He snorts.

“Ah...You’re right.” Of course he is, “He’s been very kind to me, but his...helpfulness has given different results.”

“Maybe your ancestor came to Hogwarts--And taught the house elves themselves.”

A sad smile, “Wouldn’t that be a dream? Walking the same halls that my parents, grandparents walked...” She sighs, shoulders slumping, “I don’t think so. I’ve scoured through records of all sorts. If any relative of mine has stepped foot on these grounds before me, they are distant, and irrelevant.”

To Tom, any relation, even something as ridiculous as a step-second-cousin thrice removed by marriage, is golden. It’s a ticket out of his orphanage. It’s a claim to blood.

“I’m sure there’s more documents to look through, more family trees to find, but...No, it is hopeless.” She nods, resigned, “I am the first in my line to step into these grounds, I know it. It is the same feeling by which I feel I belong to Latin America. Do you understand?”

He shakes his head.

She looks sorry, “I suppose it’s a lot to ask of someone to understand. There’s more than that, of course, but solid evidence isn’t as interesting as things felt in the spirit, yes?”

Oh, Tom begs to differ.

He tries, regardless.

“...It’s like...how I know that it was my father who is the wizard, and my mother who was a Muggle.” It starts and is out of his mouth before he can even hesitate, he’s never told anyone of his theory...Aside from...“I just know it. I can feel it.”

It occurs to him, watching Ximena’s gaze change from curious to sympathetic, that he just shared something awfully private with her. Damn.

But Ximena, despite being a snake, merely nods with understanding, “Yes. Something like that.”

He doesn’t say that his gut feeling is more like a desperate plea.

“Does it bother you, then, that your mother is a Muggle?”

If he’s being honest, it bothers him that she died more than her being magicless.

Her use of is rather than was is not missed, “...I don’t obsess over things I cannot change.” It’s not like it affects him academically or socially anyways...So long as this keeps quiet (and it will, for Ximena is not a gossip-monger nor cruel.)

“Do you think your father is still alive?”

‘He has to be’ almost comes out of his mouth, but he stops himself, “I know he is.” That sounded better. Confident and sure of himself. Grown up.

She hums lowly, looking at her hands,“I see...I think...you’re better off as a half-blood, if I may be bold with you.” Always.

He tilts his head.

“The complexities of what it means to be a true half-blood aside, there’s the obvious: so many purebloods have health problems.” All the purebloods get sick after the holidays. “And I know it doesn’t show, but there’s a large number of deformations that can be hidden under clever charms.” She chuffs, “Genetic variety aside, there’s only so much magic you can really grasp when you only have samples from such a small pool...You’re a talented boy. If you had come from only highblood, I don’t think you would be as skilled.”

Oh? “Are you saying that I have access to more magic power because of my mother’s Muggle blood in me?”

“In a way, yes.” Ximena would really get along well with Elle, “Families like...the Blacks, for example, they’ve specialized in dark magic for...centuries. And they’re impressive for it, of course, but there’s no flexibility. Light magic is a stranger to their wands and cores...They have so much trouble conjuring even the simplest of light charms, it’s embarrassing.” That was the closest he’s ever heard her be...snide about something. How interesting, “God, I mean...Cassiopeia Black can’t even conjure the Patronus charm. Head Girl, top of her class and for what? For power in only half of all spells, if that.” And all that half-power wasted on a marriage contract, surely, if Hedwig’s talk expands towards the Blacks, and he knows it does.

Is this what his past mentor meant when he said she was obsessed with methods? “Of course, magic prowess is as random as real genetics, I’m sure, and really is more dependant on skill, but...” She looks at him again, “It doesn’t hurt to have something like a head start from your parents. Height, physical ability, looks...and ease with which to cast certain types of spells.”

“...Spells even Muggles can cast?” They must not be very powerful, Elle’s food magicks lecture aside.

She can sense his doubt, he knows it, “Especially. I think, if nothing else, maybe Muggle blood cancels out some of the barriers that a pureblood magical core has evolved to build up over centuries...To leave room for growth in another direction, should the witch want to.”

“So then...You would claim that Magic-Muggle marriages are beneficial?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Scandalous, “You’ve told others about your theory?”

“No,” A defeated sigh, “just you.”

He likes that. He’s like her confidant. Her partners in class don’t know about this, and Adam certainly doesn’t either. He’s special.

“...You never know, I could still be from the purest of lines: I almost got sick last spring.”

“That’s just how germs work. Or maybe allergies?”

“I don’t have any allergies.”

Her lips purse, “Didn’t you say you lived in London? You wouldn’t know it with the lack of greenery. It’s not like here.” Obviously.

“What about dust then? N’ mold?”

A hum, “True, true, you’re right,” He ignores the feeling he gets when she admits that to him, “But maybe you’re used to those things?”

He hates that that’s plausible.

“Maybe my father was from a very fine pureblood line, then?”

“A scion of a magical powerhouse...Joining with a Muggle? I’m sure it would have been the scandal of the century.” I’m sure we would have heard of it is what she’s saying.

“Maybe it wasn’t so public. Maybe it was a secret affair.” He continues to cling to the idea that his father is someone worthwhile.

“Mm. It’s common, if the gossip webs I come across are true.” Tom visibly perks up and quirks a brow, “--Oh, well,” She clears her throat, “That’s a bit mature for someone your age.”

“I’m only a few months younger than you.” Not even a year! They’re separated at Hogwarts on a stupid technicality.

Ximena’s fingers drum on her book again, “I...Please trust me on this. There’s types of information that is ugly to hear. I would much rather keep it from you.”

Is she trying to protect him from something, then? He doesn’t need protection, he’s not a weak little boy. He’s fine. He’s strong.

“...Alright.” He picks his battles.

The shuffling of pages. Silence. One. Two. Five seconds. He can’t let this active conversation die, he won’t let it, she’s never talked this much with him.

“Did you find out anymore about your bracelet?” Wait, shit, no, he thought too fast, he didn’t want to remind her of that--

“I know it’s close.” Shit. “I can...hear it sometimes.”

Hear?

“The magic in it. It hums.” Shit shit shit. “It’s very low. I have to strain to hear it.”

“Do you think someone who hears magic naturally could help you find it?” He remembers Yami, and the ease that she noticed the shift in Ximena’s magic.

“Mmnm. No. I think...I think only I can hear it. We’ve spent so many years together, it’s only natural.”

Then why can’t she hear it in his pocket, right now? Or is she playing with him? He really should leave it back in his nightstand.

“..Why is it only sometimes?”

“I...don’t know.” He holds in the breath of relief as he listens to her frustration, “I can’t figure out why. I can’t understand it.” Her displeasure in not knowing something is almost tangible. Tom can relate.

“Something you don’t know? That’s a first.” Distraction with flattery is a talent of his.

“Don’t be silly, I can’t possibly know everything.” Dismissing his flattery is a talent of hers.

“It feels like you do, sometimes.” His elbows rest on the smooth wooden surface before him, leaning forward, “You’re like an encyclopedia.”

“Mm. I think Acarya would better suit that title.” Coming from her, Tom takes that as high praise. He really should mingle more with Yami.

“Perhaps...But I think your information is more interesting.”

She gives a thoughtful look, “That’s an interesting thing to say.” He almost snorts, “Why interesting? Why not useful? Or practical?”

“The things you know...I think it draws my magic.” Like a shark to blood. “All I know from Acarya is light spells. Theory and defense. That’s practical. You...you’re a mix, I’ve found. You don’t shy away from certain spells, even if they’re dark. I find use from them, but also delight.”

“You think your magic center is dark, then?”

He thinks he knows what that means, “Yes.”

“You fit the bill, going by archetype. It can explain why some of the things I help you with resonate better with your magicks.”

“How do you know so much?” A laugh as he says it because he wants it to be a compliment. And it is.

“I read.” Obviously. He reads too. But he doesn’t know like she does, “Though I suppose it’s what I’m reading that matters.” Absolutely. The foreign books often seen in her hands are fascinating to say the least, but they aren’t very helpful in his classes...Not like the so-called revisionist ones. He might get a great substitute for a potion ingredient, or pronunciation help, but he’s still not getting much from them...What is he missing? Why isn’t he reaching the same conclusions as she is on magical theory?

“Do you read for pleasure?” To know?

“That’s a part of it.”

“What’s another part of it? Hobby? Research? To look intelligent?”

Another pointed look, again with amusement in her eyes, in her lips, “It’s like this: If I were to tell you how to cast a certain spell...I tell you the incantation, the wand movement, and the intended effect...Would that be enough to know how the spell actually worked? How...best to maximize its potential?”

He’s greedy to hear more from her. Why does she want to know such things? To gain power? Triumph over others? Prove herself? “Perhaps not.”

She shakes her head, “I don’t think so. It can’t be that easy. I refuse to believe that. Otherwise, why doesn't everyone in charms class succeed immediately when learning a new spell?”

Because they're all idiots, obviously, “You want to learn why magic works, then?”

Of course, don’t you?”

He must confess, he had never truly thought of it that way. Magic is something to control. To submit to him. He could care less about the whys as long as it works.

His negative reply is regretted the moment he shook his head, she looks disappointed, but not surprised, “Why does magic even do as we say? Why doesn’t it always work one-hundred percent for everyone who is a witch, even children? Why should it matter if someone is trained in order to perform powerful magicks ‘properly’? What is proper magic?”

Does she want him to answer? He doesn’t know. Magic does because it’s a tool. And warlocks use it. It doesn’t work for people who don’t know how to use the tool. Proper magic is when exceptional wizards (like him) hold the tool. That’s how he sees it.

But he wants to look intelligent to her, so he leans further on the coffee table between them, looking intrigued, “Are you saying there’s better ways to utilize magic than how we’re being taught: a method tried and proven through centuries of notable witches?”

Yes.

If so, he would like to be first in line to try these new methods out.

“How Muggle.”

“They’re effective problem solvers.”

They’re also effective problem causers.

“I can see that.”

“Can you, though?” She has a right to ask him that, she’s heard more than enough talk from him about how stupid Muggles are, “Wizards in Europe used to relieve themselves in public and magick away the waste, did you know that?” He did not. The thought is horrendous and makes him shiver in disgust, but he can believe it, “Make a mess and throw it away, that’s the warlock way.” A sigh, “Imagine if the Muggles on this continent hadn’t adapted a proper waste system...No pipes in Hogwarts?” Filth.

“You don’t think wizards would have figured something out?”

“Not at all. Why would they? They’re so...content in their...their...”

“Obstinacy?”

“Does that mean pigheadedness?”

“Stubbornness.”

“Then yes. Obstinacy. They’re happy with mediocrity until someone they see as lesser finds something better. Leeches.”

The sharp bitterness in her voice is appetizing. It’s been too long since he’s seen her angry.

“The Romans had their aqueducts, and when they invaded Britain, they brought bathing with them, but once they were all gone, how fast do you figure wizards here were to return to the old ways? Did it take ten years? Two? A week? As fast as the Muggles?”

Muggle history, he confesses, is no longer a strong suit of his. He had once loved learning of conquerors and leaders in the classroom of the orphanage, but that was abandoned upon Dumbledore’s visit. Perhaps he was mistaken to do so.

“You know, even now I can hear jazz pass through highblooded circles. They’re taking it for their own. Making it seem like their idea. That they simply took it from clumsy black Muggle hands and made it better.” Ximena’s gentle hands tighten so hard, Tom can see them shake, “And really, isn’t that just the peak of pureblood culture?”

Tom would like to think that wizards hated and rejected everything Muggle, but the more Ximena speaks, the less easy it is to think so.

“I’m tired.” Her hand rubs her temple, “In one, two, three years, we’ll see gramophones in the shops at Diagon Alley, fixed to work in high magic areas. We’ll hear new witch vocalists harmonize over loud brass and stinging strings, singing about magic this and spells that, because that’s all they seem to sing about, is how they’re magic and different from the Muggle singers.” It is a rant that would sound better if it were ignited and fast, but coming from her exhausted form, it comes off as reluctant fact reading. The resigned announcing of surrender terms.

And Tom understands. When he left the Muggle world for this one, he wasn’t leaving a world of corruption and ugliness for a world of betterness and justice. He was leaving one lonely world for another.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

“I hate it too.”

She looks at him.

“I hate the sneers given to me when I tell people where I come from. Where I was raised. Even when I surpass them in class, in trials, in studies, they want to hold my Muggle upbringing against me. When I quote Muggle literature, they praise it for the wisdom and superb wording until I tell them who it was that wrote it. My notes in books are made fun of for using pencil, but I have Carrows, Flints, Yaxleys asking to borrow one when no one is looking. Sometimes, I want to tell them my blood status. That a filthy half-blood is their better in every way.”

His own voice is even and calm as he speaks his truth. It doesn’t take away from his own hatred of Muggles and their sins, but rather add onto it: Why couldn’t he escape his ties to the Muggle world here? Why must he be scrutinized over an upbringing he cannot help? Curse the filthy purebloods and their unattainable standards. For not realizing that one of their own was wallowing in a miserable orphanage surrounded by Muggles and not saving him.

“I didn’t think you’d understand.” Is that relief in her voice? “--I thought by now they might have brainwashed you.” They. The purebloods. They’ve influenced his thinking more than anyone else (other than, perhaps, Ximena, if he were being honest).

Her magic is pulsating vibrantly like a drum.

“I thought maybe you were just humoring me on my ideas about dark and light magic...About everything else too.”

It occurs to Tom, that she is now sharing something awfully private with him. Evening the playing field. He holds fast to her words.

“I...People here come and go from me. Never linger. And that is fine. I like that.” I am better in darkness. “My ideas aren’t taken seriously, I’m seen as an amusing little curiosity, and people don’t listen to me. Not really.”

But he’s different. Of course he is. Only he really listens to her and what she has to say. To share and teach. Only he’s smart enough to see her worth.

“You’ve given me hope.”

He preens.

“Thank you.”

“--I wish you could come to Hogsmeade, there’s this ice cream parlor you would love, they have so many flavors...I’ll tell you what: we can go together next year, if you’d like.”

Nothing has ever sounded sweeter.

 

Chapter Text

The enlightening conversation held with Ximena is rich and impactful enough to stay within the forefront of his mind for hours (perhaps years) to come. Of course, at such a conversation, it’s natural for one to feel drained. Ximena bids her goodbye and retires early to bed, disappearing away to her dormitory, book in arms.

It is of course, then when he realizes he forgot to ask her about the summer. And misplacing him. Damn.

He drums his knuckles on the table. Ah well, they have the rest of the week. Of course. Why wouldn’t they?

-

The following days are surprisingly warm to the delight of the student body. Tom’s Herbology class is even given outside, and as the professor begins his long, drawn out speech about proper climate and soil types (all things he has already memorized during the break), his mind begins to daydream.

Whom will he partner up with? His usual pick seems to have found a friend to pair up with instead of him (what a fool, that friend’s head is full of dust), and the crop of his usual partners in classes are nowhere to be seen. Figures.

Tom steals a glance to a small cluster of classmates to his left: average bottom feeders and people content with mediocrity. Nothing special about them. Any of them would be ecstatic to have him as a partner, but he’d definitely be carrying the both of them. On the other hand, they wouldn’t disrespect his choices and authority in assignments unlike the highbloods competing for high grades.

The other boys in his year no longer send him curious, cautious, jealous glances. Now they do all that with a smidgen of respect. Their support is no longer just reserved for public performance, but also within the walls of their dormitory. Seats aren’t taken up by coats and books and bags so often when he’s present. He’s allowed to sit. Precious. Cute. As if he ever needed that permission from them. But it’s good to have. It’s another door. Another possibility.

And whatever possibility he chooses, he needs company to reflect the status that will come of it.

The girls in his year which he is already acquainted with are, as stated before, at a terrible disadvantage. Brilliant though they may be, they are of little help outside academics. A boy in his second year is expected to have himself pulled together and have a proper boys group his age. It was something his previous mentor wasn’t very helpful in (though he made up for it by introducing Tom to older students). No matter, he just has to focus on befriending more boys, rather than migrating his attention to varying places as he has been doing... Troublesome.

Evan is easy. They’ve exchanged pleasantries already. He asks questions about what Muggles are really like and chuckles along with him about their stupidities. It is a test, Tom knows, like the ones he was forced to undertake when he was suspected of being cruel to the other children at Wool’s. Like these tests, Tom knows how to cheat, and he knows what the practitioner wants to hear. Evan is comfortable where he is, socially and academically. He has no need or want to be angry at any political turmoil (like Nemesis) or stale status quo rules (like Hedwig). With Evan, Tom is a content bystander, happy with the sad state of wizard affairs.

Katux Lestrange is harder. More difficult than even Ian. He looks at Tom with hardened eyes and sneers when he thinks he’s not looking. It is only by the skin of his neck that he is not called mudblood by him (if it’s not his blood, it’s his speech, his accent, his secondhand clothes and books...A multitude of reasons to pick on him.) There were honest and good attempts at roughhousing from he and his group during those first few weeks at Hogwarts, but that stopped as soon as it was evident that Tom wasn’t going to let himself be shoved around by someone who looked like he only bathed twice a month (the hygiene standard for some wizards were horrendous, it’s why he had no trouble believing Ximena’s quip about their waste.) After flicking them off like the annoying louses they are, he simply turned on the charm. Showed them just how merciful and forgiving he could be. After all, he’d been through worse at the hands of Muggles, and the lame bullying from Katux and his friends was laughable. Something a toddler might attempt when they were mad at a strict guardian: tripping him in the halls, jinxing his legs, switching out his food, making fun of his (fake) crush...This was the best they could come up with? Hilarious. When Tom was done proving himself to them, he left marks. On their skin and their mind. At the orphanage, he could only get away with things that were subtle. But here in the security of Slytherin house, where you were expected to not air out your dirty laundry, it is much easier to get away with nastier things. The other boys won’t tell, it’d be too embarrassing for them. And Tom certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone: these boys were beneath him. Not worth mentioning to even Hedwig or Ximena. He doesn’t need anyone’s pity.

Nowanddays, Katux leaves Tom to his own devices unless he needs to interact with him, only occasionally frowning when Tom inevitably steals the spotlight in class. He’ll happily group up with him for assignments and put on a whole show for the teachers because deep down, he knows that a little no-name orphan is gaining footing over him. The last time he tried to do anything was when Tom found a dead (and hexed) rat in his bed near the end of last year. Childish. They learned how to spot these elementary little traps the first week of DADA. Couldn’t the heir to a mighty house do better? Pathetic. Maybe when his pride wains down to where it should be, he’ll buck up and genuinely ask Tom for help with homework, like Dion Mulcipher has: over the summer, as a matter of fact; an elegant owl with coal black feathers had perched neatly on the back gates of the orphanage where Tom was playing, envelope in his beak. Inside was a roundabout letter asking for personal help. A hand. It was one of the better days of the summer.

Dion is much less annoying than Katux, and a lot more cheerier. Eager to please. A follower. A sheep. It makes Tom see him as pathetic, but also in a preferable light. He was the easiest to charm of the boys last year, and the easiest to manipulate into sharing secrets. He followed alongside Katux like a dog the entire first year, and Tom’s sure by the end of this year, he’ll be following behind him instead. Dion knows his place in life. Katux and the rest need to be taught.

Unfortunately, there is no one else willing to put these brats in their place. Fortunately Tom is here.

Year one was spent on laying groundwork. Exploring his options. Inserting himself into high-bred spaces. Now, year two must be spent on building his inner circle, as his old guide called it. The people which will grow to become his right and left hand men. He has to be sure they’re fit. That they aren’t inadequate in anything they do or are involved in. In society, politics, and…

He frowns. Damn Hedwig for being born a girl. She’d be more than useful. Even Nemesis (with or without her little crush) is better than both Katux and Dion combined. His theory is that both Hedwig and Nemesis feel as if they have more to prove thanks to their gender, but deep down, Tom knows that Katux and Dion are spoiled imbeciles. Maybe he could convince them (and the rest) that talented, pureblooded girls were worthwhile outside of their marriageability. They wouldn’t breach the boys group, surely, but they could be...kept around. Women can’t be knights, but they could be warriors, right?

As for Ximena, she doesn’t count. She is only a year ahead of him, sure, but even if she wasn’t (and he wishes she wasn’t at least twice in as many weeks), he doesn’t think she would be a right fit within his inner circle like the others. She’s too tolerant. Different. Evan and the rest might excuse and even welcome the first two girls, but Ximena? Another no-name nobody with the added fault of being foreign, dark skinned, and a girl? He can imagine the opposition now. He remembers the first few weeks here. He always will.

Dark and savage, I bet she never speaks because she doesn’t know how to. That was muttered by Druella herself, and Tom always found that strange ever since he witnessed her being in the same classroom as Ximena. Surely she’d have heard her speak at least once. But the confusion slowly went away as he realised that the Ravenclaw’s distaste had no rhyme or reason. She was merely talking out of her ass. Idiot. If she were going to try and talk badly about Ximena, she could at least go through the effort to observe enough to know what the fuck she was talking about. Criticize legitimate things like her forgetfulness and agonizing need to only half-explain things.

No, Ximena would have to prove herself. Just as he has been doing.

This, he assumes, will be as easy and as natural as breathing, despite her adversity to attention. He knows she’s a skilled witch, and he’s never wrong (well, almost never wrong), and it’s only right that she show lessers just how special she is. Put others in their place, the same way he does. She’ll have to grow thorns, and prove that she has a right to walk among the elite--To step on the elite.

There has to be another happening like the Duel from last year. And this time, she will not be allowed to wait it out.

He realises, of course, that this means sharing her attention and time again with people who didn’t deserve it. But he can curve that attention easily now--Their talk yesterday meant something. A strange sort of camaraderie. An alliance. He has sway. Not just with her but also with the better part (the better half) of Slytherin House. This time he won’t be shoved away into the background, he’ll remain right nearby as he should be. She’ll remain right nearby as she should be.

His mouth draws into a thin line. It would be difficult, but it will be done. He has to be sure of it. You don’t get anywhere in this world without hardwork and other people to hand you things. He just has to twist an arm or six.

Highbloods are, unfortunately, resistant to change. It’s why it’s taken him so long to fully get both Katux and Dion in his back pocket.

It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, when Evan comes at his side after the lecture, clay pot in his gloved hands. The boy asks if Tom had any partner in mind yet in a way that tells him that he already knows the answer. So be it.

Tom nods once, accepting the offer, and so Evan Rosier steps into his court.

-

Tom Riddle is a planner.

He, like many other children his age, has had his share of eruptions. Of overflowing emotions that get the better of him. But he is still a planner. Sometimes those plans are improvised or served up short noticed, but he is a planner.

Before him, there’s a good handful of notes copied from the book of curses that Ximena lent him all those months ago, including scribblings from the book of dream interpretation and the memoir from the seer. Atop the open, blank book is the bracelet, sitting pretty as if it wasn’t the cause of his torment and curiosity for the past year.

Tom has a plan but he doesn’t know what it is yet. Which is to say: he doesn’t have a plan at all and is just buying time. To pawn the bracelet on another or pretend that he found it (which, technically, he did) and give it back to her in a heroic gesture? The former, of course, sounds like too much work to plan out, he has better ways of dividing his time, but it would serve as a nice way to put down some of the prissy students that still haven’t gotten over his unknown blood status. Maybe Ximena would curse them if he framed them? How delightful.

The idea of giving it back as if he was the one who found it (again, he technically did find it and did not at all steal it) isn’t as ideal (there’s no two birds with one stone outcome that he can think of), but it’s easier. Would help solidify whatever trust he’s built up with her. Maybe she’ll even tell him why she looked so ashamed over the topic of her wand. Maybe she’ll let him hold it.

Hmm. A long shot. Still nice to think about.

The third option that he wishes was a viable one is to keep the bracelet, of course, but he’s long concluded (rather slowly over a long matter of months) that that wasn’t a good idea. The first nightmare inside the Hogwarts/Wool’s hybrid was only the start of a series of confusing, disorienting, and perturbing dreams for him--Though none of them ever gave him that same feeling as the first. They didn’t need to. They were only reminders. Reminders of what is happening around him. Of what could happen to him.

Curses are about prolonged suffering. Dreams are just dreams in the end.

Alongside the hesitance to give up such a mysterious magical object is the acute fear that she would be able to sense his lingering magic on the bracelet--Just as he had been able to sense hers (eventually), woven into the threads. Asking if there’s anyway to erase your magical trace from personal items is a red flag if he’s ever heard one, no matter whom he asks. Only guilty people want to know that. People who are hiding something.

He’s not going to be treated like a thief again. Not if he can help it.

The hour chimes and he gathers his materials neatly to head for Herbology. It’s been a week since his last long talk with Ximena, and in the usual fashion (it’s only become usual in recent times…), he hasn’t been able to catch a real conversation with her. A part of him blames Adam, and another part blames not knowing her schedule yet. He likes to blame Adam more. For reasons.

There is also, of course: Mali. Ximena’s Puff is seen with her so often, the students with lower counts of brain cells have taken to thinking they’re siblings--A thought so stupid as it is prejudiced: Mali has a clear ancestry, and Ximena does not. There is also the very obvious detail that the two look nothing alike. Mali is average height and full figured--Well fed. Tawny skin and straight black hair. Ximena is the tallest witch in third year--and possibly fourth and fifth year. She’s as slim as a stick (though more noticeably so at the beginning of the year) and has hair curls rivaling Zabini’s. To think that the two are as closely related as sisters is equal to thinking Hedwig and he are twins.

Of course, when he voices these observations, he is brushed off: of course the two dark skinned girls who are always together are related, his eyes are just funny.

Idiots.

Sometimes he takes to sitting at their table when they’re together, but he doesn’t like that so much because Ximena very clearly and obviously favors the attention and company of Mali, and to his extreme displeasure, he doesn’t blame her: Mali is a fountain of information much in the same vein that Yami is. Why would Ximena ask a little second year a question he probably doesn’t know anything about (but also has a really really good chance at knowing because Tom knows he’s brilliant), when she could turn around and ask the experienced, older, wiser witch from a distant land? One much closer to the one she calls home?

He still sits at the table, of course, because he has a right to: he’s a Slytherin, sitting along his (one) fellow Slytherin. It doesn’t hurt that Mali will occasionally indulge his own curiosity on summonings and related matter. She does not, to mild yet unsurprising displeasure, bond with him as a Puff should their snake. He expected this: when Ximena asks a specific question about a casting or incantation, Mali speaks in a low voice close to her ear: because it is a magic that is not for him.

Tom’s barely spoken to anyone in Hufflepuff house save for Elle (whom he suspects will withdraw from Hogwarts any day now) and a handful of Nemesis’ siblings (who are remarkably less talented than their youngest sister). The Puff he wants out of the bunch is Elle: though meek and a little anxious for his tastes, she’s not annoying, and has a fascinating (albeit fantasy-like) view of magicks. A view of magicks similar enough to Ximena. She has a soft reputation and image that could help him gain an upper hand with some of the less prestigious houses in Hufflepuff. The Puff he should probably try and get is a Fawley: rich, well connected, and knowledgeable. The three he’s spoken formally to are all rather good-hearted, noble witches, and really that doesn’t bode well for their survival in a post-Hector Fawley world. Purebloods need to be thick skinned and ruthless to survive in these times.

Maybe he should try for two Puffs. Nothing wrong with being greedy.

He brings up the idea in the form of wanting advice to Evan once in class. They are becoming as thick as thieves, at least in the eyes of the people around him. Tom (and he suspects Evan does too on some level) knows that this is merely a relationship of benefits. Evan obviously has a lot to offer, and Tom? Well, it's obvious what he has in his arsenal.

“All the Fawleys in Hufflepuff are full of hot air.” He says, shaking his head, “Don’t know who Kowalzski or whatever is, but they’re certainly not a pureblood from Britain.”

Tom hums, listening intently, growing curious, “What about the Fawley in Slytherin?”

“Nemesis Fawley? Naive. Raised and content to be a witchwife, I’m sure.” Evan yawns, trimming the leaves off his plant, “Our mothers were playmates as children, so I know her family well.”

He can’t say he disagrees. Nemesis seems the type to have loved playing with dollies and pretending house and dreaming about weddings. But her words on the Wizengamot--He can’t dismiss them. There’s a spark there. A spark he can grow into a roaring flame, “How are they coping?”

His partner rolls his eyes, “Hector Fawley’s resignation knocked a good few of them down, thank Salazar.” Evan’s words feel rehearsed. As if he were repeating phrases heard from his parents, “Maybe now a few good bills will pass and we can finally ban half-bloods from Hogwarts.”

Hm.

“Half-bloods?” He’s heard more than enough greif about them, but mostly the purebloods are stuck on squibs and mudbloods.

“Filthy creatures. Only a handful are able to justify their existence.” Evan glances at him, calculating, “Renounce your Muggle heritage, for starters.”

“Seems fair.”

More than fair.”

Tom would renounce his in a heartbeat, if it didn’t mean admitting to it. He still has no proof, maybe his cursed mother was a witch, but she was just pitifully weak and that’s why his father rightfully left--

“What kind of name is Riddle, anyways?” This is why they could never actually, truly be as thick as thieves: provenance is too important to Evan and his kind. Well, for that reason and others: Tom doesn’t need friends. Not like the kind that others have. He needs friends of his own definition: loyal, obedient, and malleable. Not friends who are caring, or loving. That’s a waste of a relationship.

He doesn’t lose his composure. He continues tending to his plant, “It’s a last name.” Evan chuckles. “Could have some roots in France--I haven’t seen it anywhere else in Britain.” I haven’t seen it in Muggle spaces.

“You’d be a true foul git, then.” Indeed. He’d have to learn French.

“I never thought you would be patriotic.” This is the truth--He expects Evan to be nationalistic. Do the English hate the French again? He missed the memo. But maybe wizards are just behind on the times again. Wouldn’t be surprised.

“Britain first, Tom.”

The professor interjects as they walk by, interrupting to praise Tom’s work. He smiles.

-

In his time at Hogwarts, he has developed a couple of habits and tendencies that he is not proud of. The main ones are as follows:

One: his social skills. Oh sure, they were much improved, and growing second to none, but hell if he doesn’t internally gag every time he has to pretend to warmly greet a rude classmate or entitled pureblood. If his ten year old self could see him now, he would be both impressed and disgusted.

Two: This habit is entirely redacted, because it’s something he still is not entirely aware of, and it is something he does not at all want to admit to himself or anyone ever. Mind your business.

Three: his impulsivity. He’s a growing boy, and he needs to learn to control his impulses better. To reign in his anger or shock or excitement. Because tantrums here can’t be brushed off by explanations like ‘freak accident’ or ‘just the wind’ or ‘hysteria’. Because in those few seconds of impulsivity, he gives a brief way of insight to his real self. The one he’s been trying to fix and hide and reinvent since Dumbledore first told him about Hogwarts.

It is this impulsivity that causes him to charge directly at Ximena the next time he sees her alone.

He pins her down (figuratively, of course, she’s much taller than him, and he’s still suffering from underfeeding at the orphanage) in the corridor outside of Potions.

“Oh.” She’s surprised to see him, but the tone of voice isn’t one he hates. She recognises him. Acknowledges him.

“Long time, no see.” His voice is surprisingly casual for his currently mood.

“Ah. Yes.” She scratches the back of her neck, sheepish, “I meant to speak with you again, but time got away from me. Third year is really when the difficulty level raises.” This means much coming from her. It makes him thirst for next year.

“It’s alright. As long as you don’t forget me again.” A low blow, but he doesn’t want to waste time.

The slight flinch in her face tells him the punch landed, “I promise this time that that is not the case.” Good. “All I can really spare of my time right now is at meal times.”

Meal times where her time wasn’t all his own anymore, “I know. I understand. I don’t mind!” Lie. “Mali is great to listen to--So much to learn, and so little time.” Not a lie.

This seems to lighten the mood. Her posture relaxes, “I knew you’d like what she has to say...She calls me her little viper.” How...cute? Quaint? “Don’t mind what she doesn’t share with you, if she had a problem with you sitting in on our talks, she would have said so by now.” That he already knows. Druella is still afraid of the Native witch.

Tom nods, making sure to look shy but determined, “Do you thi--”

Nemesis exits the classroom briskly and bumps straight into Tom.

It is not a full on collision (he saw her out of the corner of his eye last minute and thankfully was quick thinking enough to step aside) but it’s enough to make him deeply annoyed. The feel of Nemesis’ soft magic was strange and sudden. Overstimulating.

“Oh I’m so sorry--Oh, aren’t you two little chatterbugs cozy?” Nemesis acknowledges them both with carefully neutrality, “Lane, Tom...Gossiping about little Flint’s new look?”

“I was talking about Mali: my Puff.”

“Just asking some questions, is all.” What timing, Nemesis, “Wondering if I’ll get a Puff.”

“Oh, I’ve dreamt of my snake ever since I was little, but I think a part of me always knew that I would have a Puff instead--”

His mind wanders--He can’t help it, Nemesis’ voice is just so bland sometimes, it fits so nicely and perfectly in the back of his mind while he thinks on other, more important things. Like the start of Dueling Club on Thursday.

Ximena has indeed stayed out of the spotlight using whatever grand methods of hers, but she will not escape this. She will volunteer herself, or else be volunteered. Against him. In a duel.

It won’t be immediately at the first meeting, of course, he still has a few things to check and plan, but it’ll be...soon. Ish. He’d like some practical experience first (lest his arrogance grow to insurmountable heights), especially because he’s sure that Willow wouldn’t let him duel against someone older than him unless he prove himself first.

All he has to do is make sure Ximena arrives late. Which is something he’s still trying to plan and figure out. She is either as punctual as a Swiss watch, or she just doesn’t show up to Dueling Club at all. He’s read on different spells and potions that alter the victim’s perception of time, and while that seems the safest way, it’s also the hardest one: gathering ingredients for a potion that he could be expelled for using on another student isn’t exactly something he should be spending time on. As for the spell, he cannot find the incantation written in any book (smart authors), and he hasn’t been able to swing by the sections restricted to those in his age bracket.

Option two is easier. Though more can go wrong: he can distract Ximena well enough on the way to the meeting that she miss the cut off time by just a few seconds. Perhaps that would be an opportune time to reveal some carefully scripted babble about the location of the bracelet? He can see the stumble in her step now. The look of shock and hope on her face. The utter feeling of gratitude. All come before the dread and anxiety of realizing that they had walked into the hall late.

Oh that attention she’ll bring: someone as non-confrontational, punctual, and unassuming as his classmate walking in late as if she had all the time in the world? With him walking beside her? It would be like arriving to one of Slughorn’s parties dressed to the nines without an invitation! Unheard of! No student would dare!

Then of course, there is Adam: who has established himself as someone who always does such a grand job of showing up unannounced. Such as in about seven seconds.

“...and--Oh, your nose!”

Tom’s fingers reach to see what she could be talking about (what could have been the miraculous thing that took her out of her rambling), and they touch wetness. Come away with blood. Bugger. He hasn’t had a nosebleed in a while.

“I can fix that,” Nemesis is quick to point her wand at him, and he would happily let her conduct whatever spell it was she has planned, if it wasn’t for the unsure look Ximena cast her way. Did she doubt her ability?

“--It’s fine.” He holds out his hand firmly, stopping the spell, “I’m fine. Thank you. I’m used to them. I just need some tissues,”

Ximena ruffles through her bag to presumably hand him something to stop the nosebleed with, but is interrupted by that terrible, loud, booming American voice.

“Oh golly, Tom, you’ve got yourself a massacre in your nose?”

He did not give him permission to call him by his first name, seniority be damned. He does not vocalize this, of course, he merely blinks in shock at Adam’s sudden appearance, and more so when he brings out a clean, white handkerchief from a pocket, “Here, I get ‘em all the time. Mama says I have enough blood to stock my own blood bank.” How gruesome.

Hesitantly, Tom takes the offering from the Yank’s hands, pressing it to his bleeding nose, “Thank you, Miller.”

“Don’t mention it, you look like the floodgates were opened up there. Dry air, am I right?”

The blood was starting to drip down his chin. Damn. Tom tries for a little chuckle.

“Miller! Right in the nick of time, how heroic.” Nemesis quips, eyeing the tall, sixth year boy.

He rubs the back of his neck, “Me? Heroic? Gosh. You sound like my mama.” Tom refrains the urge to roll his eyes. “I was just passing by, the common room was getting a little overheated. Something about a debate, I think. They've been going at it for three hours now.” Something obnoxious, probably.

“Glad you’ve joined us.” Nemesis speaks for herself (and maybe Ximena, unfortunately).

That ridiculously beautiful smile again, “Happy to be here! You cats are alright.” A glance at Ximena, “Did it work, by the way?”

“Ah, um, yes. It did. Thank you.” She clears her throat.

“Happy to help.”

It’s during these times, he’s happy that being nosy while also being a young boy is excusable, “Everything alright?”

“Should be! ‘Mena’s just having trouble with some Divination assignment, so I chipped in my two knuts.”

“You take Divination, Miller?”

“Sure do. Pretty good at it, if I do say so myself.”

Was that what they talked about at Hogsmeade? Figures Ximena would ask about academia. One of the houses she could have been in was probably Ravenclaw, if any. But what they talked about (regarding academics, anyways) isn't important. What interests him is that she's having trouble in any subject.

“Scrying is often difficult, so I appreciate the help, of course...I’m much better with palms, though that’s not really the same.”

“Yeah? Could you read mine?” Adam extends his hand out expectantly, palm up.

Oh there was that dreaded stain of red on her cheeks again. If her skin wasn’t dark, she’d look like a piece of hard candy.

Forever passes by. Ximena clears her throat and carefully takes Adam’s hand in hers before pressing down her index and middle finger in the center of his palm, “Oh.

Tom tenses.

“I, um.” She licks her lips, a small gulp, her fingers move, “You have many friends, and few enemies. You’re honorable. Affectionate.” Tom can practically feel the burn on her face from here, “You-you, you’d...” Her lips press together, “I can tell you’ve never held hands with a girl before this.”

Adam smiles, “That’s amazing, Ximena.” Oh for fuck’s sake.

Tom wishes that Hedwig were here so he could eagerly await what lovely thing she had to say to break the mood, but Nemesis speaks instead, “She’s the first girl you’ve held hands with? How romantic!” Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s not romantic, it’s weird! She’s too young for him--

Ximena sputters out something that sounds like English, but got lost on the way out of her mouth. Adam laughs, the perfect picture of boyishness, “You think so? I wouldn’t know about that stuff. I think it’s a bit sad if she’s the first girl I’ve held hands with.”

“I don’t, I don’t know, um, about about that uh, either--” Ximena’s hands stiffen as if she were holding a mole instead of Adams hand.

"You're just a late bloomer." Nemesis claims. Tom resists the urge to roll his eyes.

"I guess you could say that." A chuckle out of the older boy, he finally takes back his hand and turns his attention back to Ximena, “Can you read tarot cards, ‘Mena? My sister taught me, maybe I can read yours?”

Ximena shakes her head, and Nemesis coughs suddenly, as if a fly flew into her mouth, “Your Muggle sister knows how to read tarot?”

“Oh yeah, lots of Muggles can.”

She looks flummoxed. As if a fundamental truth in her life was just proven wrong. Tom didn’t think wizards knew what tarot was.

“Wizards use tarot cards?” Tom's voice breaking the silence feels strange after going so long without saying anything. He can feel the dried blood on his lips crust and crack with the movement.

“They are...temperamental and notoriously difficult to decipher, but yes.” Nemesis clears her throat, and her discomfort is so evident on her face that Tom wonders if she’s going to skew her face that way permanently, “Could you...could you teach me? There’s not a lot of wizards here that know how to do it properly.”

If there was anything revolutionary about Nemesis asking a Muggleborn for help in magic, Adam doesn’t show any sign of noticing. His smile is consistent and bright, “Sure!”

Tom tosses a quick look at Ximena for any signs of jealousy. He finds none. She is as reserved as always, hands folded in front of her, lips in a thin line. Thinking. That makes sense, it would be silly to be jealous over a sixteen year old boy giving lessons to a twelve year old.

Ximena’s throat clears, “I thank you for your offer, but no. I’m fine.” Her hands fold neatly in front of her, “Tarot cards don’t like me.”

“Ahh, got a history?”

Tom raises a brow, glancing at his schoolmate.

“Mm. Something like that.”

“Are you cursed, Lane?” When the question leaves Nemesis’ lips, he can see the corners of Ximena’s frown.

“Whoa there, that’s a bit personal ain’t it?” Adam intervenes, hand out, sounding a little uneasy. Nemesis blinks her response.

“Is it? It’s just a question, are you not allowed to talk about curses in polite company back in the States?”

Lord in heaven, no.” He’s aghast, “You can ask people if they’ve got curses on them, but it’s bad manners to ask whether you’re on the side of a fascist or not?”

Nemesis looks uncomfortable again, just as she did the other day in the library, “The climate here about that is...It’s complicated right now. It's just customary not to talk about it...Didn't anyone tell you?”

“I know as much about magic politics as a dog knows about kettle corn.”

A blink. Adam laughs, elaborating, “I don’t know anything about the history or process, but I sure do consume it.” A fair enough comparison, if not...stupid.

“They don’t teach you that sort of thing?” Nemesis asks.

“I mean, not like y’all here, I guess.” He scratches the back of his neck, “Heck, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about people’s family lines, fortunes, and histories in the last three hours, if I’m being honest with you.” This catches Tom’s attention: apparently Gryffindors can be just as prideful about magical heritage as Slytherins. “Is that just a highblood thing?”

“Well--Yes, I suppose it is.” Nemesis folds her arms over her torso, “Every pureblood heir in Britain is supposed to read this manifesto of sorts, I’m not allowed to know the name of it, being, well, the seventh daughter.” She sighs, part bitter, part resigned, “From what my eldest sister was allowed to tell me, it lays out...rules. Family lines. History. It’s why it’s so hard to argue with so many of them, they have every date and name ingrained in their memory like their own mother’s face.”

“Even families like the Weasleys read it?” Tom speaks up, hooked onto Nemesis’ words.

“They’re supposed to, being one of the oldest and purest houses, but no. If what I overhear during parties is true, then no self respecting Weasley would ever be caught dead with that book in their house. Heir or no.”

Tom knows Ximena enough to recognise the contempt in her face. She loathes the idea of grooming children like that, obviously. As for Adam, it looks as if he’s taking Nemesis’ words seriously.

“That’s so...so…” Effective? Useful? Pragmatic? “All you highbloods are such wet blankets.” Ah. “Can’t you let your kids be kids?”

Nemesis blinks, “What do you mean?”

“Don’t y’all play? Sports or board games or something?”

“There’s Wizard’s Chess and Gobstones, if that’s what you mean.”

It isn’t, if the look on Adam’s face is anything to go by, “Real games. Not stuff adults play.” He sighs, gesturing to Ximena, “What’s that game you said you liked? Pirates or something?"

"--Buccaneer."

The name rings a bell for Tom: he's seen it on display at a few department stores on the way to church back in London. A board game, if he's correct. A few of the orphans talked about pooling their money to purchase the game last year, but Tom wasn't interested in those things anymore.

"Yeah yeah, that one: there's no strategy to it. No war parallels or skill involved, it's just...chance. Just colorful, stupid fun. Don’t y’all have stupid fun? Or is every one of you trained to be a little politician by the time you’re eight years old?"

Nemesis frowns, feeling cornered, like there's too damn much to explain to him, "That's a mixed bag."

Adam sighs, like maybe he feels he’s gone a little too far, or like he’s afraid he hurt Nemesis’ feelings, “I mean...and don’t take this the wrong way or anything...The way things are in your little Wizengamot, I’m not surprised at the state of it all.“

This statement has little effect on Tom, or even Ximena (whom Tom is positive agrees with Adam), but Tom can tell that the words seize Nemesis like a cruel grip on her throat.

The older boy reaches over to cover Nemesis’ hand with his and squeezes, “Don’t lose sight of what’s important.” He lets go, turning towards Ximena and Tom, “See ya, pals.”

As he walks off into the corridor, a pair makes their appearance: Evan and Hedwig stroll up with timing a little too perfect, eyes narrowing at Adam’s back.

“The fuck was that about?”

Ximena chuffs. Hedwig eyes her as if she had insulted her grandmother. Evan greets them all neutrally.

“We were just talking.” Nemesis mangages to say, sounding contemplative.

“Aye, talking, that’s what me n’ Rosier were hearing.”

Tom raises a brow, “Eavesdropping, Hedwig? That’s not like you.”

“Sod off, Tom.”

Evan clears his throat, “Merely concerned over our fellow Slytherins mingling with a...Gryffindor.”

Ximena’s lips form a thin line. This conversation is not going to a very nice place at all. She excuses herself silently, shuffling through Hedwig and Evan.

“Something I said?” Evan knows better, and his voice shows it. His little grin shows it.

“Forget Lane, she’s blinded by love.” Hedwig scowls at Nemesis, who is looking more and more like a mouse by the second, “What the fuck was that talk all about.

“Nothing. It was nothing.”

“Certainly didn’t seem like nothing.” Evan’s stance is vulture-like, “New American mudblood criticizing the traditions of his betters?”

“What in Merlin’s balls were you thinking telling him about the bloody book? It’s illegal to have it! He could go off talking about it to fecking Dumbledore!”

“It’s not illegal to have, just to make copies of!” Nemesis bites back, sounding like a mouse equipped with a sword, “He wasn’t being insulting or anything--”

“That’s not what we heard.” Evan interrupts, eyeing Nemesis up and down in a way that reminded Tom of the way distrusting adults would eye him back at Wool’s.

“Well you heard wrong, then. We were just having friendly conversation, he’s really very nice--”

“--Fawley, for fuck’s sake, stop fraternizing with him! You’re already at the bottom of the rung here!” Hedwig scolds as Nemesis cowers only in the slightest, “It’s bad enough that Lane fancies him, but now you’re asking him for help?” That’s...a bit hypocritical, isn’t it? ”What’s next, are we going to let him into the bloody Slytherin common room now?”

“--I am not above asking for help from someone who knows what they are doing.” She maintains eye contact with Hedwig, “And neither should you.” Bold. Interesting. Is Hedwig’s potions tutoring finally stirring up trouble?

“Ya, but from a mudblood? At least ask a half-blood, for fuck’s sake.”

The slimmer witch turns her head up and away, refusing to argue further.

And you,” She points at Tom, who looks not dumb at all in shock at her accusation, “Letting Lane go about flouncing after him! Never thought ya for a passive snake.”

Tom blinks, “..I’m not her keeper.”

“How very modern of you.” A monumental eye roll, “If you had man’d up and told her ya fancied her, she wouldn’t be trailing after him like he was the best thing since sliced fairy-bread. Shit, I bet you can’t even tell me a single personal fact about her!”

Evan raises a brow crossing his arms, “Didn’t realize this was going to be a war council meeting on how to phase the Yank out of the life of our fellow Slytherin.” Must have only thought it be a ‘war council’ meeting on berating Nemesis and speaking ill of the Yank.

Tom feels a headache coming on. Hedwig takes his silence badly.

“All this time, and you can’t even tell me her favorite color? What music she likes? Her baptismal name?”

Tom scowls, annoyed with her criticism, “How do you know what a baptismal name is?” Or what Christianity is, for that matter.

Hedwig scoffs, “I read.” Liar. But he won’t call her on that.

“What do those things matter?”

“Really, it’s no wonder she likes that bugger Yank so much over you, they actually talk about themselves instead of just academia.”

Tom takes extreme offense to that: he’s obviously still (still?) Ximena’s preferred person to speak to...obviously, he’s the closest thing she has to a friend. A best friend. Surely. And they talk about personal things! Deep things…Beyond that sort of surface level nonsense. That’s more important, right? What they spoke about in the common room is infinitely more intimate than things friends talk about.

Nemesis clears her throat, braver now that the heat was off of her, “I know...as a boy, things like favorite color or food or even just tastes in clothing is silly, but,” Her fingers fiddle together nervously, “that sort of thing is noticed by girls. We like it.

He glances at Evan for confirmation, but he only shrugs helplessly (honestly, what was he expecting), “Druella goes mad whenever Cygnus notices her new earrings.”

“It’s not about great grand gestures.” Hedwig nods, “It’s repeated acts. Mum gets on the pig’s back[1] when Dad brings home her favorite flowers.”

This information is, of course, contrary to everything he’s ever noted or learned about affection. Is he out of touch?

“Perhaps it’s just not meant to be?” Nemesis offers, fingers lacing together, looking adequately and gently apologetic.

Hedwig snorts, muttering something under her breath that might have been ‘ya, you’d like that--’, but he ignores it.

“Regardless of Riddle’s little...affliction, I do believe keeping the American mudblood around can only bring discord to the school.” Evan cuts in before Tom has a chance to defend himself against Nemesis (he doesn’t have a crush, dammit), “Not to mention that Mali girl...Sitting all the time at our tables? Puff or no, it’s not a good look. A Gryffindor thought it was alright to sit next to me and Katux the other day. It was horrid.”

At this, Tom tilts his head, “Were they Muggleborn?”

Merlin no, but soon they might be.”

“Afraid of a few mudbloods, Rosier?” Hedwig teases.

“Hardly. I just want them to know their place. We can’t all be as tolerant as you.”

Hedwig? Tolerant? Has he heard her speeches?

“It’s called being fucking polite, you stupid plonker. Were you raised in a barn, or have you always been a daft cow?”

Evan chuckles at Hedwig as Nemesis looks uncomfortable.

“I like Lane. She keeps out of the way and knows when to shut up. I’d hate for that to change thanks to the mudblood’s influence.” Evan declares, resting his chin on his knuckles, “Better to stop the leak while it’s still a leak, right? Before the flood happens?”

“--Can this diabolical plan happen after he teaches me Tarot?” Nemesis pipes up, hopeful and pleading.

“Oh shut it, Fawley, just have Dmitrieva owl her cousin for lessons.”

“I actually agree with Fawley on this.” Evan declares, glancing at Tom to see if he would catch on to what he was going to say, “Milking out all the information from him before any plans to ostracize would be ideal, as disrespectful as he is.”

“Come on, Rosier, information from a mudblood?”

“...I hear his mother is the scion of a powerful family.” Tom speaks up, chin raised, “A squib of a squib, perhaps? I’m sure he knows more than his...demeanor lets on.” More than once, people have said Adam was an idiot, but Tom’s yet to see any real proof.

Hedwig looks at him in disbelief, but Evan smiles approvingly, “I knew you were smart, Riddle. Katux owes me five sickles.”

“I’m surprised Katux had enough brainpower to know what a proper bet was.” He counters quickly, hiding the grimace at the thought of someone speaking down about him. He’ll have to put Katux in his place again soon…

“Well his parents are cousins, so you’d be correct.” Hedwig sneers.

“Tsk tsk, Acwellan, half of all pureblood houses have married cousins.” Evan’s tone isn’t disgusted, but it certainly isn’t offended. Tom suspects he’s just keeping up appearances. It’s an answer fed to him by parents meant to be repeated, he’s sure. Just like everything else that comes out of his mouth.

“Ya, maybe with you disgusting Brits, but certainly not with us.”

Oh, Tom can see the flare in Nemesis’ eyes at that, but as she opens her mouth, Evan secures a hand on her shoulder firmly and pushes her down, “Now now, my dear grandmother is Irish, as a matter of fact--Not that you needed reminding.”

Hedwig flinches, grimacing. Hm. He’ll ask her about that later.

“I thought we were past fighting about Irish or British citizenship.” Nemesis holds her chin up high, throwing a half-hearted glare at Evan, “My family worked to keep the divide strictly within Muggle borders, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, we know all about your family, Fawley.” Hedwig brushes her off, no doubt wanting nothing more than for her to stop talking, “But back to the point--

“We will keep the houses from mingling, yes?”

“Interrupt me one more fucking time, Rosier, I fucking dare you--”

Tom tunes them both out.

Houses uniting...This was wanted. To be able to slip past the barriers that others couldn’t get through. Reach out to people in other houses and now...Well, it’s not backfiring exactly, but it’s not going as smoothly as expected. What were Evan and Hedwig even really angry about? Hedwig cares not for race nor house, but blood is important. Evan is tolerant of outside purebloods, but abhors the idea of letting a Gryffindor sit down beside him at lunch. What the hell is the damn problem?

He rubs his temple, headache growing steadily. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Tom feels he’s performing a balancing act, where one action must counter the last. Where everyone has to be happy. This is, of course, absurd, not everyone can be happy at the same time about the same situation. But that doesn’t mean he can’t force happiness on them. Make them content with what he gives them.

Lucretia and he will just have to try harder to make them see the light.

 

Chapter Text

Of the Dueling Club meetings that Tom is least fond of, he would have to say that the ones where little action happens take the cake. Meetings that talk about safety sanctions, updates to the British League rules, and reprimands to the more rowdy club members.

The type of meetings that are in second place are the ones where each and every  member pairs up with those in similar power levels and spar all across the hall--Mainly because Ximena always manages to be absent those days, but also because it’s more difficult to focus on the fights that he finds most intriguing.

That is, of course, until today. When he’s able to finally, finally participate.

The room is the same as it was last year, only a handful of new faces sprinkled around like weeds. What is entirely different is the air of the conversation when he enters the room.

Yes, there is the occasional ‘cute’ comment from an older student still, but most of the words leaving people’s mouths regarding him are of reverie. Admiration. He’s becoming the Golden Boy, just as he promised himself. They ask him if he’s excited to finally show his stuff, make Slytherin proud, join the official school team--They’re like reporters from The Daily Prophet. Witch Weekly. Magister Monthly. Frantic for an interview, a word, a glance in their direction.

He glows.

Willow walks in with her billowing robes fluttering grandiosity behind her, smiling at the students and greeting her favorites. When she speaks, she holds the entire hall’s attention--Even during the boring little tidbits of safety and sportsmanship. A true mark of a great witch. At the end of her introduction and welcome, new members line up in front of her messily. Eagerly. Tom is the only refined second year of the bunch, if it wasn’t for his height and young face, he’s sure he’d be mistaken for at least a fifth year. His permission slip (with an expertly forged signature) is handed to Willow without any fuss, though there was a hefty anti-forgery charm on it (disabled with some trouble, but still disabled, in the end).

The new members are given partners with whom to gauge their skills and knowledge with, while the rest are paired off to spar proper. Tom finds himself pleased to see that he’s up against another wizard older than him. Ximena wasn’t lying to him when she said that his reputation precedes him--Slughorn and Merrythought must have spoken to Willow beforehand. Good. Less time wasted on his part.

Tom has the sense to only appear humbly confident as he strolls up to his side of the small dueling oval (marked on the ground with chalk), stifling down his eager excitement into a locked compartment in his heart. Outside, he is a cool and controlled Slytherin boy, ready to face his first opponent. To prove himself.

