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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. What was he trying to imply?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fawkes trilled again, pulling me from my reminiscing.

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

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

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


I woke to find familiar blue eyes glaring at me.

“Aberforth,” I rasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fawkes trilled softly.

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

I nodded meekly.

Seeing my compliance, his gaze turned suspicious.

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

“No, no, I am not,” I assured him.

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

Slughorn had asked me what I would change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you pick this year?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It won’t happen again,” I promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he promptly fainted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He heals fast,” I murmured.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is Father Sebastian?” Aberforth asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tom?” I called him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about me?” I asked.

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

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

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


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

“He likes you,” I remarked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at him,” murmured Aberforth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Talented,” I remarked.

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

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

“Were you caned often?” I asked quietly.

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

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

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

He flushed before dropping his eyes to the floor.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Text

“You cast the charm?” Aberforth demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the boy was right not to trust me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not a goat,” Tom pointed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother was buried there. Ariana was buried there.

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

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

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

He said politely, “Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you need a wand to do magic?”

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

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

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

I racked my brains for a suitable example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet,” Tom replied calmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is confident,” Aberforth admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Albus!” Aberforth hissed.

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

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

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

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

I did not reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would have the boy eating out of my hand soon enough. Then, he would trust me and I would learn his secrets. Aberforth’s cough punctured my little balloon of hope.

“The two of you will behave,” Aberforth commanded. “Albus, you are not to frighten the boy with your amateur skills at magical ventriloquism. Projecting your voice from the attic-walls, indeed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom bristled near imperceptibly when he was classified into the category of little children. However, he nodded politely and promised Aberforth that he would listen to my instructions while in Diagon Alley. Tom had an innate knack for pulling off subservience when it suited him to be obedient. I snorted at his fine act and turned my attention to the cookbook Aberforth had given me. A little voice in my mind reminded me of the benefit of doubt. I sighed.

After two Cleaning Charms, Tom’s resemblance to a brown fairy was considerably reduced. With a swig of the Polyjuice Potion, I turned into an unremarkable wizard with mousy brown hair, drooping eyebrows and beady, brown eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I conceded the round to Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t we use a normal tape, please?”

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

“A normal tape?”

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

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

“Certainly,” I agreed.

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

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

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

Tom blinked.

“It solves everything,” I promised him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” Tom said shakily.

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

“Whatever you are having.”

“Two Specials, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sigh broke me from my musings.

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

I looked at him quizzically.

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

“It is melting,” I warned him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well,” I acceded.

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

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

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

The old house creaked and Tom immediately shot a suspicious glance at me. I resisted the urge to bury my head in my hands. Dear Alastor had nothing on Tom when it came to true paranoia.


External source text: Si Bheag, Si Mhor is available with a rough translation at It is a hauntingly lovely song, just like most of Corolan’s works.


Chapter Text

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


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

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

Today was no different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. Then I remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can dress plainly,” I protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on, then,” I waved him off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom took a deep breath and nodded.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“I am not protective,” I muttered.


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

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

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

“How else will I trust him?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring your books in,” I reminded him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was home.

External text source
1. Scarborough Fair :
2. Sea Shanty:

Chapter Text

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

Warnings: Violence.



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

Fawkes had not still turned up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

What was he hiding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Decorations!” I ordered them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Here, stir this, will you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lie, he said. Lie for Abe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lemon-drop?” asked my companion.



External Source Text:
Biancani’s famous sundial technique –
Jerusalem -

Chapter Text

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



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

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

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

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

I needed an alliance.

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

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

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

“I sent Ollivander.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freak, they had labelled the boy.

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

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

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

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

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

I had felt the same. Aberforth had not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grindelwald,” I said.

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

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

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

He narrowed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The boy,” I pressed on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have warped the flow of time,” Castle Albus said thoughtfully. His eyes were not twinkling now. “It will be futile to use old markers to measure new lengths. I will choose caution over action for now. I shall look into the boy’s mind. What I see, I shall keep to myself. For now. Yet if in the future I see him acting upon the darkness emanating from his mind, then-”

“I understand,” I said quickly, trying and failing to hide my doubt under a veneer of calm.

“Protection,” he said. “A Ministry-vetted identity. I will see what I can do. I am going to the Mysteries Department now. You will wait here.”

Waiting was not, had never been, one of my strong suits. That week, with only the snow and the sepulchral creaking of the old house for company, I was slowly being driven out of my wits. Castle Albus did not deem it a prime concern to update me about Aberforth’s trial or Tom’s status or Ollivander’s condition.

Christmas Eve saw me dolefully standing by the hearth and glaring at the broken angel figurine. Its blue eyes remained distant and accusing.

Crisp knocking broke me from my dreary thoughts. Shooting the angel one last glare, I swept around and made for the front-door.

I opened it to find myself facing Hyperion Malfoy. His dramatic widow’s peak and rapidly thinning once-luxurious mane lent his pale features a distinctly cadaverous look. I had only seen him once or twice before at the Ministry. Now clad in fine robes of green silk and clutching a scroll, he was peering at me myopically. Of course, he would consider a monocle beneath his elegance.

“Mr. Percival Dumbledore?” he asked in a high, quavering voice.

Had Castle Albus a hand in this? Keeping my suspicions off my features, weighing a hundred possibilities in my mind, I nodded assent and asked, “You have the advantage of me, good sir.”

“Hyperion Malfoy,” he replied. His eyes were quickly darting to and fro, taking in the yard and whatever he could see of the house over my shoulder. A faint scowl marred his features before he schooled into aristocratic blandness. “I was visiting a chum in the Department of Mysteries.” He was greasing their hands with bribe, no doubt. He continued, “I have been told to give you this by young Riddle.”

He extended the scroll.

Casting him a wary glance, I took the proffered scroll and unfurled it.

A hike in the import duty on Magical Carpets would considerably hamper...

“Blood-magic, I am afraid,” Hyperion Malfoy deigned to explain with a smirk. “It would not have passed the Security otherwise. They are being cautious, unusually so, given that they believe they are keeping the next Dark Lord in their department.”

Of all the people whom Tom could have met in that Unspeakable pit, it had to be Hyperion Malfoy who excelled at blood-magic whom he trusted with a scroll. What had he done to impress Malfoy? For the man was impressed, unduly so, since he had lowered himself to deliver a message. Was this the first seed sown to raise a dark army?

I made a small cut on my palm with my wand, let a drop of blood drip onto the parchment and healed my palm. The observations on the import duty placed on Magical Carpets vanished leaving behind a sentence in the cramped cursive of Tom Riddle.

Am I a Lilliputian in a man’s world or a man in Lilliput?

Gulliver’s Travels. The little imp. The little, clever imp. I could well visualise the Ministry as Lilliput, and the Minister as the ridiculous Emperor. I could also see in my mind’s eye the boy’s puckish half-smile.

“He looked exceptionally pleased with himself,” Malfoy said curiously. He was too well-bred to outright ask about the contents.

“It is a reference from a Muggle novel,” I said smugly, delighting in Malfoy’s displeased scowl.

“Muggle?” he demanded.

“Didn’t he tell you, then?” I asked. Had the boy done some grandstanding or the other about his mysterious wizarding lineage?

“I didn’t ask,” Malfoy muttered. “He is only a frightened child.”

“Frightened?” I asked. Panic and disbelief fought for precedence. Tom, frightened? I tried not to think about the state I had found him in when I had followed his wild magic to the playground.

“Yes,” he said. His eyes softened and he continued hastily, “He is fine. New surroundings and new people unsettled him. My son is the same. They all are.”

The son. Abraxas. The child of Hyperion’s waning years. The same age as Tom. That explained why Malfoy had deigned to act messenger without bothering to ask about blood purity. Though, I would not put it past him to assume that all budding Dark Lords were compulsorily of pure wizarding lineage.

However, this was an opportunity. Malfoys rarely had Achilles’s heels, being the self-absorbed creatures they were.

“My cousin is working on fetching him home,” I said quietly, taking care to trace Tom’s cursive with appropriate wistfulness. “It is the boy’s first Christmas away from that horrid orphanage.”

Malfoy looked conflicted. Then he cleared his throat and said briskly, “The Wizengamot is closed for the holidays. I expect they shall convene to hear your brother’s charges and decide on the boy’s future only after the New Year.”

My knuckles tightened on the scroll and I turned half-way to look at the Christmas tree. Malfoy cleared his throat again and said, “Such a charming boy. Polite and clever. The Ministry are being idiots. If you hadn’t told me otherwise, Mr. Dumbledore, I would have assumed your cousin has had a hand in stalling the boy’s discharge from the Mysteries Department.”

“He was justifiably worried by the boy’s actions,” I demurred. “He works so hard to protect us from the darkness.”

That last line probably exceeded the limits of acceptable exaggeration. Malfoy looked dubious.

“Tom made the sundial,” I digressed. “He is a very clever boy, sir.”

“I know,” Malfoy said. He was being truthful, I realised. This was not the usual flattery one expected from a Malfoy. “Your boy will be home for his birthday, Mr. Dumbledore.”


Of course. The boy had been born on New Year’s Eve. I had forgotten all about that.

Malfoy offered me a wan smile, and said, “It must be a nightmare.”

Aberforth was in Azkaban. Tom, Malfoy had told me, had been frightened by whatever was happening in the Department of Mysteries. Ollivander might not survive. I was stuck in this house with the ghosts. Castle Albus was an unknown card in the game that could make or break us. Now, on Christmas Eve, there was a balding Malfoy on my doorstep trying to empathise. Perhaps this was his one good deed for the year. Yes, it was a nightmare.

“I will take some of my son’s storybooks with me the next time I pop into the Ministry,” Malfoy said.

Tom did not like wizarding books because of the moving pictures. The sort of books Malfoy children read were certainly likely to involve moving pictures to an unacceptable degree, if only because the publishers embellished with artwork custom copies of children’s books ordered by the cream of society.

“If you give me a second,” I told Malfoy, “I shall get some of his books.”

I retrieved Peter Pan from Tom’s bed on the attic. Carefully, I placed the bright orange marker I had conjured on the page he had left it open. Scanning the other books on the little desk Aberforth had made for the boy, I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom might have preferred Andersen’s stories but I considered most of them morbid, if not judgemental, and not suited for the environs of the Mysteries Department.

Malfoy had a sour expression on his face. I ought to have invited him in. When he saw the tomes in my hands, his face darkened further. Lips pursed, he extended a gloved hand rather unwillingly, probably fearing the contagious diseases borne via Muggle books. I decided that taking my frustration out on him was not appropriate Christmas Eve behaviour. He had vaguely promised to see to Tom’s plight, after all. That was more assurance than Castle Albus had given. I did suspect that Malfoy was hoping to earn the suspected little Dark Lord’s favourable notice by running this errand. It would be par on the course. He was a Malfoy. His fingers made a twitch as they came into contact with the books. Taking pity, I conjured a voluminous purple handbag adorned with pearls and placed the books in it. He looked horrified, but considered this an improvement over direct contact.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely.

“It is nothing,” he managed, looking extremely appalled by the accessory. He made a ridiculous sight with his foppish gloves, expensive robes and the purple handbag. Such a pity that he did not carry a cane to complete the picture.

With a pained nod, he started down the path to the gate and I watched him with perverse glee until he Apparated out of sight. Pettiness was more comfortable than the depressing thoughts of how Aberforth would spend the holiday in prison. Tom, at least, was cynical by nature and would not be as heartbroken as my brother would be. Aberforth had hoped to have a real Christmas for the first time since our mother’s death.

Castle Albus was right. The timeline had been warped. Never meddle with time or women, Father had once told me.

Seeking distraction, I read the scroll once again. Tom’s script flowed impish on the parchment as it teased me with the reference to the children’s classic.

“Wretched boy,” I muttered. Then I conjured a plush armchair and followed that by casting a charm to fetch my dog-eared copy of Gulliver’s Travels.

My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years.

In 1934, on Christmas Eve, I fled to the land of Lilliput.


External Source Text:
Gulliver’s Travels – a classic novel written by Jonathan Swift.
Good King Wenceslas – popular Christmas carol


Chapter Text

The thirtieth of December saw me accompanying Castle Albus to St. Mungo's.

"Percival Dumbledore, educated at the Mexico Magical Lyceum," Castle Albus informed me. "I have documents testifying to that from the Mexican Ministry of Magic as well as from our own Ministry."

"Cousins?" I questioned.

"Cousins on the paternal side," he elaborated. "I will leave a copy of the documents with you tonight."

"Aberforth?" I asked. My brother's plight had been weighing the most on my mind.

"The hearing is on the seventh of January," Castle Albus said. "He will be released that evening."

The hearing, then, would only be a formality. It would also serve as testimony in the future highlighting how Albus Dumbledore, being the long-suffering, gentle older brother he was, had selflessly strived to save the ungrateful, uncouth, semiliterate Aberforth's hide from Azkaban.

There were festive decorations in the corridors. The Healers were bustling about from sickroom to sickroom carrying bundles of gifts. An azure little package sat cosy upon each of those gift-bundles. It bore a familiar heraldry.

"Hyperion Malfoy," Castle Albus muttered. "He has arranged to have the Healers continue his wife's tradition of distributing gifts on New Year's Eve to the long-term patients here. Why he bothers, I haven't an idea, given that he has never turned up to see what the Healers buy for the patients each year or how much the actual expenses are. He has a secretary to deal with the finances."

"Politics," I said. Here Castle Albus and I were on common ground. Both of us held the Malfoys in disdain.

"Yes," my companion agreed. "However, he has been staying clear of power circles after his crony Phineas Nigellus passed away."

They had been a dangerous duo: Malfoy with his canny political dealings and Phineas Black with his considerable clout as the Headmaster of Hogwarts. In 1925, Phineas Black had passed away. Before Malfoy could recoup, there had been his wife's death in childbirth in 1926. He had then abandoned his political games in London and taken his newborn heir with him to Wiltshire. Rumours were that the young Malfoy scion was being thoroughly indoctrinated in the Dark Arts by wizards brought in from Albania and Germany.

"I heard from Bode that your boy has been getting on well with the Jack-in-the-Ministry Malfoy," Castle Albus said blandly, watching me through the corner of his eyes in a bid to measure my reaction.

With the fear of Grindelwald rampant in the Ministry, there was no department or secret safe from Albus Dumbledore's prying. The Ministry was putty in his hands because they believed that only he had power enough to head and win a war against Grindelwald.

"What was Malfoy doing there?" I asked, trying to avoid a direct answer.

"Information-gathering," Castle Albus said flatly. "It is his speciality, after all. One wonders for whom."

There had been unsubstantiated accusations thrown by Aloysius Moody regarding Malfoy's involvement in Grindelwald's operations on our island. I suppressed a pang of worry. Had Malfoy come to investigate Tom Riddle at Grindelwald's behest? Had that been why Malfoy had deigned to act the part of a messenger? What was the game? A man in Lilliput. Had Tom been implying that Castle Albus was not the only Lilliputian with an ulterior motive?

"Isn't entry and information on a need to know basis at the Department of Mysteries?"

"It is," Castle Albus admitted. "However, these unsettled times often call for overriding of the hierarchy by a privileged few who have the power to make things happen. Malfoy is one of them, because of his clout in the pure-blood circles."

That Albus Dumbledore also was one of those privileged few civilians who had access to classified Ministry resources went unsaid. Power was seductive, and in 1934, with the Ministry falling over itself to aid the wizarding world's golden icon of hope, Albus Dumbledore had been at his most powerful. Seeing his influence in the Ministry, despite my best efforts, envy and longing still clamoured in my heart. I had no influence now. No informants or loyalists. It was an unusual position for me to be in. From the very beginning of my schooldays, I had built circles of loyal friends, trustworthy acquaintances and useful neutralists who would prove to be the lynchpins of my activities in the later years. Deprived of these now, I felt unusually vulnerable.

Castle Albus knocked on a door perfunctorily and then entered the sickroom. An old woman was seated beside the bed on which Ollivander lay prone. I could not help averting my eyes from the distorted features of the wand-maker. Little wonder why everyone was convinced that the boy was a budding psychopath. Only magic with the intent to harm could have caused this desecration.

The woman's earrings seemed to be shaped from something that resembled pumpkin rinds. She wore a set of cream robes that emitted a substance not unlike pixie dust at regular intervals. Feeling queasy, I returned my gaze to Ollivander.

Wild blue eyes that were the only recognisable aspects which remained on that ravaged face now looked at us suspiciously.

"I will not voluntarily ask that the charges be dropped against that devil, Albus!" Ollivander spat and I cringed at the pain which rang muted in his hoarse, low tones.

"As I said, I looked into his mind and saw only confusion and fear," Castle Albus said with the right mix of apology, concern and benevolence in his voice. How often had I cajoled men and women with that exact voice? These insights were not welcome. I wilfully locked down this thread of thought for later, and returned to the present. Castle Albus was trying to coax Ollivander into compliance with well-spun arguments.

"Can you bring him here?" the woman interjected and Castle Albus looked displeased by her interruption.

However, he restored his polite facade and asked, "Why would you wish to see him, Mrs. Lovegood?"

Luna Lovegood's great-grandmother was a woman every inch as strange as Luna herself. It certainly ran in their family.

"So that he can apologise to Mr. Ollivander, of course," she said.

Castle Albus looked incredulous and rightly so. He had seen what lurked in the boy's mind and certainly laboured under no illusions about Tom's nature. Aberforth, less skilled in both perception and Legilimency, continued to harbour hopes of reforming Tom.

However, if the boy came in and made a sincere apology, it would greatly aid my cause to retrieve him from the Ministry's clutches. I weighed the risks. Tom could feign sincerity better than most. Perhaps it would sway the Lovegood woman and that might prove a factor in convincing Ollivander to drop the charges.

Castle Albus seemed to thinking along the same lines, for he said, "It shall be as you wish, Mrs. Lovegood. Percival, perhaps you could wait here while I see to this errand?"

"Certainly," I said graciously, relieved that I would not have to win a debate to persuade him about the course of action.

"Hallucinda," Ollivander muttered, as soon as the door closed behind Castle Albus, "a moment alone with him, if you please?"

Hallucinda Lovegood fixed me with an inscrutable look before nodding to Ollivander and leaving the room. I swallowed down my unease at seeing the wand-maker's features and occupied the chair Mrs. Lovegood had been seated upon.

"We are the closest of friends, Albus and I," Ollivander said quietly. "In your time, it was not so. What changed?"

The Elder Wand. Ollivander had been spurred by intellectual curiosity and had asked me to allow him the opportunity to study the wand. The hold of the wand over me ensured that I had turned him down bluntly. The rumours of the Deathstick had come between us and Ollivander wanted me to do away with the wand. It corroded our relationship, softly and steadily, until all our interactions were confined to letters. Over the years, the letters became more distant and less frequent. I would occasionally write to him enquiring about a student's wand and what it indicated. We had little reason to run into each other, given that he had been a recluse all his life excepting the period when we had been inseparable friends.

Ollivander was staring at me. I answered him as best as I could, under the circumstances. "There is a time to build and a time to break down."

Ollivander frowned. I was amused. One would have thought that someone as the wand-maker would be proficient in the art of abstraction given that his craft required a high degree of the same. Frustration replaced my amusement. The lonely man in Lilliput, understood by none and weary of explaining himself.

No. I had company in Lilliput now. Tom could place the reference to the Old Testament I had made. There was the not insignificant matter of how unsuited Tom was for the part of the misunderstood orphan genius. I frowned. Perhaps there was something to be said in favour of Cornelius Fudge's brand of wilful ignorance. If only I could pretend that I had not seen the darkness in the boy!

"You can't save him," Ollivander spat. "He is mad, or half-way there. I saw him look at me then, you know. He is mad, Albus."

"Percival," I interjected.

"So dark," the wand-maker murmured. "So powerful."

There was a knock on the door. Relieved, I hurried to open the door.


Unguarded dark eyes, circled by soft bruises born of sleepless nights and worrying, and wide in shock, flicked over my features in surprise. My hand came of its own accord to ruffle the boy's dirty, matted hair. Instead of bearing it with quiet disapproval as he usually did, Tom's breathing hitched and his head inclined towards me seeking the caress. Worry and anger and helplessness flooded my mind. The boy's natural shields were cracked and did nothing to stem his turbulent emotions. That, more than anything else, made me pull the boy to me. The sickly-sweet scent of his unwashed pre-pubescent body offended my nostrils but when he exhaled in relief into my robes for a moment before rapidly moving away in mortification, I tightened my grasp.

Strange. Despite my reputation as a charmer, I despised bodily contact for the most part. It was one of the reasons why Aberforth had made a better carer for Ariana. I would tolerate perfunctory kisses on the cheek and social tokens like embracing with grace but I rarely ever initiated them unless customs absolutely called for such an act. Perhaps that was why I had taken to Fawkes well. He did not require much in the way of bodily contact unlike Kneazles or Puffskeins. Now, as I stood in the doorway of Ollivander's sickroom at St. Mungo's, holding the boy as close to me as if he was the original manuscript of Argo Pyrites's Alchemy, Ancient Art and Science, I wondered what had changed.

"Just a shade of Legilimency," Castle Albus told me as he passed us to enter the sickroom. "He will be all right after a good night's sleep."

I hastily raised my shields as Tom's anger flared. His hands fisted in my robes. I was grateful and surprised that no spontaneous outbursts of his magic ensued. Was he so weary? He took a deep breath and ducked out of my embrace.

Dear me, the apology. How would Tom react to the sight of Ollivander? He had seen more than most eight-year-olds, but he was still an eight-year-old. However, there was nothing I could do to spare him this. He had caused it, after all.

I cleared my throat and said in a tone that brooked no opposition, "Well, we had best get it over with, Tom. Mr. Ollivander is inside. You will tell him how sorry you are for causing him harm."

Tom looked slightly perturbed by my sudden sternness but he nodded and followed me into the room. I played with my beard in frustration. This situation was intolerable. It would be better for all involved once Aberforth returned and enforced his own brand of quasi-parenting on Tom.

A sharp intake of breath broke my musings. Tom was standing stock-still as he took in the destruction his wild magic had caused. I was halfway across the room into the immediate vicinity of the boy, inexorably motivated to shield him from the terrible sight that Ollivander made.

"So what have you to say for yourself?" Ollivander barked, clearly unsettled by Tom's staring.

Tom's fingers twitched as he let his hands fall to his sides. In a quiet, clear tone, he began, "Mr. Ollivander, I had never seen a bird as the one you brought that day. I was shocked when it appeared out of thin air. You came right after the bird and set Hero-" he swallowed involuntarily and immediately looked quite peeved by his loss of composure. With effort, he gathered himself and continued, "You set the snake on fire. I was frightened." The thinning of his lips showed what it had cost him to say that last word. "I didn't know what I was doing. I lost control." Now his fingers were near bloodless and his knuckles white as he clasped his hands together. "I thought-" He made a jerky motion with his hands before clasping them again "I thought that the bird would have cured you too, because it cured me and my burns didn't hurt anymore; my skin became as if the burns hadn't happened at all."

True. Fawkes had healed Tom after the boy had stuck his hands in the fire to grab the burning snake's thrashing body. Why hadn't Fawkes healed Ollivander? When Castle Albus said that Fawkes had been persuaded to bring them to our safe-haven, what method of persuasion had been used? Whatever it had been, Fawkes must have been extremely angry by his treatment for it was nigh unthinkable that he would let anyone suffer so when he had the power to heal.

"It is the bird's fault that I am in this state, you say," Ollivander sneered. I fluctuated between sympathy and anger. Castle Albus was watching Tom through narrowed eyes.

Emotion clouded the boy's face as he said, "It was not the bird's fault, sir."

"Then you see that it was your fault?" Castle Albus questioned. His voice was cool and non-judgemental, but I could see his suspicions and prejudices because they were mine too. "Own up to your actions, Mr. Riddle. Magic is a gift. You have misused it in a terrible manner. The least you can do now is to own up to your reprehensible actions and apologise to your victim. Perhaps then we might see about lessening your punishment. What you have done can earn you a sentence in Azkaban and only Mr. Ollivander's grace stands in between."

Tom straightened himself and met Castle Albus's gaze calmly. He said, "Mr. Malfoy said that I was not the only one who broke the Ministry's laws that night. Mr. Ollivander did not knock and enter."

Apparating directly into another wizard's backyard was a violation of the Wizarding Privacy Act of 1894.

"He set my snake on fire," Tom continued.

Doing unprovoked magic in another's house could land you a sentence if the prosecution made a good enough case. That was why the ever-cautious Hyperion Malfoy had refrained from casting a charm to lighten the burden of the books I had given him or a charm to transfigure the garish bag I had conjured for him into something more palatable to his eyes.

Ollivander had set Hero on fire and it had not been self-defence. Malfoy had enlightened the boy on the loopholes of his situation. Why? I worried my lip, pondering as to who might be the puppet-master who might be behind Malfoy's benevolence. Grindelwald? A pure-blood cult which was on the lookout for a new Dark Lord to pledge themselves to?

"I turn nine this night," Tom was saying, "and I did not know that magic existed before I met Mr. Dumbledore. I was brought to Mr. Dumbledore's home not of my own will and kept confined there since September. Mr. Dumbledore and his brother haven't taught me anything at all about magic or how to do it."

"You expect us to believe that Mr. Ollivander's arrival snapped your disturbed, little mind which had already been overwhelmed past your limits in the last few months?" Castle Albus asked, incredulous and all the more convinced of Tom's nature. "Surely, even Hyperion Malfoy ought to see this as far-fetched!"

It did not matter what the truth was. It only mattered what the truth was presented as. I knew it. Castle Albus knew it. Hyperion Malfoy knew it. The case of the unstable boy with psychopathic tendencies, in the hands of a suitably motivated man of influence, could very well be rechristened as the case of the wretched orphan who was well and truly caught between the Dumbledore brothers who had likely been the reason behind their sister's demise. The Aurors would believe Ollivander's charges because they had seen too much darkness to discount even the most improbable. However, if this reached the public, there would be an outcry; the majority of the wizarding world would plainly refuse to believe that an eight-year-old boy tried to kill Ollivander.

"I don't need to press charges to see justice served, Riddle," Ollivander spat. "I am more than capable of dealing with an orphan boy who has been taken on as Malfoy's latest stooge."

"That was uncalled for," I cut in.

"What does the word stooge mean?" Tom asked, his gaze shifting from Ollivander to me.

This - his yearning to master knowledge - had been one of the prime reasons that had brought sorrow and death upon us in that timeline.

"A stooge, Mr. Riddle, is a person who does what another man asks without questioning," Castle Albus said, peering over his half-moon spectacles at Tom.

"Then Mr. Malfoy must be my stooge," Tom said wryly. My gloomy thoughts ceased as I registered his dark humour bursting through despite the plight he was in. "He did do what I requested with not a single question asked."

"You are aware that it makes your situation all the more questionable?" Castle Albus remarked. "He is a man of considerable means, influence and wizarding skills. Why would he assist you?"

"Orphan," Tom replied easily. "Orphans tend to provoke pity and charity, Mr. Dumbledore. More so than children suspected to be mentally ill."

Castle Albus pursed his lips and shot me a glare, clearly suspecting that I had been the one who had told Tom of our family history. Ollivander looked confused. He did not know about Ariana. I had never told him.

"Well, well, Ollivander," Castle Albus said smoothly, "what say that we press no charges just this once? We wouldn't want to misjudge an orphan, would we?"

Ollivander frowned but before he could get in a word, I spoke up. "Thank you, Albus. Tom is grateful and so am I. Now, if I may, I shall take him home."

"Do that, Percival," Castle Albus said, more benevolent in mien than the merry Friar of Robin Hood tales. "I shall pop in soon to see how you are faring, of course."

"Of course," I murmured. I nodded at Ollivander, who was purple and speechless in anger, and hastily grasped Tom by the shoulder and steered him outside.

Tom looked up at me with poorly disguised relief. I sighed and ruffled the wretched boy's hair.

"Abe?" he asked softly.

"The seventh of January," I muttered.

Castle Albus had influence enough to see Aberforth released immediately but he had chosen not to. Clearly, it was power-play. He was showing me who exactly owned all the pawns on this board. It rankled.

Tom was looking up at me, his features blank and his fingers trembling. I cleared my throat and said, "Home, then, my boy."

He nodded and fell into my footsteps easily. We reached the busy Apparition point. Uncomfortable pangs of worry clutched my guts when I noticed the boy's flinch when I grasped his shoulder to tether him to me before Apparating.

Home. It had struck me, while watching Tom and Aberforth being led away by the Ministry officials, that I had felt right at home with my brother and the boy, secluded from the hustle and bustle of the world in our little haven at Godric's Hollow.

"Were you him?" Tom asked as I led him up the path from the gate to the front-door.

I stopped turning the key and peered at him. Castle Albus. Time and its paradoxical flow.

"The other Mr. Dumbledore told me," Tom explained. "He said you are what he will become many years later."

"For someone as new to the magical world as you are, you do easily believe the most outré things, my boy," I teased him. "And here I thought you were a careful one! Abe would not be pleased. He recommends taking everything with a pinch of salt."

Tom's eyes flashed in mirth and he parried easily saying, "You are the Mad Hatter. It shouldn't surprise anyone when you do strange things like changing Time."

"I don't go on about ravens and writing-desks, do I?" I asked, pretending to be mighty peeved at his words.

This won me a fleeting grin before he said solemnly, "Abe says you talk in your sleep about chinchillas and ink-pots."

"Remind me to herald his return with every clichéd joke about goats and men's beards," I grumbled. "The gall of him! Chinchillas indeed!"

Tom's grin stayed put this time and he wriggled past me through the open door. As he crossed me, his fingers brushed mine and he said, "I easily believed that you could play with Time, sir. I did find it hard to believe that you were him once."

I felt a constricting pull in my throat as his words washed over me. Before I could say a word, he had already moved swiftly into the darkness of the house and I could hear him puttering about in the kitchen.


I did not reply. I clutched the door-jamb and willed with all my heart that Aberforth could be here to help me cross this bridge. The boy trusted me enough to not question my frankly questionable tale of travelling through Time. He trusted me enough to wonder how I had once been the person Castle Albus now was. Trust. This had been what I had sought all this time from Tom, hadn't it? Now that I had it, I was stricken and frightened.

"Sir?" Tom called again. "I have put the kettle on. Could you come in and make a fire in the hearth with your wand-stick? It is dark here."

I tried to respond, but my thoughts were still swirling and my mind was being bled dry of courage and will.

Tom's clear voice swept me from my dark thoughts as he began singing a familiar tune.

"You are old, Father William, and yet you stand on your head-

Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

I grinned despite myself when I immediately placed the reference. The Caterpillar was teaching Alice that nursery rhyme about Old Man William and his son. How apropos!

I inhaled and joined him in the ridiculous song:

"In my youth, I feared it might injure the brain;

But, now that I'm perfectly sure that I have none,

Why, I do it again and again!"

Father William and his son. A father and his son. I made my way to the kitchen and watched Tom singing the rhyme. His face was cast pale and pensive in the light of the single candle he had lit. Had the boy chosen the rhyme deliberately? Had he noticed my protectiveness of him and was he trying to play on my weakness by stirring that emotion in me? Then I saw the dark smudges of sleepless nights under his eyes and the matted curls of his hair.

"I will watch the kettle," I said quietly. "Go draw yourself a bath and put on some clean clothes, will you? Off with you now."

Tom stopped mid-rhyme and stared at me. Then he nodded and asked, "Could you light the-"

"Off with you!" I snarled, overwhelmed by the emotions fighting for precedence in my mind.

His fingers were unceremoniously shoved into his pockets and he gave me a curt nod before leaving the kitchen. I sank down into the nearest chair. Not many weeks ago, Horace Slughorn had handed me a watch and I had fallen down a rabbit hole like poor Alice. I heard the sounds of a bath being drawn. I sighed and returned my attention to the kettle. There was a cookbook left open at a page showing a cake recipe. Aberforth had probably been planning to bake a cake for the boy's birthday. I pinched my nose, steeled myself and drew the book to me.

External Source Text: The nursery rhyme is from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Your thoughts on the story would be lovely to hear.

Chapter Text

The days leading to the seventh of January crawled by, with both Tom and I skittishly going about our routines with a minimum of conversation. The boy seemed to be mortified that his craving for reassurance had not gone unnoticed by me after the meeting with Ollivander. I was angry at my loss of composure which Tom had registered and sought to soothe by singing that absurd nursery rhyme about Old Man William and his son.

I remained conflicted as I tried to seek answers. Was Tom trying to exploit my soft corner? What else had Malfoy indoctrinated the boy in? What had happened in the Department of Mysteries? What were Castle Albus's motives? Had Aberforth been sent directly to Azkaban or was he being held in the Ministry's holding cells? Yet more than all of these, that which truly haunted me waswhat Castle Albus might have seen in the boy's mind.

Speculations and worry had frayed my nerves so raw that I knew attempting a conversation with Tom while I was in this state would do neither of us any good. I did keep an eye on him. He had taken to avoiding stepping out into the backyard ever since our return. Most of the time, he could be found lying on the rug before the hearth in the living room, engrossed in either his copy of Riemann's Mathematics or my tattered copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Often in the evenings, once I had taken off myself for a bath, he would coax simple, pastoral tunes from the piano. I wondered if he was adhering to my unstated desire for silence in the house. It was a fine arrangement. I would let the music soothe me as I lay in the bath, and he would continue playing for nigh on an hour. It was rather difficult to not realise that this was the closest to domestic I had known since my mother's death.

Castle Albus had dropped in once, no doubt to emphasise that he was watching us, and Tom had been his customary self, greeting our visitor politely, before retreating to the attic with Huckleberry Finn. That the boy preferred my company even when I was in this morose temper while he would rather be quit of Castle Albus's loquacious merriness flattered me more than it should have.

I lay awake on the night of the sixth of January, my mind troubled and mired in speculations regarding the future. Tossing and turning restlessly, I gave up sleep as a lost cause after midnight had struck, and heaved myself out of the bed. Tea, I decided. The Englishman, be he Wizard or Muggle, swore by tea, and I was no different. I slipped into the kitchen quietly and started going about the familiar routine of making tea.

It was just as I put the kettle on that I noticed movement in the backyard. Frowning, I made my way to the door and unlocked it silently, thanking Aberforth for having had the foresight to oil the hinges. I inhaled sharply, and a thousand suspicions battled for prominence in my mind as I saw Tom standing by the sundial and delicately swishing what was unmistakeably a wand. Ollivander's wand, I registered absently. It must have been dropped in the melee of last week.

He turned swiftly to face me. My suspicions turned manifold shades darker when I saw him automatically moving the wand behind him to hide it from my notice.

The half-moon light shone dully on his worried yet determined features.

"I can make bad things happen to those who try to hurt me. I can order animals to do what I want."

Tom Riddle. My mind pummelled me with memories of countless bereaved families who had fallen prey to his dark ambitions.

So dark, and so powerful, Ollivander had warned me. Castle Albus had said the same. I could not pretend that I had not seen it myself. Only Aberforth had cautioned patience. Just a boy, he had said implacably each time Tom's nature had come up in conversation. Aberforth had been right about Gellert, whom he had never trusted from the beginning. Aberforth had been right about Severus, whom he had asked me to take under my wing from the time when Eileen Prince had requested me to meet her in Hog's Head to speak about a waiver of tuition fees for her son. Could Aberforth be right about Tom? Or would Tom be the one time my brother had misjudged a person's nature? Tom Riddle did always have a way of overturning everyone's calculations. Benefit of doubt. I had promised Aberforth to give the boy benefit of doubt.

Gathering the paltry remains of my confidence, I asked the boy, "Do you have one good reason to be standing out here at midnight with a stolen wand?"

He remained silent though he held my gaze. His knuckles were clenched white about the brown wood of the wand.

"Answer me, Tom," I said quietly. "Is there a single reason which can justify why you are doing this, risking Aberforth being sent to prison once again for taking in a budding psychopath?"

He flinched near imperceptibly and I immediately regretted the psychopath insinuation.

"I did not steal the wand," he muttered then. "I found it abandoned in this very yard."

Abandoned? After the Aurors had swept the place through with a fine-toothed comb? Not likely. Planted? Perhaps. For what purpose? To ensure that Tom's curiosity would lead to further mischief? How had Tom felt it would be a good idea to sneak off into the backyard with this wand instead of telling me that he had found it?

"You are warping the truth to lend you credence," I said, trying to quell the rising wave of rage.

It was then that he destroyed my tower of judgement again and brought it down like a pack of cards. With a curse that he had to have learnt from wandering the alleys of London, he threw the wand away, slumped against the sundial and dropped his gaze furious to the ivory gnomon Aberforth had whittled for him. Then he said in a soft, stricken voice, "I was only trying to find my fa-" he gulped and his knees buckled as he spoke the words "- my father."

The father. Why? To kill the man? To beg him to take the bastard son and give him home and love? Why? Hate and anger, possessiveness and suspicions, fear and helplessness all soared high in my heart. I wanted to drag the boy inside and bundle him into a cosy blanket and teach him Irish. I wanted to shake him until he gave me all the answers I wanted. I wanted Aberforth here so that he could intervene before I could do any of these things.

Tom was standing still, with his fingers clutching the sundial's plinth to support himself and his eyes warily watching my features for reaction. Later, I would wonder why my voice had sounded half-choked and wretched when I asked him, "Why?"

A lonely, wretched eight-year-old boy mumbled, "Mr. Bode said that I could only have been born into a strong wizarding family. He said I must have been one of those wild oats sown by a spoilt Wizarding heir to some old-as-anything family. Mrs. Cole always said that he got my mother in the family way and threw her out. That was why she had me in the orphanage parlour and died on New Year Eve. So she couldn't have been magic, would she? She was weak and crying, Mrs. Cole said, and she had no one. She had no money. It had to be him. I wanted to know. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted-" he broke off and glared at me.

"You wanted to see if that man would feel remorse if he saw you now," I finished for him. He had probably tried to copy some tracking charm that he had seen used by one of the Aurors or the Department of Ministry employees or perhaps even Castle Albus or Hyperion Malfoy.

This time, I gave up self-control as a lost cause and strode across the yard to his side. Then I dragged his protesting form to me and snuggled him in between my body and the cloak I had thrown over myself before descending to the kitchen to make that cup of tea. A scowling face looked up at me. I ruffled his hair.

"You didn't ask me why I needed a wand for that," he muttered.

"Why did you need a wand?" I humoured him.

He looked mighty suspicious by the sudden twist in my temper. What a proper pair we made, I mused.

"That is how the Caterpillar says it works when Alice wonders how to grow smaller or taller. Isn't that magic? To do magic, you need to know that you want it. That is what the Caterpillar tries to tell Alice. So I tried to ask the sundial to point towards him. It didn't. I tried with twigs. With my textbooks. With my shoes. None worked well. Then I tried with this wand," he said.

"You thought that the Caterpillar's advice might work in our world?" I asked, trying my best to refrain from laughing. "My dear boy, wands have special properties. They aren't made from just any piece of wood."

"It worked," he said, sounding quite put out by my lack of enthusiasm.

"Did it now?" I wondered, ruffling his hair again. "Why don't you get to your bed now and tell me all about it in the morning?"

He looked at me crossly before snatching my wand from my loose grip and muttering, "Show me Mr. Dumbledore."

It veered right to the east, then abruptly turned to point in my direction and veered east again. Tom cursed.

"Tom, my boy, no cursing. And no snatching of wands, too," I said patiently. "I will set you lines for that tomorrow. From that Latin textbook you so hate. Now, off to bed with you."

"Show me my Mr. Dumbledore!" Tom spat at the wand, and it veered towards me before staying put.

My father had come to see me off at the station before my first year at Hogwarts. Many pure-blood Wizards had asked him, half-sympathetically and half-mockingly, if his son did have the potential to be a true Wizard, since the line had been tainted by Muggle blood from my mother's side. Then my father had said, emphatically, "He is my son. He can't not be a true Wizard."

Now here Tom stood, a smug sprite of childish glee in the pale moonlight, offering my wand to me and looking up at me with a mixture of victory and nervousness in those dark eyes.

There remained a hundred matters unaddressed – the stolen wand, sneaking out in the middle of the night, Ollivander, Tom's misconceptions regarding his father's heritage, the dockyard cursing and many, many other things. I felt so weary, so very weary, and all of a sudden, I understood why Faustus, poor, tempted Faustus, had been snared so by the devil's words. Words, wielded craftily as Tom had - Show me my Dumbledore, Tom had said, and he had meant it too, because the wand had obeyed – such words could lay siege to a man's will until he surrendered reason and professed himself vanquished.


"You had best call me Percival," I murmured, striving to affect nonchalance. "You call my brother Abe, after all."

"I would rather not," he said, quietly, intently, holding my gaze in a calculating fashion. What was going on in that twisted, dear, beautiful mind of his?

"Go to bed, Tom," I said.

Disappointment flashed across his features before he bid me a curt goodnight and trudged to the house. After the door had closed behind him, I walked to the wand he had discarded and picked it up. A moment's irresolution stalled me. Then I chided myself for this deplorable dillydallying and cast a spell to determine what magic Tom had done using Ollivander's wand.

I stood torn between admiration, wry amusement and relief as I observed that Tom had only asked the wand to show him where the bastard who fathered him was.

