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crawlersout

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A F F E L A Y E | S E R I E S 
 
  
 
crawlersout 
 
  
 
The day Tom Riddle meets Harry Potter is miserable and cold. 
 
  
 
In the distance are indeterminable figures wandering in the fog, as if the streets were filled with ghosts tonight. Something swells in the humidity like lament or regret. 
 
  
 
No one spares a glance towards the little orphan crouched low upon the store stoop. He is very hungry, but the meager change he has scrounged together from thieving and scavenging are not enough for even a loaf of bread. The thought of having to return to the orphanage is ominous; they will not be pleased once they inevitably discover his disappearance, and worse still he has nothing to show for it. 
 
  
 
“Care to share?” 
 
  
 
He looks up quite suddenly, caught unawares. 
 
  
 
An almost unremarkable girl leans over him, holding out a large and overflowing sandwich. He’s never seen anything quite like it, but it smells like everything he’s ever wanted to taste. 
 
  
 
He draws closer, before recoiling, fixating his narrowed gaze on the girl in front of him. 
 
  
 
She is a ways older than him, but not old enough to be considered an adult. She wears a small and sad smile, and it clings to her soft lips like it’s been there for some time. He was perhaps remiss in his prior observation, as the muted gray cap atop her head has slid to the side, revealing the most magnificent, luminous hair he’s ever seen. It glows like fire in an otherwise indistinct world, as do her eyes, which are a very striking color of green he can’t quite categorize. 
 
  
 
His gaze flitters back to the sandwich, hesitant. 
 
  
 
When her expression doesn’t change, he moves for it tentatively. 
 
  
 
The paper wrapping is soft and crinkles in his hands as he stares down. It is the both the biggest piece of bread and the most condiments he’s ever seen. The food at the orphanage is bland and tasteless, with neither significant color nor texture. 
 
  
 
She sits next to him as he devours his food; his hands are clasped tightly against the bread, as if unwilling to ever let it go. She does not make any move to take it back from him, not even as he polishes it off—she stares off into the murky distance as if something of great interest lies across the fog; her umbrella sways listlessly above them both. 
 
  
 
“I’m Harry, by the way,” She whispers, soft and secretive. 
 
  
 
Tom blinks at her, cautious once more. 
 
  
 
“I’m Tom,” He says, at great length. “Tom Riddle.” He adds, almost impulsively. As if he wants everyone in the world to know that he does, indeed, have a surname. 
 
  
 
Something grows regretful in her eyes. She smiles anyway. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Tom Riddle.” 
 
  
 
// 
 
  
 
He waits impatiently by the gates, grasping at the rusting iron with a restless unease. The metal is cool and smooth against his cheek when he leans upon it, fissiparous attention fixated wholly on the world outside the orphanage. His grip tightens intermittently, loosening at equally arbitrary moments. 
 
  
 
As if lying in wait. 
 
  
 
Tom Riddle does this everyday, much to the congruent confusion of his caretakers; for there never appears to be any reason for him to stand at the entrance so enthusiastically, when almost everyday no one passes through. Alas, perhaps it is not all that strange. He is an orphan: perhaps he waits for a father, a mother, some far flung relative that will never come. The orphanage staff know that there is little hope for a boy his age; both in adoption and in parental guidance. That boy’s parents are long gone. 
 
  
 
Tom Riddle ignores them, even though he can feel their eyes upon his back. 
 
  
 
The street beyond the orphanage is devoid of life; a still image of cropped bushes and withering trees. 
 
  
 
He turns around slightly, looking over towards the narrow, saturnine entrance. The foolish bats are gone. 
 
  
 
He turns back around: 
 
  
 
the wind rushes past him, all at once, and when he opens his eyes Harry is there, staring down upon him contemplatively. It is as if she wanders in and out of the ether, appearing out of thin air and always departing just as quietly. He never bothers to wonder how that is; his excitement always overwhelms him at the sight of her. 
 
  
 
“Harry,” he says, stupidly, suddenly unable to remember all he wanted to tell the girl, all the words and thoughts he had carefully constructed in his head, in the still moments of the night. 
 
  
 
“Tom,” Harry returns, smiling indulgently. “How are you?” 
 
  
 
“Fine,” replies Tom, fast and excited, as if he’s been waiting to see her all day, or all month, as it were. “Harry, Harry, I have to show you something!” 
 
  
 
“Show me what?” Her voice is warm and delighted; he likes the fondness that sifts between her words—a fondness for him. 
 
  
 
He takes her by the hand and drags her into the orphanage’s yard, compelled by an incipient urge to keep her close, refuse to let her go. 
 
  
 
They kneel in the shade of a large oak, far from the wandering eyes of the caretakers. Tom does not know what their reaction to Harry would be: he does not want to find out. He sits so that she is obscured from sight by the width of the tree, and then he calls to the bushes beyond. 
 
  
 
“Come to me,” He says, directing his gaze to the forest outside of the orphanage’s yard. 
 
  
 
Heading his command a young snake obligingly shifts through the grass, maundering towards them. 
 
  
 
Tom lifts it without any hesitation, even though he’s fairly sure it’s a poisonous breed. 
 
  
 
“Look!” He cries, as if she could possibly have missed the spectacle. “It’s a snake! It came to me!” 
 
  
 
“It did,” Harry surmises, the advent of a tumultuous expression migrating onto her face. 
 
  
 
His enthusiasm dwindles at the sight. It is gone just as quickly as it came; the viridity in her eyes lights up once more—an unending effervescence he’s sure he’ll never tire of. 
 
  
 
“That’s amazing,” She whispers, and holds her hand out to the snake. It flicks its tongue into the space between her fingers, before it winds itself around her hand. 
 
  
 
“Can she speak the language of the snakes?” The serpent directs towards Tom. 
 
  
 
But before Tom can answer: “I do,” Harry replies, holding the serpent at eye’s length. “My name is Harry—how do you do?” 
 
  
 
“I am well, thanks.” And then it wraps down her arm, to her shoulder, and then onto the ground once more. 
 
  
 
Tom gapes at her. “You can speak to snakes too?” His eyes are large and excited. 
 
  
 
Harry nods. 
 
  
 
“How?” He presses, leaning closer. “Why can we speak to snakes, when no one else can? What does it mean?” 
 
  
 
This is the day everything changes. 
 
  
 
The leaves drift elaborate patterns over her face, separating the parts from the whole. The flutter of her lashes, a long swoop of glowing chrome hair, the slight tilt to her mouth and the consuming green of her eyes. She leans close; her long hair falls upon his shoulder. He is looking up at her with big, wide eyes. The snake lays almost forgotten. 
 
  
 
Harry takes a breath. “Well, that’s the thing, Tom,” lithe fingers move to brush stray hair from his eyes; a movement so caring and affectionate it startles him, “Me and you, we’re—different.” 
 
  
 
“Different,” he repeats, something anticipatory rising in his chest. 
 
  
 
“You’re a wizard, Tom.” She says, taking the very breath out of his lungs, the beating of his heart, the thoughts from his head. 
 
  
 
“It’s magic,” she whispers, low and quiet, like a secret, “what we do… all the strange things that happen around you, it’s— 
 
  
 
“Magic,” he sucks in a breath, a wide, splitting grin overtaking his face; perhaps the most risible expression he’s ever had. 
 
  
 
That’s what it is. 
 
  
 
Magic. 
 
  
 
// 
 
  
 
Tom is eight, mutinous, and staring determinably out into the monochrome of London. He was seven just yesterday, and eight doesn’t really feel all that different. 
 
  
 
The orphanage staff hasn’t found him yet, though he doesn’t think they’re looking very hard, if at all. It is bitter cold on the roof, even huddled against a jutting alcove. At least there isn’t snow. 
 
  
 
It’s the only place he has that no one else can take from him. He is very careful to never let anyone see him come and go—to find the secret passageways out the window and across the ledge. He likes his solitude, normally. He prefers it over the incessant and insipid children that reside in this building with him. But that’s not true any longer. He prefers his solitude—but there is something else that he prefers even more. 
 
  
 
He is not disappointed. 
 
  
 
A cold brush of gelid wind tingles against his nose, and he huddles closer into his jacket, wishing for a pair of gloves. 
 
  
 
They fall into his lap. 
 
  
 
He jolts as something slides next to him. 
 
  
 
“Hello,” Harry is so very warm as she settles in beside him, staring sweetly off into the distance, as if she can see something breath-taking that he cannot. 
 
  
 
She brings her full attention towards him, and his heart skips a beat in excitement. He never wants her to look at anyone like this—he doesn’t want anyone else to have the complete consideration of her bright, green glass eyes. She drapes a thick, soft wool blanket over his shoulders, and he cups the gloves in his hands. 
 
  
 
She frowns decidedly at him. “You need a hat too. Perhaps a scarf.” 
 
  
 
He doesn’t like anyone telling him what to do, mollycoddling even less, but Harry’s concern only elicits a pleasant thrill in his chest. 
 
  
 
“I’m fine,” he disagrees. And he is. Right now, in this moment, everything is fine. 
 
  
 
She gives him a disbelieving look, before shaking her head. With more warmth than he could ever imagine, she draws close to him, touching his cheek lightly as she presses a kiss into his hair. 
 
  
 
“Happy birthday,” she smiles, and though he cannot see it he can feel it, just at his temple. 
 
  
 
No one has ever told him this. No one has ever celebrated this day, and he never saw the reason to do so. What was the point, when there was nothing to celebrate and no one to celebrate with? 
 
  
 
He clings tighter to her, refusing to let her go just yet. He is a collector of fine things, and she is the finest thing he has ever laid eyes upon. Far better than the trinkets and toys that he so easily swipes from the other orphans. 
 
  
 
“Thank you,” he says, but it is almost lost in the wind. 
 
  
 
She makes a move to pull away, but he doesn’t let her. He doesn’t look up, fixated upon the scarf tucked into her strange jacket; gold and red. Mistral wind licks at the ends of her hair; a diffluence drifting around them, ethereal. 
 
  
 
She stills for a moment, beneath his shivering fingers, before she pulls him even closer. He shifts, and suddenly he’s curled up in her lap, and everything is warm and lovely and wonderful, and when he tucks his nose into the crook of her neck it’s as if there is not a world outside of this; smell, sight, sound—they are all swallowed by her presence. 
 
  
 
“Oh, Tom,” she murmurs, and it so sorrowful, so full of regret. 
 
  
 
A wounded noise escapes his lips, and he feels a burn in the back of his nose. 
 
  
 
Has he not dreamt of this for so long? The gentle, soothing touch of comfort when he needed it most, the quiet reassurance of a hand smoothing down his hair, the murmur of warm breath to drift him off to sleep. His fingers grasp ineffectually at her scarf. Don’t leave, he wants to say. Don’t leave me. 
 
  
 
Harry is not his mother, and he doesn’t think of her as one. She is his friend, his one and only, the indubitable center of gravity to his universe. But he sleeps in her arms that day as if she was, lulled into ambulant dreams by the soft beating of her heart. 
 
  
 
“One more year,” he thinks he hears her say. “Just one more year, Tom.” 
 
  
 
// 
 
  
 
He perhaps could have imagined it. He fears greatly in putting hope into a fallacy, and he cannot think of anything more painful than this. Hope is such a fickle, cruel thing. It tugs at his heart when he determinably refuses to let it; he reaches desperately for it when the world is dark and somber. He holds the blanket closer to him, breathing deeply, as if he could still find the lingering scent of her hair in the soft wool. 
 
  
 
In the quiet hours of gloaming he picks at the edges of it, brushing imaginary lint off the checkered fabric. 
 
  
 
He is mistrustful by nature and incidence; yet he holds such unwavering faith. She’ll come back. It’s been months—but she’ll come back. 
 
  
 
When he needs her most, she’ll be there. 
 
  
 

 
  
 
His faith is not misplaced. 
 
  
 
He sits, huddled by the wall in the cold dank of the attic, nothing but cobwebs to keep him company. The wind moves about the room ominously, a prowling groan elicits from the floorboards. He scrunches in on himself even more, tucked away into the corner. He has no food and no light, and he doesn’t know when he will have either of those again. Will they lock him up here forever? The other boys deserved their lot, anyhow. They taunt him, call him a baby for clinging so fiercely to his blanket, tell him he’s imagining things, that he’s worthless and no one will ever come for him. They’re wrong, he wants to shout. Someone will come for him. 
 
  
 
He has to believe in that, because he has nothing else to believe in. 
 
  
 
Another gust of air; it is an unusually cold March. Spring seems an eternity away, and the bitter embrace of winter holds fast upon the land, the orphanage, the corners of the room. He shivers, and is suddenly seized with a violent need for his blanket. He always looked down upon the other orphans who adhered to an object of comfort; a stuffed doll, bunny rabbit, pillow. It’s not so much the object as what the object represents. 
 
  
 
There is a loud and horrible bang as the wind slams shut a door, far on the other side of the abyss. He jumps, crawling until he is pressed completely into the corner, hiding with the spiders. It howls, suddenly, and the whole orphanage seems to creak and groan at the force. He wants to be anywhere but here. 
 
  
 
“If you’re scared,” her voice is a breath of warmth against him, “close your eyes.” 
 
  
 
When he opens them there is a little light suspended in the air before him. With wide, enchanted eyes he reaches a hand out to touch it. His fingertips meet no resistance, yet the ball of brightness continues to cast a soft glow about the room. He doesn’t need to see her to know she’s there. As if a part of him intrinsically feels her presence when it shimmers in the air; matter and energy emerging from time and space. 
 
  
 
“Harry,” he gasps, disbelieving, looking up and catching the quiet green of her eyes. 
 
  
 
“Harry,” he cries again, tearing out of his hiding place and ignoring the light for a greater source of comfort. 
 
  
 
Her hands rest upon his shaking form; he wants to live forever in the small spaces beneath her neck, the little dips of her collar, the hollow of her throat. 
 
  
 
“It’s okay,” she murmurs into his hair. “Everything’s okay.” 
 
  
 
Nothing is okay, but the feeling of her around him is enough for him to forget that. 
 
  
 
Something soft unfurls beneath them, and then Harry is pulling him down onto a downy blanket, until they lay upon it, face to face. He nudges closer, nosing back into her. Her breath is soft against his temple, and he feels the trembling leave him, the fear leaving him in one fell swoop, one shaky exhale. Her hand plays with the ends of his hair; the absent petting is perhaps what he enjoys the most, because it is so thoughtless. As if the touch is so natural that Harry does not even think upon it. 
 
  
 
“Go to sleep, Tom,” she whispers. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” 
 
  
 
Not anymore. All his cloying fears have dispersed into the quiet spaces of his mind; they will wander their way out, he knows, but for now there is nothing that scares him. Not with Harry beside him, protecting him from the world. 
 
  
 
Well, not quite all his fears. 
 
  
 
“Harry,” he stirs, peering up at her with frightened eyes. “Will you stay?” His hands fist into the material of her shirt. 
 
  
 
She smiles down upon him, brushing stray bangs out of his eyes. “I’ll be here when you wake up,” she promises, without really answering. 
 
  
 
But it’s enough. 
 
  
 
True to her word, Harry is still beside him when he finally stirs from his peaceful sleep. He is still tightly curled against her, nestled in under the cloth of her jacket, warm and unwilling to face a world outside of this diminutive little universe. The watery morning light casts upon her with great affection, gold bleeding down her face and the curve of her neck. Her hair is lit like golden fire. Her hand draws up to his cheek, as if rubbing a smudge of dirt away. He leans into it, so starved for a soft touch. 
 
  
 
He yawns, pawing sleepily at his eyes. Her hand drifts away, and even though he is tucked against her he feels cold with the loss. 
 
  
 
They are silent for some time, as night wanders into day, and Tom wanders out of his dreams. He fiddles with a lock of her burning hair, emerging back into the world. 
 
  
 
“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” he says, sudden and abrupt. “I—he… I was just so angry, I don’t know what happened. I just wanted him to hurt just as bad and then—“ he swallows, unable to continue his confession. He doesn’t want Harry to turn away from him too; for Harry to think he’s abnormal, just like everyone else. 
 
  
 
She hums in understanding. 
 
  
 
“It’s perfectly normal,” she replies, to his complete surprise. Normal? “It happens to all of us, when we’re young. Accidental magic.” 
 
  
 
And then, leaning in close with a mischievous smile, “Once, I blew my Aunt up.” 
 
  
 
His eyes widen in utter fascination. “No way,” he marvels. 
 
  
 
Harry nods. “She made me so angry—I made her swell up like a balloon, and then she flew out the window! They had to rope her down so she wouldn’t float away.” 
 
  
 
Tom snickers, and then, as if uncontrollable, he begins to laugh in earnest. 
 
  
 
“But what happened to her?” He asks, breathless, one he’s wiped the laughter out of his eyes. 
 
  
 
“Oh, they got her down eventually.” Harry smirks. “But she never bothered me again.” 
 
  
 
“Wicked,” he smiles back, utterly charmed at the idea. Just what kind of things can be done with magic? 
 
  
 
The possibilities seem endless. He can talk to snakes, make things move when he’s very angry, make things hurt when he’s angry. And Harry—wanders in and out of space and time as a transient, peregrine existence. She conjures blankets and gloves and little bright lights without any apparent effort at all. 
 
  
 
The hand in his hair stills for a moment, and then she’s pulling him even closer, until she can brush a kiss to his forehead. 
 
  
 
“They’re coming for you,” she informs, and he feels like someone poured ice water down his back. 
 
  
 
He sits up wildly, “No!” Grasping her hand wildly, as if to keep her here forever. 
 
  
 
As Harry predicted, he can hear the shuffling of people just below the attic, lumbering up the stairs. He is seized by a violent terror he has never felt before; suddenly the idea of Harry leaving once more is utterly unbearable. He has always prided himself in being far more mature than his peers, but right now he wants to throw a temper tantrum at the very thought. She can’t leave. 
 
  
 
“Don’t leave me,” he turns stricken eyes towards her, feeling a horrible burn in the back of his throat. 
 
  
 
Her eyes are beautiful and bright and full of remorse. “Tom,” she murmurs, sitting up as well. 
 
  
 
He still shakes his head wildly, holding her tightly. “You can’t!” He cries, refusing to even think of it. 
 
  
 
“I have to,” she sighs, lament and regret forlorn upon her face. 
 
  
 
“But why?” He croaks out. “Why can’t you stay with me?” 
 
  
 
Harry looks upon him with such unguarded affection it’s almost enough to quell his terror. “I can’t, Tom,” she says. “Just wait a little longer.” 
 
  
 
The words still his hysteria; in it’s place is an unforgiving swell of hope. “But soon?” He presses. 
 
  
 
“Soon,” She agrees. 
 
  
 
A door bangs open. 
 
  
 
“Tom?” It’s one of the caretakers, plodding up from the trap door. “Tom! I do hope you’ve learned your lesson, young man.” 
 
  
 
When he turns back around, Harry is gone, taking with her the blanket, the light, and all the warmth in the world. 
 
  
 

 
  
 
It’s nearing his birthday again, but the idea of turning nine is far overshadowed by the idea of Harry coming to visit. She wouldn’t miss his birthday. She has to be coming soon. 
 
  
 
This is what he tells himself when he waits out at the front gates, wearing a meager coat and the gloves she gave for him, wrapped in her blanket. When it’s too cold, he lingers by the front windows, looking for her phosphorescent hair, her blinding, beautiful presence. She is the only thing worth thinking about in the vacant, hollowed world inside the orphanage gates. 
 
  
 
It’s so cold that he thinks his hands will stick to the iron wrought bars if he touched them; so cold that his breath freezes in his throat, his eyes burning with the wind. He should probably head back inside before he catches a cold, but he wants to stay out a little longer. He doesn’t want to have to return, seeing the sympathetic but exasperated looks of the caretakers as he once more comes in with nothing to show for his constant vigilance. 
 
  
 
“You really do need a hat,” 
 
  
 
His breath holds fast in his lungs as he sucks in an excited breath. Warm hands tug something over his hair, and when he looks up he sees Harry’s captivating eyes. 
 
  
 
“Harry!” He cries, throwing himself at her. 
 
  
 
She laughs a bit at his enthusiasm, but her arms find their way around him and then she’s picking him up, propping him on her hip as if he’s a small child. Well, he supposes he is a small child—perhaps not quite in age anymore but certainly in size. 
 
  
 
“Hello there, my little Tomcat,” she grins, as he wraps his arms around her neck. 
 
  
 
“You’re here, Harry,” he mumbles into her neck, feeling such relief and delight when he curls his hands around her and feels her tangible presence. She’s really here; he’s not dreaming this up once again. 
 
  
 
“I am,” she agrees, quiet. “I’m so sorry it took me so long, Tom.” 
 
  
 
He shakes his head. “It’s okay,” he replies. “You’re here now.” 
 
  
 
And then, with a naked fear tremulous  in his voice; “Are... are you going to stay?” 
 
  
 
Harry gently pulls his face away from its hiding spot in her neck, a tender expression drifting over her features as she says; “No, Tom.” 
 
  
 
He casts wide, stricken eyes upon her. His hands clench against her, involuntarily. 
 
  
 
“This time, you’re coming with me.” 
 
  
 
He looks at her with wonder and disbelief, wondering if perhaps he really is dreaming. It certainly seems like it; all his dreams follow this pattern in some way or another. Harry comes and stays, and then she whisks him away with her to live with her forever. But that’s just a dream—Harry is barely an adult herself, and he doesn’t know anything about her aside from the fact that she is the indomitable center of his world. 
 
  
 
“...really?” He asks, in a small voice. 
 
  
 
She frowns slightly. “That is, if you want to.” 
 
  
 
This is enough to break his shock—he throws his arms around her again, so abruptly that she stumbles a bit to keep her balance. “Yes,” he cries, into her hair. “Yes, yes, yes— 
 
  
 
He looks up in that moment, and sees the surprised and alarmed expressions of the orphanage staff over the curve of her shoulder. He grips her tighter, feeling a certain vindication in their surprise. One hand holds him fast against her, the other cradling his head. Harry turns around to catch his gaze, turning a pensive, unreadable look to the orphanage and its inhabitants. She turns away then, dismissive. 
 
  
 
“Did you need anything else?” She asks, quiet, pivoting back to the street outside the gates. 
 
  
 
He shakes his head fervently. There is nothing he holds in legitimate regard in that horrid place; except, perhaps for the blanket wrapped around him, but even that has lost its value in the face of its original owner. 
 
  
 
“Okay then,” she breathes, walking down the street. 
 
  
 
He can hear the shouts and furious movement from the caretakers, no doubt coming to drag him back. He doesn’t look up, resting his head against her shoulder. 
 
  
 
She turns, pausing behind a tree. 
 
  
 
And then, murmuring into his ear, “Close your eyes, Tom.” 
 
  
 
He does. 
 
  
 
// 
 
  
 
All the breath has left him in the face of this new and wondrous world, shimmering in an opalescent light as if from another universe entirely. Harry puts him down and they walk together up a charming brick front entranceway, leading up to an elegant brownstone of fine white embellishments and graceful silver. It sits shoulder to shoulder with more houses, each as pavonine as the next; they are all neatly lined upon a street split by a mall of grass—a small park where men in strange clothes jog along with their dogs, and women push strollers with small children, in bright colors and eye-catching patterns. The street itself is lined with automobiles like he’s never seen before; sleek and geometric, glimmering in the morning sun. 
 
  
 
Harry unlocks the door, beckoning him inside. 
 
  
 
Tom forgets about the outside once he enters the house; it is by far the most beautiful place he’s ever seen. He doesn’t think his imagination could ever make something so beautiful; dark wood floors, long breadths of glass that filter in a diffusive glow, graceful furniture of white and steel. It’s not particularly large, but it is far more spacious than it looked from the outside, and elicits a sense of tranquil equanimity in him. 
 
  
 
“Tom?” Harry crouches down to his level, frowning concernedly at him as one hand reaches up to feel his forehead. “Are you alright? Do you feel sick?” 
 
  
 
“No,” he answers faintly—but he does feel overwhelmed. 
 
  
 
Harry does not look convinced. “Why don’t we sit you down for a bit,” she suggests, leading him to a very comfortable looking alcove tucked against the curtains and bay windows. He sits himself on the white pillows, resting his head against the cool glass. The scenery outside has changed; a horse and buggy passes by them on a dirt path; there are no people out in the park in the lifeless winter, no dogs and strollers. 
 
  
 
He wonders if he had imagined all of that. 
 
  
 
He feels very out of sorts. 
 
  
 
“Harry,” he mumbles, as she watches him attentively. “I feel... funny.” 
 
  
 
“Funny how?” She presses. 
 
  
 
He shakes his head, unable to explain it. “Strange,” he attempts, feeble and dizzy. “And... fuzzy.” 
 
  
 
“Tom?” He hears her call out to him, worry prevalent in her lovely voice. But his eyes are slipping closed, and he cannot remember where he is after that, falling into darkness. 
 
  
 
He feels like he’s floating on something very soft. He’s unwilling to wake; he knows intrinsically that Harry is nearby, and her soothing presence holds him in a maundering sense of belonging and content. His bed has never felt so inviting and comfortable—his blanket, never so soft and his pillows never so fluffy. And when he cracks open his eyes ever so slightly to turn and roll over, he sees that his room is grand and opulent, isabelline and ivory and long panels of dark wood flooring. 
 
  
 
He sits up suddenly, blinking into a retrograde, flavescent light. 
 
  
 
He looks down; his checkered blanket is strewn over him, but everything else is foreign and new. The bed must be twice the size of his old one, and far more comfortable. The room is enormous, as adiaphorous and composed as the rest of the house. 
 
  
 
He blinks. 
 
  
 
The house. 
 
  
 
Harry’s house. 
 
  
 
He leaps out of the bed, grabbing his blanket as he bolts out of the room. The hallway is also as quiescent and majestic as the rest of the house; the whole thing is far too luxurious for someone like him—is he really going to live here? He finds the stairs and tumbles down them, searching for the owner of this fascinating place. He finds her by the open, steel kitchen. He’s never seen such clean, glimmering metal before, and he takes a moment to look longingly at the shine of them before he darts over towards the real object of his fascination. 
 
  
 
Harry is perched on a chair at a long table, looking as balletic and seraphic as the rest of the house; she slides in to this tranquil universe as if she was meant to be here. Her attention is engaged on a little metal square that sits upright. As he nears, he sees with curious eyes that one side is metal, but the other is bright and full of lights and letters. 
 
  
 
Harry closes the little box, turning towards him with an indulgent smile. 
 
  
 
“Hey Tomcat,” she greets, airy and light. “Are you hungry?” 
 
  
 
He hadn’t thought he was, but now faced with the proposition, he finds himself nodding fervently. 
 
  
 
She gestures towards one of the chairs, as she rises and moves towards the kitchen. “I’ll warn you now,” she cautions as she wanders around the great silver appliances, “I’m certainly no chef: I can make about five things.” 
 
  
 
He clamors onto one of the chairs, blinking wide eyes around his new world. “That’s alright,” he finds himself saying. 
 
  
 
And then, returning his attention to the girl ferreting about for a pan; “Harry...” but he has to pause, swallowing thickly. 
 
  
 
“Hmm?” Is her absent reply—she finds the pan, and shuts the cabinet with one of her feet as she leans up to grab something else from the cupboards. 
 
  
 
“Am I really...” his voice is small and fragile. “Going to stay with you?” 
 
  
 
Harry pauses, leaning up to grab a little bottle and then falling back onto the balls of her feet, a curious expression on her face. “Yes.” 
 
  
 
This stirs up some modicum of courage within him. “For—for forever?” 
 
  
 
She smiles at that. “Well forever is a very long time,” she points out, wryly, “but yes, for forever, if you want to.” 
 
  
 
He nods quickly. 
 
  
 
It stills feels as if this is all a dream; he cannot remember a time when he hadn’t wished for this, ever since he’d met this strange girl, who always wandered in and out of his life. But he couldn’t have imagined everything before him—the wonderful, most amazing house (and only house) he’d ever seen, and his Harry, puttering about the kitchen, humming under her breath. 
 
  
 
As he waits and looks around, a mouth-watering smell wafts in from the kitchen. He wants to get a better look at what she’s doing—he’s never seen anyone cook before, at least, not something of a strange soup-like substance that didn’t come out of a large pot—but is equally as curious at the table in front of him. It’s full of papers full of text he doesn’t understand, though it is in English. He looks longingly at the little metal square, wondering what would happen if he unfolded it. Would it light up in bright colors, like it did for Harry? Was it magic? 
 
  
 
His attention snaps away when something is set in front of him with a soft thud. It’s a toasted, lop-sided sandwich, looking out of place on the elegant cream-colored plate. 
 
  
 
“What is it?” He asks, hesitant. 
 
  
 
“A grilled cheese sandwich,” Harry answers, taking a bite of her own. She blinks, and then turns around. 
 
  
 
Two tall glasses of milk trot diligently towards her raised hand, much to his utter disbelief. They place themselves on the table, one near him and the other near her. 
 
  
 
It’s the best thing he’s ever taste—like butter and cheese and heaven. He tells her this, and an amused smile grows on her face. She says it’s super simple to make—she’ll show him, some time. 
 
  
 
“How do you feel about going out today?” She asks, after they’ve both polished off their sandwiches. And then, to his hesitant look, “We don’t have to; we could stay here today, too.” 
 
  
 
He bites his lip, debating. “Could we stay here?” He asks, at length. 
 
  
 
Harry returns this with an indulgent smile. “Of course.” 
 
  
 
So they do not leave the house, but Tom finds an adventure awaiting him anyway. Harry insists there isn’t much to see, but she is very much so wrong. He’s never seen anything like this—it is all so far removed from the orphanage he was used to. Everything looked regal and clean and... expensive. He wonders just how much money Harry has; she never talks about it, but the things in here alone probably cost a fortune, and that’s nothing to say of the house itself. There’s a small little yard in the back, parted by tall wooden fences of the other houses; there’s a deck with chairs, and a pond and fountain, though no water. 
 
  
 
Harry called it small, but he can’t imagine how she could think that in any sense of the word. It wasn’t huge, but it was the perfect size for both of them. He had his very own room, and his own bathroom, and Harry assured him that he could pick out his own furniture. He was bouncing with excitement at the very thought. He couldn’t see Harry’s room, for the door was closed, but the only other room on the second floor looked to be some kind of office, with great bookshelves full of texts he’d never seen before. 
 
  
 
He trots back down to the kitchen when she calls for him, and she’s pulling things out of boxes and putting them on plates. Amazing things—food he couldn’t ever have imagined. 
 
  
 
“What is it?” He asks, excited, climbing onto one of the stools around the counter for a better look. 
 
  
 
She throws him a bemused look, “Oh, it’s just takeout.” She says, finishing up both plates and throwing the boxes and paper bag away. 
 
  
 
Again, glasses and silverware and napkins all glide their way to the table, folding and placing themselves until the whole thing looks fit for kings. It’s some kind of fish on green leaves. He doesn’t like fish and he doesn’t like any kind of vegetable but it tastes so delicious he eats it all anyway. His favorite part though, is after they’d both finished, and Harry pulls something out of the fridge—his breath catches in his throat and his eyes grow wide. Ice cream. 
 
  
 
She laughs at his expression. “I knew it,” she smirks, slyly, putting the bowl down for him to devour it. “Every kid likes ice cream.” 
 
  
 
He doesn’t like being called a kid, but he cannot find a reason to complain when he takes his first bite; he’s never had ice cream before. It’s just as amazing as everyone says it is. 
 
  
 
“What flavor is it?” He looks down; he can’t tell from it’s pink color. 
 
  
 
“Strawberry,” she replies, smiling, as she scoops up some from her own bowl. “There’s a lot of different flavors; we’ll have to try them all until we find your favorite.” 
 
  
 
This sounds like the best idea he’s ever heard. 
 
  
 
// 
 
  
 
It’s growing dark when he settles in for bed, tucked underneath a soft, downy comforter. He keeps rubbing the material between his fingers, as if to remind himself that this bed, this room, this house—is real. Harry makes sure he’s comfortable and settled, even tucking the blankets around him. No one’s ever tucked him in before; not with such fondness as Harry, who brushes wayward hair from his face, and leans down to kiss his nose. 
 
  
 
“Are you sure you don’t want a light?” She asks, when she straightens up. 
 
  
 
Tom shakes his head mutinously; he is far too old for night lights. 
 
  
 
“Alright then,” Harry frowns, but doesn’t press the matter. “Well, I’m just down the hall if you need anything, okay?” 
 
  
 
“Okay,” he affirms, quiet, comfortable and warm in his sea of pillows and blankets. 
 
  
 
She smoothed a hand over his forehead, again. “Goodnight then, Tom.” 
 
  
 
“Night, Harry,” he mumbles, already feeling his eyes slip closed. It’s been a long and exhausting day. Not a bad one by any means, but the excitement has left him very sleepy. 
 
  
 
He drifts off then, lulled into alluring dreams. 
 
  
 
But even with his exhaustion, he stirs at some time in the night. The sleep leaves him as shadows dance over his bed, the floor, the walls. They’re just trees, he reminds himself. Just trees and wind. It’s not working all that well. This is Harry’s house, and Harry would never let anything happen to him. But this doesn’t disregard the fact that this bed is new and this room is new and everything feels foreign to him; in a way that’s mildly unsettling in the blackness of the night. He feels wary and out of sorts—and can’t find his way back to sleep. He pulls his blanket up to his nose, as if to comfort himself. He liked holding it; it reminded him of Harry, even when it’d been months since he’d last seen her, and the thought of her always gave him comfort. 
 
  
 
But as he lies there and breathes in the familiar scent of the fabric, he remembers that the person in question is here. Not in some far flung region his imagination can’t even conjure. She’s here—just down the hall. 
 
  
 
This is how he finds his feet dragging himself quietly down the hallway; blanket in both hands. The hallway seems infinitely longer than it had looked during the daytime; every small sound makes him jump. 
 
  
 
He runs quickly to her door, opening it hesitantly. 
 
  
 
When he peaks his head in he can’t see much of anything through the darkness; just small shifting parts illuminated by the speckled moonlight. 
 
  
 
“Harry?” He calls, fearful and unsteady. 
 
  
 
There’s a rustle of sheets and fabric. “Mmm?” And then he can see her form rising up off the bed, rubbing blearily at one eye. “Tom, is that you?” 
 
  
 
“Yes,” he replies in a small voice, shy and suddenly feeling very foolish. 
 
  
 
“What’s wrong, Tomcat?” 
 
  
 
He shifts nervously, unwilling to admit to being scared of the dark. It seems so silly when he thinks of it like that—he’s far too old to be scared of monsters under his bed. “I—“ he fidgets, “I just... “ 
 
  
 
She must read something in the silence between his words. “Did you have a bad dream?” 
 
  
 
He nods, even though that’s not quite true. He can’t remember whatever he dreamed, only what happened after. 
 
  
 
She makes a motion, beckoning him in. “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” 
 
  
 
He nods again, before tearing away from the door and towards her voice. Her hands catch him as he nears the bed, lifting him up onto it. 
 
  
 
It’s far too easy to relax into her embrace; all his fears seem foolish and flimsy when her arms are wrapped around him, all slipping away like water in his hands. She makes an indecipherable murmur, rolling to the side and pulling him with her. If he thought his new bed was comfortable, he clearly had never been in Harry’s. He’s not sure if it’s really just that much softer, or that it’s just that she’s so close to him. And when he noses into the sheets, he can smell the soft scent of her hair in the fabric; so very familiar and comforting. 
 
  
 
He’s out in a matter of moments.

 

Chapter Text

A F F E L A Y E | S E R I E S

 

crawlersout

 

// 2 //

 

Tom hasn’t spent a single night in his own bed.

 

Harry isn’t entirely sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, this isn’t all that surprising. She’s the only person that Tom genuinely cares for—not only that, but he has gone so long without any affection at all. So it didn’t surprise her that he latched so quickly and easily onto an object of comfort; or that his attention has moved to the actual source of comfort—her.

 

She was prepared for that. She was prepared for everything, actually. Perhaps he would be too old, too wary and too jaded to let anyone in. Or perhaps he was already in the makings of what he would be; manipulative and cunning and disturbed at the very idea of love, already so scorned and angry and disgusted by it because he never had any of his own.

 

Or maybe he wouldn’t be too wary and jaded. Maybe he would just be a little boy who doesn’t have anyone else in this world but himself.

 

She looks down upon his peaceful, sleeping form. One hand draws idly to smooth against his hair. He is not at all what she expected him to be. She’d expected a coldness, a deep-seated resentment that has already made roots. He was wary and distrustful of her in the beginning, and undoubtedly he is cold and callous towards others, but it took a surprisingly short amount of time for him to let her in. Harry isn’t sure if this is because he was still longing for comfort and affection and hadn’t yet learned to resent it, or if it is because they had once shared two parts of the same soul.

 

She supposes it doesn’t matter. But it makes her heart clench every time he turns his wide, fearful eyes towards her—as if he expects her to leave him. It reminds her that he really is just a boy, who is withdrawn and unhappy, and is still secretly wishing for attention; for affection, for love.

 

Something seizes in her chest again, and then she is leaning forward to place a kiss upon his forehead, holding him close.

 

the power the dark lord knows not

 

This will not come to pass.

 

He will know it—he will know love.

 

//

 

He wakes slowly and leisurely, blinking into the watery sunshine before he promptly decides he’d prefer to go back to sleep, and snuggles back into the warm nest of blankets he’s made. He cracks an eye open, just in case, to make sure Harry is still there. She is.

 

But she is not in bed. She is exiting her closet, dressed in fine clothes. She appears wary, concerned, and incredibly late.

 

“Good morning,” she smiles quickly at him, as she fastens a scintillating diamonds to her ear; he stares at it in wonder. He’s never seen anything so shiny and beautiful, except perhaps for the girl in front of him.

 

And he’s never seen anyone wear anything quite like this, but then, he’s never met anyone quite like Harry. It occurs to him then that no one looks this presentable to simply sit around in the house. Something uncomfortable grows in his stomach.

 

“Where are you going?” He frowns—pouting perhaps may be the better description.

 

“I’m going to—“ But then she falters slightly, as if something occurs to her. She pauses, before sitting on the bed beside him.

 

“I’m going to work, Tom.” She explains, running a hand through his hair. He sits up, still frowning at her.

 

He blinks, once, utterly confused. “Why?”

 

This startles a laugh from her. “Well—because I need to, silly.” She grins. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”

 

But girls don’t work, he wants to say. He is promptly reminded that Harry is not like other girls, or like anyone else at all.

 

“Oh,” is what comes out instead. “When will you be back?”

 

“In the afternoon,” she replies.

 

That’s a long time from now. His frown deepens.

 

Harry sighs. “I’m sorry, I wish I didn’t have to leave you for so long...” She looks at him, smiling quietly. “But you’re very mature, aren’t you? I know you can take care of yourself.”

 

Tom doesn’t know what to say to that.

 

He agrees; he is very mature. He’s always thought so. And it’s not as if he cannot be left to his own devices—for most of life thus far he has had no one to lean on but himself. He is not incapable of learning things on his own.

 

But he doesn’t want to voice this all aloud; he doesn’t want Harry to leave.

 

She leans in to give him a quick kiss to the forehead. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

That is not true at all.

 

“Harry,” he whines quietly, not okay whatsoever with the idea of her leaving for so long—not when he just found her.

 

But perhaps she had predicted this behavior, for she pulls something out of her drawer. It’s not that shiny little metal box; it is a thick and archaic tome. A book. He is unwillingly ensnared in his own curiosity, shuffling closer to get a better look. A very thick book indeed.

 

“What is it?” He whispers, unable to stop himself.

 

“Hogwarts: A History.” Harry answers. And then, to his unspoken question; “Hogwarts is a school—a magical school. You’ll be going there soon.”

 

He lights up at that. “I will?”

 

“Oh yes,” she nods. “Your name has been written down there probably since the day you were born. But this magical school doesn’t start until eleven years old.”

 

So two more years then. That’s not as disappointing as it normally would be, as Harry turns the book into his hands. He wonders what kind of knowledge he’ll find in here.

 

“There’s food in the fridge, okay?” She stands, turning to look at him with concern. Her concern is unfounded; he is already ensnared in his own little world.

 

//

 

Harry leaves every day promptly at eight-thirty in the morning, and returns just as punctually at five o’clock in the afternoon. Except for on Saturdays and Sundays—those days he has her all to himself.

 

It is Saturday today, and his first time actually leaving the walls of this lovely home. Harry is beside him, though, so he has nothing to be afraid of.

 

The world outside the big bay windows looks sunny and windy. He wonders absently if he’d dreamt what he’d seen before; the strange cars, and strange people, all the very tall buildings that peered over the hedges of houses. None of those are here now.

 

“You ready?” Harry looks down at him.

 

He nods.

 

Tom realizes they’re not in London anymore when they arrive at their first store, and he notices that everyone talks funny.

 

“Why does she say it like that?” Tom asks fervently, when the associate leaves them to shop alone.

 

Store might be too succinct a description; this is a sprawling, palatial building full of opulence and luxuries. Everything smells of money, including the people. It makes him very uncomfortable. Harry is leisurely settled on a velvet settee to his side, looking as if she belongs here, with all this majestic beauty, all the perfection.

 

“Say what, Tom?” She returns absently; she is inspecting a pair of shoes for him. They shine strikingly in the lighting. The store associate said it was top-quality leather.

 

“Everything,” he returns, drawing closer to her as his eyes dart around. “She talks so strangely...”

 

Harry blinks, before she laughs. “Oh, Tom,” she smiles mirthfully. “We’re the ones who talk strangely here.”

 

He blinks rapidly.

 

“We’re not in London anymore,” she confides. He feels his mouth drop open in surprise. “Or Britain, for that matter.”

 

He feels his mouth work, but no words can make it through the shock that gathers in his throat. The sales attendant returns, Harry asks for about a half dozen shoes, all in the same size. Tom has never had that many shoes before. Tom is not paying this any attention at all; he is still stuck on the idea of not even being in London—the only place he has ever known—let alone the British Isles.

 

“Where are we?” He gets out, finally.

 

Harry smiles at him; there is perhaps some indistinct quality to it, vacuous and capricious. “Very far away.” She replies.

 

Very far away indeed.

 

Tom begins to unbend a bit when it becomes clear that no one in this place is looking at them with anything besides pleasant indifference. He perhaps even begins to enjoy himself, walking around and feeling all the garments they pass; watching himself in the squeaky clean reflection on the floor; the long stately mirrors, Harry by his side, collecting all sorts of attire for him. The idea that he can point to something, that he can want something and have it has yet to fully sink in.

 

They leave the store in merry laughter and many brown paper bags. Harry holds his hand as they wander down the street, first for lunch, and then for ice cream. Tom tries chocolate this time; he thinks he might like it even more than strawberry. He spends some time pressing his nose against the display at the cafe, eyes wide and completely fixated upon all the unimaginable desserts presented on the other side. There are so many, more than he’d ever seen before, even in picture books, in all sorts of colors and sizes, decorated with succulent cream and topped with bright pops of color. Harry says they can bring something back; he chooses a small deep red cake with layers and layers of frosting. A raspberry chocolate red velvet cake was what Harry called it. Tom gets to hold it as they walk, a little package tied up in string. He is very excited to open it.

 

But its when they’re back at home sitting down to devour their prize that Harry brings up something that surprises him.

 

 

“Muggle school?” He reiterates. He likes using that word, it reminds him that he’s different. That he’s magical.

 

Harry pauses, thoughtful. “Yes and no,” she replies at length. “They teach curriculum similar to muggle school, but they also teach witchcraft.”

 

“So I’ll learn magic?” His eyes sparkle in excitement. “Will I get a wand?”

 

“Yes,” Harry answers, making his very breath catch in his throat at the idea. Magic. He’ll finally get to preform magic.

 

It’s been many days since Harry had introduced him to Hogwarts: a History, and afterwards, to ‘first year’ studies books and a few more difficult texts when he asked of it. He was especially fascinated with defense against the dark arts: the more on the dark arts and black magic than defense against them. It struck his curiosity; it was the sort of stuff that the other children would whisper about to scare the others, back in the orphanage. Ghost stories, scary stories. It seems like a lifetime ago.

 

“It’s called the Wolcroft Bassett School of Magic and the Arcane Arts.” She continues on. “It’s one of the most prestigious schools here in Boston—in the whole world, actually.” She adds.

 

Tom thinks this over. “Is that why we’re here? In America?” He asks, suddenly. “You said Hogwarts doesn’t start until I’m eleven... but this school starts earlier?”

 

“That’s correct,” Harry agrees. This is why they’re in America. Though not only for that, but for protection in the war to come—but Tom doesn’t know of that.

 

“...It’s a good school?” He repeats, in a small voice.

 

“Very much so.” The young woman nods. “Like I said, one of the best.”

 

After a moment where he ponders this in silence, she frowns. “Listen Tom, it’s okay if you don’t want to go this school. Or even if you don’t want to go to school at all; I have no doubt that you’re more than capable of teaching yourself what you need to know until you go to Hogwarts.” And then, “And if you do want to go, and you end up liking it—you don’t have to go to Hogwarts, if you’d prefer to stay.”

 

Tom mulls over all this new information as he takes another bite of cake. This is his second piece—his second piece of cake, ever—and he doesn’t think he plans on stopping any time soon.

 

“It’s up to you,” she reassures.

 

“Why Hogwarts?” He asks, suddenly, visibly surprising Harry.

 

He looks up. “You said my name has been written to attend Hogwarts since the day I was born. And... and we came all the way here for this other school, right? For Wolcroft?”

 

She nods slowly.

 

“So what is it about Hogwarts?” He presses. “Why would we go back if Wolcroft is such a good school—why... do you want me to go back?”

 

She looks down at him with a sorrowful, forlorn expression. “Oh, my little Tomcat,” she sighs with a small smile, placing her fork down. “Always so very clever.”

 

He feels something warm and bashful gather in him at that, a pleased smile finding its way to his face.

 

“Hogwarts is a very big part of your history,” explains Harry. “It’s a very good school as well—what they teach there is a little bit different than what you’ll learn here, but Wolcroft and Hogwarts are equally good institutions.”

 

He nods, absently, waiting for the inevitable second part of this statement. He is not disappointed.

 

“But Hogwarts... is special to you,” she hedges. “It’s in your blood.”

 

At the mention of this, he perks up. “My blood?” And then, leaping to his feet, feeling his heart lodge in his throat, “Harry—do you know my parents?”

 

She is watching him very carefully.

 

“Do you remember the houses from Hogwarts: A History?” She asks instead, as if on a completely different tangent.

 

He blinks. “Of course.” He answers promptly. “There are four; Slytherin, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.”

 

“That’s absolutely right.” She gifts him a tiny smile. He beams back at her, pleased. “And they’re named that because—...?”

 

“Because those were the four founders of Hogwarts.” Tom finishes immediately, “Salazar Slytherin, Godric Gryffindor, Helena Hufflepuff and Rowena Ravenclaw.”

 

“Right again.” She agrees, nodding. “Have you thought about what house you’d like to be in?”

 

He frowns ponderously. “Slytherin.” He decides, after a beat.

 

Her small smile turns into something full of lament and regret. “There’s a reason for that.” She returns, quiet.

 

His gaze flitters back up to her, curious.

 

“Tom, Salazar Slytherin was your ancestor.” He feels like all the breath has been knocked out of him.

 

“...What?” He hears himself reply, faintly.

 

“That’s why you can talk to snakes—why you feel an affinity for that House. You come from a very long line of witches and wizards that are descendants of Slytherin.”

 

“I... I do?” He swallows ineffectually, feeling numb and breathless. His eyes trace the world around him, as if reminding himself that it still exists, that he’s still here. But even as an overwhelming awe and wonder overtake him, a thought occurs to him, and he snaps his eyes again to Harry, narrowing them, “You know my family?” It is less of a question and more of an accusation.

 

“Not personally,” she replies quickly. “But yes, I do know of them. And I don’t want to keep that from you, Tom. You deserve to know where you come from: who you are.”

 

He is silent for some time, mulling this over. His thoughts turn calculative; what does this mean for him? What does this mean for Harry?

 

“Is that why you took me?” He asks, hollow and unreadable. “Because I’m a descendant of Slytherin?”

 

“Not at all.” She insists, touching his chin and gently tilting his face up to look at her. “Tom, I wouldn’t lie to you. You mean so much more to me than that.”

 

He makes a little noise in the back of his throat, abandoning his cake to throw his arms around her. He feels like crying for some reason, and it blindsides him more than annoys him. He’s never felt like crying before—he’s never been overly emotional about anything. He always thought he was far too mature for that sort of thing. But Harry always seems to elicit a certain childness in him, as if he feels comfortable enough around her to let it out.

 

He sits in her arms for quite a while, saying nothing, enjoying the affectionate petting as she runs a hand through his hair. “Can you tell me about them?” He mumbles, in a voice so small it is almost inaudible.

 

This close to her, he can feel the tension in her shoulders seize up at his words, and also the immediate release of it as she considers a response. “Of course,” she replies, her inflection difficult to decipher. “Well, your mother belonged to a family referred to in England as one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight. And they were called that because they were one of the remaining twenty-eight families to be one-hundred percent pure-blooded.”

 

“Pure-blooded?” Tom repeats, and his innocent expression almost crumbles her resolve.

 

“Yes. It means that every person in your family is magical.” She explains. “Your mother belonged to one of these families—the Gaunt family.”

 

“Oh.” He says. “Do they... are they—still around?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Harry confesses. “But I know she had a brother and a father. They too were the last descendants of Slytherin.”

 

Tom doesn’t say anything for a long time, pressing his face into the crook of her neck, and deciding mutinously that he would like to spend the rest of his existence here. He doesn’t know how to feel about this. It’s strange to think that he... comes from something. He has spent so long dreaming up a family that it is disorienting to realize that they do, in fact, exist.

 

Perhaps what is more concerning is how detached he feels from them. He has spent so long wishing for a family to call his own, dreaming up so any scenarios; a large family, with a sprawling family tree and dozens and dozens of cousins and so many aunts and uncles that he could never remember their names. He could have never imagined his real family: not nearly so large, but far more famous. Legendary, in their own right.

 

Far stranger—he feels... unsettled at the thought.

 

Harry is his family. He doesn’t like the idea of having any other. She may not be his mother, but she is still his everything.

 

//

 

In so many ways, Tom is already so different.

 

He is open and expressive—when he wants to be, at any rate. She’s noticed that more and more he becomes withdrawn and obscure, masking what he feels behind a face of neutrality. He forgets to do that quite often when it’s just the two of them, though, leaving him as he truly is, a curious, and perhaps a bit shy little boy.

 

Though he’s not all that little anymore.

 

And in many ways, he hasn’t changed at all.

 

Harry can still see the person he will become in small moments of clarity; when he is hunched over a large text; when a fierce and volcanic anger stirs in his eyes; when his sharp tongue cuts through flesh and bone; when he manipulates the other children in the neighborhood to do as he likes. Harry can’t deny all of the existence of these traits, even if they never turn their ire to her.

 

But she had expected this. She had expected that the darkness would be an intimate part of him—not all of him, she wouldn’t allow it this time, but this didn’t disregard the fact that it was still an intrinsic part of his nature that perhaps could never be changed. And perhaps it could never be changed—but it may be... harnessed, in a more productive manner.

 

That’s why she chose this school, out of all others. Why she brought them both to such a distant land. Why she was in such a distant land; a land so distant it didn’t even reside in the same dimension as her own.

 

For one, Wolcroft started education at five years old, just the same as primary school for Muggles, and this was something she staunchly agreed with. The idea of starting even the basics of education at eleven never seemed particularly logical to her, and though she wanted Tom to have an education prior to Hogwarts, she didn’t know if she wanted it to be purely muggle. She’d thought she would simply have to teach him on her own—but an even better alternative had presented itself.

 

Because Wolcroft had no compunctions against the Dark Arts, and this was another reason she was so adamant Tom go there. Maybe she couldn’t curb his innate desire for black magic, or his hunger to delve into it as deep as he could—but she could at least provide him with enough knowledge to perhaps stop him from diving too deep. At least here he would be taught it in a unprejudiced and theoretical manner; not only just the spells themselves but the dangers that accompany them.

 

But Harry was getting ahead of herself.

 

She couldn’t do any of that without getting him a wand first.

 

Tom is practically bouncing on his toes at the idea of finally getting his own wand. He’s used Harry’s a few times, with her supervision, but that was only for little spells; cleaning charms and his favorite, lumos. That was the spell Harry had used, when he had felt so lost and alone; it was the first spell he’d asked her to teach him. And though he has learned a great many more, some more explosive and eye-catching than others, he still feels it is the most lovely spell of them all.

 

“Alright,” Harry kneels down, fixing up the buttons on his coat. He could do it himself, but he lets her clasp them all up, adjust his scarf and fix his hat. He likes it when she fusses over him. “So I’ll floo us this time, together, so that you can see how to do it.”

 

“You said you just throw the powder and say the address.” He whined. “I can do that!”

 

Harry laughs. “Oh, Tomcat, I’m sure you can. Listen, I thought that same thing on my first floo travel; it did not work out very well for me. So just humor me this once, okay?”

 

“Okay,” he drawls, sounding far more reluctant than he actually is. He doesn’t care about how they get there, he just wants to get there.

 

Tom doesn’t remember how he found himself so far across the world from where he started. All he remembers is Harry’s arms around him, her soft voice telling him to close his eyes. And then he was here. Whatever had happened; they most certainly did not use a fireplace.

 

She takes his hand, throwing a handful of bright green powder into the empty fireplace. It roars to life quite suddenly, filled with emerald flames.

 

“Ready?” She looks down at him. He tugs her in almost immediately.

 

“Let’s go!”

 

Diagon Alley is as amazing as he’d thought it would be. Harry says there’s a magical town just like this in Boston, but they haven’t been there yet. There are shops full of everything his imagination could ever conjure; strange creatures and birds; broomsticks that fly; bubbling cauldrons placed at the storefront windows; children run past with bright balloons that change every so often into animal shapes.

 

He holds Harry’s hand very tightly: he doesn’t want to get lost. They meld into the throngs of people, and he stares for a rather rude amount of time at every single one of them. They don’t look so much different from other people he’s seen, but for some reason, he feels as if he can tell the difference between these folks and Muggles.

 

He forgets about all the people when they enter their first shop; a lopsided counter, a very small foyer, and what seems like endless boxes piled atop each other in haphazard piles along all the walls.

 

He jumps, startled, when an old man swings his way into view on a sliding ladder. “Well hello there, how do you do?” He greets, pleasant.

 

“Well, thank you, Mr. Ollivander.” Harry replies.

 

His brow raises. “Americans?” He looks at the two of them.

 

“For now,” Harry smiles, returning back to a familiar accent. “We’re here for a wand, please.” She cuts through the formalities, thrusting him forward with a gentle hand at his back.

 

“Is that so?” The old man raises a brow at them both.

 

Tom is practically vibrating in his excitement, looking around the shop with wide eyes.

 

“Yes—phoenix tail, eleven inches, yew.” Harry informs.

 

The man blinks.

 

Harry does not give an explanation, only a bland smile.

 

Ollivander turns back around, shuffling into the bowels of his shop without complaint. Fortunately Tom is far too enamored with all the wand boxes to have noticed such a strangely succinct explanation for an event that is supposed to be rather long and complicated.

 

The wandmaker drifts back to the front of the shop soon enough, holding a dusty box that appears to have been unused and unmoved for some time.

 

Tom bounds up to the counter, barely tall enough to clasp his fingers on the surface and bring his eyes level to watch.

 

Ollivander carefully opens the box, setting aside the top, and hands the wand to Tom. The moment he grasps it in his hand it shoots out happy green sparks.

 

Ollivander looks completely taken aback. His thoughtful eyes turn to Harry; Harry, again, only offers him a pleasant, but detached smile. His gaze turns back to the boy staring at the wand in wonder.

 

“Well, would you look at that,” his brows raise in surprise. “And what did you say your names were?”

 

“I’m Tom Riddle.” Tom says, imperious but thoroughly distracted by the wand in his hand.

 

“Hello then, Mr. Riddle.” Greets Ollivander. “Are you going to Hogwarts this year?” He asks, amiably.

 

“No,” Tom responds, before Harry can think to stop him. “I’m not old enough yet.”

 

His cordial expression falters, and he frowns at Harry. “Is that so?” He sighs. “Well, wizards aren’t allowed to have a wand until age eleven.”

 

Tom’s attention snaps back to him, expression dawning into horror.

 

Harry frowns. “Why not?”

 

“Underage Magic Laws,” he quips. “Children can only get their wands when they’re going off to school.”

 

Harry gives him a baleful look in response. “Children do underage magic all the time, with or without a wand.”

 

“I agree with you,” he sighs. “But unfortunately, the matter is out of my hands.”

 

Tom’s look of distress is almost enough to make Harry stun and obliviate him and then just take the wand anyway. But then the boy drops the wand back onto the counter and darts out the door.

 

“Tom—“ But the door has already closed. Without a backwards glance she follows him.

 

He hasn’t gone very far; he stands a few meters away from the entrance, arms folded, facing away from her. Harry takes a deep breath, walking over to him.

 

“I’m sorry Tom, I didn’t know there was a law for that.” She apologizes.

 

Tom doesn’t look at her. “It’s not you fault, Harry.” He insists, hollow.

 

Harry bites her lip. Though he feels cheated and angry, he feels worse knowing that he’s making Harry feel bad too. The thought doesn’t stop him from pouting mutinously out into the distance. The world is always unfair to him; he should know this by now.

 

But Harry always has a way of tipping the scales. He should know that by now too.

 

Harry frowns at him, brushing hair out of his eyes as she crouches next to him. “It’s okay Tom, we can come back and get it when you go to Hogwarts.” She reminds. “You’ll be old enough before you even know it.”

 

“But what if they sell it off by then?” He returns fearfully.

 

She laughs softly. “They wouldn’t: the wand chooses the wizard, you know. So it’ll still be here when you’re old enough to go to Hogwarts.”

 

He pouts mutinously, saying nothing.

 

“In the meantime,” she starts, with a fine little smile and a twinkle in her eye. “Why don’t we find you another one, huh?”

 

“We can?” He asks, skeptical.

 

Harry nods. “Absolutely. Not all schools start at eleven.” She holds out her hand. “Why don’t we go back home, get some ice cream, and then go to the biggest magical sector across the pond?”

 

This sparks Tom’s interest, and he readily takes her hand as she straightens up. “Where is it?” He asks, excited.

 

Harry laughs. “Why, in New York of course!”

 

//

 

Tom has never been to New York. He’d never been to America before either—until Harry whisked him away, that is—but he’d heard all the stories. Almost all of them revolved around this city. It was everything he’d imagined it to be. It was so big.

 

Harry floos them into a dingy little pub full of queer-eyed elderly folks, who all turn when they exit the fireplace. Harry pays them no mind, tugging him out of the restaurant. Even though they’re in the magical part of the city, he can still see the muggle part; the vast, endless metal buildings that stretch into the sky like silver arms, gleaming in an opulent light. Everything is so big and tall; it makes him feel very small in comparison, as if he is walking among the feet of giants.

 

They enter another wand shop, and when Harry explains that he’ll be going to Wolcroft’s next term, he’s ushered into a plushy chair and an attendant comes back with boxes and boxes of wands. It looks nothing like Ollivander’s; small, cramped and homey. This one has a stuffy air of corporatism, and is far cleaner and organized. He tries each and every one, but none of them felt like the one he’d found at Ollivander’s. Harry had given him an apologetic look, and told him that he most likely won’t find one that will compliment him as well as that one. Tom found that very odd; Harry’s wand felt perfectly fine to him. But as he swished wand after wand into the air, he started to think that perhaps that wasn’t normal.

 

He eventually does find a wand, but the event is decidedly uneventful and dulled with the memory of the other wand, waiting for him across the ocean. Seeing another magical city cheers him up somewhat; the two are very different in such small ways. Where Diagon Alley was long and winding, dipping into intricate turns at arbitrary intervals, growing smaller or wider at equally arbitrary moments, New York City is spacious and wide. The streets are similar to those of the muggle side; there is even room for automobiles. He doesn’t see very many of those, but he does see quite a few carriages, drawn by startling horse-like animals. But even all of this does not lighten his spirits.

 

Still, Harry seems to notice his crestfallen mood, for she directs him down another street, saying there’s another shop they should stop by before they leave. Tom nods, not paying much attention, following her lead.

 

She ends up bringing him to a Magical Menagerie—full of animals that he couldn’t have even thought up in his wildest imaginations. There’s a three-headed skrewt; a beautiful striped bird with four eyes; a small tiger with a chameleon head, and a lion with wings. A horse with wings, even, in its own stall in the back. Harry called it a Pegasus. All of them are for sale: most of them are illegal.

 

Harry bypasses all the strange mammals, aves, fish and amphibians and heads to the reptile section. There are a great many curious lizards, but Tom moves right for the snakes.

 

He presses his nose against one of the enormous glass terrariums, just watching the creatures behind it. He lifts his head up after a beat. “Harry,” he starts, hesitant. “Are we—I mean, can I—

 

“You can pick out any one you want,” Harry reveals, smiling as his eyes grow wide. “But only one, okay?”

 

“Okay.” He nods, excited. One is more than enough.

 

It takes him forever to decide on a particular snake. Harry seemed surprised when he actually entertained the idea of the winged lion instead of a serpent, but he dismissed it after remembering that he couldn’t talk to the lion like he could the snake. There are so many species, and they all do different things and come in different colors. Harry wanders around while he carefully considers the snakes in the many terrariums, moving to converse with a little tropical, neon green snake on the other side of the store. He scrunches his nose in thought, before eventually coming to a decision.

 

“Harry,” he calls. “I think I know which one I want.”

 

Harry maunders back over, sparing the many tanks a brief glance. “Alright. Which one?”

 

“That one.” Tom points to the biggest snake, in a tank far in the back.

 

Harry blinks rapidly. “Oh.” Is all she says, staring at it with a complicated expression. Tom thinks he can see a bit of alarm in there, and frowns.

 

“Or is he too big?” Tom would feel a bit more mutinous about it, but it’s true. It’s a rather big snake.

 

“Oh, no, he’ll be fine.” Harry shrugs. “He’ll be harder to take care of than the others, though.”

 

“That’s okay.” Tom decides. “I don’t mind; I’ll take good care of him.”

 

Harry looks down at him appraisingly, before finally she calls to one of the sales assistants. The boy doesn’t even bat an eyelash when she asks for the big one in the back, and Harry looks equally as indifferent when he tells her the price for it (which is no small sum). Tom stares up at the adolescent boy with a scowl; he doesn’t like how the boy looks at Harry, or how close he’s standing to her. Even worse, Harry doesn’t even seem to notice. She smiles when he makes a joke, and makes polite small talk as he rings them up.

 

“Do you want a... bag for that?” The boy stammers, but seems to realize how ineffectual that’s going to be, considering the size of the snake.

 

“That’s alright, we’ll take him like this.” Harry replies, reassuring.

 

Tom beckons the snake to him once the attendant leaves, and it slides up his arms and drapes itself over his shoulders—a couple times, because it really is quite big. He has to hold most of him in his arms.

 

Harry giggles at him. “You look like you’re wearing him as a shirt.” She observes.

 

“He’s so big!” He exclaims, looking down at all the long ropes of scales. They are so pretty though; the scales are a cream color with bright banana yellow spots. He sort of looks like an inverted giraffe.

 

Tom looks up at her with big eyes. “Can I name him Spot?” He asks, as they wander back to the floo network.

 

This derives a bark of laughter out of her. “Sure,” she enthuses. “Spot the lethal, deadly giant Anaconda. Why not?”

 

Tom returns his complete and unwavering attention back to his new snake, petting it fondly. The thing is at least three times larger than him.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to name it something more... formidable?” She hazards, looking down at them with no small amount of bewilderment.

 

Tom shakes his head. “I like Spot.” He proclaims. Spot seems to like this to, for he drapes himself around Tom’s head and flicks his tongue near his ear.

 

What do you think, Spot?” Tom turns his head to look at him; Harry notices with slight trepidation that their heads are about the same size.

 

I like Spot,” Spot agrees. Harry doesn’t think Spot actually knows what spot means. Well, she supposes if they’re both happy there’s nothing to worry about.

 

//

 

Harry isn’t exactly sure how she ended up like this, but somehow her enormous bed has gotten crowded. Tom doesn’t take up much space; he always curls up into a little ball when he sleeps, and doesn’t move much. Meanwhile, Spot is almost six meters long and expected to grow even bigger—he folds himself in many layers at the base of the bed like a big, scaly dog. He also likes to move when he gets cold, and his favorite place to move is right on top of her. At least he doesn’t shed, Harry consoles herself. Well, he doesn’t shed hair. She hopes she doesn’t start finding dead snake skin in all the corners of the house.

 

Fortunately Tom is completely enamored with Spot, and Spot seems equally as enamored with him, so he is kept entertained during the long hours she’s away. She wishes she didn’t have to leave him, but she really does have a job, and really does need to work. She can’t sit around and drain her family vault forever; all that flowing gold will run dry eventually if she does. And Spot, combined with all his books, distracts him from looking in to deeply into where she goes.

 

Because its certainly not to the offices down the street.

 

“I can see why you like this place so much,” Ron offers, as he devours his lobster sandwich. “These things are amazing! I’d live here too if I could have these everyday.”

 

Harry rolls her eyes, biting into her steamed pork bun. “I’m not actually a fan of those—or the clam chowder, to be honest.”

 

Copley Square is full of tourists, skateboarders, broke college kids and hipsters, all crowded into the little mall of grass and adding noise to the already noisy city. Ron has proved himself to be a food truck enthusiast; he comes almost every day at lunch and drags her around to try them all. Sometimes for more than lunch; she’d left the building one day to see him waiting for on the benches by the street, holding an alarming green smoothie. Harry doesn’t mind, she’s pleased he comes and visits at all. Hermione does as well, but it’s far more difficult for her, considering her new occupation as intern/assistant/ baby-sitter for the new Head of the Magical Creatures department,

 

“Why move to Boston if you don’t like lobster?” He retorts, scandalized, mouth full of said crustacean.

 

Harry scowls. “Gross, Ron.”

 

He swallows, wiping his mouth. “What?” He protests. “I mean, it’s true!”

 

But she’s already explained to Ron why she’s here, and what she’s doing. They’d gotten Bill to do the wards on her house, after all. Of course, Bill didn’t know about the house’s... special properties. Namely, that it manages to sit in completely different time periods in completely different dimensions. But Ron does, so there’s no reason for him to be so flabbergasted, other than the fact he’s probably already forgotten.

 

He’s equally as flabbergasted at the idea of her having a job.

 

“A muggle job, at that.” He adds, looking completely and sincerely boggled by it. “I don’t get it. Why have one if you don’t need one? Why a muggle job—and I mean, how’d you get it anyway?” And then, peering at her with wide, fascinated eyes, “What do you even do in the muggle world?”

 

It appears the Weasley fascination with Muggles is genetic.

 

Harry heaves a great capitulation. “Investing,” she reminds, patiently. “And I do need one; I can’t squander my fortune away forever. And you know very well why I wanted a muggle job; I’d prefer to live my life in apparent anonymity.”

 

He nods sagely. Harry didn’t even bother to try for an Auror position when the war was over; she didn’t even both with wizarding London, at all. Not after the first few times she’d gone and found herself overwhelmed with people, to the point Auror’s had to guard her against the crowds,

 

“Well yeah, but how’d you end up here?” Ron gestures to the building behind them, blinding blue in the sunlight, towering over them, everyone else in the square, and every other skyscraper in the city. At its feet a whole bunch of tourists have their cameras held up and are snapping away. “Hermione says its super prestigious—or maybe she said pretentious?—and very difficult to get in to.”

 

Harry merely stares at him flatly. "Nepotism." She replies, blandly. 

 

And that's not even remotely untrue. All Harry had to do was casually mention offhand one Yule holiday that she was looking to start a career in the muggle world as opposed to the wizarding one. Unsurprisingly Mr. Weasley was over the moon, but the only one who had any real advice to give was Andromeda Tonks. She'd just mentioned her late husband's family was involved in some sort of finances, and she could reach out to them if Harry wanted. 

 

“Right.” Ron moves on to his chips, laughing.

 

"Anyway, I didn't know what I was getting into, but I think I like it." Beggars can't be choosers anyhow, and she managed to land herself in a pretty nice spot, all things considered. 

 

“But do you like it?” Ron pressed. “Uh, investing, or whatsit.”

 

Harry looks out to the sprawling gardens, and then the city unfurling behind it. She and Ron have parked themselves at the base of a staircase belonging to a rather famous church she can’t remember the name of. Either way, it’s still in the square, it’s close to her office, and the stairs provide dozens of places to sit that doesn’t have the hazard of dog poop on it. Not to mention, most of the food trucks in the city park themselves around the curb during lunch time, and Ron has his fair share of the city’s finest food trucks all within walking distance.

 

“Yeah, I do.” She answers honestly.

 

It was so far beyond everything she's ever known it's almost as if she just stepped into yet another new world, this one full of cutthroat business and mind-boggling technology. Harry tended to think of the software they invest in in the same manner she thought of potions; somehow through some kind of mystical magic they have managed to create bewildering things out of nowhere. Harry didn't understand it in the least. It was humbling, and also nice in its own way. Harry liked being so far removed from everything she used to know. It felt like a fresh start. 

 

Ron shrugs. “Well then, I guess that’s a good thing. Congratulations?”

 

“A little belated,” Harry points out, amused. “But thank you.”

 

“And uh—you know. The kid. How’s he?”

 

“Tom is fine.” Harry chuckles. “Very inquisitive and intelligent.”

 

Ron blinks, “He’s good, though?”

 

“Oh yes—he’s actually rather sweet.” Harry observes; it still surprises her.

 

“And the forties?” He presses onwards. “Or wait, is it the thirties? Well, whatever, you know what I mean. How’re they? What are the people like?”

 

“Strange,” Harry admits. “There’s a lot of things that are normal there that people would think is utterly foolish now. And anything from here is totally bizarre to them.”

 

Ron makes a noise of understanding as finishes his chips. Harry thinks he might have something to say on the subject, but then he simply shrugs and asks; “You going to eat those?” He points to her crisps. She shakes her head, and he pounces on them.

 

“Mmrgh—Oh yeah, by the way,” he says around a mouthful. “Bill wanted me to ask about the wards. How’re those doing?”

 

“Quite well.” She replies. And then, after a pause. “I think they are at least. To be honest, I don’t know enough about wards to tell. But I haven’t gotten stuck in either time period yet, and I can go back and forth smoothly, so I’m assuming they’re okay.”

 

 “Sounds okay to me,” remarks Ron. “I’ll pass the message on.”

 

He leaves soon after that, begging off because Molly has summoned all her children to the Burrow for dinner. He looks quite horrified at the very thought, but leaves promptly anyway. Harry supposes she should probably get back in too, far past whatever hour or so she usually takes for lunch.

 

When she gets home, she arrives just in time to hear a voice yell, “Expulso!” And then she is reflexively throwing up a protego as an enormous pillow explodes into a winterstorm of feathers.

 

She releases her shield charm, looking up as all the feathers drift back onto the floor. A few catch in her hair. She turns to Tom, the main culprit in this dilemma. He is sitting cross-legged on the sitting room carpet, looking quite sheepish.

 

“Sorry,” he says, sheepish, before waving his wand again. “Evanesco,” he whispers, and all the feathers disappear.

 

Harry isn’t actually mad at all, if anything, she’s impressed he’s already casting so many spells so easily. He has a book in his lap, one she’s pretty sure came from her second year. “Having fun?” She teases as she wanders into the kitchen.

 

He nods bashfully. “There’s so many spells to learn,” he confesses. “I want to know them all—but I try not to mess up the house.”

 

Harry tosses him an amused glance over her shoulder. “Try not to?” She echoes.

 

He blushes, looking somewhat chastised.

 

“Oh, it’s alright Tom,” she laughs. “Practice all you want. But try the more explosive ones in the backyard, okay? I don’t know what we’d tell the neighbors if you blew a hole through the wall. Now what do you want for dinner?”

 

He pauses for a moment. “Spaghetti and meatballs!” He exclaims. It’s the same thing he’s said for the past four days.

 

Harry blinks. “You’re not getting tired of it?”

 

“Never,” he swears, vehement.

 

She laughs. “Well, alright then. Spaghetti and meatballs it is.”

 

//

 

Tom has never felt so satisfied and content in his life. It’s been many months now, and he can scarcely remember his life before Harry. Not with any clarity, at any rate. He still feels the pang of fear at the idea of all that loneliness, and a niggling worry that Harry will leave him that refuses to go away, no matter how often Harry assuages his fears.

 

He’s still alone for most of the day—though he likes to wake up with Harry so they can have breakfast together—but now he has Spot to talk to, and so many books to read. And if he doesn’t want to do either of those he can always go outside and explore. Harry warned him not to go too far, because the neighborhood might be safe but they still lived in a city. That was what Tom loved about it though; it wasn’t as big as New York City, but it was his oyster to explore and play in. There was always something going on in it. It was very hard to get bored here.

 

Still, he’s equally as excited about leaving these long, endless days for school. Like Harry, he’s going to be gone for most of the day too. It makes him feel rather grown up and adult-like.

 

He gets a little nervous when the time finally comes for them to floo to his new school. He’s never been to school. None of the children at the orphanage ever went. How does he know he’ll like it? And what of the other children? Will they like him? More importantly, will he like them? They’re all magical, so maybe he will. And he has a few friends in the neighborhood that aren’t so bad. Maybe he’ll be okay. Harry comes with him on the first day of term, to talk to all his teachers.

 

He finds himself growing incredibly shy at all the people conglomerated at the entrance. Some of the kids are a ways younger than him—some look a little older. Across the grounds he can see another big brownstone building, that Harry tells him is for the secondary school. Wolcroft even has a University, but it’s not on the same campus.

 

All his classes aren’t very big, but are still full of people he doesn’t know. They all stare at him curiously when he walks in, so it’s clear that they have all known each other prior to this day. He sticks close to Harry as he chances a glance at the class. They don’t seem all that different from him. Harry is talking avidly to his teacher; a middle aged man with a boyish, open face. Tom hasn’t even met him and he already doesn’t like him, if only because he seems to be hanging on every word she says.

 

Harry has to leave eventually though, and with one last hug he is all alone in this strange new school.

 

“Is that your mom?” Whispers the girl next to him, the moment he sits down. She has a funny accent—that is to say, an even funnier accent than the normal American one—and big bouncy blonde curls, done up in twin pigtails.

 

“No,” he replies. “She’s my—“ He pauses, suddenly. What is Harry? He’s never had to describe their relationship before. “Guardian.” He finishes, but even that doesn’t feel right.

 

“Oh,” says the girl.

 

“I like her hair.” Remarks another girl, behind him. “It’s so beautiful.”

 

“Yeah,” agrees the girl with the curls. “She’s really pretty.”

 

“Isn’t she?” Tom enthuses as he smiles at them, feeling somewhat smug about their apparent adoration for Harry.

 

They nod readily.

 

Tom thinks he might end up liking this school.

 

By the end of his first class he already has friends, though this was from no input from him. As it turned out, being the new kid was fun, especially in a school where the children had known each other since kindergarten. They were incredibly fascinated with his British accent, and Britain at large. Tom didn’t mind being the center of attention; actually he thinks he sort of likes it.

 

The two girls reveal themselves to be Ruth and Margaret. The only way he can tell them apart is by their hair; Margaret is blonde, and Ruth has short, straight brown hair. They both sound and act the exact same, so it’s difficult to tell otherwise. They twitter around him for the entire day, poking at him at odd intervals and insisting that he sit with them at lunch. Worse still, they have a whole gaggle of fluttery girls that all ask him all sorts of stupid questions. He doesn’t have a favorite color, and he doesn’t care much for music or moving pictures.

 

Fortunately by the end of the day he has, once again with no effort of his own, found two boys who he can appreciate.

 

John Wesley, or Wesley, and Washy, which was a nickname the boy protested greatly but somehow ended up with anyway.

 

The girls are muggleborns, and Wesley says one of his parents is magical, making him a halfblood. Washy is a pureblood, and a descendant of George Washington himself; he says he hates telling people that because he hates being named after him—“Everyone in my family is named Washington,” he mopes. “It gets really confusing sometimes. That’s why they call me Washy.”

 

They ask Tom, but Tom really doesn’t know. “My mom was a pureblood witch,” he replies, when they ask him about it. He pauses suddenly, thoughtful. “I don’t know about my dad.” He is reminded that he didn’t actually ask Harry about his father; he’d been so enamored with the idea of being related to Salazar Slytherin that he completely forgot to ask.

 

The question has him on guard though. Harry had pulled him aside this morning as she fixed his tie, confessing to him that there are some prejudices against people based on if their parents were magical or not.

 

“Oh,” Washy says.

 

Tom’s brows knit. “Why does it matter?” He returns, defensive and a bit fearful. He doesn’t want to lose all his new friends just after he met them all.

 

“It doesn’t really.” Wesley shrugs. And then, excitedly, “Unless he’s like, super famous or something. Did you know Esther Pearl’s dad is a moving picture star?”

 

“Who’s Esther Pearl?” He blinks, as Margaret talks over him.

 

“So?” She challenges, hands on her hips. “My father is the President of General Motors.” She reveals, haughtily. “And my mother’s a moving picture stare too.”

 

“Yeah, but she’s not like a super famous one.” Wesley retorts.

 

Margaret looks offended, and like she’s about to go over there and ruin her school dress by wrestling Wesley into the mud. But then they are called to their next class; Curses and Enchantments. Tom takes one look at their provided text and is enamored at the very sight. The class is mostly introductory—as all of their classes have been so far—but Tom is simply excited to take home the book. It is a long and detailed history of many mythological artifacts throughout the ages, along with the enchantments upon them. Their teacher reveals that they will make their first enchantment by the end of term. Tom cannot wait. This is—magic. Finally. What he’s been waiting for this whole time. Even these new children are irrelevant in the face of this new world.

 

By the end of the day he feels as if he might be a bit overwhelmed, but this is perhaps not a bad thing. He didn’t know what to expect form Wolcroft, even after reading all the brochures Harry had given him to look over. It was certainly every inch as beautiful as it had looked in all the pictures; sprawling New England trees and manicured lawns; lovely fountains full of water sprites; gardens of fairy hedges with all sorts of little magical creatures residing within them—and completely dedicated to teaching black magicks.

 

He lights up when he sees Harry waiting by the entrance to the main receptional manor, along with quite a few other beaming parents. He sees quite a few of his classmates leap towards their parents, speaking a mile a minute as they apparate away or head inside to use the floo network. Tom had assumed he would simply take the floo back to his house by himself, because Harry normally had work this hour.

 

“Harry!” He beams at her, trotting over towards her side.

 

“Hi, Tomcat.” She smiles down at him. “Did you have a good first day?”

 

“Yes.” He nods, and then, excited, “Everything we’re learning is so fascinating—and the children are nice.”

 

This seems to take Harry off guard. “Well, that’s wonderful.” She regains her composure quickly. “I’m glad you’re making friends. Maybe we could have them over some time?”

 

Tom frowns. “I don’t know if I’d call them friends,” he hedges; they’re nice enough, but like the children in the neighborhood they’re fun to manipulate—though he would never voluntarily keep their company.

 

“Bye Tom!” Someone shouts from behind him. He turns to see Ruth waving at him with a man he’s assuming is her father, beaming as they walk out the front gates. He returns her farewell with a wave of his own and a strained smile. Behind her he can see Margaret waving as well as she walks with what appears to be one of her butlers, escorted into a long, nice-looking automobile. Washy is being reprimanded for something by his mother... along with all his other brothers, who are all—as he had griped—named Washington. They’re much older though, and are probably from the secondary school across the lawn.

 

“Are those girls friends of yours?” Harry tilts her head.

 

Tom scrunches his nose. “Girls are weird.” He reveals. Harry laughs aloud at that.

 

“Well why don’t you tell me all about it at home?” Harry suggests. “Spot is getting impatient and very mopey without you.”

 

This sounds like a fantastic idea. Tom nods eagerly, practically dragging Harry into the brownstone manor.

 

//

 

The days roll by, and Tom and Harry fall into a routine.

 

They wake up at eight and have breakfast together; normally some combination of toast and eggs, because Harry isn’t all that good at making much else. Sometimes he can wheedle her into letting them have ice-cream for breakfast. Harry might act all grown-up, but she’s still just a kid too, with no compunctions about having dessert for breakfast. Every time he thinks he’s tried every flavor there is, they manage to find another one. Their newest expedition is blumberry chocolate chip.

 

Then he lets Spot out into the backyard with a whole bunch or rabbits Harry conjures, so he can get some exercise. Spot doesn’t actually like exercise, but he’s growing fat and could use the fresh air. Spot is an anaconda though, so sometimes Harry conjures a whole bunch of fish in the pond instead. Personally, Tom likes the rabbits better. It’s always fun to watch the enormous snake lure them into a false sense of security before he strikes. The other neighbors have dogs and cats; they have an enormous, highly dangerous serpent. But their muggle neighbors can’t see into their yard, so they’ll never know the difference.

 

After that Harry goes to work, and Tom goes to school.

 

He hasn’t managed to get rid of his annoying gaggle of girls, much to his dismay. Ruth and Margaret are okay, because they don’t giggle and squeal at him when he talks to them. And Wesley and Washy are alright, if only because they don’t talk much.

 

But it’s not the other children that he likes about school; it’s the classes. He loves each and every one, even the muggle ones, full of science and math. He doesn’t mind learning about muggle history, or reading muggle books in english class. It is a small price to pay for the rest of his classes, where he learns all about magic of all kinds. He hasn’t quite picked a favorite; he likes them all.

 

Alchemy is perhaps the most fascinating to him, because the potentials seem limitless. But like they learned in science class, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. One must always give something up of equal value to obtain what they want. It seems to be a running theme in his Alchemy and Blood Magic class. Balance is the key to life, he notices his teacher is very fond of saying. And it is also apparently the key to mastering the Dark Arts. 

 

Necromancy is a close second, even though dead things sort of scare him. They learn Necromancy in tandem with Healing, as Necromancy has less to do with killing things and more to do with keeping them alive. After all, the world is full of dead things already—the trick to Necromancy is being able to sustain them. Tom is quite good at Necromancy, actually. One time he’d managed to resurrect all the dead mice in their backyard. Some hadn’t been alive for hundreds of years, just wisps of bones, whittled away with time. Harry was horrified. Not because of the Necromancy and the whole dead stuff coming alive, but because of the dead mice. Harry doesn’t like mice—she really, really doesn’t like mice, to the point she gets mad at Spot when he doesn’t eat all the ones in the house.

 

Tom is also very adept in his Curses and Enchantments class. To Harry’s complete lack of surprise, he is at the top of all of his classes, but he has a special affinity for curses (also to her lack of surprise). Tom enjoys the class because he is so naturally good at it, but he’s not sure if it’s really his favorite. Curses are very dangerous things if misused, and enchantments are really cool in theory but not so cool in practice. They’re very tricky and difficult to master, and it depends a lot on the object that the enchantment will be placed on. Tom would much rather just pay for something already enchanted than go through the tedious process of making one himself.

 

He wasn’t all that fond of Shamanism and Conjuration, if only because his teacher seems to like Harry far too much. Whenever she comes to his school he always somehow manages to be around. The discipline has grown on him though; there is such an intrinsic, natural element to it. He hadn’t realized you could tell so much from a mound of dirt. It was the great power of the ancient tribal leaders of the continent—more interesting to him though was that it was also the great downfall of them. He’s so very fascinated with the idea of such a powerful civilization like the Mayans being wiped out by something of their own design. There is a great power to be found in nature, one that is perhaps far too powerful for humans to understand.

 

Tom enjoys school, this is true. But he’d still much prefer to stay with Harry.

 

He relishes the quiet moments when it is just the three of them, lounging in the living room, in bed, or at the breakfast table. He is almost always pouring over the dozens of new books he has for his classes; sometimes Harry reads as well, but most of the time she sits with her little folding metal box, and a great many papers all around her. She never lets him get too close to it though, insisting he’s not yet old enough to know what it is. Tom would be more stubborn about this, but his school texts prove to be ample distraction. Spot likes to wind himself around the two of them, or curl up like a big, scaly rug by the fireplace. It’s getting colder now, so he has become rather lethargic as of late. Lethargic—and petulant, always demanding them for more warmth.

 

He has also started conniving Harry into reading him bedtime stories. He proclaims that he is still young enough to need them, even though he can read proficiently at a level high above his age, and doesn’t need a story to put him to sleep. Harry indulges him anyhow, and they read through many fantastical worlds full of fantastical characters. Tom enjoys the Tales of Beetle the Bard the best—most specifically the Tale of the Three Brothers.

 

“They’re so stupid!” He exclaims, the first time Harry had read the story to him.

 

She looks down at him, curious. “Is that so?” She replies, quiet, and if he had been paying more attention he would have noticed something capricious in her tone. “Why do you say that?”

 

Tom scoffs. “Well with dark magic you can’t expect something without giving up something of equal value in exchange—everyone knows that! They should have never taken that offer; with objects like that, of course they would pay with their lives!” And then, snorting; “They deserved to be tricked if they were really that stupid.”

 

Harry runs an affectionate hand through his hair. He closes his eyes, leaning into it. “But everyone doesn’t know that, Tomcat.”