His sparring partner has the gall to look assertive and sure of himself: Ian Rosier. His ugly face smiles at Tom as if he were doing him a great honor by speaking to him. Tom forces himself to take the other’s hand in greeting anyways.

They bow, waist deep (the other’s is shallower than his), and take out wands from their sleeves: poised and ready.

The elder boy strikes first, quick and elegant, just as Tom had observed the year before. It’s a simple stupify that he brushes off as if it were a mosquito. He’ll have to do better than that.

“Protego.” His little voice, fierce with authority, lashes out--And he internally cringes, because he doesn’t need to be fierce, he should try and look more effortless, right? As if this was nothing? Or should he really try to stick to the image of humility?

“Expelliarmus.”

Tom wants to huff--Ian is going easy on him...Fair enough if he were any other second year, but he’s not...What if he starts to goad him?

A counter spell, and Tom digs into the arsenal of material that Hedwig had given him so long ago, “Reducto.

The surge of power he feels extend from his wand is enough to give him goosepimples. The flinch and look of surprise from Ian is enough to send a satisfying chill up his spine.

Unfortunately, he manages to block it at the last second, gathering his bearings and eyeing Tom like he cheated or something, “Petrificus totalus.”

Yes, now he’s getting somewhere. Treat him like a real opponent, dammit.

Back and forth, they parry. Strike. Block. What thrill, what in his life could ever measure up to this? He’s a natural. Just as he knew he would be. Ian has nothing on him. Absolutely nothing. Repeating itself in his head was the sentence: Ximena wasn’t joking. When she said that Merrythought believed him to be better than those in her year...This was pathetic. All of Hogwarts was pathetic. Where were the standards? The level of skill that his haven deserved? All tucked away in just him and a handful of people?

The other spars in the room end quickly and begin anew--But his and Ian’ duel goes on. He knows he should stop while ahead, it’s only the wise thing to do: magical exhaustion is just so easy when you’re young.

But there’s a reason he’s not a falcon, isn’t there?

Why should he stop when he’s already so far ahead? So close to the sun? Why should he step away and speak to his senior about his posture or wandwork and Oh what else can I do to improve? What does Ian know, anyways? He’s barely holding up his own to someone with half his experience and seventy percent of his height.

Tom will stop when he does.

But people are starting to take notice. Tom’s focus is entirely on the fight, but his sensitive ears pick up little chatterings--’They’re still going?’ ‘Aren’t they tired?’ ‘Is Willow really allowing this?’ ‘That’s Slytherin’s not-mudblood, right?’. Yes, yes, talk about him. Create stories and legends in his name. Watch in awe at how young and gifted he is. This poor little orphan without a damn coin to his name. With the accent of a poor Londoner and the wardrobe of a beggar. Come and see how much better he is than your haughty lexicon and your miles of dragon leather and silk. How all the money and blood in the world can’t stop you from succumbing to under his heel.

Godric’s beard, Rosier, he might as well be a mudblood, and you still haven’t finished him off?”

The quip from the Gryffindor doesn’t sting Tom quite as much as it does Ian. His sparring partner snarls like some kind of dog at the recognition of his shortcoming, and begins to fire a spell he does not at all recognise.

Tom fires faster.

“Cruc--”

“Rictusempra.”

The push back is enough to cause a recoil on his end, and as Ian blasts back into a few students not enraptured by their duel, he howls in laughter. Pained, furious, loud laughter. Cackling like a mad man. He doesn’t stop. It’s enough to seriously disturb him...If he were some little baby, he means. So he’s not disturbed. At all.

Willow pushes past the onlookers, a look of absolute anger pointed at Ian. She demands he tell her what in the Founder’s names he was planning on casting on a second year student. What was he thinking? Does he want an express ticket straight to Azkaban?

The dueling instructor is so terrifyingly worked up that she doesn’t even register that Ian can’t respond. All he can do is laugh. Glare at Tom’s little smirk and laugh himself to exhaustion.

-

The halls buzz with scattered news on the war, Grindelwald, gossip, and his little triumph. Of course, the triumph is talked about as if it were Rosier’s misstep, but...

But they’re talking more about him, right? Not about Rosier, right?

Hedwig, as usual, doesn’t make him feel better, “You went against baby Rosier?” She’s cornered him in the main area of the common room, looking like she ran here from wherever her last class was.

“Yes, I won.”

“Ugh, I knew I should have skipped orientation I mean, fecking hell--I hear he tried to cast a bloody Unforgivable on you!”

“--A what?”

Hedwig rolls her eyes, “An Unforgivable, Tom, clean out your ears once in a while.”

He doesn’t know what a damn ‘unforgivable’ is, but apparently he’s supposed to--Something like insecurity pulls him away from asking Hedwig. Only a Muggleborn would ask what an unforgivable was. He’s not a Muggleborn. He’s not he’s not. He doesn’t have dirty blood.

“I couldn’t tell, all I know is that Willow was furious.”

“She stopped the fight?”

“Well no, I ended the fight, she only came afterwards.”

Hedwig scoffs, “Ya figures. I bet she was holding back from breaking the two of you off. Did the same with me and Lane last year, remember?”

He does, “It’s not like she’s entertained by it all, right? Students fighting?”

“Well she’s a sadist, I’m sure, you see what she does with Wood every week.” It’s Wood’s own fault that he’s late every week, but he understands, “She keeps her hands off duels, it’s a West African thing, I think. Their fights are to the death.”

“--To the death?”

“Ya, but she wouldn’t ever let it go that far, even if it was a Rosier fighting.” His clueless blink has her rolling her eyes, “You can’t just interrupt a duel that has a bloodline like that involved--There’s old laws about that. Centuries old. Even little clan brats like little Rosier are covered under it, and he’s not even the heir of his family.”

“Wouldn’t that just be for official duels? The sort fought for honor?”

“Old laws are vague on purpose, Tom.” She waves her hand, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was expelled, the idjit.” Hedwig shakes her head, “All that incest in his family line must have ruined any chances for a good head on his shoulders.”

“--You don’t think his family’s status would save him?” He doesn’t comment on the later words, he has to play neutral on that disgusting ground for now.

“Oh definitely. Lucky son of a bitch.” Her tongue clicks, “But if he wasn’t a member of one of the purest houses in Britain, he’d be gone in a flap of a snidget’s wing.”

“...Snidget?”

“Fuck’s sake, Tom, learn vocabulary, or people will start to believe you’re Slytherin’s first mudblood.” The thought (the near accusation) bruises him deeper than expected. He doesn’t reply. “I’ve associated myself too damn much with you for that to happen, you got it?” As if he would get better for her sake...But her resentment is understood. He would feel the same way.

“Affirmative, captain.”

“Sod off, Tom.”

Heh.

He asks on her orientation for the competition, as well as the tutoring she was receiving for it, and Hedwig tells him it’s going splendidly--She’s learning more than she thought she could from the bloodtraitor. Even they have their uses.

“I’ll be set to win the WSPC without a hitch.”

“Assuming Acarya gave you all her cards?” That’s not very Slytherin like.

Hedwig purses her lips, “I have some skills too, you know.” She flicks away her wild hair from her eyes, “Mysterious oriental magicks or no, I am a foe to be reckoned with.”

He doesn’t disagree, “Care to share?”

“Nice try.”

He wasn’t trying to do anything. Not yet. “I’m only curious, Hedwig. I have the best intentions at heart.”

“Aye, the best intentions for whom?

Smart girl.

Keeping a watchful eye on the entrance to the common room, Tom begins to study with Hedwig the rest of the hour--pausing to address the concerns and inquiries of the few students rude enough to interrupt him. He might be less annoyed by their attention if they were focused on him in their questions and worry. Not on Ian.

“He’s been in the Headmaster’s office for hours--Do you think he’ll be expelled?”

Not bloody likely, but it’s not like he gives a damn, “I’m not sure, I’m just as in the dark as you are.”

“Ooh, I hope you can help vouch for him! I’m sure he didn’t mean it--”

“I didn’t know you were Rosier’s fucking lapdop, Avery! Stop bitching about his wrongful imprisonment, and go bother someone who cares.”

While Tom gives his best I’m so sorry about her, really look at the freckle faced girl, he internally praises Hedwig for being herself.

“You’d think he was beloved by all, by the way they talk about him, fucking knob.” She doesn’t even wait until the girl is out of earshot.

“I’m sure he has his peers and groups--Abbas and Topaz?”

“Pfft, those aren’t friends, those are obligations.”

Well, yes, obviously, “Don’t tell me they all hate each other?”

A little shrug, “Maybe. Probably.” A moment’s hesitance, “Parents force purebloods to befriend each other all the time. All this nonsense is just scum groveling on behalf of their families.”

“And you, of course, don’t grovel.”

“You’re damn fucking right I don’t.”

“Don’t have any family alliances with the Rosiers, then?”

Her nose scrunches with distaste, “Not officially.

“Unofficially, then?” His brows rise gently, eyes wide with curiosity, voice light and innocent, “You look close with Evan.”

“Yeah, what’s it to ya?”

“How defensive, Hedwig! I’m merely asking a simple question.”

“Don’t ask questions you’re not prepared to know the answer to.”

The more she pushes him away, the more he wants to know. She should know that about him by now, “Who says I’m not prepared?”

“The wetness behind your ears.”

Hm that--That stings more than he wants it to. Probably because she’s right, he’s still very much a fish out of water when it comes to wizarding affairs, much less the complicated tangles of pureblooded alliances. But after her revelation of child marriages and engagements, what could possibly be worse?

Tom makes a show of checking behind his ears with his fingertips, “Wetness? Hedwig, it’s as dry as bone back there, how can you possibly be aware of something like that?”

The look of incredulity on his classmate’s face is hard to resist laughter to--She looks torn between punching him and picking up her books and leaving, “You’re lucky you’re baby-faced, you shite, it makes your acting all the more convincing.” He’d be flattered, but he already knew that. He’d be worried, but Hedwig is smart enough to know he’s not completely innocent. He’d drop the subject, but Tom never lets anything go. Ever.

“If you’re in need of someone to talk to, I hope you know I’m here.” The amount of sincerity needed in his offer almost sends him comatose. He sounds too sweet. Too earnest.

But Hedwig believes him. She stares at him solidly for a few seconds, unblinking. Searching for any signs of cynicism. Of ulterior motives. Ximena gave him the same gaze the first day they met. Cautious and distrusting. When wielded by Hedwig’s hazel eyes, it feels less like an animal caught in the middle of a meal is sizing him up and more like a cornered one is debating on whether or not he’s a threat.

He likes it. Being seen as a possible threat.

A firm nod is given. Help accepted. She stays silent. Looks down at her notes and textbook and continues writing.

Tom excuses himself to dinner early to search for Ximena.

Though her schedule is still unlearned, he has gotten quite good at tracking down his senior. Her usual and preferred spots of study were long ago memorized and established as favorite spots of his own due to low traffic and near-silent atmosphere. If she wasn’t in a class, there was a high chance that Tom would know about it (he’s long learned to keep tabs on those who should be kept an eye on). Classes do not go on this late. Not being in the common room, the only place she could be is her spot in the library--their spot. Where she wept over her bracelet. Where it should have chosen him as its new owner. Cursed thing. He’s starting to hear things from it too. Noises and garbled nonsense. Whispers in languages unspoken by human tongue. Is it making him go mad? The matron would tell him serves you right for being a thief… Would Ximena think the same?

She is there (of course she is there), cheek resting on her knuckles, reading through a book he identifies as a theory on summoning. Hair tied up and eyes tired, she looks older than a girl of thirteen. More mature and refined than many of the prefects he’s met with. How sad (how ridiculous!) that such a commanding aura be broken down by something as silly as emotion. That her tears and blush and laughter erase the imperial mood of her face and stature. The only useful emotion was anger, in Tom’s opinion. It is also the emotion his classmate looks best in.

Nothing in the air stirs. She hasn’t acknowledged him.

He waits. Watching.

It takes fifteen minutes for her to look up and notice he’s there.

“Oh--Good afternoon.”

“Evening.”

A blink, she looks to her left at the tall windows, “--Ah.”

He allows a chuckle to leave him, “Lost in thought?”

“--I didn’t miss dinner, did I?”

“Not at all, I’ll walk with you to the Great Hall.” It’s really phrases and offers like this that only fuel the crush rumor, but since Evan and Hedwig have pushed him to socialize with Ximena more, why not play the part? He has questions to ask, anyways. And no one’s around to hear them.

“Thank goodness, I’m famished.” Her book closes after she dogears the corner of the page she was on, it disappears in her well worn bookbag, “I’d have probably stayed here til’ midnight if you hadn’t shown up.” Ximena straightens up her robes as she stands and begins walking, wiping the tired from her eyes.

“Sounds like you know from experience.”

“Something like that.”

He anticipated her answer, and speaks at the same time as she, “Something like that?”

Her throat clears, and something like fluster sinks into the air around her, “Mm. Yes.” The language of her posture closes up, she’s self conscious. “--Where you in the library long?”

“Only long enough to find you.” And linger a bit, “Was wondering where you were, none of the Gryffindors I encountered knew.” No Gryffindors were asked regarding her location, but she doesn’t have to know that.

A sudden cough, sharp and guilty, “Why would--Why would they know?” A finger plays with a loose hair strand.

“You aren’t trying to build bridges between our houses?” Instead of just between her and Adam.

“--Oh, yes, right, um.” Her fingers twist twist twists her curly hair, “I guess I’ve made myself an ambassador, haven’t I?”

“Of sorts.” If that was her true intention (and Tom doesn’t believe it is for a second), she should have picked Vane or a Weasley to speak to, “I think it’s admirable.”

“You do?”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised.” His voice implies he’s hurt, “I know the sort I choose as my friends would imply otherwise,” Her talk of brainwashing echoes in his memory, “but really, I think the houses being open with each other is a good thing. More resources, more chances to help each other.”

The approval in her eyes is very validating, “Good. That’s good.” Her head bobs, like she’s nodding to herself, “Really good.” Like she’s saying it to herself. Something about it bothers him. She should come back to Earth and pay attention to him.

“Any luck with your search?” The bracelet had been left in his bedside drawer.

“Somewhat.” The subtle spike in frustration isn’t missed, in her voice nor in her face, “I’ve been doing some reading.” What else is new?

He prods, “Tracking spells?”

A bitter chuff, “It’s a little late for something like that.” Thank Merlin, “I’ve been looking at types of magical bonds.”

“Contracts?”

“More or less, yes.” Her mouth draws a thin line as the two walk into the Great Hall, heading towards the Slytherin tables, “It’s hard to translate to Englis--” A sudden stop, though her pace doesn’t lessen, “--Why is everyone staring?”

“Hm?” He hadn’t noticed, but of course someone like her would. The few dozen nearby faces turned in their direction aren’t malicious, but rather in awe and concerned. They are the faces of their Dueling Club peers.

“It’s not you,” Not this time, “it’s me they’re staring at.” This, he says in the most reassuring way possible, though really he was showing off. He wants her to ask why--To want to know the details.

A sigh of relief as they sit down, though her posture does not relax--When her books are placed to the side, a lovely hot platter of butterflied fish dressed with vegetables and red sauce blinks into existence. Noted is her pause before praying: is she thinking about where this food came from? Where the knowledge of the recipe originated?

When her hands come apart and she reaches for the butter dish, she continues her talk, “Why are they staring at you?” He can practically hear the urge to scooch away from him to avoid the attention by proxy.

“Not privy to the gossip circles today?”

“I’ve been studying all afternoon, but I think I heard your name in passing a few times.” She seasons the cod on her plate, “Dueling Club started today, right?”

Good, she brought it up first. Technically. “Yes, it did.” He replies matter of factly, “I won my first duel.” Eyes to the side, he watches for a reaction.

“Mm. Congratulations.” Her hand covers her mouth (half full), “Sorry I wasn’t there, the, uh, Gryffindor quidditch tryouts were today--Who was it against?”

“I forgive you.” Lie. “Ian Rosier.”

Her face goes sour, “He joined again?”

“It looks like he’s here to stay,” Despite the humiliation Tom delt him. Heh. “he probably wants revenge now.”

“He lost that badly?”

“I’d like to think I did quick work of him.” He cuts his food nonchalantly, looking down at his plate.

“Was he angry?”

“Furious.” Tom’s not actually sure he’s ever seen anyone that mad before, “Looked like a bull going straight for the red cape of a matador.” He decides not to go with the ‘I was scared’ tone, but rather the ‘he really was so pathetic’ one, “I cut him off at his last spell.”

“What was it?”

“Not sure, unfortunately, he looked rather eager to use it. Started with a crou--sh sound.” He chews his turkey thoughtfully, “Willow was very hostile about it, but I think that was just because he was being too aggressive with someone a year younger. Even said he could have gone to Azkaban for it.”

“. . .”

“--Ximena?”

He turns his head and finds her still. Dead eyed. As if his words had turned her into some sort of tense, stoic statue. Her hands, he notes with extreme interest, are balled up tightly into fists. They’re trembling.

Is she...

Ximena?” Tom tries not to seem too excited at the prospect, nor too perturbed; the magical signature she works so hard at concealing is bubbling up from darkness. Tempting. The spice from her dish stings his nose as he breathes in, “Ximena, are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Perfectly.”

What was the damn spell Ian wanted to use on him? She knows, he knows she knows, and it’s something nasty. Dark. Evil. A jinx or a hex or a curse. And she’s absolutely fuming that it was almost used on him. How delightful.

“Don’t interact with Rosier again.” A command. The authority in her voice is as new to him as was the anger. He resists the urge to quirk an eyebrow (nobody tells him what to do), and simply accepts Ximena’s request. For now.

Concern is good. It’s a claim. She’s very clearly (publically) on his side. A few students have glanced over at her little outburst, and soon enough when they dip into the gossip pool, they will know why. They will know the context.

The problem, of course, is that this concern probably comes from her seeing him as a helpless little boy. As if! If only she could have seen him--His magical prowess and control was flawless. No scared little orphan can do what he can. Is she was there, she would get it. That he’s meant for something greater. That Rosier was only an ant in his way.

“Understood.” A pause, and he eyes her out of the corner of his periphery, “Ximena, can you tell me where I could get nigella seeds? It’s for an assignment in potions...”

-

Tom has long since concluded that the reason his popularity is soaring isn’t because of how great he was in his first duel, but instead because he almost had something called an Unforgivable almost cast on him. He heard it in Hedwig’s voice when she confronted him about it. He sees it in Ximena’s eyes when she shields him with her body every time Ian so much as glares at him (he can handle himself against someone like him, thank you very much). It’s an insult to the display of power he showed to his schoolmates in the dueling hall, but so be it--He knows he can twist the chatterings to be about how talented he is to be able to survive an attempted casting.

Asking what an Unforgivable was, however, is out of the question--He should know, after all. Hedwig herself said so--implied so. This knowledge is only further enforced in his brain as he finds nothing on them in any of his textbooks nor in the library. Censorship is his first instinct, but really, if the spell is as dangerous as the nickname entails it to be, it is probably for the best that no talentless idiot could accidently get his hands on it.

So what of the incredibly skillful wizards like him?

They get someone they can play into not spilling the secret.

Nemesis is all too happy to accompany him back down to the Slytherin common room (and all too comfortable with sticking much too close to him--The dungeons are always upsettingly drafty.) No, she does not hang on his sleeve and drool or stare at him like it seems like a lot of other students do with the object of their affections, but he's so...aware. Of her. It makes him feel like she's staring at him through a display glass--Or rather, like a cake on a stand on her kitchen counter that she was told she couldn't touch.

Her upper arm brushes against his, and his robes aren't thick enough. He smiles through it, "It was quite an eventful meeting."

“I wish I could have joined in! I’m sure it was something to remember, but it’s not really an interest of mine.” Nemesis’ disposition could rival the sun.

“You’ve never thought of joining before?”

“Oh no,” She looks down at her feet, “proper pureblooded girls do not duel.” A sigh, resigned and accepting, “Mother made that perfectly clear.”

“How absurd.” He’s beginning to see why Nemesis is so misguided. He wonders if his head would be as equally filled with nonsense had his own mother… “You’re better than half the boys in Defence Against The Dark Arts.”

The smile she gives him is pained, but flattered, “You think so?”

“Humility doesn’t suit you.”

That got her. Her face flinches, but she laughs it off, “You’re better at catching my lies than my mother.”

It takes a liar to know one, “Why are there other pureblooded girls in Dueling Club if it’s not proper?”

“What’s proper in one country isn’t in others...Mother is Spanish. She has very...old fashioned traditions.”

In Tom's eyes, all pureblooded beliefs were obviously old fashioned...Nemesis' mother was probably stuck somewhere in the Bronze Age, then. Old bat. He plays the neutral and concerned card, “I’m sure there’s a method to her madness.”

Nemesis giggles, “You know Hamlet?”

That catches him off guard. Sends him violently back into a memory he thought forgotten, “...Yes,” he had snuck into a picture show when he was young--younger than he is, of course. Nine years old. He had an awful haircut and had injured the damned caretaker who had given it to him (without his hands, of course, he was performing magic even then), before proceeding to run away from any punishment they could dole out. A talkie was playing. From India[1]. The theater was dark and cold, but it was easy to go unseen. To steal popcorn and eat his fill of grain for the week. The tale thrilled him. Ignited his imagination. If he were to shut his eyes and concentrate, he’s sure he could still feel the crunching snack between his teeth and the gasps from the audience as Hamlet dueled his uncle. He could still smell the mothballs and dusty corner in which he sat himself for the better part of two hours. There was an older girl sitting a few rows in front with a red balloon who kept bopping it up and down and up and down so much it gave him a terrible headache and he popped it violently. A theater worker he charmed into thinking he wasn’t there by maintaining eye contact with him.

Within less than a second, he’s snapped back to the present by his classmate’s voice, “I didn’t know! Do Muggles know about Shakespeare? I remember learning that they knew what dragons were and feeling like my reality was shattered.”

“...How do wizards know about Shakespeare?” He remembers his ex guide thinking his Hallowe’en costume was someone from The Bard’s plays...He had brushed it off then, because who hasn’t heard of Shakespeare?

“He was a wizard, of course!”

That...sounds wrong. More than wrong. In many ways. But he drops it. It doesn’t matter right now. He places his hands behind his back and nods, accepting her words, “I see.” He licks his lips, searching for a way to get back on topic--

“I’d like to speak with you about something, actually.” Nemesis plays with a stray strand of hair, curling it around her finger in a manner that he senses she practiced in front of a mirror for. Her magic, flurrying and rustling near him like a squall, leaves him dreading what was inevitably going to come out of her mouth: some sort of confession. Ugh. Why couldn’t Nemesis have some damn sense like Hedwig? He’s never seen nor heard her fawn over boys. More girls should be like Hedwig.

“Oh?” But he has to play along, tilt his pretty little head and smile cluelessly like he wasn’t about to stomp down on his classmate’s heart.

But he never gets the chance.

The last thing he hears before hissing pain is an attack:

“Infido!”

Then: the familiar buzz of a protego--It comes strongly and just a little too late. The first spell cuts through the top of his left ear, grazing gently and ripping violently all at once, spurting forth his blood and raising up burning pain. The second spell, he reckons, saves his head.

Nemesis screams, shrill and terrified, hand covering her mouth and hesitating before Tom’s figure. He turns around, away from Nemesis and onto the scene before him.

Her back, so familiar, is all he sees at first: her robes swishing dramatically and curly hair seeming to fill with static and energy. Serpentine wand out, firm and threatening. Still and confident. The second thing he sees is Ian, gawking and fuming madly, eyes wide open like a beast.

Then noticed is her magic: furiously wild and thrashing like violent waves. A hundred shades of dangerous energy that calls out to him like bells. What he senses last is her voice: no longer familiar and meek, but dripping a dangerous, venomous tone that pricks goosepimples on the back of his neck,

“Don't touch him.”

Chapter Text

Cw: racism nonsense from a 13 year old

-

Playground brawls are common at Wool’s. It’s almost impossible to house so many troubled children in such a small space without a fight or six breaking out every week. The cause of such spats are, of course, stupid: refusal to share the communal toys, name calling, accusations of adoption sabotage...Tom suspects most of the reasons didn’t really matter, and that the other children are just savages. Asserting your dominance through messy, physical violence is barbaric, and he doesn’t just think that because he was always too scrawny to do so himself. Dominance should be asserted through authority. The naturally strong don’t need to show off. They simply are. (If the weaklings around them are too stupid to realize that, well, then that could be a mild exception but--)He, himself, doesn’t release his anger in such ways. He hones it. Bides his time.

Occasionally, it’ll come out anyways. Only in his magic, of course. Physical violence is so Muggle. He’s better than that now. Or perhaps always was.

He has not seen a playground brawl at Hogwarts.

Rules are stricter here. Punishments more harsh. The most public a fight gets is a shove or a mild expeliarmus--The more public a fight gets, the less likely it’s legitimate. Real rumbles take place in the dark. It’s why Katux always tried to subdue him in empty hallways and classrooms. It’s why Tom hasn’t gotten caught giving them a taste of their own medicine. And why he never will.

So back to what is happening before his eyes:

Opposite forces of hesitation and voracity crack and cannon into each other like thunder and sea: a hurricane of conflicting emotions attempting to swallow the other. A splendid war of the self. All bottled within his classmate’s magical signature only a few mere feet before him. The cold temperature of her aura driving the hair on his skin upwards in alarm.

Ian’s magic flares up: the feeling of crushed earth and hot air popping in the area around him. It’s absolutely nothing like the spar the two of them had only yesterday: the spark of anger then only produced a chisp of manifestation. A blip on Tom’s radar.

The magical signatures meet, and Tom swears he can hear his own blood pulsing through his head. His heartbeat is in his skull and banging against the sides. He's in danger. They're in danger. Where is his mask? The evacuation route? Will sirens ring in Hogwarts?

“Get a professor.” Ximena’s voice is clear and matronly like. From beside him, though it feels like kilometers away, Nemesis seizes up before running off out of the dungeons area. It shouldn’t be long before Slughorn shows up, right? Or even--

Dumbledore.

Tom takes his vice grip off his wand. He remains cradling his cut up ear, wincing when he realizes the side of his head was sliced as well. It’s not gushing, but it is bleeding. He presses the sleeve of his robe hard against his wound--He has to apply pressure, right? 

“What’s this, Riddle? Need a big burnt brutish cockroach to protect you?” Ian sizes Ximena up carefully, undoubtedly recognizing her, but undoubtedly failing to recall any of her sparring quirks, “She your girlfriend, now?”

Though he cannot see her face, her energy shimmers and quakes at Ian’ taunts--A bottled hurricane. He wishes he could see it. Smell it. Hear it. Instead he has to be satisfied with just the simple sensation of sensing. He’s sure her face shows nothing, though, because Ian doesn’t have a satisfied look on his.

“Baubillious!” White hot sparks emerge from Ian’s wand, bright enough to blind, Tom has to squint his eyes to keep his retinas from burning--He would lift his over sleeve to fully block, but he does not want to miss this.

And again, as in the duel with Hedwig, Ximena does not yell. But she mutters, under her breath, “Chhel,” and dark night emits from her wand, consuming the light from Ian’s spell. A foreign, but obvious counter--And it’s not at all what causes Tom to pause: her magic was on the move much before she uttered the spell. As if saying the words was just for show. An afterthought.

A slicing hex comes at her. The same one used on him. Ximena blocks the attempt with a flick of her wrist and the spell hits the wall beside them, causing frighteningly deep gashes. A refined form. Not trained like Ian’s, but somehow natural. The magic guides her, not the other way around--or maybe that thought was wrong, considering how much she’s keeping her magic at bay. It can almost physically touch him as he sits there behind her, bubbling with anticipation.

More spells hurl at her (or them? Ian’s aim can’t be that bad--) in rapid succession, reminiscent of Tom’s own duel with Ian. Her magic pricks out selectively as she blocks and counter-curses: a poised snake striking with heavy restraint. She doesn’t want to hurt him. At least, not in a way that will incriminate her. He understands. Expulsion is an ever hanging threat swinging above their heads like a pendulum. 

Her opponent does not take this well. Ian speaks again, though Tom knows it is once more directed at him, “You’re rubbing elbows with all the worthy wizards well...Got yourself a lowblood to have on the side just like all the proper highbloods, is that right?” He laughs, giving a head gesture to Ximena, who remains still and waiting, “That’s all you are, you know? No better than a mudblood slag, there to sit pretty, take what you can get, and be grateful for the generous amount of coc--”

For all his talking (and his big ugly mouth), Ian really wasn’t good at trash talking. It’s a silly thought to have, as the fire spits it’s way out of Ximena’s wand and onto the other boy’s face, but it’s an honest one. Ian rambles his feelings, keeps them hidden at the very surface of his skin. He should learn to keep them down, well below. It might have saved him. Ximena does not open her mouth to cast this spell, but she doesn’t need to in order for Tom to recognise it. The burning air and explosive flames, elegant in their form and violent in their path...Her confrigo curse is perfect. Impassioned, uncontrolled, and fueled by nothing but Ximena’s anger. It’s when he sees it unleashed that Tom realizes she’s holding back. Her magic isn’t simply just kept at bay, it’s being desperately bottled. Held tightly by her own fists if it were possible.

The scream from Ian is something he’ll never forget in his life.

This isn’t a duel. This is nothing like the staged, little play spars displayed in the club hall. This isn’t a swabble. This is a fight. A real one.

Ian’s expensive robe, singed away revealing a grossly burned collar and shoulder, looks little more than tattered rags--of lesser quality than Tom’s, even. It flutters with the power from his magic manifesting around him, as if there were a gale in the corridor, “Expulso!”

Imitator. Fire with fire, though Ian’s is a deceivingly cold blue. It pops his ears and crackles through the small space between Ian and Ximena. Explosions. He could help here. He could whip out his wand and send a protego maxima to help and it wouldn’t incriminate him. He doesn’t. He can’t interrupt their duel. By standard rules or otherwise. Would that stupid ancient law apply to this? It wasn’t official, they didn’t bow, Ian attacked him, not her so did she interrupt their own duel…? He can't think he can't think, what does he do? What should he do? He should run. Away. Far away. Save his skin. Curl up and hide. The train, he needs to get on the train--

A heavy hum vibrates in his pocket. 

Her head turns so sharply, he’s sure she has whiplash, to look down at him in absolute shock and bemusement--The magic from the bracelet is thick and tingling. It rumbles and blows out like a bubble, eager and desperate to meet back with Ximena’s magic. He makes the mistake of making eye contact with her in the few milliseconds before the beaded bracelet saves their skin from melting off, and he sees himself in her eyes. Hurt. Afraid. Vulnerable. He sees her, too, then. Hurt. Afraid. Vulnerable.

Shit.

The fire parts around them as if there were a barrier unseen, the same way Hedwig’s attacks were barred when she dueled Ximena. And he understands. She understands.

The humming stops. The attacks do not.

Luckily, Ximena isn’t an idiot. What sounds like the word shell leaves her lips and Tom feels and sees themselves being enveloped in an armored cocoon that rises up from the ground like an enclosing flower--pink and translucent [1]. The protective arms of the spell enclose. He feels safe. Right. The violent explosions are muffled as they bend around the shield formed, as if they were nothing but rain drops. They could probably stay here until--

Ximena does not stop.

She flicks her wand again like it were a sword deflecting another and Ian’s wand flies obediently into her free hand.

Ian does not stop.

Ian curses at her, through language and not magic, and the volatile emotions swimming in his magic manage to build up a violent gush of wind in the corridor. His wandless magic isn’t poised or controlled, it’s like watching someone having a spasm try to write their name.

Her next move should be a mimblewimble spell. A full body-bind curse. Tom waits eagerly for her to raise her wand, but it never happens. She tosses the two wands behind her at Tom (they hit him on the forehead) and--

Ximena tackles Ian. Gets one. Two. Five good hits in before he wises up and places his arms in front of him for protection. The fool doesn’t even know how to fight back without his wand. He’s useless. Screaming expletives at Ximena as if that would do anything. His burn wounds are still fresh and bleeding, and the hard hits and scratches she lands on him only make it worse. She is a child. Fighting and hurting another child. It’s more passionate than the schoolyard brawls he’s seen in his early childhood, but it is still a schoolyard brawl. There’s blood on her hands. Anger in her eyes. It suits her.

His eyelids draw heavy--Shit, how much blood has left him? Why didn’t anyone teach him a blood clotting spell? A scabbing one? His lungs are made out of rusted iron, his head is throbbing--

Eager footsteps approach. He feels a magic he’s never (consciously) felt before. A booming golden magic that drums triumphantly down the hall behind him like an entire herd of elephants. It feels like fire and spirit. He knows who the magic belongs to before he looks.

Dumbledore.

-

What Tom most enjoys about Ximena, he concludes, as the mediwitch finishes up his bandages in the hospital wing, is that she doesn’t cling. She considers him a friend now, he’s sure, and she hasn’t not once initiated something as vulgar as a hug or a friendly pat on the back. Ximena has manners. It’s delightful. As if she knows not to touch him. That he’s untouchable.

Nemesis has not gotten this message yet. She sits pretty and attentive at his side, staring at him with such pity it makes him sick. She’s too close. Her hands are too close. Can’t Madam Belfast see she’s bothering him? Crowding him? Useless woman! Put on his bandages, feed him the proper medicine, and get rid of--

“How are you feeling?”

He pops on the sensitive, woobie eyes, and a brave chin tilt forward, “I’ve had worse.”

She thinks he’s putting up a valiant act. He isn’t. “I can’t believe he did that, I...I’ve never seen him so…” A sigh, “What on earth could have possessed him?”

Jealousy. Truth. Revenge. Inadequacy. Envy. Hysteria. Rage. Insecurity. Reality. All ideas Tom has had. He has more too--Does a reason really matter? He did what he did. And he suffered the consequences of it. Sadly not at his hands but--

“...What do you think will happen to Rosier?”

“Nothing.”

Nothing?

Her head shakes, “A slap on the wrist, I’m sure. The Rosiers are an old family, and they have a lot of weight in the legal system.”

Tom scowls, “What right does the Wizengamot have to interfere with Hogwarts?”

“--You are not wrong, but…” She picks at her nails, “...Hogwarts is where the majority of magical children go for their education in this part of the world...You can imagine how important it is for the richer families to have their say.” An apologetic look, as if this were somehow her fault, “Even if one of theirs attacked another student.”

Pathetic. To have Hogwarts held back by such nonsense is infuriating. Insulting. Dippet is cravenous. How much money is enough to keep justice from being served? Ian is an idiot. Attacking him so openly in front of another student (one he didn’t even incapacitate before she was able to alert a teacher), possibly even attempting to…

“What’s an Unforgivable?”

He looks at Nemesis not with the look of a naive little puppy (as he had planned before all this nonsense), but with a look of fierce determination. He has a right to know what was almost done to him--A right to know what spell could land a child in prison at the drop of a hat. A curse that, when casted by the right person, wields no consequences. 

She gulps, blinking, searching for the proper words...As if the very subject were taboo, “An Unforgivable is...A truly unforgivable thing, Tom.” He gathered as much, but as she says it, the weight of her words presses down on him. He doesn’t feel the urge to roll his eyes at her explanation, “Casting one...It does things to your magical core. To your soul.” Her palm presses flat on her chest, while the other grips his own. He resists recoiling back in favor of having her continue, “They are the darkest, ugliest magic, Tom. To think that one was almost done on you so casually…” Ugh, is she going to cry?

Tom puts on his best reassuring face, “But it wasn’t.” He put a stopper on it before anything could happen--With a damn tickle hex, of all things. Is that curse really so powerful if he was able to avoid it with a simple spell? “Whatever Unforgivable it was, it was never cast.” Which is a reason they’ll argue in Ian’s favor for not expelling him, sadly, “I never even got to hear the incantation. Not fully.”

Her hand squeezes his. Awful. “I can venture a guess which one it was--There’s only two.”

Just two?” Just two spells out of all the countless ones in the wizarding world are considered soul tainting? The darkest, ugliest magic? Unforgivable?

“Yes--And, of course, if the rumors I hear are true, it was probably, um,” There’s no wand in her hand, and her magic is not primed at the ready to cast, yet she hesitates to speak the name. As if saying it would bring it into existence, “It’s a curse of pain. The most...The most excruciating pain you could ever go through…” Here, her voice dips down into a whisper, “Don’t...You didn’t hear this from me, but...A lot of the old families use it to discipline their children and subservients.” His surprise must show on his face, because she adds on very quickly: “Not my family! No, never,” Her long hair swishes with her head as she shakes it, “I mean...The older families who have a bit of a...blood obsession.” Ah. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian didn’t know the extent of what he was doing...Not that I’m defending him! I just--”

Tom raises his hand for her to stop, releasing it from her uncomfortable hold, “I understand, Nemesis.” Really, he doesn’t: if the curse was so terrible, then nothing excuses Ian for wanting to inflict it upon Tom. Daft idiot should know better. Even if it’s apparently used on him by his own mother, “It explains why someone so...callow knew about that sort of spell.” Especially before he managed to learn about it. Pureblood upbringing really does have a worthwhile advantage--It’s a bit too late for him to be adopted, though.

His voice raises again, “What do you think will happen to Ximena?”

“--Oh,” Her face grows grim.

Tom wonders how jealousy works in Nemesis' mind. He was under the impression that girls are catty and attack each other at every passing moment, moreso if the object of jealousy was a boy. But there's no malice or smug satisfaction in his classmate's eyes. Nemesis appears genuinely worried and uncertain about Ximena's fate. There's no way she's that great of an actress. Are they friends now?

He lifts his chin, tilts his head.

“The situation really is complicated isn’t it?” Not really. Ian was stupid enough to attack a student and should be punished. Ximena acted in defense. Cut and dry. “I’m not sure...If she were from a noble house, then there would perhaps be some sort of reparations… maybe feuding…? It’s been a while since something like this has happened at Hogwarts.” 

Tom resists snorting, because things like this definitely happen often, just in the shadows, “We broke the peace, then?”

His attempt at lightening the mood fails. Nemesis sighs, “I think...The Rosiers will want to keep this sort of thing quiet, at best. If Ian were a Lestrange or, Hectate forbid, a Flint...Then I think Lane’s life would be in danger. The least they can do is demand expulsion, at this point.”

Christ. Thank Merlin he didn’t raise his wand against Ian. He could not handle the weight of potential expulsion on his shoulders. Can Ximena? Does her threat of expulsion scare her? Scare him? She had wanted to leave, had said this place was more of a prison than a haven. But she can’t have meant it, right? Not wholly? Leaving Hogwarts permanently (prematurely) would rightfully traumatize any child. Not just him.

“And at worse?”

She hesitates, “A trial, perhaps...Though, that would just attract attention to the fact that the Rosiers had a foreign foundling best one of their own to the point of scarring. Rosiers don’t like public spectacles. We’re lucky he isn’t their heir.” 

Really? Could have fooled him with how sensationalist Druella is--How melodramatic all the Rosiers were...Even Evan. But then again, all the Rosiers he’s met are children. All the Rosiers at Hogwarts are children. He really can’t wait until they’re grown and past such nonsense.

“Really, Lane’s lack of bloodclaim is a blessing and a curse: I imagine she’d be in hotter water if she were a confirmed Muggleborn, they don’t do very well in court.”

“No, I expect not with this current Wizengamot.” People talk, Nemesis notwithstanding, and they especially love talking about things they heard their parents talking about, “Was it always like this?” This bad? This easy?

Nemesis leans over again, and then recoils back when she sees him flinch purposefully, “Some families like the Malfoys would have you believe that it was, but that’s all rubbish.” Her voice is down to a whisper again, as if what she was speaking was heresy, “They’ve kicked all the witches out of the Wizengamot, but we’ve had plenty of witches as minister for magic. A good handful of half-bloods too--Not all from old or rich families either.”

He refrains from replying, he keeps his thoughts to himself. Nemesis doesn’t need to know where he stands just yet.

“It wasn’t until--” Her mouth opens and closes, “It must have been twenty, thirty years ago? This...There was this horrendous resurfacing of Purism. My grandfather said it’s the worst it’s been in years...” Her eyes catch the torch light coming in through the open doors, and Tom sees gold. There’s still a small splatter of his blood dried on her cheek. In that moment, he sees that she’s actually quite pretty, in the way that most people would define beauty, “You know I don’t like talking about these sort of things with our housemates...All these picketers and lobbyists are their parents and aunts and uncles!”

Oh Tom knows exactly what she means. It’s not a good look. It’s not proper social etiquette. It’s not enough to make Nemesis grow a spine. Shame. “I see.” His head throbs, and it’s not just his wound.

“It didn’t...I didn’t...I thought maybe my uncle would change things as minister, but…” But he was a cravenous insect. No better than Chamberlain. “It’s so hard, Tom. Everyone is such a vulture, only looking out for their own interests…” So it’s just like Hogwarts, then. “I sat in on a trial during the summer, some Muggleborn accused of thievery and--Sweet Hectate, they were merciless. It was as if he had murdered children! A capital punishment for a minimal offense, all for his blood!” So it’s just like Hogwarts, then. “It was so normal, I couldn’t stand it...And he...my own uncle, the Prime Minister for Magic...He did nothing. He was content. All his power and influence for what?” So it’s just like Hogwarts, then. “My father, he tries, he really does, but it’s all for nothing. They don’t listen.” So it’s just like Hogwarts, then.

A moment passes, and he decides against patting Nemesis on the back of her hand, lest she get ideas. Instead, he gives a soft sigh (genuine) and pauses to think about the right words to say (fake, it’s so easy to come up with what Nemesis wants to hear), “This will pass. Resurgences always happen in history, even with Muggles. It will pass.”

Maybe it’s his voice or the atmosphere or her vulnerability, but she looks at him and nods once. Smiles. She believes him. His words are truth to her because he has spoken them.

At last! Madam Belfast has come to shoo Nemesis away, it’s late and Mr. Riddle needs all the rest he can get. Nemesis looks absolutely heartbroken that she must tear herself from his side, but leaves with a soft goodbye. When she reaches for his hand, he pulls it away. He wishes her goodnight with a smile on his face, thoughts lingering on their conversation.

What he should have said, what he wanted to say, was ‘Do something about it.’ Stop crying. Stop grousing. You’re no better than the moneybags who pull sad faces at him and the other children at Wool’s, lament their status in this life, and then spare tuppence and ignore them until Christmas or Easter. He wants to shake her. Throw the pumpkin pasty on his dinner tray at her retreating form. He does not. It would be a waste of a good pumpkin pasty.

He’s alone in the hospital wing.

Ian was transferred to St. Mungo’s at the insistence of his parents: two stern, upper-lipped witches who reminded Tom a little too closely to some of the prospective parents that toured Wool’s. They skimmed over his own injuries, and looked at their son with nothing but controlled contempt. He only saw them for a whisper of a moment, but the act of taking Ian away from him was a kind enough gesture to leave a good impression on Tom: he’s not sure how he could have handled his whining. Or how gruesome his injuries looked to be. Madam Belfast can cast all the sweet scent spells she wants, but nothing can take the smell of burnt flesh out of his nose.

Ugh! He’s remembering it so explicitly, he scours for a better memory from the last few hours: the spells themselves. Such exquisite dark magicks being performed before him, unlike anything he’s seen. Nothing like the spars in Dueling Club and DADA, and eons ahead of the duel between Hedwig and Ximena...It felt good. Indulgent and cozy, like the hot chocolate he had shared with the witch last January. Sweet, almost, though he did not taste anything (can he taste magic? Is that possible?) He wants to wrap himself in a blanket of that darkness and sleep. 

The bracelet remains with him, for now: tucked securely in his robe pocket (did he place it there this morning? He could have sworn it was left in his bedside table), and growing heavier by the hour. She knows. There’s no way she doesn’t know. The extent to what she knows is up in the air...how long he’s had it, how he got it, if he was intent on keeping it...No the...The way she looked at him...He didn’t like it. That look is reserved for the despicable swine at the orphanage. When he takes their things, and makes them pay. The look that they give him. Rightfully. Not...not her. Not to him. He’s meant to stay the Golden Boy here at Hogwarts. Beloved. Would she tell? Will everyone listen to her? Will this be what Dumbledore uses as definite proof that Tom hasn’t and cannot change?

He’s going to have to give it back--Yes, he is...He has to. It’s the only way to salvage the situation. His image. Their relationship. Her trust.

Fuck.

He needs more time, he had a plan. Or at least half of one. Could he pin the whole thing on Ian? Yes yes, he took it back from Ian and got found out. Caught. He’ll weave a tale of having suspected Ian for weeks before valiantly sneaking into the third year boys’ dormitory and investigating for himself and--Lo! He found the bracelet, sealed with some sort of protection charm that he disarmed without any fuss because Ian is patheticly untalented but also Tom is miraculously skilled. He’ll slip out unnoticed but then! It’s so hard to find Ximena, he couldn’t have gone straight to her! Boys aren’t allowed in the girl’s dormitory, so he can’t place it with her things. And no no no, he absolutely could not hand it over to a third year Slytherin girl, it’s too personal a thing. Too precious. Only he could have given it back, he was the only one she told about having it missing.

Teeth bite down hard on his bottom lip the more he thinks about it. Does she trust him enough to ignore that burst of magic that so obviously came from his person? Friendship takes precedence over evidence, if radio has taught him anything. Things were proven and felt with the heart rather than paper trails and eyewitnesses (all of whom turned out to be falsified in the end), and based on the interactions he’s seen between friends his whole life, it has to apply to reality too. Ximena will believe him because she will feel it in her heart that he is her friend and would never absolutely do something like that. Nevermind silly things like induction.

A flutter of wings is heard just outside the window behind him, and he stills, expecting a tapping at the glass and hearing nothing of the sort. Just silence. Just owls. No crows. He still doesn’t turn around to look. Just in case. In case of what? He doesn’t know.

The bracelet talks again. Not talks, but mutters. Sputters and utters and putters out that strange not-language in whispers: a conch shell held to his ear. He’s sure if maybe he concentrates on it, that he can figure out at least a mood or tone, but he doesn’t want to. He wants to shake it out like he does to ringing in his head.

He shuts his eyes

When he opens them, he is in a room he has never been in, but he knows it’s Ximena’s. The air is grey and damp, and the sad rays of the sun that manage to make it inside the room are dull and lifeless. He sees dust flying in the air. If he exhales, it flurries like a squall. The space is colorless. Plain. There is a grey rug underneath him. Cotton. Old. A weathered dresser to his left made of dark wood and kept neat. A bible rests on top next to a glass, single flower vase with that strange flower from the year before that colonized the fields of Hogwarts. It’s fully in bloom. White. Her small bed has one woven, moth eaten beige blanket and a sad, flattened pillow with minimal but obvious stains. No, it’s not flattened completely. There’s something inside--Underneath? Round and small like a baked bun, or a nest. A spiral. He reaches out, to touch and take.

Something else draws his eyes instead.

To the right of the bed is a small table and lamp, a seashell blue color. There’s another little black book on top. A black so deep, he swears it’s made of shadow. Dark and alluring. He picks it up, turns it over, and knows that it belongs to him. When he opens it, her writing is on the inside instead. It’s a diary. His eyes run over words and dates eagerly, but absorb nothing. He is reading but his brain is not processing anything until he reaches the last page she wrote in. This, he remembers:

Ximena plays with her name. Writes it a million times over, each time with a different family name attached to the end. Camacho. García. Muñoz. Rivera. She says none of them sound right. Cruz. Díaz. Fuentes. They all sound as wrong as Lane does. Ortega. Leyva. Guerrero. But she’d prefer either one of them anyday. Goméz. Carpintero. Salinas. A name is a claim: proof that you belong somewhere. Calderón. Gonzaléz. Martínez. They’re all far away names, from across the ocean. Juan. Sanchez. Villa. But not from Spain, the voice that reads them in his head speaks in a way that tells him these names are further away.

He writes with a pen that was not there before. The matron’s nice ballpoint pen that he doesn’t take to school for fear of being labeled as a Muggle lover. He writes some new names down for her; closer names: Zabini. Potter. Shafiq. And then, even closer: Flint. Lestrange. Black. Why can’t she be a part of their families? Close to England. To him. If he were friends with a long lost Black, imagine how much easier his path would become. Two long lost children born from greatness, straight out of a classical story. A hero myth. His ex mentor said so himself, he could be anybody. They could be anybody.

--And then, temptation seizes him. 

He writes something blasphemous. Indulgent. Iniquitous. Something that will bond them together in blood and water.

Behind him, though he does not know how he knows, the flower turns red.

When he wakes up, the hospital wing is pale blue in the light of the dawn.

 

Chapter Text

Evan is his first visitor. When Tom turns his head after waking up, he sees him sitting beside his bed, reading a golden book. There’s a small package of what he assumes to be sweets on the table next to them.

“You look terrible.”

“Thank you, Evan, it’s good to see you too.”

The book is closed and settled down on his lap, Tom can’t read the title, “Did my cousin do that to you?”

The bandages feel fused to his wounds, and even though they cover said wounds, he knows they must look impressive, “He took me by surprise.”

Evan sneers, “Ian has always been a sniveling milksop, even when we were children.” 

Maybe it’s the heavy medicine still lingering, but Tom speaks before thinking, “Are you not children now?”

He purses his lips, sucks his teeth, “All purebloods grow up when they turn eleven.”

Tom has nothing to say to that.

“You’re not here to avenge him, then?”

“Don’t be stupid, Tom, it doesn’t suit you.” Well excuse him, Evan, “Read the atmosphere.”

It’s a little hard with the potion Madam Belfast gave him. His head feels heavy, and his dream hasn’t completely left his conscious yet, “You’re picking sides.”

“Merlin, Tom, you don’t need to state it so clearly, you’re speaking like a Gryffindor.” He crosses his legs and stands up straighter, “Your head must have been struck harder than I thought.”

Any other time, his impudence would have made Tom put Evan on his shortlist for reprisal, but now it only amuses him, “Well he cut into my head, so you’re not incorrect.”

Circe.” Evan swears, rolling his eyes, “We’re lucky Lane adopted her mother hen persona after you told her what happened in Dueling Club. Or else we might be attending your wake.”

He seizes up, stiff at the thought. Dead. Cold in the ground in a pauper’s grave. Insects crawling in his hair and jaw and rib cage. Rotting. Unnatural. Horrible. He pushes that idea away. Far away. Forgotten.

Evan doesn’t notice. He continues talking, “Didn’t think she had it in her.” He makes purposeful eye contact, “Of course, all I know is her last spell used.”

He opens his mouth to ask how he knows, but then he remembers who his family is.

“Auntie and Uncle were furious. I think Ian would have been better off getting punished by Lane.”

“...They’re not angry at her?”

Evan shrugs, “As angry as they would be at a wild redcap attacking their provoking son. Their words, not mine.” Figures. Evan is an ass, but wouldn’t refer to Lane as a creature. “Sure, they’ll probably demand some sort of punishment, but Ian will get the worst of it for starting a fight he couldn’t finish.” He tilts his head at Tom, “Why didn’t you join the fight?”

Duel laws, Dumbledore, incrimination, Dumbledore, his rising anxiety, Dumbledore, he’s never been in a real fight, Dumbledore, he wanted to see Ximena duel for real, Dumbledore, “Because I’m not stupid.”

“Hn.” His shoulders shake with amusement, “At least someone in our year isn’t.”

Tom knows he’s only counting the boys. Girls don’t count with wizards like him.

“I know how you know what happened, but...”

“Oh, all of Slytherin house knows what happened.” Evan announces casually, “Lane is a celebrity, and you are mythical.” 

The word pleases him. “Nemesis?”

“Partly. Slughorn had a talk too. About inter-house conflicts and the weight that dark spells have on you. The usual nonsense.” Evan rolls his eyes again, “She, though, she really turned the story to favor the two of you.” A clearing of his throat, he flexes his shoulders and enunciates in a hilariously accurate Nemesis voice: “He was a terrible brute! Pissy because of a lost duel in something that didn’t even matter!” Tom almost chuckles at his heightened pitch, “Attacked Tom while his back was turned like a recreant! If it wasn’t for Lane, I’m sure that Dumbledore would have found reason to investigate all of Slytherin house! Especially after Ian had the gall to try the cruciatus curse in Dueling Club!”

It’s amusing but a little hard to follow, he blinks, “Investigate?”

“Ah, right, you’re…” He muses for the right word, “New.” His hands fold together, “It’s no secret what our house’s reputation is yes? A festering pit for dark wizards...ridiculous.” He huffs, “We’re devious, but far from evil. The problem is that some of us aren’t very good at covering our tracks.” Tsk tsk, “Parents and politicians from other houses have been demanding an investigation into the lives of students for decades. Dumbledore notwithstanding.”

“Dumbledore has children?”

Dumbledore is Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot.” He stays silent. Evan continues without waiting for a response, “It’s good that Lane’s a Slytherin instead of a damn lion or badger. Maybe now those rumors will start having some truth to them.”

It’s a curious thought to have, but if Evan were older, Tom can imagine him smoking a cigarette during this conversation, looking annoyed and tired as he is. “Truth?”

“That the darkness in Slytherin isn’t all encompassing. Just a few bad eggs.” His hand taps on the cover of his book, “Dark spells are in most of our blood, but it means nothing--Do you know when you’re being released?”

Too much information in such a short span of time hurts his still muffled head. He rubs his eyes, “Sunday, if all goes well?”

Evan nods to himself, satisfied, “Expect lots of visitors today then, Tom. You’ll be sick of it.” A gesture to the box of candies, “Enjoy these, by the way, they’re from Acwellan. She’d be here yelling your ear off, but she had other obligations.” 

Ugh, thank God, he could not take Hedwig’s yelling at this hour with how he’s feeling, “Nothing from you? I’m hurt.”

He tucks his book under his arm, “My family’s get-well gift should be here later today.” A curt nod, “But if you’re really so wounded, I’ll smuggle some cauldron cakes to you after dinner.”

“--Wait.” It slips out, Evan pauses, “Do you know where Ximena is?”

He raises his chin, “No. No one’s seen her since yesterday.”

When Evan leaves Tom to head to breakfast, he sinks into his bed a little more, wanting to bury himself under the covers.

.

If Tom didn’t know any better, he would think he was beloved by all of Slytherin house--and a few more outside of it. Students he’s never talked to (or at least, he doesn’t remember talking to them) visit him with sympathies and flowers. Classmates come with candies and pastries. Teachers come to commend him for his actions (inactions?) and offer extensions to deadlines for assignments he’s already completed days ago. He has a growing collection of little cards with colorful, animated pictures and words that he can’t even look at for longer than a few seconds thanks to the medicine (the eyestrain is painful). The flowers by contrast are less annoying, but still irritating. He had to ask a mediwitch on duty to dull the contrasting and mixing smells, however mild they were (his wand is being kept from him for ‘his own safety’). The candies and sweets are fine. He likes those best, but the mediwitches are storing most of them away from him. Hags.