Flamel's house in France had been a homing beacon for dozens of bohemian researchers in the fields of Alchemy and Ancient Magic. It had been there that I had met the wand-maker, Gregorovitch, who was then studying the properties of Thestral hair. He had claimed during a heated debate with other scholars in Flamel's parlour that magic could be channelled by intent into living things. It was this brute channelling of magic by force, he believed, which eventually the Magical world came to know as the Imperius Curse. Long before the Curse was developed, men and women had experimented with controlling objects and animals. The most popular topic of discussion whenever he had been in the room was the subject of the Deathstick. Gregorovitch was one of a group of scholars whose entire research was devoted to the making, the history, the trail and the properties of the Elder Wand. He had often said that the Elder Wand could only have been made by willing it into existence. From what little I knew of Grindelwald's research, he agreed with Gregorovitch that the Elder Wand had not been conceived by spell or potion, but had been crafted by the power of a hungry, yearning mind.

Now, as I inspected Ollivander's wand, I realised the intensity of Tom's yearning that had shaken the wand's core. He had wanted to find his father. His intense desire to do so had channelled into Ollivander's wand and it had obeyed him.

When I had been fifteen, Erasmus Crouch had challenged me to a duel. With my reputation as a Defense Against the Dark Arts prodigy, it had caused something of an uproar in the school. Erasmus was the Crouch heir, Head Boy, and reputed to be the most brilliant student Ravenclaw had seen. The whole school had turned up to watch the duel. He had whittled away my energy, tiring me slowly by letting me attack while he took the defensive and had finally stepped in for the kill when I had been left panting and furious. He had been smirking and everyone except the Gryffindors had been cheering him on while taunting me, for I had been something of a snob to students from other Houses. It was then that I knew hatred and anger so hot and I wanted nothing more than to see Erasmus's wand break. I had wanted so furiously, so clearly, so terribly that his wand became dust in his hands. The crowds stopped cheering and Albus Dumbledore had smiled his usual beaming smile before solicitously offering a hand to his vanquished opponent. No one did ever find out what had happened to Erasmus's wand since the consensus was that he had neglected wand maintenance. I learnt two lessons from the episode: to win over people from other Houses into my circle and to never, ever underestimate the power of want.

Had Tom known what he was doing came under unusual, powerful magic which the Ministry might certainly label as dark because it went beyond wand and word? If he had not realised it, should I enlighten him? I wished that I could shy away from making a decision and practise the policy of avoidance which I usually adopted with those I could not understand. But I could not do that here. Even if I avoided the matter, Tom with his endless curiosity might ask Hyperion Malfoy or Castle Albus. I could not have them know, not when I trusted neither of them; Ollivander's wand had been left here to be found. Besides, a part of me that sounded eerily like Aberforth pointed out that the boy trusted me. He had trusted me enough to take him home.

"Albus, you lazy goat, open the door, will you?"

I had never in my life been more relieved to hear Aberforth insulting me. I rushed to the door and opened it. There he stood before me, grumbling and scowling, seeming no worse for the wear, and then he looked up at me with a faint frown between his brows.

"Don't tell me you blew up the kitchen," he muttered, shoving a plain parcel into my hands before striding past me into the house.

"What is it?" I asked, my mind still slowed by sleep and the relief that he was safe and sound at home once more.

"Christmas," he said laconically. "Now, have you put the kettle on?"

I did not answer him, for I was busy ripping the plain brown wrapping. In lay a new copy of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

"Always reminded me of him," Aberforth was muttering, sounding quite put out to admit that he had a passing knowledge of literature. Pretending to be illiterate was one of the greatest joys in his life, after all. "What with your fancy Alchemy and atheism and the whole mess with him."

Between Aberforth and I, him would always imply Gellert. Dear Gellert, now re-labelled Grindelwald in my mind though Gellert he remained in my heart; my Mephistophilis, who had beguiled me into powerful nets of dark sorcery with his razor-sharp intellect, easy smile and charming ways. Light is not half as fair as you, Mephistophilis had told poor, damned Faustus; Magic is Might had said Grindelwald. O gentle Faustus, this damned magic will charm your soul to hell had warned the angels; Aberforth had broken my nose and called me pathetic.

"Thank you," I said quietly, overcome by regret and guilt. "I have nothing for you, Abe."

"You put the kettle on!" Aberforth's voice came from the kitchen. "You can't give me anything more precious than tea after that terrible week I had."

I let my fingers flutter wistfully over the binding of the book before sighing and placing it by my usual chair. Then I joined Aberforth in the kitchen.

"How is our imp?" Aberforth asked, as he bustled about, starting breakfast, pouring out two mugs of tea, wrinkling his nose at the dirty dishes of yesterday and prodding a finger at the lump of solidified batter which was the sorry result of my attempt at baking a cake.

I looked up at him, willing him to understand my turmoil: suspicion, protectiveness, unwillingness to give the benefit of doubt, pride and possessiveness.

"Oh, dear, that bad, eh?" Aberforth muttered, setting a mug of tea before me. "I know I will regret asking. What happened?"

Tom had greeted Aberforth effusively and even surrendered with unusual grace to one of Aberforth's bear-hugs. His eyes had lit up at the book Aberforth had got for him: the children's classic, Little Lord Fauntleroy. I had read it and it was not one of my favourites. As far as I remembered, Aberforth had not liked it too. So I did wonder why my brother felt it appropriate for Tom now.

"Oh! Thank you, Abe," Tom said breathlessly, excitement and surprise at the gift bleeding into his voice. "It is new!"

His fingers fluttered over the binding and the front of the book with reverence that another might have accorded a deity. An absurd desire to promise him every new book in the world overcame me for a moment. Aberforth pinched my arm. He had never needed Legilimency or any abstruse art to read my mind from my face.

"You have to promise me something, though," Aberforth was telling Tom.

The boy's eyes narrowed in suspicion and he slowly placed the book on the table. Aberforth chuckled and said, "I want you to let Albus read the book to you every night, before you go to bed. Can you do that, hmm?"

My heart did a squiggly leap which seemed to be a mixture of both protest and glee. Aberforth was suppressing a smirk at our expense, I could tell.

"Why?" Tom asked, clearly befuddled. "I can read faster by myself."

"I know you can, Tom," Aberforth said. He shot me a pointed look. "It is just that Albus said he would like to read to you."

"Yes," I said and I realised that I meant it with utmost sincerity.

Tom's eyes were dark with calculations and suspicions again. Aberforth pinched his nose and said, "No, I didn't get the book so that he could read to you at nights, Tom. If you like, you can read by yourself. It was just a suggestion."

"I don't have to agree to it?" Tom asked cautiously.

"No, no, you don't," Aberforth replied. "No hidden motives, Tom. Do you want me to swear on Billy?"

Tom grinned at that and shook his head.

"So?" I prompted.

"If you wish, perhaps you could read to me tonight, Sir," Tom said slowly, mulling the situation over and over in his mind. "Just once."

"Just once," I promised.

Tom flashed us a charming smile and dashed out into the yard.

"Dear God, Albus," Aberforth murmured. "Why must I always do your dirty work?"

"Thank you, Abe," I said sincerely. "I hadn't thought of it but-"

"But you like the idea very much," Aberforth said teasingly. "I know. You were always jealous whenever you saw me reading to Ariana. You never knew that I would have let you read to her had you only asked."

I stared at him. How had he known?

"Oh, nonsense, Albus! You are not as good an actor as you like to think you are," he proclaimed, with an unnerving twinkle in his eyes.

I glared at him. Then I remembered that I had been carrying on my person something precious of his. I took the rosary from a pocket of my robe and offered it to him on my outstretched palm.

"Ah! I had wondered!" he said, evidently relieved. "I feared it might have been trampled on in the ruckus of that night, you see."

"Take it," I told him.

He shook his head and said, "Amelia Bones brought me another while I was in prison, Albus. You can keep it."

The rosary had been comforting, though I had not prayed with it or considered it sacred. It had simply been something of my brother's and therefore precious to me while he had been away.

"Take it, Abe," I said firmly.

He took it from my outstretched palm.

Tom looked uncomfortable by my intrusion into his attic that night. He did assent with barely contained paranoia to let me sit on the edge of his bed. His damp-from-bath, dark brown curls had a burnished sheen to them in the candle-light and I had the urge to towel them drier. With his eyes burning suspiciously and his posture tense, he reminded me eerily of Argus Filch's cat. I decided not to risk even patting his shoulder. It would do us no good if he clawed my eyes out with his nails as Mrs. Norris had once done with poor Pettigrew who had tried to pet her. He had needed a week at St. Mungo's. Pulling my thoughts away from the past, I began reading to the boy.

"Cedric himself knew nothing whatever about it. It had never been even mentioned to him. He knew that his papa had been an Englishman, because his mamma had told him so."

"Sir, my father had no magic, did he?"

"No, Tom," I said quietly. "It was your mother who came of Wizarding lineage."

"Why did she die then?" Huddled in the blankets, only his too pale face and dark eyes left exposed, he looked miserable. I rested Little Lord Fauntleroy on my knee and ran my fingers through the damp curls of his hair. He twitched once before lying quietly. I picked up the book and started reading again.

"Dearest," said Cedric (his papa had called her that always, and so the little boy had learned to say it),—"dearest, is my papa better?"

Tom murmured, "He didn't want my mother, did he? He used her and he threw her into the streets when she told him about me."

"You shouldn't speak so harshly," I tried to berate him, albeit half-heartedly. "We don't know what might have happened."

I knew what had happened. I knew of the love potion, the confrontation and the consequences.

Tom's eyes were fixed on my face as he said, "You know something."

Lord Voldemort always knows when you lie.

I took a deep breath and answered, "I know that your father was unpleasantly surprised by your mother's magic. He had not known of it earlier, you see. They were in love. They married. Then you came along. She thought that it was time to tell your father about the magic. It did not pan out well. They had a fight. He returned to his father's house and she came back to our world. They were both grieving and not thinking properly. It was then that your mother had you. Your father might have searched for her, Tom, in all the places they used to visit. He had no means to enter our world and, perhaps, he lives in the illusion that she took you away and raised you in our world. Who knows what he feels each time he sees children playing or mothers with prams on the country-streets?"

"Country-streets?" Tom breathed. "He is in the country, then? Mrs. Cole thought that he was one of those toffs from Pall Mall."

"I wouldn't know, Tom," I hedged. His eyes narrowed. I hastily added, "Your grandfather's house, where your mother grew up, is in the country. He is dead now. I have heard that he was the protective sort. He did not encourage his children to travel to the city. So I assumed that your mother met your father in her village."

Tom looked fit to burst with questions. I decided that I had indulged him enough. Also, I had to prepare a convincing tale and take Aberforth into my confidence before telling him anymore. So I shook my head sternly and returned to the reading.

"Then, little as he was, Cedric understood that his big, handsome young papa would not come back any more."

I read until I saw his eyes drooping shut. I could not resist pressing a quick kiss to his forehead.

"Good morning!" greeted an overly effusive Hyperion Malfoy, as he stood in our doorway with his hat in his hands and a younger, bonnier version of himself tugging on his robes.

"Malfoy," I said flatly.

"My son, Abraxas. Abraxas, greet Mr. Dumbledore, please."

Malfoy nudged the boy forward. Abraxas scowled at me and took one look at our home before saying, "How can you live here?"

It was just then that Aberforth and Tom ventured up the path with three goats in tow. My brother had taken Tom to Hog's Head to visit Billy. He had asked me to accompany them but I had told him that I would be happy enough to let Tom convey my regards to the goat.

Abraxas wrinkled his nose as he caught the rather strong scent of goat. I did not blame him. It had taken me ages to get used to that smell.

"Mr. Malfoy!" Tom greeted the balding man who had invited himself over and deemed it fit to bring his young miniature along.

"Abraxas, this is Tom. Tom, I have told you about my son, haven't I?"

Malfoy was eyeing Tom with the fond indulgence one usually reserves for favourite nephews. I glared at him. Aberforth was trying to keep the goats from getting closer to the younger Malfoy who looked quite green in the face.

"Abraxas is too long a name," Tom said. His eyes were shining in mischief. I wondered what the imp was planning. "May I call you Rax? We used to shorten names at the orphanage. It was easier and quicker."

"Rax?" Abraxas asked faintly, disdain and entitlement wiped off his face to be replaced by sheer horror. "Orphanage? Isn't it the name of one of those Greek caves where she-monsters freeze people into stones?"

"I am afraid that you have his nanny to blame for that," Hyperion Malfoy explained.

"I have such places to take you to, Rax," Tom promised solemnly. Abraxas's eyes widened and he clung to his father's robes a tad tighter. Aberforth's lips were twitching as he fought laughter.

My anger at finding the Malfoys on our doorstep vanished leaving behind vexed amusement as Tom offered his hand to Abraxas and asked softly, "You aren't afraid to come with me, are you, Rax?"

Abraxas bit his lips and said stubbornly, "I am not afraid of orphanages!"

Tom's eyes shone in mirth as he said, "That is quite brave of you, Rax. I am quite afraid of orphanages myself."

There was a note of wistfulness in his words. Was he envying Abraxas's ignorance of what orphanages stood for?

Tom's altered tone must have been evident to Abraxas too, for his eyes faded from frightened blue to confident azure and he said solemnly, "I won't let the she-monsters catch you, Tom."

Tom's eyes widened in and the mirth fled away from them leaving behind suspicions and disbelief. The hand he had been offering to Abraxas fell limp against his side.

"Come on," Abraxas said then, and walked right past a goat without noticing the smell, and offered a plump hand to Tom. "I'll kill the she-monster for you. Nanny told me that it will die if you throw sand into its eyes. You mustn't make eye-contact with the monster though, Nanny says."

On and on he nattered, while Tom stood still and measured every word that left Abraxas's lips and every gesture the young Malfoy made, before finally inhaling sharply as he realised that the other boy was sincere.

"We will start with the snails in the backyard and then eventually advance to slaying monsters," Tom offered, cutting into Abraxas's impromptu lecture on how to effectively kill she-monsters.

"You know a lot of big words," Abraxas noted. "Why did you shorten my name then?"

"Would you rather be called Abraxas?" Tom asked politely.

"No, you may call me Rax." The little Malfoy miniature then glared up at the rest of us. "Nobody else is allowed to call me Rax."

"I will make sure of that," Tom promised, with a smile lurking on his lips.

"Good!" Abraxas said happily, and looked expectantly at Tom while bouncing impatiently on the balls of his feet.

Tom chuckled before leading an enthusiastic Abraxas to the backyard with such self-assurance that I couldn't help recalling tales of Arthur and Lancelot. Abraxas had been one of Tom Riddle's earliest supporters in the timeline I had left. They had met at Hogwarts then. I had scarcely begun thinking of time and inevitability and paradoxes when Aberforth broke in saying, "Such a vivacious boy!"

"Takes after his mother," Malfoy commented absently with his eyes still on Tom's receding figure. "Very opinionated. Very headstrong. Very loyal."

"French blood, eh?" Aberforth asked amusedly. "The French goats are finicky creatures. Very difficult to make them happy in our pens here. Your wife was a Lestrange?"

"No, she was from the Montaigne family. Michelle de Montaigne," Malfoy said, looking properly horrified by the expression of bliss on my brother's features. It was one of the rare times where I found myself in accord with a Malfoy. That reminded me of why I was usually at loggerheads with their family.

"What brings you here?" I asked him.

What was his game? Was he trying to get Tom to build a rapport with Abraxas to ensure that the Malfoys would be placed in a position of favour once the puppet-masters behind Hyperion Malfoy achieved their goal?

Malfoy's eyes flicked to the boys once more before he said, "The boy, Percival. I may call you by your given name, may I not? It would be tedious to address both your cousin," he nodded at Aberforth, "and you as Mr. Dumbledore."

Aberforth did not dislike the Malfoys as intensely as I did. He had not been exposed to their views on blood purity and wealth accumulation since he did not move in their circles. So he chuckled at Hyperion Malfoy's words and said good-humouredly, "Of course you may, Mr. Malfoy."

"However, since there is only one of you, Mr. Malfoy," I interjected, "we would rather continue to address you formally."

"'Tis quite your prerogative, of course," Malfoy said easily. "I came here to give my boy the chance to meet our delightful Tom."

Our delightful Tom? I frowned. I did not like his increasing interest in the boy. Tom, on the other hand, had not looked upon the foppishly dressed Malfoy in suspicion. Was this because Hyperion Malfoy had brought a measure of succour while Tom had been in the Department of Mysteries? It was most unlike Tom to not actively mistrust others.

"Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?" Aberforth asked politely, though I could well tell that he was equally suspicious regarding Malfoy's motives.

"No, no, that wouldn't do at all," Malfoy said apologetically. "I have some business to see to. Would you-?" here he hesitated as if right on cue.

Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I said, "Let the boy play with Tom. You may fetch him once you have finished your business."

Malfoy thanked us both charmingly before taking his leave.

"Not your type?" Aberforth teased me. "I am surprised. He has quite a way with words, he is dressed to the nines and he has something of a reputation for being involved in shady activities."

I scowled at him for the presumption. The only emotion that Malfoy stoked in me was irritability.

"Ah, I forgot that you prefer Continental cuisine."

With that parting shot, he left with goats in tow. The picture they made disturbingly reminded me of that nursery rhyme about Mary and her devoted lamb.

After supper that day, Tom was pacing before the fire, with his hands tucked in his pockets and a faint frown on his forehead.

"Abraxas isn't as snooty as most rich children are, is he?" Aberforth asked rhetorically.

Tom glanced at him uncertainly before giving a cautious nod. He did not cease his pacing. Abraxas Malfoy's behaviour was confusing Tom. I could well understand why, though I had no personal experience. I had been a popular boy in my childhood years. Aberforth had been the shy one and had often faced difficulties mingling with the crowd because of being labelled as Albus Dumbledore's mediocre brother.

"He said he wanted me to attend his birthday party next week," Tom murmured. "I wonder why."

A dark expression settled on his features. Did he fear that it would be a repeat of the cruel taunts by the orphanage children?

I was torn between stating my disapprobation of being friendly with a Malfoy child and wanting Tom to trust the evident sincerity of the other's boy's friendship. Hyperion Malfoy's motives remained obscure and that worried me. The Malfoy miniature, however, held no ulterior motives and truly desired Tom's friendship. How would this play out? Had Hyperion Malfoy expected things to unfurl in this manner? If so, why? Would it be wiser to forbid Tom from a friendship with Abraxas? No, forbidding a curious child like Tom would not work in my favour. Tom would not have the chance to meet children his age before going to Hogwarts. Tom needed friends. Surely, a chance to form a rapport with a child who had grown up in the Wizarding world would help him fit in at school? Yet, it was the Malfoy child and Hyperion Malfoy's ties to Grindelwald bore closer scrutiny. How would I keep an eye on the situation then? With a sigh, I decided to let Aberforth manage this, for now.

"Tom, he isn't the nasty type," Aberforth said with unusual gentleness. Tom gave that cautious nod again. "And Albus will be with you." I frowned at Aberforth. That declaration seemed to set the boy at ease though, for he stopped pacing and turned to face Aberforth. "You can call him Rax before all his guests if he says anything remotely rude about you," my brother suggested with a twinkle in his eyes.

Tom grinned at that. Aberforth took advantage of the boy's mellowness and asked if he would mind me reading to him before bedtime again. Tom's eyes met mine for a moment before his gaze skittered away and he made a soft hum of assent.

Aberforth shot me a triumphant look as soon as Tom had left the room. Dear me, my brother had been the one to inherit my mother's skills at manipulation. How had he hidden it from me all these years?


External Source Text - Little Lord Fauntleroy by F. H. Burnett and The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

Chapter Text

I weighed the dark length of wood in my palms. Weak tendrils of yearning and magic reached out to me from the core of the once-powerful magical object that rested innocuously in my hands now.

"He is still the master of this wand, Albus," my brother said quietly, as he sat beside me on the dewy grass beneath the lone gnarled beech that stood in the farthest corner of our backyard, where it remained a silent testimony to time's passage. My mother had liked sitting here with her knitting on warm afternoons when her rheumatism bothered her less. I had brought him here often and we had many-a-time roughhoused, rolling and pinning down each other under this very tree. Tom, now, did not stray to this corner usually. He preferred the other corners, with their bushy undergrowth, where he could find serpentine companions that regaled him with stories.

Aberforth, too, preferred not to come to this corner. Perhaps he was reminded of how often I had ganged up with him to tackle my brother to the ground and tease him relentlessly regarding his weak stomach which acted up whenever he was pressured or frightened. Later, much later, in the late 1970s, Muggle researchers had called this condition the Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It was certainly too late for many sufferers like poor Aberforth who had to endure constant teasing and mocking from his peers who were quick enough to notice his condition in the confines of a residential school where gossip was the only thing that spread faster than a contagious disease. Perhaps my brother's situation might have been easier had I been more supportive. As it was, neither my mother nor I had perception enough to understand his plight and merely termed it a by-product of his self-esteem issues as he struggled to move away from the shadow of my fame. His early-life experiences must have moulded him into the man he grew into, a man willing to give the benefit of doubt to even those who had done nothing to deserve it.

"The magic feels off," he was saying now, peering at the wand thoughtfully.

"It is barely there," I murmured, glad for the opportunity to banish my uncomfortable streams of thought. "Feeble. The core feels drained and empty. It is merely acting as a conductor right now, and doing nothing to enhance my magic. I do believe that all the spells I have done since coming here could have been done without the aid of this crutch and still retained the same effectiveness."

He hummed and then said briskly, "Well, you can't be going anywhere with that, then. Crutch or no crutch, you need a proper wand."

"Ollivander might very well refuse to indulge us, Abe," I said wryly. "He did not even thank you for returning his wand."

"In his place, neither would I," Aberforth muttered. "The boy escaped too lightly for what he wrought."

"Would you rather that he hadn't?" I questioned, curious to know what my brother thought. I had not had a chance to discuss the matter with him.

"His grasp on morals is peculiar, that I cannot deny." Aberforth shrugged. "I have seen worse from boys who come from well-to-do, respectable families."

He had seen worse from his own brother.

"Abe-" I paused, unsure and nervous. What could be said now that might offer a degree of reparation for how I had wronged him in that period of cocky adolescence when I had basked in the aura of my brilliance and power?

"Oh, don't," he said softly. "You were eleven, the summer before you started Hogwarts, and you fetched my kite for me from this very tree when it got snarled in one of those branches above. Damn risked a fall, you did, and Mother was so angry with you. Sent you to bed without supper. Grounded you for a week. Still, you said, it was the only way, because I couldn't climb trees without getting frightened and getting frightened always made my stomach take a turn for the worse. So you did it for me."

I turned to look at him. There was a half-smile playing wistfully on his chapped lips. He met my gaze and said, "I know, Albus. Even though Castle Albus is the most pretentious man alive and too busy playing to his gallery of admirers, I know that my brother, who fetched my kite for me, is there. I am proved right, too, now that I know the man he became years later."

The explanation was ludicrous. It made no sense at all. I tossed the wand from hand to hand, and said, "Is this where I say that your faith in me has indeed saved us both?"

Aberforth chuckled and snatched the wand from me. Then he slid his hand inside the pocket of his tunic and revealed another wand. My eyes widened as he placed it on my open palms. Elm and dragon heart-string. My mother's wand. The remnants of her magic, as warm as the mismatched woollen socks she used to knit for us, permeated faintly from the wood. I curled my fingers over the wood and exhaled softly as a sense of rightness and belonging swept over my mind.

"Don't underestimate the power of faith, eh?" he said teasingly; his eyes were twinkling in mischief and he was grinning. "We are here, aren't we?"

"Sir, are you very sure that everyone will be wearing similar clothing?" Tom was standing before the mirror in my bedchamber, his eyes narrowed as he inspected the plain brown robes Aberforth had wrestled him into. "It looks like Father Sebastian's cassock."

I had had my eyes set on robes in a marvellous shade of sunny yellow, but Aberforth had bullied me into gold-trimmed black saying that hues of fuchsia, purple and yellow would only serve to underline my similarity with Castle Albus. Hearing Tom's opinion on formal Wizarding clothes, I was glad that I had meekly submitted to Aberforth's suggestions.

"It is staid, I grant," I told the boy. It was his first time, after all. I would do my best to be understanding. "I could charm bells and laces for the cuffs, my boy. That would make you cut quite the dashing figure. Why, when I was in my first year at school, my mother made for me a set of dress-robes that had the prettiest bells on its cuffs-"

"Thank you, sir. But if it's all the same to you, I would rather not have those added to the gown," Tom hastily cut in, looking quite pale. Gown? Poor boy, he was looking at this from quite the wrong perspective. I ruffled his neatly combed hair and tousled curls fell onto his forehead. Aberforth made his entrance just then and batted my hands away with an irritable, "No, you don't, Albus! It took me ages to get that flattened."

"Remember, keep close to Albus at all times," Aberforth instructed Tom. "And don't eat anything that looks off: oysters, mushrooms, truffles. Don't eat more than two slices of cake, too. And don't eat-"

"I won't," Tom said, a smile lurking on his lips. "I really won't, Abe."

"You are worrying too much," I told my brother as Tom moved to the other room to put on his shoes. "He is a paranoid little imp, you know."

"Yes, but he has never before in his life seen food as rich as is likely to be on the table tonight. He is just a little boy. He might be curious enough to try an oyster, then he might find that he likes it well enough, and then he might gorge himself on it," Aberforth muttered darkly. "Wouldn't want him to suffer the after-effects of such indulgences now, do we now?"

Aberforth never dined at restaurants or friends' houses. He preferred his own fare, simple and that which he was well-accustomed to.

"I will keep an eye on him," I promised.

I would be remiss with the truth if I were to say that I preferred austerity. I was not fond of overindulging in material comforts, 'tis true, however I was not above appreciating certain creature comforts as aesthetic habitations, fine food and wine. Malfoy Manor had all three aplenty and I would have been fonder of the place had it not been the abode of the most irritating man of my acquaintance.

I Apparated with Tom to the grandly wrought gate. Attendants chivvied us up the long oak-lined path and handed us over to the finely arrayed butlers who stood there waiting to relieve the guests of their coats and hats. In the time-worn tradition of ancient Wizarding houses, House Elves were seldom seen outside the kitchens in the daylight hours. This explained the abundance of man-servants in abodes such as Malfoy Manor. It was only after the dawn of the 1950s and the downward slump of the Wizarding economy that prominent families had resorted to replacing their man-servants by House Elves even during the daylight hours. An effective cost-cutting measure, certainly.

In the foyer leading to the dining chamber, grandly clad men and women fluttered about like butterflies in a poppy field. Such profusion of lace, silks and jewels were the invited luminaries arrayed in that even the Queen of Sheba might have been put to shame. My hand lingered on Tom's shoulder. I wondered why. Was it to ground him amidst all this splendour?

"Hallo!" a young boy's voice chirped up. "Haven't seen you before." The boy then proceeded to rake pale blue eyes over Tom's figure. A sneer curled the rosy lips proclaiming to the world that he found my young charge lacking. My fingers curled tighter over Tom's shoulder.

"I haven't been here before," Tom said politely. "I am Tom Riddle. May I know your name, please?"

"Tom?" the boy asked. "How plain!"

Tom stiffened. I squeezed his shoulder and then told sternly the menace clad in dove-grey silk, "Tom is quite a fine name, I tell you. What, may I enquire, is your name?"

"Florentin Lestrange," he said, puffing his chest out like the popinjay I thought he was. "Not a plain name at all, you see."

"Tom! There you are!"

Abraxas Malfoy, decked in white silk, came running towards us. His fair, round face was flushed with exertion and there were cake smears on his bonny cheeks. His hair formed dancing ringlets of pale gold about his head. Ah, I had forgotten that ringlets had been fashionable in this era. The flaming red hair of Titus Weasley in ringlets had caused the Sorting Hat to make a most unkind comment when the boy had been called to sort, the result of which had been the death of the ringlet fashion.

"What have they done to you?" Tom asked, wide-eyed. His right hand stretched out to touch a perfect little ringlet.

Abraxas tossed his head, as haughty as the ancient deity he had been named for, and said peevishly, "Nanny did it."

"Did she, now?" Tom asked, a semblance of sincere good humour creeping into his voice.

Abraxas huffed and reached across and mussed Tom's hair thoroughly with cake-smeared fingers. Tom gasped in surprise and leapt back skittishly, bumping into my body. I looped my arm about his unbalanced frame before he could fall in an ungraceful heap on Malfoy's marble floor.

"Frightens easily, doesn't he?" Florentin mocked. "Abraxas told me about it. Poor plain Tom is afraid of she-monsters!"

I was about to intervene, when a velvet-clad hand on my sleeve stopped me. I turned to see the portly figure of Horace Slughorn arrayed in fine blue velvet robes that had a line of pearl buttons down the front. Dear Horace did always have fondness for pearls. His eyes were fixed on Tom as he pulled me back to the loose circle formed by those in the gathering who had assembled to see the charade unfolding here.

"I should-" I began, worried for Tom. I did not worry for him per se, but I worried that he might cause harm to the other boys when he lost his temper, which he soon would, for he never was one to take slander lying down.

"No, my boy," Horace Slughorn said jovially, and passed me a flute of champagne. "The closest friendships are sprung from the foulest name-calling!"

I very much doubted Slughorn's authority on the matter. For all that he was a past-master at making circles of influence, he had not called any man friend in all the years I had known him. Indeed, it was this fact which had made both Voldemort and I suspicious of this man's ultimate allegiance.

"She-monsters?" another haughty young voice asked. I suppressed a groan and turned to watch the approaching figure of young Cygnus Black. "Wet your bed at night dreaming of them, Tommy? What a name, Abraxas! It," he waved his hand at Tom, "must be a Mudblood!"

"What is that rhyme about a Mudblood called Tom?" a female voice now joined the charade. The girl looked about twelve years of age and had the softly beautiful features of the distaff side of the Prewett family. Not all Prewetts were as tolerant and kind-hearted as Molly and her siblings.

"Alyssa Prewett," Slughorn told me. "Ravenclaw. Third year. Very talented at Transfiguration, your cousin Albus tells me."

Abraxas bit his lower lip and inched closer to Tom, who was standing stock still and betrayed only by the faint trembling of his fingers.

"I know that one," Cygnus Black drawled. "It goes like this." He cleared his throat and struck a ridiculous pose and began.

"Tom, Tom, the Mudblood boy,

Stole a pig, and away did run;

The pig was eat

And Tom was beat,

And Tom went crying

Down the street."

"Tom wouldn't steal pigs!" Abraxas protested.

"It is what Mudbloods do," Cygnus proclaimed with all the haughtiness befitting his princely station in life.

"What is a Mudblood?" Tom's clear voice interrupted.

"One like you, Tommy," Florentin sneered. "They are Muggle scum. Bed-wetters all, my Papa says!"

Aberforth was not one to cry. I had seen him weep only once, and that had not been for my mother's funeral, or by Ariana's graveside. It had been when a group of students had cornered him in the trophy room after a detention and taunted him until his stomach had acted up. They had left him there, and that night, I had been making my rounds as Prefect, and had stumbled upon my weeping brother who lay huddled on the floor with his head in his hands.

"You should be stronger," I had told my brother as I helped him up. "Control your mind and you can control your body. Try harder, will you?"

"Tom battled the she-monster and escaped!" Abraxas cut in. "He is brave, Florentin. You can't call him names."

I suppressed a smile as I saw Tom flushing at the unexpected defence. Despite his cautious optimism that Abraxas might not treat him half as badly as his mates at the orphanage had, he had not let himself hope. Paranoid wretch. I had been equally worried that Malfoy miniature might not hold to his word, but my cynicism had been founded after years and years of hoping and losing hope.

"So quick to declare loyalty," Slughorn murmured under his breath. "One wonders how long his mother's hot-headed French blood will stay true before his father indoctrinates him in the old Malfoy ways."

"They are children," I whispered sternly. "You make too much of childish taunting."

"The first battles, and the most significant ones, are fought in a playground," Slughorn said seriously.

Well, the man believed in the strangest things. Severus had criticised incessantly Slughorn's belief that nudity was a prerequisite for efficacious potion-making. In fact, I believed that Severus's insistence on remaining booted and cloaked while brewing potions was his own way of flipping Slughorn the finger. Fractious should have been that dear boy's middle name.

"Why then does your friend have a plain name?" Alyssa was asking Abraxas now. "Only Mudbloods have plain names. Everyone knows that!"

I wanted to shake the idiots for bringing up the matter of Tom's name. Plain, drab, dull, everyone is called Tom, unremarkable, not special had been the boy's complaints when I had brought him the Hogwarts letter all those years ago. Now they had raked to the forefront of this sensitive topic. What did Tom think? Would this mocking make him determined to change his name as soon as he could? Would this be yet another paradox of time to punish me for interfering with its flow? Did all roads lead to Rome and all flows of time lead to the cold husk of Voldemort? Was it all to end in vain, again?

"I was named after the Tom who made the pigs dance," Tom cut in, neatly putting an end to Alyssa's tirade on Mudblood naming traditions.

"You can make pigs dance?" Abraxas asked, wide-eyed and tugging on a particularly springy ringlet over his ear.

Tom winked at him and began singing with a rather remarkable Cockney accent which left me worriedly wondering what circumstances had led to his proficiency with dialect of the ignominious East End of London.

"Tom, Tom, he was a piper's son,

He learned to play when he was young.

And all the tune that he could play

Was over the hills and far away;

Tom with his pipe did play with such skill

That those who heard him could never keep still;

As soon as he played they began to dance,

Even the pigs on their hind legs would after him dance."

He learned to play when he was young. The preternatural manipulative skills of Tom Riddle were not to be underestimated. Was the boy already aware of how he could stir in the hearts of hardy men sympathy for his cause? A portent of what was to come? Would the silver-tongued piper lead the mice of Hamlin into that era of madness and terror where men were judged by the blood of their ancestors?

A lull had fallen in the gathering. Tom did have a lilting voice that lent itself to song. I wondered, and secretly worried, how his voice might change after puberty struck.

I was about to break the silence when I was beat to it by my neighbour.

"Bravo!" Horace Slughorn exclaimed. His eyes were gleaming in calculation. I clenched my jaw in order to suppress a scathing tirade on why he should not look at the boy as if Tom was merchandise. "Well done, Tom, my boy, very well done indeed!"

"Quite so," Hyperion Malfoy added his praise, a too sharp grin playing on his sunken features.

"You sing really nicely! But do pigs really dance on their hind legs?" Abraxas wanted to know. He looked quite worried about the prospect. "That wouldn't be proper, would it?"

"Only if they hear me singing, and I promise never to sing before them," Tom reassured him.

"That's all right, then!" Abraxas said happily. "Come on, let us go and grab the cake. It tastes like the tastiest cake, you know!"

"I am sure it does," Tom said wryly, though his eyes betrayed his pleasure at Abraxas's effusiveness towards him.

"Come on, then!" Abraxas tugged Tom's hand impatiently.

Tom cast his eyes about the gathering, a shade of nervousness marring his pale features. I wondered who he was looking for. Had he spotted someone from the Ministry, from the Department of Mysteries, earlier?

"He is looking for you," Slughorn murmured.

I looked at Tom, startled. Tom's gaze met mine right then and he tilted his head a fraction. By anyone else, it might have passed unnoticed, but I knew, and he knew, that I would mark the gesture. I nodded to him, thinking that he might be asking permission to accompany Abraxas.

"He is wondering if you are pleased with his song, Percival," Slughorn offered. "Boys, they are all the same! They do love showing off to their parents, don't they?"

Showing off? Parents? I felt a strange little pang of angry helplessness deep within my chest as I thought of the Tom Riddle who had, unknowingly, given this clever, fey boy his name. Tom was still holding my gaze and resisting Abraxas's efforts to cart him off to the dining chamber.

I smiled at him, then, and waved my hand to greet him, trying to express my approbation for his calm and clever handling of the mocking which had happened. His lips twisted into a wan grin before he quickly schooled his features and shot me a suspicious look. Then he let Abraxas tug him away.

Now I was left wondering what had been his motive to seek my gaze unnecessarily. Slughorn was wrong. Not all boys were the same, and not all boys sought approbation. Tom Riddle, for one, would always prefer to craft his own laurels instead of kneeling to receive the approbation of the world. Still, the boy had very nearly smiled at me. Perhaps, perhaps, what Slughorn said might hold a wee grain of truth.

I tried to quench the smug wave of giddy happiness which rose in me as I mused upon the thought that my approval mattered to the boy.

"Join us for an aperitif, Percival," Hyperion Malfoy murmured, placing a guiding palm on my sleeve and directing me to an elegantly appointed salon.

From the display-cases of knives and watch-pieces that littered the mantel-piece by the hearth to the scrolls sprawled on a desk in the corner, everything in the room testified to the lack of a feminine touch. On the mantel, stood propped an oval portrait of a rosy-cheeked, fair, flaxen-haired woman. She was a vision in bright purple skirts and a plain white blouse. Seeing the dimples in her cheeks and the half-pout on her lips, it was very easy to place her as young Abraxas's mother. She twirled her skirts once and executed a half-bow that showed us a glimpse of her ample cleavage.

"Behave!" Hyperion muttered, the softening of his patrician features betraying his deep affection for the woman. She winked at him and blew him a kiss.

"She has been singing bawdy lays in French and behaving most scandalously ever since we took our seats," a portly man with a high reedy voice complained from his perch on the decadently upholstered couch across us.

I suppressed a cringe as I recognised him: Frederick Lestrange, Head of the Auror Department. Beside him sat the familiar figure of Tiberius Fudge, Undersecretary to the Minister. Also assembled were key personages of the economic and political circles of the time, all well-plied with what seemed to be port. In a corner, looking peeved and disgruntled, sat Aloysius Moody. Well, well, well, Malfoy certainly had quite a hold in the Ministry if he could summon Moody to a birthday party.

The gracious host led me to an empty armchair by Moody's side and took himself off to the mantel-piece, where he busied himself pouring me port. As he passed the tumbler to me, I inhaled sharply the rich, sweet, heavy tang of the vintage wine.

"A connoisseur like myself, eh?" Malfoy asked, taking the seat across me. He set his tumbler by his elbow and rested his chin on his clasped hands, showing off the fine golden cufflinks of his robes to good effect. Age did not diminish a Malfoy's vanity, did it?

I took a sip of my wine and pronounced, "Garrafeira, if I am not mistaken. I would estimate it anywhere between thirty and thirty-five years."

"What would a Mexican immigrant know of our wines?" Tiberius Fudge asked.

Malfoy raised his eyebrows and said quietly, "Rather a lot, it seems, Tiberius. The port is thirty-four years old. It was put to mature by my late father-in-law at the turn of the century, to mark my wife's birth."

"Your wife was French, was she not?" I asked, remembering that he certainly had mentioned something to the effect when he had introduced Abraxas to us.

"Yes, she was. However, her family often spent their summers in a hamlet called Pinhão, in the Douro river valley region of Portugal."

"I couldn't care less about your wife's summer amusements," Aloysius Moody growled. "What are you angling for, Malfoy? Don't think that I haven't been watching you toadying up to the little psychopath! Recruiting for the Dark Lord, are we? Catch 'em young, and all."

Malfoy frowned and took a sip of his port. Tiberius Fudge harangued Moody for daring to besmirch the saintly reputation of the Ministry's benefactor. Aloysius did not back off. Dear man did always have less self-preservation and tact than his son. Alastor Moody would have called a strategic retreat for the day.

"The boy's a Half-Blood. Mudblood in your parlance, eh?" Moody continued. "Not like to put up with such sort, is it?"

"I saw him being interrogated by your people in the Department of Mysteries. Wouldn't a case filed with the Underage Magic department have sufficed instead of subjecting him to your heavy-handed techniques?" Malfoy parried. "My concern for him arises from that."

"As his guardian," Moody spat as if the very word was anathema to him, "isn't it your place to be offended by the petty cruelties my people have shown Tom, Mr. Percival Dumbledore?"

"Call me Percival, if you please," I suggested, none too eager to be drawn into a battle of words with Moody. "My concern for Tom was offset by my trust in the Ministry."

"You trust the Ministry, do you?" Tiberius Fudge asked, a sneer forming on his lips. "Most unlike your cousins, then. Albus likes to keep us in the dark regarding his patriotic activities. And I shall speak nothing of the goat-lover here."

"Scandalous," murmured Frederick Lestrange. "Most scandalous."

"They should marry," Tiberius Fudge proclaimed. "Marriages settle scandals."

"Ah, but neither brother is of the marrying sort, are they?" Lestrange mused. "I hear such strange tales that speak of Albus cavorting with men in his youth. Most inappropriate! I do wonder how Dippet agreed to give him the teaching position."

"He is an excellent teacher, my dear boy," Horace Slughorn protested as he entered the room with a flute of champagne. I felt vindicated by Slughorn's defence, however the fact remained that he had not seen it fit to deny Lestrange's accusations.

"My cousin is dedicated to his research and work," I demurred. "He has nothing against the institution of marriage. In fact-" I paused until even the impatient Moody gave me his full attention, "-he believes that the right woman is yet to come."

"What a far-fetched theory, Mr. Dumbledore!" Lestrange exclaimed. "Surely you cannot expect us to believe that."

"Hmm..." Malfoy murmured. "Not very far-fetched at all, I daresay. I was of the romantic turn myself. I spent countless seasons in Paris and Rome in opera-boxes, sitting with my binoculars in my hands, and watching the debutantes of the season, waiting for something to point me towards the woman who would be my wife. Indeed, I met Michelle," here he sent a fond glance at the dancing woman in the portrait, "at Carlo Zambini's opening-season party in Rome."