 

He harrumphs. “Everyone in my class does. Even Wesley, and he’s super slow and always manages to blow everything up. That’s the first rule of... of—everything!”

 

Harry laughs softly. “Maybe in your school, yes. But you must know Tom, not everyone learns the same kind of stuff you do. You go to a very special school, even by Magical standards.”

 

“That’s not true,” Tom insists. “Everyone says the Salem Institute of Magic is so much ‘better’ than we are.”

 

“That’s just school rivalry.” Harry waves off. “Anyway, the Founders, Wolcroft and Bassett, were also Salem Witches—both schools were founded by essentially the same group of women. One isn’t better than the other. They’re just... different.”

 

“I guess,” he bites out, reluctant. In his hands he twirls his wand round and round.

 

He likes to feel the wood in his hands. It reminds him that this really is his life—that he’s not in a dreary orphanage halfway across the earth, dreaming up this illustrious new world. Eleven-inches, Birchwood. They had spent ages in the store as he deliberated between this one and another wand; twelve-inches, sycamore, with a core of Basilisk poison. Harry had seemed very surprised when he chose this one in the end. (“Birch symbolizes truth, new beginnings, and cleansing of the past to the ancient tribes of the plains,” said the wandmaker, after he had made his decision: “Sycamore symbolizes ambition.”) He liked it, even though it wasn’t at all like the wand he’d seen in England.

 

“I’m very proud of you, Tom.” Harry murmurs, startling him out of his thoughts.

 

“Thank you,” he replies, flustered for some reason he can’t place, and feeling something warm envelop him at her words.

 

“You’re learning such amazing things,” she sighs into his hair.

 

He flushes. “So—so does everyone else in my class.” He insists, weakly. Normally he’d love to boast about his apparent prowess in academics, but with Harry he feels bashful.

 

“Not that,” she smiles into his hair. “There are far more lessons to be learned than those in the classroom.”

 

Tom frowns, not entirely sure what she means. But he is also very sleepy, and she is very warm, and the bed is very soft. It is a matter of moments before he is dozing in her arms.

 

Chapter Text

A F F E L A Y E | S E R I E S

 

crawlersout

 

// 3 //

 

Tom returns from school one day to see Harry home early from work, cursing at something as he hears a loud crash. He rounds the bend from the living room into the open space of the rest of the first floor, seeing Harry in the sitting room by the front door, with a tall, somewhat lopsided fir tree.

 

His breath catches in his throat at the sight.

 

A Christmas tree.

 

They hadn’t celebrated much last year, mainly because Tom was still getting used to living with Harry. It was a very quiet event; he sat by the fireplace and picked out all the furniture for his bedroom from dozens of magazines with the brightest pictures he’d ever seen, of illustrious, finely decorated rooms. His birthday was equally as quiet; just the two of them celebrating with a little cake and a few presents, more winter clothes and books.

 

This was the first time Tom had ever had a Christmas tree before. They’d never bothered with one at the orphanage.

 

It isn’t at all like the ones he’s seen in picture books; it is not fat and stout, but disproportionately tall and prone to leaning to the left. Still, it’s his Christmas tree, and he and Harry decorate it with all sorts of fun magical decorations. Harry strings up thousands of little white lights around the boughs, and Tom chooses very pretty silver baubles to hang on the eaves, all in marvelous shapes and sizes. After that, Harry waves her wand and dozens of snow fairies come to nest in the branches. By the end of it, it is the most marvelous thing Tom has ever seen. He never saw much use in getting worked up for Christmas, but he finds himself seized with an unbidden excitement this time.

 

As the days grow colder and colder, and the breathtaking New England autumn gives way to a snowy New England winter, the presents beneath the tree grow in number and size—until one day, Tom turns to look at it and is shocked to see how many there are. They all sparkle underneath the Christmas lights, wrapped in luxurious bows and captivating, luminescent wrapping paper. His eyes light up with wonder as he nears, crouching low at the tree.

 

They are not all for him: a great deal of them are for people he doesn’t know. But that isn’t to say there isn’t a fair amount with his name written on the tag in a lovely, familiar scrawl.

 

Tom only has one gift for Harry, and he hopes she likes it.

 

It’s nothing special—probably nothing at all like whatever lies in wait for him behind all that shiny wrapping paper. They had taken a break this month from soul enchantments to create Christmas cards for their parents. Tom was dismayed and outraged; he was very fascinated with the idea of enchantments solely based around the soul. Gems that could capture the souls of others—lacquered cabinets that, when opened, could suck your soul out. They weren’t in kindergarten! They were far past the age to be making arts and crafts. But he quickly changed his tune when he realized this was an excellent opportunity to make something for Harry.

 

The whole ordeal actually ended up being quite informative; he learned many new charms and enchantments, and used quite a few of them on his card.

 

Harry returns from work one day to say that they were making a return trip to Diagon Alley for Christmas shopping. Tom leapt at the chance to return to London—and perhaps find another worthy gift for Harry.

 

“Can I do it this time?” Tom asks, rushing over towards the fireplace and reaching for the floo powder. Tom goes to school everyday using the floo, but he’s never done it internationally.

 

“Well, alright,” Harry acquiesces, sounding unconvinced.

 

Tom doesn’t wait for her to change her mind. He throws the floo powder in. “Diagon Alley!”

 

He reappears at a somewhat familiar pub, after what seemed like at least a few minutes. He was actually starting to worry that he might have done something wrong. It seemed to work alright though, for he didn’t seem to be missing any limbs. He could have spelled them back using a bit of blood magic anyway, he thought proudly. Or at the very least, he could ask his professor to do it for him when he got back.

 

Harry ducks gracefully out of the fireplace soon thereafter, adjusting her scarf and brushing a bit of dust off her coat.

 

“That worked out rather well,” she grinned at him, before they exited into the alley.

 

“Harry,” he starts slowly.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Do you think I could go to stores on my own?” He asks in a rush. “I, um—want to get presents for my friends.”

 

Harry blinks. “Well sure, of course.” She pulls out a little pouch from her bag. “Don’t worry about the amount; it’s connected to a vault.”

 

His eyes widen when he opens it and peers in.

 

“Don’t go crazy now.” She laughs, tousling his hair. “And meet me back in front of the ice cream parlor in an hour, alright?”

 

“’Kay.” He is already racing up ideas for what to get her, darting out into the crowd.

 

//

 

Tom may have gotten some time alone to shop for Harry’s Christmas gift, but that didn’t mean he was anywhere closer to figuring out what he was even going to get her. He ponders this as he peruses the Alley, peering into windows as he wanders by. Every display totters with mystical items in an array of catching colors; most of it is junk, all of it is utterly fascinating, and none of it is stuff Harry would appreciate. He’s not entirely sure what Harry would appreciate, but he knows it’s not bat-eyes, or moon globes.

 

Fortunately his answer comes quickly enough, once he ends up following his nose. It is a patisserie, and Tom has a great fondness for anything copiously decorated in sugar. More to the point—so does Harry. She has been attempting to bake for the better part of the year, and it hasn’t been working out all that well. There’s a gift set of magical cooking ingredients, pots and pans and a cookbook that might actually help her in that quest.

 

He’s quite satisfied with it, all in all, and he has more than half an hour to wander about the Alleyway in earnest.

 

Tom manages to get himself quite lost when he takes a wrong turn down a quieter street, and ends up spitted back out in a far more foreboding section of the alley. He feels as if Harry may have warned him at some point about their being a far shadier part of Diagon Alley, but he can’t recall what she had said. And all his reservations are completely dashed away when he comes across a store front with The Coffin Shop in shoddy letters upon a tottering wooden sign—it is entirely dedicated to Dark Art materials related to raising the dead. How wonderful; they don’t have anything like this in Boston. The closest Necromancy shops he knows of across the pond are all in the arid deserts of the native American tribal lands.

 

He finds the shopkeeper quite amenable, if not a bit wary at his age.

 

“Where’s your Mum, little boy?” He scowls, when Tom walks in. “Don’t want to get lost now, do you?”

 

“I’m not lost,” Tom insists, looking around. There are vials and vials of blood, some far older than others; potions in glass bottles; withered limbs and knives and instruments made in a variety of metals, and an overpowering smell of death. It is all quite familiar and reassuring. “Is that a signet of the locust?” He peers into a glass case.

 

“It is,” replies the shopkeeper, frugally, eying him with consideration.

 

“Oh.” Says Tom. “It’s quite lovely. Do you have any spinal shivers?”

 

The old man points across the shop, where fine bones are laid out by size and structure. Tom takes a look at those, before his eyes catch on the many Necromancy staffs bolted to the wall. He eyes them longingly, wondering if Harry would get mad if he bought one of those—they certainly look pricey. But then, he might not even be allowed to; if they wouldn’t sell him a wand at ten, why would they sell him a necromantic staff? There are also enormous Necromancy chests and ritual tables which he’d love to get his hands on. They have a few at school, but they’re not allowed to use them without supervision.

 

He decides to refrain from trying his luck on any of them, if only because he doesn’t know how he would lumber one of those home. He does buy the locust signet though, because he’s been having trouble raising swarms and its supposed to act as a far more stable locus of magic than drawing out a rune. The shopkeeper approves.

 

He’s just exiting when he bumps right into someone.

 

It is a boy perhaps around his age, with a fine nose and coiffed hair, and a very foul expression.

 

“Watch where you’re going,” he snaps.

 

Tom eyes him warily, annoyed, and not in the mood to apologize to a petulant brat. “You watch it,” he scowls back.

 

The boy’s eyes turn livid. “You can’t talk to me that way!” He shouts, imperiously. “Don’t you know who I am?”

 

Tom’s mood sours further. “No—and I don’t care.”

 

“You don’t, do you?” the boy seethes, giving him a long once over. “But of course you wouldn’t know, yeah?”

 

Tom blinks, taken aback by the violent change of tone.

 

“I bet you’re a disgusting, filthy, mud

 

But he doesn’t get to finish. The cobbled ground beneath him splinters apart, and an enormous, skeletal hand made from dozens of dead things woven together erupts out of the earth and grabs him by the torso. The intricate claw moves in tandem, ripping the boy off the ground and holding him aloft. Tom smiles. The signet really does work. The complex ligaments are made from a variety of things out of the ground, though to his dismay he still has to work on the wrist joints; it looks as if it is about to crumble apart, waving the boy in its grasp at a very odd angle.

 

The boy’s blood-curdling scream is loud enough to attract the attention of the whole alley. Tom glances around at their shocked faces, waving his wand to drop him. He falls unceremoniously to the ground, and the hand crumbles apart, retreating back into the earth.

 

“I’m Tom Riddle, by the way.” He greets, happily, in a far more pleasant mood after that. He should have gotten a signet far earlier—no wonder Necromancers are so fond of them... he wonders what the Inca and Mayan ones must be like; he’s heard they have some amazing properties...

 

The other child looks far less sure of himself now that he’s been halfway crushed to pieces by a creature made from dead things, and is staring at Tom as if he hasn’t ever seen him before.

 

“How old are you?” He demands, righting himself on shaky legs. He looks far less confident now, though he attempts it anyway.

 

“Nine,” says Tom, matter-of-fact.

 

He looks scandalized. “You can’t have a wand! That’s illegal! You’re not even in school!”

 

Tom frowns. “I am in school.” He refutes. “I go to Wolcroft’s.”

 

“Where’s that?”

 

“In Salem.”

 

The boy looks pensive for a moment. “The States?” He says it less like a question and more like confirmation.

 

Tom nods.

 

“Ah,” and suddenly he looks quite amiable. “That explains it then. I guess you wouldn’t know.” He sticks out a hand. “Oswald Lestrange.”

 

“Well it’s nice to meet you, Oswald.” He takes the proffered hand, and smoothly lays on the accent. “Like I said, Tom Riddle.”

 

“You’re a Necromancer, then?” Oswald’s eyes light up, and Tom smirks.

 

“Not really,” he drawls, casual, sticking his wand back in his pocket. “It’s just one of the electives they teach there.”

 

“They teach Necromancy?” His eyes grow very wide and excited.

 

“They teach all the Dark Arts,” he remarks, off-handedly.

 

This most certainly gets his attention. “Is that so?” He replies, attempting indifferent but missing by a mile. His eyes are alit with a greedy hunger; Tom doesn’t like the look of it. “You’re really something, Riddle.” He decides, at length. “I like you.”

 

Tom cannot find it in him to care all that much what one spoiled pureblood thinks of him, and shrugs indifferently. “Thanks,” he says, because he is also not a fool, and knows better than to burn bridges just for the sake of it. “Are you in school?” He adds, on a whim.

 

“Not quite,” Lestrange sniffs. “But almost. I’ve only a year left.”

 

“Oh, me too.” Replies Tom. “For Hogwarts that is.” He spares the other boy a magnanimous smirk. “I find it rather daft, don’t you? It’s only in Europe they start school so late... did you know the Babylonian Institute of Magic starts at birth?”

 

“Do they really? Oh but yes, very daft indeed.” Lestrange agrees. “But my family has been schooled at Hogwarts for generations; it’s the principle of the thing, you see. It’s practically in our blood.”

 

Practically in his blood? Tom’s smirk grew. Oh, if only he knew...

 

“Are you to attend as well?” Lestrange cocks his head appraisingly at Tom.

 

Tom makes a grand show of nonchalance. “Dunno,” he shrugs. “We’ll see if it’s up to par—I hear they don’t teach any of the Dark Arts at Hogwarts.”

 

Lestrange tosses him an arrogant look. “Well, not all of us need to learn it at an institution, if you know what I mean...”

 

Tom’s eyes narrow. “I’m sure.” He remarks, snappish. “Well, I’m afraid I’m needed elsewhere. But it was a pleasure, Lestrange.”

 

The other boy’s eyes gleam in the sunlight. “And you as well, Riddle.”

 

//

 

Harry sighs, watching him disappear into the ebbing tides of Christmas shoppers. He’s still just a boy, not even ten years old yet—it’s completely natural for her to worry about him.

 

But then, he may be just nine, but he is by far a more talented wizard than any adolescent she has ever encountered—perhaps even some grown wizards. And he is far from defenseless, she reminds herself. She has no doubt that Wolcroft has been teaching him all sorts of deadly curses, but perhaps she had been right in her prior assumption. Tom shows an almost unhealthy fascination with the Dark Arts, but it seems to stop at that. Maybe he does know how to cast the most awful of black magicks; but he also knows the consequences of them.

 

It makes her smile involuntarily just thinking about it. He is already so grown up, and surprising her at each and every turn. There are so many signs that he is not the same boy he would have been had she not intervened—what he would have been without a soft touch, without a caring hand to guide him, or a reassuring smile.

 

Even Ron and Hermione agreed, when she relayed her progress to them. How could they not, when even his wand seems to speak for itself?

 

“Vault Key?” Called the Goblin, as she stepped up the front of the line.

 

“Right here,” she smiled. “It’s a satellite vault for an account in America, is that alright?”

 

“Certainly, Miss—“ The Goblin looks down. “Potter. My associate will lead you to your vault.”

 

She nods gratefully at the little goblin, making polite small talk all the way down. The goblin looks at her oddly, but warms up after a bit. Harry likes making friends with strange creatures; you never know when you’ll meet them again. Even her satellite vault has far too much in it—and that’s to speak nothing of her vault in her own time. She vows to give away half her fortune to some kind of charity. She wouldn’t want the kind of child who sat around and wasted away on their inheritance, anyway. She digs around, making sure there’s more than enough money for Tom to spend on whatever Christmas gifts he decides on, before she leaves.

 

Tom is waiting for her when she remerges from the bowels of the bank. He looks in far better spirits than he had been prior, and is carrying a little brown paper package laced in string. He hides it behind his back when she approaches, a little redness to his cheeks when he looks up at her. Harry smiles down at him fondly, suddenly compelled to swoop low and kiss his nose. He wrinkles it in a token protest, stating he is far too old for that, but the pleased smile on his face speaks otherwise.

 

“You find what you needed?” Harry rubs a hand through his hair.

 

Tom nods, humming his assent.

 

He is still in a fantastic mood after trying out his new Necromancy artifact, and can’t wait to go home and show Spot, and perhaps use it a few more times. He’ll try for the backyard’s dead squirrels this time, if only to appease Harry’s wish to keep the dead mice dead.

 

//

 

Harry leans against the framework of the porch door, arms crossed against the winter wind. Tom is out frolicking in the backyard, wearing Spot like a toga, talking imperiously to his new friends. Around him are a lot of pathetic looking dead things, all clamoring for his attention. He calls them his bone minions—Harry isn’t sure whether she is amused or appalled. He is not quite ten and yet he is already so far advanced for his age, surprising her at every turn. And not just in academics.

 

She doesn’t regret moving here, enrolling him in Wolcroft’s—starting this new life. It is more than worth it to see every lovely smile Tom turns her way, his shriek of laughter as he plays in the yard, his warm weight when she carries him to bed. Even now, watching him crouch in the snow; winter flakes drifting across his hair and nose; a little parade of dead squirrels dancing at his feet; she can’t help the involuntary smile that finds its way to her face. Because the darkness in him is undeniable—and that is perhaps not a bad thing.

 

“Tom,” she calls, and the boy turns around abruptly, all two dozen or so skeletal squirrel heads moving in tandem with him. “Would you like to open your presents now?”

 

“Yes!” Tom darts back towards the house. The squirrels crumble back into the fresh snowfall, before they are swallowed back into the ground.

 

She prepares them both hot chocolate, and settles herself by the Christmas tree, Spot on her lap.

 

She finds another smile lighting her face when Tom comes tumbling into the room, his eyes lit and wide as he scans through all the presents under the tree. She has some for the Weasley’s and Hermione in there, and for other friends, but the majority of them are for Tom. Though she feels a brief pang of sadness at the idea of missing a Weasley Christmas, she is happy to spend it here with just her and Tom. Anyway, she can always go back for Boxing day.

 

“Any of them?” He clarifies, breathless, eyes big and wide with wonder.

 

Harry laughs. “Yes, well, the ones with your name on it at least.”

 

He dives right in, going for—predictably—the largest one. The present lays far longer than it is wide, wrapped in sparkling blue paper that, upon closer inspection, has snowflakes that drift about on the paper, and a fat, fluffy silver bow tying it all together. He almost doesn’t want to open it; it’s so beautiful.

 

But his impatience gets the better of him, and then he is ripping it to shreds and staring down at the long, narrow box. He opens the lid and, if possible, his eyes grow even larger.

 

“A broom?” He says, darting his enormous eyes towards Harry. “Like the ones for the Quidditch team?”

 

“Yep.” She grins. “Now you can try out for the team!”

 

Tom gives her a mild look of alarm. “Maybe not that… but it’ll be nice to fly with Washy and Wesley—they’re always talking about it. They don’t shut up about it, actually.”

 

“Your friends?” Harry tilts her head. And then, with a vague gesture, “The one with the hair, and the other with all the freckles?”

 

“Uh-huh.” That is actually a very succinct and accurate description of them both. Though he wouldn’t ever refer to them as ‘friends’. They were growing on him though, as his general exasperation towards them has grown into a resigned exasperation.

 

Tom returns his attention to the broom in his lap, staring down at the fine wood as if he’d never seen a broom before. It wasn’t that—it was just… he’d never been excited about Christmas, never felt this strange, wondrous thrill run through him as he tore through the wrapping paper, felt himself shaking with excitement, practically unable to wait to run outside and use it.

 

But of course he hasn’t. He’s never had a Christmas before. Or at least, not like the ones in the pictures.

 

“Tom?”

 

He jerks his head up. Harry is watching him with a flicker of concern lit upon her features; Spot is wrapped around her shoulders—or at least, a part of him is, he’s not sure where the rest of him is, probably under the couch again—she is wearing a most unsightly Santa Claus hat, another strange shirt with writing that she always wears to bed, a pair of scandalously short shorts and long striped socks; her hair is a artful mess and there’s whipped cream on her nose and he has the sudden and overwhelming urge to run over to her and… and he doesn’t know. But it feels like there is no air left in the room, and his heart is about to beat out of his chest.

 

It might not be the kind of Christmas’s he’s seen in picture books or fairytales; but he has Harry, who matters far more than any brood of siblings ever could, and Spot, who makes for better company than most people. It’s not the picture perfect family; the husband, the wife, the sister and the brother and some mangy dog—but it’s his, and that’s more than enough. His heart squeezes in his chest, simultaneously feeling as if it will sink to the ground and explode out of his chest. He doesn’t know what to do with the feeling; it scares him, even.

 

“What’s wrong?” She frowns, lowering her hot chocolate.

 

He decides that anything is better than staying here, so he crawls over to her and throws his arms around her, burying into the warm skin under her chin; his favorite place. She catches him reflexively, setting her cup down just in time to catch his weight. Her hands rise to hold him steady; Spot slithers around her shoulders, brushing against Tom’s hair. His nose burns, and he grips her tighter, probably too tight.

 

Tom,” she murmurs, and it almost sounds—panicked? “What’s wrong? Are you alright?”

 

He makes an indecipherable noise.

 

“Did you… not like it?”

 

At this he vehemently shakes his head; that’s not it at all. “I love it.” He refutes, thickly.

 

“Oh.” She breathes out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s good.”

 

A hand draws into his hair, combing lightly. For some reason, it doesn’t make him feel better right now.

 

“Tom… what is it?” She asks again. 

 

And then, when he doesn’t reply, “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah,” is his muffled reply.

 

Harry pauses for a moment. And after a beat; “Then what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing,” he denies. “I’m just… I…”

 

He swallows, holding her so tightly his arms are shaking.

 

I’m just so happy, is what he wants to say. And it is true, he is practically bursting at the seams with this overwhelming emotion—but as it grows into something uncontrollable, it is accompanied by a cold, hysterical panic. Because he knows that nothing this good will ever last. It can’t. And the idea of losing it as soon as he’d found it is a prospect too horrifying to entertain, but an inevitable one all the same.

 

But perhaps he is so fearful for he is so happy right now, so content and warm and showered with affection—he has grown far too comfortable with it all. He doesn’t want to believe in this reality, because if it crumbles he doesn’t think he’d be able to live through it.

 

To his total horror, he finds that his eyes are wet, and even when he squeezes them shut something hot burns its way down his cheek.

 

“Oh, Tom,” Harry chokes, holding him just as tight.

 

He finds with great dismay that he might actually be crying in earnest now. As a consolation though, Harry is not unaffected, murmuring into his hair; “It’s okay, Tom, everything’s going to be okay,” smoothing the hair out of his eyes, placing a quiet kiss at his temple.

 

It is a most awful affair; he’s no idea why he suddenly starts bawling, as if he is some small, inconsolable and insensible child, but he is. He cries until his face is wet and ruddy and he can’t dislodge any words out of the chokehold on his throat. He doesn’t look up, clinging desperately with his arms wrapped tight around her, tiny hands fisting the material of her shirt. He doesn’t think he can look up, and face the world that exists outside of the soft warmth of Harry’s skin and the smell of quiet mist that clings to her. It all seems so terrible and he prefers to say here.

 

He has to acknowledge the existence of the rest of the world eventually though, but he waits until his tears have finally slowed, and he doesn’t feel so horrible.

 

Harry gently pulls him away, just enough to tilt his face up and get a good look at him. He peers back at her, sniffling pitifully. She doesn’t say anything, thumbing away the tears still gathered in his eyes, pressing their noses together in an eskimo kiss. He smiles slightly at that; it never fails to make him feel better. She doesn’t say anything for some time, actually, even as he wiggles around in her lap until he’s comfortable, and then promptly decides he doesn’t want to leave. She doesn’t make him either; she lowers them both to the floor, until he is still sprawled on top of her with his face in her neck, mindlessly enjoying the petting as she runs a hand through his hair.

 

They don’t open any more presents that day. He feels exhausted after all that crying and all he wants to do for Christmas is crawl back into bed with Harry and sleep off the rest of eternity. So they spend it in bed, huddled together under heaps of blankets and pillows, and he dozes away the hours of milky daylight in the comfort of Harry’s arms. Tom doesn’t explain to her why that sudden crying spell came over him, and Harry doesn’t ask. Tom doesn’t think he could explain it, anyway. Not when he doesn’t even know himself.

 

They open the rest of the presents the next day, and it is a happy, unmarked affair. He is enamored with all his new presents, though if he’s honest with himself, he’s not nearly as enamored with them as he is with Harry.

 

He doesn’t think there is any Christmas present on this earth that could compare to her.

 

//

 

Tom stretches his arms as the teacher calls for the end of class, rolling his neck. He feels as if he’s been hunched over his textbook for the better part of an hour—probably not an unfair assessment. Alchemy is just so fascinating; there are so many properties to learn, and so many ways to ruin it—Tom adores it all. It is such a finicky thing, less to do with Potions and more to do with fate and luck, but this is perhaps what Tom enjoys the most about it.

 

Margaret makes a grumbling, unhappy noise by his side. “I’m hungry,” she demands, imperiously. “Why can’t it be lunch time already?”

 

“The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.” Washy retorts, but the girl ignores it.

 

“Why don’t we have a picnic for lunch today?” Ruth suggests. “By the willow tree near the secondary school yard—with the pond? Maybe we can skate on it!”

 

“You’d probably just fall in,” Wesley teases.

 

“I would not!” Ruth protests, hotly.

 

Tom sighs, wishing he could find a way away from these people. As it is, they all clamor behind him and trot diligently in his wake when he leaves the room. He has no idea why they all follow him around; it’s fairly clear he doesn’t like them all that much. They take all the seats around him when he sits down for their Conjuration class, attracting a gaggle of peripheral friends that all chatter with them—and him, unfortunately.

 

They shut up really quickly when Professor Oz walks in the room, all the girls sigh simultaneously as he greets the class. Tom scowls; what’s so great about him anyway? He has stupid looking hair. He tells this to Washy: Washy agrees. But Tom thinks that might be because Ruth is also staring adoringly at their teacher, and Washy is staring adoringly at Ruth. But then, is Tom any better? Most of his distaste for the man comes from the fact he always seems to be around to talk to Harry whenever she’s here.

 

Tom tunes them all out the moment Professor Oz starts talking. He might not like the guy, but he can begrudgingly admit that he always has something interesting to teach. They’re learning to summon nature spirits, and he is explaining the concept of elemental affinities. Tom has read ahead, so he knows all about them. This doesn’t make him any less excited for it though; he is very curious to see what his elemental sign is.

 

“Now I want each of you to take hold of this piece of paper,” Professor Oz is instructing, as he walks around the room, handing out little sheets of innocuous looking parchment. “And on my mark, add a little twinge of magic to your paper.”

 

Ruth’s hand shoots up, flailing around wildly. “But Professor!” She cries “We don’t know how to do wandless magic!”

 

You don’t know, Tom thinks smugly. He has already been practicing.

 

Professor Oz laughs. “Sure you do! You do it all the time!”

 

The class gives him a collective look of incomprehension.

 

“Well come now,” he smiles. “What happens when you get very angry? Or very excited? Sad?”

 

“Accidental magic!” Answers Margaret.

 

“Very good Miss Buchanan.” He praises, much to Margaret’s utter delight. “That’s exactly right. Accidental magic is just another form of wandless magic. I want you all to remember that feeling, and concentrate it onto your paper. Don’t worry—it doesn’t have to be very much.”

 

There is a long silence as everyone attempts to do just that. By his side, Washy looks like he’s about to turn purple in concentration. Ruth appears to have given up about three minutes in—or perhaps she just wants Professor Oz to sit next to her and instruct her through it. Tom managed to get his in the first minute; much to the utter surprise of absolutely no one. He had assumed he’d be one of the first to get it to work, but he hadn’t expected his sign.

 

His paper shrivels up in a sizzling crack, and though it smokes in his hand there are no flames.

 

“Lightning,” Professor Oz remarks. “Wonderful, Mister Riddle!”

 

He frowns down at his paper, before ferreting through his book to see what it means. Margaret’s erupts into a burst of flames; she squeals in delight. Washy’s explodes in his face in a splash of wetness. He turns to their chapter, skimming through the pages. Lightning is equal parts air and fire affinity. He’s not sure what that’s supposed to mean though. Fortunately Professor Oz gives up on attempting to personally tutor half the class, deciding it is a lost cause and stops walking around and begins to explain the meanings of nature signs in earnest.

 

“Having one sign over the other doesn’t mean you’re only capable of utilizing one,” he lectures sternly. “So I don’t want any of you to use this as an excuse. That said, your sign is your affinity; when summoning nature spirits of your sign or casting elemental spells, you will have an easier time of it than you will with the others. It’s important to remember your sign; as you progress through your schooling and begin to cast more powerful and complex spells, you will want to specialize in spells of your particular sign.”

 

Tom’s eyes light up at the thought. The very idea of casting lightning bolts with his hands is making him want to run to the secondary school and beg one of the teachers to teach him. Wesley was telling him the other day that that’s what Benjamin Franklin did. Except he electrocuted himself and ruined a kite or something. Or maybe it was the other way around? Maybe he can ask Harry about it. She might not know how, but she can most certainly point him in the direction of a book or two.

 

Tom glides through the rest of the class in a fantastic mood, practically buzzing with excitement. He vows to spend his whole lunch reading ahead and studying on natural signs and affinities.

 

He doesn’t get the chance, because his schoolmates have accompanied him to his secluded spot.

 

Margaret is boasting about her parents once more, much to the annoyance of everyone else.

 

“No one wants to hear about your father again, Margaret.” Wesley rolls his eyes. “You’ve told us this story a thousand times.”

 

“I have not!” Margaret protests hotly. “And I’ll have you know my father is—

 

“The President of something interesting.” Washy sighs. “Yes, we know.”

 

“What about you, Tom?” Wesley interrupts her, drawing the unwilling boy out of his book.

 

“What about me what?” He sighs, irritated.

 

“Your parents.” He says. “You never talk about them. You have a Mom, right?”

 

“Harry’s not my Mum,” he replies. “She’s my… my guardian.”

 

“Oh.” Says Ruth. “But you said your Mom was a witch.”

 

“She was.” Tom agrees. “She died when I was a baby.”

 

“That’s so sad…” Ruth commiserates, looking like she might hug him. Horrified at the prospect, Tom quickly averts the subject.

 

“But I wouldn’t want to live with anyone but Harry. I like it like this. I don’t want anyone else.”

 

“It’s just the two of you alone?” Ruth gasps as if he has said something quite scandalous.  

 

Tom frowns. “Yeah. So?” He retorts, defensive.

 

“Harry’s not married?” She presses, sounding completely shocked, and totally judgmental. “But she’s so pretty—I bet she could have anyone in town. Even Mayor Hathaway, and he’s so handsome—did you see him in the papers the other day?”

 

“I did!” Margaret squeals. “Oh, he’s such a dreamboat

 

“Harry doesn’t need to be married!” Tom snaps, alarmed at the very prospect. He doesn’t care about the mayor, and even less his apparent good looks. The thought of Harry thinking anything like this is utterly horrifying.

 

“Yeah she does.” Ruth insists. “She’s a girl! How old is she?”

 

“Not old enough.” Tom replies.

 

“Well she has to be older than eighteen—

 

“What does it matter, anyway?” Tom interrupts, exasperated and not at all okay with this change of subject. The idea of Harry and… and anyone, deeply disturbs him. Harry is his. He can’t even contemplate the idea of her with anyone else without feeling ice cold fear wander down his back. Fear, and a pervasive, almost overwhelming anger. Burning so profusely it actually surprises him. He doesn’t think he’s felt this kind of fury over anything before.

 

“But how is she going to live without a husband?” Prods Ruth, looking genuinely (and irrationally) concerned. “Girls are supposed to get married! Girls take care of the house and the man goes to work and makes money and takes care of his wife.”

 

“I can take care of Harry just fine.” Tom rationalizes. “She doesn’t need anyone to take care of her, or anyone to make money! Harry already makes money!”

 

Margaret’s eyes grow wide. “Harry works?”

 

“Yeah,” Tom nods.

 

“Where? Is she a store clerk?” Margaret continues.

 

“A sales lady?” Ruth adds.

 

“Neither!” denies Tom. “She works… at a bank.”

 

“Oh, she’s a bank teller.” Margaret nods with solemn understanding.

 

“No,” Tom scowls. “Not like that.”

 

Margaret blinks. “Then how so?” She asks, innocently uncomprehending.

 

Tom bites his lip, debating. He’s not entirely sure what Harry does either. He thinks she’s remarked upon it once or twice, and he may have asked in passing, but nothing concrete is coming up. Except… “Investing,” he says. Margaret makes a delighted noise. “She works at their headquarters, in the John Hancock building, y’know, the really big one in Copley?—

 

Everyone knows that building, Tom—

 

“—And she does something super important. She has meetings all the time, and sometimes she doesn’t get back until really late.” He confides.

 

“That’s so cool,” Margaret breathes. “I want to be just like her! I want to have a job too—I don’t want to sit around all day. I want to be Katherine Hepburn.”

 

“Katherine Hepburn doesn’t work.” Wesley rolls his eyes.

 

“Yeah she does!” Margaret shrieks, incredibly offended. “She’s an actress! A moving picture star!”

 

“Yeah, but not like that.” Wesley retorts. “My dad works for a big bank, down in the Financial District. He’s always on the telephone talking to people about important sounding stuff. And he always gets a lot of mail.”

 

“She’s really not going to get married?” Ruth presses, completely ignoring the new vein of conversation.

 

“No!” Tom replies, scandalized. “Never!” He decides, vehement. And that is a promise.

 

“Harry doesn’t need to get married.” He decides, imperious. “Harry has me.”

 

And with that, he grabs his book and pivots smartly for the school building, deciding he’s better off waiting in the classroom and reading his book alone.

 

//

 

The thought eats at him for the rest of the day, and onwards into the rest of the week.

 

Will Harry get married? Ruth is right; all girls get married. They get married and have babies and clean the house and cook and stuff—everyone knows that. But Harry isn’t like other girls. Harry isn’t married, doesn’t have children, can’t clean without an evanesco and burns anything she cooks. Though with her new book she’s gotten a thousand times better at baking. Tom actually eats all the cookies before they’ve even been out of the oven for more than a half hour. And she doesn’t stay at home; she has a job and she makes money and she’s always working. If anything, she’s not home enough.

 

But Tom is starting to realize… Harry isn’t normal. They aren’t normal.

 

None of his peers still sleep in a bed with their parents. They don’t beg and whine for bed time stories; they don’t even like spending time with their parents at all, preferring to be out playing sticks on the street with their friends. In contrast, Tom hates most other children, adults, and even pets, and he would prefer to spend every single hour of the day with Harry if he could. Even by magical standards Tom and Harry aren’t normal.

 

Regardless of all this, he doesn’t want to give any of it up.

 

He mutinously clings to Harry all week, refusing to be far from her side, cuddling insistently when they sit to read after dinner, and demanding she pick him up and carry him to bed. Harry indulges him. She always does; Harry never withholds affection. And he never wants to stop having it directed towards him. Him—and only him. Spot is okay. But no one else.

 

He’s still clinging to her when they settle for bed that night. It is Friday, and though he is very excited to have her all to himself for Saturday, the thought is not enough to reassure him, or placate his sudden and besieging need to be close to her at all times.

 

And though she allows him to crawl into bed next to her, worming his way until he can wrap his arms around her neck and press his nose against her collar, she does call him out on it eventually.

 

“What’s wrong, Tomcat?” She whispers into the early-evening dark, petting his hair.

 

He makes a noise of discontent, burrowing further. Spot slides over both of them. Harry makes an exasperated noise, kicking him back to the bottom of the bed.

 

“Tom,” she murmurs, pressing a kiss into his hair. “Will you tell me what’s wrong?”

 

His fingers curl into the material of her shirt.

 

“I…” He swallows, suddenly unable to make any words rise from his throat. He feels a sting in the back of his nose, and grows angry at himself for being such a baby. He’s already cried once this year—although maybe it counts as last year—and that’s already one time too many. He’s ten now! He’s practically an adult! Well maybe not—but he’s always prided himself on being very independent and mature.

 

She rubs his back reassuringly, not pressing further, simply waiting until he’s ready.

 

Tom takes a breath. “Harry… are you—are you going to leave me?” He croaks out, desperate and quiet.

 

“No, of course not. I would never leave you.” Is Harry’s immediate response. And after a thoughtful pause; “What’s got you thinking that?”

 

He frowns, sniffling. “But what if you get married to someone?” He returns.

 

Harry’s absent petting stops.

 

“What if,” he begins fearfully. “What if you find someone? Someone you like? Like—like Mayor Hathaway or that movie picture star—”

 

“Tom,” there is a hint of amusement to her voice. “I don’t even know who that is. Why do you think I’m getting married?”

 

“Well all girls get married.” He points out, pushing away from his hiding place to look into her eyes. There is a tender affection, directed towards him. Only for him. He loves this look; it reminds him of all the sweet and lovely things in the world, it reminds him of what’s his. Will this look one day turn to another?

 

All girls?” She raises a brow.

 

Yes.” Tom emphasizes.

 

“Well that can’t be true—

 

“It is though!” He cuts her off, mutinous. “Everyone says so—

 

“Who’s everyone?”

 

He pauses, flushing. “Well…” he hesitates. “I dunno. Everyone at school. They all say that girls get married. I guess sometimes they can have a job and stuff, but they always have a husband.”

 

Harry laughs. He’s not sure if he’s relieved or hurt by her nonchalance. “Well, not this girl. There’s no need to worry about that, kiddo.” She leans in to rub their noses together, smiling conspiratorially. Tom finds himself smiling back. “You’ll always be my number one.”

 

“Oh.” He blinks. “Okay.” He says, happily, placated with this answer, promptly returning to her warmth.

 

Harry draws him close again, running her fingers through his hair. He is warm, comfortable, and relieved after a long week of constant worry. Worry over nothing, apparently. Harry doesn’t seem interested in any of that stupid stuff—or at least, not any time soon. And anyway, he’d never let it happen, he can at least be assured of that. Spot slithers his way back to them, draping his long body over them like a winding blanket, before he shoves his nose in between them. This time, Harry sighs in resignation and doesn’t kick him out. Tom makes a noise of content; sleep finds him easily.

 

Chapter Text

 

// 4 //

 

A small girl with vermillion hair leans against the sliding porch door, cold wind in her hair and a dispossessed expression on her face. Harry sighs, rubbing her temples as she watches Tom out in the yard, once again the conductor of some kind of undead symphony. At least he looks to be enjoying himself—enjoying himself, and not attached to her hip, that is.

 

She supposes it’s not all that surprising. It is apparently (according to the dozens of parenting books Hermione is so fond of) quite natural, considering the circumstances. Tom is insecure, and no matter what she does, he most likely will continue to be insecure about their relationship and his position in her life for some time to come. It’s normal for him to be possessive. Most children are, actually, though not normally to this extent, and not normally at this age.

 

But then, even considering all the mitigating and unique circumstances, she and Tom are—different.

 

Though to be honest with herself, she’d never expected otherwise.

 

They have a history that Tom has no awareness of; an intimate connection, probably far more intimate than any other connection on this earth. She is a part of him, and he is a part of her; two halves of the same soul. Even if Voldemort is dead, and the horcrux inside of her has been destroyed, this doesn’t change the fact that they are still irrevocably intertwined, and have been even since before she was born.

 

His possessiveness, his unwillingness to let her go, and his extreme panic at the thought of her having a close relationship with anyone else—these all may be due to his insecurities and abandonment issues, but it goes far deeper than that. The Dark Lord Voldemort was vehemently protective of his horcruxes; the only possessions he held in any legitimate regard. More than that, even. His obsession with them exceeded even his mad hunt to exterminate the muggles and his goal of purging the world of Muggleborns. Harry isn’t foolish enough to think that’s the sort of emotion that goes away—that isn’t something rooted deeply within him.

 

“It’s so cold, Tom.” She whines, tugging her scarf tighter. “Why don’t you come inside?”

 

Tom does not seem to mind the bitter chill as it whips across his face; his cheeks are a bright red, as is the tip of his nose, and there are snowflakes in his hair. But this all seems to make him even more enamored with the winter cold.

 

“I’ll come in really soon, promise!” Is his uneager response.

 

Harry eyes him critically. “You’re going to catch a cold,” she warns, but it goes unheard. Honestly though he’ll probably get sick either way—that is the beauty of school; which is just a whole lot of snotty kids rubbing their hands over everything.

 

The dead things crumble away, and then Tom scampers back towards her, and unsurprisingly barrels right into her and demands to be picked up and carried. She does not miss his eagerness as he wraps his arms around her neck; the tight grip of his fingers, the nose that buries itself into her hair. She adjusts him on her hip, sliding the door closed with a foot and moving into the warmth of the rest of the house. She deposits him onto the couch; the moment she returns with her tea and sits down as well he clamors over to her, resting his head against her leg as he reads his book.

 

Harry absently pets his hair as she goes through all the mail. How do they manage to accumulate so much of it? She hasn’t given her address to anyone. Well, then again, this house gets mail in two entirely separate time periods, maybe it was only inevitable. Most of the ones from her time are junk; the twins have sent her another package of heinous shirts; catalogues from mail orders she didn’t remember signing up for; a few work related things; a statement from Gringotts. There is one envelope addressed in completely unintelligible chicken scratch. Curiously she moves to pick it up. It’s not addressed to her.

 

“Tom,” she calls. He makes a reluctant noise. “You have mail.”

 

At this, he blinks, bolting upright. “I do?” He replies with no small amount of surprise.

 

She hands the letter out to him, and he wastes no time in divesting the letter of its wrappings and reading through it. Quite frankly, she’s impressed he can read it at all.

 

He pulls a face then, and hands it back to her with little aplomb, settling once more into her lap. Harry reads it herself, a bit surprised when she sees what it is. An invitation to a birthday party. A little girl’s one, at that. She can see why Tom is so disturbed by it; the letter is pink with a lot of hearts and flowers on it—she can only imagine what the party is going to look like after seeing this small preview. She places it aside with all the rest of the mail.

 

“You don’t want to go?”

 

He shakes his head vehemently in response.

 

“Why not?” She murmurs, peering down at him. “I thought this Ruth girl was your friend?”

 

“She’s not my friend.” He replies immediately, sounding horrified at the very prospect. “And I don’t want to go.”

 

“It seems like it’ll be fun. And all your classmates will be there, so you’ll know everyone.” She notes.

 

“I don’t care.” Tom is studiously fixated upon his book. “I don’t want to go to a party.”

 

“What’s so wrong with a party?” She returns.

 

“It sounds terrible and boring.” He announces. “And anyway, I would rather stay here.”

 

There is a long pause as Harry continues to stroke his hair, lost in thought. “It’ll be good to get out, you know.” She says quietly, after some time has passed. “And meet other people, and play with them. Human interaction is important, Tom.”

 

“But I don’t want to do any of that!” Tom protests, lowering his book and rolling around to look up at her. “I want to stay here with you!”

 

“Tom,” Harry sighs, but he cuts her off.

 

“I don’t care about any of them.” He declares. “And I don’t want to go to some stupid party. I don’t need friends—I have you and Spot.”

 

“Tom, Spot is a snake.” Harry points out. “And I’m—well, different. You need to interact with people your own age.”

 

“No I don’t!” He cries. “I have you.”

 

She takes a long breath. “That’s different, Tom.”

 

“But why?” He pouts, moving to sit up.

 

“Because—“ She hesitates. “Because we’re different. And that’s… okay.” She hedges. Tom’s expression has turned very complicated. “It’s okay that we’re different.” She reassures. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be normal. And I don’t count; I’m not your age.”

 

“That makes no sense.” He decides, mutinous. “Why would I do that? Don’t you always tell me to be who I am, and never try to be anyone else?”

 

“Well yes,” she replies patiently. “But who were are on the inside is different than what we show on the outside. You’ll be put in a lot of situations where you’re going to have to pretend to be someone you’re not—you’ve already done it, haven’t you?”

 

His nose shrivels up, and a conflicted look crosses his face. She’s right; he does do that. He manipulates people into doing what he wants all the time, by acting a certain way or pretending to be something else.

 

“Yes,” he gives a dramatic sigh. “Are you telling me that I should go, and pretend like  I actually like them?”

 

“I think you actually do like them, and do like being around them,” Harry refutes, amused. “But you would prefer to be at home, reading.”

 

He nods.

 

“That’s fine—but life is all about balance, isn’t it? It’s not good to only have a lot of one thing and not a lot of the other.”

 

He nods again, looking reluctant at that. It is the prime principle in Alchemy, his favorite class, and a defining property in all the other forms of the dark arts. Transmutation is all about balance, and ignoring that principle is where things start to go wrong. It appears that this law exceeds the dark arts and remarks upon some significant statement on life itself. He can privately admit Harry is right, but this doesn’t make him any happier about it.

 

“I guess,” he bites out, stubborn until the very end.

 

Harry smiles at his mulish determination. “So you’ll go then?”

 

He heaves another dramatic sigh, flopping back down onto the couch. “If I must.”

 

//

 

Harry runs a wary hand through her hair, sitting at the kitchen table and attempting to sort out the mess atop it. The bills came in. That’s fine and all, even though she’s essentially paying a double utility bill every month—but the sum isn’t even remarking upon in the thirties, so she doesn’t really mind—it’s not really the water and electricity she’s worried about. It occurs to her that this is the season for filing taxes; this is not an event limited only to the Muggle world, unfortunately. It would be much easier if it were.

 

She has no idea how she’s supposed to claim two separate properties that are kind of actually the same one. And how exactly is she supposed to file in the first place, when she technically doesn’t exist in this dimension? And this place doesn’t exist in this dimenion? She could lie, but those goblins are going to find out eventually, and she doesn’t want to have to go through the inevitable mess that will be.

 

Harry rubs her temples, wondering the best way to go about this. It’s not the goblins she has to worry about—it’s the state. She can only imagine the confusion that will occur once they start reading through her file.

 

After worrying over it for the better part of the morning, she decides it might just be best to pay the government a visit and explain it in person. It’s not as if it was very far—just down by the harbor.

 

This is how the unremarkable morning finds Harry Potter peering curiously into an elaborate building of opalescent silver stone, standing beneath a grand archway at the center of the complex. The street behind her crowded with the murmur of people, and in front of her was nothing but a spectacular view of the water. Light caught along the lines of waves, speckling against the intricate mosaic work in brilliant colors. She looked around the courtyard; there were four doors, two on each side of the archway. Well, if she picked wrong, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure her way back, right?

 

“Hello, excuse me,” she called hesitantly, when she finally managed to find something resembling a receptionist desk. “I’m looking for the Department of Financial Services?”

 

“Union or Confederation?” Is the man’s bored response.

 

Harry blinks. “Well—Union, I suppose.” She honestly doesn’t know enough about the American Ministry to know.

 

He ushers her down a narrow, twisting hallway. The building is clearly very old, perhaps even centuries; even clearer is the fact that the architects didn’t bother to tear anything down for renovations—rather, they simply build on top of it. Or around it, in some cases. She found the Department easily enough, after asking for directions more than a few times.

 

Unfortunately, it appeared she was leading herself in the wrong direction.

 

“I’m afraid you’ll have to take this down to Washington; time travel isn’t in our jurisdiction.” Is the apologetic response from the Financial Services director. “Not to mention, you may need to clear this personally with your Governor.”

 

Harry gapes. It’s really that big of a deal? She supposes it might have been remiss of her to assume it wasn’t. She… is in a rather complicated position.

 

She sighs. “He’s accessible through the Floo, I’m hoping?”

 

This is how Harry finds herself somehow, illogically, waiting in the grandiloquent lobby of Capital Hill.

 

The young woman looks around quite curiously; she’s never been to the Capital before—in this time or her own. She’d never been to this side of the pond at all, actually, until very recently. It’s quite lovely. The Ministry of Magic and the British government share very few similarities; it’s clear to see the two worlds branched away from each other long ago. In contrast, the muggle government here is just as much a part of the muggle world as the magical. Maybe she shouldn’t be though. After all, this was a relatively new country; England’s been around since… well she doesn’t even know. She is quite surprised when she’s informed that the President himself is, indeed, a wizard.

 

“A Harvard fellow, you know,” the wizard beside her adds, reverently, when she voices her surprise aloud. After he has already gushed about the man’s achievements for at least another fifteen minutes.

 

Harry nods politely, wondering if there was a polite way to get out of this situation. “How wonderful. Law, then?”

 

“Not at all!” The man enthuses. “Graduated from the School of Transmutation! Really though, it’s his wife that’s got the talent. Not that you’d tell from looking at her.”

 

Fortunately for the both of them, the chattering man is drawn away soon thereafter, moving down the queue when his name is called. Harry looks around the lobby; there are very few people maundering about the vast entryway, especially considering it’s a weekday. They are all dressed in fine, expensive suits, as opposed to the long dress robes she’d expected. She also would have expected quite a few more of them. As it is, there is only one other man waiting on this side of the lobby, opposite her in a comfy leather armchair, a low slung table dividing them. She’s taken aback to see that the paper he’s so invested in is the Daily Prophet.

 

“The Prophet?” She asks aloud. “Are you from England?”

 

“Oh no, not at all.” The man says cheerily, lowering the paper to glance at her. He is quite a handsome man, with a roguish, charming smile and lemon colored hair; he looks as if he belongs here, in all this opulence, situated like a king upon a casual throne. “And thank Merlin for that.”

 

Harry’s lips tilt at that. “And yet you seem quite familiar with their colloquial terms.” She reasons: no one says Merlin outside of Britain. “So you must not be from around here.”

 

He snorts. “Well, I’m certainly not a Yankee, if that’s what you mean.”

 

“No?” She returns, politely. “Where are you from, then? If you don’t mind me asking.”

 

“Germany.” He replies at length, and she thinks there might have been a beat of hesitation somewhere in there. Well, perhaps it’s not all that unfounded; she hasn’t been keeping up to date with the happenings in this time, but she knows enough about history to infer that this might not be the best time to be a German in America. Or maybe it was the other way around? At any rate, she vows to look it up on google when she gets back to her time—Hermione introduced her some time ago, and she is quite convinced that there is nothing better on this earth than that silly little search engine. Well, maybe her smart phone.

 

“Oh, that’s lovely—I’ve always wanted to go.” She smiles pleasantly, attempting to find something neutral to talk about. Small talk has never been her area of expertise, no matter how many times she’s been made to do it, it always makes her fluttery and nervous. “I’ve been meaning to go to Berlin for ages.” Preferably before it becomes inaccessible, she wisely does not say.

 

“You should!” He agrees readily. “Lovely place. Personally, I enjoy Frankfurt over Berlin—more modern, I think. I’ve never been one for the sleepy countryside; I prefer to be in the heart of it all. Not that Berlin is much of the countryside, but it’s far smaller than Frankfurt.”

 

“I enjoy the city far more than the country myself.” She nods solemnly.

 

His smile is utterly dazzling, and incredibly lethal at point blank range. Harry blinks a few times, feeling blinded by it. “My sentiments exactly.” He opines, rakishly. “Now if you don’t mind me asking, what’s a lovely dame like yourself doing waiting around this boring old place?”

 

“This ‘boring old place’ is the heart of legislation for the world’s largest economy,” she notes, amused. “But unfortunately I’m not here for the sightseeing.” She holds up her folder with exasperation.

 

He raises a brow.

 

“Taxes,” she explains, resigned. “Doesn’t matter where in world you go, or where in the world you’re from, I suppose—they’re always such a tedious task.”

 

The flaxen-haired man looks quite surprised at this. “You do your husband’s taxes?”

 

“Oh, no, I don’t have a husband.” Harry reveals, laughing lightly, not taking offense. It seems to be the first thing anyone asks in this era; not to mention, the only thing anyone seems to care about. If anything, people seem to take offense at the idea of her not having one. “I’m afraid these are all mine to deal with.”

 

He raises a brow, looking impressed as he leans back in his chair. “Well aren’t you full of surprises,” he appraises, marveling. “You must either be very famous or very infamous to land yourself in here.”

 

“Oh, I’m neither, really,” she gives him a facsimile smile. “Just complicated.”

 

“I’ll say,” he observes, a winsome grin upon his face as he sprawls elegantly on his chair. “And very fascinating,” he adds, lowly. Harry swallows warily, not sure if she likes his tone. It’s gone in a moment, replaced by something cheery and polite. “What is it that you do?”

 

“I work in finance,” she relays, vaguely.

 

“Big industry,” he quips, calling her out on her obvious ambiguity. “Banking, then?”

 

She shakes her head. “Investing,” she returns.

 

If possible, he looks even more surprised. Surprised—and calculating. “Very surprising indeed.” He murmurs, bright citron eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Hedge Fund?”

 

She shakes her head again. “Venture capital.”

 

“How exciting,” he purrs. “You hadn’t struck me as much of a gambler.”

 

“I’m not, really.” Harry is not sure if she likes where this conversation is going.

 

“And yet, I don’t think there are higher stakes than that.” He points out. “Big risks.”

 

She smiles back, tightly. “Oh well—big risks, big returns, and all that.” Not that she does any of the actual investing.

 

She startles a laugh out of him at that. “I certainly can’t refute you on that,” he concedes, gazing at her shrewdly. “No better place to gain your fortune—or lose it, for that matter.” And then, curious, “What made you decide to get into it? I’m sure a woman of your… temperament would have no trouble enjoying a life without the need to work at all.”

 

In a time period like this, that actually might have been a very polite thing to say, but it only serves to exasperate her. This man is lucky she’s not Hermione, who would have wacked him in the head with her chair and given him a lecture so scathing it would have stripped him of his dignity.

 

Instead, she simply holds her facetious smile. “Or maybe I’m just enjoying a life without the need of a husband.” She turns around.

 

He blinks at that, clearly taken by surprise.

 

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman quite like you.” He confesses, shaking his head with wonder. “And I mean that with the… highest compliments. You are quite the clever little creature.”

 

Harry is not sure why she feels flustered at this; she has met far more forward men in her own time, not to mention far more intimidating, and far more attractive. She can’t quite place what it is about this man that has her… on edge. And she can’t quite place whether what she feels is excitement or alarm. It’s hard to say in the face of that roguish, lop-sided smile. He is far too charming not to be dangerous.

 

“Oh, well, thank you. That’s very kind.” She replies, after a beat.

 

Some of her hesitation must show on her face, for he frowns at that, sitting up. “I apologize,” he says sincerely, looking genuinely concerned. “I hadn’t meant to make you uncomfortable.”

 

She fights a smile. “It’s alright—it takes far more than that to unnerve me.” Not after she’s stared her own death in the face; not when she’s had to fight against the most dangerous dark wizard of all time.

 

“Wit, beauty and courage.” He chuckles. “I’m afraid you’re only endearing yourself more to me.”

 

Harry blinks, a thought occurring to her. “Perhaps I should be the one apologizing then,” she allows at length. “That wasn’t my intention.”

 

“I know.” He agrees, standing up in one graceful, fluid motion, fixing his suit jacket and folding his paper over his arm. He winks. “That in and of itself is perhaps the most endearing thing at all.”

 

And then he blinks, tilting his head suavely as he studies her. “I don’t think I caught your name,” he observes, with a dark, searching gaze.

 

Harry swallows. “Um—it’s Harry. Harry… Riddle.” That’s okay, right? Potter is a fairly unremarkable last name; in the muggle world, anyway. But she doesn’t want people to make any kind of connection between her and one of Britain’s sacred twenty-eight.

 

She’s never quite understood the whole hand-kissing thing—it only ever serves to make her uncomfortable. It’s about a thousand times worse with this man; she feels her cheeks redden at the barest touch of his lips against the back of her hand. Or perhaps it’s not because of his lips, but the smoldering look her fixates upon her soon thereafter.

 

“A beautiful name for a beautiful woman,” he muses, and Harry didn’t think she’d ever meet someone who could pull off a line like that so successfully. If anyone else had said something like that to her she would have laughed in their face; as it is, she is fighting to look even slightly composed.

 

She’s not sure how he knew that he would be called away at this moment, but it’s clear he did, for not a moment later a page boy walks briskly into the magnificent lobby, striding with purpose. The boy’s eyes sweep the vast marble room, before he walks with determination towards them.

 

“Lord Grindelwald?” He greets, with an extravagant bow. “The President will see you now.”

 

He nods once at her. “Well, it was a pleasure, Harry.”

 

She finds her composure well and truly slipping at that, and she is entirely incapable of responding.

 

//

 

Tom leaps at her the moment she gets home, furiously demanding answers for her lateness. She answers this with a fierce hug of her own; it seems their roles are switched today, for she finds some semblance of normalcy as she breathes in the scent of his hair, finding comfort in its familiarity. The young boy seems quite taken aback by her apparent fervor, but this does not deter him from immediately hugging her just as tightly.

 

He pulls away then, an adorable moue of determination settled upon his features. “Harry, what’s wrong?” It is less of a question and more of an interrogation.

 

Harry shakes her head, sighing. “Nothing. I’m so sorry I’m late, Tom. Are you hungry?” She rises to her feet, running a hand through her hair. “I don’t think I’m up to cooking, honestly; what do you say to ordering out? Pizza okay?”

 

“Never mind the food,” Tom frowns, tugging at her shirt. “What happened? Why were you so late?”

 

“Oh, Tom, it’s nothing.” She smiles brightly at him. “I got stuck running a whole bunch of tedious—and exhausting—errands, that’s all. It’s just been…frustrating.”

 

He pouts, not entirely convinced. Harry is very good at pretending she’s perfectly fine—but Tom is very good at reading through all of that. Unfortunately, deducing that something is wrong, and getting Harry to admit to it are two entirely different things. Harry opens up the freezer and pulls out a frozen pizza from a box—it never ceases to amaze him that a whole pizza can just be frozen up like that; is it magic?—and promptly pretends like nothing is wrong. Tom scowls. He’s not a kid! She doesn’t have to lie to him—he’s perfectly capable of comforting her.

 

Meanwhile, Harry was scolding herself for being so easily shaken up about things. To be honest, she wasn’t sure what it was about the whole ordeal that concerned her. It shouldn’t be so surprising to see Grindelwald making his connections with the leaders of society—he was trying to wage a war, for Merlin’s sake. She can only imagine what he was doing holding a meeting with the President; trying to get him to support him? Support him how? Probably money, most likely, and to help put pressure on wizarding Europe. Like many of the Asian countries, America’s muggle leader and its wizarding leader were the same person. She’s not sure why it’s so different in Europe—but she can only imagine how much easier that’s going to make things for a person like Grindelwald, who’s looking for support in both worlds anyways.

 

He says no, she reminds herself. This is obvious; one only has to pick up a textbook to know what happens to this country in the coming war. America staunchly refuses to get involved—she wonders if there might be a reason for that. But what could the dark lord possibly have said to convince the president to attempt to stay as far away from the war as possible?

 

Harry decides this actually has nothing to do with her. She’s fought in one war, and she has no intention of getting herself involved in another. Her eyes trail away from the oven to the little boy pouting on the couch with his pet snake. She can’t endanger herself so recklessly anymore. She couldn’t even imagine the devastation it would cause Tom.

 

But perhaps what really had shaken her was how—amiable, he was. Charismatic, handsome, practically a dashing prince charming for all intent purposes.

 

She remembers coming to the surprising conclusion that Dumbledore must have shared quite a history with that man—a very intimate one, at that. It’s weird to finally meet the man whom her headmaster was so enamored with. Privately, she can see why. He had a way with people, that was for sure.

 

No wonder so many people flocked to him during his rise to power.

 

She pauses then, and her gaze finds itself to the boy on the couch once more. She feels something strange and sad crawl its way into her chest. Was Tom Riddle the same? Was he a charming, handsome, and alluring young man, who could entice people to his side with only an elegant smile? She remembered he had no trouble conning that old Hepizbah Smith into complacency. It wouldn’t be such a stretch to assume he did the same with others.

 

The oven dings, startling her out of her thoughts as she bangs her head on the vent. Harry curses, before she shoves the pizza into it and promptly makes for Tom.

 

He is still staring determinably out the window, clutching Spot in a vice-like grip.

 

“Tom?” She sits next to him, wondering why he is so upset. Is it some subconscious emotional echo from her own distress? She doesn’t know what else could have set him off, but either way it’s clear that he’s upset.

 

When he doesn’t respond she pulls him closer, smoothing back his hair. “What’s wrong, kitten?”

 

“Don’t call me that!” He pushes away from her abruptly, with a force that surprises her. “I’m not a kitten!”

 

“Alright,” she pacifies, growing more concerned.

 

Tom takes a deep breath, feeling foolish suddenly. Foolish and guilty; he shouldn’t be taking his anger out on Harry. There is a quick flash of hurt in her eyes when he wrenches away from her, and it’s doing terrible things to his heart. It only takes a moment before he is dropping Spot—much to the snake’s chagrin—and tucking himself against her, burying his face against her neck.

 

There is nothing he likes less than apologizing; he is very sure he’s never wrong, so it’s not like he needs to. More to the point, he is also very sure that he doesn’t care for anyone’s opinion on him, so he never feels as if he should make it up to them. Except for Harry, of course. Harry is his, and there are very few things he can truly call his own, so he should take better care of her.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles into her hair. “I just…”

 

He doesn’t want to have to explain it. He knows it’s stupid, but he doesn’t want Harry to think of him like a little kid. He wants to be more mature than that in her eyes—even if he still likes to be picked up and held by her and read bed time stories. It’s… a bit of an oxymoron, he knows. Which is why he feels stupid. He can’t have one without giving up the other. If he doesn’t want Harry to see him as a little kid, he should probably stop sleeping in her bed. The idea is mildly upsetting to even contemplate. He loves his room; he got to pick out all the furniture all by himself. He just prefers Harry’s more.

 

“Oh, Tomcat, it’s alright.” She saves him from actually having to go through with the apology, fortunately. She stills then. “Oh, sorry. Would you rather me—

 

He shakes his head vehemently. “No, it’s okay.” He didn’t mean to snap. Now that he’s not feeling embittered, he doesn’t want her to stop calling him endearing names, no matter what they are.

 

She huffs softly. “Well, okay then. Would you like to tell me what’s wrong?”

 

He purses his lips, drawing away from her to study her sternly—even though he is attempting to look serious, it comes out more like a rather adorable look of determination. “Would you like to tell me what’s wrong?” He parrots back to her.

 

She blinks at that, before shaking her head with a small smile. “It’s really nothing, Tom. You don’t have to worry. I was just—stressed. It’s been a pretty tiring day.”

 

“But you looked upset when you came in.” Tom notes, frowning. “And sad.”

 

Harry pauses. “Well, maybe a bit.” She agrees. And then, with a slow smile she leans in to rub their noses together. “But you made it all better, right?”

 

He returns her smile. “Right.”

 

She gets up soon after that, snapping her attention to the kitchen where Spot is attempting to open the oven door and make a play for the food. “Spot!” She reprimands, leaping towards him. “Stop that—you’re going to burn yourself!”

 

But I’m so hungry,” Spot whines, wiggling around in dismay.

 

Harry scowls. “Then go outside and catch your own food. There are plenty of rabbits.”

 

I don’t want to catch food.” Is Spot’s petulant response, before the banana colored snake sighs and slithers over towards the porch door. He is so long that it takes quite a few seconds before the entirety of him is out the door.

 

Harry grumbles at him, waving the door shut with an absent hand. Tom marvels at the little displays of wandless magic she performs; so practiced and instinctual, as if it wasn’t hard at all. Tom wants to be able to do that. She is looking into the oven with great consternation; he wonders if she accidentally burned it. It wouldn’t be surprising. Harry is very good at cooking—but only a handful of things. Everything else she’s rather abysmal at. She says she hates cooking, actually, and never enjoyed it much. She had remarked once that there was a time in her life where she cooked quite often—and she hated it, and promptly refused to even touch a stove ever since. She eventually had to learn again when she started living on her own. This in and of itself is strange. He doesn’t know any women who live alone, not in the neighborhood, or in the surrounding ones, or even at school. He also doesn’t know of any women who don’t like cooking; even Margaret and Ruth and all the girls in his class know how. Most of them have grand aspirations of being housewives like the ones on the telly. Well aside from Margaret, who wants to rule the world in a most tyrannical manner.

 

Harry wrenches open the oven door with a brilliant smile. “Almost burned it,” she laughs weakly as she sets it upon the counter.

 

Tom shakes his head with fondness. Maybe he should learn how to cook. It can’t be any harder than potions, and it’ll save Harry from having to do it all the time.

 

“Good thing you didn’t!” He exclaims, moving around her to grab the plates. “I’m really hungry.”

 

Dinner is a light-hearted, but quiet affair. Spot worms his way back in eventually, complaining loudly about the exercise and the cold. Harry feels a bit bad, as he probably is very cold, considering he’s a tropical snake. As a consolation she lights up the fireplace and feeds him a slice of pizza. Spot is more than happy to take this as a consolation prize: Spot’s favorite food is pizza, but Harry never lets him have any ever since that one time they came home to discover he’d opened the freezer and ate all the boxes. She also doesn’t like to feed him from the table because she doesn’t want him to beg—but Spot is lazy and whiny and would probably beg anyway.

 

They polish off the blumberry chocolate chip and move in for the taro flavor with mochi bits. It promptly dethrones chocolate as Tom’s favorite. He manages to eat at least three servings before the sugar gets the better of him and he starts to feel gross.

 

When it’s time for bed he darts into his own room quickly to shower and change into his pajamas. When he exits the bathroom he moves to his grand collection of books, digging out all his fantasy ones and debating which he wants Harry to read next. He feels uncomfortable, suddenly, as he sits on his unused bed and peruses through all the books. His gaze leaves the illustrious titles for the perfectly made covers and pillows; it’s been more than a year since he came to live with Harry, and he has never once used this bed, aside from the day he arrived. There is a terrible pang in his stomach when he acknowledges to himself that he shouldn’t be sleeping with her anymore. It is accompanied by a hollow fear. He doesn’t want to stop sleeping with Harry. He knows he’s too old for it, but he doesn’t want to stop.

 

In the end, he rationalizes with himself that he has to stop being such a child. He is far too old, and far too mature, to be scared of the dark. He should have no trouble sleeping alone.

 

He scowls down at all the books, shoving them away and climbing into his bed. It feels foreign and cold.

 

He tugs down the bed covers, and is greeted with a very familiar blanket. His heart constricts on itself as he reaches to run a hand over it. It is so soft, and when he leans in he can smell the faint, familiar scent of laundry. It’s a smell he’s long since learned to associate with this house, and with Harry. He shuts off his light, curling in next to it, burying his nose in the fabric.

 

He curls tighter when he hears the light thud of Harry’s footsteps, her voice as she calls for him curiously. The footsteps draw closer, and then the door is opening every so slightly.

 

“Oh!” She says, in a whisper. “Are you sleeping?”

 

He makes an unintelligible noise.

 

She moves closer, resting a lovely, warm hand over his head. “Are you okay in here, Tomcat?”

 

He makes another unintelligible noise.

 

Harry doesn’t quite take this as assent. “Do you want to sleep with me?”

 

“No.” Yes. He scrunches in tighter, refusing to allow himself to give in.

 

“Alright then,” is her soft response. “Do you want me to bring Spot in here?”

 

This he caves on, nodding readily. His snake will make this at least marginally better.

 

“Okay, let me go get him.” She whispers quietly, as she leaves the room. She returns after a moment, bodily dragging in the enormous snake. Most of Spot is in her arms, but she has to drag his long tail behind her. She deposits the snake on the bed; his is much smaller than Harry’s, and Spot takes up almost the entirety of it, even draping himself over Tom a couple times. Harry leans down again, brushing a kiss against his forehead. This almost breaks his resolve, but he wraps his arms around both Spot and his blanket, so tight he’s surprised Spot isn’t protesting yet. “Goodnight, Tomcat.” She runs another affectionate hand through his hair, before she straightens up.

 

He feels the incessant urge to leap away from here and back into her arms, but somehow manages o find the strength to refrain. “’Night Harry.” He bites out, after a beat.

 

She hesitates for a moment, and then she is out the door.

 

//

 

Suffice to say, he was in for a long night.

 

He didn’t get much sleep at all, and when he comes to school the next day he is cranky, irritable and upset with himself. It shouldn’t be this hard to sleep alone! He’s disappointed in himself, is what it really is. He thought he was stronger than this. But then, he’s always acknowledged that Harry was his weakness. With everyone else he is stoic, cold, and manipulative. He doesn’t need anything or anyone but himself; he doesn’t need help with his assignments, he doesn’t need friends on the playground (but followers are nice to have); he doesn’t need the attention of his peers; he’s the best in every subject. Even his teachers are always commenting on how smart and mature he is. Except he is not particularly smart or mature with Harry.

 

If he was smart he would have known to keep her at arms length ever since they met, just like he had the rest of the world. If he was mature he wouldn’t need her constant attention, or constant affirmations of her affection. But he’s long since decided that having one exception for Harry is acceptable.

 

He is moody and irritable and trying to stay calm through all his classes. He managed to cast a lightning bolt all on his own today and it still did nothing to lighten his spirits. He is less inclined to indulge his friends than usual, when normally he would at least humor them with a remark or two. Ruth is utterly ecstatic about her birthday, and hasn’t talked about much else. He knows she’s a muggleborn, but she appears to have invited practically the whole school, so the majority of the people there will be young wizards and witches and their parents.

 

To make matters worse, Professor Oz pulls him aside to ask him how he’s doing. Tom doesn’t want to talk about how he’s doing, even less with Professor Oz.

 

“I’m fine.” He bites out, shifting his weight on his feet as he tries to peer over his shoulder and see what the rest of the class is doing.

 

Unfortunately his teacher sees right through that. “Are you sure?” He prods, gently.

 

“Yes.” Tom snaps, perhaps more acidly than he had intended. He crosses his arms with a frown. “I’m doing quite fine; I got the spell down before everyone else.” He points out. Shouldn’t his academic prowess be the only thing his Professor cares about?

 

“That you did,” the man agrees. “Very well, in fact.”

 

There is something grave and solemn to his tone, but Tom has no idea why.

 

“Tom, what can you tell me about curses?”

 

Tom blinks. What an odd question. Not to mention it is far too vague a question to even warrant a legitimate answer. He tries anyway. “Curses are predominantly classified as active-offensive spells.” He parrots, dutifully from their textbook. “Although there are also more latent, passive-offensive curses.”

 

“Very good.” The professor nods. “But what is the key to curses?”

 

His brow furrows. “I’m sorry?”

 

“How do you go about casting a curse?”

 

Oh. This, he can answer. “Curses are about intention.”

 

“True—more than that, curses require complete control. Remember, you control the curse, not the other way around.  And that has a lot to do with intention, and mentality.” Tom doesn’t quite know where the man is trying to take this conversation. His professor seems to read his incredulity, for he smiles slightly.

 

“Tom, I’m going to tell you a secret; there are two ways to cast a curse, and one of them is infinitely harder than the other. The first is with your emotions—as I’m sure you have learned already, magic reacts to how we feel. There is a common saying that to cast the Cruciatus Curse you have to want to inflict pain on others, and while that’s true, that’s very misleading… and dangerous. You are using your emotions to control the cruciatus, not your mind. And it should be the other way around. Curses are very dangerous things, you know, and not just for the recipient. The caster must also take into account the kind of magic he wields.”

 

The boy frowns deeply at his professor, seeing the truth in his words. His mind turns on its own, digesting this information and what it must mean. Professor Oz is right, of course. Using anger to induce the effects of the curse is a dangerous, slippery slope.

 

His teacher smiles again; Tom isn’t fond of the expression, it makes him think of an overly excited frog, but he forgives the man this once. He is, after all, assisting him. “Do you see what I’m trying to say here?” He tilts his head. “That was a very fine demonstration of elemental casting, but I want you to try it without using your emotions as the conduit.”

 

Tom sighs, but nods all the same.

 

Turns out, it doesn’t come to him so easily after that.

 

This isn’t so great a loss. He would prefer to learn the spell the correct way rather than the easy way—even if the easy way came naturally to him.

 

//

 

Tom returns home in far better spirits than he had left it. His face was smudged with ash and dirt, but he was quite satisfied with his progress. By the end of the lesson he’d managed to cast his spell with the same intensity as he had in the first place, but this time had done it all on his own. It was truly wonderful what a few new spells and a lengthy book passage or two could do to a person; he actually smiled a few times. There was nothing he enjoyed more than learning new things.

 

Unfortunately his good mood soured quickly when he remembered why it had left him in the first place.

 

He felt really proud of himself for all his progress today, but it would not make him seem any more mature if he kept sleeping in Harry’s bed. He frowned at the idea of having to return to his own bed, dreading it already. He reminded himself that this was ridiculous, he was far too old to be so dependent and needy; it didn’t matter if he was the greatest sorcerer in the world, he’d still seem childish if he couldn’t even sleep by himself. Tom didn’t even come running and leaping at Harry when she arrived home; he sedately greeted her from his spot on the couch, refusing to budge even an inch. And he didn’t insist for her to pick him up and carry him around, and when they returned to the living room after dinner he sprawled out in front of the fireplace with Spot instead of sprawling out in her lap.

 

Harry did not comment on this, though she did toss a wary glance Tom’s way every once in a while. Tom did not look back.

 

The weeks progress in a spiral of sleep deprivation and severe irritability. He tosses and turns restlessly in his bed, clinging to the familiar softness of the blanket he’d forgotten. It is still reassuring, but a shadow of what it represents – the girl down the hall. Every night he closes his eyes and is reminded of how easy it would be to simply slink out of his room and dart down the hallway and worm his way into her bed. She wouldn’t even protest. If anything, he thinks she would welcome him and reassure him and lavish him with attention. This sounds like exactly what he wants, but still he refuses.

 

It makes him snappish and irritable all day long, and moody and reclusive in the evenings with Harry. He wants to tug at her sleeve until she picks him up; crawl into her lap when they’re sitting at the table and eat ice cream out of the same bowl; lay together on the couch or in front of the fire, reading books. But he doesn’t. He hugs her tightly when she comes home, but makes sure not to linger for too long; they eat ice cream together, but it is not on the same chair and not from the same bowl; he’s taken up roost on the armchair across the room when they retire to the fireplace to read.

 

His one reprieve is school, where he is progressing nicely in all his classes. Though Professor Oz still casts him wary, concerned glances every once in a while, Tom is very keen to cast curses correctly, using his mental and magical discipline rather than his stewing, negative emotions. Unfortunately the teacher was right though; it is far harder to cast with the former than the latter. But Tom is nothing if not a perfectionist. Wolcroft is an opportunity he doesn’t intend to waste; he wants to learn everything he can from this institution, and learn it correctly.

 

His necromancy teacher is so enthused with his progress that she has him start summoning his very own minions. It’s hard (and gross) work but he’s more than willing to put in the effort. Tom finds it very fascinating how all the dark arts work in tandem with each other; summoning necro-hordes has a lot to do with conjuration magic and alchemy wards. He can’t really summon legions of dead minions yet; actually, all he can do so far is create a rather pathetic looking shadow fiend. Professor Caithe’s shadow fiends are enormous, inky black creatures with terrifying, glowing eyes. In contrast Tom’s shadow fiend looks like an adorable black fuzzball. But his professor assures him that with enough time and practice—emphasis on the time, as his magical core is still growing—he’ll learn to do the same.

 

When he’s not learning about blood magic or shamanism he’s at home reading through Harry’s Hogwarts textbooks.

 

The curriculum is vastly different and shares little to no similarities with Wolcroft’s, but is fascinating nonetheless. He too has a Charms class, and it appears that the spells are about the same in both. Transfiguration sounds mouth-wateringly appealing, and while he learns about wards, runes and marks in both Curses and Enchantments and Necromancy and Healing, Ancient Runes combines many practices of Arithmancy and follows separate branches of casting that they won’t cover here. He supposes Alchemy shares some similarities with Potions, enough to call them distant cousins at the very least, but Potions is about precision where Alchemy is about intent. And Defense Against the Dark Arts…

 

Tom snaps the book shut, rolling over onto his back and staring thoughtfully up at the ceiling.

 

The idea of defending himself against the Dark Arts never even occurred to him. He always supposed that if someone tried to curse him, well, he would curse them right back. Isn’t that how it worked? But aside from more passive defensives he’s learned in other classes, like buffs and enchantments, he doesn’t think he knows any truly defensive spells. Does he know how to cast a shield charm? He doesn’t think so. He’s seen Harry wandlessly and nonverbally cast one before, but he doesn’t know how to go about that. And what of this disarming charm?

 

The boy leaps to his feet at that, racing up towards the library on the second story of the house. Harry’s library is more of a study than a library, and more of an office than a study. She doesn’t use it often, but Tom likes to come up there when she’s gone and read in the calming silence. At any rate he pulls down a large encyclopedia of spells, looking for two in particular: protego and expelliarmus.

 

Protego is the shield charm, and it has a more powerful variant, the Protego Maxima. And Expelliarmus is the disarming spell.

 

Both serve to fascinate him and flummox him. Why use a shield charm when a great barrier of earth would be more effective? A great deal of his classmates can raise sheets of bedrock out of the ground, even Washy, the slowest and laziest of the lot. Or conjure metalloids to deflect spells, as alkaline metals absorb most damaging curses? And at any rate, spells can’t cross through corporeal objects, so any sort of physical shield would do—though he could see how it would be unwieldly enough to fall out of favor. And why use a disarming charm when there were a great deal of ways to disarm an opponent? Tom can think of thousands just off the top of his head, some far more creative than others; casting a vine snare to trip someone would certainly count as disarming, or alternatively lopping off some limbs would also do the trick.

 

But perhaps he was thinking on it too literally. After all, black magic was all about intent. Wouldn’t it go to infer then that its counter-curses would be equally as reliant on intent as well?

 

There was rustling from down the stairs: Harry was home.

 

“Tom?” He hears her call up the stairs. “Tom, where are you? I’ve brought dinner!”

 

“Coming!” Tom shouts back down, moving to put all the books back where he found them.

 

But before he does he makes sure to earmark the last spell he’d seen in the textbook, one that had caught his fancy far more than the others: expecto patronum.

 

“Okay—but come really soon! There might not be any left!”

 

Tom shakes his head fondly, fitting the book back in its home on the bookshelf. “You’re not feeding Spot again, are you?”

 

//

 

“Sounds like a typical moody prepubescent boy to me,” Ron shrugs, noisily slurping down his green smoothie. Harry doesn’t know why it’s green; incidentally, neither does Ron. She supposes it’s for the best that he doesn’t know, he’d probably spit it all out if he found out there was spinach in there or something.

 

Harry snorts. “Well you would know, wouldn’t you?”

 

“For sure!” Ron enthuses, not taking particular offense. “Listen Harry, I’ve had to deal with this for most of my life.”

 

Harry empathize with him silently; she can only imagine Percy Weasley as a moody, reclusive teenager.

 

“Just let him do his own thing,” Ron advises, polishing off the entirety of his drink—the largest size. “He’ll come round eventually—or maybe like, not eventually. Merlin, it took Charlie years! Nevermind the twins.”

 

“If you’re trying to reassure me, it’s really not working.” Harry points out, blandly.

 

Ron shrugs. “You’re the one who wanted to raise a teenage boy, Harry.”

 

She pouts mutinously, but sees his point. She really has no one to blame but herself. At least she can revel in the relief that this is all apparently quite normal for a boy his age. Or at least, she hopes this is what Ron is trying to say. Because the alternative is far worse—and far less predictable.

 

Ron wanders the city while she finishes up at work, and then the two of them are pushing their way through the crowded muggle streets, Harry leaving the directions to Ron in favor of furiously typing out an email. This was an idea doomed to fail; Ron had no idea how to operate google maps. He also did not know how to write an email, so Harry found herself attempting both at the same time. At least it was in walking distance; she shivered at the idea of attempting to teach Ron how to call an uber.

 

Hermione flagged them over once they were in earshot, looking haggard but happy. She had changed from her Ministry robes to a large sweater and boots, and blended in perfectly with the fashionable crowds pandering back and forth the street, to the point Harry almost didn’t recognize her. She supposed she wasn’t all that recognizable either, in heels and a work dress. Only Ron mirrored his adolescent self, looking part-ruffian part unintentional homeless hipster. It was strange to think that not two years ago she didn’t own more than a few t-shirts, formless jumpers and jeans. She would have never imagined herself looking even remotely professional, walking into some restaurant and calling up Hermione’s reservation for three. It made her maudlin as they picked their way through the restaurant to their table: she would have never imagined she would travel through time and space to give her worst enemy a second chance, either.

 

Harry knew she’d give in and confess to her friends eventually; she managed to valiantly hold out until the last of the tempura rolls had been gobbled up before she spilled. “So,” she starts without preamble, nervously twiddling her chopsticks around. “I—went to Capitol Hill the other day.”

 

“Washington?” Hermione clarifies, perplexed. “Whatever for?”

 

“Well, maybe not the other day, more like a century ago, but at any rate I totally forgot to file my taxes—

 

Hermione throws her a scandalous look. “What do you mean you forgot? Harry, did you even read any of the pamphlets I gave you—“

 

“In the other time,” Harry adds, petulantly, “And I got the run around trying to find the time traveling department.”

 

“They have one of those?” Ron guffaws.

 

“Apparently so,” Harry shrugs. “At any rate, I ended up having to confirm all this with my state governor—surprisingly, he didn’t seem to care all that much about what I did, where I came from, or why I was there.” She paused, thoughtfully. “He seemed more concerned over the goblins, actually.”

 

Hermione’s eyes were wide and concerned. “And what of the goblins?” She presses.

 

“Well, they didn’t care all that much either, aside from confirming I was paying my taxes for both times.” She replies. “They might have charged me extra interest; I wasn’t paying much attention.”

 

Hermione shook her head in wonder. “When did magic get so bureaucratic?”

 

“I’d prefer the bureaucratic mess; at least no one flipped out over it.” Harry confesses.

 

The conversation drifts off into the problematic British Ministry, Hermione ranting for at least a quarter of an hour on how ineffectual the entire system seemed to be. Their food comes in the interim, and the two of them realize they have to teach Ron how to use chopsticks. In the end it is a lesson in futility, and they instead just magic them to work regardless of how he holds them. Truth be told, Harry isn’t all that much better at it; the Dursley’s certainly never took her out to fancy restaurants to try foreign foods. She spares a brief passing thought on them—she wonders what they were doing now? More importantly, she wonders what they would say if they saw her now, holding a powerful position in one of the most influential organizations. She is greatly entertained at the thought of their reaction; raving envy.

 

“So—about Capitol Hill,” she starts again, when she’s cleaned off her plate. “It was, um, interesting, to say the least.”

 

Hermione perks up. “Was it? I’ve never been, Harry—you must tell me all the details!”

 

“To be honest, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to it,” she admits. “It was very… nice to look at. I didn’t know that the muggle government and the magical government were actually the same thing.”

 

“At the highest levels.” Hermione nods. “The President is the leader of both the muggle and magical government—it splits up under him, though, with two separate legislative and judicial branches.”

 

“If you say so,” Harry is not particularly interested in American politics, or politics at all. “But there were more important things to worry about then that, Hermione—Grindelwald was there.”

 

They both reel back in shock at that. “Gellert Grindelwald?” Ron confirms, even though this is the foregone conclusion. “Merlin Harry, what was he doing there?”

 

“Probably trying to sway the country in favor of himself.” Harry suggests, bitterly.

 

“But of course he doesn’t succeed.” Hermione chimes in, immediately. She frowns, worried. “Still, that must have been quite the shock…”

 

“I don’t know what I expected of him,” Harry reveals, quietly, gaze lost in her tea as she stirs it around listlessly. “He was—endearing. It was the strangest thing.”

 

“Maybe that’s to be expected.” Hermione points out, just as quiet. “He had to have enticed his followers somehow, after all. I imagine he was quite the charismatic character.”

 

Ron scoffs under his breath. “Practically the opposite of the dark lord after him.”

 

“Right.” Harry agrees. “Voldemort was—unstable.” And destructive, and insane. He had lost whatever sanity he had once possessed, leaving him overtaken by a madness of his own design. At any rate, this just made it all the easier for Harry to defeat him. Grindelwald, she couldn’t even begin to imagine. Charismatic and clever; a master manipulator. Was that what Voldemort was, before he ruined his soul?

 

Not this time, she reminds herself. The lovely little boy standing outside in the snowfall would not turn into that monster.

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

Harry shakes herself out of her thoughts. “What do you mean?”

 

“Well, you can’t just sit around and do nothing!” Hermione exclaims.

 

“What else am I supposed to do?” Harry replies, quizzically. “I can’t exactly just kill him, right? I mean, who knows what that will change.”

 

“What does it matter?” Ron shrugs, to her surprise. “It’s not actually connected to our time, right?”

 

“Yes that’s true,” Hermione agrees at length, thoughtful, “They are two entirely separate lines of existence…”

 

Harry raises up a preemptive hand. “Please don’t go into another time relativity rant.”

 

Hermione harrumphs, crossing her arms. It’s been her favorite subject ever since this whole thing happened, much to Ron and Harry’s consternation. They were not Albert Einstein or Steven Hawking; it all went entirely over their heads—Ron especially, as he’d never had to labor through a science class. Harry was not that much better. She didn’t understand space or dimensions or the fabric of reality, and nor did she want to. She just wanted to… to change what happens, somewhere, for someone. She might not be able to change her own past, but maybe she could change someone else’s. Maybe there will be a little redheaded girl who will grow up with two wonderful loving parents in a world without a dark lord. Or a little boy, even, with dark hair and glasses. Who knows.