If Tom didn’t know any better, he would think Ximena became an overnight martyr. Prefects ask him to compliment her on their behalf, younger students whom he half-remembers from varied and scattered study sessions look at him with stars in their eyes and ask when Ximena will be coming back, Slytherin’s head boy comes to apologize for Ian and tells Tom If you and Lane need anything, I won’t ask questions. When people ask where she is, he doesn’t know what to tell them all. He blacked out. The last he saw of her, she was...She had just disarmed Ian. No she wasn’t injured, he doesn’t think.

And yes--the attention he is receiving is half the fault (the result of) Ximena and Ian combined, but at least people are remembering his triumph now. How embarrassing it must have been for Ian to be bested. At least, even if it’s not how he planned, there is a spotlight on Ximena again. And this time, it’s not just a handful of students, it’s the entire school.

The part he hates most about this, though, is the people giving him sly looks and winks, assuring him that this must mean she returns his feelings. Idiots.

Despite the armful and a half of insipid people stopping by to see him, there’s about seven conversations held with his fellow students that stay with him for the rest of the week:

.

“Where the fuck is Lane, I would have figured she’d be stuck to your damn side like glue after this.”

“--I assume she’s still being questioned about what happened.”

“For what? Why wouldn’t she be back?”

“--She’s not in trouble for what she did?”

“What, defending her underclassman from an idiot?” Hedwig starts up before something clicks in her brain: she pauses in speaking, brows furrowing, “Are you--” Too loud, too loud, she moves to a whisper, “Are you telling me it was Lane that left that gobshite looking like a flambéd goat?”

He mirrors her look, intrigued and alert suddenly, “...Do people think he just burned himself?”

Oh,” She chuckles, and it’s a foreign sound, but a pleasant one, “Oh Tom, you--You fucking geebag.” Her hand comes up to rub at her eyes, “Fucking Satia. I didn’t think she had it in her.” A heavy sigh, “This changes things.”

He doesn’t sit up from the bed like he wants to, but merely stares, “Changes what?”

“Everything.”

“Are you being unhelpfully vague on purpose?”

“Ya, fuck you too, Tom.” A strong punch to his arm in good jest (still hurts), “Don’t worry about it, just eat your sweets.”

She’s holding this over his head and she knows it, “I’m not allowed to know about the status of my housemate?”

“Lane’s fine, you knob, she’ll probably just be expelled.” That is not at all his definition of fine, “Dippet has the Rosiers on his arse, and we all know where Slughorn’s priorities lie.” She picks up one of his boxes of fudge flies and shamelessly opens it to eat some. Tom’s not invested enough to care. “She’ll be out sooner than she can say ‘expelliarmus’.”

“Evan didn’t mention anything like that--”

A snort, “That fucking pox, he’s only considering what his family will do to her probably.” The crunch from the chocolate is very unpleasant. Almost as if Hedwig really were eating flies, “What did he tell ya? Personal vendetta? Indentured servitude?”

“--He didn’t say anything like that.”

“Huh.” Though she keeps eating, she looks perplexed, “Maybe they haven’t decided yet.”

“I thought people weren’t supposed to interrupt fights like that. Wouldn’t she be in hot water because she intercepted the attack meant to me?”

It’s rare when Hedwig doesn’t know the answer to something. She shrugs, “It’s not an official duel, Tom. It shouldn’t be, anyways. But like I said: these things are vague on purpose.” Her hands put away the fudge flies and move onto some shock-o-chocs, “He could plead that he was defending his honor or some shite, and that Lane stopped him from doing do. There’s no other witnesses but you, and you have a bias.”

“They can’t just prove that he’s lying?”

“Oh yeah, golden idea, Tom; Veritaserum is illegal to use on minors.” Verita-what, “I suppose you could pick everyone’s memory of the event and compare them in a pensive,” What, “but Lane’s head is all fucked up, they could damage up her brain more.” Can’t magic get around that? Or cure her of her damn memory loss? “Maybe your brain got fecked up too, I hear the spell he used tore your hat to shreds.”

Hm. He had forgotten about that--It was secondhand, but it was still expensive. Getting another won’t be easy, “I assure you, my mind is as healthy as ever.”

“Ya sure--What school do you think she’ll apply to? Beauxbatons? St. Columba’s?” Saint what, “I’d bet Durmstrang, but it’s hell to get in. Don’t think she’ll be able to with her grades.” She pauses in her chewing, “But then again, I guess she is full of surprises.” Hedwig shrugs stuffing more chocolate in her mouth, “Guess you like her for a reason, huh?” A teasing, good natured, absolutely cruel chuckle, “Maybe I’ll have you screen my potential fiancés for me. Make sure I get the pick of the litter.”

.

“I brought you some pierogi.” Good, Madam Belfast is late with his lunch.

His eyes brighten up and he sits up in his bed, “For me?” He has no idea what that is, but it smells heavenly.

Elle smiles gently, “My brother got hit with a slicing hex from a nasty boy back in his fifth year--These things will do you wonders.” Such radiating kindness. A Hufflepuff poster child. She sets the covered plate aside a few obnoxiously colored packages, looking unassuming, “You’re not...allergic to potatoes, are you?”

God no, “No no, thankfully no. Thank you, Kowalska. You shouldn’t have.” Her smile of relief is a little pathetic, and she uncovers the plate, releasing warm steam.

“I always make extra, it’s alright.” Her wand appears, a swish and a tap, and she transfigures a discarded candy box into a small gold platter before stacking on the strange, dumpling like food, “They’re a bit like, ah, sopaipillas...That food Lane was having for dinner the night, um…” The night Ian attacked him. He remembers. They looked different than this, but the texture is...similar enough.

“You pay attention to Lane’s food too?”

“Oh, um,” Her near-white skin hides nothing when she blushes, “I...yes. I always do. Even in passing.” He supposes that makes sense, considering her relation to gastronomy, “It’s so interesting! I would love to try and taste a sample one day.” She passes the food to him.

“Why don’t you just ask? I’m sure she’d be alright with it.” That’s a lie, Ximena is aggressively defensive about people picking things off her plate. Something his ex-mentor continues to ignore at his own peril.

Elle shakes her head, “Oh no, I could never. It would feel...wrong.” His brow cocks, “There’s something ritualistic about her meals, I can’t...put my finger on it.” She chuckles, “It’s something I can understand.”

Calculation, “...I can introduce you, if you’d like.”

“Re--No, I couldn’t do that.”

“It’s really no trouble.” If anything, it would be to his benefit.

“I’ll...I’ll think about it.” Her hands clasp in her lap, her right index finger tapping on her knuckle, “--Please, eat. They’ll get cold.”

He does. They’re fluffy and delightful. He knows by the end of the plate, he’ll have gained ten whole stones, hyperbole be damned.

“...Have you heard anything about her?”

Chew and swallow, “I’ve heard a lot of things.” Three different stories thus far, “I was hoping you knew something.”

“Oh--No, no, the Slytherins know the most on what will happen, these sort of...things are their territory.” A sigh, “My snake told me a bit about it before she graduated. You’re all sort of your own little micronation in that house, you know? I’m surprised you haven't developed your own currency, how can you keep up?”

Can’t argue with that, “It’s...a learning curve.” He’s so fucking lost, “But so far, even the smartest in my year have different ideas on what will happen to her.”

“Mm.” Her nervous tick continues, her finger accelerating, “The boy who attacked my brother was also a pureblood, but he wasn’t like...like Rosier.” Tom can tell she’s trying so hard to stay impartial, but he won’t blame her one bit if she slips and calls Ian a right prat, “It was a Potter...Fleamont? Feodore? Something weird like that.” Another sigh, and it feels like she’s going to depress all the air out of her body, “They were fighting over a girl of all things. It got out of hand and,” a shrug, “--they both ended up here.” She shakes her head, “The Potters are a good, reasonable family, but a few of their members demanded a trial. I suppose, if I had to ponder a guess, that this situation would reap the opposite effect. Many demand a trial, few are level headed enough to remember that the witches involved are children...” Elle trails off, not wanting to continue. 

“--Do you have some time tomorrow? That’s when I’m getting released, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about Transfiguration.”

The older witch perks up, beams even, “Of course! I’d be happy to help with whatever you need.”

.

“Hey there Tommy Gun,” Oh fucking Christ, Merlin, and Circe, “What’s the gag? Good to see you in one piece!”

“Hello Miller,” He tries to look tired, maybe he’ll excuse himself out of politeness. “Did someone say I was broken in half?” He says with a yawn.

A beautiful laugh, “A few people told me you were shredded up like a mouse by a cat! But I know these kinds of things get a bit exaggerated when pulled through the mill.” He elbows Tom’s side softly as he sits, “Ya get it? Mill? Miller?”

Good fuck, what does Ximena see in this boy, “Mm.” A soft smile, he flutters his eyelids like he’s about to pass out any second, “Well, thank you for visiting me,”

“Of course! I can’t be left out from this! Have to contribute my own offering to your pile.” Offering...he likes that word. A tribute from a conquered city. A sacrifice from worshippers. Tom will allow it.

“Oh you shouldn’t have.”

“Nah, what I shouldn’t have done was pin the blame on my friend for our third year prank--This is different.” He shows off a golden box, the size of a whiffle ball, and shakes it. “Good ol’ American hospitality. Nothing like it!” He sets it atop of a box of jelly slugs, and Tom’s grateful he doesn’t expect him to open it in front of him, “You might not know what to do with it, it’s kind of a regional thing, even back home! Just break it up immediately, okay?”

...Break his gift? “Okay.” No time to ask, he wants him gone so he can nap.

“Looking at your hoard, you’d think you were some kind of dictator.” He chuckles as Tom sends him a questioning look, “I mean--The more afraid of you people are, the more flowers you get [1]. It’s something my mama says a lot. But you’re a good kid. Hard boiled [2], too.”

Hm. People being so afraid of him that even when he’s sick or injured, they cower and bring him tokens of their loyalty. Adam is full of good ideas today. Maybe he’ll let him stay a while.

Tom inclines his head in a humble bow, “I do my best.”

“Well your best is pretty darn good. Ya got moxie. All the teachers talk about you when the rest of us upperclassmen are slacking.”

He preens, “Oh?” He knew this already, but he likes hearing it.

“Oh ya. ‘Mena too, but it’s not as constant, she’s a quiet dame.” Oh? Talk more about that, “You already know--We’ll be in the library chatting about something and she brings you up. Usually about some interesting insights or something you’ve said about the subject.”

At least he’s not being misplaced anymore, “I feel honored.”

“Eh.” He nods in agreement, “Smart cookie.”

“Do you help her in anything else besides Divination?”

“Oh yeah, lots of things. She’s an eager beaver. Potions, History, Care of Magical Creatures...I don’t think she really needs it, but she likes learning. It’s cute. Like watching a lil kid grow up and learn to walk before your eyes.”

.

“You have Lane’s bracelet.”

“...How long have you known?”

“Since the day she lost it.” He doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t show anything on his face. Not a single raised goose pimple or bead of sweat on his brow. “I could see it from Burma. Were you ever planning on giving it back?”

Eventually almost comes out of his mouth, but it doesn’t. He doesn’t know how, but Yami would know that he’s lying, “...What does it matter to you?” If she really cared, she’d have told Lane, right? She’s had a year. Almost over a year.

She sits with her legs crossed, hands on her knee. The heel she has planted on the ground taps once. It echos with impatience in the empty ward, “Do you know what it is that my family does, Riddle?”

There’s that feeling again: that she’s already judged him without listening to all his perfectly valid reasons. That he’s under a test. “They’re curse breakers.”

A nod, though her brows raise, “In a way...Curses are...different here than they are elsewhere.” He’s about to ask ‘where is elsewhere?’, but she continues before he can, “At home, a curse is something you inflict on yourself. Carried through other lives, other actions. It bears your name and your name only. It is no one’s fault but your own.” She pinches a piece of lint off her lap, shooing it away, “So as you can imagine, Lane’s case interests me greatly.”

Her case as in the situation at hand or as in his classmate is cursed?

“Do tell her hello for me when she’s back.”

“--You think she’ll come back?” He tries not to sound too eager at the prospect.

“Of course.” Her gaze steadies down to his pocket, where the bracelet rests, “Did you think she would leave that behind?”

His mind searches for corresponding answers from the pages of the book Ximena lent him, head filled with ink and figures, “So, she is cursed, then?”

Yami nods her head down in confirmation, but also gestures in a so-so manner with her hand, the gold bangles on her wrist jingling. Excitement spikes up his spine, “I trust you won’t go spreading that information around.” It’s not a question. She knows. That he wants to keep everything that counts as a secret to himself. Is it so easy to figure him out?

“Of course.”

Another nod, “A good favor to keep for a friend.” --Does she know his crush is fake? “It shouldn’t be hard to keep another.”

Yes. She wouldn’t dare offer him her silence without expecting anything in return. It’s nothing personal, he understands, it’s only business. As expected from a Slytherin prefect.

But she doesn’t say what she wants, or needs, merely wishes him a good day, leaves her gift of fresh fruit (did she say that red one was called a persimmon?) and walks out.

.

“That filthy Muggle lover had no right to do what she did!”

Miss Rosier, you will take care not to shout in my hospital wing!

Tom hides his smile behind the piece of chocolate he’s snacking on.

Druella is, by far, the worst visitor he’d had today--Peeves included. At least he had something intelligent to say.

She huffs, biting back her tongue, “I know my cousin already visited with you, what did he say.” Who does this girl think she is making commands at him? She’s only above him in money.

“Evan wished me well and said a package from his family would arrive later today.”

This information, of course, does not please her. Her hands ball into fists, gripping her gold trimmed robes, and she looks like she’s resisting the urge to strangle the life out of Tom. He keeps eating his chocolate.

She did that to him! I know it, Ian would never be so idiotic as to burn himself.” Her lower volume is still, remarkably, loud. Impressive. “He practically invented expulso. He mastered it in three months!” They both have different ideas of ‘mastered’, then.

“Does your family often teach dark curses to their children?”

Ohh, that was something she shouldn’t have said. Her heavy eyes narrow, annoyed that she was so careless, “Of course! All the right houses do.” Weak defence. Druella moves so erratically, her hat almost falls off her head. “You were there, Riddle, tell them the truth! Bring justice to my family’s name--I’m sure Ian didn’t mean it, he has a stupid temper when people best him: he almost handicapped my sister over a chess match!”

No, this is much more fun, “I don’t know what happened: I passed out from blood loss before the fire started.”

An exasperated ugh, she rubs her eyes, “That idiot...beaten by an Indian.”

Huh. “Ximena’s not from India.” Probably.

Whatever.” She waves her hand, looking tired, “All those unsavory bunch, they all look well enough the same, what does it matter where they’re from?” 

Mm. This again. If she actually paid attention to their faces, she’d see how wrong she was, but he won’t tell her that, “Perhaps you are in need of some spectacles, then?”

Druella is by far the shortest visit.

.

“Hon, you look like hell.”

“Hell must be remarkably charming, then.”

Mali chuckles, not taking a seat, but remaining standing instead, “I see why all the girls won’t stop talking about you.” ...Girls? There’s more than Nemesis? Sweet Salazar.

His displeasure must show on his face because Mali’s smile grows wider, “Don’t like girls yet, huh?”

Yet is a very very conditional word.” He’s never seen himself as someone who could stand being around someone long enough to woo them, much less marry them. Even marrying for the sake of getting into a better family sounds exhausting.

“What about boys, then?”

If Tom were eating, he’d choke on his food in surprise. Homosexuality was more than taboo in the presense of the Wool’s workers, it was a one way ticket to having at least two of the caretakers eye you warily and suggest taking you to a priest and doctor. Nevermind the horridly loud rants that Mrs. Cole would dole out. He assumed it was the same with wizards (no one had mentioned anything to the contrary, after all, and most of them are rather concerned with breeding...) Is Mali trying to trick him?

He plays it safe, “I don’t find anything particularly alluring about either gender.” He’s as equally attracted to the pretty girl as to the ugly one and the handsome boy as to the hideous one. That is to say: not at all.

“That’s fair.” Mali nods once, “You’re still young anyways, there’ll be plenty of time for that later if you like.” He would not like to ever, thank you, “Adolescence hits us all differently.” Oh God, is she going to give him a talk.

“I didn’t think you’d come and visit me.” Quick change of subject, thank you!

“And miss the martyr of the century?”

What curious wording, “I wasn’t attacked for my beliefs.” Just for being exceptional.

“Maybe not, but you do suffer constantly from those pigheaded boys in your houses.”

“Touché. But I’m sure the pigheaded boys in Hufflepuff house are just as bad.”

“They’re a...different brand of bad.”

“A rose by any other name.”

She turns her head to the side at him, “A perfect Slytherin quoting Muggle literature?”

“I’m told he was a wizard.”

Mali snorts, “Bullshit. That’s a lie they made up so they could keep reading his works without guilt or hypocrisy.” Yes...that sounds more like reality. “I hear the Japanese changed the name of baseball in their language so they could keep playing it. They wanted to ban everything that wasn’t from their culture, but they love baseball too much to give it up.” She tsks, “Not sure if that’s true, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that it was. The more things change the more they stay the same.”

“How cynical.” He agrees.

“Speaking of cynical,” she starts up as if the topic had just come up in her head, “what do you think of all these rumors going around about the fate of my little viper?”

He’s not sure. There’s much to think. Everyone has given him a goddamn different story, and he doesn’t like most of them for different reasons. “I think people have a lot of free time.”

“You got that right. Damn kids have nothing else better to do but squabble like shaken hens.” Kids? Mali is barely a teenager herself. “It’s about the same back home: the most interesting thing that can happen is a near-death experience. Tell me, what would you like to happen to your remains after you’ve passed?”

The question is completely out of left field. And if he’s being honest, he doesn’t want to think of himself in the terms of mortal. In the conditions of mortality. He finally got all that horrific imagery out of his head only for this damn girl to bring it all back.

But thankfully he doesn’t have to answer, because she laughs at him, “Sorry, it’s kind of a random question, it’s just been on my mind.” She rubs the back of her neck, “In Alchemy, we talk to the dead sometimes. Nothing dark, mind you, just your casual communicating with human skulls in the light of a full moon.” Oh yes, as one does, “And...Good gracious, it’s so morbid. Someone took those poor sons of witches out of their resting place for their own gain and just...never put them back.” Her arms cross, “Maybe we can’t even put them back anymore because no one knows where they’re buried. They have to be used like this, constantly, never being able to rest…” She sighs, “I bring it up because...Even they take up their time with arbitrary gossip. One moment they’re telling you how to transmute gold and the next, they’re speaking about something dramatic that happened Beyond the Veil. We never change.” 

.

“Miss me?” His ex-guide is the last thing Tom needs to see right now: he’s eating some cauldron cakes.

“Not particularly.” Tom isn’t joking, but the other boy laughs anyways.

“Sorry I couldn’t drop in earlier, I had some business to attend to.” Chasing skirts again, no doubt. Chasing robes? Witches didn’t wear skirts unless they were Muggleborn.

“Busy with Slug Club?”

He blows air out of his mouth, “I think not--All Sluggy can talk about is the sad state of affairs in Slytherin house...To the rest of us snakes, of course. The rest just get cautionary tales of ‘you can never be too careful. I reckon he thinks himself to be like Beedle the Bard--Has he visited you yet? You’re one of his favourites.”

“I was asleep when he came.” Fake asleep, but that doesn’t matter.

“Eh, that’s for the best, he’s been very on edge. Some of the other professors are doubting his leadership as Head of House. As if all the clan brats in Slytherin are so easy to keep track of.” He shakes his head, “I know for a fact that the ones in Gryffindor are worse than we are. Only we have dark magical centers, so that places us on a watchlist.”

“And dark isn’t evil.” It’s not a question, but not exactly a statement.

“Right you are, Tom.” He adjusts himself, leaning back in the chair and spreading his knees apart, “Looks like I taught you well.” Ugh. “And I guess Eric’s mentorship wasn’t all for naught: our girl held her own, I hear.”

Our girl. Pleh. “From what I remember, she was very precise.” That’s not incriminating, right? “I think Ian was very heated up, so that worked to her advantage.”

“Pshh, you know Ian almost got Gryffindor? He begged the hat to place him into Slytherin.”

What.

The older boy leans in closer, “It’s true, I heard my mother talking about it with his--And I’m not surprised. His complexion looks far better with red and gold anyways.”

There’s a moment where Tom tries to process all of this...It makes sense. His infuriating stubbornness, brash personality, his ego...The boy during their match, the one that taunted Ian into (nearly) casting an Unforgivable...That was a Gryffindor, and he used the word mudblood. Tom hadn’t thought about it before, but that was a bit unusual wasn’t it? Weren’t lions all against that sort of thing? Or…

“Do you think the hat made a mistake?”

“If it did, it won’t admit to it: damn thing always stands by its final decisions, apparently. Even centuries after they’re made.” He yawns, scratching at his cheek where the suggestion of facial hair was beginning to grow in, “Baby Rosier is a good Slytherin, by most standards, but he would certainly be a better Gryffindor. You’d have to be brave to try and cast the Cruciatus Curse so carelessly. Or stupid.” Brave and stupid are often the same thing. “Even if he did, it probably wouldn’t have done anything: you have to really feel it, and he was probably just pissy because he was losing to you.”

Magic is not free from passion. He remembers, “So, I wouldn’t have felt anything?”

Well, I wouldn’t say that.” What the hell would you say, then? “He has the right stuff for it, but I don’t think you’d feel unbelievable pain. Probably the worst you’ve had, but nothing compared to the real thing.”

“Would he have still gone to Azkaban, then?” 

“He wouldn’t have gone to Azkaban if he had murdered you right then and there: he’s a Rosier!” Hn.

“He has family in the Wizengamot, then?”

“Most worthy families have at least one seat, but the Rosier’s real power comes from the people whose campaigns they fund.” He squints, thinking, “I think they have someone in parliament? From one of the lower branches. Not important.” 

“You know so much,” he’s more useful than he lets on, “you could probably represent Ximena in this whole ordeal.” Do wizards have lawyers?

“I might.” Huh, “Well--My father. I can pull a few favors for a housemate.”

“Favors?”

“Mmm, investments.” There it is, “Lane might not have a lot of weight to her name, but everyone has something to trade. It’s good to have a couple of spoons in everyone’s cauldron.”

Yes, but Tom has spent most of his first year making sure to hoard said cauldron all to himself, “Ambitious.”

He laughs, “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

.

There was a sprinkle of more visitors after his ex-guide came around, but Belfast quickly shooed them away once it was getting close to curfew. She looked over his state, changed his bandages, and assessed that he would be a free agent tomorrow morning. A marvelous recovery under her supervision of course, though Tom doesn’t feel like she did much beyond nag at him and give him dizzying medicine.

He has a dreamless sleep.

.

There’ll be scars, at first, faint and noticeable once his hair grows back to its length on that side of his head, but otherwise, he has survived and come out of this unscratched.

You were very lucky, Mister Riddle.” Madam Belfast tells him as another mediwitch helps him out of his bandages, “That hex could have cut off your head.” Don’t remind him, he’s been trying to forget. “I’ll send you off with Miss Travers to accompany you to the Great Hall, they should be serving lunch right now.” Travers, the eighteen year old intern beside Belfast curtseys once in greeting, staying silent, “Don’t let me see you back here again.” As if any of this was his fault. Preposterous.

He nods his head courteously, vowing to obey, and thanks the staff present for taking care of him, as well as apologizing for any trouble he might have caused (which was none: he was a perfect patient.) 

Tom walks out with the mediwitch intern, all his get-well gifts having been transferred to his bedside via house elf (he greeted Pris neutrally), and a single, unopened package from the Rosier patriarch and his wife under his arm.

Evan waits, as if he were personally alerted of Tom’s departure, at the doorway of the Great Hall. He greets Travers with a smile and asks how his cousin (her father) fairs, before taking her charge.

“Doesn’t it exhaust you to keep track of so many family members?”

“Doesn’t it exhaust you to be at the top of the year constantly?”

“It’s my natural place in life.”

His companion turns to look at him, “There you go.”

Still doesn’t make any sense to him.

The two, however, don’t get far enough to reach their usual seats and continue any conversation before a voice calls out--“Riddle. Sit with us, won’t you?” That sounds like Katux, but it can’t be--Tom will eat his shoes if it is. He turns around, Katux and Dion are sitting primly at their special seat in the Slytherin section along with a handful of others. Well there go his shoes. “Evan is welcome too.”

Only he can hear Evan’s heh sound. He waits until Tom moves to sit anyways. Good.

“Recovering well?” Katux doesn’t bother for a formal introduction, Tom remembers the faces of his would-be bullies. 

He smiles at them all, showing teeth. “Wonderfully, thank you, Lestrange.”

“Ian didn’t rough you up too bad?” Dion asks, overly excited and leaning over his breakfast.

A hand is waved as Tom’s plate fills with sausages, “Nothing but scratches.” He makes a show of looking as nonchalant as possible.

Katux chuckles, “Indeed. If a second year bested him so easily, I expect that a witch of all people in his own year could do the same. Especially one that could manipulate fire like that. I admit, I didn’t understand what the point of following around that girl for all of your first year,” Girl? Tom wonders if it’s better or worse to not even be good enough to be referred to by name or to be referred to by insult, “But after your victory over Rosier and seeing how she left him, I see you have a good eye for...usefulness.” Katux plays with the flame of a candle next to him as he talks, looking at him with an elegant smile on his face--He probably thinks he looks so cool. Greasy git.

Tom furrows his brows, ignoring Evan’s little smirk out of the corner of his eye, “Lane never cast any fire hexes, if that’s what you’re implying. Those are all much above her year level.”

Katux snorts (fairly uncharacteristic coming from him), and eats more of his eggs, “Yes, of course she didn’t. Ian Rosier simply burned himself, I forgot.”

“That’s what the Priori Incantatem said.” Evan confirms, “Expulso, correct?” A glance at Tom.

Ah yes, Evan knew; he almost forgot about that, “It was very clumsy and poorly executed, even a first year could have done better.” It really wasn’t that bad. Just out of control. Impassioned and...everywhere. Something he learned by watching his elder siblings, no doubt. Druella said he had mastered it, but what frame of reference is she using for that? Evan might know. In fact, he might know the spell himself.

“Get your news straight from the source, Evan?” Dion quips.

“It was the first thing said to me by Auntie Sirona.”

“Salazar, I can see her ugly pug face now.” Dion replies as Katux looks thoughtful and the rest of their group chuckle, “She must have been furious.”

“She was rather calm about it, actually.” Evan cuts his food, looking bored with the topic, “I imagine once Ian is home from St. Mungo’s, he’ll feel her full wrath.”

A blanket of morbidity covers the table. Some of the boys pause in their eating. Was Nemesis right about the curse of pain being used as discipline in their families? Or are they all being melodramatic again?

A break in the thick silence, “I underestimated you, Riddle.” Yes, he knows that, Katux, “Very clever of you to have your little guard dog do the dirty work.”

He’s trying to bait him. Ximena is far from a dog, and Tom is far from needing protection like that. He was simply taken by surprise. He could have gotten away with maiming Rosier like he deserved if only Nemesis weren’t there...Would Ximena have told him to run and get a teacher? Or let him try and fight alongside her? Let him have the final hit? “Oh Lestrange, you know me well enough to know I always do my own work.”

Katux flinches. Good. Maybe that’ll help him remember his place.

Tom steers the conversation away from Ximena and back onto him, making himself appear both humble and rightfully confident. A victim and a victor. They’re as enthralled by his words as the students were by Ximena’s story last Hallowe’en. As more and more people gather, the wider his grin grows.

 

Chapter Text

The students walking past him in the halls begin to blur together the more he tries to differentiate their identities. They look at him and smile. Tell him hello. Expect something from him. It's eerie. Irritating. But powerful. His sudden flare of popularity help cushion the fact that he hasn't been allowed his wand back. More of the boys turn to look at him when he speaks. They do not interrupt him or roll their eyes anymore. They stop talking when he talks. They listen. When he walks down the corridors, they follow. It's wonderful. Brings him a beautiful rush of blood to the head and heart. Tingles down his spine.

All this from just a year's work? Where will he be at seventeen? Hopefully he'll have his wand back by then.

The morning of Ximena's court date is chilly. Petrichor surrounds him and Nemesis as they walk together across the cloister. She holds a dragonskinbound notebook to her chest, trying to chat about arbitrary things like the weather or classroom assignments. There's a few wandering eyes around them both, so it's not like she can really discuss what's on both their minds. Nemesis is smarter than that. She has to be, otherwise, what is he doing pretending to be her friend?

"Have you ever used floo, Tom?"

"I've only read about it." Quite recently, in fact.

"Oh it's easy, I'll explain it," Nemesis teaches him like he were a lost child, and he supposes, in some sick way, that he is. But it's no reason to think him stupid. Calling out the same of a place before dropping some magic powder is not exactly a science (in fact, nothing about magic is a science.) But he still listens. Nods his head and thanks her for her lesson.

Headmaster Dippet has the only fireplace authorized for floo use in Hogwarts. Safe and easy to regulate, but not very convenient for anyone having to leave the school in a hurry. Tom had inquired about possibly leaving using a side-along apparation, just to experience it, but the wards around the school would not allow it. Again, a reasonable, safe and secure decision, but one that inconveniences him, so he doesn't like it. Upon hearing what apparition was from Elle, he has been very eager to try his hand at it--Or at least know what it was like by proxy. The only people around him that he could reliably have that experience with were teachers (he doesn't trust any of those clown seventh years as far as he could throw them), and naturally, none of the teachers have any reason to apparate anywhere with him.

Everything would be much easier if people would just do as he says.

"Would you like me to go first?"

No. "Yes, please."

Nemesis smiles and soon disappears in a green flare within the abnormally large fireplace. It's strange, he thinks, to see someone go up in flame without screaming. She had told him to not fear the floo fire, and he figures he holds as much trust in her as Moses probably did when first encountering that burning bush, which is to say: none.

He steps forward anyways. Adjusts the new hat given to him by Evan's parents: a statement. He's supported. Has powerful people on his side. He can play the role of a grateful boy, he can be sweet. This entire day could go his way.

Flames engulf him, and he feels ashy. Fragile, a light breeze could spirit him away if it came. When the flames subside, he steps out of a cool, black fireplace and stands alongside a waiting Nemesis, looking prim.

The shiny interior of the Ministry building makes Tom take back all previous thoughts he had first had about Hogwarts being ostentatious. The obsidian floors and walls, polished to the point of perfect reflection, make it appear as if there are thousands of wizards in the hall rather than only dozens. In fact, he spends the first two minutes of his walk trying to figure out how wide the corridor is to fit so many people, it's dizzying. He doesn't notice until he catches his own blue-eyed reflection, (and half startles himself) that the Ministry is not, in fact, infinite in space. This place was made to intimidate. Be a statement of power. The opposite of Hogwarts. His eyes linger on the stalwart [1] statues of imposing wizards whose eyes seem to follow him as he walks past them. As if they knew he didn't belong. It's worse than the bustling adults brushing by him and paying him absolutely no mind.

He sticks his gaze straight ahead as best he can, the same as his companion.

Nemesis is his guide dog for this. His expert. He doesn’t want to look like he’s following her around the maze that is the Ministry, but it’s difficult to keep a brisk enough pace to stay alongside her whilst paying attention to the direction she’s going in. Difficult to not stare at the absurd architecture of the Ministry's interior: both fantastic and ridiculous at the same time. Nemesis looks perfectly in her environment, she only looks straight ahead. Walks securely, as if she had all the right in the world to be strutting down the halls of the Ministry, but Tom can see her shake. Her amber eyes darting around, searching for something.

“Are you nervous?”

She flinches, glancing at him, “...Yes, maybe.” A deep breath, “A trial like this is so unnecessary, Tom. Normally, a single witch would be assigned the case, and the trial would be done in the office of the Head of Magical Law Enforcement. At least, looking at other school rumbles…” They turn a corner, beginning their descent down a spiral set of stairs, “I read through the minutes of a lot of cases during my holidays, and there’s been scores worse than this. I really believe they might actually convict Lane of something.”

Despite the Unforgivable?”

She tenses, “That is a part of this trial too...But I am not sure what will come out of it. I have some ideas…” How annoying. But she’s the closest ally he has in this: he’s walking into this courtroom blindly. No adult can be trusted with his questions on what happens in these things. Nemesis will have to do. She'll keep the secret out of some sort of perceived camaraderie. Slytherins take care of their own.

Tom makes a note to thank her later.

The further their descent, the darker it becomes, despite the torches (of which do not emit any perceivable heat) lining the wall. In fact, the lights become weaker. So much that he has to squint to see in front of him, and he resigns to finally walking behind Nemesis. Her stark blonde hair catches the miniscule amount of light fine enough for him to follow. He puts his hand out to run over the cobbled wall to his left, fingers grazing gently, hoping for some kind of hold should he lose his balance. His steps don't slow down anymore than they have been, but he still waits until he hears the steps of Nemesis before continuing onward--How can she be so confident in her gait with this darkness? Is there a spell to gain night vision--No, she would have told him, of course she would. Perhaps she is used to taking these steps, the same way he memorized the steps at Wool's: he could climb them blind without any hindrance. Without any creaks to give away his position.

Did Dippet, he wonders, send news of his injury to Wool's? It's a responsibility of his, considering Tom has no other formal guardian. He almost chuckles as he thinks about it: Dippet seems insistent on believing that he is as beloved back at the orphanage as he is here at Hogwarts. The look on his face when Tom told him that he didn't expect any visitors from back home was oddly satisfying. 'No sir, not even if the war wasn't happening, I expect. Would you care for some jelly beans?' Ha. Maybe now he'll try and see reason when Tom pushes for staying over the summer, old laws be damned.

...And then there was Dumbledore's offer...What did he call it? A temporary guardian. An apprenticeship of sorts. Nothing as permanent (as binding) as a formal adoption, which was growing more and more unappealing everyday--No wizards frequented Wool's, and a Muggle claiming him as their child repulsed him greatly. Not to mention they would, undoubtedly, be massively disappointed in him, no matter if they wanted a free servant or a genuine connection. Tom isn't a mule, it's part of the reason he didn't allow himself to be whisked off to Merlin knows where along with London's other children. He'd sooner kill his new parents, and that will not be so easy to erase now that Dumbledore has his eye on him. If the hypothetical parents in question actually desired a child for love (and this, he doubts, because most of these types are looking for a replacement), even worse for them: Tom is away the majority of the year, and has no interest in the lives of Muggles, or their expectations of him. He is himself, first and foremost. 

On the other hand, if a magical couple happened to be impressed by his grades and standing, and inquired the orphanage...It would be conditional. A high profile name like Flint or Carrow is probably out of the question. Families like those are obsessed with blood, so unless they took in another confirmed pureblooded child (that was somehow related to them, of course), there was no chance. Something a little easier to reach would be Weasley, but despite their purity, their poverty shines through. Bloodtraitors, the lot of them, as Hedwig says. They have large families, but little pull. A good medium would be a Longbottom, who seem to be divided into bloodtraitors and proper highbloods depending on the century or branch. Decent money, particularly if you're closer to the Northern Longbottoms. This being said, it's not like he's plotting to be taken into any of these families or anything, it's just good to be ready. As his ex-mentor said: have a spoon in every cauldron.

--Nemesis is speaking, when did they stop walking? Tom blinks out of his thoughts and focuses: someone had asked them if they were lost. Security? He lets her do the talking, only because she spoke first, and undoubtedly knew the employee questioning them. Yes, they're meant to be here, they're witnesses, she says. Witnesses. That was a word for people who saw others die. Not for children who saw a temper tantrum, no matter how violent.

She shows him the signed document allowing their absence from Hogwarts for the trial, and the wizard runs his wand along the surface, scanning. They don't have anything to be nervous about, of course, but he can't help but expect that he'll find something wrong with it. He doesn't, of course, and gives the parchment back to Nemesis, satisfied with his findings. She tucks it back into her formal robes, thanking him as he runs his wand down a line of runes embedded into the cobblestone, which glow a strange, eerie shade of pink as the stones peel themselves away. Again, there is the cold black mirror design, well lit, for the most part. Not stuffed with various wizards, but instead littered with only a handful of them, shuffling through papers and muttering lowly to each other.

"Special entrance." Nemesis tells him as they walk through, "Bit more private than the one used by the public, I'm not really in the mood to be ambushed by photographers."

"Has the world gone so silent that something like this makes top tier news?"

"Only in tabloids, and only rumors have been published...Or so I've been told by father." She glances at him, "It's not just one thing that makes these cases interesting, you have to understand. An Unforgivable being almost cast in Hogwarts is going to garner attention."

He does understand, that's what makes him mad about it.

A few of the wizards greet Nemesis politely, and she greets them in turn as she guides Tom through the small, reclusive area to a large, imposing wooden door that is absolutely out of place in this surreal, mirror design. It belongs in a fairy tale, the sort of door that guards treasure or a princess--Or even a dragon.

When he enters the space behind the door, he tries not to be surprised. Though the room is physically spacious (Tom wonders if it’s bigger than the Wool’s building), it doesn’t feel so. The lack of windows, the dark ceiling, the dull faced Wizengamot members in their lavish plum robes...Good Lord, it really is a dungeon, isn’t it? It’s chillier than the ones at Hogwarts, and he suspects it’s completely on purpose. What could be more unnerving than a freezing room with dozens of judging eyes staring at you? It reminds him of the reprimands he received as a toddler. Stone walls, inhospitable environment, and a cold echo.

He takes a seat alongside Nemesis, east of the chair in the center of the room, feeling ridiculously underdressed despite the glamor charms he placed on his pressed robes to look presentable. Even Nemesis, who is wearing the plainest set of garments he’s ever seen a rich witch wear, appears leagues more elegant than he. Refraining from picking at his clothes, he instead focuses his attention forward, looking serious and well-behaved. Adults love boring, quiet children, it’ll help his credibility. He hopes Ximena does the same.

The seats they choose (and he's not sure if they're required to sit here or not) are a hard, dark, warm wood. The color of strong tea that's been seeped for too long. They're polished and carved with bold sigils, of which he recognises from a few of Hedwig's own books on runes--The ones she doesn't care to read through because she 'doesn't need to'. The benches curve like crescents and resemble the church pews at the little chapel frequented by himself and the orphans a little too much for comfort. Despite the clear difference in material and quality.

As the people around them settle in and take their spots, a few more come into the same section as Nemesis and he: Professor Willow, Merrythought, and Slughorn being the first. There's somber greetings, Willow asks how he's fairing, Merrythought offers a kind smile, and Slughorn pats his shoulder telling him it'll be alright. He can understand why Willow is here, she oversaw his and Ian's duel. Merrythought as well, she can attest to both Ian and Ximena's temperament and skill in DADA...But Slughorn is an interesting choice. An impartial party, speaking fairly on all involved? Stupid. Just because they're all Slytherins, doesn't mean anything. The man has his favorites, and Tom is one of them. That has to be enough.

A yawn, suppressed behind his hand, as he observes a few others enter the chamber: members of press and a couple of public observers here and there. He identifies the important ones by how many Wizengamot members go out of their way to personally say hello to them before the trial. Nemesis, herself, gets ten, including her father (Tom shook his hand) who regards her a little standoffishly. With a thousand-meter stare, he looks right through her instead of at her. Mutters something Tom can’t hear (‘But father!’ Nemesis says), before telling her ‘We’ll talk about it later.’ Judging by his yearmate’s pout, it wasn’t anything serious. At least nothing he would consider serious.

“Alright there, Nemesis?”

“--Yes, thank you.” Her nails tap against the notebook in her lap (for records, she said), “He was...upset about my dresscode. Thinks I should dress more modestly for court.”

How much more modest could she get? She’s covered neck to toe, the only sense of gaudiness coming from the gold buttons on the breast of the robe. If he raises his head to the clothes of others around them, he’ll find much more that were tackier and more obnoxious. Pureblood standards. Figures.

She sniffs and begins writing in the notebook, probably as a distraction.

“--The trial hasn’t even started.”

“I just want a receipt on who’s all here. Outside of the transcript and what’ll show up on the Prophet.” Her hand gestures suddenly, “Look, there’s Spencer-Moon.”

The new Minister for Magic looks tired and haggard, contrast to the lively, youthful disposition of the previous one (a face he only saw in the papers of the Prophet), and much more experienced. A veteran. Tom can already tell he was not elected on family name, but on merit. He does not mention any of this to Nemesis, the wound is probably too fresh for him to press on it.

There’s a small intake of breath as another wizard enters the room: Dumbledore. He’d almost forgotten about him. Chief Warlock, huh? The only difference in his clothing compared to the rest of the court is a bigger hat and a gaudy looking shash draping over his shoulders. Despite the richness of the fabric, it pales in comparison to the wizard’s usual outfits. Damn man was more fashion conscious than half the female student body. He takes his seat alongside the Prime Minister, giving courteous hellos and nods to a few of the other members, including whom Tom assumes is the court reporter (at the ready with a floating quill), and Nemesis’ father.

"When does all this start?"

"After all the members say their hellos." Ugh.

He cracks his knuckles, impatient. Closes his eyes and takes deep breaths, trying to get a better feel of the chamber. To sense the magic in the others around him. He is only partially successful (the ones who frequent court seem to be excellent at hiding magic) before he hears Nemesis again, “Opening statements,” She whispers to him as he opens his eyes--Hears Dumbledore speaking up, “they’re taking a moment to state why we’re here and what Lane and Rosier are accused of.”

When his transfiguration professor talks, the note of authority is undeniable. A step above the disciplinary tone that he uses on the clowns in his classroom. It chills him more than the cold room could ever hope to. It makes his hair stand on end, the way his magic had the night of the attack, just before he had passed out. It’s an alluring sort of authority that Tom craves, but he forces himself to take his eyes off of the wizard. Instead, his eyes wander as Dumbledore greets the room. Across from him are a few Rosiers he recognizes: Evan, Ian’s parents, and a small handful of Dueling Club members. On Evan’s right are who he assumes are his parents: Evan takes after his mother, both with strong, sharp gazes and straight black hair. His father (blond) sits with a cane in his hand, some sort of crest atop of it. They all rest on a higher tier than the other observers, looking down their noses at everyone. 

Evan makes eye contact with him from across the room and nods once in the middle of Dumbledore’s speech. An acknowledgement. Tom nods back.

Nemesis leans in again, her breath touching his ear unpleasantly, “Lane’s trial is first.”

Of course it is, “Even though Ian started everything?”

“They’re going by severity, I think...They could have something up their sleeve as well, I’m not sure.”

Ximena’s name rings through the chamber, and Tom hears a door open. Footsteps. His upperclassman appears, escorted by an older wizard in slick, suave jade green robes, with a bright smile that reminds him of a politician. Some kind of representative to speak on her behalf? Earlier, he had asked Nemesis about a lawyer and was met with genuine curiosity and confusion--Wizard courts don’t make any goddamn sense.

“Is that Lane’s guardian?” 

It takes a second to acknowledge his companion’s words, and another second to notice the quiet figure in the far stands that Nemesis is gesturing to: the same woman who had picked Ximena up from Platform 9¾, comfortably covered head to toe in her habit and robes. She looks bored. Distrustful. The kind of look that Tom imagines mothers make when they arrive home to find it in disarray, either by their children neglecting chores, or by their spouses trying to hide something from them. What really grabs his attention, however, is how nobody else seems to pay her any mind. “I think so. Is she required to have one present?”

Ximena takes her seat at the center of the room as the man stands behind her shoulder--With how grandiose the chair is, she appears a humble queen, and the man in jade her advisor. Nemesis ponders over his question, “Underage witches get to have a guardian at their trials for their own self-interests, they can't really speak for themselves. But Muggle guardians are rare in court...Is she a witch?”

If she is, Ximena never mentioned it. The woman looks as plain and ordinary as she did back in July--Not to mention the mere idea of a nun being a witch is inconceivable...Though, is it? Now that he thinks about it, why is it Saint Mungo's and not just Mungo's? He’s used to hospitals being associated with saints, it’s why he didn’t think anything about it. What was that school Hedwig mentioned...Saint Comb? Saint Camber? He had thought Wizards didn't have Gods, but that was thanks to the lack of any mention of Christ in the school (save for the Muggleborns)...Elle spoke about kosher eating once, why wasn't that a hint to him? Are magical saints different than the Catholic ones? Are the Greek legends just historical figures to them the same as Merlin, or do they pray to them? Worship and sacrifice to them (do people pray to Merlin?)

"I don't know. Ximena is rather private."

In all honesty, he doesn’t care to think about whether the guardian was a witch, when his classmate is right there. It feels like years since he’s seen her. She’s a different person. Almost. Chin up, posture perfect, hair neat and tamed for the first time, in clean Muggle clothing (‘A curious choice.’ Nemesis remarks), and despite the similarities to standard witch robes, Tom has been living around Muggles long enough to recognise the cut of postulant clothes. All eyes in the court are on her, scrutinizing. He does not see the same anxiety he once saw when she first lost the bracelet (is it because she now knows where it is?), nor the same discomfort brought on by a large crowd in the Great Hall (perhaps it’s a calming draught?) She’s the girl he first met that week in the library. The girl who spoke that first Hallowe’en to a secluded audience. A good, polite, meek girl, with just the right amount of self assurance to not come off as arrogant. A perfect court persona.

He wonders if the man in jade advised her on how to present herself.

“Dumbledore will be asking the questions in place of the Minister, I don’t think we have anything to worry about until the other members decide to dig their claws in. They look awfully stern, but most of them are reasonable.”

How promising. He’s not sure if he should trust her judgement. Nor, even, if he should trust his Transfiguration teacher as he speaks to Ximena.

“State your name and blood status to the court.”

“Ximena Lane. I dunno my blood status.”

“And why is that?” 

“I’m a foundlin’.” Tom cocks his brow at the accent, Nemesis murmurs a ‘good touch’ under her breath.

Various members mumble amongst themselves in response, shaking their heads or peering at his classmate with interest. They remind Tom of books he used to look through at Wool’s where various pictures of doctors in white coats could be found: all of them in the middle of surgery or autopsies.

“Are you a citizen of Britain?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you a witch?”

“Yes, sir.”

The only show of impatience on Tom is the soft tapping of his toe. What is this, formalities? Are they laying a baseline for which to detect lies?

“And you attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?”

“Yes, sir.”

Dumbledore nods once, gesturing to the man standing behind Ximena. He saunters in front of her, center of the room and of attention. Declares that Miss Lane is being punished for nothing. For defending a fellow classmate (‘A younger one, at that!’) What proof do they have of her guilt? The simple word of one other student: the student who not only attacked said classmate, but also attempted to cast an Unforgivable on that classmate. The evidence is in her favor: her wand, her history, and her grades.

A stirring speech. He’s managed to keep everyone’s attention--Even some of the members who were busy dozing off. Tom looks back at Ximena: her hands are folded neatly on her lap, she appears as still and serene as a statue. Well behaved.

Nemesis scribbles more down: some sort of shorthand code he can’t decipher.

Someone brings out Ximena’s wand. He leans forward ever so slightly in his seat. The Prime Minister yawns.

“No one has handled Miss Lane’s wand since the night in question, correct?”

One of the Wizengamot members finally speaks up, “Armando Dippet previously performed a priori incantartum on both Ximena Lane’s wand, and Ian Rosier’s.”

“Ah yes, the reputable headmaster at Hogwarts, my mistake.” The representative paces towards the handler, requesting to hold his classmate’s wand, “Would it please the court to witness it for themselves?”

Again, a murmur ripples through the pews, birds chattering with each other. A hivemind.

“Proceed.” Another member projects after a moment. 

The man nods, curling his hand around the handle with purpose (Tom’s almost sure he can sense the wand pushing back against him--) and performing the spell: the one he was told would reveal the last spell used by a wand’s owner.

A moment. Blue tinted white strikes out erratically from the tip, and the memory of her expelliarmus fills him. Sharp and quick like lightning. He feels it like he has felt magic: hers and his. He can almost see it too...In the flash that spurts from her wand, there’s the flick of her wrist, the calling of Ian’s wand to her hand. Can the others see it too?

It appears so, “Lane can perform a silent expelliarmus?” Nemesis sounds rightfully impressed, but Tom wonders if he should confirm or deny the idea. He stays silent.

The majority of the court look vaguely interested, and only one pipes up, “Couldn’t that have been faked or tampered with?” Tom has an idea on who it could be, and Nemesis confirms his suspicions with a tired ‘Yaxley’. Said man looks distantly related to Evan’s father: something in the nose or the lips.

“By whom?” Ximena’s speaker gestures with her wand towards the asker, “Someone in the ministry? The trusted headmaster of Hogwarts, where we have all gotten our education? Where we have all sent our children?” A chuckle, well timed, Tom thinks, “Priori incantartums cannot be faked, lest we go back on the Mulcifer v. Smith case of 1879.”

A good section of the Wizengamot seizes: Tom doesn’t have to be sensitive to their magic to notice, they’ve all but gasped at the mere suggestion of reconsidering said case. He glances at Nemesis for clarification, because she’s all he has, she has to know, 

“Um--” Her eyes shut, trying to remember, “--Self defense against a Muggleborn, Mulcifer was innocent, but the trial was ridiculously biased,” 

“There’s no need for dramatics.” A whiskered man says, looking stern.

“If that is so, then explain why this Wizengamot has deemed it necessary to hold a full trial for a simple school skirmish?” 

From across the court, Tom can see Evan rolling his eyes (before being scolded by his mother) at the excited, quiet chatter of reporters in the room. His father looks on, perhaps vaguely amused, whilst his sibling and in-law (Tom’s not sure which is which) appear nothing less than constipated. The Minister for Magic orders silence.

"A good pureblooded boy was almost killed." One of the younger members all but hisses down at the representative once it was quiet enough to be heard.

"Was he? St. Mungo's reported his burns no more serious than that of a witchwife's crossing with a reactive oven. The boy that was almost killed, however, was saved from a Cruciatus curse cast by the same good, pureblooded boy that this Wizengamot seems keen on defending." A finger points to him, and all at once, Tom feels the implications of it weigh heavy on him.

Eyes. Sudden and bright. Whites of eyes bearing into his being. He looks appropriately brave and fearful for his classmate. Sticks out his chin and twitches his nose a little, blinks back, surprised by the attention, but taking it in well. His perfect, pale, cherub face doesn't detract from the effect either, and he knows it lands well when a few of the warlocks' eyes soften. When they don't sneer, at least. Do they see their heirs in him? The very future of their perfect, ideal, pure world?

He doesn't turn to see if Ximena looked.

"But--That will come later, I imagine, with Mister Ian Rosier's trial, I trust."

Eyes away. Quick like whiplash. He hadn't noticed he felt numb until they looked away.

"Good job," Nemesis comments quietly, "I didn't know you were that good an actor."

He doesn't comment back, he bites the inside of his cheek to keep from breaking into a guffaw. She didn't know--She still doesn't. Maybe never will.

“She could have easily performed the expelliarmus after the confrigo.” A tight faced man with long blond hair and unimpressed expression says.

“Ah! So she could have, but,” His hand pushes out in a ‘stop’ gesture, “wait...Could a witch of thirteen really have cast a fully functional confrigo spell?” Shaking of his head, “No, I think not. I’ve brought forth three of Miss Lane’s teachers from Hogwarts who can attest to her abilities, including her Head of House, and the professor who witnessed Mister Rosier’s botched Unforgivable!”

Magical signatures from Slughorn and Willow spark behind him.

"I call as a character witness," the man in jade starts, "Mister Horace Slughorn."

The floor beneath Ximena's chair shifts, and she moves along with the chair backwards and to her left whilst another identical one rises up from the ground. A few photographers ready their cameras as reporters and the public chatter. Tom hears Slughorn sigh before getting up to take his new seat in the center of the courtroom. Ximena remains calm and impassible.

"Please state your name and blood status." Dumbledore says again, as if he hadn't been working with Slughorn for years.

"Horace Eugene Flaccus Slughorn. Pureblood."

"Are you a citizen of Britain?"

"Of course."

"Are you a wizard?"

"Absolutely."

"And do you teach at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?"

"For ten years I have, yes."

The jade man takes the stage.

"Horace, how are you today?"

"Feeling fine, Colin, how's your oldest?"

"You know best." He chuckles, happy to waste time playing catch up with his old professor, "His last exam went better than last, don't be afraid to spare the rod with him."

"I wouldn't dream of it!" Slughorn laughs along, and Tom wonders if it is an uncomfortable laugh.

"How lucky for him--Now! Onto this somber topic: you are Miss Lane's head of house, correct?"

"The Head of Slytherin House, yes."

"And you are her Potions professor as well, correct?"

"Every Monday and Thursday at three o'clock sharp."

Tom mentally jots that down.

"Well Miss Lane is a very fortunate witch. As her head of house and as her professor in one of the most important subjects, how would you describe her temperament?"

Slughorn appears to blank. As if he hardly even really knows who Ximena is, "Miss Lane is a very quiet student. Never intrusive or a distraction. I've never received any trouble or complaint about her or from her." 

Another Wizengamot member speaks up, "Would you describe her as antisocial or unsocial?"

"Well--No. From what the Slytherin prefects tell, she helps her underclassmen study often." He clears his throat, "Miss Lane isn't hostile or resentful to any of the students at Hogwarts; she's quite close with one of the best and brightest, as a matter of fact."

Tom preens.

"So Miss Lane has never proven herself to be a harm or danger to anyone?" The jade man continues.

"Not at all."

Questions continue like this, from Ximena's representative and the Wizengamot alike. Redundant questions phrased strangely or stupidly, trying to make him slip up, as if he were hiding something. Covering for Ximena, or had assisted in her crime. Jabbing inquiries into him like a pincushion. A classic tactic of the contemporary Wizengamot, according to Nemesis. If it wasn't her nature, it was her personality, or her spirit, or her magical aura, or her habits, or her character. Just give up! He wants to scream.

"And, how would you describe Miss Lane's academic merit?"

Tom leans in unintentionally.

"Miss Lane is a fairly average student. Decent grades, passing scores."

"Mediocre?" The jade man prompts.

"Ah...Well," Slughorn dabs at his forehead with a patterned handkerchief, "Mediocre is a...crass word, but yes. I suppose."

Had the not-lawyer prepped Slughorn too? Is he lying?

The representative thanks Slughorn for his time, tells him to give his regards to his family, and formally dismisses him. Professor Slughorn, appearing relieved to be done with that, hops out of the chair with the speed of a man half his size and returns to his original seat next to Merrythought, who pats the top of her colleague's hand.

When Professor Merrythought steps down into the center, much of the same happens--Though Tom is surprised to discover his talented professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts was raised by Muggles. She, too, testifies to Ximena's character being meek and unassuming (after getting shmoozed up by the representative). She's helpful when needed, and a pleasure to have in class, though Tom suspects that she too has never personally spoken with her. She does, of course, hear from rumors, because she also mentions Ximena's friendship with one of her best students.