"A man of sixty wedding an eighteen-year-old girl," Moody snorted. "If that isn't scandal, then Albus's bachelor state surely does not deserve the title of inappropriate."

I was looking at Malfoy sceptically. While I had little knowledge of what women looked for in a marriage, I was reasonably sure that balding, scrawny men past the prime of their lives certainly held no charm as a prospective bridegroom. Had he fed her a love-potion? I thought of Merope Gaunt, then, and of the boy who had been born of that disastrous union.

"Oh, men have done worse," Malfoy waved his hand. "Did you hear that Grindelwald has taken a young wife? She hails from Szeged, one of those cities that were overrun by the Romanians in 1919. In fact, I hear that she is a war-orphan."

I set down my tumbler of port all too suddenly and Tiberius Fudge sent me a disapproving look. Moody was watching me with eyes narrowed. I eased back into the armchair and tried to affect calm. War-orphan. Yes, that explained why Gellert, no, Grindelwald had chosen her.

"How do you know of such things?" Moody asked Malfoy.

"My wife's family suffers the encroaching shadow of Grindelwald's terror," Malfoy said. "Things are worsening in Poland, Romania, Mongolia, Turkey and Germany. I hear that Grindelwald has sworn vengeance on all nations that have, in the past, invaded his mother-land."

"I cannot understand him," Moody admitted, albeit grudgingly. "All this power at his beckoning and he seeks to wipe out entire nations instead of trying to wrest for himself world-domination. It is as if he cares little for personal supremacy and wants to show himself the avenger of the wrongs done to Hungary."

"The Ministry is taking the cautious approach," Slughorn said. "I am not convinced that it is in our best interests to wait Grindelwald out. He needs to be stopped."

"Albus Dumbledore is in favour of waiting it out," Tiberius Fudge said morosely. "We did try to convince him that it would do us no good. He says that Grindelwald will soon believe himself invincible and thus make a mistake as the egotistical are bound to do, sooner or later."

"The economy is frail," Malfoy said. "We really cannot afford an all-out war, Tiberius. Best to end Grindelwald before he invades our country."

"Look who is talking!" Moody sneered. "Your family has a time-worn tradition of nurturing Dark Lords. In fact, you might be Grindelwald's stooge in the Ministry for all that we know."

"Grindelwald is bad for business," Malfoy said matter-of-factly. "No sane businessman is going to support him."

"Why do you think that your cousin is keen on playing the waiting game?" Moody asked me, paying no attention to Malfoy's reasoning.

Why? A summer's friendship, the spectre of Ariana, the fear of defeat; so many unacknowledged reasons made Castle Albus stall for time just as I had once done.

A valet made his entrance just then and made a discreet nod to Malfoy.

"Time for dinner!" Malfoy said jovially.

The dinner itself was a sumptuous affair with six courses. Fine sorbet between the courses washed down the cloying taste of the relevés. The chefs had outdone themselves with the salmon and the filet mignon, and the guests complimented Malfoy on the table he kept. He demurred that his housekeeper was the one who deserved the accolades. Aloysius Moody had set aside his sarcasm and declared that the quail was passable, a grand compliment coming from him. A rich confection of peaches in Chartreuse jelly rounded off the last course and we settled at a large table in the rose garden with petit fours and coffee. I was very glad that Aberforth had declined the invitation. Such food would not have done his poor stomach any good.

The conversation turned to weightier topics – Grindelwald, the economy and the changes to the Hogwarts ways brought in by the Dippet-Dumbledore duo. I remained silent, nodded at appropriate moments whenever a moderate opinion was voiced and watched the players keenly. Moody and Lestrange were fiery with their words and they came across as hardliners. Malfoy stayed out of the arguments and played a placating role whenever needed. Fudge and many others were supporting either Lestrange's call for protecting the purity of the bloodlines or Moody's demand that the Ministry declare war on Grindelwald instead of remaining uninvolved. Moody's call for ending Grindelwald earned more supporters. In 1934, the Wizarding World was concerned more by the economy and Grindelwald and pureblood propaganda had yet to gain foothold. It would, soon.

"Here the children come!" Malfoy exclaimed, and indeed, a gaggle of boys and girls came trooping after a formidable matron who was tugging Malfoy miniature by the ear. Ah, this must Abraxas's infamous nanny. Tom was following them at a discreet distance, looking content.

"Have they been giving you trouble, madam?" Malfoy asked.

"Young Master Malfoy has been in fisticuffs with Master Lestrange and Master Black," she said with a disapproving sniff. "I told him that an apology is in order if he expects not to be grounded on his birthday."

"Dear me, he shall have to be grounded," Malfoy agreed.

Tom crinkled his nose as if the very concept of grounding he considered beneath his notice. Then he stepped forward, threw Abraxas a long-suffering look, and said, "Rax was trying to defend my honour, Sir."

I stared at him, shocked beyond words. Tom was voluntarily offering to share a portion of the blame? Something white-hot, so painfully happy bloomed in me and I clutched the coffee cup tightly.

"How quaintly medieval!" Slughorn exclaimed. "Tell me, Abraxas, what made you defend his honour so?"

Abraxas tugged at his cake and mud smeared silken clothes and muttered, "They called him a bad word because he didn't know where his father is. It wasn't right, was it, to call him bad names? He is my friend. Papa fought a duel for the old Headmaster when Lysander Bones insulted him, because Papa was the Headmaster's friend."

Friendship. Would I have fought a duel for Grindelwald had someone insulted him? Would he have fought for me?

"A right and proper little Lord Fauntleroy," Tom murmured, smiling despite himself at his spirited defender.

Indeed. With his golden ringlets and bonny form, Abraxas Malfoy was the very picture of the child who had thawed old Earl of Dorincourt.

"What is that?" Abraxas demanded. The others in the gathering were similarly looking puzzled by the reference.

Tom looked at me then and we shared a conspiratorial grin. I forgot all about Szeged and war-orphans and the man whose reign of terror extended from Nurmengard to Turkey and the hoarded memories of a summer made most remarkable by friendship.

"Nothing important," Tom told Abraxas, and his mirth-filled eyes continued to hold my gaze.

I was not alone in Lilliput anymore.



External source text – Tom, Tom the piper's son, a popular nursery rhyme. The Hungarian Grindelwald premise is borrowed from Himnusz, a little story where I tried my hand at romance. If you are the hardy sort, try and give it a glance sometime :)

Chapter Text

"Not that again!" Abraxas whined.

His whole demeanour, from his pouting lips to his dainty scowl, reflected the spoiled upbringing he had been indulged in by his aging father who saw in the boy's every gesture the spectre of a coquettish young woman who had captured Hyperion's cold heart. Aberforth was itching to chide the boy, I could see. Aberforth loathed entitlement.

Tom, sitting across Abraxas at Aberforth's kitchen-table, had noticed my brother's irritation too. He lifted his spoonful of lamb stew to his mouth, made a humming appreciative noise and swallowed it down.

Abraxas frowned at that, torn between wanting to find out how tasty the stew was and protesting Aberforth's reheating of yesterday's stew. Conflicted, he returned to glaring at the bowl my brother had set before him.

"He made it yesterday," he complained, twisting his spoon in his fingers. Aberforth growled and raised his ladle to smack the boy's fingers. I quickly asked for seconds and averted my brother's wrath. He could be most touchy about questions on his culinary expertise.

"Rax, you like cakes, don't you?" Tom asked, fighting a smile.

Abraxas nodded earnestly.

"Cakes are made days before you eat them, aren't they, Abe?" Tom asked.

Abraxas's eyes widened in horror.

"Weeks before they are eaten," Aberforth replied firmly.

"Oh," whispered Abraxas, looking as shaken as if the very world he stood upon had been made topsy-turvy by this revelation. Perhaps it had been. Abraxas loved cakes.

"They still are tasty, aren't they?" Tom pressed on.

"They are the tastiest," proclaimed his friend.

"This is like that," Tom waved his spoon at Abraxas's untouched stew. "Go on. Try it."

He made such a charming picture of persuasion that elicited both fear and admiration from me. Was this how he had hoodwinked otherwise sane men into following him the last time around?

Abraxas caved in. I did not blame the boy. Men older and wiser than him would have been hard put to say no to Tom Riddle at his most charming.

He took a spoonful, made a thoughtful face and mumbled, "It doesn't taste awful."

Aberforth harrumphed and returned to his cooking.

I chuckled and teased my brother, "Abe, I told you. No mortal can resist your stew."

He threw me a filthy glare before turning his attention to stirring the contents of the small pot. Abraxas finished his bowl, smacked his lips, declared that lamb-stew was like his Papa, and that it got better with aging. After this sage proclamation, which had sent Aberforth into gales of laughter, the boy dragged Tom outside.

"You are in a bad state today," I told Aberforth. "Why don't you retire and let me manage here?"

"I fear to let you loose in the kitchen," Aberforth muttered.

I scowled at that, but made no further comment. He was in a tetchy temper today, no doubt due to his stomach acting up.

"I am leaving now," he said grumpily.

I had earlier suggested that he might remain home. He had muttered something about money being more difficult to grow than mould. I had fallen silent at that. I knew I could not make contributions to the household expenses. We were entirely dependent on his income from Hog's Head.

He pulled on his coat, turning away from me so that his bloated stomach remained concealed from my view. Unable to watch him struggle to clasp the buckles over the protrusion of his belly, I murmured an inane excuse about closing the window in my room and hurried away.

That evening, after an immaculately attired butler had escorted Abraxas away, I joined Tom in the backyard. Tom was busy making notes as he examined the crusts of bread he had left in the kitchen window to gather mould. He must have brought the plate with him after Abraxas had left.

In the months following the birthday party at Malfoy Manor, there developed a burgeoning friendship between the boys. Any question of separating them was now moot. I knew Tom's nature well enough to even dare consider the option of forbidding him from seeking the other boy's companionship. However, I remained wary about Hyperion Malfoy's motives and refused to entertain the notion of Tom playing with Abraxas at Malfoy Manor. Instead, a butler in Malfoy's employ escorted Abraxas to our home in Godric's Hollow every Saturday and the boy would spend the day here. Malfoy had balked at the idea of his scion cohabiting with goats once a week. It had taken Aberforth's assurances that there were no goats in the vicinity, Abraxas's whining and Tom's persuasion to get Malfoy to agree.

"Abe isn't well, is he?" Tom asked, breaking the silence we had been peacefully entombed in. He had set aside his notebook and mouldy bread, and was now looking at me carefully.

Pretending ignorance or dismissing his question outright would not serve me. So I settled on a nod of assent.

"He grows fat sometimes, suddenly," Tom murmured, keenly watching my face. "He eats nothing on those days."

When I had been as young as Tom, I had not given a thought to Abe's condition. Mother had, but she passed it off as an attention-seeking manoeuvre by my brother since he often felt overlooked, wedged as he was between Ariana and I.

Tom was now waiting for my response, his eyes bright with curiosity. There was something else too, I noticed. The light was fading rapidly, but I could see well enough to make out the expression on his features. I inhaled sharply when I realised what it was: concern. I had not expected that. Tolerance was the most benign emotion I had thought him capable of. Whatever Aberforth said, Castle Albus, Ollivander and I were right. There was a depth of darkness in Tom that not even Grindelwald possessed.

Even if Aberforth had raised the boy from cradle, Tom's character would still hold that darkness. I knew that well. Then what did I hope for? That the boy would learn to wrest with the darkness and conquer it, on a daily basis? Could he do that? He had a powerful mind. He certainly could quench the darkness within if he tried enough, couldn't he? Was it like Aberforth's recurring condition that had no cure?

Severus, who had a near obsessive interest in both the Magical and Muggle mind-arts, often used the term sociopath when speaking of Tom Riddle, and the term psychopath when speaking of Voldemort. He had clearly delineated between the two. I had not paid attention to Severus's theory, for I had seen no prudence in encouraging him further in the realm of the study of the human mind, given that he had enough questionable pursuits already.

Now Tom was showing concern for Aberforth. Was he feigning it? Was he truly concerned? He was so young. He had shown me trust, he had helped me make peace with my sister's death, he had looked for my approval, he had desperately searched for the father who had abandoned him and now he was asking about my brother's welfare.

"What is the sickness?" Tom asked in a hushed voice.

It was highly indicative of the quagmire my life was that he would ask the one question I had no eagerness to answer. How did one explain to a child the recurring condition that poor Aberforth had suffered in silence all his life?


Castle Albus swooped to my rescue, a bright purple-clad knight with a cape that had silver tassels at its ends. I suppressed a sigh of envy at the cape and rose to my feet. Beside me, Tom was staring in horror at the visitor.

"What is it, my boy?" I asked, concerned.

"The cloak is very bright," he said, blinking once and looking away from our guest with unwarranted haste.

Starting this week, I would have to devote an afternoon to educating the boy in the intricacies of fashion. I refused to let him imbibe Aberforth's lack of taste when it came to garments, wine and literature.

"It is a cape," corrected Castle Albus peevishly. Then he turned to face me and said, "Aberforth has created a fuss at his tavern, claiming to be ill. He had me sent for and asked that I tell you he might not be returning tonight."

"Is he very ill?" I asked, worried. I should not have let my brother leave in the morning. He had shown every sign of distress and we had both ignored the matter by unspoken accord.

"Imaginary illnesses," Castle Albus sniffed disapprovingly. "It is all in his mind."

I had been the poorest excuse for a brother in 1935. Seeing the unsympathetic irritation on Castle Albus's face, I wanted to jinx his beard fuchsia and glue his tongue to the roof of his mouth.

"He takes ill often, Mr. Dumbledore," said Tom then.

Defending Aberforth. That could not be feigned, could it? The boy truly liked Aberforth and was concerned about my brother's welfare. I was gladdened, and I was anxious. Would he defend me in a similar manner?

"If Mr. Riddle says so, then it must be right," Castle Albus said. "Psychopaths are said to have sterling powers of observation when it comes to watching others."

I placed a restraining arm on Tom's shoulder before he could respond. "He is not a psychopath," I corrected Castle Albus firmly, with the conviction borne of carefully evaluating every word and action of Tom's since I had rescued him from the orphanage.

Castle Albus chuckled, his eyes letting me know how absolute he believed his verdict about Tom was, and said indulgently, "As you say, Geppetto. I must be on my way now."

Geppetto. The man who had made the marionette. Tom did resemble the boy the puppet becomes at the end of Collodi's classical story: tall, pale and handsome.

"I am not his puppet!" exclaimed Tom, looking appalled by the reference to Pinocchio.

Ah, yes, Tom's streak of independence had risen. I had best send Castle Albus on his merry way before the backyard was again made an arena for Tom's wild magic. Something told me that Castle Albus would have no compunction in using magic to show Tom his place if that happened. Dealing with Tom was hard enough. Dealing with Tom and Castle Albus together, with their sharp intelligence and obscure motivations, would make any man go spare.

"Thank you, Albus," I said hastily. "You could have sent an Owl instead of taking the trouble to come over."

Castle Albus hummed and dug out a lemon-drop from a pocket in his robes. He extended it to Tom and asked benevolently, "Lemon-drop, Pinocchio?"

Tom stared at the lemon-drop, perplexed, before he shook his head. There was barely controlled anger in the boy's eyes at Castle Albus's continued references to the puppet, but I tightened my fingers on his shoulder, warning him silently not to lose his temper.

"A pity! I shall be on my way then. There are classes to prepare for," remarked Castle Albus, and left us.

After he had disappeared, I turned to face Tom and said, "Lemon-drops are very tasty. Never say no to one of those."

"Mrs. Cole said I should not eat anything given by strangers," Tom said. I was unable to resist a moment of glee upon hearing that he considered Castle Albus a stranger.

"She is right, my dear boy, but you can bend the rule for lemon-drops."

Tom looked at me in disbelief. Tom – Thomas – the doubting Thomas of Biblical fame. Dear me, dear me, how had I not seen the connection before?

"Your name becomes you very well indeed!" I exclaimed.

He looked even more suspicious now, but he gamely asked, "Better than Pinocchio?"

"What can I say, my boy?" I waved at the place where Castle Albus had been standing. "I wasn't always as wise as I liked to think I was."

Tom gave a faint smile at that and his fingers came to rest lightly upon my grip on his shoulder.

"I would have lost my temper if you hadn't warned me, Sir," he remarked thoughtfully.

I waited patiently. It was an uphill task, but learning to follow his twisted, dear mind would serve me better than making assumptions.

"I am glad I didn't lose my temper-" and control, he left unsaid, "-because he would have done something frightening and powerful with his wand and then said, Poor Pinocchio, eh? Geppetto, think you can put him back together? It would be a pity if you couldn't."

He had mimicked Castle Albus so perfectly that I did not know if I should be admiring or worried. This, I realised, was my usual state of mind when dealing with him.

"Let us go and see if Billy needs a hand or two to help taking care of Abe?" I suggested.

When we reached Hog's Head, I was surprised to find the tavern busy with patrons. I bundled Tom into Aberforth's Invisibility Cloak and steered him between the rickety tables. There were all sorts here, as usual, ranging from warlocks to vampires. I did not want them catching sight of Tom.

Many people have often wondered how I could spot eavesdroppers covered by Invisible Cloaks. It was very easy and required only a minimum of concentration. Invisibility Cloaks were intended to hide a person, not his magic. The more powerful the magic in a person was, the more difficult it was to remain undetected even when under a Cloak. This was why Severus and I had an easy time detecting Harry when the boy lurked about the Castle at nights under his father's cloak.

Tom, now, radiated magic from every pore of him and I held no hope of him remaining undetected were someone with half-a-brain to take notice. Many a person were uncomfortably fidgeting in their seats and turning their gaze away from me as we passed them, no doubt thinking that I was the one responsible for their discomfort.

There was a petite woman at the bar, busy serving drinks and haggling prices with a werewolf. In those days, werewolves were instantly recognisable from their peculiar gait which resembled that of a predator. They lived on the fringes of civilised society, in caves and abandoned hovels. The awareness movement that had resulted in assimilating them into society had happened only in the late 1960s.

The woman finished her haggling with the werewolf and turned to face me. A gasp of surprise escaped me as I recognised her: Amelia Bones.

"Albus!" she exclaimed, looking extremely discomfited. A few patrons turned at her greeting and many pairs of eyes were now warily watching me. The name of Albus Dumbledore was not welcome in quarters as shady as these. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"I am Percival," I explained, before we drew others' attention. "Cousin. I came to see if I could do anything for Aberforth."

"The cousin from Mexico?" she asked. So the story had been circulating in the Ministry. I would have to thank Castle Albus for that the next time I saw him. "I am Amelia Bones. Aberforth's friend."

"At your service, madam," I said, giving her a courtly bow.

She grinned at that and said, "Oh, you Dumbledores are all the same! Charmers all! He is upstairs. Here, take this bowl of broth." She shoved it into my hands. A few drops spilled and fell upon poor Tom who stiffened under my grip but made no noise. I was very grateful for his high tolerance level to pain, since there were many a pair of unfriendly eyes watching us closely. "He hasn't eaten anything today," Amelia explained.

I took the bowl and led the way upstairs, confident that Tom would follow without attracting attention.

"Albus!" Aberforth hissed when he saw me. I hurried to his side. He was sweating profusely and lying on his back on a couch that seemed to be a relic from the Crusades. Billy the goat was curled asleep in a corner of the room.

"What are you doing here?" he asked irritably as I poured a glass of water for him. He batted my hand away and continued, "You cannot help here. Go home, will you?" His eyes narrowed then and he barked, "Did you bring the boy here?"

I plucked the cloak off Tom, who was looking curiously at the artefact. "It is magic," I told him, "and you need to learn Latin to understand it."

"Why did you bring him here?" Aberforth groaned. "With the sort of folks downstairs - if they as much as get a whiff of him, we will have bloodshed."

"What is Amelia doing here?"

Aberforth scowled and turned his attention to the ceiling. So he did not want prying into that matter, then. Most illuminating. They had been in the same year at Hogwarts but I had not realised that they were more than mere acquaintances. Aberforth had been a shy boy and had remained friendless for the entire duration of his study at Hogwarts.

I gathered my patience. I had not tried to understand his condition when we had been younger. This time I would show him that I cared and that I understood.

"I brought you broth," I said helpfully. "Would you like some now?"

"Get out of my sight," Aberforth suggested. "I am not in a forgiving mood. How dare you compromise the boy's safety by bringing him here?"

He was trying to pick a fight, the miserable creature that he was. I itched to voice a suitable retort, but I refrained, since I had sworn to be the magnanimous elder brother this night.

"A lemon-drop, then?" I asked. "It helps settle the stomach, you know."

"Castle Albus has already been here, pontificating the merits of that quack candy you both swear by," Aberforth mumbled. "I have told him where to shove it. Would you like me to repeat the suggestion?"

Tom, beside me, giggled. I cuffed his head gently. He glared at me for that and quickly moved away from me to where Billy lay asleep. He dropped into a crouch and gently prodded the goat awake. The goat made a noise of protest and Tom began talking to it softly in the broken down English one uses to coo at babies. The boy must have learnt it from Abe who indulged his goats with such nonsense. I told myself that I did not find the sight of Tom cooing at a goat endearing.

Aberforth's eyes softened for a moment upon seeing that. Then he looked at me angrily and muttered, "You shouldn't have hauled him here, Albus. I don't want him listening to the kind of words I might use in this situation."

I wanted to tell my brother that it was clearly too late to worry about Tom's exposure to swear-words and filthy language. The boy had been roaming the streets of London, after all, from a very young age. However, pointing that out to Aberforth right now would only earn me another tirade.

"Castle Albus called Tom Pinocchio," I said, changing the topic effectively. Tom stopped petting Billy.

Aberforth was more kindly disposed towards me than towards my younger self and this would make a suitable distraction as Aberforth busied himself defending Tom and being angry with Castle Albus.

To my surprise, Aberforth grunted and said, "Don't you worry your head about that, Tom. He is like lamb-stew. Gets better with age."

With heroic effort, Tom managed to stifle his grin, though the helpless curving of his lips gave his game away. Aberforth's eyes were twinkling in amusement. I huffed in disdain and pulled a chair beside the couch.

Seating myself, I said sternly, "If you are well enough to poke fun at my sorry self, you are well enough to make an attempt at eating."

Aberforth chuckled, swung his legs down, pushed himself into a sitting position and grabbed the bowl from me.

"You have pulled him out of that irascible mood!" Amelia exclaimed as she entered the room softly and bolted the door behind her. "Percival, this is nothing short of a miracle."

"Blackmail," I said, winking at her. She rolled her eyes. I continued blithely, "I know wild secrets about him; secrets that would make your hair curl!"

"Isn't Albus the wild one?" she asked, laughing. "Say, you are the spitting image of Albus too. Down there, when I first saw you, I thought you were him. Foolish of me, though. Albus would never wear sensible colours like brown."

Dear me, I had never known that staid, old Amelia could laugh like this. I had also not known that she did not consider my colour preferences sensible. She walked to Aberforth and handed him the key. "All locked up, Abe. I have done the accounts too. Are you returning home?"

"I may stay here tonight, Amelia." Then he glared at me. "And eyes off her, Percival," Aberforth said sternly. "Tom, come here. Amelia, this is young Tom Riddle."

She shifted her gaze from me to the boy. Her features morphed from enjoyment into wariness.

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Tom murmured politely.

"So this is what your cloak smuggled in, Percival?" she asked me. I gave her a charming grin. Aberforth rapped my knuckles with his soup-spoon.

"Will you take Billy to the pen, Tom?" Aberforth asked. "It is late."

Once Tom had left bearing a lantern, and with a frisky goat at his heels, Amelia turned to face us.

"There is a possibility that they might not let him enrol at Hogwarts, given his past conduct," she said quietly.

"There are no official charges," I reminded her. "Ollivander has withdrawn his complaint. Surely that means there will be no repercussions?"

"There is gossip on the streets, Percival. Ollivander has influence," she said. "The matter of the boy's education in a Wizarding school, if you choose to pursue it, might come to the Wizengamot. If the Wizengamot turns down your appeal and Hogwarts will not open its doors, where will you go? Beauxbatons is no option. Durmstrang is a battleground."

"What do you suggest?" Aberforth asked, worried. "I was intending that Percival might apply for a teaching position at Hogwarts. With Albus and Percival both there, we may assure the Wizengamot that Tom will be no threat to others."

"Albus has influence," admitted Amelia. "I will do what I can to sway the opinion, should the matter come to the Wizengamot. Let us hope it will not come to that."

"The boy has no affinity for our ways," Aberforth remarked. "Even if the letter of admission from Hogwarts does not come, it is not the end of the world, is it? We can send him to a Muggle school. He is a brilliant boy. He will do well there."

I stared at my brother, shocked by his words into silence. Tom had an exceedingly fine mind and powerful magic. Such raw potential! To let that go to ruin by educating him in the Muggle world was sacrilege! How could Aberforth even suggest that as an option?

Two days later, Aberforth was humming merrily as he prepared bacon. I took my customary seat at the kitchen-table and glanced out the window. Tom was in the far-corner of the backyard, lying flat on his stomach and peering down a hole.

"What is he doing?" I asked, alarmed.

"He said there is a snake down there," Aberforth muttered.

"For his sake, I hope that Castle Albus does not come barging in now," I said fervently, my mind replaying the incident with Ollivander.

Aberforth made an assenting noise and set a plate of bacon before me. Without further ado, I tucked in. It was ironic that my brother, who could eat only the blandest of foods, was an excellent cook while I, with my epicurean tastes, seemed capable only of burning the toast. All my clothes were tearing at the stitches because of the weight I had gained by virtue of my brother's cooking. My collar-bone and ribs had disappeared under a soft layer of flesh. With luck, the change in appearance would reduce my likeness to Castle Albus and help the fiction that I was Aberforth's cousin.

"You haven't asked me about Amelia," Aberforth said, apropos of nothing. But I could hear the singular strain in his voice as he uttered her name. Was he worried that I might meddle and destroy the one fine thing in his life? Was this why he had never told me in that timeline?

"I don't need to, do I?" I asked him quietly. "A blind man can see that you are devoted to her just as she is devoted to you."

"It isn't like that," he mumbled, puttering about with his pots and pans and refusing to face me. "We go to church together on Sundays. I haven't dared ask her if she wants more..."

"Because you worry that you might not be capable of it," I softly completed the sentence for him.

"There is that, yes," he said. His voice was rough and jagged. I closed my eyes when I realised the significance of this conversation. My brother was starting to trust me again. This was as momentous as that moment when Tom had accepted my embrace in St. Mungo's.

"It is Amelia, Abe," I said, trying to mask that giddy mixture of joy, awe and fear. "She knows you. She will never ask more than you can give, you know."

"She is a damn fine woman," Abeforth said. The wistful fondness in his voice testified to the depth of his regard for her. Had I spoken so affectionately of that madman who was terrorising Eastern Europe now? That madman had married a war-orphan.

At that moment, I felt very, very alone in the world.

"Oh, look at them!" squealed a little dervish that swept into our kitchen. In his cupped palms were three wriggling snakes. My eyes widened in shock as I recognised the inverted 'V' on their heads – adders. Tom couldn't be satisfied with garden snakes, could he? He had to go and find a hatch of adders.

Aberforth looked quite nauseated by the sight. He loathed snakes though he had put up with Hero for Tom's sake. "Put them right back in that hole, Tom. Their mother will be worried!"

"They are snakes," Tom laughed. "They don't live in packs, Abe. Besides, their mother has already left. I am keeping them."

"Cradle-robber!" exclaimed Aberforth.

"Does that make me Rumpelstiltskin?" Tom wondered. "I would rather be Rumpelstiltskin than Pinocchio."

Aberforth pinched his nose and turned to me with a fierce look.

"Did you let the imp loose among Grimm stories?"

I hastily rose from the table and made for the door, not wanting to be in his path while he embarked on a march of wrath. Tom followed suit rapidly, his hands still protectively scooped about the three new hatchlings.

"You had best set the hatchlings loose, Tom," I said seriously. "They are adders. Venomous."

"No, they aren't," he said confidently.

"Adders are venomous."

"They are venomous. I meant they aren't hatchlings, Sir. Adders give birth to their young."

Right. A piece of serpentine trivia I had managed to survive without all these years. Something about the concept bothered me though.

"The mother left them even though she gave birth to them?"

"It is their way," Tom explained patiently. "They will be fine, Sir. Adders are survivors."

Well, that explained his fascination with them, then.

"Are you going to name them?" I asked him.

"No, no, they will name themselves later," he said distractedly. "Sir, where may I keep them? I don't wish to upset Abe. He isn't overly fond of snakes."

I drew out my mother's wand with a flourish and conjured a litter out of thin air. Tom gasped in surprise. I filled the box with straw and floated it to Tom's eye-level.

"You can keep them in the attic with you now," I said. "Just be careful that they don't crawl downstairs and provoke Abe's ire. And remind them at regular intervals not to bite anyone."

He nodded quietly and settled the snakes into the litter.

"Do you see how useful magic can be?" I asked him. "You must learn your Latin, Tom."

He did not reply. I had not expected him to. Well, we would see how long his denial would last. If I had my way, I would have him proficient in Latin by the year's end.

"Come on," I told him, "let us sing for our supper."

Tom's eyes lit up at the idea.

"After you," I said graciously.

His lips curved in amusement as he glanced at Aberforth's three-quarters profile against the curtains of the kitchen-window. Then he began:

"Merrily the feast I'll make.

Today I'll brew, tomorrow bake;

Merrily I'll dance and sing

For next day will a stranger bring..."

Tom paused and smiled puckishly at me. The little devil. He would choose that song, wouldn't he? I glared at him before finishing the rest of the song in a lusty, loud voice that was guaranteed to drive Aberforth deaf.

"...Little does my lady dream

Rumpelstiltskin is my name!"

Aberforth flung the door open and ordered us inside.



External Source Text: Rumpelstikskin – a Grimm's fairy tale. Pinocchio – a children's story written by C. Collodi.

I'd love to hear what you think of the story.

Three little stories were spawned from this monster: Himnusz (1899), Thy Kingdom Come (1957)and The Fairy Who Judged His Neighbours (1979). Himnusz has Albus meeting Grindelwald. Thy Kingom Come has Minerva thinking of Albus while Hogwarts Castle pines for Tom Riddle. Fairy has Aberforth and Albus quarrelling, with Marauders, Minerva etc in the background. You can look them up, if you'd like to, by clinking on my profile link here.

Chapter Text

"In order to remedy the boy's sore lack of knowledge in matters related to haberdashery, I think I should take him to a Muggle clothier so that he might see for himself how the fine differences between blends of the same fabric might make or unmake a gentleman."

"I don't think I have heard anything more nonsensical all my life," Aberforth said, looking at me in profound disbelief. "That is remarkable, given that I have known you all my life. So, does this new proposal indicate that you have given up all hopes of teaching him Latin?"

Ah, that tone of his positively reeked of smugness and triumph. Believed me defeated, did he? I suppressed a snort. Surely he knew me better than to think I might accept failure so easily. Nearly a year had passed us by since I had started my attempts to teach the boy Latin, but I had time until the coming summer.

"I know what you are thinking, Albus," Aberforth said, chuckling. "I also know that the boy is as stubborn as my Billy."

"Hardly a match for my perseverance, especially when you consider that he will be exposed to more and more magic as the days go by," I said confidently.

"I think the boy doesn't like the idea of there being something which can happen without proper Muggle science behind it, what with his hankering after the whys and hows of everything. He likes control."

My brother might have been simply theorising, but I realised that he had pinned down a fact: Tom priced control above all. Magic, as he had done it, when faced with bullies or Ollivander or Legilimency, had been uncontrolled, defensive and overwhelming. What he could not control he shunned. I frowned. The boy was intelligent enough to realise the advantages magic could bring him, wasn't he? Sooner or later, his fingers would itch to curl over smooth, warm wood and fluent Latin would roll off his tongue.

"What I can't for the life of me make out is why you are so keen to have him learning magic," Aberforth said thoughtfully, his gaze dark and heavy with brooding. "If he is away from magic, if he is brought up a Muggle, he will be less likely to be what he was in that timeline."

True. Castle Albus, when he had visited, and when I had broached the matter of Tom's schooling, had voiced the same question. Why did I want Tom Riddle to obtain a magical education?

"Sir!" Tom burst into the room, smiling to himself in the truly absent-minded manner that came upon him whenever he was flushed with success of whatever petty adventure he had been embarked upon. "Abe! I found a windmill, a few miles to the east of the village!"

Aberforth's eyes narrowed. A few miles, indeed! Tom, on his restless days, could roam the land as enthusiastically as Marco Polo had roamed the East, and would return to regale us with tales of his sightseeing, all moderated so as not to accidentally let slip to us the actual extent of his roaming. Abe, being the careful man he was, had put a spell on the boy to locate him easily. Observing from this spell how far the boy traipsed with his butterfly net (the slender edge of which was often cushioned by an amiably curled snake gossiping with Tom, no doubt to regale him with the sordid details of the wildlife in this lonely little village), we considered it a mystery that the boy did not get lost at all.

"May I go there, tomorrow, to take a closer look?" Tom was asking, pale cheeks flushed with excitement and eyes gleaming as brightly as polished pewter. "It is just that I have never seen one before, and I want to see how it works. Do you suppose I can see it from the inside? I wonder if they grind flour there, like they say in the books."

This, this was the reason why I wanted Tom to curl his fingers about a wand, and learn Latin, and obtain a proper magical education. He was a composed, tightly-controlled statue all the time, except when he was drowning in the wild excitement of discovery. Then he became Milton's Lucifer, hungering for knowledge and willing to pay any price for it, even a cost as high as the serpent from the God's garden had paid, crawling on its belly and eating dust for the rest of its days.

Tom yearned for knowledge, for its own sake. Rather like an artist. This was where he differed from Grindelwald, for Gellert wanted knowledge only for its might. This was where he differed from me, for I saw knowledge as a right and a responsibility. I knew, from the way Tom pored over his mathematics textbooks, from the way he laboured over the sundial, from his experiments with mould and winds and everything else, from the fluttering fingers daintily dancing over the keys of our piano, and from every single gesture of his and word spoken, I knew that he would be different. Magic had known many great men, many a maestro, among the number of which I humbly counted myself, even if some might consider the self-evaluation immodest. But rarely had magic known an artist capable of the entire oeuvre from languid fugues of spell-crafting to explosive vibrancies of spell-casting and everything in between.

Given time, given care, given good fortune, I knew that the boy before me would become an artist, the finest of them all.

"May I go?" Tom was asking, impatience and earnestness warring for prominence in his gaze.

"Only if you will agree to a Latin lesson today," I stipulated.

His face became a calm mask at my words and he nodded, saying, "It is just a windmill, Sir. I can get by without seeing it, I am sure."

With that, he left. All my hopes deflated. I scowled. Well, two could play at this denial game. There were still Irish lessons to bargain with. The boy loved the language too well and would not see the lessons ended, would he?

"Flounced off, hasn't he?" Aberforth chuckled. "I think you should see about catching your flies with honey instead of frightening them off with vinegar, Albus."

As much as asking Aberforth for advice chafed, I knew the time had come to admit defeat. So I laid down my pride, met my brother's gaze and asked meekly, "What can I do?"

He raised his eyebrows at my appeal, but said nothing more, for which I was very grateful. With a world-weary sigh, he asked, "What do you have in common?"

I thought upon it. A love for languages, a love for music, and tenacity in spades. That was all. I said as much to my brother.

"Well, there you go! He has never been to a play before, Albus. Take him to one of your Muggle favourites at a proper theatre. Smuggle him under the Cloak or something."

The spark of his suggestion made an idea flare in my mind.

"Gillbert and Sullivan!" I exclaimed, grinning at him. "There are plenty of references to Latin works in their operas. Will you buy a London newssheet so that I can see if there is something suitable staged at one of the more respectable theatres? I can also take the chance to educate him in the proper and fashionable accoutrements for a man of these times," I finished enthusiastically.

"That's that, then. I'd thank you to keep your eyes off the dandies at the opera. Our boy is very quick to notice these things, and I'll have no part of the explanations if he notices."

"How did you know that I went to the operas only to look at the dandies?" I asked, truly flummoxed by his perception. I had not even been aware that he knew my fondness for Muggle plays.

"Everybody in the Ministry knows," Aberforth muttered. "Castle Albus has an Auror tail for protection ever since people have started believing he is the one who can stop him. It seems my dear brother is a patron of the operas; he uses the binoculars to look at the gentlemen in other boxes instead of watching the woman on stage wail."

I sat, shocked into silence. He smirked.

"The woman on stage does not wail!" I protested, as soon as I had surfaced from my embarrassment. "Those are arias."

But Aberforth, and his smirk, had already left the room. I stewed alone, pondering how unfair it was that he had managed to get the last word in, again.

Beside me, in the cold evening air, stood Tom, rubbing his gloved hands briskly and looking up in disbelieving awe at the imposing building.

"Have you seen it before?" I asked him.

"Once," he said. "I came with Father Sebastian to the church further down this street. He was conducting a mass there. Not one of my usual haunts. The West End is heavily patrolled, and loiterers get picked up by Bobbies in the late evenings. Mrs. Cole doesn't appreciate being called in by the Yarders to identify a Vauxhall orphanage child, says it tries the benefactors' patience so."

I bristled at his reference to the orphanage in the present-tense yet again. The wretched boy, how long would it take to wear down his disbelief that this, his life with Aberforth and I, was not a fever-dream? Then, I realised that he was still nattering on. There was colour in his pale cheeks and a soft gleam of excitement in his eyes. He was talking, talking of his own accord without being forced to by gentle coaxing or strong blackmail.

"Spitalfields, Sir," he was saying, "-have you been there?" I shook my head silently, wondering what he had been doing there. "There were all sorts of wares to be found there, Sir," he said excitedly. "You must see it at least once. I wish Abe could go, too, but the smells might make him ill again. It is a smelly place. If you take me with you, I can show you Dorset Street and Whitechapel and Dean Street and all the other places where the murders happened. You know about the murders, don't you?" he asked dubiously.

The Whitechapel murders. Who hadn't heard of those? They remained an ugly stain on London's pages, a silent cry of outrage from beyond history's doors as the spectres of those poor women rose to remind us that we had failed to protect the most unfortunate of our sisters.

"What were you doing there?" I asked Tom. "You went alone, didn't you?" He must have done. The wretch really was incapable of staying put indoors.

His lips curved into a mischievous smile and he said, "Yes, Sir. I was a shoeshine boy at a market-street corner there a few months before we met. A nigger stowaway who ended up in the Spitalfields slums taught me how to. Had to give him all the pennies I earned too. Got a black eye when I tried to say no. That's when I realised the streets weren't for me, came back to Vauxhall."

I was about to reprimand him for using that derogatory term to refer to his acquaintance, when I noticed that there was something defensive in the set of his jaw. I asked gently, "Why were you there in the first place? Also, Tom, you shouldn't call anyone a nigger. You didn't care for it when the boys at the party called you a Mudblood, did you?"

He frowned, let his hands fall to his sides, ignored my chastisement as I had known he would, and then mumbled, "I left because I was restless."

An outright lie. What had happened? Was this before or after the trial run with the family that had wanted to adopt him? Abe would have rubbed his rosary beads at this point, to rein in his impatience with lies. I was left to exhale and shift my attention to the passers-by, all well-groomed and fashionably turned out for an evening at the Lyceum.

"Come along," I said, unwilling to spoil the evening's atmosphere by forcefully dragging the truth out of him. "Put the cloak on."

He dutifully wrapped the Invisibility Cloak about himself and followed me. I led him up the velveteen foyers and into the stalls. Occasionally, I could hear the gasps of awe and pleasure as he took in the magnificent interiors of the theatre. Opera was a guilty pleasure of mine, and a lonely indulgence at that, since I had had no one all my life to share this passion with. Now I could see Tom's boots showing as the cloak slipped, so careless was he as he drank in the wonders of the theatre. I suppressed a smile and pulled him into my lap. He stiffened at first, but then sighed in acquiescence and adjusted the cloak to cover him completely. We would have to be careful, for taking children to evening opera was not conventional at all. I had faith in Tom's strength of will, though, and believed that we would manage this charade without getting caught. The element of risk only added to the thrill, as it were. The seats beside me were soon filled.

The Pirates of Penzance opened with the scene of the rocky seashore of Cornwall. In the distance, one could see a schooner lying at anchor. Then came the pirates, all merry but for Fred. Ruth, Fred's nursemaid from childhood, despairing and racked by guilt that she had apprenticed poor Fred to a pirate instead of a pilot, came forth and sung:

"A nurserymaid is not afraid of what you people call work,

So I made up my mind to go as a kind of piratical maid-of-all-work.

And that is how you find me now, a member of your shy lot,

Which you wouldn't have found, had he been bound apprentice to a pilot!"

The cloak nearly fell off Tom's frame as he brought up his hands to cover his mouth so as to smother his laughter. I pinched his bony arm in warning, even as I laughed at the nursemaid's lines.

Tom did manage most admirably to be still and silent, until the dapper Major General came to the pit, proclaiming his credentials in a ringing voice. Tom lost his composure utterly and burst out laughing at the lines:

"Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,

And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform:

In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,

I am the very model of a modern Major-General."