 

“Well, my point is that Ron is right.” Hermione continues. Harry is fairly sure she hears, ‘for once’, under her friend’s breath, and stifles a laugh. “Whatever consequences occur won’t have any effect on our own time. But I still don’t know if that’s reason enough to change something. Even though it won’t really matter to us, it’ll matter to someone, right? How are we to know what changes will have what outcomes? If you do something about Grindelwald, does that mean Dumbledore will never become headmaster?”

 

Harry’s head starts to hurt. “Why don’t I just do nothing?” She suggests, rubbing her temples. “Doing something sounds far too complicated.”

 

Ron nods sagely.

 

Hermione hums in response, taking a thoughtful sip of tea. “That’s always an option.” She concedes, after a moment. “I guess that’s really up to you, Harry.”

 

Harry considers this carefully. “I’ll only take any action if it truly starts to concern me—or Tom.” She adds. If Grindelwald tries to even go near Tom Harry won’t hesitate to take care of him, Dumbledore be damned.

 

Still, dinner conversation topics aside it was very nice to have a night out to herself again, two best friends at her side. She truly did enjoy Tom, and she had no regrets in starting a new life with him, but sometimes it was nice to talk to people her age. Work was always a nice relief, but her work friends were not like Ron or Hermione, who have known her since she was eleven, who were part of her world, who knew all she had to hide.

 

Much to her chagrin they do end up somewhere downtown watching some assortment of sports games. Ron has also proved himself to be a huge hockey enthusiast—he says he likes the violence of it all. Hermione was predictably quite scandalized; apparently the furthest she had ever forayed into the world of muggle sports was cricket and occasionally golf. Harry herself was quite clueless, but happily went along for the ride anyhow. The evening was actually quite nice. Ron was rather adventurous in his beer; she and Hermione downed an entire bottle of wine. Some favored team won and the whole bar was overflowing with liquor.

 

Harry didn’t arrive home until about an hour later than she had said she would, but she wasn’t particularly worried about it. Tom was a very mature young boy, more than capable of handling himself for a few hours. He had certainly been left to his own devices for far longer during summer, and that was not even to remark upon his time at the orphanage, where he most likely had no supervision at all.

 

This was why she was quite surprised when a lump of blankets barreled straight into her the moment she walked into the door, nearly falling over with the added weight of it.

 

“Harry!” Tom cries, throwing the blanket off of his head, where he was wearing it as some kind of oversized cloak. “Where have you been?”

 

She looks down at him quizzically. “I told you I was going to be late today—I left dinner in the fridge, did you eat it?”

 

“Yes.” He replies, frowning. “But you didn’t say when you were coming back.” His eyes are big and grave, and Harry is overwhelmed by a tide of fondness when she realizes this adorable little pout was actually his expression of concern.

 

“Were you worried about me?” She grins, crouching low to readjust his blanket-hood. He continues to pout at her, little hands fisted in the material, keeping it around his shoulders.

 

“Of course I was!” He retorts, scowling. “Its really late!”

 

“Is it?” She looks at the clock. It was certainly a lot later than she normally came home.

 

When she turns her attention back to the young wizard she is alarmed to see his expression had gone from concern to practically hysteria. A consternated look crosses his features as he bites his lip, looking both conflicted and upset. Finally he throws himself at her and buries his face into her shoulder. This was most certainly not the reaction she had been expecting. She had assumed she would walk in to some familiar scene; Tom sprawled on the couch with one of his new books, or out in the yard making the most of her absence and staying out late to resurrect dead things out of the dirt. Or maybe even nefariously attempting to make his own potions in the kitchen again; feeding Spot ice cream (again); practicing dark spells in the house (again). She had acknowledged that he might be a bit put out by her lateness but nothing like this.

 

Harry rubs his back consolingly, still very bewildered. The boy is trembling. Did something happen? Did someone tried to come in? He appears fearful and ill at ease.

 

“Tom, are you alright?” She asks, leaning her head against his own.

 

For a long moment he does not respond, little fingers tightening against her shirt with a surprising grip.

 

“I’m fine.” He replies, totally lacking any sincerity.

 

Harry harrumphs. “Tom,” she starts again, patiently. “You are not fine. You’re shaking!”

 

He releases her very quickly at that, retreating back into the blanket. “No I’m not.” He insists, and then he takes a few steps back. Harry grows even more confused when he chances another glance at her, and then darts up the stairs.

 

Merlin, she thinks, warily. Does this behavior still fall under Ron’s vague sub header of ‘typical moody preteen’, or should she be concerned? Ron is probably right; he is a growing boy and she remembers being rather volatile and confused at that age. But who he is and where he comes from certainly does not help matters. And she supposes that Ron doesn’t know Tom the way she does, and only she can really judge the severity of the issue.

 

She sighs, moving to remove her heels, rubbing at her feet where they’re sore from the height of them. Harry runs an absent hand through her hair, messing up all the curls pinned about accidentally; it’s an awful habit, she always messes up whatever elaborate style she attempts by the end of the day no matter how many times she reminds herself not to do it. She hauls off all her accessories one by one like a trail of jewelry about the house until she’s left with nothing but her leggings and dress shirt. Harry stands for a moment, just looking about the silent house, barefoot, arms crossed over her chest. A slithering sound draws her attention, and she watches Spot unwind himself off the banister in the most uncoordinated way possible.

 

Aren’t snakes supposed to be graceful?” She snorts, watching him flop to the floor in a heap. She takes pity on him, untangling the rest of his tail off the stairs.

 

You try moving about with these kinds of growing pains,” Spot whines, uncoiling off the floor.

 

Harry frowns. “On the subject of growing pains—do you think Tom has been acting strangely?”

 

Spot blinks slowly. “Strange how?” And then he flicks out his tongue. “Do I smell fish?”

 

Harry smells herself. She doesn’t, but it’s probably the aftermath of sushi. “Don’t deflect the question.” She retorts.

 

Spot lets out a long-suffering sigh. “He’s been rather rude lately,” he notices. “Getting mad at me for no reason! Humans…

 

Harry looks down thoughtfully. “What do you think it is?” She murmurs, more to herself than anything.

 

I don’t know. Maybe he should just sleep more or something.”

 

Harry’s head snaps up. “He’s not sleeping?” He’s been sleeping on his own lately, and seems to be alright with it. Surely there was a bit of a transition period… but certainly not still…?

 

No,” Spot reveals, wiggling around to get a better sniff at her. “He just tosses and turns… rolling all over me, the foul cretin…”

 

I thought you liked him!” Harry protests.

 

Yes of course, as far as you barbaric monkeys go.” Spot agrees, slithering up her leg. “Is this salmon I smell?”

 

“Stop that!” Harry dislodges him from where he’s wound his head around her knee, shaking him off. “If you answer my questions I’ll feed you as much salmon as you want, how about that?”

 

“Add tuna, and I will accept this deal.”

 

“Fine!” Harry retorts, impatiently. “Just tell me what’s going on.”

 

Spot waves his head in the air thoughtfully. “There isn’t much to say,” he hisses thoughtfully. “He doesn’t like being alone without you. He doesn’t like being home alone, and he doesn’t like sleeping alone. Is this not obvious?”

 

“I suppose—but he has always been a rather solitary boy.” Harry points out. “He certainly doesn’t like being around any of the neighborhood children, or even the children at school, and I think he’s even grown to like them.”

 

Spot casts her a nonplussed look. “He is a hatchling,” Spot explains, slow, as if he is speaking to a dim-witted child. “A very young and scared hatchling. And they do not like to be very far from their mother.”

 

“I’m not his mother,” Harry returns, quietly, feeling something strange overcome her at that.

 

“No.” The banana colored snake concedes, slithering his way up her torso, and this time she doesn’t even bother to protest. “You are much more than that.”

 

For some reason, that sounded infinitely more ominous.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

// 5 //

 

Tom throws himself onto his bed, not sure if he’s mortified or miserable; it sort of feels like both. It’s true, he’s overreacting. Harry told him earlier that she’d be gone tonight, and might not come home until late. He hadn’t even batted an eyelash at the time, relieved he wouldn’t have to spend another evening attempting to stay as far away as possible from her.

 

Then the sun went down, he ate all his dinner, and Spot fell asleep. He tried to distract himself with his books but it was impossible to concentrate; a tiny voice in him whispered all sorts of things. She’s not coming back. She’s leaving—she’s leaving you. You’re all alone after all.

 

Tom worms his way under the covers, pulling them up over his head. It felt so horrible and there was nothing but silence to accompany him as he watched the clock-hand continue it’s unending cycle.

 

He’s being unreasonable, he points out to himself. It hadn’t even been that late; later than normal surely, but nothing worth remarking on. It’s his own insecurities coming back to him, and he hates it. He hates the idea of being anything less than infallible; of needing things; being dependent. Isn’t that exactly what he is? He can’t even bear the idea of Harry leaving him. He wants to cling to her and feel her warm hands and her lips on his forehead, reminding him and reassuring him that he is not a lost and forgotten orphan anymore.

 

He wants to run to her right now, worm his way back into her bed and hug her just as tightly as he hugs Spot.

 

Somehow he manages to root himself to the spot, diving under the covers and hiding there, refusing to give in.

 

Meanwhile Harry trudges up the stairs, running a weary hand through her untamable hair. Spot was anything but helpful, to her total lack of surprise. Other than revealing the fact that she’s not paying nearly enough attention to what Tom is up to, he didn’t have much else to say. Still, the idea of Tom getting so worked up over this concerns her; should she be encouraging him to move to his own room? Everything in his behavior suggests he wants more independence; he’s not as clingy as he was a few weeks ago, he likes to sleep in his own bed and has a bubble of personal space that he’s become very religious about protecting as of late. She’s been trying to give him space—maybe she shouldn’t be?

 

She finally gets to her room, tossing off all her clothes and attempting to make sense of her hair. Harry scrutinizes herself in the mirror. Why exactly did she decide to raise a pre-adolescent boy? She’s not much older than adolescence herself. Tom is worth it, of course, but this doesn’t negate the fact that she’s in no position to be raising a child when she’s by all accounts still a child herself. Hell, she can’t even legally drink in this country, book a hotel room, or rent a car.

 

Harry sighs, forlorn. She honestly doesn’t know what to do about Tom.

 

Should she follow him, try to talk to him? Or should she give him some space? Both options have their merits.

 

She crawls into her bed eventually, listening intently to the sounds outside her room. She can’t keep asking him all the time, prying him for answers. It’s all she can do to just make herself available if he wants to talk, and hope for the best. There are no footsteps in the hallway, or movement from the other rooms.

 

//

 

The day of the party comes, and Tom lets Harry comb his hair and fix his shirt, even if he’s more than capable of doing it himself. He’s missed the attention, and he doesn’t mind if she fusses over him. This does not mean that he’s happy about the situation by any means. Having to socialize with his insipid peers is the last thing he wants to do.

 

“You don’t have to be there long.” Harry reminds him, as she straightens up. She’s wearing a lovely white lace dress, hair styled fashionably, and a line of pearls around her neck. Tom wants to make her change into something else. He hates when other people stare at Harry, especially other boys.

 

“I know.” He sighs, long suffering.

 

She hands him the present she bought for the occasion. Tom doesn’t even know what it is, and quite frankly he doesn’t care to find out.

 

They take to the floo to the address specified—much to his surprise—and find themselves in the parlor of a stately colonial mansion. He hadn’t expected Ruth to have a floo; didn’t she say she was a muggleborns? Not just any muggleborns, clearly, judging by the house. He’s privately impressed by her demeanor now; she’s probably just as rich as Margaret, but significantly less arrogant about it.

 

“Tom!” He turns to see Washy exiting a floo on the opposite side of the parlor, waving ecstatically and bounding towards him. A woman with similar features follows him after a beat.

 

“James Washington,” scowls the woman. “What have I told you about running ahead of me, like some uncivilized hooligan?”

 

The boy stops abruptly, turning around with a chastised expression. “Sorry, mom.”

 

The woman sniffs, before her attention is diverted towards the scene in front of her.

 

“You must be Miss Riddle,” Washy’s mother gushes, inspecting her. “My goodness, you are such a lovely little thing!”

 

Harry smiles politely, and Tom wonders if he’s the only one who can see how strained it is. “Thank you, Mrs. Washington.”

 

“Please, call me Charlotte!” She cries with delight, taking Harry’s arm. “Have you ever met Dorothy and John?”

 

“No, I’m afraid not. Perhaps in passing.” Harry replies.

 

“Well allow me introduce you to them! Lovely people, you know. Especially for Muggles—can you imagine?”

 

Washy looks just as unhappy to be here as Tom does, so he finds small consolation in that. He looks to have been stuffed into an overbearing outfit by his mother, and turns to him with a defeated expression. “Mom’s always like that,” he confides, sighing. “Let’s just try to stay out of the adult’s way. Maybe it won’t be so bad then.”

 

Tom staunchly agrees with this policy.

 

Ruth’s house is more a mansion than a house, and more of an estate than a mansion. He can see sprawling, well-groomed lawns and luscious gardens, and horses roaming about in their fields. Washy reveals to him that she is from old money—whatever that means—or as old as money can be in a place so new as America. At any rate, she is the exact opposite of Margaret, who is ‘new money’. Tom doesn’t contest this; he learned long ago that the only thing that matters in this country is money, and everything else thereafter is utterly meaningless. What he didn’t know was that there was a distinction in different kinds of money.

 

“What does it matter?” Tom returns, after Washy has explained this all. “Money is money, right? I mean, they’re both rich.”

 

“That’s what I think!” Washy agrees. “Mom says differently though. She says old money is better, you know, like families that have a lot of land and money and have always had a lot of land and money. She says all the new families are ‘vulgar, gaudy, marked by excess and garishness and lacking in social graces in taste’.” He parrots, in a manner that sounds as if he has no idea what any of that means. Considering it is Washy, Tom would not be all that surprised to find he doesn’t.

 

Tom snorts at that.

 

He may not particularly like Margaret, or the fact that she, and by extension he assumes her family, are rather arrogant and definitely excessive and garish, but the same could probably be said of all the old aristocracy and gentry families. At any rate, he doesn’t like rich people, in no small part because they all seem so arrogant and wasteful to him and look down upon everyone else, especially considering his background as an orphan with no money, land or wealth to speak of. But if he had to choose, he’d probably like Margaret’s family better. The self-made man has always appealed to him, and from what he knows of Margaret’s father that seems to be exactly what he is.

 

“I don’t really care either way.” Washy confesses. “It gives me a big headache.”

 

“Me too,” he agrees.

 

It seemed so horrible to think that most of the country—and the world at large—was plummeting into anarchy and economic despair, and yet this upper cusp did not even blink at the suffering of the rest. But perhaps Tom was just being maudlin because this was the biggest, most extravagant house he’d ever been in. He had known people were rich in the abstract, but he’d never realized just what that meant until now.

 

Unfortunately the hallway ends, and opens into a grand parlor full of people dressed lavishly, drinking from flutes of glass and mingling amongst themselves. He catches sight of Harry, greeting a couple whom he assumes to be Ruth’s parents. She catches his eye, smiling slightly at him. The room is decorated with—to his great consternation—pink flowers and pink decorations. There is far too much pink.

 

Washy tugs on his sleeve, and with relief he follows the boy to a corner of the room that is full of people he knows from school.

 

“Tom!” Ruth gushes, rushing over to him. Her ball gown is the same hideous shade of pink as everything else in the room. “I’m so glad you came!”

 

Tom pries her off him. “Happy Birthday,” he says, stiffly.

 

She grins brightly at him. “Thank you!”

 

He finds quiet solace settled between Washy and Wesley; if anyone attempts to talk to them, he can normally slough off the social duties onto one of them. He notices Margaret isn’t there, which is strange considering the two are inseparable during school. When he asks Ruth about it, she waves it off. “Our parents aren’t fond of each other,” is all she has to say about it, not looking particularly concerned. Tom digests this thoughtfully; apparently Washy wasn’t kidding. The social divide between the older families and the newer ones seems to be the biggest rift in this country—even more than blood purity. He notices that there are quite a few purebloods here, Washy included, and they all seem quite content to visit a Muggle house and consort with Muggles. Halfbloods, Muggles, Muggleborns… they were all excusable. The only thing inexcusable was poverty.

 

Tom spends most of the party sullenly wedged between his friends, keeping a close eye on Harry with the adults. She handles herself appropriately, and he wonders if that’s what she meant when she told him to ‘try to be normal’. He knows very well that Harry doesn’t like gatherings like this, and has no care for monetary or materialistic values. He hopes she’s okay; she isn’t new money or old money—at least, he doesn’t think so—so he doesn’t know what people will think of her. He narrows his eyes at the young man speaking to her now. Tom amends his prior statement: he knows exactly what that man is thinking.

 

He leaps to his feet. “Ruth,” he calls, distracting her from a conversation about toy dolls. “Who’s that boy there?”

 

“Where?” She looks around.

 

He points surreptitiously towards Harry. “That one. In the suit.”

 

“Oh!” Ruth jumps up as well. “That’s my brother Ralph! Come on Tom, I’ll introduce you.”

 

His eyes grow wide at that, alarmed at the prospect. “No, wait, Ruth—

 

“You’ll like him, promise!” She gushes. “He’s an alchemist, you know. He goes to University and stuff for it.”

 

Tom blinks in surprise. “He’s a wizard?”

 

“Yep, both my brothers are.” She reveals. Tom frowns thoughtfully at that; how strange. All her siblings are magical, but their parents are Muggles?

 

She drags him over towards them, but he does nothing to stop her, finding his curiosity unwillingly piqued. An alchemist? He’s never met one, aside from their professor. The idea is an alluring one, even if he doesn’t like the way the boy is looking at Harry.

 

“Ralphie,” Ruth calls as they near, causing the older boy to groan.

 

“Ruth, what have I told you about calling me that?” He retorts with exasperation, a light pink to his cheeks.

 

In response, Ruth sticks her tongue out. “This is the boy I was telling you about!” She thrusts Tom forward. “Tom—Tom Riddle! He’s the best in our class.”

 

“Err—hello.” He says, flustered.

 

Ralph blinks, before turning to Harry with a surprised expression. “Riddle?” He repeats.

 

“Tom is my ward,” Harry’s smile gives nothing away. Even Tom can’t read anything out of it, which concerns him. He’s never seen Harry look so ill at ease.

 

Ruth’s brother looks taken aback, but wisely does not remark on the subject. “A little Alchemist, huh?” He looks back at Tom. “Do you think you’ll pursue higher education in it?”

 

“I’m not sure yet,” Tom sniffs. “I really like Alchemy, but I also like Necromancy.”

 

“He constantly resurrects all the dead vermin in the backyard,” Harry laments. Ralph laughs at this: Tom scowls.

 

“He does, does he?” The boy grins. “Well, you must be very talented to do that as well, at such a young age.”

 

He turns again to Harry. “Have you thought about University for him?”

 

Harry blinks. “University?” She echoes, blankly. “Hmm… well, no I suppose I haven’t. That would be up to Tom, of course.”

 

The boy smiles again. “Of course.”

 

He doesn’t like Ruth’s brother at all, but he is begrudgingly fascinated—with both of them. Her other brother wanders over at some point, introducing himself to Harry with a most ridiculous bow, kissing her hand with a look that makes Tom’s scowl deepen. Ralph, the alchemist, is reserved and polite; while Richard, the cursebreaker, is friendly and full of roguish charm. He dislikes them both, if only because they keep smiling at Harry and making her laugh. But they had their merits. Ralph was a University student; he had a lot to say about pursuing higher education, and Tom was smitten with the idea of learning the things he talked about. Ruth’s other brother, Richie, traveled the world as a cursebreaker, had an adventurous spirit and the most amazing stories to tell. Since he was learning both about Alchemy and Curses, he could only imagine the possibilities in both. He might not like them, but he can at least admit they are both informative.

 

Tom ends up finding the party to at least be tolerable, if only because he learns a lot from Ruth’s siblings. He was not a big fan of her father, when the man came to see where his family had run off to, and especially not the way he looked at Harry. Like he was… sizing her up or something, deciding if she was worthy. He didn’t like it at all. He liked the actual party even less; he hadn’t expected to be so disgusted with the wealthy, all their excess and obliviousness to the outside world. Granted Harry was anything but impoverished, but they certainly didn’t live in a sprawling estate and waste money on a birthday cake the size of the birthday girl.

 

Tom loses Harry some time between Ruth blowing out the candles of her outlandish birthday cake—three stories, all done up in that horrendous shade of pink—and the opening of her small castle of presents. He wishes no ill will upon the girl, but he finds the whole spectacle disgusting nonetheless.

 

The crowd applauds diligently at every opening. Ruth opens the present Harry had gotten for her; it’s a fairytale book. It appears to have hundreds of muggle fairytales, that stand up off the paper and re-enact themselves with little paper settings and characters. Ruth is utterly delighted; more enraptured with this than she was with her miniature pony. Tom blinks, feeling the hairs stand on the back of his neck as he stands in the crowd. He turns, and watches incredulously as one of Ruth’s eccentric older brothers, Richard, approaches him and starts a conversation. It’s a shallow conversation at first, full of light topics about his school and his favorite subjects. And then Tom realizes what he’s really after.

 

“So, Harriet is your guardian, right?”

 

Tom has never heard anyone refer to her as ‘Harriet’, and narrows his eyes. “Yes,” he answers, guarded. “Why?”

 

“Just wondering.” He smiles. “She’s from the Potter family? That’s what old Charlotte Washington was saying, but the woman’s barmy, you never know with her.”

 

Harry has never told him as much, but he’s seen her mail before. They are always addressed to Harriet Potter. “She is.” He replies, shortly.

 

The boy does not take the hint. “How old is she?”

 

Tom scowls at him. What’s with all the leading questions about Harry? “She’ll be twenty-one in July.”

 

“And she’s not married?”

 

His eyes narrow at this. “No.” He retorts, sharply. “And she doesn’t have any interest in marrying any time soon, either.”

 

“Right, of course.” The older boy’s eyes twinkle, in a way that irks Tom. Fortunately he averts the subject. “And you’re her ward, yes? Are you from England as well?”

 

“I am.” He replies, cautiously. “Why does it matter?”

 

“I’m just curious,” Richie laughs. “You’re a touchy one, aren’t you?”

 

“I don’t like mind games.” Tom states, imperiously. “And you’re asking a lot of leading questions.”

 

The other boy seems taken aback by this, as if he hadn’t expected Tom to figure him out so easily. His smile fades, leaving something scrutinizing in its place as he studies Tom deeply. “You’re right,” he says at length. “I am.”

 

Then he shrugs. “I’m a bit interested in her, to be honest.”

 

He does not like the sound of that at all. “Why?”

 

“Well, she’s a really lovely lady,” he smiles. “And a Potter… I wonder if she has any of their heirlooms – man, what I would do to get my hands on that cloak.”

 

Tom blinks, perplexed. “Cloak?” He repeats. “What cloak?”

 

Richie looks at him surprised. “Why, don’t tell me you don’t know. What are they teaching at Wolcroft these days…” He shakes his head. “They’re the most legendary artifacts for any cursebreaker—they’re called the Deathly Hallows.”

 

He’s definitely never heard of them. “I’ve never heard of them in any of my classes.”

 

He sighs dramatically, before explaining. “Well, they’re a bit of a myth these days; no one really knows if they exist or not. I’ve always been a believer. Anyway there are three, a stone that resurrects the dead, a cloak of invisibility and an—

 

“An unbeatable wand.” Tom finishes, eyes wide. “But that’s from The Tale of the Three Brothers.”

 

Richie smiles widely at him, looking impressed. “Yes it is. You’re exactly right.”

 

“And they’re real?”

 

“Oh, I definitely think so. Here, give me your hand.” He crouches low. Tom watches him apprehensively, before slowly drawing up his hand. The older boy grabs it, and fishes a pen from his suit pocket. He draws a very small mark on Tom’s palm; a triangle with a circle inside, both sliced in half by a line.

 

Tom looks at it curiously. “What is this?”

 

“The mark of the Deathly Hallows.” Richard reveals, quietly—reverently. “You’re from England, right? If you’re ever back on the isles, go to Godric’s Hollow, to the graveyard. This same mark is on the grave of Ignotus Peverell.”

 

Tom’s eyes are as big as saucers as he listens with rapt attention. He had never even heard of any of this. It wasn’t mentioned in any of his history books.

 

“Godric’s Hollow? Have you been there, then? Seen it?”

 

“Yes, I’ve definitely seen it.” He replies, low.

 

Tom’s thoughts are whirling a mile a minute. He can barely comprehend what this means. Suddenly he blinks. “What does Harry have to do with this?”

 

The young man’s eyes grow conflicted. “Well, it’s all just rumors, you see… but it’s said that the Potters are descendants of the Peverell brothers; Ignotus Peverell in particular. Supposedly they have a very powerful invisibility cloak in their line. One that might even be—

 

“Death’s Cloak.” Tom interrupts, breathless.

 

Richard nods gravely.

 

“Oi, Richie,” his other brother is cutting through the crowd, Harry following behind. Richard straightens, sparing his brother a blinding grin.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“We’re opening presents from grandfather and grandmother now.” Ralph relays with a consternated expression. “Mother wants us up front.”

 

Suddenly Richard shares that same consternated expression.

 

The two are dragged up to stand with their family as their youngest sibling opens her biggest presents yet, apparently from her grandparents—an unhappy looking elderly couple standing stiffly some feet away—with sedated cheers from the crowd. It’s all rather clerical, and Tom can’t help but remember his birthday, celebrated with just him and Harry. He wouldn’t trade that for the world, even for the mountain of presents that Ruth has.

 

By the end of it he is utterly exhausted. All he wants to do is go home, stop talking to people, and read his books. While he did enjoy how easy it was to get all the other children to listen and obey him, he couldn’t say he enjoyed their company. He wants to dive into Harry’s library and research everything Ruth’s brother told him. At the very least, it was fruitful in that regard.

 

Ruth drags them all over to look at her mountainous amount of toys; Tom only allows himself to be carted over with the rest of his peers because he saw her get a really fascinating book on Alchemy runes that he wants to look at. Ruth doesn’t mind at all, thrusting it into his hands as she and some other girl from their class play with the mini ponies. The book is riveting and full of useful information; so a gift totally wasted on Ruth, in other words. Ruth didn’t like Alchemy at all. The only things she seemed to like were Professor Oz, combing or fixing her hair, and blowing things up with fire. At any rate, Tom is just about to turn to the chapter on Destructive Attunements—a class they’ll be taking next term—when he overhears a part of the conversation behind him.

 

Ruth’s whole family is standing some ways off, posing in front of some large tapestry and loitering about as they wait for the photographer to set up all his instruments. Ruth has been pulled away from her pony to join them in the family portrait, and her mother is fixing her dress as Richie converses with the camera man. It’s not them that he’s interested in; rather, in her eldest brother and her father.

 

“—never heard of her before,” Ruth’s father is in the middle of saying, sounding disapproving.

 

“Richie said she’s from England,” Ralph confides, making all the hairs on the back of Tom’s neck stand up.

 

“England?”

 

“Yes. From one of the pureblood families there—the Potters.”

 

“A good pedigree, then. She is a pureblood?”

 

“I’m not sure. I would assume so. I don’t know of what relation she is to the family but they boast a rather prestigious lineage; lots of land, I hear. Richie is more interested in the their heirlooms, of course.”

 

Tom drops the book back in the pile of presents, standing abruptly. He doesn’t dare turn around.

 

Ruth’s father scoffs derisively. “Of course he is.” The man retorts, with a surprising amount of scorn. “Honestly, that boy, gallivanting about searching for treasure—why, if only he would settle into a proper institution, much like yourself Ralph. At this rate he’ll besmirch the family reputation.”

 

Ralph makes a noncommittal noise. “But what do you think of her?”

 

“She’s acceptable.” Is the noncommittal response.

 

The subject changes abruptly once the photographer finally manages to work his elaborate machinery, and the whole family goes off to take their stately, aristocratic portraits. Tom sneers at the display, thoroughly disgusted with it all. Not just the lavish party, the pretentious photography or even the presents; the very idea of them discussing Harry like a cattle for sale makes him sick to his stomach. He brushes past his classmates, making a bee-line towards her.

 

She is in the middle of polite, if not strained conversation, and he doesn’t even have it in him to be polite enough to wait before interrupting—he just tugs at the hem of her dress, grabbing her attention.

 

“Tom?” She looks down, surprised. “What’s wrong?”

 

“I want to go.” He replies: at this point he is wholly disturbed and exhausted by this affair, and no longer has any patience to present even an ounce of social dignity. He doesn’t care if it’s rude. He just wants to go home.

 

Harry must see something in his eyes, because she takes him quite seriously and finishes up her conversation with dexterous aplomb. He doesn’t know how much longer he can take; fortunately Harry announces their departure in a timely fashion, thanking their esteemed hosts and saying her farewells to the other guests.

 

“I don’t like them, Harry.” He confesses quietly, when they’re finally alone.

 

Harry takes his hand as they walk down the voluminous halls. “Oh, Tom, you don’t even know them.”

 

“I know enough.” He sniffs, narrowing his eyes at her. He doesn’t want to bring up the conversation he overheard; it’s enough to make his blood boil already. “And you didn’t like them either.”

 

She is silent for a moment. “Well, that’s true.” She admits at length. “I’m not particularly fond of them. I’m sure they’re harmless.”

 

So Harry was just as disgusted by the garishness of it all. But Tom doesn’t agree that they’re harmless. He detests the lot of them. Quite frankly he’s surprised that Ruth is as level headed as she is, growing up in a place like this, with parents like that. He can’t help but think of the orphanage, of comparing the two. He couldn’t possibly have imagined such wasteful wealth like this.

 

“I guess.” He bites out.

 

Harry sighs. “Well, thank you for going. I know it wasn’t your favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”

 

He leans a bit closer to her for a brief moment, before pulling away just as quickly. “I just want to go home.” He says, petulant.

 

“Alright, let’s go home.”

 

//

 

Harry wasn’t sure what she imagined the party to be like. For some ridiculous reason, she had expected it to be in a lovely suburban home with a white picket fence and a dog, and the sort of kitschy house that she’d seen in shows and movies from the 1950’s. She supposed that was rather remiss of her; anyone going to Tom’s school had to be at the highest level of the aristocracy. It wasn’t exactly a tuition to scoff at.

 

Harry would be considered wealthy as well, by modern standards, so even more so in this era. But she had forgotten just what that meant.

 

Fortunately she had come prepared for a dance around social landmines, but hadn’t quite expected the landscape to be what it was. Having never lived anywhere else but Britain—and regrettably, not being nearly as internationally savvy as Hermione—she had no idea what to expect of the aristocratic climate. On the one hand, she was truly warmed by the lack of division in blood purity, and the ease in which Muggles and Purebloods mixed together, as if nothing was amiss in that. As if that wasn’t taboo in most of the world. Of course, these were Muggles that new very well of the Wizarding World and had dealings with them frequently, but they were Muggles nonetheless. A Muggleborn girl like Ruth could have friends who had come from lines so pure they could trace their lineage back to medieval times, and a halfblood orphan like Tom was just as easily accepted into their little group of friends as a pureblood royal like James Washington.

 

On the other hand, just because they weren’t prejudiced or even all that interested in Tom’s blood purity didn’t mean they weren’t prejudiced or judgmental about other things. Namely, their income status. Though it was clear both from Tom’s schooling and their attire that they were far from impoverished, or even middle class, the guests still didn’t quite know what to make of her. Charlotte Washington had been very adamant about dissecting just where her wealth came from, to the point Harry admitted to being from Potter family of England. This appeased the woman, and appeared to appease most of their company as well. Harry was not sure why it mattered so much: she vowed to ask Hermione when she saw the girl next.

 

Still, Harry was relieved to see Tom get dragged away to a little group of kids keeping to themselves, birthday girl included.

 

Harry swallowed her nerves, looking around the room. She lucked out with Charlotte Washington taking her under her wing, introducing her to the crowd.

 

To her lack of surprise, the hot topic of conversation had nothing to do with the birthday party, but the political climate in Europe. Many of the families assembled were ambivalent to Grindelwald, though they agreed with some of his philosophies. For the most part the general consensus—even with the Muggles—was that they liked most of his policies but don’t care much for starting a war or killing off such a large part of the population. Well, that was a relief. Wars were bad for business after all, and they were more concerned with keeping the money within their small, isolated community than anything else. Grindelwald’s active push for a stricter Statue of Secrecy would hinder all Muggles without prior connections to interact with the Wizarding world.

 

But this did not mean that Grindelwald wasn’t trying. To her alarm, Grindelwald had apparently met with many of these families at gatherings like these; a favorable clientele, private estates without listening ears, people more concerned with fiscal gain… she looked around warily, hoping she wouldn’t see the man suddenly pop up in her peripheral.

 

He didn’t, much to her relief.

 

Harry actually found herself entertained by little Ruth’s older brothers; both were charming in their own regard and easy to talk to, if only because they were the only ones even close to her age. She was surprised to find that Tom wasn’t a fan of the eldest—she thought he’d find the man’s thirst for academia something he could relate to. He seemed to have made a friend of Ruth’s other brother, though, so that was reassuring.

 

Harry found herself tired out by the proceedings, more than she had assumed she would be. ­

 

By the time they got home the only thing she wanted to do was take these horrid shoes off and go to bed.

 

“Tom?” She calls drowsily, looking around the house. No response

 

She treads up the stairs, calling again. “Yeah?” Is his muffled answer.

 

Harry peeks into his bedroom, finding it empty. She opens the office door to see Tom on the built-in seats on the bay windows, tome in hand. She found herself smiling at the sight. “Sorry, are you reading?”

 

He makes a noise of assent.

 

“Alright, well I’m taking a nap, okay? If you disturb me, be prepared to face a very, very grumpy Harry.”

 

Tom looks up with a smile at that. “You’re always grumpy.” He teases.

 

“Lies.” She snorts, closing the door and leaving him to his books. Tom and his books, she shakes her head fondly. At least he’s been acting normal lately—she’ll count this as a win.

 

Meanwhile, Tom continues to search through his Encyclopedia of Magical Ancestry, trying to find truth to Richard’s words. His heart beats faster and faster at the idea of it—the idea of them. The Hallows. He can understand why they must be legends among curse breakers; powerful magical artifacts with all sorts of enchantments on them. The opportunity to study them would be the opportunity of a lifetime. He wonders if his Curses and Enchantments professor knows about them. He was a cursebreaker before he became a teacher, so perhaps he does.

 

Tom’s breath catches when he finally finds it. The Peverell brothers. Their lineage dips in and out of obscurity, and there isn’t much to say about their line. There were rumors that Slytherin came from Ignotus, so perhaps he and Harry were distantly related. Tom finds the information surprising; he’s researched everything about Salazar Slytherin, so finding new information intrigues him. He notices that the Encyclopedia does not mention this fact in the section dedicated to Slytherin, which makes him wonder the validity of the claim. Still, the claim that the Potters were direct descendants of Ignotus Peverell holds more merit. Tom wonders if he should ask her; would she know?

 

He looks down at his hand, where the symbol remains stark against his skin. He’s never seen it before, in any of the books. Not Hogwarts: A History, the Encyclopedia, or any of Harry’s books from her History of Magic class. Tom is a voracious reader, so the idea of not knowing something only serves to fascinate him and spur his desire for knowledge.

 

He decides that Harry probably doesn’t know. Why would Harry know about something like this? He couldn’t imagine someone so pure and lovely knowing of something so dark and malevolent.

 

But this just means that Tom must find out about them in other ways. Perhaps he’ll search the Wolcroft library; maybe he’ll find something in there.

 

//

 

Spring is upon them soon enough. The deep trenches of snowfall, bitter winds and winter chill are all slowly leaving the city, like a tide washing back into the sea. Tom spends every lunch break hunched over books in the library, researching the Deathly Hallows. Ruth’s brother was right—they are a highly revered legend in some circles. To cursebreakers they’re practically the holy grail. Each object is highly coveted by different people; the cloak appeals to cursbreakers. The enchantments woven into it are said to be unlike any other on this earth, and any cursebreaker worth their salt will want to study it. Necromancers crave the stone. Professor Caithe seemed very surprised when he asked her about it, revealing to him that most Necromancers believe it about as much as muggles believe in Santa Claus. Still, it is a highly lauded artifact, even if it isn’t real. He was correct in his prior assumption; they are truly the blackest of dark magic, and combined, make one the Master of Death. His professor warned him not to take it too literally—myths and legends have a way of being allegories instead of actual fact.

 

At any rate, the months pass quickly. There is a slight glaze of ice over everything when Tom wakes up one day and honestly thinks he can’t get out of bed. It’s so sunny outside his window, even though the spindly, naked branches of the trees outside are lined in ice like silvery glass. It sparkles so invitingly; he almost wants to touch it. He frowns sleepily; why would he want to touch ice? It’s so cold. That doesn’t make much sense. He feels out of sorts, and both warm and cold at the same time. His throat hurts a bit, but he ignores it—refuses to acknowledge it.

 

He drifts off again, only rousing once more when a warm hand is brushing the hair away from his forehead.

 

“Harry?” He whispers, drowsily.

 

When he opens his eyes he sees her leaning over him with a visage of concern. “Hey Tomcat. I’ve been calling your name… you missed your alarm. How are you feeling?” She asks quietly, her hand sliding to cradle his head. He hadn’t realized how much pressure he felt there until she was gently smoothing it away.

 

He gives an unintelligible grunt in response.

 

“Not well, huh?” She smiles slightly, but it is overwhelmed with worry. She leans down then, pressing her palm to his forehead, and the back of her hand to her own forehead.

 

“Definitely a bit hot.” She frowns, more to herself than anything.

 

Tom struggles awake at that, a spike of fear shooting up his spine. “’m fine.” He insists, amidst the haze in his thoughts.

 

Harry frowns at him. “You sound sick,” she comments, ignoring him. “Is your throat hurting?”

 

“I’m fine.” He asserts, trying to wiggle away from her.

 

“No you’re not, Tom, you’re burning up.” She retorts, somewhat impatiently. “Please stop squirming, I need to take your temperature—

 

“I’m fine!” He breaks away from her, rolling to the opposite side of the bed.

 

Harry is taken aback by such an explosive reaction, blinking over at him with a touch of concern. Tom doesn’t reply, holding the blankets tighter around him, utterly horrified. He’s not sick. He can’t be sick. His breath catches in his throat, and suddenly it is very hard to breathe; he knows exactly what happens to sick people. It happened often enough in the orphanage. He’s so distracted by his memories that he doesn’t realize Harry has moved after him until she’s wrapping her arms around him—gently, but firmly.

 

“Tom,” she starts, slowly. “Why are you so scared?”

 

He burrows his way out of his blanket-nest, sparing her a terrified glance. “I don’t want to die.” He says, with wide eyes.

 

For a moment Harry almost wants to laugh, thinking it all so outlandish and over-dramatic. But then she pauses for a moment, wondering just how outlandish and dramatic it really is. This is not the future, where most dangerous diseases have met their end with vaccinations, and a runny nose or sore throat is met with ambivalent annoyance rather than terror and paranoia. Polio runs rampant among the young, small pox has not yet been eradicated and the seasonal flu takes the lives of thousands every year. Harry swallows thickly, suddenly overcome with the thought. Tom lived in an orphanage. Certainly children his age dying of illness is not a foreign topic to him.

 

She relaxes her grip, relieved when he doesn’t run away. She thinks he might even be tearing up some. “Tom, you are not going to die.” She reassures him, patiently. “Have you been sick before?” It would make sense, considering his livid reaction.

 

He nods miserably. “Once,” he admits.

 

Harry strokes a hand down his back, smoothing the tension there away. “What happened?”

 

He shakes his head, refusing to answer.

 

Harry can guess, though. “You don’t have to worry,” she leans down, kissing his hair. “You’ll be better in no time.”

 

“Not everyone gets better.” He replies, in a small, watery voice.

 

That’s true, but she has no intention of letting that happen—even if she has to drag him almost a century into the future for treatment. “You will.” She promises, firmly.

 

Then she looks down on his small, bundled form. “I promise.” She says, quietly.

 

Harry moves to stand then, but a little hand shoots out of the blankets and grabs her sleeve. “Don’t leave.” He looks up at her with wide, imploring eyes.

 

Harry hesitates for a moment, before she winds her arms underneath him and hauls him up, blanket and all. She carries him into her own bedroom, settling him in with a big glass of water and his gigantic pet snake, hoping that this might reassure him. Fortunately it does, and once he’s drowsy enough she slips out of the room to find her phone. It’s buried in her work bag, and turned off to prevent any undue attention. She doesn’t want Tom getting into it, that’s for sure. It only takes her a moment to apologetically tell her work that she’s not going to be in today, and then she’s grabbing a Tylenol and a pepper-up potion and tip-toeing back up the stairs. She peaks in; Tom is fast asleep, Spot draped on top of him.

 

She takes his temperature, cursing when she realizes this definitely warrants a trip to the doctor. She’s no idea what sort of inane practices might still be going on in this era, and has no intention of finding out. That said, she doesn’t want to drag him decades into the future unless as a last resort.

 

So she does the next best thing: call Hermione.

 

“Define sick,” her best friend says, thoughtful, once she’s explained the situation. “What are his symptoms again?”

 

“A fever, um, a runny nose. His voice sounds raspy—I think his throat’s sore too.”

 

“You think?”

 

“He wouldn’t tell me.” She confesses. “I think he’s scared of it.”

 

Hermione laughs. “Of course he is. He’s a child; they all hate being miserable and sick.”

 

“He thought he was going to die.” Harry confides. Hermione stops laughing. “I think he’s been sick before; really sick.” She runs a wary hand through her hair, pacing down the hallway.

 

Hermione makes an empathetic noise. “That’s awful.” She sighs. “I can only imagine… at any rate, it sounds like the flu to me. I’ll ask Mrs. Weasley when I go to the Burrow this afternoon, but I don’t think it’s any real cause for concern.”

 

“If his temperature gets any higher, you should call a doctor.” Hermione warns.

 

“Will do.”

 

Harry returns to her charge, who has left his dreams for a more fitful sleep. She decides now is as good a time as any, and rouses him to take his medicine.

 

“What is this?” He asks cautiously, once he’s sitting up fully. His cheeks are red and ruddy, and he’s flushed with fever. Harry wishes more than anything that she could make all the pain go away, but unfortunately both modern science and modern magic can’t even do that.

 

“Medicine,” she answers, holding up the potion. “And this is a pepper-up potion. They’ll make you feel better.”

 

He takes this as an appropriate answer, cautiously downing the pepper-up potion first, before looking down curiously at the pills. He looks back up. “What do I do with this?”

 

Oh. “You—swallow it. It’s easier to do it with water.” She hands him the glass. She wonders what sort of medicine they gave him at the orphanage—or if they even gave him any, at all.

 

He downs the whole thing, but does eventually swallow the medicine. She hopes he’s too sick to start asking curious questions that she doesn’t know how to answer. Fortunately she’s in luck; he slumps back down onto the pillows, turning to the side to huddle against her. Tom thinks he might be feeling a bit better. Maybe Harry is right, maybe he’ll be just fine.

 

Tom remembers exactly what happened last time he was sick. He refused to believe it at first, but then it became too hard to deny. He became bed-ridden, stuck in that cold, drafty dark room. An occasional head would poke in, to see if he was alive, bringing water and food, if there was any to be had. It was an unseasonably cold winter and food and water was sparse enough without the weather taking a turn for the worse. He felt dreadful, waiting in fear for the moment when the pain would become unbearable—when he would start to feel nothing at all. Everyone knew what happened to sick orphans. Every year the winter cold reaped the unlucky ones; there was no medicine, no care-taking for the sick. The staff was too busy, and there was no medicine to be had—the unwell were sent to their rooms, where some would leave under a white sheet, cold and limp with death. The year Tom was sick, half the orphanage had been sick as well. They said it was an epidemic; an especially cold winter, and a viral spread of influenza. He was too young to understand what had happened to him at the time—how lucky he really was.

 

He pokes his head out of the blankets, studying Harry closely. But Harry wouldn’t let anything happen to him, right? She promised he would get better, and Harry never broke a promise.

 

And this time was different. He was not stuck in a damp, cold room, lonely and feverish. Harry doted on him the entire day, never leaving for very long. He had as much water as he could ask for, and bread and hot soup and chocolate ice cream when his throat started to hurt. He was not shivering in a threadbare cot; Harry had wrapped him up in soft, fuzzy blankets, tucking him into a little pillow fort with Spot by his side. He spent most of the day asleep, but she was there whenever he blearily opened his eyes.

 

The day passed into night without much fanfare. His dinner was a big bowl of soup—Harry said liquids would help him get better. He slept fitfully and in small intervals. He woke up from tumultuous dreams feverish and sweaty with Harry curled around him, and he reminded himself to breathe. The world in his dreams didn’t exist anymore. The orphanage was only in his memory. Harry was here now; he had someone to take care of him, someone to rely on. He wasn’t all alone.

 

Harry stirs above him, drawing a hand to smooth the damp hair away from his face. “Oh Tom, you’re burning up.” She murmurs, rising from the bed.

 

“I’m okay,” he replies, voice small and watery.

 

“Does your throat hurt?”

 

He nods slowly.

 

She holds a hand out, and the drawer jams open, a little bottle trotting diligently into her hand. She pours something out of it, pulling Tom into a sitting position and handing it to him. He is lucid enough to wonder what it is. It looked foul. “What is this?”

 

“Cough Syrup,” Harry says. “C’mon, you have to drink it. It’ll help your throat some.”

 

He scrunches his nose—he was right. It tasted as foul as it looked. She gave him another one of those little pills to swallow, and a big glass of water. Even the water didn’t help wash the taste away. Being sick was awful, he digressed. But at least he didn’t have to be afraid that he wouldn’t live to see the end of it. 

 

He settled back down into his nest of blankets, snuggling in next to Harry’s warmth. He supposed there was one upside to all of this—he had an excuse to indulge in her affections again. He had missed it terribly. He almost didn’t want to get better, if it meant he could stay with Harry like this forever. He suddenly felt very foolish for trying so hard to say away from her—from staying away from his. On the subject of being lucky, he was very lucky to have found Harry. Uncannily lucky, really, but Tom was never one to look a gift horse in the face; he was also not one to squander a perfectly good opportunity. He was good at being resourceful.

 

Tom throws an arm around her, resting against her chest. Harry leans down to kiss his forehead, much to his pleasure, and wraps an arm around him. “Go back to bed, Tom,” she whispers. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Harry dotes on him all week, to the point Tom debates faking illness just to hold her complete attention. It’s rather nice; he is suddenly the acute center of her entire world, and he finds he likes it quite a bit. Of course Harry cares for him, but she’s very busy and always has something she needs to do. For the duration of his bed rest all those events seem to fade into inexistence, and suddenly he is the only thing that matters. He would prefer not to give it up, but school begins again on Monday and he’s feeling antsy at the idea of missing too many classes. Who knows that they’re learning now—he may be the best in his class, and has read most of his text books front to back, but he doesn’t like the idea of missing class time anyway.

 

“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” Harry asks, worried, fussing over him for the umpteenth time that day.

 

Tom practically preens. “I’m fine,” he insists, but he wraps his arms around her and tucks his head against her shoulder anyway.

 

Harry does not seem particularly convinced. “It’s just another day,” she says, frowning. “And that nice girl gave you all her notes.”

 

At the idea of Margaret, Tom makes a face. It was true though; a fat owl had rammed itself into the window and startled them all earlier that week, carrying a pouch stuffed full of notes in a most distasteful shade of pink parchment. He supposes the gesture could be considered something ‘nice’, but the idea of calling Margaret that was laughable.

 

Tom shakes his head. “No, I want to go back to school.”

 

Harry’s lips tilt into a brief, amused smile. “Well, alright then. You better start getting ready then, huh? I’m going to get breakfast started.”

 

Tom pouts when Harry removes herself from his grip, but he immediately brightens at the thought of food. “Waffles?” He asks, hopefully.

 

Harry laughs. “Again? Well, if you insist.”

 

He nods readily, before following her and trotting out the room to his own bedroom, intent on getting ready. In all honesty, he is getting a bit stir crazy and is feeling well enough to brave the tedious circus that is primary school, but he is also itching to return to the library. Wolcroft doesn’t have any limitations in regards to banned books, but they are very strict on their age restrictions. Sometimes he forgets just how young he is, if only because the faculty of the school treat him as an adult and hold their students to such a high standard of maturity that it makes Tom believe himself to be a lot older than he really is. Tom has a feeling that the vast library halls have the books he’s looking for, but unfortunately those same halls will be inaccessible to him until he is older. And Tom isn’t even sure if he’s going to be here when he’s older.

 

He shuffles into his seat just as Harry puts breakfast on the table, an armful of Spot in his hands as he tries to tug the rest of him from underneath the table. Spot does not want to move, and he does not want to go outside and catch his own food, even though the weather is far more amenable than usual. Harry finally gets fed up with the lazy snake and uses magic to untangle him from the table legs and toss him out the porch door. He makes droopy sad faces at them from the other side of the glass, but Tom ignores him because Harry is doting on him once again, grabbing him glasses of milk and juice and making sure he’s comfortable.

 

Tom doesn’t even bother with the pretense of pushing her away; it has occurred to him during the duration of his illness that he does not want Harry to dote on anyone else but him. And if that is the case, he really ought to be more receptive of it, otherwise she might think he doesn’t want her and find someone else to fuss over. That sounds like a fate worse than death, so he has decided he doesn’t have to act like he does with his peers with Harry. Harry is already the exception to his general disdain for humanity, so he supposes one more small concession can’t hurt anything. He hugs her very tightly before he leaves, and while she seems surprised, she returns it with equal fervor.

 

Tom returns to school in good spirits, batting away the harpies that approach him the moment he walks in the door, and scuttling over to the relative protection that is Margaret; the other girls don’t bother her, and leave him well enough alone when he sits next to her.

 

“Tom!” She brightens immediately. “How are you feeling? Did you get my notes? Was it enough, or should I have wrote more on the principles of condition damage—

 

“They were fine.” Tom cuts in exasperatedly, before she can really get on a roll. And then, with great effort and significant disgust; “Thank you.”

 

Margaret grins at him. “You’re welcome.” She says primly, fluffing her hair.

 

Wesley and Washy join them after a moment, and then Ruth comes skipping along to plop right next to Margaret, and the two push their heads together to gossip and giggle. Nothing appears to have changed with his absence.

 

Tom is having a fine day, until his professor mentions something about graduation. It is an off hand remark, as graduation is still so far away, but it reminds Tom that the school year will be ending. They have not started their finals yet, but surely are moving towards them.

 

What will Tom do next year? He has every intention of returning to Wolcroft next year, but what of the one after that? Hogwarts starts at age eleven, and he’ll turn eleven this upcoming December. He doesn’t know if he will return to Wolcroft, or attend Hogwarts. Hogwarts is literally in his blood; it is an intimate part of his heritage. He can only imagine the secrets that lie in that sprawling castle—and he had heard stories about it from Harry ever since she first mentioned it. It sounded amazing, and very different from Wolcroft. But… he was content here. He knew all his classmates, and while he held them all with indifferent regard he could respect some of them, and they certainly respected him. He liked his professors. He couldn’t wait to start taking some of the advanced classes.

 

He wondered what the other schools were like. The infamous rivalry between Salem and Wolcroft gave him some idea, but they were of no comparison to some of the other schools. The two were fairly traditional, with curriculum and class structures a lot like the modern school system of the muggles—but he’d heard that not all magical schools were like that. After all, what constituted as a school? The Naztec and Inca, along with most of the ancient tribes around the South American mountain range had their own educational system that they refused to share with anyone else; the Babylonian Institute of Magic started at birth; and apparently even attempting to get into the Emperor’s Imperial Institute in Luoyang required a multitude of trails and tests, and they somehow expected you to be at a level twice your age, but did not accept anyone over the age of seven. Tom wasn’t sure what to make of it; would Hogwarts be more like Wolcroft? Or would it be so bizarre he won’t know what to do with himself?

 

Harry went there, he rationalized, and it was in Europe, so it would stand to reason that the structure would bear great similarity to his own school. There was a boy in his class who had come from Durmstrang, and he didn’t appear to have any issues transitioning into his new classes, and Durmstrang was also in Europe, wasn’t it? Perhaps he was just better off asking Harry about it; although Harry tended to be rather tight-lipped about her time at Hogwarts.  

 

All the same, it felt as if his heart was set on Hogwarts. He couldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity.

 

And besides, he thought to himself with finality, as he followed his yearmates to their next class; if he didn’t like it, he could always come back.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Harry steps out into the cold, and immediately pulls her trench coat tighter around her, adjusting her scarf to completely cover her neck. It was far colder in this era than it was in the future, she digressed. Well, she supposed the seasons were different every year after all, so this was to be expected. Boston in the future had been a mild spring, while Boston in the 1930’s had been besieged by another blizzard. Then again, of course it would take Harry by surprise; she intentionally stayed as far away from this time period as possible.

 

Aside from being in her house—which didn’t quite count as the past, and didn’t quite count as the future—or engaging in some sort of event, she did not spend any time here at all. Quite frankly, it depressed her. And it was difficult enough attempting to acclimate enough to society during the brief periods it was necessary; she didn’t quite feel up to having to do it all the time. Harry was quite aware that many things had changed in what could be considered the relatively short time period of eighty years or so. It wasn’t as if Harry didn’t know this. She had researched the topic deeply before creating the rift in time and space, and knew how to act among company, at least in theory. The problem was that it was so tiring, and Harry had little patience for social niceties, and no inclination at all to indulge others. She could only keep up the charade for so long before she gave up the pretense entirely. After all, this was not her timeline.

 

Hermione had expanded on the topic enough for her to at least understand it in a theoretical sense. She remembered their third year, and Hermione’s time turner—it only went back a few hours. This was true for all time turners, although occasionally the more powerful ones could do full days at a time. But time was a rigid and complex thing, as Hermione had explained it, and even with magic it was nearly impossible to bend it further than a couple hours. Even then the consequences could be catastrophic—and that was only a handful of minutes. Imagine a handful of years!

 

But it was impossible. Time was irreversible—at least, her time was irreversible. But there were many Harry Potter’s that existed, in other parallel dimensions. When Hermione had told her that it actually made her quite maudlin; was there a Harry Potter who lived with both parents? Who grew up in love and affection? Apparently it was statistically plausible that the majority of her parallel counterparts were boys. The thought was amusing; what would she look like as a boy? Then again, she couldn’t imagine every incarnation of her as a girl to look the exact same either.

 

At any rate, the fate of Tom Riddle had been set in stone long before she was even born, and there was nothing she could do to change that. For that Tom Riddle, at least. This Tom…

 

Harry shakes her head, clearing her thoughts. She could not even begin to imagine what these radical changes will bring to the future of this timeline, but she could only hope that the outcome would be different than her own. Different, but positive.

 

She tightens her trench coat closer around her, moving with the tide of people; they all appear sullen and downtrodden, dispossessed and empty. She turns her gaze away, fixing it to the brick sidewalk. She can’t do anything to help these people. This is part of history—an inevitable and necessary part of history, Hermione referred to it as—all she can do is be thankful she is not one of them, and continue on. The further she moves into the city, the more lively it gets. There are buildings here full of businesses that have survived through the chaos, and out of them pour people dressed in fine work clothes, speaking avidly amongst each other. There are restaurants and bars that are not boarded up and covered in dust.

 

Harry ducks into one of them.

 

She peers at the inhabitants; the interior is sparse, but then again it is that ambiguous time between lunch and dinner, and most of the patrons are most likely back at work. There are a few people sitting close, speaking in hushed voices. She recognizes one of them; an objectively handsome man, with soft chocolate hair and piercing dark eyes. Harry will admit that it is difficult not to find him attractive; also, apparently Ginny was right about her having a type. Oliver, Cedric… maybe she did have a thing for the tall, dark and handsome.

 

Harry shakes her head, moving further into the restaurant.

 

“Sorry—I’m not late, am I?” She smiles as she removes her sunglasses.

 

Ralph stands up the moment she nears, pulling her chair out for her. She nods her thanks, unfastening her coat and laying it on the chair beside them. It is far too hot in the establishment, and she resists the urge to fan her blouse. “Not at all,” he replies smoothly. “I just arrived as well. Would you like something to drink?”

 

“Oh, um,” she looks down quickly, suddenly hit with the realization that she had never dined in a restaurant in this time period, and surely etiquette would be different here. “Yes, I’d love a glass of water. It’s a tad stuffy in here.”

 

He nods once, before calling the waiter over. “A water for the lady,” he says, “and an Opus for the table.”

 

Harry smiles awkwardly, occupying herself with looking at the menu. To her total lack of surprise, Italian food does not seem to have changed much in the past seventy years or so. It appears that Bolognese and chicken will never let her down.

 

“Thanks for meeting me,” Harry starts, in a rush. “I just—I wasn’t sure who else I could talk to.”

 

“It’s not a problem.” His smile is pleasant enough; sharp, perhaps even a bit unnerving.

 

She returns the smile with a weak one of her own. “I suppose I am being a bit preemptive with this… but sometimes I think Tom grows up so fast, I really ought to know these things beforehand so I can give him some answers when he asks.”

 

Ralph tilts his head. “You were rather noncommittal on the subject when I remarked on it earlier.” He points out. “And there’s no such thing as preemptive when it comes to higher education.”

 

“Well, yes.” She agrees, hesitating. “I don’t like the idea of making any decisions for him—even if I think they’re beneficial. But at any rate, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to know.”

 

The man makes a noise of agreement.

 

“My sister mentioned he shows an aptitude for alchemy?”

 

Harry laughs. “He shows an aptitude for everything, if that’s not too callous of me to say.”

 

“Not at all,” he assures. “That just means he’ll have more options. Perhaps I should have phrased it differently; what subjects does he show interest in?”

 

Her brows furrow, as she fights not to fiddle with the ends of her napkin. Instead she draws her hands into her lap. “Also everything,” she huffs, almost as if exasperated. “He seems quite drawn to blood magicks, but on other days I would swear he had aspirations as a Necromancer.”

 

“Interesting choice of fields,” Ralph remarks, diplomatically.

 

Harry sighs, sparing him a withering look. “Interesting is putting it lightly.” Even in Dark Arts circles, blood magic and necromancy were niche subjects. This wasn’t to say Harry disapproved on the idea of them merely because they were quite controversial—but that polarization makes finding a job out of school all the more difficult. Harry isn’t even sure what a necromancer does outside of nefarious undead business, or teaching classes. “I’m very curious; what does a Necromancer do, exactly?”

 

“Do?” Ralph raises a brow, as if this should be obvious.

 

“Occupationally.” Harry adds.

 

He hums politely. “Well—nothing directly, occupationally.” He adds, with a pointed look. Yes, Harry could assume there were a great many things a Necromancer could do, and none of them were legal. “But interacting with the undead, and creatures and spirits from other realms does come in handy; Richard could tell you more on that subject—wrathful spirits and the undead are quite common in his line of work.”

 

“Curse breaking?” Harry blinks in surprise. Well, now that she thinks on it, she could imagine that being the case.

 

“Yes… the undead tend to guard their precious artifacts, even from beyond the grave.” Ralph shrugs. The waiter returns with drinks and wine; Harry has never really understood the etiquette of wine tasting, so she allows the waiter to pour her a bit but makes no move to take it. “However, most people tend to overlook the most integral part of Necromancy in favor of, well, the necro part.” He smiles. Harry blinks, curious.

 

“It might seem counterintuitive, but Necromancers are most adept at regeneration and healing arts.”

 

“Really?” Harry had not expected that.

 

“A good Necromancer can summon armies of undead to fight for them.” Harry refrains from mentioning that Tom already does summon armies of undead. Undead squirrels, at any rate. “But only a very powerful one will be able to sustain them for an adequate period of time. As you can imagine, without magic they deteriorate quickly.”

 

She nods, even as something like trepidation grows in her stomach. Wolcroft may hold their students to a far higher standard than she remembered Hogwarts holding her, but all the same despite their advanced education Tom still stood out. She wondered if she had only accelerated this, placing him an environment where his intellect and thirst for knowledge would only be nurtured and grow tenfold.

 

“So the true power of the Necromancer comes from their healing and regeneration spells,” he continues. “And there are a great deal of fields that those skills will be useful in.”

 

When he puts it like that, it doesn’t sound all that hopeless. She wonders how many of the mediwizards and witches she knows have dabbled in that art. Maybe more than she would think.

 

“Oh,” Harry says, still surprised.

 

Ralph smiles at her roguishly. “See? The Dark Arts aren’t all that bad.”

 

Harry flushes a bit. “I never said they were,” she pointed out.

 

“No, I suppose you didn’t.” He agrees. “But surely the stigma is there nonetheless.”

 

“I don’t think they’re bad,” Harry allows. “But I do think they’re dangerous.”

 

“Is that why you moved here from England?” Ralph asks, surprising her. “So your ward could attend an institute that provides a more liberal education?”

 

She eyes him slowly. “Yes.” She grows concerned as she wonders if it is truly that transparent, or Ralph had done his research on her—and more to the point, why there would be research on her to find at all.

 

“That’s really rather admirable of you, to move so far away from home for him to attend this school.”

 

Harry is saved by the reappearance of the waiter, giving her time to mull over her answer as he fixes the plates in front of them. He is fishing for information, which isn’t surprising. It’s his motivations that concern her—everything about that family seems too systematic and perfunctory.

 

“I just want to give him the best education possible,” she smiles bright and fictitious.

 

He smiles back. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that.” He concurs. “As for higher education, I would give Amherst a look—it’s quite close, and highly esteemed. Are you looking abroad?”

 

She ponders this question. “I suppose I’ll look at anything.” Is it too much to hope for a standardized process?

 

It’s still years away and yet she already doesn’t want to think about it.

 

“Any suggestions you have would be gratefully appreciated.”

 

“Well in that case, the Viennese Academy of Alchemy is also held in high regard; as for Necromancy, well, unfortunately the Babylonian Institute of Magic would be the best, but they choose their students at birth and raise them there. As a perfectly acceptable alternative I would suggest Alexandria. Very exclusive, but renowned for their contributions to the Necromatic arts.”

 

She’s already feeling overwhelmed.

 

“That’s exotic,” she comments faintly, as it occurs to her that she should have expected something like that— there is an entire world full of mages and specialized fields.

 

He must read the surprise right off her face, for he chuckles a bit. “If you’re looking for something with a broader and more uniform education, I would stay domestic. Either that or uproot yourself again and move to the Henan province.”

 

“I’ll pass,” she replies quickly.

 

Oh Merlin, she thinks. What has she gotten herself into?

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

“Hi Tom,” Harry calls over her shoulder, when she hears the fireplace roar to life behind her. Spot hisses delightedly, slithering off her legs in favor of a more receptive host.

 

She turns around to see Tom hauling the snake into his arms, walking into the kitchen. “How was school?”

 

“Mmph.” He says, burying his head in her side. Spot protests this loudly, squished in his arms, but Tom ignores him.

 

Harry cocks an amused brow. “Is that a yes, it was good, or a no, it was horrible?”

 

“Neither,” he replies, voice muffled. “It was alright.”

 

Harry smiles down at him, wondering what has happened to put him in such a good mood again. At any rate, she doesn’t want to press the issue. To her surprise when she begins to move away he clings even tighter, making an unhappy noise.

 

“Are you feeling okay?” She asks, immediately concerned. Maybe she shouldn’t have let him go to school today… it wouldn’t surprise her if he forced himself to go even when he was still feeling quite ill.

 

“I feel fine,” Tom replies, truthfully. His head hurts a bit and he still feels a little stuffy, but it was nothing that bothered him. Regardless, he didn’t let go.

 

Harry wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. It felt both normal and yet surprisingly uncharacteristic of the boy, and she didn’t quite know how he wanted her to respond. She chanced a glance at Spot, who was watching her with a nonplussed expression of total exasperation. He looked as if he was attempting to remind her of their prior conversation; Harry looked back down at the feathery head burrowed into her hip, before she leaned down and wrapped her arms around him. Tom made a noise of approval. Without further ado she grabbed him by the waist and lifted him up into her arms; he threw his own around her, much to Spot’s deep displeasure. The squished snake began to whine pathetically, but Harry only swatted him away.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay, Tomcat?” She asks, when he rests his head on her shoulder.

 

“Mmhmm,” he mumbles, not appearing to be all that willing to give her a more sufficient answer.

 

Well, she supposes she really shouldn’t push her luck, and took it in stride. “Okay—well maybe some soup would be good anyway.”

 

Tom makes an interested noise. “What kind of soup?”

 

“Tomato soup?” Harry suggests.

 

“Okay.” He agrees. He makes no move to get down, however.

 

Harry moves into the kitchen, tapping him lightly. “I need to use my hands, Tom.” She reminds, teasingly. He makes a disgruntled noise, but does not resist as Harry drops him on the counter.

 

He watches her idly as she moves about the shelves, rummaging around the cabinets for a can of soup.

 

Meanwhile, Harry could feel herself slipping into an existential crisis for what could possibly be the hundredth time this week. Why did she ever think being a parent could be a good idea? Why did she think she was even remotely cut out for it? It was the most stressful—albeit rewarding—task she’d ever taken on. She spent half the time worrying incessantly on Tom, if she was giving him too much freedom, not enough guidance. If she wasn’t there enough as his guardian, if she wasn’t doing enough to be more involved in his life and his schooling. She had always assumed that the best approach to handling Tom Riddle would be a hands-off approach that gave him almost complete autonomy. What was surprising was that Tom didn’t appear to want complete autonomy; more importantly, Harry was starting to feel that having such a disengaged strategy wasn’t actually a viable option.

 

She was never going to be the Dursley’s, fawning over Dudley and coddling him through every instance of his life. But she did remember how invested they were in his future, in a way that always made her bitter. They cared so much about where he went to secondary school, where he would go off to university (it was always laughable that they thought he would get into a university) if he was hanging in the right crowd (he never was), if he was getting good grades (also laughable) and in general worrying over whether he was happy or not. Molly Weasley was similar, always pestering her boys on what their plans would be once they graduated Hogwarts, wanting to make sure they all ended up well cared for.

 

Harry shook her head, heating up the pan while absently raising a hand to pull glassware out of the cabinet above. As they flew down to settle on the counter she moved towards the refrigerator, grabbing a pitcher of water.

 

Maybe she should be more involved in his life.

 

She had met his teachers at least once or twice, and most of them had nothing but glowing remarks to give her. All the same she didn’t trust that for a minute; and anyway, if Tom was up to something he didn’t want her to know about, she probably wouldn’t be able to figure it out. She would most likely just have to wait it out and see if he told her on his own. She paused. That was a rather hands off approach, wasn’t it?

 

Hell. She was thinking herself in circles.

 

“Harry?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“The stove is on fire.”

 

Harry whirled around, cursing under her breath as she whipped out her wand and dispelled the flames. It was a harmless little thing—a bit of something on the surface that had caught on fire—but all the same she should have been paying more attention. At any rate the soup had long been heated up to an appropriate temperature; she turned the stove off, looking up to see Tom laughing at her from his spot on the counter.

 

“I know you were perfectly capable of putting that out yourself.” She glowered.

 

He shrugged. “But it was funny to see you get so worried about it.”

 

Harry didn’t even bother to comment on that one, rolling her eyes.

 

Tom smiled, but hid it behind Spot, who had curled around his shoulders. They discussed other light topics, like the weather, vague instances of Harry’s job, Spot, and how to motivate him into being less lazy, and Tom’s schooling. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that Harry would eventually bring this up, but it caught Tom off guard nonetheless.

 

“So, Tom, have you thought on where you want to go to school?” She asks idly, after they had sat down at the table.

 

It only seemed so surprising that she brought it up because it was the same subject he had been deeply thinking on for most of the day. Could Harry read his mind or something? Washy had told him this horrible story about a vampire teacher in the secondary school who could read peoples minds. He wondered if the boy had been serious or just pulling his leg.

 

“Um, not really.” He confesses. Which was a lie, but a necessary one, as he had been thinking on it a lot but hadn’t quite come to a decision, “I was thinking Hogwarts, I guess. I don’t really know if I’ll like it.”

 

Harry makes an interested noise. “And what about after?”

 

Tom blinks rapidly, looking up. “After?” He repeated, blankly.

 

“Of course.” Harry laughs. “You’re not going to be in Hogwarts forever, silly.”

 

“But that’s so far away,” he points out.

 

Harry smiles at him, and though it was a beautiful thing it was tinged with nostalgia. “It’ll be gone before you know it.” She says, softly.

 

Tom snorts. Unlikely. As of now, time couldn’t be moving any slower. “I’m sure I’ll figure something out.” He reasons, not particularly concerned over the matter; especially not when there were more pressing matters to attend to.

 

Like this whole Deathly Hallows thing, and whatever conspiracies were held within it.

.

 

.

 

.

 

Harry’s head was still reeling from her meeting with Ralph, even though it had been days ago now. Honestly she felt as if she should have been taking notes. Unfortunately she was no closer to figuring any of this out, but she at least has a direction to take.

 

Tom had given no indication that he had even spared the idea a thought. She supposed it really was a lot to ask from a ten year old child—no matter how gifted and mature the child may be. Seventeen would seem like eons away from him, and why would someone who had the world at his fingertips be all that worried about a career after him?

 

But this was exactly why she was worried.

 

Tom was brilliant, there was no question about that. He was growing into a great wizard, who would do great things.

 

Terrible things.

 

The farther he soared and the more his capacity for greatness grew, so did his capacity for great evil. What would have happened to her world if Lord Voldemort had received even an ounce of the attention Tom did; not just from her, but from his peers and his teachers, all encouraging him to keep getting better? What would happen if Lord Voldemort had been given such a gifted education, at such an early age? She had no idea.

 

And while she did hold a great deal of faith in Tom, and that he would grow up to make all the right choices—and she hoped her faith wasn’t misplaced—she still felt compelled to… make it easier for him to choose the right path, she supposed. And she didn’t mean ‘right side’ as in the ‘light’ side, as if light and dark were really all that different. She just meant the right path as in, well, whatever path that wasn’t him becoming Lord Voldemort. And be that reclusive Necromancer in the bowels of Egypt or some kind of curse breaker always immersed in the darkest of artifacts, then that was fine. Anything he wanted to pursue was fine, as long as it made him happy, and had nothing to do with being a rampaging dark lord.

 

She checked her watch again, making sure she had plenty of time. She did. Tom wouldn’t be home from school until the afternoon, and she still had taken the day off for this little venture of hers. Afterwards she adjusted her scarf, and stepped out of the floo parlor, taking a long sweep around. The room was vast and gilded in gold and fine marble, sparkling in the glowing light. It did not remind her of Hogwarts, nor of Wolcroft. The embellishments were intricate and designed with such fine detail she couldn’t tell if the furniture was meant to be seen as work of art or meant to be used as an actual piece of furniture. There was an element of regality and refinement that neither Hogwarts nor Wolcroft quite achieved. As if this place was not a place of learning, but a work of art. Or a bit of both.

 

Harry drew wide eyes about the room, before stepping into the silent chamber and making down the hall. She took a moment to admire the breathtaking sight she found at the end of it; a crystal water fountain centered in a vast, glass dome. Around the walls was a truly magnificent mosaic of gold leaf, diamonds and decorative shapes, patterns and colors all coalescing into a moving piece that seemed vaguely familiar to her. If not in subject then in style; organic, natural forms shimmering in the light. She drew close to the walls, gazing up into it.

 

“Are you a fan of Klimt?”

 

Harry jumps, startled, feeling something cold drop into her stomach.

 

She almost doesn’t want to turn around, but she was never one to run from the inevitable. She takes a breath, sparing a pleasant smile towards a figure behind her.

 

A strikingly handsome man leans against a pillar, dripping in shadow. Even still, it is not difficult to discern his piercing, electric eyes through the gloom.

 

The Viennese Palast die Wissenschaft was a fitting work of architectural prestige—so much so that Harry thought it only natural to turn around and find Gellert Grindelwald seizing her in a gaze so charged it made her uncomfortable. Were all Dark Lord’s this intense, all the time?

 

It was then she remembers he asked her a question.

 

“Oh—well, yes. Isn’t everyone these days?” She laughs weakly.

 

The man pushes off the column, waltzing into the light. “You’d be surprised,” he returns, low. “Personally I am more of a fan of Mucha, but it is impossible not to commend him on this masterpiece. Of course, he was certainly fortunate in his patrons.” The man gave a nod to the illustrious work glittering on the wall.

 

“I didn’t know he was a wizard,” Harry confesses.

 

“An alumni as well,” Grindelwald smiles.

 

He may look as if he belonged here, among all this gilded luxury and opulence, but she still did not know what on earth he was doing here. Why would he be wandering about the lavish entryways of the Palace? Ralph had suggested this to her as a location to look into to further Tom’s school—and he had also mentioned that it was both prestigious and infamous. Maybe it wasn’t so surprising to see him here. Surely the board of this school was just as influential as the board of Hogwarts, or the board of Wolcroft. She appraised him carefully.

 

He tilts his head. “Would you like a tour?”

 

Harry blinks quickly. She most certainly does not, but she cannot think of a polite way to decline him. “I think I’m meant to get one with the headmaster,” she hedges quickly. “I booked an appointment, you see.”

 

He laughs. “With Count Schloss? Great man, excellent alchemist—incredibly boring, I must admit. You’ll fall asleep before you even reach the atrium.” His smile turns sharp. “I can assure you, I’m just as well versed in this school as he is.”

 

Harry swallows thickly. “Well, if you insist…” For some reason, his invitation did not seem voluntary.

 

“I do insist,” he holds his hand out. “How much do you know of Alchemy?”

 

Absolutely nothing. “I’ll admit I’m not very well read on the subject,” she confesses. She very tentatively places her hand in his and tries not to cringe. It was so strange, holding hands with a dark lord. His palm was warm and dry, inviting, almost. His fingers curled around her with a familiar curvature. They were… peculiarly normal.

 

“Most people are not,” he nods. “A very obscure field, Alchemy. Alchemists are such hermits, you know, they rarely ever deign to speak with the outside world. They’re always holed up in their labs, searching for—

 

“The Philospher’s Stone,” she cut’s in, surprising the both of them.

 

“Yes, exactly.” He agrees.

 

Harry quickly wracks her brain. When did Nicholas Flamel create the Philospher’s Stone? Well, he was very old, was he not? Surely he already had. “I thought Nicholas Flamel had already made one?”

 

“Well, that is how the story goes,” Gellert replies. “Supposedly he and his wife Perenelle drank from the Elixer of Life, and achieved immortality.”

 

Harry spares him an alarmed look. “Would you?” She asks quietly.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Drink the Elixer of Life to achieve immortality?” She continues, finding herself very invested in his answer.

 

The great dark lord is not looking at her, leading them through riveting archways of glass and gold, sparkling light shimmering across the floors. Her trepidation grows the longer he doesn’t answer. “No,” he says, finally. “Living forever sounds like eternal purgatory.”

 

Harry breathes a sigh of relief.

 

He turns to her, smiling enigmatically. “Death is only the beginning.”

 

Harry can remember another man saying those words to her. A man both she and Grindelwald were very fond of. She wonders if it was truly something original from Dumbledore, or if perhaps her old headmaster had taken the words from the man in front of her.

 

“Just outside these doors is the Ringtrasse,” he confides in her, rather conspiratorially. “Supposedly the doors are made from solid goblin gold—stolen gold, at that.”

 

Harry makes an impressed noise. “And they got away with that?”

 

“Of course not. I’m sure the goblins were compensated for it somehow.” Probably with a couple deaths or two, knowing just how the goblins took to thieves.

 

She scoffs. “They should have known better than to cross the goblins.”

 

“That, I agree with.” He says, heartily. “Clever little creatures; far too clever than most wizards would give them credit for.”

 

Harry blinks, not quite expecting that. She studies him closely, as they seem to aimlessly float down the ethereal halls.

 

“You could say that about most magical creatures,” she adds, slowly, waiting for his response.

 

“Yes, that’s true. Most magical creatures are far more clever than all wizards combined, I suspect.”

 

Now that, Harry definitely hadn’t bee expecting. Harry was silent for a long moment, mulling it over. Before she knew it Grindelwald was pulling her into another vast chamber—this one vaguely resembling some kind of lecture hall, but held more similarities with a vast theater or opera hall. It was far more luxurious than any lecture hall she’d ever been in; where there were old, crooked wooden desks with the distasteful drawings of Fred and George Weasley, there were instead marble desks with opulent, golden chairs, all neatly aligned in descending rows until they reached what could only be considered a stage.

 

“This is a classroom?” She balks, surprised.

 

“Yes, but never mind the desks,” Grindelwald says, pulling her gaze upwards with a pointed finger.

 

Harry looks up, gasping in surprise. A lovely angel strumming a harp smiles down at her from a scene full of angels and heavens and flying cherubs of all things. It is certainly a beautiful masterpiece, made even more breathtaking as all the cherubs flew together, and the angels with their harps and trumpets seemed to play a melody audible in the silent air. She let out a long breath, still staring up into the moving, mesmerizing display.

 

Finally, she gathered enough of herself to say; “That must be very distracting to have in a classroom.”

 

He barks out a startled laugh. “Well yes, that’s one way to look at it.” He agrees. “That’s an Ingres original, you know. All the galleons in the world couldn’t buy that.” He comments idly.

 

Harry doesn’t know what that means, but is not at all surprised to find that Grindelwald is well versed in the arts. It seemed only… natural, for him to be so refined and cultured. To walk her around this palace of magic and science so casually, the halls empty and yet so grand, even with all the students on holiday. She could only imagine what it must be like when classes resumed. They wander around this strange, surreal place, part palace, part academy, part museum. Everything about it was a work of art, and Grindelwald made sure to show her every famous painting and statue on the grounds. There were not nearly as many as in Hogwarts. But each and every one of them was a priceless work of art, clearly handpicked by a very selective curator; definitely no screaming fat lady to be found here.

 

By the time they make it into what appears to be a main hall, Harry has begun to notice a pattern.

 

“You know, you haven’t actually shown me much of the school,” Harry points out, amused. “You’ve certainly showed me the school’s admittedly impressive art collection, but I’ve yet to learn a thing about Alchemy.”

 

“Well, to be fair, you wouldn’t have learned much about Alchemy from a tour of the school, anyway.”

 

“I’m sure Count Schloss would have loved to fill me in on the finer details of the subject.”

 

“But that would only be after he had bored you to death.” He counters. “Well, go on, ask away. What questions do you have for the Grand Master Alchemist?”

 

She spares him a sly look. “You are an Alchemist?”

 

“No, not in the slightest.” He ripostes cheerfully. “But I’m sure I can answer any question you have.”

 

Harry laughs, finding herself amused by this dangerous man. At the very least, he has proven himself far more entertaining than the last Dark Lord she had an ‘acquaintance’ with. And charming, for that matter. He’s kind of an evil, horrible human being, Harry reminds herself. She shouldn’t be giving him the time of day.

 

“I know they are considered similar, but how different are Potions and Alchemy?” She decides upon, after a beat of thought.

 

Grindelwald hums thoughtfully, not stopping their impromptu tour of every art movement of the 20th century. “Well, do you know why some fields of magic are considered dark arts, and some are not?”

 

Harry pauses. “No. To be honest, I always assumed it was some arbitrary decision, or perhaps there was a witch or wizard infamous enough to coin a certain spell or branch of magic dark.”

 

An amused look passes his face, and he chuckles under his breath.

 

Harry finds herself strangely embarrassed. “What?” She says, hotly.

 

“Nothing—Well, at least you didn’t tell me they were evil or something of the sort.” He replies, still laughing a bit. “I’m sure they became notorious for the reasons you mentioned, but no, that is not why they are called dark.”

 

“You see, there is actually something quite integrally different about the dark arts. They require… intent.”

 

“Intent?”

 

“Oh yes. They are intrinsically tied to your thoughts and feelings.”

 

“I see.” Harry nods, voice colored with recognition. “Like Star Wars.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Oh, nothing.” She was not about to attempt to explain the differences between the Jedi Order, who valued integrity and did not believe in allowing emotions to cloud ones judgment, or emotions at all, and the Sith, who seemed to operate on negative emotions alone. Or at least, she assumed the principle was the same. “So the reason they are considered dark is because… they have quite the capability of going wrong? If they’re charged by emotions, that is.”

 

“That’s correct. That alone makes them dangerous, as it is all too easy to get lost in those emotions. It’s a form of… payment, you could see. You cannot use dark magic without giving up something of equal value—in most cases, you are giving the spell your emotions as a form of payment. You’ve heard of the Patronus charm, yes?”

 

“Yes.” Harry nods.

 

“That’s considered the dark arts; the charm takes your happiest memories.”

 

“But it returns them, too!” Harry protests.

 

“Well of course it does. Your emotions are always returned to you—whatever form of intent or payment is not taken from you entirely. Or at least, not in most cases. There are some exceptions.”

 

“Like the killing curse.” Which takes a part of your soul.

 

“Yes,” he agrees. “Like the killing curse.”

 

Harry was almost relieved when they turned the corner into a domed hall that could either be considered an entrance or an exit, but was probably neither. Their conversation died out at the sight. At the end of it were towering stained glass doors. It felt as if they had been wandering around the palace for hours; it certainly hadn’t looked that big from the outside. And everything inside was utterly enormous.

 

“Ah! Here we are. Come Harry, this is the one I wanted you to see.”

 

Harry, glad for the change in conversation, readily follows him. She hadn’t thought she would open such a strange can of worms… with Grindelwald, of all people, relieved that he had so successfully moved onto other subjects.

 

The young woman found herself taken aback by this last painting, more so than the others. As he gave enthusiastically told her a bit of history on it, it occurred to her that this was undoubtedly his favorite of any of the works they’d seen thus far—and all of them had been utter masterpieces. It wasn’t to say that she didn’t think this one a masterpiece, it was just simply so… different. She would have expected Grindelwald to hold the staunch authentic antiquity in high regard; the austerity of the figures, stern and powerful, all grander than life, all involved in some sort of epic scene either in the heavens or in battle. It wouldn’t surprise her to find him partial to that sort of thing; the egotistical, heroic self-centered protagonist.

 

But this was… breathtaking.

 

That wasn’t to say all the others were not, that they weren’t fine works of art, but…

 

“Sorry, what did you say it was called?” Harry asks, belatedly, too caught up in the fading planes of color and shadow to recall his words, all of them blended together so masterfully, soft shards drifting in strokes of paint.

 

“This is Feininger’s Barfusserkirche, often considered his finest work.” He pauses. “I believe the translation would be; The Church of the Minorities.”

 

The church of the minorities. How ironic. Was Grindelwald not standing on the side of history that meant to slaughter all minorities?

 

“It’s beautiful,” she says, softly, for there are no other words she can come up with to describe it.

 

“Feininger has always been my favorite expressionist painter—I’ll admit I’m normally not fond of the style. At any rate, for a muggle, he is clearly talented.”

 

“A muggle?” Grindelwald’s favorite painting was painted by a muggle?

 

She realized then that she had been associating Grindelwald and Hitler synonymously in her head. Everything she assumed of Grindelwald was entirely based on her assumptions on Hitler. She was probably right about the latter—he probably would have burned this masterpiece just because it dared not to be about German superiority—but it seemed she had missed the mark a bit on the former. Harry didn’t doubt that Grindelwald was a dangerous, cunning and ruthless wizard. But he certainly wasn’t Hitler. Harry wasn’t sure if that was enough of a distinction to overlook the fact that he was still an impartial party to the man’s plans.

 

“Surprising, no?” He sighs. “Wizards have never been much for the arts, I’ll admit. The muggles have passed us in that regard.”

 

That was surprising—but far more surprising was that Grindelwald would even admit that aloud at all.

 

“On the subject of Feininger, he did make one attempt in the fine field of sculpture—it’s quite hideous, you’ll love it. It’s out on the Ringtrasse outside, because I suppose there is no better place to put such an unsightly piece of art than outside for all the public to see.”

 

Harry laughs at that, and doesn’t quite have it in her to protest as the man continues their grandiose tour out into the blinding sunshine of Vienna.

 

“Hideous, you say?” She comments. “Just how hideous are we talking, here?”

 

“Simply appalling,” he replies. “In fact, I really don’t think a woman of your stature should have to witness such a tragic sight.”

 

Harry laughs. “I’m sure I’ll be able to handle it. As long as it doesn’t turn me to stone or anything—

 

They are erupted by what could only be considered a war horn. Harry wasn’t sure what else to call it. The courtyard just past the palace was quiet and devoid of anyone but themselves, and there were no people to be seen along the winding road that cut through it. Harry looked around; by her side, Grindelwald had gone curiously quiet. “What is that?” She turns to him.

 

But she does not have time to get an answer from him, as soon enough a low hum pervades behind the horn. It grows in decibel, until it becomes recognizable as the sputtering of an automobile, accompanied by the clattering of horse hooves—many automobiles, and many horses, at that.

 

Her first and only reaction is something cold and hollow settling in her stomach, leaving her throat dry and her thoughts numb with shock. Afterwards is a rolling tide of sickness and disgust, accompanied by an impotent fury. The troop of muggles in their ostentatious parade do not acknowledge them, most likely because they are still standing within the Palace wards. All the same, they may not have seen her, but Harry had seen them. It was impossible not to recognize them—what they meant, the reality of it all. Charming and funny he may be, but he was still a man capable of evil.