"As Miss Lane's Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, how would you describe her academic performance?"

"Well, she has an average dark core, just like most of the Slytherin girls her age, so a bit of the curriculum comes difficult for her." Her brows furrow slightly, "She tries hard and takes good notes, but light spells are tricky for those who have darker centers."

"Then, how is she with darker spells? Like, say, ones of fire?"

"Oh no," Merrythought banishes the idea, "Lane can handle a small jinx just fine, but something as complicated as elemental magic is years ahead of her."

"Would you agree with Horace Slughorn, then, on Miss Lane being an average student?"

Merrythought looks like she doesn't want to be so blunt about it, "Yes. Yes I would."

The Yaxley Wizengamot member speaks up again, "The confrigo spell that attacked Ian Rosier was unusually weak, could it have not been cast by an inexperienced witch?"

"Perhaps, but it also would have burnt the caster."

"Without question?"

"Undeniably."

A chorus of talk.

Her confrigo was unusually weak? That explosive nightmare that left Ian gross and disfigured like that was weak? They can't know that, they didn't see it. Didn't feel the edge of her magic shimmer on the edge of his skin. If that spell was weak, what would it look like cast by someone older? Someone like him? Merrythought wouldn't lie...Slughorn, perhaps, if it benefitted him, but not Merrythought.

"If she is so mediocre, then how was it that she was able to cast a successful and wordless expelliarmus?"

"Expelliarmus is one of the first spells young witches and wizards learn to do without words. Besides, magic often responds better to emotion, it's why so many children have trouble casting simple charms their first year: there's no feeling attached to it. I expect Miss Lane wanted to passionately avoid any more chances of being seriously injured."

"She did not attack Mister Rosier further once she disarmed him, correct?" The jade man, and the court, already know the answer.

"Only physically: they were found hitting each other on the ground."

Grumbling from everyone in the room: they don't like that. 

"You recommended her for Dueling Club, correct?" The jade man continues.

Merrythought blinks, "I suppose I did, yes--It's a fine club for building up skills and confidence, though I'm told she doesn't participate much."

"Told? Is the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher not traditionally the one leading Dueling Club?"

"Yes, but my class courses these past years have doubled--I also teach a NEWT level Folk Magic class."

"And so, to whom have you given the task of overseeing the club?"

"Mrs. Willow, she is testifying today as a witness for Ian Rosier's case." She does not point her out.

By now, the notebook brought by his classmate must be halfway filled up with her rapid shorthand notes--He's been getting little commentary and help from her, and it makes him antsy not to know exactly what is going on at all times. When will they call on them? Why weren't they prepped by that man speaking on behalf of Ximena? A case of the less they know the better, perhaps. He just doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of these people, to reveal just how inexperienced and unknowledgeable he is, he knows it will impact their view of him.

Magical Law, Magical Law...He can't remember reading anything on the subject, even after he had found out that there would be a trial (instead, he was searching for information on Unforgivables). Azkaban is probably out of the question, even if Ian didn't have a pedigree to write home about, the general consensus was that he would be alright in the eyes of the law. Ximena, a minor and first offender, would be so lucky to receive that same treatment it seems.

Tom's eyes blink painfully in the light of a sudden camera flash--This is going to be all over the school tomorrow, isn't it? Their photographs and testimonies, the stories and verdicts...He'll be in The Daily Prophet. Witch Weekly. Magister Monthly. Just as he thought he would be, though not as soon as this. And certainly not as a side character. Will the Professor's comments on Ximena's supposed mediocrity drown out the talk of her being worth something? A very real possibility, one he doesn't care for at all. It's easier to pass having her in his circle when others know she's capable rather than because he has a pseudo crush or because she saved his head. There isn't a life debt or anything like that, despite what Topaz or Katux might have suggested: he doesn't want to owe. Only own.

Although...The possibility of integrating her into his court doubles in difficulty now that she knows he holds her bracelet. Still haven't worked out that little story. Nothing sounds right or real enough. Even with his best apologetic tone or 'you have to believe me' eyes. It's not one step forward and two steps back It's at least a kilometer forward and several thousand kilometers back: that kind of trust he saw break in her eyes takes time. A real effort. Over two years' worth. And it was still surface level. No, the challenge won't be convincing others that she is fit to breathe the same air as them, but convincing her that it is worth her while.

"--Abisola Willow. Leopard Person.[2]"

"Are you a citizen of Britain?"

"Yes."

"Are you a witch?"

"That is what I said."

"Do you teach at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?"

"Of course."

The jade man's turn to ask questions comes, Tom leans towards Nemesis this time, "Leopard person?"

"It's what they call wizards and witches where Willow is from." She squints, "Middle Africa, I think? Maybe in other places."

"But what about her blood status?"

"Oh--In that part of the world, you are generally either pure or Muggleborn. Half-bloods aren't common, it's illegal to tell any Muggle about wizardkind--Even if they're your family. Your own children or parents, even. It gets pretty lonely if you marry a Muggle. Or have non-magical children."

Curious. "So, what is she?"

"Pureblooded, most likely. Muggleborns are called Leopard People too, but if that was the case for Willow, she would have probably used the term 'Free Agent'. I hear they like them a bit better than they do here."

Very curious.

"There's no confirmation needed? They just accept her foreign terms?"

"It's the law. Not that everyone likes that. Terms of blood purity are varied and personal throughout the world, it would be an insult and a crime to ask her to define it by our terms."

Extremely curious.

Attention turned back to the center, he watches Willow be questioned the same as his two professors before. She's in the middle of answering an inquiry about Ximena's habits in Dueling Club, in fact, "--never been an active participant in the group, so bellicose is the last thing I would call her, Wzn.[3] Malfoy."

"If the girl has hardly dueled in front of others, how can we properly assess her ability to cast?"

Willow opens her mouth before the jade man has a chance to, he doesn't look surprised, he looks as if he was counting on it, "Are you telling me that you doubt the word of Galatea Merrythought, Wzn. Lestrange?"

"Oh dear." Nemesis mumbles as the aforementioned Wizengamot member looks taken aback.

"She taught you! She taught us! You were nothing but a sniveling weasel before she took you under her wing!"

A section of members around the same age as the two stifle laughter. Camera men flash their bulbs and fill the chamber with smoke. From the corner of his eyes, he sees Merrythought sigh deeply, uncomfortable.

"Order in the Wizengamot!" Spencer-Moon shouts, amplifying his voice by pointing his wand at his throat.

"Bloody circus..." Slughorn mutters behind him, undoubtedly shaking his head.

"Circuses imply skilled people in their chosen profession." Merrythought corrects.

Willow smiles as a cat with a tummy full of canary smiles. The jade man looks satisfied with the results as well, muttering sounds like a 'thank you, Bisola' to her. Ximena continues to look unfazed, but Tom can see a twitch of a smile on the corner of her lips, however far away she is from him.

"Mrs. Willow," Dumbledore speaks, face giving away nothing but tiredness, "please refrain from antagonizing this Wizengamot."

"It was never my intention, Chief Warlock Dumbledore." A humble bow of her head, "A thousands pardons."

"She knows what she's doing," Nemesis sounds impressed, "I wish I could be in that club...or take her class. Are you taking it?"

"No, I was saving it for my third year."

A hum, she nods, "I hear they're going to change the curriculum soon so that second years won't be able to have electives. Bit of a shame, isn't it?" 

Bit of an odd thing to bring up at a time like this.

"--being that you are the instructor for Hogwarts' official dueling team and club, as well as the Professor for History of Magical Combat, would you say that Miss Lane is a talented fighter?"

"Offensive, no, but defensive, yes. It's unusual for dark cored witches, but seeing that her personality is rather gentle, it is unsurprising."

Why doesn't she mention the bracelet? Surely she must have noticed it, it's at least half of her defense system, "If her defense is so good, could that not have helped in resisting the burns of the confrigo spell she allegedly cast?"

"No, Wzn. Bones, those would be two entirely different spells, and much more unlikely for a third year student of her skill to achieve."

“Mrs. Willow, are you expecting us all to believe that Ian Rosier was able to cast a confrigo so terribly that he burned himself?”

“That is quite a jump, Wzn. Malfoy.” Willow scolds, “I am telling you the facts: Ximena Lane is too weak of a witch to cast a fire spell as dangerous and volatile as confrigo without harming herself.”

Tom dares to move his gaze to Ximena. She doesn’t look offended or even ashamed. Just still. Accepting. Does she know why Willow is lying for her? Does Willow know why she’s lying for her? They don’t seem close, certainly they don’t resemble each other enough to pass for long lost (or secret) mother-and-daughter...What’s going on?

...Was he wrong? His perceived gauge of her talents and intelligence nothing but hot air and his own misconceptions of how magic works? No. Nonsense. It can't be. He's not wrong. Not often. Not about his judgement on people--If anything, he's always right about that. When people are wastes of time or mean him harm. When they want something from him or nothing to do with him. When they're useful or worthless. It doesn't make any sense. There's a reason behind this. All of this...If only he understood this damn system. The implications behind every inflection and change of syntax. The vocabulary and regulations of high wizard society.

If only he didn't need Nemesis! A little girl as old as he and only partly as skilled is the one to lead him through this spider's web? Having to decide between asking her questions or listening in to what was happening is a big enough pain (he should have brought a notebook for himself), but wording his questions to reflect genuine curiosity and concern instead of his hunger need to know and have a semblance of control of the situation...It's pathetic.

...He wasn't wrong. No. He refuses that notion. Everyone had told him that they understood his interest in his classmate: if not after her own duel, then after this attack. A hidden gem. A diamond in the rough.

Diamonds are exceedingly common, contrary to popular belief. 

He looks at her.

Yes, perhaps they are common, but they are coveted.

 

-

 

"If it pleases you, Prime Minister, I'd like to ask Chief Warlock Dumbledore to answer some questions as Professor Dumbledore."

Spencer-Moon clearly wants this damn charade to be over--He glances at Dumbledore, who appears to have been expecting this, and speaks his approval for him to testify. Did he have a choice? Dumbledore did witness the end of the fight, where Ximena brought it to the point of fisticuffs...Surely asking permission was nothing more than a courtesy...

Dumbledore takes his time (makes a show of it if you ask Tom) taking off his gaudy hat and sash, stepping down from the platform and sitting in the chair--Transfiguring his robes into that which he normally wears about the castle. He is no longer Chief Warlock Dumbledore, not in his clothes nor attitude. He merely is the Transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts, looking like he just invited a student in for some tea. It's unnerving. To go from one persona to the other without any problems or hesitation. How many masks must this man wear? Which one is real?

"Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Half-blood."

Tom floats outside his body, every other sound coming out of his professor's mouth becoming buzzed and muffled. Dumbledore is a half-blood? This great wizard who has climbed so high in academia and politics, who knows of Tom's true nature, was nothing but a half-blood? It does, of course, explain the immense disdain that many of his Slytherin classmates have towards him (he had assumed it was only because of the blatant favoritism Dumbledore gave to Gryffindors.) It also, unfortunately, gives him a seedling of hope for his own upsetting half-blood status.

“--Did you know Dumbledore was a half-blood?

“Hm? Yes, didn’t you?” Nemesis is glued to the testimonies, but surely they’re still on the mundane questions.

“Which parent is it? The Muggle?” The mother, if he has to guess.

“Neither, both his parents are magical.”

There’s never enough time in the world for all his questions to be answered. He wants a timeout for every moment he feels lost.

“--you were the one to inform Miss Lane of her magical abilities?”

No, he can’t focus on the particulars of pureblood genetic naming practices right now. There’s too much going on. His brain is buzzing with activity and words, he’s entangled in threads whose origins he can’t discern. The room is too tight, why isn’t there a window? Fresh air? How long has it been since he’s seen the sun? 

“I was the one who brought Miss Lane her Hogwarts letter,” Dumbledore clarifies, “but I am certain that she already knew she was a witch.” She already knew she was special. Of course. He did too, even if he hadn’t had pinned down magic as the cause.

“Did she say as much?”

“I believe she was expecting the letter.” Dumbledore pauses, wondering what to give and what to keep back, “She asked if she would get an offer from other schools in the continent."

"Was it Miss Lane's wish to attend a school other than Hogwarts?"

"I cannot pretend to know what she wanted, but it would seem she preferred to have an option or six."

"Rather ambitious for a foundling." Malfoy says, looking distasteful but interested.

The jade man answers for Dumbledore, "Well she is a Slytherin, Wzn. Malfoy, and a witch with every right to pursue her desired education. I'm sure you remember considering Durmstrang for Abraxas, no?"

The man looks incredibly displeased, "Yes."

Ximena's representative looks incredibly pleased, "Professor, would you say you know Miss Lane well?"

"As well as I would know anyone of my students."

"Would you agree with your colleagues on the subject of her magical abilities?"

"I would."

"And of her temperament?"

It's impossible for Tom not to space out: these questions are insufferable. They have Dumbledore here, primed and at the ready to answer anything they desire and they're wasting it on frivolities. He'd always heard the matron complain about lawyers and courts (never did quite find out what she was in court for--), and now he truly understands why. So long winded and redundant. It's all juice. Where's the pulp? The splendid flesh for his ears and brain to feast upon?

"--were the first adult on the scene, correct?"

"Correct."

"Can you describe what you saw?"

Dumbledore appears to take a deep breath, "I saw two of my third year students quarreling physically on the ground whilst one of my second years was lying nearby, freshly unconscious."

"The two fighting were Ximena Lane and Ian Rosier, correct?"

"Correct."

"Can you describe his injuries?"

"Injured by magical fire, of course. Mostly on his face and upper torso. Looked much worse than it was, but nevertheless provided him with pain."

"Were there any injuries on Miss Lane?"

"None that I could see--Aside from some fingernail scratches from Mister Rosier."

"And where were their wands?"

"Beside Mister Riddle: the aforementioned second year."

The jade man nods, turns to the court, "After Miss Lane disarmed her opponent, she discarded both of their wands aside...If she had really intended to injure him, wouldn't she have struck then?"

She should have. It would have nipped the Ian problem in the bud. Well, only if Nemesis hadn't been there--Then Dumbledore wouldn't have arrived and the mysterious disappearance of Ian Rosier could have been their little secret. Something new to hold over her. A fun, albeit unrealistic daydream: the worst curses he knew how to conjure were minor hexes. Something to work on.

"Why do you think she did so instead of responsibly body-binding Mister Rosier?"

Dumbledore is full of sighs, "She is a child: full of emotion and driven by impulses. Much like Mister Rosier." His colleagues don't seem to agree, "He has a history of saying...shall we say, less than savory things about witches of the American race[4]." Now his colleagues look guilty, but not sorry, "And as I understand it, the second year student he attacked is a good friend of hers." Her only one, thank you very much.

"Do you mean Mister Riddle?" Tom feels eyes on him again.

"Yes," Dumbledore confirms, "All Slytherins, of course, are usually close to those within their houses, and Miss Lane and he are no exception."

"Are there usually spats between Slytherin students?"

"None that I have ever been aware of." Of course not. It would be an insult to Slytherin house to have anyone outside of their den know of their problems. It was, in fact, the first thing told to him by his mentor and Slughorn himself. Phrased differently, of course. 'Keep your funny business to yourself and your housemates, don't let the rabble know anything is wrong' is much cruder compared to 'Slytherin is known for our united front. We are a family, and family is loyal'. Despite everything, Tom actually prefers the former. Family means nothing to him.

"Is there a history of animosity between Mister Riddle and Mister Rosier?"

"Not to my knowledge."

None of the Slytherin members in the chamber (former or current) look surprised. 

"Is there a history of...animosity within Slytherin?" Wzn. Vane chooses his words carefully.

"Only rumors." Dumbledore says, knowing that he's at the forefront of trying to figure out the truth behind said rumors.

"You've championed a cause to find out if these rumors are truthful though, correct?" Vane continues, rather desperately.

"I have gotten many voices of concern from parents and students alike that Slytherin is housing less than moral practices. No evidence, of course, has ever been found one way or the other, but the complaints are multiple and spanning centuries."

"--You only want to keep your students safe, right, Professor?" The jade man interjects himself quickly, "It's absurd to think, of course, that you have any bias."

"Of course." Dumbledore confirms, "It's completely irrational to believe that a whole group of people be inherently evil without proper proof."

 

-

 

The jade man, for the first time in this entire case, speaks personally to Ximena, as if she were a person and not someone on trial, "I'm terribly sorry for the length of this case, Miss Lane, but it's all just and proper procedure."

"Oh that's fine, sir." She plays with her fingers, "I understand. You're all just doing your jobs." Yep. Definitely coached her. Ximena doesn't talk like that. Not about the system they both function in as magisters.

"You're a very kind young lady," He states it to his audience, not to her, even as he looks directly at her, "could you tell us more about your school choices? I'm afraid your professor couldn't divulge much information."

Ximena nods, and pauses as she (apparently) remembers back to her old choices, "I was looking at Durmstrang and St. Columba's, for their curriculum and the former's specialization in darker magicks."

"Any other schools?"

"Banyacérvol, Raganosšventovė, Cumae, Beauxbatons, and Cackle's[5] were contenders for a long time."

"A good selection." The one Rosier on the board quips, and Tom feels it's the first time he's heard him speak, "What made you choose Hogwarts?"

Something like light finally comes into Ximena's eyes, but the rest of her body remains still, "After careful thought, it's the obvious pick...Good history and good teachers, and it's one of the closest to where I live. Aside from Cackle's."

"Cackle's has a reputation akin to Hogwarts, and it's closer, why not choose that?"

"Transportation."

Strange. The court accepts this. Mumbling as they do--School politics is so trivial...He thought arguments about Oxford and Cambridge were annoying, he can only imagine how big his headache would be if he stumbled across a fight about magical schools. Regardless of location or curriculum or history, Hogwarts is best, obviously, Ximena said so herself. Any idiot could see that.

"I considered Cackle's as well, it's an all-girl's school." Nemesis whispers on cue to him, "But breaking family tradition isn't very good."

He refrains from rolling his eyes. Coward. Brilliant, but an absolute coward, "Why are they so keen on knowing her school choices?"

"I'm sure they have their reasons, probably evaluating her character." Stupid thing to evaluate her character on.

"Can't we be called to testify on her character?" He was waiting for it, actually.

Nemesis hesitates, "Yes, we can, but we were also witnesses. We'll come later."

A refrained scowl, "That doesn't make any sense." It's so out of order. So nonsensical. He's watching a circus performance of clowns.

"That's just how it's done." That's just how it's done. A sad excuse if he's ever heard one (and he has). An idiot organized this.

He wishes he ate before leaving.

"We'll break for lunch soon, I'll treat you." Ah. Good then. He can pay attention to the trial for a few more minutes.

"How do you feel about choosing Hogwarts?"

"It's the only place to be as a studious and drivin' witch. I love it. It's m' home."

Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. It sounds so...truthful.

"I'd be lost without Hogwarts, actually. The professors, m' housemates...They're m' family. I would go to the ends of the earth for all of 'em. I love 'em."

Nemesis looks touched. As does Slughorn, out of the corner of his eye. Merrythought and Willow, however, look a mix of resigned and impressed. When he spots across the way to the Rosiers sitting tightly together, Evan's mother has her chin lifted up, eyes gleaming. Ian's mother, still looking like she ate something sour, has her eyebrow cocked curiously.

She has the Wizengamot in the palm of her hands, just for that one moment. There's no doubt. Even Spencer-Moon, who just moments ago looked to be mere inches from falling asleep, looks reassured in this new generation of Slytherins. The only one not fooled by her emotional confession is, by Tom's judgement, Dumbledore. Figures. At least he has the foresight to not show it.

For thirty more minutes, they pile on questions on her loyalty. To her school, her house, and her kind. What Muggleborns does she talk to? Half-bloods? Purebloods? Rich or poor wizards? Of what races? What genders? And to his surprise, she's honest about it: she never asks the blood status of anyone who deins to speak to her or sit beside her at lunch. The scholars she assists during study sessions are never turned away unless they're openly rude to her. And he knows that the Slytherins in the chamber don't quite believe her words, but the rest do. And that is good. It is good that they think her deceptive.

It’s good that Lane’s a Slytherin instead of a damn lion or badger. Maybe now those rumors will start having some truth to them. Ximena's far from the new Slytherin poster child of the 20th century, but she's looking more and more appealing the longer they question her. No snake is an island, and if she's positively influencing her surroundings, who's to say her surroundings aren't affecting her just as much? It's perfect. As if every silver and green alumni at this trial conspired together to ensure this.

“--And you just knew that Mister Rosier would attack Mister Riddle in that moment?”

“I was on guard since I heard he tried to cast the Cruciatus curse on him, so no, I didn’ know; I was just prepared at the right place at the right time.”

“A simple yes or no is enough, Miss Lane.” 

“'M sorry." And she looks it, eyes moving down to the hands in her lap.

Nemesis sighs, tense, "They coached her good." No shit.

Her representative lays a comforting hand on her shoulder. Tom sees it stiffen, but it seems that no one else does, "Miss Lane was rightfully protective of her classmate and fellow Slytherin. Nothing but house unity and proper upperclassman responsibility caused her to defend against Mister Rosier. In protecting Mister Riddle, actually, she most likely protected another underclassman: the blood of an ancient and noble house, no less!" Tom sees Nemesis' father, sitting close to Dumbledore, still.

Hm. Nemesis was rather close to Tom at the moment of attack, wasn't she? Her fault if she had gotten hurt thanks to Ian's shit aim. She, too, was probably saved by Ximena's protego, then. Does that make Ximena a valiant hero? Moreso than she would be if she had only saved his skin?

"Protected one pureblooded student and attacked another." A member (Tom thinks he could be Topaz's father) speaks.

"Allegedly." The jade man corrects, "Does it not say in the official report that Miss Lane told Miss Fawley to, quote: 'get a teacher'? If she knew an authority was on their way, why injure Mister Rosier like that?"

"Eliminate witnesses." Wzn. Selwyn throws out, "She knew Miss Fawley would rightfully side with her pureblooded cully."

In his periphery, Nemesis scowls.

"On the contrary, Wzn. Selwyn, Miss Fawley is dear friends with Mister Riddle, as they are both sitting side by side up in the pews right now."

It's Nemesis' time to act brave now, though Tom's not at all sure it's an act. She looks proud to have chosen her side, and by the look of it, her father is relieved. Had no one told them she was right beside him as the slicing hex was cast? That feels illegal. Underhanded.

Wzn. Selwyn clears his throat, perhaps embarrassed, "Miss Lane," he addresses Ximena directly this time, hoping her quiet nature extends to not being able to stand up for herself, "can you describe what Nemesis Fawley and Tom Riddle were doing when you deflected Ian Rosier's incidium?"

"They were chatting, standing near each other."

"How close?"

"It's hard to tell, I was focused on casting, but I would say no more than a meter. Maybe thirty centimeters?"

A gasp from a good majority of the room. Wzn. Selwyn continues, "Did your protego extend towards Miss Fawley as well as Mister Riddle? Or did you only see fit to protect him?"

"It was extended, of course. Ian's aim in Dueling Club is..." she hesitates, pressing her lips together, "...It's good. Not bad. I wouldn't know how to manipulate the size of a protego anyways."

"Ian's aim is quite poor." He says to Nemesis, "It was easy to block him because half of the time, I'm sure, he couldn't even hit me."

"That's good." She holds her finger to her lips, thinking, "They can get him on misuse of dark magic around a main branch member."

Tom pauses, "Do you want them to convict Ian?"

Her throat clears, "--He should reap what he sows." Pale hands smooth out the fabric of her dress, "The Rosiers have a small but old treaty with my family, and if they can prove Ian didn't care about harming me or that he meant me harm, it will only help your cases."

"--He's not going to single handedly destroy the relationship between your two families, then?" What kind of society would give children that kind of power?

"Not...exactly." Scratching an itch on her cheek, she mulls over his question, "Ian isn't the heir, and neither am I, but I am in the heir branch. That means if all six of my sisters suddenly die or don't give heirs, then I will be the sole heiress. Ian is not in the heir branch...He's not unimportant, but he definitely doesn't represent the Rosiers in any sense beyond Hogwarts...If it were Evan, or if Ian was older, we might be in deeper water."

He wishes Hedwig were here.

"If anything...Maybe he will be more in trouble for putting the alliance in jeopardy, than for anything else he did...At this point, it could go a variety of ways."

"--describe the relationship between yourself and Tom Riddle?" His ears ring. Head turns. A member who hasn't spoken in a while has his eyes squinted down at Ximena. She looks impassive.

"We are housemates."

"Are the two of you close?"

"You'll have to explain."

His nails dig into the top of his thighs.

"It says here that Mister Riddle is an orphan--Did you perhaps bond over having no knowledge of your families' whereabouts?"

"We don't talk much about our possible families. It's a sad subject."

"You were, also, both raised in Muggle London--In the same place?"

"No, he's at an orphanage, and I'm at a nunnery. We didn't meet until Hogwarts."

"Do you meet outside of school, during the holidays?"

"No."

"Do you meet with any other witches or wizards during the holidays?"

"Not often. I study."

“With whom have you met with outside of school?”

“Durin' my first holiday break, I was at the main branch house of the Acwellan family, per invitation of their heir. She was my guide for my first year in Hogwarts.”

Another chorus of murmurs, quiet and approving. They do not ask what she does at these visits, even if (as far as Tom knows) it was only one. Disappointing.

"Are you the only witch at this..." The man browses through some papers, "...Sisters of Saint Hesychast, Shrine of the Most Immaculate Sacrament?"

"No."

More of the same, this time louder, approval. Some of the members still on the fence growing warmer to the idea that Ximena wasn't scum beneath their notice. Do they know what a nunnery is, then? Why is it that so many of his classmates don't know who 'this Christ fellow is'? Why does it matter? How is she not the only witch when he had nothing but Muggles around him? How is that fair? Why didn't she tell him? Is that why she's so ahead?

"Ohhh," Nemesis breathes, "so that's a nun, then?" her chin gestures to Ximena's guardian again, who like the girl, remains expressionless and unphased, he had forgotten she was there, "I've never seen one before--My great-great-aunt on my mother's side is one, you know. Well, was, but I don't think she stops being one after she's dead, right?"

He feels disassociated from his body again, "Right."

"You claimed that you were protective of Mister Riddle since you found out an Unforgivable was almost cast on him--Did you know that Mister Rosier was planning on attacking him?"

"I can't say if he was plannin' it or if it was a spur of the moment decision. But I know his temper well. We're in a lotta classes together."

"Has he ever done similar to other students?"

"What do you mean?"

"Has Mister Ian Rosier ever attempted or succeeded in extracting revenge on another student?"

"I don't think so, but I've heard rumors, and I wanted to stay alert--"

Nemesis stills in her writing, "She's lying." A sweet whisper heard only by him.

"What?" He's thrilled, somehow. How does she know that? She doesn't know her half as much as he does.

"N--No, I," A gulp, "I didn't say anything."

It's useless to try and hide it, he'll pry it out of her if he has to. He'll even submit to holding her hand if it'll butter it out from between her straight teeth, "I thought you did, are you sure?"

"I, um, yes, uh, you see...Um, it was nothing." 

He doesn't even hear Ximena's testimony anymore. He comes closer, "It didn't sound like nothing." Ugh, he has to...Sacrifice himself. Placed atop her own hand is his, gently. Delicately. Nonchalantly, of course, as if he hadn't noticed how close he was getting.

It works, she jumps, and the uncomfortable, unfamiliar push of her soft magic sparks, "I..." Oh sweet Merlin, she's starting to sweat, "You see, I...I think she's...lying." Her voice is lower than a whisper, "I think...I think she..." Eyes squeeze shut, "I don't know. I don't know. I can't talk about it here. Later." She forces eye contact with him, "I promise."

Too easy, "Promise."

"Miss Lane, are you aware of the rumors surrounding your house at Hogwarts?"

"Like what?"

"That Slytherin house intentionally breeds an atmosphere of belligerent witches and actively encourages the use of dark magic."

"No, sir."

"May I remind you that penalty for lying to this Wizengamot is a night in Azkaban, regardless of your status as a child."

Tom feels every Slytherin in the room seize.

"Thank you for the reminder. I stand by my previous statement."

The man asking her about the rumors takes a moment before nodding, "Understood. Thank you, Miss Lane."

“M' pleasure, Wzn. Gamp.”

The Prime Minister sighs, probably feeling as tired as he looks, “This Wizengamot will retire for a short recess. We will return in half an hour.”

 

-

 

Outside the cold chamber of the dungeon, the world continues on as it did when he left it. Nothing has changed, he didn't expect it too, but it leaves a strange feeling with him after having gone through the first part of the trial. For a while, his entire world was that courtroom: the intensity of the atmosphere, the shrouds of silence that would encompass the moments after a particularly dividing answer, and the tight tension in his professors' words. By no means was he alone in that dungeon, but it didn't stop the separation: not a single person in that place had wanted the same end result as he. Even Nemesis, he knows, undoubtedly wants an end where all was forgotten and forgiven, and Ian was left quietly leashed in the corner so he wouldn't hurt others (or himself) again. 

She treats him to lunch, as she promised. They sit beside a small cornish pasty stand located on the edges of the Improper Use of Magic Department. It's a funny little display of domesticity in the otherwise inhospitable environment: the stand is ordinary enough to be presented to the Muggle world, save for the intricate moving images of a happy (albeit stereotypical) Cornish man enjoying the stand's 'World Famous' pasties. It's not very modern (it, in fact, looks like it came straight from the East India Company history book on the matron's shelf), and the cook looks haggard, but when he bites into the warm pocket of meat, he can't complain.

He takes small bites, making it last.

"What did you mean when you said Ximena was lying?"

Oh, she had hoped he'd forgotten about it. He can tell. She almost choked.

"..." Her throat clears and she pats her mouth with a napkin, "Lane isn't stupid. I'm sure you know that...She's observant." And grass is green, "I...I had heard about this through my sisters: sometime after Yule holidays back in his first year, Ian had gone after someone who insisted that he fancied his own sister. Some Muggleborn from Ravenclaw I think, they don't go to Hogwarts anymore."

"--What did he do to them?"

She sets her pasty down, "My sisters wouldn't say. There was no evidence anyways. But everyone knew what happened. Everyone."

He snorts, "He really does have a short fuse doesn't he?" Not that implication of incest isn't something to be insulted over.

"Well, here's the thing," and Nemesis whispers again, as if speaking of it were taboo, "the Rosiers have been known to occasionally marry siblings, it's not common, but it can happen--that's not what Ian was upset about."

Tom raises his brow.

"--Ian's sister is a squib."

Ah.

"Broke his mother's heart when she never got her letter...I don't know where she is now, I think out in the countryside in Wales." Sent out the dog to live on a farm, then.

"..Is there a place wizards send their squibs?" 

"Highbloods yes...If they don't hide them, they quietly drop them off in orphanages or monasteries...Workhouses too."

"Wh--Workhouses were abolished."

A cleared throat, "I don't know what to tell you." She picks at her pasty, "That's only what I know--My family doesn't do that to their squibs: they usually end up leaving on their own."

"--They would leave the Wizarding World?"

"Of course. Can you imagine? Not being able to claim your magical heritage, watching as everyone you grew up with got their letter to Hogwarts while you didn't, seeing that disappointment in your parent's faces...A lot can't take it."

Tom thinks he'd kill himself.

"...You said Dumbledore had two magical parents, right? Why is he a half-blood, then?"

"Isn't it obvious? His mother is a Muggleborn."

"But, both his parents are magical, doesn't that matter?"

"Oh no, Tom." He hates this condescending tone she takes with him, "Blood purity is much more complicated than that, didn't anyone teach you?"

"Who would have?" He says before he can stop it from coming out.

"Oh," She's sorry, "well, we're not as complicated as the systems they have in some other countries, but it's more than just the parents: it's both sets of grandparents too." Her pasty is set aside, "Some older wizards and witches also factor in adopted parents, but that's growing out of fashion." A frown, "The idea that a good witch can be raised by two unrelated Muggles isn't a very good platform for the Purism movement." 

He's inclined to agree, "So there are purebloods raised by Muggles, then?"

"I haven't heard of many, but I'm sure they're out there--More than we know. Usually squibs from the same family as the pureblood, but squibs aren't usually considered the same as Muggles."

"How confusing."

"Oh not really," Reassurance isn't Nemesis' strong suit, "it's just logic. Do you want another pasty? I don't know when we'll get another recess, so it's best to have one with you when you go in." 

-

If Ximena looked like the spitting image of a domestic, harmless, foreign witch, then Nemesis is the spitting image of an innocent, well-bred, future child bearing witch. He's sitting close enough to the members of the Wizengamot to hear a couple whisper about it: it's disgusting. What a good child. Look at her skin. She'll be ready for marriage talks soon--My oldest would make a good match. 

If Nemesis' father hears it, he doesn't give any sign of it.

The first question asked to her, after the usual, is how she's enjoying her classes. How her lovely mother is fairing. The jade man treats her with as much reverence as he did the adults. And, yes, they do know each other (Nemesis mentioned her eldest sister is married to his brother), but not very well. They've talked once or twice since Nemesis was publicly presented (a question for later), but she doesn't know much about him. That makes two of them.

"Lane is wonderful. Friendly and quiet, I've never heard an unkind thing about her." Liar. "She helps me review my potions work when I need to study."

"How does the help of a, quote: 'mediocre witch' help you, an 'upstanding role model for her fellow Hogwarts students'?" The member appears too eager to cut into Nemesis as if she were butter.

"Well she only reads off vocabulary words or gives advice. She's really quite booksmart, I promise. Just meek."

"Do you choose to consort with Miss Lane often?"

"Not consort, but we are in the same house, so I see her throughout my week."

"You two aren't friends?"

"We are friendly, but I think I'm too young to really relate to her. Third year gets very serious, I hear."

"Very serious." The representative agrees, "I'm sure all of us here remember our third year with fondness." He does on, filling the air with fluff and nonsense again. But he's smart enough to let Nemesis talk: she slips into her classroom persona. Confident and as Tom likes her. When she's not trying to touch him or be his friend, he finds her much more tolerable. How sad. She should always be this detached.

"I don't think I've ever seen Lane perform magicks, outside of the protego she cast. Even then, I didn't actually see her cast."

"Do you think she's shy or embarrassed to cast in front of others due to her apparent weak magical core?" 

"I don't know. I don't like prying into the private lives of others." She looks appropriately uncomfortable

Tom's eyes flutter, he suppresses a yawn, scratches his cheek. How much longer did Nemesis say? An hour? Two? He could dig into his pocket and have the second pasty (still hot thanks to a heat charm), but that wouldn't shave off much time. He'd have to cast a notice-me-not ('It's rude to eat in the chambers, unless you're Wzn. Slughorn, of course, he eats all the time--He's Professor Slughorn's great-great-uncle, I think?'), and he still doesn't even have his wand. Something about it being evidence--It's one of the reasons he's okay with being withdrawn from Hogwarts for this. He was promised his wand after he left the hospital ward, and he still doesn't have it for yet another absurd reason. He should be indignant. As apoplectic as some of the purebloods are about sitting next to half bloods in class. Hmph.

"Are you and Mister Riddle close?"

"I'd like to think so, yes." Yes, she would. Ugh.

"Do you, perhaps, remember what you two were doing the night of the attack?"

"Let's see," Nemesis hums, tapping her index finger on her chin, "I believe he was actually discussing Hamlet with me."

"Oh?" The jade man almost looks genuinely interested, "Is he an avid reader of the Bard, then?"

"Oh yes, Tom's extremely well read! It's a reason why he's at the very top of our class." One of the reasons, anyways. 

Heh. He can feel Professor Slughorn's pride from here. As if he had anything to do with Tom's successes. Undoubtedly among his contemporaries and colleagues, he takes full credit for Tom's excellence. So be it.

"Top of the class!" The way the representative bellows it out is so theatrical, it's a wonder he hasn't been kicked out, "Above the Blacks? The Selwyns? The Flints?" 

"Yes. He's a marvel. It's like watching the second coming of Merlin."

Something about her flattery tells him not to take it so much to heart, but oh, that statement...He can't help it. He lets it sink into his body slowly. Savors it as he did those baked treats he shared for his birthday last January. Second coming of Merlin? Well, he doesn't know about that, but...well, it's not so hard to believe, is it? Merlin was a Slytherin. An exceptional wizard. Centuries beyond the intellect and capabilities of his contemporaries. Surely if he were born first, and Merlin born in this time, the man would be referred to as The Second Coming of Tom M. Riddle? What a delicious thought! He almost trembles as it waltzes through his head, he can't be the only one who would think it plausible. Even if his name isn't as spectacular as Merlin, it would still be revered. Or perhaps he could go by his middle name? Marvolo Riddle...It certainly stands out. Strikes at you. It was the name of someone from an old family, undoubtedly. The name of a pureblood. Marvolo. Marvolo. Marvolo...High and proud and good. The more he repeats it in his head...The less he likes it. Marvolo. Marvolo. Marvolo. Why is that? It's unique. Elegant. Powerful. Why does it sound so thick and sludge-like? Dirty? His own name, suddenly?

Push that thought away.

"--what happened?"

"I screamed, there was blood spattered on me...On the floors too." Nemesis takes a deep breath, "Then Lane told me to get a professor."

"Did she tell you directly?"

A pause, "I think so, I'm sure she did not expect for Tom to get up himself, he was struck so bad." It wasn't that bad, "There was a lot of energy in the air that night, I think she was really focused on protecting...Making sure that no further damage could happen." No further damage to Slytherin house, of course, that's all these members care about. Nothing to cry about, of course, Tom's more than used to authority not caring about him. They'll soon see how mistaken they are.

"A lot of damage happened in the span that you were gone, Miss Fawley, how long did it take to find a professor?" The slight is not unnoticed by his classmate: he can see the flinch in her eyes as she tries to keep them from narrowing.

"The dungeons are deep inside the castle, and Professor Slughorn was busy entertaining in his office, up on the upper levels." She smooths out the fabric on her lap, "My big obstacle was prefects on their watch duties: convincing them that I was out late for a valid reason was difficult, but eventually one of them took me to Dumbledore's office, and he believed me."

"Did the prefect in question have any reason to doubt your honestly?"

Nemesis shrugs in a way that tells everyone that yes, they did, "I had never met this prefect before: a Gryffindor by the name of Turner, I believe." A Muggle name, if the Wizengamot's reaction is anything to go by, "I...I don't want to get him in trouble," Oh she absolutely does, Tom can tell, "but he really held me up...I think he knew I was a pu--a Slytherin." Nice touch. The ones with ulterior motives in the chambers have gleams in their eyes. Dumbledore doesn't look too amused, but then again, he hasn't looked very pleased this entire time. Tom supposes that he, like many others, wishes to be elsewhere. Teaching, probably. 

Right about now, Tom would be in his Charms class, sitting, once again, next to that mute Ravenclaw. Annoying but smart. They'd review the summer assignment and he would be the first one in the class to successfully show he understood the reading. Possibly the only one. Then class would end, and he'd meet Nemesis on the way to DADA and he'd carefully curtail around her timid advances and silly attempts at flirtation. It's a sort of dance, at this point: choreographed and rehearsed through months of knowing her. It's as natural to him as his banter with Hedwig: witticisms and sarcasm so heavy it drips. He still plays the good boy, but everyday it gets a little easier to trust his sharper sides to her. Particularly because she's already shown him she's all edges.

Strange, he misses them both, somehow. Even if one of them is here, and the other is a smartass he wishes to strangle on occasion (he's sure the feeling is mutual).

"--Riddle to witness."

He blinks, surprised at the sudden call of his name, feeling stupid that he wasn't paying attention--He really needs to stop day dreaming like that, it'll get him in trouble, one day.

At his feet, back straight and gait elegant, Tom steps down from his seat, passing Nemesis, and walking into the center of the room.

 

Chapter Text

"Tom Marvolo Riddle. I do not know my blood status."

It's a terribly small world when he sits in that golden chair, and the heavens before him, the entire fifty-something Wizengamot, feel infinite. Every star in the sky is staring back at him. Waiting. He's sure a good handful of them are old enough to rival a few stars based on their wrinkles alone--They cut so deeply into their milk white skin, it makes Tom wonder about how they looked when they were young. There are some exceptions among them, namely Wzn. Shafiq and Wzn. Kingsley, who stand out as much as drops of ink would on fresh snow, and have a minimal, elegant amount of wrinkles: they look planned, somehow. The rest of the members are young enough to not exactly be elders, but old enough to command some type of authority. 

"And why is that?"

Dumbledore knows why. It's degrading that he has to explain it to him (to everyone) as if it wasn't already common knowledge. It helps his--Ximena's case to paint him as a noble and perfect little orphan, but it also paints a huge target on his back: risk of Muggleborn in big bright letters. Like a theatre or moving picture show, with lights and painted pictures. Pleh. Don't look at him like that, Dumbledore, he's not guilty of anything. This time.

"I'm an orphan."

There's still pause over his name and status as an orphan. Does his saying it during these opening moments make it official? Do they recognise his name--Will they tell him where he comes from?

No. They ask if he's a wizard. If he's attending Hogwarts. Like his classmates. Dumbledore nods his head and gives the floor to the jade man, whom up close, smells like mint and lavender. It's half comforting, half off-putting.

"How is your injury fairing?"

"It's healing well, thanks to Madam Belfast and her cadre."

"Does it hurt?"

"Occasionally, but I've been given potions for it." Madly dizzying ones. What idiot hasn't figured out how to make a potion for pain without need of poppyseed? That should be first on his agenda once he gets his bearings back. He couldn't probably ask for Ximena's advice with that...Even if he wasn’t in possible trouble with her, she’d take it as cheating on that challenge she issued him. And rest assured, he does deep down believe that there will be issues in attempting to converse with her again. He tried catching her gaze before he sat down, but it was to no avai--What is that? That pull? He blinks. Eyes darting. Is that--Yes. He feels it: his wand. It's close. Very close. Outside this room? In which direction? He's never felt the magic in it before, but he knows that's what he's feeling now. It's pulsing. A blaring alarm. So obviously similar to the way the bracelet calls out to Ximena...His hands itch. He'll get it soon, right? Right after this case? Where is it.

Shit, he's missed the jade man's words...They were to the court, but undoubtedly important. Useless, but important. They're all nodding in agreement with something that was said, looking prideful. Willfull. Should he imitate that or react to it? Where the fuck is his wand?

"If I could, I would like to bring out Mister Riddle's wand and demonstrate that he was not involved in the unfortunate duel between Miss Lane and Mister Rosier," Ah. His instincts are on, "The last spell used from his wand was not identified, if the records collected from Hogwarts are correct, and I expect they are." His yew wand comes the same way Ximena's was brought out, the stark white standing out against the black chamber. The jade man picks it up carelessly and adjusts his hand on it, stretching out his arms, "--I understand they've been keeping it away from you since your injury, Mister Riddle, I'm terribly sorry."

Then stop waving it around in front of him, you git, "I understand completely. It's for the best--The greater good, right?"

The jade man smiles his politician's smile, "You're a fine young man." Young man. "And your schoolmates seem to think highly of you--Second coming of Merlin? A high compliment from a Fawley."

A true compliment. He plays humble, "To be thought of as alike to Merlin is an absolute honor. I only hope I can achieve an eighth of his brilliance within my lifetime."

"A noble goal, Mister Riddle." An easy one. They'll be giving Orders of Tom awards in a few years time. "Now, onto more serious matters,"

This time, the light that emanates from the wand is a minty, seafoam green, and the memory associated with it is his Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom: he and Nemesis are exchanging gentle jinxes and protegos--His last spell is an expertly cast stupify. One that could be diagrammed in a textbook. His dark magical signature is all over it, it makes his skin tingle. He's sure it raises a brow or six in the room, even after the magic in the air ceases.

The jade man smiles once more, "Beautifully done stupify, Mister Riddle, you could give a lot of duelists a run for their money." Ahuh. He turns to the court, speaks more about how talented and skilled warlocks are getting rarer and rarer these days, and how tragic it would have been if Mister Riddle's life had been cut short by that slicing hex. How, in his short time in the hospital wing, he had managed to become buried in gifts and well-wishes, so much so that the staff had to store some away to make sure the area wasn't so crowded. He's beloved! A treasure! He can tell he's making the older gentlemen with sons at Hogwarts a little bitter. Heh. It's laying it on thicker than he was for Ximena...Probably easier to curve public opinion around a witch who was no threat to their pure world...He, however, probably rings a bell of uncertainty for them...It's the reason he's been so aware of his own magical aura this entire evening: he can't feel out for her magic, her mood, without alerting the whole room of what he was doing. Could be seen as a threat, apparently. Even if he could pass it off as something unconscious, done out of concern for Ximena, it would be an incredible invasion of privacy for others to witness. Damn. If only he could turn his head and look at her directly. Probably would be met with a withering glare, one worse than the one she first gave him that first week of school...That one was a glare of suspicion, but this one would be more loaded. A canon instead of a bow and arrow.

"--the student all your professors said that Miss Lane was close with, the best and brightest, am I correct in my assumption that that student is yourself, Mister Riddle?"

Obviously, "I wouldn't want to jump to that supposition, but I know I am the closest with Ximena out of all of our housemates." Barring, just perhaps, the buffoon and possibly Eric. Adam doesn't count.

"Indeed! To call an upperclassman by their given name is a bond not often experienced by many second years--How long have you two been on given name basis?"

"About the end of my first month at Hogwarts--" ...Should he? He should. "--I noticed she didn't like being referred to as Lane."

Interest spikes in the room, the back of his spine tingles with cool magic, "Why do you think that is?"

He doesn't think, he knows, "Lane is a foundling name and has no ties to her--It's a name that the Muggles who found her gave her...Rather unceremoniously, I presume. I don't believe she wishes to be associated with it."

This is the right answer. Of course it's the right answer--He pays attention to these things. It's good that a Slytherin boy takes such care and consideration of his fellow student, and it's even better that this foundling child wants nothing to do with a family name given to her by Muggles...Of course, Ximena doesn't mind Muggles, but the true Slytherins in this court don't have to know that. All they need to know is that Ximena is one of them.

Her representative touches his hand to his chest, touched, "Perfectly understandable--To not have an earned name, inherited from your family, is surely filled with terrible trials and tribulations. Without your history and lineage, what does one have?"

Nodding his agreement, he subtly looks in front of him to gauge the reactions from the Wizengamot members. They're pleased. Sympathetic. Looking over his head to his upperclassman. Lucky idiots. He bets their chairs are much more comfortable than this gaudy golden throne--He's been sitting in it for a while now, and it's still cold, refusing to absorb his body heat. Is Ximena's seat this uncomfortable too?

Oh, someone's speaking to him, "Where did you get your name, Mister Riddle?" Wzn. Rookwood.

"I do not know." He sounds a bit down, "For all I know, my family name is that of a stranger." It is, technically, "But before she died, my mother instructed the matron to name me after my father."

That dreaded chorus of murmurs again, he wonders if that was the right thing to say--No, it absolutely was the right thing. It had to be--

"--Your mother died giving birth to you, Mister Riddle?"

He blinks up at the member, "I'm told she died an hour after labor."

Now the reporters chatter along with the members, he thinks he can even see the Rosiers in their section begin to talk quietly. What did he say in their language? Is there, perhaps, a written dictionary of highblood speak?

This time, the Prime Minister quiets down the room and addresses him directly, "Our sincerest apologies, Mister Riddle."

The acknowledgement from such a power staple in the country is strange. In a good way, "My sincerest gratitude, Minister." He bows his head, prepared for the worst.

Another member speaks, Wzn. Nott, "You are living in Muggle London currently, correct?"

"Yes, sir."

"You still find ample time to study and practice in an area where magic cannot be cast?" What is he trying to say?

"Practicing is its own challenge, yes, but I always catch up." It's getting easier to catch up, actually, particularly with his readings and correspondence with his classmates. The advantage he leaves school with should be enough to carry him through the summer and the next year, if things continue as they are (and they will), "Magic comes naturally to me."

Wzn. Nott stares, for a moment, wondering if this was a good thing. Tom smiles, mouth closed, as if what he said wasn't vaguely prideful.

If Nott wanted to ask something else of Tom, he does not get the chance to: another member steps in and begins to ask about his extracurricular activities and the people he associates with. He sees the edge of concern when he mentions only purebloods and an interest in Dueling Club, but the edge is more or less gone once he starts talking about his camaraderie. How lovely it has been being welcomed by the whole school despite his humble and uncertain origins. That he has never, not once, heard a single thing regarding Purism in his time there. Which, is technically true: Purism as an official philosophy with motives, intentions, and plans. All his classmates talked about were personal offenses, and whatever they heard their parents spewing out.

He wonders if there's an official manifesto he can skim through. Purely for reference, of course.

Once the majority of the members are assured that he has not been indoctrinated, the redundant questions on Ximena begin to lay onto him. He's ready for all of them. Not just because he obviously knows her the best, but also because he's a smart boy. Prepped or not, he knows what they want to hear. The harder parts of it are steering clear of her skill: the very reason he even finds her worthwhile enough. The last thing he wants to do is use the awful crush excuse in this trial, less everyone take him even less seriously than they probably already do--Could he play up the idea that he was trying to 'civilize' her? Yes. He won't, of course, that's a hard, slippery slope that's impossible to recover from. He's already in deep water with Ximena, and even if she knew that he was playing to the courtroom, that withering glare that's waiting for him would be a hundred times worse and a thousand times more deserved.

The first questions are easy: when did they meet, what were the circumstances, and how was Ximena's attitude towards him. He doesn't even have to lie for those. He remembers all of these things very clearly, as if it were yesterday. The second questions are repetitive: is she sinister behind closed doors, is she a danger to anyone, have any students shown to be afraid of her for an unknown reason. He half lies to these. Ximena is kind, but he has seen anger within her: hidden from the world and bared only to his eyes. She isn't a danger, but she could be. Should be. He doesn't know what the hell the business with her being an 'average student' is, but he assumes it has something to do with her I don't want people to know how I fight complex. He understands. If people know the limits of her power, they'll take advantage of her. Weak little worms will try and squirm their way into her circle the same way they did after her duel with Hedwig. The same way they wanted to after she bested Ian. Is that it? Make higher powers think she's not a threat before striking? Interesting. That's interesting. A strategy he wouldn't follow himself, obviously, but it has potential. He commends her for that.

The third questions are on the attack.

"You are, of course, the only witness to see their duel--Can you tell the court what happened in your own words?"

An idiot tried to best him and was hoisted by his own petard, "I was heading to the Slytherin common rooms with a housemate, chatting amicably, when I heard a hex and then felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the side of my head." His hand lightly presses against the wound for emphasis, "At the same time, I felt a protego spell surround me--Nemesis screamed. I was on the ground, clutching the side of my head, and I heard Ximena tell Ian not to touch me." The words ring in his ears often, actually, he likes the sound of them, "Then she told Nemesis to get a professor."

"Directly?"

"I do not think she was telling me, so I suppose it was directly."

"And then?"

"Nemesis ran off and Ximena deflected more of Rosier's attacks. He openly taunted her and insulted her as he did so."

The richer members of the Wizengamot appear to cringe, as if they were anticipating this.

"Insults?" The jade man prompts, and Tom sees where he's going, "Like what?"

"Oh, I would rather not repeat any of them here." He clears his throat, "Not in polite company. He was very crude and...Well, I passed out before I could hear the worst of it, thankfully."

The representative nods, grimly, "I understand. I assume it had something to do with Professor Dumbledore's comment about Mister Rosier's thoughts on the American race?"

Tom nods again, hesitates, and then, "It was that and...something to do with her...Ah...Her being a witch." His throat clears, "That is, he made certain implications about her..." What word to use, what word to use..."...Continence."

Oh, that was the correct word. Of all the things he has told, this is what manages to get a gasp out of these old coots. As if they all haven't said worse behind closed doors...He might not be the most knowledgeable in whatever the hell a girl's continence is, but he knows it matters much to men. Girls' honor, virtue, treasure, flower--He doesn't really remember the talk given by the priest at Wool's (he wasn't even supposed to sit in on the girls' talk, he was hiding under the couch from one of the caretakers), only that God would punish those who attempted to mar their pearls, souls, gifts, roses, etcetera. Looks like wizards think the same as Muggle do in that sense. Strange.

"I understand," Ximena's representative looks grave, perhaps genuinely, "I regret that you had to listen to such talk, Mister Riddle. It's barbaric and unsuitable for a boy of his status." A grim silence, for dramatic effect undoubtedly, "It happens too often in many of our houses...Rich and poor, ancient and new...It's good to know there's still wizards like you."

There are no wizards like him. Only him. But he lowers his eyes and smiles sheepishly--Yet regretfully enough to show that he wishes there were more wizards like him.

"After he...said his abhorrent words to Miss Lane, what happened?"

"I passed out, I lost too much blood." 

"A shame," the jade man shakes his head, "I'm sure you would have been a valuable witness to the rest of the duel." Yes, that's his only value in all of this, "But thankfully, you've been of great help with testifying to Miss Lane's character--I assume the two of you are close?"

"Of course." Maybe not so much anymore but…

"Like siblings?"

He wouldn't know, "Yes."

"You've sat in on a few of her tutoring sessions for the younger students, are they helpful?"

"Very."

"Even to you, a miraculously skilled wizard?"

"You're very kind, sir--Yes, they're very helpful to me."

"Do you often work in a more personalized setting? One-on-one?"

"Sometimes. We help each other."

"You help a student a year above you?"

Well, "I'm ahead in all of my classes, so it helps me more to study what the third years are currently learning. Not always, but most of the time." All of the time, "I can see what my own learning is building towards and ask her questions she hasn't thought of herself."

"What beautiful camaraderie." The jade man looks as happy as he would be if he had dictated to Tom what to say in order to appear more sympathetic, "It makes me nostalgic for my own Hogwarts years--" Blah blah blah… "--is she well liked among Hogwarts?"

Not at all: you have to be known to be well liked. Oh sure, she's known now, but he can't gauge if it's for the best or not--Even with her tolerant, mild nature, being a snake has connotations: he's heard a bit from Adam about his fellow lions' opinion on his friendliness with their rival house, "To those to know her, she's very well liked." Druella doesn't count, "I've never known her to be rude or cruel," on purpose, "and I believe her kindness to be genuine." For the most part.

"Studious and kind...and she bravely stepped forward to defend you and Miss Fawley against a very real and dangerous threat; do you think she's more fitted to be in another house?"

Nonsense. She's in his house for a reason. A reason he's yet to uncover, but still a reason--That hat doesn't make mistakes. "I hear she was a hatstall, but no. I believe she fits perfectly within Slytherin house." Not just anybody can live and survive in this snakepit, though it is half full of bratty children...A Ravenclaw is too interested in their own pursuits to put attention in politics and gaining influence. A Gryffindor would have probably started multiple family feuds in the span of an hour due to their lack of tact. Even a Hufflepuff, for all they get along with them, could most likely only stand a week before getting tired of all the games snakes play. Justice and fairness aren't common in the snake den, because none of them can decide on a universal definition of either.