The gentlemen beside me nearly cricked their necks as they turned to stare in petrified horror at the singular spectacle of a pair of hands cupping an invisible laughing mouth. I sighed in resignation and employed a couple of well-placed Obliviation Charms.

"I am sorry," Tom whispered, quickly getting himself under the Cloak again. "Are we in trouble?"

"Eyes on the stage, imp," I muttered, trying not to let him realise that I was preening, and well deserved my preening was, given that I had made him laugh aloud and unselfconsciously.

The opera might not have been entirely appropriate for a child. But I held myself justified, from the way Tom laughed, breathlessly and utterly beyond himself, from his whispered apologies each time I had to employ my wand to send my neighbours into a blessedly ignorant state, from the hearty clapping of Tom's hands as the last strains of Poor wandering ones winded down to a rousing applause from the audience.

We snuck out of the theatre neatly and Apparated home from an alley nearby. Aberforth clucked in disapproval as Tom continued humming I am the very model of a modern Major-General even during supper. But well evident was the mirth in his eyes as Tom and I took turns to regale him with the escapades we had been up to in the stalls.

"He sat there blinking and squinting," Tom said, waving his spoon in excitement. "Then he said, no, I don't really feel like a lemon-drop, thank you."

"The poor man would have felt better if he had taken the lemon-drop," I maintained.

"Not after the third Obliviation in the evening!" Aberforth exclaimed, the expression on his face uncannily resembling the long-suffering mien of Remus when the latter tried to chide James or Sirius. "I really wash my hands off this if Castle Albus comes by tomorrow with a most interesting report of illegal use of magic."

"They can't find their own arses in the Ministry-" Aberforth glared at me for the language and Tom bit his lips to stifle a smile, but I continued regardless, "-much less a careful Wizard of not inconsiderable sagacity and expertise."

"Blow your own trumpet, do," Aberforth grumbled. "You were always very good at that."

The next morning dawned pale and cold, and Tom greeted me in the living-room, armed with a notebook and a pencil. He sat down on the carpet beside the fire, looked up at me, and said quietly, "If you are not too busy, could you give me Latin lessons?"

It was as I had imagined, and it was more. Tom practised his Latin for an hour in the afternoon on weekdays, pacing the backyard, occasionally getting side-tracked by chit-chat with one of the snakes, and pausing to steal a bite or two of food from Aberforth's domain, and then returning to his chanting of the conjugations. When he spoke a word, he spoke its meaning in his mind, and the grass at his feet quivered in sympathy as magic rose in his veins clamouring to be called forth to power. He knew the extent of the power each word held, and he would often stop his work when he noticed the slightest movement, perhaps unwilling to harm anyone by accident.

On Christmas Eve, Castle Albus arrived bearing the season's greetings and a champagne bottle. As Tom and Aberforth were both busy in the kitchen, I opened the door and let the insufferable man in.

"I brought you lemon-drops," he announced cheerily, dropping his cloak and hat into my hands.

"You could have brought the back issues of Transfiguration Today," I retorted.

"The Santa only brings gifts to the deserving and the well-behaved," he said sanctimoniously. "Travelling through time and stealing another man's brother does not classify under good behaviour."

"What are you doing here?" Aberforth demanded, as he poked his head out the kitchen. "Don't you have any Christmas dos to be at?"

"Can't I visit my only brother on Christmas Eve?" Castle Albus beseeched, all woebegone eyes and clasped hands. The prat belonged in a theatre. I could hear Tom's cough from the kitchen.

"Is Pinocchio in there?" Castle Albus asked. "Can I borrow him for the evening?"

"No, you may not," Aberforth said crossly, wiping the flour off his hands onto his apron as he stepped into the room, and closing the kitchen door behind him. "What do you need him for, anyway?"

"I have a ticket to the London premiere of the new adaptation of La Vivandière," remarked Castle Albus. "Seeing that Pinocchio is showing an interest in Muggle opera, and seeing that you-" he pointedly looked at me, "-are willing to indulge him, surely I can treat the boy to the same on Christmas Eve?"

"He doesn't speak a word of French," I said, exchanging a worried glance with Aberforth at the tidings that our little jaunt to the opera had not gone unnoticed by the Ministry who must have informed Castle Albus. Perhaps, the Ministry had not caught wind of it, and we had been tailed by Castle Albus's spies? Why?

"How distressing!" Castle Albus claimed. "I had best be off on my way, then. I am running late."

He slipped on his fine cloak and waved his hat at us before leaving quietly.

"Since when did he start going to French operas?" asked Aberforth, astounded. He returned to the kitchen and I followed him, wanting an audience to listen to my tirade about Castle Albus.

"La Vivandière is a Gilbert and Sullivan adaptation of the actual opera," I sniffed. "I don't recall it being particularly original."

"What is it about?" Tom asked, as he deftly peeled potatoes. "Are there pirates?"

"No, no, it is nothing as interesting," I said. "The actual plot is based on a love story set in a Hungarian village."

"Ah, there you have it," said Aberforth quietly as he returned to chopping the carrots. "The idiot never could resist anything with a Hungarian flavour."

I fell silent, an unexpected gush of sympathy rising in me as I realised why Castle Albus had wanted to see that opera.

"Why so?" Tom asked, bright and keen with curiosity. "Is Hungarian music nice?"

Nice was not the word I would use to describe the music of that nation that lay stretched beside Danube's waters. The anthem of the land, the Himnusz, was dark and gnawing and wistful, and made you aware of all the searing burns of loss and need which had shaped your life, left you floating on too narrow planks of stubbornness and resignation, and, in the end, like a phoenix rose again to leave the soft taste of hope in your mouth.

"It is an acquired taste," I told Tom, trying valiantly to sound unaffected; my brother's sharp glance told me how badly I was failing at the task.

"I think I can manage the rest on my own, Tom. You can return to your reading. I know you are itching for that," Aberforth told the boy, in a blatant bid to spare me Tom's curious gaze.

Tom left the kitchen and we stood in silence. A sharp knocking at the front door set me free from Aberforth's pitying look, and I hastened to open the door.

Hyperion Malfoy, top-hat in his hands and looking quite festive in soft violet robes, stood there smiling.

"Season's greetings, Percival!" he enthused.

I glared at him, but when I saw that he was carrying a bottle of the exceedingly fine Garrafeira port, I let him in. With a nod of gratitude, he easily made his way into the kitchen where he proceeded to greet Aberforth. I followed him grumpily.

"I came to invite you for Boxing Day dinner," Malfoy said, exuberant and smiling. "It will just be Abraxas and I. Have you other plans?"

I quickly opened my mouth to tell Malfoy that I had ample plans for Christmas. However, Aberforth beat me to it and said, "I have been invited to a friend's home. I don't see any reason why Percival can't bring Tom over."

So he was spending the Boxing Day with Amelia and leaving me to fend for myself. I did not care for his scheming at all. I did wish that he enjoyed time with Amelia, but not at the cost of sending me to Malfoy Manor. Well, Tom was excellent company, Abraxas was tolerable, the food would be delightful, and I supposed I could manage the tedium of Old Man Malfoy's presence for a few hours. Perhaps I could inveigle valuable information about Tom's chances for getting into Hogwarts.

"Have a seat, Mr. Malfoy." Aberforth gestured at a chair. "Percival, can you pour him a cup of tea? The kettle is on the sideboard."

Malfoy looked cautiously at the mess on the kitchen-table and seemed on the verge of inspecting the seat of the wooden chair with his monocle. Aberforth shared an amused glance with me and said brightly, "The goats haven't been in the kitchen for a long while now."

I finished pouring the tea and set the mismatched cup and saucer before our guest. Then I took out my wand with a flourish and did a cleansing spell on the chair. Malfoy looked torn between gratefulness and mortification, quickly sat down and pulled the tea to him, suppressing his wince when he noticed that the cup and saucer did not match.

We ought to invite him to dinner every once in a while, if he reacted so delightfully to kitchen chaos.

"Abraxas speaks highly of your lamb stew," he murmured, in between sips of tea.

"That is kind of him," replied Aberforth, setting a plate of ginger biscuits on that table. He took a seat and beckoned me to do the same.

Malfoy sighed and took another sip of his tea. I frowned at his deplorable stalling technique. He coughed, cleared his throat and met my gaze for a moment.

I raised my eyebrows.

"It has come to my attention that there is interest in Tom from quarters not exactly benign," he said.

"Grindelwald!" hissed Aberforth. My fingers curled about my mother's wand, seeking reassurance and grounding. "How did Tom come to his attention?"

"A leak in the Ministry, I daresay," said Malfoy uneasily. "It was most foolhardy to keep the boy in the bowels of the Ministry after the matter of Ollivander. The place is not without spies. You know how it goes, we ignore their spies in our Ministry and they ignore ours in their setup. It helps keep the peace."

"Be that as it may, I am more concerned about the nature of interest Grindelwald has in the boy," I said tensely. "Does he see him as a future protégé or as a possible adversary?"

I tried to maintain a semblance of serenity, but my fingers were trembling in my lap, and I was grateful that the table covered my weakness.

"Grindelwald, from the reports he has received concerning the boy, is said to have drawn the conclusion that he is a potential threat."

Of course. Grindelwald was canny enough to realise that anyone who priced control as fiercely as Tom did would not be content with the mantle of a protégé. If he was monitoring Tom, did it mean that he was monitoring Albus Dumbledore's Mexican cousin? My deception would not withstand his scrutiny, would it? We were attuned to each other's magic just as we had once been attuned to each other's breathing. I needed to confer with Castle Albus and see what he thought of the business. Yet, no, it would not do to be hasty now, for I had to take into account the fact that Castle Albus had been aware of Grindelwald's interest in the boy and had not warned me yet.

"If the interest is not passive, the boy's safety would be best served if he is given a Muggle education and upbringing," Aberforth remarked.

Malfoy stared at him in shock. I suppressed my anger at Aberforth's remark. Not this idea of a Muggle education again! Where had Aberforth obtained this harebrained idea from?

The conversation turned to other directions and eventually our guest took his leave. I closed the door behind him and hurried back to the kitchen.

"Why are you keen to have the boy educated in the Muggle world?"

His hands, kneading the dough, paused for an instant before resuming their steady rhythm. He said calmly, "You know why."

"If I did, I wouldn't ask, would I?"

"I like the boy, Albus!" he hissed. His cheeks were blotchy and the vein in his forehead bulged out. He was about to fly off the handle, then. "I don't want him hunted by Grindelwald. I don't want him lured by the Dark Arts. I want him safe and content, just as he is now, without caring for a world where magic is might. I want him to be away from Castle Albus's machinations, from Grindelwald, from you. I know you are keen to give him a Magical Education, and I know why. You want him to become a powerful, conscionable wielder of magic, to show others that it is possible to overcome the darkness in oneself with control... You can't have it, Albus. The boy will not last seven years of Magical Education without being tempted by the Dark Arts. He is too curious and has no moral compass at all. He is best off in the Muggle world. Let him learn the sciences that he clearly has a passion for. He will excel there without having to struggle everyday with the expectations and taunts of Wizarding society."

"Don't be an idiot," I said sharply, feeling the sting of his words opening the freshly healed rift between us yet again. He was already looking forlorn over his loss of temper. Righteous anger rose high in me and my voice became louder. "Don't be an idiot, Aberforth! He did not fit in the Muggle world at all. They called him a freak. What makes you think that a life with them will be his salvation?"

"We will not argue on Christmas Eve," Aberforth said, injecting his words with a tone of finality.

He left the room. I remained where I was for a good few minutes, and then slowly made my way to the backyard. I could feel a throbbing headache setting in, my chest heaved from the exertion of shouting and I felt very, very old.

"I couldn't find Dickens on your shelves, Sir."

"That would be because the dear man is in eternal slumber at Westminster Abbey," I said caustically, still reeling from the argument with my brother.

I did not like to argue. In fact, I could count on my fingers the number of times I had argued with anyone other than Aberforth. When it came to Aberforth, however, I seemed to regress into childhood behavioural patterns. How unflattering.

Still, it would not do to employ sarcasm with Tom, not when I was striving to teach him by example.

"Charles Dickens is not a favourite of mine, Tom," I said genially, "and that is why you won't find him on my shelves. Have you read any of his books?"

"Only The Life of Our Lord," Tom replied. "Father Sebastian made everyone at Sunday School read it."

"Did you like it?"

"Father Sebastian would not let me say no."

The first edition of The Life of Our Lord had been published both in America and England in 1934, sixty-four years after the author's death. It was said to be highly popular with the clergy and the believers. Aberforth liked it. Even if religion had not been the major theme, I would have steered clear of the book if only because of the author. Dickens's style was too bleak and realistic for me. I preferred the vibrant fantasies spun by Carroll and Andersen.

"I want to read Dickens, though," Tom was saying. "He wrote about London as it really is, they say. Father Sebastian once read out to me a few pages from The Old Curiosity Shop. I liked it."

Dear me, was that the story about the not-quite-fourteen orphan girl and her gambling grandfather? I remembered it ending in tragedy. If I had my way, Tom would forget all about the book. He had sufficient knowledge of workhouses, slums and the squalor of Muggle London to last a lifetime.

"Have you read The Happy Prince, my boy?" I asked.

He frowned and shook his head.

"Well, then, let me find it for you!" I rubbed my hands in enthusiasm and dragged him back inside to the book-shelves.

After much rummaging, I finally discovered the slender copy of The Happy Prince and Other Tales wedged between a text on Arithmancy and The Water Babies. Excellent! I handed the book to Tom and shooed him off.

"Get the clothes-basket from the attic, will you?" Aberforth called from the kitchen.

How unlike Tom to forget to bring the clothes-basket down, I mused. I pulled The Water Babies down from the shelf and placed it on my armchair. I would give it to Tom once he had finished reading The Happy Prince. Then I made my way upstairs to Tom's cubbyhole. A cold draft was blowing in from the attic-window which could not be closed properly. I would have to get Aberforth to see to it. He was a dab hand at basic household magic.

The attic had been made into a snug nest. The rickety old desk and chair were piled high with Tom's textbooks, story-books from my shelves and scraps all adorned with his peculiar scrawl. His writing was a quirky mixture of letters cursive and plain. Apart from the odd vowel, inclined right and firmly tethered to its predecessor alphabet, the other letters stood upright. So like the boy himself, I reflected, with his innate love for all things dainty and elegant without compromising his ease with everything that was drab and plebeian. Something stuck out from between the pages of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Curious to see what the boy had considered a page-marker, I reached out for it. A string of Aberforth's rosary beads. I frowned. Hoping against my pessimism that this did not indicate what my paranoid mind suggested, I did a nifty charm that had served me well in Tom's orphanage in the old timeline.

When sounds of rattling started from beneath the bed, from a corner of the room, from behind the desk and many other places, I groaned and sat upon the bed.

"I asked you to get the basket. Surely it cannot be such an arduous task!" Aberforth shouted.

"Come upstairs, will you?" I asked wretchedly. Ollivander had been right.

"What is it?" Aberforth huffed, as he joined me in the attic. "I have accounts to do, Albus. Find the boy if you want to discuss The Happy Prince. What is rattling? Not the snakes, I hope!"

"I had thought-" I paused, failing to find words that could convey my wretchedness.

"Albus?" he queried.

"The boy has stolen," I said flatly. "Your rosary beads are here." I waved my mother's wand and watched the beads flying into Aberforth's palm.

"These too," I said, waving the wand again.

Two pieces of fine silver cutlery dashed out from beneath the bed. Abraxas cursed when he saw the heraldry of Malfoy. The boy must have stolen them when I had taken him there for Abraxas's birthday event. A large red square handkerchief with yellow spots came next. Castle Albus's. Then it was a single phoenix feather. When had Tom grabbed Fawkes's feather? Had it been willingly given? A candlestick. It must be Father Sebastian's. A pince-nez. Mrs. Cole's. A faded blue ribbon. Amy's, perhaps? A brooch. Had I seen it once on Abraxas's cloak? A Muggle tiepin. From the night I had taken him to the opera?

"I see," Aberforth said quietly.

"You were right," I said, pushing back into a little black box in the farthest corner of my mind every dream of an artist wielding magic. "He would be best off at a Muggle school."

"He is light-fingered," Aberforth said. "We should have expected it. He did tell you that he has lived on the streets for a brief period."


"Yes, yes, I know," he said calmly. Why was he calm? I curled my fingers about the wand, seeking reassurance and solidity.

The clatter of Tom's shoes broke the silence. The boy was coming upstairs. I stared at my brother. He sighed and nodded.

"What is it?" Tom asked breathlessly, his cheeks flushed with exertion and his dark hair falling in curls upon his forehead.

His eyes widened as he saw the objects on the bed.

"Oh," he said softly.

"Yes," Aberforth remarked. "An explanation, if you please?"

I was about to speak, to vent my anger and bitterness and snuffed-out hopes at the boy. Aberfoth placed his hand on my wrist in warning.

Tom shot a calculating look at me before quickly averting his gaze to Aberforth's features. Manipulative imp. I waved my hand and the objects caught fire. Tom gasped and rushed into the room, pushing past me and trying to reach for his thieved treasures. I caught his hands and pulled him away. He struggled in my hold and a half-sob escaped him as he looked at the fire.

"Stop it!" Aberforth commanded. "Albus, no!"

Stricken, desperate curls of magic were curling about the spell I had cast and trying to stop it. Tom's magic. The boy was losing control. I cursed foully and undid the spell. The objects fell unharmed on the mattress. Tom wrested himself free of my hold and bent over the objects, his trembling fingers touching them possessively and checking them to reassure himself that no harm had been done. With a soft cry of relief, he gathered them to him and sat down weakly on the bed.

"Yes?" Aberforth asked. I massaged my temples. I could feel a headache setting in.

"They are people," Tom said quietly. His breathing was raspy, his diction was unusually fast and his voice quavered. Despite myself, despite my anger, grief and disgust, I wanted to alleviate his misery. He continued, "This button is Rax. This pince-nez is Mrs. Cole. This handkerchief is Mr. Dumbledore. This ribbon is Amy's. Amy from the orphanage. The candlestick is Father Sebastian. This fork is Hyperion Malfoy. This rosary is Abe. This is the bird that saved me." Then his fingers caressed the smooth oval dial of a watch-piece; a very familiar watch-piece it was, and one for which I nursed no ambivalence. My eyes widened in recognition.

"What is that, Tom?" Aberforth asked gently.

A most curious expression flittered over Tom's features, an expression I had not seen before. Even as I pondered this, the boy's fingers closed about the dial. He raised his eyes to meet my gaze and murmured, "This is you."

That blunted the fierceness of my anger and worsened my headache. With sagging shoulders, I turned away from his gaze, not possessing the strength of will to deal with him right then.

"My dear boy," Aberforth was saying, "you can't hoard people in your room without asking their permission. If I were to take the copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy I bought for you last year and hoard it in my room without telling you, will you be happy?"

Tom did not reply. Of course he would not. The boy was the definition of mulishness when it came to acknowledging his mistakes.

"Tom?" Aberforth asked gently. "Is there any reason why you need to store these here when you can see any of us whenever you wish?"

The boy refused to say a word. Aberforth sighed and reiterated, "You can't hoard what belongs to others. I expect them to be returned with apologies, Tom."

When the boy did not react to that, Aberforth shook his head and left the room.

Had I expected my brother to resolve this? He had not possessed the strength to dissuade me from befriending Gellert all those years ago. How could he achieve the impossible here now? Tom was my responsibility. Reprimanding him or punishing him would only worsen matters. I knew from the past that Tom reacted very badly to corrective action. My best gamble would be to return to our usual manner of bald conversation.

"You should not have stolen."

"You should not have set them on fire," he responded immediately. It was evident from his righteous tone that he felt no compunction about thievery.

"Where did you get the watch-dial from?"

"I cannot tell you, Sir."

"You shan't return it to me if I ask, shall you?" I probed.

He clutched it tighter in his palm and shook his head silently. Coy, languid wisps of magic reached out to me, drawing me in. I stared at the boy in shock. His eyes were earnest and desperate as he met my gaze. I gripped my wand and spoke softly the spell that would let me touch the web of his thoughts.

"They are a good family," Mrs. Cole was saying. "You are lucky to have gained their interest as a potential adoption choice. You will go with them, Tom."

Abandonment. Fear. Mrs. Cole was all that the boy had known. Creeping into the lady's office at night and stealing her pince-nez. Sleeping with his fists clenched about the delicate frame in a strange bed at a strange place surrounded by strangers. Vowing to himself that he would collect all the people who had showed him kindness so that he could hold them in his hands forever.

Father Sebastian had been there with his gentle smiles and endless store of books despite the cane and the unusual teaching methods. Amy had shyly stared at him during playtime and meals. Hyperion Malfoy had spoken soft words of reassurance and comfort after the Auror questioning. Rax had declared war on orphanages for his sake. Castle Albus had given him a red handkerchief to mop his dirty face before coming to St. Mungo's. Abe had done so much for him that he had lost count. And then there was the Mad Hatter himself.

Possessiveness roared and wrapped itself snug about his mind as he thought of the people who had shown him kindness. I averted my gaze from his. He was panting hard and a fine sweat had formed on his forehead. A hitching breath returned my attention to him again. He was bent over and his head was in his hands, his long fingers covering his face. His thin shoulders were trembling. My anger had long faded leaving behind only helplessness. I could not bear the sight of him in distress. Pulling him to me, despite his half-hearted struggle, I embraced him and dragged my hand through the dark curls of his hair in a futile attempt to soothe him.

"What was I?" he whispered. "What was I in your time?"

He was shaking in my hold. I could feel the rapid flutter of his heartbeat. I cupped his chin and forced his reluctant gaze to meet mine.

"You were an eccentric," I told him. "A very brilliant eccentric."

He frowned.

"Yes?" I asked.

"More eccentric than Castle Albus and you?" he queried, worried.

"Very much so!" I laughed. "You wore hooded cloaks all the time."

He pursed his lips and pondered that before saying, "Perhaps I had decided to follow Father Sebastian's path and enter the seminary. Priests sometimes wear hooded cloaks, you know."

The picture of him as a priest was so ridiculous that I burst into laughter. He looked disgruntled and pulled himself free from my embrace. I did notice that he seemed less stricken than he had been moments earlier when he had asked me about his nature in the other timeline.

"You can keep these. However, the next time, ask us," I told him quietly. "If you want something of ours, ask us."

He nodded and began caressing his treasures once again. This was the utmost I could achieve here, I knew. Was it enough?

Later, that night, nursing a brandy, Aberforth asked me, "What do you think?"

"He doesn't mind a spot of thievery, he collects people who are important to him, he likes us both enough to be tremendously possessive of us and he cares for my opinion enough to let me do a spot of mind magic on him," I said succinctly. "What do you think?"

"I think that his moral compass is wonky but his heart is mostly in the right place."

"Wretched boy," I muttered.

My mind refused to stop reminding me of the distressed expression on the boy's features when he had sought to know what he had become in the other timeline. And he had trusted me with his mind. Tom Riddle might sacrifice his body, soul and heart for the sake of learning, but he would not sully his mind for any reason. Today he had trusted me enough to reach out with that brilliant mind he so revered.

"The matter of his education. The Muggle system might be easier on him." Aberforth said.

"No, not now," I pleaded.

I could see an artist with a phoenix-cored paintbrush colouring vibrant hues on the world's drab, grey canvas. To sacrifice that for Muggle education would be blasphemy. Tom might misuse his magic and be unrepentant about it. If he did not, if he had strength enough, if he had conscience enough, it would be an entirely different story.

"You still entertain your notions of making him a champion for your beliefs," Aberforth said dryly. "You never learn, do you?"

"No, I don't," I whispered.



External source text – Pirates of Penzance is an opera by Gilbert & Sullivan. Himnusz is the Hungarian national anthem. La Viviandiere is a ballet about two young lovers in a Hungarian village. The Happy Prince is a short story by Oscar Wilde. The Old Curiosity Shop is a novel by Charles Dickens. The Life of Our Lord is a prayer book for children by the same author.

Another short-story offering for you set in this same plot – These gyves on my hands set you free (1995) – It's a piece that looks into Albus's thoughts after the duel with Voldemort at the Atrium. You can find it on my story list if you'd like to.


24/07/2011 - Edited to add that I've another piece for you set in the same plot - 1942: A Rhapsody in Riddle - It's a massive piece of insanity where Abraxas Malfoy tries to teach Riddle a lesson and finds that his plan backfires badly, leaving him obsessed with Riddle.

Chapter Text

Tom was attracting an audience. I suppressed a smile and exchanged a wry glance with Florian as others in the shop stared at the way the boy was carefully eating his ice-cream. He would daintily take a measured spoonful, bring it to his mouth, close his eyes and hum in pleasure as he let the taste wash over his sense.

I left him to it and went to pay for the ice-cream. Florian shook his head and said cheerfully, "Haven't seen anyone who enjoys my ice-creams as much as your boy, Percival. On the house."

"Careful, or your generosity might bring us here too often," I warned him.

He chuckled and said, "I would just ask young Riddle to appear on wall-posters to advertise the shop. The sight of him eating chocolate ice-cream will cause a stampede of customers, I am sure."

The picture of Tom Riddle eating a chocolate ice-cream appearing on a wall poster; I shook my head. I refused to think more about it. I looked at the boy cautiously. He was still blissfully decimating his ice-cream. Was he unaware of how people stared? Surely not. Tom was highly aware of his surroundings.

An eagle owl swooped into the shop. I was watching its progress absently until I saw it making for Tom. It landed on the boy's shoulder and his spoon fell to the table with a clang as he jerked in surprise.

"Florian, if you might excuse me," I murmured.

Tom looked relieved when he saw me. The owl flew off and Tom plucked a scroll from his lap, handing it to me.

"Trusting me with your correspondence, Tom?" I asked half-teasingly.

He returned to his ice-cream and said placidly, "The ice-cream is melting."

I peered at him suspiciously. For someone as paranoid about privacy as Tom was, surely handing over correspondence without prompting was unusual behaviour, was it not? He did not look up at me, instead busying himself with his melting ice-cream. I stared at the envelope and my eyebrows rose when I saw a familiar crest. After darting a glance to make sure that Tom was still occupied, I opened the scroll.

There, written in my loopy scrawl was Tom Marvolo Riddle's letter of admission from Hogwarts. Ha, Aberforth had wanted to send the boy to a Muggle school. Castle Albus saw differently, as did the Wizengamot. That would show my brother!

"As much as I like the Mad Hatter, Sir, you are scaring the other customers," Tom remarked.

Couldn't the boy admit that he liked me instead of layering it with allusions to fictional characters? Did he like the Mad Hatter or did he like that I reminded him of the Hatter?

"Indeed," Florian commented. "Tell me, Percival, do all Dumbledores hold loud conversations with themselves in the middle of a shop?"

"Tom is going to Hogwarts," I said excitedly. Florian chuckled and ruffled Tom's hair before returning to the counter.

Tom placed his spoon carefully by the bowl, dabbed daintily the corners of his mouth with his napkin and looked at me warily.

"You are going," I said firmly. "It is the most prestigious school in the country."

"Abraxas has told me about it. It is near Aberforth's tavern. It is in Scotland, isn't it?"

"Yes. What has that to do with anything?"

"Scotland is cold," he muttered. "I don't like cold places."

"London is not situated on the equator, Tom."

"That is different," he said. "I know London. I was born here. I like the place."

Tom's mature behaviour was something that I cherished. I hated nothing more than dealing with whiny children. He was whining now. Had he picked it up from Abraxas?

"Now that you have finished your ice-cream, why don't we leave?" It was voiced sternly. He nodded and followed me outside without speaking.

"Why are you hesitant to accept the offer?" I asked bluntly, wishing that he would return to his calm, matured way of expressing his thoughts and leave off the whining.

"I don't like living with too many people," he said.

In the other timeline, the boy had been eager to enter Hogwarts, so eager that he had given away too many of his secrets thus rousing my suspicions. Now he was none too enthusiastic. I frowned. He no longer protested learning Latin. He had also become accustomed to magical books with their moving pictures. All in all, I had thought he had chosen our world to live in. Had Aberforth tried to dissuade him with some rhetoric about the Muggle world being better for the boy? I would have to discuss the matter with Tom at greater length once we reached home.

We had exited the Leaky Cauldron and I had placed a guiding palm on his shoulder as we emerged into Muggle London. He tensed, as he always did at touches he had not seen coming.


Tom's body stiffened even more. I squeezed his shoulder and looked up at the man who had addressed him. Tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed – there was nothing remarkable about him, apart from the faintest presence of magic. A Squib?

"Father Sebastian," Tom murmured. "Good evening, Father."

My eyes widened as I noticed the brown cassock. This had been the man whom I had seen the merest glimpses of in the boy's memories. He was looking at Tom carefully. Was this man a Squib? Or was the strange energy I detected a virtue of his calling? I knew little of religion.

"Mrs. Cole passed on your letter," the priest said. "You explained matters very vaguely. I was worried."

"I apologise, Father," Tom said quietly. I was unnerved by the sincerity in his tone. Tom's apology to Ollivander had been manipulative and bordering on righteousness. He had not apologised to me for pulling that stunt with the stolen wand to trace his father. He had not been sorry for his actions when I had discovered his hoard.

The priest looked up at me then and told Tom, "It is rude of you not to introduce me to your guardian."

Tom flinched. I had started frowning at his unusual reactions. Before I could interrupt, Tom said in a cold tone I had never heard from him in this timeline, "You know him, Father Sebastian."

Startled, I pushed the boy behind me and lifted my wand. The man did nothing. Looking closer, it struck me – he bore a striking resemblance to the woman whose portrait was in Malfoy's study.

"Squib, brother," Tom said in that same cold tone. How had he known that I had made the connection? The man's eyes widened in shock at the realisation and he took an involuntary step backwards. "He has known what I am since he first met me. He kept tabs. When you rescued me, he told his brother-in-law and hence the reason why high-and-mighty Hyperion Malfoy came to help me in the Department of Mysteries."

"You were protected, you ungrateful boy!" spat the priest. "You wouldn't have survived to see today otherwise."

"There arises no question of gratitude," Tom said softly. Almost detachedly, I noticed that the boy tended to use longer words when he was in situations he disliked. "Whatever you have done for me was not done without payment."

Bile clawed its way up my throat as I remembered Tom's mentions of the priest's strange teaching methods. I looked down at the boy. He was gazing at the priest with little emotion showing in his cold, grey eyes.

"I want you to stop reporting to whoever you report to," Tom continued implacably. "You may believe that you are a part of this world-" Here he waved a lazy hand to encompass the Leaky Cauldron and all that lay concealed behind it, "-but you are not, however deeply you desire it. Your world is your vocation. I can destroy it by breaking my silence."'

I had never truly understood why men had feared him so. Now looking at the boy, with his clear, soft-spoken words and cold eyes, I realised the true reason why he had inspired fear in the hearts of the hardiest of men. He gathered weaknesses of men and nurtured them to full strength, silently biding his time in patience and darting in to make his move at the most opportune moment. The boy's shoulder was trembling under my grasp, though. Tom was just a boy, as Aberforth reminded me every day. I had appointed myself his guardian. I pointed the wand at the priest and was about to Stun him before calling in the Aurors, when a flash of green light struck the man and he toppled limp to the street. Tom gasped. It must have been the first time he had seen the Killing Curse. I acted quickly, pushing him behind me and tethering him to me with a charm. Then I looked up at the second storey window from which the Curse had been cast. If alone, I would have investigated but now I had a boy to protect.

People screamed and panicked. Ministry Obliviators arrived on the scene. They were soon followed by Aurors, to my relief. After carefully taking in our surroundings, I dragged Tom to the nearest shop, and we stood there under the awning. It had started raining.

"He is dead, isn't he?" Tom asked softly.

There was a quaver in his pitch. I looked at him. He was staring ahead blankly and his fingers were trembling as he rubbed his hands to drive away the cold. I removed my cloak and bundled him into it. He did not protest, letting me move his pliant limbs into the sleeves.

"Is it so easy to kill a man with magic?"

It was, wasn't it? Not even magic could bring a life into this world in an instant's time. But it could take away anything in a moment, with only intent and words. I felt wretchedly helpless as I stood there with him. I wanted to rub his hands and ruffle his hair and enfold him in a hug so that he did not have to look at the priest's corpse. I wanted to ask him how long he had been aware of Hyperion Malfoy's duplicitous motives. I wanted to tell him that he was safe with me, and that he need no longer think about callous men like Father Sebastian.

He took a deep breath and looked up at me. His eyes were still cold and distant, but when he spoke his voice held a peculiar mixture of surprise and disbelief. I frowned at him. He shook his head and in a tone as sincere as he had addressed the priest earlier, he said, "Thank you for protecting me."

I laughed at that. If Aberforth had been there, he would have called me hysterical. As it was, I laughed until there were tears blurring my vision and I caught the poor, shocked boy in my arms, lifted him into the air and whirled him about, all the while absently telling myself that the boy weighed barely anything.

"You!" Aloysius Moody growled when he caught sight of us. He trudged over to the shop awning. I set Tom down. He seemed relieved. With a wary look at me, he took a step away. I must have badly startled him.

"Mr. Moody," I greeted him politely.

"Bad business," he muttered, looking at the Obliviators doing their work. There had been too many Muggles. "Bad business, this. Witnesses say that he was speaking to you when he was killed."

"He was the priest of the parish to which Tom's orphanage belongs," I said.

"Albus will be here shortly," Moody said. "The Ministry has notified him."

I stiffened as I realised why exactly Albus Dumbledore would be called in. Hyperion Malfoy, a connection to the Continent, the timing – it could only mean one thing.

"I am afraid you are right, cousin," Castle Albus said briskly as he joined us. He was wearing a bright burgundy cloak over his robes. Tom looked queasy as he always did when confronted with the magnificent vibrancy of Castle Albus's robes. I returned my attention to Castle Albus. There was a brooding, pensive cast to his features. He was so very young, wasn't he? He had not lived through a war, he had not killed, and he had not sacrificed innocents in the name of the greater good. He was still a man who had little idea of the lengths he would have to go to justify the Wizarding World's faith in him.

"I shall get back to my Aurors," Moody murmured. He nodded to me, patted Castle Albus's shoulder and trudged back to the Ministry team.

"We need to join them," Castle Albus said. "We will need your statement. You said that the priest knew Pinocchio."

I looked at the boy. Only peeved eyes were visible, the rest was obscured by the mass of my cloak. It would not do to take the boy with me to the Ministry. His last visit there held too many unpleasant memories for him.

"Once I take the boy home, I will come to the Ministry to give my statement," I told Castle Albus.

"No delaying," he said tersely. "Come with us now. The boy can wait outside the Auror Offices."

He might not have intended to rub in the fact that I possessed virtually no influence in this world. I nodded abruptly. He walked away to join Moody and the other Aurors.

"How long have you known about Mr. Malfoy's duplicity?" I asked the boy, torn between anger and admiration.

An impish glint lit his eyes and he said, "From the very first word he spoke. I know lies when I hear them. Always have."

So how long would it take before he drilled his way through my defences, grabbed hold of my weaknesses and held the proverbial sword of Damocles over my existence? It reminded me of something that I had once wondered about. Tom Riddle had been most dangerous in the period before his death in 1981. Despite the mutilations he inflicted upon his soul, he still remembered what it was to be human and what would break a man the most. It was what had made him an excellent blackmailer. After his return, though, he no longer remembered the foibles and weaknesses of the human race. It was the only reason why Severus had managed to survive, and the only reason why Voldemort had not gained immediate victory.

"These are dangerous waters. Don't you think you should have told me, Tom?" I asked the boy, torn between anger and admiration.

He nodded and said quietly, "If I had told you, it would have led to questions about Father Sebastian."

He had not wanted that. The subdued way Tom had behaved in the priest's company had unsettled me deeply.

"Well?" I asked Tom. "I can send word to Abe and have him fetch you from the Leaky Cauldron. I know the proprietor. He can keep an eye on you until Abe comes."

"I would rather come with you," Tom answered.

"The last time you were at the Ministry-"

"I will be with you now, won't I?" he cut in sharply. Even in the fading light, I could see the discomfort on his features as he met my gaze. Had he intended to say that? Surely it must have been impulsive?

He trusted me to protect him.


"I am coming, Albus!" I shouted. Tom nodded and fell into step before me. This time, he did not flinch when my palm came to rest on his shoulder.

I gave the statement to Moody. Castle Albus questioned me about Tom's acquaintance with the dead Squib. I spoke truthfully about the relation between Malfoy and Sebastian. The revelation was enough to keep them off the more dangerous line of questioning. I was not sure that I might be able to spin a believable yarn if they had asked me about Sebastian's mentorship of the boy.

"Everybody knows that Malfoy is a bad egg," Moody said. "He is in the thick of whatever business Grindelwald has in our country, Albus."

Castle Albus scoffed saying, "Hardly, Aloysius. Grindelwald is strengthening his hold in Germany and Austria. The spies are sure that he has shown no interest in Britain."

The skin about the corners of his eyes was pinched as he said that. He was unsure. I doubted many could have realised it, but I knew him well enough, as well as I knew myself.

"Why the boy?" one of the junior Aurors asked. "He is only a Half-blood orphan."

"The boy is a cauldron waiting to explode," Moody snapped. "Too powerful, too malicious and too clever."

"Tom is not malicious!" I protested. He was impish, but surely not malicious. At least, that was what Aberforth maintained.

"And I am a leprechaun!" came Moody's pat retort.

Castle Albus snorted.

"You should concentrate your energies on finding the killer instead of maligning a little boy," I suggested sternly.

"You should keep your civilian head out of Ministry discussions," Moody shot back.

"You may leave now, Percival. Thank you for the statement. I will come by later," Castle Albus said.

I was dismissed. The prat had to remind me that I held no power here. Power games. I was sure that even Fudge had never tried to ride slipshod over me as Castle Albus had. My fuming was vanished by the sight of Tom in the corridor sitting in an uncomfortable wooden chair. He was wrapped snugly in my cloak and held a large mug of what looked to be hot chocolate in his slender hands. He was rocking to and fro, trying to keep himself from falling asleep.

"I see they have finally let you go! I was about to take the boy home and send a Patronus to Abe."

It was Amelia. She was wearing her usual misshapen grey robes and looked weary.

"I was heading back from work," she explained. "Then I saw the boy sitting alone in the corridor. I couldn't leave him alone."

"Thank you," I said sincerely. "You ought to have taken him with you and sent the Patronus to Abe. You must have waited here for a long time."

Tom's head sharply fell to his chest. His eyes were closed and the mug was slipping from his fingers. Amelia tutted and tsked as she gently unwound his tight grip from the mug.

"He wouldn't come with me, Percival. He insisted that he wait for you."

"I am very grateful that you remained with the boy, Amelia. I will take him home now."

She chuckled saying, "It was no chore. The boy kept me on my toes. All those questions about how the Ministry works and the protection measures in place. Merlin, I won't be surprised if he is planning a coup."

I dearly hoped that Tom had not planned a coup. Amelia left us and I looked at the sleeping boy. Try as I might, I found it hard to call the picture only word I could come up with was homely. I gently lifted him and carried him to the Atrium. And I took extra care in assuring that he was not jolted during the Apparation.

"What a sight, brother mine!" Aberforth exclaimed as he opened the door.

"You are drunk. Keep it low, would you? The boy is sleeping."

"I am bloody drunk is what I am!" he shouted. He looked quite close to tears, or murder. I took a wary step inside the house, reasoning that it would be best to deposit Tom in the bed before trying to calm Abe. He had always reacted to news of Grindelwald by drinking himself into oblivion. I sighed. He continued, "Can you imagine what Castle Albus told me today evening about your ice-cream jaunt? Be there! I will get a Sobering draught and we are going to have a discussion." He stomped into the kitchen. There was the clatter of cupboards and vials.

Tom jerked awake. It took him scarce a moment to place his situation. With a muffled gasp, he scrambled down me as sprightly as a squirrel and then looked up to glare at me.

"Yes?" I asked him solicitously.

"I am not a child," he insisted. "You must not carry me."

Well, he quite looked like a child with his slender form wrapped in that large cloak and his sleepy eyes. It would be futile to point that to him, though.

"In the future, I shall keep it in mind," I assured him. "Now why don't you get to bed and let me deal with my intoxicated brother?"

"Abe oughtn't to drink. It wouldn't be too kind to his stomach," Tom said, his sleepiness giving way to alertness.

"I shall impress upon him your sage advice, Robin Goodfellow."

"That is quite worse than Pinocchio," Tom remarked, though the gleam in his eyes showed that he did not mind the endearment. "I hope you are aware that I haven't had anything to do with old men who lust after their nieces."

I stared at him in horror. He was still watching me with that maddeningly mischievous gleam in his eyes. He must have got his hands somehow on my copy of the book. I ought to hide my tattered copies of Richard Burton far away from his sneaky fingers.

In the ballad of Robin Goodfellow, there was a lurid stanza detailing how Puck, who was capable of taking the shape of any animal or bird or human he desired, took the appearance of a young woman and shared a bed with her lustful uncle on the condition that the old lecher would leave the young woman in peace afterwards. The old man had been so overcome by ecstasy upon Puck's ministrations that, in the heat of the moment, he had agreed to anything at all. Puck took the opportunity to make the old man agree to give his niece her inheritance. The young woman then married a man she was in love with and they had lived happily ever after.