 

“Ah, the Nazi party,” he remarks offhandedly.

 

“I’ve heard of them.” She says, hollow.

 

“Have you?”

 

“They’re despicable.” Harry said, with so much heat he looked surprised. She had forgotten that at this point in time Austria was practically synonymous with Germany, and right now Germany was absolutely under the Nazi party. Just thinking about it made something cold and furious settle in her stomach.

 

The courtyard was long deserted, as the men in their elaborate carriages and dead-eyed horses marched off into the rest of the city, leaving the two of them alone.

 

It was unbearable, suddenly.

 

This man next to her was culpable for what was to come; at the very least, he did nothing to stop it, and used it to his advantage. In fact, though he had no personal hand in it of his own he would most likely protect them, as an incidental cause beneficial to his.

 

And it reminded her just how awful war could be. Just how awful this war was going to be. She had so casually remarked to Hermione that she had no intention of meddling with history, but just how easy would it be for her to live up to her own words?

 

And most importantly, just who this man next to her was.

 

“Who, the muggles?” He asks lightly, as if in jest. But they both know it is not muggles as a whole she is referring to.

 

“The Nazis.” She replies, flatly.

 

“For someone who has never been to Germany, and makes it a point to stay away from politics, you certainly seem far more educated than you let on.”

 

“It’s hard not to be, when it comes to them.” She says, stiffly. And she doesn’t remember ever telling him she had made a point to stay away from politics—even if it was true. That was disconcerting. Just how many listening ears did he have, for him to know that much about a girl he had only met for the span of an hour? “It’s disgusting; everything about their cause is vile.”

 

“And what cause would that be?”

 

Harry turns incredulous eyes to him. “The extermination of an entire people? The idea of reigning supreme across the world, destroying it in its wake? Pick what you like.”

 

“The muggle world, you mean.” Gellert points out. “And they’re muggles. What more did you expect?”

 

Harry spares him a long, dark look. “They are muggles, yes. Just as mortal, corrupt, destructive, and evil as wizards, I would say. We are all human—one of us is not above the other. We’re not any better than them, and trying to kill them won’t accomplish anything.”

 

His eyes flash, but then cool considerably. “Is that what you think my cause is about?” He says, finally addressing the elephant in the room; what he is involved in, and the fact that Harry was well aware of it.

 

“Isn’t it?” Harry turns, searching. She isn’t quite sure what to think of all this, but nonetheless she does surreptitiously have her wand at the ready. She has dealt with a Dark Lord before after all, and she can do it again. Even if this one has proven to be interesting and entertaining. “Wizards reigning superior against the muggles? Because they are filthy and beneath us?”

 

Grindelwald observes her closely, expressionless.

 

He remains inscrutable for some time, standing in the affectionate light spilling into the courtyard, handsome features somewhat obscured by the dark casting of shadow that follows the line of gold across his face. Finally he tilts his head, smiling, and the complex play of light and shadow drift away.

 

“Oh Harry,” he says, and it is with far too much fondness. “Wizards already reign supreme, haven’t you noticed?”

 

She frowns. “How do you mean?”

 

“The President of your country is a wizard,” he points out, before pausing. “Well, no. The PM of your country is not a wizard, but nonetheless the British government is not without its imprint of magic.”

 

Harry’s brow rose.

 

“I’ll admit, tensions between the British Ministry of Magic and the British muggle government are far more strained than most, but it is still not without correspondence.” He shrugs. “I digress. The point is that some countries have approached muggles with more isolationist policies, and some are more integrated.”

 

Harry swallows. “Then I’m afraid you have me at a loss. What is your reason for starting all this, then?”

 

“Overthrowing policies,” he replies, with a smirk. “The muggle world is meaningless—the wizarding world isn’t fairing all that much better. We have… stagnated, becoming complacent. Our governments have become ineffective and useless, overrun and corrupted by the rich and powerful. Something needs to be done.”

 

“And if the deaths of millions just happen to be a peripheral price to pay, it doesn’t matter?”

 

“I have no fondness for muggles.” He returns. “And the worthwhile ones will know to stay away.”

 

“And the rest?”

 

He studies her deeply. “People die in war, Harry. Change is never easy.”

 

“Yes, of course. Death is nothing to be concerned over; but unnecessary deaths of that magnitude is something I really can’t stand for.”

 

Grindelwald makes a thoughtful noise. “I find that rather surprising. I can’t say those are the words I would expect from someone so closely associated with Wolcroft and certain… social circles.”

 

Harry glowers. So he had eyes in that party after all. “It’s to be expected they would remain neutral—as the rest of America is, I will remind you.”

 

“So you intend to stay away from the conflict?”

 

Yes.

 

But Harry already knows the answer to his question. She knew it all along.

 

“No.” She says, with resigned finality. “I don’t think I could ever sit by and watch something so catastrophic happen without doing anything to help.”

 

Grindelwald sighs deeply, running a hand through his silvery blonde hair in a manner that is surprisingly human. He actually smiles at her, which is also deeply surprising. It is not the sort of smirk he had been sporting the entire day, but she would not quite call it warm either. If anything it looks… hollow. And determined.

 

“Then I’m afraid that would put us at odds, wouldn’t it?”

 

“I’m afraid so.”

 

“You’re a very wonderful woman, Harry,” he says, with a certain fondness. A very familiar wand appears in his hands. So familiar it takes Harry by surprise, even if it shouldn’t. “It pains me to do this.”

 

“You’ll kill me?” She asks, casually, not making a move to draw her own wand.

 

He points the deathstick at her. “You’re too dangerous to keep alive.”

 

Something flashes in his eyes. For a long moment, Harry wonders if he has it in him—it is all so sudden and abrupt. Will he really kill her, after spending so long in her company, laughing and idly wandering through a palace made of light and paradise?

 

And then he says it; “Avada Kedavra.

 

.

 

//

 

For some unfathomable reason, Harry honestly thought he wouldn’t do it. She wasn’t sure what compelled her to think that—Grindelwald had shown no indication he was worthy of such consideration. If anything, she should have thought the opposite. He is the most terrifying Dark Lord to ever exist; certainly that was a title that was not thrown around without merit.

 

But then, he does, and Harry can do nothing but blink in genuine surprise.

 

Surprise, Gellert notices. But no fear. Perhaps she had really meant it when she had said death did not concern her: how strangely endearing.

 

And then, finally, something like fear grows in her wide eyes. Fear, and realization. Those eyes are the same alluring color as the curse speeding towards her, uncannily so really, glowing with the same unnatural power as the spell leaving his almighty wand.

 

In the space of a second Harry had drawn her own wand, raising it up.

 

He wondered what she would do. What could she possibly do to stop the killing curse? Nothing. And she made no move to jump out of the way. In a most absurd manner, she hadn’t even moved from her spot.

 

It happened so quickly.

 

The curse it her square in the chest, a brilliant green light blinding and burning, making it difficult to see anything else. It seared against his eyes in a way it never had before, which would explain how caught off guard he was to see the curse redirecting back to him. The rest of his surprise came from the conclusive fact that the killing curse could not be stopped. Nothing short of a physical barrier or a missed shot could stop the famed unforgiveable—and certainly there was nothing in the history of mankind and magic that could make it absorb into someone and then promptly regurgitate it back out. Harry shouted something, then, and all of a sudden a great barrier of stone erupted from his feet, blocking the curse from hitting him.

 

He blinks, stunned, staring into the flagged surface.

 

It crumbles with the force of impact from the curse, sending him stumbling backwards and onto the ground.

 

He hears someone calling his name, and then Harry is by his side, examining him with alarm and perhaps even a bit of worry. This above all else was truly absurd; why would she be worrying over him?

 

“I just tried to kill you,” he points out, belatedly. “Why are you so concerned?”

 

“Hell if I know,” Harry replies, bitterly. All of a sudden she bursts into laughter; it was the saddest sound he’d ever heard. She laughed so hard she actually brought tears to her eyes, her face the pale pallor of someone who should be dead. But she wasn’t dead, and neither was he.

 

She shakes her head. “I guess it really don’t matter where in the universe I go after all.” she sighs, mournfully. It is resigned and full of regret. And then, in a haunting whisper; “They will always be mine.”

 

“What?” He gets out, not following at all, still a bit hung up on the fact that she was still alive, and he had almost died.

 

Her expression clears, leaving something cold and calculating in its place. “I’m assuming you tracked me down here to kill me. I suppose the opportunity was too good to pass up; this is Austria, after all. I’m sure you have their Ministry in the palm of your hand.”

 

He doesn’t deny it.

 

Harry tilts her head. “But why?” She asks, genuinely curious. “Why me? You don’t even know me.”

 

It is very odd to be sitting here with his head in the lap of the girl he had tried to kill mere moments ago. Too absurd and surreal to be part of reality—but then, perhaps that is the point. When has reality been nothing but absurd and surreal?

 

Though the curse did not physically hit him, he could feel the aftermath of the residual magic all the same, like the intensity of a cruciatus curse drawn out for eternity, until it felt as if all his strength had been turned to dust. How did she not see how dangerous she was? Did she not realize that magic itself seemed to bend out of her way, as if time, matter and space were all meaningless to her? That the rebounded killing curse had returned to him tenfold from what he had originally intended?

 

She is dangerous.

 

Far more than he could have ever anticipated.

 

Even now, he does not know what to think; he is still awestruck and unable to process her lack of death, and his almost death.

 

Harry removes him from her lap, with a movement that is far too gentle. She should be throwing a killing curse of her own at him—but she doesn’t even seem to be acknowledging his existence at all. This would annoy him, but as it is he can do nothing but stare up at her blankly. She runs a hand through her fiery curls, looking so sorrowful in that moment it makes his own chest constrict. Finally she stands, still lost in her own thoughts, looking out into the shifting panels of light, seeping in through the buildings. The courtyard is silent, so silent, and she is not making a sound.

 

And then, after an eternity or so, her eyes glance over him briefly, as if passing judgment. He doesn’t know what conclusion she comes to, but he can see the dismissal in her eyes before she disappears.

 

Chapter Text

/ 7 /

It seemed like just yesterday Tom was clinging to her as she flooed them to his first day of school—and now here he was, looking sullen and irritable and ready for his graduation. He was complaining loudly and intermittently to Spot about the whole thing; Harry couldn't help but smile at him.

He was getting so big, she thought fondly. Already he was a few inches taller—he'd grow far taller than her soon, she knew.

These last few months had been… odd, to say the least. In all honesty she was more than ready for Tom to graduate; the change of pace would be a relief from the constant oppressive feeling of trepidation she'd lived in since she'd survived her third killing curse ever.

Her very first course of action was to badger Bill into taking another look at the wards around 221 Commonwealth Avenue.

Hermione 'ooh'-ed and 'ahh'-ed as Bill dismantled complicated wards like pulling silvery fabric off the top of the building, completely unbeknownst to the muggle foot traffic swimming around them. She'd used her lunch break to take an international floo over, insisting that seeing this was not the sort of opportunity to pass up. Bill appeared to notice the existence of the time travel runes securing the perimeter around the house, but did not comment on them. Instead he explained every security ward he placed up, giving Hermione—and by extension, Harry—a delightful history lesson with every single one. Some of them Harry thought to be a bit… overkill, but at this point she wasn't going to complain. Harry would have no unwelcome visitors appearing on her doorstep any time soon. Of that at least, she was sure of.

At any rate, this should have been enough to alleviate her fears, but despite rational thought reassuring her she was overreacting, she couldn't bring herself to let her guard down. She'd taken to dropping Tom off and picking him up as well, casually engaging in light conversation with his teachers in the interim, dismantling their thoughts and aspirations in an attempt to find which ones were the spies.

The problem was, being a new mother to a new student at a school that often times had generations worth of families returning every few decades meant she might just be attracting more attention to herself than she had previously.

She had also yet to meet the headmaster, despite subtle attempts to do so. It appeared he was both a man in high demand and a man constantly out of the office.

Well, at the very least, Tom's graduation would be a good opportunity to at least catch sight of him.

Harry makes sure they arrive to the ceremony with ample time to spare.

Tom may be graduating from the equivalent of primary school, but the majority of the attention will be centered on the actual graduates of the secondary school, so the whole ordeal is not nearly as stressful as it could be. All the same Harry is horribly stressed, appraising the crowds around her with a cautious eye. It is impossible to tell whether Grindelwald's spies were here as well.

Tom is antsy and very uncomfortable in his graduation clothes. The Wolcroft uniform wasn't exactly the most hospitable of fabric to begin with, but their formal wear was incredibly tiring. Tom did not like ties—it felt like he was being strangled. And his shirt was buttoned all the way to the top, making it even harder to breathe. This was to say nothing of the blazer; it made it almost impossible to move his arms with anything approaching mobility. He felt like a mummy or something.

None of his classmates looked all that enthused with the day either, except perhaps for the girls, who were all prim and proper, and looking quite pleased about that. Well, maybe that wasn't true. Ruth had confided in him earlier that her dress was actually quite uncomfortable too, but she was just used to it because all her dresses were like that. Margaret had actually put up a big stink and insisted she be allowed to wear pants like a boy. Clearly the school had no wish to upset one of their largest donors, and had made an exception for her.

But Tom did not care all that much for the state of attire of his fellow classmates. He was more concerned with the proceedings—and how much longer they were going to take.

Unless he was the one on that stage getting his diploma, all this pomp and circumstance seemed tedious at best, absolutely exhausting at worst. He did not know how long they had been sitting there, watching student after student walk up to the podium, but he was not alone. The entire school was forced to attend—even the primary students like himself, who were so far from graduating that it seemed eons away. Tom couldn't even fathom himself walking up onto that stage; what would he be like in ten years or so? Taller, hopefully.

His eyes slid over towards the stands ascending up into the dome of the auditorium; he tried to pinpoint Harry in the crowd. She had been wearing a very flattering but nondescript black dress, hat, and sunglasses—none of which would be of much use attempting to find her in a sea of people.

He sighs again, forcing his attention back to the stage, where the Headmaster is speaking. He had never actually met the man, or even seen him in passing, but he'd heard that he was very influential in… certain circles. Tom found his eyes once more drawn about the room; it would stand to reason that this new class of graduates would be very influential as well, and there were probably a lot of other influential people here to see it.

He tunes out the graduation speech after a few minutes of half-hearted listening. None of it applies to him, and it all simply serves to irritate him further. He wants to be on that stage. He feels stuck in this pre-adolescent body as if it is a shirt three sizes too small. He wants to be older, more mature, more knowledgeable—and he wants it now.

Harry keeps telling him that there's no rush, but Harry doesn't understand. Harry is already grown. She's probably blissfully forgotten how it feels to be young and dependent and constantly lacking in knowledge.

The whole thing makes Tom very cross, and it can't be over soon enough. His presence here is pointless, which only exacerbates the problem. What exactly is the point in having the whole school attend such a wasteful and time-consuming charade?

He can't wait until it's finally over, and he can find Harry and go home.

.

.

.

Meanwhile, Harry is thinking something very similar.

Harry did not meet any spies.

What she encountered was far worse.

She finally has her meeting with Tom's headmaster, a blindsiding event she was wholly unprepared for. That Charlotte Washington had cornered her once again, and Harry had blithely allowed the woman to ferry her around from party to party, mingling and introducing the young Miss Riddle (Potter, formerly) at every turn. Eventually they somehow coalesced with a group of professors nearby, the headmaster among them.

The headmaster himself was, well, certainly prestigious but still wholly unremarkable. He reminded her of an odd cross between Fudge and Dumbledore; a benevolent geniality and ineffable but benign improvidence to current affairs. Like Fudge, he did not appear to be ill-meaning when he casually brushed subjects off and painted the world as a lovely and untroubled place, just as his sense of optimism towards the future did not seem to come from naivety but some general sense of goodwill. That optimism and faith in humanity reminded her of Dumbledore. Could he not see that half the people he surrounded himself were gunning for the slaughter of millions of people? Alternatively he just didn't care. But there was something else about him that reminded her of her old headmaster; despite his seemingly good-natured exterior she couldn't help but think there was more to him.

At this point Harry did not have enough to go on, and very soon her full attention became preoccupied when a new figure entered their group.

"You look lovely."

Harry stiffens slightly, fingers ghosting down her bare arm. They're gone as soon as they had come, replaced by a hand at the small of her back.

Harry spares a quick moment to wonder how this man can make such awfully clichéd compliments sound so alluring and dangerous. It must be an art form, she thinks, exasperated.

"Thank you." She replies, flatly, voice barely above a murmur. The other guests have yet to notice his appearance, not even Charlotte Washington, who continues to chatter at Harry's left.

"Is this French?" He asks, fingers tracing up and down the intricate lace design at her back.

"Spanish, actually." She refutes, keeping her attention focused on the people in front of her. Charlotte laughs delightedly at a remark by one of the secondary school professors, starting a round of humorous chuckles.

"Really? You struck me as someone who only exclusively wears haute couture."

"Oh, no, quite the opposite really." Harry murmurs back. "I prefer pret-a-porter."

"Gellert!" To Harry's great annoyance, the man doesn't move away from her at all, even as all eyes turn to them. If anything, he leans closer. "I was wondering when you'd show your face. He declined the spot as the keynote speaker, did you know? A travesty, truly."

"I'm afraid I wouldn't know what to say," Grindelwald waves the headmaster off with all the gallant charm of a dark lord in his prime. "Instilling life advice into children has always been more your calling than mine."

The headmaster grins, twisting his moustache with one hand. "I suppose. But there's more to the audience than just the children, you know."

"That is true," Gellert agrees, coolly. He finally straightens up, his hand drifting away from Harry. "But I've no need for that at the moment."

There is an odd twinkle in the headmaster's eye, one that does not go unnoticed by Harry. "I suppose that's fair." The old man admits. "There will always be other opportunities…"

"Well you've all but missed the ceremony, Gellert. Don't tell me you'll kip out on the reception as well?" Charlotte cuts in, miming an air of insult.

"Oh, Charlotte you wound me, I would never miss it for the world." He gasps dramatically, much to the woman's delight.

"And what of you, my dear, darling Miss Riddle?" Charlotte turns her attention to Harry, catching her by the elbow. "I must insist you join us; James will be just delighted to have Tom there."

"I'll try," Harry hedges. "But I had planned to take Tom somewhere to celebrate."

Charlotte purses her lips. "Well, I suppose if you've already made plans…"

"We'll be sure to visit another time." Harry assures.

The socialite appears somewhat mollified. "Then I must insist you visit us at our Pennsylvania manor; the peony gardens are just beautiful this time of year." She requests, smiling in a way that means Harry will have to try a lot harder if she wants to get out of these social obligations.

"Right," Harry smiles back, pained. "Of course…"

"Why, is that Senator Connoway?" Grindelwald remarks. The Headmaster blinks, careening over Charlotte's shoulder. The assembled party all turn in that direction, Charlotte included.

"I do believe it is." The Headmaster replies.

"Headmaster," The dark lord cuts in smoothly, "now might be an excellent time to discuss that recent funding bill…"

"Excellent point Gellert," the Headmaster agrees. "He's a family friend, isn't he Charlotte? Would it be too much to trouble you for an introduction?"

"Oh no, not at all." Charlotte looks positively delighted. "Well, shall we?"

The amassed wizards and witches all embark at Charlotte's beckoning, all but Harry and Gellert, who watch the party walk off in silence.

"I'm assuming you did that for a reason," Harry remarks idly.

"Did what?" Grindelwald feigns ignorance, his winsome smile disappears; the cheerful and enigmatic expression taken on and off like a costume, leaving the master manipulator without charade.

"Distracted them." Says Harry.

Grindelwald does not look remotely abashed. "You're a hard person to find, Miss Riddle." He replies. "Or is it Potter?"

"I prefer Riddle." Harry replies, coldly, making a point to look away from him, towards the milling crowds.

"There's no record of either." Gellert points out, hovering over her shoulder. "No Harriet Riddle, or Harriet Potter."

Harry tilts her head towards him, gaze narrowed. "Maybe you're just not searching hard enough."

His eyes flash. "I assure you, I have been quite diligent."

Harry whirls around fully at that, careful to keep her voice down with the crowds about. "Well you have no right to be snooping about my private affairs, anyway." She hisses. "I've left you well enough alone, haven't I? Couldn't you extend the same courtesy to me?"

The Dark Lord steps forward. Harry does not back down. "You don't really think I'd leave you alone, do you, Harry?"

Harry narrows her eyes. "I was hoping you'd take the warning for what it was." She replies, voice soft but dangerous.

"I'm afraid I've never been one to let things go once my curiosity has been piqued." He returns, voice just as low.

Harry stares at him impassively. "Well I have no intention of enlightening you, so I suppose you'll simply have to make do with your own conclusions."

His eyes flash again, with frustration, perhaps. It's gone before Harry can properly decipher it. Instead he observers her for a quiet, long moment. "You could have killed me, you know."

For someone who was almost murdered by her hand, he does not seem particularly concerned over that.

"I know." Harry replies.

His hand draws up to her own, tugging it away from her chest. It's her wand hand. She watches warily as he inspects her fingers, turning her palm over in his own.

"But you let me live." He murmurs, quietly. "Why?"

Harry studies him with an inscrutable look. "I don't enjoy murder, funnily enough." She answers, finally. "You may have deserved it, but I didn't want to kill you nonetheless."

"That's rather generous of you." He says.

"Yes, I rather think it is." Harry agrees, smoothly. "I spared your life, and have consciously stayed away from whatever plots you have for the world. Which is why I find it rather odd that, despite all the generosity I've shown you, you refuse to leave me alone."

The dark lord tilts his head, watching her closely. "You let me live, Harry." He says, again. "You should have known better."

Harry wrenches her hand out of his grip. "Yes, apparently so." She agrees, stoic. "I'll be sure to remember that for next time."

"There won't be a next time." He says, and this makes Harry's gaze narrow on him.

"Then why bother to seek me out?" Harry retorts, raising a brow. "If you're not here to finish the deed, then why are you trying so hard to find me?"

Grindelwald blinks at her curiously, observing her like she is an object of fascination. "Finish the deed." He murmurs, eyes bright, looking lost in thought. "Would it work even if I tried?" He turns the table, the cat-like gaze transfixed on her.

Harry doesn't actually know. She doesn't want to find out, either.

She doesn't reply, turning her back to him. They are in an atrium of people and yet it feels like they're the only two in the room; Harry trapped in an airless room with the great and terrible dark lord. She wants to get away, but cannot find the exit.

Tom, she reminds herself. She can't leave without Tom.

The indeterminable crowds finally return to focus; her eyes dart between congregations, trying to find her ward.

Grindelwald steps up behind her. "You didn't answer me." He notices, darkly.

His breath is warm against her shoulder; from the corner of her eye she can see his eyes through the curtain of her hair, staring at her fixatedly.

She turns her head slightly. "Why bother, when you already know the answer?"

With that she steps away from him, determined to lose herself in the crowd. A bubble of magic swells in front of her, collapsing like a warm sigh of air. Suddenly the world bombards her with full clarity; the voices of a thousand people laughing and chattering, glassware tinkling, the murmur of waiters as they slip through the crowd with gilded trays. She exits the privacy ward, weaving through crowds in search of Tom.

But in a place like this, apparently the dark lord is impossible to get away from.

A large bulk cuts into her path; Harry looks up to see a man she has never met before, unfamiliar features detached but not unpleasant. He is wearing a suit with the school crest upon it, denoting him as faculty of some kind.

Not just faculty, she thinks, as he stares her down. Harry slows to a stand still, realizing it is pointless to try and move around him.

It's only a moment before Grindelwald catches up to her, what with his men keeping her from going too far. The man blocking her path nods once at his master, before he melts back into the crowds, as silent as he had arrived, leaving Harry and the dark lord alone once again.

She should have never came to the graduation, Harry realizes with a defeated sigh. She knew it would be a perfect opportunity for an ambush, but she had assumed he wouldn't put so much effort into it with so many people in attendance. Apparently she had sorely underestimated his ability to be discreet.

She couldn't help but compare this to how Lord Voldemort would have handled the situation. He would have surrounded the building with his Death Eaters, masked men in cloaks throwing deadly spells at the crowds, the entire room exploding in chaos and anarchy.

Harry almost wishes that had happened.

At least if Death Eaters were here throwing curses and burning the place to the ground she could fight her way out in a blaze of fire. She'd be a lot better at that than this; standing her ground as she is surrounded by unseen adversaries, unable to fire a single curse without turning the crowds on her.

"I don't believe our conversation was over." Grindelwald intones calmly, as he emerges at her left.

"Really? It seemed quite finished to me." Harry replies, smiling facetiously.

"I want to know how you did it." It appears they are finally coming to the real purpose of this conversation, the real purpose of all of this, as Grindelwald's look turns deadly serious. "But I find myself equally as curious to know not just how, but why. What are your motivations? You have a power most could never dream of—one I myself cannot even fathom. Why are you here? What are your intentions, regarding the war?"

Harry watches him circle her with a wary gaze. His gait is calm and unmoved, like a stalking predator surrounding his prey; a scientist circling a chemical phenomenon; a master inventor staring at the world's greatest anomaly. Like he wants to pick her apart.

"I just want to be left alone." She repeats, suddenly so tired of all this. "Is that really too much to ask?"

"Yes." Grindelwald answers immediately, looking amused. "You must know that's never going to happen."

Harry sighs. "Yes, well, one can dream, can't they?"

"Why waste away like this? You are destined for more than just a life tending to some fickle offspring."

"My destiny has long since passed, and thank god for that." Harry waves him off. Grindelwald's eyes flicker with interest at that, but she continues before he can remark. "My motivations are not all that difficult to understand. I'm even suggesting a compromise; I will leave you alone, if you leave me alone. Does that not suffice?"

"No, not in the slightest." The dark lord answers without missing a beat. "I don't want to leave you alone."

Harry stares at him, perplexed. "You would prefer me to oppose you?"

"I would prefer you to—" He pauses, suddenly.

Harry watches him patiently.

"No, I don't want that." He finishes, after an odd beat of silence. "But I don't want you to disappear, either."

He appraises her with a quiet observation. For some reason, despite the softness of his gaze it is just as unnerving as when he was staring at her with intense obsessiveness. Perhaps because it is no less obsessive.

Harry stares back, feeling unsettled at such severe and unwavering attention. "What do you want, then?"

There is another long pause. Her gaze darts to the crowd; none of them appear remotely interested in the conversation occurring in the center of the room. Another privacy ward, then? He must be quite skilled, to erect and dismantle them so fluidly. Or is it a ward that moves with him? That is even more profound. When Harry's gaze returns to him, she finds it just as pensive and searching as it had been earlier.

"Answers would be a nice start." He replies, leaning back.

"I'm not under any obligation to give you any answers." Harry points out.

"If you do, I'll leave your ward alone."

This gives Harry pause.

"That's what you want, right? I can promise you your ward will be safe from me and the upcoming war. I'll even bestow upon him my personal protection, should the need arise." He assures, and the prospect is enough to stop Harry's immediate protests. "All I want in return is a conversation."

Harry purses her lips. "A conversation?" She repeats.

The dark lord nods.

Harry surveys him closely, weighing her options.

She takes a breath, wondering if she's making the wrong choice.

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.

.

Tom squints into the crowds, hoping Harry will miraculously appear out of the ether, beaming at him and cheerfully telling him its time to leave.

The ceremony has been over for half an hour and he's still yet to find her. The audience and students alike have moved into the grand hall, where refreshments and hor d'oeuvres circle around atop the deft hands of waiters, and throngs of people migrate in packs, looking for yet another person to make meaningless small talk with. Tom has managed to wrangle his way out of all of it, and he has spent his reprieve searching for his guardian.

Tom sighs. It's going to be impossible to find her with all these people around.

He thinks he sees a glimpse of fiery hair, his eyes narrowing in that direction as he sets off towards it.

"Tom Riddle, isn't it?"

Tom swirls around, taken aback to find the Headmaster staring down at him.

"Yes, sir." Tom answers, cautiously. He's never spoken to the Headmaster before; how does the man know his name?

"You look troubled, young man. Are you looking for someone?"

"Yes, Headmaster." Tom replies, warily. "I'm trying to find my guardian."

"Harriet, wasn't it?" The Headmaster tilts his head thoughtfully. "Hmm… I was just speaking to her. She ought to be around her somewhere…"

"Tom, I've been looking for you everywhere—

A figure his size stops abruptly beside him, stepping forward to reveal the bouncy blonde curls of Margaret. "Headmaster!" She changes tracks quickly, smiling. "It's good to see you."

"Little Miss Buchanan," the Headmaster greets warmly. "Lovely to see you. I assume your father is around here as well?"

Margaret nods. "Oh, yes. I think he might have been looking for you, actually."

"Is he really?" The Headmaster laughs. "Everyone's looking for someone today, I suppose. Very well, do you happen to know where he might be?"

"I last saw him by the refreshment table." Margaret replies dutifully.

"Alright then, thank you Miss Buchanan." He moves to leave, before turning to look over his shoulder. "Tom, I believe the person you're looking for is that way." He points somewhere behind Tom, before disappearing into the crowds.

Tom turns back around, stunned to see a long, familiar curl of red hair behind him, not too far away. He could have sworn he'd checked over there…

Margaret makes a strangled noise in the back of her throat, gripping him with hands like talons. "Is that Chanel?" She gasps, looking right towards Harry as well. "Oh Merlin, Tom, I have to know."

"What? What are you talking about?" He snaps impatiently, not even listening to her. "Let go of me."

"I was going to ask you earlier," she continues, as if she hadn't heard him. "I saw you two come in and I just adored her bag... I was going to ask you if you knew what it was."

"It's a bag." Tom replies, boggled. "What else would it be? Look, could you please let go of me I really need to—

Margaret gasps again, and her hold tightens. "Oh, and those shoes! What are they? They are perfection."

Tom finally manages to struggle away from her, practically sprinting to the girl in question. Quite honestly he could care less about her attire, and was more concerned over the fact that someone was commandeering all of her attention. If he had taken a closer look, he would have recognized the veiled wariness in her eyes.

Margaret catches him before he can get too far, looking at him with an absurd amount of urgency.

"Tom, I simply must visit you over the summer." Margaret begins, insistently, in a complete change of tact.

"Why?" Tom hedges, alarmed and impatient.

"I need to look at her closet, Tom, it is of the utmost importance." She says, imploring, and totally serious. "Even if it's just a peak. I'll be quick, I promise."

"Her closet?" Tom repeats, incredulous. He tries to remove her from her person, but to no avail. "Why in Merlin's name would you want to see her closet?"

Her eyes practically bulged. "Tom, that dress is Balenciaga," she heaves, looking possessed. "I thought my heart stopped when I saw it. And that's to say nothing of the shoes, or the bag— I can only imagine what the rest of her wardrobe must look like! Oh please, just a look at her dresses—oh, and her shoes. And maybe her bags. And jewelry. You know what, maybe just a run through of everything. She won't even know I was there."

Tom does not know what to say, so instead he backs away slowly. "You're still not making any sense."

Margaret rolls her eyes. "Well of course you wouldn't understand, what do you know about the latest in fashion? Probably nothing."

"Why would I want to know?" Tom returns, wondering how this conversation got away from him so quickly.

"This is utterly besides the point." Margaret sniffs. "Just invite me over, alright?"

Tom eyes her distrustfully. He's fairly sure this is not standard etiquette—isn't he supposed to be the one to invite her? Hell, she's practically just inviting herself but using him as a proxy.

"You won't even have to talk to me," she adds, quickly. "We can just do our summer reading or something."

The prospect doesn't sound all that horrible now, but Tom is still at a total loss. "I still don't get why you want to come over so badly."

Margaret takes a breath, expression both severe and impatient. "Tom, I know you won't understand, but Harry is… quite fashionable—you know I normally go towards the boyish look of Katherine Hepburn, but Harry's really made me see the appeal of the more feminine A-line waists and longer skirts—

She cuts herself off when it becomes clear Tom has no idea what she's talking about. "I just really want to see her clothes." She says, succinctly.

Oh. Well that is an explanation, true, but it is still a totally insensible and illogical one. Why on earth would she want to do that? "Well if you want to see her clothes, why don't you just ask her?"

Tom realizes his mistake when Margaret brightens. "Oh! Tom, that's an absolutely excellent idea! Now where is she?"

"Margaret, wait—

But the blonde has already darted towards her, making a beeline towards the girl in question. Oh hell, Tom scowls warily. He's pretty sure he just sealed his own fate with that one. He can imagine Harry's reaction to this; utter delight.

He is right.

Harry seems pleasantly surprised with this turn in events, looking at first as if she doesn't know what to do with the little girl badgering her with questions about her outfits, but after a bit she warms up to the young blonde. She was clearly an ambitious one, with a very good eye for fashion. Harry couldn't help but encourage her; it was very refreshing to see a determined and no-nonsense little girl here.

Not to mention her timing couldn't have been better, her presence effectively splitting she and Grindelwald apart.

Harry couldn't help the amusement and satisfaction she felt at the consternated expression on his face as he was so conclusively interrupted. He did not look pleased, to say the least. But she was just a little girl—a girl belonging to a family that probably donated him a lot of money—so any attempt at berating her would be considered impolite. Not to mention Harry took the opportunity to devote her entire attention to the girl, turning to her with a sunny smile and crouching to her level, wholly ignoring the dark lord beside her as she turned her back on him. Shooing her away now was impossible.

Tom catches up to them eventually, but it only takes one look at the pair to know the situation is irreparable. Margaret is beaming and talking a mile a minute, and Harry is nodding and smiling at her indulgently. It is worse than he expected.

"Oh, Tom!" She waves him over with a brilliant smile. "There you are—I was just talking to your friend Margaret here—

Tom pulls a face at the use of the word 'friend'. More like evil, conniving little manipulator, he thinks meanly.

"And she was saying something about a trip during the summer?"

Tom pauses, surprised that this was Margaret's choice in conversation, when she had been in hysterics at Harry's clothing earlier. He catches sight of her cherubic smile—and the sly glint beneath. Ah, so that's her game. Win Harry by being adorable, insightful, and intelligent, and then lavishing her with compliments on her outfit. Tom would have applauded her, if it had been anyone else but Harry. He narrows his eyes at the girl, intent on making sure that he gets his message across; he will not tolerate anyone attempting to manipulate Harry. Anyone but him, that is.

His attention is diverted towards a figure hovering over Harry's shoulder; a tall, well-built and impeccably dressed man with light hair is staring down at Harry with an alarming look. It dissolves into something pleasant and nondescript when he notices Tom watching him, but the smile the man gives him instead is equally as concerning. It looks… predatory. It makes all the hairs on the back of Toms neck stand, and he narrows his eyes at the tall man.

"There are a couple," he replies, smoothly, turning his attention away. "But I think I'd rather take summer classes."

"Oh, don't say that!" Margaret returns, waving him off. "You'd love the exchange program to Chinchaysuyu—I heard it's beautiful, and they're all necromancers there."

Yes, he would love that exchange program. In fact, he had been considering going on it; it was very far away from home, but Margaret was right. The darkest of black magic is kept somewhere in that vast, ancient empire—the lost art of capacocha, as they called it. Human sacrifice. Many ancient civilizations had some form of blood magic and necromancy involved in their society, but none were as powerful or complex as the greater Mesoamerican empires. Unfortunately Wolcroft didn't allow students under a certain age into the Shaman's Academy of Chilam Balam exchange program, but the Mayans above all others had perfected the art of blood sacrifice. Just thinking of it sent a shiver up his spine. That said Chinchaysuyu was a common alternative for the younger necromancers of the school, and was probably just as informative.

But on the other hand, could he leave Harry for that long? He mentally shook his head. He would have to, he reminded himself. If he intended to go to Hogwarts the year after next, he was going to have to learn to live without Harry as a constant presence by his side. Just thinking about it horrified him.

"Is that so?" Harry asked, curious. "Where is the program?"

"It's in the heart of the Incan Empire," Margaret answers.

Harry gasps with delight. "Oh! That's so exciting!" She turns to him. "Do you want to go? I'll talk with your teachers."

Tom vacillates for a moment. "We'll see," he settles for, looking away. "I might want to stay and take summer classes."

"Of course you would," Harry laughs good-naturedly. "You always need to be learning something or other—is it impossible for you to simply sit and enjoy the day for a while?"

Tom shrugs.

Harry claps her hands. "I know! Why don't we make a vacation out of it? How long is the program?"

"Two weeks," Margaret replies, cheerfully.

"Two weeks isn't so bad," Harry murmurs to herself. Not to mention she has plenty of vacation days that she needs to use up by the end of the year.

"All study and no vacation? Harry, you never told me your ward was so studious." The man finally deigns to speak, cutting into their conversation with a smoothness that makes Tom think he was rather annoyed at being so effectively cut out of it in the first place, and had been waiting for an opportunity for some time.

"You never asked." Harry replies, and despite her cheerful expression her posture has turned stiff and uncomfortable.

"I prefer learning to idleness," Tom retorts, narrowing his eyes at the man.

The blonde man looks away from Tom, his gaze once again focusing on Harry. "It appears there is much I don't know about your ward… or you." He adds, eyes gleaming. "We should sit down some time and discuss things, shouldn't we, Harry?"

Harry's gaze flickers towards him, narrow and nonplussed. "Yes we should." She says, but her tone is frosty. "We'll have to schedule in a time—later in the summer, for it seems I may be going on vacation."

The man does not look enthused at all. "Later in the summer, then." He agrees, with a tight smile.

"Yes, later." Harry says hastily. "Now, we should probably be taking our leave, Tom, we don't want to be late…"

Late to what? Tom thinks but doesn't say.

"Right, of course." Tom plays along coolly.

Harry takes his hand; her hands are cold, and her grip is too tight. She bids the two a quick and strained farewell, and then she is cutting through the crowds with a surprising efficiency, making for the floo.

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.

.

They do not floo home, but onto an unfamiliar street Tom has never been to before. Harry releases his hand when they arrive, and Tom looks up at her warily. Her shoulders are still stiff.

Tom walks beside her, wondering if he should say anything.

But what is he supposed to say? He thinks, angrily. She probably wouldn't tell him what was wrong even if he asked. She wouldn't want him to worry. Harry was always protecting him, but he doesn't want her to always be protecting him—he wants to protect her.

He scowls.

Unfortunately as a ten-year old boy there's not much he can do on that front.

But Tom has already spent a lifetime wishing he was older—old enough to leave the orphanage, old enough to take care of himself, old enough to no longer have to rely on anyone—and it appears he will spend even longer until it becomes true.

Harry suddenly pauses, causing Tom to almost miss a step.

"Harry?" He calls, worried.

Harry shakes her head vigorously, the pensive haze disappearing from her eyes as she smiles. "I think we're lost."

Tom stares at her blankly.

They eventually find where they're supposed to be going, once Harry returns to her cheerful self. It appears they actually did have a reservation they were going to be late to.

Tom was worried it would be some kind of stuffy place with white tablecloths and a dozen wine glasses, but when they arrive the atmosphere is decidedly relaxed.

Harry seems to relax as well, visibly deflating as they make it to their seats, finally looking less like a marionette and more like a person. The stiffness in her arms collapses back into an organic shape; her mechanical expression is replaced with a look of relief and leisure.

"Well, this is nice." Harry remarks, looking around.

Tom follows suit. "Where is this?"

"A friend recommended it," Harry replies vaguely. "He said it's one of the best places to eat in Boston."

He? Tom thinks, annoyed. Harry doesn't elaborate, and despite his jealousy Tom doesn't feel like opening up a line of interrogation. Not when she still seems so maudlin.

Harry shakes her head, annoyed with herself. Tom just graduated from his first year of schooling, and they should be celebrating! Instead she's sitting here letting another Dark Lord get the best of her, fretting over things that were pointless to fret over—at least, pointless for now. Whatever plans Grindelwald had were not going anywhere; meanwhile, she and Tom were supposed to be spending time together now.

"Recommended it?" Tom asks, disrupting her thoughts. "Recommended for what?"

Harry blinks, before grinning. "For your celebration, silly."

For some reason, Tom never feels particularly insulted or chastised when Harry calls him 'silly'. If anything, it always makes him pleased. "Celebration?" He repeats, still at a loss.

Harry leans closer, still smiling mischievously. "Well yes, of course. We have to celebrate. You've graduated from your first year of school!"

Tom's first consternated thought is; is that really cause for celebration? He still has a small infinity of grades to go through. But the brief vexation disappears, as he realizes then that he wouldn't really know what was cause for celebration; he'd never celebrated anything, before. Before Harry, he had never found much reason to commemorate anything, be it birthdays or holidays or personal achievements. Harry, meanwhile, tends to put importance on the most arbitrary of milestones. Things like good grades (which should be a given), test scores, and teacher praise (also a given) are cause for conviviality; if she knows he had a big test that day she takes him out for ice cream; she rewards him for good behavior and acting appropriately with company—all of which are things that Tom would have done anyway.

If Tom were any other child this sort of lavish attention would probably go straight to his head and make him into the most inconsolable brat around. But since Tom is intimately aware of a life without all of this, it only leaves him humbled and slightly bewildered. Why does she always put so much effort into praising his every achievement, no matter how insignificant?

He looks down, lips pursed into a thin line.

It's not that he doesn't like all the attention, all the ice cream, all the praise; but it always serves to remind him of what he has now. And how easy it would be to lose it all again.

"Tom?" She leans closer, brow furrowed.

He shakes himself out of his thoughts. "Sorry—I was just thinking about the theory behind a new spell in my necromancy book." He offers with a charming smile.

Harry looks at him fondly, huffing. "You and your dead things." She shakes her head, diverting her attention to the menu. "Well, it's your day today—what do you feel like eating?"

Tom never has much preference for food, but dutifully looks over the thick parchment anyway.

"I just want a sandwich." He announces, putting the menu down. He likes them; they remind him of Harry.

The girl orders for both of them, accidentally charming the waiter so much he brings her a complimentary glass of wine. Harry thinks he's very kind; Tom thinks he just wants Harry's attention, and scowls deeply.

On the subject of people wanting Harry's attention, Tom's thoughts wander back to that strange man standing next to Harry after graduation.

Harry returns her attention to him, her smile growing wicked. "So, Tom," she drawls, still grinning. Tom is immediately apprehensive. He leans back a bit, eying her warily.

"Yes?" He prods, when she doesn't continue.

"Margaret," Harry starts, eyes sparkling. "She's a friend of yours?"

Tom regards her coolly. He knows this game, this twinkle in her eyes; adults do it to him all the time. They crow about how adorable he is whenever he's alone together with a girl. They seem to think he's always involved in some kind of sweet and ineffable young love. It's annoying, but commonplace enough.

Still, Tom doesn't want to answer. And it irritates him just enough for him to snipe back, despite better judgment.

"That man you were talking to," he turns the tables around. "Is he a friend of yours?"

Harry was clearly not expecting that, for the wicked gleam in her eyes disappears into a sharp look.

She says nothing for a moment, regarding him just as deeply. Tom refuses to back down. It's rare to see Harry so inexpressive—rare, and rather alarming. Her shoulders have stiffened again, the only indication that something is amiss.

"No." She says, at last. "Not at all."

Tom frowns.

He had assumed as much, just from observing her posture when he hovered over her. He frowns a bit deeper at the thought; he was such an odd man. It was unusual for someone to put Tom so ill at ease just at first glance, and so conclusively at that. He knew, just from one look at him, that he wouldn't like him.

And it was clear from the way he looked at her that he wanted something from Harry. His eyes were sharp and shrewd—dangerously. But what would he want? Tom's eyes narrow in thought. He could think of one reason; the Deathly Hallows. He still didn't quite understand Harry's connection to the whole affair, but he did know that there were people out there who took them very seriously.

"I see." Tom returns, before the silence between them can linger on. "How do you know him, then? You two seemed very familiar."

He can tell Harry is becoming even more displeased with this direction of conversation. Her mouth is set in a thin line, vibrant eyes inscrutable despite their brightness.

"Not particularly," she answers. "We've bumped into each other a couple times."

Tom knows that's not the whole story. He also recognizes that Harry is uncomfortable with all these questions—though he doesn't understand why—and ultimately decides to drop it. Their food arrives, distracting them both from the current topic.

At that point, he concludes a change of subject is in order.

He gives a long-suffering sigh. "Margaret is not my friend." He insists, after he's taken a few bites. "But I do respect her intelligence."

From Tom, that's practically a winning endorsement.

Harry blinks. She shifts in her seat, a smile quirking into existence; Tom doesn't know who's more relieved at the change of subject, he or Harry. The sight of it has him releasing a long breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"Well, you should invite her over some time." Harry says lightly. "You guys could study together."

Tom's eye twitches. Somehow Margaret had managed to manipulate Harry into suggesting the plan herself. And not only that, but even to ask Tom to invite her over! She was conniving and evil.

"Sure, yeah." Tom replies, admitting defeat.

"She seems like a nice girl." Harry continues. "Very ambitious and studious—she seems more like the kind of person you'd be friends with than some of your other friends."

She is probably referring to Ruth, who is probably just as smart but far less motivated to do anything about it. Or Wesley, who dreams of retiring on an unplotted island somewhere at an age far too young to be considering retirement.

Tom stares at her balefully. "How many times do I have to tell you they're not my friends?"

"Right, of course." Harry pretends to clear her throat to hide her laughter.

"Harry." Tom scowls, not fooled in the least.

"I know, I know, Tom." She grins. "You're too cool for friends, Tom."

His brow ticks indignantly. "That is not what I—

But Harry is not listening, snickering behind her hand at his adorable expression of disgruntled revolution.

This is a lost cause, Tom thinks, with exasperation.

At the very least, Harry is in better spirits than she has been all day, and there are worse things in the world than listening to Harry's laughter—even if it is at his expense.

.

.

.

"You can stay out tonight?" Hermione asks over the phone, tinny voice colored with surprise.

"Yeah, weird, isn't it?" Harry replies with a light laugh. That's what she gets for deciding to become a full time single parent, though. A lack of free weekend nights was fairly par for the course.

Hermione makes a noise of agreement. "You're sure its fine? You said he got a bit tetchy the last time you stayed out late."

"He'll be fine," Harry hedges off with a confidence that is not nearly as unshakable as she made it out to be. Tom had certainly said he was fine. He said that the last time too, though. 

"If you say so…" Hermione replies uneasily, not sounding convinced in the least.

"Never mind that." Harry waves her off. "What do you feel like eating tonight? I swear, the selection of foods in the past leave much to be desired."

"I don't doubt it." Hermione snorts. "Shall we try something exotic then? Should I corral Ron into coming, or are we going somewhere he won't like?"

Harry hums thoughtfully as she gets off the elevator, crossing through the voluminous and sparkling lobby. The city greets her with a warm gust of air, and the unending cacophony of modern day rush hour traffic. Well, Ron was normally quite adventurous—assuming no one tells him just what it is exactly he's putting in his mouth—but he does draw the line at some things.

"How does barbeque sound?" Harry offers, because she knows for a fact Ron would never turn down meat.

Hermione, ambitious vegetarian-hopeful that she is, makes a strangled noise. "Oh alright, fine." She huffs, much to Harry's amusement.

"Perfect, okay. I'm leaving now. Shall I meet you at the downtown floo? The place is just a quick ride away from there."

Hermione agrees, and ends the call soon after that, leaving Harry alone in the overwhelming city.

She takes a breath, reminding herself that there's nothing to be afraid of here. Fifty years in the future was safely out of Grindelwald's reach. Truthfully she was always relieved after she hugged Tom goodbye and stepped into the floo, only to reappear in the same house half a century later. Despite the fact that both worlds were theoretically the same, this was her world, the one she grew up in, the one where all her closest friends resided in. Everywhere she went in the past was fair game for Grindelwald. Considering Tom's schooling and his interests in the Dark Arts it wasn't surprising that they moved in the same circles, making it impossible to truly get away from his influence. She always had the urge to look over her shoulder; she was always wary of speaking to people—both strangers and people she already knew—in fear that they were gathering information on her for the dark lord.

He was making a mess of things, and quite frankly it had blown past tedious and headlong into genuine fear.

The man had shot a killing curse at her, for Merlin's sake, and then turned around a few months later and complimented her on her dress! How was Harry supposed to react to that? It was so unfortunate too; now every time she saw the garment she would be reminded of the event. And she really liked that dress.

Harry digressed.

Grindelwald was becoming an issue, and Harry was probably only exacerbating the problem by avoiding him.

This was exactly why she needed to see her friends—she had no one else she could talk to. Any acquaintance she may have in the past was liable to be working for the dark lord, her work friends were muggles, and it's not as if she could talk to Tom about this, or god forbid, Spot.

Hermione and Ron were waiting outside the restaurant for her, snippily bickering at each other in a way that meant Harry would have to do some damage control.

They settled down once they were seated, Hermione bristling in her chair, Ron ostensibly ignoring her by fiddling with his straw wrapper. Harry thought them both childish, and turned her intention towards the waiter instead, rattling off a whole list of meats and hoping for the best.

"Do you even know what you ordered?" Hermione asks critically, crossing her arms. Well, at least she had stopped sulking.

Harry shrugs. "I'm living life dangerously these days."

Hermione shakes her head. "Oh yes, questionable raw meat is quite dangerous."

"No really though, I'm being serious."

Hermione raises a brow. "So am I."

"Wait." Ron butts in. "It's raw?"

Harry gestures impatiently to the stove. "You cook it." She rolls her eyes at Ron's bewildered expression, adding lazily; "Crazy invention, the stove."

"But why would you cook it here?" He guffaws.

Harry ignores him in favor of piercing Hermione with an austere look. "I think I've gotten myself into a bit of a mess."

Hermione blinks. "A mess?" She repeats, slowly.

"Yes," Harry sighs. "Remember how we had that talk about Grindelwald and whether or not I should confront him?"

"Oh Harry, tell me you didn't."

"I didn't." Harry affirms. "But he kind of found me anyway."

"Again?" Hermione sits up straighter.

"You think he'd learn his lesson after almost blowing his own head off." Ron snorts.

"You'd think, right?" Harry drawls, annoyed. "But no. He shows up at Tom's graduation, casually compliments me on my dress, and then goes on to act like we're friends and there's nothing wrong and like our entire last encounter was not nearly as deadly as I remember it to be!"

Harry trails off as the waiter returns to drop off their food.

"So he found you." Hermione surmises from her tirade.

"I should have known he'd make his move there." Harry shakes her head in annoyance. "I had figured he wouldn't do anything with so many people there, but I had overlooked the fact that he wasn't Voldemort. Voldemort would have stormed the place and turned it all into chaos. Grindelwald had no need to do that; he managed to single me out just fine without all the havoc."

Hermione purses her lips. They both haven't even touched their food, but Ron is going at it enthusiastically. He seems to have come to terms with cooking his own food in front of him, having a grand time of it.

"What did he say?" Her best friend inquires softly.

"Well, unsurprisingly he's very confused and bewildered by my inability to die—"

Ron laughs. "Welcome to the club—"

"And frustrated by my lack of cooperation."

"But he didn't try to hurt you?" Hermione presses, brow furrowing.

"No." Harry shrugs. "Didn't so much as even lift his wand."

"What did he want from you?" She frowns. "Answers?"

"He said he wanted a 'conversation'." Harry reveals with a humorless chuckle, reaching over Ron to claim a couple cooked slices from the stove.

"A conversation?" Hermione repeats, eyes widening.

"Yeah, you know. He wants to talk to me. One on one, I guess. Probably to interrogate me."

"Probably to date you." Ron snickers.

Hermione looks at him disapprovingly. "That's not funny Ron." She reprimands.

Harry looks down into her rice bowl. "Actually, I think Ron is right."

They both turn to stare at her.

Hermione's look turns empathetic. "Oh, Harry…"

They all remember how Voldemort went down. Well, Harry was fairly sure Voldemort had never wanted to date her, but he was oddly obsessive all the same. Harry snorts under her breath; he may as well have been a possessive, jealous ex-boyfriend for all the havoc he wreaked on her romantic life with his mere existence. Just kidding, even the jealous ex-boyfriend would have been preferable. No one ever wanted to date the girl who was standing at the center of Lord Voldemort's ire—and Harry had never really blamed them. Anyone standing beside her was liable to become a target.

Harry shakes her head. "Well, there's nothing I can really do about it now." She commiserates with a sigh.

She isn't even sure what, exactly, she did to elicit such furtive attention from someone who was not only quite powerful, but also quite busy.

Hermione stares at her with open worry. "You're not going to meet him… are you?"

Harry falters slightly, picking uneasily at her pickled radish. "Well…" She bites her lip. "He promised he'd leave Tom alone, if I did."

"Okay, so he'll leave the kid alone. But he didn't say anything about leaving you alone, did he?" Ron points out, observantly.

Harry lowers her gaze. "No, he didn't." She agrees.

Hermione busies herself with plucking food off the stove before Ron can devour it all, fixing up her plate before looking back up at her. Her brow is furrowed, her lips thinned into a pensive line. "This really doesn't sound good, Harry. I don't like this one bit."

"Neither do I." Harry protests with whine. "What am I supposed to do, though? Uproot us to Mongolia? I can't just leave, and unfortunately he appears to have a sphere of influence over everywhere I go."

Hermione gave a defeated shrug, returning her attention to dinner. "I suppose."

"Shoulda just killed him, Harry." Ron shakes his head with a laugh.

At least someone sees the humor in this.

Harry silently agrees. She wishes she had—she wishes she had it in her to do that.

But she just couldn't do it. She'd only ever killed one person, and look what happened. She ended up turning her whole life upside down to give him a second chance. She shakes her head. Tom is different though.

"You'd think he'd at least be a little grateful." She grouses. "I mean, I did save his life."

"Hold on," Ron interrupts, mid bite, "doesn't that mean he owes you a Life Debt?"

Harry blinks. She hadn't thought of it that way.

They both turn to Hermione.

Unsurprisingly, she has the answer.

"Yes, he does." She reveals.

Harry frowns. "But what exactly does a Life Debt entail?" Nothing she's ever heard or read on the subject has been particularly enlightening.

"They're a rather undefined branch of magic," Hermione explains. "It could entail a lot of things. Really it just means he's indebted to you—and will have to repay you in some way."

"But what constitutes as repayment?" Harry presses.

Hermione's brow furrows thoughtfully. "I'm not really sure, Harry. I guess that would be up to you."

Harry leans back in her chair, her words sinking in.

"Well," she says, with great finality. "I guess that's that, then."

"What's what?" Hermione sits up straighter, looking alarmed.

Harry sets her chopsticks down. "I'm going to meet with him."

Both Hermione and Ron turn to her incredulously. "What?"

Chapter Text

// 8 //

 

A cold mist seeps through the hollow corridor, a silent but deadly presence lingering in the air. It seems to extend endlessly, a dark maw swallowing up the other side. There are no lights, no candles, no torches, and yet a somber glow illuminates the stone hallway around him. The light is dim and low, tapering off some distance ahead of him, following him as he moves, just enough to light the space around him. Despite how far he walks in either direction, there is only ever one door in the hall. One room. There are no exits or entrances as far as he can tell, no stairwells, no turns, no corners no windows—nothing to root this hallway in a place in time and space. It is simply a long, straight hallway, with a single door embedded in the wall. It could exist anywhere, or nowhere.

 

He reaches the door, the only anomaly to break the canvas of stone.

 

It opens with a long creak, revealing the interior of the room he has come to know quite intimately.

 

He finds himself belatedly surprised to see rain splattering against the windows. There are two, grand and opulent, stretching upwards into a vaulted ceiling. Looming in the top arches are splintered portraits in painted glass. He has never quite figured out what the mosaic scenes are meant to depict, even as well versed in the history of the arts as he is. Perhaps it is not a work of one of the masters, or perhaps it is simply just too obscure to know. He wants to say it’s Flemish, or late-medieval. If he could figure it out, perhaps it could tell him just where he is—and just who he is meeting with.

 

He finds his eyes drawn to the rain. The first and only evidence he has seen thus far that this place actually exists somewhere. Normally even the windows themselves are draped in an everlasting, impenetrable darkness, making it impossible to discern just where this is—whatever ‘this’ may be. He thinks it is a castle, or a large manor. The style of the room’s furnishings are enough to suggest an era of time, but not distinct enough to pinpoint anything. Again, it is impossible to guess.

 

The room itself seems cold and empty, despite the presence of furniture.

 

A long and elegant desk, the surface always clean and devoid of papers, parchment, or pens. An imposing leather wingback chair, currently uninhabited, sits behind it. Placed before it are two armchairs, also leather. The walls have been converted into bookshelves; from floor to ceiling they are packed with books. But they have no titles, and they are all blank.

 

And then, of course, there is perhaps the most salient presence in the room. Just as cold, just as empty.

 

A tall, dark figure, cloaked in gloom.

 

He stands before the windows, his back turned.

 

“Please, sit.”

 

The figure commands loftily, but does not turn around.

 

He spares the unmoving man a cautious glance, before moving for one of the armchairs.

 

He does not speak, waiting for the other to speak first.

 

“What news do you bring, Gellert?”

 

Finally the figure turns around; with a swirl of his cloak he returns to his seat behind his desk. Even though he cannot see his face beneath the hood, the dark lord can feel his piercing gaze.

 

“Germany has reoccupied the Rhineland,” he begins. “Unrest continues in Italy. Continental Europe is rife with tension—most of the older families have heeded the signs, and are fleeing for refuge.”

 

“And Britain?”

 

“The muggles understand there are signs of unease, but of course the Ministry overlooks their fears as insignificant to the Wizarding World. As far as magical Britain is concerned, no one but Dumbledore suspects anything is amiss.”

 

The man across from him makes a thoughtful noise. “Do not underestimate them.” He warns. “Dumbledore, in particular.”

 

Gellert sneers. “Dumbledore is a fool.” He denies. “A weak-minded, ignorant idealist who could never kill a fly.”

 

There is a long beat of unmarked silence, as the dark figure before him appears to turn the thought over.

 

“When has murder become an indication of strength?” The man murmurs at length, posing it is an open-ended, ponderous question. Gellert closes his mouth, conceding his point.

 

“I suppose… that alone is not always an expression of strength.” He admits. How could he ever think otherwise, when there is a person in existence who refuses to kill, and yet has the greatest strength of them all?

 

“Did the Senate pass the bill?” He asks, letting the matter drop.

 

The dark lord’s gaze flickers upwards, towards the other pair of eyes he cannot see. “You tell me, Headmaster.” He returns, coolly.

 

The figure underneath the hood chuckles lowly. “I spoke with some of the congressmen, as you so helpfully suggested. A few needed some… persuasion , but they all agreed to vote in favor of it.” He leans back. “However, I have been busy as of late, and have not had the opportunity to follow up.”

 

He nods. “Well, it passed… but the House had some revisions.” Gellert informs him. “They agreed to spend most of the budget on domestic infrastructure, but they are not blind. They see the agitation in Europe, and recognize the need to spend money on their military footing.”

 

This draws forth a chuckle from the Headmaster. “But of course,” he agrees, sounding amused. “Military spending is a given. This is America, after all.”

 

Gellert nods again, waiting for the other man to broach the subject they both know is inevitable.

 

In the interim of silence, he takes a moment to study the man across from him, seated stiffly in his chair. Despite how long he has known him, he feels as if he knows nothing at all.

 

Many years ago, when he was nothing but an ambitious youth with fledging goals and an uninspired apathy towards the world after the Great War, he had encountered this man, then known as the Victor of the Battle of Tannenberg. Having never participated in the war himself, and believing it to be nothing more than Muggles being barbaric, he did not find the man’s accolades all that impressive. Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg did not seem to have anything impressive to his name - except of course for the mouthful of the name itself.

 

But his prior assumptions had been wrong. The then Lord Hindenburg, president of Germany, had piqued his interest. He knew decisively that he was not speaking to a muggle war hero, but a master manipulator. Someone whose power he had still yet to see fully unveiled.

 

Since Lord Hindenburg’s timely ‘death’ a few years ago, Hitler has used the vacancy in the government the President left behind to declare himself Chancellor and Head of State.

 

This was of course part of Hindenburg’s plan. He would not have faked his death otherwise. What that plan was though, exactly, Gellert still did not know.

 

Afterwards, Lord Hindenburg vanished into the ether. Gellert did not hear from him for some time, although he did not believe for a second that Hindenburg was actually dead. But he had no contact with the man, not until he received an invitation to luncheon at the estate of the esteemed Headmaster Pershing of Wolcroft.

 

Gellert was perhaps the only person on this earth who could truly understand the man’s twisted sense of humor; he takes the identity of a German war hero, only to return with the face of an Allied war hero some months later. It was amusing, of course, but ultimately disconcerting. It only served to remind Gellert just how little he knew of this man.

 

At first, he didn’t understand why this man of incredible, mystifying power and intelligence, this master manipulator weaving the world through a web of his own machinations -- would bother becoming the Headmaster of a school. Oh, it was a prestigious school, and Gellert could see the appeal in crafting and influencing the next generation of powerful witches and wizards. However, it seemed wasted on a man of his stature.

 

But the reason had made itself clear enough.

 

“And the girl?” He continues, drawing Gellert out of his thoughts. He knew the other man would ask.

 

“Still among the living.” He returns, with a small smirk.

 

There is a low bout of laughter. “But of course she is. Don’t tell me you thought anything otherwise?”

 

He shrugs. “Forgive me, I still find it unreasonable that a killing curse can actually be rendered ineffectual against a person.” And he was still a bit annoyed with the man for conveniently forgetting to mention that particular trait of hers.

 

“There is much you do not know yet.” Hindenburg -- Pershing -- chastises lightly, to his annoyance.

 

He does not voice his irritation aloud, however. Instead he closes his eyes, swallowing his annoyance into an expression of impassivity. “What should I do with her?”

 

“Nothing.” The Headmaster waves him off. “Continue to observe her.”

 

His brow twitches. “She has proven herself to be… particularly hard to get a hold of.”

 

“Is that so?” The other man returns, pensively. “No matter. There is always the boy.”

 

Gellert looks up. “What of the boy?” He asks quickly, thinking of the promise he had made to her. “Do you have plans for him?”

 

“Plans?” Hindenburg repeats, thoughtful. “Perhaps. But wherever he may be, she will not be much farther. It is much easier to keep tabs on the boy.”

 

Yes, Gellert thinks, vexed. The boy doesn’t have a tendency to literally disappear into thin air.

 

“Is that all then?” He asks, calmly.

 

The Headmaster inclines his head. “That is all, my friend.”

 

Gellert stands then, nodding once, before heading for the doors. He returns to the long and empty hallway, lit dimly by an ambiguous source of light. When he turns around, the door is gone.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Before Tom could really have a chance to say otherwise, Margaret was practically barging down his front door.

 

Worse still, Harry had been utterly thrilled when she heard the girl was coming over. She all but raced to the door, cheerfully greeting both Margaret, and the maid that had walked her up the steps. Tom was unsurprised to see a town car in front of their house, a man he assumed was Margaret’s driver still waiting in the car. The girl herself perfectly completed the picture of a posed little society debutante, beaming up at Harry with her bouncy curls in twin pigtails, shiny shoes and pleated dress. What did she think they were doing, going to a picture show? They were just sitting around the house all day.

 

Margaret’s maid and driver were instructed to return half past noon, leaving Tom with at least three hours of her presence to struggle through.

 

Harry had to leave for work soon thereafter, but she left specific instructions for food (only things that didn’t require cooking, or otherwise they could eat out), play time (no dead things, no destroying the yard), and places that were off limits (the library, her room).

 

Tom had no problems abiding by her rules, none of them were much of an issue - aside from that last one.

 

The moment Harry was gone Margaret wasted no time bounding up the stairs in search of Harry’s prized closet. 

 

“We’re not allowed in there!” Tom calls after her, as he trots up the stairs behind her.

 

Margaret was already in the room though, the door open and the light in the closet on. Tom feels a little disconcerted, but he reasoned that if Harry really didn’t want them in here she would have put wards around it.

 

“Margaret,” he hisses, warningly.

 

“I know, I know.” She waves him off, not even looking at him. “I’ll leave in a minute - I just --

 

She manages to climb her way atop a bunch of shoe boxes to examine one of Harry’s dresses, wrenching it open with a delighted gasp of surprise. Tom peers up on his tiptoes to see - to his total lack of surprise - a whole drawer full of shiny jewelry.

 

“This is the one,” Margaret breathes, reaching in to pull a beautiful silver ring up to the light. It’s twisted band creates fascinating patterns in the sunlight, the curiously pale green stone casting sparkles over the girl’s face and the closet around them.

 

It was a very pretty ring, Tom could admit to himself, even though he knew nothing about jewelry and doubted he ever would want to. He’d seen her wear it a couple times - enough to know she had matching earrings and a necklace in the same design. Tom pays attention to everything Harry wears, mainly because he just pays attention to Harry, in general. He climbs on top of a shoebox of his own, finding himself mildly curious to see what other jewelry she owned.

 

One is very sparkly, catching his eye. He narrows his gaze at it; it’s definitely a diamond ring. He plucks it from its resting place as Margaret moves on to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over Harry’s collection of sunglasses.

 

It’s very pretty, and not particularly small. He scowls at it. He knows it’s not the sort of thing Harry would buy for herself - she preferred colored jewels and opals over diamonds - so it would stand to reason that someone else had bought it for her. And there was only one reason someone bought a diamond ring for a girl - he was old enough to know that , at least, even if he still didn’t quite understand adult relationships.

 

He wonders who gave it to her. It reminds him that there’s a lot about Harry he doesn’t know. Oh, he knows a lot about Harry. He obviously knows her taste in jewelry, her favorite foods, the books she likes and the colors she prefers, the way she tries to hide her yawns when she’s trying to look professional, the way she wishes her hair would always look, and the way it actually looks when she wakes up.

 

But there’s still so much he doesn’t know. She’s from England - where in England. She’s a Potter - so why does she say she has no family? Her parents are dead - but how did they die? She has a diamond ring in her jewelry box - did someone give it to her? Were they dating?

 

He wants to throw it out the window, although he’s mature enough to recognize his jealousy when he feels it and calmly place the ring back down.

 

His eyes widen when he looks down to put it back where he found it, his gaze catching on something else. It’s the ring at the very end, wedged between tufted rolls of fabric just like the rest of them - but this one is different. It is old, weathered, and tarnished. It looks like the old and haunted mansion at the end of a street with new, pearly white row houses, out of place amongst all the fine stones and silver and gold.

 

Margaret puts back the sunglasses she had been trying on, returning her attention to the jewelry. She makes awed noises about a set of dangling aquamarine earrings, but Tom doesn’t hear her.

 

He reaches for the ring at the end, feeling like his heart has twisted itself into his throat. He swallows dryly, finally feeling the cool metal against his fingertips. It chills him to the bone.

 

His breath catches when he turns it to him; the jewel is not an attractive one; a squat, black stone significantly less sparkly than the others. In fact, it doesn’t seem to reflect light at all. And there, behind its oddly clear surface he can see a familiar insignia.

 

The Deathly Hallows.

 

He abruptly slams the drawer shut, almost catching Margaret’s fingers.

 

She spares him a dirty look at the near miss.

 

“Harry will get mad if we keep snooping around her jewelry like this,” which was very true, even if he was just using it as an excuse to keep Margaret away from that ring.

 

“Fine,” Margaret huffs, hopping gracefully off her tower of boxes to dart over towards the bags.

 

At Tom’s deeply annoyed look she speeds up her perusal of the rest of the closet, even though she looks longingly at Harry’s collection of shoes.

 

He shuts off the light and closes the door with great finality, ignoring the odd coldness that has seeped into his bones.

 

The rest of the morning passes without severe incident; they share a snack of molasses taffy and toast with apple crock butter. Margaret looks both amazed and disturbed to hear Harry cooks food for them both. She asks about her cookbooks, but Tom can’t recall ever seeing Harry use one - if she was following a recipe, it was usually printed on a single sheet of paper. She was at first alarmed, then wary, and finally mildly curious over Spot; she wasn’t particularly impressed to hear he could talk to snakes, considering it an interesting but ultimately useless talent. Parselmouth probably had less infamy around here without the domineering legacy of Salazar Slytherin to hold it up, since she didn’t seem to recognize it as a talent passed on in bloodlines.

 

Despite Tom’s attempts to keep them at the dining room table, Margaret always managed to wander off - only just around the immediate area - and always managed to find something curious to ask upon, most of which were things Tom barely acknowledged himself.

 

She asked where Harry got her candles, her throw pillows, weird and insignificant decorations she had about the house, her light fixtures, the beautifully bound books on the coffee table with such glossy paper, the fully colored muggle photos, - none of which were questions Tom could answer. More to the point, he didn’t care to find out the answer, either. He’d never really noticed any of it.

 

They did manage to get a fair amount of their summer homework over and done with by the time Margaret’s driver was meant to pick her up. She was surprised to find Tom didn’t have a house phone - most families had one, even the not so well off ones, and Harry was certainly more than well off - so she couldn’t call her parents to tell them she was coming home. She was also surprised to find they didn’t have a radio.

 

They are waiting by the front windows, Tom settled on the bench underneath the bay windows, Margaret flittering about the front sitting room. She appears fascinated by Harry’s orchids, in the big glass basin that sits on the accent table. Tom doesn’t understand why she’s so interested in all the furniture - it’s not as if she’s never seen a chair before, or a table.

 

“It’s the style, not the form.” Margaret snips back, as she crouches down to spare the chair legs an examining eye. “It’s a very interesting design, not at all like any of the current interior design trends - not that I expect you to understand.” She adds, rolling her eyes.

 

Tom rolls his eyes right back. “Why would anyone care about that?” He returns with a snort, genuinely perplexed.

 

“My mother gets whole magazines about it, and she regularly redecorates when she thinks things are going out of style.”

 

The lifestyles of the fabulously wasteful and rich, Tom thinks, disparaging.

 

“It’s rather odd,” she comments, looking around. “But it looks very nice when put together. It’s very streamline moderne meets French luxe.”

 

Tom blinks at her. “I have no idea what that means.” He deadpans. “But feel free to tell your mother all about it.”

 

“It’s not my mother who really cares to know.”

 

Margaret turns to him, and to Tom’s surprise her expression is not its normal facade of pretentions arrogance. She looks a little worried, actually.

 

Tom sits up a little straighter. “What?”

 

She fidgets slightly. This is also alarming; Margaret never fidgets, she is always perfectly poised. “I’ll be honest; I wanted to come and see Harry’s closet. I know it seems boring and stupid to you Tom, but I happen to vastly enjoy fashionable people and Harry is definitely a very fashionable person.” She tosses a blond pigtail over her shoulder.

 

Tom doesn’t even bother to remark on that. “Yes, yes - the shoes. You’ve already told me this.”

 

“But, well, when my father found out I was coming here…” She looks away, guiltily. “He asked me to look around for him, and find out more.”

 

Now Tom is well and truly alarmed. “Find out more? About Harry?”

 

She nods slowly.

 

His face clouds in absolute fury.

 

“I’m not going to tell him anything!” She insists, quickly. “Anyway, what am I supposed to tell him? That Harry has very nice jewelry? That she prefers white furniture?”

 

He stands up quickly. “Why didn’t you tell me this in the first place?”

 

“I wanted to see her closet first,” she admits unrepentantly.

 

It’s only a moment before he has his wand pointed to her. Margaret stares at it with a look of incredulity and confusion, but not fear. It only serves to irritate him more.

 

“What else did he tell you to do?” He asks, dangerously low.

 

Margaret only spares him a quick glance, before folding her arms. “Nothing. That was it.”

 

“I don’t believe that’s all there is to it.”

 

“What would he expect from an eleven year old girl?” Margaret points out, unmoved. “If he wants information, he has people to do that.”

 

“Like spies?” Tom’s eyes widen. “Why would he have spies for Harry?”

 

Margaret blinks. “I don’t really know.” She concedes. “But he does seem to want to know more about her.”

 

Tom grits his teeth, looking away. “I don’t understand why, though.”

 

“Well, neither do I!” Margaret retorts. “What’s so special about Harry, anyway? I mean, she’s a patsy gal and all and definitely very glam, but is she like, famous or something? I don’t get the big fuss.”

 

Tom scowls deeply, lowering his wand. “Neither do I.” He says, coldly. And then; “You’re not telling your father anything.”

 

“I wouldn’t have, anyway.” She sniffs.  “I was just warning you.”

 

“Well, consider me warned.” He returns, darkly.

 

She looks out the window over his shoulder, unfolding her arms. “My ride is here,” she remarks, coolly, as she heads for the front door.

 

She turns around then, tucking her folder of schoolwork under her arm, “Oh, and Tom,” she calls over her shoulder. “My father is a very influential man. He runs the economy and he has his hands in all sorts of politics.”

 

Tom doesn’t even bother to be annoyed. “Yes I know, you’ve only told me a million times.” Margaret’s bragging was practically par for the course.

 

Margaret shoots him an irritated glance. “What I mean to say is - he must have a reason to be so interested in Harry. So be careful.”

 

And with that, she waltzes out the door.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Tom is in a right foul mood for the next few days, until his almost uncontrollable anger simmers into a pensive apprehension.

 

Ever since Ruth’s birthday party, he’d known there was something about Harry that everyone seemed to want to know. It had something to do with this whole Deathly Hallows mess, he was sure of it, although he still didn’t know how. He barely knew anything about the objects still, and he’d spent the last few months trying to figure it out! Most information on them was passed down mouth to mouth, meaning what little there was to be found in writing was almost always in stories, tucked away in strange allegories.

 

A ring, he thought.

 

It was the only thing he had to go on. A ring with the Deathly Hallows insignia - no. A stone with the Deathly Hallows insignia.

 

The stone from the river, an insignificant pebble that Death plucked out of the riverbed. A pebble that Tom was absolutely sure now rested as the centerpiece of a particularly garish ring. A ring in Harry’s possession. If that wasn’t damning proof, he didn’t know what was.

 

It made Tom grow wary and uneasy.

 

Richie had mentioned that the Potter’s were believed to be descendants of Ignotus Peverell - who in turn was believed to be one of the three brothers from The Tale of the Three Brothers. It was rumored that the Potter family had an invisibility cloak so strong it was said to be Death’s Cloak. He’d mentioned that perhaps Harry might even have it, if she truly was a Potter.

 

And yet, she didn’t have the Cloak; she had the stone.

 

What did that mean?

 

Was Richie wrong? Were the rumors true in that the Potter’s had one of the three artifacts, but wrong about the artifact in question?

 

Or… or did Harry have both? And if that was true, then did she actually have all three?

 

But no, Tom had used Harry’s wand countless times before, to the point he knew it like his own. That was not Death’s wand - a holly wand from Ollivander’s with a phoenix feather core couldn’t possibly be the unbeatable wand. Also, it didn’t have the insignia on it, and if the stone did, shouldn’t the wand and cloak as well?

 

He felt awful rummaging through her possessions, but he had to know the truth. He hadn’t seen any cloaks of any kind, but that might be meaningless. Who was to say Harry didn’t just leave it in a vault?

 

This mystery would drive Tom mad if he wasn’t careful, so he instead put his efforts into researching for his vacation and researching possible books that could have more information on the Deathly Hallows. The latter ended up being a whole collection of fairytales, since they were the closest written accounts Tom could find of stories passed down by spoken word.

 

Harry thought Tom was just being adorably childish, demanding to be read all sorts of magical fairytales - in reality, he was hoping one of them would have some sort of cryptic hidden information that might lead back to the mystery of the Deathly Hallows.

 

Tom scowls. That could be the title of an exceptionally bad newspaper stand headline. The Mystery of the Deathly Hallows, and the mystery girl behind it all! It would, of course, be completely unhelpful with an astounding lack of relevant information, but Tom would read it anyway because he had no leads to follow.

 

It’s not as if it was a rare spell he could look up in an encyclopedia, or ask one of his teachers about. Worse still, he really couldn’t ask anyone, in fear of attracting even more attention to Harry. And he certainly couldn’t ask Harry .

 

Harry continued on, oblivious to all of this, cheerfully going about her daily life. Tom didn’t want to worry her, even though he was worried enough that he wanted to tell her. Harry could be in serious danger, here. Braggart she may be, but Margaret was right. If her father was snooping about for information, that wasn’t a good sign.

 

Harry knew nothing of this, planning their vacation as if nothing at all was wrong.

 

She’d already told Tom that she was taking off the month of July, and so they really needed to start planning what they were going to do. Meaning, Tom really needed to figure out where he wanted to go. The program Margaret mentioned was around that time, but now Tom was worried that Margaret may have suggested it at the behest of her father. But then wouldn’t she have remarked on it when she’d revealed to Tom her father’s involvement? Or maybe she wouldn’t - Tom wasn’t sure how much he could trust her.

 

He decided that they were better off going somewhere as far away as he possible.

 

He compiled a long list of every place he could think of, excited to find that these were all actually places he wanted to go to anyway.

 

By the time he was finished, he was actually looking forward to it. He was still concerned over all this fuss over Harry, but he was starting to feel real anticipation over their upcoming trip. He had so many places he wanted to go to, so many places he wanted to see. He didn’t know why he hadn’t been excited before; a tour of the world sounded excellent.

 

Even better - a tour of the world with Harry.

 

“Oh, Tom, I know you’re excited, but this isn’t going to work.” Harry sighs, returning his paper to him when Tom giddily hands it over.

 

Tom frowns down at it, and then up at Harry.

 

“Why not?”

 

He hadn’t expected this response. Harry had been equally as excited, prattling off all sorts of places - and Tom had made sure to include them all, so why wasn’t she happy?

 

Harry looks amused as she props an arm on the dining room table. “We have twenty-one days, Tom.” She points out.

 

“I know,” Tom agrees, impatiently, “And there are only twenty places on the list. It should be fine! We’re going to be portkeying everywhere, so it’s not as if we have to account for traveling time.”

 

Harry’s mouth opens, before she closes it, stifling a laugh. “While I admit that’s true, that doesn’t change the fact that one day for each place is not nearly enough to truly enjoy it! Some of these countries are very, very big, Tomcat.”

 

Tom blinks, as if the thought had never occurred to him.

 

He looks back down at his list. It had taken him ages to narrow it down to twenty; there were too many countries he wanted to go to, and too many places to see.

 

He looks up with an expression of sadness. “So we can’t go to all of them?”

 

Harry has ever seen Tom look so… well, so like his age. The only times he is particularly childish are when he is indulging in his parental possessiveness, or canoodling for her affection. And even then, he is still as clever and witty and knowledgeable as someone twice his age. It’s rare for him to be so hilariously wrong about something, even though this is exactly the sort of thing Harry would assume a ten year old would overlook.

 

She could see the dawning realization in his eyes when it finally hit him that each of these countries had at least a dozen interesting things to see, and even if they only spent an hour at each they still wouldn’t have enough time to fit it into a single day. And then the almost sheepish expression that came after, when he realized how obvious that conclusion should have been.

 

It occurs to her then that, as of late, Tom had been looking quite morose and serious. She hadn’t realized how much so until all of the worry lines on his face cleared away to reveal youthful surprise as he was caught unawares.

 

“Well no, not all of them - at least, not on this trip,” Harry replies gently. She pats his list as she moves to get up, hoping his recent maudlin mood would dissipate now that they were going on vacation. “Why don’t you narrow it down to three, that way, we have one country each week.”

 

“Three?” Tom all but chokes.

 

“And none of them can be China,” Harry adds, much to Tom’s outrage.

 

“What? Why not?” He challenges, indignantly. He’d been looking forward to that.

 

Harry rolls her eyes. “Because China would need three weeks of its own, Tomcat.” She points out. “Maybe even more.”

 

This was the first time Harry had ever really been on vacation, or at least a magical one, and she intended to do it right. It was too bad the thirties didn’t have tripadvisor, because despite her determination she had no real way of going about that. What places to eat, what sites to see - well, she supposed she would have to wait until Tom came up with his three choices, google them when she got to work, and hope that she could find things to do and places to see that had a good chance of existing more than half a decade in the past.

 

Well at any rate, point is, Tom’s excitement manifests itself in an ever-expanding list of places he wants to go; Harry’s manifests itself in a meticulous desire to plan out everything into a perfect trip. It was Tom’s first vacation! And hers, really, if she didn’t count the gallivanting she and Hermione had done after graduating. She wanted it to be absolutely amazing.

 

Tom is still pouting down at his list by the time she’s cleaned up dinner.

 

She sighs, navigating out of the kitchen and over the sprawled Spot just outside it to run an affectionate hand through his hair. “I know it feels like forever from now, but I promise we’ll do this again next summer, too - so what you can’t fit in this time you can do next time, okay?”

 

“I know,” Tom grumbles, with a defeated sigh of his own. He looks up at her with wide, beguiling eyes. “But there’s just so much I want to see!”

 

Harry makes a thoughtful noise. “Well, why don’t you write out all the stuff you want to do in each place, and see which ones have the most, and then narrow them down like that?”

 

Tom thinks this over. “I suppose that could work.”

 

Hopefully it does, because Harry has no other suggestions other than writing them out on the wall and throwing darts at them.

 

As Tom and Spot snuggle in next to her for the night, Harry finds herself remembering - and fretting - over the promise she made to Grindelwald. Well, she’d given him fair warning that she’d be out of town, didn’t she? She had agreed to meet him, but she had never specified when.

 

It’s useless to worry about this , Harry thinks with exasperation. All the same, she continues to worry well into the next day, and the next day after that.

 

Finally Tom returns to her with a revised list, and she finds herself gratefully welcoming the distraction.

 

Hermione’s brows raise when she tells the other girl his choices over an early lunch.

 

Harry had actually braved a return to the British Isles to meet with her busy friend. Hermione was half-buried in paperwork by the time she managed to drag herself out of her office, and was already looking thoroughly defeated by the time they were ushered to their seats. Ron wasn’t joining them for this excursion; he was off galavanting in Romania chasing dragons with Charlie, trying to ‘find himself’, whatever that meant, and apparently the only way to do it was near death by fire-breathing dragon - or that was how Hermione explained it, anyhow.

 

They weren’t even in Diagon Alley, and still Harry felt on edge just being there, wondering if some paparrazi disguised in a heinous attempt at a muggle outfit would jump out from behind a street lamp.

 

“Those certainly aren’t the choices I would expect,” Hermione enthuses, looking delighted. “Oh, please tell me how Afghanistan goes - and take lots of pictures! I would love to go, but you know, with the state of things…”

 

“I figure I should take my chance while I can,” Harry agrees smoothly, as she digs into her parfait. After all, how many people get the chance to time travel decades into the past? She may as well make the most of it. “Before it becomes inadvisable to travel there.” Even as wizards, there were too many opportunities to get caught up in current Muggle affairs to truly be safe enough for travel.

 

Hermione hums in agreement around her own whipped yogurt concoction. “I wonder how he came up with these three - did he tell you why?”

 

“I hadn’t asked.” Harry admits. She was honestly just too relieved he’d come to a decision to question it.

 

“They’re all good choices,” Hermione assures, “Just - unexpected. I thought you said he was thinking of South America?”

 

“One of his friends suggested it.” Harry reveals. “But he didn’t seem all that invested in South America particularly - although he was very interested in all the Necromancy.”

 

Hermione perks up. “Speaking of - what ever happened with that?”

 

“With what?” Harry tilts her head in confusion.

 

“That! His friend! The one who came over!” Hermione elaborates, before shaking her head in mild bewilderment and wonder. “I still can’t believe he has friends.” She opines.

 

“He refuses to call them that, or even admit to being even the slightest bit fond of them, but yes, he does have friends.” Harry sighs happily. “I couldn’t be more delighted. She’s such a clever little girl, very charming, too.”

 

Hermione spares her an unimpressed glance. “Don’t go planning their wedding, now.” She says, drily.

 

Harry blinks down into her parfait bowl, suddenly realizing that there was now a very real chance that Tom would, indeed, get married.

 

He was an exceptionally smart, uncannily talented, good-looking boy, and a wizard that would one day become great - Voldemort had always been like this, yes. But Tom was more than that, too; he had friends, however unwilling he was to admit to that. He could be happy and delighted like any child, stubborn and moody, sad and disquieted; he could feel guilt, remorse, and regret. Even though he preferred not to, he was perfectly capable of forming genuine bonds with other people.

 

He was perfectly capable of one day falling in love.

 

Harry felt a very strange pang in her chest at the thought. She couldn’t quite place what it was. It hurt, but despite the pain it made her feel content and happy.

 

She smiles slightly, as she reaches for her water. “I look forward to it.” She says, almost too quiet to hear, before she shakes her head and continues, louder; “I would never be that person, honestly. And at any rate, he’s too young for all of that, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.”

 

“Well, at any rate - now that you have your itinerary, have you planned what to do?”

 

Not at all, ” Harry says, with feeling, sparing Hermione a helpless glance. “Japan, I think, will be easy enough - but Mongolia ? What on Earth are we going to do there? It’s literally the middle of nowhere. When I think of the middle of nowhere, I think of Mongolia.”

 

“Really?” Hermione muses off-handedly, as she polishes off her parfait. “I always think of Timbuktu.”

 

“I don’t know the first thing about Mongolia.” Harry continues on, despairing. “What’s even there? Mongolian beef? Genghis Khan’s legacy? Horses?”

 

“The Gobi desert; Uvs lake; the grassland steppe,” Hermione prattles off, ever the bookworm. “There’s lots to do there - but I imagine Tom chose it for the desert. It’s a sacred sight for Necromancers; it’s common for them to make at least one pilgrimage there in their lifetime.”