Fairness to Hedwig is Ximena getting expelled. Muggles tucked away into a corner to be forgotten or studied like animals. All purebloods, regardless of race, coming together for a better world. To Nemesis, it is Ximena getting off spotless and Ian getting leashed for the rest of his impulsive life. Muggles being seen as harmless sheep or rats. All purebloods, regardless of sex, working for the advancement of their society. And his guide...Ximena being in some sort of debt to him.  Muggles being subservient to magicalkind, or possibly extinct. All purebloods, regardless of class, fulfilling their duty by marrying each other and providing the wizarding world with more pure magic. For a group with such a large hivemind, they sure have different perspectives. Maybe if they knew just how differently they all felt, Slytherin house would come crumbling down. Maybe they already know. Or else they wouldn't have phrases like blood traitor. They wouldn't give those looks to families like the Potters or the Bones or the Weasleys. Without blood traitorism, Yami would be reigning queen of the snakes, in complete competition with Eric or one of the Black girls for sure--but he believes she would lead the best. Even if he doesn't know her politics beyond what Hedwig and his ex-mentor have gossiped to him about...And, of course, that sharp scolding she gave to the later. If he was forced to guess now, he'd say that to Yami, fairness is Ximena getting reparations for every insult and snide comment given to her by her white classmates. It is Muggles getting the chance to help rear wizard children to free up the hands of their busy parents and avoid explicit slavery via house elves. It is for all purebloods, regardless of who they are or where they come from, to take their pompous heads out of their asses and realize that it is not lineage that makes a great wizard. A vision of fairness that would make the blood of all these members curdle, surely.

Tom thinks fairness is simpler than all of that: fairness is him getting what he wants.

"Then, I suppose it's safe to assume that you two are a positive influence on each other?"

"Definitely. She's quite shy, as the others have told you, so I think our friendship is helping her come out of her shell. Pushing her to speak to others in our house." To others of a respectable and pure lineage. "I'd like to think I'm learning to be more worldly. I'm actually speaking more to some students in Gryffindor, as a matter of fact."

"Gryffindor house?" The jade man's smile couldn't be more sinister, and yet nobody else but him sees it, "Getting close to your rival house is ambitious indeed; I daresay no one else has done it before! Not since the founders, anyways...I'm sure they would be proud to see you young witches building bridges like this." Perhaps, but they certainly wouldn't be proud of their motives. "You are, indeed, full of marvel, Mister Riddle." Of course. He's the second coming of Merlin.

This isn't so bad. He doesn't understand why he was so nervous about sitting here. He's perfectly in his environment. Settling in nice and comfortable, save for this damn chair, but that's minor. He can ignore that. That and the peering stares from the members and the constant murmur of reporters, the flashes of their cameras... What he can't ignore is that he can't see Ximena from here.

He wishes they could question them together, at the same time. To be able to hear and see her, maybe they could be forced to have a conversation. Or agree on something. Make eye contact. On second thought: no eye contact, she would not look very happy, he's sure. It would be like her gaze was in that first dream he remembers having of her. A glaring void, festering with cockroaches. Cockroach--No, he shouldn't use that word. That word is tainted now. Bloody Ian.

Ximena's representative looks over Tom's chair at her, eyes shining, "Yes, when I see you both, I see the future of Slytherin house. Of young magisters everywhere, divided by these silly things called houses and race and sex." He turns to the Wizengamot, "I wouldn't be surprised if you two were descended from some lesser known ancient and noble houses...If not from Britain, then elsewhere in Europe...Perhaps Wales? You look an awful lot like a brother-in-law of mine, Mister Riddle."

It's a jest, but the suggestion still makes his heart flutter with what he denies is hope, "You're too kind, sir." Where would Ximena's ancestors hail from, then? One of Britain's colonies before they were conquered? She looks mixed, but not in the acceptable, pretty way that his contemporaries like. If she has any white ancestry, it does not show itself in her (except, perhaps, in her bouts of cruelty). Tom's not an expert by any means in race, so he doesn't take it upon himself to try and deduct hers. All he knows is that her face is not a type he sees very often in his day-to-day life, even among those whose ancestry hails from outside Britain.

They ask him questions about Ian next, and those are the ones where he has a little too much fun in answering...Without insulting his dear parents and family up in the pews, of course. 'Ian has always been easily excitable. Known as a bit of a scoundrel, unfortunately, but I've always known him to be simply bold' though foolhardy was more accurate. It makes him look better that he try to lighten up Ian's reputation, both for defending the old men who share his ideal, and for the sake of softening up Slytherin house's image. 

It brings him a shivering sort of joy to be playing their game so well!

When it's time to return to his seat, it's a fight to not recoil from Nemesis as she tries to comfort him with a touch to his shoulder, but he makes it through in one piece. Probably because there are others watching.

"When will they bring Ian forth?"

"Tomorrow probably--If I were them, I'd want to keep him away for as long as possible." Because he'll inevitably blow up in the middle of testimony? "Because you can say he's so injured that he can't make it to court...Build up sympathy, you know?" Ah. "But I don't know. I'm as in the dark as you are." Perhaps, but she has better eyes. He's being lead by a clueless cat.

"What happens if they bring him out now?"

"There's no way...It's too early, they couldn't have prepped him well. He's still recovering...It would be such a dirty move."

"When have you known these people to play fair?" She has, after all, known them all her life.

Her spirit deflates. How easy. "It's a risk. Slytherins are calculating."

"A calculated risk." He suggests.

She bites her thumbnail, thinking, "I can't imagine why they would; it would be of no benefit. A suicide. You’d sooner see Grindelwald in this courtroom testifying in this case."

Those are, of course, her famous last words.

When Ian is brought in, he looks...better than Tom expected him to. With how everyone was building up his injury to be, he expected something akin to a mummy to appear. Or some kind of freak. Of course, he looks the same as always, but with bandages carefully wrapped around the left side of his head. Mostly clean. Soiled enough to induce pity but clean enough to show he's getting the proper care that a good pureblooded boy of his standing deserves. Tom suspects that his neck and shoulders are equally wrapped in bandages, but they cannot be seen underneath Ian's special robe. His bright hair, he can spot from here, is singed just slightly. He remembers it burning away during the duel. How it crinkled and withered away...

What unnerves him, just the slightest, is how calm he looks. The essence of collectiveness. Nothing like that volatile eruption witnessed during...well, any day that he's interacted with Ian. Even on his quiet days, he's a ticking bomb. Looks constantly annoyed with his surroundings. What did they give him? Calming draught? Drink of Zen? Opium? 

"Aiden Grimme Augustus Giles Ian Rosier. Pureblood."

Ugh, why do so many of them have long winded names? Three should be the maximum amount of names allotted to a baby--Any more, and it's borderline abuse.

Despite Tom's clear dislike of the boy in the chair, he watches him much more closely and carefully than he did with any other person who testified. What tricks does he have up his sleeve? And who came up with them? His parents? The patriarch of the Rosiers? What lies will he spin to win back the favor stolen by Ximena? Or would it be the truth that steals it back?

"--grades are phenomenal. As expected of a Rosier scion."

"Your family does set rather high expectations of you, don't they?" The jade man says it with sympathy, but only just enough--After all, all proper families have high expectations, "Did you ever feel like you were cracking under pressure?"

Tom quirks a brow when no member interrupts: the jade man is clearly leading Ian.

"I suppose, yes." Tom's back stiffens; Ian doesn't have a vocabulary like that, something's off, "I want to always be sure I'm doing the right and proper thing by them and their wishes. But it's hard; there's so many conflicting messages..."

The jade man rests a hand on Ian's shoulder in comfort, "Of course! We English Wizards have all heard of the tragic fate of your dear cousin Vinda--"

Nemesis clears her throat, "Vinda Rosier from the French branch: she's Grindelwald's right-hand witch." You don't say?

"Has she been in contact with you?" Un-bloody-likely. Grindelwald's campaign and reign of terror undoubtedly take up obscene amounts of time, not to mention being on the run, staying hidden, and organizing rallies. Why would a witch as important as that waste time on a distant relation?

"I--" Ian actually chokes up, "I wasn't supposed to say," Oh for fuck's sake. "She just said she missed me. That she wanted to talk again. That we're family."

The Wizengamot doesn't even try to see through this act if their faces are anything to go by. The most dubious one is Dumbledore, and of course he would be dubious. The others in the room aren't much better, he can hear the gasps and coos and whispers of sympathy. Even by the alumni who weren't former Slytherins. The poor idiot boy, manipulated by a trusted older relative who herself, was being manipulated by a dangerous Dark Lord. It's an easy enough story to swallow. Ugh.

"That little bugger." Nemesis seethes.

"That's not Ian." He breathes lowly, eyes narrowing.

"What."

"That is not Ian Rosier."

If it were even possible, she grows quieter, leans in to exclude the possibility of anyone listening, "That's a serious accusation, Tom--"

"I know what I'm saying."

She seizes...Still looking at him, debating on whether to believe him or think him crazy, "...What makes you say that?"

"Look at him." Don't be stupid, Nemesis, it doesn't suit you, "Listen to him."

So she does. She takes a long pause to observe the boy. Not what he's giving away, but what he's keeping back. How still he is. How poised. How polite. Ian was raised well, but he can't betray himself like that. Not for this long.

"--Describe what happened that night."

"My honor was besmirched. I lost in a duel to a...a witch of undetermined blood. Had my wand claimed by said witch. Was physically attacked by said witch. And am here, as a result, because of said witch."

"Is that what your cousin told you to say?"

Everything's a scandal. How could they fall for this? It's so obvious. So pathetic. Is it because they want to believe it? Because the alternative would be too difficult to deal with...So much red tape to sort through if the boy had acted of his own free will. Of his own temperament and his own ulterior motives. How vexing. Ian deserves to face the consequences of his actions. The consequences of being Tom's assailant. 

The boy starts to sob openly.

"...I believe you." She says, finally.

That is not Ian Rosier.

The Rosiers, up in their spot, look composed. Pleased. Everything according to plan? 

"You'd think his mother would at least try to bring up some crocodile tears." Tom mutters, patience whittling down every second.

Nemesis shakes her head, "The Rosiers are a stoic clan. It's why Ian's temperament is so infamous. It would be more suspicious if his mother was crying due to his testimony."

"Isn't she a Burke by birth?"

"Of course, but when you marry into a family, you adapt to fit that family." Need to groom them into being their ideal wife, yeah? "Your family name is your uniform. A code of conduct."

A tilt of the head--What would the Riddles have as a code of conduct, then? The list of appropriate behaviors for heirs? Children? Men, women, husbands, wives, widows, in private and public? Is his family still alive for him to adapt to their expectations, or will he have to reshape them in his image?

A pleasing thought for later daydreaming. Something to tuck away for bad days.

The jade man tries, to no avail, to calm the imposter down. If it were really Ian, then it would have been pathetic to see him so emotional out on the floor like this. But because it is an imposter, a purposeful one, it is brilliant. Conniving. None of these men know Ian. None of the reporters, the spectators...Hell, maybe even his own aunt and uncle. They'd never be able to tell an imposter from the real thing...Not like him. Not like his classmates. He peaks at Slughorn, Merrythought, and Willow: they're impassive as well. Unable to believe their eyes, or rather, unwilling to believe that they could have put a fake on the stand...It's so much easier to believe that their student was riding under this immense pressure this whole time.

He peeks at Ximena, who looks as perplexed as he feels. Finally, some emotion--Even if he thinks it's planned. If it’s genuine, and she’s as confused as he and Nemesis, then does she have a better idea of what’s going on? Or is she in on it and a better actress than he thought? 

What do you know? He wishes he was a mindreader. That he could reach out his hand and pluck the information he seeks from her brain. Or that by doing something as simple as looking into her eyes, he would be able to understand the deepest secrets being kept. Ugh, if only he could talk to her--Without her interrupting or simply walking away.

The imposter goes on--Spinning a tale of having his cousin coax him to think and say all the cruel things that he had done and said and thought. As if he had zero control over his own damn actions. What kind of enchantment could be so strong as to fool an entire chamber of grown wizards (unless, they all knew and were in on it?) Was the person testifying a Metamorphmagus? It was only briefly mentioned in his last Transfiguration class, but it's the only thing that comes to mind…

"Why would she lie to me? My cousin--my own family? She wouldn't steer me wrong, she loves me. She looks out for me. She took care of me as a baby--" 

Spencer-Moon orders the jade man to calm the boy down less he be escorted out. Spectators scream justice for him. For all of Grindelwald's victims. As if Grindelwald himself had come and forced him to be stupidly violent and bigoted. As if any of this made any Merlin-damned sense. Won't the testimonies tomorrow just prove this all wrong? That Ian has always been a dull, bellicose, spoiled brat?

In all his crying, not once does the fake Ian apologise. To him or to Ximena. Tom didn't expect any less.

-

The sound of gavel on wood is anticlimactic. From his reclaimed spot, he sees Ximena's shoulders relax. Yes, she was nervous. He knew it.

"This Wizengamot will take tonight to decide on a proper verdict for Miss Ximena Lane. We will announce any and all terms, conditions, and punishments tomorrow morning, after Mister Ian Rosier's trial."

Nemesis looks grim as they walk out the hall, through a different door than the one they entered. Her eyes are downcast, hands folded in front of her, humbly ignoring the slew of camera flashes illuminating their faces. He looks ahead with a detached face, brave and appropriately stoic for the occasion. Reporters do, indeed, come to them in a feeding frenzy, frantically asking questions as if they hadn't been sitting in the same room for hours. Weren't they listening? Don't they have anything else better to report? The Muggle war, the civil unrest to the east, the goddamn dark wizard that's terrorizing half the world--They can't all be from gossip magazines, he sees a few press identifications from The Prophet. Some respectable paper that's turning out to be. Crowding children when they've gone through a traumatic event like this…The two of them couldn't have escaped past them the way they came in, he understands. They need to be seen right now. 

In a moment of brilliance, he decides to turn the public more to their side, and he rests a hand around Nemesis' shoulder protectively. She leans in closer, the discomfort of having her so close bring drowned out by the shining reputation this action will help build.

Outside, the world revolves around them. Cold and dark, the two navigate outside the courtroom with the press following around them like the tail of a comet. Nemesis, her eyes still looking down at her feet, is still leading him. The evidence room she called it. That's where they'll be keeping your wand. His hand's itching for it. They told him it would be personally delivered to him at Hogwarts tomorrow, but he's waited long enough. Nemesis is a handful to cater to, but hell if she doesn't pay off: picking up his wand is a favor from her father. He'll have to remember to write a formal thank you note to him. Bugger.

His wand is handed back to him unceremoniously by a ministry worker, who looked at him with mixed suspicion and sympathy--For what, he doesn't know, but he has a couple of ideas: it's a similar look to the ones given to him those first few weeks of first year when highbloods believed Tom to be mingling with Ximena for the sake of indoctrinating her to 'the right ways'. He tells the worker 'thank you' and tucks his wand into the deep pockets of his robe, safe, next to Ximena's bracelet. Nemesis asks him how his wife is fairing with the new baby.

 

-

 

"Did he really say all that about Lane?" Nemesis is scandalized; in the safety of the empty stair corridor, her whispers cut through the silence harshly. Hogwarts is the same as they left it (absurd to think that it would have changed but--), welcoming and warm. Empty. Everyone is in classes or the library. He can't even see ghosts lingering around, it's like they both have the place to themselves, "That...That awful, crass, stupid...How dare he!" She huffs, and Tom wonders how she didn't blow up before reaching this space, "I didn't know! I knew he was terrible, but to know that he..That he could speak about a witch like that--We're related! I've sat at dinner with him! I...I played with him as a baby." Anger doesn't suit Nemesis well, but he likes it better than when she's being lovey-dovey. At least she has to be separated from him to gesture wildly with her arms. He's never seen her so wild.

"People change." No they don't, "Or they surprise you." That they do. "I can't say I'm the same as I was when I was a toddler," Yes he can, "I'm sure he was, at some point, innocent." He's not.

"But how can--" she gestures outwards with her hands, "how can he just...think things like that? Say them aloud? Does somebody else think things like this?" Of course they do, Nemesis can't be this naïve, "My father? Uncles? Nephews?"

"Who's to say?" He's feeling honest today, "Rosier was probably just repeating what he heard around the house, maybe everyone else is just repeating what they hear as well."

Her face sours, "Men!"

"Indeed."

Amber eyes on him, "You're not like that, Tom, you're--You're sweet. A gentleman!" When he has to be, "Purebloods should only hope to have sons and heirs like you! And--and you grew up in an orphanage! A Muggle one!"

His jaw stiffens. Takes a deep breath, "Upbringing isn't everything." Evidently. "Treating witches this way...It's the status quo for wizards, isn't it?" He doesn't mention, of course, that it's normal for Muggles as well. Something both communities have in common--They might even bond and get over their differences. Heh.

"It--" Her hands close into fists and open, over and over, "It...It is, isn't it?" But she knew this. She was the one to alert him of it. A witch in the Wizengamot?...That sounds like a dream, Riddle. A wonderful dream. "I'm...I'm so stupid."

Occasionally, "Come now, don't talk like that." She's smart in the ways that actually matter to him, "Someone with your grades and political savvy is not and cannot be stupid." Someone he willingly associates with cannot be stupid, "Our free period is about to start, let's settle in the common room and catch up on the classes we missed." 

-

The first thing Hedwig does is grill into him about the trial. The second thing she does is punch his arm when he tells her to read about it in the papers tomorrow. He says something about injuring an already weak boy and she tells him to stuff it. And while he sort of misses the pushover nature of Nemesis and her attentiveness, he welcomes Hedwig's attitude. Nemesis, who has been treating him like glass since he got attacked, doesn't find the other witch's actions very funny. She scolds her, as a matter of fact, of which Hedwig responds with a healthy eyeroll. 

"Lestrange's been asking for ya."

"Katux?"

"Aye. Somehow thinks I've got a direct eye on you at all times, the idiot. Bothered me all potions class."

Tom hums, only half interested, "How was the substitute?"

"He knew his way around a cauldron--But guess who it was?" He can't pin down Hedwig's expression, is it excited? Scandalized?

"Was it Professor Eald again?" Nemesis sounds worried. Rightfully so: the woman is a thousand years old and hard of hearing.

Hedwig shakes her head, looking at Tom, expecting him to guess.

"Professor Binn?"

"Gods no," Hedwig expels air through her nostrils, "I'd sooner like to bash my head in than have him as potions instructor."

"Well then Hedwig, who was the substitute?"

The witch leans in for dramatic effect, whispering lowly as if what she were sharing were a big secret, "Acarya's father."

He stills. Before he can formulate a response, Nemesis beats him to it, "No!" She's immensely curious, "I thought he was a myth, how did he look?" A myth? Did she just think that Yami's mother became pregnant all by herself?

"A myth and a legend." Hedwig confirms, shimmying closer, "He was a meek little man, gentler than a daisy petal! I thought maybe someone made a mistake, but then I saw him brew." And? "I know where Acarya's damn skill comes from now. That man could kill all of us without a trace if he wanted." The thought makes anxiety and excitement shake within his ribcage: to have that kind of ability...to be at the mercy of that kind of ability...

"That must have been nice for Acarya, to have her father with her in class. Witness her skills." Nemesis hums, folding her hands together.

"If by nice you mean fecking awkward. Not all of us get along with daddy dearest as well as you do."

Tom holds back a smirk, remembering daddy dearest's actions towards her at the trial. Nemesis grows defensive (her shoulders stiffen up), and is about to open her mouth to retort before Tom cuts her off: "A shame I had to miss his class. It sounds fascinating." If he's anywhere as good as Slughorn without any of his annoying habits, then the man is worth his weight in galleons. He's probably worth more, considering the family he married into.

"Don't be a git, Tom, you got a front row seat to the trials of the year! Entertainment for the masses: a horde of old pillocks scrambling to repair the actions of one of their youngins."

"Hedwig." Nemesis scolds again, to no avail. Hedwig gives her a rude hand gesture ('It's not like we're in public, you wet blanket'). Tom's not sure why Nemesis tries with her, Hedwig might be a pureblood, but she doesn't care about subtlety in the slightest.

"Speaking of, Evan and his lot were there, yeah? How did they look?"

Nemesis looks to still be recovering from the gesture. Tom decides to answer for her, "They looked well." Well off. "Statuesque." Revealing almost nothing throughout the entire ordeal.

"Figures."

"Were you expecting any less from them?"

"I was hoping Ian's mother would blow the fecking roof on everybody--I've seen her angry before, it's a sight to behold."

"She was as composed as the rest of the Rosiers, I assure you."

"At least I didn't miss that show." Then, the humor leaves her face, "How was Lane?"

This time, Nemesis cuts in for him, as if she were waiting for it, "She did her part beautifully."

"Did us proud, huh?" Hedwig nods, "Not so much a shtate[1] after all. Good girl." Tom holds back from rolling his eyes. "How'd those gombeens[2] take her for?"

Nemesis, once again, answers for him, "A harmless poor little witch who has been held back from her true heritage--You should have seen her, you would have probably cackled at the sight of it all...She had a lowborn accent and everything, it was like she was raised in a gutter--" Tom used to speak in that accent, but he doesn't interrupt to voice his offense, "--she even wore Muggle clothing."

"And those bollixes fell for it?" Hedwig's never been much for gossip, why is she so interested? Was her day that boring? It's annoying him.

Nemesis, unapproving of Hedwig's diction, decides to ignore it and nods her head, "Lane had them eating out of her hands."

"Fuck!" The smile on her face could light up nations, "That's some pure fucking class! Maybe they won't expel her after all."

Tom clears his throat, finally speaking up, "I highly doubt they will, she managed to rake in a lot of sympathy points despite the odds being against her."

"You're biased you dope, how can ya know that for sure?"

"I was there, wasn't I?"

Nemesis is quick to defend him, "The damage Ian did is too great for the Wizengamot to ignore...If they vote in favor of him, it would let everyone know for sure that they're all mostly made up of Purists."

"Everybody who isn't a complete gobshite knows that that parade of old farts is full of Purists. Hell, everyone who matters has a grandfather or six in there!"

Before Tom can correct Hedwig on the amount of grandfathers one can realistically have, Nemesis sighs, "Perhaps for the highbloods, yes, but not for the common people."

The white haired witch dismisses her words with a wave of her hand, "If the common people had fecking working eyes, then they'd see it." He has to agree with that: any idiot could see the true intentions of that whole lot.

"Well regardless," The taller witch has more bite to her these days, Tom wonders if she'll snap, "I really think she has a fighting chance. Our testimonies were excellent, and the word of Merrythought, Slughorn, and Willow only sweetened her reputation." She does not mention the appearance of Ian.

"Don't forget Dumbledore." 

Hedwig blinks, "Professor Dumbledore spoke? On behalf of a Slytherin?"

"Really, Hedwig, his bias isn't as bad as all of us make it out to be--"

Hedwig places her hand over the girl's mouth to shut her up, "What did Dumbledore say, Tom?"

He makes a point of looking a little distressed at her actions: he hesitates, watching Nemesis struggle not to break her good-girl persona, before speaking, "I, well, he talked about Ximena, of course. Her mild and studious nature, same as our other professors."

"Uh-huh." She hasn't removed her hand from Nemesis' mouth, despite the later's tries to pry it off, "But what did he really say?"

And he knows what she means. Dumbledore is Gryffindor, but he has his slimy manipulation tactics. He wears a coat of red and gold over skin of green and silver, "A part of him definitely wanted the court to arrive at the conclusion that Ximena did burn Ian." The resulting muffled gasp from Nemesis reminds him that she probably still thinks her innocent, "But he knew that the greater good would be punishing Ian for getting away with all he has these past three years."

"Typical." Hedwig shakes her head, leaning back and finally releasing Nemesis' mouth, "She'll be saved by a hair."

"--You don't think Lane actually cast that confrigo, did you?"

"You didn't tell her?"

Tom holds up his hands to the girls in defense, "I never said she cast or didn't cast anything--I passed out before much happened."

"Sure ya did."

"Oh that's horrible--So there really are people who think Lane did it?"

How did he end up being close with such different people? Oh right, their skill. Their influence is just an added bonus, "There's a lot of conflicting stories; I haven't had a chance to speak with Ximena proper to clear the air--I was hoping to do so tonight."

"Oh you won't be able to tonight," Nemesis says, "she's spending the night at the Ministry."

She what, "They would really take her away from her education like that? Two full days?" That's at least sixteen classes, if she has a full load, and that's not counting what she's already missed, "That's absurd."

"Our Ministry isn't exactly known for being logical, Tom." Hedwig berates him, tsking, "Lane'll be fine, don't worry your pretty little head over her." Of course he knows she'll be fine, but he has to talk to her. Explain himself and talk his way into forgiveness without apologising.

"I think it's natural to be worried over my fellow housemate."

"Pfft, like you'd be this worried over either one of us if the situation were different." That's a valid point, but not in the way she's suggesting. Hedwig could hold her own and she comes from a powerful family. Only someone with connections and the patience of a saint would even think about squaring up against her. Nemesis, as she had mentioned, would be infinitely preferred over Ian just for the fact that she was born to the patriarch of an old and noble line. Not to mention that the girl knew how to lie when it suited her. Her words to the court impressed him. There is also the fact that Tom is not on either of their shit lists for keeping something precious to them away and hidden. But that's it. That's the one and only reason he's this wrapped up in the situation. Because of the bracelet. Nothing else.

"Of course I would. You're both my friends." Nemesis looks touched and Hedwig bites her thumb at him. He didn't expect any different.

-

He sleeps with his wand under his pillow.

The first spell he cast with it was a tracking charm: one from the third year spellbooks. It promises to lead him to the item in question no matter where he is and whether or not he has his wand on his person. He tested it out before bedtime by hiding it around the dormitory and seeing if he could sense the magic from other spots in the room and common area. So far so good, but he'll have to recast it every few months as it wears off. The same way he has to recast the featherweight charm on the bracelet. 

Ugh, but there's lingering magic on the handle from that damn representative--It's sticking to his wand like slime...Earthy, almost. Definitely organic. He'll have to find a way to cleanse it--A spell used to cleanse an aura should work in theory, but he hasn't studied on them, much less actually casted one. It's something saved for his fourth year, and even then, it'll be just theory and vocabulary...It can't be too hard to learn, though. Getting access to the spell, though, that'll be a little harder without Ximena's help. Why can't he learn what he's ready for? Why must he wait until the rest of these idiots catch up? 

When he was four, he had already learned how to bathe himself without drowning. The other children always, always had to have help or at least someone to watch over them. But not Tom. They left him alone, lest they feel the wrath of his scream and magic. If simple Muggles can understand how advanced he is, why can't wizards? He'll have to inquire about taking a special test to get into the more advanced classes...Or see about taking classes over the summer (away from Wool's) to be further in his studies the next year, or--

A temporary guardian.

No...That'll be a last resort. If any. There's too many factors he can't control or predict in that game, and Dumbledore is over half of them. If he submits to such a thing (and he would submit rather than agree in this situation), it would be under specific circumstances and conditions. The first one being: Tom has to approve whatever witch he is given to. Annoying, he can tolerate. Ignorant he cannot. He's been rubbing elbows with the worst of them at Hogwarts, and he will not stand for someone who clearly knows less than him and undermines his skill. The second one is: they will understand that they are not his parent. They are only to keep watch over him (from a distance). There will be no bonding or affection allowed. He was raised without touch, and he would like to continue down that route, thank you very much. The third is that they must agree to stay out of his business. No spies. No interfering. If he asks, they may be allowed to give advice, but that's the extent of it.

Ximena's guardian at the trial...That's his perfect situation. He passed by them on his way out: they were talking quietly between themselves a respectable distance away. No reassuring back rubs, no hugs, no warm smiles. Tom's willing to bet that their talk was all business, too. All 'how are your studies' and 'did you get your wand back yet' and maybe even a 'the Abbess suspects, but I fooled her into letting me out for the day'. If there was any affection, it would be a simple 'how is your health' or 'did you eat yet'. Ideal. Some people have all the luck. Tom wonders if Ximena knows how fortunate she is. She might, she's a smart girl, but terribly distracted at times.

Fortunate...She wasn't the only witch at her little abbey (Was it little? He never asked.) She was one of a few. Or many. (The Wizengamot didn't ask either.) How long has she known that--Did she make it up? No, they could verify those things. It has to be true. She was brought up amongst witches and her kind. They probably talk to her about her heritage and spill secrets into her ears. Help her with homework and tell her how to brew special potions for nerves. He didn't have his kind around him, he was lucky enough that one of the old caretakers could half-ass a card trick without getting a papercut. How is that fair? Why didn't his mother give birth and die on the stairs of Ximena's abbey? Or another location with witches? Infernal woman.

He has asked. He asked her if the Muggles who raised her knew she was a witch. All she said was on some level. She said that they claimed magic was of the devil. She was lying. She lied to him. It had to have been a lie. Unless not all of the women there were magical, and the way she talked about the Abbess leads him to believe that that could be possible. Unless the witches there were self-hating. Influenced by awful Muggles and the dangers of religion. Wouldn't they have stopped her from attending the school, then? The matron tried to keep Tom, but he has Dumbledore to thank for convincing her without the threat of violence. But Ximena's here, so that can't be it...Unless she lied to the Wizengamot, and unlike lying to him, there are real consequences when lying to the Wizengamot. That'll change, of course, eventually--But until then, he's put out. His usual process of punishing people wouldn't work with Ximena, he doesn't think she should fear him yet, and if he's being completely honest with himself, he's not sure he could reach that goal very easily. Unsettle, sure. Rattle up and bother, yes. But scare? That would take a real effort. He'll save that challenge for later, when he needs it.

If (and that's a very big if) she lied to them not just about Ian's past outbursts, but also about her home life, then that woman in the chambers is not a witch. Ximena is alone, just as he is. In theory. Wouldn't a witch raised among her kind be more social to her magical peers? All the other pureblooded girls are, even the half-bloods--Muggleborn girls are shyer, usually, preferring to keep to themselves until they find a proper group...The way Ximena is, though it doesn't look like she's interested in finding a permanent group. She doesn't seek Tom out to converse or study, but she welcomes his company...At least, she did, who knows if that will continue.

Perhaps it's a bit unfair to try and compare her to other girls, even the smart ones Tom associates with: Nemesis was bred to be a socialite, and Hedwig is...Hedwig. Yami's mother is the head of a political dynasty, and only seems to talk to those who would benefit her family. Mali does as she likes because she's not from here and will most likely never be in contact with any of these students again. There's no consequences for her. Lucretia isn't afraid to reach out to others because despite everything, the way Blacks raise daughters is frighteningly practical. Druella is far from social, but that's due to her unpleasant personality, obviously (alright, he's biased, but God, that girl--). She doesn't really count as smart, but she is well within Tom's spheres of influence. That is, influences on him.

Tom wonders, if Ximena had been raised with her parents, what she would have been raised for.

He goes to sleep.

-

They're outside--A forest. Perhaps the Forbidden Forest, and perhaps not. It's bright and warm, it's perfect picnic weather. The sunlight is captured by the canopies of the trees, leaving them in a cool shade. Walking in a cool shade. Mulch squelches under their feet, and every once in a while, he hears a satisfying crunch from stepping on a dry leaf or a bug. They have packs at one point, with supplies to camp out for weeks, but then they turn into simple lunch bags.

Ximena sits, facing him, arms folded on the wooden table. His hands are in his lap--Where's the food? He thought they were on a picnic. He looks behind Ximena: there's a car! A car, who drove? She did, that's right, Ximena can drive. They didn't walk here, that's silly, they're miles and miles away from civilization. It's not like they could fly here.

She's talking...He can't remember what about. Class. The drive here. Her fingernails. So nonsensical, is she even speaking English?

Oh, she's not. Not anymore. When she speaks, she says a word he doesn't know: ah-bou-ella. It dances out her mouth, and with it, brings something else--Petals and blossoms and stemmed flowers. They fall gently down on the surface of the table, soft as silk. Reds and pinks and yellows, warm colors with the intensity of the sun. The thorns on the stems do not bother her.

When he tries to say the same word, diamonds fall out from his mouth. Diamonds and rubies and emeralds, all sorts of precious stones that clatter noisily to the table between them. Some are so sharp, they cut his tender flesh, but they're so pretty. So vivid in color that he picks them up to admire them.

And she continues, this time saying paah-pa. This word, he does not know either. It slides out of her mouth smoothly, and rivers come out. Strong water currents, fresh and salt, with fish and algae. The rivers crash onto the table, briefly flooding the space between them, bringing the flowers to a float and sinking the gems to the bottom.

He wants to say that word too. He repeats it, and gold coins come out of his mouth, leaving a metallic taste on his tongue. They clang onto the table and splash the river water everywhere, shining beautifully alongside the gems. His side is beginning to look like a dragon's hoard, and Ximena's side: a floating garden.

Then she talks again: maah-ma, and the whole world comes out from between her lips. Mountains and sky and glaciers and dirt and magma and the forest tumble out and embrace them both, creating a womb for them. Safe and good. She does not look uncomfortable as the world emerges from her mouth, it looks as natural as breathing. As comfortable as falling asleep. As if the world regularly fell out of her mouth and has done so all her life.

Tom says the word too, but all that comes out of his mouth are snakes.

 

Chapter Text

Every morning she is the first girl in her year to rise. She makes sure of it. She draws back the drapes on her bed once she's secure and ready to emerge: a moth from its cocoon. It's behind these drapes that she transforms every morning into something beautiful--Presentable. It's behind these drapes that, every night, she returns to being uninspiring. Let her guard and magic down as her eyes close and she wanders into slumber.

Cold feet into slippers, the patter patter patter of her steps down the stairs and into the bathroom, the barely there light of the morning fluttering in through the high windows. In the mirror, the echos of her father's scolding yesterday stay singed into her delicate skin--Figuratively, of course, father would never harm her like that (dear mama, on the other hand, is another story entirely.)

Nemesis begins to brush her hair: a ritual of vanity. One. Two. Ten. Twenty-three. Fifty-seven. Eighty-nine. One hundred. It's silly, made up, and absolutely unnecessary, but oh how she loves it. When she was a child (more of a child than she is now,) she had an uncle acquire her a lovely book of Muggle stories (courtesy of his, then unknown, Muggle mistress), and her absolute favorite tale spoke of a trapped maiden in a tall tower with long hair as golden as the sun...Nemesis chooses for her hair to be like starlight instead, because stars are so much lovelier than the sun[1]. Sailors find their way with them and lovers preach their love under them. Stars are ancient, people have told stories with them for millenia. It's just the right connotation she wants associated with her.

 She wonders how long it took for the maiden to brush her hair...Did she have help from the old crone keeping her hostage? Did that dashing prince, once they were reunited, acquire endless servants to keep his wife's hair shining and healthy?[2]

She hums as she brushes, some of that splendid jazz that Adam was playing in the Great Hall the other week...How wonderfully absurd it all sounded! With instruments she's never even heard of and rhythms her body can't follow. It's so dreamy! It's the kind of sound she imagines plays in fairie courts. Mysterious and playful. Wonderfully foreign. (She would like to acquire a wax cylinder[3] of some...Do Muggles have wax cylinders? Or do they only have that strange disk-shaped object to play music from? They look so flimsy, do they break easily?) Her voice, soft as the light in the girl's bathroom, resounds atop the tile and mirrors and iron pipes. She'd hum a more familiar melody, like a lullaby, but alas, she did not grow up with such a luxury. Mama made sure of that. Nothing but her steady breathing lulled her to sleep every night. 

The brush is set atop the sink as she splashes her pale face with cold water (good for the skin, her second eldest sister always told her), and proceeds with the rest of her morning ritual. A beautification of the self. Not a single hair out of place nor speck of dirt on her person. When she looks back into the mirror and sees a face that would make her mama's blood curdle with anger, she smiles and changes into her robes.

As she puts on her contraband jewelry (smuggled to her by her fifth eldest sister), Hedwig joins her in the bathroom, yawning and scratching at her head.

"Good morning, Hedwig."

The girl curses back at Nemesis--At least, she thinks it's a curse, it's mumbled so lowly, "Good fucking where?" Looks like she's in a better mood today. Must be improving on her potions for the competition--Yami's always been a sharp witch, so much that Nemesis has been intimidated by her since her fifth eldest sister first told her about her. If being the youngest of seven was horrible, she can't possibly imagine only having one sister's shadow to sulk under. She's never had the pleasure or misfortune to meet Yama, but just uttering the name around Yami freezes her on the spot. Not even Nemesis' sisters had power over her like that. Not individually. 

One-sidedly, she makes small talk with the smaller witch, asking questions about her classes and how she had slept. Another regular part of her morning routine. As she talks, more of their fellow Slytherin girls enter the bathroom. First, the older girls, then the youngest ones, each one in varying states of awake and dress. One by one, they claim a station at a sink or a section of the tub's edge to prepare for their day, chattering amongst themselves about a variety of topics. Their parents' ball this or my engagement that and occasionally I'm going to run away. It's thrilling. Being so open and trusting with other girls like this...Like being a part of a coven, she suspects. Grooming each other, washing each other, consulting one another...It's like home. Like what growing up with six sisters should have felt like all the time: a covenant between witches. As a house, they put up a united front for every snake, but in the privacy of this sacred space, their loyalties are to themselves.

"You're looking chipper, Fawley."

Nemesis nods her head curtly, "It's a beautiful morning, Burke--I have high hopes."

The girl smiles as she weaves ribbons into her hair, "I read the paper," was it delivered already? "you and Riddle looked cozy."

"Oh Burke, don't be a gossiper." Nemesis holds back her blush, "It was hardly a romantic atmosphere...We're very worried about what could happen." And that was the honest truth.

"About Lane?"

"Of course about Lane--She's our housemate."

Burke gives the other a look. A raised brow and a little smirk. A look full of disbelief and condescension, "If you say so."

The blatant distrust from her makes Nemesis wildly uncomfortable. She turns back to the mirror and brushes through her hair again. Rapidly. Why does everyone expect...expect such ugliness out of her? She...she's never proven to be a nasty person like that, right? She's good. She's a good girl. What did she do to come off that way, was it something she said or did or wrote or--

Her arm pulls too hard on the brush and a few strands rip out of her head. Damn.

-

In contrast to the bubbling conversation that happens in the Slytherin girls' bathroom every morning, the low murmur of voices in the common room during the morning is quite tame. No more squawking laughter or eager chitterlings about the latest rumors or which boys the others found attractive--Just sedated smiles and domestic hellos, buried under the socialization of the boys. It never fails to kill her spirit.

When Tom comes up the stairs, she preps herself to say hello to him, but Hedwig beats her to the punch: smacking him square on the nose with a rolled up newspaper, "And just when the fuck were you two munters planning on telling me that baby fucking Rosier testified yesterday?" Oh darnnit, she should have known she'd do something like this (a part of her is glad she was spared of her wrath, but she wishes that Tom hadn't been hit.) She frets--Hedwig is so barbaric sometimes, Nemesis is sure that her mama would drop dead just at the sight of her--and tries to see if Tom's nose is alright as he waves her off, unconcerned and seemingly unamused.

"You never asked."

Hedwig winds up her arm to hit him again and is stopped by Evan's hand--Thank the Gods, "Good morning, all." He smiles through Hedwig's death glare, "Acwellan, haven't we talked about using proper manners towards your housemates?"

As the morning (and Hedwig) erupts, Nemesis reads over Tom's shoulder at the copy of The Prophet that Hedwig had batted him with: right underneath a GRINDELWALD SPOTTED IN ARGENTINA is UNFORGIVABLES IN HOGWARTS: PUREBLOOD OUT FOR BLOOD? Not a very creative title--but the type certainly catches attention. 

"Oh dear," Nemesis sighs, "they've certainly made a mess of this, haven't they?"

"I'm sure that's exactly what they wanted." 

The paper is given to Nemesis after she offers to read to him (he had been squinting at the article, maybe his eyes hurt?) As he watches the moving photographs that make up the small collage (Ian's face sobbing, Dumbledore testifying, Ximena's statuesque posture, and his and Nemesis' walking away from the courtroom--It's the first and only picture of them together; the memory of his hand on her shoulder reddens her cheeks), she reads lowly, "--This past Thursday, Mister Ian Rosier, a third year at Hogwarts, was thwarted in attempting to cast the Cruciatus curse during a session of the school's weekly Dueling Club--" 

"What does it say about Ximena?"

Nemesis scrunches her nose at his sudden, impatient inquiry, "--Miss Ximena Lane, a foundling witch of uncertain pedigree, was accused of injuring Rosier with a blasting curse, after he had attempted to ambush Riddle when he was alone with Miss Nemesis Fawley, seventh child to Erebus Fawley and Aide Fawley (neé Belasko) with a slicing hex." A pause as she skims over the petty details, "Lane appeared humbly before the court alongside her professors and classmates, whom were happy to testify on her behalf...A bright young witch with overflowing respect for Hogwarts and the Ministry...We await eagerly for her verdict on the morning of September 30th, and hope that proper justice be given out to the misguided Rosier and the noble Lane."

"Pathetic."

They turn to Katux, freshly arrived from the second year boys' dorm, Tom raises a brow, "The media or the Wizengamot?"

Katux's smiles in approval, "An excellent question, Riddle." His head nods to Nemesis, "Good to see you're on the path to redemption, Fawley."

She can't help it! She trembles in anger: the smallest of quivers. The proper thing is to swallow it down and address Katux formally-- "Bugger off, Lestrange." Oh.

Evan snorts. Tom, if she's not mistaken, holds in a guffaw of his own. Katux, displeased, excuses himself to breakfast, asking to speak with Tom later. She wishes Tom wouldn't bother with him, he's rotten to his core.

"About time ya start standing up for yourself." Hedwig rests her hands akimbo, "Especially to that minger."

Nemesis turns her head away, avoiding eye contact, "I acted out of turn. I should have kept my composure." Empty words, she's happy she said what she felt, she says it so rarely.

Tom lifts his chin, "He was being a prat. Good on you for telling him so."

Nemesis dares to look back up and oh her sun and stars, he's the most beautiful boy she's ever laid eyes on. She wants nothing more at all than to hide her face into her cupped hands and melt whenever he's near--Just looking at him is too much, it's too much. He might as well be part-gorgon, she stills and turns to stone under his gaze.

"Thank you, Tom." She fears he'll sense her heart fluttering in her chest.

Ah! His smile! "Of course, Nemesis." Being on first name basis now is...some kind of progress. A certain kind of closeness they didn't have before...It took longer for her to reach that than it did for Lane but…

"Ready to face the day?" Best not to linger on those feelings. She worries for him, of course she worries for him: he was raised among Muggles, what does he know of the world that was meant for him? He'll be alright, for sure, but he would be better if she were there to guide him. Introduce him to the right people and whisper their secrets and scandals in his ear. Materials to make armour with. To make weapons with.

"I'd be better set for it if you could accompany me to the Ministry for today." It's so awful and embarrassing how easily he flatters her…As if she had never received a compliment in her life, but oh! When it comes from him, she might as well never have.

"You'll be fine, Tom. I promise." Of course he will be, when is he not fine? Not even a week into his first classes at Hogwarts, and he was already soaring past herself and others who had grown up in this world. He'll be something great, he will. Minister for Magic, perhaps. She can hardly wait to see it happen...Watch him rise to glory and be nearby--

Her throat clears, and she steers her mind back to the present day.

"Of course he'll be fine, he has the face of a two year old, but the bite of a banshee." Hedwig smacks her hand onto his back (she should be more gentle with him, he's still recovering!!) in what she probably thinks is reassurance. Tom's too polite to say anything.

"Thank you, Hedwig." His throat clears, "I'd like some breakfast this time before I leave, would you all accompany me?"

"Of course, Tom." She takes his left hand side and never strays.

-

Despite the onslaught of attention (good and bad) she and Tom receive at breakfast, she finds it is actually one of the more pleasant mornings she has spent at Hogwarts. The area they sit in have only good natured snakes with the occasional Puff, and there's no sign of Katux or his group to try and bring her mood down. For a whole morning she's not just Slytherin's Fawley, she's Nemesis Fawley. She has a name. An identity. One entirely dependent on this incident and (partly) on Ian and Tom, but it is an identity. 

When it dies down enough for her to eat in peace, she misses it. Just a little. It's so rare for her to only have to share attention with just one other person. Perhaps it'll repeat when Tom comes back from the second half of the trial? If all goes well, she'll only have to share with two other people: him and Lane. Lane's a proper lady, even if she wasn't raised among the right sort, she won't hog or perhaps even like the attention (Nemesis remembers her senior's sudden rise to popularity last year very well). In fact, Lane might try and wait out the attention completely and leave her and Tom alone to-- 

A flutter of something on the crown of her head: paper? Her hand reaches to pat her hair and comes back with a sealed envelope. It's too early for mail still--Her eyes dart around for any sign of the deliverer, but the hall is free of owls. Not a peep arises from her friends, it seems they have not noticed either. The red envelope is turned over in her hands twice, the wax seal of her family crest alerting her of the contents even before she dares open it.

It's not a howler. Mama would never be so crass, so open with her sharp fury. Humiliation wouldn't just be on Nemesis, it would be on mama's name as well--Yet when she opens it and reads over the lovely script, she hears her voice screech in her head at such a high pitch, she's sure that all those around the hall slap their hands over their ears regardless. ¿Qué estabas pensando? ¡Niña desobediente! Debería lacrar tu magia y encerrarte en una jaula de hierro. Has avergonzado tu padre en plena corte. ¿Qué dirán la gente cuando ven tu foto en el periódico? Que una vástago de la familia Fawley sea falsa--Una maldita bastarda. Has deshonrado tus padres. Quítate ese disfraz y ponte lista. El mundo tiene sus ojos en ti. [4]

She swallows the ball of nerves that had formed in her mouth. Her hands scramble at the top of the table for something solid to clutch, she almost spills over her drink, turns to her friends to try and apologise and explain. But no one is looking. Not an eye in the hall. Everyone is enjoying their breakfast. Of course they're not looking. It wasn't a howler (even if it had physically yelled at her, her mama would find a way to make it so that it only reached her ears.) They're in a vivid and spirited discussion on the ethics of using dragon heartstring in wandmaking. Her stillness has gone unnoticed. Her panic has gone unnoticed. Thank the Gods.

Seconds pass. She collects herself. Her hot tea is sipped before she joins their conversation, "I believe it's best for the dragons to be raised to harvest their heartstrings as opposed to hunting them out in the wild--"

-

Drat drat drat damn it all, she had wanted to walk with him to Dippet's office to wish him luck but somehow the time got away from her--Tom just kept talking and initiating such interesting conversation, such fascinating questions! Everytime she opened her mouth to offer to escort him, a new topic came up and she can't just say no to him...By the time he had to leave, she was already halfway late for her first class. She offered to miss it but Tom refused to have her receive a tardy detention on his behalf...He's so noble. It's no wonder he--

He'll be fine. He's no fool. He might be a little green, but he's a snake. And honest--He'll tell the Wizengamot what they need to hear about Ian. Without disrupting the delicate balance that those men curate. He's not strong enough yet to usurp them, but she knows one day he can. He can bring justice to the Wizengamot. Bring it because she, herself, cannot. It's perhaps a little pathetic to live through him like this, but what he doesn't know won't hurt him. And it certainly won't hurt her. 

She just hopes he'll share everything with her that the papers won't have. Her desired beau is awfully secretive, and while she respects that, she wishes he understood the importance of trustworthy companions...So far, it seems only he and Hedwig are that close, though Evan is certainly catching up...Nemesis won't be left behind, she's sure. She's important. She is. Maybe he's just testing her. Waiting. She can wait. She can wait as long as he likes.

The one thing she wishes she knew more about now, however, is that new hat he had been sporting yesterday. She had asked politely, of course, but the only answer he had given her was 'It was a gift'. Nemesis might not know much about politics, but she knows about dress codes and gift giving etiquette. A hat like that is out of the price range of at least thirty percent of students at Hogwarts, including the highbloods. Using the usual allowance for someone of Nemesis' status would take years to build up to a proper, fitted hat like that. A hat like that, with that material, is difficult to find, and even harder to make. It's lotkabloom[5], a felt made of echinemon fur: the natural enemy of dragons. Echinemons are, of course, native to India, and thus: would be easy pickings for any Englishman to harvest would it not be for the current political turmoil happening (that's another front they have to worry about aside from Grindelwald. At least they're fighting for freedom instead of whatever Grindelwald wants--) The only echinemons in Europe are the ones in captivity (for study only, of course) and the ones smuggled in (used for pelts and dragon hunting). A hat like that, made of lotkabloom, is incredibly difficult to dye. The ingredients needed to successfully color it outprice the cost of the echinemons themselves: sea anemones that take centuries to mature and harvest ink from, feathers from birds that are elusive and rarely seen by human eyes, flowers picked by maidens' hands on harvest moons during leap years, a cauldron that can withstand the ingredients' corrosive properties long enough for them to properly mix. The only purpose of a garment like that is to send a message: I have money. I have power. I have influence.

The prime suspect would be Yami, if it wasn't already wildly obvious that it's not. Nemesis knows little about the cultures to the east, but she knows their traditional witch garments are different. Nemesis knows little about Yami, but she knows that she wouldn't just give out gifts like that without approval of her mother--And what would Yami's mother want with Tom? Besides, it's not her style to gift things like that. The Acaryas are rich, but they're practical--A better gift would have been something that warns a witch when their enemies are nearby. Or a soothing medicine for his head that doesn't make him so tired. Not a hat that costs about the same as a ship. No, that hat is the work of her godmother: Guillermina Rosier. Her tastes can be spotted a mile away, and that hat is all Guillermina Rosier. The woman was the one who caught her mother's shoe at her wedding[6]. Her mother was the matron of honor who joined her and her husband together[7]. Guillermina was the one to give Nemesis her name. To not recognise her own godmother's tastes would be insulting indeed. 

The question is, what is she...What are they playing at? Offering Tom a garment like that when his original hat had been destroyed by Ian would be a normal enough thing to do if you came from a family like the Weasleys...But from the Rosiers? Are they offering him a hand? An alliance? Protection? There's hardly a Language of Hats like there is for flowers or fan movements, but it meant something. It meant something for Guillermina's son to gift that hat to Tom.

He won't keep it of course. Not for wearing. In the little time she has interacted with him (why little? She sees him almost everyday), he's shown himself to be a proud boy. She's sure the only reason he wore the hat was to show them...something. He's on their side. Or he trusts them. Does he trust them? Does he trust her?

Her unassuming steps carry her to the stairwell.

A gentle wave in greeting to her passing sisters as she walks. Their friends wave at her too: Baby Fawley, you're so big! Their words don't carry condescension, but somehow it doesn't stop her from feeling very small. Must they refer to her as such? Doesn't she have any other aspect of her personality to turn into a nickname? She straightens her back a little more and raises her chin--Revealing nothing. The way mama had taught her.

It is her sisters that know her the best. Her likes and dreams and secrets. Her shame and regrets and mistakes. Everyone, even their own parents, mistakes them from afar, from behind, from right in front of them. But everyone of her sisters always knew who she was. The littlest one. The baby. The sprout. The final chance. Somehow, being last is the most heinous sin when there's no son coming after you (in a way, she's happy she was the last, it saves her sixth eldest sister the burden of being the disappointment. In another way, she wonders why her eldest sister isn't the prime victim of  mama's wrath: she was the first disappointment. It must have something to do with the number seven: it is the most magic number, after all.) 

Despite everything, her sisters know nothing of her resentments. They had all looked shocked at her sorting, perhaps rightfully so, but it was of no surprise to Nemesis. Not really. It had simply never made itself known in an obvious way...A hidden, quiet little daisy in a bouquet of orchids and birds of paradise. It was the four minutes under the hat that made it obvious. Loyalty, hard work, and justice are important. But cunning, self-preservation, and drive are what has kept her alive in her family these past twelve years. Her raw ambition is what brought her to Slytherin, she knows it. Feels it in her veins as if it were what was giving her life instead of blood. The want to be the best and brightest. It is not just her name that has boosted her reputation at Hogwarts, it is by her own sheer will that she has carved out a spot for herself in the hearts and minds of her classmates, little by little. Even if she is just a girl--She's bested them all many times(save for, perhaps, Tom, of course) and received high praise of all her professors. Nemesis is an individual. She's a golden girl. She is herself first and foremost. With all her smarts and accomplishments, it's impossible to mistake her for someone else. Impossible to misplace her or brush her aside. 

This is proven everyday in every classroom. Top marks, insightful answers, useful questions, and an eagerness to help her classmates radiates from her pores. As if she were a natural source for the element of overachievement. 

"Very well done Miss Fawley, you're just as bright as your sisters."

"Fawley, right? I had three of your sisters before you, I expect excellence from you."

"Eri--Oh, Miss Nemesis, I do apologise, I thought you were your sister--"

But it's never enough, is it?

-

It is only when afternoon falls that she allows herself to visibly worry.

Her notes, usually pristeene, are a jumbled mess of scribbles and torn edges. Her hands haven't stopped shaking all day as a matter of fact. She doesn't understand how anyone could relax in her situation...Two of her classmates are in the center of a manticore feeding frenzy back at the Ministry. It should have been over by now. Some kind of news should have broken out--Good or bad. Are they being kept hostage in the building? Mayhaps Ian (the fake one, that is) managed to spin a sweet enough tale to hold the court in a stalemate? Did Lane's long lost rich and influential parents show up to claim and stand by her? Sweet Circe...

Nemesis squeezes more lemon onto her nails to keep from biting...But she doesn't know what to apply to her skin to keep from scratching. Scratching is a filthy habit mama would say. And though mama is thousands upon thousands of kilometers away, somehow she would know that her daughter's nervous tick has returned. Undoubtedly Nemesis will receive another not-howler about it in the morning…

"You are making a mess." The cold tone of Yami does little to quell her nerves, even when she looks up and sees there's no anger in her eyes. It's not her prefect status, or even her senior status, it's just...Her magical signature that sets her on edge.

"Oh--I'm sorry, Acarya." The lemon might bleach the tabletop now that she thinks about it. She takes a handkerchief to dab it up, but the older witch merely makes it disappear with a flick of her wand. Damn, she should have thought of that (she's glad the common room is empty for now.) 

"Don't be nervous." That's easy for her to say, what stakes does she have in this game? "Her representative in court is a slithering, conniving, two-faced, manipulative bastard. He knows what he's doing." Indeed. But does Lane? Does Tom?

Nemesis plays with the lemon slice she holds in her hands, avoiding eye contact, "What if she's expelled?"