I shook my head and said, "I am horrified, Tom." He had started smiling. "Do this old man a favour and don't let Abe ever hear that you know the strange ballad of Robin Goodfellow. He will inflict unmentionable tortures upon my poor self." He lost the battle and started giggling.

"You exaggerate!" he exclaimed, in between giggles, doubling over and clutching his side.

"Do I?"

"Yes," he said, straightening and getting a grip on his fit of giggles. I was wondering why he giggled instead of laughing. I shook my head. It was too late in the day to ponder the mysteries of Tom Riddle. Besides, I had yet to recover from the shock of him mentioning his knowledge of that ballad.

"Care to elaborate?"

"He let you live after the Hungarian, didn't he?" Tom said thoughtfully. "If he didn't kill you for that, it does mean he will forgive you anything."

Tom knew. I gripped the mantel. Dear me, Tom knew! He had made his way to the armchair closest to the fire and was now curled up, peering at me curiously from the folds of the cloak. I cleared my throat, tried to speak, failed, and cleared my throat again. He sat up with a sigh and waited until I met his gaze.

"I have not lived a sheltered existence, Sir," he said quietly. "I knew. All the time that I have watched you, I have not seen you aroused in my proximity. So it does not matter."

I did not know if I was more mortified or relieved. He had watched me for signs of interest? I groaned and fought the urge to bang my head on the mantel.

"The Hungarian-" I began softly, trying to explain the minefield that had been my past. I had never tried to explain that to anyone else. There had been Minerva, but she had not asked.

"Murderers incarcerated in Wandsworth and Pentonville have women who love them, despite knowing their crimes."

I feared him. His words had brought me perilously close to relief. He was the first person who had not judged me unforgivable for my summer's mistake. I had never forgiven myself for loving a monster. Now Tom, curled feline on the armchair, sleepy and a tad irritated, was calmly undoing my walls of self-castigation. I feared him. This was the Damocles' sword that had haunted me for years. How could he say that it was a trifle and mattered not at all to him?

"I am not a woman," I said softly.

"You are not a woman. You are a non-practising pillow-biter. I had noticed," he said impatiently. He seemed to have lost all vestiges of calm and he continued in a low, cold voice, "Why do you insist on degrading yourself when there is no need? I have done many strange things to keep myself in Father Sebastian's good graces and I don't think I degraded myself even if others might disagree. You are wiser than me. Surely you ought to see that you are simply running after your tail in circles and worrying. Yes, you had the bad taste to fall in love with a murderer. But it could be worse."

"Could it?" I asked weakly.

"Of course," he muttered. "You could have become a priest and taken advantage of foolish altar boys."

"I am an atheist. I don't believe in religions."

"Thank God for that," he said dryly.

I laughed at that, feebly. I collapsed into the remaining armchair and stared at him. He snuggled deeper into the cloak, contorted his limbs into a peculiar arrangement, and promptly went to sleep.

"I heard that," Aberforth said, entering the room. "The boy is wrong."

The giddy rush of happiness faded abruptly at those words. This was why I had feared the boy. I had feared that he might be wrong, that he would give me a false taste of acceptance which nobody else, not even my brother, would extend to me. Tom saw everything through too practical eyes. And there was the matter of his nonexistent set of morals. The rest of the world would not agree with his views.

"He was wrong when he said that you are wiser than him," Aberforth muttered darkly. "You aren't."

That I could live with. The giddiness rushed back and I grinned at my brother. I had to tell him about Malfoy. I had to tell him that Tom had been aware all along of the conspiracy. I had to tell him about the Hogwarts letter. But we were in perfect concord right then and I did not wish to destroy that. I would tell him tomorrow.

"Go to bed and take your inflated sense of worth with you, you non-practising pillow-biter."

I could live with that too. I bent to press a kiss to the boy's hair and then squeezed my brother's arm. He rolled his eyes and pushed me towards the staircase.


External Source Text - Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck. There are many ballads and folktales about Puck. The ballad Tom and Albus refer to is The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow (1872). Puck also stars in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's dream.

Chapter Text

I was settled at our kitchen-table with a plate of biscuits and a steaming mug of tea at my elbow. As I made desultory perusal of the previous day's Daily Prophet, Aberforth stood behind my chair, wiping the dishes and reading over my shoulder. At least, that was the impression he sought to give me. I knew well that he was merely waiting for me to turn to the next page where there was printed a small article about the school reopening next week. He continued his charade, and I patiently took small sips of the excellent tea, waiting for him to initiate the topic which must have been lingering on his mind for days, as it had been on mine.

"There is still time," he said finally. "He is not eager to attend a magical school. Castle Albus has contacts enough in the Muggle world to procure the boy a seat at one of their schools."

So he had not yet resigned himself to the inevitability of Tom attending Hogwarts, had he? I set my mug down softly and turned half-about to face my brother. His features were pinched in worry.

"The boy has to be trained, Abe. Aloysius Moody said it aptly when he expressed that Tom is a cauldron waiting to explode," I said quietly, trying to make Aberforth understand why the boy had to go to Hogwarts. There were other reasons too, but I knew that none of those would meet with Aberforth's approval. He did not understand how the cacophony of Tom's untrained magic had the potential to be as beautiful as the finest violin concerto. Aberforth was not enamoured by the world of creation and change as Tom and Castle Albus and Grindelwald and I were. He would not understand, but he would fear.

"I am sure that the boy has control enough to keep his magic leashed in the Muggle world," Aberforth muttered. "The only reason why I haven't opposed you on this is my fear that the boy is marked, that he was marked before he came to us. What you told me about the Squib priest has me deeply worried. There is also the matter of the hullabaloo wrought at the Ministry when the boy had that mishap with Ollivander. There are eyes on him. I realise that he needs to know how to use his magic to keep himself out of trouble and that we need a place where he will be safe enough. Hogwarts is the only answer to that."

Before I could reply, there was the doorbell clanging. That was followed by the clatter of Tom's shoes and his clear voice mischievously proclaiming, "Abe, your ladybird is at the door!"

He yelped then. Into the kitchen came Amelia Bones, dragging along our resident imp by the ear.

"Ladybird indeed!" she said, scandalised. "I know that you are Dumbledores and hold to strange concepts of social convention. But I sincerely hope that you do not talk call me a ladybird while you converse amongst yourselves."

"Only when Abe is drunk," I said merrily, throwing Tom a wink and chuckling at Amelia's vexed mutterings. Aberforth hastily shoved my plate of biscuits at her and said, "Here, have one, will you? "

"All ready to attend school, Tom?" Amelia asked the boy, cramming a biscuit into his hand and chivvying him into the nearest chair. She never could resist feeding him tidbits whenever they met. She had taken to him over time. What surprised me was that Tom got along with her equally well, despite his usual paranoia. He permitted her to ruffle his hair and kiss his cheeks and to tweak his ears. I had once seen him stoically suffering as she combed his hair with her fingers. I did not entirely believe in this camaraderie, given how I had seen Tom act with Hyperion Malfoy.

"Tom?" Amelia prompted, noticing the brown study the boy had fallen into.

"I suppose so, Ma'am," he said thoughtfully. "I have my books and my robes. I will receive my wand today. I suppose I am ready."

"That is not what I wanted to hear," Amelia said kindly, patting his arm. "Don't worry. Percival and Albus are both going to be there. While they cannot give you special consideration in classes, you may seek them out if you have difficulties. The teachers are wise and kind. It has the largest library in the country and the largest Quidditch Pitch." The last two words were met with a cringe from Tom. Amelia had been trying to interest him in Quidditch of late. She had told me that Quidditch would help the boy fit in as nothing else would. Now she drew a deep breath and said softly, "While I will not lie to you and declare that everybody who has attended Hogwarts grew to love it, I will say that every student was made better for the experience."

She spoke the truth. My brother had hated Hogwarts. He had been strengthened by it, all the same.

Right then, Tom looked miserable. Aberforth was scowling. I sighed and was about to change the topic when there was a knock at our door.

It was Castle Albus. He would escort Tom and I to Ollivander's shop to select a wand for the boy. It had taken not inconsiderable cajoling from Amelia and Castle Albus before Ollivander had given in with bad grace to let us buy a wand for the boy from his store. I had been surprised that Castle Albus would speak on Tom's behalf, until he had said, in a barbed tone, that he was hardly going to let us acquire a potentially dangerous wand for Tom from the black market. The boy, Castle Albus said, was addled enough as they came, and twice as dangerous.

"Well, well, well, dare I ask why Pinocchio is not excited about procuring a wand?" Castle Albus asked the boy upon seeing his forlorn countenance.

"That is enough," Aberforth said grumpily. "Tom, stay close to Percival and don't get into trouble."

Diagon Alley in late August was a cornucopia of too-excited children and their harried parents. I had never liked visiting the market during this time. Yet needs must and I was forced to bow to Castle Albus's wishes to obtain what we needed right now: an Ollivander wand for the boy.

Aberforth and I had toyed with the idea of approaching one of the European wand-makers for this purpose. It would not have been easy. Taking the boy to the Continent was too dangerous, what with Grindelwald's campaign, and we did not possess the resources to protect the boy who had already attracted interest in quarters that gave us unease. I was relieved that Castle Albus had decided that Ollivander would be the best course and set about persuading the wand-maker.

Castle Albus picked his way through the crowd easily, stopping here and there with merrily chat with an acquaintance or two. I marvelled at his easy façade – surely, he hated the throng as much as I did, and I marvelled that people were convinced by it. Tom trotted beside me, unusually silent and lost in thoughts. Passers-by jostled him as they hurried to finish their shopping for the new term at Hogwarts. This was highly unusual, as I remarked earlier, given Tom's preternatural ability to evade the touches of strangers and his well-developed sense of situational awareness. What thoughts held his attention so deeply? I gripped his shoulder and steered him before me, so that I might guide him and keep him unharmed by the rushing throng. He did not even notice that and I found I missed his suspicious glare which was normally a given in these circumstances.

Was the boy reflecting on the priest's death? I hoped not. Aberforth had talked to Tom about the Killing Curse. Later, my brother had taken me aside and confided that Tom had seemed more interested in the science behind the curse than the death of the priest. Though I had feared that the boy might react so, it gave me no pleasure to see my prediction proven. What would it take to make a human of the boy before he became a monster? Tom had been with us for a long time now. Yet had there been any change at all to his way of thinking? He might have learnt to be more trusting of others, but I had yet to see him change a single opinion he held. His mind reminded me of a juggernaut, inflexible and insurmountable by either command or coaxing, as it sought to reach its goals.

"Here we are!" Castle Albus said merrily as we stood before the wand-maker's store. He threw me a significant glance and said, "It took me considerable effort to arrange this meeting."

I gripped Tom's shoulder tightly. The boy must have understood my injunction, for he took a deep breath, met Castle Albus's measuring gaze, and said, "As you wish, Sir."

"Ah, Pinocchio, if only those I teach were half as quick as you," Castle Albus said sincerely. I frowned. Then he followed those words with, "But I am glad they are not half as sociopathic as you are."

Tom's body stiffened under my fingers but he made no reply. Castle Albus opened the door to the shop. Tom flinched at the sound of the tinkling shop-bell, but docilely obeyed my nudge towards the door which Castle Albus now mockingly held open for us. He even gave me a half-bow. Had I ever been that insufferable? It might explain Aberforth's considerable repertoire of swear-words reserved for me.

"Albus, I would say that this is a pleasure, but I would be lying."


Castle Albus merely chuckled and strode to join his friend. I brought the boy closer to me and nodded to the wand-maker, willing the man to get this over with. I would take the boy to Florian's after this.

Ollivander issued terse directions to Castle Albus, who then relayed them to me and I was in charge of guiding Tom through the rigmarole.

The first wand Tom picked up was ebony and dragon heartstring. He waved it once as I instructed him to, a little frown creasing his brow. White sparks surged out of the wand-tip and lit up the dark shop. Castle Albus hummed and remarked how rare it was to find a fit so effortlessly.

"It is not a fit," Ollivander said darkly. "It is simply the strength of his freakish power coaxing that out of the wand."

I felt vindicated and worried at the same time. I had felt that it would not be as easy as that to find Tom a wand. I worried that he might end up with the same wand that had helped him along his path of destruction the last time. I had confided in Abe about this scenario. He said that he did not think it likely to happen, given how disturbed the timeline had been by my doings here. When I had reiterated my worries, he had simply shrugged saying that I would have to play it by the ear should they occur.

What would I do?

Tom tried out wand after wand, and each one of them responded with various degrees of enthusiasm to his command, and yet Ollivander persisted that none of them were a true match. Castle Albus had narrowed his gaze and was carefully noting the responses of each wand, perhaps trying to gauge how each wand style suited the boy. I would have done the same, if I had been able to concentrate. I could not, though, given how deeply I worried about the boy ending up with his former wand.

We had probably gone through two dozen or so wands when the shop-bell tinkled again. I turned to see the newcomers. A woman led a young boy in. He looked about as old as Tom and was doubtless a first-year bound for Hogwarts.

Castle Albus cleared his throat. I looked at him, startled. Clearing my throat was a nervous tic of mine which surfaced whenever I had to interact with people I held no liking for. Who was this woman that unsettled Castle Albus so?

A second later, she extended her hand to Castle Albus and as he took it with a façade of politeness, I saw the many rings on her hand glinting in the shower of white sparks that Tom's trial with the current wand produced.

This was Delilah Skeeter, infamous for her poisoned quill that took down men viciously in the travesty that was her column in the Daily Prophet.

"Percival, my cousin," Castle Albus was saying. "And his young charge, Mr. Riddle."

Tom had taken a step away from the woman. Had it been a conscious action? Her eyes had narrowed now as she scrutinised me, no doubt wondering where Albus Dumbledore's cousin had been all this time. I exchanged a wary look with Castle Albus. This had the potential for scandal, if she decided to snoop about.

To our fortune, or misfortune, her young ward walked up to Tom and extended his hand saying, "I am Casca Skeeter. I hope to be Sorted into Ravenclaw."

Tom stared at him for one long moment before saying, "No, you don't. Your copy of the Hogwarts: A History book protrudes from your bag and it has a chocolate wrapper as a place-marker in roughly the section where I believe are the descriptions about the Slytherin House."

Ollivander snorted. Castle Albus was staring at Tom torn between incredulity and amusement. I took one look at Delilah Skeeter's wide eyes and realised that what ensued would not be pleasant at all. Then I looked down at Tom and saw that he was peering at me with the strangest expression in his eyes.

Perhaps I could still do damage-control with a well-placed Obliviate or two? Castle Albus looked at me sharply and then directed his gaze to the wand-maker. Of course, I could not. Ollivander would hardly be the model of understanding if we got up to more shenanigans on Tom's account.

Delilah made a sudden exclamation and rushed forward to dig her beringed talons into Tom's shoulders. He yelped in shock and the next instant she screamed and drew her hands away as if they had been scorched. Castle Albus pinched his nose and quickly healed her. Ollivander glared at me and gave a bitter smile, to underline the fact that my ward was a psychopath of the finest make.

"How dare you!" Casca shouted but Delilah held him back.

"Tom Riddle!" she exclaimed, staring at her hands that had been scorched. "The Tom Riddle who was detained at the Ministry for deliberately using harmful magic! What a lovely surprise!"

Tom looked up at me. As seemed to be the norm these days, the sight of doubt and guilt and pride and defiance warring in his eyes made me sigh and my hand moved of its own accord to rest upon his shoulder. His body relaxed by a fraction and I wondered why I was strangely happy about the fact that he had hurt Delilah for touching him while he seemed to relax into and even sought mine. At times I feared that my need for his trust outweighed my resolve to be his moral compass.

"This freak will be here for a long time, Mrs. Skeeter," Ollivander apologised. "Let me help young Master Skeeter to find his first wand and you may get on with your day."

Delilah nodded but kept a calculating gaze on Tom all the time she was in the shop. I was unnerved and concerned by her sly gaze, but Tom seemed to take it in stride and even rallied enough to ask me about wand-making. I tried to explain what little I knew of it, mostly to keep my mind off Delilah, but from the disbelieving looks Castle Albus sent me and the smug face Ollivander had, it was evident that I was spouting claptrap. Hopefully, Tom would know better than to rely on my account if he ever had the need to use this knowledge. And that thought took my mind down darker alleys, imagining scenarios where Tom might twist wandlore to reach his ends.

I could only laugh at the irony that was my life. There had been a time in my past when I had believed that darkness was alluring and those that loved its embrace were attractive. Ariana and him had changed my perception. Then I had religiously avoided showing the least of sympathy to any man haunted by dark magic. I had turned a blind eye to Tom, I had willfully ignored a teenaged Severus's dilemma, I had pretended not to notice Alastor Moody's fondness for the darker curses and I had not troubled myself overly with the hundreds of children in my care who had been torn at the crossroads. Now, to repay my deliberate ignorance, here I was saddled with a boy whose magic and morals opened a vast portal of possibilities that might lead to darker paths.

I could not keep myself safe from him. How would I keep the boy safe from the Dark Arts and all that entailed?

"Try this one," Ollivander commanded. "I doubt it will suit you, since it is one of a pair that I designed for Wizarding twins. Yet, I wonder."

I knew that wand, as much as I wished that I did not. Thirteen and a half inches, made of yew, containing a phoenix feather: I knew that wand. I gasped and Castle Albus threw me a look of mild concern. Tom, on the other hand, was peering at me with that crease on his forehead and his hand hovering by my clasped hands. I was reminded of the look in his eyes after he had announced to us Casca's lie. It struck me then that he had been looking for approval, for praise. I felt strangely undone at the thought of him showing off to earn my praise. I had laughed indulgently whenever I had seen children trying to impress their parents, having never thought about it. But now that I was on the receiving end of such a gesture, I could only wonder if all parents had felt as if they were squeezed through too tight, endless tubes because that was what I had felt then.

Tom took that wand. For the first time in my life, willfully shoved-away Latin words played in my mind.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Surely, we had all suffered enough? Surely, there would be a merciful Providence somewhere?

Tom waved the wand and I sighed in relief at the sight of the cascade of white sparks. It was the same as it had been with the other wands. As soon as I had delivered Tom to Aberforth, I would Apparate to St. Paul's Cathedral and prostrate myself before whatever idols were worshipped there.

Then Castle Albus said, "Wait! Try it with the other hand!"

Tom looked mildly worried now. Yet he complied and my newfound faith in religion evaporated right at that instant when the wand emitted a fountain of gold and green sparks lighting up the shop and lending an eerie cast to our faces.

"How apropos," Ollivander said quietly, his words for once not coloured by hatred for the boy.

"Why?" Castle Albus enquired. I was too stricken to take an interest in the conversation.

"Left-handed, yew and phoenix. Remarkable, really. Poisonous sap. Death and resurrection. Longevity. Remarkable. That is a great wand, Albus. Time will show us what manner of greatness it will embrace." Ollivander's voice held a trace of malicious conviction as he continued, "I have my own thoughts on how this will be."

"I don't want it."

"What?" Castle Albus asked, nonplussed.

"I don't want it, Sir."

Tom's voice was firm and clear, as it always was, strengthened by the force of his conviction. I looked upon the scene as if from a great distance.

"Why?" Ollivander barked. "It suits you."

"I can do magic well enough with any of the other wands," Tom said quietly. "It is enough. I wish to succeed on the merit of my skills, not on the merit of my wand."

He would not be reasoned with, despite Castle Albus's explanations about wandlore and Ollivander's terse injunctions regarding the importance wand-compatibility. I watched as if it was a Pensieve memory unfolding before me.

We walked out of the shop with Tom holding a Laurel wand with dragon heartstring at its core and eleven inches long. Castle Albus murmured that he had to leave for the Ministry. Tom and I were left in the late August sunshine.

"How angry are you with me for hurting that woman?" he asked, as soon as we were seated across each other in Florian's shop.

I gestured to his fast-melting ice-cream and said frankly, "Not very. She was a harridan and had no business jumping on you like that. Still, I wish you would be calmer when reacting to accidental touches. At school, we cannot afford to have this situation every time someone touches you."

"You are worried about what she might do," he stated succinctly, his grey eyes narrowed as he read my face too easily.

I sighed and replied, "True. She is a journalist of the worst sort and takes particular pleasure in destroying lives with her poisoned quill. To attract her interest is not safe."

"Lucky that I did not give into my urge to recite that rhyme about Banbury cross," he said with a quick smile before diving back to his ice-cream.

I closed my eyes to prevent him seeing my amusement before saying flatly, "She does not have bells on her toes. Besides, I would not ride on a cock horse to Banbury cross to see her upon a white horse."

"I hope not," Tom said seriously, though I was not deceived as I could well see the impishness glittering in his eyes. "I would hate to think that you wasted a ride on a good cock horse merely to see her."

I spluttered into my ice-cream and Florian came over rushing to ask me what was wrong. Tom started humming the verses of that wretched nursery rhyme with such glee and I was unable to prevent a fit of laughter at his impertinence.

"What has happened?" Florian demanded.

"Merely a horse ride to Banbury Cross," I assured him. He frowned. Of course, he was ignorant of Muggle rhymes.

Tom snorted and said, "There was a lady on a white horse, Florian. And she shall have music wherever she goes."

"Aren't you a tad too young to be afflicted by the Dumbledore brand of insanity, Tom?" Florian questioned, with a fond smile playing on his face. "I would rather be a stowaway than their ward."

"It is not that bad," Tom said mildly, meeting my gaze over his empty ice-cream vessel.

He meant it.

I gulped. I could not think of it now, no more than I could think of how perceptive he might have been at the wand-shop to read my fears from one glance while he had held the yew wand. Why had he refused it? Was it merely because he had seen how affected I had been? Or was it instinct? That wand had yielded to him as joyously as my old wand had yielded to me in that very shop. I remembered well the thrill of belonging and possessiveness when I had first held my wand. Tom must have surely felt the same, perhaps to a greater degree, knowing how he hoarded things. What had it taken to be able to let go of that perfect wand and to settle for something that was relatively commonplace? I wanted the answers. I feared them too. How could the boy sit there so calmly as if he had not made such a momentous decision? What would he do when he regretted it, when he reached the limits of his skill and when he realised that the yew wand would have taken him much farther? I could not bear to think of it.

So I deliberately changed the topic saying, "I believe you merely stick around to see Abe castigating me for each and every little thing."

Tom nodded and said, "There is also that."


The verses Tom and Albus mention are from the nursery rhyme 'Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross'. I hope you liked the chapter. If you are interested, there isa little piece of insanity set in this same story plot: 'I will always sing for you'. It is set in 1976 and a link can be found from my profile page.

Chapter Text

The average Englishman takes to change as well as a cat to water. Aberforth was no exception. He harrumphed, made dire predictions, turned himself into a wet blanket of such proportions that even I began to dread the day of Tom's departure for Hogwarts. Castle Albus did not aid my spirits, what with his increasingly disheartening predictions about the catastrophes that would highlight the boy's time at Hogwarts.

Tom himself tended to while his days away out and about in the countryside, taking with him an apple or two and whatever book had caught his attention that day. I was concerned by his disinclination to play the piano in the evenings, but I attributed it to his nervousness as he was on the brink of a change in living circumstances. Though he had once said that he did not like the idea of living with hundreds of students, I did not believe that. He had always appreciated an audience for his genius. Hogwarts would give him that and I knew he must be looking forward to that despite his qualms.

I was to take charge as the Transfiguration teacher for this school year. Castle Albus would be the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. With the increasing uncertainty in Europe, the tension in the Muggle world, the goings-on in Germany and our Ministry's fumbling, we knew well that it was only a matter of time before war came to our shores. The children needed a teacher who would not shy away from demonstrating what exactly they might face once they left Hogwarts. Galatea Merrythought had expressed a desire to retire. She was an excellent teacher of theory, but she could not hold a candle to Castle Albus's vast experience and knowledge in matters related to actual wand-work. Slughorn had sided with us when the matter had been presented to Dippet. For some reason, Hyperion Malfoy had also supported this suggestion and the Board of Governors had endorsed it.

The Malfoys. Tom had not spoken of them since the day Sebastian had been killed. Aberforth and I had often speculated as to Hyperion Malfoy's motives.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that Malfoy is a stooge of his," I had told Aberforth one day, while we were discussing the Ministry's unwillingness to haul Malfoy in for questioning despite Moody's demands for the same. "It is in his family's nature to seek out and forge alliances with Dark Lords, clichéd as it sounds."

"I cannot deny that their family history is unsavoury," Aberforth admitted. "However, don't you think that there might be a less than black and white explanation for his involvement? The Squib was his brother-in-law. Do you suppose that the Squib had cashed in on Malfoy's affection for his dead wife and asked him to keep an eye on Tom?"

"Why?" I asked, angry as I always became at the mention of that horrible man who had contributed greatly to Tom's lack of trust in men. "Did he want the boy brought back? Did he ask Malfoy to kidnap the boy from right under our noses?"

"Malfoy is a father," Aberforth said gently, placing a warm, calloused hand on my wrist. "He is not a good man, but he is a father. He would not harm a boy of the same age as his own child."

"I know better than to believe that, Aberforth, and so should you!" I exclaimed. "You know that this bears his mark!"

"You told me that Malfoy said no sane businessman would throw in his lot with Grindelwald," Aberforth said, playing the devil's advocate as always.

I suppressed a flinch at the sound of the name Aberforth had voiced. It was a name I preferred to avoid hearing or uttering. Names had such power over us, did they not?

"Malfoy is not sane, Abe," I said wryly.

Aberforth had simply shaken his head and left it at that. We did not have more opportunities to ponder Malfoy's motivations since September was upon us and there were a thousand nitty-gritties to be worked out because we could be assured of a smooth transition without any loose ends or loopholes that might prove to be the end of our deception regarding Tom's guardianship and my fabricated personage as the Dumbledores's cousin with Mexican roots.

"You had best come with me," Castle Albus said. "You need to settle in before the students arrive."


"Aberforth will see him off on the Hogwarts Express," Castle Albus said merrily. "That way, Pinocchio will have his chance to make friends on the train. What do you think?"

I thought that it was a very bad idea to let Tom be unaccompanied. Who knew what sorts of gangs he might come across? It was not that I did not trust him to keep out of trouble, it was that I knew he would be too overwhelmed by the world tomorrow would push him into. A surprised Tom was not a prudent Tom. We had had enough fallout from his previous brushes with wild magic, hadn't we? It was not only wild magic that I had to worry about. I remembered the clear enunciation of each Latin word when he had practised them and the fire in his eyes as the power of the word had crested deep in him.

"He will not like it if you hovered about him like an overgrown fly," Castle Albus said bluntly. "It will be worse when he realises that none of the others have a guardian with them to accompany them to the school."

I remembered my father coming to see me off on the train. He had ruffled my hair, shoved my trunk in my hands and asked me to write regularly. I remembered the times my mother had come to see me off. There had been tears, hand-wringing, kisses and fussing. I had not liked the claustrophobic feeling at all. Then there had been the pitying looks my peers had given me at the sight of my mother's display. No, the journey through our adolescent years was best travelled with those in our own age group, and I could not smother Tom with my presence on the train when it might be his very first chance to make friends.

I tried to forget that Lord Voldemort had no friends, only allies and enemies.

"Had Albus Dumbledore?" Castle Albus asked quietly.

I frowned. Of course there had been close friends. There had been Elphias, Amelia, Ollivander and many others, hadn't there?

Castle Albus held my gaze. He seemed uncomfortable but determined to make his point all the same. I felt such a pang of aching nostalgia at the sight of him. This was what I had been before a duel in Europe and winning the Deathstick had made me into what I was.

"Do you think there isn't an element of fear involved in these friendships?" Castle Albus wondered.

There was fear. There was always fear when there was imbalance of power in a relationship. Elphias, Ollivander, Bartemius, Minerva and Severus had all feared me to some extent or the other. Only one person had not. Him I had sealed in a mountain fastness and his blood I had spilt on a land that thrummed to every verse of the Himnusz.

"Why do you tell me this?" I asked Castle Albus, curious as to his motives. It was not in him to give Tom the benefit of doubt. What had then spurred him to make this observation?

"I was merely wondering," he said distractedly.

So his ponderings had nothing to do with Tom and more to do with his fears and worries about himself. I remembered standing before a man I had loved. My hand had faltered as I felt the weight of the world's hope on my shoulders. They wanted me to kill a monster. It was the last thing in the world that I had wanted. Duty so often was. I did not know how to explain it to Castle Albus, or if I even wanted to. He had to come to terms with his destiny as I had, without being subverted by another's opinion.

If the smallest part of my heart hoped for a different resolution this time, if the most naive part of me hoped that Castle Albus would not be broken down as I was, I paid that part of my heart no mind and refused to think more on it. Aberforth was right. Preaching was easier than practising when it came to some concepts. Hope was one of those.

"Welcome to Hogwarts, Percival!" Horace said cheerfully as he pumped my hand between his whale-like appendages in greeting.

"Thank you, Horace," I gasped in pain, extracting my hand from his vise of a grip. "I look forward to the school-year."

"You will change your mind soon enough once the little devils arrive!" Horace assured me, waving a hand at a House-Elf that bobbed its head and with a snap of its fingers made my trunk disappear. "I will take you to your chambers and then escort you to the first staff meeting of the year."

"Staff meeting? To discuss schedules and such?" I asked politely.

I knew what transpired at Hogwarts staff meetings well enough. It would not do to enlighten Slughorn of that now, would it?

Horace paused a moment and peered at me. "Hasn't Albus told you of what it involves? Dear me, dear me, we might have difficulties then." He scrunched his nose and then said gaily, "We will manage, I am sure. You are a Dumbledore, after all."

Sometimes, the reputation of the Dumbledore name concerned me, especially since it seemed that we were more renowned for our oddities than for our talent.

My staff quarters were right by Castle Albus's. I frowned as I thought of the reasons why I had been assigned these chambers. If Dippet had been in charge of the allocation, I might have considered it as mere courtesy of placing family together. However I knew that it had been Castle Albus in charge of the allocation. That meant there were shadowy motives involved beyond a desire to fraternise with a cousin.

The rooms in themselves had no distinguishing qualities. I suppressed a smile as I remembered the first time I had shown Severus to his quarters after he had been hired. He had taken one look and muttered, "I saw more luxury in the dormitories as a student." He must have been speaking the truth, given how hedonistic it was in the Slytherin dormitories. They said it was simply their way of combating the draughty dungeons. I did have my sympathies for them, given how draughty it was down there. I had spent one night there waiting for Severus to return from a Death Eater meeting and had nearly frozen my bollocks off. That I had to endure listening to the caterwauling of the Weird Sisters had not helped my spirits any. Severus, fresh from a dormitory existence and the loud fights in his house, was unused to the quiet in his sleeping quarters at Hogwarts and often played loud music to drown out the silence.

"I hear that we shall be having an interesting boy in the new crop," Armando said genially in the middle of the staff meeting which mostly involved the decimation of the fine port Slughorn had brought along and the exquisite pies Pomona had baked for the event, all flavoured liberally with excellent gossip.

"That we shall!" Horace boomed. "Tom Riddle, the Ministry's dirty little secret."

"Dirty little secret?" Pomona asked worriedly. "How so?"

I was also frowning at Horace. What had he meant by that? Castle Albus cleared his throat and said apropos of nothing, "I wonder what has delayed Ogg?"

"Albus, don't you dare change the subject!" Madam Pomfrey cut in. "Horace, elaborate, please."

"It is nothing," Horace chuckled, a tad nervously, his enthusiasm quelled by Castle Albus's glare.

"Horace?" I pressed, unable to account for the quaver in my voice.

"The Unspeakables used certain Curses on him which are...unpardonable," Horace said quickly. "It ended quickly, I heard, when Mr. Malfoy brought the matter to the attention of the Ministry officials higher in the hierarchy. They hushed up the matter."

The Unforgivables. I remembered Bode taunting Aberforth about the boy being a better sport than the goats. I recalled how Aberforth had run his eyes fearfully over the boy as soon as he had returned from prison and the sigh of relief which had escaped my brother upon seeing that Tom was unharmed.

Not unharmed, though, if Horace's carefully phrased words were anything to go by. Castle Albus cleared his throat and did not meet my gaze. This explained why he had been kinder to Tom since the debacle, despite being condescending, snide and suspicious of the boy's character.

"On a child!" Pomona shrieked. Dippet looked equally horrified. Madam Pomfrey was glaring at Castle Albus who had thrown up his hands in helplessness and was now muttering about how he had no knowledge of what transpired in the lair of the Unspeakables. Filius, who had been occupied with Pomona's pies and Kettleburn's conversation until that point, was now leaning forward and peering suspiciously at Horace.

"Are you sure of your sources, Horace?" Filius asked. "Only, I find it difficult to believe that such travesty could happen in our Ministry, where most of the Unspeakables are Hogwarts alumni, girls and boys we taught."

Most Unspeakables were former Ravenclaws. I understood Filius's difficulty to believe in Horace's words.

Horace took a gulp of his port and said quietly, "I am not going to spin tales like this without being backed by sources I trust, am I, Filius?"

There was that.

The Slytherin Head of House took a deep breath and continued, "From everything I have heard of him, I suspect that the boy might be Sorted into Slytherin. I have made it my business to enquire about his past. It has been impossible. Powerful Memory Charms and concealments are involved at every turn."

I felt a pang of worry when I heard Horace say that he suspected Tom might be Sorted into Slytherin. Truly, though, had I any right to expect anything else? Had I hoped, foolishly, that Tom might be able to guess at my fears as he had done in the wand-shop and convince the Sorting Hat to place him in a different house?

"Merely the Ministry being cautious, Horace," Castle Albus said reassuringly. "There has been interest in the boy, as you know, from quarters not very benign. The Ministry does not want trouble stirred. So they have been guarding him and those involved in his life before he entered our world."

Horace did not look as if he was entirely convinced but he nodded and fell quiet. The conversation returned to Pomona's and Filius's betting on the House Cup.

"Not placing a bet on your House, Albus?" Pomona teased.

Castle Albus chuckled and said, "Why not? A hundred galleons on Gryffindor winning the House Cup and two hundred on winning the Quidditch Cup."

Pomona laughed saying, "You are very sure about the Quidditch Cup, aren't you? I will place a hundred on the House Cup."

"Not betting on your chances in the Quidditch Cup, Pomona?" Armando laughed.

"Some battles are lost before they have begun, Headmaster!" Pomona exclaimed. "Nobody stands a chance against Filius's Quidditch team this year."

"True, true, I will place three hundred galleons on my team," Filius said merrily. "And a hundred on the House Cup."

"Horace? Come on, be less cynical of your chances, won't you, even if I admit you have little to be cheerful about?" Castle Albus encouraged.

Horace rolled his eyes saying, "Slytherin might stand a chance if Lestrange, Avery and the Blacks stopped their power plays and started getting used to the concept that Quidditch is a team sport. As it is, no, Albus, I am not wasting my hard-earned galleons on this."

Later, after Dippet had half-heartedly remonstrated with the Heads of the Houses for betting on their students, we parted. I hurried to Horace who was making for the dungeons, no doubt to retire. He kept ridiculously early hours.

"Ah, Percival, is it anything that cannot wait for tomorrow?" he asked hopefully as he noticed I had fallen into step with him.

"Tom, my ward," I said tersely. "I wish I had known more of what the Ministry Unspeakables had been up to."

He sighed but offered no words.

"Why do you think that the boy might be sorted into your House?" I asked, after a few minutes of walking in silence. We had reached his quarters. The portrait guarding his door, a half-clad gnome, was leering at us. Horace threw it a reproving glare before turning to face me.

"No other house would taken in someone as broken as the boy seems to be," he said regretfully. "He might be as brave as a Gryffindor, as clever as a Ravenclaw, as sensible and loyal as a Hufflepuff, I do not know, but it does not matter in any case, since he is broken and the broken ones come to Slytherin."

The day the students returned to Hogwarts dawned bright and clear. I took a walk with Pomona in the castle grounds and listened to her merry chatter. It considerably dampened the ache that had set in after hearing Horace speak of the Unspeakables the previous night.

"You might need some time to get accustomed to our ways here," Pomona was saying, "but you will like it well enough soon. The first few days of teaching might wear you down more than you had expected, but you will learn the tricks of the trade in a few weeks, I am sure. Keep your head up, talk to us if you need to, don't be too hard on the children and you will do well."

She had given Minerva and Severus the same speech when they had started teaching.

"I understand that you place considerable importance on the Sorting process here," I remarked.

I had always been curious to know what Pomona thought of it. She had never voiced her opinion on this while in my presence.

"Yes," she laughed, though there was no mirth in her voice. "To an outsider like you, the importance we place on Sorting must seem unusual. It is a tradition for us. A tradition that dictates the rest of your life."

Carefully, I told her, "Seems to me that a mangy hat might not be the best judge of a child's character. It does not make sense to me that a hat's decision would make the man or the woman the child grows into."

She sighed and tucked her arm in my elbow. Then she looked up the robin-blue skies and said softly, "Truer words have never been spoken, Percival. That hat has been the breaking and making of many. I have thought often that we might be better off without it. It decides our future on our flaws more than our virtues, I have noticed."

"So do you think that Horace was right when he predicted that the boy would end up in his House?"

"Horace Slughorn hasn't made a wrong Sorting prediction yet," she said wryly. "So, yes, Percival, your Tom will be a Slytherin. You need to stop paying attention to the anti-Slytherin rhetoric which is common in our castle and deal with the fact that your ward will be spending his next seven years in the bosom of Horace's dungeons where the Blacks, the Averys, the Lestranges and the Malfoys will try to convert him to their ideals of blood supremacy and what not. I hope, for your sake and the boy's, that he has a sensible head on his shoulders."

Tom? Sensible?

"He has an artistic temperament, Pomona," I said, barely masking my worries.

She patted my hand and said gently, "Let us hope that this is the first time old Horace has gone wrong with a prediction, shall we?"

The teachers assembled in the Great Hall for the feast. I was placed between Horace and Pomona. Castle Albus's seat, beside Armando's, remained conspicuously empty as did Kettleburn's. There, in the middle of the hall, in a place of prominence was the Hat on a stool. I tried not to look at it.

The great doors opened with a resounding thud and Kettleburn came in chivvying in the rain-drenched first years. They were shivering and huddled together in little groups, whispering and pointing out people and things in the hall, all but one. My knuckles were white on the armrests of my chair as I looked at the boy. There he stood, as pale as freshly fallen snow and as poised as a prince, the dark school-clothes becoming him as nothing else had. His eyes were not wide in astonishment nor was he nervous in the least. He was staring at the Hogwarts emblem on the wall, his eyes alit with quiet curiosity as they flicked over the motto of the school.

Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titilliandus

His lips curved in a soft smile as he read the motto. Then he turned half-about and raised his eyebrows at me. I frowned. He threw a daring look at me and then turned back to the motto.

Caper Dormiens Nunquam Titilliandus

Do not tickle a sleeping goat. It was a private joke Tom and I often spoke of whenever Aberforth flew off the handle at something we had done. Dear heavens! I half-rose with an exclamation on my lips. Horace's hand came to steer me back into the chair. I turned to face him. He was laughing and winking at Tom.

"I look forward to having him in my classes, Percival. How incredibly talented!"

Castle Albus flicked his wand once and the motto was restored. Tom had joined the rest of the shivering, soaked first years and stood inconspicuously to a side, his eyes downcast and his posture the picture of humility.

The imp.

"The castle must like him," Horace remarked. "This castle, Percival, does not allow just anyone to play with it, you see."

I was reminded of that tale of the Giant and his castle. The Tom I had known had always had a bond to this castle, a bond strong enough to bend the structure's will to placing a curse on the Dark Arts position.

"He might have to be careful to keep a low profile," Horace was saying. "Our world, in wizarding Britain, is small enough and every piece of gossip reaches the corners of the country."

Sure enough, many of the first years were pointing at him and muttering in low voices. Seeing Tom's fingers clenched tightly, I knew well enough what the gist of those conversations might be. He was staring at the ceiling in a bid to avoid meeting someone's gaze. Curious, I looked around.

"The young Malfoy boy has been trying to catch your ward's attention for the better part of the last quarter of an hour," Horace said.

True enough, Abraxas, a golden-haired sun amongst the blacks and browns of the Lestranges and the Blacks he was standing amidst, was bouncing on the balls of his feet, trying to make eye contact with Tom who had decided that the hall ceiling was an artefact of significant interest and more worth his time than the rest of the people in the hall.

Armando clapped his hands to call the Hall to order. The older students settled at their tables and looked at the crop of first years speculatively, no doubt playing a game of prediction and placing bets. I used to do that with Elphias. The only time he had won and I had lost was when Aberforth had been Sorted. My brother existed to see me humbled.

I barely paid attention to the Hat's song lost as I was in my musings and I was brought back to the moment only when Castle Albus's voice boomed clear and loud in the Hall as he directed the first years to step up to the stool and place the Hat on their heads when their name was called.

"Orion Black."

The Hat took a few seconds. It always did with the Blacks. They had courage and recklessness enough to suit a Gryffindor but their roots demanded Slytherin.

"Slytherin!" the Hat decided.

There was polite clapping at the Slytherin table and jeers from the Gryffindors. I suppressed a smile. Some things never changed, did they?

"Walburga Black."

There she was, as pretty as an oil-painting by a medieval master, graceful and arrogant as the Blacks all were without exception.

"Slytherin!" the Hat crowed.

"Bartemius Crouch."