 

“Well then it’s no surprise Tom wants to go,” Harry comments with exasperation. “Why there?”

 

“I really have no idea,” and Harry can see just how much it pains her to say this, “Necromancers are so secretive; I could look it up for you, though.” Hermione offers, looking as if she very desperately wants Harry to say yes.

 

Harry shrugs. “Sure, please do.” Why not? Maybe Hermione could find something useful.

 

She wondered if Tom had chosen all three places because they all held some significance to Necromancy.

 

She hadn’t actually looked at the things Tom wanted to do in each, so she couldn’t really guess. They were all rich in history, culture, geographic diversity and demographics. But she could say that about a lot of places.

 

At any rate, she could certainly admit she was relieved none of them were in Europe. She wouldn’t have known what to say; she definitely didn’t want to go back there, but she also didn’t want to have to explain to Tom why .

 

“At the very least, they’re all far, far away from a certain Dark Lord.” Harry voices her relief aloud.

 

“Silver lining,” Hermione concedes readily. “How’s that going? Have you… have you heard anything from him?”

 

“He wouldn’t be able to send me any post, unless I tell him my address,” Harry points out. Her house was unplottable, not to mention sitting in two dimensions. Getting mail was a bit of a struggle already, let alone mail from a dark lord from who knows where. “And hell if I give him that.”

 

“He’s managed to contact you twice now,” Hermione returns.

 

“Because he knew where I would be.” Harry retorts. “But no one knows where I live.”

 

“All the same, he’s proved himself to be very resourceful, hasn’t he?” Hermine remarks, propping her head up with her hand.

 

“It’s worrying.” Harry agrees, brow furrowing as she frowns. “I don’t know how to deal with him - he’s absolutely nothing like Voldemort.”

 

“He does seem oddly civil.” Hermione comments. “And rather gallant, honestly. If he wasn’t, you know, the dark lord and all.”

 

“Yeah, sort of dampens that white knight effect, doesn’t it?” Harry concurs with a sardonic laugh. “I just don’t understand what he wants from me.”

 

Hermione’s eyes soften, even as her expression turns sharp. “Harry, please don’t be obtuse about this.”

 

“It can’t just be because he thinks I’m pretty, ‘Mione.” Harry rolls her eyes.

 

“No, but I’m sure that doesn’t hurt.” Hermione returns, hotly. “Dark Lords crave power. Grindelwald even more so, I would imagine. He went after the Hallows, didn’t he? Or rather, the undefeatable wand, discarding the others as worthless. He has a fascination with them. And he likes power. And then you casually show up and defy death like the Master of Death you are -

 

“I didn’t know he was going to try to kill me! He caught me by surprise!” Harry interrupted in her own defense.

 

“You’re missing the point.” Hermione huffed. “I’m simply trying to point out that it’s not very surprising if he wants you.”

 

“Why am I always the shiny toy at the end of the stick?” Harry whines, to no one in particular. Be it overly invested Professors, Dark Lords, or the public at large, why does everyone want to collect her somehow, as if she is an object to be possessed?

 

Hermione sighs, rubbing her temples. “I don’t know, but you are, so please try to be careful, alright? I know you can’t die and all, but a little self-preservation never hurt anyone.”

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Tom studies his list again, wondering if he should bring anything else. He certainly had the room - what with the fact his little duffle bag expanded to eight times its size, and shrank to the size of his hand.

 

For most of his admittedly short life, he’d never even been off the British Isles. Then they moved here, but the farthest he’d been from Boston was New York, and even that had been a very brief trip. The idea of going off to the other side of the world was both exhilarating and daunting. The fear of the unknown clashed and warred with his intense thirst for knowledge.

 

He wasn’t entirely sure what to bring to any of these places, though.

 

Harry seemed to know quite a bit about them all, surprisingly enough, even down to weather patterns. Japan would be hot, but depending on where they went in Mongolia and Afghanistan it could either be obscenely hot or obscenely cold. She also knew what sort of dress they wore and what sort of food to try, and popular tourist spots. She insisted she’d never been to any of these places, and Tom was inclined to believe her, but it was still a lot more information than he could find.

 

He had many sites around the ancient silk road that he wanted to visit, and they were scattered all over, so he should expect all kinds of weather.

 

There were a lot of reasons why he wanted to go to these three but seeing ancient ruins of incredible civilizations, and more importantly, learning all their spells and rituals, had been at the top of the list. The alchemic runes and techniques of the Mauryan empire, the shamanic magic of the grassland steppe, the Shinto summoning techniques - and of course, all their customs and rituals for the dead. There was a lot he wanted to learn.

 

That, and it would keep Harry very far away from whatever was going on.

 

And maybe he could learn more about the Deathly Hallows, too. If they were renowned as everyone said they were, there should be more global references toward them, right?

 

At any rate, the day of their trip arrives and Tom can barely wait to go. He says goodbye to Spot - who they leave alone at home with a feast of mice in the backyard, with a warning not to eat them all at once if he doesn’t want to starve for the rest of their vacation - and double checks to make sure he packed everything he needs. Harry is calmly eating breakfast as he practically tries to drag her to their portkey. She reminds him they have about two hours still before it activates, so he should really sit down and eat something. He’s too excited to eat though, so he just pouts by the front door and reads his travel guides until she says it’s time to leave.

 

Finally, finally, they arrive at the magical travel department downtown, and Harry is given their reserved portkey to Kabul. It’s a brass teapot that’s seen better days; Tom grabs it immediately, inspecting it with the overly curious air of a child waiting with great anticipation for an adventure.

 

When the clock strikes half past ten Harry places her hand over his, smiling down at him. “Ready?”

 

He nods fervently. “Yes.”

 

The bells from the clock tower chime, just as the two of them disappear, and a tall blonde man in a dark traveling cloak enters the building.

 

Chapter Text

Harry, in the desert.

It would be impossible to discern her, if not for the gauntlet of golden fire lit with the wind, flying chaotically around a figure dressed in blue. He knows, somehow, that it is her.

The desert is endless, a dry and haunting landscape of patterns in sand, sloping into the arid, bitter air. In the eaves of night the sky washes the desert into an indeterminable indigo, embers of sun lining the dunes in final bits of light. The wind whips across the boundless land, stirring her hair into another violent dance of sand and gold, picking at the ends of her robes.

Harry is utterly impossible to miss. The rest of the scene is lost in ambiguity.

She is at first a lone figure tossed against a glorious canvas of stars and mountains, an arcane existence at the apex of a cresting dune. But soon others join her.

Skeletons and undead limp their way into the scene, dragging desert-worn bodies through the sand. They seem to flock to her, almost reverently. At first there are only a few, crawling from behind the dunes, trudging in the distance. But more are soon to follow, surrounding her, a fatal centerpiece of cinerous hair and lapis cloth, as one would an ancient deity. She turns, watching them with a vague look of apathetic interest. Her electrifying eyes survey her mighty undead legions with an air of apparent disinterest.

She raises a hand. A wand.

The vision dissipates.

A tall, broad man straightens up from his position leaning over the table, a look of irritation gracing his handsome features. He scowls in the direction of another figure, draped in layers of cloth and choking incense.

"Is that all you can give me?" He asks, crossly.

The fortune teller merely gives him a long, unimpressed look with her glassy eyes. "What the future does or does not give you is out of my hands."

Grindelwald makes an irritated noise, drawing a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Lovely, that."

He had arrived at South Station a moment too late. He rounded the corner to see Harry's shock of roseate hair disappear under a hood as she grabbed her ward's hand. In a mere blink of an eye, the two disappeared from sight, portkeyed somewhere he could not follow. To his great annoyance, none of the transportation staff could tell him where they went. They merely held the portkeys; the actual portkeys themselves were crafted by the goblins, and no way in hell was Grindelwald chancing a run in with them.

Why must you be such a difficult creature to find? He thought, and it is not as irritated as it should be. If anything, he felt almost fond.

He shakes his head, turning back to the old lady scrutinizing him with narrowed, distrustful eyes. He did not believe for a second that Divination was all a farce. It was a lost art, surely, but it was an impressive discipline nonetheless. He wonders if the woman had seen his arrival, he wonders what else she had seen about him. He was never entirely sure how seers worked. Had she seen his future? He supposes that was of no consequence; he wouldn't want to know, and she wouldn't ever tell him.

"Thank you for your time," he says, diplomatically, as he deposited a handful of galleons on her desk. "And the ball."

The crystal ball in question has returned to its original, cloudy state. The enigmatic vision of Harry has long since cleared, but he found himself glancing down at it anyway, as if it might have some insight left.

He exits the parlor with an air of frustration and unwilling curiosity.

She is in a desert, somewhere.

The desert is odd, but not nearly as surprising, or impressive, as the legions of undead. Was Harry a necromancer? It would surely explain the boy's fascination with the subject. She hadn't struck him as a master of such deadly occults, but then he supposed he didn't know much about her to begin with. She was a maddeningly difficult person to get a hold of, in all capacities. It was as if she hadn't existed, appearing out of nowhere one day to enroll her young charge into school.

At any rate, normally he wouldn't even bother with gypsies and seers; looking into one's past was usually more than enough to provide adequate insight into one's future. But Harry had no past to speak of, so he was at a loss.

He supposed he could simply wait until the school term resumed. No doubt Harry would return from wherever she had spirited herself for her ward's first day of school, if nothing else. She seemed sentimental like that. But the start of the school term seemed like eons away. Not to mention, it seemed highly likely she may just pull him out of school and disappear entirely. He wanted his answers now; he wanted her now. If he was being honest with himself, this… interest in her was going beyond whatever small favor Lord Hindenburg— or Headmaster Pershing, or whatever name he was going by now— had asked of him. When he had mentioned meeting a woman with an impressively dark aura in the capital the man had been intrigued. But he had simply told the dark lord to keep an eye out for her. It seemed a casual and offhand request, but Gellert knew Pershing far better than that. He had never met a man so shrewd and sharp as the Headmaster, except perhaps for Albus. Often times he wondered if the man was a seer himself.

This small favor of his had turned into a headlong obsession, if he was being honest.

It wasn't often he came across someone so intriguing, someone so mysterious. She looked unassuming enough; pleasantly attractive, with a calm if not standoffish demeanor. And then she goes and defies death and gets up after and walks away. She had a magical aura not unlike his own, something inherently dark and dangerous. She might look and seem like a light witch, but she was made for the dark arts. There was more to her than what lingered on the surface, and Pershing's uncharacteristic interest in her only confirmed it.

Well, no matter, he thinks, as he twists through an alleyway, and returns to Knockturn Alley proper. There are other ways to find her.

.

.

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Harry stares into an infinite sky, feeling so small and insignificant against such an overwhelming sight. It was beyond beautiful. If anything, in a way, it was terrifying. Growing up in London meant she was used to the fog and the gloom and the light pollution; the stars in the night sky were few and far between, looking more like a surface painting than something indomitable and larger than reality as she knew it. But here, in the vast and endless Mongolian deserts, its presence was undeniable. She could stare up into the distant galaxy forever; she could get lost in there, if she wanted.

Shuffling sounds bring her back down to earth, the laborious drag of feet against the sand above the merciless wind. She squints, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the lashing wind, turning around.

She sucks in a quick breath, almost face to face with a man without much of a face to begin with.

"Oh," she says, taking a step back. The dead man does not move with her, simply staring at her from a distance with his empty, hollow eyes.

He is joined by a band of compatriots, all in varying states of decay. The vast majority of them are mere skeletons - souls lost to the timeless desert, belonging to an era that has long since passed. More and more rise from the graveyard of shifting sand, lumbering unsteadily on ancient joints as they emerge out of the ground. They clamor around her, crowds of faceless skulls surrounding her on all sides. They do not approach her, however, keeping a satisfactory distance away. All the same she is apprehensive of the sight. They don't appear to be controlled inferi; they seem to simply be… zombies, she supposes. Ron would be ecstatic. Ever since he moved in with Hermione (ostensibly for financial reasons only, of course) he's gotten really into muggle TV. He'll be infinitely jealous to hear Harry got to star in her own episode of The Walking Dead. Harry would not share the sentiment.

She eyes them warily, gathering up her cloak around her, holding it tightly to her chest. The wind makes it difficult; her hair catches in her eyes and her robes struggle out of her grip, but eventually she manages it, and backs her way into the center of her ring of zombies.

They're probably not my zombies, she thinks, before shouting, "Tom? Tom, where are you?" Over the harsh wind.

"Over here!" She hears in the distance.

Tom comes scampering up the sand dunes, dodging his way through the crowd of undead. He looks positively thrilled.

"Wow! There are so many!" Tom enthuses, as he comes to stand by Harry. He holds a copy of The Necromancer's Moon tightly in his hands. "Who would have thought there were so many dead people in the middle of nowhere like this?" He marvels, before turning to her eagerly; "Do you think some of them are Mongols?"

"I'm positive all of them are Mongols." Harry replies, scrutinizing what appears to be some kind of armor still tattered and wrapped around one of the skeletons closest to her.

Tom observes them with interest. "They're not moving." He states, obviously.

"They're not." Harry agrees cautiously, still apprehensive at the sight of them. "Are you controlling them?"

"Not really," Tom reveals, to her rising trepidation.

Harry looks at him with slight alarm. "Where did they come from, then? Didn't you Raise them?"

"Oh! Well yes, I Called them." Tom scratches his cheek, red and ruddy from all his adventuring in the markedly cold desert night. "But I'm not commanding them to do anything. Usually they just kind of wander around aimlessly… it's so strange to see them so still."

"Strange, huh?" Harry repeats, expression wary as her eyes flitter about the crowds of undead. It's certainly unnerving, to say the least. She supposed people were not all that different from squirrels at the end of the day, but it was something about the human form in such a macabre state that made her uneasy.

She takes a hesitant step forward, beginning to circle the unmoving undead. The skeletons stare emptily at nothing, but the moment she moves they all swivel to start staring at her. Harry jumps in alarm, eyes wide.

"They don't normally do that either." Tom says, curiously.

"Well, can you make them stop?" Harry replies anxiously. "It's creeping me out."

Tom takes out his wand, murmuring under his breath. He frowns when he looks up, only to see that the undead are still staring unnervingly at Harry. He ducks his head down and consults his book with a pensive furrow in his brow.

"Tom," Harry calls, uneasily.

He frowns further. "It doesn't say anything about this in the book," he reveals, to her growing alarm. "Normally when you use the Command the Dead spell, they listen to your commands, whatever they are."

"They're not listening to you now?" Harry asks, a bit hysterically.

Tom just continues to frown, shrugging. "I guess not."

"Tom," Harry scolds. "Are you telling me you summoned these things and you don't know how to control them?"

Tom looks perhaps a bit sheepish. "Well… they seem to be under control now?"

"They seem docile now," Harry amends, testily, "but how long will that last? And what have I told you about trying dangerous spells without fully understanding them?"

"This has never happened before," Tom insists, whining slightly. "You've seen me use this spell all the time!"

Harry blows out a long breath, acknowledging that he's correct. Tom raises dead things all the time, and this has never happened before. Then again, Tom has never raised humans, either. And out here, in the mysterious and foreign Gobi desert was probably not the best place to try it out.

"Well, maybe you should put them back where they came from for now." Harry suggests, eying them cautiously. They seem harmless enough… but Harry doesn't think that will last for very long.

Tom nods glumly, returning his attention to his new Necromancy book. He waves his wand again; the incantation he speaks is not in latin, or any other language she's familiar with— it sounds like Oirat, one of the local dialects spoken in the nearby town they were staying in. Harry hopes to leave it by tomorrow morning; as it turns out, traveling in this day in age in the muggle world is an awful idea. The muggle world is globally ridden with strife, and even here so far removed from the European infighting, remnants of the conflict are readily apparent. She vows to stay as far away from the soviet conflicts as possible, which at this point is synonymous with staying as far away from the muggle world as possible. Harry can only imagine how difficult navigating Jalalabad as British nationals is going to be right now.

She stirs out of her sobering thoughts on the world state of affairs after a few long moments, realizing the zombies are still here.

Harry blinks in surprise, before turning to her young charge. "...Tom?"

This is rather unusual. Also unusual is Tom's confused expression as he stares at his minions.

"They're not leaving," he whispers, a small, faltering thread of alarm in his voice.

Harry's voice matches his own as she repeats; "They're not?"

This is obvious though— whatever spell Tom had attempted to use clearly had no effect. The undead were still amassed around them, standing stock still under the ominous desert moon. She wonders if it has anything to do with the full moon hanging heavily above them, and the endless sand around them; this desert was a known necromancer's site for a reason, perhaps there was something about this place that was so powerful even Tom's direct commands couldn't break through it.

Harry glances down at the book in Tom's hands; they had picked it up from a wandering caravan of traders stopped in Sevrei for the night. She had to admit, this whole trip would be a lot worse if they weren't wizards. The small sum of Sevrei was not a particularly interesting or well-known tourist destination, with little to offer by way of supplies or comforts. If Harry hadn't known beforehand to pack a magical tent the equivalent of a five-star hotel she would probably be in a right foul mood right now. At any rate clearly the silk road was not just a journey limited to ancient times; it's long standing history continued up to this day, with wandering caravans stopping periodically in small towns like this on their way westward. These particular merchants were a group of vampires on their way to Tajikstan, traveling through the northern silk road to get to it. They had at first been wary, than amused by Tom's endless pestering and fascination with their handwritten, handbound books. Harry managed to cull his frenzy by allowing him to only pick one thing out of their caravan of trinkets— with great reluctance Tom had chosen the Necromancer's Moon over a cursed coffin from medieval times, to Harry's relief. If it was truly that cursed, it probably wouldn't play nicely with the charms over their tent, or any charms at all, and they'd have to lug it around by hand.

The vampires spoke passable English, which wasn't surprising since Harry assumed immortality gave one a lot of time to pick up languages. They knew enough to convey the contents of the book and give them a translation charm for the Oirat text inside it, and discuss the mercurial weather patterns and strange happenings in the desert beyond.

The vampires warned that Duut Mankhan was a strange and lawless place with mysterious circumstances causing it to be called the 'Singing Dunes'. Even though it was on the silk road, most tended to avoid it due to rumors of the undead residing in its lofty hills. This was of course the entire reason Harry and Tom were here, so this did nothing to deter them. Still, Harry had found it odd that even the vampires— dark creatures who were known to dabble in Necromancy— seemed wary of it. Considering the amount of necromantic objects they were selling, Harry would have thought they'd be perfectly at home there.

Maybe she should have heeded their warning a little more.

"Do you hear that?" Tom asks, quietly, pulling Harry from her thoughts.

Harry turns to him curiously, before tilting her head. She sucks in a breath. "Yeah," she answers, just as quiet. "I do."

Earlier the wind had been too loud to hear your own footsteps, let alone such a soft and fragile sound. Something seemed to resonate in the darkness— a low and wavering note threading through the dunes. It was such a sorrowful, haunting sound. It was oddly sweet in a way, but it still put Harry on edge. It could have actually sounded nice; if it hadn't seemed so out of place. But combined with the undead armies staring them down, it was positively frightening.

"Maybe we should get out of here." Harry suggests, panicking somewhat.

Tom nods vigorously. Then he bites his lip. "Do you think we can?" He asks, hesitantly. "I mean, do you think they'll let us?"

Harry swallows. "Well… I guess we'll just have to find out."

She pulls her wand out slowly, inching closer towards Tom. The skeletons do not move. She places a heavy hand on his shoulder, directing him down the dune, her eyes never once straying from the undead crowds around them. They take one step, then another, and another after that. The armies do not make a move towards them, but they follow them with their empty eyes. The desert is still and silent— too still, and too silent. The violent winds have dissipated, leaving only the hollow, singing sound and the shuffling of their feet. The undead are soundless; in the incandescent moonlight they stand like solemn sentinels, watching their every move.

They cautiously make their way to the base of the dune, weaving through the stationary skeletons with wary steps. When she turns around to look, she sees that they are all standing in the same positions, but with their necks craned an impossible angles, all turning to stare at them. At her, it almost feels like.

The wind whistles slightly, eddies of sand whirling at her feet. In one fell swoop the wintry light disappears, the luminous moon covered by clouds. The resonating note falters, pitching the desert into dead silence.

And then, they move.

It is a frenzy. The undead pitch into violent movement; lunging through the sand. Harry screams in fright, tugging Tom close to her on instinct, raising her wand. To her shock the torn bodies charge right past her, making for something in front of them.

She blinks wide eyes as the undead rush past them. Suddenly there is an explosion, and a bright blast of light. A spell. And then another, and another, as the armies rush past them. She lets go of Tom, backing away to tread back up the dunes for a better vantage point. The undead surge forward as one terrifying unit, making for something out in the distance. No, not something, Harry realizes. Someone.

There's a person out there, casting spells into the darkness. She can hardly see anything, squinting into the distance. All she can hear are the guttural sounds of the undead as they rush past her, sprinting towards their prey.

Finally another spell lights up the air. It's nothing but a split second, the scene illuminated by a zap of lightning— it's a single man, surrounded by hordes of the undead.

Harry watches, horrified. Then she takes a deep breath, screaming at the top of her lungs; "Stop!"

All at once the undead come to a complete stop. In unison, they all turn towards Harry, out of breath, in the valley between two dunes; a queen in royal blue, standing beneath the indomitable moon, clouds drifting away to reveal its full incandescent glory; her kingdom of death and silence spread infinitely around her. In one swift movement, they all drop to their knees before her.

Tom stares at her, feeling as if he's never seen her before. Harry looks equally as surprised, her eyes as big and luminous as the moon behind her.

Well, this is knew. Harry thinks, blankly, as she watches the sea of ancient soldiers fall to their knees in front of her.

She hadn't actually thought that would work.

"Harry?" Tom chokes aloud, eyes wide.

It only takes a second, and then Harry is descending towards him, swooping low to cup his face in her hands. "Tom! Oh Merlin, are you alright?"

He nods faintly, eyes still wide and full of disbelief, as his mind tries to catch up with the last few seconds.

It all happened so fast. The undead watched with their empty, silent gazes as Harry and Tom slid past them, carefully treading through the crowds as they made their way out of the amassed skeletons. Tom had thought they were in the clear— the risen bodies seemed docile enough, and they didn't seem all that interested in attacking them, even as they wove their way around the stationary figures. He remembered the vampires saying something important about the singing dunes, although he couldn't remember what it was exactly. But he knew this drone-like sound meant something important. Even more important— the moment it stopped.

Even as a novice necromancer like himself, well used to the odd habits of the undead and the supernatural, the sight was terrifying. It's just, he'd never seen so many. He knew the Gobi desert was the site of hundreds of conflicts over the ages, making it a veritable graveyard of civilizations. More than that, he knew the undead made pilgrimages to its haunting, icy slopes. Most people thought it was the necromancers who chose the desert and brought the undead with them, but actually it was the other way around. The necromancers followed the undead, fascinated by such an oddly sentient choice. Every full moon it was said that hordes of dead would rise from the ground under moonlight, from all over the surrounding mountains and steppes, trekking their way to these slopes. And it was true, Tom had wanted to observe this infamous pilgrimage himself— but he hadn't realized the sheer amount of undead that would be here. In hindsight, it was a rather foolish oversight.

And then, to see them all so violent, without any necromancer commanding them whatsoever— it was so unnatural and horrific a sight. The idea of the undead moving and acting without any apparent guidance was disconcerting, to say the least.

He felt awful, realizing he hadn't actually told Harry any of this, and naively led her into such a dangerous environment they were both unprepared to face. Despite his avid enjoyment of the subject, necromancy really was dangerous. And if the undead of the desert were said to move on their own, then it was only a short jump to conclude that they had a will of their own, undictated by any necromancer. And if Tom wasn't dictating them, then there was a chance they would turn out to be rather unfriendly. He vowed to apologize and come clean to her the moment they were out of danger.

Except they were out of danger now, and Tom found all the words slipping out of his head with the wind around them.

"...Harry…" He says, slowly, still looking at her as if he was seeing an entirely different person. In a way— it sort of felt like he was.

He'd never seen anyone do something like that. Not even his necromancy professor, a talented and well-renowned master of the field. She could summon legions of undead not unlike the ones around them, and could command them with the grace of a conductor directing her orchestra— but she could never stop them with her voice alone. Not like Harry had. And her undead had never listened to her like that. They never fell to their knees into the dirt and bowed their heads, as if in the presence of god himself. They did not stand still and reverent as their queen walked among them, their eyes covetously tracing her every step.

Maybe he is looking at Harry like this because she really was an entirely different person. A person Tom had never really known.

The girl ignores his soft utterance, examining him with a clerical eye, her hands drawing up and down his shoulders as she scrutinizes him for injuries. She breathes a sigh of relief when it becomes apparent he is unharmed, before rising back to her full height. She observes the fallen undead around them with an impassive expression, lips thinned into a fine line. Tom thinks she really does look like some kind of god in that moment, bronze hair falling loosely from beneath her hood, silk robes floating around her, cold and merciless bright eyes passing judgment on the world around her. In that moment, she is timeless.

Then she lets out a long breath, steering him by the shoulders.

They walk together through the kneeling crowds, Harry's gait steady as she picks her way through them, ignoring their moving gazes. Tom is not nearly as unmoved by the sight, feeling wary and uneasy as they pass through them, as if waiting for them to lunge into action once more.

They finally make it to the scene of the conflict, where Tom is surprised to see a harried man with a satchel of parchment scrambling to his feet.

Harry stares down at him, looking unimpressed. "Can I help you?"

.

.

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"So how exactly did you find me? If you don't mind me asking." Harry asks, once they are sufficiently far enough from the danger, a thousand meters up in the air, riding on a massive bird of prey.

Harry has never ridden on a giant eagle before. She didn't even know they came in this size. She didn't know people rode eagles, either, but she supposes there is a first for everything.

Their guide— a boy perhaps a few years younger than her from Kazakhstan— pats the neck of his eagly fondly. "Serik is quite clever," he says with a smile. The bird turns slightly to blink back at them. "He can find anyone, just about anywhere."

"But how?" This is from Tom, nestled by her side, looking both excited and positively exhausted after all this adventure.

The boy shrugs. "How do all birds find what they are looking for?"

Harry and Tom both frown at that. That's a good point. How does Hedwig always find her? No one ever seems to know how they do it.

The scenery beneath them looks as if it hasn't changed since the dawn of human civilization. They fly over tiered rice paddies meticulously carved into the mountain face, rolling fields and the foothills of the great and terrifying Himalayas. This close to them, the wind currents are strong enough for the massive golden burkit to use the rising air to ferry them through the countryside in record time. This is how couriers like Azat can get around so effectively in such an enormous territory.

The Kazakh people have been using falcons and eagles to hunt and ferry them for centuries; Tom is utterly enamored. Harry point blank refuses to buy him a falcon or bird or prey of any kind. Anyway, Azat says the bird and its owner must bond from a young age, so Tom would have to find an eagle young enough to bond with him— this is why they travel together, even though most European courier birds travel alone. The massive, magical cousins of the regular golden eagle are the only bird capable of weathering the violent winds of the Himalayas all year round, but they need to draw magic from their owner to do so. An ordinary bird couldn't do this all year round. Harry can't even imagine poor Hedwig trying to weather these kinds of winds.

Harry patiently reminds Tom that no matter how cool a giant hunting bird may be, he already has a familiar; a fat, mean and possessive familiar that will be very upset if they bring home a new pet, and is petty enough to eat it just to be spiteful. So Tom eventually just sighs and instead takes to pestering their poor ferrier the entire ride over, asking all sorts of invasive questions that leave Harry horrified and apologetic. Azat assures her his curiosity is not offensive at all. In fact, it is nice to see people so interested.

The young Kazakh and his burkit Serik fly all over the largest and most dangerous mountain range in the world all year round, a territory that is over two hundred thousand meters wide and over eight thousand meters tall. He knows all the small villages to stop at, all the wind currents and weather patterns, the safest ways to travel and the fastest ways to travel, how to use the sun and the stars to guide him, and when that fails, how to use his magic to find the Earth's magnetic field to direct him when the weather permits neither sun nor stars.

And he knows all that without once attending a magical school.

They are too expensive, he says, too far, too few, and too select. For the vast majority of magical peoples, they must live in the muggle world, protecting and continuing their beliefs mostly in secret without any kind of standardized education. Knowledge is passed down through generations by clan elders, wandering monks, or from father to son, as in Azat's case.

They both listen with rapt attention and somber eyes. It's not as if Harry didn't know how woefully inefficient and inept the Ministries of the world can be already, but it's so much more apparent when they're out traveling the world like this. Already muggles are well on their way to a globalized society. They might fight amongst each other endlessly and wage horrible wars that scar the planet, but they have also already figured out how to systematically educate, feed and house entire populations effectively. They are growing, and innovating, and learning new things.

Harry does not want to think of Grindelwald's words right now, but she does anyway. Our governments have become ineffective and useless, overrun and corrupted by the rich and powerful.

He called the wizarding world 'stagnating'. And she knows his words will truly come to pass, and people like Hermione will have to struggle with decades of a sluggish economy and little progress and attempt to move an unwilling population into the new millenia. She can't help but think of Fudge, and all the money the British Ministry of Magic wastes on ridiculous and frivolous things meant to further their own gain. Fudge wasted all this tax payer money bribing the Daily Prophet to run smear campaigns against her to save his own reputation, rather than spend it on furthering magical infrastructure for more rural areas of the British Isles, or spend it on grants for children who couldn't afford Hogwarts, or even wands.

She knows for a fact that the great Imperial Qing dynasty still rules over the greater central eurasia territories as far as the magical world is concerned, collecting tax money from poor provincial towns like Azat's, without giving them anything in return. There is only one institutionalized magical school with government funding that could even be considered nearby, and it is the Emperor's Institute in Luoyang— a prestigious and selective school that only accepts the sons and daughters of wealthy court nobles, and that's not even really in central Asia. There are also the Russians in the north, who also take taxpayer money from the rural lower states, and they too would never let some poor farm boy from a distant village attend one of their esteemed boarding schools, let alone let them live in their cities.

Empires rise and fall, dictators rise from the ashes and wage wars to imperialize new territories, and all the while no one cares for the actual people themselves.

How exactly does Gellert expect to change that? She genuinely wants to know.

In all honesty, she slept through most of her history classes so she doesn't entirely remember what his policies were in particular. She just new he had been in support of the war and callously disregarded how many people were to die in order to further his own aims.

Speaking of Gellert…

Harry glances down at the letter tucked into her cloak. "Do you…" She swallows with difficulty. "Do you know who sent this letter?"

She's pretty sure she already knows who did, but she can't help but ask anyhow.

Azat shakes his head. "It came from the west," he reveals. "It was addressed specifically for me to deliver. It was good timing, since I was already intending to leave for Wuhai."

Something tells me that wasn't coincidental in the slightest, Harry thinks, annoyed.

She doesn't voice that aloud. "I'm sorry then. We must have completely ruined your schedule." She says instead, sincerely.

"It is alright." Azat replies easily giving Serik a gentle tug to the left. The bird beats its powerful wings, and then they are soaring upwards in a warm torrent of air. "For Serik, Lhasa is not too out of the way."

Even for modern day airplanes Harry is fairly sure traveling straight across the mountain range like this would most definitely be considered out of the way. But for Azat and Serik, there is no place in the mountains they cannot reach, be that the highest peak of Everest or the lowest valley in Nepal.

Except for Kabul, apparently.

Azat says it is not safe to go to, even for sorcerers, but especially for Westerns. Between the recent Anglo-Afghan war, and a border rife with tension from the Soviets, the Afghan people were not very fond of foreigners in their land. Even Azat does not fly through some parts of the country. Tom was rather put out at that, until Azat suggested they try Lhasa instead. It is far closer, and far less likely to end with either of them dead. Tom warms up to the idea of it after Azat goes on to explain the Tibetan Buddhist practice of a 'sky burial', and their many peaceful beliefs on the afterlife and the cycle of rebirth. Having never encountered a magical society that believes in reincarnation, Tom was sufficiently distracted from his disappointment.

They have a brief stopover by a beautiful lakeside in Nagqu province, so Serik can hunt for lunch and Tom can ride a yak. Harry is sure to take a truly absurd amount of pictures of Tom essentially doing nothing but sitting atop it because the yak doesn't really want to move, but she can't help it. It's the most adorable thing she's ever seen.

"Harry!" He waves at her, from where his yak has decided to trudge halfway into the lake to satisfy its thirst, and hasn't moved since. Harry snaps another picture; the view of the lake and the mountains so beautiful it could fill a whole book of pictures. "Come ride one!"

"I'll leave the adventuring to you Tom!" She calls, less than thrilled at the idea of falling and getting soaked.

Tom rolls his eyes, but doesn't make any move to drag her over. He looks down at the enormous beast who doesn't seem the least bit phased at hauling around a little human atop it. More than likely the massive thing can't even feel him underneath all that fur.

"They're quite docile," Harry comments to Azat, as they stand on the banks.

"This herd is unfamiliar with humans. Not many people travel this far into Nagqu province." Azat remarks. "Unless of course, you can fly."

Harry smiles. "Yes, I assume that would make it a great deal easier to get around in a place like this." She gestures to the lawless expanse of grassland around them, and further still, the soaring mountain peaks bearing down on them. The air is so fresh and clean, tinged lightly with frost. It's certainly not warm, even at this time of year, but it's not cold enough to spoil her good mood, either.

The tan boy turns to her slightly, wind ruffling his hair. "If it is not to bold of me to ask, why are you traveling to such far, foreign places? Sevrei is not the type of place most would go to; neither is Anjoman. Most travelers go out of their way to avoid such places as the Gobi desert and the Hindu Kush mountains."

"We're on vacation, believe it or not." Harry reveals, to the boy's surprise. She laughs. "I'm aware they are very… unexpected places; Tom is very interested in Necromancy and learning new— and often obscure— magics, and those were two of the places he wanted to go."

Azat blinks in shock. Then he shakes his head, smiling ruefully. "It's true there are many rare magics, but most would avoid them anyhow, because they are either too far or too dangerous." He gives her a long look. "You do not seem to have a problem with the latter, however."

"How so?" Harry asks coolly. Tom yelps in the distance, his yak bucking slightly as it shakes itself to dislodge the bugs flying around it. He nearly topples face first into the water, but steadies himself at the last moment.

"I do not normally land in the desert," he reveals, in a low voice. "But I have flown past it often enough and have seen what the undead do to unsuspecting travelers. They are not docile in the least; necromancers come to study them and pay their respects to the desert, but they do not linger. They can control them to an extent, but during the full moon they grow exceptionally strong; even necromasters have difficulty keeping them at bay."

He turns to her fully at that. "And yet, they did not attack you. In fact, they were deferring to you."

Ah. Yeah, that.

Poor Azat could have seriously died landing in the desert as he did. As it is he should have, but Harry has once again managed to thwart death in some manner, and the young Kazakh who did not deserve to die lives on.

They listened to her. Better than they did Tom, the actual necromancer between the two. They were all but worshipping her.

"It must have been something Tom did," outwardly she shrugs it off. "He's very clever like that."

Azat does not look convinced in the least, but Serik's large shadow swoops above them, and then the enormous creature is dropping next to them, ruffling its feathers.

It gently butts its head against Azat's side, cooing. "All done, are you?" He smooths a hand down its back.

"Tom," Harry calls. He's managed to convince the yak to leave the water, and is attempting to stand on top of it. "Come on! We're leaving."

"Okay!" He replies, jumping off his new friend. He pats it on the head before racing back to her.

Fortunately, they do not talk about the dead and the undead for the rest of the ride over.

.

.

.

He is not fond of blood magic; even for a dark lord there are some things that are too dark. It's an incredibly dangerous practice, and there's never any guarantee that the ritual you're attempting will even work. Often times they are performed correctly, but end up with less than desirable circumstances anyhow. Still, it's not as if he's unfamiliar with it.

Studying it is one thing, though. Actually trying it is a whole other story.

He's never actually participated in a blood ritual— nor has he ever wanted to— and yet here he is anyway in the bowels of Beirut, in a basement choking with heavy incense and far too many carpets. He supposes he should be grateful it smells like incense, and not like the tunnels outside. Blood magic is far too close to human sacrifice to ever be legal, no matter how liberal a country may be, so it's no surprise he had to muck his way through the sewers for a bit to find this place. It's exactly the kind of place he'd expect a known practitioner of the arts to hide in; ritualists are regularly hunted down and imprisoned in magical societies, and for good reason. They have an infamous history of stealing young children from nearby villages to use in their conjuring; they are equally infamous for eating them afterwards, too.

He watches the candles dripping against the walls, feeling what he refuses to call apprehension; wariness, perhaps. There's nothing wrong with that. A little self-preservation never hurt anyone. Actually, he could probably use a bit more of it.

It has become very apparent that tracking her down was going to take some serious effort. A scrying compass and a crystal ball just wouldn't do. On a related note, it was also becoming very apparent that this obsession of his was getting out of hand. If he's going to such lengths to find her that's reason enough to take a step back and reevaluate his priorities. He's been spending far too much of his precious time on this little side quest of his as it is; now he is turning to blood magicks?

Gellert scowls at himself, turning away from the wall to fix his glare at the carpet beneath him. Why must they sit on the floor? It was unbearably uncomfortable.

"You've come a long way to get here, Lord Grindelwald."

He looks up as an elderly man hobble through the drapes obscuring the other side of the room. He has a monocle on one side and a glass eye in the other, skin like leather, with a well manicured beard; his long, draping robes nearly blend in with the curtains behind him, making him seem like an oddly floating head. He could have been from anywhere, or anytime. Gellert couldn't pinpoint his ethnicity if he tried; he couldn't pinpoint his age, either.

"And yet you don't seem particularly surprised." He returns, drily.

He quirks a lopsided smile. "Come," he says, holding the curtains open. "Your future awaits."

"My future, you say?" He repeats as he gets to his feet, chuckling. "I have a feeling it's always awaiting me."

The old man merely smiles enigmatically, disappearing into the shifting, curtains.

The material creases in his hands like water, intricate patterns woven into luxurious fabric rippling across its surface. He is a man of refined tastes, so it is no surprise he is so impressed with them. Flat woven embroidery stitches across the curtain as stags and winged mythical creatures, delicately adorning the telltale geometric designs so prevalent in Islamic art. Judging by the use of animals and mixture of other materials would date this carpet somewhere around the Sasanian Empire. It should rightfully belong in a cherished museum somewhere, and yet here it is, acting as a curtain of some kind, hanging innocuously in a cramped basement.

He takes his time perusing through them all, as if he has all the time in the world. It's not often one gets to see such impeccable works of art, and especially one so difficult to find in the Western world.

"Ah, the ghalitcheh has caught your eye, has it?"

He doesn't turn around at the sound of the old man's voice. "This corner articulation is profoundly impressive," he replies, before releasing his hold on it and turning to face the other man. "Islamic tradition prohibits depictions of animals and humans, so this is either very new or very old."

The old man shuffles closer, adjusting his monocle for a better look at it. "Yes you are quite correct," he agrees, as he leans back. "But this is not a persian carpet. This is an early anatolian animal carpet, heavily influenced by Chinese motifs in the thirteenth century."

Gellert blinks. "Are you a collector of antique carpets?"

"Oh, no." The man blinks his single eye owlishly. "They always manage to find me, one way or another."

"Still, it is nice to see someone showing interest in such lost arts." He continues, as he wades back into the depths.

"Well I don't think I would call it a lost art," he calls, as he follows the old man's smaller form. "But I would agree, it is not given nearly the attention it deserves."

He wonders if he has passed some kind of test of some kind, for the man grins toothily at him, and motions for him to sit down. A chair this time, mercifully. It wasn't as if he had been rude, but he hadn't seemed all that enthused with Gellert's presence in his shop. Now though, he seemed to adamantly enjoy him being here, even serving him tea with much gusto.

"Now, this young lady you are searching for," he begins without preamble, as he slowly lowers himself into the seat across from Gellert. "Tell me, why are you looking for her?"

Gellert wonders if he should be surprised that this old man knows. Ultimately he decides the question would be too much of a headache to answer, so he doesn't even bother. "I want answers from her."

"Impatience won't grant you them."

Gellert raises a brow. "Is that what my future told you?"

"No, this is simple advice all men must know." The man remarks, spooning sugar into his own cup. The tea is the color of blood, and Gellert isn't all that sure he wants to see if it tastes like it too. "Never rush a woman."

He lets out a surprised bark of laughter. "You may be onto something there."

"An old man picks up a thing or two, after all these years."

The blonde tilts his head. "How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?"

The man's single, milky blue eye turns to him. "You're free to guess." He offers, instead of answer. "However, I suppose it is rather unfair of me to know so much about you, and you so little of me. My name is Amir. I have lived for far too long. They call me many things; Grand Vizier, the finder of lost children, the third magi of the east."

Gellert blinks. "I see." He hadn't known any of those; when he returned to the seer who sold him the crystal ball, demanding something far stronger and darker, she told him to seek out the hermit deep beneath Beirut. A dark soul, gifted in blood magicks, she had said.

Nothing about Amir struck him as particularly dark, and he hasn't seen any of the usual remains of blood rituals. Then again, it's not as if he knew the man very well- or at all.

"Ah, but you are skeptical, I can see." That eye stares him down again, in an oddly intimidating manner. "But there is much to be skeptic about."

"I wouldn't say I'm skeptical," he returns, slowly. "Rather, simply… uninformed. I was told if I want to find this girl, I would need far more powerful magic to do so; but I must confess I am not well versed in blood magicks of any kind."

"You were informed correctly. However, you have not told me the true reason you are searching for her; if I do not know, I cannot help you."

"Like I said, I want answers."

"If that were truly all you wanted, you would not turn to blood magicks to do it. Especially when you are aware you will get them sooner or later."

He might be old, but he's still sharp.

"How can I be so sure?" He refutes. "She has a habit of disappearing off the face of the Earth-

Amir laughs. "That she does."

"-how am I to know if this time she will disappear for good?" It's a thought that plagues him quite often, actually. Aside from the boy, he has no way of ever tracking her down. And if she truly wanted, she could easily spirit away both herself and the child and then he would never be able to find her at all.

"So it is not answers you seek," Amir deduces triumphantly. "But the girl herself."

Gellert can't really find it in him to deny something that has become woefully obvious.

The old man pours himself another cup of tea out of the tall brass Dallah between them.

"Blood magic can indeed help you find her," he reveals, as he sets the teapot down. "But it is a steep price to pay for something you truly do not want."

Gellert frowns. "What do you mean by that?"

"You tell me." The vizier replies calmly. "Why are you looking for her?"

The dark lord feels as if they're going in circles. "As I said-

"No, no. Why are you really looking for her?"

The tall blonde man pauses, expression turning introspective. "She… fascinates me. I want to know her. I don't want her to disappear." He frowns. "I am not entirely certain as to why, however. But for a person I have only met quite briefly, she has certainly left a mark."

Amir makes a vague noise of understanding.

"Ah, I see. It is true, to obtain what you truly desire, a much stronger magic is needed." The man says, eyes twinkling in a way that maddeningly reminds him of Albus. "A very, very strong magic indeed. However, I believe you are looking in the entirely wrong direction."

"Wrong direction?"

"Truly I cannot help you, young man,"

Young man? Gellert's brow twitches.

"Or rather, I can, but you will come to regret it." With a flourish of incredibly precise wandless magic, a piece of parchment, a brush, and a pot of ink come flying through the carpets, neatly reordering themselves in front of Amir. "I will not perform any blood magicks for you today. Instead, I will give you this."

He writes something down, before handing it to the dark lord.

Grindelwald takes the parchment, glancing down at it.

8:00 PM July 28

Suiran

Kyoto

He looks back up.

"Send this off to her, by a burtkitshi from Almaty. You will find the answers you seek there. If you know what it is you are truly seeking, of course."

Why must old men talk in riddles, he thinks, exasperated. If he ever ends up as some kind of wise old oracle, he will be sure to tell it exactly how it is. Still these are very precise instructions, so at the very least he knows exactly what to do, even if he doesn't know why he's doing it.

"Ah, and before you go, take this with you." He rises from his chair, moving towards a lopsided cabinet crowded with trinkets. He returns with a pouch. "Give it to the girl."

Gellert takes it as he rises as well, peering into the depths. Inside he finds gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The dark lord blinks for a moment, eyes widening. Then he closes the pouch, smirking.

"You've given yourself away, old man." He calls, wryly, as he tucks the pouch away and makes for the wall of carpets.

The old man only laughs. "Or so you may think!" He replies in kind.

.

.

.

Lhasa, Tibet

The scrying compass twirls endlessly. Next to it, an opalescent glass ball spins in a cloudy mist.

The mists part for a moment, revealing a looming breath-taking range of mountains at the throat of the world. Temples dot the clear blue sky; vibrant colored flags float in the wind; paths wind endlessly in the grooves of stone giants; incense is heavy in the air. A girl with vermillion hair wrapped tight in a gold and navy cloak, a few brilliant strands loose and falling across her shoulders as she sits in an ancient tea shop.

It's impossible to tell from such a foggy and unfocused image, but the girl in question is scowling crossly, looking like she's a few seconds away from firing a few curses, a letter crushed in her hand.

She's been like this ever since that courier found them in what is quite possibly the definition of the middle of nowhere. She would have thought the endlessly uninhabited deserts of Mongolia would give her some reprieve from irritating dark lord's and the world at large. She was very wrong.

Harry still doesn't know how he found her. Seriously. How did he know to send a letter to Almat, and then further, that Azat would be flying a route past the Gobi desert? How did he even know they were in the Gobi desert to begin with? It irritates her endlessly.

"Harry," Tom tugs at her cloak, calling her back into the present.

She immediately feels bad; she doesn't want her foul mood ruining Tom's much anticipated vacation. He's having such a great time, despite all their setbacks. It's all been one exciting adventure to him, and Harry doesn't want to spoil it. She wants Tom to experience new things, to see the world, to learn about other cultures and emphasize with them and like them, wizards and muggles alike. Meeting people like the vampire merchants in Sevrei and Azat, a Kazakh falconer, were exactly the sort of experiences Harry wanted Tom to have. Meeting people of all walks of life would only do him good; maybe if Voldemort had gotten this opportunity, he wouldn't have turned out to be so bigoted and prejudiced and convinced of his own superiority. If he could only see the world he had wanted to ruin…

Well at any rate, they have only been here a few days and already Tom has made friends with the Buddhist monks in the city, following them around and asking millions of questions at all hours of the day. It was fortunate they were such patient and indulgent people, otherwise they probably would have kicked him out for annoying them a long time ago.

The center of Tibetan Buddhism for over a millennium, Lhasa remains largely a city of wonders. Harry had read once that some places were more magical than others, that sometimes the magic was so powerful you could feel it as a tangible pressure on your skin. She hadn't really believed that until now. No wonder everyone here was incredibly spiritual, monks and muggles alike. Magic seems to come alive here, as if the centuries of worship and prayer have managed to seep into the earth itself.

"Sorry Tom," she apologizes sincerely. "I was lost in thought."

Tom frowns over his breakfast, but drops the subject. "Can we go to Maizhokunggar today?" He asks instead, eagerly.

Harry blinks. "Sure, of course." She replies genially, picking at her dumplings. "We can do whatever you want, Tomcat."

Tom does not look appeased in the least. He casts another long look at her over the rim of his butter tea. Harry doesn't notice, because she's too busy scrutinizing her shemdre, a Tibetan breakfast staple of yak meat, rice and potatoes and some kind of mystery sauce. Translation spells have proved unhelpful thus far, so she doesn't even bother to try to ask the cook what it is. Harry doesn't know how she feels about yak meat. She eats it anyway.

Harry has been peculiar ever since the desert. She refuses to speak of it, always changing the subject or glossing over it as a weird fluke caused by the desert magic, but Tom doesn't believe that for a second. He may not be a real necromancer yet, but he's studied enough of it to realize just how anomalous such an event like that was. And then there was the letter she received shortly thereafter. She wouldn't let him look at it, and Azat did not tell him what was in it, or even who gave it to him in the first place. Harry was hiding things from him, again. And already that upset him— but more than that, seeing Harry so maudlin upset him even more. Hopefully a day trip would keep her mind off of whatever it is that was bothering her.

"It's kind of a long way," Tom adds, after a beat. "But one of the monks told me you can take a carpet if the weather is clear."

Harry smirks at that. "Is this just another ploy to get me to buy a flying carpet?" She teases lightly, because Tom has been wanting one since they arrived. They're not hard to find all along the silk road, often being traded alongside classic artisan persian rugs. At any rate if Harry thought persian rugs were expensive, persian flying rugs were just plain obscene. Just one medium-sized magical carpet costs the same as her latest Firebolt model from the future, and that's accounting for inflation.

"No," Tom drawls, in a way that means he really does want to go, but also really wants that carpet.

Harry had been contemplating buying him one in secret for his birthday, but she supposes an early birthday present couldn't hurt. Even if it is six months too early.

"Well, what do you want to see in Maizhokunggar?" She asks, as she thinks the idea over.

Tom frowns thoughtfully. "The monastery of course. My professor talked about it once. She says it's famous for its lectures on sutra and tantra, and for its teachings on the transmigration of souls." He explains, looking excited.

Harry rolls her eyes. Of course he's excited about death, once again.

Then her amused expression falls, a somber look taking its place.

She's not sure if she wants to take another foray into more necromancy practices, what with what happened last time. She still doesn't quite know what happened. And Harry didn't want to know; she didn't want to unravel the mystery. She didn't want anyone asking questions she didn't want to answer, be that Tom or Azat or irritating Dark Lords. She's lived mostly in ignorance of her title as Master of Death, and she would prefer it that way.

In all honesty, she had sort of thought it was just a myth, or maybe just an allusion to something else. Her headmaster had believed in it, though, and so have countless others. Every civilization since the dawn of humanity has believed in some practice of the dead in one way or another; it is central to the human existence, after all. It might be a myth, but there is always some fact to legend. Harry has a wand that cannot be broken no matter how many times she snaps it in two; a ring that cannot be lost, no matter how many times she throws it away; and of course, the cloak that is always there with her, a subtle reminder of the fate that is hidden from her.

There's a lot more to it than that. There are legions of undead that follow her command, a harmless green light that would kill anyone else. An irritating man who refuses to leave her alone and had the gall to send some poor boy into a dangerous desert just to find her.

Harry's eye twitches with that last one.

She reaches for her tea, attempting to mask her unpleasant expression behind its rim before Tom can notice it. He has been uncannily observant of her as of late, and she doesn't want to ruin his vacation, no matter how awry it's gone.

Ruin it with all this Master of Death business and… this damn letter.

The luxurious parchment was wasted on it; the whole thing was simply one sentence, wrapped in a bow and closed with an extravagant wax seal. Actually, Harry didn't even think it constituted as a sentence. It was barely three words. It managed to find her all the way in the Gobi desert, and still look as pristine as it probably did when it left the man's hand.

8:00 PM July 28

Suiran

Kyoto

"Harry," Tom calls plaintively. Harry startles. Before she knew it she had closed her eyes without even realizing it, hands still tightly clasped around her teacup. Tom is watching her with big eyes, evidently worried and doing nothing to hide it.

"Sorry, sorry— I've got a bit of a headache. I hope I'm not allergic to yaks." She jokes with a smile, rising from the table. "Anyway, it sounds like we have a carpet to purchase, don't you think?"

Tom eyes her skeptically, not fooled by such an obvious segue in the least. Still he merely nods. "Maybe some fresh air will be good for you."

"Up here it probably will." Harry agrees cheerily, exiting back into the bustling street. She had never thought of Boston or London as particularly polluted, but the air up here is so foreign and wonderful, as fine and cold as crystal.

It's summer, but the wind is so great it's no surprise Harry is dressed in a cloak and is still a little cold. They travel to the center of the city, where the majestic Jokhang Temple is surrounded by markets, catering to the pilgrims journeying to the temple. The winding narrow streets surrounding the temple are besieged in foot traffic at this time of day, and merchants peddling goods of all kinds. Predictably there is a lot of yak butter and cheese for sale, traded around in enormous slabs on the side of the road, and enough candy stalls for Harry to finally give in to Tom's begging and buy him some. Tom wants to buy basically everything for sale in the market; prayer wheels, beads and flags, copper Buddha's and other metal goods, talismans that claim longevity or good luck, cushions and robes and no small sum of hunting falcons. Harry refuses all of them, but especially that last one. No golden eagles, no hunting falcons, no birds, period. There are quite a few shops selling quilts and cushions, but Harry has yet to see a magical carpet.

They amble down the brightly colored street rather aimlessly, Harry letting Tom tug her into whatever store catches his fancy. Tom has already spent all of the money Harry gave him (which was no small sum) so he knows he can't really buy anything, but he likes to look nonetheless. The curiosity on his face colors his features into something childlike and innocent. She doesn't think she's ever seen him as carefree and happy as he has been this vacation.

Harry can imagine a much older Tom Riddle, traveling the world after graduating from Hogwarts. She wonders if he ever had the opportunity to simply peruse through an exotic market and enjoy the smell of incense in the air; more than likely, at that point in his life he was too consumed by his madness for the dark arts to ever stop and enjoy something so simple. If it wasn't furthering his aims in some manner, it was pointless.

Meanwhile, a much younger Tom Riddle is enjoying himself thoroughly, so much so that he is currently attempting to bargain with a shopkeeper in broken Chinese.

Harry does a double take, shaking her head with exasperation as she tugs him away by the arm. "Tom, we are not buying that."

Tom looks up at her with wide eyes. "But it's supposed to give you good karma!"

"There are a lot of ways to get good karma that don't involve buying a giant hulk of a rock." Harry returns, wholly unmoved. "And anyway, how exactly do you expect to lug that home?" It's like the coffin all over again.

Tom can at least see the logic behind her words, even though he looks less than pleased at once more being thwarted. "I guess," he allows, sighing. "But there's just so many things here you just can't get back at home!"

"I know," she ruffles his hair, as they continue onwards. "But you can always come back, you know."

Tom blinks up at her blankly.

"Next year," she rolls her eyes. "I figured you'd want to go somewhere new next vacation, but I'm perfectly fine to visit Lhasa again."

"Next year…" He repeats, looking lost.

Harry tilts her head in confusion. "Yes?"

"We're going again next year?"

Harry casts him an amused glance. "We've been over this Tom."

He nods, remembering the conversation. She had mentioned it so off-handedly, it hadn't really sunken in. Rather, the idea of him being able to do this every year hadn't quite sunken in. He could have adventures like this with Harry every year! He could explore the world and experience everything it had to offer and learn everything there was to know, and it wasn't just a once in a lifetime opportunity. He could go every summer.

For an orphan who could barely dream of life outside the orphanage gates, it was a lot to come to terms with. For a long time the whole world and all it had to offer seemed unattainable for someone like him. How could he travel the planet when he could barely travel London? Travelling costs money, as the orphanage caretakers loved to point out whenever the kids at the orphanage begged for a trip to the beach or the countryside. And an orphan like Tom had nothing; no possessions, and certainly no money.

And yet here he was anyhow, in a mystical town at the top of the world.

"We can go anywhere?" He slips his hand into Harry's, as they continue to walk.

"Sure, wherever you want, Tomcat." Harry replies easily.

He's quiet for some time after that, but his thoughtful expression clears once they finally stumble across a carpet merchant. There were far too many of them for Harry's liking, and just like brooms they were all just slightly different. No, it was even worse than brooms; it was like choosing a wand, since each was made individually. Tom eventually chooses a gray carpet that shimmers like silvery water underneath the mountain sky.

He unfurls it with a hearty tug, immediately jumping on top of it, all but beaming. "It's like riding on top of a cloud!" He enthuses, pushing his hand against its surface, only to watch it bounce back up when he took his hand away.

Harry was far more skeptical about climbing onto a giant floating rug. The merchant assured her it was the same mechanics as riding a broom. She lets out a breath, and climbs onto it. Tom is right, it doesn't feel like they're riding on anything.

"Okay, okay," Harry mutters, mostly to herself. "I think I've got this…"

She turns to Tom. "You have the map, right?"

He spreads it open on his lap, nodding. "Yep!" He points east. "I think it's that way."

"Alright then," Harry laughs. "East it is."

.

.

.

Drigung Monastery is situated on a domineering cliff face overlooking a vast and lush valley.

The white and red structure seems to wind along the rock face; becoming one with it, rather than trying to overcome it. The smell of incense was undeniable even from kilometers away, chased in the wind as they crossed through the volatile terrain on their new carpet. Harry had to admit, she was very glad they bought it. Harry adored flying on a broom, but as it turns out maybe she just adores flying itself. Flying on Serik was an incredible experience, feeling his powerful wings beat against the wind, the effortless way he soared through the sky— the magical carpet was just as incredible. Unlike a broom, it really had a mind (and temperament) of its own. Theirs had been rather ornery until they flipped it over; now it was as docile as a lamb.

Buddhist esotericism— and Vajrayana in particular— made it rather difficult for Tom to get much out of the monks practicing at Drigung. To be fair, Tom was apparently asking questions they use great caution in answering.

He tells her all this as they return to their carpet for lunch. It is now spread out on the ground, acting as a picnic blanket. As long as they don't spill any tea on it, it doesn't seem to mind much.

"I guess they don't tell just anyone," Tom laments, around the dumplings Harry had packed for lunch.

"Yes, I suppose that would make a lot of sense, considering they've taken a great effort to be as far away from civilization as possible," Harry jokes with a laugh.

"They also don't let anyone participate or watch sky burials." He continues, pouting. "They're sacred, or something like that."

"Well, then perhaps we should just let it be." Harry suggests. The monks have been kind enough to let foreigners and non-practitioners like them wander around the monastery and ask as many questions as they like; Harry doesn't really want to push it any farther. "Why don't we just walk around and explore some?"

Harry hasn't actually ventured into the formidable complex yet. She's been out on the gates trying to take photos of the landscapes. She's used a magical camera before, but never one as old as this. And she had thought the ones in her time were outdated; this one was almost impossible to figure out. She had managed to get it to work earlier though, to her great consternation. Maybe it too was a temperamental object.

"Sure," Tom agrees. "It's kind of hard to find your way around though."

Harry shrugs. "That's half the fun, isn't it?"

They do eventually need to get directions from one of the monks in one of the may courtyards, far too lost in this maze of winding staircases, archways and stone courtyards. Eventually they end up in one of the highest spires, with a great view of the tiers of the monastery below, and the mountains beyond. Harry valiantly refrains from taking photos, even though the scene is breathtaking and picturesque; she wouldn't want to be rude.

"Oh, Harry," Tom tugs her away from the ledge, gesturing to a bald, robed man with a book in his hand, who appears to be finishing up some sort of sermon. In front of him, rows of monks rise to their feet, most likely eager to stretch their legs after such a long lecture. "This is Monk Gyatso— he's one of the head monks here. He's been really helpful."

Harry dips her head respectfully, a long spill of vermillion hair spilling out of her hood with the movement. "Hello, I'm Harry Riddle, Tom's guardian. Thank you for indulging his curiosity— I apologize for any trouble our unannounced visit might have caused."

Monk Gyatso waves her concerns off. "No need," the look he gives her is long and contemplative. It is so piercing and intense it actually makes Harry want to fidget. Finally, he bows his head as well. "You honor us with your presence, Harry Riddle."

That was completely unexpected. Harry blinks rapidly. Tom looks up at her with confusion, but Harry has no answers to give. "Um… Well that's very kind of you to say." She fumbles awkwardly, caught off guard. "We're travelers, and were curious about the practices of this temple."

The man tilts his head. "A man has died in the nearby village. We have been asked to perform a jhator. Would you like to watch?"

Tom's eyes grow very wide. Incidentally, so do Harry's. "Is— is that really alright?" She manages to get out. Tom had said they did not invite foreigners to witness something so sacred and intimate as a sky burial.

"Yes. A blessing from you will go a long way in assisting the soul to reach the afterlife, as it lingers in the uncertain plane between life and death." He replies, calmly, only perplexing Harry further.

A cold feeling slips down her back as the monk beckons them to follow them. It's obvious the monk knows who she is— what she is. But how did he know? And what did it mean?

And why is this all happening now? She thinks, alarmed, as they descend out of the smaller courtyard and down to the larger one.

The answer comes to her easily. Harry has never made it into a habit to travel to sacred places like the Drigung Monastery or the Gobi Desert. She was a bit busy in Britain, and after that, didn't have much time between the end of the war and the beginning of her life in this time. And what little time she did have was not spent indulging in travel. Harry has never encountered people like Monk Gyatso, she has never wandered into a desert full of the dead. She would never have known what she was— and what it really meant— because she would never have the opportunity to find out. She intentionally never had the opportunity to find out. Harry had never had much intention in accepting her existence as the Master of Death, whatever it meant. And she has no intention of accepting it now. Or ever.

Harry is quiet as they are lead to the traditional setting of a jhator— a large flat rock, higher than the rest. It is midday, an unusual time to have a sky burial, they are told. Normally they occur at dawn, but weather did not permit it today. Relatives may remain nearby during the jhator, but in a place where they cannot see it directly. Harry and Tom, however, are escorted to the burial site.

Harry doesn't make it a habit to deal with the dead, undead, or recently dead, so the sight is actually a bit unnerving to her. After the death the body is left untouched for three days; then it is cleaned and wrapped in white cloth. So all Harry can really see is a corpse wrapped up in white, curled in the fetal position. All the same it takes a lot of effort not to look away.

Tom meanwhile, is of course utterly fascinated by the proceedings and not unsettled in the least. Apparently her presence has made the monks for more amenable and open about their normally secretive customs, because they don't mind explaining the ritual in great detail— however gross it might be.

After all the ceremonial events are over with, the vultures are called to feed.

Before that though, they ask Harry to offer a blessing to the spirit, to aid in its rebirth.

Harry has no idea what to say, as they all stare at her expectantly. There is Tom's confused stare of bewilderment, Monk Gyatso's encouraging look, and then there is the expectant and reverent gazes of the other monks assembled. Harry swallows with great difficulty. They look at her with awe and veneration. They look at her as they would the Master of Death.

Harry takes a step forward, standing at the foot of the burial stone. She claps her hand together, bowing her head as she closes her eyes.

She has no idea what she's doing; her hands are shaking slightly, as she bites her lip and fights to keep her composure. What is happening? Why her? Why is it always her? She doesn't want this— this whatever this is. She doesn't want people looking at her like this, like she's some sort of patron deity to be worshipped and revered. She's Harry. Just Harry.

But no one seems to want to let her be just Harry anymore.

She lets out a shuddering breath, dropping her hands as she straightens up. She blinks a few times, to clear the moisture from her eyes, and by the time she turns around they are as clear as day.

Afterwards, as they are about to leave to return to Lhasa, Monk Gyatso gives her a book.

"The Bardo Thodol," he explains, as he holds it out to her.

It means nothing to Harry, but behind her Tom abruptly stops midway into climbing onto the carpet, breathing in sharply. Harry nods politely. "Thank you."

The monk steps back, bowing. "Have safe travels, Harry Riddle."

Harry just nods again, placing the book in her lap as they ascend into the bright blue sky.

.

.

.

Kyoto, Japan

"A ryokan?" Tom repeats, unfamiliar with the term.

Harry nods. "It's a… a bath house, I suppose you can say."

Tom shrivels his nose. "We're staying in a bath?" He asks, incredulously.

Harry laughs as she shakes her head. "No, no, that's not really… Well, I guess you'll just have to see when you get there." She's not really sure how to explain an onsen to someone who probably doesn't even know what a hot spring is.

At any rate, Harry is not unfamiliar with the term, but she is unfamiliar with the place.

The portkey dropped them off in bustling Kyoto Station, amidst a sea of people in both traditional and Western clothing alike. Tom stared openly at everyone who passed by, even when Harry told him not to. Much like King's Cross, Platform 11 was hidden completely from muggle view, but unlike the British train station the wall between the two worlds was completely transparent, providing an unhindered view of the muggles milling about. Still, even if they couldn't see them it was impolite to stare. In comparison to Mongolia and Tibet, this was positively overwhelming. Even if the crowds couldn't hold a candle to London, let alone New York City, it was far more than all the other places they'd been to.

To be honest, she's sort of been dreading this… inevitable confrontation. At first she was nothing short of absolutely enraged— how dare this man just intrude upon her vacation like this— which eventually led to worry, concern and finally, weary resignation.

Master of Death.

This whole vacation was just going right back to that, wasn't it?

The desert, the legions of undead. The monks at the monastery, the sky burial, the Bardo Thodol- better known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

It was very telling, that the monk would give her one as… well, as a gift she supposed. An offering, even.

Harry shakes the thoughts away, refusing to let them overcome her, returning to the present. She asks one of the station attendants about the letter, and is redirected to yet another portkey office.

Suiran is a ryokan. Apparently quite a nice one, judging by the woman's impressed expression. It was on the outskirts of the city, with picturesque views of the nearby mountains. The hotel boasted private baths and gardens, making it both beautiful and calming. It's also exclusive to magicals, since it's hidden from muggle view by what she calls the 'Saru yama mist', which is why it is only accessible through portkey or apparition.

This gives her pause. A hotel? He wants to meet at a hotel?

It actually seems… perfectly normal. Harry has had many business meetings in hotel bars, happy hours, work events; it's fairly par for the course. It seems so surreal to think they would meet at a hotel— she has a brief image of Grindelwald in a well cut modern suit, leaning against some trendy metropolitan bar in some trendy, metropolitan hotel, drinking a single malt scotch and charming the pants off the bartender. Harry snorts. So basically, looking exactly like the kind of person she goes out of her way to avoid.

"When's the portkey departure?" Harry is pulled from her thought by the question, looking down at Tom.

"Half past one." Harry answers, looking up at the station clock. About two minutes.

"Where are we going again?" Tom asks, as they both hold onto the paper fan they were given.

"We're staying at a hotel, Tom. It's at the outskirts of town, by Arashiyama." She answers. To be honest, it was also a bit of a happy coincidence. Harry wasn't entirely sure where to stay when they arrived in Kyoto— she supposed she would just have to ask someone for a recommendation. At least now they have a concrete destination.

Tom digs around for his map, squinting at it as he unfolds the yellowed paper. "By the Hozu river," he remarks. "It's a shrine?" He looks up.

Harry frowns thoughtfully. "They said something about being on sacred land? I can't remember what shrine it was though."

Tom's eyes light up. "We're staying on a shrine?" He repeats, excited.

Before Harry can respond, the portkey activates between them and all but throws them onto the ground at their destination.

"I hate these damn things," Harry mutters, as she stumbles a bit and clutches her head. The vertigo is always so awful.

She opens her eyes when Tom exclaims; "It's a monkey!"

She jumps at the sudden shout, whirling around to see there is, indeed, a monkey. On its haunches it comes up to Tom's chest, staring up at the boy in front of it with a flat expression. Harry returns the look with an equally unhappy glower; Harry is not fond of monkeys. They're cute until they start flinging their poop at you.

Harry tugs Tom back by the arm. "Don't get too close to it."

"It's a monkey." Tom gasps with delight. "I've never seen a monkey before! Harry, can I take a picture with it?"

"Absolutely not."

"But you let me touch the yak." Tom points out mutinously.

"Because Azat was there and he knows how to handle them," Harry returns, with a no nonsense expression. "Monkey's are not actually very nice, so let's leave this one alone."

Like clockwork it sits up straighter and bears its teeth at them with a weird hissing noise. Harry is quick to take the warning for what it is, but Tom is very reluctant to leave, staring after it with fascination.

"Well that was a nice welcome." Harry snorts, finally taking the time to look around and survey their surroundings.

Behind them is a wide, rushing river, banking against a tall mountain lush with bamboo. They are standing beneath a large crimson gate, with stone stairs leading up into a thicket of bamboo. True to the attendant's word, a group of muggles pass by on the road below, never once looking up at the shrine dug into the mountain side.

"Oh, wow, look at that Tom! Looks nice, doesn't it Tom?" She smiles sunnily.

He nods, looking just as awed. "It's definitely different." It's certainly a hell of a lot warmer.

Harry very quickly realizes that it's very nice. To her absolute delight, it's practically the equivalent of a five star hotel, with its own private baths. She hasn't forgotten why she's here in the first place, but at the very least she's thankful he chose somewhere nice, although she's still not sure why the man would choose here of all places.

Dinner is not until later in the evening, so Harry and Tom take to exploring the nearby town. Harry is charmed by it all, making interested noises at everything they pass by, be it a dango stall or a crowded tea shop. Tom finds his eyes drawn to something else entirely, looking at all the other people who pass them by. Predictably they are curious over the foreigners so far from the city, slowing down to stare at them, or to whisper to the person next to them. Tom doesn't pay that any attention though, well used to it after Lhasa. No, he's not really focused on the people themselves, but rather, what they're wearing.

Harry had assumed Tom would immediately drag her to a shrine or a bookstore of some kind, but the first shop he stops at along the cobblestone road is full of beautiful fabrics.

"Tom?" Harry looks at him questioningly.

"You should get one, Harry." He replies in answer.

Harry pauses. "A kimono?" She clarifies, perplexed.

Tom nods immediately, looking up at her. "You haven't bought any souvenirs yet," he points out, which is true. There is a moment where Tom looks away, silent, as if struggling to find the right words. "And I think it would look really pretty on you." He blurts out.

Harry blinks with surprise. She turns her gaze back to the patterns and colors in the window; they are really beautiful. And Harry is a total sucker for fashion.

She caves far too easily. "Well, I suppose it would certainly go a long way in blending in." Or maybe not. The hair was undeniable.

Either way they end up spending the better part of an hour in the store.

Tom, surprisingly, does not complain once, even as the seamstress brings roll after roll of fine fabric to inspect against Harry's skin. She hadn't realized what an arduous process it would be, but perhaps she should have expected it, considering how elaborate and delicate it looks. Eventually the old woman decides on a pretty pattern of lovely lavender flowers, on a pale grey and white background of stylized clouds and what Harry thinks are swans. Or maybe dragons? It's a very complicated design. At any rate it's very beautiful; Harry might be in love at first sight. Tom has the best ideas sometimes. Why didn't she think of buying one earlier? All the magnificent colors and patterns, the accessories… Harry could buy the whole store.

For all their inherent elegance, putting them on is the farthest thing from graceful, as she finds out. And the woman had even advised her to get a yukata, worn in summer and made of cotton, and far less elaborate and formal than an actual kimono. If this is what they consider 'less elaborate', Harry does not want to know what they consider intricate.

It's a whole process; first the yukata itself, then the many bows holding it together, and then the large obi ribbon that goes atop all that. This is not even to mention the many complicated ways to tie the obi itself— apparently the shape and size of the bow is a fashion statement in and of itself. And then of course there is her hair, pinned up with hair ornaments and pins, and then the ornaments that go in the bow, and then the shoes, which are inarguably the most trying shoes Harry has ever worn. And that includes Louboutins.

Still, Tom was right. All put together it is really stunning.

"Well?" She gives a twirl in front of the mirror. "What do you think, Tom?"

Tom doesn't say anything. At his silence, Harry stops her critical inspection of herself in the mirror to cast a worried glance his way. "Tom?"

"You look really pretty." He manages to say, wearing a discomfited expression of what she thinks is bewilderment.

Harry smiles. "Oh, thank you! It was a good idea, Tom. I'm glad you suggested it!" She looks positively ecstatic, before hopping off the pedestal to pay for the many articles of clothing and accessories she is currently attempting to walk in.

Nothing raises Harry's spirits quite like fashion, so when Tom saw the elaborate, traditional dresses all the women were wearing, he knew it would be a surefire way to brighten her mood.

And he really did think she would look nice in one.

… But he was quickly redefining his definition of 'nice'.

For the second time on this trip, Tom finds himself staring at her like she's a different person entirely. His reaction is odd, to say the least; it's not as if he's never seen her dressed up before. She wore a very pretty dress to his graduation— so nice Margaret had to comment on it— and looked really nice then, too. There's no real reason this is any different; it is also a very formal garment, also something she doesn't wear everyday, but somehow it's more than that.

People were staring before, but that was mostly out of curiosity. Now they're just interested in Harry's outfit. A group of girls her age compliment her on her yukata, to Harry's absolute delight. The owner of the tea shop they stop at insists Harry sit at a nice table in the back, with tatami mats instead of stone flooring, as to not damage her dress. As they wander the city a bit, it becomes apparent that whatever shop they had bought it at was quite prestigious; people could tell where Harry got it from sight alone. Someone actually gives her an umbrella when it begins to lightly drizzle on their way back.

Harry admires the parasol as they return to the ryokan, where predictably the staff are dazzled by such a stunning ensemble. Tom doesn't quite get it, since they too are wearing something similar. Maybe it was because of how the old lady tied the bow or something.

Either way Tom is actually rather relieved to be alone with Harry once again, as they settle into their suite. That was more than enough talking and walking for one day, especially when he had a book he was all but itching to get his hands on again.

Dinner is lovely. Harry and Tom haven't exactly been in well populated areas, and have been eating whatever the local cuisine is without much fanfare. This though, is less of a dinner and more of a presentation. It's very fancy, is Harry's first thought. Much like the ryokan itself. Unfortunately, this train of thought only leads her to remembering why they're at this ryokan to begin with, and her undeniably pleasant mood from earlier flatlines into something far more sobering.

She pushes Grindelwald out of her mind for the time being in favor of enjoying the elaborate spread they've laid out for dinner.

Tom has never had any Asian cuisine, let alone Japanese, so Harry has to attempt a vague explanation of what they're eating. It's not what she's used to, either— trendy sushi rolls with strange names, expensive sake and tempura— but she can recognize most of it as very traditional Japanese fair. Grilled fish, rice, miso soup, cold soba noodles and a large variety of pickled vegetables, served with green tea. There is also a whole spread of sashimi that Tom looks at as if it is actually still alive, and not just raw. He's been rather adventurous with his appetite this whole trip, but he appears to draw the line at raw fish. Harry doesn't mind; the more for her, the better. Whenever they go out for Japanese food, Ron always devours the sashimi before she and Hermione can even get a good look at it.

After dinner Tom is quick to return to what he's been doing the last two days— voraciously plowing through her new book.

Harry had no real interest in reading it (although she knows she should at some point) so it was no hardship to immediately lend it to Tom. The book is not exactly uncommon, but it is apparently well known enough for Tom to know what it is. However, a handbound book like this written by the monks at the temple is entirely different than the ones printed publically. It's customary for a monastery to have their own individual copies, unique to that monastery. To have an original Drigung book of the dead is a real treasure indeed.

At any rate, the book has the added bonus of completely taking up every ounce of Tom's attention, so he's yet to ask her why, exactly, it was given to her in the first place.

Harry leaves him to it, relieved she doesn't have to find an excuse to be away from him for a while. She simply says she's going to the hot springs, and he's free to join her. Unsurprisingly he voices his reluctance, preferring to stay here and read. Harry has no doubt he won't even look up until she returns to tell him to go to bed; once Tom picks up a book, he is lost in it until he finishes it.

As she shuts the sliding door to their rooms shut, she takes a deep, calming breath.

She's ignored the problem long enough. It's probably time to figure out why they're really here. She casts a quick tempus; 7:59.

Harry doesn't have to look for very long.

Not even a minute after she started wandering the halls, an employee looking for her nearly runs right into her.

"Miss Riddle," she says, breathlessly. "There's a—

"Man looking for me?" Harry finishes, wryly.

She nods, flushing slightly. "Yes, a foreigner. He was very tall."

"And where is he now?" Harry asks, resigned.

"I believe he is still in the gardens," she hedges, nervously. "I asked him to wait while I went to find you, but it's been a bit of time at this point…"

"Oh, don't worry about it. He deserves to be kept waiting." Harry waves off her concerns, dry as a bone. "Thank you for finding me, though. Sorry for the trouble." She adds, as she walks off in the direction of the gardens.

The girl blinks, looking rather befuddled by her answer. "...Yes, of course…"

.

.

.

The waning moon spills across the surface of the pond, casting an ethereal glow over the waters, and the garden surrounding it.

This late in the evening, the gardens are, predictably, empty and near silent. There are only the crickets singing into the night, and the tranquil sound of rushing water to accompany him. It would have been nice to have company, but unsurprisingly she has kept him waiting, leaving him to wander the gardens alone.

He is always appreciative of art in all forms; be that the endless tides and swirls rippling around the rocks in the sand garden, the intricate craftsmanship of the shrines dotting the path, or even the impressive landscaping of the gardens themselves. He strolls along the water edge, admiring the golden sliver of koi fish beneath the surface. Even that is art, in a way. If he had any skill in painting he could make such a small, insignificant movement such as fish beneath the water's surface become exquisite art. But alas, he is no artist. As much as he may enjoy it, he has never been capable of it himself. It's truly unfortunate, but in return he has become known as a master art collector, with a meticulous eye for beauty.

That would explain a lot about this… infatuation with Harry.

Art imitates life, or so they say. It is but a reflection of things that already exist, inferior to reality. Gellert tends to disagree; art immortalizes life, extending it beyond mere mortal reach, manifests it into something extraordinary, immutable and inexplicable. He doubts Mona Lisa was really all that interesting of a person, and yet her small portrait has been the subject of adoration and endless fascination for centuries. He has never found a place so beautiful, or a subject so interesting that would change his mind.

And then there is Harry.

Part of the allure is her intangibility. He cannot catch her, hold her in his hand as he would a painting or sculpture, hang her on a wall as he would a fine painting. He can study her all he likes and never understand her. She is forever changing, ephemeral, in constant movement. Her emotions are not a painting technique he can scrutinize, and yet they are just as enchanting. Something about their fleeting nature is beauty in itself.

As if to prove his point, the subject of his musings appears as he rounds a well-manicured thicket of bamboo.

She is standing on a low bridge, perhaps admiring the waterfall cascading into the pond, or the moon against the mountains.

He is unprepared to see her there, dressed in a most elegant kimono, hair swept up in glass ornaments and jeweled pins, exposing her long, graceful neck. The traditional attire suits her, somehow— perhaps in the way everything she wears seems to suit her, be it a sharp trench coat or a swooping ball gown. It really has less to do with the attire, and more about the girl herself. She carries herself in a way that is wholly different from other women he has met; all of them were astoundingly beautiful, graceful and clever, and yet somehow not nearly as captivating as her. It's the confidence, he thinks. The independence; the quiet, but firm assurity in her own power and abilities.

Gellert had never really understood why the master artists throughout the centuries would fixate so heavily on the female form. It was beautiful, surely, but was it really worthy of so much endless consideration? Poetry, music, paintings— true masterpieces of their craft, all birthed by a woman and a man's pathetic, adoration of her. The female form was one of the most famous and prolific motifs in all of art history.

It only takes a mere moment of watching her, and suddenly he understands with perfect clarity why these creatures are exalted and glorified in all art and artifice throughout the ages.

The spill of moonlight down her shoulders, the way she tilts her head slightly to watch the fish beneath the bridge, the hair slipping out of its elaborate style; she draws a hand up to tuck the loose curl behind her ear— oh, if only he was an artist, he could only imagine how inspired he would be by such a simple, thoughtless movement. Monet's Woman with a Parasol, Vermeer's Girl with the a Pearl Earring or even Manet's Olympia; all unquestionable masterpieces, true classics that deserve the fame and monumental prestige they are given, all inspired by women who were, essentially, doing nothing. Walking in a field of flowers with a parasol in hand; looking over one shoulder; lounging in bed.

Standing upon a bridge, absently brushing back a lock of hair.

It is utterly mesmerizing.

This is, of course, when Harry completely ruins the moment.

"Holy shite!"

Her exclamation jars him out of his reverie. She has leapt backwards, brandishing her wand menacingly at— he squints. A monkey, maybe?

"You stay away from me," she hisses at the thing, lowly, tugging her yukata close against her. "I don't care if you're endangered, I'll hex you straight into the mountain, do you hear me?"

The monkey does not appear particularly moved by such a passionate display, but returns to the trees after a moment. Harry does not move, far too frightened considering the circumstances.

"I think it got the message," he points out, amused.

Harry jumps again. The expression she gives him and the expression she gave the monkey are the exact same. "If only someone would do the same." She glowers back, as she folds her arms. "You couldn't have waited a couple weeks?" Harry hisses, crossly.

The man only smiles charmingly. "What can I say? I'm an impatient man."

"Yes, clearly." She huffs in annoyance; she's not about to let some— admittedly quite good-looking— jerk off with nice hair ruin what is supposed to be the relaxing part of her vacation. "You better have a damn good reason for calling me all the way out here."

He glances down at her attire. "You seem to have made the most of the experience." He remarks, drily.

"I wasn't about to let you ruin the entirety of my vacation." She retorts.

He chuckles. "Why, Harry, is one night in my company truly so awful?"

The look she gives him in return is answer enough.

Then she sighs, dropping her arms. "Fine. What do you want?"

"A drink."

Harry blinks in surprise. Her daydream of Gellert lounging at a hotel bar suddenly turns into a nightmarish reality.

"...A drink?" She repeats, dumbly.

"It's a bit late for dinner, no?" He returns, tilting his head. "I suppose a nightcap will have to do. Unless, you don't drink?"

Harry has a vague recollection of the last time she, Hermione and Ron ordered multiple bottles of sake; she doesn't remember how they went from the restaurant to the karaoke bar, but she definitely remembers singing Abba's Dancing Queen repeatedly with Hermione. She has to hide her smile behind her sleeve, disguising it as a cough.

"No, I do." She answers.

"Excellent then," He grins roguishly, with an expression that means she wasn't quite as successful at hiding her amusement as she thought. "I'm partial to Shochu myself, but the hotel is famous for their Umeshu. Do you prefer sweet or dry drinks?"

Harry finds herself reluctantly playing along, following him out of the garden and back into the well lit hotel. "I prefer to drown my alcohol in as much sugar as possible, if that's what you mean." She replies blandly.

Gellert laughs. "Well then, I think you'll enjoy Umeshu quite a bit."

Harry has never actually heard the term before. "What is it?"

"Plum wine," he answers. "Like I said, Suiran is famous for their homemade plum wine."

"Is that why you chose it?" She scrutinizes him closely, as they walk together down the halls, passing elaborately painted shouji screens and curious employees alike. It certainly seems like the kind of place Grindelwald would choose, but she doesn't actually know why he chose it.

"Not at all." He laughs.

Harry frowns in confusion. "But then… why did you chose this place?"

"I didn't." He reveals, as they stop in front of an open shouji screen door.

Inside is a traditional tatami room with a table and cushions backdropped by a wonderful view of the gardens outside. Harry reluctantly heads inside, folding herself as gracefully as she can in her yukata. She's not sure how everyone here manages to make every little movement look fluid and effortless, when in reality she feels awkward and hindered by all the cloth. As if to prove her point, she has to straighten out the long sleeves from where they've gotten stuck in her sash. When she looks up, Gellert is already across from her, speaking to an attendant. The woman nods, before ducking out of the room, presumably to get their drinks.

"I was told to come here," he continues, returning to their current thread of conversation.

Harry frowns further. "By who?"

"I'm not sure," he says winsomely, not looking concerned in the least.

Harry is lost. "So… some random person told you to come here?" She asks, incredulously.

"Well, I wouldn't know if I would call him random," the man replies vaguely, before digging into a pocket and fishing out a small burlap bag. "Does this mean anything to you?"

He hands it to her. She opens it curiously, dumping the contents into her hand. There was a golden lump of what she actually thinks is pure, real gold; a weird pale resin of some kind, and another with more amber coloring. She blinks down at it, before looking back up at her company.

"...What is this?" She asks, blankly.

"Gold, frankincense and myrrh." Gellert answers, which doesn't actually answer anything at all.

Harry looks back down at the collection of items in her hand. They seem familiar, in some odd way.

"Do you know what the significance of that is?"

Harry glances at him with a hesitant expression. "Um…"

There's a long moment where Harry doesn't know what to say, and Gellert says nothing at all. His sharp gaze feels like a tangible weight against her.

Gellert finally tilts his head, as if coming to some sort of conclusion.

"What are you, Harry?" He asks, bluntly.

He watches her as he would a fine and rare specimen; an observant look with a curious, almost clinically fascinated air. "You can't tell me you're no one. Too much evidence has proved otherwise."

And isn't that the truth. Grindelwald doesn't even know the half of it, she thinks, glumly.

"Seers the world over know your name," he begins, when she still doesn't answer, leaning over the low table. "Very influential people have their eye on you; you defied death before my very eyes— you are clearly someone of great importance, and yet, one of such mystery as well. No one seems to know anything about you."

Harry's lips thin into a fine line, as she holds his piercing stare.

He rests his elbows on the table between them; the intensity of his eyes makes it difficult to look away. He smiles then, and it is somehow both predatory and benign. "See? Now do you understand why I would find myself impatient for an explanation?"

Harry looks away then, her gaze lowering to the discarded items on the table between them. They should be meaningless, and yet, they are not. They are the farthest thing from meaningless, and she knows it. She knows what it means, even if she can't bring herself to admit it, even in her own mind.

Her hands curl into fists in her lap; her jaw clenches as she grits her teeth. It's taking a lot of effort to remain unmoved, and it really has nothing to do with the man in front of her. It's just— everything. These invasive questions she doesn't want to answer, a whole month's worth of strange happenings she doesn't want to think about, the truth that she wants to hide from.

"I don't owe you any explanations," she manages to say.

This doesn't deter the man in the least. "But you want protection for your dear Tom, no?"