"Then she will continue her education somewhere else." Well yes, but--

"What if she's punished?"

"Then she will be punished." No pause, no hesitation.  Nemesis flinches at her curtness, "But I do not believe that is what the Rosiers want." Yes, because in the end, that's all that matters here: what the Rosiers want.

Nemesis' hands squeeze together, "What do you think they want?" What does Yami know?

"A scapegoat." Oh. "Her actions will help take the heat off of the investigations of our house for a good while...It is easier for others to believe that his actions are his own or that of a family shame than the product of our house's dark history." But they don't...They don't encourage hurtful dark spells, do they? Nobody's ever come up to Nemesis and demanded or taught her any terrible hexes or curses, "I would not hold it past them to sacrifice Ian for the embarrassment he caused."

"That's horrible!" She cannot help but say back, "Ian...Ian is awful, but...But he's their family! Their son! How...how could they--" 

She makes the mistake of meeting Yami's eyes. They look disappointed, almost. Sympathetic, maybe. Unsurprised, definitely, "What wouldn't a family do for the greater good?"

The greater good. A cynical part of her wants to laugh. The sensitive part wants to cry. Yes, where had she heard that before.

"...Acarya, would you happen to know where one could get an enchinemon?"

A blink and a narrowing of the eyes at the sudden change of subject, "Is there a reason you're asking me this?"

She smiles through the urge to tear up, "I'm just curious."

-

Nemesis isn't vain, at least she wouldn't define herself as such, but she knows she's fair. When she smiles, boys turn to look at her (at least, sometimes she catches them looking out of the corner of her eye). Girls in her age bracket ask her for beauty advice and compliment her (they wouldn't do that if they didn't think she was pretty, right?) That was before Hogwarts too--When mama dictated that she always look as plain as she could. Before she arrived to this sanctum and was able to indulge in her abilities. Lengthen her hair. Turn it bright blonde. Give herself eyes as gold as the crest on her father's pocket watch. Get rid of the horrid dapple of spots on her cheeks. As long as mama was none the wiser, it was fine, right? She's just expressing herself...Showing how different she is. None of her siblings here would have eyes like hers, hair like hers, skin like hers. She could be special. Finally. In the eyes of others. Not just a part of a set. 

When Tom had, on that first month, come to her as a partner in DADA, she thought he'd seen it: what made her special. Unique. Maybe she had charmed him with her laugh or grace or smell of her hair. Perhaps she'd caught his eye from across the Great Hall when their gazes briefly met? No one else in Hogwarts has golden eyes like hers, surely (only the Gods have golden eyes! Her father had said)...Or he could have defied all odds and paid attention to her academic talents. How she's always the first to raise her hand and the first to set goals for herself. And in a tragedy to end all tragedies: it was the later. How could she not grow affection for a lovely boy who pays more attention to her mind than her face? A lovely boy with perfect teeth and dapper manners...With eyes so blue she could drown herself in them[8]. Eyes that she's never caught stealing looks at her. Eyes that she's never seen full of any sort of yearning towards her. Her eldest sister would say she's too young for such thoughts but is it so wrong to want? Perchance to dream? To be preferred over all others and be a favorite. To be considered first and be nobody's second choice...No one's placeholder or consolation prize.

She is, of course, all of those things. At home, anyways--Where her mama continuously tried and tried to bear her father a son. Insisted on it, actually--Dearest father who could not care less, a Fawley daughter is as good as a son (or is it? Does her father also speak about witches the way Ian does when no one is looking?) Her sisters, loving and much loved, have found their own niches to be proud of. For mama to be proud of. Decorum and court manners and bearing children...What does Nemesis have? The steady heart and clever mind of a warlock stuck in a witch's body. A genetic inheritance she's not even allowed to use. A strong public speaking ability swallowed by the expectation of her silence. Only Tom has really appreciated these things, these gifts of hers. The very ingredients that make her Special…

So then why...Why doesn't he look at her? Are his expectations as high as mama's? Is he waiting, scandalously, for her to try and pluck his attention away? Or does...Does Tom think her ugly? Strange and tacky? Is her choice of platinum blonde hair and amber eyes too much? Too gaudy and attention seeking and obnoxious and slag-like...What was she thinking trying out this look, oh! If she dare to change it now, people will know, everyone will notice and comment on it--And should her new appearance turn him away as well, she'd have to change it again and it'll all be ruined it'll all be terrible, if only he would simply tell her what he likes, what he wants her to look like and she can do it--

What is it about Lane? Her age? Her height? Her exotic features? Nemesis could change her appearance to look like her...Curly hair, dark eyes, long limbs, angular face...She touches her own cheek: buttery soft, having never known hardship, scarring, or blemishes. She thinks about Lane's skin: cool and dabbled in freckles. Dry--always dry at the beginning of the year (nuns live without beauty creams, do they not?), and dark. Maybe Tom likes her because she's already looking like a woman. Nemesis still has baby fat on her cheek and no chest to speak of (all six of her sisters had something by twelve! Why not her?) it makes her feel even more of a child than she is. Lane doesn't have a chest or hips either, but she has a certain...presence. An elegance Nemesis has only seen in her mama: quiet like a shadow and strong like iron. Is that why he likes her? She can try and emulate her in that sense...Nemesis can be quiet and helpful towards underclassmen. Reserved without any friends...She can repress herself for...For what? A boy? Even as one as good and wonderful as Tom? Mama would be ashamed. What proper young lady begs for the attention of others? Women are meant to be hidden.

And so: she hides. In the comfort of an empty bathroom located on the third floor corridor, she stands before a mirror and moves from face to face, morphing her nose to look more aquiline and less button like. Her small eyes to look larger and less round. Freckles blossom on her face again (of which has become more androgenous). She makes herself taller, shortens her hair and curls it up, darkening it to the same warm brown as Lane's. She stops short of changing her skin, of course, she's already gone too far: a crude parody of her Slytherin upperclassman bleached and put through the wringer. The imitation a student creates as they study their master's magnum opus. The appearance of the fake Lane in the mirror brings a terrible burning to her throat and a horrid, insipid cracking in her heart.

Chapter Text

UNFORGIVEABLES IN HOGWARTS: PUREBLOOD OUT FOR BLOOD?; BRANCH HEIR ATTACKS FELLOW STUDENTS OUTSIDE OF DUELING CLUB.

By Ajax L. Bones Special to The Daily Prophet

 

Tuesday, September 26th, 1939

 

(Fig 1 Shows a collage of moving photographs in grainy, black and white. They are arranged jaggedly in a starburst shape and cut into each other at odd angles. Clockwise from 10 o’clock shows Mister Ian Rosier’s face sobbing as he recounts his story to the Wizengamot. Then Deputy Headmaster Albus Dumbledore testifying solemnly on the temperament and attitude of his students. Following is Miss Ximena Lane listening attentively to the questions given to her by the Wizengamot. Lastly, there is the end of the session where Mister Tom Riddle and Miss Nemesis Fawley are exiting the chambers, hiding their faces away from the cameras and flashing lights. Riddle has an arm around Fawley’s shoulder.)

This past Thursday, Mister Ian Rosier, a third year at Hogwarts, was thwarted in attempting to cast the Cruciatus curse during a session of the school's weekly Dueling Club. During the first meeting, students were instructed to pair up with one another to practice harmless jinxes and simple defenses. However, during a particular duel between Rosier and Mister Tom Riddle, a second year, foul play arose quickly. According to eyewitness testimony and investigation, Rosier tried to cast the dreadful Cruciatus Unforgivable on his underclassman in an attempt to defeat him in their spar. “[It’s] common for my students to escalate the attacks in their spars.” says Missus Abisola Willow, professor at Hogwarts and overseer of the Dueling Club, “It’s foolish to try and reign them all in--They have skills to show off and they know how to use them...” [continued on page 6]

[Page 6] (Fig 2 Displays a regal Abisola Willow speaking before the Wizengamot, showing off a dazzling smile.)

[Continued from Page 1] “...Mister Rosier, however, acted out of turn and without tact. Not an uncommon occurrence for tempermental students, but he’s the first to try and cast an Unforgivable in front of dozens of witnesses.” 

Rosier was taken straight to the headmaster’s office for proper discipline, and kept under close watch. Curiously enough, the incident was never reported to the Ministry until another potentially tragic event: Rosier met Riddle again later that week, having escaped watch, and wagered a rematch. As a result, Miss Ximena Lane, a foundling witch of uncertain pedigree, was accused of injuring Rosier with a blasting curse, after he had attempted to ambush Riddle when he was alone with Miss Nemesis Fawley, seventh child to Erebus Fawley and Aide Fawley (neé Belasko) with a slicing hex. The two were walking together to the Slytherin dormitories when Rosier attacked, nearly injuring Fawley and almost decapitating Riddle. Thankfully for the two second year witches, Lane had been in the “right place at the right time” and cast a protego to shield them, causing the two third year students to begin dueling. It is during this skirmish that Rosier was burned with an out-of-control Confrigo spell--The very same one that Lane was accused of casting. Checking the previous spell cast by Lane’s wand showed it was a simple expelliarmus, while the last spell used by Rosier’s was Expulso. No witnesses were available to vouch for either side, as Fawley had ran off to find a teacher at Lane's command, and Riddle had soon passed out from blood loss. 

“I was on guard since I heard [Rosier] tried to cast the Cruciatus curse on [Riddle.]”  Said Lane to Wzn. Malfoy, on the subject of knowing whether Rosier would attack Riddle.

Long has there been ugly rumours of the dark influences spread within Slytherin house to its students. In fact, the accusations go back centuries, all the way to the very year in which the school was founded. Salazar Slytherin, founder of the house, fielded many questions and accusations himself, claiming they were baseless and prejudiced. The wizard, famous for his dark magical core and penchant for black magic, was never found to have any meaningful connection to the Dark Arts outside of casual interest. Historians believe his interest was out of concern for his own students: believing that in order to combat and protect against the, at the time, hostile Muggle-Magic relations, scholars had to be armed with knowledge of the Dark Arts.

(Fig 3. Wzn. Gamp questioning Ximena Lane on whether she's aware of said rumors surrounding her house. Gamp appears stern and resigned, Lane looks soft and staunch.)

One must wonder what officials were thinking in allowing Rosier to continue attending classes among his schoolmates when he very clearly meant to successfully cast an Unforgivable. Scrutiny is being given towards Headmaster Armando Dippet, Slytherin Head of House Horace Slughorn, and Willow--The later two having testified on Lane’s behalf. When questioned, Slughorn responded that the event was a "shameful misrepresentation of Slytherin values", and that "no scholar of [his] would ever willingly know or cast either of the two Unforgivables". He, in fact, cited the actions of Lane as the proper conduct for a Slytherin, claiming that "[she] is polite, attentive to her housemates, [...] loyal" and that the majority in his house were closer to her than Rosier.

Lane appeared humbly before the court alongside her professors and classmates, whom were happy to testify on her behalf. Representing her was the bright Mister Colin Avery: a noble young man rumored to be named the new successor of the Avery Clan. He helped Lane answer questions from the Wizengamot that might have been too complicated or too foreign for her to understand; Lane, raised in Muggle Croydon, was found without memories at the age of six by a congregation of nuns at The Sisters of Saint Hesychast: Shrine of the Most Immaculate Sacrament Abbey. According to her testimony, she is not the only witch at this location, which explains why she was so well mannered in the midst of the trial. Her guardian, a stoic nun by the name of Miss Adela Rivera, accompanied Lane to the trial in support. Rivera declined our request for comment, citing her desire for inattention. Lane, following her humble example, also declined. Despite her reservations, she’s proven to be a bright young witch with overflowing respect for Hogwarts and the Ministry.

“Miss Lane isn't hostile or resentful to any of the students at Hogwarts; she's quite close with one of the best and brightest, as a matter of fact" said Slughorn, looking grim and skittish. "The best and brightest", as a matter of fact, is the aforementioned Riddle, whom was described by Fawley as “the second coming of Merlin”. Fawley herself, was characterized as a “charming young witch with endless talent”. The two are currently tied for the best grade in their year along with a select few others. Indeed, if these three students are within Slytherin house, how could anyone contest the idea that Rosier is an unfortunate outlier? In the centuries that Hogwarts has been open, never has a case such as this arisen: in which a Slytherin student has reasonable proof of being influenced by dark forces. Vinda Rosier, Grindelwald’s most valuable lieutenant, has allegedly been in constant contact with her cousin since January of 1934, teaching the dark wizard’s philosophy and instructing him to spread his propaganda to other members of Slytherin house. Rosier, turning fourteen this October, openly shed tears at the confession. It is uncertain whether or not this will affect the verdict; while Grindelwald and his legion are known for their persuasive and manipulative methods, Rosier has not been formally a minor since his induction as branch heir after the untimely death of his older sister, Colina Rosier. It’s uncertain whether his status as a formal adult will override his legal status as a minor.

According to Galatea Merrythought, professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts, Lane could not have cast the Confrigo spell on her own, due to an underdeveloped magical core. Rosier, as it turns out, is skilled with fire magic, and thus had a smaller chance of accidentally hurting himself. Elemental jinxes, of course, are forbidden to students under year five, talented or not, for the very reason of safety. Rosier denied having cast the blasting curse, insisting that it was Lane throughout the entire trial.

We await eagerly for her verdict on the morning of September 30th, and hope that proper justice be given out to the misguided Rosier and the noble Lane.

 

END OF SPRING: INNOCENCE IN OUR NEXT GENERATION TAINTED; BRANCH HEIR SENTENCED, FOUNDLING WITCH UNDER SPECIAL VERDICT.

By Ajax L. Bones Special to The Daily Prophet

 

Wednesday, September 27th, 1939

 

Wizarding Britain is on edge since the news of an Unforgivable being uttered in Hogwarts escaped the fidelian[1] safe in which it was being kept. Parents and alumni alike have demanded an explanation as to why Mister Ian Rosier, attempted caster of the Cruciatus curse, suffered no immediate punishment nor reporting to any Ministry authority. Headmaster of Hogwarts, Armando Dippet, declined to comment to The Daily Prophet after reaching out to him. In his stead, Deputy Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (whom was presiding over Rosier's trial as Chief Warlock Albus Dumbledore), gave the comment "[N]o Unforgivable was successfully cast, and in the situation of Mister Rosier, whom in his time at Hogwarts has never proven to arouse trouble, leniency was practiced." 

His use of the word 'proven' had not escaped us, and after some digging, The Daily Prophet was able to uncover a slew of covered up incidents involving Rosier and his now infamous volatile tendencies…[continued on page 9...]

 

Chapter Text

...there have been claims that the opposite is true: that Lane's verdict is far harsher than the one given to Rosier, considering the circumstances of her heritage. There are those that would say that due to her lack of resources, she will sink in our society's negative view of witches non-affiliated with a family. What the public does seem to agree on, however, is the reasonable doubt surrounding whether Lane truly cast Confrigo on Rosier that night, and that if she had, it was rightfully cast.

The Rosier patriarch did not respond to our request for comment.

In the end, it seems the right decision was made for both the unfortunate Ian Rosier, and Hogwarts school. We hope that, moving forward, the dark arts will forever be banished from Slytherin house and the lives of our children.

 

What a load of bollocks. The careful neutrality of the writer is sickening. Shouldn't journalism tell truths regardless of the consequences? He expects something like this from Muggle news sources, but not The Prophet...Should have listened to Evan: it really was a garbage paper. The only helpful thing this reporter has done is shine a good light on Slytherin house, which (now that he thinks about it) is probably what the sole point of the article was. 

As if the essay wasn't bland enough, the article itself is completely unreadable...Who taught these wizards how to design a proper layout? The paragraphs loop and zig-zag and format themselves sideways--He swears he saw a bit of text disappear just now...What is the point of this? How can anyone read the news when it's like this?

Tom folds the paper and sets it aside, thinking. The second trip to the Ministry wasn't as intimidating as the first, but it certainly was more confusing: Nemesis, having little to nothing to do with Ian's first attack on Tom, was sitting pretty in their DADA class without a care in the world while he alone navigated the halls. There was no secret entrance for him to slip into, he has no connections or permission without her, so he entered the dungeon alongside everyone else--Including nosey reporters and heckling outsiders. It was a ridiculously stark contrast to yesterday, when it felt like the beginning of this trial was hidden away and secret. Something to tuck under the rug.

He had thought this would be two separate trials--And officially, they were, but shouldn't there have been a verdict reached before moving onto Ian's punishment? Before people rose and spoke on his character and nature?

As much of a relief as it was to not have Nemesis constantly brushing against his shoulder, he wondered if it's worth the exhaustion just to have her there to explain things to him...Luckily, he caught on quick and had (in his pocket) a small notebook and pencil with which to take notes of interest. He'll cross examine them with her during their free period together.

The rest of the trial, itself, was a bloody circus, as Slughorn had so kindly put it. No, it was worse, at least circuses were entertaining and allowed the viewers to eat. It was a gathering of baboons. Volatile and loud and passionate about every little thing, every little infraction...His medication did nothing to help with the headache, and it only made him dizzier to take more. Unhelpful piece of--

He rubs at his temple, the side with the slowly fading scars.

"I see whatever the paper holds has you pleased as punch." Hedwig speaks, finishing up a plate of bacon, "Did they get your good side?" Good Lord, he is really not in the mood to deal with her personality today.

"They omitted so much...They really want to pin every wrongdoing done in Slytherin on that idiot." As if he could be so clever. As if it were only he who covered up the incidents and not his parents or family or people indebted to his family.

"I suppose that means we should start behaving." Evan smiles as he cuts his breakfast up, "Ian just gave us all a free pass for the next century."

As if he needed Ian to not get caught doing...Well, he hasn't really done anything yet, but if he were...He wouldn't need a scapegoat. Tom's smart enough to erase evidence of his wrongdoings. It was lesson number two at Wool's.

"I always behave." Katux comments smugly, and Tom wishes he didn't have to make nice with him, "Us Lestranges are known for our discipline."

Two Blacks down the row from them visibly roll their eyes and giggle amongst themselves at Katux's hubris. Tom mentally moves them up a rank in his list of people he tolerates.

"Well if you must be known for something, I suppose discipline is a fine hill to die on." He muses, sipping from his milk. The group of boys around him chuckle at Katux's expense, and to his credit, the boy only looks half as insulted as he would if Tom had made the quip a year ago. Even better: he won't lift a finger to hurt him as he would have only a year ago. He knows better now that Tom's properly educated him.

It surprised Tom, at first, to see Abbas and Topaz so chummy with him--Especially since it was them who introduced him to Ian in the first place; Tom was under the impression that they were all bosom buddies. But rather than look at him with unease or distrust, they coddle up to him even more than before. As if he were the strongest male in the herd now that Ian was gone--Nevermind that the one who ended up vanquishing him was Ximena, technically. He assumes they don't speak so reverently about her due to her gender. Abbas' first words to him solidified his theory, as a matter of fact: 'Was it really Lane who did him in? Or was it you? Giving credit for your best kill hurting a hunt is grounds for wooing, you know--Some could say this is similar.' 

Idiot.

The rest of the week unfolds as any other day does, with one main difference. As he predicted: Ximena is not the Slytherin poster child for the 20th century, but she is, suddenly, the sole creditor of Slytherin house, and he, her apparent collector. All Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, snakes tell him to give their best to Lane, as if he knew where she was at all times (he doesn't obviously, he's miffed about that). The only one he doesn't mind is Slytherin's head boy, who checked up on him passing the halls, asking again if he needs anything (Cassiopeia[1] however, has remained cautiously neutral in the wake of all this. He expects it's a common Black trait.) The one that he minds the most is the presence of Eric, whom looms in the common room and looks at him with little more than disdain and pity (he wants to crush her like a bug but also win her grace, it pisses him off--). She talks with her retinue just within his earshot about personally making sure that her former charge was alright and commending her for her service towards Slytherin house. As if she didn't need Tom there as the buffer and she was letting him know it (she doesn't, particularly with Ximena possibly being furious at him, but if she weren't, he would be the first person to speak to in regards to the silent witch--), he was only wasted space. What did he do to personally offend the older Acwellan, anyways?

She thinks you look like a nonce. Hedwig's voice echos in his head. She doesn't trust men. 

Shame. That'll be a deterrent in the future.

Of course, thanks to his association with Ximena, her treatment only benefits him as well. Properly bred boys in Slytherin speak to him more often, and the lesser ones look to him with thanks and respect, looking to him for his opinion and decision making. Abbas and Topaz don't prelude his praise with 'he's only a second year but--', and Katux doesn't talk him down. As for the later's friend, Dion seems to have been spreading tales of Tom's intelligence to the other boys. They ask him for his answers on quizzes and essays, and don't dispute him when he answers something contrary to what they've answered. They already know their place: starving dogs feeding out of his hand. His first-year self would be rejoicing. Kicking his heels and skipping down the halls. Of course, as he's older, he knows better, so he does no such thing now. Instead he preens. Fixes up his hair and straightens his robes out. Buffs out his shoes and makes sure his face is extra clean. It'll only be a matter of time before he can afford better clothes, or make them himself with magic.

There is, of course, a second difference, but Tom considers it below his notice: Druella. On any given day, she can be found complaining or looking down upon others, but since the sentencing of Ian, she's been dead silent. Keeping to herself and focusing on her schoolwork. Sitting quietly at the Ravenclaw table and picking at her food. Tom knows better than to believe her grieving; maybe a part of her is truly upset, but he's familiar with the look upon her face: stern, still chin, focused gaze...Calculating. It's the first time she looks like she belongs in Slytherin--Or even Ravenclaw. All this time, she's been coming off as a rowdy Gryffindor, not knowing when to shut her mouth. It looks as if she's gained some perspective now that her unruly cousin (were they cousins? Or siblings? He doesn't remember,) is gone from Hogwarts. He expected for her to jump him with accusations the moment he stepped back into Hogwarts (and only expected worse for Ximena), but instead he was met with contemplative glances. If she were intelligent, Tom would think she was biding her time. Since she isn't, Tom isn't sure what to think, and it bothers him. Druella is many-faulted, but she's impeccably loyal. Would she side with her family and house as a whole or with the boy she was so close with? Would she see the decision of her family to cut him off as betrayal of their values?

(Moreover, does she know the Ian at the trial was a fake?)

It's something to think about. But not important. He has Potions to review for. Hedwig, about to enter the tournament with Yami, is noticeably absent from their usual space in the common room, so he contents himself with Nemesis, whom thankfully has stopped stressing out over every little excursion of his (the injury is feeling much better).

"You missed the beginning of our second lesson on mind altering potions--I have the notes for that and pages of the book for you to read," already read weeks ago, but he lets her continue, "Hedwig's notes are horrendous, I don't think she was paying attention," she probably wasn't, Hedwig doesn't need to, "but I got help from Badi, he's very clever; his mother's a healer, did you know?"

He did not and he does not care. Badi has a good enough head on his shoulders, but he's absurd levels of meek. He might as well be a Muggleborn, "Oh?"

"Yes, it explains why he was so good in our medicinal unit...I had my doubts with him as my partner, but he's a sweet boy."

Tom hums, growing bored with the small talk, "How was Acarya's father?"

"Brilliant." Nemesis sighs, "Hedwig was right: he seems so unassuming at first. So benign and carefree...But when he started brewing, he got such a powerful, focused aura...A master at work." She sifts through her notes, "I wrote down everything he said...It wasn't much, but I thought you'd want to look through it, Tom. I really wish you could have been there."

He glances at the notes, Nemesis' familiar script looping front and back on the pages, "You're so considerate, Nemesis, thank you." He doesn't know when he'll have the time to sort through this mess, but he knows better than to toss out something this potentially useful. Some of the foreign terms he sees can easily be deciphered with the help of said man's daughter...He hasn't spoken to her since she saw him in the hospital wing. Undoubtedly she'll have something colorful to say about the verdicts and offer some sort of insight not previously given by any other student...He'd call it a foreign outlook, but he's not sure how long Acarya's been living in Britain--If he goes off her accent, he'd have to guess at least three years, but then again, even if she had been living here for seven or eight years, she'd probably still be considered a foreigner. 

He suspects it's a bigger insult to her to be considered a native. 

"Ah, darn, I have to get going," Nemesis frowns at the grandfather clock's chimes, "My herbology partner's as punctual, and twice as nervous about this project as I am."

"Cherish them," Tom advises, "too many people are loose about their time now and days."

Nemesis smiles at him, taking his words to heart, before taking her leave, passing by a smattering of students entering the common room--Ah, there's Ximena. Excellent timing. She's probably returning from a late breakfast or a special Saturday class (which would mean she has an extracurricular outside of her regular electives--something to note later).

He says her name once. Twice. Nothing. He would previously excuse her lack of attention for the amount of chattering in the common room, but he knows better.

"Ximena."

She stops walking, "Yes?" Somehow it's the rudest Yes? he's ever gotten.

"Can I speak with you? Privately?"

"I have a lot of work to get caught up on upstairs." 

His lips press together in impatience. Very well then. If she doesn't want to be alone with him, then he'll do it in front of everyone. That should send a message, right? 

His hand reaches in his pocket to bring out the bracelet, and it's the heaviest he's ever felt it be. Vibrating and pulsing and whispering...He doesn't understand how no one else in the common room can hear it. The energy only amplifies as it leaves his pocket and he opens his hand out to her. Offering it up. There's a deep, sudden inhale from Ximena as her eyes lay upon the bracelet again, as if she had forgotten what it looked like, or truly believed it gone forever. When she doesn't take it from his hand, he lays it out on the table between them. He doesn't notice the entire room still. Nor does he notice the gasps and murmurs as Ximena finally takes her bracelet back and puts it on her wrist, face humorless and eyes sticking to her lost possession. Tom's not sure if he's grateful or upset that she won't look at him. He wonders if she notices the spot he fixed from when it was torn from her wrist. He wonders if it feels any different, having been with him this past year, laced with his own magic.

Her tone is devoid of feeling, "Thank you." A sharp turn around as she walks away to the girl's dormitories--Followed quickly by a good armful of girls, some in her year, some not, whispering excitedly about God knows what, trying to catch up with her--

"Tom," ugh, "what did you do?" His ex-mentor's hand finds its way to his back in cautious support. His tone of voice is strange, he can't diagnose it. 

Tom blinks, finally registering the dozens of snake eyes on him, "Excuse me?" It's none of his business what he did, that is between himself and his housemate.

"You gave Lane jewelry. Publically." Why is he talking like that? What is he going on about? "And she accepted it."

He opens his mouth to ask what he means, but is interrupted by good-hearted chuckles and jeers by the other boys in the room--And that's when he notices that there are only boys in the room.

Evan clears his throat "I didn't know you and Lane had an understanding." A what.

Tom tilts his head, losing his patience, "An understanding?"

Katux's smile has never been slimier, "They don't teach you that at that Muggle orphanage of yours?"

If there's one fucking thing Tom hates is not knowing something that everyone around him already knows. For once, he wishes his housemates had the bluntness of Gryffindors, "Muggle social customs are quite primitive compared to those of our kind, as I'm sure you can imagine." He stands up, oddly discomforted with the attention of those around him, "If you excuse me, gentlemen, I have homework to catch up on." He pretends to be playing dumb...It's not hard, he's known for his private personality. He can probably ask about it later when Hedwig returns from her Potions meetup. Fucking highbloods and their strange practices. What did he do, offer to name his firstborn after her? A laugh.

.

Of course, only a few hours later, it feels like all of Slytherin house knows that he's returned Ximena's bracelet. Complete strangers ask him about it, as a matter of fact: what it looked like, what sort of metal or gem was it made with, how expensive it was--Everything is about money with these people. Or if it's not money, it's blood. Pathetic. They should mind their business. He's sure telling people the context (the altered story, of course) would change their outlook on whatever it was that he supposedly did. Elites always had rules like that, it was in every book he's ever read on the subject (fictional and non-fictional). 

He still has the leftover sickles from his ex-mentor, alongside a few spare coins he’s found around the castle: in between cushions and under beds and taken from unsuspecting pockets (if the money was so valuable to them, they would have taken better care of it). He wouldn’t spend it on anyone other than himself unless his life depended on it. How foolish to think that he’d waste it away on something like jewelry--On a gift for another person. It’s enough to make him ‘hmph’ to himself in the middle of his walk (a few students look at him in bemusement, but otherwise leave him be.) If he were to gift Ximena anything like that, and he wouldn't (he'd sooner choose a book), it would be something sleeker. Smooth polished stone in the cut of a diamond prism--Maybe a ring. Something that's understated and very clearly chosen by him--Rings are powerful. Bracelets sort of give off an aire of fragility and wishy-washy-ness, if he does say so himself. They clang and make noises if they're shaken like rattlers, and are too often gaudy and tacky. A ring is simple. Appreciated only by those with finer tastes. 

But he's not buying her a ring. Maybe he'll get himself one. Something nice to wear on his pointer finger. Once he has a growing amount of money in a vault at Gringott's, he'll be able to afford frivolities like that. Until then, he'll focus on saving money for food and clothes for when he has to return to Wool's.

He steps into the Great Hall for lunch.He'd rather sit alone but the only way for him to achieve that is to wander to the Gyffindors' table and he's already made accidental eye contact with Nemesis, who looks a little too eager to talk to him. This wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary were it not for the series of events that happened between himself and Ximena. What will she tell him? The truth or something else?

Reluctantly, he sits beside her. 

"Good afternoon, Tom."

"Good afternoon, Nemesis." 

"..How are you?"

"I'm splendid, thank you." He spares a smile at her before returning to his book and waiting for her to gain enough courage to ask him what she really wanted to know.

"I heard what you gave Lane earlier." That was quick.

"Hm?"

"The gift you gave her."

He looks up from his book, looking nonchalant, "I was simply giving her her bracelet back; she lost it earlier last year. Everyone lost their heads over it, I didn't really understand what was going on."

Nemesis, the fool, looks relieved, then concerned, "Tom..." She pauses, trying to formulate the right words, "In normal circumstances, a warlock of good breeding would give a witch of similar good breeding an item of jewelry to show his interest in marrying her…If the witch accepted, she'd publically wear the piece to show his claim." Nemesis clears her throat, "You asked Lane for permission to woo her. And she accepted."

Ten solid seconds of silence, and he can't help it: he laughs. Cackles, really--Partly in confusion, partly in genuine glee. He did what? Purebloods did what? Ximena did what?

Nemesis coughs, clearly uncomfortable with his laughter (it's gathering curious looks from students around them), "Tom--This isn't really a laughing matter--"

"Isn't it?" Why can't she see how stupid and old fashioned these customs are...He remembers reading old kings and ranks of nobility practicing similar, why didn't he connect the dots before? Because it's just so stupid! "I'm a child--we both are--What sort of custom would bind two children like that?"

She stiffens, "It may seem foreign to you, but it's a strong and beloved tradition, Tom." Oh has he offended her? Hilarious. Has she dreamt about what kind of trinket she'd one day receive and accept? In her head, was it from him? A boy who grew up speaking that gutter accent that she disdains and whom barely has any money to spend on himself? How stupid.

His laughter slowly, finally, calms down, "Neither of us have any titles." That they know of, "No land. No riches. No property." We're the furthest from being highblooded like you. "Why would it apply to us?"

A sigh, "You did it in a room full of Slytherins, Tom." So he did. And Slytherins are one, no? Brothers. Taking care of their own.

Very well. If that is what people think, then let them think it--It can't be any more annoying than people thinking he has a crush (at least now it won't be a hopeless one), and it can be used as an excuse to talk to Ximena. Clear up the air--Laugh about the misunderstanding of silly pureblood customs...Have people shove off and leave her alone, finally. At least, the boys, lest they offend him. Shooing away crowding girls will be another challenge for another day. 

Wooing. How stupid. He's been over this before: a boy of twelve has no business going on about that. Moreover, the way wizards look at marriage would definitely wither away any potential that Ximena holds. Why would he want to be the cause of that when he can reap the benefits instead? Absolute tomfoolery. 

"What's so special about jewelry? Nobody said much when I gifted her taffies for her birthday."

"Candies are an appropriate gift for your friends...But not your betrothed." Oh, so they've moved onto betrothed now? Should he hunt down Ximena's long lost (possibly dead) father to ask permission? His laughter almost starts up again, "It's why I thought...when you asked me to help you with her birthday gift, that..." That what? That you still had a chance? That they were for you? That sends him again, the thought of having feelings for a girl, of all things. For Nemesis, of all girls.

"I don't think it's very funny!" Well of course she doesn't, this is something normal in her eyes. Expected. The complete opposite of ridiculous. 

"I'm sorry, truly I am," he feigns to wipe a tear from his eye, "It's just so...foreign to me...A simple act of kindness be taken as something so much more serious...Are the girls giving Ximena the same sorts of talks, do you think?"

She purses her lips, "That's how I found out." Ah, that must have been hysterical, "A few girls who witnessed your pseudo proposition were speaking to her about it in the bathroom this afternoon." 

"Is that so?" What did she say? Think? Respond? 

"They were excited for her. Talked about whether she had a dowry prepared or not. If she was going with a traditional wedding and engagement party, if the two of you were going to wait until you graduate or until you were both sixteen."

He snorts, "They didn't have anything else better to do?"

Nemesis looks insulted again, "It's a very important step in a young witch's life! They were just trying to help!" Eavesdrop and be nosy gossiping ninnies more like. "You should have seen poor Lane's face, she looked so confused." Yes...he should have seen her face. He would have liked that. If only he could pluck the memory from Nemesis's head to watch it.

"And I suppose you were the one who broke the news to her?" He's sure nothing else would have given the girl more delight than to try and tell Ximena that no he probably did not intend to ask to court her.

"Actually it was Hedwig." Oh he really wishes he could have seen that. "Starting going off about your foolishness and ignorance, actually...You know how her...vocabulary is." Does he ever, "Told Lane not to waste her time with you and wait out for a bigger fish." Gee, thanks Hedwig, "But not to look towards Miller, as he wasn't the good sort." That's better.

"Good to know I can count on my friends to straighten things out." More or less.

"You should say something Tom...Everyone thinks you two have an agreement."

He shrugs, "Let them think, what does it hurt?"

"It could get out--You two are fresh celebrities, your photographs were in the paper!" Unlikely, but the thought is as riotous[2] as the thought of marrying Ximena, "This sort of thing has serious consequences."

"Nemesis...Have you ever thought about, perhaps, going against the current?"

She tilts her head to the side, bemused by the sudden change of topic, "I'm sorry?"

"Traditions are well and good but...Some of them have no use in today's society, don't you think?" He mirrors her head tilt mockingly, "If someone had fought back about this sort of thing centuries ago, we wouldn't have to be worrying about it today."

Her spirit shrinks, "Well...Yes, but--"

"Think about it." He turns back to his book, showing the conversation is over.

The hours following Nemesis' explanation are clearer thanks to his newfound insight: it's a lot easier to play dumb when you're actually playing, to say the least. His smile is more confident when he asks harassing girls 'what on earth are you talking about?' on the subject of his supposed proposal. Somehow his cheekiness only endears them to him more--Ridiculous. As if rudeness could be attractive. They really don't have anything better to do, do they? What pathetic vermin. He wonders what Ximena is telling them to ward them off--Probably just hiding, really. If she can, with all this absurd publicity. The times where she evaded his watch and that of her fans return to his memory, and he wonders if she's only gotten better at escaping the attention. Must be. Considering he hasn't seen heads or tails of her since the exchange. Perhaps she's changed her usual routes to avoid him specifically? Hm. Unpleasant. But he understands: if they were seen together, it would only spur the rumors on, even if they are silly. Even if he doesn't care. The best way to dispel false ideas is to carry on until they disappear. That's what his favorite radio stars did growing up, and it's worked wonders for them. 

He ignores the minute part of him that wouldn't mind for the rumors to continue, and even spread. All publicity is good publicity, right? Especially if people think he's following the customs of the gentry; it would help kill off the unpopular but still existing rumors that he's Muggleborn (and when he finds who's perpetuating these rumors, he'll have a fine time punishing them). 

Katux claims that this little proposal is a logical way to pay back the life debt he owes Ximena (did she save his life? He doesn't want to think about that possibility--That in another life, another time, he could have died then and there), considering she would be marrying up. Dion, the hidden scoundrel that he is, suggested that a better idea would be to court her as a consort rather than a potential wife. It takes everything in Tom to keep from screaming he is a child. They are both children. It takes more to keep from thinking about what an excellent idea it is: consorts don't waste away potential at the side of men raising babes and throwing little tea parties. Did highbloods have a proper, traditional method for seeking such women? It wouldn't surprise him if they did, but it all seems so long-winded. If he were in charge of the world, and someday he will be, he'd have social customs be much more logical. If someone wanted to begin courting someone, they would simply ask directly like a normal person. No tip toeing around it. 

He'd also have it so the purpose of a consort was more akin to a counselor or advisor. None of that other foolishness.

But until then, he'll lead by example. Be the shepard for his little flock of snakes--The poor misguided fools that they are.

Of the few good outcomes from this spectacle is students from various houses butting their nose into it. Not their complete invasion of his privacy, obviously, but their flocking to him--Their easy invitation for him to befriend those in other houses. He needs to do more work on that front, after all: he must continue to back up the claim that he was uniting the houses. It shouldn't be just hot air. 

So he takes a risk: he sits among Puffs.

The difference is immediate. Instead of reserved, careful facial expressions and weighed greetings, he's met with curious and honest smiles. Figures. In all of her history, he's sure Hogwarts has never known an unfriendly Puff. Better for him, it makes his job easier.

He sits himself alongside Elle, who was in the middle of a minor debate with Goldstein over something called Practical Kabbalah[3]. Upon seeing him sit, she doesn't hesitate to introduce him to the others at the table: Goldstein, Abbott, two of Nemesis' sisters, and Crouch (four purebloods and a half-blood. Not bad.) At once, they take to him, and invite him into their conversation, as if they had been friends all their lives. It stuns him because he knows they have no ulterior motives other than to make him feel welcome. Hufflepuffs are truly strange creatures. 

"The law of Kabbalah was created to protect Jewish witches!" Elle insists, no malice in her voice, as she butters her roll, "If it could be promised that they only use pure, white magic that harmed no one, then they wouldn't be persecuted."

"I'm not disagreeing with you, Elle, I'm just saying:" Goldstein replies, looking tired, "it also had the added benefit of ostracising the folk religion of Israel at the time!"

"They always do this." Abbott explains to Tom with a sigh, "You should see them in class, they talk more than the professor."

To be honest, the talk is rather interesting. He's never seen Elle so animated and confident in her speech, at least, outside of food. Her spirit rises with religion? He can work with that, "If they can't keep control over their class, then maybe they deserve it."

"Cutthroat." Abbott smiles, impressed, "Wouldn't expect any less from a snake."

"Little Nem is the same," says one of Nemesis' sisters--The one born fourth in line, "always giving cheek, we're always worried she's going to get scolded!"

"Nem?" Crouch prompts, looking doubtful, "She's the sweetest--"

"In front of company, yes." The sixth-eldest sister states, nodding her head, "But talk to her someday: Nem has all the right traits of the serpent." A gesture to him, "Ask Riddle if you don't believe me."

He handles the attention with grace, "Nemesis is kind, of course, as anyone would be being raised in such a lovely family," the older girls coo at him, "...But yes, she does have a certain bite to her." Not that she knows how to use it. Like giving a mace to a rabbit.

The fourth-eldest sister jumps up excitedly, "Nem once bit my finger, you know! She was seven months old, and I was holding her for a portrait, and she bit me!"

The table laughs, even Goldstein and Elle. Tom spares a forced chuckle, moving a meatball from one side of his plate to the other, strategizing. 

It takes a few minutes, but he manages to turn the conversation from familial anecdotes to job prospects after Hogwarts to political happenings to the trial.

"Our family is grateful to you, Riddle." The sixth-eldest sister says to him, hand outstretched on the table, "Rest assured, father and mama won't forget this anytime soon." The fourth-eldest sister nods in agreement.

All this for what? Remaining friendly towards Nemesis when the world was busy publically ostracising Hector Fawley? All this for being close enough to Nemesis for Ximena's protego to shield her as well? He didn't accidently partake in another stupid pureblooded custom, did he?

He inclines his head, "You're very kind. Thank you." He finally cuts the meatball on his plate in half, "But really, you should be thanking Ximena."

"We did!" His knife scrapes against the plate, "All six of us--Father and mama sent her a personal letter." He swallows, "She's so humble, she refused our praise but accepted our thanks--Those nuns must know something about raising children, I suppose." he coughs.

"Ximena has never liked attention." That feels like a safe thing to say.

"Speaking of," the sixth-eldest sister's tone doesn't please him at all, "I heard about your gift to her."

"Ooohh, yes!" The fourth-eldest sister claps her hands in excitement, "Are you two promised now? I know you two don't have parents, but I would think that makes the process a little easier: there's no need for their approval, after all."

Nosy ninnies.

"You two are sharks." Crouch shakes his head, "Leave rumors lie."

"Leave our guest of honor lie!" Abbott agrees, patting Tom's back.

"It's harmless." Sixth-eldest defends, "We're not trying to weasel our children into marrying theirs like your cousin was at Cassiopeia's engagement banquet."

They bicker on for a while, Abbott giving his commentary every once in a while. Elle and Goldstein sigh, here they go again, they murmur. It's almost enough to make Tom snort in amusement. The purebloods argue over frivolities, and the less than pure argue over substance...It's the same in Hufflepuff, then.

After Abbott manages to hook Goldstein onto the conversation through his magical parentage, he stops observing and begins to chat with Elle over that Mysticism class. An elective, as it turns out, for the more religious students. Tom, who had previously believed Wizards smart enough not to have Gods, finds himself both disappointed and intrigued. Moreso when Elle, who doesn't judge his questions nor speaks down to him like Nemesis or Hedwig, explains how differently Gods are treated in this world than the Muggle one[4]. She herself, obviously being religious, doesn't discount the existence or idea of Gods outside of Yahweh. Yes, he thinks to himself, she'll make a fine Puff.

"Have you talked to Lane yet?"

"Yes." He lies, "She's elusive, but around."

"I haven't been able to introduce myself--I wanted to wish her well, I'm sure the Ministry experience was very stressful."

He seizes his opportunity, "I could introduce you now if you'd like." It would be spectacular to be away from the bickering purebloods, anyways.

Elle straightens up her posture further, if it's even possible, "Can--Right now? Right at this second?" She fusses with her hair, which is perfectly neat anyways, "I look...I'm not very presentable." Hm. She cares about appearances? How silly. Must be the company she keeps that influences that. "I mean--My nails, they're filthy!" Her hands are held in front of her as she inspects her clean cut nails.

"Your eyesight must be remarkable, because I cannot see a single speck of dirt."

She flushes, embarrassed, "Sorry, I just...First impressions are everything, aren't they?"

Tom thinks for a moment, "Yes, they are."

A minute later, he is leading Elle towards the far end of the Slytherin table where Ximena sits among a group of girls in her year--Some of which he recognises from when he gave back her bracelet. He wonders briefly what they talked to her about up in the dormitory (were they as vague and unhelpful as the boys? Did they explain things to her?), and then questions why she's sitting amongst them...Ximena shouldn't be desperately trying to make friends again, she has her bracelet back what need does she have of them? Did they trap her into sitting with them? They're not talking to her, nor are they seemingly talking about courting customs and the like…

He sets the questions on a backburner.

"Ximena." Tom states, ignoring the lingering looks from the girls sitting around her.

Silence. She turns a page in her book, ignoring him again. The way she was when he gave her the package of salt water taffies. There's no way she can't see him out of her periphery.

He clears his throat, hoping to not be embarrassed. Behind him, he can feel Elle's magic swirling...Air like, perhaps. She doesn't hide it like Ximena does.

Perhaps she can feel it too, she finally deins to cast him a glance, "Yes?"

His shoulders set back, cutting to the chase, lest she cut him off and ignore him again, "Hello Ximena, it's good to see you back: I wanted to introduce you to somebody," he steps aside, not that she needed help in viewing Elle (the girl isn't tall, but he is still, upsettingly, short.)

"Elle Kowalska." She offers a small curtsey, "I sent you some Gołąbki while you were, um--Out of school." She did what?

"Yes, I received your package. Thank you. They were delicious." Ximena's smile is tight. A balancing rope under enormous pressure, ready to snap at any moment. If Elle can sense it, she doesn't say anything.

 "Oh thank goodness," the older girl sighs with relief, resting her palm against her chest, "I was afraid you had some dietary rules--I know some nuns are vegetarian."

"Not at all--Would you like to sit down?" It doesn't escape Tom's notice at all that the phrase is directly solely at Elle and not extended to himself, he is not imagining it. He squeezes in beside the Hufflepuff regardless. He's small, he can fit.

"If it's not a bother," The girl is a bundle of nerves, one would think she was meeting her idol, "I wanted to ask you: what are you eating?"

His perspective Puff had sent Ximena something, then? Without asking him what she would like? If she had any allergies or dietary rules? Nevermind that he wouldn't know the answer to the later two, but it annoys him to be excluded so blatantly. If he didn't know better (and he does), he'd think the two already forgot he was here.

Nails rap against the tabletop as they go on about different herbs and spices. Rubs and roux and ragout. Since when had Ximena been so interested in cooking, of all things? Baking, maybe was a passing interest, he remembers, but to this level? It's almost like she's bothering him on purpose. Look how much me and this stranger have in common! Look how much we're talking and getting along without you! Look how much you don't know about me! You know nothing, Tom Riddle! It makes him want to...not throw a tantrum because he is not a baby, but…

They really are getting along swimmingly. Better than expected. It's not that he wanted them to fight or anything silly like that, it's easier and more beneficial for him if they get along, but they look so cozy. Intimate. Like siblings. In the span of only a few minutes, Elle has appeared to surpass him in friendship. Ridiculous! Absurd! 

"--would you really?"

"Of course! I'd love to--Have you been to the kitchens yet?"

"I didn't know they were accessible to students."

"Oh they absolutely are, it's actually how I met Tom, he found the kitchens when I was baking."

"Mm." She hums, "And the house elves...They're okay with it?"

Elle grows tense, he can tell by her body language. By her magical signature, "They have to be," her voice has lost its enthusiasm, "you...I'm sure you know..."

Another low hum, resigned, disappointed, and unsurprised, "I'd be happy to keep you all company, then."

"That's great! What are your free periods? Or would you prefer Sundays? Lunches?"

If he's not mistaken, Ximena's eyes go to him for a split second, "Let me think about it. I'll get back to you when I can." Damn. "Through Mali--You know Mali, right?"

"Not personally, no, but she's, ah, well known." To say the least, I'm sure. Tom smells a story there and notes to ask Elle about it later, "--She's your Puff, right?"

A nod, "Mali is very intense, but she's a good soul, I promise." What a curious thing to say, a good soul. As opposed to a good person? A good witch?

"Oh she seems very nice, I just haven't talked to her much." Elle clears her throat, "She's in my Mysticism class, though. She's very smart. Everyone says she should have been a Ravenclaw." 

Ximena snorts, and Elle takes it as permission to giggle along, "As if only intelligent people belong only in Ravenclaw."

"It is a bit silly, isn't it?" Elle sighs, "It's a good thing that things are changing, isn't it?"

She contemplates, "Yes. It is." 

After their conversation, he takes to the kitchens at random intervals--in hopes, he begrudgingly admits, of catching Ximena with Elle, or Ximena alone--But preferably with Elle. She's an excellent buffer. In the short time they've been talking, she's proven herself to be worthy of Ximena's company. Namely, in allowing him to be nearby without her storming off. It doesn't help with her act of pretending he doesn't exist (which he's half afraid isn't an act), but one step at a time. One step at a time. He's long gotten over the irritation at knowing that it wasn't him who introduced Ximena to the kitchens, but at least it wasn't his buffoon of an ex-mentor or Adam. Still, having the credit for it would have been a good point in his favor.

Unfortunately, tonight, he doesn't catch Ximena at all, but Elle. Just Elle. Sitting in front of a tall window, bathed in moonlight. Not a total loss, he's still in the midst of courting (haha) her friendship, and any added time with her only helps his cause...But the problem is that she's sniffling. She's either sick or crying, and Tom's not sure which one is worse.

"Kowalska?"

She stiffens, he thinks he hears a 'shoot' come out of her mouth as she quickly wipes at her eyes...Where are the house elves? Wouldn't they be tripping over themselves trying to console her? Or are they all elsewhere? Asleep? Cleaning? Did she order them away?

"Tom--I thought I told you to call me Elle." A half-hearted chuckle, her shoulders scrunch upwards towards her ears as her hands lay folded in her lap, "You're here late--Not causing trouble, I hope?"

He's unsure of whether to beat around the bush or address it directly, "I was hungry."

"Mm." She nods once, "The house elves are at a meeting right now, planning for the Hallowe'en feast--So it's just me." A sniff, "You're free to help yourself to some of the cookies I made, though." A gesture towards a tray of star shaped goodies. He takes one and pockets two.

"Thank you," he takes a stool and sits beside her, looking out the window at the absurdly large moon, "I always look forward to your baking."

"You're so sweet." She laughs it off, still desperately trying to hide the fact that she was crying, "It's nothing compared to my...my grandmother's, though. I have a long way to go."

Tom hums, strategizing his next words, "...I'd like to meet her one day, then."

"Ah." She pauses, "Perhaps. That would be good. If you could. If she..." Bingo. He has her. Just one more push…

"If she…?"

"..." Ten seconds of silence...and then: "Germany and the Soviet Union," she begins, shoulders back and taking a deep breath, "they've agreed to partition my home country. Where my grandmother is."

Ah. Yes, people usually care about their homelands. About the loved ones living in said homeland. He can't relate. But he can relate to others trying to take control of what he has.

"Chamberlain is a sodding coward." The only way he knows how to comfort is to demean others.

Elle hacks out a half-laugh, half-sob, "He did nothing...No one did anything...Because they were afraid of this very thing."

A fear of war is a great thing. Fear alone is a great and terrible thing. He nods along, "They'll replace him soon, I expect."

"Unlikely...I think they'll keep him as long as they can. He'll flee when he faces another embarrassment." Her kind voice, filled with spite, is unnatural. But quite lovely. "Fucker." Against his will, his eyes go wide at her sudden cursing. She half-laughs, half-sobs again, "Sorry. I shouldn't use such language in front of a second year." A sniff as she dabs her eyes with her tissue, "But I can be quite nasty too when push comes to shove." An exhale, "And I am very tired of being shoved."

Tom nods again. Hufflepuffs are still badgers, after all. Still predators. Capable of killing lions, snakes, and surely falcons. "You're a fighter." He tells her, picking his words carefully, "I can tell. You all are."

She looks at him, eyes measuring him up...You all are… Elle doesn't ask who he means by that. She already knows the answer.

"Quite right." Her shoulders set back, back straightening up, "You're absolutely right." 

Of course he's right. He's always right.

In a matter of minutes, just over an hour, actually, he has pocketed Elle as his official Puff. He figures it must be a record of some sort and wonders if there's anyway to find out or document it for the books. All this without even trying, it's truly as if he had planned everything ahead of time. Life or God or whatever is on his side (and even if they weren't, he'd still get his way).

As a result, he's integrating himself more with the house of badgers and is finding them amusingly simple. Fiercely loyal (an admirable trait when it is towards him) and just, but without complications. Yes, like Slytherin, they have their own house rules and conflicts and dynamics...They're communal. An all for one and one for all mentality that rivals the tightly knit web of their serpentine comrades. While Slytherins stick together out of necessity--be it aligned interests, intentions, origins, or otherwise--Hufflepuffs stick together out of duty. Because it is the right thing to do. It's fascinating. As if these people had taken every fable told to them by a parent to heart. Any other time, he'd see them as weak, but now he knows better: they're useful. 

As if he needed any more evidence that people in his house are looking to him as a leader, his journey to the badger table brings followers: more snakes sit with their Puff for the entirely of a meal, and not just for a few short moments to chat or exchange notes. When sitting amongst Diggorys and Abbotts, one can find themselves near Parkinsons and Flints as well--the Slytherin Flints, anyways, they're a family that's been known to put out falcons alongside snakes. 

This is good. All according to plan.

Except the part where Ximena is sitting at the lions' table.

It's no great secret that there's an intense and passionate rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin--Drawing from the good-natured, friendly competitions held by the two founders themselves. And perhaps in those first few years, it was truly just that: house spirit and harmless little contests of skill, strength, intelligence and so on...But little of that remains in this day and age. To the lions, they're a bunch of conniving, selfish elitists with ulterior motives, and likewise, to the snakes they are a hoard of brash, idiotic primates with sand in their heads. They stand for opposite things, opposite values. The colors in their coat of arms stand on opposite sides of the color wheel, and the metals are two completely different elements with different purposes.

The news of Ximena sitting amongst the courageous ones would have been bigger, more embarrassing, were it not for the other cunning student joining her tirade: Lucretia Black. 

Having Ximena Lane, new defender of Slytherin underclassmen and living evidence of the good within the house, sit with the Gryffindors is nothing compared to having Lucretia Black, scion of an ancient and noble house that's had its members sorted into Slytherin since the founding of the school, sit with the Gryffindors. It's a risky move in itself, Tom assumes she moved when Ximena did to try and distract attention away from her own decision, but it's a calculated one. Blacks do not follow trends, it would have been shameful for her to follow along other snakes rather than for her to lead them (if they choose to follow, and he believes they will). That's not to say that Lucretia looks 100% confident in herself, he can smell the anxiety radiating off of her from meters away. God knows why, the girl is only sitting with purebloods like she was back at the Slytherin table--It's Ximena who's sitting with the half-bloods and Muggleborns, but he expects that the action only lightens up her good girl image and benefits their house more. Damn.

He asks Lucretia's brother, a first year by the same of Orion, what he thinks of it and he shrugs, almost afraid of how Tom would react to his reply, "I--Lucretia is aware of what mother thinks of such mingling..." He's so shy for a Black, is it because he's young? "Um, but mother knows that such actions will only help the cause." The cause. The facade everyone has about Slytherin being chummy and wholesome?

Cygnus more or less says the same thing as Orion with the same level of cynicism that Tom held for the answer, "This is all a fucking mess, is what it is, Riddle." He glowers at the other end of the hall where Lucretia was laughing alongside Ignacius and a Weasley, "If Ian hadn't--If he had just listened to me." He clenches his fist and slams it sharply against the tabletop, "Interloping with Gryffindors of all things...Because people are afraid of us. Our potential. Their precious little wizards and witches being hurt by our dark power...What a load of codswallop." He proceeds to violently cut the steak on his plate, "And of course have to do the same because fucking Lane and Lucretia are doing it."

Tom blinks--Lucretia, he can understand, the Blacks are devoted to family loyalty, but Lane?

"Don't look at me like that," Cygnus somehow always ends up offended in their conversations, "Lane might be a potential mudblood, but she's Slytherin's potential mudblood." He chews his food and swallows, " 'Sides, did you see what she did to Ian? No mudblood has a Confrigo like that. I'll eat my hat if I find one."