Young Crouch had an argument with the Hat and was finally sent to Ravenclaw much to his smugness and to the chagrin of his Rosier cousins in Slytherin. The Crouches were a powerful Wizarding family and having him in Slytherin would have probably aided the House's chances at the Cup greatly.

Dorea Black, Adolphus and Florentin Lestrange ended up in Slytherin, to nobody's surprise, just as Alastor Moody, Charlus Potter and Septimus Weasley went to Gryffindor with vociferous joy. The Hat seemed more undecided with the young Malfoy boy. He sat there with his eyes scrunched shut and a frown between his pretty brows. Then he scowled and muttered something under his breath. The Hat placed him in Slytherin and he sighed in relief. It was just as well, I supposed. The old Manor would have collapsed if the boy had been placed anywhere else.

Casca Skeeter ended up in Ravenclaw and he had a scowl on his mulish features. I remembered what Tom had said in the wand-shop.

"Tom Riddle."

Tom did not approach the Hat with the nervousness or fear that the others had, nor did he have the arrogance that the Blacks had shown when it had been their turn. Instead, he walked calmly to the Hat, lifted it and stroked it once with the fingers of his right hand. Then he took his seat on the stool, daintily throwing back his cloak as he did so. When he placed the Hat on his head and closed his eyes, Castle Albus stepped close to him, wand held out in readiness as he did so. What did he expect to happen?

Then Tom flinched and his hands rose in the air as if to push back an unseen adversary. Castle Albus had already approached him and placed a hand on his trembling shoulder.

"You are of Slytherin, young Riddle, and to Slytherin you must go!" the Hat declared before falling off the boy's head.

Castle Albus steadied the shaken boy and delivered him to the care of the Slytherin Prefects. Tom shrugged them off quickly and made for a seat in the midst of an empty stretch at the table. Nobody made any move to speak to him though they were assessing him suspiciously. Most of them scrunched their noses, as if he had fallen short of their measure. Abraxas Malfoy was staring at him openly. Tom had splayed his hands on the table and had his gaze fixed on his fingers.

"You might want to have a word with your Prefects to keep an eye on him to make sure he comes to no harm," I told Horace worriedly.

Horace shook his head and said, "Percival, it doesn't work that way in my House. He needs to earn the respect of the Prefects before they will grant him protection. Nothing I say will change that and may only damage his standing in their eyes."

This was true for Gryffindor too, I knew, and I suspected that it was true for the other Houses. A teacher's protection would not get an oddball anywhere whereas as proving oneself would. I did not worry about Tom failing to protect himself. I did, however, worry deeply about how he might go about the task. And in the darkest corner of me, I had nightmares of Tom's wild magic flaring helplessly as he sought to escape his tormentors in the playground only to fail.

That night, I was restless and even a tipple of brandy failed to settle me. Giving up sleep as a lost cause, I squeezed my feet into the frothy purple slippers Aberforth had given me for the last Christmas, grabbed my wand, threw a housecoat on and left for a walk in the corridors. Long before Severus had discovered roaming the Castle at nights as a cure for insomnia, I had done the same. There was something calming about the Castle during the night, with the deserted, quiet hallways throwing the magnificence of Hogwarts into prominence against which mere mortal insomniacs were insignificant. Severus had once compared it to being alone in a large cathedral with only the faintest whispers of past chanted prayers lingering in the cold, stone walls.

I had just reached the fourth floor, with vague plans of making for the library and whiling away the rest of the night there, when I heard a distinctive voice making conversation with a portrait in the next corridor.

Tom could not give it a rest for one night before he had started exploring the Castle, could he?

It had always been so. It was during the darkest hours of the nights that Tom and I had often chanced across each other in shared territories. During those eldritch hours between twilight and dawn, we had often set aside hostilities and walked beside each other silently before parting ways at a crossroads in the corridors. Even before he had been made a Prefect, I had never taken points from him or forbidden him to stop his midnight wanderings. I had never considered him as a student, had I?

Now, I smiled at the sight of him earnestly conversing with the portrait about the magicked ceiling of the Great Hall. Softly, I took myself away and back to bed.

"Good luck!" Horace wished me as I prepared to face my first class of the year.

"Yes, good luck with the little monsters!" Pomona said cheerfully as she passed us.

The teachers of Hogwarts had, as far as I remembered, always called the charges affectionately as the little monsters. Severus, I am afraid to say, did not hold the honour of christening the children so. In fact, Severus had rarely complained about the students in the staff-room or in private conversations. The old adage that out of sight was out of mind certainly applied to him when it came to teaching. He tended to forget all about his teaching duties when he left his class-room and remained engrossed in his experiments in the Dark Arts though he tried to convince me that he only ever studied methods to repel them. I had let him keep that facade, for it was truly a pleasure to listen to his excited conversation about his work. His enthusiasm for his beloved research, I supposed often, might be the reason why both Voldemort and I had always held a soft corner for the infuriating creature. How often had I given up my nights to correct Potions assignments while he begged off so that he could return to his blessed research? I could never deny him that, given that I had claimed so much of what was his. All the same, the poor pupils might have been horrified to know that their benevolent Headmaster was in fact the person to give the pen of the Potions Professor such a dreaded reputation.

"An excellent choice of robes!" Castle Albus congratulated me.

I was glad that there was at least one person in the Castle who knew what elegance was. Tom had taken one look at my canary yellow robes in the morning and promptly winced. So had Horace, Armando and Pomona.

The first class I had had fifth year Gryffindors and Ravenclaws. They were a pleasure to teach. Castle Albus had done excellently in preparing them for the rigorous O.W.L syllabus that lay ahead of them this year. Marcus McKinnon was the first to Vanish his rat in entirety. I awarded him twenty points for a job well done, patted his head and bid the rest of the class to keep trying until they achieve satisfactory result. Apart from Sigmund Trelawney, who seemed to have difficulties in accepting that Vanished rats would no longer exist, the rest of the class managed to do extremely well. I decided to speak in private with Sigmund and reassure him that Vanishing rats did not make him a murderer.

In the afternoon, first year Gryffindors and Slytherins flocked to my classroom. I suppressed a sigh when I saw the glares and scowls being traded. They had already begun, hadn't they? It was after they had taken their seats that I noticed Tom was not of their number. I frowned.

"I apologise for being late, Sir," Tom said, as he reached the doorstep of my classroom, panting slightly and out of breath.

"I hope you have a good reason?" I enquired, searching for that ideal balance between concern and sternness.

Tom passed me a note bearing Horace's seal and waited. I waved him off and he took a seat by one of the windows. I opened Horace's note and suppressed a smile at the long list of effusive words of praise. Horace was taken with the boy, wasn't he? Then again, he always had been. I knew well that Horace's soft corner for the boy had not died even after he had realised about the Horcruxes.

"Now, Transfiguration is one of the most important subjects that you will learn here. It will have a bearing on your career choices and your skill as a fully qualified wizard. You must pay attention in this classroom. Transfiguration is not an art that is easy to undo should you make a mistake." Long faces and worried eyes greeted me. I chuckled and said, "That is only window-dressing, children. It is much, much easier than people let on and I am sure that we shall have a great deal of enjoyment in this classroom." The faces brightened considerably. "Let us convert matches to needles, shall we?" I asked my class.

The Blacks were the only ones who seemed confident. Doubtless, they had revised the first year syllabus before coming here. Walburga tossed her hair and looked around smugly at the rest of her worried classmates. I chanced a look at Tom. He seemed politely interested, betraying neither apprehension nor eagerness. Quite a change from his sparkling eyes and flushed features whenever he had been overwhelmed by the excitement of learning something new when we had been in Godric's Hollow. What had changed? He dropped his gaze quickly. Ah! He did not know how to respond to me now that I was his teacher. For some reason, I found his uncertainty endearing. I would have to remedy it, of course.

"Without further ado, young ladies and gentlemen, here are your matches!" I said jovially and waved my hand. Matches appeared before the children. They looked at each other and then at me.

I Conjured a match and demonstrated the transfiguration to them, taking pride in the way their young faces showed astonishment as the match became a silver, pointy needle.

The Blacks were able to produce crooked, copper needles by the end of the lesson. I wondered why they had ended up with copper. It reminded me of Phineas. He had tended to Conjure things of copper as opposed to any other metal.

Young Charlus Potter and Abraxas Malfoy ended up with silver matches. It was progress enough, I supposed, and encouraged them to keep trying. I did caution Abraxas to keep an eye on the match, since he seemed to be more interested in glaring at Tom who sat by the window across the aisle all on his own, absently doodling in pig Latin on a piece of parchment. I tapped his shoulder and glared at him. He quickly tucked the parchment away into his textbook, plucked his wand, frowned, waved it once to Conjure a match and then waved his wand once more to Transfigure it into a glinting, silver needle. He was then peering up at me, worry poorly concealed in his eyes. Did he think that I was about to chide him for showing off? I had done it the first time, and it had done neither of us any good in the long run. If it had been anyone but Tom, I would have given them thirty points and praised their work. I took a deep breath and decided it was time I started considering the boy as my student instead of my bane.

"You had no need to Conjure a match," I told him. "But very well done, my boy, and that shall be thirty points for you. Indulge me, will you? I wish to know what you thought of when you Transfigured the match. Did you visualise the match turning into a needle in stages?"

"No," he said thoughtfully. Interesting. After a pause, he continued, "I did not imagine it changing into a needle, Sir. I imagined all the molecules of wood changing into molecules of silver. I thought of astula – firewood – becoming argentum – silver. It worked."

Interesting. Most interesting. So this explained why his spell-work had been so quick and instinctive. What an unusual way to think of Transfiguration! It reminded me of some of the ground breaking theories proposed by the Italian Transfiguration maestro, Giovanni Petrucelli, made in a Transfiguration Today issue in 1992. Many a critic had refuted his theories, for theories they were, and remained unsupported by experimental proof.

"Sir, my match is growing!" Septimus Weasley squeaked in alarm right then. I hurried to help the boy.

That night, as we settled for supper in the Hall, Horace was regaling me with Tom's adventure in Potions.

"Brilliant, I say!" Horace said. "The last one with such an instinctual flair for Potions was doubtlessly your cousin."

"I am glad," Pomona grumbled. "The boy has no talent at all for handling plants, I am sorry to report. He had a devil of a time with the Devil's snare." We chuckled at her phrasing and then she continued grumpily, "He incinerated the plant before I could stop him."

"I suppose you gave him a detention?" I asked.

"No, he did apologise most prettily." Pomona shrugged. "A charmer, that one, mark my words! Horace, you will have your hands full trying to rescue him from love potions by the end of his third year."

Before Horace could reply, there was a scuffle and a bang in the hall. We looked up to see an angry Tom facing a furious Alastor Moody. Who had shot the first spell? Before any of us could intervene, Alastor yelled a spell that was borderline illegal. Had he picked it up from his Auror father or his Unspeakable mother? Tom evaded that neatly and was about to cast a jinx when I waved my hand and hastily Disarmed him. Startled, Tom took a step back and Alastor pressed his advantage by shouting yet another spell that left Tom shivering and unclothed. I shouted my outrage and made to go to him. His ribs were heaving as he panicked, the chatter in the Hall amplified a thousand-fold and his eyes turned wild in humiliation and fury. Castle Albus and I sent our strongest Shield Spells towards the young Moody at the same time, but we were late.

"Absum!" Tom screamed and Moody vanished into thin air.

"Riddle!" Castle Albus exclaimed as all of us stared at the empty spot where the first year Gryffindor had been standing a moment earlier.

Horace clucked, ran past us to Tom and Conjured a thick blanket before swaddling the boy in it. Tom looked disorientated and fell limp into Horace's embrace. I shoved down my jealousy and fear at the sight before joining Castle Albus to cast runes over the spot where Mood had been standing.

"He willed the boy to be absent, to be away, and effectively Vanished him!" Castle Albus exclaimed. "Where to?"

"There will be hell to pay if his father gets wind of this," I muttered. "Dear heavens, what was Tom thinking?"

"Don't just stand there! Go talk to the boy and find that out. Horace will just stuff him with crystallised pineapple and send him to bed with a mug of hot chocolate," Castle Albus barked. "I will finish the runes here and ask the students about what started that altercation."

So it was that I found myself in Horace's quarters, shouting at Tom as my frayed nerves got the better of me.

"What were you thinking?" I scolded him as he stood there wide-eyed and trembling, wrapped in that ridiculous green blanket Horace had Conjured for him. "Do you ever pause to think of consequences? Haven't Abe and I given up enough in the last many months to protect you and keep you from the Ministry's attention? Why must you flaunt yourself again and again, Tom? Are you so fond of the spotlight that you care nothing for your safety or ours?"

"Alastor-" he began softly, his eyes strangely limpid.

"Alastor did not begin it, Tom," I barked. "I know! He has control enough not to have his wand out at the least provocation. Where did you send him to?"

"Sir, I did not-" he began again, his bottom lip quivering in a manner that reminded me most unkindly of Ariana.

"You will tell me or I shall have to enter your mind, Tom," I said quietly. "We cannot risk the Ministry after our hides for this."

"Really, Percival, must you frighten the child so?" Horace chided me. I glared at him, willing him to stay silent.

"You will have to enter my mind then, Sir," Tom said. "I do not recall where I sent him to."

I sliced through his mind as a knife through butter, wondering at the ease of passage. I could only sense turmoil, anger and shame. I dug further in, and untangled a skein of fury right back to its origin. Alastor had called him a freak and a bastard. It had started there. Tom had unleashed a Stinging Hex. Alastor had retaliated with an illegal spell. I had Disarmed Tom then. Alastor had divested the boy of his clothes. I saw the fear and the humiliation in the boy's mind, and then anger so blazing white and pure which had willed Alastor away to the most inhospitable place Tom remembered: the cellar of the cathedral where Father Sebastian had served. I withdrew from the boy's mind. He was panting in exertion and sweat made his hair cling to his brow. He did not meet my gaze. I gripped his chin. He flinched and moved away from me.

Sighing, I left him to Horace and rushed to Apparate away to that cathedral. I found young Alastor panicking in the cellar. I retrieved him and brought him back to the hospital wing. After telling Castle Albus the facts, I returned to my office and barricaded myself in, trying to stop thinking of the betrayal and acceptance in Tom's mind when I had broken in.

"Really, Percival," Horace said sternly as he accosted me on my way to breakfast in the hall, "I understand that you are new to this parenting business, but you simply cannot go about breaking into your ward's mind every time you feel like it, regardless of his willingness to allow you that liberty."

I needed coffee before I could deal with Horace or think of Tom. My night had been horrendous.

"The boy is in quite a state," Horace remarked. "He shall not be attending classes today."

"As his guardian-" I began.

"At Hogwarts, the authority of the Head of the House supersedes that of the guardian unless the Headmaster says nay. You will find that Armando and I are in accord on this matter," Horace said cuttingly.

Horace was quite protective about the little wretch. I was torn between anger, jealousy and grudging respect for the man. How dared he protect what was mine to protect? How dared he defend the boy's actions? How dared he appeal to Dippet to make sure that neither Castle Albus nor I would not interefere?

That evening, as I paced the third floor corridor, a pale, determined Abraxas Malfoy approached me. He looked dishevelled and upset.

"Yes?" I demanded, quite unwilling to be stirred out of my state of self-recrimination and the deep nursed anger I still stoked in my heart. Was I angry with Tom or was I angry with myself?

"He is ill," Abraxas muttered. "Very ill, Sir. We took him to the hospital wing. We had to. He keeps raving odd things in his fever-sleep. He says he wants the Mad Hatter. I remembered that he used to call you that."

All of my anger vanished leaving behind only bleakness. I scarce remember rushing to the hospital wing, shoving Slughorn and a Slytherin Prefect out of my way before kneeling by the dear, wretched boy's bedside. There he lay, prone and pale, as delirious as the lunatic Muggles had thought him to be, his fingers clawing at the sheets and his lips forming two sentences over and over again.

"I did not start it, Professor, but the Mad Hatter won't believe me, will he? He never believes me."

"I am here, Tom," I whispered, running my gnarly fingers over his forehead and kissing his brow. "I am here now. I am so sorry."

I sat up with him that night, and the two nights that followed. It was on the third morning that his fever broke and he fell into the limp sleep of the exhausted. Madam Pomfrey sent me away from his bedside. Castle Albus decreed that I owed him two days of classes since he had been the one to handle my course in my absence. I agreed numbly, as I agreed numbly to anything everybody said. Horace had been taciturn with me initially, but on seeing my misery, he had thawed enough to give me a few reassuring pats. Pomona had been the kindest. She would often sit with me by the boy's bedside. She agreed readily to let Aberforth know of the events here, since I did not possess the courage or the fortitude to speak of how I had doubted the boy to my brother. Better that he thought me a coward than a traitor to my own belief in second chances, after all.

When Tom opened his eyes wearily that morning, his gaze clouded and suspicious, I bent to kiss his brow and clasped his thin hands in my own and whispered that I would never, never doubt him again. I hadn't realised that I was babbling and on the verge of crying until his slender fingers came to my lips bidding me to quiet.

"Sing with me?" he asked softly.

I nodded. I would have agreed to anything right then, to be granted forgiveness and another chance. I finally understood Severus then.

"Who killed Cock Robin?" Tom asked in a harsh, broken tone.

I realised what he was up to. I gazed at him, imploring for mercy, but there was none in his eyes. He would not spare me, no more than he would spare himself.

"I, said the sparrow," I whispered. "With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."

I had Disarmed the boy, denying him his right to protect himself. Had I at least stepped in and protected the boy then, I might have forgiven myself. I had not. Instead, my first instinct had been to protect Alastor. Why, despite all that Aberforth had said to convince me, did I still think of Tom as a lawless predator instead of the young, insecure boy he was? Why did I still fail him despite fancying that I understood him well enough?

"Who caught his blood?" Tom continued.

"I, said the fish, with my little dish, I caught the blood."

"Who will make the shroud?" Tom demanded, coughing and sweating profusely, yet staying intent with the force of his will.

"I, said the beetle, with my thread and needle, I will make the shroud."

Tom smiled wanly and continued, "Who will dig his grave?"

"Damn you, Tom," I said brokenly, and then pulled the sweat-sodden, fever-warmed mass that he was to me, cradling him against my chest and burying my face in his dishevelled black curls. He began laughing hysterically, then his fingers clawed into the skin of my arms and then he finally broke into sobs that made his thin body shake like a leaf in a gust of wind.

"Not again," I promised him earnestly. "I shan't doubt you again."

"Don't lie," he said. In those words were held shadowy tales of a hundred tales of embitterment and betrayal. "I know when you lie. I always do."

I rocked him then, for there was nothing else that I could say to make him believe me. And the darkest part of me feared that he was right. I did not trust him even then, did I? After his sobs had died, he hiccupped and began mumbling softly the last verses of the wretched nursery rhyme.

"All the birds of the air

fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,

when they heard the bell toll

for poor Cock Robin."

"Why is this so difficult?" I wondered aloud.

He laughed at that, weakly, and his eyes, red-rimmed with weeping and exhaustion, met my tormented gaze for a long moment before he said, "I like to think that it is because you are mad as the Mad Hatter."

I thought of Father Sebastian. I thought of the Unspeakables and what they might have done. I thought of Alastor's namecalling and how I had prevented Tom from protecting himself. I did not dare think of what method he might have employed to protect himself. I kissed his forehead and replied sincerely, "That may be true. Will you be patient with an old madman who does want the best for you despite his many failings in the role he foolishly decided to take on?"

Tom tugged my beard, his gaze skittered away from mine, and he said in a soft murmur, "I am here, aren't I?"

"Good," I said, my voice thick with emotion. "Good."

After he had slipped into exhausted sleep once again, I rocked him softly and cried into his mop of sweat-drenched curls.

I had not cried over Ariana's breaking or Father's death. I had not cried at my mother's funeral or even during that fateful day in Godric's Hollow when three quarrelling boys had plucked a little girl's life. I had not cried over that monster who terrorised Europe. Now I cried, for Tom and all that he was, and for my inability to protect him even from my hypocritical self.



External Source Text:

Himnusz – the Hungarian national anthem.

Who Killed Cock Robin? – a nursery rhyme.

Pinocchio – a children's novel by Carlo Collodi.

The tale of the giant and the castle – a short story by Oscar Wilde.

I'd love to hear what you think of the story. I never fail to get pleasantly surprised each time I hear from you.


In the meantime, there's something for your amusement: How do you like your blue-eyed boys? Set post-1998, it is mostly about Minerva cursing the men who made her, finding that life goes on and that e.e cummings is very, very applicable to her life. You can find it on my profile's list of stories. Have at it if it is to your tastes!)

Chapter Text

"Ten points to Slytherin for the creativity, Mr. Riddle!" I exclaimed, fawning over the perfect brooch my student had Transfigured from a teapot.

My enthusing was affected.

Children, more perceptive than adults can be, notice fraudulence so easily. I sighed as the young First Years exchanged knowing glances. There was Alastor Moody and Septimus Weasley smirking. Charlus Potter had his tongue sticking out of a corner of his mouth as he scribbled something on a piece of notepaper before he passed it onto his friends. There ensued more laughing and knowing glances. The Slytherins were less conspicuous in their revelling, but revelling there was in their raised eyebrows and genteel smirks.

It had been five weeks since Tom had Vanished Alastor in that altercation. It had been five weeks since I had entered the boy's mind, my responsibility to him overridden by paranoia as to his actions and unwillingness to give him benefit of doubt. The betrayal, though, had been in refusing to comfort him, as Slughorn had. Slughorn had done it all right. Overbearing, velveted Popinjay.

Tom had avoided me after that breakdown in the hospital wing. I had tried speaking to him once or twice in vain.

"Professor, my teapot has boils!" young Abraxas complained, effectively giving me a graceful route of retreat.

Abraxas had been unusually perceptive and helpful. He had provided me updates of Tom's welfare until the boy had been discharged from the hospital wing. After that, though, Abraxas had shuffled into my office looking apologetic as he informed me he could not be a harbinger of further news, since Tom was well enough to have a conversation with me if he wished to.

Without Abraxas acting the informer, the cold breach of trust between us remained an open sore. I had written to Aberforth, who had been angry with me in the beginning. Towards the third week of this status quo, my brother was more sympathetic. He told me that he had written to Tom, but that the boy seemed to be as stubborn as Billy the goat. He proceeded to advise me to merely let the boy be. Surely, it would end sooner than later.

I wondered if it would. Tom did not lack for stubbornness. He might approach me of his own accord if there was dependence of some nature. But that would be manipulative and would only sow further grief down the journey. Besides, his moral compass, which was certainly not among the most well-calibrated, needed time to understand why I had been angry with him that day.

I glared at the boy. He was intently focused on the old stone ceiling. Couldn't he come to me? Was he so unattached? Had he been playing on my emotions by pretending attachment all along?

His eyes moved from the ceiling to meet my gaze. And he scowled.

I felt ridiculously grateful for the scowl. Not only had he noticed me, but he had also been affected enough to scowl. Ha! We were getting somewhere! It was merely a matter of waiting him out.

"You are preoccupied again, cousin dear," Castle Albus remarked as he took the seat beside me at supper-time.

I moved my gaze from Tom, who had refused to look up at all, preferring to concentrate on his food, to my younger self.

Castle Albus was brooding. It was not evident from his features, for he had pasted on a joyful smile. Nor was it evident in his voice, for he sounded cheerful as ever. But I knew him. I knew the slight fumbling with the fork as he picked at his food. I knew that he wore yellow socks tonight, the socks that had been knitted for him by Doge's mother. They had been his lucky charms on bad days. They had been my lucky charm when I had defeated Him, or so I had joked in press interviews. He and I had known the truth, and Aberforth had suspected it.

"News from the Continent?" I asked quietly.

I was not overfond of Castle Albus outsmarting me with his access to connections and information at every bend of the road, but I found it impossible not to pity him. I pitied what he would have to face, and the choice he would have to make.

"You ought to concentrate on the Dark Lord you rear now instead of worrying about those that are not yours to worry about," he said sharply.

Slughorn coughed discreetly into his pumpkin juice.

Right on cue, Pomona, who had been sitting beside Castle Albus, asked, "Does an utter lack of affinity for magical flora constitute a marker for being a Dark Lord, Albus? In that case, I agree that Percival's boy makes a good candidate."

Castle Albus sniffed and returned to picking at his food. I admired Pomona's no-nonsense benefit of doubt policy. And I wondered what it took to believe in it enough as she did. Perhaps it was a mark of Hufflepuff.

A young boy burst out in gleeful laughter at the Slytherin table. There, lo, was Abraxas giggling and cackling as if he had been consumed whole by a laughing djinn of Arabian Nights.

"Ah!" said Slughorn, who had been sitting to my right. "Young Tom is up to his antics again, I see!"

For Tom had decided that he would find out why the food on the tables appeared and vanished as if by magic. He was sweating as he tried to hold together the plates on the Slytherin table even as the House Elf magic tried to wrest it away. It made for a comic sight indeed. He had moved the dishware into the centre of the tablecloth to make it easier to manipulate them. Now the tablecloth had started to rise up in the air, forming a concave V, as Elf magic pulled it downwards.

"Impressive magic," Castle Albus remarked. "I am curious as to what he is trying to achieve, but I am afraid the House Elves might heavily object to his Peevesian nature."

I wondered what Tom was doing. It was not an incantation, neither was it an act of wandless, directed magic. His wand movements were jerky and erratic as he sought to fight the combined downward pull of the hundreds of House Elves beneath the Hall. He was still incapable of directing his magic to something as focussed as what he was doing currently.

"Interesting! Very interesting!" exclaimed Flitwick who had just walked in for supper. "Tom, my boy, you might want to hold your wand more steadily there. Straighten out your wrist now, keep the wand straight and gently incline."

Flitwich was too research-minded for everyone's good. It was a trait of Ravenclaws. They often were driven by research without thinking about its ethics or consequences.

"That is enough, Tom!" Slughorn cut in, seeing that the spectacle would only be encouraged by Flitwick. The Charms Professor's advice was paying off, for Tom had ever so slightly managed to suppress House Elf magic with his smoother wand movements.

Tom listened to Slughorn. I was irritated. Had he ever obeyed me so quickly? I doubted it. Flitwick drew out his wand and gently settled the tableware back onto the bare table. A few moments later, after he had accomplished the task with elan, he joined us at the Head Table and was all effusive praise for the boy. Even Castle Albus fell into the discussion, excitedly debating with Flitwick the net potential energy of House Elf magic and other trivia.

I fumed.

Restless pacing through the dimly lit corridors had become habit over the last two fortnights. Again, that night, my feet took me through the mazes of Hogwarts's corridors. Usually, they led me up the spiral staircases that led to the Astronomy Tower. It had long been my favourite spot to watch the stars. It was strange to walk up and not find Severus there. It had been where he always wound up everyday after his beat. It had been a place of solace, I think, after meetings with Voldemort.

"Do you come up here and wonder if Lily and James had come together into these alcoves?" I had asked him once, after an Order meeting in 1980. I had been angry with the world and he had been the only one I could have afforded to be cruel to then.

He had looked surprised at being asked that. He had been still young, and had not been as good as he eventually would be at hiding his responses. So he had not imagined scenarios of Lily and James whispering sweet nothings to each other in these alcoves. Had that meant that his imagination was too base to suggest the innocence of young love? Later, after I had grown to love him enough, I wondered if it had meant something else. I still did not know.

Occasionally, I would chance across Castle Albus in the Astronomy Tower. It was his spot too. We spoke often when chance brought our restless selves there, but our conversations were contentious and rough. I wondered if we lost more than we tried to gain, as we strove to speak to each other without speaking as each other. I had told Harry once that the old should never forget what being young had felt like. I tried to practise that maxim here, though little success had it gained me so far with Castle Albus.

This day, there was someone in the alcoves. Lovers playing truant from their Houses, clearly. I spoke that familiar spell, the weapon of Professors at Hogwarts for centuries, that revealed to me the hidden lovers.

"You!" I exclaimed in horror as young Tom stumbled out followed by a very swarthy Seventh Year Hufflepuff.

The girl looked mortified, as she well should. I needed alcohol.

"I can explain!" Tom said hastily.

I wanted to tell him that it was a lost cause, trying to explain what he had been caught red-handed at. The clouds above shifted and moonbeams fell upon the sorry spectacle we made – the cowering girl, Tom with his hands outstretched as he made to explain, and I with my wand drawn and low after I had muttered the spell to reveal the lurkers. There had always been something eldritch about Tom's features in the moonlight. I was taken back to the night in the hospital wing when I had visited him. The moonlight had fallen on his bed then.

"Who killed Cock Robin?" he had asked plaintively then.

I sighed and said quietly, "Well, Tom, I am listening."

I would listen this time.

The girl was now silently crying. I had her in my Seventh Year Transfiguration class. Shoddy spellwork. Poor grades. Little prospect of finding decent work after she had left Hogwarts.

"Professor, could you please let Martha go?" Tom asked earnestly. "She does not need to be here for the explanation."

The boy's sense of chivalry had been legendary. It had been as fine a tool as any he had to win over supporters. Minerva had often looked disapproving when I had mentioned that. Perhaps she believed, as had many other young women, that Tom meant his chivalry. Minerva had been vulnerable to chivalry as young girl, as young girls with few exceptions all are, and there had been nobody but Tom who had shown her that in her peer group.

"I am afraid that is not possible," I said.

"Please, Sir?" he beseeched.

I was taken aback by that. Tom, begging? Had there been some coercion then? Had the girl been coerced into a dalliance? He was too young, but he was still handsome and not sexually inexperienced, from what little I knew of his past. The girl was at that age where dalliance is a primary need. I doubted that she had ever dallied before, looking at her features. I was sickened by this. I still had to sort it out before it reached Castle Albus.

"Do you realise that makes you culpable for whatever was going on here, Tom?" I asked wearily. I was trying very, very hard to give him the benefit of doubt this time.

"That is all right," he said quickly. "Martha, please leave. Don't worry. It will be eventually sorted out. These matters always are."

She rushed out sobbing.

I looked at Tom.

He seemed uncertain and his fingers were clenched into fists.

"Well?" I asked.

"It is complicated, Sir," he said quietly. "Do you wish to enter my mind?"

Perhaps, as Slughorn had said, Tom and I needed a better mode of communication than Legilimency. It was easy to enter his mind and find out the truth for myself, but in the long run it was not viable. Besides, Tom seemed to have the impression that this was my preferred mode of operation. That would not do.

"Why don't you tell me?" I asked.

He looked sharply at me, perhaps wondering as to why I had turned down the suggestion of Legilimency. He was no fool.

"Why?" he queried, all wariness.

"I want you to tell me," I told him quietly. "Will you?"

He looked grateful and surprised. Paranoid boy. Had he any reason to be so wary? The issue with Alastor's Vanishing had been caused by the gravity of the situation. It had been imperative that we locate and retrieve the lost boy.

"Martha wanted to know if she was carrying," he mumbled, looking at his feet intently.

"Carrying?" I asked, benumbed. "Carrying, you said?"

Tom was young. Tom was young.

"There is this boy at Hogsmeade she has been dallying with," Tom said quickly, as if to be rid of the conversation as hastily as possible. "She was afraid she had caught a child from a Hogsmeade trip a month or so ago."

Caught a child? Where had Tom got that from? Perhaps Mrs. Cole? Caught a child, indeed!

Young Martha would not be the first girl to get into that sort of quandary. I sighed. Yet, yet, there was something wrong with Tom's story.

"And what exactly is your part in it?" I asked, now highly suspicious. The beginning of a dark guess was pervading my mind.

"I was in the hospital wing," he said, discomfited by the questioning and shuffling his feet now. I had never seen Tom shuffling his feet. "I heard the nurse speak the spell once or twice – the spell that verifies if a woman is pregnant. Martha did not want to go to the hospital wing. I said I would help her find out instead."

There was a chill in the air. Balmy September had given way to autumn. Perhaps I should ask Aberforth to send Tom warmer clothes. He looked cold.

"Tom-" I said quietly, "thank you for telling me. It is dangerous to perform spells such as this one unless you really know what you are doing. If something had happened to her as a result of your spellcasting-"

The spell that was used in the Hospital Wing for this purpose was innately harmless, but most others were not, and I did not want Tom indulging his curiosity at whim without knowing the consequences.

Tom looked shocked, and began, "I know you doubt me. I swear that I was just trying to help!"

I was glad at his shock. He clearly had meant only to help. He had been curious too, I was sure, as to if the spell he had picked up worked. I wondered how he had offered his services to Martha. First Year Slytherins and Seventh Year Hufflepuffs had little reason to meet each other.

Tom still looked shocked and was now beginning to be worried. I shook my head and softened my voice as I told him, "I do not doubt your intentions, Tom. I want to let you know that some spells are to be performed by Healers only, and that there are good reasons for that. Please do not offer such services to young women in the future."

"She has caught a child," he told me then, looking more worried.

I sighed. I had suspected as much. The girl had looked distraught. But that was Pomona's territory, and not mine. I would tell her to speak to the girl.

"Why did you want her to leave?" I asked him quietly, watching the play of moonbeams on the ramparts.

"Mother was young too, wasn't she?" he wondered. "I felt sad."

It was the first time that he had mentioned feeling sad. Not after Hero's death, not after Father Sebastian's death, not after sobbing in my hands wrecked five weeks ago, not once had he mentioned sadness.

I walked to him and gently enfolded him in an embrace. He came without protest. The skies were clear above us and hundreds of stars twinkled in silent symphony. The grounds were still and scarce a leaf moved on the trees.

"This is my favourite place in Hogwarts," I whispered.

"I like it too," Tom said then, not breaking out of my embrace.

A few moments later, he piped up again, this time his tone coloured rich by amusement, "I don't think I am old enough for dallying, you know. Men need to be old enough for it to work right with women, you know."

I tweaked his ears and he muffled his clear laughter in my thick cloak.

"I was not sure if you knew that!" he exclaimed, still laughing. "You are as bent as a butcher's hook, after all!"

Minerva had often laced her disapproval with humour, but that had been due to her love for me. Severus did not understand homosexuality, though he had never judged those he knew by their sexual tendency. Aberforth had once said whether I got it on with a goat or a man did not matter, since I still remained his brother, and that was not reassurance at all.

Tom, here, was the first who made light of my inclinations, while still understanding completely what he spoke of.

"Will you teach me flying?" Tom was asking me now, pulling my attention back to him.


He shrugged. There was unease in his posture. He had been terrified to fly in the previous timeline too, until he had finally learned flying somehow in his Fifth Year. I decided that pressing him to give me a reason was unnecessary. He had told me about his transactions on the Tower without being forced. It was a step forward from our games of mistrust and paranoia.

"I can teach you flying, Tom."

He looked relieved and murmured a soft thank-you. I gently placed my hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the balcony, back down the staircases, down the Great Hall, and finally down into the guts of the castle where his dormitory was.

"Goodnight, Mad Hatter," he said, before the entrance slid closed.

I smiled and waved him off.

Then I returned to my chambers. No more pacing for me this night.



I added two small pieces set to this motley collection, as an apology offering of sorts to make up for the delay:

Lost Gods and Godlike Men, which has Severus fixated while Narcissa swears. Also, Albus eventually finds out everything. Also, there are characters that like to quote Byron.

...and Childe Harold's Tale, which has Harry tracking down a balding Draco and trying to find answers. The peacocks of Malfoy Manor are gone. And there is more Byron.

Let know what you think of them, if you chance across them!

Chapter Text

On Halloween's Eve, even as our students milled about gossiping tales of dates for the Ball to be held that night and exchanged advice on haberdashery and accouterments, owls swooped in to the Great Hall in great haste.

One of them, a dainty brown she-owl, reached Flitwick first. Clearly, this was not the first time she had delivered a letter to him. He opened it and promptly swore. He had turned pale. It was a strange sight he made, pale and short, an owl perched on his shoulder, and dozens of dark-winged owls flying into the Hall casting him against a high background of feathers.

"What is it?" Pomona asked him, concerned.

An owl reached Castle Albus. He took his eyes off Flitwick and used his butter-knife to quickly open his letter.

"Austria," Castle Albus murmured, his face drawn and worried. "There was slaughter at the Opera House. The pure of blood were allowed to leave peacefully. The rest were massacred. Those who refused to leave when they had the chance to were taken to Nuremberg."


Flitwick had spent his last vacation in Austria and we had heard coy tales of his paramour there. She had been part of the Wizarding Orchestra of Vienna. I dearly hoped that she had been of pure blood and had been sent to the prison.

Castle Albus lapsed into a bleak study. I did not know how to assuage him that this was not his fault, not when I knew well that it was partly on his shoulders that the blame lay. I knew that he had refused multiple requests from various quarters to face the oppressor in battle. He was the only one that the invader feared, or they said. That was a lie.

Castle Albus knew, and so did I, that Gellert Grindelwald feared nothing.


My poor attempt at trying to convey my sympathy was quickly cut off by more owls landing on his dinnerware. I sighed as he made excuses and walked out of the Hall, a cloud of owls following his hurried steps.

I looked at the children. Some of the Ravenclaws were looking at Flitwick's distraught features in concern. Pomona was chivvying him away from their gazes. The Gryffindors were huddled together over Minerva McGonagall, who was reading aloud to them a letter. Perhaps it was from her brother. He was stationed in Europe as a diplomat.

I sighed as I watched the little girl. Guilt, ever present, flared high in me whenever I thought of her. I wondered how she would fare in the timeline I had left. I had not even had the chance to whisper a goodbye. She would be stoic, I knew. I hoped that she would survive intact, though I did not know how that would happen. Poor, poor Minerva. So much potential, and what had she chosen? She had chosen me. Severus would do for her what he could. In that, I found some reassurance.

Over at the Hufflepuff table, they were excitedly conversing. Snatches of conversation could be heard here at the High Table.

"Do you think he will attack us next?" A First Year asked.

His neighbour, a feisty young girl, told him sharply, "Of course not! We have Albus Dumbledore!"

Words that I had heard over and over in my lifetime. Power was ugly. If it did not tempt you to be the master of others, it would sell you as a slave to others. Come what may, it was Albus Dumbledore's purpose in life to exercise power to defeat those who chose to embrace it for the wrong reasons. The grand triumph of good over evil, again and again, was expected through a man who was as torn and vulnerable as anyone was. Why? I understood, but not willingly. I pitied Harry, who would inherit the mantle.

Why was it my lot, why was it Castle Albus's lot, to shepherd the Wizarding folk in times of danger? I did not resent it now, but I had resented it deeply once. The Wizarding World had been in the midst of revelries celebrating my victory even as I had been weeping deep in the bowels of the Carpathians, when I had sealed him in a tomb of stone and iron.

At the Slytherin table, there was little discussion. They were engrossed in reading their letters from home that had come that evening. Many of them had relatives in Europe. I would not dare guess how many of them were involved in the enemy effort directly or indirectly. It was unlikely that they had been bereaved, though, knowing how inbred and 'pure' of lineage they usually were. Abraxas was speaking to Tom, in a hushed voice, no doubt explaining to him why Austrian Orchestra was of such significance to us. Tom, all knitted eyebrows and concentrated expression, was listening to his friend thoughtfully. He did not look overly worried. Hogwarts was not in Austria, after all. Tom rarely bothered himself with matters that were unlikely to be of import to him. I wondered, though, if he would think of Hyperion Malfoy and the Squib Sebastian, and of the shadowy web of Grindelwald's informers that had haunted the child's life.

"There are rumours that Grindelwald pays heed to the wisdom of the centaurs," said Slughorn, sitting beside me. He had continued eating his meal steadily despite the ruckus and the grave tidings.

"Does he?" asked I quietly.

I knew that Slughorn was right. The man he spoke of had never been an acolyte of prophecies made by humans, but he had often said that the wisdom of the centaurs was ageless and as unwavering as the stars they spoke of. I had certainly found that to be true, after years of skepticism, when I had time and again seen that the warnings of the centaur-folk in the Forest rarely spoke astray.

"Yes, Percival," Slughorn said. "It is said that he does."

"Curious. Does it have a bearing upon today's dire tidings?"

Slughorn seemed to be unaffected, but he was clever at faking nonchalance. What was he trying to convey? Had he more informers in the bowels of Europe than the Ministry had? I would not put it past him. If he did, why had he chosen to speak to me instead of confiding in Castle Albus?

"I wonder if it does. I have heard men speak about the centaurs of the Black Forest. The centaurs made a prophecy for the last day of the year of 1926. It was pertaining to the birth of a child who would bring Grindelwald death."

I inhaled sharply.

"Imagine my shock, Percival, when one of my First Year's school records hold that date of birth."

"Indeed," I murmured weakly, trying not to look at the boy.

Centaurs of the Black Forest. Humans had made contact with the centaurs for the first time in the western reaches of the Hercynian Forest which had stretched from Switzerland to Romania. Now all that remained of the once continuous forest that had covered vast stretches of the Continent was the western stretch on the Rhine that we knew as the Black Forest. The magic in those woods was ancient. The magic of the centaurs who lived there was ancient and powerful. We did not understand it. Perhaps we strove in vain to. Our lack of understanding did not tarnish the magic though. The centaurs of the Black Forest had made a prophecy about a birth on the last day of the year of 1926, and it had been a prophecy about a child born who would grow to bring the death of a man who had given me my first lemon-drop.