"Who says we need protection?" She retorts, bitingly. "If I wanted you dead right now, you would be."

"And yet, here I am before you, not dead in the least." He points out, smirking. "Come now Harry, if you are truly so reluctant to speak to me, then surely it would be easier to finish the job?"

Harry doesn't want to be reminded of that incident, either. She looks up then, with a heated expression. "How many times do I have to tell you I don't want to kill you?"

If anything, this just causes Grindelwald to smile wider, eyes gleaming with triumph. "Then why don't you just tell me, Harry? What are you?"

Harry swallows with difficulty. Her throat burns. What are you. Not who are you. As if she is no longer a person, but some kind of freak of nature. A specimen to be studied. No longer human in the least.

"I…"

"Well, Harry?" Gellert's smirk grows wider. "Will you tell me? Or would you like me to guess?"

One look at his expression says it all; he has backed her into a corner and he knows it. For some reason, that stupid smirk of his is enough to shatter her impassivity. And not in the way she would think. Normally she would have cursed that smug look of his right off his face, but she finds that she is too tired, to weary and exhausted and drained from all of this. All this running away, as if she could possibly outrun her own destiny. A destiny she doesn't even want.

What are you, Harry?

The question spills down her back like ice cold water. What is she, really? What sort of cursed existence does she have waiting for her?

"I have some theories, you know," he confides, eyes gleaming. "I'd love to hear what you think of them."

When she closes her eyes, she sees a very familiar train station. She sees an end, a relief, an opportunity for peace that she gave up.

Grindelwald's satisfied smirk drops suddenly, melting into an unadulterated dread as he watches the girl in front of him, head bowed, shoulders shaking.

Because she really is just a girl. Her presence might feel larger than life, and her enigmatic reputation might make her seem a lot older than she really is, but in reality she looks as if she could be a recent graduate of Hogwarts— not quite an adult, probably no older than nineteen, give or take a few years.

She looks even younger now, as her expression crumples into one of evident distress. And then, to Gellert's unabashed, absolute horror, she begins to cry.

"Harry…" He struggles to say, shocked, completely at a loss as he sits there rather impotently and watches her press her hands to her face, expression obscured by her hair as she ducks her head down.

He doesn't know what to do. He really doesn't know what to do. He watches her with something akin to stunned disbelief. Soon enough that disbelief pools into a hysterical fear. He hadn't meant for this to happen, he thinks, panicking. He didn't mean to make her cry, for Circe's sake. He just… he just wanted answers, was all. Maybe a nice evening with a drink in hand, and some lovely company to enjoy it with. He expected opposition, stubbornness, and no small amount of insults and anger thrown his direction. He was actually looking forward to it. But he was wholly unprepared for this. He had expected her to lash out, maybe even show some of her true powers as she did so. He hadn't expected her to curl up into herself instead, suddenly looking far younger and unprotected than she ever had before. 

Whatever triumph he felt from finally pinning her down like this, finally managing to get her one on one like this, spills out of his hands like icy water, leaving him with nothing but shock and something he refuses to identify as guilt. He's not sure how long he sits there, floundering for something to say, but the waitress comes back with their order and he finds himself sending it back and asking for herbal tea instead. Something tells him alcohol won't be solving this situation.

"Harry, please don't…" He tries again, rather helplessly. He isn't caught off guard all that often, so he doesn't really know what to do. He's usually far more suave than this, with a silver tongue that charms all the right people in all the right ways. He has no idea what to say now, though.

"Why can't everyone just leave me alone?" She mumbles miserably, not looking up.

He watches her rub her eyes with a stricken expression. He doesn't know what to do when women cry. He can't handle things like this. He doesn't know how to comfort people, at all. And for good reason. Since when do dark lord's comfort little girls and gallantly wipe tears from their eyes? But on that note, since when did dark lord's all but bully girls into crying in the first place?

Albus would know what to do, he thinks, irritated. Albus was always better at handling people— maybe because he was always genuine about it. Gellert uses people without a thought. Albus, on the other hand, is just as manipulative, but is still always empathetic to people and their emotions. Albus would know what to do with a crying Harry; he would know how to comfort her, and more importantly, he would know exactly how to get the answers he wanted out of her, without making her cry, at all.

The thought of Albus besting him in anything is enough to incense him into action.

Harry wants to berate herself for being so emotional, but she can't bring herself to care at the moment. She feels lost and completely, irrevocably alone. Whatever she is, whatever existence she has, it is far beyond the limits of the human mind, and the mere thought is enough to terrify her to tears. She doesn't want to be alone. She doesn't want this. She doesn't want this destiny, and all the expectations that come with it.

The girl stiffens in surprise when she feels warm, strong arms wrap around her, pulling her against an equally warm body. She is so shocked it's enough to stop her tears in their tracks.

Everything is just… warm. All at once, she is no longer alone.

There's a long moment where Harry is simply frozen in place, too shocked and confused to do much else but sit there, rigid, in his arms.

"I… apologize," the man says, stiffly, so close to her now his breath tickles her ear. "I didn't intend to upset you."

Harry sniffles, keeping her head bowed, hiding her expression from him. "Then what were you trying to do?"

"I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity. Though I suppose, I could have gone about it with… less hostility." He admits, begrudging.

And then, when Harry doesn't reply, he sighs gustily; "Your existence defies both modern science and magic, and your circumstances are… quite curious. But I admit your circumstances are also your own, and you have no obligation to enlighten me— or anyone." He pauses, as if thinking something over. "Especially me, I would imagine. I did try to kill you."

Impossibly, this gets her to laugh. "Fat load of good that did you." She chokes out, with a bark of laughter.

He smiles unwillingly. "It wasn't one of my most well thought out plans, I'll admit." He agrees, sardonically.

"Then why did you do it?"

The question is quiet and difficult to hear, despite the deathly silence in the room. He wonders if maybe he just doesn't want to hear it.

"Because you were a threat," he reveals, at length. "And I prefer to eliminate those before they can become nuisances."

Harry is silent for a long moment, going very still in his arms. "Am I still a threat?"

"Yes, undoubtedly so." He replies without missing a beat. "But perhaps you're a risk I'm willing to take."

Harry swallows thickly. "And what… exactly, does that mean?"

"I am not entirely sure," he confesses, candidly. "You intrigue me, Harry. I want to unravel all your secrets."

"I think you have a very skewed perception of me," Harry returns after a moment of silence, "I'm really a rather boring person."

He blinks, before letting out a hearty laugh. "That is the farthest thing from true," he enthuses, amused. "You're a very fascinating person— with or without your secrets."

Gellert is not entirely sure how he managed to lose his grip on this conversation so conclusively, but unplanned or not it doesn't make his answers any less true. He wonders if that damned old man knew this was going to happen all along. Probably.

The door slides open, revealing their waitress balancing a tea set in one hand, a tray in the other. This is enough to jar Harry out of her own thoughts, and with a blush she hastily breaks away from him. She all but shoves him away from her, quickly putting an adequate amount of distance between them. She doesn't look at him as their tea is served, feeling horribly exposed and vulnerable, with her eyes still wet and slightly red, appearance slightly disheveled, cheeks burning crimson. She composes herself quickly as the waitress pours tea into her cup, fixing her kimono from where it had ridden up some while she was… in his lap. Harry blushes further, using her voluminous sleeves to surreptitiously dab at her eyes. Merlin, was she really in his lap? How did that happen?

She is very obviously avoiding his gaze, her attention studiously fixed upon her cup as the waitress leaves. The room descends into an uneasy silence once again. Gellert doesn't make any move to break it, leaning against the side of the table as he blatantly observes the girl in front of him. He hadn't meant to tell her any of that, in the same way he hadn't meant to pull her onto his lap. His silence is born more out of bewilderment than awkwardness. His responses to her are a novelty, to say the least. He's never like this.

Harry takes a shaky breath, gaze locked on her reflection in her cup, rippling slightly as her hands tremble. "Look, I can't give you answers I don't know myself." She admits, softly.

She can feel his gaze on her, fierce and unrelenting. She fiddles with the cup in her hand, biting her lip. "I don't want to be the enemy, either." She blurts out. "But I just… I don't want to be a part of any of this. I don't want to be a part of this war, I don't want these— these powers, and I certainly don't want to get involved with you and whatever you have going on."

Gellert watches her for a long moment. Even if she cared to look, his features wouldn't reveal anything.

"I see," he says, finally.

Harry blinks, not expecting that. She looks up. Gellert is smiling at her charmingly, looking positively gallant. Harry doesn't believe that look in the least. "What?" She asks, guardedly, not liking that look at all.

He looks almost— pleased, when in reality, she would have thought he'd be taking this a lot worse. She hadn't really answered any of his questions at all, and it appeared as if he had exerted quite a bit of effort into concocting this whole event to get her to do so. 

"It's nothing," he shakes his head with amusement. "It's just— I was told some great advice, that apparently will come to pass."

Harry frowns. "And what was that?"

"Never rush a woman," he reveals cheerfully, as he pushes off the side of the table, moving to stand.

Harry watches him with a look of cautious confusion. "Wait, that's it, then?" She asks, with disbelief. "You'll leave me alone?"

He chuckles. "I don't give up that easily, Harry." He replies, smirking. "But maybe it's time to learn a bit of patience."

Harry frowns further, feeling lost. "And what is that supposed to mean?" She demands.

Gellert's smirk only grows, as he opens the sliding door. "Enjoy the tea, Harry," he says, instead of answering. "And don't keep me waiting for too long."

Harry blinks again, confused. Then she scowls. "I'll keep you waiting as long as I want, you absolute arse!"

This of course does nothing but make him laugh some more; a far too jovial sound echoing down the hall, long after he has shut the door.

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Chapter Text

*I’m using the disney adaptation of cinderella, even though that won’t be made until 1950

//

 

The encounter leaves her with far less anger, and far more confusion than she would like. The man is insufferable, and at this point Harry feels as if she should give up trying to figure out his motivations.

 

Would he really come all this way and concoct such an elaborate scheme, only to let her go, just like that? Maybe he was allergic to tears, Harry thinks with an amused snort. That would explain a lot. He looked positively shell-shocked when she started to cry— completely beside himself and at a total loss as to what to do. He tried to comfort her anyway, though. Harry blushes, refusing to think about that. The lap-sitting incident is one she will take to her grave.

 

Why did I let him do that? She scowls at herself, blushing harder.

 

Because she was upset, that’s why. Upset and overwhelmed and trying so hard to remain unaffected by it all— not just for her sake but for Tom’s as well— with no outlet and no one to confide in. Unfortunately, it all just happened to culminate at the most inconvenient time. Of course the dark lord wasn’t exactly helping, what with badgering her for answers she didn’t (and couldn’t) give.

 

And does she handle this like a reasonable adult? Of course not. Instead she just bursts into spontaneous tears.

 

He was… surprisingly kind about it, she finds herself musing, as she walks down the halls in search of her room.

 

He could have used her distress as an opportunity to wheedle through her defenses, but he didn’t. He might have been too shocked and horrified to do so, or alternatively, he could have displayed some amount of civility and decided to back off. Harry didn’t know, and she wouldn’t know unless she asked. And there was no way she was going to do that.

 

At any rate, he was rather kind— and not at all what she had expected.

 

To be fair, they had only met in person all of three times, and each time had been brief. When she thinks back on it, he had certainly been demanding, but aside from the time he had shot the killing curse at her, he’s never seemed outright hostile.

 

Somehow during her train of thought she ends up going in the completely wrong direction to her rooms, ending up at the entrance to the women’s bath instead. Harry debates for a moment, before deciding she could use a nice bath, and heads inside. She doesn’t want to return to Tom while she’s so out of sorts like this, anyway. The boy is too perceptive for his own good.

 

The bath cheers her up, sort of.

 

It also gives her far too long to think, which is the last thing Harry wants to do. She’s been exerting a lot of effort into not thinking lately, she’s beginning to notice.

 

Eventually all the steam and heat gets to her head and she has to get out.

 

Harry’s not sure whether she’s relieved or not to see Tom fast asleep with his head on the table. That cursed book is by his side, still open on whatever page he’d left it on. Harry very consciously doesn’t look at it as she gently tugs Tom towards his futon and tucks him in. She probably doesn’t need to read it, anyhow. She probably already knows its contents front to back, in the same intrinsic way she commands the dead, and returns from the arms of death on a regular basis.

 

Harry snorts, letting out a huff of air that fluffs up the stray hairs escaping her messy bun. Yeah, so much for not thinking about it.

 

It’s not going anywhere, she reasons to herself. There’s really no reason to worry about it right at this very moment.

 

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Harry refuses to let her odd encounter with the dark lord affect the rest of their vacation. Or any of her odd encounters, really. She tucks that stupid book away before Tom can resume where he left off come morning and spend the rest of the day with his nose in it. She and Tom wake up early for a spread of breakfast laid out for them. Tom scrunches his nose and pokes and prods at his breakfast with his chopsticks, looking at it as he would a science experiment. Harry thinks this is more or less her fault, for always adhering to his wishes in regards to food instead of forcing him to try new things. Normally his curiosity is enough to get him to try things at least once, but apparently two weeks of odd foods all day long is about as much as he can handle.

 

“Do they have pancakes here?” He asks, plaintively.

 

Harry shakes her head. “I really doubt it, Tomcat.”

 

He pouts. “Cereal? Bread?

 

She stifles a laugh. “I don’t think they’d have that either. Didn’t you look this up already? The staple grain of east Asia is rice.”

 

“I think I’m done with rice.” Tom announces, moodily. “It tastes like nothing.”

 

“Well we’ve only got a few more days of this, so just try to eat it.” Harry replies, exasperated. “And speaking of, what did you want to do today?”

 

Tom beams at her. “Monkey mountain!”

 

Harry should have expected this.

 

Oh great, she thinks, exasperated. The last thing she needs are poop flinging monkeys in her life.

 

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Despite his overwhelming excitement for term to resume, Tom finds himself oddly despondent come the end of their vacation. It seems as if they’ve been gone for ages, and yet not nearly long enough. It leaves him out of sorts for weeks afterwards.

 

The vacation might be over, but Tom thinks he got what he wanted out of it— and then some. He learned a lot of valuable knowledge.

 

Spot, predictably, was not enthused with being left to his own devices for such a long stretch of time. Unmoved, Harry points out he’s a carnivorous snake who knows damn well how to catch his own food. Spot complains regardless. Tom ignores all of that, excited to show his snake his new magic carpet. They fly around the yard in a few lazy loops, until Spot decides he prefers to be on the ground. He has a lot of cool new trinkets to show the snake, but unsurprisingly Spot doesn’t care much for interesting books or exotic artifacts. He is more disappointed that they neglected to bring him any exotic food to go along with all these exotic gifts. All the same, he’s very excited with them, and even more excited to bring them to school and show them off.

 

He has a lot of other things to be excited over, and more than plenty to be apprehensive over.

 

Tom isn’t entirely sure if his vacation has left him with answers or just more questions.

 

The ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ showed up in every country they went to, in some way, shape, or form. The vampires in Mongolia had told him a similar story; it wasn’t the exact same, but there were still three cursed, greedy siblings that all inevitably met their end. The monk’s version didn’t have any people at all; supposedly the artifacts of Death were always around since the dawn of time, and they were not the same artifacts— a mystical screen, a magical staff, a jewel in a tiara. Now Tom understood what Ruth’s brother meant when he said it was a tale not unknown to history. There has to be some truth in the myth, although Tom isn’t sure how to confirm what is fact, and what has been twisted with the passage of time. The symbol, though. That was irrefutable. He’d seen it in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Unfortunately, its meaning was not explained.

 

And beyond this Hallows business, there was, of course, Harry herself.

 

Harry was… something. Although Tom had absolutely no idea what.

 

Was Harry even human?

 

It sounded like a silly question to ask, but upon further deliberation Tom realized he doesn’t actually know where Harry comes from, or who she is, really. What she is. What she could be. She just— just appeared one day emerging out of the fog as if she had existed there for all of eternity. He remembers those days vividly; the longing, the waiting, the curious, unexplained comings and goings. It could have just been simple apparition, of course, but for some reason Tom can’t believe that. It was like Harry wasn’t even real, shifting in and out of reality itself.

 

How old was she? He didn’t actually know. She’d told him a number, but that could easily be a lie.

 

Was she really a Potter? Everyone seemed to assume so, and Harry had never confirmed nor denied the claim. But she also never confirmed nor denied Harry Riddle, and she wears that name so easily, as if it truly is her name. And Tom knows that’s not true, so who’s to say she isn’t simply lying about being Harry Potter, in the same, effortless way she lies about being Harry Riddle?

 

And on top of all that there are the strange happenings of their vacation. The undead army responding to her as if she was their queen; the reverential monks who worshipped her as some kind of deity— those were not mere coincidences.

 

So Tom has a lot of questions, and even more suspicions, and he’s not sure what to do with them.

 

Should he confront Harry? No, absolutely not. Beneath it all Tom is still the cold and pragmatic orphan that has learned to look out for himself, and himself alone. No one else mattered at the end of the day, no matter how much he was attached to them. Even Harry. And the possible outcomes of confronting Harry were too varied for Tom to risk it. What if Harry got angry with him? Genuinely angry? She could react poorly— maybe even so poorly that she decides she no longer wants to keep him. She’s reassured him time and again she will never leave him, but at the end of the day Tom can’t trust that. He’s never made Harry exceptionally angry, or even overly upset. And he knew humans reacted in severe and often extreme ways when they were backed into a corner.

 

Anyway, risking his current livelihood because of a curiosity— no matter how fervent it was— wasn’t worth it.

 

So he can’t ask Harry directly. And these days, he’s not even sure if he can ask anyone, period. He’s not the only one who’s recognized that there is something special about Harry. He’s pretty sure he’s the only one who knows just how special she is, and actually has proof to back it up, but he doesn’t want to tip his hand to anyone. He’s going to have to be very careful when he goes about his research once term resumes.

 

All this just means that he can’t do anything at the moment, stuck in that odd limbo between vacation and the beginning of term. Summer break is the worst. It’s so hot out he doesn’t want to go outside, even though it's already September, but if he stays in here any longer he might just start chewing his hair out of boredom. To make matters worse Harry returned immediately to work, and has lately been leaving early and coming home later than usual, so Tom is almost always left to his own devices.

 

He sits morosely at the kitchen table, picking idly through a book on the history of Eastern Asia, feeling restless and bored out of his skull. Spot curls around his legs, whining about the heat outside. This speaks volumes to the temperature outside, since Spot is a reptile and is always on the hunt for ways to leech body heat from Tom and Harry.

 

“The sun will go down soon,” Tom replies, although even then he doubts he’d be willing to leave the comfort of the air conditioned indoors. “It’ll be better then and you can go outside and catch something to eat.”

 

Spot shoves his nose atop Tom’s knees, staring at him blandly. “I want your human meat,” he says, pettily.

 

“Don’t you dare.” Tom scowls. “Harry will be furious if you try to open the freezer again and melt everything in it.”

 

“She won’t even be home to know it.” Spot points out, which only makes him more irritated. These past few days Harry hasn’t even returned until well past dinner, so he and Spot have been on their own.

 

Tom doesn’t answer that, declaring menacingly; “If you even try it I’ll lock you out outside.” He warns.

 

Spot is a snake so he doesn’t really have expressions, yet somehow he still looks baleful.

 

Tom sighs, wishing he could be anywhere but here right now. School can’t come fast enough.

 

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The coffee machine in front of her makes an ominous hiss, before a steady stream of dark liquid steams out from her cup. Harry watches it all blankly. Her hands are shaking.

 

She’s done a good job so far of just shoving all her thoughts into the corner of her mind, so she’s not entirely sure why she’s failing now. It’s as if she’s finally tried to stuff so much back there that it just burst open like a broken dam. This was bound to happen eventually. Although she’s not entirely sure why it happened at this moment, in the middle of the workday, as she sluggishly makes another coffee to combat the afternoon haze. Harry is normally quite good at pretending to be a Muggle during the workday, so she’s not sure how thoughts of being the Master of Death have seeped into what is usually a safe haven away from her magical troubles.

 

But the Master of Death is clearly not something she can compartmentalize. It’s not some alternate personality that only comes out with a special ritual or magical ring and fancy costume, it’s not some strange entity possessing her, it’s nothing foreign, period. It’s just her. It’s always been her.

 

Great, she thinks, defeated. So basically I’ve always been God.

 

How the hell is she supposed to wrap her mind around that?

 

She slumps forward, forehead thumping against the cabinet in front of her. The coffee continues to slurp it’s way out of the machine.

 

How is she supposed to just accept this? How is she supposed to come to terms with what she is, without feeling absolutely terrified? This was beyond human comprehension, so much so that it made her head hurt. She feels helpless and impotent; she never wanted this. She still doesn’t. Why did it have to be her? Why can’t she just live a (relatively) normal life with a normal nine to five, raising a normal(ish) child?

 

“ — Harry?”

 

Harry all but leaps in surprise, so startled she almost drops her coffee cup. She tries valiantly to collect herself, trying to pretend as if she wasn’t just having an epic existential crisis in the middle of the break room. She turns to the side,sending a shaky smile to the person calling her name. “Y— yes?”

 

Harry thinks she knows him. He works for the marketing department, or something. His face is familiar enough. She’s fairly sure they’ve made awkward small talk in an elevator before. His name is Mark, or Matt, or something.

 

“Um… Are you okay?” The question is perfunctory enough, so Harry merely waves it off with a bigger smile.

 

“Yes, yes, totally fine. Just— spacing out. The afternoon slump is getting to me.” She laughs uneasily.

 

He still stares at her, as if he wants something. It puts Harry on edge. She feels like he knows, somehow. As if her thoughts were so loud everyone in the building could hear them— like they were so damning she would live in fear of them for the rest of her life.

 

Then he just blinks. “Oh. Well do you mind if I use the keurig?” He points to the coffee maker she’s standing in front of.

 

She suddenly feels very stupid.

 

“Right, right— sorry about that.” Harry steps out of the way, gesturing towards it. He was probably just wondering why she was spacing out in front of the coffee maker for the better part of a half hour. She wonders how long he was just standing there, politely waiting for her to move. God, that’s embarrassing.

 

She decides a hasty retreat might be her best option right now.

 

She’s out of the kitchen in record time, running a frazzled hand through her hair.

 

When she gets back to her desk, and the endless inbox of emails waiting for her, she realizes trying to work right now is a lost cause. Instead she takes her coffee and decides to take a walk around the block. Hopefully some fresh air will cool her head.

 

Muggle Boston is loud and windy, but that’s no surprise. The sun shines without warmth on this chilly afternoon, bright enough to warrant a pair of sunglasses, but not enough to deter her from walking out without them anyway.

 

By Merlin, what is she supposed to do?

 

She thought all her problems were over. She thought the prophecy was the be all end all of her life. As it turns out, it didn’t even scrape the surface; Voldemort has ended up being the least of her worries. But taking his place is an equally aggravating Dark Lord and the very real reality of her ‘condition’. The whole not being able to die thing has been a subject of fascination— and occasionally hilarity— between she and her friends, but now the thought is accompanied by a cold, shaking fear. What if she’s stuck like this forever? Immortality is terrifying. And that’s to say nothing of the other undiscovered powers of the Master of Death. It’s clear being the Master of Death is more than just an uncanny ability to not die from the killing curse. She’s never tried, but what if nothing can kill her? She always assumed her appalling lack of dying was more to do with the method involved than the actual act of dying itself. She had survived the killing curse as a baby, and every subsequent killing curse ever aimed towards her since, but what if it was more than that? What if it had nothing to do with the killing curse, but just death in general?

 

She pauses in the middle of the crowded street, tilting her head up into the sky. What is she going to do if she’s forever stuck beneath this bright blue sky?

 

Harry doesn’t feel any better by the time she gets back to her desk.

 

She wishes she could tell someone, but the muggles around her would look at her with bewilderment if she even tried to broach the subject. And the thought of telling Ron and Hermione made her wary and uneasy. She didn’t want to worry them— and she knew they would be worried beyond all reason if they found out everything that happened, odd occurrences during vacation and all. But she didn’t have anyone else to tell.

 

She’s surrounded by people— coworkers, friends, an entire city of people. Beyond that, she’s finally found a family to call her own, a close bond of friendship, a clan of redheads, and a place in the world. She’s not a little lost and forgotten girl locked in a cupboard anymore.

 

And yet, she’s never felt more alone.

 

She’s still in this odd out of sorts state of reality when she’s called in to a sales meeting, picking up her computer and following her coworkers in a daze.

 

It quickly clears up once she catches on to the matter at hand.

 

“Me?” She blinks out of her stupor, with a look that might seem like shock but is actually pure terror.

 

All eyes around the meeting table turn to her. Some with envy, some with excitement, and others with plain bewilderment.

 

“Yes— you have a great relationship with the portfolio companies and the customer, it would be ideal to have you there setting up and attending meetings.” Her boss says, and she’s fairly sure it’s a compliment but it doesn’t really feel like one.

 

Sure, that doesn’t really sound all that different than what she does now. Basically it’s a lot of emailing people and talking to people and conference calls that seem to drag on forever— but she’s always managed to do it from within the comfortable confines of her office desk and the hours from nine to five. And she’s always been here. Not halfway across the country.

 

“I see.” Harry manages to reply, put on the spot and unable to say no.

 

The woman directs her attention to some of the outside reps then, moving on to another topic.

 

“Reinvent is arguably the biggest conference of the year,” Madison, one of the coworkers she’s closest to, says as they walk out of the meeting. “It’s a great opportunity.”

 

Harry only nods absently. Madison isn’t wrong, a transition from inside rep to outside rep is basically a promotion, and it seems like this is a solid step in that direction. Actually going out and conducting business deals herself sounds appealing, until she remembers she’s not really in any position to be putting her career first. She has a child to raise— a child that, incidentally, she’s raising almost half a century in the past!

 

And on the subject of that child, what is she going to tell Tom? What is she going to do with him? Can she really leave a child his age alone for that amount of time?

 

It’s not for a couple months; I can figure that out later, Harry thinks. Her life was complicated enough as it is already, she can worry about that when she’s over fretting over her very existence.

 

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Term resumes with Harry in an odd mood and Tom in a decidedly sullen one, and Tom isn’t entirely sure what to do to get them out of this.

 

Nothing has really changed; he still snuggles in with Harry at night, and she still reads to him when he asks her. Spot, if possible, has grown larger, to the point Harry often just shoves him off the bed and calls it a day. His first day of school comes and goes more or less as it had last year; Harry drops him off and says hello to his new teachers for the coming year, and comes to pick him up from school at the end of the day. The only real difference is that she’s being chatted up by a blathering Charlotte Washington when Tom finds her; he also can’t help but think more people are watching her than usual. That could just be paranoia, but since Tom is a cautious and wary individual by nature he can’t help but think his suspicion is not unwarranted.

 

They still go on the occasional weekend outing— once to Cape Cod at the end of the summer, and another foray into New York City—  and although Harry doesn’t outwardly act any different, Tom can’t help but think she’s still shaken up about something.

 

This only solidifies his determination not to ask her about what happened on their summer vacation. He doesn’t like seeing Harry so despondent and pensive. He doesn’t like it at all. It makes him feel restless, like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It takes a while for him to identify what it is he’s feeling— he’s worried. He’s never been worried about anyone before; anyone other than himself, that is. It’s unsurprising that the first (and only) person he’s ever cared enough to worry about would be Harry.

 

He makes it a point to ignore Margaret from the get go, still angry at her for manipulating him. It’s petty, but he hates the idea of someone getting the better of him. He vows to never make that same mistake again. Margaret is useful, but only as far as her intelligence and wealth will get her. She is nothing but a pawn at the end of the day, and Tom should have known better than to trust her even a little bit.

 

He makes it a point to avoid all of them, actually. Ruth and Margaret are predictably unbearable, and even the relative solace of Washy and Wesley is not enough to keep all the girls in his new class at bay. Apparently, hanging around the ‘aristocratic’ Washy and the ‘handsome’ Wesley is making him even more popular than usual.

 

He thought he was doing an admirably job of it. Ignoring them, focusing in on what truly matters.

 

Or so he thought, anyway. Turns out humans tend to be empathetic and unpredictable creatures— himself included, unfortunately.

 

The new school year brought about many changes, not the least of which was the fact Tom had ceased to belong to the elementary school and was now placed in some kind of weird limbo called ‘junior high’.

 

No one but Tom was surprised to hear it— he didn’t remember hearing anything like this in England. Of course, Tom hadn’t attended any educational systems at the orphanage anyhow, but it’s not as if he was blind or deaf to the world around him. He was always infinitely jealous of the normal children from normal families, walking around in their school uniforms without realizing just how lucky they were to be wearing them. He remembers primary schools, and afterwards vocational schools, and if you were very lucky or very talented (or very rich) then there was university after that. Despite its odd and rather vague subheader, Tom quickly decided he liked this concept, if only because it awarded him more freedom than his previous status as ‘elementary’ student did.

 

Instead of having broad-sweeping, general courses working as introductions to certain branches of magic, students could now start choosing some of their own courses. Or rather, the more zealous students could. Predictably, Washy was more than happy to stick to the standard schedule provided by the school. Others, like Tom and Margaret, were all too eager to tailor their schedules to their own interests.

 

“What are you choosing, Tom?” Ruth prods immediately, once their homeroom teacher hands out the course listings and leaves them all to decide.

 

Tom scowls at her, busy reading through the list. It wasn’t as expansive as it would be once he was finally in the elusive ‘high school’, but it still gave him ample opportunity to choose courses closer aligned to his interests.

 

“I’m not sure yet,” he replies coolly, intentionally vague. He doesn’t want her picking the same ones as him solely because he’s in them.

 

“This is an outrage,” Margaret cries from his left, looking absolutely livid.

 

It’s enough to cause Tom’s inquisitiveness to win over his stewing anger, and he turns to her with curiosity. “What’s wrong?”

 

She throws down her pamphlet in disgust, crossing her arms. “My father will hear about this,” she promises darkly, with a look that means the school will lose a significant amount of funding if they dare to defy her.

 

“Hear about what?” Tom scowls as he rolls his eyes; how typical of Margaret to throw around her family’s wealth to suit her demands.

 

Sewing?” She seethes with so much rage Tom swears the air around her is starting to burn with the heat of her anger. “Cleaning? Cooking? Just who do they take me for?”

 

Ruth blinks, confused. “You don’t want to take cooking?” She asks, genuinely surprised.

 

Margaret turns to her with all the ire of a dragon guarding her eggs. “No, I do not want to take cooking.” She hisses through gritted teeth, looking as if it’s taking a lot of willpower not to shout. “I do not want to be trained to sit in a house all day. The fact that these courses are mandatory for girls is appalling. You don’t see Tom or Washy having to take cooking, do you?”

 

Ruth looks at her blankly. Tom, at least, can privately agree with her. That’s ridiculous.

 

With a look of stunning apathy, she crumples the paper in her hands; within moments it erupts into flames, causing the students around them to jump in surprise. It’s a rather impressive display of wandless magic, although Tom supposes Margaret looks angry enough to warrant it.

 

Their new teacher— a frazzled looking young man who has already elicited Tom’s distaste by fawning over Harry the day prior— comes over with a look of concern. “Miss Buchanan?” He asks, hesitantly. “Is everything alright? Are you okay?”

 

Margaret stares up at him with a look that could kill lesser men. “No, Mr. Kleeman, I am not okay. In fact, I believe I was given the wrong course listing.”

 

He stares at her, uncomprehending.

 

“I would like the boy’s courses, thank you.” She says, primly, as she crosses her legs and folds her arms.

 

The man looks awkward. “Well… that is…”

 

She holds out her hand with such imperiousness Tom has to stifle a laugh. She looks for all the world like a self-righteous Queen waiting for the rest of the world to serve her.

 

It’s more than enough to cow their spineless teacher into fetching her a new course pamphlet.

 

Despite conclusively winning against the school and its stupid rules, Margaret does not look particularly pleased. Her mood turns sour for the rest of the day; so sour that her gaggle of pandering girl classmates avoid her like the plague. Tom tries to ignore it, even though they end up picking the same classes and being stuck with each other the whole day. It’s unfair, but it’s not any of his business. What does he care, anyway? It’s not even as if he likes Margaret.

 

And yet he can’t help thinking what it would be like if Harry was in Margaret’s place. Harry in a schoolgirl outfit and bouncy red pigtails being denied a chance to reach her own potential because she’s got a girl’s outfit on and not a boy’s.

 

So Tom and Margaret are not friends, but after their classes are over for the day instead of going home immediately Tom stays after school with her and watches her throw fireballs into the lake on the school grounds. The day is bitter and grey, and seems suitable considering her mood.

 

Harry said the lake in Hogwarts was home to all sorts of creatures, including an elusive giant squid, and a whole colony of merpeople. Tom hopes no such creatures exist in the perfectly manicured gardenscape of Wolcroft, because he has no qualms in following Margaret’s lead and causing a few lighting strikes to hit the lake. Margaret watches him with some strange combination of fascination and envy; Tom wonders what she’s so envious about. His gender, or his apparently rare affinity towards lightning? He supposes it’s probably a combination of both.

 

They’re not friends, and he doesn’t like her, and he doesn’t trust her. For some reason, that doesn’t stop him from confessing; “Harry never took cooking or cleaning, or sewing.”

 

Margaret stares at him with big eyes. It’s only September, but the wintry chill blowing down the manicured lawns is enough to make him wish for a coat.

 

“She doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of her, either.” He adds. “Stuff like that never slows her down.”

 

He’s not sure why he’s even bothering to do this; Margaret doesn’t deserve to know anything about Harry. He has a feeling Harry is rubbing off on him— he would never voluntarily try to comfort someone like this otherwise. Harry tries to teach him all sorts of things, like morality and being nice to people and treating others well even if they’re mean to you. He doesn’t believe in the validity of any of it, unless for purposes of manipulation. Tom supposes he could brush this off as just another act he puts on to further his own aims. After all, he might not like her much right now, but Margaret will probably be very useful in the future.

 

His gaze slides to the girl next to him.

 

Or maybe in the not so far off future…

 

“I’m sure she wouldn’t mind teaching you a few things,” Tom suggests, leadingly.

 

“Really?” Margaret looks excited.

 

“Sure— she’s all about female empowerment,” Tom shrugs. That’s not even a lie.

 

“That would be so nice,” Margaret breathes, clapping her hands. “I’d love to pick her brain… what does she say in job interviews? What does she wear to work? Does she let people kiss her hand or prefer a handshake?”

 

“Well, I can ask her for you, of course…” Tom’s gaze turns sly as he stuffs his hands into his pocket and looks back towards the lake. “If you do something for me, that is.”

 

He sees Margaret stiffen by his side. She’s silent as she thinks it over. “What would you want me to do?”

 

“I propose an exchange,” he announces, boldly. “You can meet with Harry, and in return, you tell me everything you know about why your father would bother sniffing around the house of a woman he’s never met before.”

 

Margaret looks indignant for a moment. Then she just scowls.

 

“I’ve told you this before, I don’t know what he wants from her.” She sighs deeply, before adding, “And quite honestly, I don’t think he’s the one who’s really looking for information.”

 

Tom straightens up abruptly. “Is that so?” He asks calmly, maintaining his composure.

 

Margaret flicks her finger, causing a little plume of fire to light on her fingertips. She watches it idly as she replies, “He has a lot of business associates, you know.”

 

“Yes, I would imagine,” Tom agrees, impatient.

 

Margaret doesn’t share his urgency, wiggling her fingers around to make the ball of flame dance up and down her hand. It’s a fancy demonstration of wandless magic, and again, Tom isn’t surprised to find Margaret capable of it, even at their age. She’s the only one who rivals himself, after all. It does irritate him a bit though; with an element as difficult and temperamental as lightning, he most likely will never be able to harness it in quite the same way.

 

“He didn’t want a girl,” she says suddenly, on a completely different tangent. Tom frowns, confused.

 

“My father, I mean. Of course he didn’t— who would? You can’t hand your company over to a girl.” Her expression turns pinched, gaze still focused on the flame in her hand. “He wanted a boy, an heir to pass down his legacy,” she pauses. “I’m sure he still does.”

 

Tom doesn’t say anything, frowning deeper as he wonders why she’s even bothering to tell him this.

 

“My parents would never dare to have another child, though.” With a snap of her fingers, the flame is abruptly snuffed out. She turns to Tom. “Do you know why?”

 

His brow furrows. “No, not really.”

 

“Of course you don’t.” She rolls her eyes. “Harry might not be your real mom, but you did say your mom was a witch. If she had another child, more than likely it would be just as magical as you are; my parents don’t have the luxury of that confidence. Even if they wanted a boy to replace me, they couldn’t be certain he would be a wizard, so they thought it better not to risk it.”

 

This gives Tom pause. “That certainly didn’t stop Ruth’s parents.” He points out; all of those siblings were magical, even though their parents weren’t.

 

Margaret shrugs. “No one really knows what causes magicals to be born from non-magicals. But magic is a prestigious privilege, and my parents were ecstatic to know I was a witch. Most of the American aristocracy is magical, so they were thrilled to be able to join such a selective group, even if it was only by proxy.”

 

“This is great and all, but I don’t see how this has anything to do with Harry,” Tom interrupts, testily.

 

Margaret huffs, crossing her arms. “My point is that my family is in a precarious position, in the magical world. Sure, my parents are very wealthy and influential, but they’re not magical. And there are people in the magical world that… well, that you just don’t say no to.”

 

Tom’s eyes widen with alarm. “People like who?”

 

Margaret tilts her head, consideringly. “Well, our Headmaster, for one. My father is always telling me to act ‘appropriately for a lady’ and be respectful in his presence.” She uses her fingers to put up quotation marks in the air as she says this, rolling her eyes.

 

Tom could have guessed that one. One doesn’t become the head of an elite school like Wolcroft without being influential. Although he does wonder, just what level does one have to be, to get to that point? And how long would it take him to get there?

 

“And— that other man.”

 

Tom is stirred out of his thoughts. “What other man?”

 

“That handsome blonde man, the one that was talking to Harry at our graduation ceremony.”

 

Tom feels his stomach drop. He knew it. He knew there was something off about that man… something dangerous and predatory.

 

“What about him?” He asks, stiffly.

 

“I’ve seen him with my father a few times.” She reveals. “Usually they talk about automobiles and other kinds of machinery. But I know he’s a very powerful and important figure, especially in Europe. He has a winter gala every year in St. Petersburg— it’s basically the red carpet event of the entire winter season.”

 

Tom wrinkles his nose. “What’s a ‘red carpet’?”

 

Margaret shakes her head. “Honestly Tom, do you live under a rock or something?” She laments, dramatically, “It just means it’s the most important event of the winter season— you know what that is, don’t you?”

 

Tom stares at her blankly. “The season that comes after autumn?”

 

The deadpan look Margaret gives him is answer enough. “Do you pay attention in our history lessons? Ever since the age of antiquity winter has been known to hold a variety of important holidays all across the world—

 

“I’m aware of that,” Tom retorts, offended. “Saturnalia, Yule, Christmas—

 

“Yes, yes, and because of that it’s become a very important piece of political campaigns,” Margaret cuts in. “All these holidays are just excuses for the rich and the powerful to get together and network to further their own games, consolidate agendas, fundraise and strike deals; and trust me when I say Lord Grindelwald’s Yuletide gala is the golden ticket of them all.”

 

“Grindelwald?” Tom repeats. “Is that his name?”

 

Lord Grindelwald,” Margaret corrects with emphasis.

 

“Right, Lord Grindelwald.” Tom repeats, irked slightly at the idea of calling anyone a lord. He didn’t bow down to anyone, least of all some jerk off hanging around Harry. “So he’s pretty important, huh?”

 

“That would be putting it lightly.” Margaret returns drily, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her petticoat.

 

Tom waits impatiently for her to continue, but doesn’t move to press the issue. He’s already getting pretty valuable information out of her, and he doesn’t want to risk losing an opportunity for more. It’s actually cold enough today that he almost wishes he brought a scarf or something, and it’s mildly uncomfortable to be sitting here at the edge of the lake, with the wind at full force.

 

Finally she continues; “He asked about her.” She admitted, finally, to his alarm.

 

He struggled to find a response for a moment, too caught up in pushing down his own rising fear. “...Why?” He managed to ask, after a long beat.

 

“Like I said before, I don’t really know.” She retorts hotly. “I think she’s all fine and dandy or whatever, but I really don’t see why someone like Lord Grindelwald would ask after her specifically. Why does he care?”

 

I know why. He thinks, hysterically.

 

In his head there’s a symbol all but burned into his mind, legions of undead kneeling in front of their queen, the reverent looks of the monks at the temple as they gazed upon her.

 

He knows very well why someone that powerful would be interested in her. What he doesn’t understand is how the man knows. And just what does he know? He must know something, to be so invested in her. Does he know Harry’s secrets? The ones Tom doesn’t even know?

 

“I don’t really get it either.” Tom says instead, making a valiant effort to shove down his growing hysteria. “Maybe he’s just a weirdo.”

 

Margaret looks scandalized. “Don’t say that!” She hisses, looking around as if she think someone can hear them. She leans closer to him then, looking wary. “He’s not someone to cross, Tom.”

 

Tom watches her with a narrow, thoughtful gaze. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Margaret look worried or scared about anything, but she sure looks apprehensive now.

 

“Okay, whatever.” He allows, after a beat, shrugging.

 

“I’m being serious!” The blonde girl looks irritated that he would brush her warning off so cavalierly; she also looks as if she wants to add more. She shifts her weight on her shiny new oxfords in a decidedly nervous manner. “He’s— “ She cuts herself off, pursing her lips.

 

“He’s what?” Tom prods, impatiently.

 

She bites her lip, looking conflicted. “He’s the dark lord, Tom.” She reveals, finally.

 

Tom’s eyes widen dramatically. He knows what that means. This is a dark-oriented school, after all.

 

“You can’t cross him, do you understand?” She urges him quietly. “No one can. He’s really, really dangerous.”

 

It’s exactly the kind of information he was fishing for, but now he isn’t sure if he really wanted to know it.

 

He hides his alarm behind a mask of indifference, nodding. “I understand.”

 

Margaret returns his nod with an austere look, before drawing away and releasing a breath. “Well, I think I’ve let my driver wait long enough.” She says, as she turns away from the lake.

 

Tom follows her back to the school. “I’ll invite you over soon so you can meet with Harry,” he says, holding up his end of the deal.

 

Margaret hums in agreement, before glancing his way. “Oh good. But you know, that wasn’t why I told you all this.”

 

“It wasn’t?” Tom frowns, confused.

 

She rolls her eyes. “Are you really so obtuse you can’t understand the concept of friendship? If you keep up this ignorance, I really will beat you for first place in grades this year.”

 

Tom blinks in surprise, thrown off guard. Then he scowls. “As if I’d let you.”

 

The girl laughs and grins at him; the brightest— and only— smile he’s seen on her all day. It shouldn’t matter to him, but somehow it makes him feel better anyway.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Harry checks her schedule once, twice, and a third time when she gets home. This is about as good as it’s going to get, unfortunately.

 

Now that her hotel and travel arrangements are set in stone, she decides she can’t drag her feet about it any longer and will have to tell Tom when he arrives home. He’s later than usual, which is surprising. Maybe she should go to his school and check up on him? She can’t imagine he’s got an afterschool detention. More than likely he was holed up in the library and had simply forgotten the time.

 

As if on cue, the fireplace erupts with green light, and Tom steps out of the floo. He looks pensive as he dusts his shoes off, not even noticing her sitting at the kitchen table.

 

“You’re home later than usual,” she greets, causing him to jump a bit. “Did you have a good day at school?”

 

He recovers himself well. “Yes. We chose our classes for the rest of the semester today.”

 

“Oh that’s wonderful! What did you choose?”

 

“I’m taking more Necromancy this year,” he replies. “And Alchemy, and a new class called Ancient Magics only available for my year and up. Washy says it’s just wards and curses and blood magic combined into one class.”

 

Harry smiles weakly at that. “Sounds lovely.” She replies. “And what else?”

 

Tom watches her closely, wondering if she appears nervous or if he’s just projecting that. Then he realizes what she’s asked and shifts his weight uncomfortably, distracting himself with setting down his backpack and taking out his schoolwork. “Um, well those are the only magic classes. The others are non-magical.” He hedges, vaguely.

 

Harry looks— rightfully— surprised at that. Last year Tom complained loudly over the travesty of having to take his ‘boring muggle classes’ when he could be taking more magical classes instead. And now he was taking more non-magical ones than he was magical. “Really? Like what?”

 

“Three history classes—

 

“Three?”

 

“And a Chemistry class.” He finishes, shrugging. “My professor advised me to do it. He says it’s invaluable for potions and alchemy, so it’s really not just non-magic knowledge…”

 

“Okay, that makes sense.” Harry agrees, blinking. “But why so many history classes?”

 

Tom shrugs again. “I was interested.” He answers, lamely.

 

He’s not about to tell her he’s taking them to learn more about the Deathly Hallows. And anyway, it’s not as if that’s the only reason he’s taking them; it’s considered a non-magical class but only because no spellwork is involved. It’s a complete history of it’s set region, magical and non-magical alike. Tom is interested about magic all around the world, and if there’s anything he’s learned on his vacation it’s that every part of the world has something to offer, and he wants to know it all. Unfortunately the history classes are divided by regions, and he could only choose so many.

 

“Well, I think it’s wonderful.” Harry smiles sunnily at him. “The world has so much to offer; and history repeats itself, you know.”

 

I’m counting on that, he thinks, resolutely.

 

Harry looks away then, and Tom observes her with a slight frown. She seems a bit… distracted.

 

Tom frowns further. More than distracted, she seems a bit upset.

 

“Harry—

 

“So what were you thinking for dinner?” She cuts him off, a bit nervously. She stands up abruptly and walks into the kitchen.” I’m not really up for eating or ordering out, so I was thinking maybe grilled cheese?”

 

“Well, that’s—

 

“Or maybe pizza?” She starts opening up cupboards at random. “I think we still have some.”

 

His brow twitches. “Harry—

 

“Oh, but we had that yesterday, didn’t we?” She thinks aloud, talking over him. “Maybe we really should go out.”

 

“Harry!” This is enough to startle her out of her thoughts. He drops his books on the kitchen table with a thump, turning to face her. “What’s wrong with you?”

 

“Wrong?” She smiles, but her eyes look just a tad bit anxious. “There’s nothing wrong.”

 

He wonders who she’s trying to fool here. She can’t actually think he’s that dense, can she?

 

Apparently not, because after a beat she sighs, shoulders deflating as she wrings her hands in front of her. “Fine, yes. I suppose I’m just a bit… stressed.”

 

“Stressed?” Tom repeats, sitting down. “Stressed with what?”

 

Harry makes no move to join him, leaning back against the kitchen counter with a vaguely panicked expression. “Just work, really.”

 

That’s what she usually says, so Tom isn’t surprised to hear it. But she’s normally not this stressed, either.

 

“That’s all?” He prods, frowning again. “Just work?”

 

“Yes, it’s just work.” She pauses, biting her lip. “Well, sort of. I’ve been asked to go to a big conference— err, an event. A work event.”

 

“Conference?” He repeats, cocking his head.

 

She nods. “Yes, it’s a bit of a big deal. A lot of people will be there.”

 

Tom doesn’t really know what Harry does, and he’s not all that familiar with all these professional and work-related terms. Being a child still in school, it all seems so foreign and strange to him. He doesn’t really get how the adult working world works.

 

His brow creases. “Okay. Is that a good thing?”

 

“A good thing?” Harry echoes, looking taken by surprise at the question. She blinks thoughtfully. “Well, yes, I suppose so. That they chose me to go is a very good thing; I think I was technically promoted, actually.”

 

“And that’s good, right?” This term, at least, he knows. Being promoted is a really good thing, it means Harry is taking up a position with more power. Or at least, that’s how Margaret had explained the term. And as far as Tom was concerned, more power was always a good thing.

 

“In a way…” Harry hedges vaguely, still looking conflicted. “We’ll see. I might not take the position.”

 

“What?” Tom blinks, surprised. “Why not?” Why would anyone ever turn down power?

 

She runs a wary hand through her hair, looking away. “Well, big promotions like that tend to change things. You know, like what kind of work I’ll do, what sort of hours I’ll have… where I have to be.”

 

He leans back in his chair, thinking this over. He thinks he understands. Important people are really busy normally, right? So that makes sense.

 

Harry takes a breath. “I plan on turning it down, if or when they offer it to me,” she starts, uneasily. “But in the meantime, it looks like I’ll have to travel for a few days.”

 

“Travel?” Tom perks up at that. “Travel where?” That sounds fun.

 

“Not too far— just to the West coast.”

 

Harry still looks nervous, and perhaps a bit tense. But why? If there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s that travel is a lot of fun. Traveling for work can’t be all that different, right?

 

He smiles at the thought, sitting upright. “That sounds fun! When are we going?”

 

“Well, that’s the thing, Tom. It’s work related— so I can’t take you with me.”

 

And suddenly her wary demeanor makes so much sense. His expression falls.

 

“What?”

 

“It’s a work event, Tom. And you have school! Trust me when I say I would love for you to come, but it’s just not possible.” Even more than he knew, considering it was a work trip over half a century in the future.

 

“Oh,” he manages to say, slumping back in his chair. His eyes are wide and grave.

 

Harry watches him with deep concern. “I’m sorry Tomcat, really. I really don’t want to leave, but it’s only for a few days.”

 

Tom merely stares at her with that wide-eyed look. “You’re leaving me?” He says then, voice cracking.

 

“No, no— I’m not leaving you!” Harry insists, before pausing. “It’s just— it’s just a trip. A little trip. It’ll be over before you know it—

 

“You’re leaving me.” He repeats, looking like he’s in a state of heartbroken disbelief.

 

Harry bites her lip. “Tom—

 

He looks up then, subdued. “How long?” He asks, tonelessly.

 

“Just two nights. I’ll be here Friday morning and then I’ll be back on Sunday morning.”

 

What is he supposed to say to this? It feels as if the floor was just pulled out from underneath him. It seems silly to say, but he never thought this would happen. He had trusted Harry. He had believed her when she said she would never leave him! And here she is, breaking her promise. He should have known better.

 

“It’s not for forever Tom, I promise.” Harry attempts to reassure him. “I spoke to Charlotte about you staying with Washy— she was absolutely ecstatic. She really wanted us both to attend her Halloween party but—

 

Tom jumps up at that, eyes wide. “What? Staying with Washy? What do you mean?”

 

Harry falters, taken aback by such an explosive reaction. “Well, for when I’m gone. I can’t exactly just leave you all alone here by yourself for a few days.”

 

Tom stares up at her with those wide, shining eyes. The look of betrayal is so visceral it cuts into her like a knife.

 

“You’re leaving me and locking me out?” He whispers, and his expression of pure abandonment is almost more than she can handle.

 

“No, no, that’s not what this is,” Harry tries to reassure him. “If it was only for a night I wouldn’t make you leave, but it’s too long to leave you alone for so long—

 

“So what? You don’t trust me?” He returns, the hurt in his eyes only growing.

 

“That’s not it at all!” Harry cries, dropping to her knees in front of him. “You just have to think about it from my point of view, Tom. What if something happened to you while I wasn’t here? I would never forgive myself.”

 

“So you’re saying you think I’m some kind of child, incapable of taking care of myself?” He rears back, offended by the very idea.

 

Harry frowns at him. “Tom, you are a child.” She reminds him, shocking him. Afterwards his sadness and anger turns into a resentful, cold fury. “A very mature child, but a child nonetheless. You’re not even eleven years old!”

 

“You think of me as a child.” He repeats, flatly.

 

Harry stares at him, confused. “Well, yes.”

 

It hurts more than he thought it would. Even still, underneath all his anger he can admit he sees her point. He thinks the same about all his classmates, doesn’t he? And they’re all the same age. He thinks they’re stupid and immature and wholly incapable of taking care of themselves.

 

He’s not thinking in a rational manner right now, though.

 

He just wishes Harry would stop thinking of him as a kid. He’s not a child! He’s better than all of them.

 

“I think you’re a very mature and responsible child,” Harry is quick to add, but the damage is already done. “I know you can take care of yourself, for the most part, but what if something happens, Tom? What if you need help?”

 

“I don’t need any help!” He spits back, furious. He leaps away from her, as if burned. “Not from any adult, and definitely not from you.”

 

Harry’s eyes grow wide. She reaches for him. “Tomcat—

 

He smacks her hand away. “And don’t call me that!” He shouts, backing away from her.

 

“Tom, please, just listen to me—

 

“Why should I?” He retorts, the shine in his eyes turning into a blaze of fire. “I’m probably not ‘mature enough’ to listen anyway!”

 

And with that he turns around and darts up the stairs, in what could possibly be the most immature manner possible. Harry would love to point out the irony of his words and his current behavior, but unfortunately that wouldn’t help her case in the slightest.

 

Harry presses her hands to her temples, letting out a long breath.

 

Well. That could have gone better.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Harry lets out a long sigh. Hermione mirrors her.

 

The patio is far too sunny and warm for Harry’s liking. She wished the weather was moody and cold, and far more fitting for her current mood.

 

Tom has refused to talk to her all week. At this point, Harry is at a loss as to what to do.

 

She had made multiple attempts to talk to him, but was rebuked every time. If she asked him any questions, he would respond with short, clipped answers. It didn’t matter what attempts she made at conversation, he refused to be engaged. Unless she addressed or spoke to him directly he wouldn’t answer, and even then none of his answers were ever worth noting. He was ignoring her, and to Harry’s lack of surprise he was incredibly good at it.

 

The longest conversation they’d had since she broke the news to him was on his accomodations for her trip. She’d told him she had made arrangements with Charlotte Washington, only to have the boy rebuff her. He had told her that there was no need to worry about him because he had already ‘secured accomodations for himself’, to her surprise. He had decided to stay with that darling Buchanan girl instead, and had already asked. Harry confirmed the next day, but the whole ordeal left her listless and feeling five times her age.

 

A part of her just wanted to scrap the whole thing and tell her boss she couldn’t find someone to look after him for that long, and just simply couldn’t go. Quite honestly, her work was very understanding and lenient with employees with young children. Doubly so in her case, what with being a single parent and all. No one would mind at all, and in fact they’d probably be very accomodating about it and ask her again if she was sure she didn’t want to take a more flexible schedule and work from home more often. She would love to, except then she would have to explain the internet to Tom.

 

But— as Hermione confirms— it’s not really about that.

 

“It’s painful, I get it. And I know I don’t have children of my own so I really ought to stop trying to give you advice, but this has to happen, Harry.” She advises, setting down her fork.

 

Harry picks listlessly at her salad. “I know.” She mopes.

 

“There are inevitably going to be times when you’re not going to be able to be there for him all the time,” she reminds her, gently. “What about when he goes to Hogwarts? What’s he going to do then?”

 

“You’re right, I know.” Harry repeats, stuffing a mouthful of lettuce into her mouth so she doesn’t have to reply for a moment.

 

Hermione merely gives her a long look.

 

She chews and swallows, before all but falling into her salad as she collapses onto her propped up hand. “I do know. Honestly. I do spoil him. I’m not blind, you know. But it’s just so hard not to! He just needs so much love and attention and Merlin Hermione, you didn’t see him when I told him. The betrayal in his eyes was heartbreaking.”

 

“It is a difficult situation,” Hermione agrees. “Since his past puts your relationship in such a fragile position. But there are inevitable difficulties in every relationship— and avoiding them will never solve the issue.”

 

“I don’t disagree at all,” Harry nods, still looking downcast. “I just wonder if it’s too soon… he’s only ten, you know, even though he likes to pretend he’s much older than that. Quite honestly this behavior is rather par for the course for a child his age, isn’t it?”

 

“I think so,” Hermione looks contemplative. “Although ignoring you for a whole week is a bit much.”

 

Harry laughs weakly. “Oh. That is all Tom.” No one can hold a grudge quite like Tom Riddle can.

 

“Some days it seems like all he wants to do is grow up and get away from me,” Harry confesses. “But then he still prefers to sleep in my bed and throws a tantrum at the thought of me leaving for a few days.”

 

“I think he is a very independent child, but also quite lonely.” Hermione replies, thoughtfully. “I don’t think he needs you, not in the way most young children need their parents, for basic necessities and such. I think it’s more of an emotional attachment.”

 

Harry shakes her head then, letting out another blustery sigh as she sets another defeated gaze on her best friend, lounging in the soft afternoon sunlight, looking a thousand light years away and completely untouched from Harry’s gloom in her in all her child-less, ineffable glory. “I just don’t know if I’m handling him well at all. Some days it seems as if we’re perfect together— and then things like this happen, and I feel like I don’t know him at all.”

 

Hermione gives her a sympathetic look. “Oh, Harry. I feel like that’s always been your relationship with him, don’t you think?”

 

Harry gives her a strange look at that. “Voldemort and I? Perfect together?” She snorts out a laugh. “What is that supposed to mean?”

 

“I dunno,” Hermione shrugs. “I guess your relationship with him had always seemed rather… prophetic, I suppose. Inevitable. And yet, it was so volatile too.”

 

Harry isn’t sure how she feels about the idea of she and her mortal enemy being ‘inevitable’ but the evidence is rather undeniable at this point. Did she not upend her life for a boy named Tom Riddle, more than fifty years in the past of a timeline that was never her own?

 

Hermione shakes her head then, as if dusting off a train of thought. “I just mean to say— maybe it’s nothing to worry about. Every relationship is fraught with issues, at some point or another.”

 

“I guess that’s true,” Harry deflates, prodding at a loose cherry tomato on her plate.

 

“Anyway, not to be insensitive but your problems with Tom are normal enough given your relationship. I feel for you, I really do, but you two will get over this and move on. Quite frankly I am more concerned over recent events with the other dark lord in your life.”

 

“Tom is not a dark lord,” Harry retorts, sourly.

 

“Yet.” Hermione rolls her eyes.

 

“Never, if I have anything to say about it.” Harry shoots back, scowling.

 

“We’re arguing semantics— stop dodging the question.” Hermione shuts her down with an unimpressed look over her water glass.

 

If possible, Harry deflates further.

 

“It was nothing,” she lies, poorly.

 

Hermione can see through that like transparent glass, but Harry is at a loss as to what to say; she can’t tell Hermione about it, in the same way she refuses to tell Hermione about anything that happened on her vacation. Sure, she had lots of photos of Tom riding a yak to show, and all sorts of stories on their culinary adventures to share, but she was avoiding discussion on all these ‘Master of Death’ revelations, and that was practically half the vacation. She’d love to tell Hermione all about the sky burial in Tibet, and the singing dunes of Mongolia, and the real reason she started crying with Grindelwald, but she couldn’t. So right now Hermione thought her vacation was fun but uneventful, and Gellert Grindelwald deserved to rot in hell for making her best friend cry, even though he kind of had nothing to do with it.

 

“Like I said, I was just stressed.” She adds, helplessly.

 

“Harry, I have seen you stressed.” Hermione replies, patiently. “I have seen you hold your own in a fight against a crowd of Death Eaters; I have seen you escape out of a guarded bank on the back of a dragon; I have seen you face your imminent death countless times— you don’t cry when you’re stressed. You cry when you’re upset. Very, very upset.”

 

“It was nothing like that,” Harry insists, although it falls on deaf ears. “It was just… an emotional time of the month, if you know what I mean, and I was just really annoyed that he would ruin my vacation like that. So yes, yes I suppose I was rather upset. At any rate he actually promised to leave me alone, and has been making good on his word. I think he’s deathly allergic to feelings, so I seem to have found his weakness.”

 

“I agree dark lords are probably allergic to feelings, but I sincerely doubt a few tears would terrify him into complacency.” Hermione scoffs.

 

Privately though, Harry thinks that really was what happened. The man’s confused and horrified expression would have been priceless, had Harry not been in the middle of an existential breakdown. An existential breakdown she was still sort of in, since she had yet to make her peace with it. She was still adamantly burying her head in the sand instead of having to deal with it.

 

And on the subject of ignoring problems and pretending they didn’t exist, she should probably get back on that. She decides a subject change is in order. “Look, I don’t want to talk about dark lords— past or present.” She ends with finality. “How do you feel about bubble tea after this?”

 

Hermione looks like she might just fight her on that, before ultimately deciding its not worth the ensuing argument.

 

Instead she folds her arms, looking torn. “I’m trying to stay away from sugar.” She sniffs.

 

It’s Harry’s turn to roll her eyes. “Hermione. If this is another one of those ridiculous diet fads…”

 

“It’s not!” Hermione protests, before looking sheepish. “Well, not really. At any rate sugar is really bad for you, often being compared to cocaine in muggle studies, so it’s not really as if I’m wrong to avoid it but as Ginny has since pointed out to me it is also incredibly bad for your skin—

 

“Ginny?” Harry perks up at the familiar name. “Oh yes! How is she doing? How is she liking her exchange program in Korea?”

 

“She’s liking it a little too much, according to Molly,” Hermione confides. “She spends all her intern pay from the hospital on skin care products. Speaking of, I have a whole bag of them to give you, since she keeps giving them to Ron and what the hell is Ron going to do with that…”

 

Harry laughs along with her best friend at the idea of Ron putting on a face mask, tucking her hand through Hermione’s elbow as they decide to go to some posh juice bar down the street instead. Harry points out there’s still sugar involved, but Hermione swears it’s different if it comes from ‘natural sources’ or whatever. At this point, Harry is just happy for the change in conversation, more than willing to discuss new skin care trends instead of the bewildering and terrifying revelations of her vacation, or the bewildering and depressing recent events between her and Tom.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

The day of Harry’s trip comes, and she and Tom are still in this strange and stilted relationship where they barely say a few words to each other every day. Harry has nearly caved multiple times, although manages to stay strong despite her emotional turmoil.

 

Tom has returned to sleeping in his own bed again, and treats her with a frosty politeness Harry doesn’t know what to do with. Spot only gives her unimpressed and unamused looks whenever she turns to him helplessly. The banana snake merely repeated what he told her last time this happened, ‘Tom is a hatchling, and they don’t like to be very far from their mothers.’ Harry didn’t even bother to point out the technicality in that this time around, even though she wasn’t Tom’s mother and she was fairly sure the boy didn’t see her that way, either. Tom was very attached to her, and he was seeing this as some kind of betrayal. After endless hours looking this up on her computer at work, the internet has confirmed that this is normal behavior for young children.

 

It’s perfectly normal for children to cry and feel abandoned by their parents during their first real period of time away from them; normally preschool, or first playdates at friend’s houses. Tom didn’t seem upset in the slightest with the start of school, but that was probably because he was at an age where he could understand the value behind it, and the reason Harry was leaving him there. Unfortunately it didn’t seem like he was at the age where he could accept and acknowledge that there would be times Harry would have to leave him for short periods of time outside of that. He could barely handle her staying out late with Ron and Hermione, and he definitely couldn’t handle her leaving on a business trip for a few days.

 

It was so odd since he was so mature in other areas of his life— and then he turns around and starts yelling at her to stop thinking of him as a child, even though he’s acting like one. It’s very typical childish behavior, and something she’s not surprised Tom exhibits. He’s always wanted to be seen as better than his peers— even before Harry came into his life.

 

She supposed this sort of insecurity and dependency was understandable given the circumstances. She only hoped they would both learn and move on from the experience.

 

Finally the day comes for Harry to leave. They eat breakfast together in silence; Harry’s luggage is by the door. She’s wearing a comfortable pair of joggers and a light sweater in adherence to the Vegas weather report, hair tossed up in a ponytail. It’s a far cry from her usual sleek work look, but Tom doesn’t comment on it at all. In fact, he hasn’t really looked at her. His own luggage is by the floo, where he’ll shrink it and take it to school with him. After school he’ll return home with Margaret, where he’ll stay the weekend until Harry picks him up on Sunday.

 

Tom isn’t sure whether its better or worse to have this happen over the weekend. On the one hand his school routine isn’t messed up by all this, and no one has to see him both leave and arrive with Margaret every day. But on the other hand, weekends are for him and Harry, and him and Harry alone. No one is allowed to intrude on their time together, he's made that clear to everyone, so it’ll be strange to spend a whole weekend without her there at all.

 

Almost as strange as this whole month has been.

 

Not that Tom regrets it. He’s still viciously angry. Although his unbridled fury has since cooled into a simmering rage, the sharp sting of abandonment remains as painful as ever.

 

The voice in the back of his head reminding him he’s thinking emotionally and not rationally has only gotten louder in the interim of days since their fight, but Tom has basically made ignoring it into a minor art form. He doesn’t care if he’s being illogical, and impossibly hypocritical. All he can think is that Harry is leaving him. Nevermind the fact it’s only from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. She is leaving. It’s his worst fears realized. The circumstances of the event itself are inconsequential in the face of that.

 

All the same this is the longest he and Harry have gone without really speaking, and it feels weird to think they’re going to leave each other like this. It makes him far too uneasy.

 

The thought eats away at him as he pushes his eggs back and forth on his plate. Spot has stuck his nose on his lap with an eager expression; ever since he and Harry got in their fight he’s found his appetite rather lacking, and Spot has been capitalizing on this by propping himself on Tom’s lap during meals in anticipation of a few bites. Harry doesn’t even reprimand him for feeding him anymore.

 

He looks up then, stricken.

 

Harry is distracted with her large travel bag, poking and prodding at all the stuff she has crammed into it. It’s bigger than her normal work bag, as is the luggage by the door. The last time Tom had seen it, he had been so excited for vacation he had started bouncing at the sight of it. Now it only fills him with a sense of forlorn sadness. It was only a short time ago, and yet it’s so strange to remember how blissfully he happy was then, and how miserable he is now.

 

Harry curses the time as she checks her wristwatch. She pulls at her hair, before standing up in a flurry. The look she sends him is a bit anxious, but she smiles anyway.

 

“Well, have a good day at school, Tom.” She says, in that same cheery voice that is too high to be anything but false. “I’ll see you very soon. Don’t forget to give Margaret’s mother her gift, alright?”

 

Tom nods silently, watching her with solemn eyes.

 

Her smile falters in the face of his silence. “Right,” she says shortly, adjusting her sweater. “Well, I better hurry. I wouldn’t want to be late—

 

He darts in and wraps his arms around her before he can convince himself not to. He doesn’t want to hug her, but he can’t help but wonder if this is really how he wants to say goodbye to her. What if something happens to her? She’s so dead set on worrying over something happening to him, that she is, as usual, neglecting to worry over herself. What if something happens to her while she’s gone? Tom couldn’t bear the idea of parting like this, forever. Thinking about Harry’s death is so horrifying it makes him physically ill, so he doesn’t let the thought linger. Instead, he just hugs her a little tighter.

 

It only takes a moment, but then Harry is recovering from her surprise and hugging him just as tightly.

 

“Have fun at Margaret’s Tom; try not to get in too much trouble.” She jokes weakly.

 

Tom nods against her shirt, so content to feel her warmth against him after so long without it.

 

She places a gentle hand over his head, rubbing his hair fondly. “I love you, Tom.” She murmurs, quietly. He can only nod again, too overcome to reply. “I’ll see you when I get back, okay?”

 

“Okay,” he agrees, voice muffled by the fabric of her sweater. He squeezes her tightly one more time, before pushing away from her and diving into the floo, refusing to look back.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Tom climbs out of the car, unsurprised to find Margaret’s house to be exactly what he imagined it to be.

 

Her family— or rather, her father— owns a sprawling estate in Weston, ironically not too far from one of Ruth’s (many) houses. It was also ironic how similar the two places looked, despite the fact they apparently were complete opposites, as far as wealthy aristocracy goes. But where Ruth’s estate had horses and carriages, Margaret’s had a long driveway through well-manicured hedges leading up to a circle around a fountain, full of shiny automobiles. However, both their houses were far larger than necessary, and full of maids and luxury. It was making Tom mildly uncomfortable. But if he had stayed at Washy’s instead, he had a feeling it would be a thousand times worse.

 

Margaret looked right at home in this wealthy palace, bounding up the front steps just as the two maids by the door moved to open them for her. They bowed to him as well, and a footman took his bags before he could even think to protest.

 

“Where’s father?” Margaret demands to one of the maids.

 

“Your father is in the parlor, Miss Buchanan. But—

 

The little blonde doesn’t wait for the woman to finish, spinning smartly on one heel and bounding down out the palatial entryway and down a corridor. She tugs Tom with him, even as Tom tries to slow down to get a better look at all the crystal chandeliers.

 

“He knows you’re here, of course, but it’s only polite to say hello,” Margaret explains, as they take a sharp turn down a corner and Tom almost runs into a full marble bust of someone that looks important. The hallways are full of oil paintings, just like Ruth’s. However, where Ruth’s was full of stately ancestors posing in archaic chairs with the family coonhounds at their feet, Margaret’s were all famous impressionist works of art, with no ancestors to speak of. He’s sure both cost a fortune either way, and that wasn’t even to speak of the gilded gold frames they were housed in.

 

They passed a few more maids dusting the hallway, before Margaret stands to attention in front of an intimidating oak door. She knocks smartly, then waits.

 

“Come in, darling.” A man replies from the other side.

 

Margaret steps in without hesitation. “Hello, father,” she greets, before adding without missing a beat; “And good afternoon to you, Lord Grindelwald.”

 

Tom stiffens behind her, but manages to make himself move into the room after she steps in.

 

It’s just chilly enough outside to warrant the warm fire blazing in the hearth, but it still serves to make Tom feel just this side of uncomfortably warm. A man that he easily recognizes as Margaret’s father is standing by the windows overlooking the gardens, pipe in hand. He realizes Margaret takes after him in many ways besides attitude, physical features being forefront. His guest is lounging in a leather armchair opposite the desk. Tom meets the man’s sharp gaze by accident; it’s the only reason he can register the slight surprise that flickers through those ice blue eyes. Afterwards, his expression turns pensive, before he recovers himself and turns to Margaret with an indulgent smile.

 

“Well hello little Miss Buchanan;” The man returns. His accent is new to Tom, but it certainly sounds European. “Are you excited for your party tomorrow?”

 

“Yes, very.” Margaret nods. “Will you be attending, my Lord?”

 

The man merely tilts his head, smiling enigmatically. “I hadn’t planned on it, but it does sound interesting.”

 

“Does it?” Margaret’s father returns coolly, looking surprised.

 

The man meets Tom’s gaze again. “Oh, yes. Far more interesting than I had first thought.”

 

Margaret’s father’s gaze then flickers to him. “Ah yes, you must be Tom Riddle, correct?” His smile is benign enough, but it still puts Tom on edge. “Harriet Riddle’s ward.” He adds, and it seems to be more for Lord Grindelwald’s benefit than his own.

 

This isn’t news to the blonde man though, what with meeting him earlier in the year. “Is that so? I thought he looked familiar.” Grindelwald remarks, in a manner that seems far too casual for coincidental. “Harry is a dear friend of mine.”

 

Tom’s eyes near bulge out of his head. Friend? Since when, exactly, did they become friends?

 

“Truly? I hadn’t realized,” Tom replies smoothly, smothering his irritation. “She usually introduces me to her friends, but you don’t look very familiar to me at all. Have we met before?”

 

He thinks the man’s eyes darken slightly, his pleasant expression shifting so quickly it could have been a trick of the flickering flames.

 

“No, I don’t believe we have. At least, not officially.” The man agrees. “This will be an excellent opportunity to get to know each other then, don’t you think?”

 

Tom couldn’t help but disagree. Outwardly he merely plastered on his best smile. “Sure. An excellent opportunity, truly.”

 

If possible, the tension between them grew even further. Tom wasn’t even entirely sure where it was coming from. Sure, he didn’t like the guy, but he didn’t understand the intense stare the man was giving him. He knew they had met before, but he certainly didn’t remember doing anything that warranted this look. He also couldn’t recall a single time Harry had even mentioned the man. She had made it sound like they weren’t even acquaintances, and yet here he was saying they were friends. Tom narrows his eyes; there is definitely something afoot here. And he intends to use this weekend as an excellent opportunity to find out what it is.

 

“Bucky!”

 

Margaret effectively cuts into the tension, darting towards the fireplace, where a large hound is lazing in front of the fire. Tom is surprised to find himself missing Spot in that moment, as Margaret leans down to affectionately pet the beast’s snout.

 

She peers up at her father. “Father, would it be alright if I showed Tom the kennels before dinner? Tom has a pet snake, but I’ve told him our collection of Grand Bleu de Gascogne are much better than any reptile.”

 

Her father looks intrigued at the idea of such an exotic pet, but merely smiles in response. “Of course darling, try not to get too dirty.”

 

Margaret looks scandalized. “Never, father!”

 

She stands primly, brushing imaginary lint off her school uniform. Then she claps her hands, and the dog unfolds its massive berth from the hearth and follows her up. “Come on, Tom. I’ll show you all my favorites.” She says, tugging him along. He gives her a narrow look in response, not wanting to leave so soon when he has so many questions he wants answered.

 

But the look she gives him in response is quelling. “We have greyhounds too, you know.” She adds deliberately, with a telling look in her eyes. “We could even go out and hunt foxes.”

 

He merely stares her down, debating whether he’ll make a scene. In the end he reluctantly allows himself to be pulled out of the room by her, with one last look at the two men in the room. Margaret’s father has been approached by a made with a telephone, and has turned towards his desk to rifle for a pen and paper, phone tucked in his ear. Lord Grindelwald remains seated, watching Tom leave with a knowing, predatory look.

 

They both know this isn’t the end of this conversation.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

//

Tom stares down at the little puppies with an annoyed look. They stare back up at him, all floppy ears and big eyes. They’re so cute it’s irritating. He would have preferred snake babies.

 

Margaret’s family does, indeed, have an astounding collection of the finest purebred Grand Bleu de Gascon— a fancy name for a, quite admittedly, rather blue colored dog. They’re directly imported from France, she says, where they are considered the highest pedigree of scent hounds. Tom is just curious enough to try it out. The puppies stick their noses to the ground and track him out the barn and down the trail towards the lake, where they find him behind a tree and proceed to leap all over him. He supposes it’s an interesting enough trait; Margaret’s animals are also far better behaved than his own, and far more active. Spot might have just as keen a sense of smell, but he was far too lazy to ever execute on it effectively.

 

It’s as he’s kneeling down to let the puppies lick his fingers that Margaret finally gets around to lecturing him.

 

“Didn’t I tell you not to be impolite?” She scowls, exasperated, as she flops down next to him.

 

Tom gives her an annoyed look. “How was I anything but polite?”

 

Margaret narrows her eyes at him, contemplating him closely. “I don’t get it. Why do you dislike him so much?”

 

“Why do you think I dislike him?”

 

“I’m not blind, nor obtuse, Tom.” She rolls her eyes. “I could cut the tension back there with a knife! What’s going on between you two? I thought you didn’t even know him!”

 

Not untrue, Tom agrees, darkly. He plans to change that, though. He wants to know everything about the man. Namely, why he was so interested in him, and by extension, interested in Harry.

 

“I don’t know him,” Tom reveals, pursing his lip. “Not really, anyway. I saw him speak to Harry once, is all.”

 

Margaret looks at him incredulously. “That’s all?”

 

Tom shrugs. “That’s all.”

 

Margaret continues to observe him. The puppies grow tired of him, and flop together as one uncoordinated unit to lavish attention at Margaret’s feet. She spares them a vague look of annoyance, before her attention returns to him. She gently nudges them away with her foot, crossing her arms.

 

“He seemed very interested in you,” she notices, thoughtfully. “Do you think it’s because of Harry?”

 

“I don’t know.” Tom says, shortly. Rather, he does know, but he doesn’t want to share his suspicions with Margaret. “And you didn’t need to rescue me.”

 

“Who says I was rescuing you?” The blonde girl returns idly. “Maybe I just wanted to show you my dogs.”

 

“You hate animals.” Tom points out, blandly. He raises a brow at her current state; she is valiantly attempting to be polite, but Tom can tell she’d rather punt these puppies across the estate than have them nipping at her finely polished shoes.

 

“They smell, and they’re loud.” Margaret admits. “Fine, yes, I don’t like them. Forgive me for being concerned— you’re playing with fire here, Tom! I already warned you about that man— and then you go off and goad him within two minutes of meeting him.”

 

“Who the hell does he think he is, saying he’s friends with Harry?” Tom scowls crossly.

 

“He’s the dark lord.” Margaret stresses. “If he wants to say he’s friends with Harry, he damn well can. Who knows, maybe he is! You can’t tell me you know every single one of her acquaintances, Tom.”

 

This just makes him scowl deeper. Margaret’s right. He doesn’t know anything about Harry, and the reminder only makes him angry. For all he knows, they’ve known each other for years! Maybe they’re even ex-lovers— maybe he was the one who gave Harry that ring. His eyes widen in horror at the thought.

 

Margaret checks her wristwatch. “It’s almost time for dinner,” she remarks. “I should show you to your room first. I hope you’ve had enough time to cool your head.”

 

“I don’t need to cool my head.” Tom snaps in retort, annoyed that she could possibly think he was incapable of handling this.

 

The level look she sends his way is beyond irritating. He follows her inside anyhow.

 

They leave the grounds in favor of the warmer interior; Tom’s room is just as splendid as he had assumed it would be. That’s not to say his room at home was anything less than luxurious, but it certainly wasn’t this big, or this full of gold. His bathroom was full of marble and towels with intricate ‘B’s stitched in silk thread; Margaret didn’t have house elves, but she did have enough maids and butlers to more than make up for it.

 

It was disconcerting, really. He liked his solitude; he liked the peaceful life he had with Harry and Spot, just the three of them, enjoying the relative anonymity and quiet. He certainly wasn’t fond of the garish excess heavily prevalent in the upper echelons of society, but he supposed he would have to get used to it, if he wanted to be someone when he grew up.

 

He tries to keep this attitude in mind as he descends the grand staircase on his way to the dining hall. It sounded like such a chore to him, having to sit through a dinner being all polite and nodding when prompted and smiling at perfected intervals.

 

It’s both better and worse than he had suspected.

 

Worse, because Margaret’s parents really were the usual high-society sort. The meal was at least seven courses long and seemed to drag on unreasonably the further into the evening they descended. Margaret was doing an excellent job playing hostess, diverting the conversation with dexterous aplomb until her parents were all but eating out of the palm of her hand. The only two who refused to play her game were Tom and… that man. Grindelwald. The Dark Lord. The man merely watched with amusement as Margaret turned the subject back towards Tom’s academic achievements. She did this every so often, and Tom wasn’t sure what her end game was with it. She seemed to want her parents to have a high opinion of him, although for the life of him Tom didn’t understand why. Because they were… ‘friends’? He shriveled his nose. He supposed this friendship thing did seem to have his benefits though, because Margaret was working hard to make sure her parents knew every amazing thing he’d done since arriving at Wolcroft.

 

“And that’s to say nothing of Necromancy,” Margaret is in the middle of saying, giving a lamenting sigh. “I’m very sorry father, but I just don’t think I’m cut out for such filthy work. Summoning creatures from the dead does horrible things to one’s shoes.”

 

“There’s nothing worse than ruining a perfectly good pair of dress shoes.” Margaret’s mother, Daisy, nods sagely.

 

Tom resists the urge to roll his eyes. Suddenly Margaret’s unabashed and shameless narcissism makes so much sense.

 

“Those shoes were Mainbocher,” Margaret laments, sadly.

 

“So, necromancy.” Fortunately Margaret’s father seems just as annoyed with change of subject, directing the conversation back on track. “Do you see a career for yourself as a necromancer, Thomas?”

 

“It’s just Tom.” He corrects, valiantly smothering his irritation with a cordial smile. “And, I suppose I haven’t really thought about it.”

 

What was with adults and asking about his career choices? Did they really think a ten year-old would know what they wanted to do at such a woefully inadequate age?

 

“Necromancers, though,” Margaret’s mother begins breathlessly, with a bit of trepidation rising in her voice, “my, that’s rather… bleak, don’t you think? Especially for someone so bright in all his subjects, like Thomas.”

 

“Tom,” he corrects, half-heartedly. He supposes he should just resign himself to the fact they seemed to want to make his name sound more… stately, or something. He can’t say he was fond of Tom, but he didn’t think Thomas was all that much better.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with Necromancy,” says Margaret’s father, “it’s a perfectly acceptable branch of magic. A prestigious one among practitioners of dark magic, if I recall correctly.”

 

“But still!” Daisy protests, looking concerned. “Necromancy is so… so unnerving, I suppose. To be a Necromancer— why, people probably take one look at you and run the other way!” She laughs.

 

Her laughter stalls out when no one joins her.

 

“There’s no need to repeat such pedantic muggle views,” Grindelwald drawls, causing a high flush to rise on the woman’s cheeks. “We’re not talking about the evil witch in fairy tales. Necromancers are highly regarded in magical society. It’s rare to find students with any real aptitude for it; despite teaching it for generations now, Wolcroft has only ever had a handful of students go on to study it vocationally.”

 

His eyes drift almost lazily towards Tom, a slow smile growing on his face. “I suppose it’s no real surprise to hear Tom excels in it, what with Miss Potter being his guardian.”

 

Everyone at the table seems confused at that, Tom included. What does he mean by that? What does Harry have to do with necromancy?

 

He plays it off though, turning a cool look towards the man. “Yes, I suppose that does help.”

 

Margaret spares him a calculating look, but he has no eyes for her. He seems to be locked into a staring match with this dark lord, those pale eyes almost amused as they survey him. He bristles slightly. What exactly is so amusing? He hates being patronized more than anything else in the world. That condescending look, as if Tom is nothing but vapid dinnertime entertainment, makes a low simmering fury rise in his stomach. Whatever scant appetite he had was washed away in an instant.

 

The dark lord merely leans over the table, resting his elbows on the tablecloth in a way that makes Mrs. Buchanan choke a little. Clearly Grindelwald doesn’t care— and doesn’t need to care— about useless table manners for he merely props his chin on his tented hands and scrutinizes Tom with a close look.

 

“I’m not such a bad Necromancer myself,” Grindelwald reveals, eyes dark despite his benign smile. “I wouldn’t mind teaching you a thing or two, if you’re up to it.”

 

Margaret’s father looks both surprised and interested at the turn of events, his eyes turning to Tom as if finally seeing him for the first time that evening.

 

Tom frowns, deeply skeptical. “Well, I’d really rather—

 

Margaret steps on his foot viciously.

 

He barely manages to hold his wince. “That sounds lovely, thank you. Yes I would appreciate anything you’d like to teach me.”

 

Apparently he’s as transparent as glass, because the Dark Lord doesn’t look like he bought any of that. That said, he also doesn’t call him out on it, making Tom even more suspicious; if anything, he looks positively pleased.

 

All the same, Margaret was probably right to stop him. Despite whatever misgivings he may have for the man, he was the Dark Lord. You weren’t called that unless you were wholly deserving of the title. Tom couldn’t even begin to imagine what sort of knowledge that man had; the cultures he’s seen, the magic he’s practiced… it makes Tom envious. He knows he’s not even close to a teenager yet, and really has all the time in the world ahead of him, but he still feels a deep stab of jealousy. He wants to be able to do all that— he wants all that knowledge— and he wants it now.

 

He considers the older man again, this time in what could perhaps even be considered a slightly positive light.

 

Well, he had offered. Tom would graciously accept, and would use the opportunity to its fullest. He would learn everything the man taught him— and then some.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

The morning sun leaves Tom bewildered and vaguely out of sorts. It takes a moment to realize where he is, and afterwards there is a brief onset of panic when he realizes he is not at home, and Harry is far away. He refuses to analyze such pathetic emotions, and instead readies for the day.

 

It’s his first time staying over at anyone’s house, let alone a ‘friend’s’. He doesn’t know how to feel about it. The experience is rather uncomfortable; it feels as if he’s constantly on stage, performing for a judgmental audience that already doesn’t like him much. He doesn’t know how Margaret’s parents feel about him, but at this point it’s probably too hopeful to at least think they have no opinion of him at all. And in return, he doesn’t know what to think about them either. He finds them distasteful in the same way he finds all wealthy patricians vaguely unpalatable. He knows even less what to think of the Dark Lord. A gallant figure in an elegant suit, predatory but indulgent eyes; he was in equal parts exceptional and yet no more remarkable than any other aristocrat. That was the real peril, he supposed. How easy it was to overlook the danger that he made no show to hide.

 

A maid shows up as he’s readying for breakfast, announcing that Lord Grindelwald is waiting for him in the drawing room. She waits patiently for him to finish buttoning up his collar and tying his shoes, clearly meaning to show him the way.

 

The walk is painfully uncomfortable, in the same way everything about this stay has been uncomfortable and off-putting. He’s never stayed in a house so grand.

 

He doesn’t know how he feels in it.

 

Sure, he’s visited Ruth’s estate, and had finally gotten around to visiting Washy’s equally ostentatious mansion on the cresting cliffs of Newport, but those were always brief visits, little peaks into a world he didn’t belong to.

 

In some ways, he wanted more than anything to be a part of it— to show them all he could be. That they weren’t better than him at all. It was a dark, lingering envy that had started with bitter looks at the row houses in downtown London, and had never really left him. There would always be a part of him that hated these spoiled aristocrats and their hoarded wealth, the way they all seemed to think they were entitled to such luxuries without ever expending much effort for them. Why couldn’t Tom have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, like Margaret, Ruth, or Washy? And yet he knew he’d hate himself if he had been. No matter how much he envied them, he was disgusted by them in equal parts.