He'll hold him to that, "I heard that those kind can't possibly be sorted into Slytherin."

Cygnus snorts, "I know exactly who told you that, stupid pillock--I don't understand why they allowed him to be a mentor for first years, all he does is--" He cuts himself off, making sure to cool down. To not let his anger get out of hand, "--There's no evidence for a mudblood being in Slytherin, but would you expect to find proof if there was one?" A fair enough point, "The hat knows what it's doing...Sorting based on what's going on in here," a tap on his forehead, "it can't detect blood...Salazar himself took in half-bloods turing his time here--Provided, of course, that they renounce their Muggle side and all." That kind of talk...It's familiar, who spoke of it to him before? "And the hat thinks like him, right? Alongside the other founders, so it rests his judgement on everyone."

"Did Salazar believe a witch born from two Muggles incapable of being loyal to the magical world?"

Cygnus shrugs, "There was no way of knowing for sure; it's not very ethical to perform legilimency on children, is it?" Legi-what. "Even if they are filthy mudbloods--The other founders would have laid eggs in rage. Of course, it's acceptable when a hat does it--"

The hat, the Sorting Hat. It does legiti-somethings on you. Reads through your mind, your personality--So quick, it barely touched his head before announcing his house.

Tom presses his lips together, deciding to interrupt, "Wasn't Ximena a hatstall?"

He's peeved, but the question distracts him enough, "--That's right. Doesn't she have a lost memory, though? Could have taken so long because it was trying to navigate her broken head."

Navigate her head. If the hat could do it, could he? "It ended up putting her in Slytherin, though."

A pause. A nod. "Her priorities are in the proper place. She's one of us. Whether a lost noble or nameless filth. And Lucretia is of my blood, so I must support both." Cygnus' voice sounds distant. As if he were reciting something told to him at a young age. Tom drums his fingers on the table and hums his agreement.

More and more, he understands why Hufflepuffs and Slytherins are so quick to get along.

.

Perhaps he should have waited to return the bracelet. It could have served as an excellent bargaining tool for him to prompt Ximena into listening to what he has to say (in private, of course), and he wouldn't be dealing with concerned looks from his in-the-know professors. Particularly Dumbledore. Especially Dumbledore. Fuck Dumbledore. It's like he has spies everywhere, making him privy to the privacy and intelligence of everyone in school. Tom reasons that he found out about the incident hours before anyone else outside of Slytherin. He hasn't asked him to talk but only because the moment class is over, Tom is out that door--He almost trips over other students, that's how fast he's going (he even forgot poor Ambrose, who was returned to him via a peeved Hedwig). It's not that he feels in trouble, he just doesn't want to speak to the man, and that's fair. Who would enjoy speaking to someone who's constantly doubting them and thinks lowly of them? 

He wonders if he's spoken with Ximena. What did he ask her aside from his usual vague dribel meant to guilt an answer out of students? What did she tell him about what was going on? That he was holding her precious trinket for an unknown amount of time? That she doesn't know whether to trust him anymore? If he were in her shoes, he'd cast himself aside faster than somebody could say 'goodbye'--But he's not, so he'd rather advocate for himself. He supposes that whatever that bracelet was doing to him is going to wear off slowly; the dreams he's had since returning it have not let up in their strangeness, but they have stopped giving him severe anxiety and sweats upon waking--Only minor anxiety and sweats, and that is punishment enough. 

He still naturally reaches for it in the middle of the night for comfort. Or grounding. Grounding is a better word for it. Comfort implies some kind of weakness on his part. Of course, the bracelet is no longer there for him, so he has to do with nothing. Or scratching at his skin, and he's long stopped that terrible habit--He's not going to pick it up again just for something that's going to (hopefully) fade with time.

Despite this, he continues to scribble down what he can remember of the dreams to analyze them to the best of his ability. Omens of death have been phasing out of the stories (nocturnal birds flying during the day, wilted flowers, crows circling the chimneys of sick peoples' houses), but signs of water have continued to be abundant, whether in rain, bath, or body form. His last dream had himself being baptised by a figure (a padre?) with the mask of a barn owl--Something which seemed perfectly normal in the moment, but which brought him a sense of disconnectivity in the waking world. The dream interpretation manual says owls are ancient and wise, which would imply that someone worthwhile will grant him some sort of approval or entrance into a kingdom (his father, mayhaps?) However, this answer doesn't satisfy him and so: he takes to the library. Binns had mentioned (on one of his less long-winded rants) that symbols in different cultures meant different things, so searching for a dream symbols lexicon from another country (preferably more south than the one he has) seems most appropriate.

(He pauses--Would Mali know of a proper resource?)

A close but not quite there asset he's picked before has been Magical Diffusion in the New World, which pinned down the origin of the strange story his housemate told last Hallowe'en (would she tell it again this year?), as well as giving him more context for the evil-eye bracelet she had lost during her duel with Hedwig. Another thing it did, which he'll never admit to, was ease his suspicions over whether or not her story was rea--

What is going on over there?

He blinks once. Twice.

It's a bizarre sight, somehow, to see Ximena and Nemesis chatting quietly, amicably, in a cozy section of the library. Surely it's natural to see two Slytherin girls looking over books and talking, eating snacks they snuck past the librarian. Rather than approach, he walks behind a few shelves to eavesdrop--A difficult task considering the two are near whispering. If he peeks through the shelving and books, he can see what they're reading, but that involves a bigger risk than just trying to listen...Hopefully they're discussing the reading material.

"...good to have...morning. In the bathroom, I mean." That was Nemesis. She sounds nervous.

He hears Ximena's familiar low hum, "...nice...belonging..."

Nemesis' enthusiasm can practically be felt from here, "Wasn't it? ...misunderstanding...they forget we're snakes too...tomorrow?"

"I think...will...thank you."

Dammit. He can't hear anything worthwhile.

"...and...Tom?" 

"Not at all...young...nuns...think?"

"...Miller?"

A loud sneeze from the book shelf behind him obscures his hearing and just about makes him jump out of his skin. He hadn't realized he was so on edge. When he returns to the two girls, they are no longer talking, but reading together from a frilly looking book. When Ximena gets to the end of the page (she reads faster than Nemesis), she waits for her junior to finish before turning to the next one. It would be a beautiful, outstanding display of comradeship and bonding if Tom gave a single damn about it. He's not sure how long he stays there, watching them, but when he finally tears himself away in irritation, the sky has grown golden.

It's ridiculous to believe that either of them are somehow plotting against him, much less the two of them together, but it doesn't mean he's shaken off the feeling or possibility. Anything he doesn't know for sure is potential for ruination, in his book. But what else would they have to talk about aside from him? What else do they have in common outside their house, their sex, their intelligence? 

Are they...Are they becoming friends? Is Nemesis reaching out to her in some strange attempt to...To what? He can't even think of a reason why she would want to become closer with Ximena. He knows why he wants to stay close and grow closer, but why would she? Her ambitions are far different than his, whatever they may be, and quite frankly: much less important. How can Ximena help with them? It doesn't make any sense. 

He'll have to talk to her. Finally. Alone.

.

Contrary to how the common room felt during the holidays last year, the area is fairly warm. Perfectly heated to his classmates' comfort--No Slytherins stay over the holidays, save for him, so naturally the space was left cold, heated only by the fireplace, because that's all one little snake needs. There's a fun little joke about reptiles being coldblooded somewhere in there, but Tom's not nebbish[5], so he won't make that joke.

Instead, he stays in the area until most of his classmates have gone to bed and Ximena has returned from her Astronomy lesson (the only Sytherin in her class, he remembers). A perfect moment to intercept her without the prying eyes of others. A dangerous moment without any buffer in-between them. At the stroke of eleven, he hears the passage open: stone sliding across stone and a dull thud. Clear footsteps and a low humming. A song he's never heard before, but pleasant enough all the same, if perhaps out of tune. She's in a good mood.

At the sight of him, she keeps from flinching, but she continues walking anyways--As if he weren't there. Right past him, as a matter of fact, as if it weren't obvious that it was her he was waiting for. Alright, if she's going to be rude, then he'll skip the polite greetings--

"Ximena."

She walks further away from him.

"Ximena, if you would let me explain--"

To his surprise (and delight), she turns around. She stills and waits. Folds her hand in front of her the way a school teacher does when she's waiting for a child to fess up--But he didn't do anything, not really, and she'll see that, she will, it's just a bracelet. It's just a bracelet. Isn't he worth more than a bracelet? He who acknowledged her for her potential rather than her physical shell? Talked to her and listened to her words rather than brush them off? Took her theories and ideas seriously instead of thinking her odd and Muggle-like?

He presses his lips together, trying to gather his words, trying to look sad instead of distressed, but something ugly coils in his stomach, "What had happened was--"

"No." The word echos in the empty common room, filling up the space in his lungs where air was supposed to be. "I can't speak to you." Hear what he has to say, it's important, it will change everything, he promises, "I don't want to speak to you." No no no, she has to speak to him, she shouldn't have a choice, he has to explain--She has to know his reasons why he did what he did, why isn't she listening? Look at him. Look at him look at him look at him, he'll never do it again, "If I try, I will..." Her fist squeezes so tightly, he wonders if the veins in her hand will burst and blood will drip down her skin and onto the floor. 

"Ximena--"

She looks at him, finally, and he almost wishes she hadn't. Her eyes look wonderful in anger, even directed at him. Anger is a passion he's confident he can redirect properly, as with any strong emotion...But her eyes skewer through him as a poniard does a ribcage. He feels in trouble. A strange trembling in his chest he's not sure what to call...But he doesn't like it. When her magical signature erupts forth from her person, encasing him in an uncomfortable typhoon of repressed power, he's not sure if he likes it even less or slightly more. It's meant to intimidate him. To cause fear. It does, it's so sudden, even he has to admit it's level with the few times in his life where he's been truly shaken...But it excites him as well. Brings forth familiar goose pimples on his skin and causes a sharp intake of breath. He's only barely started truly sensing the magical properties around him, but he feels overstimulated regardless. It's as if a mythical, icy beast has laid breath on him. A burning cold that rings in his ears and leaves his hands numb as if he had been dunked into one of the rivers of Élivágar[6]. The strangest of all: a vague aftertaste of something tangy in his mouth, as if he had swallowed ginger root. His own magic is ecstatic. Wriggling wildly in alarm at the sensation, unsure if it should strike back or allow itself to be subjugated. The experience is nothing like how it felt when he held her bracelet in his hand for hours on end: it's a surge of dominance that begs him to continue to tempt her as a child taunts a wild animal. When it's gone, he misses it. Wants nothing more than to be submerged by it again.

But unfortunately, she regains control of herself. Reels in her magic and locks it tight, "I think...you should keep away from me. And I from you." No. He can't, he's come so far. He has so many questions--About her home, the witches she grew up with, the spells she knows, what happened after he had passed out. He has so many more things to take from her. Her knowledge her memories her aspirations...He needs to know them, and she has to give them to him, she has to, that's what a friend is, right? A friend gives and gives and is happy to give all that they give, that's why she's his friend, right? "We're not friends." The sentence is painfully curt, if she were giving this talk to anyone else, he'd have the sense to be impressed by her detachment, "You are a--a very terrible friend." She doesn't understand, she doesn't understand, he has to reason with her, "You may speak with me again when you've grown up." What on Earth is that supposed to mean? He's the most mature boy his age--In all of Hogwarts, surely! He's grown, he's faced stupid, unfair amounts of trials and troubles and sufferings, moreso than any other student here, he's positive. Just wait, I'll show you to Wool's--You'll see how it's shaped me. Just wait, Ximena--You can't leave.

She ascends the stairs and does not look back once. 

 

Chapter Text

October drags on like feet through thick mud. The lessons given in class suddenly seem dull and the chatter given by his classmates are even more lackluster. His books don't keep his interest for very long and more often than not, he finds himself distracted by the dust in the air or whatever's going on outside the windows. Occasionally, he'll be staring out into space, not thinking about anything, and when he returns to consciousness, he'll be somewhere completely different like dinner or another class or outside. It's funny. His days feel as empty as a beer hall during the dry season, but nothing's changed. His classes go on as usual, the social circles surrounding him morph to his liking, people continue to gossip in the halls, and Ximena... 

It's stupid because it isn't as if this feeling is anything new. Aloneness is quite familiar and liked. Comforting as it is useful. Perhaps in the first few years when he had been a weak little baby, it was painful, but by the time he had first stepped foot on the Express, it had dulled down to an intimate and good ache that fueled him. Allowed him to get stronger when others around him had grown dependant on care and attention. Solemness is his sibling, born one hour after him and grown up with him these past twelve years. They nursed from the same woman and played with the same toys, ate at the same table and walked the same way to and from school. Being alone is something that was happening to him even with Ximena in his life, she didn't change anything.

So of course, the sharp stabbing in his stomach and chest is something unwanted and strange. He doesn't want to use the world upset so freely, but he supposes that that is what he is feeling. Upset. Unfortunate. Tom can't say he's grown accustomed to Ximena's company, the phrase would be better suited to Hedwig or Evan, but he's grown something towards her. Whatever the precedent to accustomed is. Pre-accustomed. In preparation for becoming accustomed. Is this the normal reaction to such a thing? The separation of someone you're pre-accustomed to? He wouldn't know, he's never had that happen before (well, aside from his mother, but he can't remember their separation nor time together very well, can he?) There was the kind caretaker at Wool's, but she was nice to every child, he thinks. He was no special case.

Was he a special case with Ximena? Perhaps. They had their moments, and he's positive that no other had bothered to investigate her beyond study talk or whatever the hell Adam spoke about with her (Quidditch, probably). Certainly, she's never rushed to the defense of another like she has to him that night that Ian struck (he would have found out about it!) So why would she cease communication with him? After he's worked so hard to crawl his way into her good graces? It doesn't make sense to him why someone would show such levels of dedication like standing between an assailant and him, and then growing cold afterwards...He'd probably have to experience it himself, but there's absolutely no way he'd ever risk himself for another person. Not without a damn good reason. What was Ximena's reason?

Somehow, it feels like it'll be sixty years before she speaks with him again. Or longer. A whole hundred, perhaps. Will she forgive him by then? Or forget him?

"It's so flakey!" Elle exclaims from his left, chewing happily on a large pastry shaped like an ear, "You get this from folding the dough in with cold butter--I'll show you after my Herbology class."

Ximena hums from Elle's other side, breaking apart her own ear-shaped pastry and watching the steam rise, "Folding butter in the dough? It sounds hard."

"It's very toiling. It takes a lot of time and arm work," Elle rolls up her sleeves to show off her pale bicep, lightly defined with muscles, "five years of baking in the kitchens here--not to mention back home." Her sleeve rolls back, "Baker's muscles are a badge of honor in my home."

They continue talking, continue ignoring Tom's existence, happy as clams. Not once has he ever cut into one of their conversations, he knows better--He's only tolerated thanks to his status as Elle's Snake, and nothing more. Elle, who has been buddies with Ximena for well over three weeks, doesn't bring up her lack of enthusiasm when it comes to Tom, nor does she try to bring him into their talks. Tom assumes Elle is polite and observant enough to see that they are simply going through a rough patch or perhaps too distracted by her culinary talk with Ximena to notice. As for the silent witch herself, it seems she hasn't yet told Elle about hers and Tom's separation, something which surprised him despite himself. He supposes that telling Elle about his actions (or rather, inactions) with the bracelet wouldn't do much to benefit her, so why bother? Other than to put a roadblock on his own ambitions and plans, but what does Ximena know of those? He hasn't talked to her about them, not even alluded--And thank Salazar for that. Imagine if he had? She could have started sabotaging him...Tell others of his plans and most intimate secrets…Nevermind that he knows her to not be like that. Nevermind that he has no real plans beyond the end of his second year. That's not the point. The plans will come. And with them, so will Ximena's allegiance. Surely.

What did he do to win it in the first place? Listen to her, that's easy enough, except she refuses to speak to him. Help her in her studies, which he's trying to do, but there's never any seating available at the impromptu study sessions now that the houses are allowed to mingle longer than a few minutes. After receiving help, the students stay and chat, and Ximena actually indulges them in their asinine conversations. She's absolutely doing this on purpose, all to bother him, he knows it, he's going to make her pay for it, he will, but for now he just needs to grin and bear it.

"Oh, I want to see China too...Once the warring states come to a peace talk, I mean; their food magicks are some of the oldest and most sophisticated in the world." Elle practically vibrates with delight at the thought, "I didn't know you were learning! Is it hard?"

He tunes them out, again, rolling a ball of minced meat across his plate. Their discussions on foreign dishes is nothing new, and if anything, it just makes him hungrier (despite being surrounded by all the food he could ever want). He's never had Chinese cuisine, despite London harboring an abundance of immigrants in East End. He's seen the enclaves in passing and heard plenty of talk about them and the problems they bring from a few of the caretakers at Wool's. The matron sings their praises, though, because there's a doctor in Limehouse that's been the only person able to quell her migraines. He's seen the hot stew she brings with her after every visit and remembers the aroma keenly. Bitter olives, coriander, star anise, mint...The look of bones and marrow floating at the top of a fatty, rich stock with cuts of vegetables and meat--And long white rice noodles, as pale as his skin. He tried taking it from her once, on a night when he was denied his dinner, but he was foiled by Eric Whalley. Stupid git. 

Elle laughs loudly at something Ximena said. Tom frowns. He refuses to be petulant. This will pass. It has to.

-

For better or for worse, Ximena appears to be taking her court-ordered punishment fantastically. Sympathetic parties give her condolences and declarations of sympathy. Something about how it'll all be changing soon enough for us, just you wait and what the hell does that even mean? These are the same people who were looking down their noses at her just a few weeks ago and now she's suddenly worthy of an emotion other than contempt...Their opinion on her is so...so volatile. Unpredictable as the weather. Slytherin house isn't exactly a hive mind, but there's a reason they all keep to themselves in regards to their views: to change their stances at a later time if need be. But it's usually never so...sudden and obvious like this. He tries to bring it up to Hedwig or Evan for comment, but they don't seem to follow his line of logic. This alone would be fair enough, considering they've been conservative about voicing their opinions regarding Ximena, but they've also been keen on the trends and opinions within their social circles. Nemesis alone has given him something half-satisfactory in explanation: In the end, we're all children, Tom. We love playing politicians and socialites, but we don't know what to think without the guidance of our families. It's nothing he didn't already know for himself, but it impresses him that Nemesis is aware of it (she's smart when she wants to be, but awfully stupid in other aspects). Is that why her previously apathetic sisters are suddenly Ximena's top benefactors? Why Evan and Druella both remain carefully neutral in the wake of the trial? Tom's not sure, but it bothers him. That she be ostracized for so long only to be suddenly considered one of them at their own convenience. It means they can easily cast her aside. That they can just as easily cast him aside--The thought only encourages him to sink his claws deeper into what he has already gained. Nothing and no one will take his opportunity away from him.

For better or for worse, students in Slytherin have continued to bruit about the supposed arrangement between himself and Ximena, moreso since she's started ignoring him. Nemesis, per the usual, was right: word got out fast. If they lived in a shotty little town with little to no news, he's sure it would make the morning paper. Something corny about emotions rising during a life saving duel, or some dribel about 'childhood sweethearts'. Eugh. Tom can handle people chattering about him just fine, but it's the nosey older boys giving him advice that irk him. Nevermind their confusing, conflicting methods of gaining a girl's affection, they're just plain disgusting. He feels ill enough at just the thought of holding hands with another person, let alone the things they're trying to describe to him. A part of him is sure most of it is just made up to tease and scare him, but another part of him is afraid that the things they say are somehow capable of being achieved by the human body.

What makes the situation for worse rather than for better is, as mentioned, Ximena's standoffish attitude with him. People assure him that her still wearing the gift is an excellent sign, but a half-blood taught the term playing hard to get to the Slytherin boys, and Tom hasn't been able to escape their taunts since (he can't imagine what they're saying about her behind his back, either). 

"Cheeky witch." Dion snerks, elbowing Tom as if they were chums, "Making you work for that courtship, I see." 

Tom almost breaks his quill in half, but he keeps his composure, "How did you start your paragraph on the Battle of the Bell?"

Of course, instead of politely following the subject change, they chuckle at his good-boy persona. He almost feels sorry for giving back the bracelet in public. Almost. Most of the pureblooded boys (noble and common) have ceased contact with Ximena since his pseudo proposal, and that suits him just fine. What doesn't suit him is the small percentage of boys who are sharp enough to realize that a (fake) courtship isn't grounds to start pretending a girl doesn't exist. 

He leers bitterly in suspicion at Adam from his place in the library, who appears to be recounting a story about Quidditch tryouts to a small, mixed audience (Ignacius, Weasley, Vane, Bones, and Ximena). Adam, he can excuse, because what would he know about proper procedures regarding (fake) courtship rituals? The rest of them, on the other hand, owe him an explanation. Well, they would if he were actually set on wooing Ximena, and he's not, but they don't know that--Unless Ximena told them personally, and he suspects she hasn't because the only ones who seem to know that he hadn't intended to cause a fuss are Hedwig, Nemesis, and Evan...Why didn't she clear the air with others? Is she, like him, too busy with more important things? Amused at the silly customs? Is there some basis to Katux's libel about him repaying her life debt by elevating her status in society?

Perhaps she is trying to stir some kind of urgency or envy in Adam--Which, if successful, would only prove how much of a scoundrel he is. But she doesn't seem like the manipulative type. Well, outside of the courtroom, that is--But that was for her own self-preservation. She wouldn't be a snake if she hadn't done so. This is different. It's being conniving for the sake of collecting someone. The sake of walking out[1] with them. He doesn't think her capable (or rather: he doesn't think she'd have the heart to do it). She's weak enough to have a crush, and alright, fair enough, she's human after all, but to actually want to capture said crush for herself doesn't click right.

The group across the section laughs in unison as Adam's gestures grow bigger and more comical. Tom continues to write about the Battle of the Bell, counting the ways that a Quidditch beater could get injured during a game. Dion's on the Slytherin team now, if he remembers correctly--Perhaps he'll have a friendly, chummy little chat with him later. 

In the meantime, he'll simply have to lay low. Wait it out. Like he has been doing. A prisoner doing his time.

At 12:03am, sleep cannot capture him, and he tip toes downstairs to the common room to mill about and check to see if anyone left anything valuable between the couch cushions (he still sends his little knight out nightly for any treasure). The worse he could get for being up in the common room is a mild scolding, though he suspects that the prefects are all on his side and would let it slide...Something to test later. His bare feet pad quietly on the stone floor as he yawns, eyes shut tight. When he opens his eyes, he flinches--but as usual, she doesn't notice he's there.

It's late. Obviously. Is Ximena one to stay up late or rise early? He hates that he doesn't know, that should be something he knows, right? Something easy to figure out and note...Really it would be much easier if Ximena were a boy, cursed girl. It'd be much easier to check her schedule if they were both in the boy's dormitory. Maybe she'd be less sensitive too, he's always hearing about how sensationalist women are (though in his opinion, men are equally such over sports and the economy). Not to mention there wouldn't be any silly rumours about his fake infatuation or their equally fake betrothal.

But rather than mull over how much easier life would be if the two of them shared a gender, he observes the girl carefully: at her tense fingers holding open the pages of a book and the glowing light of the nearby fire crackling in the hearth. The light waxes and wanes on her dark skin, making part of her complexion appear a metallic gold. Her still body aids this effect in making her look like a statue, frozen in the middle of the Slytherin common room library. Any other time, he'd attempt another conversation. Stroll right up to her as if nothing had happened--But he's smart. He learns fast, and he sneaks instead. Slowly drops to the ground to keep the old floors from echoing sound. Crawling towards the bookshelf, he tucks his feet in, bringing his knees to his chest, and keeks[2] carefully around a couch. He's continued to escape her notice, as expected, but it doesn't hurt to be careful. Even if he could just waltz right up beside her without raising alarm--If he were tall enough, he could even read over her shoulder without her sensing him. Thank God he's been practicing how to pull back his magical signature.

When he looks at the book, what catches his eye as quickly as it did the first time he laid his gaze on it is the title: Dream Lexicon: Interpretation and Mediations.

Attention flickers to her face: she looks deep in concentration; not skimming through pages or searching for the right paragraph. No, she's found exactly what she needs. It's a look he's pally with: when she narrows down the answers for a particularly jarring Arithmancy riddle, discovers the proper ingredient substitution for a potion, or finds the perfect source for a history essay--It is, amusingly enough, a look shared by many a Ravenclaw, though he's never brought that up (house talk is an easy way to get her into a sour mood.)

What dreams are the bracelet bringing to her? She does not look particularly stressed or sleepless (at least not more than usual), she mostly looks frustrated. Furrowed brows, narrowed eyes, a slightly parted mouth silently reading along with the text. He's never been a lip reader, but even if he was, he wouldn't be able to discern her words. A part of him thinks that she might even be mouthing in another language, but that's nonsense: the book is in English.

He waits. Her lips go still. Pressing together into a thin line. Her eyes don't change, though. They're neither satisfied nor disappointed, simply vexed. It's a more intense, more rich emotion than what she had when confronting him and somehow that irritates him immensely. The book shuts and is placed back into its proper slot (the Slytherin Library is painstakingly organized by date), the witch scurries herself back to the girl's dormitories. Five seconds of silence. Tom emerges from his hiding spot to pull out the book, pointing his wand authoritatively, "Reditius."

Whoosh, the pages flurry open towards the center of the book where Ximena was just reading from. Though there are multiple entries (thanks to the small text) on display, one in particular seems to jump out at him. Mothers. It's not emboldened, or in a different size compared to the rest of the terms, but it screams at him regardless. Was this was she was reading? Or was it Moths? Morters? 

His index finger follows the line of text, The Mother is a soul who sacrifices everything for the betterment of her child. She is a symbol of peace, and thus seeing her in any other state aside from happy is cause for alarm...Seeing one's mother protect one in a dream suggests there is an addle-plot about in one's life (see Protecting). If there is scolding or anger directed to the dreamer, a warning is being issued regarding one's path (see Paths). If one's mother takes care of another mother's child, it reflects jealous behavior and possessive character...Mothers always reflect one's intuition. It is wise to follow their advice on deception (see Kneazles). 

"Whose mother did you see?" He mumbles under his breath, brows furrowing, interest piqued, "Yours? Another's?"

Tom doesn't remember his mother. Obviously. He'd only known her for an hour. On particularly bad nights, when the oldest workers at the orphanage were three sheets to the wind, he'd hear all about how she looked though. Nothing physical, unfortunately, it was all about her soul or her emotional state. Miserable. The epitome of patheticness, in the old and contemporary sense. Helpless. When he dreams of her, he pictures a wraith: skeletal and wispy, formless and constantly crying. Constantly reaching and grabbing for him. Staring at him with hollow eyes. She never means him harm; on the contrary: all he feels when she's present is wanting. Coveting. It doesn't make the dreams any more pleasant.

Involuntarily, he shivers.

What was Ximena's mother like? Is she a Muggle? Does she look like her? Is she dead like his? Sharing a cold, dark grave plot alongside his? Unmarked? Did she name Ximena after herself the way his mother gave Tom his father's name? Or is she alive? Out in the world crying, begging to see her daughter again--Or anxiously awaiting the day when her abandonment of Ximena would return to haunt her?

...Did she abandon Ximena because she was a witch?

His grip on the edges of the book tightens. It would be in the nature of a filthy Muggle to do something so horrid to her child...Toss them aside out of fear, out of jealousy. Because they were special. If his own useless mother had lived, he's sure he would have been in the same boat as Ximena then. Not an orphan, but a foundling.

The book is returned to the shelf.

The next morning, though the spring in his step hasn't quite returned, his chin is held a little higher than yesterday. An improved mood that's unfortunately noticed by all and attributed to his pseudo-fiancée, which isn't much of a lie, but isn't much of a truth either. However, students seem to take his better humor as a sign to pester him more than usual. At the end of the day he's exhausted. Too many people want his attention or energy, and he only has so much to spare; he has to divide it up by importance, and as usual, his education takes precedence over all else. The effort needed to work up a smile and carry conversations with others drains him to the point where all he wishes to do at the end of the day is sleep. He almost dares to miss his ostracization at the orphanage, because at least there his time was all his. He didn't have to pretend to care about others or their problems.

He walks Hedwig down the moving staircases to the Wizarding Schools Potions Championships, making small talk with her and Evan about how she feels the competition will go. Really, if it weren't for her, he'd be napping in his bed right now, but she's aligned herself to him, and he must show that he takes care of his people. Goddammit. 

She's confident, as usual, talking about the intel she received about the other schools and their curriculums--Some more focused on medicinal potions, some on body-altering. 

 Nearing the hall in which the championships will be taking place, her explanations are interrupted by cheers and chants, so loud they seem to vibrate the entire castle--It's only when a small crowd of students, some in Quidditch gear, are seen holding up a student on their shoulders, that Tom realizes what's happening. A victorious game for the Gryffindors, then--Good to know none of them will be at the competition. Too busy celebrating and causing a ruckus (though the whining of his losing housemates will be annoying to hear back at the common room).

Tom raises his wand to enact a shell of silence around the three of them--Evan thanks him and Hedwig curses about her hearing: the Gryffindors are chanting Adam Adam Adam over and over.

"We should have gotten rid of him weeks ago." Hedwig says, rubbing his temple.

"We were distracted." Tom offers.

She snorts, "Fucking derailed more like."

And Tom pauses, because how does Hedwig know that word? The only train in Wizarding Britain is the Hogwarts Express and that's certainly never had an accident in its time (it was in Hogwarts: A History). Why would she need to know it? "No need to be so dramatic, Hedwig, we're back on track now."

Evan looks at them both with confusion, as if they were speaking Greek instead of English, but doesn't comment on it, "We're still distracted, impeded even. How are we supposed to eventually expel the American when everyone's expecting us to welcome our lessers?"

"I thought you fecking wanted us to be best mates with him."

"I expressed an interest in seeing whether or not he was useful." Evan turns to Tom, "Tom understands, he's a pragmatic lad."

He hums in response, holding his hands behind his back, "Well he is popular with the Gryffindors; befriending him would kill several birds with one stone." 

"Alright, so the pillock's useful in helping us keep up the social snakes act, but what about when the world looks away?"

"He's only here for a year, isn't he?" Tom gestures with his hand as he shrugs, "By the time he works off his usefulness, he'll be gone. Perhaps sooner, if the Muggle war escalates." 

Hedwig scowls, "And if he stays longer?" Then he'll expire.

"Then we intervene. We have a year, it's more than enough to cook something up." Considering Tom already has ideas. 

"You mean brew something up," Evan corrects, "get more hours of sleep, Tom, you're mixing up sayings." He wasn't aware. Tom pretends to thank him for the correction and the consideration for his health, though he finds it strange because Evan knows better than anyone how much sleep Tom is getting, "I know we can trust you with it, Tom--" Tom almost begins to humbly grin, "--after all, if you don't, you can't get married: Lane will run off with Miller." Tom resists the urge to smack him.

"Stop teasing the bastard, you know he's delicate." Tom sends a pointed glare to Hedwig, and though she doesn't stop smirking, she does stop talking. It'll do.

"You two are well aware that an engagement was the furthest thing from my intentions." He shakes his head, "I'd appreciate it if you cease the silly jokes, this is a serious matter." His irritation is showing through his magic; he's been feeling it much more obviously these past couple of days, particularly during stressful or intense moments. Doing nothing to try and cover it, he tries to see if he can direct it at Evan--And after a half-second, his keen eyes catch the other flinching.

That's better.

"The bastard's really not too bad, he has more sense than most Gryffindors."

"Oh has he converted you into a Blood Traitor, then?" Evan's words are teasing, but Tom feels a tenseness in him, "Soon you'll be talking like him; yipping around the castle like a bitch."

"As opposed to skulking around the castle like a gelding?[3]" 

"Don't mix up your terms, Hedwig, a gelding has done its job. A bitch is useless until it raises a litter."

Hedwig's wand is at Evan's throat faster than Tom can blink. He knows it shouldn't surprise him, but he still finds himself as dumbfounded as Evan looks.

He decides to cross his arms and watch the event unfold.

"Is that a threat?"

Somehow, Evan finds it in himself to chuckle, albeit nervously, "It's a warning."

"Yeah? What's the fucking difference?"

Evan licks his lips, ever so aware of the ashwood baton at his Adam's apple, "The difference is that I'm on your side."

Hedwig stills, her breath catching. Tom raises a brow at Evan's words, awaiting an explanation and awaiting it in vain. Evan? A friend to witches? Hilarious. He tolerates Hedwig and Nemesis because of their good pedigree, and Ximena for...why does he tolerate Ximena?...her status as a Slytherin. What alliance have these two made behind his back, then? And why haven't either of them told him?

No matter, it's only a matter of time.

Hedwig, after ten seconds of silence, lowers her wand. Evan's shoulders relax, mouth twitching as he resists the urge to smirk, "...Go on then, you'll be late. You can't let that bloodtraitor beat you."

She stares at him for a few more moments, calculating, before going off without another word. As she enters the hall, Tom turns to Evan and is met with a chuckle, "Highblood problems, Tom...Nothing for you to be worried about."

He smiles, eyes narrowed, "I'm sure.

-

The Wizarding Schools Potions Championship is, in a nutshell, absurdly boring. He watches students quietly and hurriedly mix ingredients together under an enchanted hourglass as judges from all schools walk about to grade their choices and results. It's a bit like watching people jotting out long equations on chalkboard. He wishes he brought a book.

Hedwig, her big cotton hair plaited back neatly for the first time, has on a face of utter concentration: hands moving at such a speed that Tom, for a moment, dares to feel insecure that he's holding her back during class. She sweeps the floor easily the first few rounds against the other students. As expected.

Yami, her long black hair pulled tight in a simple chignon, appears relaxed in comparison. As if she were cooking up a simple stew in the comfort of her own home. Rarely does she reference the material provided by the judges (in fact, she goes off recipe for the potions he recognises), appearing to have a firm handle on her actions simply by memory. In her movements, he wonders if she owes her ability to her father…

He looks down at the seats where the families of the competitors sit...Eric is an easy find, she's hard to miss and hard to take your eye off of. He assumes the prim woman at her side is Mrs. Acwellan, if her straight, silky, cotton white hair is anything to go by (does Hedwig's hair texture take after her father, then? He sees no one near them that could be him.) His eyes travel further, searching for a family with skin as warm as Yami's, and finds only a humble looking man: short and stout with a gentle face. He's observing Yami's work carefully, giving subtle nods to himself or head shakes every few seconds. Sometimes a brow will raise before he reaches a verdict. When he adjusts his glasses, Tom decides that he must be Yami's father. He sees no sign of anyone that could be her mother or sister.

In the end, a witch from the Japanese school[4] takes first place with Yami in second and Hedwig in a comfortable third. The later is, by far the youngest competitor there, and the contrast caused by just having her stand next to the other two is shocking. What doesn't shock is the fact that they're all girls, which is all the audience seems to be stuck on, rather than how the winner was able to successfully brew a potion to cure the common cold with only three ingredients. 

"It's as expected." Yami later tells him in the common room, surrounded by the quiet murmur of their peers, "Mizushima is a prodigy, descended from the line of Abe no Seimei[5] himself."

"So it's in her blood, then?"

A squint, "It's in her family's expectations." She corrects, "Something like genetics only takes you so far." And by the tone of her words, it sounds like it's not very far, "Families who depend on legacy alone to prove their worth are living in a fool's paradise."

Her open words turn heads. She continues on as if they were as insignificant as the gazes of flies. Perhaps they are.

When he asks similar of Hedwig, after Yami leaves, she says the very opposite, "Strong magic like that stays in the blood for a long time--If Merlin had children, you can bet their descendants would be massive fucking forces to be reckoned with. Even if they were imbeciles."

"And are imbeciles common, then?"

She snorts, "To my standards, yes. But others are forgiving." A scribble on her Potions essay, "It's why Acarya's so damn smart you know, she has creature blood in her."

Tom stills.

"Aye, it's no ordinary fucking creature blood either," for someone who claims she isn't a fan of Yami, Hedwig certainly knows a fair bit of trivia about her and her family, "that bloodtraitor has demon ancestry."

Consider his interest snatched.

Tom snorts, waving away Hedwig's words, "Now I know you're pulling the wool over my eyes, Hedwig."

"Am not!" She insists as much as the other girls do about their own pieces of trivial gossip, "They proudly advertise it too--and who wouldn't? I mean, creature blood is shameful and all, but if it gives you an advantage like that, well, I'd be boasting about it too."

But Yami does not boast. Does her father? "Now Hedwig, when you say demon, do you mean the proper sort that offer knowledge and apples to coerce you to sign the Devil's book?" He tests.

"Course not, eedjit, they have a due name for the kind of creature they are over in the East, but I can't remember it." How...convenient, "Raj...Rak...Something that starts with a Raa sound. Rolls off the tongue nice." She sniffs, "Got it on her mother's side, of course, I hear the woman is as vicious as a hag."

"Not as vicious as a demon?"

Hedwig smacks his arm, "Aye, I bet it was your smart mouth that killed yer mum, Riddle: opened it right up after birth and shocked her to death."

He doesn't find it in him to be offended by her words, merely amused, "I'm sure you'll give my mother her due justice, then, Hedwig." And then, "Do you know if Acarya's father has any...creature blood in his line?"

"Nah. But I wouldn't be surprised if he did. His wife's family is always looking for pretty additions to add to their power." She shrugs, "Did'ya see her father?"

"No, was he there?"

"Right in front of ya, you knob." He'll never doubt Hedwig's sincerity in their relationship, at least, "The only one in the whole hall with her nose, how did you miss it?"

"I was focused on the riveting competition, of course."

Hedwig smacks his arm again. 

"Oh honestly, you two--" Nemesis' voice fuses as she approaches, "You're worse than my sisters: always bickering."

The witch across from him narrows her eyes, "Which sisters?" 

"Why does it matter?"

"Because I want to see if I should be insulted or not."

Nemesis' complexion burns red. She reaches over and pinches the fat in Hedwig's arm--The other witch curses, but cackles alongside it, "Son of a bitch, I didn't think you had it in you--" A punch to Nemesis' shoulder tops the compliment, "Keep it up, Nem, and I think you'll be as terrifying as the Nott Matriarch."

Tom quirks a brow as Nemesis rubs her shoulder meekly, about to speak, and being interrupted, "Mm. Would have thought there were firsties here with all the ruckus you three were dishing out."

"Top of the fucking morning to you too, pillock." Hedwig greets Cygnus, finally deciding to close her textbook because there wasn't any way that she was getting back on track anytime soon.

"Black." Tom greets with a nod of his head, following Nemesis, "Here to join our cram session?"

He blinks in response, just noticing the parchment on the table between himself and Hedwig, "From what I hear, the three of you don't need to study; some of the upperclassmen even suspect you're cheating."

"Jealous chits."

"Suspecting and not accusing?"

"We know how to mind our own." Cygnus chooses to ignore Hedwig's chuff of disbelief, "Besides, if a couple of second years are beating our grade records, then we deserve it and need to step up."

"The spirit of competition is excellent at improving one's skills!" Nemesis agrees, "I'm sure our grades will be bested soon enough by the oncoming crop of new students, too--And so on and so forth." Speak for yourself, nobody is going to take Tom's crown.

"As is their job to." Cygnus nods.

"Was there something you needed, Black?" Tom prompts, curious as to what the other was implying.

"As a matter of fact, yes, but--Fawley, you may state your business first, since I arrived after you." Cygnus offers.

"Oh, I was just wondering what the two of you were planning to be for Hallowe'en this year--Hedwig, I know you came as The Morrigu, it was stunning...What were you last year, Tom? Some kind of wood sprite?" He doesn't have time to correct her before she continues, "I was thinking perhaps we can all have matching costumes this year: show our unity and all that...Maybe Gods from the same Pantheon? You'd be quite fitting as Pluto, Tom."

"He'd be better off as Acontius at this point." Hedwig snerks, and Tom almost misses Cygnus' mouth twitch.

"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Dressing up as Gods and spirits is distasteful." It's what every wizard dresses up as, but he doesn't mention this to Cygnus.

"Dressing up as sour-faced cunt, then?"

His nose scrunches, "I think not."

"Not coming to the Hallowe'en event?" Tom hums.

Cygnus scowls, "You mean Samhain--Don't roll your eyes at me, Acwellan, mother says the word Hallowe'en is wrought by Muggles, and mother is hardly wrong."

Nemesis tilts her head, "All Hallows Eve isn't Muggle--" she turns to Tom, "--Right? Muggles don't celebrate?"

He clears his throat, "They do." There's smugness, bemusement, and surprise from the three of them, "Though a bit differently than us wizards." To say the least.

"You see?"

"We're not celebrating no fucking Muggle festival, they must have stolen it."

Only Nemesis stays quiet.

"It's a Catholic event, if I'm correct." And Tom often is.

"What's a Catholic?" Cygnus squints, "Is it another word for Muggle?"

"It's a religion, ya stupid ballsack."

"A Muggle one?"

Nemesis finally clears her throat to talk, "--There's many a Catholic witch, Black, but most of them choose to go to Saint Columba's[6]."

Apparently the name of the school rings a bell for Cygnus, "Oh." To say he looks displeased is an understatement, "The ones who persecuted our kind back then...Correct?" It sounds like he doesn't need confirmation. Nemesis looks a bit downcast.

"Yeah, those ones." Hedwig sniffs, "Stupid Muggles don't even step back to realize their prophet was a wizard himself." That almost sends Tom into a violent guffaw--Jesus of Nazareth a wizard? He peeks at Nemesis to see her reaction, and finds no surprise. Probably false, then.

"It was a few religions, as a matter of fact." But that's neither here nor there, "--I didn't know you celebrate the Celtic New Year, Black." Tom was under the impression that the Blacks had more Southern ancestry.

Pride floods Cygnus' eyes, "Of course. It's tradition." What else is new. 

"Get with the times, Black, we switched over to the Gregorian calendar decades ago." What.

Cygnus scoffs, "It's a simple fad, it'll pass--The Julian calendar was more palatable, anyways."

Nemesis clears her throat, "I have a few Catholics on my mother's side of the family...They're reclusive, but certainly don't associate with Muggles...At least, not anymore--That's how the Fat Friar died, he was helping them during the Plague...You know Lane is a Catholic?"

Cygnus gives an exasperated sigh, muttering Of course she is under his breath, "I suppose I will have to confer with Catholics now."

"Aw, poor lil' pissbaby, having to talk to his lessers." Hedwig gives a Bronx cheer, "I thought you wanted to go into politics after school?"

"An adviser and a politician are two very different things." Cygnus scowls, "Look at the Avery who helped Lane in her trial and tell me he's the same as Wzn. Gamp or Spencer-Moon!"

"He's the same nonce-looking ponce if that's what you mean. Bastard's as slimy as a trout and so's the rest of them."

The talk of politics unnerves Nemesis, and she begins scratching the back of her hand.

"He has no allegiance to the common good that the Ministry swears to, only to himself and his chosen clientele." 

"A proper Slytherin you are, Black." Tom compliments, half-genuine.

"A proper Slytherin among others--My commendations on your courtship. It's good to see some dignity among our house."

Tom tilts his head, ignoring how Nemesis stiffens up, "Pardon?"

"I admire yours and Lane's sense in separation, Riddle, it's refreshing. It's how a proper nobleblood should act, and it's ridiculous that you're the only one to do it: Yaxley and Selwyn are busy mooning over their current intendeds, they're insufferable."

"Awe, ya jealous, Black? No one's come to ask for ya hand?" Hedwig's voice hits an overwhelming tone of false-sympathy, and he's grateful for the distraction, "Whatever will they do with your dowry?"

"You don't come to the Blacks with a marriage offer," as usual, he's offended, "the Blacks come to you. It's ludicrous to believe otherwise--An insult." Ahuh. Tom sees Hedwig roll her eyes, though Cygnus misses it, "Though I suppose you would know all about confirmed bachelors."

A sharp tug rips out a rib from Tom's side--At least, that's what it feels like. The sudden pull in the air is as tangible as his own flesh, he's sure that he's been attacked. It takes far too long for him to realize that it's Hedwig's simmering magic that made him feel threatened. Cygnus, looking as alarmed as he is, flexes out his own magical aura in response, though late. Hedwig's hazel eyes are somehow inescapable: Cygnus cannot look away from her furious stare, "You quiet down now, Black...Wouldn't want mummy to know you've been gossiping like a lowborn Muggle, much less sucking neck like I know you have."

Cygnus' magic truly awakens then: on Tom's other side, it feels like hot sand pressing into his arms, and he imagines himself to be between a harsh desert and a jagged cliffside. "Oh? And what would little baby Acwellan know about my affairs?"

Being caught between these carefully measured displays of dominance is something strange after having been protected by Ximena's magic...Feeling it strife against Ian's own, which felt so opposite of hers. Neither of the two has their anger directed at him, but he nonetheless feels pinned down by them. It's such a small, intimate space, he could reach his arms out and touch either one of them. From behind him, he can sense Nemesis' magic fluttering anxiously, not unlike the way it was when she was close to confessing to him before his attack. He stretches out his own signature to her--Enough for her to know it was there, but not enough to make contact. He has to keep her on a short leash.

Then, he flares the rest of it forward, imagining a tall, imposing wall rising, "There are outsiders in this library." Tom near hisses to the both of them, "We are brethren outside our common room." Goose pimples blossom on his skin as he scolds them, feeling them yield to his words--albeit reluctantly.

Cygnus clears his throat, never taking his eyes off Hedwig, "...Quite."

Hedwig throws a rude hand gesture at him, "Suck a cock, Black."

Nemesis sighs in relief.

Tom grins.

-

This year, Tom needs less convincing to join in on the Halloween festivities, but is much less visually excited. He's a second year now, he has to control himself. No gorging himself on candies and sweets, and certainly no dancing...At least, nothing that doesn't have a minimum of two other purebloods participating. Make that noble purebloods. 

He, Hedwig, Evan, and Nemesis walk to the same hall that the party took place in last year, dressed not in matching disguises, as Nemesis suggested, but in similar enough schemes that they could get away with saying they planned it as a group. Hedwig is a God again, this time Cailleach, Nemesis and Evan are mythological figures (Iseult and Naoise respectively), and Tom is Amandan Dubh: a more refined, divine, wizardly version of his previous costume--Surely J.M. Barrie gained the inspiration for his masterpiece from this same God...Reed pipes, fairies, shadows and tricks, it's as if Peter Pan was Amandan Dubh in infancy--If only the boy had allowed himself to grow just enough to gain that extra bit of power. Retain his immortality, but gain something he wouldn't have had without growing up.

He hopes people will understand his costume this year.

The music greets him first before the sight: similar to last year in most everything save for some decor and table placements. The hall is still curtained and sectioned off for various parties to sit down comfortably and in semi-privacy for their conversations whilst still being under teacher supervision. It reminds Tom of the mental image he had of the masquerade ball within Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. Enticing and menacing. 

When he enters, he doesn't look for her his eyes simply scout her out because she stands out. In a crowd of a thousand, he could find her. That's hardly his fault, her black dress (the same one as last year?) is easily spotted out of all the vivid costumes in the ballroom.

Tom excuses himself, promising to meet up with the four of them later--And the group scatters. He walks across the ballroom, eyes scanning over his passing schoolmates and teachers.

Slughorn has cornered Yami and Hedwig regarding their Potions Championship titles, singing their praises to a select few other colleagues (outsiders, probably, he doesn't recognize any of them as professors), and speaking regretfully on the biases held by the judges. Hedwig has her good girl attitude on, mouth shut and smiling. Laughing at whatever joke Slughorn tells. Yami looks the same as she always does: a blank canvas. The faces of the adults in the group avoid eye contact with her and smile warily when she speaks. Are they afraid? Intimidated? Why are they not equally uneasy over Hedwig's lack of personality on display?

Druella is tucked away in a corner, quietly watching the party with a glass in her hands. She's been found by Evan, who looks to be in a serious talk: she nods along occasionally, empty and blank.

Nemesis, plucked by her sisters for a group photo, looks oddly melancholy alongside their bright and vivid costumes. Like a wilted sprig of herbs among others in a garden. He notes that she's the only blonde out of the seven of them, and wonders if her mother has the same kind of hair--Despite her dramatic difference in color pallete (all of her sisters have green eyes--), she looks exactly like all of them.

Lucretia is joining a mixed group of witches in a dance, twisting her raised wrists in the air and linking hands. It looks marvelously fun, and she's quite elegant in her movements--unsurprising, if he considers her upbringing (though then he has to wonder why half of the other highblooded girls are not allowed to dance). All those in the Black family are stupidly debonair, at least the ones older than eleven. Even Cygnus, whom Tom assumed as graceful as a drunken foal, moves across the dance floor in a sophisticated manner: supporting Lucretia's choice of intermingling with non-Slytherins, as he had said he would. His face is carefully neutral, and he even spares a small smirk to a few others of similar status as him.

Merrythought is recounting a charming story about Dumbledore when he was her pupil to a small group of professors. The man himself is standing by her with what could pass as a sheepish (but shameless) grin on his face. He glows in the praise of the small circle, and Tom resists the compulsion to glower at him. The only one not chuckling along with the rest is Willow, who remains carefully anodyne.

Abbas and Topaz entertain a small group of third years, paying particular attention to two girls whom Tom recognises as Carrows (twins). The girls are birdlike in their stature and looks, though if he were being kind, he'd refer to them as swanlike instead. On their necks are bronze pendants Tom assumes are lockets, which are twiddled and played with as if the two girls didn't know what to do with them. He wonders why these girls have the luxury of a fiancé near their ages.

Eric, a glass of something deep and red in her hand, rolls her eyes at something his ex-mentor is telling her and swats him away dismissively as her cortège giggles. The boy isn't dissuaded by this, but is soon enough distracted by his younger sister, who begins to scold him. Presumably on bothering other girls. This results in a chorus of jeering. Dorea covers her mouth and turns her head to the side, but Eric laughs openly: head tilted back. It's then that he notices how similar hers and Hedwig's smile is.

His mute, Ravenclaw Charms partner is animatedly moving her hands and fingers in concise gestures, and Ximena's own Ravenclaw Charms partner (Martha?) is talking back with equal enthusiasm, giving half-speech, half-gesticulation, in response. They're hanging around a large group of mostly Muggleborns (if Tom had to guess by their costumes), near the far right of the hall. He can recognise a good amount of students from Hufflepuff thanks to his frequent lunches with Elle--They smile at him as he passes by, no longer intimidated by him, but endeared.

Katux and Dion are harassing a poor house elf who made the mistake of bumping into one of them--Though upon closer inspection, it seems the creature had bumped into Orion, and the two took advantage to flex their verbal harassment skills. 

He does not find Elle, who had told him she would be abstaining due to religious reasons (which caused him to wonder why her brother was alright with going, but another question for another day).

At the end of the hall, past the veils and shadows, there's no crowd. No shroud of captivated silence nor dozens of eyes fixed solely on a single person. It is merely her and Mali; the later is dressed in a bright blue gingham dress over a white blouse with glittery ruby shoes. Ximena is wearing the same dress as she was last year. The same capelet, dark brass buttons, and faded color fabric. She is at the end of her story. So early in the evening?

"...I was nine.

"I tell it every year now. I did it before--When I still didn't know what I was. Local urchins all gathered to hear the dark one talk about her brush with death. Because a lot of children drowned that year. Because I was the only one who survived.

"The sisters told me it was the blessed Virgin who saved me. Or Saint Nicholas. Or Saint Agnes[7]. They encouraged the stories because of it...But I don't think it was either of them. I didn't feel any holy light upon me. Just cold. Just wet."

"...Why do you do it?"

He can feel Ximena hesitating, and the image of her pressing her hand to her chest rises in his mind, "Stories are meant to be told. To be heard. It's a ritual. Repetition, and all that." A pause, and he can picture her pressing her lips into a thin line, "...I was found on Hallowe'en."

The hair on the back of his neck rises.

Mali stays silent, listening.

"It was Hallowe'en morning, and I was found wandering the edge of the Thames...I remember their faces, asking me if I was okay. If my mother was anywhere nearby." There's a tension in her words that makes Tom think she's teetering on crying, but a sob never comes, "I...I didn't know what to tell them. I couldn't talk."

He peeks past the column carefully, stiff and tense. Mali has leaned over to drape a comforting arm around Ximena's shoulders, hand gently rubbing her arm. Though his own magic is tightly retained, the Hufflepuff's is broadcasting itself loud enough for it to tingle at the edge of his senses. It feels like he's pressing his face against cool soil. Stable. It makes him feel like he's being swaddled in a blanket of earth. He tries not to think about whether or not she knows he's there.

"Shhh," she coos delicately, as if Ximena were a weeping babe, "You don't have to tell me anything. It's okay. It's okay." Mali begins to speak in a language he doesn't understand, has never heard before, nothing like Latin or Spanish or French. 

It is a tender moment. One not meant for him to spy on. That only makes him want it more. Her tears and vulnerabilities are his--This was established last year, when she wept before him in the library. Are they Mali's now? Is she his replacement? Does Ximena trust her as much as he did him?

In the periphery of his hearing range, he hears a low, bassy, jazzy tune.

Chapter Text

The rest of the Hallowe'en party is somewhat of a blur. He knows that somewhere in the middle, he finally meets Hedwig's Puff (not her cousin like Ximena had surmised, but a timid girl whose surname he never caught), is introduced to a few of Slughorn's colleagues (all heavily informed on the trial and asking him where they might find Ximena), and holds a surreal conversation with Druella Rosier. A surreal, civil conversation.

It starts with a treacle tart. All the sweets left in the hall are bitter, lemony treacle tarts, and of course there are only treacle tarts left when Tom hates the taste of lemons and where are the house elves coming to refill the trays of puddings and cakes and tortes--

"Ugh. Treacle tart." The heavy-lidded girl purses her lips distastefully at the sight of the pastry, "Nasty little things--They're a favourite of Dumbledore, you know."

Tom blinks, looking up at his senior, "Are they?" The man would have terrible tastes regarding pastries.

"It's practically all that was served during his birthday social last year." Tom wouldn't know, he was at Wool's, "Mother almost got sick whilst eating one." What pleasant imagery, "..Do you like them?"

Unsure of what exactly her intention is, he decides to indulge her, "Not at all. I don't like the taste." Especially since the Lemon Tree Incident of 1932. "I prefer figgy pudding."

And then something even stranger than Druella having a civil conversation with him: she gives a hint of a smile before hiding it away, "I do too."

His chin tilts upwards a degree or two, "How are you, Druella?"

At his first use of her given name, she hardens; Tom muses over whether she's furious at the casualness, or surprised at his directness. Her hand tightens around her cup, "...Did you know?" What doesn't he know? "The...That Ian, at the trial...Did you know?"