It made sense now. Father Sebastian made sense. Hyperion Malfoy's interest made sense. The interest Tom had attracted from the Ministry and from the Continent made sense. I wanted to run to Castle Albus and beseech him to end this before an attempt to harm Tom was made.

"We go ahead with the Ball," Dippet said firmly. Flitwick, who had returned, looking grim and stoic, nodded approval.

We went ahead with the Ball. In times of danger, in times of oppression, a brave display of gaiety and unity within our walls would do much to reassure the children, and to reassure us. Hogwarts was a magical place, not merely due to the magic, but due to the bright and hopeful young minds who walked in these corridors, trusting the walls to keep them safe. Their smiles and antics, their grudges and wooing, their incandescent joy in learning magic, their friendships - those of us who had the privilege of seeing that daily were blessed indeed.


Tom was out wandering again. It was a cloudless night. The Astronomy Tower, though the stars were veiled, still comforted me. I looked at the boy, who was in the doorway, hesitant to enter the balcony proper. It was not a warm night.

"The House Elves hate me," he muttered. "My bed is cold and never made up."

"We will speak to them. I suggest you prepare an apology too. You did offend them mightily with your antics," I remarked, smiling.

This explained his wandering too, to an extent. I did not doubt that he had a proclivity to prowl about, but it was no doubt aided recently by his cold bed.

"I wanted to know," he protested, balking at the mention of an apology.

"Warm beds take precedence over curiosity, don't they?"

"It will be winter soon," he muttered. "I will apologise."

"Good," I told him. "Let me take you down to their abode them. Keep a respectful tongue around the House Elves, Tom. Your life at Hogwarts will be very messy if you offend them one too many times."

"I am curious about their magic," he said, falling in step with me, as I exited the balcony and made for the staircase. "Why do they slave themselves if they possess magic? Surely, they could form colonies of their own and live in contentment."

"Their need to be of service outweighs their desire to form colonies of their own."

"Why?" Tom asked. "I don't understand. Why do they feel the need to be of service? Is it a curse? I cannot understand how a living thing has in it an inborn need to be of use to another living thing."

Dear me, this was most vexing. I had often wondered myself why the House Elves felt the need to serve. I could understand voluntary service, but I could not understand this.

A man who had loved the Himnusz had once told me, "But Albus, think of it this way. I feel the need to serve my country, though I am capable enough to make a living away from it without being poorer in any manner. Yet I feel the need. Could House Elves perhaps be similar?"

I was not as patriotic as he had claimed himself to be.


"House Elves are fiercely loyal to their masters, Tom. They love their position in life and are proud to serve their masters. I would not ask them such questions. They are easily offended by what they consider intrusive."

We had reached the painting leading to the kitchens. I tickled the pear and the panel swung open. Hundreds of House Elves were as busy as ants in an anthill. They looked at us curiously.

Tom had moved closer to me. He clearly had not seen House Elves before. Perhaps his curiosity might have lead him to moving pictures of House Elves in books, but his distaste for moving pictures was unlikely to be suppressed by curiosity. He preferred to freeze the pictures before opening the pages.

"Good evening," I said politely, even as I chivvied Tom before me into the kitchens. He seemed unwilling and wary, but let himself be guided without protest.

The House Elves had gathered around us. I could see piles of food being carried on the sea of House Elves towards us. Ah, the legendary hospitality!

"Dumbledore's men is always welcome!"

Tom stiffened at that, but compliantly enough took the plate of scones that was handed to him.

"You is the boy who did mischief!"

"And I apologise," Tom said, all charming, sincere and effusive. I resisted the urge to poke him out of that facade.

The House Elves were now looking at us suspiciously.

"I was merely foolish," Tom continued. "I had not understood the mighty magic of the House Elves. That episode taught me an important lesson. Service has its own power. And the magic that is driven by service is the mightiest magic of it all."

The House Elves were now clapping. "You understands!" they exclaimed happily, and gave him more scones. I rolled my eyes and let him be smothered with their adulation. He looked quite uncomfortable with the proximity of the beings, but he had only himself to blame. Smooth-talker, talking his way out of trouble with such finely spun lies. His moral compass certainly needed calibration.

Later, after we had left the kitchens, he innocently asked me, "My bed won't be cold in the winter, will it?"

I cuffed him gently and admonished him half-heartedly for lying so fine. I knew I would regret not being stricter this day. I knew it was not the right parenting action. I could not find it in me then to chide him severely, not after hearing of the centaurs of the Black Forest and the prophecy they had made about the boy's birth heralding a man's death at his hands.

"Abraxas told me about what the Hungarian has done now."

"Has he now?"

"He is right, you know," Tom said softly. "Magic is might."

I stopped walking and stared at the boy. He must have seen the expression on my features, for he quickly added, "I mean that powerful magic is not easily subdued. From what Abraxas tells me, the magic of the Hungarian is powerful. It will not be easy to be mightier than him."

I did not reply. Magic is might, had said a boy of seventeen to another. The second boy had believed that wholeheartedly. The second boy had been a fool. A little girl's death had been what it had taken to realise that.

"Abraxas says that everyone believes Castle Albus will be mightier than the Hungarian."

"Everyone believes that," I said quietly.

"Abraxas says that the Hungarian is afraid only of Castle Albus."

"Abraxas is wrong. The Hungarian is not afraid of anyone," I said. A complete lack of fear had been His most sterling quality.

"How can somebody be without any fear?" Tom wondered. "I don't think that is possible."

"I suppose they achieve that by being very, very courageous."

"Deliverance is a Christian fable," Tom said thoughtfully. "I wonder if the Wizards have more in common with the Muggles than they are comfortable with. Waiting to be delivered from evil by a Messiah is Catholic, isn't it?"

"All religions have that flavour, Tom."

"And the Wizards practise the same idea," Tom continued, discomfiting me terribly. Where did he come up with these analogies? They unsettled me deeply.

"Those with more must lend aid to those with less. Those with more power have more responsibility, Tom, and that is a lesson Hogwarts attempts to teach its students."

"It reminds me of Bo-peep, the shepherdess. She loved her flock, and they were foolish enough to leave their tails behind, when once she had not paid vigilance."

She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,

For they'd left their tails behind them.

I sighed. The shepherdess had then found the tails all side by side, hung on a tree to dry. The prisoners had been taken to the fortress in the Carpathians. I had seen a few tales of woe perpetrated on the victims who had been taken there.

There she espied their tails side by side,

All hung on a tree to dry.

I had been too late to save them. I had freed them all, and tried to return them all to their homes. But there was an emptiness in their eyes that told me how futile my efforts were.

She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,

And over the hillocks went rambling,

And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,

To tack each again to its lambkin

"I think Abraxas is right, for the wrong reason," Tom said thoughtfully. "The Hungarian does fear Castle Albus."

I did not want to know why Tom thought so. I fervently wished that he would change the subject. To change the subject, I asked, "Were you bartering your maternity test services?"

"I beg your pardon?" he asked, looking confused.

"Was there money involved, you scamp?" I did know Tom well enough to realise that he would not have done it motivated by the greater good.

"Merely aid with my Herbology skills, or the lack thereof," he said shamelessly. "She is very good at the subject."

I sighed.

"There was no money involved and you can look into my mind if you want to," he said, now irritated at my put-upon sigh.

"Dippet and Castle Albus look down upon barter with great distaste," I told him. "So do I."

He did not reply. I hoped that he had understood the import of my words. I would let it be. At least, it had not been money. The boy's offer to perform Legilimency upon him was worrying. We certainly needed to have a more reliable and fail-safe method of communication, lest we made Legilimency a habit. I did not think Aberforth would approve.

"How goes it in the dormitories?" I asked, trying to seek answers to another concern of mine. How was he fitting in with the rest of his House?

He shrugged.

I sighed again and pulled him close. He made a token murmur of protest, but stayed anyway.


"They are as they can be expected," he said eventually, picking his words with care. "They are curious enough about the Hungarian's interest in me to let me be, to consider me worthy of being left alone and not picked upon. They believe I was Sorted incorrectly and go out of their way to make it known, but harmlessly. I have seen worse."

"The orphanage is hardly a standard to compare the finest Wizarding school by."

"Boys are the same everywhere," Tom said, with the knowledge that one so young ought not to have.

My fingers must have clenched around his bony shoulder, for he quickly continued speaking, "It could be worse. Rax speaks to me often. He is the bonniest Little Lord Fauntleroy, isn't he?"

I chuckled in agreement.

"You are far away," he surmised. "You have not even scolded me for the bartering."

"Perhaps some lessons are best learned on your own."

"That is not how you see it. That is how Abe sees it," Tom pointed out, his voice matter-of-fact.

"When do you wish for your flying lessons? Can we start this weekend?"

He looked up at me, and I peered right back at his suspicious face.

"As you wish," he said, though his dark eyes still promised further questions on my unwillingness to probe further into his bartering.


-The title and the reference is to the Nursery Rhyme 'Little Bo Peep'. I love to hear what you think of the story. Also, if you are tickled, I have a couplet of stories newly written - 'Land of Lost Gods and Godlike Men' (set in 1980) and 'Childe Harold's Tale' (set post 1998).

I spent some time arranging the stories on my profile page for easier navigation :) Hopefully it will be help compared to the earlier clutter.

Chapter Text

Saturday dawned with pale sunshine and wispy clouds. Enthused at the prospect of teaching Tom how to fly on a broom-stick, I made my way to the Great Hall, whistling merrily a ditty I had learned from Elphias Doge one drunken night celebrating the end of our O.W.L.s.

"You still remember?" Castle Albus muttered.

I glanced at him. He looked ill-rested. There were dark circles under his eyes and his clothes were not picked with the usual care towards sartorial splendour. I wondered if I should enquire as to what preyed on his mind, but found that I did not care to hear about anything that might reduce my enthusiasm.

"What has you in such fine spirits?" he asked me, taking in my general good cheer with displeasure.

"I am off to teach a young scamp the most noble and ancient sport of English warlocks," I told him, beaming.

"Ha, the boy is dangerous enough without you teaching him how to chuck Bludgers at his classmates," Castle Albus said.

He sounded remarkably like Severus.

"Perhaps some tea might not be out of order," I suggested.

Castle Albus snorted, but as we took our places at the Head Table, I saw him pouring himself a cup of tea and then slowly relaxing. Tea calmed me. It had been a ritual, once upon a time, every morning. My mother would set places for five, even though my father had been in Azkaban. She would pour us tea from that ancient teapot she had received as a wedding gift from one of her aunts. Abe would coax Ariana into drinking her tea. My mother would stare at the empty seat and sometimes cry silently. I had hated it then. I had hated tea for a long time, until Abe and I had been the only ones left to remember. After that, tea was comforting, a faint whisper of memory that took me back to childhood.

An owl came in for Castle Albus. His expression darkened and he left the Hall, the owl perched on his shoulder.

"There has been an attack at the French Ministry," Horace said quietly, as he watched Castle Albus leave. "Three hundred dead. Many hundreds taken prisoners. They have surrendered. A few escaped and are seeking refuge here even as we speak."

It had been Austria last week. It was France now. All that lay between Britain and Him was a channel now. Did he stand there, on the coast, even now as I sipped tea, and look across as Napoleon once had?

"How do you know so much?" I asked Horace, trying to put aside thoughts of lemon-drops and Himnusz.

"Many of my students are stationed in Europe as diplomats," Horace said.

"I thought Slytherins mostly tended towards business ventures," I said.

"Ravenclaw students," Horace muttered. "I am a teacher, Percival, not merely a Head of House. I like to keep in touch with students."

He liked to collect them. I desisted rolling my eyes and instead concentrated on my tea.

I cast my eyes at the Slytherin table and was slightly disappointed to not see Tom there. Well, he was not an early riser, unsurprising given his tendency to roam the Castle at nights. Abraxas was there already though, his curls all tousled from sleep, biting his lower lip in consternation as he read a letter. I frowned. Had he anyone in France? His father lived in Britain, but his mother had been from France. His mother's brother was dead, but were there other relatives?

Tom came in then, his nose buried in a book. I did a handy spell that zoomed in on the title. Abe would be displeased at such snooping, but what he did not know would not displease him.

"Well, what is it?" Horace asked, sounding amused. "You are as paranoid as the boy."

"Quidditch through the Ages," I said, my disbelief unsuppressed.

What was Tom doing with that book? Castle Albus's dire prediction about Bludgers made an unnecessary appearance in my thought stream.

"I caught him in class reading it," Filius piped up, his face momentarily lightening up but still wan. The news from Austria had taken a toll on him.

Tom glanced up at me then and with a determined glare went back to his book. I stared at him in disbelief. All my dreams of teaching Tom to play Quidditch dissipated. This was going to be a contest as far as he was concerned. Why did the scamp have to make everything a competition? I had a vision of Tom as a Quidditch Captain, hunched in the middle of a hundred strategy books about the game, scheming and plotting to win the Cup.

Horace might have been thinking along the same lines, for he said, "Filius, I might place a bet on my team next year. How much are you willing to bet on your team?"

Filius chucked and begged off, saying that he would need to wait until he knew the composition of the Slytherin team next year.

The Gryffindor Quidditch team was practising on the field when I reached there. Tom caught up with me as I reached the goal hoops at the far end of the field.

"Good morning!" I greeted him. "Are you ready to put your theory into practice?"

He looked suspicious, but nodded all the same. I did a Summoning charm that fetched two broomsticks from the school supplies. Tom looked impressed as he saw the broomsticks flying towards us from the Castle.

Sure enough, he asked me excitedly, "Can you teach me how to do that?"

"I can," I said cheerfully. "Will I?"

He rolled his eyes and asked, "Will you teach me how to do that?"

"Not unless I have your word that you will not use it for devious purposes," I negotiated.

"What comes under devious purposes?" he asked.

"Anything I wouldn't approve of, of course!"

He took a look around, made sure that nobody was close enough to hear us, and told me in a dramatic whisper, "I promise to not use the spell for summoning what Pollux Black stuck inside Callidora."

I closed my eyes and willed away the ugly image of Black incest. When I opened my eyes again, Tom looked very smug.

"What did he stick inside her?" I asked, curiosity no doubt leading to masochism.

"A cucumber," Tom muttered, crinkling his nose in disgust. "In the Kitchens. He then asked the House Elves to make sure it ended up on his brother's plate. I liked cucumbers."

"Quidditch," I said firmly.

"Was my mother's family like the Blacks?" he asked me, not moving forward to take the broomstick I proferred.

"They are both old families," I granted cautiously.

"Did they bed and wed family members?" Tom asked plainly, his eyes holding deep worry.

What was he worried about? I picked my words with care and said, "Many old Wizarding families tend to keep marriages a family affair."

Tom looked stricken.

"What is it?" I asked, gently clasping him by the shoulders. He did not reply.


He stared at me, eyes wild and determined, but so very afraid. I realised that he was waiting for me to use Legilimency. I shook my head firmly and told him, "We must learn to ask and to speak, my boy. Magic isn't the solution to everything. The sooner we respect that, the better off we will be."

"It is easier to use the spell," he said, trembling.

"No, Tom-"

"Just this once!" he cajoled.

I knew this was a bad pattern. We had to break out of this.

"Please," he asked again.

I realised that I had lost all immunity to this boy. I hoped that he was unaware of that. What would he leverage my weakness for? Sighing, I spoke the spell and gently sifted through the tumult in his mind.

"Do you want to hear about your mother, boy?" asked the Squib who wore a cassock.

The young boy nodded eagerly, eyes bright and hopeful.

"Sit on my lap," the priest directed.

I knew it was only a memory, but I still rushed forward and my fingers slipped in vain as I tried to gather the child into my arms and take him far away from the Squib. The boy looked discomfited, but complied.

"She was mad. She slept with her father and brother both. Little wonder that your father threw her out and left her to die, Tom. How was the poor man to be certain that it was his son in her womb?"

The boy looked frightened now. He reared back, but the priest caught him and drew him close. I could hear my voice raised in rage, in vain.

"Like mother, like son, eh?"

Tom pushed me out of his mind then. It was uncoordinated and unskilled, but he managed to succeed. There were tears on his cheeks from the effort it had taken him. I would have gathered him into my arms and held him to comfort him, but he seemed to know my thoughts and quickly shook his head, glancing at the curious looks we were gathering from the Quidditch players practising. I settled for expressing my thoughts in my gaze. He summoned a wan smile for my sake. I felt something moistening my cheeks. Had I been crying too?

"You are both nutters," Abraxas proclaimed, startling us both.

"Enlighten us as to why, Rax," Tom muttered, a tinge of colour on his cheeks as he realised his friend had seen him in this moment of weakness.

"Why can't you talk like normal people?" Abraxas asked, his nose scrunched in disapproval, looking the very picture of an offended Fauntleroy.

"I believe you are right, Mr. Malfoy," I said wryly, shoving aside the wretched feeling of helplessness that had swallowed me whole after watching that memory. I would have to deal with it, I would have to speak with Tom about it, but for now it was forced into the background by necessity. "We will definitely conduct further conversations in that mode. Tom, your friend does have a point."

"Take his side, of course," Tom said, sounding none too pleased by this treachery.

"Somebody should!" Abraxas exclaimed, sounding put upon. "My mother's grave was destroyed by Grindelwald. I am so upset. You ran away to play Quidditch with the Professor when I wanted you to ask me why I was upset. Then you don't even play Quidditch but have your staring matches and mind-magic!"

Tom and I stared at the pouting Abraxas.

"Perhaps it might be best if you accompanied Mr. Malfoy back to your Common Room and provided him company, Tom," I suggested.

Tom looked uncertain. He probably had no idea as to what was expected of him. He did square his shoulders like a solider and nod.

"The grave is destroyed," Tom pointed out. "Being upset doesn't help you."

"What?" Abraxas squawked.

I sighed at Tom's idea of reassurance and said, "Some empathy wouldn't go amiss, Tom."

The boy seemed to catch on and tried again, "Rax, I don't even know where my mother's grave is. The dead are dead. What does it matter where they are buried or what happens to their graves?"

Abraxas looked close to fainting.

"Do you want to come flying with us?" Tom asked, looking at the end of his tether.

"Yes," Abraxas said firmly, recovering from his friend's attempts at comfort. "Professor, may I join? Tom, no more trying to make me feel better with words. You aren't any good at this."

Abraxas was resilient. One had to give him that.

"So I can just ask you to play Quidditch with me when you are upset?" Tom queried. He meant it too. He looked offended when Abraxas scowled and kicked him in the shins.

When we went to Abe's for the holidays, I would have to ask my brother to tutor Tom in the basics of empathising with his friends.

Abraxas took to flying much more easily than Tom did. Tom worried first about the Gryffindors across the field watching him fumble on the broomstick. Then he worried about Abraxas seeing him fumble.

"There is something wrong with this broomstick!" he proclaimed finally, after falling for the umpteenth time.

"There is nothing wrong with it," Abraxs said. "You are just too afraid!"

"No, I am not!" Tom exclaimed, and tried once more, his face set, only to fail again.

"Tom, perhaps you need to stop thinking about it," I suggested, taking pity on how confused and out of sorts he looked.

He didn't look convinced. He tried again, the broomstick lurched off the ground, he panicked and off he toppled onto the ground.

"This reminds me of that nursery rhyme," I said wryly.

"Which one?" Tom asked, looking at the broomstick as if it was Judas Iscariot himself.

"Hush-a-by baby, of course!" I said, trying to lighten his spirit.

It did not work, for he slouched and sighed and said, "Perhaps I should try tomorrow."

Abraxas was flying in loops over our heads. He was cheerful now and seemed to have put aside all thoughts of what had happened to his mother's grave.

"Tom?" I asked gently.

Tom looked at Abraxas and then closed his eyes. A large, blue bed appeared on the pitch and it started following Abraxas.

"There," Tom muttered. "Now even if he falls, he will be fine. I am going back to the Castle."

"That is very responsible of you," I said, quite pleased by his attention to his friend's welfare and impressed by his raw ability. "Why is it blue?"

"I don't know," Tom said.

He sounded tired. I placed an arm about his shoulders and steered him back to the Castle. I knew that Abraxas was a good flyer, having seen it for myself. I was not worried for his safety. Besides, I had confidence enough in Tom's magic and was sure that the bed would be sufficient for protection. The pitch itself had spells of protection woven in to prevent accidents.

"Quidditch really does require you to think less, at least until you are airborne," I said gently, sensing that he felt let down by his inability to get it right the first time.

"I am not upset about that," he said distractedly. "The concept of flying on broomsticks is unnatural to me. Like the moving pictures in books."

So it was that at the crux of his inability. Magic, despite all that he had seen and all that he could do, still was a fairytale without logic to him. He did not understand it. What he did not understand, he could not trust. It reminded me of myself. I wondered if I might have been the same had I been raised in a non-magical environment until I had come to Hogwarts.

"Father Sebastian used to sing that nursery rhyme," he said, apropos of nothing.

I ceased walking, my mind conjuring images of that cruel man crooning that rhyme as he manipulated Tom. We were at the stairs leading to the Entrance Hall. He took a couple of steps before realising I was not keeping up.

He turned and frowned at me saying, "You said we should talk without the mind magic."

"I know," I said. "We should."

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his robes and stared sullenly at me, before demanding, as imperious as Nero himself might have been, "Talk then."

He had tried to speak openly. I was stuck there, not knowing what to respond. I tried to place Abe in my shoes and wondered what he might have said. Something comforting, wise and meaningful, of course.

"My sister was abused by Muggle boys and never recovered," I said.

"I know," Tom replied quietly. "Hero told me."

"Abe dealt better with it all."

"You wept a lot," he said.

I wondered if Hero had told him that too. I had wept. I had often gone to that playground, sat on the swing that she had so loved, and wept for her. It hadn't helped anyone.

"Did you make them pay?"

Fear rose in me. There was flecks of thirst in his tone - a thirst for revenge. This was what had led to our world breaking last time.

"I didn't."

He looked at me, his eyes bright with knowledge, and said softly, "I don't need any spell to look into your mind to know that you are lying."

With that, he turned and climbed the stairs, leaving me alone with the lie that hadn't passed muster. The boys had screamed for mercy. They hadn't received any. I had wept for Ariana. I had fought to avenge her. Unlike my father, I had been careful enough to evade attention. I had regretted many things in my life, including that ill-fated summer's tryst with him. I had never regretted making Ariana's tormentors suffer though. Abe didn't know. My mother hadn't known. Nobody had known. Nobody, until Tom had seen it fit to draw it out with cruel precision.

That night, sleep came to me with difficulty. When it did, it was accompanied by dreams that laden with screams of young boys who had been cruel enough to break a young girl. The screams gave way to my mother's sobs, the flash of killing green and Ariana's scream, a man chanting his national anthem as he stretched his fingers out to touch me through the bars of a prison in the Carpathians, and then a young Tom Riddle standing brave and quiet as a Squib advanced towards him crooning a nursery rhyme. "When the bough breaks," sang the Squib, and drew the young boy close. I screamed and woke up panting as if I had run a long distance.


It was Horace. I mopped my face with the comforter on my bed and then quickly righted my nightshirt before rushing out to meet him.

His face was distraught, and before he spoke, I knew what the tidings would be.

"Grindelwald is attacking the Ministry."


I look forward to hearing what you think! There are a few new pieces too, related to the same storyline. Check them out if you are interested. (The Land of Lost Gods and Godlike Men, A Goth too must love, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, Childe Harold's Tale and I, Alastor).

Thank you for those who have written to me about what they think of the story and the characters. I am sorry that I haven't replied yet, but I am working on playing catch up, but the reviews themselves are treasured deeply. Thank you.

Chapter Text

"Where are we going?" Tom asked, eyes all bright with curiosity as he looked up at me. His breaths were white and wispy puffs in the early December cold. I was of a mind to ruffle his hair but his cap obscured it.

"It has been a while since we have ventured to London, hasn't it?"


I made a noncommittal noise, enjoying his enthusiasm.

"Is it safe?"

Was it safe? Castle Albus and the Aurors had succeeded in liberating the Ministry from Grindelwald. It had cost us many good men and women. It had cost the Minister his post. We had a new Minister now, one that listened more to the Aurors and advocated harsh measures for the sake of public safety and national integrity. They had only succeeded in expelling the enemy from London proper, but battles were being fought in other Wizarding communities in the countryside. Britain was no longer safe. Aberforth and I had been told by Castle Albus that Godric's Hollow was off limits to us until the threat of Grindelwald had been cleared from Britain.

London was still safe, or so we were told. I was taking no chances, though, not with a charge in my custody. I would stick to Muggle London.

"Do you not trust me to protect you, scamp?" I asked Tom. "Is it safe, you ask? What need you fear for safety with my wand close?"

He rolled his eyes and continued walking backward. It was one of the more exasperating traits he had picked up in the last year. I heard he had learned this from watching the Slytherin Quidditch team practise. They practised walking backwards in order to make them defter flying backwards. It took talent and dedication to master the art of flying backwards on a broomstick. Tom, being a little peacock, as all boys were at his age, had taken to showing off his skill at walking backwards at every chance he had. He could be often found doing so while conducting conversations with an exasperated Abraxas, as they went through the corridors, face to face, one smirking and the other frowning.

"You are going to topple over a large rock one of these days and Mr. Malfoy might be very pleased to see that."

"I am offended," Tom said merrily, walking backwards still. "Abraxas, now, thinks that I am going to walk straight into a dragon's gaping mouth."

He made a picture in the winter sunshine, with his warm, black winter-clothes and bright smile. I knew what was lacking, and waved my hand. His clothes turned a gentle scarlet, and now matched mine. There, perfect! He took one look at himself and groaned. This boy had no sartorial aptitude. Worse than Aberforth, truly! Thankfully, I was there, for both of them, to add a dash of style to their drab choices in apparel.

"Where are we going?"

He was compliant enough when I took his arm to Apparate us. Brimming full of curiosity and excitement, he gasped when he saw where we were.

"West End!" he exclaimed, though we were only in a nondescript side-street close to Oxford Street.

He sounded as if he had never thought he would set foot there. A stab of sadness shook me. He had spent his childhood in the East End, looking wistfully perhaps at those who came from Bloomsbury, Leicester Square and Covent Garden. Had he walked the Oxford, Regent and Bond streets, trying to get out of the way of carriages and cars, looking at the wares in the shops and at the elite that went about their business here?

"We are close to our destination," I told him.

He let me direct him towards Oxford Street, with my hand on his shoulder. He was looking at the Christmas decorations resplendent through the beautiful glass windows of the establishments. When Abe had suggested that I take the boy to London, I had not thought much of it. I was glad that I had acceded to his persuasion, seeing how transformed the boy was.

Tom inhaled sharply when I paused and pointed up at the brightly lit name-board of our destination.

"The Palladium!" he exclaimed. "Surely not! Are we? Are we?"

I could not resist. I removed his cap, ruffled his hair, and replaced his cap.

The Palladium, now called the London Palladium, was a West End theatre renowned for variety performances. It was also home to a cinema. Today, I had obtained us tickets for a showing of Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps. I had read the novel by Buchan and found the plot slightly sketchy, but I was willing to give the film a chance. Besides, Tom had never been to a cinema and it would be wonderful to introduce him to this new variety of entertainment at one of the finest West End establishments.

We made our way to our booth. Tom looked as if he was trying his best not to be awestruck. There were high chandeliers and women draped in jewels. There was the rich aroma of expensive cigars and attendants going about with flutes of wine. The West End knew to entertain.

The film was a grand experience. It was a film about a spy-ring and a threat to national security. An innocent man, dragged into the middle of this drama, saved the country, as they usually do in these plots. Hitchhock had cast his actors well. The cinematography was remarkable. Clearly, no expense had been spared. The leading lady, a woman of elegance and sophistication, pleased the audience. Tom was egging on the protagonist to notice that he had just walked into the ringleader's residence. The protagonist held my attention throughout the film, due to causes related to his physique and less attributed to his acting skills.

"Did you enjoy it?" I asked Tom as we walked back towards Charing Cross.

Charing Cross still held the name in memory of the demolished Eleanor cross. Now there was a proud Trafalgar Square situated in Nelson's Column there. It never failed to surprise me, how humans tried to rewrite history with new stories constructed over old ones, which in turn became older stories that were then written over again.

"The woman was bad luck!" Tom was saying. "She kept turning him over to the police!"

"Well, he did kiss her out of the blue at their first meeting."

"She should have still been more inclined towards benefit of doubt the second time she sees him at the gathering!"

"Where are we going?" I asked, because Tom had been leading me towards Great Scotland Yard.

I was answered by a rude, untrained poke to my relaxed mind. I frowned at him. He did not look apologetic and continued to tug me towards Northumberland Avenue and away from Whitehall. Then I felt it - a strange dissonance malingering in the evening air that spoke of magic malevolent which prevented Apparating away. And I felt something else. I pushed Tom to the ground just as a spell reached where he had stood a scarce moment before. I turned to face our pursuit. I could feel them on all sides. Too many. I would not be bothered by the odds in usual circumstances, but the boy was with me. He had had the sense to lead us away from the Muggle throng at Charing Cross towards this more secluded and more open area where I could still attempt to best them in a duel while protecting the boy simultaneously. They were bearing down upon us now. The figures parted to make way for the leader. He wore the familiar insignia of the Hallows.

"Kill them both," the man said. "Make the man's death slower."

"You are not going to please Grindelwald!" Tom exclaimed, resisting my urge to shove him behind my body. "He wouldn't want you to kill Albus Dumbledore!"

This was most unlike Tom and I nearly dropped my concentration on the attackers upon hearing his transparent way of ensuring that we lived instead of being killed ruthlessly.

"This isn't Albus Dumbledore," the man said, laughing. "We know of the decoy he has parading around as a cousin. Right now, Albus Dumbledore is at the Ministry, soothing everyone with smiles and candy."

It offended me to be called Castle Albus's decoy. It also offended me to be declared as a decoy Albus Dumbledore. I wasn't! I was Albus Dumbledore. I had been Albus Dumbledore longer than Castle Albus could claim that he had been one. Dear me, this was confusing. Not the most conducive time to ponder the mysteries of my existence, I thought, as I deflected the curses of our attackers with ease. Poorly trained, but full of bravado, as most soldiers in somebody else's wars usually were.

"Keeping a close eye on Albus Dumbledore, aren't we?" Tom mocked.

"Yes, Gellert awaits tidings of the man's death," the man parried.

I would never let anyone know how it wounded me - the ease with which that name rolled off the man's lips, and the tidings that my death was awaited for. Now was not the time to grieve. Now was the time to get us both to safety. There would be time enough, after Tom was safe in the dungeons of Hogwarts, after I had apprised Castle Albus of these tidings, after dark, in the solace of my chambers, to tend to the wounds inflicted on my fickle heart.

Tom, I could sense, had had presence of mind sufficient enough to slowly back away from the duel without bringing undue attention to himself. Good, if only he were out of the range of their spells, I could set about a more offensive method of duelling. I had missed duelling, and the call of the clashing wands now sang to me, as it always had, and something deep buried in me which had first risen when I had duelled him rose to the fore yet again. It had been too long, and though my opponents were nowhere close to the calibre I expected, I relished our confrontation.

Was Tom envious of my grace in duelling? Was he feverishly promising himself he would be as good one day? It was Tom. He would not rest until he was better.

Tom had been one of the best that I had duelled. I had enjoyed our clashes, though few they had been in the earlier timeline, given his fear of losing. He had been a more careful duelist, less flashy, but perhaps that had been because his innate talent at the art of dueling had not compared to mine. I was a prodigy. He had trained himself. What he had lacked in innate talent, he had more than made up for with dedication and his intellectual acumen. He had been creative. Creation sometimes invoked horror than beauty.

When I had neatly strung up the last of our attackers, now unconscious, by his toes to the wall of the Metropolitan Police Service, Tom slunk back closer.

"I see you managed a serendipitous exit at a time of crisis," I teased him gently.

"I had no wish to be in your way," he remarked. "It seemed as if you derived true enjoyment from your game."

"Game?" I asked, worried by how he said it so lightly. We would have paid for our lives had I not been a duelist as good as I was.

"You treated it so," was his plain answer. "You could have ended it earlier. You were toying with the leader."

He was too perceptive for his own good. I sent a Patronus to Abe, to inform him of our safety and of the location of these miscreants. He would take upon himself to deliver the news to quarters that mattered. Tom slipped his left hand in mine and led me down the street at a brisk pace, taking us back to Whitehall. I was more familiar with this part of Westminster and took us away to a location from where we could Apparate.

As we walked back to Hogwarts, collars upturned against the cold winds, quiet in our musings, picking our path to the castle by the faint light of the crescent moon, I let myself wallow in misery as the words of the leader replayed in my head. I knew I had toyed with him. I knew, if I had not been the man I was now, I would have brought as much pain to him as I once had to those who had abused Ariana. I had enjoyed what I had done to him. I had enjoyed defeating him in the duel humiliatingly. I had wanted to do that again and again until he begged and took back the words that had caused me grief.

"Does he not remind you of Peter?"

"Peter?" I asked absently.

"Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater,

Had a wife, and couldn't keep her,

He put her in a pumpkin shell,

And there he kept her very well."

Tom's dispassionate voice while reciting the rhyme made me uneasy.

I thought of Peter, who killed his wife and kept the remains hidden in a pumpkin, since he could not keep her. Was Tom comparing Grindelwald's order to have Albus Dumbledore killed to Peter's actions? That could only be it. After all, the boy had no inkling of who the Peter in this tale had been in the earlier timeline.

I had been Peter, who had kept his only lover in a shell that was a prison in the Carpathian mountains and left him there to rot.



Albert Hitchcock's 39 Steps was one of the most significant films of 1935.

Metropolitan Police Service - The Scotland Yard

London Palladium - a theatre venue in the West End

Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater - a nursery rhyme that is said to be about a man who killed his wife and hid the body in a large pumpkin

Carpathian Mountains prison - reference to an earlier story about Albus and Grindelwald 'Himnusz'

Chapter Text

"How fares your miseducation at Hogwarts?" Amelia asked Tom.

They sat beside each other at the kitchen table. He was peeling potatoes for Abe. She was kneading the dough. Abe puttered around, ordering us around as his whim pleased. I was none too happy, but I was settled at the kitchen table stuck chopping the potatoes Tom had finished peeling. He peeled faster than I could chop.

I wished we could use magic. Abe did not permit it in his kitchen. He had taken after our mother, who had allowed little magic in the house. First, it had been because it had deeply unsettled Ariana. Then, it had been because she could not bear to be reminded of our father's flashy displays of household magic.

I had enjoyed flashy displays of magic myself, later, after I had left home. It had always felt like rebellion, as if daring Abe or my mother to come and reprimand me. They never had. My mother had died. Abe and I had, by then, years of bitterness spawn between us. Minerva I had clung to, later, because her disapproving words reminded me of better days. I made my displays of magic flashier, and she had disapproved louder. It had made me feel content.

Minerva. I had not done much right by her. The poor girl.

I was pulled back to the present when Tom began speaking about his Hogwarts experiences.

"Oh! So many books! And speaking portraits! And broomsticks! And teachers who actually can teach! It is all very wonderful," he was saying, warming to the subject, and his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. Abe stopped his puttering at the stove and came to sit beside me at the kitchen table, no doubt to listen better.

"You aren't afraid of the books any longer?" Amelia teased.

"I freeze them!" Tom replied easily. "I know this nifty charm that does so."

Amelia laughed and said, "Stubborn imp. Let us see how long this will last."

Abe chuckled, took pity on me, and pulled the potatoes and the knife to himself. I wanted to recite a hymn of gratitude then. I had hated those potatoes with a passion. I was a magician, not a potato-peeler. The deeds one bravely undertook for one's sibling!

"Isn't this a homely sight?" Castle Albus chirped, as he stuck his impertinent head right through the open kitchen window. Abe's fingers twitched, as if they wanted to snap shut the window right then.

"Come in, Albus!" Amelia, ever gracious, invited him.

Tom and Abe exchanged mutually directed consoling looks. I sighed and quietly Summoned the latest Transfiguration Today journal from the sitting room. Perhaps magic might take my mind off my younger self's incursion. Abe thought differently. He harrumphed, shoved the potatoes back to me, and set off for the stove, no doubt seeking to not face his brother.

Castle Albus glided in gaily, decked in peacock-green robes, all festive and resplendent. I felt a pang of envy when I thought of him attending some dinner or the other, and being fawned over by everyone there. I missed the fame sometimes. I had never thought that possible. Severus had often accused me of being attracted to fame, and I had laughed it off merrily, stating that I was only a humble Headmaster.

"Why, why, cousin Percival!" he said happily. "Peeling potatoes? How very domestic!"

I kept my eyes on the potatoes. Nothing good came of retorting. We needed him for our artifice. We would only endanger ourselves if we lost his complicity. The enemy was interested in us. The war had come home.

Moments of reprieve, as this, in Godric's Hollow, was possible only due to the patronage of Amelia and Castle Albus. The Auror protection for Castle Albus's family was not insignificant. The Ministry wanted to spare no effort to cater to every whim of a man whom everyone called their only hope against the terror of those who bore the insignia of the Hallows.

"How are you doing, Pinocchio?" Castle Albus went on. "Dear me, dear me, it seems as if you have put on a goodly few pounds. Will you need new robes after Christmas?"

Tom had finally put on a few pounds thanks to Abe's cooking. These were pounds that had moved him from looking like a starved child in some war-torn nation to a healthy schoolboy. I frowned at Castle Albus.

"What brings you here?" Abe asked, likely as irritated as I was.

"Christmas!" Castle Albus enthused. Amelia grinned, no doubt enjoying our interactions. She did not have such a sibling, after all.

"What of it?" Abe asked.

"I came to celebrate it with my brother!" Castle Albus replied. Now he looked slightly ruffled.

"The more the merrier!" Amelia said, diffusing the tension.

Castle Albus looked as if he had won a battle. He came to sit beside me. Tom kept his eyes on the potatoes. Potatoes! I moved half of my lot to Castle Albus. He looked aghast.

"Work shared reaps more satisfaction at the end," I reminded him.

"I am not a Communist," he muttered, but settled down and began peeling potatoes regardless, perhaps fearing Abe's wrath.

"It is a communal meal, after all," I retorted.

Amelia looked confused.

Tom, ever gracious to women, took pity and began explaining the tenets of Communism to her.

"You see," he began passionately, "Communism is what converted Russia from a dysfunctional empire into a dysfunctional country where everything was nationalized and nobody had anything left to their name."

"What?" Amelia asked, rather horrified.

I looked at Tom curiously. Castle Albus was also watching him like a hawk. In the earlier timeline, I had never had the chance to know what Voldemort had thought of Muggle politics. In fact, it had seemed to me that he would know and care for nothing in that arena. Tom surprised me, as he often did.

"They fought a civil war, killed their Emperor and his family rather brutally, and killed hundreds of people who were believed to cling to the idea of a monarchy. And later, they began killing everyone they feared. And now, they send everyone they disapprove of to the Gulag."

I frowned. I had not known all this. Russia was not a country that had drawn my attention. It was far away. Russian Wizards often attended international conferences, but I had had little cause for interaction with them.

"Do you think that the Emperor was better then?" Castle Albus asked.

Tom shrugged, looking rather uncomfortable.

"Well?" Castle Albus pressed.

"I don't think a single person can lead a country well," Tom replied. "He might be able to, if he had trusted generals. Even so, after his death, there is a vacuum. Perhaps that is what has gone wrong in Russia. If a single man has too much power, and if there are no checks on how he exercises the power, it could lead to danger. A monarchy is different. A single man still has power, but there are checks in the form of advisors, other powerful families and the monarch's successor. In a monarchy, there is continuity of a sort. I can see why that would reassure countrymen. On the other hand, elected governments also ensure continuity of a sort. Policies might keep changing every few years and that could be detrimental."

"It seems you have come to the conclusion that all sorts of governments have disadvantages," Castle Albus remarked.

This was interesting. I held a political view that I had developed as an adolescent. I had seen bumbling ministers and lackeys, and had come to the conclusion that governance was essentially more for pomp than for purpose. Tom seemed to think more of its administrative capabilities.

"That is enough chatter!" Abe said. "Now let us see to our Christmas dinner."

"What do you think of your House?" Amelia asked, as we dined.

"Why would I think anything of it?" Tom replied, looking honestly bewildered.

I knew him better. It was unlike him to express bewilderment so openly. So he had certain opinions on his House, which he did not care to speak of.

"What is the situation on the front?" Abe asked.

The atmosphere changed. Amelia's smile drooped. Castle Albus sighed. In sympathy, I ceased cutting a slice of Abe's kidney pie.

"It is bad," Amelia admitted. "It is why I have asked you to not visit me at the Ministry anymore, Abe. It is unsafe. We lost an important battle at Plymouth yesterday. I had to visit six bereaved families, right before they set out for Christmas Eve festivities, and give them tidings of death."

The tidings cast a pall on the dinner after that.

"What do you think?" I asked Caste Albus, who was looking at Tom's sundial with mild curiosity, all the while puffing away hearty puffs merrily.

We were smoking the cigars he had brought. Abe did not smoke. It was yet one of those triggers that caused him discomfort. He had retired to bed with Amelia. Tom had winked at them, resulting in a chortle from Amelia and a reprimand from Abe. I had stepped out into the yard, feeling a tad suffocated inside. Castle Albus had followed me with the cigars.

"I would like to think that I think continually," Castle Albus replied.

I began to comprehend why Minerva would fly into a rage when I began toying with words. I sympathized with her.