 

And yet, as they pass a long open corridor, beset on all sides with art deco mirrored panels, he can’t help but look at his reflection and think he looks like he belongs here.

 

He doesn’t know how to feel about that, either.

 

So instead he returns his thoughts to the Dark Lord.

 

The maid leads him to the drawing room without so much as a word, holding the door open with a simple but deep bow. Revealed within is a tall, well-dressed figure seated at the far end of the long room, near the arched windows. The stretching expanse of the drawing table is full of maps, and Tom finds his eye unwillingly drawn to them in curiosity. He only allows himself a brief look— it wouldn’t do to look too invested.

 

They appear to be maps of… Western Europe?

 

He can’t quite tell, but he refuses to allow himself even a mere second more to investigate. Instead he turns his full attention on the man seated away from him, who watches him with an open expression of interest.

 

“Good morning, my Lord.” Tom greets, in a bland but perfectly perfunctory tone.

 

“Good morning, young Tom.” The man replies, and Tom valiantly holds back a twitch of his eye at such a patronizing form of address. “How did you sleep?”

 

“Well, thank you.” He replies, clipped. And before the man can continue to make useless small talk; “You wished to see me?”

 

“So I did.” He agrees. Tom narrows his eyes slightly. It’s impossible to tell anything from the man’s tone, and it’s infuriating.

 

Tom has always been an expert at reading people, since before he could even speak. He wouldn’t say he’s on the level of a master manipulator quite yet, but he rarely faces opposition, even from fully grown adults. That being said, he is a master of observation, and he hasn’t met anyone who is as difficult to read as the man before him. It’s as irritating as it is interesting.

 

Tom refuses to give in first, waiting patiently with his hands behind his back as he waits for the man to explain himself.

 

“I’ve been told you’re an excellent student, and I’m sure your a brilliant child, so I won’t bother to waste your time with posturing that will lead us nowhere,” the man begins, casually, with an absent wave of his hand. “I have a vast wealth of knowledge on the arcane arts that I’m sure will interest you— and you have information that will greatly interest me.”

 

“A mere student like me, truly?” Tom feigns surprise.

 

He reaches for a saucer of tea on the table by his side, eyes closed. “I rather think you have more potential than you realize.”

 

“Potential for what, exactly, my Lord?” It irritates him endlessly to have to address someone so respectfully, but he can begrudgingly admit that the title might be well deserved. Becoming a Lord of magic was no small feat, after all.

 

“To be someone great, of course.” He says, simply.

 

Tom isn’t entirely sure how to respond. Everything about this seems like a trap. He doesn’t want to play this man’s game, and yet, how is he supposed to gain anything if he doesn’t? He might dislike the man, but he can admit he’s a Dark Lord for a reason and most likely has access to all sorts of knowledge and information Tom couldn’t possibly even dream of.

 

All the same though, to give up information to this man in exchange for that? And what if he wanted more than information? What if he wanted loyalty, fealty, servitude? Tom had to decide what he was and wasn’t willing to give up.

 

“I appreciate your confidence in me, but I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.” He imitates a wide-eyed, childish look of pure surprise. “I’m not sure how I could be of much use to you now, my Lord.”

 

Those electric eyes seem to send shocks down his spine, the man’s smile curling predatorily as if to say, you have more use than you know.

 

“Yes, perhaps there is not much you can do for me now, but I have full faith that you will eventually grow into a great wizard. All I ask is that, for now, you keep me in mind when that day comes.” His pleasant expression came off so charmingly, it was disconcerting. “How does that sound?”

 

Sounds like a trap to me, Tom thinks, frowning slightly.

 

But he also isn’t stupid enough or arrogant enough to overlook the opportunity at hand here. If their positions were reversed, and he was the Dark Lord, he would not give anyone the possibility of such freedom. If he met someone of great potential— either as an ally or an enemy— he would waste no time in either eliminating them or binding their loyalty. He doesn’t know why the Dark Lord would allow him such lenience, but he doesn’t plan to waste it. The Dark Lord will come to regret it, someday, and Tom will be sure to learn from this man’s mistakes. All the same the opportunity has presented himself, and he sees no reason not to capitalize on the man’s mistakes.

 

“It sounds very fair to me.” Tom replies, dutifully.

 

The blonde man grins. “Excellent. Now, I’ve heard you are a fantastic student of Necromancy.”

 

“I am proficient in it, yes.” He agrees demurely.

 

“There’s no need for such modesty,” the Dark Lord dismisses, leaning back in his chair. “How far along are you?”

 

Tom considers how to answer this question. “I can raise most dead animals, and have just begun summoning demons.”

 

“Have you ever raised a human?”

 

“Like, an inferi, sir?” Tom clarifies, surprised. That is extremely advanced necromancy.

 

The Dark Lord nods.

 

“No, my Lord. I haven’t.”

 

Grindelwald makes a noncommittal noise. Tom bristles; he despises the idea of the man being disappointed in him as much as he despises the idea of caring that much about the man’s opinion. What does it matter if he lives up to the man’s expectations? He doesn’t care about this man. His opinion should be worthless to Tom. All the same Tom has always been the top student in his class, and excels in everything he does. The idea of falling short in anything is galvanizing.

 

“That’s probably for the best,” the Dark Lord acknowledges, surprising Tom. “Raising undead is a tricky business that can go wrong far too easily. If done incorrectly it can cause terrible damage to your magical core— which would be a true shame, considering it’s still growing.”

 

Tom blinks. He’d never heard anything about that. Upon further consideration he can recognize the truth in the man’s words; all undead must feed off the magic of the one who raises them. To mess up such a delicate process, with something as complicated as human physiology, would surely cause irreparable damage…

 

He’s actually a little impressed. He’s learning things from the man already.

 

“Now, I don’t want to bore you with a lecture, so I have an assignment for you instead.”

 

“Assignment?” Tom repeats, skeptically. He sounds like a professor or something.

 

“Of a sort, yes.” The man stands from his armchair, picking up a book that had been lying on the end table beside it.

 

When Tom looks at it, he near blanches.

 

“Why are you giving me this?” He asks with disdain.

 

He knows what it is. Who doesn’t? He remembers painfully long hours on uncomfortable pews, dragged into the back of a cathedral with the rest of the orphans; strictly C of E for Wool’s, and despite being an unbaptized heathen they were still ‘magnanimous’ enough to allow a sinner like him to sit at the very back of the house of God. There wasn’t much to do, especially on the more miserable rainy Sundays when not even the birds outside the stained glass windows could entertain him, so he would often thumb through the hymnal in boredom. Everything was so cultist and elitist, he could never get through the first few lines without throwing it down in disgust. At any rate, it was never worth it to put up much fuss, even though Tom never bothered to believe in God. A God of this begotten, wretched world was worthless anyway. And Tom had always been told he was beyond salvation.

 

At any rate he’s not unfamiliar with the Holy Bible, even if he does find it positively pedantic.

 

“Have you ever read it?” The Dark Lord asks instead of replying.

 

“Fortunately, no.” Tom drawls, bored.

 

This at least stirs a chuckle out of him. “Yes, it’s true that Christianity, as most religions, tends to run on the lengthy and pedantic side of preachy, the Bible especially. But you might find it interesting.”

 

“Really.” Tom looks at him flatly.

 

“At the very least it might be helpful.” The man replies, as he stands. “The Buchanan’s are attending church this morning, and you and I will join them.”

 

Tom stares at the man as if he’s grown two heads.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

He’s still wholly at a loss as to why he’s here, and the church organs are beginning to grate on him.

 

Margaret is beside him, dressed in her ‘Sunday best’ — despite the fact it’s not even Sunday, and why in Merlin’s name are they even torturing themselves through church on a day that isn't even Sunday?— sitting primly with a frigid expression that speaks of years of practice. Right after breakfast they all got into cars and drove here as if it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and Tom still can’t quite believe it. Her parents are on her other side, along with the Dark Lord, who looks perfectly at ease in a Christian church that would have burned them all at the stake only a few centuries ago. On that note, Tom has to wonder, for the umpteenth time, why the hell they’re all here. He’s still irritated by it all; the idea of having to go to this spectacle once again grates on him. He thought he’d left all this nonsense behind when he left the orphanage and realized his identity as a wizard. But he supposes the rest of the world doesn’t cease to exist just because he learned to discard it.

 

It makes him antsy, being here. He is assaulted with memories from his time in the orphanage, making a terrible, cold fear settle in his chest.

 

Despite the differences, it feels too similar. The last time he'd been in a church like this he had been sad and alone and absolutely miserable, hating his life and everyone in it. It’s all too easy to imagine himself in a life without Harry, stuck in that horrible reality from before, when he was alone in the world with nothing and no one to call his own. It was the kind of loneliness that would never leave him, the kind that would forever instill a foreboding sense of fear within him. He knew with terrible intimacy what it felt like to be entirely alone in the world, and he couldn’t bear the thought of having to return to that.

 

It casts his latest fight with Harry into a whole new light. He wishes he hadn’t yelled at her. He didn’t want her to leave, yes, but he understood it was bound to happen. He knew it didn’t mean she was leaving him forever. But all the same at the time it was so hard to be rational about it, when that pervasive fear had clamored to the forefront of his mind, blocking all other thoughts. He only hoped that she would forgive him when they saw each other next. And he refused to believe in any other future— she would return to him. To contemplate otherwise was to tempt a descent into madness.

 

He threw himself out of those thoughts with a violent shake of his head, drawing Margaret’s curious attention. Fortunately she had no time to discreetly ask over it, as the priest was asking everyone to rise for some sort of prayer. Margaret dutifully followed her parents and took out a hymnal book from the back of the pew; it reminded Tom of the bible the Dark Lord had given to him prior to their arrival here, still sitting on the pew next to him.

 

He still had no idea why the man would even bother. Tom could hardly care less about a religion that would cast them all into purgatory just for existing. Yet he couldn’t imagine the Dark Lord to give it to him without reason.

 

With an irritated sigh he grabs the thing as he stands, pretending to sing along with the rest of the church as he flips through the pages. The text is so small and narrow it makes his eyes want to bleed. It’s also hundreds of pages long. Does the Dark Lord truly expect him to read all this? He thinks he might perish in the attempt from pure boredom.

 

He frowns out into the crowds. No, that can’t be it. He turns his gaze to the man in question, who, like Tom, has dutifully rose to his feet but does not sing along. He has to wonder why in Merlin’s name the man would even come at all. Margaret and her parents he could understand; they were muggles after all. But Grindelwald, he imagined, was a pureblood wizard. He had no history with this nonsense— why bother to subject himself to it? Unless of course he was here purely to observe Tom.

 

If that was the case, then there clearly was something he wanted Tom to learn here. Tom scowls, returning his attention to the bible in his hand.

 

With a stroke of ingenuity, he recalls his first lesson in elemental magic. The way their teacher had asked them to use just a small spark of magic, just enough to light against the paper and trigger a chain reaction of the magic already inlaid within it.

 

Tom concentrates briefly, sending a surge of magic to the tips of his fingers.

 

The pages of the open book flutter as if in an invisible wind, turning themselves to a seemingly arbitrary passage some ways into it. Margaret clearly senses the magic, spine straightening beside him as she gives him a worried look.

 

Tom ignores it, devouring the contents on the page.

 

Dry bones of Israel, I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.

 

He stares down at it for a moment, trying to see past the banally pontifical and somewhat patronizing tone. Unbidden and unannounced, a memory wanders across his eyes; a desert capped with stars, full of dry bones and undead.

 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones. He made me walk among the bones in every direction and I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were! He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? I answered, “Lord God, you alone know that.” Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!

 

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. I will put sinews in you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord.

 

I, Ezekiel, prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise: it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone. I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them. From the four winds come, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life. I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.

 

“Tom,” Margaret hisses at him, causing him to almost drop the book. She grabs him by the elbow, and it’s only then that he realizes everyone is sitting down once again.

 

He follows her lead, body numb as his mind whirls through endless realizations. His eyes catch the Dark Lord’s. The man smirks at him.

 

The rest of the mass passes in a haze of passages laid out before him. He dog-ears each one, as every time he sends a new spark of magic into the book a new page is revealed to him. Eventually he has to put it down to give himself some time to breathe, blinking up into the blue cathedral light around him. He hates to admit it, but it is rather beautiful, purely from an aesthetic perspective. The architecture, the intricate stained glass art filtering in acidulous light, the high peaks and cavernous halls lined with pillars. He supposes it’s no surprise it’s so meticulously crafted; it’s supposed to be the house of God, no? A place where humans worship their exalted deities in irritatingly cult-like ways.

 

This gives him pause.

 

A chant rises around him, heads bowed as the people bring their hands together in long chains roping across the pews. The scene is, indeed, extremely cultist. It almost looks like.. Tom watches in bewilderment, as the chanting grows and the priest raises something high into the air. He knows what it is of course; even though he’s never actually participated in a communion he’s been to church enough times to recognize it. But he looks upon it in a new light, now.

 

The resemblance to ancient sacrificial blood rituals is beyond startling. They had practiced one just before term ended in his Ancient Magics class. Washy was a total liar— the class had been far more than just curses and blood magic. Or maybe Tom was just too dense to read between the lines; blood magic, wards, and curses in combination with each other were called rituals, and they were some of the most difficult and catastrophic magics to exist on this earth. They were banned in every country, so the vast majority of the class was merely theoretical, as they went through different ancient societies and the different ceremonies and communions involved in their cultures. Some were certainly more malevolent than others, but they were all based off of the same principles. They could cause plagues that wiped off entire civilizations from the face of the earth; they could conjure calamitous natural events that changed the landscape of history; curse entire peoples; raise armies of undead. They could also be as simple and benign as a simple prayer at a temple in hopes of good luck or good health.

 

There were different levels to rituals, just as there were different levels to all branches of magic. Most prayers were of a simple sort of ritualistic magic; often times they have already been deeply ingrained into a culture or religion for centuries now, and people have forgotten they’re even rituals. Tom remembers having to say ‘grace’ at the table before meals, and wondering what the point of it was. It was nothing but artificial words now, but perhaps hundreds of years ago, it actually did serve a purpose. After that there are the rituals that are more widely recognized as the dark arts— summoning demons, divination into the past or future, communion with the dead.

 

The most condemned of them all though was, unsurprisingly, the darkest and strongest of rituals; human sacrifice. They had been banned for centuries now, the height of their popularity waning with the ancient civilizations, after catastrophic consequences forced the magical community to accept how dangerous they were.

 

Tom looks around the room with stunned eyes.

 

These muggles… they have no idea what they’re even doing right now.

 

Not that anything could happen, anyway, since the priest was not a sorcerer. But to imagine this exact same room, chanting these exact same words, holding hands and melding magic together in front of a sorcerer of untold power who could seize their energies and use it to his will… Yes, for now they are metaphorically eating the body and blood of another human, substituted by wine and bread, but Tom had a feeling this wasn’t supposed to be metaphorical in any sense of the word. This was a ritual of human sacrifice, of literally eating another human’s blood and body.

 

Tom blinks into the sea of moving crowds, as muggles shift down the lines of pews to walk up to the altar, he can’t help but watch them in dazed disbelief. It’s clear the Dark Lord knows he’s figured it out, for he discreetly draws them outside the cathedral in the chaos of communion.

 

“Fascinating, is it not?” He asks idly, as he leads Tom to a shaded park bench on the grounds outside.

 

Tom stares blankly into the fountain before him. It’s a stone sculpture of a few angels and a cherub, all holding water pots with water pouring out of them, sparkling in the midday sun. He wonders if it has some kind of significance. Now he has to wonder if all of it has some kind of significance.

 

“Enlightening, maybe.” He says, once he’s recovered himself. He’s still holding the dog-eared bible in his hands.

 

“Humans have been participating in rituals since the dawn of time; many of them still continue to this day, even if they have lost their meanings.” Grindelwald remarks, peering out into the sunny day with a slight smile, as if they weren’t discussing perhaps the deepest scourge upon human history.

 

“Rituals are considered the worst of dark magic and are banned by the Wizengamot. If convicted of conducting one, it is a crime punishable by death.” Tom parrots blandly, from his lessons in Ancient Magic class. His teacher had been extremely dogmatic about drilling that into their heads, and for good reason.

 

Grindelwald makes a noise of agreement. “Yes, they are the sort of magic not to be trifled with by inadequate hands.”

 

Tom turns to him with wide eyes. “Have you done one before?”

 

“A ritual? Of course.” He answers promptly, to Tom’s shock. “Of what level is perhaps a better question. If you are asking me if I have ever conducted a ritual of the proportions of the Mayan or Khmer Empires? No, fortunately.”

 

Tom is silent as he digests this. All the same, the knowledge of blood and death rituals is mostly lost and not taught in schools. To think that this man beside him clearly had the necessary knowledge to execute them…

 

“You’re currently taking Ancient Magics at Wolcroft, yes?” Grindelwald continues, drawing Tom’s attention away from his own internal musings. “Is Dr. Sodhi teaching you?”

 

Tom nods.

 

“What have you learned so far?”

 

“Before the mid-term ended we walked through a necromancy ritual from the late Persian empire.” He reveals, thinking back. “It was quite a process.”

 

“Yes they usually are.” The Dark Lord agrees, sounding amused.

 

Tom recalls the day with something of a feverish piety. He studied up beforehand of course, because he was interested and also because staying up late in the library was a surefire way to avoid Harry. But no amount of studying could prepare him for the actual event itself. Of course they weren’t actually conducting a ritual, but even just from walking into the room Tom could feel a certain dark magic permeate the air. It had a very specific scent, he recalls. It was heavy and thick in the air, despite the cold. He had felt different, at the time, and he wasn’t sure if it was just the effect of the atmosphere or if something within his magic had actually changed. At any rate, their normally bright and sunny classroom had been thrust into darkness, blood red candles casting crimson lights across the black room. There were offerings of pomegranate and myrrh, wine and bread. It was a fairly simple and benign ritual, just a seance to communicate with deceased relatives, normally used on Samhain, and yet Tom could fully grasp the severity of this branch of magic from this brief taste. To imagine a great and terrible death shaman, wielding such powers over the masses of an ancient civilization…

 

For a brief moment, the pleasant morning drifts away from him, and he is again struck with the image of bones in a desert. But this time Harry is there, dressed in royal azure, an army of undead kneeling at her feet.

 

Dry bones of Israel… arising and standing upright, a vast army in the desert...

 

He pulls himself out of the vision with a shiver, making a valiant effort to put it aside.

 

“Did it surprise you?”

 

The Dark Lord’s voice draws him away effectively. He lets out a breath. “The— the mass?”

 

“Yes.” The man is observing him carefully.

 

“Not entirely. It seems obvious in hindsight.” He admits, feeling a bit annoyed with himself for not putting two and two together sooner. “Of course most modern day religions have their ancestry in times before antiquity, when such rituals and black magics were common. It’s only natural that those practices would bleed into their practices now.”

 

“Yes, indeed it’s not surprising. And yet we have a tendency to leave a disconnect between the ancient past and the modern day, as if a vast channel separates them from each other. In reality of course that’s nonsense; history repeats itself in telling ways. The ancient past is not so far away as we like to believe.”

 

Tom frowns up at him curiously, not entirely sure if he’s following such an enigmatic response.

 

He thinks he understands, though. After all, Tom is starting to notice that the Deathly Hallows have proved themselves to be a figure carved into nearly every society since the beginning of civilization, despite the fact no one ever seems to notice it. He has a good feeling they even exist today, in the modern era, but he hasn’t been able to trace them throughout history to figure out where they are.

 

“At any rate, I thought the experience might prove enlightening to you. It will certainly prove useful for our next assignment, if you’re up to it.”

 

Tom eyes him guardedly. “And what would that be?”

 

The man gestures to the book in his lap. “Why, to try one out, of course.”

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

“You know, considering you dislike him so much you’re spending an awful lot of time with him.” Margaret remarks later that evening when Tom is preparing to embark on his very first ritual.

 

He shrugs as he rifles through his Ancient Magics textbook. “He knows a lot,” he returns, simply.

 

Margaret gives him a deeply unimpressed look from the top of his bed, where she is lounging with her feet propped up in a most unlady like fashion. Then again, Tom is well aware how much Margaret hates wearing dresses and stockings, so it’s no surprise she was so eager to rid herself of them and return to her usually pants and fashionable shirt and scarf. He ignores her in favor of his book. He had flipped towards the back where the book covers the era of antiquity, hoping he might find something on either Christianity or Judaism. He’s had no luck so far, though.

 

Grindelwald hadn’t been very specific about what ritual they were conducting, just that they would need to conduct it during the dead of night, preferably in the Buchanan family graveyard. As a necromancy ritual that seemed fairly par for the course, but he can’t help but wonder what else will be involved. He was so impatient he couldn’t sleep a wink, despite knowing he should.

 

“A lot of people know a lot,” Margaret retorts, annoyed. Then she pauses. “But, I suppose he is the great Dark Lord… surely he knows more than most.”

 

“Precisely.” Tom replies, distracted as he rifles through his text. He doesn’t see anything on Christian rituals, unfortunately, but he does come across a passage on ancient runes meant to strengthen rituals that commandeers his entire attention.

 

Margaret watches him with a fondly exasperated expression. Of course Tom is zealously engrossed in his books no matter the hour…

 

She had expected the boy to raise holy hell after having to sit through the drudgery of church earlier that day, but instead the boy had seemed pensive and almost… invigorated? She also had no idea why Lord Grindelwald had asked to attend with Tom to begin with— the whole thing seemed rather suspicious. And then, after that, Tom’s interpretation of the man does an entire one-eighty? The two were definitely up to something. But it wasn’t Margaret’s place to poke her nose in it. Normally she would waste no time in doing so, but the Dark Lord’s involvement gave her pause. Tom didn’t understand it, because despite going to a dark school and being impressively talented in all dark arts, Tom was not part of dark magic society. He didn’t understand the power and prestige the Dark Lord wielded. He could waltz up to him and talk to him casually— even rudely— because of his ignorance, but Margaret could not. She knew too much about the man to ever dare to speak to him so intrusively.

 

Perhaps it was for the best though… after all, the Dark Lord seemed rather charmed by the young wizard, in a way that surprised Margaret. Of course, Tom was a gifted wizard at the top of his class, attending a prestigious dark school, so his interest in the boy was not all that strange. But Margaret was still intrigued to find him so… accommodating. On their return to the mansion, Tom had offhandedly complained about how annoying he found the Dark Lord’s enigmatic answers to be— and the man had merely laughed. Margaret would have expected Tom to be held under the cruciatus for such an offense.

 

When they returned after mass for a late lunch, the two had spent most of it discussing the history of Christianity, to her surprise. She hadn’t realized either of them were all that interested in non-magical religions of all things. She also hadn’t realized the two of them had gotten so close. Tom had looked like he had swallowed a lemon when he had to talk to the Dark Lord last night at dinner, and now he was enthusiastically debating the origins of Judaism.

 

She eyes her friend speculatively, as he tore through his bag in search of parchment. He settles back by his book, scribbling away without any awareness of her gaze. He must be very invested in whatever he was looking at to be so unaware.

 

She wonders what’s going on between the two of them with no small amount of apprehension.

 

Tom doesn’t seem to be adhering to her warnings at all, flippantly dismissing them as mere concern. She wishes she could have drilled into him a bit more caution. Lord Grindelwald was a roguishly charming individual, but underneath that veneer of elegant aristocracy was a truly brutal and savage Dark Lord who would do anything to maintain and expand his power. Tom didn’t know, because people don’t often speak of him in anything approaching a negative light, Margaret’s family included. But she knew he was not a man to be reckoned with. His actions in Europe spoke to that.

 

“Listen, Tom…” She starts, after a long moment of silence.

 

“Hm?” He answers, without looking up.

 

“I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but you must understand, Lord Grindelwald is an extremely powerful man.”

 

“I’m aware.” The boy returns, flatly.

 

Margaret makes an irritated noise. She wishes she could just be frank about it, but she has no idea who is listening in on them right now. She doesn’t trust for a second that their conversation was truly safe from prying ears. “Extremely so.” She emphasizes, leadingly. “They say the things he is capable of haven’t been seen in the world for centuries.”

 

This at least gives Tom pause. He seems to consider her words. “Yes,” he agrees, at length. “I could see that. He certainly seems to have the ambition to push things further than the rest of the spineless lot of wizards that call themselves competent.”

 

Margaret grits her teeth. That wasn’t what she meant at all. “Ambition, yes.” She latches on to that. “He certainly has a lot of it. The lengths he goes to and the things he can do are quite… severe.”

 

To actually go against international wizarding law and practice rituals in earnest would certainly require a great deal of ambition and fortitude, Tom thinks. And Tom has every intention of following the man’s footsteps. Tonight was just the beginning of that journey.

 

He would have to impress the man, he knows. He isn’t entirely sure why the man is so interested in him to begin with, but he knows it can’t purely be because of his intellect alone. He has a feeling Harry is somehow involved as well, which grates on him. There’s no way he would ever gamble Harry, so he must merely make his intellect invaluable to the man.

 

He eyes the runic symbols he’d written down with fervor, tracing them with his eyes. They shouldn’t be too difficult to carve into himself— none of the symbols were particularly difficult, in fact he knew most of them already. They were all centered around amplifying power and magical ability; he’d used them before in his enchantment class when making that ridiculous holiday card of all things. He’d traced them onto the back of the paper to sustain the enchantment indefinitely. He remembers how thrilled Harry had been at such a simple feat of magic. He was fairly sure she'd framed it somewhere.

 

“I understand.” He replies, after a long while, dragging his eyes away from the page. “You don’t have to patronize me.”

 

Margaret’s cheeks flush. “I’m not patronizing you,” she insists. “I’m just saying—

 

“I know what you’re saying.” He cuts her off, annoyed. “I’m not a fool. I’m aware of what I’m getting into.”

 

Margaret gives him a critical look that only annoys him further. Then she rolls her eyes, huffing. “Fine. Whatever. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

 

Tom scowls at her. He doesn’t want to put up with her condescending demeanor right now. It’s late, he’s cranky, and he’s already on edge enough as it is.

 

“Fine.” He parrots back, annoyed.

 

She takes that as her cue to leave, looking cross with him as she sniffs and stalks out of the room. Tom watches her go with a shake of his head. He really didn’t have time to deal with her now.

 

He jumps off the floor and goes through his backpack, searching for his silver knife.

 

Hours later and he is wrapped in a silver cloak given to him by a confused maid earlier in the night, his face uncovered as per the instruction. His arms, beneath the pools of fabric, are wrapped in bandages that are still reddened slightly with blood from freshly cut wounds.

 

He meets the Dark Lord on the veranda out back. The tall and imposing figure is drenched in moon spill, silvery cloak dripping around him like moving water. His eyes are positively electric in the full moon. The dead of night, with a full moon… Tom considers this, and considers what he knows of most medieval rituals. It seems to fit. Is that the kind of ritual they were doing? Christianity had a long history, it could be a ritual from the time of the biblical era, in antiquity, in the medieval era or even the renaissance.

 

They embark in silence, Tom following the Dark Lord’s lead into the dark lawns.

 

He leads them down a twisting path, down the pastures and down through a valley with a small stream. The path then cuts upwards towards another hill; the wintry moonlight illuminates the silhouettes of a small church and graveyard, crosses and gravestones rising from the grounds around it.

 

The air is so still and quiet as they make their way through the graves. Tom is no stranger to necromancy and raising the dead, but even he feels vague trepidation as they cross through hollow ground in the dead of night.

 

Grindelwald opens the grand oak doors to the cathedral; they creak open in one long, slow groan.

 

The moonlight filters in through the speckled stained glass, creating patterns of jewels on the wooden floor. The pews have been pushed to the sides to leave a large open space in the center of the room, with only the altar remaining at the head of the chapel. A cross rose from the shadows, the sacrifice of Jesus lit in shifting panels of gold and crimson from his mother painted above him in glass. Tom tore his eyes away from the ominous portrait, drawing his gaze towards the ground.

 

Everything was already set up for the ritual. The magic circles and runes were already drawn into the wood, in some sort of dark liquid that Tom had to assume was blood; there were baskets full of breads, apples and valerian root at the four cardinal points; cardamom and baby’s breath on the secondary points.

 

The Dark Lord gestures for him to take one side, snapping his fingers to bring the candles to life. Upon further inspection in the dim light, it was most certainly blood. His arms seem to ache at the sight, as if in commiseration. He looks back up at the Dark Lord— that wasn’t his blood, was it? He supposes he would have no way to know other than to ask the man, but he found he didn’t entirely want to know where it came from.

 

“I assume you’ve never done one of these before,” the man remarks, as he pulls out a bible of his own.

 

Tom nods his head.

 

“As you can see, I’ve done most of the difficult work already,” he gestures to the fully prepared ritual circle around them. “We can go over that another time. For now, I just want you to try enacting the ritual yourself.”

 

Tom frowns at him. “But how do I do that, my Lord? And what ritual is this, anyway?”

 

The man chuckles. “Yes, I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?” He hands Tom the bible, already marked for the passage in particular. “It’s quite simple, really. Just as you did in church, you merely read the passage aloud.”

 

“This is a ritual from the time of Carthage and the Phoenicians,” the man continues, “it’s a fairly basic communion of divination. It allows the practitioner a brief glimpse into the future. Nothing like a real seer, unfortunately, but an apt inauguration for our first ritual.”

 

Tom stares down at the biblical passage, illuminated dimly in the candlelight. It doesn’t look any different from the passages they had read aloud earlier in the day during the service.

 

He looks back up at the Dark Lord, standing across from him, a few feet out of the circle. He looks like an ancient death priest, in his silvery robes, burning orange light casting his features in sharp relief. Tom supposes he too must look quite similar, holding a book in hand, standing in the midst of a ritual circle.

 

The Dark Lord watches him with his electric eyes. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” He says then, surprisingly gentle. “It would be perfectly understandable. We can just discuss the theory behind it and walk through the process.”

 

The man is right, but if anything it just hardens his resolve to go through with this. The runes on his arms tingle beneath their bandages. He bites his lip. There’s no way he’s backing out now.

 

“I’m fine,” he says, voice even.

 

The man does not look entirely convinced, but he nods along anyhow. “Very well then. Whenever you’re ready.”

 

Tom looks down at the words in his hands, swimming in his vision.

 

He takes a breath.

 

“I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind.

 

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy;

 

Your old men shall dream dreams;

 

Your young men shall see visions.

 

Even upon the servants and the handmaids, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

 

And I will work wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood, fire, and columns of smoke.

 

The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood. At the coming of the day of the Lord, the great and terrible day.”

 

He looks up.

 

At first, nothing happens.

 

Then his arms begin to burn.

 

The blood beneath his feet lights as if on fire, candlelight flickering in a silent and terrible wind. The earth itself seems to rent in two, shaking in an endless quiet that swallows him whole.

 

The last thing he sees is the Dark Lord’s face, expression fearful and surprised as he yells something Tom can't hear, reaching for him as he collapses.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

“I’m so stupid,” Harry sobs, voice muffled by her hands. “I brought him here to make sure he’d be okay, and he ended up getting hurt anyway.”

 

Gellert is severely unprepared to have to handle a crying Harry, again. He sighs, looking away with an uncomfortable expression. “... It’s really not your fault.” He says, lamely. If anything, it’s his fault.

 

He had all but laid the ritual at the boy’s feet, after all. And all but goaded him into doing it. If he said that though, Harry’s sadness would turn to rage and she might be so angry at him she might actually kill him this time. He didn’t doubt she was capable, if given the right incentive. This certainly seemed like the right incentive.

 

Her reaction certainly wasn’t irrational, though. It was only natural instinct to want to protect your young, and surely seeing your child like this would be devastating. Not that he would know from experience, or anything, what with his own mother flinging him at Durmstrang and calling it a day.

 

“He could have died,” she says, despondently.

 

“He was fine, Harry.” He tries to reassure her. Funny, he can’t even reassure himself right now. “Have you forgotten I am a master of the Dark Arts? I assure you, he was in good hands.”

 

“And what if you hadn’t been there?” She wipes furiously at her eyes. “Fuck. I should have been there. How could I have left him like this?”

 

He blinks, never having heard her curse so explicitly before. It’s incredibly unlady like, but exactly what he would expect from Harry. He wonders why he finds it so charming.

 

“Rearing the child all by yourself is already a herculean task. There’s no reason to beat yourself up over this; accidents are unavoidable.”

 

Harry doesn’t respond.

 

He is silent for a long moment, at a loss as to what else to say.

 

Seeing the boy collapse in front of his eyes had been beyond terrifying. He supposes in theory he had no qualms in the killing of children, if it benefited his cause, but it was another thing entirely to lead a lamb for slaughter like this. He was but an innocent young boy, after all, bright and brilliant but still so young. So eager to learn, so eager to prove himself… it had been all too easy to manipulate him, to gain his trust through knowledge and power.

 

And if he was being honest with himself, he actually enjoyed the child. His zealous ambition for knowledge was rather endearing, and he had to admit his stubborn precociousness was more amusing than anything.

 

He certainly hadn’t wanted this for the boy, and he still wasn’t entirely sure why it happened.

 

It was a simple ritual, barely anything more powerful than the prolific seances already done during this time of year for Samhain anyway. The boy should have gone into a brief trance, seeing a glimpse of a vision of some kind. He’d tried this exact ritual during his hunt for Harry this summer, although it had been too vague to be helpful. The passage read aloud was short; the blood could be either lamb or calf. He knew exactly how it worked. So what had went wrong? Could it have been the full moon? But it was not a ritual that relied on astrology or moonlight. Perhaps because of the nearness to Samhain? That could have been it. But if anything, he should have just had a longer or more intense vision than usual. Samhain would merely heighten the power of the ritual, not change it drastically. The boy shouldn’t have been in pain as he had. He had been incoherently screaming for what seemed like hours before he’d finally lost consciousness. And to lose consciousness for so long like this…

 

He hadn’t awoken since then, and it had been hours. He’d already tried a multitude of healing spells to no avail. The boy hadn’t even so much as twitched. And that was to say nothing of the black mist that had sunken into his skin after he had collapsed.

 

The Dark Lord stared down at the boy in obvious worry, fortunately out of sight from the inconsolable Harry.

 

Harry had been positively beside herself when she had come to pick up Tom that morning, only to find Tom in this state. He hadn’t told any of the Buchanan’s about his plan, so it was all too easy to lie to them and say he had merely found the boy like this that morning. No one had bothered to question why he would have gone to the boy’s rooms so early, what with him offering to teach him earlier. The little girl, surprisingly, was not so easily fooled. The look she had given him was quelling, but she did not speak up. That was probably for the best. He liked little Miss Buchanan, but he had no qualms in keeping her quiet permanently.

 

His plans for Harry were too important to be messed up by a little girl.

 

Clearly though, he was doing a fine job messing it up himself already.

 

His plan should have been flawless.

 

He would use the weekend to slowly reel the boy in. It had become obvious to him that the boy was the easiest and most surefire way to lure Harry in willingly, and the boy had an obvious weakness. He craved knowledge. And Grindelwald had that in spades. It wouldn’t be a bad situation for Grindelwald either; he enjoyed bright and charismatic young wizards who were eager to learn. And he had every intention of actually doing right by the boy and teaching him things he would truly want to know. There was a good possibility the boy would grow up to be an impressive addition to his ranks, after all. And if getting closer to the boy would by extension give him access to Harry, that was just an added benefit.

 

And if he was to continue to teach the boy the Dark Arts, then there was no point in lying to Harry about their endeavor. He may have, however, casually neglected to mention a few finer points of detail; namely that they had been in the middle of a ritual. He’d merely told her he’d given the boy a book of spells, and he had tried one out under his supervision only to find the results had been… not expected.

 

“What were you even trying to teach him?” Harry sighs quietly, running her fingers through the boy’s hair with a forlorn look.

 

He hesitates for a moment, before lying swiftly, “A fairly simple spell; al-Maysān. It has the same effect as a lumos spell.

 

“Then why did this happen?” She rubs at her eyes with the back of her hand, wiping away tears before they can fall. “He’s never had a problem with lumos before.”

 

“Different lingual incantations require use of different parts of the magical core. Much like how the mouth and tongue move differently for pronunciation in different languages.” That isn’t untrue in the least, and Harry seems to be believing it. “I assure you Harry, he was not in any danger.”

 

She turns to him then, viridian eyes sparkling so vividly it is difficult to meet her gaze. “I don’t understand. If it was so safe then why has he been unconscious for this long? If he wasn’t in any danger then, why is he clearly in danger now?”

 

“I don’t think he’s in danger,” he answers, honestly. “I think he’s just recovering. Learning spells from different lingual branches is a difficult business; it’s usually taught at the university level.”

 

She glares at him balefully. “And you couldn’t have waited until he was university age to teach it to him?”

 

“He was very adamant. He seems to have quite an interest in different magical societies and their histories.”

 

This is clearly the right thing to say, for Harry deflates and turns a solemn look to the boy on the bed.

 

“That sounds like him.” She sighs, reaching out to cover the boy’s hand with her own. She might not be the boy’s biological mother, but all the same it’s clear she’s incredibly protective over him. She worries over him as any mother would. She loves him. Undeniably, unconditionally. Gellert will have to keep that in mind.

 

They’re silent for a long moment, as Harry stares down at the child in the bed and Gellert hovers off to the side, speculative.

 

“Where were you, anyhow?” He asks, curious. Harry doesn’t seem the type to leave the boy alone if given a choice.

 

Her shoulders stiffen. “I don’t see why it’s any of your business.” She returns, evenly, without looking up.

 

The question serves to remind her just who exactly is in the room with her.

 

To say she had been horrified to hear Grindelwald was in the Buchanan residence would be a severe understatement. She had thought, given that they were muggles, they would be a safe choice for Tom. Far safer than the Washington’s, at any rate. Clearly she had been very wrong. She would not make that same mistake again, but for now there was nothing to be done about it, and there were more pressing matters at hand. Namely, Tom’s sudden collapse.

 

Harry had arrived early on Sunday morning, having managed to weasel out of the last of her trip easily enough. She had expected to be greeted with a sullen and still moody Tom, waiting eagerly to be picked up. Instead the morning turns into something out of any parent’s nightmare; she left him for all of a few hours and returns to find him hurt and unconscious.

 

She would love to yell at Grindelwald for being so stupid as to teach a child such dangerous magic, but it wouldn’t solve anything currently. Not to mention, she doubted he was the only culpable party here; more than likely Tom had realized the man was a legend in the Dark Arts, a veritable Lord of Magic, and weedled and manipulated the man into teaching him a few things. It certainly wouldn’t surprise Harry to hear it. Tom was very good at acting as the eager academic— mainly because it wasn’t much of an act— and Grindelwald was probably delighted at the opportunity to spread more knowledge of the Dark Arts.

 

Yelling at him would solve nothing, but she wanted to yell at someone.

 

Instead, she bottles it up, as she always does.

 

Anger has never gotten her anywhere, no matter how good it feels to use it. Yelling at the Dursley’s had never done her any good— if anything, it normally made the situation worse— yelling at Dumbledore had never made her feel better, yelling at her friends had never solved their problems… So she takes a shuddering breath and releases it, gripping Tom’s hand tightly.

 

He’ll be okay, because he has to be okay.

 

Just like he couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, she can’t bear the thought of losing him.

 

“And why are you here, anyway?” She asks, sniffling a bit and damning herself for yet again being emotional in front of the man. She has perfect reason for it this time though.

 

“I’m quite close with the Buchanan family,” he replies, calmly. “I have business dealings with them often.”

 

Of course he does.

 

“Oh, and it was just a happy coincidence you were here this weekend then, wasn’t it?” She asks sarcastically, rolling her eyes.

 

“Not at all,” he answers truthfully, making her whip her head up in surprise. “I wanted to meet young Tom. I’ve heard nothing but praise from everyone around him.”

 

Harry blinks at him, still surprised he answered truthfully.

 

She looks at him guardedly, eyes narrowed. “Why the sudden interest in Tom?” She asks, carefully.

 

Gellert studies her for a long moment. “Surely you’ve realized, Harry, that the boy is exemplary.” He says, frankly. “Without a shadow of a doubt, he will grow up to become a great wizard. Someone who could change the world, even.”

 

That the boy could complete a ritual at all at his age was impressive, even if it had gone wrong at the end. And his academic accomplishments were nothing to scoff at. But above all else what made him so impressive was his drive and thirst for knowledge. Gifted geniuses were not uncommon, but to find one with such ambition who was willing to work to improve himself was a rare gem indeed.

 

You don’t need to tell me that. Harry thinks, darkly. She’s well aware how powerful Tom will grow up to be— how great a wizard he will be. Terrible, but great.

 

“I’m well aware.” She returns, hollow. Just the thought of it makes her exhausted.

 

Tom is on a knife edge, even if he doesn’t know it. Harry is intimately familiar with a future in which he chooses the wrong path; but what can she do to make sure he chooses the right one? And what is the right path? Thinking he’ll one day become an altruistic beacon of light like Dumbledore would be completely unrealistic. His love of the Dark Arts is something he’s always been predisposed to, and trying to rip him away from that completely would be an idea doomed to fail. But there are other paths within the Dark Arts that don’t result in terrorism and rampant mass murder.

 

“Then you must understand how important it is to give him a comprehensive education. He has so much potential.”

 

Yes and that was the problem, wasn’t it? Too much potential. Too much potential for things to go horribly wrong.

 

“I don’t care about his potential,” Harry replies, with a conviction that surprises him. “I just want him to be happy.”

 

The Dark Lord watches her with open curiosity. His own mother couldn’t have cared less about him. The same could be said of his father. They’d shoved him off to boarding school the first chance they got, and when that didn’t work out they shuffled him off to a distant Aunt instead. They never wanted anything to do with him, and could care less about his potential, or happiness. Is this what a normal parent-child relationship looks like? He’s seen the Buchanan’s interact enough times to know their wealth has driven a wedge between them, much like it had in his own family. The father, preoccupied with his businesses and power; the mother preoccupied in her own vanity; the child, an asset, an opportunity to further their wealth and influence.

 

If this had been any normal pureblood family Tom would have already been thrust into the limelight, a genius, a spectacle, a great addition to the family name. His parents would use every opportunity to flaunt his genius, would push him to become something worthy and useful to them.

 

It had always been easy to see that Harry was not like one of those parents. She had no interest in her own wealth or power, and would much prefer to live her life in anonymity. All she wanted for Tom was a life in which he was happy and satisfied, no matter what that entailed. She was not a practitioner of Dark Magic and yet she allowed Tom to attend a prestigious Dark Magic school; she had no interest in necromancy but did not forbid him from practicing it; she took him all across the world to learn more about Dark Magic.

 

“And Dark Magic makes him happy?” The Dark Lord presses, even though he already knows the answer.

 

She nods, blinking back tears. “Oh, he loves it.” She hiccups on a bubble of laughter. “He’s always loved it. I don’t think there’s anything in the world that makes him happier than a new book on Dark Arts.”

 

He smiles slightly, remembering a time in his life where he had been much the same. “He’s very gifted in them, that’s undeniable. Necromancy especially, which is incredibly rare.”

 

He pauses, debating whether or not he should push further or not. In the end, he decides he’s too impatient to wait. “Is that because of you?”

 

If he thought Harry had been on edge before, she was all but ready to leap out the window now. Her spine straightened; a curtain of her hair obscured her expression, but from the grip she held on the boy’s hand he imagines it would not be one of impassivity.

 

“What do you mean?” Her voice is low and even.

 

“Oh, Harry, we’ve been over this haven’t we? We both know what you’re capable of. There’s no reason to beat around the bush.” He says, breezily. “You don’t have to explain it to me, but you also can’t tell me that this… talent of yours is not connected somehow to Necromancy. I have to wonder how much of it the boy learned from you.”

 

“It’s really not…” Harry says, but finds she can’t quite believe the words herself. She doesn’t know exactly what she is, or how it relates to necromancy and dark magic. For all she knew, they could be closely intertwined.

 

“Is that why you adopted the boy? Because of his talents?”

 

“Of course not!” She insists vehemently. This answer, at least, she has full confidence in.

 

“Then why did you, if not for his potential?” The man presses on. “You can’t tell me it was purely for altruistic purposes. You’re a pretty girl of marrying age with her whole life ahead of her who could even have a family of her own; why would you discard all that to raise a child out of wedlock that wasn’t even yours?”

 

“It’s fully possible for a pretty girl of marrying age to have ambitions that don’t include marrying.” She can’t help but point out, acerbically. She looks down at Tom’s sleeping face, biting her lip. “And no, it was not just altruism. I… we… we’re connected. I have a personal connection to him, you could say. And I’ll not speak any more on the matter, so don’t bother to ask.” She ends with crisp finality, marking the subject as fully off limits.

 

Grindelwald supposes he can accept that, although his curiosity only heightens at her response. What sort of personal connection? That could mean all sorts of things…

 

But that was not the matter at hand here.

 

“Very well then.” He agrees with a nod. “I won’t ask. Yet the fact of the matter remains that you are his guardian, and you are the only one who can grant me permission to teach him.”

 

This conclusively catches her by surprise.

 

Teach him?” She repeats, voice high.

 

The Dark Lord tilts his head. “I have already stated he is an impressive student of the Dark Arts. And I am a Lord of Dark Magic— there is no one better to teach him.”

 

Harry has a few choice words to say to that.

 

She has so many, actually, that she doesn’t even know where to start.

 

“Absolutely not.” She deadpans.

 

The Dark Lord’s eyes flash.

 

“You won’t even allow me the opportunity to prove myself?” His voice is careful and measured, but it’s clear her adamant and immediate refusal has irritated him.

 

“Prove yourself?” She laughs, perhaps a bit hysterically. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll prove yourself to be a master of Dark Magic. I don’t doubt your prowess, and I’m sure you could be a good teacher if you wanted to be.”

 

She pauses then, giving him a dark look. “But I know exactly who you are, and I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you. Why in Merlin’s name do you think I would ever let someone like you near my child?”

 

Ah, that stings a bit.

 

Still, he can see her point.

 

And letting his disgruntled pride draw him into anger would not get him anywhere. He’d thought he’d made some kind of progress with her during their last meeting, but it seems that was a false hope. But he wouldn’t be deterred. He has to merely take a step back and survey the situation with a clear mind. Harry is like a mother bear protecting her cub; she sees him as dangerous. A threat to her child. She doesn’t trust him, so she bears her teeth at him when he tries to get close and will rip him to shreds if he makes one wrong move. All the other times they’ve met it had just been the two of them, alone. Having the boy she considers her child here would of course throw the dynamic.

 

She doesn’t trust him, and he has never given her any reason to do so.

 

He realizes in hindsight that this was the wrong avenue to take. He pushed too soon. So he does what any good hunter would do, and backs down.

 

“Yes, I suppose you would have no reason to trust me, would you?” He agrees drily, not insulted in the least.

 

Harry says nothing to this, holding his gaze with a guarded look.

 

“And for what it’s worth,” he continues, “I am truly sorry for what happened with the boy.”

 

Harry thinks he’s actually sincere about that, strangely enough. Despite his insistence earlier that nothing was wrong, the man had looked hilariously worried as he told Harry what had happened. If Harry wasn’t so worried herself she would have laughed at the man’s bewildered expression; he probably hadn’t worried over anyone in his entire life.

 

“Yeah, I know.” She sighs, the exhaustion of the day hitting her all at once.

 

There’s a knock on the door, and a maid pokes her head in asking if she’d like lunch delivered. Harry has absolutely no appetite, but she should probably eat something, if only so she doesn’t collapse. In the ensuing chaos of maids hauling up carts of food the Dark Lord takes the opportunity to dismiss himself, much to Harry’s relief.

 

She stares at the feast of food in front of her reluctantly, eying for a bread basket or something that will be light on her stomach.

 

Her eyes drift back to Tom, who looks deceptively peaceful as he sleeps on in the afternoon light.  

 

His vitals were all fine, apparently. He just wasn’t waking up.

 

Harry wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. To be medically fine but mysteriously ill, or have a concrete diagnosis?

 

She feels as if she’s aged a lifetime in these last few hours, walking over to a nearby armchair to sit down and eat her lunch properly. Tom is still well within her line of sight, but she feels anxious without his hand in hers. She doesn’t want to be separated from him by even an inch. That’s not physically feasible though, so she tries to allay her fears by keeping him within sight.

 

With her stomach full and her anxiety still alive but no longer a rollercoaster of waves of terror, the exhaustion well and truly catches up to her. Traveling always exhausts her, and on top of that was all the stress and fear from today’s events only extrapolating her fatigue.

 

She fights it as hard as she can, but she knows it’s a losing battle. Within a few minutes she’s lightly dozing in her chair, promising herself she’ll only close her eyes for a little bit.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

He returns when she’s asleep, not surprised to find the sleep potion worked faster than it usually does.

 

The girl was quite clearly on the brink of collapse. He feels a bit bad for drugging her against her will, but he also thinks she could use the rest. And anyway, he’s the Dark Lord. Giving a young woman a few hours of well-needed rest is hardly the worst thing he’s ever done.

 

He’d felt the boy’s magic begin to spike during their conversation, an eminent sign of his awakening. He had been wondering how he would manage to get the boy alone long enough to discuss the outcome of the ritual when the maid had announced lunch. The opportunity was too easy to pass up. Now he simply had to wait for the boy to awaken— hopefully he wouldn’t need the full five hours the sleep potion will be effective for that. He needed to discuss things with the boy, after all.

 

Gellert doesn’t have to wait long.

 

The boy groans a bit, shifting underneath the blankets.

 

His eyes widen in alarm as a dark mist seems to seep out of the boy. His wand snaps into his hand, and he is immediately throwing up defensive wards around the room as a precaution.

 

He keeps his wand aimed at the boy, watching with apprehension as the black mist seems to take form. It’s faint in the afternoon sun, but it appears almost… humanoid? It slides in and out of his vision, a dark blur like melted shadow, flickering in the warm light of day. If he concentrates too hard on the shape, it vanishes. But if he turns his gaze away from it, watching it from the corner of his eye… It is a figure dripping in shadow, spine curled, shoulders bowed as it hovers over the boy.  

 

Then the boy groans again and opens his eyes. The figure is gone completely. The air in the room seems to settle, as if it’s presence had disrupted the world around it.

 

Grindelwald frowns, keeping his wand ready.

 

“What— “ The boy rubs his eyes sleepily. He looks around the room, of course seeing the Dark Lord first, who is discreetly tucking away his wand. Then his eyes find Harry.

 

“Harry!” He all but leaps out of the bed, the Dark Lord barely having any time to catch him by the chest and push him back.

 

“You’re still unwell,” he reminds him, as the boy struggles to get up. “You’ve been unconscious for over twelve hours.”

 

This effectively gives the boy pause. “Twelve hours?” He repeats, eyes widening. “What— what happened?”

 

“I wanted to ask you that, actually.” The man returns, coolly. “The ritual was not supposed to do that. I know for a fact that it’s preparations were done correctly, so it could only have been because of something you did.”

 

At first the boy looks mutinous.

 

Then he pales.

 

The Dark Lord spares a moment to be triumphant. Ah, as he had suspected. There was no way the full moon or Samhain could cause a ritual to go so poorly. It had to have been something the boy had done.

 

“Well?” He prods, raising a brow. “What did you do?”

 

Reluctantly, the boy rolls up his sleeves, revealing bandages up his forearms.

 

The Dark Lord’s eyes widen when he sees them.

 

“I didn’t think it would make it all go wrong.” The boy insists, in a small voice. “They were just supposed to give me more magic.”

 

He quickly unbinds the bandages, revealing the wounds beneath. They are runic symbols, scabbed over at this point from where the boy must have cut them into his skin. Gellert turns both his arms over to full inspect them. They don’t appear to be anything strange. These are incredibly basic runes; people use them for charms and potions all the time. It’s not uncommon to find these same runes transcribed on the bottom of cauldrons or on school-issue broomsticks. They’re especially effective for young wizards and witches who can’t quite regulate their magic.

 

They’re elementary. Not nearly enough to cause a ritual to go wrong.

 

Gellert frowns down at them. It doesn’t make any sense.

 

Then he looks at the bandages, and realization hits him.

 

He has to take a step back for a moment, as the implications hit him in full force.

 

Tom watches him with alarm. “What?” He asks, panicked. “What is it? What happened?”

 

The Dark Lord takes a moment to collect himself, expression grim.

 

“You started a blood sacrifice.” He reveals, succinctly.

 

The boy pales. “I… What?” He swallows, gasping for air. “I didn’t! When did I—

 

Grindelwald points to the boy’s arms, wounds still freshly pink. The boy stares down at them. It takes a moment for the realization to sink in, and when it does, the child looks as if he’ll be sick. Unfortunately, Gellert does not have any words to console him.

 

Blood sacrifices are powerful and dangerous magic, not to be trifled with by amateurs. He couldn’t think of anyone more suited for the word then the boy in front of him. He barely even knew the theory of rituals, let alone the consequences of them.

 

The child looks to be hyperventilating, growing paler and paler by the second.

 

“I’m assuming those wounds were fresh last night,” the man remarks, impassive. “And if they were, then you entered into a ritual circle with fresh blood. Your own blood. A child’s blood. You know what that means, don’t you?”

 

Tom nods numbly. Yes of course he knows what it means.

 

He just can’t believe he overlooked something so obvious. He’s never felt so stupid.

 

The Dark Lord sighs. There’s no use yelling at the boy. He clearly knows the consequences he’s facing, and there’s no use crying over spilt potion. “Sacrificial rituals involving children are considered the darkest and most hideous of all magics. Their consequences can be… cataclysmic. Fortunately, it was only a small bit of blood given— not your life entirely. Still you must realize how powerful your blood is. The blood, body and soul are the three cornerstones of magic and to give one up so freely and thoughtlessly is careless indeed.”

 

“I understand.” The boy whispers, still looking lost as he stares down at the wounds on his arms.

 

Gellert sighs again, and waves his wand to heal the boy’s injuries. Soon enough they are nothing but small, almost insignificant silvery scars on his arms.

 

“I had told you earlier that the ritual was of Carthaginian origin, did I not?” He waves a chair away from the wall to trot over to the boy’s bed, seating himself beside the boy’s bedside. He has a feeling this may take a while. Tom nods in response, so he continues; “The Carthaginian pantheon of gods was immense. Most of their sacrificial rituals were done at the altar of one of these gods.”

 

Tom nods slowly, aware of all of this already.

 

“The grandest of their offerings to their gods were their own children,” he reveals, to the boy’s horror. “Child sacrifice was common in the Phoenician colonies. Children were most likely sacrificed for all the gods, but were often burned at the altar of one particular god, Baal-Hammon. Scholars dispute why exactly they did this, but most agree it was out of religious piety and a belief that the sacrifice would bring good tidings to the entire community.”

 

The boy takes a shaky breath. “...Was that true?”

 

Gellert blinks. “Did the sacrifices work, you mean to ask? Yes, I would imagine so, at least to some degree. They were scorned by all communities at the time for the practice, but there must have been a reason for it. At any rate, Baal-Hammon, as he was called in Carthage, was a god that went by many names. The interpretatio graeca identifies him as Cronus in the Greek pantheon, and Saturn in the Roman one. As such, he is a wildly powerful god that was worshipped quite widely around the world in the age of antiquity.”

 

Tom frowns at the explanation, a sinking feeling growing in his stomach. “And… what does that have to do with me?”

 

“Well, as I said, the ritual was of Phoenician and Carthaginian origins.” The Dark Lord explains, calmly.  “And you, a child, entered into a ritual with offerings to the other planes with your own blood coating your arms. By anyone’s standards, that is a sacrificial offering of a child’s blood.”

 

Tom blanches. He looks down at his arms, pale and shaking and scarred. He looks small and scared, as he stares wide-eyed down at the bedspread. Gellert is annoyed to realize he seems to have somehow, unfathomably, become fond of the boy in their short tenure together. He can’t help it though, their similarities are so startling; he sees so much of himself in the boy.

 

Tom rubs absently at his arms. “So, what now?” He makes a valiant effort to sound calm, but his fear is quite evident. “Did I mark myself for death?”

 

“I am unfamiliar with human sacrifices.” The man admits. “I have a colleague that could perhaps shed some light. But in the meanwhile, to answer your question— no, I don’t believe you’ve marked yourself for death. You would have been dead already had the god wanted your life as sacrifice. And at any rate, those children were all in infancy, and were burned alive. The methods of sacrifice vary too much to be considered in the same light.”

 

The child nods silently, looking as if he has not been mollified slightly by Gellert’s words.

 

The Dark Lord frowns thoughtfully, recalling what he had seen earlier. He had come to the conclusion that the form he had seen hunched over the boy had been none other than the ancient god, Baal-Hammon. And yet, the god did not seem hostile to the boy at all, and had not made any move to collect on his sacrifice. Gellert had to wonder if the ritual could even be considered a sacrifice at all. Blood rituals normally were sacrifices of some kind, but to what extent? The boy hadn’t sacrificed his own life. He’d merely given his blood. To Gellert, that sounded more like…

 

“I will have to confirm it, but I have a suspicion that you have entered into a pact with the god.” He says, suddenly, mind whirling with possibilities.

 

The boy sits up straighter. If possible, he looks even more alarmed. “A pact? What kind of pact?” He presses, panicking.

 

“As I said, this particular branch of Dark Magic is not my specialty,” he reminds the child, “so it is merely speculation. But Baal-Hammon, or Saturn, as he is perhaps best known as in history, was said to be a benign god. He was the Roman god of time, wealth and agriculture, and although his exact role in both the Roman and Greek pantheon is complex and widely disputed, he was known for bountiful harvests and passing knowledge to men.”

 

Tom digests this all in silence, unsure of how to respond. It was just… it was a lot. He still couldn’t quite believe he’d managed to ruin a ritual so impressively. Not only had he not gotten what he was supposed to out of it, he managed to botch it so completely he’d ended up doing an entirely different ritual instead. He didn’t know if his Ancient Magics teacher would laugh or strangle him. Probably both.

 

“So considering the god in question, I would have to say you are not cursed, but rather, blessed.” He concludes, still in awe himself at this turn of events. He’d never met anyone marked by a god, whether benignly or not.

 

Then again, he had told Harry earlier that the boy was destined for great things…

 

Tom’s gaze trails over towards the girl in question, sleeping quietly into the warm afternoon. “What did you— did you say anything to Harry?”

 

“Ah, yes, that.” He pulls a book out of his coat pocket. “I told her we were practicing simple spells from the Semitic languages.”

 

“Semitic languages?” Tom repeats, brow furrowing.

 

“A subset of the larger Afro-Asiatic language family, which notably includes Arabic, Hebrew, and Egyptian.” Gellert explains.

 

Tom perks up with interest. No matter the circumstances, he is always interested in learning new things. “I’ve never heard of a language family. What is that?”

 

Gellert looks pleased to have such a captive audience in the boy. “I don’t have much time to do the subject it’s due, but to put it simply it is a family of languages that share a common ancestor. For example, Latin is part of the Indo-European language family. Germanic, Slavic, Persian, and of course English are also in this family. For this reason it is the language family taught in all magical schools throughout Europe.”

 

“But it’s not the only language of magic.” Tom says.

 

“No, of course not. Which is why it is important to learn the other language families, as there are spells and branches of magic that are unique to each subset.”

 

Tom listens eagerly, fully prepared to research the subject when he gets home. His gaze drifts over to Harry again. He wonders what she’d think of this. It’s probably for the best she doesn’t know.

 

“So, Harry thinks we were practicing basic spells?”

 

The Dark Lord shrugs. “Basic is relative. There are complications to transitioning between entire language families— although I may have exaggerated the extent of them.”

 

Tom sighs. “She’s going to have my head if she finds out.” He says, mostly to himself.

 

She’ll have mine as well, Gellert thinks, not unkindly. It seems he and the boy are already partners in crime.

 

“It’s imperative she doesn’t.” He tells the boy, seriously. “I highly doubt she’d allow me to continue teaching you if she found out the true extent of our ‘research’.”

 

Tom’s head snaps up at that. “You… you want to teach me?” He asks, perhaps a bit breathlessly.

 

The Dark Lord raises a brow. “Has that not been what I’ve been doing this whole weekend?”

 

Well, yes. But a weekend was one thing. To receive tutoring from a Dark Lord indefinitely…

 

Tom’s eyes narrow then.

 

… sounds too good to be true.

 

“What do you want in return?” He demands, sharply.

 

The man smiles. Tom has learned not to trust those smiles though, so he remains unmoved. “Is it really so difficult to believe that I think you have potential? I think you will grow to do great things for Dark Magic.”

 

Tom is not fooled in the least. “And it has absolutely nothing to do with Harry, huh?”

 

He debates the best course of action as he observes the boy. He could lie, of course, but he wonders how effective that would actually be. If he lies the boy will remain mistrustful of him, and if the boy doesn’t trust him, there’s no hope that Harry will. If he wants Harry to trust him, he has a feeling the simplest path is through the boy in front of him.

 

“Not entirely,” he settles for an enigmatic half-truth. Enough to content the boy, but not enough to give anything truly important away. “I truly believe you will become an impressive sorcerer in your own right—” (and a great follower, if he plays his cards right) “— And as a Lord of Dark Magic I have a responsibility to see the magic continue into the next generation. Harry and I are a different matter entirely. That you happen to be her ward certainly isn’t a bad thing, but no, my intentions with you are not related to her.”

 

Tom still looks skeptical, but there is enough truth in his words to mollify the boy. Or at least enough to get the boy to drop the subject.

 

“And what about this… this god?” He shrivels his nose. “What should I do? Can I— can I get rid of it somehow?”

 

He’s never heard of anyone getting rid of a god, although he supposes they had to have been banished from this realm somehow to begin with. But the banishment of such deities and demons was a long time ago, and he’s not sure if he knows anyone alive who would still know how to do it. It will have to be yet another thing he will have to ask Amir, when next he sees him. And if he's truly wishing to speculate, he can't help but imagine that the most likely sorcerer currently on this earth who could have the power to do that would actually be the girl sleeping in this room.

 

“If there are ways to do so, I don’t know of them.” He replies. “All we can do now is wait, and hope it is not malevolent.”

 

Tom shivers at the thought. He looks down at his arms again. It’s almost as if he can feel it, in some strange way…

 

“Okay.” He agrees. There’s nothing else he can do. If even a Dark Lord of Magic doesn’t know the answer, there’s little hope a pre-adolescent student would.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

The Dark Lord leaves soon after that, saying there are people he needs to talk to before he can give Tom a clear answer on his situation.

 

Tom doesn’t want to be left alone right now, especially not with this— this thing apparently haunting him. An ancient god from a time long lost to history. He still can’t believe it happened. He still can’t believe he was stupid enough to let it happen.

 

And that’s to say nothing on the emergence of this new Dark Lord in his life…

 

He knows even less what to think of that.

 

“At least you’re pretty straightforward, huh?” He traces the symbols on his arms, idly wondering why it seems so comforting.

 

And then there’s this whole mess with Harry.

 

That at least, he can do something about.

 

He carefully climbs out of the bed, walking towards the girl slumbering in the armchair by the window. Grindelwald had given him the antidote to the sleeping potion he’d given her, although he also said she would wake up on her own soon enough, and it seemed like she needed the rest. Tom could admit he was probably right; the day couldn’t have been easy for Harry. He feels terrible for worrying her like this. He feels terrible for the way he’d treated her these last few weeks, too. He felt like he was always messing up when it came to Harry.

 

He holds the antidote below her nose, waiting a couple seconds before hiding it in his pocket.

 

She stirs almost immediately, moaning slightly as she stretches.

 

“...Harry?” He calls, tentatively.

 

Her eyes snap open at that.

 

“Tom!” She cries, leaping towards him to envelop him tightly in her arms. “Oh thank Merlin you’re okay… I was so worried…”

 

“I’m sorry for worrying you.” He croaks out, holding her just as tightly. “It was just an accident, promise.”

 

“Don’t ever do that again okay?” She whispers fiercely, sounding like she might fall apart.

 

“I’m sorry.” He says again, because they both know he can't promise that. They both know there will always be dark magic that will entice him too greatly.

 

Never in his entire life had he ever said those words with any real sincerity. Not until he’d met Harry. And he’s never felt more remorseful than he does now— he just, he’s sorry for everything.

 

“It’s okay,” Harry murmurs against him. “I know, it was an accident. I was just so scared, you know? I know you love the Dark Arts and I would never try to keep them from you, but I never want to see you like that again. I was so scared, Tom.”

 

“I’m sorry.” He chokes out, yet again. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to say it enough. “Not just for all this, but for earlier too. I’m sorry I yelled at you… I know you really weren’t trying to abandon me, but I just thought…”

 

“Oh, Tomcat, it’s okay.” He’s relieved to hear the familiar name roll off her tongue; he’d worried she would stop using it for good, after how he handled it last time. “I know it was hard on you. I probably could have handled it better too. I’m not going anywhere, okay?”

 

She leans back to smile at him, perhaps a bit tearfully. “I think these days I have more reason to worry about you going somewhere.”

 

He ducks his head bashfully. “I really didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

 

“From what the Buchanan’s told me, you’ve been nothing but a courteous guest.” Harry shakes her head. “Aside from trying out spells you probably shouldn’t be— which isn’t anything new— I don’t think you’ve caused trouble at all.”

 

“I’ll be more careful next time.” He swears, and he means that wholeheartedly.

 

He’ll never make such a foolish mistake ever again.

 

The Dark Arts leave no room for error. They punish any and all mistakes; this goes for all branches of it, but extremely so for its more malevolent niches. To so stupidly botch a blood ritual like that… Tom shivers at the mere idea. He still can’t believe he was that stupid. He could have died. He was so close to it— so close he was positively terrified, even hours later. But he had to be strong now, for Harry. He couldn’t ever let her know what he had done, what he intended to continue doing. The Dark Lord was probably right in that. Telling Harry would be a disastrous idea.

 

He didn’t like the idea of keeping secrets from her, but he’s been keeping secrets from adults his entire life.

“Okay,” Harry breathes, rubbing his cheeks with her thumbs as she smiles at him. “I love you Tomcat.” She says, so simply and easily it knocks the breath out of him.

 

He feels overcome with emotion for a long moment, and doesn’t manage to respond. His throat feels dry and his heart three sizes too small. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to hearing that. “...Harry…” He manages to get out, eyes wide.

 

She shakes her head, smiling ruefully. “You don’t have to say anything,” she assures him. “I just really want you to know. I don’t want us to ever part on bad terms again, okay? No matter how mad we are at each other.”

 

“Okay.” He nods fiercely, diving into her arms once again. The idea of never seeing her again and never getting the opportunity to apologize is a terrifying one.

 

He would never do something so monumentally stupid again. No more stupid fights with Harry, no more stupid mistakes. He would be better from now on.

 

He vows it to himself, in the silence of the room as Harry’s arms wrap around him. And he’s never broken a promise to himself.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

Tom,

 

I have spoken to the colleague of mine who is well versed in the matter.

 

As I had suspected, you have entered into a pact with the Carthaginian god, Baal-Hammon; known to the Romans as Saturn; known to the Greeks as Cronus. He is also sometimes referred to as Chronus, as he is the god of time. Chiefly, he holds domain over time, but his powers differ in account by region and culture. As this was a Carthaginian ritual the god will most likely be in its Carthaginian personification.

 

That was probably for the best, for what he had read on the Greek Titan Cronus was a rather daunting account of castration and cannibalism.

 

Baal-Hammon was the King of Gods in the Carthaginian pantheon, and was best known as the weather god. He is also the god of fertility and vegetation. From what my colleague can infer, a pact with Baal-Hammon would give a sorcerer powers over weather and the natural elements, principally wood, water and fire, the elements associated with vegetation and life. He also suggests a possible career in Herbology.

 

Tom snorts. As if he would ever give up his dreams of Dark Magic to be a gardener of all things.

 

Baal-Hammon is, indeed, a relatively benign god, especially in comparison to his other forms, Cronus and Saturn. As your pact was unintentional, whatever covenant you have with the god is impossible to say. More than likely the only way to get a definitive answer on the entails of your agreement would be to speak to the god directly, however, I would not advise it quite yet. He appears to have left you alone for now, and in the meantime I suggest researching him more thoroughly.

 

My colleague does not think you are in any immediate or imminent danger, but gods are powerful and mercurial, and may change their minds at any time. As you have given him a blood sacrifice you currently hold his blessing and his favor, but that could easily change. Take caution.

 

The letter was unsigned, but there was only one person who could have sent it.

 

To his lack of surprise, the letter morphed itself the moment he was done reading it. He would expect nothing less than the utmost protocols of secrecy from the great Dark Lord. What did surprise him was what it turned into; an incredibly innocuous school letterhead advising on scheduling for the upcoming holidays.

 

“Oh, is that your schedule for next term?” Harry peers over his shoulder, skimming the note.

 

Tom’s heart almost leaps out of his chest. He barely manages to recover from jumping out of his chair. “Um, yeah. Looks like.”

 

She plucks it out of his hands, clearly oblivious to what it had been a second ago.

 

Tom stares down at the envelop it had come in this morning; it even had the school address on it. How had the Dark Lord managed that, he wonders? Aren’t magical addresses protected from tampering? At any rate he can’t help but be relieved over the man’s secrecy measures; otherwise, he would have to do a lot of explaining to Harry.

 

As it is, she makes a noise of intrigue and pencils something into her calendar, looking none the wiser.

 

Things have settled between the two of them, to his endless relief and gratitude. He still refrains from sleeping in her bed too often, not only because he thinks he’s getting too old for it, but also because he’s worried she’ll notice the faint scars on his arms. They’re barely noticeable now, and with the colder weather he’s rarely out of a long-sleeved sweater or shirt, but all the same he’s so hyper aware of them he worries everyone can see them. Harry certainly hasn’t noticed yet, but there’s a good possibility she will if he spends too much time that close to her. He’ll wait until they’re entirely gone before he lets his guard down.

 

He hasn’t said anything about the Dark Lord to her, aside from a brief explanation for what happened while she was away.

 

Her expression had been… curious, when he’d mentioned him.

 

He’d asked her if they were ‘friends’, and she had blanched almost immediately and insisted otherwise. That being said she did admit to having some kind of acquaintanceship with him, which was alarming in and of itself. She wouldn’t say how they knew each other— just that they’d met a few times, what with the small circles of upper aristocracy being the tight-knit groups they were. He had a feeling the two were being intentionally vague about their relationship, which irritated him to no end.

 

Unfortunately though, Harry was an adult, and he was a child. It was inevitable they would have separate lives and relationships from each other.

 

He loathed to admit it, but if his stay at the Buchanan’s had taught him anything, it was that he was a child, and had a lot to learn. He deserved to be called an ignorant and immature child after the stunt he’d pulled. He was lucky he’d managed to come out of it in one piece, with nothing but a vague alliance with an ancient god to show for it.

 

He wanted to be someone impressive. Someone special. Someone better than the rest. But he had a long road ahead of him, and getting arrogant and overconfident would only lead him to make the same mistake he’d made with the ritual— only the next time, he may very well pay for his mistake with his life. Or worse.

 

He shivers at the thought, brushing it away so Harry doesn’t see his horrified expression.

 

Fortunately Harry is very distracted. The mail came in this morning, and Harry has put down his ‘school schedule’ in favor of a pristine white lace card. Upon further inspection, it was not quite white, but rather, a shade of pale blue with white snowflakes falling endlessly down the paper. It looked like an invitation to something boring and involving a lot of people, so Tom dismissed it in favor of sneakily tugging his ‘school schedule’ away from her. He breathes a sigh of relief when she doesn’t even notice, tucking it into his back pocket.

 

“Harry?” He asks, and it takes a moment for her to tear her eyes away from her mail.

 

“Yes?” She returns, perhaps a bit too quickly. Tom is so concerned over hiding his own letter that he doesn’t notice when she does the exact same to  hers.

 

“Are we going to go to Diagon Alley again for Christmas shopping?” He asks, if only to carry some kind of conversation. “And when are we getting our Christmas tree?”

 

Harry blinks, completely blindsided.

 

Christmas had really snuck up on her this year. But it just felt like so many things were going on. Work was always interesting and fast-paced and an entirely separate part of her life that tended to take on a life of its own, but then there was also all this stuff that happened with Tom, and Tom’s circle of friends inevitably dragging her into the clutches of American aristocracy. She’d been dodging invitations left and right and she was beginning to get exhausted by it all. She was dreading the amount of invitations she was going to get for the upcoming Yule season. She had a sinking suspicion that Charlotte Washington was trying to set her up with marriage candidates, and there were only so many times Harry could weasel her way out of it before it became impolite.

 

“Well, why don’t we go right now?” She suggests, smiling.

 

“Right now?” Tom blinks. “Alright. Just give me a second.”

 

He rushes up the stairs, which is just as well, since Harry could use a private moment too. She takes the card out of her purse, where she’d hastily stuffed it before Tom could take a look at it.

 

It was yet another invitation, but this time she hesitated in declining it.

 

She’d already heard of Lord Grindelwald’s Yuletide Gala— it was practically infamous within pureblood society, and basically every parent at Tom’s school had talked about it at least once as the season crept upon them. She had wondered if she would get an invitation; it was an exclusive gathering after all, only those from the richest families and highest pedigrees were allowed. Seeing as though Harry was from neither of those, she saw no reason why she would make the cut on that criteria alone.

 

But considering Lord Grindelwald’s personal interest in her…

 

Harry sighs, rubbing her temples.

 

She was still no fan of the man. He made her on edge, and she knew she could never let her guard down with him. And it wasn’t just about her and whatever he wanted from her. Now there were his intentions with Tom to think about too. He says he merely wants to guide the boy in his journey through the Dark Arts, but as if Harry would believe that nonsense.

 

And yet, Tom had been surprisingly agreeable with the idea. Harry had thought the boy didn’t like the man much, just judging from his reactions to him. But Tom hadn’t seemed irritated with the man as he had after his graduation ceremony; he had actually been rather complimentary.

 

He’d said that he found the Dark Lord annoying and interesting in equal turns, a sentiment Harry couldn’t help but agree with.

 

She definitely found him annoying too. And yet there was something rather interesting to his character. He was not the two-dimensional specter of evil her history books had always painted him as. And if she was being truthful, she still didn’t know what his real aims were. She had thought it had been the annihilation of muggles and muggleborns, but now she couldn’t say that for sure. His actions certainly didn’t line up with that train of thought. He had stayed in a muggle house, after all, and had even gone to muggle church, according to Tom. That in and of itself was boggling.

 

Then there was how he treated her. He said he wanted answers from her, but instead of ripping them out of her he backed away instead. She had cried on him, for Merlin’s sake, and all he did was offer her tea and then leave her alone as she had asked. What kind of Dark Lord does that? For a man who was always depicted as bloodthirsty and ruthless in history books, he was surprisingly non-violent. Of course, he had tried to kill her during their first meeting, but even then he’d been oddly nice about it. There were all manner of torture and dark curses he could use to get what he wanted from her, and yet the last time they met, if she was being honest, he had been nothing but a true gentleman. And there was something unguarded to him then, that made her positive his words had been authentic.

 

And the man had a point regarding Tom, loathe as she was to admit it.

 

Harry knew Tom needed a mentor of sorts, someone well-versed in the Dark Arts that could lead him through the treacherous path of dark magic safely, someone who could teach him how to handle the intense strain of it. She knew he had professors, but Tom needed more than that. He was more than just a mere gifted student— he was a Dark Lord in the making. One day he would be even more powerful than Lord Grindelwald himself. One day, he would become the most feared wizard of all time.

 

She pulled herself out of those terrible thoughts. That wouldn’t happen, not this time. Not if Tom had someone to guide him. What if someone had been there when he had been exploring horcruxes? Someone whom he trusted and respected, whose opinions he would listen to? Would he still have gone through the atrocious and grotesque path of condemning his soul and splintering it into pieces, if there had been someone to warn him against it? Harry was no practitioner of the Dark Arts, but even she knew that soul magics were the darkest and most abhorrent of them all. And Tom had been so young then, not much older than he was now; it was no wonder he’d made such a disastrous mistake.

 

Harry had always thought that the future of Lord Voldemort could change if he had merely had a warm hand holding his own. Someone to make him feel a little less alone.

 

But she was beginning to wonder if he needed more than that.

 

Tom wasn’t going to slow down. He was going to continue pushing the boundaries of magic in his endless quest for knowledge, and there was going to be a time where he wouldn’t listen to her anymore. He’d already shown his streaks of independence multiple times, pushing her away as he grew into himself. She could beg with him all she liked but occurrences like the one over her trip were going to happen again sooner or later. And Harry wouldn’t be able to help him.

 

Lord Grindelwald, on the other hand, would certainly be able to help him.

 

But he might just lead Tom even more astray.

 

Harry bites her lip, conflicted.

 

How was she supposed to make a gamble like that? She didn’t know anything about the man.

 

That was the problem though, wasn’t it? Harry didn’t trust him in the slightest, because she didn’t know him. He was a mysterious and mercurial character, who tended to confuse Harry as much as he annoyed her.

 

And there was only one real way to rectify that.

 

To the party she goes, then, she thinks with exasperation.

 

At the very least, it will be an excellent opportunity to buy a new dress.

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

He’s never bothered with fairy tales, but everyone knows this story.

 

Harry is no downtrodden scullery maid, and definitely didn’t arrive in a pumpkin, but all the same she undoubtedly made an entrance fit for a queen when she had no business doing so. There are actual princesses here who did not arrive with as much style and flare as she did. No, Gellert is not surprised in the least to find that Harry effortlessly outshines all of them. Literally. He’s fairly sure her dress lights up. Her entrance was so subtle and elegant it easily overshadowed the grand procession of the actual royal introductions. She just arrived, allowed the doorman to assist her up the staircase, and waltzed right inside without any announcement at all. There were no trumpets, no house elf proclaiming a litany of titles. It was the mystery of it all that was so fascinating.

 

Cinderella has finally shown up to the ball.

 

It makes his lips tilt upwards, almost unwillingly.

 

“ — Lord Grindelwald?”

 

He— rather reluctantly— tears his attention away from the woman ascending the staircase into the ballroom, returning his gaze to the Austrian Minister and his wife.

 

He’s sure she’s probably wary and ill at ease, but it’s impossible to tell from her expression or posture. She looks relaxed— perhaps even a bit bored. He makes sure to keep her within his line of sight, even as he allows Minister Hans to preoccupy his attention once more.

 

“Ah yes, the recent Scandinavian treaty,” he replies, sharp as ever even as most of his attention is diverted. “I’m not surprised in the least with their neutrality. If anything, I find the situation to be highly favorable…”

 

The treaty signed between the Norwegian and Swedish Ministers is a topic that, by all accounts, should hold his full attention. That they’re choosing to stay neutral through this affair is telling; hedging their bets in such a way that leaves them unaffected no matter who wins the war in the magical world is a sure sign that they— and the rest of Europe— do not hold much faith in the Allied powers. It’s a fascinating turn of events, and one ripe for exploitation. And yet, he finds himself more interested in watching a stunning young woman across the ballroom.

 

He can’t help but marvel at her mere presence here at all. He hadn’t expected it. He’d sent the invitation mainly on a whim, expecting a prompt decline from the girl. But still, it was the polite thing to do, and he’d lived in high society long enough to know it was easier to just play by their rules. To say this was unexpected would be a hideous understatement indeed. Harry, voluntarily seeking him out? He couldn’t imagine her attending for any other reason. She didn’t have any political aims, and didn’t care at all for her standing in society. She had no reason to associate herself with the upper echelons of European society, and that was really the only reason anyone attended these sort of gatherings. It was certainly why everyone else was here.

 

But if she was here for him, he was still left with endless questions. What did she want with him? Why bother to drag herself through all this pomp and circumstance?

 

It could be for only one reason.

 

She was considering his offer to teach the boy.

 

He was eager to seek her out. Unfortunately, he had business to attend to first. With that thought, he forcefully tears his eyes away from the crowds and back to the couple in front of him.

 

It’ll have to wait until later. Already his mind has crafted the perfect way to get her alone. All he needs is a moment to call a house elf…

 

Meanwhile, Harry has surprised herself with how calm she feels.

 

She has always hated these sort of things. It was half the reason she had immediately fled Britain after she defeated the Dark Lord. The media circus was enough to give anyone an anxiety attack, but especially a girl like her, who had grown up basically ignored by humanity at large.

 

To her relief Charlotte Washington is quick to swoop her up into her exclusive entourage, and Harry willingly lets her. There is an appropriate amount of gushing over her dress, her shoes, and hairstyle, which Harry dutifully parrots back. It’s almost reassuring how the absurd and complicated female protocols haven’t changed in over fifty years.

 

However, she didn’t come here to gossip and socialize. She came here for a very specific reason— a reason that is across the ballroom, and doesn’t seem to have any interest in coming to her, despite the fact she’s sure he already knows she’s here. And hell if she goes over to him. She knows he’s watching her, and she refuses to give him the satisfaction. Instead she plucks a glass of champagne off of a floating silver tray, and decides she may as well make the most of his generosity and get as drunk as possible.

 

She doesn’t want to, but she finds herself glancing briefly at him anyhow. He looks good in anything, but Harry has to privately admit she’s always had a weakness for men in well tailored suits. Something about the flowing and shapeless robes wizards tended to prefer were always so dreadfully boring to her. And she’s not all that fond of the more Edwardian-era wear that is equally as prevalent in magical society either (although Gellert can pull that off excellently as well). She’s surprised he had foregone his usual over-the-top opulence, high-collar, slim cut lapels, tailored frock coat and baroque brocade, in favor of a slim, modern-cut suit.

 

Harry tears her eyes away. Honestly, does she have to think of this now? She blames it on her recent trip to Vegas, surrounded by engineers in their hoodies and t-shirts. Any girl would be dying for a well-dressed man after that nonsense.  

 

“— Harry! Harry!”

 

She’s stirred out of her musings by Charlotte. At first she is relieved to be distracted from her thoughts; the relief soon turns despondent when she realizes the woman is guiding a man in full regalia her way. On the subject of well-dressed men, here comes another one. He’s not unattractive in the least, but all the same Harry has no interest. Charlotte Washington seems dead set on playing matchmaker for her; Harry would love nothing more to tell her off, but unfortunately in this day and age an unwed girl like herself couldn’t be seen as disinterested in the courting process. It was anomalous and, frankly, suspicious. She didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself than there already was.

 

So she puts on her most facetious smile and turns towards them as they near.

 

“Harry, I’d like to introduce you to someone, a dear friend,” Charlotte twitters, placing a shoulder on the tall man’s arm. “This is The Viscount Charles Colville of Culross, he’s a member of the House of Lords and an incredibly accomplished potioneer. And the best polo player this side of Wales, if I do say so myself.”

 

The man smiles beatifically down at Charlotte. “I don’t know if I would go that far,” he laughs. “I’ve yet to beat Lord William Washington, after all.”

 

“Ah, but I did say this side of Wales,” Charlotte emphasizes with a wicked smile. She turns to Harry. “Viscount this is Harriet Potter, the girl I was telling you about. She’s charming, is she not?”

 

Put on the spot like that, the Viscount really has no other choice but to say, “Indeed, Lady Charlotte.” Harry sort of feels bad for the guy, really.

 

He gets off the hook though when another man approaches them and asks to borrow him briefly. Harry breathes out a sigh of relief as they step to the side, backs turned to them.

 

“He’s a fabulous catch, darling,” Charlotte demures, while his attention is occupied. “Handsome, perhaps a bit older in age, but from a very well-to-do family. The Colville’s have been Lords of Culross since 1604— that’s an impressive lineage.”

 

Harry just nods along, most of that going over her head.

 

Charlotte rests her hand on her shoulder, an urgent expression on her face. “Dear, I really don’t think you’ll find better than this.” She says, seriously. “Please don’t get me wrong, I mean no offense. But as an unclaimed scion of the Potter family, finding an adequate husband of fine standing will be difficult. Not to mention raising a child out of wedlock… don’t worry, I’ve explained the circumstances to him already. It’s very charitable of you to raise a child that isn’t your own, but it is quite a thorny situation, you know… it's just, what with inheritance and all, it's only natural to be concerned when he’ll most likely want children of his own. And it’s already difficult enough as it is, especially this courting season, so I truly advise not to let this opportunity go to waste.”

 

Harry stares at her, unable to formulate a response that doesn’t scathingly insult the contemporary patriarchy.

 

“I— I need some air,” she says instead. Charlotte gives her a vaguely alarmed look.

 

“I’ll be back,” she reassures, with a hapless smile and a gesture to her champagne. “I just feel a bit light-hearted.”

 

Charlotte’s expression is worried. “Well, alright. But please don’t take too long.”

 

Harry nods, before turning swiftly on her heel and making for the french doors behind her. Fortunately they are open, and she pushes past them and into the cold winter night. She meets the cool air with nothing short of relief. She sets her champagne glass down on the stone ledge, leaning against the balcony with a long sigh.

 

“By Merlin, I forgot how awful this is,” Harry sighs, absently nudging her glass with a finger. “Why can’t they all just leave me alone?”

 

She has no interest in marrying anyone, Viscount or not, and everything about this strange courting process makes her skin crawl.

 

“It must be your effortless beauty and clever charm.”

 

Harry does not turn around, finding herself wholly unsurprised by the new voice behind her.

 

“Effortless?” Harry snorts, straightening up. Clearly he’s never seen her morning beauty regimen. And that’s just skincare. “Not in the least. But thanks.”