Tom hums lowly, half sure he knows what she's referring to, but wanting to drag it out of her anyways, "Know what?"

Her fingers bend, nails scratching across the surface of her glass, filled with pumpkin juice, "That it wasn't him." she says, voice barely above a whisper. As if she's afraid that someone will hear her.

He takes his time with answering, letting the suspense sink into her skin, relishing in the small amount of dominance he holds in this moment, "Of course." It insults his intelligence to think otherwise.

Unsure of what the confirmation does for Druella, he watches as she intakes breath through clenched teeth, seizing up her shoulders and cursing under her breath. He braces for an outburst, but she does no such thing. Everything is kept inside. Secured. Fidelian. "...Evan won't tell me where he is."

Oh? "Are you sure he knows?"

The lour she gives is something fierce, "Obviously he does. Otherwise he wouldn't be speaking so...so lowly to me. Treating me like a nipper[1] and telling me not to worry about it...Evil little--" Apparently she doesn't go as far as to complete the insult towards her family's heir, but Tom thinks she'd like to. He wonders if he can push her to do so. “No one’s telling me anything.” 

“Do you think they sent him to the same place they did his sister?” 

Her eyes are fire. Explosive and accusatory, confused and vulnerable, “Colina wasn’t sent anywhere, she died as a child.” Yes, that’s what he read, but not what he was told, “It was dragon pox, nothing could be done for her.” 

“My apologies,” he inclines his head, “I had heard otherwise.” 

The desperation sinks back into her body language, “What do you--Who, who told you that--”  

He lifts his hand to cease her talking, and almost shivers with pleasure when she obeys, “I can’t say I remember exactly when and where, but...” The trailing off is purposeful, and he tries to get the timing just right, “...I was under the impression that she was dispatched.” 

When Druella flinches at the phrase, it all but confirms his suspicions that ‘dispatched’ is a euphemism for being sold to a workhouse or left at a poorhouse, “That’s a lie. That’s a dirty, filthy, disgusting lie.” The edges of her magic threaten to lash out at him, he pictures a leopard protecting her cubs, “Colina wasn’t a squib, I’ll stake my life on it.” Her bottom lip trembles, but her voice does not break, “She was sick, she was...How could they--” For a moment, it looks like she might have some sort of fit, “She was magical. Colina was magical. She wasn’t the most powerful witch, she was young, but she was a witch.” Her tongue darts out to lick her lips, anxious and upset, “I saw her on her deathbed. You can’t, you can’t fake that.” 

His eyes never leave her form; her breakdown is very entertaining. He really shouldn’t go for such low hanging fruit but oh! She’s making it so easy--“Come, Druella,” his hand rests on her shoulder, and he ignores how unpleasant the contact is, “this isn’t the place for that...I wouldn’t want you to give these people any reason to spot weakness.” 

He leads her to his retinue. 

.

Druella is a strange addition to the group. The tallest so far out of all of them, as well as the eldest. The most rigid in her beliefs, the most uncompromising in her actions. Despite this, she often trails along on the tail end during shared free periods and lunches, arms crossed over her body defensively, trying to blend into the background but not hesitating to voice her opinion when passion strikes. She's not a constant by far, being a year ahead and taking different classes, obviously, but her presence is noted by all watching. Her admirers and victims, her family and friends. 

Evan, amused with the new inclusion of his cousin, takes it upon himself to keep her in check so Tom won’t have to (though to her credit, her lashing out is kept to a minimum without the need for either of them to tone her down: a new, subdued version of Druella, but much improved). The sight of him is enough to calm Druella for reasons Tom can’t discern (if he had to guess, he’d say she knows what she can and cannot trust about Evan, therefore making him the safest person in the room), so he doesn’t even voice his concerns whenever they whisper quietly to each other outside of his hearing range (but he does keep an eye on them).

Hedwig finds her annoying, but also soon finds her a worthy match in the art of throwing verbal insults. Druella, more refined and subtle than Hedwig’s coarse offences, takes ages to find out that Hedwig considers trading jeers entertainment, and a few days to figure out that the tiny witch considers her a close acquaintance because of it. 

Nemesis is a bit harder to convince for reasons Tom doesn’t know. She eyes Druella cautiously for the first few days as if the girl was likely to suddenly explode. Did she have some sort of nasty experience with her? She did mention playing with Ian as a child...Why not also Druella? Eventually, she does finally scoot aside to make room for Druella at their usual table after they share a conversation over their love of unicorns. Typical.

The most interesting development of the new addition, without a doubt, is the sudden increase in Cygnus’ appearances. Before, he had kept his distance from Tom and his litter (presumably due to their difference in age), but now with Druella tagging along, his broody face is a consistent sight in Tom’s day--and alongside it, are his cousins and siblings. Having a Black or two be regularly seen around one is akin to having a king drop your name in conversation. It’s an unexpected but beneficial side effect, and he almost wants to reward Druella for it--But not yet. She’s not exactly under his protection (Tom knows he’s not yet grown that powerful, he’s no fool), but she certainly benefits from his affliction...Therefore she owes him. Something deeper than her friendship (which he doesn’t want anyways) but lighter than her loyalty (which will come in due time).

He asks her, commands her really, to sit among her fellow falcons. Because he’s curious about what they think of all this mess--Of Ian’s expulsion, of Ximena’s noble actions, of Slytherin’s reputation. Yes, they’re not like us. Not as noble or proper, but they are her housemates. Potential allies. The world is watching. Be a leader.

As with Lucretia's comments, she bristles and protests, but soon enough sits quiet: the circumstances of these past few weeks fully realizing themselves in her brain. The backlash, the consequences…

“Besides,” he tops his speech with a little tap on the table between them, “there’s a few good fruits in Ravenclaw; Flints and Olivanders and Zhangs[2].” He purposefully tacks on Zhang at the end, knowing Druella’s stiff opinion on wizards without Saxon ancestry, “Each as pure and noble as yourself.” Some more so: Zhang’s family stretches back farther than England’s been in existence, "An outcross is often needed to strengthen the pool, right?" 

He's not sure why, but the final sentence convinces her somehow. Touched or triggered some kind of personal memory, probably, or at least her sense of duty. 

He knows in his heart that he'll be as esteemed to the Ravenclaws as he is becoming with the Hufflepuffs.

The first time he sees Druella sit and be merry with Ravenclaws is the first day of snowfall at Hogwarts that winter; it's a thick blanket of snow that forces the groundskeepers to tread narrow pathways, three feet tall, across the grounds to allow students to walk about. The group in question is discussing someone's prediction in yesterday's Divination class: about the very snowfall that's gotten everyone in the mood for cozying by the fire.

"It was so vague, it could have been anything!"

"How is blanket of chalk, three feet tall, swirling pathways vague?"

It's here that Druella inserts herself into the conversation, almost unnaturally: as if it were her first time public speaking, "All predictions are vague, it's on purpose...They have a much higher chance of coming true if they don't name specifics."

The Ravenclaws, to their credit, aren't bemused at their estranged housemate's sudden chattiness, they merely nod along, 'Quite right. Quite right' 'Excellent point, Rosier' 'Divination isn't an art meant for details, anyways'. The validation in her words makes her chest puff out in pride, and she grows confident enough to continue talking. 

Tom doesn't stay to eavesdrop, he leaves for the library, where he coincidentally runs into Lucretia, who (coincidentally) is just the person he wishes to run into.

She sits at her usual table (behind a bookshelf that faces a window so that she has excellent reading light without the sun glaring in her eyes), contently snacking and scribbling down something (an essay, he assumes). Much like she was on the first day he spoke to her, she's carved out a reserved space for herself where she cannot be bothered by anyone at all. Tom suspects magic has something to do with the feeling that she remain undisturbed, because (as with the first time), she looks surprised that someone is addressing her. A glare fixes itself onto her face before she realizes that it's only Tom...Then it returns with a huff, "Izzi!" She commands suddenly, making him flinch--A pale house elf appears then, looking sullen but professional: her eyes downcast and mouth set in a firm frown.

"Yes, Miss Black?"

"Is my refreshment ready?" Impatience drapes over her words, her foot taps on the floor steadily.

"Yes; Izzi apologizes for her dawdling pace, Miss Black." A snap of her fingers, and a floating silver tea set materializes between Izzi and Lucretia. The later rolls her eyes.

"Fine fine, just serve the tea." It's the first time he's witnessed a personal exchange between witch and house elf that didn't involve Elle: the difference is stark but unsurprising.

Against, perhaps, his better judgement, he raises a brow at the appearance of the house elf (is it hers? Did it belong to Hogwarts?), "Afternoon tea in the middle of the library?"

“A witch of proper breeding can hardly be faulted if she’s used to the comforts of home.” She pours milk in her tea leisurely, pausing to address Izzi. “That will be all. Go back to your duties.” The house elf bows deeply and pops away along with the tray and tea supplies. Lucretia continues speaking to Tom, "Purebloods aren't allowed to bring their house elves with them; ridiculous, if you ask me...How are we supposed to dress ourselves in the morning? I had to learn how to draw up a bath from Rowle...Thankfully it's not all noble children in Slytherin, or else I'd have to ask Slughorn how to do it." She shivers, "My kingdom for a witch head of house...I'd nominate Merrythought, but with her unfortunate upbringing..." Lucretia hums, "Well, let's not talk about that--I apologise for my lack of greeting, I thought you were the elf. Did you need something?"

"Oh I just wanted to ask how you are, Black." He smiles pretty, trying not to feel like he's asking for an audience, "We haven't spoken in some time, and I wanted to check up on you."

"Quite lovely, thank you for asking." Even Lucretia is not immune to Tom's good boy act, and she smiles at him warmly, "Especially now that dear Ella isn't moping around over Ian." She sighs, "A shame, what happened to him, really...A shame, but necessary." Her head shakes, in disappointment or resignation--Tom doesn't know. "Ian really wasn't so bad on his good days...But with such a passionate personality, it's easy to get carried away."

"Mm." He decides not to comment on that, "Were you close?"

"As close as distant cousins can be," she sips her tea, "really, I think we were just similar in age, so our parents stuck us all together in a playpen and hoped for the best."

"The best?"

Lucretia hums, pausing to think over how best to explain, “...The Rosiers are frequent guests at Black get-togethers, in part thanks to the close friendship great-grandfather has with Felix Rosier.” Lucretia sips her tea, “I believe they wanted their firstborns to marry, but grandfather only had eyes for grandmother, even then." She tuts.

"--He got out of an arranged marriage?"

"Oh don't look so surprised now, marriage contracts aren't binding unless you want them to be. A Black knows their duty, but great-grandfather has a soft spot for his family."

That sounds too easy, "I assumed the friendship continued despite the breaking engagement?"

"Naturally, otherwise, Cygnus might be forbidden to speak to his not-so-secret belle." She smiles to herself. Tom wonders if that's what the two were arguing over in the common room earlier, "It worked out for the best, anyways: Felix Rosier's firstborn died due to splinching, so it would have been a very short marriage indeed." Brutal. "Not a total loss, of course, because it lead to the birth of the current generation of Blacks you have here today." Oh yes, lucky Hogwarts, "Or else I might be calling Vinda Rosier my mother...She has the right idea, but poor execution...Bowing down like that to another outside her family...Such desperation...And that's not mentioning the vicious little rumors regarding her...preferences." She tuts again, "I never felt romantically for Ian, and I suspect he didn't feel that way towards me...Even if we did, well, it's not like anything can come of it now." The tone in her voice is odd. Wistful but not regretful. Accepting and reflecting. "Perhaps Cygnus will fulfill great-grandfather's wish...Even if Druella is a falcon." A smile, sharp and anticipating, "It would be thanks to you, in part. What you've been doing is excellent...I can hardly believe it's happening, actually. I've been frequenting the Lions' den so often, some of them are actually happy to see me now." A chuckle, she covers her mouth, "Presence makes the heart grow fonder, I suppose."

He nods, deciding to relate, “I certainly see a lot more of Cygnus now, with Druella frequently sitting around us. Hedwig’s been complaining loudly about it, so I know she’s delighted with a new person to argue with.”

“It’s quite nice that he’s finally speaking to his Slytherin underclassmen. Auntie is always pushing for him to be more social." He does spend an awful amount of time with the same four people.

"Is she in support of the current trend in befriending those of other houses?" Does she support him or will her family be an impediment on his goals?

"Children don't concern themselves with the issues of their parents, Tom." She dodges, "We're all allowed our own opinion anyways."

Alright, he'll admit it was naive of him to hope that a Black reveal any sort of information to him regarding their family's private, contemporary conversations, “Will it be put to a vote, then?”

Lucretia laughs the suggestion off, “If only it were that easy. In any case, you are in mine and Cygnus’ good books. And that’s more than enough.” Sure. For now. “And speaking of!” She dips her hand in the folds of her lavish linen robe and pulls out a dark, faded grey tome, thick as a good-sized slice of cake, and about as big as a small diary, "Here's the help you asked for..."

His eyes greedily take in the sight of the book, wanting to snatch it up immediately, and stopping himself in favor of listening to her dribel.

"...know what my family is known for, but we practice such marriages carefully...There's a reason purebloods document our marriages and births so meticulously." What Tom hears is 'we practice incest carefully', but he doesn't voice this, "The Blacks aren't particularly known for proper provenance documentation, but as usual, we are best at it." Lucretia's smugness is so carefully reigned in that it comes off as humble, "The defamation is mainly because we omit squibs and unfortunate unions, you understand." Does he ever, "They don't strengthen the tree, so they're cut. It's only common sense, right?" He nods, though he's not sure he agrees one hundred percent, "If a Riddle has ever married a Black, you'll find them here--And that's proof enough of your purity." The logic she's using is hard to follow, but he doesn't care at the moment. Her clean, manicured hands delicately slides over the dragonhide book with silver engravings; when Tom's skin makes contact, goosebumps erupt over the back of his hand over the layers of old magic the tome contains. "This one's my own personal copy." Lucretia winks, and the action looks odd on her face, "I received it for my tenth birthday. Be good to it."

What an awful gift. He would have cursed the giver. "Of course." His smile is polite and controlled, "I truly appreciate this, Black."

"It's the least I can do." She's right, it is, "Our family records go back seven-hundred years, so it might take a bit to skim through it all--Keep in mind, all of these families are within the isles, so if your line turns out to be Danish, they won't show up."

Upsetting, "Does Riddle sound Danish to you?"

"If I'm being honest, it sounds Muggle, but you're too sharp to have any of that in your ancestry." Fair enough, "At worst, your ancestors probably changed their surname to avoid prosecution by Muggles and blend in." How pathetic. He'd prefer them to be poor over that kind of shame. "Let me know what you find--And if you need any further service." 

"You have my infinite thanks."

"And you have mine." It's strange how different this suave businesswoman is from the blushing, yearning girl he talked to last year...Something tells him if he mentioned Ignatius, she'd go right back to how she was, "Prewett and I are going to Hogsmeade together this Sunday, because of you." He was right. "And, well, Lane's actions. Felicitations on your courtship, by the by." A sly smile, as if they were sharing something private and personal between the two of them, "You're not the only one who's noticed what a smart little tart she is." Doubtful. "It's good to see her annexing herself to a better social standing...If her line is good, maybe your children can aspire to append Black onto their names."

Alright, that's Tom's cue to cut their conversation short, "Your laudation is too much, Black."

"Please," the older girl insists, "call me Lucretia."

 .

As a boy (a younger, smaller, boy, that is), Tom enjoyed opening up the old, occasionally torn books that Wool's had for the children, and pouring over the words, pretending like he could read them. He'd sit up straight and tall, finger running over the lines and mouthing what he thought they could be saying...Doctrines, fables, biographies…

The sole kind caretaker at the orphanage attempted to teach him what little she knew, but she had stopped her own schooling at twelve to work. The most she taught Tom was how to write his name. And he wrote his name. Over and over again. Tom Marvolo Riddle. Tom Marvolo Riddle. Tom Marvolo Riddle.

One day when he writes his name down, the paper will be weighed down with the knowledge that his name means something. His family's grandiose legacy. It makes him almost desperate to start reading the tome Lucretia loaned him…

But...

The moment he opens the book--Really opens it to read it and not just skim through it, hes interrupted. Of all displeasures and misfortunes: Tom gains company in the form of the Yank.

"Heya," He slides into the chair across from him, taking a look at the open page before Tom, "Looking at some family trees, Gat?" He leans on the table, elbows up and to the side, "Business or pleasure?"

He blinks, "...Business."

"Ahh, homework for History of Magic, then?" Please go away, "Or Divination? Are you taking Divination?"

"--No, I'm not." Next year perhaps, it would be easy to catch up, if what he hears about the class being hot air is true, “I’m just trying to prove something.” 

"Ah, gotcha." Adam nods once, "Find what you need yet?"

"Not at all, it's hard for me to concentrate with so many distractions--"

"Oh I understand that well. Real well. Everytime I'm trying to finish up some Potions work, my teammates want to jeer me into playing a game or something."

"Or try to carry a conversation?" Tom's smile is pained.

"Yeah, exactly!"

"Pity."

"Pity indeed." He chuckles, saying the words over again in varying English accents, to varying degrees of success, "It's great how y'all talk, so fancy. It's like everyone I speak to is a royal."

"...Actually, some would say my own accent is that of a lowborn, penniless urchin." He tests.

"Really? That's all wet." Adam shakes his head, "I get the same back home; been called every name in the book: hick, scrub, genius...Momma always tells me it's no shame to be poor--But it's certainly not a great honor, either.[4]" Adam chuckles stacking his two fists on the table and resting his chin atop, "Gran doesn't think so, though, I think she misses her cushy life with her parents before she was kicked out..." He shrugs, "I don't mind it, not having money. I have to work harder for the same things, but it makes the end result a lot more fun, y'know?"

"Fulfilling?" Tom offers, lamenting that he wants to carry a conversation with Adam.

He smiles, "Yeah. Fulfilling. Being at the top and knowing you earned it. That your blood, sweat, and tears brought you there. Not your name, not your daddy, not your daddy's money. Just you. You owe nothing to no one."

Tom tilts his chin forward, "Yes...That does sound ideal." Very American way of thinking to be fair, but Adam has the right spirit. A few fixes here and there, and he could have been worthy of Slytherin. Thank God he's not.

"Right? Bee's knees if you ask me." He sniffs, "Better than everyone trying to take advantage of you 'cause your great-grandfather was some kind of mongul."

"Better to be taken advantage of for who you are as a person?"

Adam chuffs, "You're sharp, Gat. I can see why people follow you."

Oh, how he does his very best not to preen, "Oh?"

"Some people...They can’t be bothered to use their peepers correctly, so they wait for someone to see for them...Gran calls them sheep, but I call ‘em twits.

Tom recalls Hedwig calling witches like that something much more vulgar.

"You've got good eyes on ya. Not satisfied with what they lay on, they gotta...They go deeper. Investigate. Don’t take stuff at face value. My old man’s like that too, we all look up to him in my town.” 

That’s nice, talk more about his leadership suitability, “I remind you of your father?” 

“Ehh, well, bits of him. He’s pragmatic, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like him. Folks keep telling him to run for mayor, but politics is ugly. He says people use it for selfish gain instead of progress.”

“He’s not wrong.” 

Adam smiles again, “Heh. Got that right. Made me think of you n’ your little posse...You guys are so different, yeah? Different apples from different orchards, but you’re working towards something...Something real.

Now if only Tom could know what exactly that something is.

“I think it helps that you’re not a little...What do you call them here? Clan brat?” Hedwig has also used much cruder phrases for that, “You know the dark underbelly of those up above us. The value of a hard day’s work.” 

It’s all but very upsetting that he finds himself agreeing with Adam, especially because it sounds like he’s relating himself to Tom’s experience.

“I didn’t have everything handed to me at a moment’s notice, no.” Everything he’s ever had has been hard fought. Everything ever taken away from him has had claw marks scratched into the surface, “No house and no blood has given me anything."

“I s’ppose that’s where we differ,” among other things, “momma’s family comes from money, and despite their estrangement, the town still treats her like she’s some kind of duchess.”

“Estrangement?” 

“Ah, you know,” Adam waves the question away, “I think the eggs here call it disowned in polite company...Gran didn’t want her to marry pops and, well--” he shakes his head, “Family drama. Everyone’s got it, even if they don’t think so.” Except Tom, of course, “Momma and Gran are pretty excited to establish my magical dynasty or whatever.” He phrases the word dynasty like it’s some kind of pipedream.  

“The first of House Miller, then?” 

“Ya, if I have any warlock sons to carry it on, and if momma has her way, I will.” He sighs, “I’m not even moved out of the house and she’s on about grandchildren...I think she’s been talking to gran too much.” 

“Your grandmother sounds like a formidable person.” A bitter, hard headed, formidable woman.

“Ya, you could say that.” He laughs softly, “She’s real invested in my education as a wiz...Sponsored my enrollment in Ilvermorny and everything. Wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for her.” 

Tom hums, itching to get to the point, “You’re the only Muggleborn there, right?” 

Officially.” He starts, and ends there because a prefect calls him away at just the perfect moment and Adam tells him that he's gotta run, and dares to give Tom a ruffle on his head, and ohh, he wants to hurt him. Come back this instant and tell him what in the hell he means by 'officially'. Stupid boy. Tom hmphs. Looks back down at the book before him like he was before he was rudely interrupted. Altair III begat Canopus begat Saiph IV begat...

.

The Riddles are probably a minor house, if within Britain (mayhaps his surname is actually spelt Riddel and the women attending his birth never sought to ask for a proper spelling?) He's imagined them as quiet, reserved sort of witches who lived in a refined, modestly sized manor. Tasteful and ungaudy. The interior, of course, would be bigger, with the help of an expansion charm. Extravagant. Not showing off their wealth, but certainly not hiding it either.

--But why should they hide it? Shouldn't they be proud of what they've accomplished and built? So what if others would clearly be jealous of their successes...So what if it attracted attention. People need to be aware of their betters. Be made conscious of them. The same way he's making himself known to the students of Hogwarts.

Why are they making it so hard to find them?

If he had to theorize, and believe him he has had to many times, then he'd say that the Riddles were probably a non-English clan, and therefore ten times as difficult to locate in recent history. If Evan's talk about Britain first expands to the other highbloods (and Tom knows it does), then it's only natural for a family as powerful as his to be quietly pushed to the side in favor of some lesser houses from England

There is also, of course, the possibility that his father gave his mother a fake surname to keep her from stalking him or giving their filthy half-blood child his name, but Tom doesn't like to think about that because if he focuses on it for longer than a few seconds, he starts to lose his breath.

Despite how it might appear, he's not at all obsessed with his lineage. He prioritizes his education and social standing before it, but that doesn't mean he doesn't often wonder...When he gives himself time to imagine his ancestral line, it's during downtime in classes (or more recently: during lunch when Elle and Ximena are chatting). Some days, the Riddles are descended from kings, and other times from more historically impactful people like war generals and prophets. Being king sounded appealing when he was a tot, but now that he's watching where real power lies, he thinks being a sort of royal advisor would be more suited to his tastes. The kind that influence families like the Blacks.

Blacks are practically wizarding royalty according to most everyone he speaks to, even the ones who don't particularly like them. It's nothing to do with some ancient wizard king (much to Tom's disappointment), and more to do with attitude and entitlement. He sees it even in the meeker Black members, from sixth year Dorea to little first year Orion. The former might not be the leader in Eric's group, but she doesn't allow herself to be treated the same way that other wizards are treated. Eric doesn't give her special treatment, but she doesn't make her lick her heel. Private humiliation is much different than public.

As for Orion, he's still a bit of a wildcard. Too early to tell. His older cousin, Walburga, seems to coddle him and keep him from talking to anyone outside of the family's immediate approval--Including Tom (he's lucky enough to speak to him during lunch or in the common room,) and in those few moments he's proven to be a bit of a milksop. The sort of child who would start crying if he didn't get his way. Unrefined, but still entitled. A better example would be Lucretia or Casseopeia, but he suspects the latter has to do with age (nevermind that Dorea is only a year younger than her) and the former due to a stricter upbringing.

Wizards, of course, don't officially carry titles bestowed by the Queen, as she is a Muggle and it would be uncouth. They used to be allowed, and even had personal titles specifically for wizards, Sigur[5], which would allow the noblemen in question a comfortable life including lands, a place in the King's court, serfs, and the ability to enact local laws. He's read that many prominent Pureblood families were quite angry to give up their rankings and such once the Statute of Secrecy was in place, and Evan tells him that many resorted to quietly taking control of their former lands via unethical methods--It's then that he learns of the second Unforgivable: The Imperius curse. 

Imperius. Commanding. Authority. Empire. Any other time, the words would spark excitement in him. But having spent so much time around highbloods makes him cautious; to be imperious is to be arrogant. Ruling without justification. And he has more than justification as to why he should be in charge of others. Something as tantalizing as the Imperius curse needs to be used sparingly...Not that he's planning on using it, his interest is purely academic. Just like his interest in Ximena. 

He studies the pages of Lucretia's book scrupulously, as if his life depended on finding his family name within the book (and he'll claim it does); eyes scanning attentively over every Ratian, Rosier, and Rowle. The family trees charted in the pages are more alike to mazes, and it’s a wonder any of them remember who their own mother is, much less who’s distantly related enough to them to be a marriage candidate (not that that really seems to matter to them). What fascinates him, particularly after Lucretia's little explanation as to why there were blanks in her family tree, is the absence of any titles at all. Compared to the public records in the Slytherin common room, which had every other witch titled some sort of way pre-statute. Did they erase the shameful ties to Muggle culture, or did they keep away from them even then?

...Did his father's family carry any titles? In the past, when it was allowed? Perhaps his Muggle mother, which is why his father even deigned to cast a glance in her direction...No no, what power would a Muggle hold that invites a Wizard's envy?

Then again, highbloods have proven themselves to be connoisseurs of idiocities. He doesn't understand it yet, but hopefully he'll never have to.

.

The library this week holds many treasures. First: his exchange with Lucretia, which has given him such a valuable key in his journey to finding his father; invaluable and fascinating as it is frustrating. He'd attempt a gemino on the book had he not the common sense to suspect that it was protected against that sort of thing…

Second: Adam and his cryptic, half-explanations that give way to more than meets the eye (as well as more raveled mysteries that serve nothing to untangle the threads around him). The only official Muggleborn in Ilvermorny? There’s substance behind that (he’ll bring it up with Hedwig later.)

The third is today: he runs into two of the more interesting upperclassmen, Yami and Mali, huddled together over...nothing. No open books, no parchment, not a single thing atop the shared table between them. They're just talking. It's not a particularly heated discussion, their voices aren't raised and their expressions remain even, but they're very close, on perpendicular sides. As if there wasn't already a silencio spell around them (and Tom knows there is because he has excellent hearing and his magic sensing has gotten much better), they protect their words with their own bodies and long curtains of hair. Could it be related to Yami's sister? Or some other equally elusive topic?

When he asks to sit at their table, they break apart easy enough, Mali looking curious and Yami contemplative. Mali tells him that it's a public table and anyone is free to sit, and how can he turn down that challenge? He thanks her with a smile and sits himself down across from the two of them, not asking about their conversation, but sprinkling questions about their midterms and who they think will win the House Cup. It is, of course, too early to tell for the latter, but both announce their high expectations for Slytherin on account of all this excellent publicity.

"Slughorn's on cloud nine." Mali says, chin resting on her hand, "It's almost like he hasn't been under serious investigations for the past few weeks."

Yami scoffs, "His upcoming Slug Club meeting is going to be his biggest, if his boasting rings true."

Right, the Slug Club, Tom's not old enough to attend yet, but the fool definitely has his sights set on him, "Professor Slughorn has always had a lackadaisical outlook on life--Are you two going?"

"Unfortunately." 

"You bet your sweet bippy, I am."

What's a bippy? No matter, it's probably nonsense, "I envy you both, they sound like...excellent unwinding methods after midterms."

"Really? They sound like a regular gatherin' for jerks to me." Mali chuckles, and Yami does not deny it, "I keep hearing weird reassurances from others that I won't be the only...What's that phrase they like to use, Yami? Color girl?"

The Slytherin prefect looks heavily displeased, "There are many terms."

Tom doesn't doubt it, "What an odd thing to say." Not at all, actually, it's per the norm and expected from that group at this point, "I'm sure they mean well." Which, unfortunately, makes it worse.

"Oh yes yes, they all mean well." Mali sighs, and Tom's not sure she's still just talking about the student body, "What I would do with all these well meanin' feelings."

Yami hmphs again, but this time, she sounds amused, "Just because they mean well, doesn't mean they mean well to us...I believe we are all sorely lucky that Lane is smart enough to stay away from the gatherings."

"Oh sweet Gods above," Mali laughs, hand slamming on the table, causing Tom to not jump, "Can you imagine? All those little assholes crowding around her trying to get into her good graces and ohhh Lane! You are simply so polite for a little dirty urchin girl, are you suuuuure you weren't raised by filthy, disgusting Muggles?" Her voice contorts and changes with her dramatic imitation, attracting looks from a few passing students, "Ooooh Lane! You're so pretty for a plain little brown girl! May I suggest some lovely skin lightening cream from Madame Gardenia's Boutique[3] on Diagon Alley?"

When Yami hides her mouth, he notices that she's deeply amused, but it's tinted with something else. A tiredness or a familiarity to Mali's jests. Tom, not quite knowing his place within the joke, allows a concerned look to filter through his features--It would feel too wrong to laugh with the two of them.

"Aww, don't look so sad there, Tom." Mali reassures, voice returning to normal, "They mean well."

Point taken.

"Understood...As it is, it feels like everyone is adopting vulture characteristics when it comes to Ximena, it shouldn't need to be concentrated." Definitely not.

"You're damn right--It's a fucking web of spiders, isn't it, Yami? How many of these have you been to?"

"Too many." She concedes, rubbing the side of her temple, "About...six or eight a year since my third year."

Tom blinks, "Third years aren't allowed at the private parties, though, are they?"

"They are if they're rich." Yami corrects, her gold bangles jingling, "Or the current Hogwarts Student of the hour." 

He presses his lips into a thin line, he hasn't even been invited yet. "Ximena's been invited?" 

Yami looks at Mali, defecting. Mali shrugs, "So I've been told."

That's...unfortunately not altogether ridiculous. Slughorn had zero idea who Ximena was before this whole incident, and now that she's temporarily popular (outside of the student body), well, it'll only be natural for her to show up at one of his little gatherings. Claim mentorship over her and her good deeds...It's just like him. Smart bastard. If he were Slughorn, Tom would do the same. Show her off like a pretty little ring or a prized racehorse to a gawking audience wanting to bask in the glow or profit off the wins. He shifts his weight to the balls of his feet, "I presume she's not going?" That would be the day.

"My baby viper? Please." Mali chuckles, "We all know she'd rather hermit her little butt in some cobweb stricken corner of this castle than speak to people." Well little is the last thing Tom would call Ximena, but details--Such as Mali's use of all instead of both.

He clears his throat, hoping, waiting for Yami to chime in with her piece...How does she know Ximena? Just a year ago it felt like she wanted to avoid her at all costs...What did Yami say about her? She is shrouded in a veil of...of what? 

But Yami just hums, and comments nothing. Typical.

"But it'll pass, fame is ever fleeting--especially among you freaks." Mali snorts, "My first two weeks here, you'd think I was Josephine Baker--Boys n' girls fawning over me like I was made of candy." Yes, his ex-mentor in particular, "And now I'm lucky if anyone dares to look me in the eye."

"Is that a bad thing?" She sounds like she quite enjoys it.

"Not at all; it helps me know who's worth speaking to."

The shared eye contact pleases him, "And...your house is being amicable to you, right?"

"Civil, yeah; I think they're still off put by how impolite I can be."

"Impolite is an awfully light way of phrasing it." Yami threads her fingers together on the table, bitter or teasing. Tom's not sure.

"Impolite is how they phrased it, so I'm just repeatin'. Hufflepuff gossip isn't very malicious, you know...Speaking of, these days, I hear you're an honorary badger, little snake." Mali smiles the way Tom imagines a loving older sister would. It makes him uncomfortable.

"Hufflepuff has been very hospitable to me since gaining Elle as a Puff." His reply, carefully neutral, is given as he folds his hands in his lap, giving a little nod in confirmation.

"Since the trial, I've noticed how much more friendly everyone is to each other. It's lovely." He gauges the reactions of the older girls: Yami hums and stays silent, but Mali responds almost immediately.

"It's not very harmonious, but it's way closer than it was when I first arrived here. Soon you will all be holding hands and singing songs and wondering why you all hated each other in the first place."

Tom wouldn't go that far, "You really think the houses could unite under one banner for the sake of unity?" Specifically his banner?

"I mean, if there was a war that reached Hogwarts, sure." Mali ponders, and Tom tries not to get too mad at the hypothetical concept of any battles raging within Hogwarts, "But without a common cause, everyone's too afraid of change here, it's kinda pathetic." He agrees.

"People like what is comfortable." If he didn't know any better, he'd say Yami almost sounded defensive, "They don't want to be challenged." He decides that she's simply trying to spur a discussion.

"Do you think Slytherin will ever bend enough to consort with the other houses?" Tom prompts his two seniors.

"If it served them somehow, sure." Mali clicks her nails on the tabletop, "Like how everyone is tripping over themselves to come off as perfect little light-magic attuned angels."

Yami shrugs, indifferent, "Perhaps. It would negate the need for Puffs, but I suspect the tradition will continue for the sake of tradition."

"...Why do we have Puffs?"

"It's political: Slytherins have a reputation of being too reactionary, and Hufflepuffs have one of being fair and docile." Yami answers as if she's had to answer this question before.

"It's the same reason dictators take domestic, well-liked women as wives: they want the people to trust them more easily--They can't be all bad if they married a saint." Mali agrees, resting her chin on the back of her hand, "Not that all you little snakes are as diabolical as Signore Mussolini or Herr Hitler...I know for a fact a bunch of you love your Puff as you would family." Tom is...fond of Elle, as one is fond of a nice plant they picked out for their kitchen windowsill. He supposes if he was born with siblings, the affection would be similar. "But that's a reason parents encourage their precious lil' heirs to find badgers. Real bonds and friendships be damned."

He clears his throat, "How cynical."

"It's the world we live in." Yami states, not looking like she feels a particular way about her words, "Helga and Salazar's close friendship has been marred into a political tactic. I'm sure you noticed how many of our housemates have bragged about their Puff's reputation."

"Even us Puffs are in on it," Mali winks, and Tom's not entirely sure she's joking. Yami's only reaction is to roll her eyes, "Someone told me God promised us the earth, but so far all we've been given is the Hufflepuff common room[6]."

"It's hard to envision you as someone meek, Mali." Tom comments, and does not at all mean it as an insult. Mali is a special case within Hufflepuff.

"Aw, you sweet talker, you." Mali waves him off, as if she were actually flustered with his compliment, "My little viper sure is lucky, isn't she?"

Yami coughs, though to his ears it sounds like she was covering up a huff of laughter. Mali simply continues, "Us badgers are multifaceted. People think just because there's been almost no dark wizards in our house that we can't possibly be vicious, but they seem to forget that the majority of us go into politics." He questions whether Mali came to these conclusions on her own or if she was lectured on them by experienced Hufflepuffs.

Tom looks to Yami for confirmation. She nods, "Not to imply that politicians are as vile as dark wizards but..." she makes an open, unsure gesture with her hand, "...they certainly end up with more stability in their power than dark lords do."

He thinks he'd die of boredom if he were a politician, "Isn't fear the better way of keeping control?"

Perhaps he should have known better than to have asked that of the two girls, because now they're looking at him with gazes he can't quite describe. They don't know him nearly well enough to be certain of what his intentions are, but they certainly aren't stupid.

"Fear helps." Mali admits, finally, "But it can only go so far."

"The real power is love." Yami confirms, looking dissatisfied, "Love condones a lot of atrocities."

.

The elegant pathways of the Black family tree knot and flow so far that Tom begins thinking they rival the length of the roads that Rome built. He feels entangled in the menage's annals, even if they're more than fifty years old. Whenever he sees the charred mark of a missing name, he begins to wonder what happened. Did they run away? Marry wrong? Had the gall to be born without magic? It's akin to reading a melodramatic novel (and believe him, there's plenty of those available in the matron's office back at Wool's), and the more he overthinks about what could have happened, the more he worries that the reason the person was expelled from the bloodline was because they married into his family: an unworthy family. 

It's an excellent distraction from Ximena. Until it's not.

The thought of her but not her herself is always lingering in the back of his head. Like a silent ghost. Behind corners, under covers, above rafters. A slowly simmering pot. An oven left on. A pile of embers. It doesn't hurt him to think of her, but it doesn't aid him in any way either other than to make him sulk mildly irritated. Annoyed. 

He tells himself she's on his mind because he's simply looking out for any surnames that could be attributed to her (he writes them down alongside his other notes on the names that sound like they could have morphed into Riddle), but it doesn't explain why she remains on his mind after he places the book away. 

Seeing her out and about, being social with others, talking with those outside of Slytherin and outside of his influence actually (absurdly) causes a physical reaction within him, starting in his arms and tingling to his shoulders and breast. It picks at him there. Digs into his chest to hollow it out--For what reason, he's not sure, but he doesn't like it. It's like having a raven pick at his carcass, stripping meat off his ribcage slowly. What the hell is this? A rebound of withholding the bracelet from her? Yes, a sort of curse that's attached itself to him. Trying to make him feel things like guilt and remorse. Is that aiding in keeping her away from him? Keeping the anger fed. Yes. It's not at all the fact that what he did was horrible or uncalled for, it's just some sort of foreign magic keeping her cold to him. It's not any kind of culpability or contrition that's making him feel this way either. That's absurd. He doesn't know the meaning of those words. If he didn't feel bad at taking away the little trinkets and mementos from his fellow orphans, why would he feel it at keeping one away from Ximena of all people? Because she's a witch? Gained his favor?

Ridiculous.

He does his best to keep himself composed whenever she and Elle set about ignoring him, and thus far, the best strategy (aside from ignoring them right back) is to daydream plot about how nice it'll be once Ximena starts talking to him again. If her stubbornness continues as strong as it is, he estimates it'll be about January before that happens (or February, at worst). And when it does, he'll catch up on all that he's missed in the conversations they didn't have: thoughts on their classmates and politics (including how silly it is that people think they're promised), the current events plaguing the Muggle world, and most importantly: the very happening that lead to his keeping of her bracelet no longer a secret. How does she feel about Ian's punishment? Her own court-ordered sanctions that have surely already shown their detriment in her education and daily life?

The problem with this strategy is that oftentimes he's so invested in his thoughts that he misses them leaving or excusing themselves to go elsewhere, either separately or together.

When finally, he has the right timing, and the proper luck, he runs into his Puff and housemate on their way to the kitchens, he's practically elated. Practically, though, not actually. He knows how to act.

Elle greets him with a sweet hello, accompanied by a sudden little swirl of what he interprets as her magic being happy to see him. Ximena gives him cold indifference, reining in her magic even further. He doesn't wince. He knows how to suffer in silence. Instead, Tom pips up about where are they going and oh they're headed to the kitchens too--What a proper coincidence, can he join them? There's no doubt that Ximena would have said no, but luckily all she does is frown when Elle accepts his inquiry. So she hasn't told her about her issues with him...That's good. Maybe he can gain some kind of insight from his Puff (not that she knows Ximena better than him, that's impossible), because people keep telling him that women are mad or from another planet or function on an entirely different physiology than men, and while he's experienced little to prove it, isn't it worth a small shot?

In the kitchens, he sits at a table, at a respectful enough distance, on a stool: legs swinging. Chewing on some fresh persimmons the house elves handed to him when he answered 'a bit' to their inquiries of his state of hunger. His Puff and silent housemate are preparing something Elle calls biały.

"Do you have any plans for Christmas?"

"Nothing outside of the usual: it's always a lonely winter back home, but I've grown used to it."

"I apologize; I would happily invite you back home for the holidays, but..."

"It's okay! I understand." Ximena sounds almost afraid that she's offended Elle somehow, and it doesn't surprise him anymore because the two always act like they're in a competition to be the most considerate and accommodating. Elle, as a Hufflepuff, she can understand, but he's never seen Ximena act so attentive. Towards anyone. He doesn't like it. Elle isn't even her Puff! She's his! She has her own!

The two continue their prep whilst asking one another about their winter traditions, and Tom (fortunately) learns much about Ximena in the process. Such as her brief stint of rebellion as an Anglican ('The Abbess was horrified!') In turn, Elle shares the story of her Catholic grandmother who was outraged with her sons' decision to walk out with two Jewish girls ('We don't talk to that side of the family much.') And Ximena outwardly wonders about how her guardian would react upon thinking she was even considering marrying outside the faith (he does not perk up at this). 

"The one at your trial? She seemed understanding."

"At times." She sets aside some garlic for later mincing, "But mostly she's strict. She's in charge of my lessons back home, and she doesn't accept anything less than perfection."

Lucky. Nobody ever challenged Tom at Wool's or kept him on his toes; he was in charge of his own education and drive--Though he supposes he's better off for it, then. Are nuns allowed to adopt? Ximena's guardian continues to be ideal...Now if only he could find out if she's a witch.

“Very fitting of her stereotype.”  Elle chuckles, “What was she before she became a nun?"

A pause, "I've never asked." Her face would probably be beet red if her skin was as light as his, "It's...It's just never come up."

His Puff gives a sympathetic hum, "Probably a past she preferred to forget." 

The regret immediately sinks into her as soon as the words leave her mouth, because then her face goes beet red and she begins to stutter and slip over a new topic to bring up--In haste, she grabs one of the onions set aside, and begins chopping haphazardly, "I--I hate chopping onions, it's such a bother heating up the knife before cutting them." Elle laughs nervously, not realizing she hadn't washed the vegetable.

"Try instead, putting a piece of the onion on the crown of your head to keep from crying[7]." Ximena suggests (eager for the subject change), displaying her technique by placing a quarter of the purple onion on her head like a coronet.

"Really?" The older girl takes great interest in the information, watching Ximena dice the remaining onion so finely without any sign of tears, "Who taught you that?"

The sudden pause in chopping alerts Tom to something amiss: Ximena freezes, her face contorting into one of puzzlement and deep thought. She presses her lips together tightly, "...I don't know." The hemisphere falls from her head, thumping against the wooden block, "I don't know." Her voice breaks, stance wobbles, shoulders shake. Tom's not surprised when she starts sniffling, but he is surprised over the reason.

Elle is hesitant to touch her, but when she does, it is gentle and matronly: a gentle hand to her back and shoulder.

When he sleeps that night, he dreams of the event again. And Ximena's tears spill all over the kitchen floor, rising. Rising. Past his ankles and knees and stomach and shoulders. It feels as if he's being buried in sand. When the sun ascends to dry the pool, mounds of salt remain, and Elle sweeps it all up in a burlap sack and uses it to cook a feast. To season fantastic, superb, delectable dishes from lands far and foreign to England. When Tom eats them, he's enamoured. He cannot stop eating. He too, feels like crying.

Chapter Text

This week's sweets package has two more biscuits than Eric's, so if that's not proof that mum prefers her, then nothing is. They're even her favorite, complete with a jar of the special jam that Cook makes custom just for her. 

Hedwig eats them contently, saving a few for her Puff.

Across the table, Lestrange is talking to Tom about politics. As much as he knows about it anyways, his family is a bunch of useless airheads. Only still relevant thanks to money and who their children marry. She'd say similar of the Blacks, but at least their kind haven't made it onto her personal shit list. Tom's still on it, despite their tentative friendship, because he's a bastard. But that's why Hedwig likes him. He's got balls. Even if he is hopeless in some ways. Like with Lane. She's debated before about disclosing some of their conversations with him (if one could call them conversations), but he deserves to suffer a little. Probably. Boys are usually guilty of something. That's something that Eric is actually right about. She says as much to the mousey witch during mornings in the Slytherin girls' bathroom. Lane usually brushes off comments made to her (particular if they involve her personal life), but somehow always seems to take Eric's advice with a grain of salt.

Hedwig wonders if perhaps Lane prefers Eric over her.

She steals rashers from Nemesis' plate and ignores her protests, "Girl Rosier and you were chatting about going on diets the other day, did ya change your mind?"

Nemesis gives her best disappointed expression, looking like a peeved kitten, "You know she doesn't like it when you call her that."

"She can get fucked." Girl Rosier loves their arguments, no one can tell her otherwise, "You don't need to lose weight, you're twelve."

A blush, "Thank you, Hedwig, stop stealing my breakfast."

She steals from Tom's plate. His glare is more convincing, but Hedwig's desire to bother is stronger.

"Hedwig."

"Tom."

"Fawley might not need a diet, Hedwig, but perhaps you'd might consider--"

"Good to fucking know your big ears aren't just for show, Lestrange, how about I stretch them out further so you can hear across Scotland?"

The table snickers, as they should. Lestrange, the little weasel that he is, is about to retaliate before Tom gives him a look. Pathetic. Like a cowering dog.

"Katux, don't escalate this." He's really mastered that disappointed father tone, Hedwig feels bad for his future children, poor bastards.

Lestrange harrumphs and goes back to his beans and toast. Nemesis stops tensing. She'll expire from nerves, that girl, she needs to learn how to stop giving care to lesser beings. And Lestrange, well, he just needs to stop pissing her off.

"Well," Nemesis baps at her mouth with a napkin, getting up, "I must be going, I have a meeting with my Herbology partner...Hedwig, I'll see you later today?"

She waves her off dismissively, mood ruined by Lestrange's ugly face, "Ya, fine."

Tom, the nosy brat, inquires as to what the two of them are up to.

"Mind your fucking business."

"Oh, just girl things, Tom."

Neither of the answers satisfies him, but they don't live to please him so he can kiss her ass. Nemesis makes her exit, and Hedwig occupies the rest of breakfast with finding someone new to steal rashers from--Ah! Mulcifer! He's a pushover, he'll probably let her steal his jam too.

He does.

-

The polished walls of the girl's bathroom in the Slytherin dormitories are becoming more and more familiar. Previously, Hedwig had only been in the room during early mornings and late evenings, when the Slytherin girls would get ready for the day and prepare for slumber. How was she supposed to know that it was active during other times of day? What else is there to do in a bathroom? Lots, apparently. She's seen girls younger and older than her practice potions for ease of clean up and rehearse for choir thanks to the pleasant echo provided by the room. During free periods and weekends, there'll be fifteen, thirty girls at a time soaking in the big tub for a relaxing spa day. Even little meetings between girls regarding their lives happen here. It's safer to gossip and discuss nonsense when there's no boys around, especially if the nonsense you're discussing is your planned elopement with a half-blood. Disgusting. The things these girls get up to. At least run off with a poor pureblood. Respect yourself.

As for Hedwig, she finds herself in the bathrooms chatting with Nemesis and Lane.

It was Nemesis' idea, really, being Lane's friend. Or at least friend-adjacent. Even the students closest to Lane look like they have a six-meter pole separating them at the best of times--Tom included. Actually, in the time she's been hanging around Lane, she's never once mentioned her supposed intended. And if Hedwig were some kind of empty-headed fuckwad, she'd assume it was because of proper conduct regarding courting protocols, but she's not Cygnus, so she knows they're not actually in the midst of courtship. She suspects that Tom fucked up somehow and got her mad because whenever she sees them together, they're separated by another student. That, and Tom always looks like he was cheated out of something. Whatever it was he did, he probably deserves it. Hedwig's bet is on the bracelet itself: she'd be pissed off too if someone made everyone believe she accepted an offer to be wooed. Ugh.

"Do you have plans for the holidays, Lane? Father and Mother instructed me to ask you and Tom over as guests of honor." Hedwig almost scoffs. Does Nemesis actually think she's the first the only to give out this proposition to Lane? Eric herself had just done so earlier this week, explaining that both Mum and Dad would enjoy the pleasure of her company again. Hag.

Lane hesitates, "Thank you, but I'll decline. I was hoping just to spend a quiet two weeks at home, but..."

"Ya been getting lots of formal invites for winter holidays, haven't you?"

"From everyone, yes." Heh. She can see the jealousy on Tom's face now, as clearly as she can see annoyance on Lane's, "People I haven't even spoken to are offering me a place to spend Yule. Or Modranicht. Or the New Year."

"Leeches."

"Hedwig!

She sticks her tongue out at Nemesis. 

"--It's a great honor, I assure you, Lane. These families, they just want to learn about you and meet you because of what you did for Slytherin house." 

Hedwig rolls her eyes. Nemesis pinches her. Bitch.

Lane presses her lips into a thin line, "Maybe...Maybe some of them are. But I don't trust that they all have the best of intentions." Smart girl. But she wouldn't be in Slytherin if she wasn't.

Nemesis, despite herself, doesn't try to protest Lane's suspicions. She knows better. Rather than try to say that Lane is overreacting, she shares a look with Hedwig. Hedwig cocks a brow before silently agreeing. Nemesis opens her mouth to speak again, "Lane, if you'd like, we can help. Hedwig and I know the ins and outs of these families well...We've spent many holidays among their children and heads, so it would be fairly easy to try and deduce which ones mean to try and...take advantage of the situation."

"Like the Yaxleys, for example," Hedwig points a finger out and wags it knowingly, "Feckers are definitely out to see what else you can do. If you can be used as a front for a few other accidents."

"Selwyns are mostly harmless, but they are social climbers. They'll want to put you in front of cameras and take you out in public places to be seen with you." Nemesis adds.

"Macmillans are half-badgers, so they're fully-fucking-harmless, but if you're not careful, they might end up adopting you. You don't look like a Ximena Macmillan."

"And the Flints are half-falcons, they'll scrutinize you before deciding if they want to publically align to whatever cause you're championing."

"Fawley here is safe, but her sisters are annoying as shit--" Nemesis pinches her again, "--fuck."

"My sisters are lovely and well-behaved, and Father and Mother would love to have you, Lane."

Lane seems overwhelmed with the information, but Hedwig can tell she's listening. She has to, her survival depends on it. A witch doesn't spend three years with Slytherins without learning a thing or two, but it's impossible for Lane to know all that she and Nemesis do. All those years going to parties and weddings and playdates...The very least they could do for their fellow snake is set her up for success. Dress her up in armor before going out to battle. Letting her know the supplies she'll need and what the enemy has in their arsenal. That's just logistics. 

Their informational chatter echoes through the Slytherin girls' bathroom for the rest of the afternoon.

-

Hedwig rarely, if ever, speaks to her sister during school. There's a sort of strange, fucked up understanding between them where they pretend the other doesn't exist unless absolutely necessary. Not for lack or love, but because there isn't anything to communicate. Whatever their parents send in their letters will be told to both if important, they have different curriculums, and have completely different social circles. Hedwig can't even name half of the girls in Eric's retinue, though a part of that is because she finds them tiresome at best. In short, much of her elder sister's life remains a mystery. But she knows the important bits. Her weaknesses, where she falls short, her political aspirations...And likewise, Eric knows the same about Hedwig.  Maybe when Hedwig was younger she would have wanted a real bond with her sister. Something warm and loving. Playful. But the hope was bled out of her fast enough. Eric and she are sisters only in water. Not in blood.

This is why it's easy to tolerate Nemesis: they share an understanding only sisters can hold. Specifically youngest sisters. Granted, Hedwig doesn't have whatever inferiority complex Nemesis has (poor chit), but she does live in a shadow of sorts. And her family does like to play favorites.

She just wishes Nemesis was quicker in growing a pair. All this dancing around subjects is irritating. Like she's afraid of offending someone or stepping on toes. A waif edging around a pool of water, afraid of getting wet.

The entire walk back to the common room at the end of the day is mostly quiet save for little observations being given by Tom about Dueling Club this week (not a peep out of Nemesis). He expects to be treated like glass at his return, and Hedwig can tell he's eager to show he's not a complete welp. As relatable as the feeling is, she wants to take him down a peg, and hopes that Willow will pit them against each other. If anything, it'll be a good fight. Tom won't underestimate her, and he'll certainly won't go easy on her. He's smarter than that.

Hedwig eyes the blonde besides her. Elbows her not so subtly (Rosier snorts), and gestures to their glorious leader. Finally, Nemesis timidly invites Tom to the Fawley winter home for Modranicht and Tom declines, stating that perhaps he'd take up her offer for Eostre holiday instead. Hedwig asks what kind of other offers he'd gotten since the trial, and the baby-faced sonofabitch stays tight lipped about it. So be it. She'll find out anyways. Mainly because Rosier doesn't know how to keep his stupid mouth shut. 

At the fork in the common room, the group splits, bidding each other a good night. After a few paces up the stairs, out of hearing range, Hedwig finally speaks. "Why don't you tell him you also invited Lane?"

"...There's no guarantee she's coming. She said she'd think about it." She turns to her, "Why didn't you tell him I invited her?" Ah yes, that does seem like the type of shit she'd pull just to tease him when he immediately changes his mind. It's also the type of shit that would immediately hurt Nemesis' feelings. Sensitive idiot.

"His crush is annoying. He needs to start making more decisions for his own merit rather than on the basis on whether Lane's involved." Hedwig hums, "If she's smart, she'll accept your offer. Or the Averys. My money's on Avery, though." The heir sniffs around her too much otherwise. Not to mention Colin Avery's the one who represented her in trial. That's a big stone to weigh over a young girl's head.

Nemesis twiddles her fingers, "I'm worried about her. She doesn't know anything about what she's gotten into...No frame of reference for our customs or histories...She'll be eaten alive."

"Are we talking about the same witch?" Hedwig holds her hands akimbo, "I know she's as meek as a churchmouse, but didn't you tell me about how she held her own in front of the Wizengamot?"

"That was different. She was coached."

"Well she's being coached by us now, so she actually has a fucking chance." Hedwig also saw her talking to Acarya in passing, and that can only aid her. "Why're you so worried over her anyways? You two bosom buddies now?"

Nemesis frowns, "It's the right thing to do."

"Pfft. Your Hufflepuff is showing." She shakes her head, "For what it's worth, Tom likes her because she's her own person. Not because she does what she's supposed to."

"I--I don't know what you--"

"Don't insult my intelligence. You're nice, it's in your blood and you can't help it, but I know what you're doing. Don't imitate her."

For whatever reason her last words make Nemesis freeze up instantly. As if she had cast a full-body bind spell instead. Ouch. Hit a personal nerve, then? Maybe the lass has a Lane wig somewhere in her trunk that she puts on to play pretend. Ha.

"Tom likes you best when you speak your mind. Not when you follow tradition. Just an observation." An obvious one. He doesn't like it when people go against him, but he admires will. He likes things that are Special. Hedwig can relate, "He might play pureblood, but his tastes are common...In a good way."

She leaves Nemesis on the stairs, the latter lost in thought.

<