"What do you think of the war?" I pressed on.

His shoulders slumped. The puff of smoke from his cigar became wispy, as if in response to his change of mood.

I felt a pang of sympathy for him. I had been him, after all. I had stood alone on the ramparts of Hogwarts, buffeted by the eastern winds. I had been the last hope for my nation, and I had been frightened. I had been frightened because I did not know how I would set aside mourning my heart's foible and embark on war. Gellert Grindelwald had destroyed me long before he had destroyed Wizarding Europe.

I had had years to heal. I had Minerva's unfailing kindness and stoicism to bolster me. Castle Albus stood here with me in Godric's Hollow, where it had all begun, still bearing raw wounds of a summer's tryst.

"What will happen?" he asked me softly. His voice was broken, and there was pleading in his tone. It had cost him much to ask me, I could tell.

If I had had anyone to ask then, anyone who had known the future, I would have lain aside my pride too, and begged to know.

I remembered what I had once told Severus, after I had brought to him tidings of Lily's death and Voldemort's fall. He had been weeping inconsolably, and had been incoherently mumbling about how it had all been his fault. I had taken pity. He had loved Lily Potter. He had betrayed Voldemort for her sake.

"We have all places to stand," I had told Severus then. "Pull yourself together. We will avenge her. We will protect her boy. Voldemort will be back. You must be ready then."

He had laughed then, a madman's laugh, and said, "Gallas had no shame, and his keeper had no sense."

I had no inkling of what that sentence had meant. Grief made us speak wretched nonsense. He had gone to rant on about Abraxas Malfoy. Nothing had made sense. We had not spoken of that miserable night again. The next morning, though, I had seen him hurrying out of the Castle with a posy of bluebells. Perhaps they had been Lily's favourite flowers.

I had left a posy of roses in a prison once, after I had sealed shut a man inside. Severus, at least, had the comfort of knowing that he had loved a good-hearted woman. I had only nightmares of the destruction my heart's conquerer had sown across Europe, and I had still left him a posy of roses in his prison. I had been a wretched fool.

Castle Albus stood beside me, still a wretched fool.

I told him, as kindly as I could, "We have all our places to stand. I survived."

He stirred restlessly. Then he said, "I do not wish to survive his death."

I had not wanted to survive. I had thought we would be a phoenix and a dragon, battling to our fiery deaths and ridding the world of us both. I had survived, all the same.

I reached out and clumsily patted Castle Albus's right hand.

A high, clear voice began singing from the attic. Tom had a habit of singing as he prepared for bed. I wondered how his dormitory-mates took to it. Perhaps Abraxas Malfoy served as his knight, defending his eccentricities.

"Ring around the rosy,

A pocketful of posies,

Ashes, Ashes,

We all fall down!"

"Albus!" yelled someone from the gate. We rushed and undid the powerful Charms that kept our house invisible to anyone uninvited.

Ollivander stood there, troubled. We let him and cast the Charms again.

"The Minister was killed along with his family at their home," Ollivander said without preface. "Grindelwald burned down the house and left a posy of roses there, and a single piece of parchment addressed to you."

Castle Albus held out his hand for the parchment. Before he opened it, I knew what it would say.

"Merry Christmas," Castle Albus read out.


A/N: I'd love to know what you think of it! If you are interested, there are some more pieces related to this indexed on my profile.

[Gallas had no shame and his keeper had no sense: is a reference to 'No Sense, No Shame', a little piece featuring Snape and Voldemort.]

Chapter Text

"I really liked the carols!" Tom was telling Amelia excitedly, as they walked together ahead of us, cutting a slim path through the thick snow.

Abe and I walked behind them. I had attempted conversation with him, only to face his scowls. So I had let him be. I wished that I walked with Tom, but the boy had been reluctant to be alone in my company. He had told Abe something about the oddness of associating with me outside school, since he found it difficult to wrap his mind around the fact that I was his Transfiguration Professor.

So I was stuck with surly Abe, while Tom kept close to Amelia. Amelia liked the boy's company. She was not the maternal sort, but Tom was remarkably mature and did not possess childishness that grated on her nerves.

"Ariana liked the carols," Abe said suddenly.

There was a little church in Godric's Hollow. When Father had been there, we would be chivvied to church for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. He had insisted. Abe had attempted to follow the tradition half-heartedly. Ariana had loved Christmas and New Year. She had loved the carols the most. Enthused and happy, she had attempted to sing 'O Come All Ye Faithful', only to be mocked for her stuttering by the young boys who sang the carols. Abe had picked a fight with them, I remembered. It had been the Christmas before the summer when everything had changed.

"Why don't you ask them yourself?" Amelia was saying merrily.

Tom half-turned to look at us, then quickly turned away. I could hear Amelia encouraging him. I wondered what it was about.

"Abe! Percival!" Amelia called out, finally giving up on persuading Tom to ask us. "The boy wants to sing on the carols."

Tom quickly supplemented that with, "I have sung before, on the choir at Father Sebastian's Church. He said I was a decent singer."

I scrunched my nose, at the mention of Father Sebastian. I did not know how Tom could speak of that vile man so easily. I wanted to Obliviate the man's evilness out of the boy's mind.

Ah, how magic often tempted me to wreak crimes on others for their own sake! Minerva had never understood that. She believed in my heart because hers was pure. She would not have loved me, if she had known. He had, and he had still loved me. He had not understood why I would refuse succumbing to the crueler urges. That had driven us apart, until we had ended up on either side of the narrowest stretch of the Danube, looking across at each other, wands aloft, and our reflections reaching across to meet on the waters.

I was called back to my surround when Abe said briskly, "The boys there are hooligans, Tom. I wouldn't want you associating with such."

Tom's gait slowed, but he did not try to argue. He rarely did. I worried now, since he was not the sort to just let it be. He might attempt something regardless and try to keep it from us. I was not worried for him, given how clever he was, even without a wand. I was worried for the other boys. Tom was not Ariana. He would not require Abe to fight his battles for him. He would not require anybody.

Yet, there was Father Sebastian. I frowned. The boys were pests. However, I did not want Tom associating with the clergy, not after his prior experiences with their ilk.

"It is my birthday," Tom said. "May I ask for something else?"

"What?" Abe said quickly, willing to grant the boy anything else as long as it did not involve invoking the past and Ariana.

"May I learn music?" Tom asked eagerly. "May I have music lessons?"

"Of course!" I replied, beaming. This was a capital idea! Why, the boy had a voice that could melt the heart of a Crouch! Why, the boy had fingers made for music!

And it would keep him out of trouble.

We celebrated Tom's birthday with a quiet dinner that Amelia insisted on preparing. It was very different from the past year, at the Ministry. I looked at the boy, who was taller and a tad plumper, munching away Amelia's delicious preparation. He looked content. He did not look as if he was plotting murder. He was listening to Abe saying something about his blasted goats (yet another had spawned), and laughing. He was refusing Amelia's attempts to ladle more broth into his bowl.

Perhaps we would make it, I dared hope.

Then there was a knock on the door. It was one of those self-important knocks. Abe muttered something under his breath and went to the door. It was Castle Albus, of course, looking extremely confident of his welcome.

"Happy Birthday, Pinocchio! May your nose not grow too long!" Castle Albus wished.

Tom smiled a frosty smile and said, "You should try Amelia's broth, Sir. It is quite tasty."

"Ah, very kind of you!" Castle Albus said. "Aren't you keen to find out what my gift to you will be?"

"Gift?" Tom asked, now very curious. "What is it?"

Castle Albus raised his eyebrows.

"What is it, Sir?" Tom amended impatiently.

"If you aren't polite, we might have to send you to bed without the gift."

Tom shifted as smoothly as a chameleon, saying sweetly, "I do hope my eagerness has not offended you, Professor."

I suppressed a sigh. I saw Abe looking frustrated. One year had not been enough to drill some honesty into the boy. He saw no purpose in being honest if he could get away with less effort by being dishonest. I had heard Flitwick's suspicions about Tom's essays being written by other House-mates. Tom had, even in the past timeline, been rather unwilling to bring himself down to the tedium of homework, usually bartering his skills for getting someone to do it for him.

Castle Albus walked over and thrust a lavender-wrapped package at the boy. I had not expected Castle Albus to bring a gift. He held no affection for the boy and agreed with Ollivander that Abe and I was raising the next Dark Lord. What had brought on this spirit of gifting?

Tom hastily tore the lavender wrapping, despite Amelia asking him to be more careful. He gasped when he saw the gift.

As did I.

There sat innocent and gleaming the wand that I had good reason to fear, the wand that was made of yew, the wand that I knew had Fawkes's feather in its core, the wand that had caused so much grief. Tom had refused it in Ollivander's shop, saying that he wished to succeed on the merit of his skills instead of the merit of his wand.

We had settled for a Laurel wand. The dragon heartstring core was strong, and I had not noticed his magic being overly affected by it. Yet, when he performed magic wandlessly, as if he often did, the potency of it reminded me of how unsuited his current wand was for him. He was left-handed, yet he persisted in using his right hand for writing and for performing magic. He had been taught by Father Sebastian to think of the left hand as unsuitable for writing. He had carried over that belief to the magical world.

"He already has a nice wand," Amelia noted, rather bewildered by Castle Albus's choice of gift.

"I do," Tom said. His voice was shaky and his eyes held the greed to possess as they roved over the wand he held. He was affected. The wand was highly compatible with his magic, just as my mother's wand was highly compatible with me now.

"It is yours," Castle Albus said. "Use it wisely and it will prove a good friend."

Voldemort had not used it wisely. It had still proven itself to be a good friend. Ollivander had despaired until Harry Potter had walked in to claim the brother wand, the last hope.

"Why did you give it to him?" I asked Castle Albus, as we took a turn in the yard that night.

It was biting cold and I was grateful for the magic that kept us warm. Severus had often walked close to the Forest on such nights, murmuring to himself that the wold was white with snow. He was unhealthily fond of reciting verses from The Ballad of Judas Iscariot.

"It suits him," Castle Albus said.

That was not reason enough. I cleared my throat. He offered me a cigar, I accepted it, and he said quietly, "Information gathered by Aloysius Moody's Aurors speak of Grindelwald looking for the boy. There is interest in him, due to some sort of a prophecy made by the centaurs of the Black Forest in Germany."


"He is more interested in seeking the boy than in conquering Britain?"

"Wizarding Britain is weak. The boy is rumoured to be powerful. There are spies at Hogwarts and at the Ministry leaking information to Grindelwald. The boy is said to show off by performing feats of magic before his House-mates. Grindelwald wants no threats left unlooked into. He might not harm the boy, but that is rather leaving it to chance. Why are you afraid? The wand is not powerful. It is the combination of boy and wand that changes the status quo. However, I find it is in his best interest that he claims a wand more suited to him. We are losing a war, in case you haven't noticed. Would you want anyone defenceless?"

It was not the wand that I feared. It was the combination of boy and wand that I feared. How was it in anyone's best interest to match Tom with such a wand? The boy had little moral compunction most of the time.

I entered the house to find Tom at the dusty piano playing a heavily adapted version of Faure's Clair de lune. My mother had loved the tune, and my Father had painstakingly learned to play Faure's composition. The score had been still lying around somewhere in the house. Tom had managed to get his hands on it, and he was playing it in a cautious manner, diffident still as his fingers skittering over the piano. Abe was standing by the window, watching the clear skies and the full moon hung low upon them. I joined my brother.

As Tom grew more confident, his playing became smoother. I was reminded of nights when my mother would knit while my father played for her. It had moved me so much that I had wanted to do the same for someone I loved, and had learnt to sing the Himnusz for Grindelwald. I had never sung it for him. He had married a woman now. Castle Albus remained a bird seeking a lighthouse that did not exist. He would find balm. I had. I wondered what sort of music Minerva liked. I had never bothered to find out. I remembered vaguely that Minerva had once spoken of Riddle conducting music for Abraxas Malfoy's listening pleasure. I frowned. That story had not involved sense, for I remembered something said about cannons and church bells and broomsticks, all in the same sentence. Abraxas Malfoy, it seemed, had named it A Rhapsody in Riddle. Minerva had found it all quite romantic, as women often do.

I watched Tom playing now, and wondered if he would play for Abraxas as he once had.

Abe took his leave, wishing us goodnight softly. Tom continued playing. I wondered what Abe had given him as a birthday gift. Abe had gone to the attic early this morning to do the gifting. Neither my brother nor the boy had told me of what it was. I had not yet given Tom my gift. After Castle Albus's gift, I wondered if mine would be half as valued.

As the last notes receded, I spoke.

"I have a gift for you."

He looked at me then. His eyes held specks of moonlight and gleamed eldritch. We had come a long way. He had a wand I did not want him to have, he was twelve, it was 1936, and we were at war with a man I had worshipped here by the brook marking the end of our village of Godric's Hollow. His fingers remained on the keys of the piano, and his gaze remained fixed on mine, and he began singing,

"And with a gentle hand,

Lay it where childhood dreams are twined,

In memory's mystic band,

like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers,

Plucked in a far-off land."

Alice in Wonderland. You must be the Mad Hatter, he had said, one year ago.

He rose from his seat, walked to join me by the window, and said quietly, "I did not have memory to aid me to dream. I did not dare dream based on what I saw in the West End. I dreamed, though, based on what I saw in the families of East End. I dreamed that I might have a father, even if he should be an alcoholic and a layabout. I wished for a mother who might have kept me even if she had not loved me. I tumbled down a rabbit-hole instead, and found a Mad Hatter."

"I have a gift for you," I said softly, overcome by his words.

How had I fretted so over that wand? This was Tom. He had changed. He had benefited from Abe's influence and mine, hadn't he? He was more tractable and willing to be mentored. He cared about Abe's health, he cared about Abraxas's friendship, and he thought kindly of me. He had clung to me after the Ministry visit. He had wept in my arms in the Hospital Wing.

"May I have it?" Tom asked.

I retrieved the gift from the mantel. It was drably wrapped in brown, but I had not been able to find wrapping paper of a suitable colour in this house. Abe truly was colour-blind!

Tom opened the parcel to find the copy of Moby Dick I had procured for him. He opened the book and began reading. His eyes grew wider in interest and he read spellbound, as I once had been by the same book:

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

I had worried that he might not like the gift. I had dithered all day, wondering what Amelia and Abe had given the boy, wondering if what I had to give might be held to be less useful, and I had not given the boy his gift until the end of the day.

He continued reading, the clock struck twelve, we could hear Abe's snores, the old house creaked and groaned, the full moon glowed at us yellow and we entered the New Year.



Clair de Lune - Verlaine's poem set to music by Gabriel Faure

The poem Tom sings is from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Himnusz - the national anthem of Hungary.

Cannons and church bells - The 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky).

Chapter Text


"You don't suppose that the weather will turn soon, will it?" I asked Abe.

He grunted.

He had been busy cleaning his barn. He looked pale and tired in the winter sunlight. He had refused grumpily my offers of help, saying that he did not want magic around one of the pregnant goats. I did not offer to help again. I despised goats and even sympathy for Abe would not let me stoop enough to offer my manual help. He would just have to wait until Tom bestirred himself from his bed. Tom, unlike me, was more willing to work with his hands in barns. Perhaps, being born and bred in the city, he still found romance in the bucolic.

Amelia walked to the turnstile gate then, grinning as if she had won a lottery. She hailed us merrily.

"What is it?" Abe asked.

"You will come with me," she decreed.

I did not try to suppress my smile at Abe's scandalised look. He was so prim and proper, and Amelia was a tempest that had caught him unawares. How very delightful!

"Both of you!" she ordered. "Now!"

I glared at her. Then I glared at Abe, who was smirking.

"This is unfair. I am not even getting any of the benefits," I complained querulously, as she dragged us both down the country lane, towards the market square.

"You don't like bosoms," Abe reminded me, now clearly in improved spirits as I objected to my plight.

"And with good reason!" I muttered, glaring at Amelia. She chortled and continued dragging us both, making for the church.

Music drifted out through the old doors, heavy and jubilant, smothering us with the passion of the religious as only Handel's Hallelujah could. Abe's eyebrows were knit with worry, as he took Amelia's hand and entered the church. I entered alone, knowing well what to expect, and yet finding myself unprepared.

"Why do nations so furiously rage together?" sang the choir.

Tom loved the dramatic. There was little in oratorio music as dramatic as Handel's Hallelujah. The boy played it with passion, eyes closed in reverence as if he believed in the Messiah Handel had composed it for, fingers skittering along the old piano's keys, head bowed, and mind lost to music. Abe swore, knelt in the last pew, made the sign of the cross, and clasped his hands in prayer. Abe believed. Amelia and I stood, unbelievers in the house of the faithful, watching the boy. The church was silent but for the choir, and I could see many women weeping, overcome by the music that held them in thrall.

"Worthy is the lamb," sung the choir of young boys, cresting on the passion of Tom's playing.

I could not bear it anymore. I exited the church quietly, taking care not to draw the attenion of my companions. Outside, the world was white with snow, free of the drama of Tom's playing, and the cold wind was reassurance.

The last time I had heard Handel, it had been in the same church. I had not been alone. I had been in a pew, Bathilda Bagshot beside me, and Grindelwald on the other side. He had believed. He had dragged me here, begging me to come attend the Mass, and to listen to the magic of Handel.


It was Castle Albus, rushing towards the churchyard, Fawkes on his shoulder, a group of Aurors with him.

"Hallelujah!" sung the chorus inside, and the music broke free over the howling of the winter wind. Castle Albus turned pale.

"He is here," Castle Albus told me. "Please fetch Aberforth and the boy, and leave for Hogwarts."

Magic, dark and brilliant and well-remembered, smothered the church. The choir sung bravely, but the voices of the young boys fell silent, suffocated by the magic. Masked figures, bearing the insignia of the Hallows, broke through the wards.

"O death, where is thy sting?" the boys sang. One of the masked figures raised his wand, and a flash of green light felled an Auror.

I had my wand aloft, casting, as did Castle Albus. He fought his way towards me, trying to defend the Aurors as best as he could, while allies and foes around us fell.

"Crucio!" exclaimed a powerful voice, well-known to me.

Castle Albus turned, bewitched, towards the voice, betrayal in his wide eyes, as Grindelwald's curse struck him square. Writhing in pain, screaming, he struck the ground.

"Crucio!" Aloysius Moody screamed, and stepped between the Dark Lord and Castle Albus, brave and defiant. He had the face of a man who knew he would die. I thought of his young boy, Alastor, who would be as brave and ruthless in defending the country. Grindelwald snarled and cast a Killing Curse, but I quickly acted to get Aloysius out of the way.

"Ah, the other Dumbledore," spoke Grindelwald, meeting my gaze for the first time.

His eyes held no regret. I remembered him kneeling before me by the Danube, letting me win, letting me imprison him in Nuremberg behind stone and iron. Those eyes had held longing then. Fawkes gave a shrill cry and swallowed Grindelwald's Killing Curse whole, before falling into ashes at my feet. Castle Albus was up, and casting powerful magic to envelop us in a bubble of protection.

The Aurors had entered the church and were trying to aid the panicking congregation to escape the madness. Grindelwald's soldiers were reckless, and the cloying scent of blood broke the Hallelujah Chorus.

"Very apt, is it not?" Grindelwald spoke. "Very apt that I will ask your young charge to play this for you as you draw your last."

"Crucio!" yelled Castle Albus, blue eyes blazing with the rage of betrayal. I had been him once, nursing wounds closely and letting them fester enough to make my wand capable of dark magic unforgivable.

"You need to mean them," Grindelwald mocked, unaffected by the Curse.

I knew that. Castle Albus did not. Rage was not enough. The Curse fed on a true desire to be cruel. I had never been capable of that. Castle Albus stood there, panting, wrecked, torn, and my heart went out to him.

"Incendio!" Amelia's voice broke the melee, sending loose a wall of fire that rose to separate us from the Dark Lord.

"Albus, are you all right? Are you hurt?" Abe asked, panic bright in his voice, as he rushed towards Castle Albus, clearly worried by the trembling in his brother's limbs.

"Cruciatus," Castle Albus said. "I will be fine. Where is the boy?"

"Sent him away with a Portkey to a safe place," Amelia said. I sighed in relief, grateful for her preparedness. Grindelwald broke through the wall of flame. He had a dozen lackeys with him. They chanted as one, raising a ward that would trap us if we stayed.

"Go, then," Castle Albus said. "I will hold them back."

"I will hold them back," I told him. He would not win if he stayed. I knew that. There was betrayal deeper than any of the flesh wounds he had incurred in the melee.

Abe started protesting, as did Castle Albus. I looked at Amelia. She nodded and grabbed them both, and activated the Portkey she had with him. I stayed back, waiting for Grindelwald to finish his casting. What did he hope to achieve? He could kill me, though I had no wish to die here, but what would that achieve? He was powerful, but I had lived longer, and I knew his weaknesses well.

"O death, where is thy sting?" he intoned, coming closer.

"Crucio!" cast he, and "Crucio!" cast each of his allies, as one.

Spell-light enveloped me, burning through my defences, hitting me in the chest. I grit my teeth and willed my shields to be repaired, fighting the urge to kneel down on the snowy ground and succumb to the pain. I could hear the panicked sounds of Aurors trying to aid me. There were many Aurors. Castle Albus had not come unprepared. I could see limbs flying through the air, as Aurors and men of the Hallows met in combat. There was blood, there was screaming, there were pleas for mercy, and there were proud battle-cries. Grindelwald circled me, repelling the attacks of the Aurors, trying to break through my shields in vain. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, as he spoke spells and cast hard.

"Dumbledore!" he exclaimed, shock flitting across his features. "How?"

He had discovered the duplicity. Still taken aback, he began casting more furiously, darker and darker curses as his temper frayed. Then he yelled, "Bring the choir boys! All of them!"

I frowned. The Aurors had helped the children leave, had they not? A few frightened boys were brought into the courtyard.

"Stand down," Grindelwald shouted. "Or I will kill them all, one by one."

The Aurors did not stand down. The first boy died calling for his mother. I cursed. I remembered Tom standing by the window of our living room in Godric's Hollow, Moby Dick held loosely in his hands, and thanking a Mad Hatter. Grindelwald knew my weakness, just as I knew his.

I shouted, "You want only me. I will stand down."

I expected to be killed. I expected to be tortured. I did not expect to be encased in a ball of magic and studied by Grindelwald's mages. I should have expected that. He would be keen to know how Albus Dumbledore had managed to duplicate himself. He did not direct efforts himself. No doubt the fray was still going on. What had he attacked next? The Ministry? Hogwarts? I hoped that Dippet had raised the school's shields. As long as Hogwarts denied entry, none could trespass even with the darkest of magic. Grindelwald was not beloved to Hogwarts, unlike Voldemort who had been her favourite.

The investigation continued. Someone had the bright idea of torturing me to extract answers. They got started on that endeavour with alacrity. I tired of this more quickly than they did. I stalked the little cell, darkly musing on Tom's nights in the bowels of the Ministry, and on the experiments of the Unspeakables. He had managed to recover with resilience. Children were resilient. My mind wandered towards Harry, who was the personification of resilience. Guilt rose in me, wondering how he was carrying on. And poor Severus and Minerva.

"Time-travel!" shouted one of the mages, as his strain of Legilimency broke through my momentarily weakened defences.

That night, I lay shivering in a corner of the cell, contemplating the bread they had left to sustain me. I missed my purple cloak that Minerva had gifted for me in the Christmas of 1979. It had been beautifully crafted and must have been expensive. I did not remember gifting her anything except socks.

The cold was intolerable. Severus had said that Azkaban was bleak, desolate, and that the night air was strained by the cries of the tormented. However, he had said, the worst thing was the cold. He had muttered that his bones would never shake that cold off. I wondered if the cold was stimulus enough to break a man.

They opened the cell gate then, and threw in another hapless soul, which complained quite loudly about the ill-treatment.

"Mr. Dumbledore," rasped a voice that was too cultured to be one of Grindelwald's pet torturers. I looked up at the source. The balding head identified my fellow-prisoner.

"Hyperion!" I exclaimed. "Shouldn't you be outside?"

He dusted himself off as best as he could and glared at me. "Precisely what do you mean?"

"Shouldn't you be casting curses at me, instead of being cast upon?" I asked.

"I have been imprisoned for a while," he sniffed, sounding very put-upon. "I had been treated respectably, however, apart from being required to sign bank-notes to fund their campaigns as the price for my continued existence. Now that I am interred in this cell with you, I rate that my chances of survival have been markedly reduced."

"You have been paying them to conduct bloody murder so that you can stay alive."

"I have a son," he said tersely. "There is a great deal of money. There are great numbers of Wizarding populace. However, I have only one son."

I fell silent at that. Elphias had loathed Hyperion Malfoy, and had called him a heartless Jew on more than one occasion. Jews were a tightly knit bunch, and Hyperion Malfoy cared deeply for his son.

"I would not worry," Hyperion said. "Your cousin has the Ministry behind him. You will be reunited with your family soon enough, unless the Dark Lord kills you before that."

I lifted my eyebrows at that. Hyperion fell silent, staying in his corner of the cell. I drifted asleep, and my dreams held refrains of Tom's Hallelujah.

"My, my, if it isn't the second coming of Albus Dumbledore himself!" a voice mocked, when our breakfast trays were nudged in. Hyperion held himself still, as if worried he might attract attention.

"Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to?" I asked, irritably. It was too early in the morning to be mocked by one's discourteous jailers. It was cold, I worried for Tom, they had not brought tea with the breakfast, and I ached to hold my mother's wand between my fingers.

"István," the man growled. He came forward. I dimly recollected him as the leader of the group that had ambushed Tom and I after our venture to West End. I had dealt him a cruel beating in that duel. That had been satisfying.

"We have met before," I remarked, enjoying the little pleasures a prisoner's life afforded me. He growled again, and cast a Cruciatus.

"The Dark Lord doesn't care as long as you don't die until he gets back, you Muggle-loving pig!" he growled, as the pain overwhelmed me.

I woke to a pair of disapproving blue eyes. Hyperion Malfoy made for a more disgruntled nurse than Abe, as he slowly helped me rise and gulp down water.

"You should cease provoking István," Hyperion said. "He is a favourite of the Dark Lord and has a great deal of leeway."

"He warms Grindelwald's bed, you mean," I said darkly, remembering how this man had boasted that fact in the dark alley during the ambush.

"I wouldn't know about that," Hyperion muttered, clearly uncomfortable with the bluntness. "He is the Dark Lord's brother-in-law."

Oh, yes, Grindelwald had taken a young Hungarian girl as a bride. Siring sons on Hungarian women was after all the height of patriotic sentiment. We heard raucous cries then, clearly jubilant.

I rose to my feet, frightened for Abe and the boy. Surely Castle Albus could not have made a mistake? Surely Amelia, ever resourceful, would have pulled yet another ace and driven Grindelwald back? Music, triumphant and exalting, rose throughout the barracks. I frowned. I could not place the tune. It sounded akin to the Russian song, Polyushka Polye. It sent a shiver of premonition down my spine. That song had boded no good.

"It is a defeat," Hyperion said, smirking wanly. "They play triumphant music when they are losing, to muster spirits. Grindelwald then gives fiery speeches. They go out to the next battle inspired and fight recklessly."

I looked at the man for reassurance. He shrugged and said, "I am reasonably certain. I have been here for a while."

"How long do you expect to be here?" I asked him, curious about his seeming acceptance of this fate.

"As long as it is necessary to keep my son safe from the Ministry and the Dark Lord both," he said sharply. "I have money. As long as I possess my fortune, my son will be a potential target for both the factions. If I buy the Dark Lord, I can be assured of the boy's safety. If I buy the Ministry, I cannot be assured of that."

"Albus-" I began.

"Albus Dumbledore would take me. He would also write off my son's abduction, grisly torture, and charred remains as collateral damage while fighting for the Greater Good. Would you trust your boy's safety in his keeping?"

I did not reply. I trusted Abe to be watchful. I trusted Amelia's integrity. I trusted Tom's finely-honed sense of self-preservation. I trusted Castle Albus to be broken and brilliant, and to save many at the expense of a few.

"Do you expect to survive?" I asked him.

He shook his head and said tiredly, "No. Once I tracked down Tom Riddle's connection to my brother-in-law, and the Squib's connection to Grindelwald, I knew that I was living on borrowed time. I have made provisions for Abraxas to be raised by the Rosiers. My sister, Ella Rosier, will gladly take in my child. What about your boy?"

I blinked. Then I realised what he was asking. With the certainty born of meddling with Time Turners, I told him, "I am not dying here."

I had come for Tom. Grindelwald was not my cross to bear, not in this timeline. It had taken time to understand that, but Abe was right. I closed my eyes, sought for escape, and probed the wards. Ah, very intricate. My magic curled around the dark bars holding us in, seeking, questing and finding weaknesses. Interesting. Grindelwald's magic was muted and faint, as if the man had not been here in the last two days. Very interesting. The wards, then, were the only obstacle.

"They are blood wards," I said quietly. Very blunt wards. The passage required a human sacrifice. Now it made sense why Hyperion Malfoy had been thrown in here. Only one could pass, and only one need die. I saw no point in apprising the man of the fact, though I would have to be wary in case he attempted to off me in a gory manner to effect his escape.

He chuckled bleakly, saying, "I am not capable of wandless magic. I would not make far even if I killed you."

"Crucio!" shouted István, merely because he could. Irritably, I curled my magic to defend myself. I despised the Cruciatus, and did not care to be left senile by repeated use of such a blunt instrument while I was still in the flush of my prime.

"No technique," I muttered, casting with force enough to knock the pesky man off his feet and send him hurling into the walls. The other soldiers took hasty steps away.

"You had best open the doors," I advised them. "I can do more, and I promise you that you will not find any of it pleasing."

They did not humour my request. Why did they have to make it so difficult? I cast again, and blazing red light blinded them for five minutes, during which they panicked and cast blindly in all directions. Then one of them came gingerly forward and opened the gates of the cell. I thanked him, turned to Hyperion Malfoy, and said brightly, "After you, my good sir."

He followed me, as if in a daze. He did exhibit presence of mind enough to steal a wand from one of the soldiers, use that to Summon the wands of all the others, and burn them in a blazing fire. His attention to detail reminded me of Severus. I smiled and walked on, unerringly, in the direction that my magic beckoned me to.

Abe would be displeased when he saw the state of my best Sunday clothes.

I sent tendrils of magic forward, to anticipate pesky defenders if any arose. Nothing turned up. Nothing. Not a glimpse of stagnant magic. I halted. Hyperion sighed and cast Lumos.

"Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed.

He had a right to exclaim. For around us were corpses of the damned that had not met Grindelwald's vision of purity. There were tens of them in every direction. Yet, there was something that did not feel right.

"Incendio!" Hyperion screamed, as the first of the Inferi rose. He had clearly seen and dealt with Inferi before, I absently noted, as I followed suit and began casting.

It felled the first one, but hundreds rose behind the fallen. The creatures were implacable. We began casting, but Hyperion did not know what I did. I had feared the Inferi. I had confided so to Grindelwald after a tryst in Bathilda's attic so many years ago. He had remembered. If I had had my old wand, the Elder Wand, this situation would not have fazed me, for the wand was powerful enough to subdue most creatures of the night effortlessly. Now, however, I stood in a cavern, encircled by Inferi, casting fire curses as best as I could, aided by Hyperion's rapid casting - for a pair of men who had never duelled together before, we made a remarkably efficient team - and yet, we were outnumbered badly, and we were mortals who tired.

I felt strains of Necromancy in the air. Grindelwald had returned, then, and was raising more of them.

"Letting corpses do your dirty work now?" I yelled, encircling Hyperion and I in a ring of fire.

I felt unfamiliar magic melding with mine, drawing magic and blood both from me, and I realised that Hyperion was adding a blood ward to the enchantment I had cast. Dark magic, but pardonable given the circumstances. Having Grindelwald rip through the circle of fire boded no good for our chances of survival. A blood ward was a convenient way to keep the barrier up.

"You can stay there," I heard Grindelwald yell. "The Inferi don't tire. And blood wards won't keep me out for long, Albus. I have your blood. My mages were thorough in their harvesting of blood, hair and other assorted material."

Hyperion Malfoy cursed and looked at me accusatorially. Then he blinked, and asked, "Why did he call you Albus?"

"He is obsessed with Albus," I muttered, not wishing to go down that road, trying to estimate how long we had until the ward was broken. Roughly fifteen minutes, I supposed, given Grindelwald's aptitude and my strength. The Inferi constituted a bigger obstacle. Grindelwald would toy with me and give me time to devise plans. The Inferi were mindless and would not grant me a minute as soon as the circle of fire broke.

"Expelliarmus!" yelled a familiar voice.

"Moody," Hyperion said, with little confidence. "Do they really teach Aurors to Disarm Dark Lords?"

Fire rained down from above, I smelled Castle Albus's magic sharp in the fire, and Hyperion quickly cast a Shield to spare us the storm. The Inferi retreated. I rapidly brought my shield, shoved Malfoy down to the ground out of the way, and cast at Grindelwald. He parried back. We were very close. He had been standing right outside the barrier of fire. Now we fought, under a sky of fire, circling each other as we once had at the Danube, over corpses of his victims yet again. His reinforcements were here, and I could see Castle Albus and the Aurors battling them, all astride broomsticks.


I decided that I detested the Curse, as I fell to my knees in pain. That had been a Cruciatus thrown with true rage and the desire for cruelty. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Caster. István. He was running towards us, and had set loose the Killing Curse flying at Malfoy. Hyperion, nimble for his age when it was necessary to evade curses, rolled out of the way.


This was not István's curse. This was Grindelwald's. Old wounds rose in me, searing me with the pain of betrayal, searing with the awareness that this curse would have worked only if he had hated me. For a single wretched moment, I murmured a prayer of gratitude that it was I and not Castle Albus felled by the curse.


This was not Grindelwald's curse. Hyperion rushed to me and hauled me away from István's next curse. I leaned on him heavily and looked aghast at the boy who stood between Grindelwald and me. Everything coalesced to that moment, every single wretched moment since I had touched that damned Time-Turner, and I rushed forward, heedless of the pain of the lingering curse, trying to get the boy away before Grindelwald cast.

Grindelwald did not cast. He was breathing sharply, clutching his wand tight, and his eyes were narrowed in pain. Tom's Cruciatus had not worked, but it had had the most minor of side-effects. Tom stood, his wand drawn, calm and patient, waiting for Grindelwald to cast. His clothes were slightly burnt, as was his hair, but he looked unruffled by all of that.

"Half-blood fuck-toy," Grindelwald whispered, eyes dark and blazing with anger. "Fucking Albus now, aren't you?"

Tom did not move. I did. I cast, fast and full of rage, any lingering memory of that summer's tryst completely broken by the words Grindelwald had spoken ere moments ago. Hyperion moved towards Tom, shielding him from the debris caused by the firestorm and the curses of István.

"Does he beg you?" Grindelwald asked me, as we danced with our songs of spell-light mad. "Does he beg you to do anything, as long as you keep giving him books and teach him to read? He fucks so well, doesn't he?"

Rage broke my shield, and Grindelwald aimed true, casting a Disarming spell to strike my mother's wand away from me. His wand was dark and smelled of the oldest of wood. The Elder Wand. I cast again, wandlessly, but the Elder Wand had scented victory and quickly cut me down. Bleeding, enraged, and in pain, I cast again. Castle Albus seemed to have his hands full with the Inferi that had risen again. Hyperion was trying to hold István back.

"I will take the boy after I kill you, Albus," Grindelwald said quietly. "He is good for many things."

"He is good for many things," Tom said clearly then, and his yew wand sung a cutting spell for the first time. Grindelwald's right leg was loped cleanly off at the hip. He fell in agony. The Elder Wand parried, and Tom's yew wand flew out of his hands.

"Avada Kedarva!" Grindelwald cried out, but I Summoned an Inferius to block the Curse.

Hyperion Malfoy screamed and fell, István came running towards us, casting a Cruciatus at me with deadly precision and intent. I blocked and parried with a powerful Stunner, but he leapt out of the way and cast again. Inferi bore down upon me then, and I saw Castle Albus's fire failing him, as his casting weakened after the prolonged effort he had put in. He was fighting his way towards us, cutting swathes of fire through the Inferi. I had to aid him, keep István engaged, and defend the boy against the Elder Wand all at once.

"You are bonnier than you were the last I saw you," Grindelwald said, gritting his teeth as he used the Elder Wand to conjure himself a metallic crutch. He managed to stand upright, though his face was drawn white with pain.

"You are a leg short than you were the last I saw you," Tom said calmly, and his magic soared through the air, cutting cleanly again, chopping off Grindelwald's other leg. "I apologise. I meant to say that you are two legs short."

The man toppled, metal crutch failing. The Elder Wand sent a Killing Curse, but I Summoned Tom to me. He flew into my arms, and I thrust him behind me. I turned to face Grindelwald, who had turned waxen in pain. My heart, treacherous beast that it was, went to him, but it heeded a stronger call - the call to protect this boy of mine. Was this what Lily Potter had felt?

István cast a Killing Curse, and then a Cruciatus, in succession. I pushed Tom out of the way of the Killing Curse, but he took the Cruciatus in the chest and fell screaming to the ground. Visceral rage soared in my blood and I saw a flash of spell-light, and István screaming, and then my world resounded with Tom's wretched sobs as his young body reeled under the torture.

"Hush! Hush!" I begged him, drawing him to me, cradling his head in my lap, my tears bright drops on his cheeks, imploring him to be fine. He shuddered and trembled, and I saw a flash of green light. I waited, curled around Tom's body. At least, I would die holding my boy.

"Crucio!" I heard Abe's voice. "You aren't touching either of them again!"

The Elder Wand's parry shattered Abe's wand and he went flying into the Inferi. I heard Amelia's yell of rage and the blaze of fire that encircled Abe to keep him safe from the creatures.

Grindelwald cast again, but Castle Albus stood between us now, holding him off, even though he was tired and weakened after his long battle with the Inferi that he had finally subdued.

Tom strove to rise. It calmed me to see him lucid. I helped him up and glared at him. He looked unsubdued and glared back at me. I sighed. He sighed too, and extended his hand. The yew wand flew back to his hand. I cast a shield of protection on him, the strongest I could.

"Crucio!" the Elder Wand cast, and Castle Albus danced away.

Tom began Conjuring great blue beds to cushion the Aurors that fell off their broomsticks in the heated battle above us. That was very obliging of him. I revived Hyperion Malfoy. His bald head was bleeding badly. He did muster the strength to steal another wand and keep an eye on Tom. This man was a highly useful acquaintance, I decided, and turned back to Castle Albus. He was holding his own against Grindelwald very well.

Green light flashed again, from the tip of the Elder Wand, and Castle Albus swerved out of its way. I screamed a warning. And watched futilely as Amelia pushed Abe out of its way and then fell gracelessly backwards into his arms as a puppet with its strings cut off.

Abe cast his first Killing Curse.

"He is not gone," Castle Albus told me bleakly.

"I know."

I had felt it. I had felt the noxious magic of a Horcrux being crafted by Amelia's death.

"Abe shan't forgive me," he continued.

We were waiting outside the Janus Thickey ward together. Tom sat across us, subdued and withdrawn, nose in a notebook as he scribbled something.

"Mr. Dumbledore, if you please," the Medi-witch said, bustling her way towards Castle Albus. He wheedled his way into gaining Tom and I entry. Together, we entered the ward. Abe looked frail and small, against the blue sheets of the hospital. His eyes were rid and his beard was white. It had taken two months for him to snap out of the madness induced by her death.

"You did not let me say goodbye to her," were his first words.

St. Mungo's had decreed him unstable to attend the funeral. Castle Albus and I stood there, mute.

Tom said, "She wasn't there. There was only a corpse."

Abe laughed hollowly, hysterically, and then began weeping.

"Besides," Tom said, "you told her goodbye in the best possible way when you killed him."

Abe wept harder. I wept too, later that night, thinking of Amelia and Abe, and of how futile the sacrifice had been. I suspected that Castle Albus too might have wept. Abe stayed in the living room, and Tom played for him Clair de Lune until Abe dozed off. I gently tucked a blanket around his thin form and then drew the boy away. His fingers were red and swollen - he had played for hours.

"She wouldn't have been there if I hadn't followed Castle Albus to Grindelwald's camp," Tom said quietly.

"She was a trained soldier," I told him. "She would have been in the war."

"She wouldn't have died," he said bleakly, twirling his yew wand fast in his hand.

The yew wand. I remembered his cutting curses, and how precise they had been. I would have to speak with him regarding that. I had no notion of how to do so. Should I chastise him severely? Should I sit him down and explain? What was there to be done? I missed Abe's practicality. I missed Amelia's practicality.

"She loved Abe and that had nothing to do with you," I told the boy, patting his shoulder. He sighed and leaned in.

"I snuck in because of you," he said plainly. "It was foolish but I worried."

We were an odd pair, fosterer and fostered. I sighed and remarked, "I ended up there because he threatened to kill little boys who reminded me of you."

"Why didn't you cast the Killing Curse?" Tom asked.

"It shatters your soul."

"It is better than being dead."

Abe woke up then, screaming a dead woman's name. Tom's shoulders, bony again, shook with tension, and he walked back into the house. I walked until dawn, listening to Tom playing Handel's Messiah for Abe. His voice was weak by the dawn, and his playing slow, but when he sung the Hallelujah Chorus, I wept.