 

“Is that so? What’s your secret, then? I ask for all the ladies in the room, who obviously want to know but are too arrogant to ever say it.”

 

“Snails.” Harry deadpans, not lying in the least.

 

Gellert blinks.

 

She pushes off the ledge, turning around to face him. “You’re obviously not here to ask me about my beauty routine,” Harry cuts to the chase. “As much as I would love to go over it.”

 

“A riveting subject I’m sure— but no, it’s not what I wanted to discuss. And, I suspect, it’s not what you came all the way here for either.”

 

Harry sighs, examining her almost empty flute of champagne. “You’re not wrong.” She shrugs. “Find me another one of these, and you’ll have yourself a deal.” She holds her glass aloft.

 

Gellert laughs. “Is that so? Well, I happen to have a brand new and absolutely exquisite bottle of the highest quality; it’s not even on the market yet, but I happen to be friends with the owner.”

 

“Of course you are.” Harry scoffs, but doesn’t turn him down. “Very well then, lead the way I suppose.”

 

“Have you eaten yet?” He asks, contemplatively.

 

“...No.” Harry hesitates in replying, knowing full well what this question is leading up to. She almost wants to say yes, just to avoid having dinner with him, before ultimately giving it up as a lost cause. She’s already decided to talk to him, may as well have plenty of food and alcohol on hand.

 

Predictably he leads them far away from the party, down the marble steps of the veranda, and into the sprawling winter gardens. Harry feels as if she should be a bit more apprehensive about this; as it is she is warm from the champagne and the heating charms cast over the whole castle, and doesn’t really care. She supposes if there’s one good thing about being god, it’s that you rarely have to be worried over your own safety.

 

They reach a pavilion deep inside the rose hedges, so far that the castle and the party are nothing but bright lights and the distant sounds of laughter. The music seems to carry regardless somehow, most likely through some spell of some kind. It’s nothing Harry is familiar with; she’s sure Gellert could probably tell her the composer and the era it was from.

 

When she steps inside the warm interior of the belvedere there is a table set for two, with a chilled bucket set off to the side. Clearly he had planned this in advance. Why must he always be so charming? She thinks, begrudgingly. If he wasn’t an evil Dark Lord he could be a damn Disney prince.

 

But you don’t really know how evil he is, do you? A small part of her points out.

 

Well, hopefully by the end of the night she’ll have an answer to that.

 

“I would have set out aperitifs, but I wanted to ask for your preference first,” he says suavely, as he pulls out her chair. Harry almost wants to bat his hand away and pull it out herself, but decides it’s really not worth the effort. Anyway, if he wants to play gallant white knight he’s free to do so, as long as champagne is involved.

 

To Harry’s delight, the mystery vintage he was referring to is one she’s already very familiar with. She turns the label towards her; Dom Perignon Rosé. Hermione’s go to favorite. The last time they got this bottle was for Harry’s birthday. It certainly wasn’t cheap, so she’ll be sure to savor it.

 

“Something amusing?”

 

She shakes her head. “My favorite bottle,” she says, fondly.

 

His brow furrows. “It’s not for sale yet.” He points out, but she only smiles mysteriously.

 

“So, what were you saying about aperitifs?”

 

“Take your pick,” he gestures magnanimously, letting the matter drop in favor of getting dinner started. “The house elves can make anything you like.”

 

She raises a brow. “Anything?” She repeats, an obvious challenge in her eyes.

 

He meets her gaze head on. “Anything.” He repeats, smirking.

 

Harry almost wants to say something exotic, before deciding it wasn’t worth it. Also, the only exotic food she really wanted to eat right now was Ethiopian, and there was no way she would be able to eat that without getting most of it on herself— and in this dress, that was positively sacrilegious.

 

“I wouldn’t mind French,” she decides instead, and a basket with a fresh baguette and assortment of breads appears on the table, along with a generous cheese and charcuterie spread.

 

He looks a little disappointed, as if he had wanted her to rise to the challenge, but merely smiles ruefully. He certainly can't fault her choice.

 

Harry takes a bit of cheese and bread as it appears on the table, finding herself surprisingly ravenous.

 

Gellert watches her calmly, content to observe her for the moment.

 

It doesn’t bother Harry at all, as satisfied as she is with the simple pleasure of brioche bread and brie. And champagne. A bit of champagne never hurt anyone.

 

“Did you enjoy the party?” He asks, innocuously enough.

 

She swallows, reaching for her glass so she can take a moment to answer. She feels a little bad; he’d literally caught her complaining about how awful she thought it was, which was really rather rude of her. It wasn’t an easy thing, setting up such grand events like this. It seems horribly impolite to insult the host, even if that host happens to be Grindelwald.

 

“Ah, well— it’s really quite lovely.” She replies, flushing at the smirk she gets in return.

 

“There’s no need to lie to me,” he returns, wickedly amused.

 

“No, that’s not really… well,” Harry fiddles with her glass. “The castle looks beautiful, and the hors d’oeuvres were excellent and I’ve never once had to look around for someone to refill my glass. And the invite list seems to hold every significant person in Europe.”

 

It reminds her of the slug club, actually, except on an outrageously exponential scale.

 

Grindelwald gives a unconvinced hum, “And yet, I don’t think that’s all there is to it.”

 

She gives him a long look over her flute of champagne. What is he aiming for here? She decides to just answer him plainly; “If you’re waiting for me to say I hate these sort of parties, and these sort of people, then I won’t make you hold your breath on it. Yes, I’m not fond of both of them, but I’m well used to getting roped into events unwillingly.”

 

That was basically what being an adult was, after all. Having to do a lot of unreasonable and irritating things that you don’t want to with a begrudging acceptance.

 

“What is it you dislike about them?” He makes a vague gesture with his glass to the castle, lit up like Christmas in the dark evening.

 

Harry debates how to answer. “It’s not that I dislike them,” she refutes, carefully, “I think there are some truly nice and well-meaning people up there, I just dislike the pageantry of it all, I suppose. I find it inauthentic and tiring.”

 

He looks intrigued by her answer, but not surprised.

 

Gellert isn’t shocked at all to hear Harry’s opinion, but he can’t help but think she fits in so well with those people she dismisses so easily. Not in personality, but he doesn’t think anyone would look at her and think, ‘bastard scion of the Potter family’. She looks as if she belongs here, in his family’s mansion full of opulence and luxury, in a dress that puts every princess to shame, and a mysterious, elusive smile he thinks could be framed in the Louvre. He shakes his head ruefully. He’s probably getting ahead of himself.

 

“You seem to get along fine with Charlotte Washington.” He points out, speculative.

 

Harry can’t hold in her snort of amusement. “Out of necessity.” She points out in return. Then she lets out a breath. She has always hated talking poorly of people behind their backs, and now is no exception. “I mean— she’s nice.” She adds, pathetically. “I’m grateful she always introduces me and takes me under her wing, so to speak. These gatherings would be far more difficult without her here to help me navigate around.”

 

Harry sighs. “I just wish she’d stop trying to set me up. That poor Viscount earlier looked just as uncomfortable as I did! I understand she means well but I still find it so tedious.”

 

“Viscount?” The Dark Lord repeats, voice markedly calm.  

 

His tone of voice would have alarmed Harry if she was paying any attention. Instead she was reaching for more cheese, happy to have a willing audience to lament to. “Or maybe he was an Earl, I can’t remember. Either way he was apparently ‘the best option I’m going to get’ given my— circumstances.” Harry rolls her eyes, taking another bite of the brioche. Merlin, French was such a good idea.

 

The man narrows his eyes, tilting his head speculatively. “Does she do that often?”

 

“She hints at it often enough.” Harry shrugs, eying up the camambert. “This is the first time she’s actually introduced me to someone. I have a feeling it’s just going to get worse as the winter social season continues.”

 

He supposes he should have expected it.

 

He’d commented on it himself often enough— it was so anomalous to have a girl of marrying age so staunchly dismissive of the whole prospect. And she was an impressive candidate; young, lovely, and with a sum of her own wealth and no overpriced dowry hanging over her head. Sure, she was an unclaimed bastard of her family but as a woman she wouldn't have been the heir anyway, and it at least marked her of pureblood to some degree. There was the boy of course, to also complicate matters, but that was nothing having an heir or two of their own wouldn't fix; surely Harry would eventually acquiesce to giving the full inheritance to the heir by birthright.

 

And then there was the fact that Charlotte Washington of all people was willing to play matchmaker for her. Her network was near unrivaled in pureblood society. Having Charlotte as her sponsor during the social season would go a long way.

 

Yes, Harry receiving marriage prospects was not unexpected.

 

What was unexpected was his reaction to it.

 

Everything about the idea incensed him. He had a strong urge to go back to the party and find that stupid earl or viscount and shove him off the balcony, before turning his ire on Charlotte and proclaiming Harry off limits to such nonsense. The idea of anyone trying for her hand in marriage infuriated him, even though he wasn’t quite sure he was interested in that himself. He’d never given the thought much consideration… he’d always been caught up in his fascination with her. He’d never stopped to wonder what could come out of such a fascination. Or what it might mean, really, for a man to be that fixated on a woman.

 

But it's just… She was so much more than just a pretty face for sale, a broodmare who would provide strong heirs to carry the family name. No one understood that she was beyond all that, that she was destined for things greater than marriage. No one knew what she really was.

 

The girl in question is entirely oblivious to his thoughts. She pops a piece of cheese into her mouth, grinning slyly. “Well, I’m sure you probably feel my pain.” She can’t imagine Grindelwald as anything less than the best catch around.

 

This effectively breaks him out of his musings.

 

Then she pauses, a thought occurring to her. “Unless, you’re already— ?”

 

“No — marriage has never interested me.” He answers smoothly.

 

Harry actually feels a strange pang of sympathy for the man. She never knew the details of the relationship he’d had with her former professor, but she could imagine it was something they would have had to keep carefully hidden from society.

 

She nods along. “It’s really not for everyone.” She feels like she’s parroting Hermione right now. She’s also a bit bewildered with this turn of conversation. How had they gotten here, exactly? “It’s a bit annoying how much emphasis is put on it.”

 

He looks curious at that. “You wouldn’t marry, ever?”

 

“Well, I don’t really know.” She frowns thoughtfully. She doesn’t see how a marriage could fit into her foreseeable future in any feasible way. Or any part of her future, at all. “To say never is a bit excessive, but I don’t really see it happening for me. Right now, my only priority is Tom.” And judging by Tom’s reaction the last time the subject had been inadvertently brought up, he would never agree to it.

 

“That’s perfectly respectable.” He replies. “And I can tell you care for him deeply.”

 

Harry leans back, pursing her lips. The table clears, leaving behind fresh plates and silverware as the elves prepare for the main course.

 

“Yes he’s very important to me.” She agrees, evenly. “So you can see why I would be so reluctant to let just anyone have an influence on him.”

 

Gellert raises a cool brow. “Did his professors go through such a vetted interrogation?”

 

“Something like that, yes,” she returns, raising a brow of her own. “And at any rate, the scale of difference between one of his school teachers and you is a bit… exponential.”

 

He grins roguishly at that. “Oh? And what do you mean by that?”

 

Harry looks deeply unimpressed, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. “Modesty is lost upon you, isn’t it?” She asks, drily, taking a sip of her champagne.

 

“I find it useless and trying, yes. What is the point in downplaying achievements?” He shrugs, grin turning winsome.

 

Harry just shakes her head. She sets her glass down. “I mean to say that I know exactly who you are, and exactly how dangerous you can be. So why wouldn’t I be concerned over your intentions with my ward? How do I know you’re not just going to manipulate him to further your own aims?” In all fairness, she didn’t think Tom would ever allow that to happen. But it was the sentiment of the thing. And Tom was so young, still. It could still be possible, and Grindelwald was a master manipulator.

 

Grindelwald props his chin with an elegant hand, holding his champagne glass aloft for the bottle to diligently trot over and refill it. It settles back in its ice bucket as the man takes a sip. “I wonder, Harry— what exactly do you think my aims are?”

 

“That’s what I wanted to find out tonight, actually.” She sniffs primly, tugging her napkin onto her lap just as dinner arrives.

 

He blinks in surprise. “You want to know what my goals are?”

 

“Yes, and please don’t say world domination.” She rolls her eyes as she reaches for her fork.

 

He actually cracks a smile at that.

 

“I suppose I wanted to hear it from you, personally, rather than through whatever’s going around through the grapevine.” Harry explains, primly cutting into her coq au vin.

 

They’ve led her astray thus far in regards to him, at any rate.

 

She remembers her conclusive surprise and bewilderment after meeting him for the first time, back in Vienna. Aside from that whole death and resurrection spectacle, she had also been stuck on how… remarkably different he had been from what she had expected. His answers had always surprised her; his viewpoint always something she hadn’t expected. He seemed so much different than the Dark Lord Voldemort, who set out to eliminate entire masses of people and magical creatures alike. And yet, from what Harry remembers from her history lessons the two of them should have been so similar.

 

Of course, history is always written by the victor, so of course they would want to paint him in the most horrible light possible.

 

“Yes, rumors have a terrible way of distorting the truth into something sensational.” He agrees, reaching for his own silverware. “I think we’ve discussed it, at least briefly. I plan on changing the wizarding world, whether they want to be changed or not; I don’t care what I have to do to get there.”

 

Harry stares at him, digesting his words. He doesn’t rush her, cutting in to his own dish as he waits patiently for her to consider this. She puts her fork down. “But what do you want to see changed?”

 

“All of it.” He says succinctly.

 

That’s almost as bad as world domination, Harry thinks mind reeling. “...All of it?”

 

“Wizengamot is a waste; the Ministries are no better. We look down upon the muggles for their endless wars but those wars are precisely why they’ve managed to change.”

 

“So you want to start a war?” Harry asks, carefully.

 

“No,” he answers truthfully. “Wars are a deep strain on populations and economies that the wizarding world simply can’t handle. However, I said I don’t care what means I have to do to get there, and I mean that. If war is the only answer, I won’t do anything to stop it.”

 

“So you would prefer not to, but if you had to you would have no qualms in starting one.” Harry surmises, flatly.

 

“Yes.”

 

“What sort of changes are so important that you’d go to such lengths to see them through?” She asks, honestly wanting to know.

 

She’s been through a war before, and she can’t imagine anyone wanting to go through it unless pushed to the brink. And yet she understands why the second wizard war happened, even if she doesn’t agree with it. The purebloods felt that their way of life was being threatened by muggleborns and muggle culture; it was a hatred that hadn’t just grown overnight. And wasn’t exactly unfounded, either. Then there was decades of the Ministry ineptly juggling the two sides without ever trying to actually sit down and reconcile the problems; politicians who would do anything just to get re-elected, laws going up and being torn down solely by whose pockets were lining the current administration.

 

Well upon further consideration, she imagines Grindelwald’s reasons are probably similar to that.

 

“You’ve seen much of this world already,” Gellert begins, observing her closely. “What do you think of it?”

 

“I think it’s corrupt, and inefficient, but I don’t think everything about it is bad. For example, I think Wolcroft is really an amazing school. And I think the American Ministry does a good job handling the bridge between the non-magical world and the magical one.”

 

“But it’s not enough in the least.” The Dark Lord counters. “And yes, Wolcroft is an amazing school— but only accessible to those at the upper echelon of society. Everyone else is left by the Ministry to fend for themselves. There is no standardized schooling, in any part of the wizarding world. There are private institutions that only the elite can attend, and the spaces they leave open for scholarship students are few. Some schools take muggleborns, but many of them don’t. And when they take them varies as well. You can’t tell me that’s fair in any sense of the word.”

 

“No, it’s not.” Harry admits.

 

“And what of magical creatures? Much like the darker side of magic and the more difficult side of muggle society, Ministries tend to shove them aside and pretend as if they don’t exist. Many of them don’t even have any rights at all, and those that do find their liberties are vastly unequal to those of wizards. And that’s to say nothing of the inequalities between wizards. Most of the magical community lives in poverty, did you know? Not to mention they’re mostly uneducated as well. And it’s no wonder; the magical economy cannot sustain itself. Those purebloods up there who wish to see the annihilation of muggles and muggleborns are ignorant fools who know nothing about sustainability or supply and demand.”

 

“To put it simply, the magical world is dying. It’s already faceted and broken apart into what ultimately amounts to isolated kingdoms scattered across the world. As we continue to resist globalization and the very real reality that we are inextricably tied to the muggle world, we only ruin ourselves further. And right now, everyone is content to just watch our entire world crumble to ruin.”

 

Harry stares at him, feeling a little breathless. His eyes burn with a fervent passion that surprises her in its earnestness. It’s a little mesmerizing.

 

She finds herself leaning closer, finding herself just as fervent to continue the conversation, food long forgotten. “How exactly are you planning to change all that, then?”

 

He drums his fingers on the table, appraising the question. “The most straightforward way is to manipulate those already in power to change things. This is the path of least resistance, and therefore the most ideal. The wizarding world must be changed, but if colonialism has taught us anything, it is that killing off those in power only leaves a vacuum for power to be seized by someone much worse.”

 

Harry peers over her shoulder, to where the mansion remains illuminated like a beacon in the night. “I’m assuming that’s what you’re already doing. Manipulating people, that is.”

 

“Of course. Change of this magnitude cannot be achieved alone.” He shrugs. “And my estate alone would not be able to handle such a financial strain— to that end, neither could the Ministry. There just aren’t enough citizens to tax to keep up with the funds necessary to run a federal government, hence why they rely so much on private financial donors.”

 

“Like the purebloods, who have their own agendas.” Harry realizes. Suddenly Lucius Malfoy’s incredible escape from persecution after the first war makes so much sense.

 

Gellert nods. “Or rich muggles with ties to the wizarding world, who also have their own agendas.”

 

Harry frowns deeply. “But if that’s the case, then aren’t you only perpetuating the problem by taking their money? They still have agendas.”

 

Everyone has an agenda, Harry. What matters is what that agenda is. I pick my allies very closely, and I have many of them, in many places.”

 

Of that, Harry was well aware. She couldn’t believe how easily he managed to get so much information on her in such a short amount of time, especially considering how little she interacted with people in this time period. She couldn’t imagine how vast his network must be, or how long it must have taken to build it up.

 

It’s definitely something he’s passionate about, she thinks. His life’s work, really. From the way his eyes blazed vehemently with intensity, she couldn’t imagine these views were anything but authentic.

 

And, despite herself, she actually thinks she agrees with him. Well, mostly.

 

His words on magical education and society couldn’t be any truer. And she had seen exactly what he was talking about; the isolation of communities, the lack of resources and education provided to them, the way the vast majority of the magical community is exploited by the few in power.

 

She finds she’s completely swept in his passion, and she wants to know more.

 

“But what do you want to change it to?” She asks, leaning close, eyes blazing. “Tell me, I want to know.”

 

//

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Charlotte Washington taps her foot against the pristine marble tiles, the only sign of her irritation.

It's not as if she doesn't like the effervescent and lovely Miss Riddle, quite the contrary. She finds the young woman refreshing and sweet— if perhaps a bit naive. And she wonders on the girl's priorities, sometimes. Of course the care of the child should be first and foremost in her mind, as it should in all mothers, but surely she can see past that predicament and into her so thoroughly uncertain future? Miss Riddle has a steady job, and therefore a modest but feasible income that somehow manages to support both her and young Tom. She had first suspected that Tom was only at Wolcroft through scholarships, but after a few discreet inquiries to the accounting department she was stunned to find Harry Riddle had paid the entire year's tuition up front.

Charlotte could only assume the Potter's were behind this. Perhaps they had paid her a large sum of hush money to quietly disappear from England and keep out of their way. Perhaps young Tom really was her child, or perhaps yet another unclaimed Potter bastard that the family was trying to keep underwraps.

At any rate, Charlotte could speculate all she liked, it wouldn't change the matter at hand. That money wouldn't last forever, and her job wouldn't either. Couldn't she see she needed a husband to support her?

She had to find a gentle but urgent way to convey the necessity of the matter at hand. Harry was young, exceptionally pretty and of good manner and constitution. Despite not being raised in aristocracy, her manners were impeccable. These sort of traits would go far in attracting suitors, but her time was ticking. There were fresh young, charming eighteen year-olds in attendance here who would surely draw the most attention from the eligible bachelors in the room. The Swedish princess was even in attendance, and despite her young age of sixteen, Charlotte had heard her father had already been inundated with marriage proposals.

Charlotte was just worried, was all. Harry didn't have a father to negotiate beneficial marriage terms for her. Circe forbid, Harry might just get married without even considering the financials of the matter! Harry seemed the blissful type to marry out of love— a noble idea, but ultimately one that would end quite poorly. She would find herself in destitution and misery if she followed that route. It was up to Charlotte to figure out a way to change her mind.

She eyes the room critically, trying to find Viscount Charles once more. He was off to the side discussing matters with some of the other Earl's from England— about the war and the state of affairs in England, no doubt.

There were other men of favorable standing that she might be able to persuade, although none of them were that impressive. A Count from Belgium with a divorce under his belt and a history of mistresses; a younger man from an influential French family, that might be just a tad too young; a distant relative of the Tsar's maternal side, also on the younger side; the Marquis of Auvergne… Charlotte gives him a second glance. He was not a handsome man by any means, but he was of good social standing and ruled over a large and lucrative region of France.

Yes, the Marquis might be a good backup, if the Viscount was put off by Harry's earlier disappearance.

On the subject; where in Circe's name did the girl go?

Charlotte frowns, casually strolling about the large ballroom in hopes of catching a glimpse of vibrant vermillion hair.

After a few minutes of searching, Charlotte grows even more irritated and is about ready to call it quits when she spies some kind of jewel sparkling out the windows.

It's not a jewel; the beaded appliques interwoven into Harry's dress catch the light from the ballroom in scintillating sparkles, little diamond lancets that glitter underneath the stars. Her dress is positively radiant in the moonlight, drawing the eye like a beacon in the night. Charlotte pauses abruptly as she passes, careening closer to the glass french doors for a better look.

Upon further inspection, it really is Harry down there, in the middle of an open courtyard bathed in moonlight.

And she is not alone.

Charlotte covers her mouth as her eyebrows fly up to her hairline.

An elegant figure dressed in black hovers by her elbow, almost indiscernible aside from the shock of pale, winter wheat hair. So that's where their gallant host had run off to. She'd wondered at Gellert's mysterious disappearance, but she hadn't made the connection to Harry's coincidentally timed vanishing act. Lord Grindelwald was quite an influential presence in Europe after all, it wouldn't be surprising to hear he'd taken off to some back door meetings to discuss the state of affairs. Charlotte had assumed he'd been whisked off by one of his constituents, and hadn't given the matter much thought after that.

She leans in for a closer look; if anyone saw her she'd look quite the sight, but fortunately her blatant nosiness is covered by a billowing velvet curtain. The two appear to be talking rather… intimately. The Dark Lord has a hand on her elbow, the space between them too small to be anything but positively scandalous. He's speaking to her, eyes blazing passionately, as he holds her even closer. For her part, Harry isn't pulling away. She can't see the girl's expression from this angle, but she can certainly see the Dark Lord's. It's rare to see the man look expressive, and yet there is a fire dancing in his eyes that speaks to great emotion.

She can't help but speculate on what they're doing out there, but she thinks it's easy enough to draw conclusions.

The two of them, meeting alone in the midst of the winter ball, stealing quiet minutes together before they have to return to their respective stations…

A secret rendezvous under the moonlight?

Oh my, this will be the gossip of the century.

.

.

.

Harry is taken off guard by the strong grip to her elbow, turning her abruptly into a hard chest.

"Gellert— " She cries in alarm, barely managing not to trip in her heels or spill her champagne. An impressive feat, considering the heel height. After she's regained her balance she places her free hand on his chest, trying to put some distance between them. "What are you—

"Play along for a minute, would you?" He cuts her off in a low murmur.

Her eyes narrow distrustfully. "Play along with what?" She glowers up at him. It is such a helpless and innocent sight it's almost enough to make him forget just who this girl is. Not helpless or innocent in the least.

"Just don't move for a few moments," he says in answer, his eyes flickering up to the window where he sees they have an audience.

"This— this is a little uncomfortable." She stutters out. At least they're too close for him to see her expression; he's already seen her cry twice now, no need to let him see her blush.

"Sorry," he doesn't sound very apologetic. Worse, he puts his other hand on her waist to steady her a bit more, and despite putting a bit more distance between them the action is somehow even more unbearable. "Is that better?"

No, dammit.

Hell if she tells him that though. "It's fine," she bites out, pretending as if she couldn't care less about their nearness. She doesn't care. She doesn't.

She's not actually from this time period; she's no blushing maiden who's never experienced anything more than a touch to the back of her hand. To be fair, she'd never been all that adventurous with boys either, but she's heard her fair share in the Gryffindor girls dorm room and experienced enough for herself to be wholly unmoved by this display. And yet, Gellert is not some nervous, adolescent Gryffindor boy with sweaty palms and an awkward smile trying to dance with her after a Quidditch game. Nor was he the equally nervous, but decidedly more handsome Cedric Diggory kissing her after the first task. No, he was a Dark Lord, inarguably one of the most dangerous men in the world, with quite a few years of experience on her and a terribly charming smile that she wishes she could ignore. In that regard, it's no surprise that being this close to him would make her nervous.

"You can still hear the music from here," he remarks, tone light. "Would you dance with me, my fair lady?"

"I hate dancing." She rejects blandly, shooting him down in flames.

On the subject of the handsome Cedric Diggory, the last time Harry had been made to dance had been at that disastrous Yule ball in her fourth year. She had spent most of it in abject misery; why did Cedric kiss her, but then take Cho Chang to the ball? Was it just a mistake? Did he not mean it? She'd taken a page out of Hermione's book and went with a charming and bright young Serbian boy from Durmstrang, who was attractive and nice enough and didn't speak a lick of English. Casmir had been really great about it, mainly because he didn't have much choice; they danced as minimally as possible and if he had a problem with it, he really had no way to tell her, what with not speaking a common language.

The man actually has the gall to laugh at her. "Is that merely because you can't dance?"

"No, it's because I hate dancing." She refutes, adamantly. "And if you dare to try it I will break your toe with my heel."

He gives the idea a bit of thought, before ultimately deciding Harry would very much so make good on her threat, and those heels do, indeed, look quite deadly. Still though, it seems like such a shame to have her all alone to himself in this winter dream and not have a dance with her.

"Not even a waltz?" He tries for.

"Not a chance." Harry deadpans.

She makes a vague attempt to move out of his grip, but he just moves with her. Above them, their audience still lingers.

He can't help but grin at her. "So you'll agree to my plans for 'world domination' but adamantly refuse to dance with me?"

"One of those is far more catastrophic than the other," she sniffs, and he honestly can't tell if she's being facetious or not. "And, for the record, I don't remember agreeing to your plans. I remember acknowledging that I can see the value in it, but I certainly didn't agree to it."

"There's a difference?" He feigns ignorance.

Harry scowls deeply and for a moment he thinks he's successfully baited her into anger, but then she opens her eyes and reads the amusement right off his face. This in turn only makes her angrier though, so he supposes his method was effective either way. His own amusement melts away though, as he studies her carefully. Her indignant anger had drifted into something much more pensive, lips thinned as she seemed to stare at something far away from him.

He has to remind himself, for the umpteenth time, how dangerous the small young woman in front of him really is. She might fool everyone else, with that supple, juvenescent skin and charming dimpled smile, but he knows that innocence is merely a ruse. There is a terrible and dark power to her, one he's never encountered in all his years studying the dark arts as intensely as he has. It's so subtle he could almost overlook it completely, if he hadn't seen it first hand.

"It was merely a jest," he feels the need to clarify.

"It's not a funny subject," she crosses her arms, jerking herself out of his grip as she turns away. "What you're trying to do is…"

"Extreme?" He offers.

"That might be an understatement." She says, flatly.

"How would you go about it, then?" He asks as he steps closer to her, genuinely curious to know.

"I've never thought of world domination, so I'm afraid I don't really know." She shrugs, and doesn't move away when he reaches for her again. It's an evasive answer and they both know it, but as much as Gellert might want to hear her opinion on the matter right now, he has a feeling she won't deign to give it to him.

"How many times have I told you it's not about world domination?"

"Well it certainly sounds like it!" Harry retorts, hotly, having to tilt her neck up painfully to meet his gaze as he moves into her space. "Overthrowing all the magical governments and consolidating them under a single regime— what, are you going to tell me the people will vote on the ruler?"

"Well of course not," he answers without missing a beat. "Democracy is a sham."

"It's a far cry better than all the other options." Harry returns, unmoved.

Grindelwald merely looks down at her critically. "I have a feeling we're simply going to have to agree to disagree on the matter." He says, diplomatically. "And it seems like such a waste of a perfectly beautiful evening to spend it arguing over matters we'll never agree on— "

Harry gives him a long look, as if waiting for the punchline of a joke.

He doesn't plan to keep her waiting for long.

"So why don't we dance instead?" He ends, with a roguish grin.

"No, oh Merlin no," Harry shakes her head rapidly, a few carefully pinned curls falling from her face to fall like silk upon her shoulders.

Gellert does not appear deterred in the least.

Harry plays her trump card. "And anyway, it's getting late. I don't want to leave Tom alone for too long…"

Especially considering the last time she left him alone he rendered himself unconscious.

There's not much Gellert can say in response to that; it's a solid, surefire excuse and they both know it. And anyway, he should be more than satisfied. He's had the pleasure of her company all to himself for almost the entire evening, and he has to admit even for his standards the dinner they had shared was nothing short of magical. Of course, half of that had to do with his dinner companion, and the riveting conversation they had shared. He hadn't expected her to seek him out, and he hadn't expected her to actually quietly listen to his plans without an ounce of judgment.

All in all, it had been a wonderful evening, and more than he could have asked for.

Perhaps that's why he's so reluctant to see it end.

"Will you at least stay for the grand finale, or have you tired of this pageantry?" He asks, and there's nothing hopeful in his tone, despite the wicked smile on his face.

"No. I'm tired. My feet hurt, and I'm going home." Unsurprisingly Harry rejects him without a lick of remorse.

He had expected as much, though. He doesn't think he's ever been rejected by someone so thoroughly, so many times in a row. He feels as if he should be discouraged somehow, but instead he's all the more excited for the challenge.

"Well, will you at least give my plans some thought?" He tries instead.

Harry smiles at him, and though it is small it is genuine. "I did promise, didn't I?" She returns, drily.

He sighs. "I suppose that's all I can ask for."

She steps out of his arms then, and he's surprised to find he'd actually completely forgotten he'd pulled her close in the first place. Something about her always managed to ensnare all the thoughts in his head. He looks up to the tall, arched window above them; curious Charlotte Washington is long gone, so there's no reason to pretend any longer. All the same, he wishes to close the distance and hold her again. It was so unfortunate that the woman hated to dance. Honestly, what woman hated dancing? He even offered to waltz!

Harry seems to have forgotten their closeness as well, for when she steps away a high flush rises on her cheeks as she looks away, clearing her throat. She tucks a stray curl back into the wreath of sparkling pins in her hair. It's entirely unsuccessful. The night wind has ruined her impeccable style beyond repair, giving her a rather windswept look, as if she'd spent the night at sea. Gellert looks her over once again, the blush on her cheeks and the loose curls falling down her shoulders. Or perhaps, a night spent being ravished against the side of the castle.

He shakes the thoughts away. No such ravishing has happened, but all the same it would be a rather obvious conclusion to draw, wouldn't it?

"Very well then, I suppose it is getting rather late." He says, smoothly. "Allow me to at least walk you to the floo."

Harry looks as if she has half a mind to protest, before eventually she just nods and gives up.

The walk back into the castle is quiet, the tinkling arpeggio of the violins their only accompaniment, aside from Harry's quiet cursing as she tries to fix her hair. She's somewhat successful— at the very least, it no longer looks as if it's come halfway undone. Now though, it just has the appearance of a hastily swept up look, which might just be even more indicative of the impression he's trying to give.

They enter the ballroom from a discreet door off to the side, and manage to make their way halfway to the floo parlor before anyone sees them.

It actually plays out exactly as he wants it to. They're only stopped a few times, and each time is quite brief. Harry doesn't try to weasel her way off on her own, mainly because Gellert has a not-so-subtle hand on her elbow. Their company always gives the two a surprised glance, but no one is actually rude enough to remark on it. All the same, the rumors will have caught on like wildfire by the end of the night.

He's not even entirely sure why the thought gives him so much pleasure. Because he's effectively thwarting that irritating old bat Charlotte Washington's plans without actually having to confront her, or because he knows Harry will be off limits for the rest of the winter season, and possibly beyond?

Harry appears hesitant once they make it to the floo parlor, stopping suddenly underneath the crystal chandeliers. The atrium lights tangle in her dress like a kaleidoscope of color, shifting patterns with every slight twirl of her skirt. He wouldn't consider it particularly risque in comparison to some of the other dresses out in the ballroom, with it's full skirt and modest neckline, but he's noticed the swooping back and tantalizing slit up the side have drawn more than a few interested eyes. He wonders how she always knows precisely what to wear to blend in and yet stand out. He blinks. Actually, that sounds a lot like the girl herself, doesn't it? Not particularly remarkable at first glance, but absolutely stunning beneath the surface.

"About Tom…" She starts, worrying at her thumb in what he's noticing is something of a nervous gesture.

"Yes?" He replies, calmly, waiting for her to continue.

"I'll need to think about it." She finishes, to his complete lack of surprise. "And talk it over with him, of course."

"Of course." He agrees easily— too easily.

Her vibrant eyes flicker up to him with vague suspicion, but she doesn't call him out on it. "I suppose we'll be in touch, then."

"You know how to find me," he points out, smiling. "I, on the other hand…"

His intentions are obvious, and only serve to make Harry smile with amusement. "You can send post by owl to the Boston public owlery. I'll find it there."

Harry thinks he'll press her for a more concrete response, but instead he just bids her a fond farewell. It's not exactly out of character for the man, but she can't help but feel wary nonetheless. She always feels as if the man just has something up his sleeve…

"Whatever you're thinking of planning to do, don't do it." Harry warns flatly, giving him a narrow look.

Gellert just grins winsomely. "Harry darling, I'm always planning something. You'll have to be specific."

Maybe it was too Gryffindor-ish of her to confront him bluntly and actually expect an honest answer. Well, it's not as if she doesn't have secrets of her own.

.

.

.

Harry stares down into the depths of her cafe au lait, wondering when she became the kind of person who actually knew what to order at a coffee shop. Across from her, Hermione looked as if she desperately needed another shot of espresso. She hadn't seen her friend this frazzled since… probably OWLs in their fifth year. It looked as if Hermione hadn't slept in weeks.

She tilts her head slightly to watch the rain drizzle down the side of the window; she hears Hermione struggle through ordering a cappuccino with three shots of espresso in Korean. It's a muggy and overcast day in Seoul. Ginny says that's pretty par for the course in this season, though. She finds it somewhat endearing— it reminds her of dreary summer days in London, except she couldn't be farther than her familiar homeland than she is right now. Everything in London has that old world charm; handsome Victorian era row houses and the neo-gothic downtown. Everything in Seoul— at least from what she can see from this view— looks sparkling and new, billboards rotating through gorgeous silhouettes of celebrities selling skincare of all kinds, intermittent street lights changing every few seconds, flashing neon lights in the gloom. She wonders what it looked like, fifty years ago. How much it had changed in that amount of time.

She doesn't know why it makes her think of Gellert's words from earlier, about how stagnated the wizarding world had become.

Their reason for even being here in Seoul at all is, of course, the younger quasi-fourth member of their group who galavanted off to the opposite side of the world after Hogwarts. Not that she could blame Ginny. She'd basically done the same thing, except she's gone off to a separate dimension instead. At any rate it had been a while since she'd gotten to really sit and chat with Ginny, and it was probably time to fill her in on things. The planning had been difficult, what with all of their conflicting schedules, but eventually they managed to pencil in a quick stopover during lunch break. A lunch break Ginny was (unsurprisingly, considering Ginny) running late to.

Hermione gives a weary sigh, drawing Harry's gaze back into the interior of the coffee shop.

Harry makes a sympathetic noise. "Work not going well?"

"That is an understatement," Hermione bemoans. "Work is a mess. Did you know I'm basically undersecretary to Kingsley now? I didn't sign up for this. But I honestly don't think there's anyone else capable or willing to do the job. Oh, sometimes I feel like all I'm doing is repeatedly banging my head against the wall…"

Harry watches her in quiet sympathy, feeling an odd pang of guilt. She should be there, braving it out with her best friend, trying to better the world in whatever small way she can. Instead she waved goodbye to all responsibilities to the wizarding world and this dimension at large and had never really regretted that choice.

She knew it would be something no one would be able to understand, so she'd told all her friends and family that she had wanted a break after the war. After everything she'd done for the world, no one was about to stop her. She deserved to live the rest of her life in normal, happy anonymity. And she was, for the most part. But that wasn't the only reason she had pulled herself away so conclusively.

She hadn't intended to breathe a word of it to anyone, keeping it buried in her own private thoughts, to maunder out again in the dark hours of the night, when she was alone with her old ghosts and bad dreams. She had never wanted anyone to know how intrinsically she and Tom Riddle were entwined together. How there was no way one could possibly live without the other. Harry had been a mess for months after the final battle— everyone else was suffering from their own demons from the war as well though, so it had been easy to blend in. But her demons were nothing like theirs. It wasn't a pain that would slowly heal with time. It was half her soul missing, and the rest of it was falling apart.

When she'd finally broken down and confessed all this to Hermione, the bright witch had speculated that they might have been radically wrong about the basic theory of horcruxes. It had never occurred to anyone of them, during their hunt, that horcruxes might actually be individuals of their own. Aside from the time Harry had been possessed by the locket, they'd never had the opportunity to study one in depth or, Merlin forbid, ask it questions about how it was feeling that day. Could they feel things? And if so, how had it felt when Harry had defeated the master soul when she was a baby? And then there was the curious case of being a human horcrux. How did that change things?

Dumbledore had once said, to speak of one is to speak of the other...

Perhaps her old headmaster had known far more than he had let on. Perhaps he had even foreseen this eventuality; Harry descending deeper and deeper into depression, obsessing over Tom Riddle and what could have been.

Perhaps Dumbledore had assumed there would come a day when she could no longer bear it, and would take her own life.

Dumbledore clearly didn't think outside the box much though. He'd never thought up time travel as a solution, after all.

"...I'm sorry…" She gets out, sympathy and guilt doing horrible things to her stomach. She pushes her coffee away; she doesn't even think she can stomach it right now.

"For what?" Hermione lifts her head up, bewildered. "Harry, it's really not your fault that the wizarding world is in the state that it's in. This has been a moving trainwreck for years. And Minister after Minister have just been putting bandaids on top of it without ever trying to solve the problem. And finally Kingsley's ready to roll up his sleeves and start changing things, but it's a bit like trying to climb your way out of a pit, you know?"

"If I had stayed, I could have at least been helping you." Harry points out, meekly.

Hermione gives her a small, warm smile. "Oh, Harry. Listen to me; you need to do what makes you happy. I know it doesn't seem like it right now— but this is what makes me happy. It's just infuriating me at the moment."

Harry nods mutely, staring down into the murky depths of her coffee.

"And, to be frank, you were not happy back home. In fact, you were kind of a mess." Hermione continues, brutally honest as always.

Harry can't help but smile and roll her eyes. "Not pulling your punches today, are you?"

"I waved farewell to my good humor months ago." Hermione shrugs, unabashed. "And I just— do you really not remember yourself? You were a miserable little shite, no offense. You're much better now."

Harry just laughs, because she can. It's easy to laugh at herself from just a few years ago, because it all seems so distant now. Tom is back in her life, and it's so easy to just let all that misery drift away in the face of his delighted smile or petty, stubborn frown.

"I feel better," she replies, honestly. "Although sometimes I just feel like…"

Hermione looks up from where she's fishing whipped cream out of her frothy concoction. "Feel like what?" She frowns

"Like our lives are drifting apart, I guess." Harry says, lamely. "I feel so distant."

Hermione huffs. "Oh, Harry, that's just growing up. I feel the same with Ron, and we live in the same flat! At least you make the effort, you know. You're so busy— hell, you basically live in a different timeline— and yet you always make time to see me, even when I know my schedule is just horrible to deal with. Ron, meanwhile, who even knows what he's doing with his life and yet every time I ask him to hang out it's all, 'oh the footie game is on, I don't feel like going out, I'm hanging with the mates'— " Hermione harrumphs, scowling. "Honestly. Since when did Ron watch football of all things?"

Harry grins at that. "Oh no. Is his taste in footie teams as bad as his taste in Quidditch teams?"

Hermione scoffs. "I don't know, because he's too cool for the Premier League— La Liga exclusively."

"Oh Merlin!" Harry almost laughs herself to tears.

It makes her feel better, somewhat, in the same way meeting up with Hermione always makes her feel better. Makes her feel more… well, her. Not that she really even knows who she is, these days. What she is. She pushes those thoughts away; she has enough to worry about.

"Well, Ron's terrible taste in football not withstanding, how is he?"

Hermione shrugs, looking put off. "Good, I guess. I wouldn't really know, seeing as he's avoiding me."

Harry just shakes her head fondly. It seems Hermione and Ron will forever be fighting in some fashion. Ostensibly they both had agreed to breakup and stay friends, but Harry has a feeling the situation was a little more complicated than that. More than likely Hermione wanted a break to focus on her career, and Ron felt put out by that and stubbornly insisted he felt the same, and at that point they should probably just break up.

"Nevermind me though," Hermione segues, leaning forward. "I feel like I've bored you enough with all this policy talk. What have you been up to, hm?"

Harry delicately sets her coffee cup back onto its saucer, clearing her throat. "Err— well, on the subject actually, I think I'd rather like to talk about that."

"Talk about what?" Hermione frowns.

"Policy."

Her best friend stares at her like she's grown two heads. In all fairness, the look is well deserved.

Harry has never been fond of politics, and even people who know nothing about her are well aware of that. But it's a well known disgust among the people who actually know her. Harry has had terrible experiences with authority and the government, as basically anyone from her school years can tell you, and has always been skeptical of their effectiveness. After Fudge, Umbridge, and then Scrimgeour, no one can blame her either. All her life it seems like figures of authority have done nothing but abuse their power and try to manipulate her— Dumbledore included. It was just yet another thing she and Voldemort shared; time and incidence had made them wary and mistrustful of any figures of authority.

Harry was still not particularly impressed by them, but maybe it was time to stop hating and ignoring the problem and start trying to figure out how to fix it.

Harry considers her best friend carefully. "Hermione, you're basically a genius," she begins without preamble, causing her curly-haired friend to blink and lean back. "If you wanted to take over the Wizarding World, how would you do it?"

Hermione stares at her in open surprise.

If anyone could validate or discredit Grindelwald's plan, it would be Hermione.

Her bookish friend takes a long moment to reply. Harry doesn't rush her; it is a rather loaded question, and she wanted to ask Hermione not only because she knew the other woman would have enough knowledge and experience to answer the question, but also because she knew the other woman would have enough knowledge and experience to take it seriously as well.

Hermione scoops up another spoonful of whipped cream as she thinks.

"Well let me start by asking— why do I want to take over the Wizarding World?"

It's Harry's turn to think.

"I suppose, because you know it needs to change, and you're unsatisfied by the lack of progress currently."

Hermione looks almost triumphant. "Ah. Well then. If that's my end goal, then yes, if I was trying to enact swift change, taking over the Wizarding World would be the most obvious and easiest course of action. To get anything done in a timely manner, consolidation of power is key. On the subject, revolutions can be swift on occasion but a quiet takeover is preferable to avoid riots and needless bloodshed. Not to mention, tearing out the entire government infrastructure would be less than ideal."

Harry blinks rapidly.

Hermione laughs. "Of course, just because it's the most effective way doesn't necessarily mean it's the right way. Democracy is a slow and lumbering beast that often falls apart at inopportune times, but all the same it's a goal no one should ever lose sight of."

Harry frowns thoughtfully. "So you're telling me— democracy doesn't actually work?"

She says the word as if she even really knows what it means. Well, of course she knows what it means, but only as an abstract concept she's heard Hermione say many times before. It's not as if Hogwarts ever offered any classes on policy or social sciences; and if they had covered governments in History of Magic, she had conclusively slept through it all and wouldn't know.

Hermione smiles thinly. "It does, but it's an imperfect and difficult system. But just because it is inefficient doesn't mean we should give up on it. It's silly not to acknowledge it's faults, but that just means we as a society have to constantly be striving towards being better."

She leans back in her chair, giving a sort of dreamy sigh. "Oh, Harry, I think you just reignited my passion for legislation."

Harry laughs, smiling winsomely. "Happy to be of service." She jokes, still not quite understanding.

Hermione just grins at her roguishly. "Somehow, putting it into words for you has reminded me of what I love about my job."

Harry grins a bit wider, happy to see her friend in better spirits. She still looks a right mess, but the beaming smile on her face means she's ready to dive right back into her endless work. Harry will never understand why Hermione does the things she does, probably in the same way Hermione will never quite understand why Harry's made the choices she has, but that doesn't make them any less of friends.

Hermione's grin falls then. "But on the subject of legislative policy— I'm assuming there's a reason you're asking me all this."

Harry nods, sighing. "Yes," it would be silly to think she could ever keep this sort of thing from Hermione. "You see, I was talking with Gellert— err, Grindelwald—

"I had assumed." Hermione surmises drily.

"And well, I used the pretense of his offer to teach Tom to ask him outright about his plans. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about his answer… obviously I'm not letting him near Tom either way, but baiting him like that was an easy way to figure out what he's after."

Hermione sits up straighter. "I see." She says, seriously. "And what did he say?"

"Well, that's the thing," Harry frowns. "I was hoping to get some recommendations for history books while I'm here, because I realize I'm far too ignorant on his impact on history. I'm really kicking myself for sleeping through Professor Binns class! I know history is written by the victor, but all the same it'll be good to measure what he said and what actually happened according to history—

Hermione grimaces. "Listen, Harry, about that… I have something I've been meaning to tell you—

"Annyeonghaseyo!"

Both Harry and Hermione startle abruptly, Harry almost knocking her cup over and Hermione literally jumping in her seat. She's not sure why she's so startled; it's not as if the newcomer is at all unexpected. They did come all this way for her, after all. Fortunately it goes unnoticed by their arriving third member; they both look up to see a slightly out of breath Ginny grinning widely at them. "So, what do you think? Not too bad right?"

Hermione makes a show of looking around the room, regaining her breath. "I think you've insulted everyone in here with that accent." She jokes, voice slightly shaky.

That was a close one. She meets Harry's gaze. Harry looks bewildered at Hermione's almost panicked expression. She very discreetly shakes her head, causing Harry to frown.

"Nonsense!" She cries, hopping into the chair between them. "I've been practicing a lot you know— I can even say thank you."

"Amazing," Hermione replies, rolling her eyes. "You can say two words. How long have you been here?"

"I've been busy, okay!" Ginny huffs, rolling her eyes.

Harry gives Hermione a quizzical glance, wondering what's going on here. She thought they'd agreed that telling Ginny was fine…? That was the whole reason they'd blown a sizeable amount of money on an international portkey to Korea to visit her. Or at least, that's what Harry had thought. Hermione gives her a telling look over Ginny's shoulder as the oblivious redhead settles herself in her chair. Harry's frown deepens, but she nods subtly. Hermione returns it, before returning to Ginny.

"So, Gin, how's work and everything?" Hermione directs the conversation with a casual hand of dexterous aplomb. "Sweet Merlin, your skin really does look amazing."

"Doesn't it?" Ginny enthuses. "I told you, snails are the way to go."

"I can definitely second that." Harry decides to just play along with Hermione for now, at least while Ginny's here.

It's always nice to catch up with friends, even if that wasn't exactly the reason Harry had come here. And she'd never been to Korea, so it was nice to travel somewhere new with someone who knew the area well. Ginny gave them a brief tour around Seoul station once they'd finished up their lattes; she happily babbled on about work as she led them through the newly build sky garden, connecting the station to nearby Namdemun. The overcast sky and light drizzle don't bother any of them, the three of them chatting away as they are. Ginny rants about her catastrophic breakup with Dean Thomas before leaving and how silly she feels about it now that she's apparently seeing some handsome intern fellow, and how much she misses home and her family but couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

It's great catching up with her, it really is. Harry can barely believe that it wasn't that long ago they were sharing a dorm room in dreary Scotland, and have managed to scatter so far and do so much in the interim of years since then. Ginny probably hasn't seen her since the months after the final battle. Ginny of course comments on the improved state of Harry's mental health with an approving and overjoyed smile, and if she looks a little more relieved than she should be, Harry doesn't call her out on it. Ginny is the only other person in the entire world who has an inkling of what Harry feels, being so intimately connected to Voldemort, to the very essence of his soul, being so wholly ensnared in him. Ginny must think Harry's finally moved on from this whole horcrux business; Harry is suddenly extremely happy Hermione didn't want her to reveal her dimensional traveling. That was one can of worms she didn't want to open with Ginny.

It's not until Ginny leaves and she and Hermione are readying to return to their real lives that her best friend grabs her by the wrist. Harry, halfway into squirreling through her bag, looks up with confusion.

"Harry," Hermione says, biting her lip. "Listen, now that Ginny's gone, there's something that I wanted to tell you about that's really been worrying me…"

The little cafe where they'd said their farewells suddenly seems claustrophobic. "Is this what you were trying to say earlier?"

Hermione nods. "It's about you, Harry," she reveals. "And you're— ah, traveling adventures." She looks around the over crowded cafe, as if anyone could possibly be listening in.

Harry is taken aback by the level of secrecy as Hermione drags her back down into her chair at the table they'd just vacated, scooting a bit closer towards her. They talk about Harry's dimensional traveling all the time without incident; what's so different about it now?

"I didn't realize, but, well… Harry, no one's ever actually done it before."

Harry blinks at her. "What?"

But there were books, and an entire time traveling department, and a house on Commonwealth ave that spoke to the contrary.

"I know." Hermione nods. "I just sort of assumed, what with time turners and all, that the Ministry must have some sort of knowledge on it, and furthermore, some sort of regulation. But as it turns out… time travel, or dimensional travel, as it is technically called, is more of a myth than anything."

"But, but what about— the time travel department? The meeting with the goblins? The wards we found and everything else?"

Hermione looks grim. "That's the thing, Harry. None of that exists here."

Harry leans back, stunned.

"All of that happened in the other dimension," Hermione continues. "Aside from the single book we found on the matter in Dumbledore's office— which I'm beginning to think might have been extremely illegal— which was purely theoretical, only time traveling within twenty-four hours is confirmed as possible, and even then it's not actually traveling into a different dimension. You see, I noticed some discrepancies when I was speaking to a coworker about the American side of things. Apparently, MACUSA didn't achieve this level of integration with Muggle society until the eighties."

"The eighties?" Harry clarifies, shocked. "But that's not—

"I know." Hermione cuts her off with a solemn nod. "It's not at all what happened in your dimension. From what you've said, muggle and magical society in America is almost fully integrated— the way it is now, in this dimension. But in this dimension, fifty years ago, they were even more segregated than Britain is now. They had the strictest statue of secrecy of any country in the world!"

"But there's no way that's right." Harry says, weakly. "I went to Capitol Hill and—

"That's what I'm trying to say, Harry. "These dimensions— they're more different than we thought."

Harry's mouth shuts, stunned.

"And then, when you started talking about Grindelwald and all your meetings with him, I started digging through some of the history books about him. And, well, let's just put it this way; he was really not that much better than Voldemort."

Harry stares at her friend in silence, mouth pursed into a thin line as her brows furrow.

"But, from what you've said, he doesn't sound at all like he does in the history books. This is what I was trying to tell you earlier, when you were asking about the books— Harry, I don't think books will help you." It looks as if it physically pains Hermione to say such a thing.

"Because they're not identical dimensions." Harry concludes.

Hermione nods grimly. "So what's written in our history books might be completely wrong in your dimension."

Harry looks contemplative, frowning down at the table. "But what… what could have changed that? Surely not— I mean, couldn't have possibly—

"Considering these changes have been around since before you arrived, I doubt it has anything to do with you." Hermione assured. "All the same, it was quite a shock to find out we had no time travel department— imagine the look on my coworkers faces when I asked that question! They thought I had gone round the bend!I had to pretend I was loopy from lack of sleep…"

Harry nods along. "I'm guessing that's why you didn't want me to say anything to Ginny?"

Hermione nods in agreement. "Yes. I know when we got Bill to check on your wards again he must have saw something… strange, but since he hasn't said anything so far I think we should be alright on that front. More than likely he noticed them but didn't recognize what they did. But I don't think we should tell anyone until we know for sure what's going on. For all we know, this could be totally illegal…"

Could be? Harry snorts. It absolutely would be.

Harry hadn't told anyone aside from Ron and Hermione mainly out of an awkward sense of embarrassment. It's just… how would she explain it, really? Hi, yes, Voldemort and I sort of shared a soul, so despite being my arch-nemesis and all I sort of can't live without him. And that obsession he had with me? It went both ways, believe it or not. Funny how that happens sometimes! And so I decided to uproot my entire life to find him again and give him a different chance at life. She mentally scoffs. Yeah, that would have went over brilliantly over hols at the Weasley's.

It's not as if the people in her life hadn't realized something was wrong with her, after the final battle, but most had just assumed it was a difficult time for her due to the end of the war and the realization that she had her entire life ahead of her to do something with. And they had all assumed that moving to the muggle world had effectively sorted all of that out. That wasn't untrue, but it certainly wasn't the whole story, either.

"Not that we haven't had our fair share of illegal activities…." Hermione adds with an eye roll— Harry smiles slightly at that.

"But it feels a little different now that we're not kids defeating Dark Lords," Harry finishes.

"Being an adult is the worst," Hermione laments in agreement.

On the subject of being an emotionally mature adult… "To be honest, I'm really relieved I ended up not telling Ginny." She reveals, letting out a gusty breath.

Hermione blinks in surprise. "Really? I thought you were all for it."

"I am, sort of. She's one of our best friends, she's Ron's little sister, she's basically been dragged into all of our madness… that's sort of the problem, though. That whole thing with the Chamber when we were second years…" Harry looks away. "Ginny is probably the only person who has ever been as close to him as me. He— he possessed her, his magic had seeped into her soul— would have absorbed it fully if I hadn't managed to save her in time."

Hermione falls silent at her words. Harry never really discussed the events in the Chamber of Secrets at length, in the same way she doesn't ever discuss her complicated relationship with Voldemort, either.

"But Ginny didn't actually share a soul with him," Hermione points out, gently.

"Yes, and that's the thing. She knows how it feels, but she's not connected to him anymore. She— it was a temporary thing. Nothing like my own connection, which from our research seems to be far more than just a horcrux relationship. If she knew the… um, depths of my own connection, she'd probably freak out." Not even Harry liked to look too closely at them.

Hermione gave her a sympathetic look. "Oh, Harry…"

Harry was truly happy for Hermione's presence, her steadfast and reliable friendship and willingness to listen even if she didn't always know the answers. But sometimes, she just wished there was someone else out there, who could really understand her. She knew it was impossible, that she was too unique and different to ever find someone like herself, too immortal, too strange, too inhuman. It was an existence of total solitude, beyond the understanding of anyone in her life. She knew Hermione would do her best to support her, would try her level best to make Harry feel less alone, but at the end of the day Harry had to do this all alone. Hermione would die one day, and Harry would live on. Would keep living on, for who knows how long. Her existence would be one of endless loneliness. The thought was so horrifying and upsetting she pushed it away immediately.

"— Harry?"

The redhead shakes her head rapidly, giving her friend a big smile. "I'm fine. Sorry, I was just thinking of what I have to do when I get back to work."

Hermione does not convinced in the least, but lets it go. "It has been over an hour, hasn't it? We definitely should be heading back."

Harry nods. "Yes, let's."

.

.

.

Somehow, halfway through the main course their discussion on global politics has turned towards global economics— not the sort of talk Gellert is used to for dinner parties. Oh, it's common enough among the men in their cigar lounges, scotches in hand and a Montecristo in the other, in deep discussion over their own stocks and investment portfolios. But he would never expect it to come up in this sort of setting, and certainly not with this particular conversationalist.

"Regulation is far more important than people think," Harry says, off-handedly. "People bristle at the idea of curtailed freedom, especially in the economic sense, but free market only works in fair play. If there was no government oversight to throw out antitrust lawsuits, innovation would stagnate under the pressure of larger monopolies."

Gellert blinks, taken by surprise by such a well-informed viewpoint. "Yes, you're absolutely right." He agrees, after a stunned moment. "People rarely see it that way, though."

Especially women, for that matter. He doesn't think he's ever met a woman as economically savvy as Harry. On rare occasions he'll meet a countess or baroness who knows how to properly handle their money, but never to the point of understanding the effects of global trade and macro economics.

She rolls her eyes. "Yes, well, I do work in finance." She reminds him, taking a sip of champagne. "Specifically private investments in small and relatively new companies. I'm well aware how difficult innovation of any kind can be, especially in the hulking beast of bureaucracy."

He finds himself conclusively captivated, leaning closer as he props his elbows on the table, watching her with utterly unabashed fascination. "I've been wondering about that. What sort of private investing do you do?"

Harry pauses, looking caught off guard. She takes another sip of champagne as she gathers her thoughts. Gellert waves his hand, levitating the bottle over towards her glass to pour her another. Harry waits until he's done before speaking. "I'm not an investing partner; I work as an account manager. Most of what I know of investing is peripheral, not personal," she explains, modestly. And vaguely. Intentionally vague, at that.

"All the same, you're grasp on economic policy is impressive." He remarks, deciding not to press the matter.

He doesn't want to ruin the mood, even slightly. He finds he truly enjoys speaking with her. It's rare he ever finds people who can hold his attention like this.

.

.

.

Tom could barely believe how cold it was. It had been an unseasonably warm autumn this year, giving no indication of the bitter winter that was to come. One day the illustrious New England autumn was spreading its colors across the landscape, and in the next it had given way to a frigid and windy New England winter.

Christmas was just around the corner, followed by his birthday and the New Year. He'd be eleven. Finally. It felt as if he'd waited far longer than a year for this.

Tom frowns slightly as he buries his gloved hands deeper into his pockets, walking further through the public gardens. He'll be going to Hogwarts next year. He's not sure how he feels about that.

Under the frozen gray sky the gardens are all but deserted. A light dusting of snow from last night casts the sprawling grounds in a chilly, crystalline light. Swans traverse the unfrozen sections of the pond, pristine white in a monochrome world of grays. Well, almost monochrome.

A tall blonde man is lounging on a park bench near the water's edge. His lemon colored hair is a stroke of color in an otherwise unbroken and dull landscape. They are the only two in the park, and he wonders if that is intentional or merely a result of the unfortunate turn in weather.

Tom stops abruptly in front of his seat, observing him with an impassive expression.

"Harry says I'm not allowed to talk to you." He starts, without preamble.

The man grins. "And do you always do what the adults in your life tell you?"

Tom doesn't deign this with a response at first. Instead he fixes his scarf tighter around his neck to ward off the winds as he sets a look of pure contempt Gellert's way. If looks could kill, Gellert would have died in an explosion of fiendfyre. The Dark Lord is a little charmed despite himself. What a precocious little creature. He tells himself he's only so amused because this is Harry's ward, but he's not entirely sure that's truly the case. The boy is oddly familiar somehow… perhaps he just reminds Gellert of himself a bit too closely.

"Obviously not," Tom replies then, as he shoves his hands back into the pocket of his peacoat. Harry definitely buys his clothes; no child is ever this smartly dressed by their own volition. "Otherwise, why would I be here?" Despite himself he was impressed by the man's ability to manipulate his school post. He could correspond with the man and Harry was none the wiser about it.

Gellert merely smiles up at him in response. He pats the seat next to him. "Come, sit." He says, gregariously. "And tell me why it is your guardian is so set on keeping you away from me."

Tom hates to follow any sort of demands made by this man, but sees no real reason not to, so he sits beside him and glowered out into the lake. "I'm not entirely sure myself."

Gellert is dangerous, obviously. But so are all the professors at his school, and the majority of the spells they teach. He doesn't understand why Harry is perfectly fine with him resurrecting dead things and taking classes with a bonafide demon summoner but takes exception where Gellert is concerned. Harry must know the man is the Dark Lord, then. She wouldn't be so unyielding otherwise. When Tom had casually brought up the man's offer to tutor him, he was surprised by how vehemently he was shot down in flames. Harry absolutely does not want Tom near the man; and like any obstinate young child, Tom merely takes this as a sign to meet him anyway.

"She doesn't like me much, does she?" He observes, smiling ruefully.

Tom considers his answer carefully. "I don't think you've given her much reason to."

It is a gamble that pays off. The man stiffens, just slightly, but enough for Tom's intense observation to notice. He doesn't actually know Harry's opinion of the man— although it was easy enough to assume— and more importantly, how she came to have it. Harry is not the sort of person who judges people by surface appearance alone. She's an extremely, uncannily good judge of character, and seems to have a sixth sense on the matter.

From the Dark Lord's reaction, Tom can tell definitively that there is something in their history that would cause Harry to think upon him unfavorably, and the man knows it. What could he have done though?

"Hmm, I suppose not." By the time he has replied, the brief insight into his emotions is long gone. "But that's a subject for another time." He segues, smoothly. "How have those runes been treating you?"

Tom looks down at his sleeves, as if he could possibly see them through his many layers of clothing. "Well," he replies, curtly. "They haven't acted up at all, and I've had no… visitors or anything like that."

"Probably for the best," the man agrees. "But benign or not, I wouldn't stop researching it."

"I didn't plan on it." He replies, blandly.

He would have expected a Dark Lord to curse him for that kind of cheek, in the same way the matrons at the orphanage would have slapped him across the face. Instead he only smiles roguishly, as if he is privately amused.

"That being said I had assumed you may find yourself lacking adequate resources to do so," he adds, and pulls out a leather bound book from his coat.

He hands it over to Tom. Tom runs his fingers down the spine, flipping through a few pages. It's definitely not anything he's seen before— in Harry's library or the one at school. Then again, it's not as if that those two sources are the be all end all of academia. He spares a quick glance at the man beside him; he can only imagine the sort of resources the Dark Lord must have at his disposal. The knowledge he holds, the skills he possesses.

Soon, he thinks. Soon, he'll catch up to the man.

"Thanks," he says, begrudgingly.

"Read through that, and we'll meet up again to discuss it," Gellert says, as Tom tucks the book into his coat. "Do you think you can finish it before your break ends?"

Tom bristles at the very idea. "Of course." He sniffs, looking away. "I've already finished all my winter break homework, anyway."

"Of course." Gellert echoes, looking far too amused. "Very well then, I'll be in contact soon."

Tom watches him walk off with a wary look, before he pulls the book out of his coat. The title is in latin, but it certainly looks like a riveting read. He'll have no trouble devouring it within days. He hops off the bench, deciding the Dark Lord has the right of it and he shouldn't stick around. That being said he told Harry he'd be out wandering the neighborhood, and usually when he does that he's off exploring for a few hours, so he needs to find some way to entertain himself for at least another hour.

He cups his gloved hands and breathes warm air onto his palms. He decides to head off to a nearby cafe to start reading his book somewhere warm.

.

.

.

"World history and politics just utterly fascinates me. It's such a shame I slept through all of my History classes." Harry opines with a sigh, making him break out into a grin, after she admits she's not as well versed in foreign affairs as she'd like to be.

"That doesn't sound like the behavior of someone who genuinely enjoys the subject." He laughs.

Harry rolls her eyes. "That just goes to show you how important having a good professor is. My teacher should have gotten sacked decades ago— I wasn't the only one who slept through every class period, let me tell you." She prods at her onion soup, looking down. "It wasn't really until I graduated and had a chance to travel that my passion really ignited."

"Seeing the world will do that to you." Gellert agrees sagely.

Harry looks up then, smiling slightly. "Where's your favorite place in the world?"

It's not a question he's expecting. It's too casual and yet too personal at the same time. It's the sort of thing you'd ask… a friend. Someone you genuinely wanted to spend time with, someone whose answer you genuinely wanted to know. He wonders if she realizes this, or if, to her, it was merely just a question.

"Joseon," he says, which clearly takes her by surprise.

"Joseon?" She repeats, blinking.

"It's in—

"Yes, the Korean peninsula," she finishes, still looking quite surprised. "I know where it is. I just… I guess I wouldn't have expected that."

Gellert merely grins in response.

"It's a lovely place." Harry remarks, after a moment. "If not a bit… volatile, currently." A sudden look crosses her eyes. "Or… is that why you like it?"

The Dark Lord's grin widens. "Yes. It's not the only country rife with transitory, colonial issues, but watching it play out has been intriguing. How the Joseon Empire handles it will be a good indicator of other places, I think."

At first, Harry is annoyed at the idea of the man hanging back and being amused as a country loses its sovereign rights, before realizing that would be entirely hypocritical of her. After all, is she not doing the same? Harry has zero interest in trying to shape this world using her knowledge of the future. She's finished playing hero.

"Well, I'm personally a huge fan, for the skincare if nothing else." She says, if only to lighten the mood. It does successfully draw forth a surprised bark of laughter from him. "And while I have my gripes with Confucianism, I can appreciate the richness of their history and culture. I find the Japanese imperialism to be stifling and a bit of a shame, but I can understand why Western powers wouldn't intervene, and I'm sure Joseon will one day be a world power in their own right."

He raises a brow. "I thought you said you slept through all your classes?"

Harry laughs weakly. "Like I said, I'm interested in it."

He merely watches her shrewdly. The skincare doesn't surprise him; women are always obsessing over cosmetics of some kind, especially those from the Orient. They rarely care about the policy and politics of the places they come from, though.

(Harry quietly and profusely thanks Ron and by extension Ginny for roping her into their latest Netflix obsession. Who knew a k-drama set in the early twentieth century would ever come in handy?)

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.

.

Harry wastes no time darting up the stairs and into her bedroom. Tom is out exploring the neighborhood— a common enough occurrence since they'd moved here that she doesn't even think twice about it— and this is probably Harry's best opportunity to get a moment away from him, what with winter break on the horizon. She heads into her dressing room, closing the door behind her as she squirrels through her underwear drawer.

It's the only place in the whole house Harry knows Tom would never touch in a million years. He's curious enough to go into basically about every other room and look around, but the one time Harry had done the laundry and accidentally dropped a pair of knickers on her way to the laundry room, he'd freaked out and hid in the living room like it was some kind of deadly virus. It had amused her endlessly, but she'd made sure to not drop anything after that. At any rate, it's the safest place in the whole house to hide things from curious eyes, and she pushes aside lace undergarments to the false bottom at the bottom of the drawer. She wiggles her hand around, and finds her enchanted bottomless bag full of things from the future she doesn't want Tom to find, but still wants to have on hand and not thrown into a vault. She eventually pulls out her copy of History of Magic, stained with drool from the many days she'd used it as a pillow.

In 1790, the fifteenth President of MACUSA, Emily Rappaport, instituted a law designed to create total segregation of the wizarding and No-Maj communities. This followed one of the most serious breaches of the International Statute of Secrecy, leading to a humiliating censure of MACUSA by the International Confederation of Wizards. The matter was that much more serious because the breach came from within MACUSA itself.

Rappaport's Law further entrenched the major cultural difference between the American wizarding community and that of Europe. In the Old World, there had always been a degree of covert cooperation and communication between No-Maj governments and their magical counterparts. In America, MACUSA acted totally independently of the No-Maj government. In Europe, witches and wizards married and were friends with No-Majs; in America, No-Majs were increasingly regarded as the enemy. In short, Rappaport's Law drove the American wizarding community, already dealing with an unusually suspicious No-Maj population, still deeper underground.

Harry looks up from the book, blinking rapidly.

1790 was… a long time ago. Way before Harry had arrived. She shuts the book and places it back in its hiding spot in the bag beneath the false bottom.

She tiptoes into Tom's room, scanning his bookshelf for one of his Magical American History books. She finds it easily enough, what with Tom's meticulous book organization.

She doesn't see anything about a Rappaport's Law. She doesn't even see anything about a Rappaport to begin with. The fifteenth President of M-SAU, the Magical Strategic Alliance Union was a man named John Adams.

Harry pauses as that sinks in, wondering why that name sounds familiar.

Fortunately, she doesn't wait long. The next passage in Tom's history book goes on to describe John Adams, wizard, President of M-SAU and Vice President of the United States of America as one of the founding fathers of the country, and also one of the largest proponents for magical integration. As a wizard born of non-magical parents, integration was of the utmost importance to him. Harry sort of skims through the rest of it; George Washington himself was a wizard, but was far less passionate on the matter, being from an old pureblood line himself. Then John Adams himself became President, and he took even more steps towards desegregation. Eventually the country was to fully assimilate some time before the first World War, leading up to what Harry knew of in this timeline. More often than not, the President of the United States is the leader of both the non-magicals and the magicals, and if he is not, it's common practice to choose a running mate who is.

The two couldn't be any different, Harry notices. In her own timeline, Hermione had mentioned that the eventual deterioration of Rappaport's Law and the beginning of governmental unity didn't start happening until the very late twentieth century.

Honestly, Harry should have brushed up on her American history before moving herself and Tom across the pond, but she hadn't ever thought this situation could occur. In the tome they'd found on dimensional wards, the author had said nothing about ending up in completely different dimensions. Supposedly in theory it should only work if the traveler traveled to the nearest dimensions to their own, which apparently would be the most similar. But it was beginning to seem like the nearest dimensions weren't identical ones— or even remotely similar, from the looks of things. She'd expected perhaps a few minor discrepancies, but nothing like a radically different turn in world events. Sweet Merlin, what else had changed? What else was different? Hermione had mentioned some discrepancies with Grindelwald as well; she'd have to look into that.

When they had found the old book on traveling through time and space, lost in the clutter of Professor Dumbledore's office that took weeks after the final battle to sort through, Harry had assumed that the presence of the book signified that it was possible. But as it turned out, it seems like the book had been purely theoretical, and all the wards and runes they'd found were hypothetical at best. And yet, they'd worked.

When they'd found the book, Hermione and Harry went back and forth as to why Dumbledore could possibly have such a strange thing in his office. Eventually Ron was the one who offered up the idea of regret. It seemed to make sense; as his history had come to light posthumously, Dumbledore seemed to have a lot he held regrets over, and the idea of traveling in time to fix it probably appealed to him. And Harry knew he'd gone after the resurrection stone out of regret over his sister, so it seemed perfectly plausible. At the time, they'd assumed the reason he'd never gone through with it was due to the fact it wasn't actually time travel, but rather, traveling to a different time in a different dimension. But now it was starting to sound like the reason Dumbledore never used these spells was because he couldn't.

Harry had managed it, though.

But then again, Harry wasn't really… well, she wasn't entirely sure what she was. But she wasn't mortal any longer. It's quite possible she was the only person who could use these spells, and if Hermione or Ron had tried it, it wouldn't have worked.

Harry tucks the book back onto Tom's shelf as she hears the front door open, hastily vacating his room.

As much as she hated it, it seemed like she was going to have to do a lot of research over the break.

.

.

.

He truly doesn't want the night to end, but it's an inevitability that cannot be avoided.

They held all sorts of riveting discussions on intellectual topics over the many courses of dinner, and he found he was always impressed by her insightful responses. Miss Riddle had a curious mind behind those celadon eyes, so much so that he's been discreetly asking the house elves to continue serving courses regardless of the fact neither of them were still hungry. Truly though, he simply didn't want their intimate dinner to be over. But at this point it had been hours, and he's run out of excuses, so he asks her what she'd like for dessert.

She tries to protest the trouble, but he manages to wrangle an answer out of her, and learns that her favorite dessert is bread pudding. It's exactly the sort of simple and yet unanticipated answer he's come to expect from her. When he voices this aloud she merely sniffs and says she her real favorite is Douhua, but she didn't want to cause his house elves undue trouble. He couldn't help but laugh; this too was exactly what he would expect of her.

He enjoys their deeper conversations, but he realizes then that he doesn't know anything about her, personally. Sure, he knows quite a bit about her observations on world politics, and usually that is the sort of opinion he wants to know, but he finds himself wishing for conversation topics that he normally avoids like the plague. The sort of pandering nonsense that is far more happenstance at the dinner table. She is one of the few people he would like to get to know, personally.

"What's your favorite place in the world?" He decides to turn the question back around.

Harry looks up from where she longingly stares at her mostly untouched dessert, looking like she'd love to have more but simply doesn't have the appetite. She seems surprised he asked— probably as surprised he was when she had.

She thinks on it for a moment.

"New York." She says, finally. And then; "For now."

"For now?" He repeats, curious.

The smile she sends his way is positively beatific. "Well it's a big world out there, you never know. So many cities to see, places to go. I'd really like to see it all one day, but that's probably impossible." She laughs at the end.

Oh, but he'd take her everywhere she wanted to see, if she asked. He is reminded of that brief glimpse of Harry in the desert, some far and foreign place full of stars and the undead. How striking and otherworldly she had appeared, in that moment. He can imagine them in all sorts of ancient and foreign places, full of mysticism and magic, discovering esoteric histories lost to time. He can even imagine the boy with them, the child no doubt snarking him at every available instance. It's such a strange and silly thing to think about. That would absolutely never happen. Harry might be humoring him currently, but he's under no delusions over her feelings for him. She's definitely not very fond of him.

"There's always next year's vacation, no?" He says, and if the smile he wears is perhaps a bit rueful, Harry doesn't notice.

Harry looks at him curiously. "Yes." She replies, blinking. "I suppose that's true. That would be more up to Tom, though."

"If that's the case, I expect you'll end up in the most far flung regions of the world, where running water and breakfast service are distant dreams." He chuckles.

Harry scowls. "Oh Merlin, don't remind me. I suppose I'll pick at least one place then, if only so that I can enjoy my kind of vacation for a bit."

She grins at him cheekily then. "I think Joseon would be a great choice, don't you think? Lots of magical history, fairly industrialized."

He wishes he could offer to show her around, but he has a feeling his proposal will be met with distant disdain. He does truly wish it could be so, though.

.

.

.

"I'm surprised at your level of interest Gellert," the man comments idly, "it's rather unlike you."

Beneath an indeterminable sky, the great Headmaster Pershing takes off his glasses with an air of casualness Gellert doesn't believe for a second, cleaning them off with a silk cloth. The Dark Lord leans back in his chair, observing the man across from him in pensive silence. Every meeting is a quiet battle between the two of them, he knows. Every word a block or strike, two careful lancers circling around each other. A thoughtless answer could lose him the battle, and who knows, perhaps even his life. He never truly knows what's at stake in their battle of words, but he doesn't plan to find out.

Is it even worth it to attempt nonchalance?

"She fascinates me," he decides upon, as he reaches for the untouched set of tea on the low table between them. Pershing has not touched his own, but that is no surprise. He never eats or drinks, as far as Gellert knows. He wonders if the man even sleeps. He's never seemed entirely human, but he doesn't know of any magical creature that could match his description.

Pershing looks amused. "Of course she does," he enthuses. "And why wouldn't she? Clever girl."

The Dark Lord finds himself, once again, intensely curious of the man's opinion on Harry. It's impossible to say. Positive? Derisive? He sincerely could not hope to guess.

"Did she enjoy the party?"

Gellert withholds a snort. "Not in the least."

He watches with disbelief as something like fondness crosses the man's features. He's fairly sure he imagined it, though. Pershing, no matter what name he was going by or what persona he was playing, never looked amused or interested in anything. And if he did, it was merely a veneer for his audience. Yet there was no audience here, just the two of them, sharing frank conversation.

"And the boy," at this, the man's face splits into an anomalous smile. Gellert does not think he's ever seen the man smile; not genuinely, not to this extent. This time, he's sure he hasn't imagined it. "How is he?"

"He excels just as you said he would," the blonde man replies, setting his tea down in a sedated gesture. "His excellence in necromancy is truly commendable."

The Headmaster's gaze drifts away from Gellert then, and in a surprisingly visceral show of emotion he can see something almost forlorn cross the man's eyes. The Headmaster is nothing if not enigmatic; to get so many reads on his emotions in one sitting is beyond disconcerting.

"All the doors are open for him, hm?" The man observes, quietly.

"I would hope so," Gellert agrees drily, hoping to lighten the strange mood that had come upon them. "I did offer to teach him, after all."

"I imagine young Miss Riddle did not take well to that."

"She crafted a delicately well-worded response to my query after the party, declining my offer. Unsurprisingly the boy hasn't let that deter him in the slightest."

Pershing looks curious, but Gellert doesn't offer anything else. He's surprised really, that they even spent this much time discussing this matter at all. He expected Pershing to want an update on the state of continental Europe, Germany and Russia in particular, as he has in all their recent meetings. They did have a lengthy discussion on Gellert's progress manipulating the various magical Ministries, and next steps, but he had expected as much. This, however, was throwing him off.

He was worried, truly. Pershing had never shown such interest in a single person before, excluding Gellert. He couldn't help but feel a healthy sense of trepidation; Pershing was not the sort of man you'd want to garner the attention of. The real mastermind behind this brewing war, and this century at large, he was perhaps the most dangerous man on this earth.

He wonders if it was inevitable, then, that the most dangerous woman would elicit his interest.

He knows what's coming, a dark weight settling in his stomach.

"I think I'd like to meet this Miss Riddle." The man enthuses, leaning back in his chair.

Gellert watches the man warily. He knows he cannot deny him, no matter how much he may worry over Harry's safety. Even someone as powerful as a not-quite god has something to fear when meeting this man.

"When would you like to arrange a meeting?" He asks, with resignation.

Pershing taps his chin. "After the holidays," he decides. "It would be rather rude to interrupt during the break, wouldn't you say?"

He wonders if that's a rhetorical question. Pershing doesn't strike him as the kind of man who cares about rudeness.

"I'm sure she'd appreciate the gesture." He agrees, drily.

"Well I can at least be courteous enough to wait," Pershing remarks, magnanimously. "After all, I wouldn't want to get off on the wrong foot, no?"

Gellert is fairly sure the man is goading him, but he does not rise to the bait. "Yes. It would do you well to learn from my mistakes." He says, humbly.

Pershing chuckles darkly. "Indeed."

More than anything, he wants to warn her. But what could he possibly say? And was it truly worth crossing a man who was inarguably the most powerful human on the planet? Was she worth it?

"I suppose I'll send her an invitation for tea after the new year," he muses. "I trust you'll be able to send the message along?"

His expression is cool and impassive, giving nothing away. "Of course."

 

Chapter Text

Harry and Tom spend a quiet winter holiday together, sequestered away in their house with nothing but an overly large snake and Christmas carols to disrupt them. 

 

Truth be told, Harry can’t help but find it rather ominous. Nothing in her life every stays calm and quiet for very long, and this dimension has not proved itself to be any different than her last. She idled the days away with her head in a book, much to her own consternation and Tom’s incredulity. Harry was very clever and worldly, but not normally so interested in academia. She told Tom she’d rather learn things by doing them, and investigating the world around her, then through a book. Tom agreed on principal, but also pointed out from a logistical and efficiency standpoint, books were superior. Harry had given him a fond and exasperated look in response— but had picked up a book all the same. 

 

Tom would normally be annoyed to have Harry’s attention so conclusively taken up by something else, including his beloved books, but as it was he too had spent most of break with his nose tucked into a book.

 

He was deeply annoyed to find the book Gellert had given him was, in fact, extremely helpful. He hated the idea of owing the man anything, but, well, half this situation was the man’s fault anyhow so it was only fair he offer something in recompense. After all, Tom might have been naive enough to enter a ritual with fresh blood, but Gellert was the one foolish enough to initiate a ritual with someone so obviously young and ignorant to begin with. The book, he supposed, went a long way in smoothing Tom’s ruffled feathers. It also helped that, at least as of now, Baal-Hammon had all but disappeared from this plane, returning to… wherever beings from a higher dimension go when they’re bored of this one, he supposed. Anyway, even after reading this book front to back multiple times, he still wasn’t sure what to do with an ancient God, so it was for the best. 

 

Being in a pact with a god like this was… rare, to say the least.

 

No wonder even the Dark Lord had been so taken aback.

 

Long ago, when great Viziers and shamans reigned and the world still believed in magic, sorcerers of amazing power rose above the rest. They were gods in their own right in some ways. Many of them had pacts with beings of a higher dimension, just like he did. However, the relationships tended to be fraught and ultimately ending in tragedy. The book did not offer any enlightenment as to why that may be so, but from the passages of history it was easy to see it was true. For whatever reason, there were no more gods on this plane, and humanity by and large had forgotten about the relevance they had once played. 

 

In summary, no god had taken a pact with a human in centuries. Or at least, not in any way that could be verified. Tom didn’t quite believe that; after all, it had happened to him, somehow. Surely he was not alone in this predicament?

 

At any rate, reading these accounts of great mages wielding the powers of their gods made Tom rife with envy. He was eager to join their ranks, though he did not know how, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about learning it. These mages could cast plagues upon entire people, part the seas and raise mountains from rock. A mage’s powers were in direct correlation to the domain of their god; in Tom’s case, he should be able to bless a bountiful harvest, call forth storms and gale force winds and powerful strikes of lightning. The idea of blessing a harvest was dreadfully boring, but lightning and storms certainly had their appeal. 

 

Beyond weather and harvests, Baal-Hammon was a god of time. Tom couldn’t find many accounts on such gods though. Much like Baal-Hammon, time gods usually had an array of powers that were probably more useful during ancient times and therefore more prolifically used. Even the other time gods he could find had no accounts of wizards actually utilizing such a skill. 

 

Time… what would he even do with time? Tom couldn’t fathom it. Time magic was sparse and secretive. Not even his professors had much to say on the matter, and they seemed bemused he’d even broach the subject. Apparently, even accomplished wizards considered it to be something of a hoax. It existed to be sure, but experimentation thus far had bore poor results. In light of this, most professors considered charms to be more of a legitimate field of study than time. 

 

He imagines there must be some kind of Time Master somewhere, but certainly not at Wolcroft. 

 

So Tom is once again stopped by a staggering lack of information.

 

It’s infuriating, to say the least. 

 

There is so much knowledge in this world, so many things to learn, and Tom simply cannot access it from the shuddered view of it he has. Even a place like Wolcroft, a renowned institution of learning, is not enough. And he already knows Hogwarts won’t be enough. He doesn’t think any institution will ever be enough. Not even all the ones in the world combined. He wants more. 

 

He wants more than just the secrets of the Deathly Hallows, the ancient art of rituals, or even the god currently haunting him. 

 

Tom wants to know it all, and the idea of being stuck here in a room full of books and still not being satisfied is a difficult one to swallow. 

 

“Tom? Are you up yet?” Harry calls from the bottom of the stairs. 

 

Tom reluctantly pulls himself up from his spot on the ground, where he had been mutinously staring at the ceiling with Spot as his pillow for most of the morning. “I’m awake.” He replies, and even his voice sounds defeated. 

 

Harry pads up the stairs, peering into the library with a swoop of curls. She smells like cinnamon and nutmeg, and there’s flour in her hair. “The cookies are almost done! Do you want to come down and open presents?”

 

The thought of the Christmas presents waiting for him under the tree did lighten his spirits somewhat. It also made him somewhat maudlin.

 

“Yeah,” he replies, feeling oddly overwhelmed. “In a minute.”

 

Harry takes his answer in stride. “Alright. I’m going to start the hot chocolate then!”

 

With that she’s bounding down the stairs, leaving Tom alone with his snake and his thoughts. 

 

He pushes himself up into a sitting position; behind him, Spot hisses joyously with freedom, slithering away before Tom can commandeer him into becoming a backrest again. Spot disappears behind the door, and Tom spends a moment merely sitting there in the room, surrounded by books. Behind the bay windows, snow is lightly falling under a twinkling gray sky. He turns slightly to watch flurries whirl behind the glass. It was a day not unlike this one that Tom first arrived at this house. Snowing intermittently, with a low overcast horizon line. 

 

It’s only been two years. 

 

Two years ago he couldn’t have dreamed of where he is now; in a vast library all to himself, his own bedroom down the hall, the noises of his pet snake sliding ungracefully down the stairs outside. Spot hit the bottom of the stairs with a loud thump. His hissing complaints were loud enough for Tom to hear, so they were certainly loud enough for Harry to hear. Unsurprisingly, both of them ignore him. Spot continued to whine, this time about what he considered the ‘pervasive and hypothermia-inducing cold’ inside the house. This time Harry acquiesces, and he could hear the fire crackling to light in the fireplace. Despite Spot’s whining, it wasn’t actually necessary. It’s not even remotely cold in the house. It is, in fact, just a bit too cozy. There’s no draft at all. The orphanage always had a draft, only had one fireplace, and most certainly didn’t have whatever weird mechanism Harry did to keep the whole house at a single temperature. Tom is even wearing a jumper, one of many he owns. More than likely there are a half dozen more waiting beneath the tree for him, because Harry is forever obsessed with dressing him up. Tom has no opinion on clothes, mainly because he’d never had the option of choosing his own, so he can’t say he minds. Anyway, having many sets of clothes was nice to have, in and of itself. 

 

Who knows what else is down there? Well, a real Christmas tree for starters. A magic one even, with snow fairies in the boughs, and gingerbread men that danced to twinkling lights. Harry had gone with a ‘Nutcracker’ theme, whatever that was supposed to mean, so the whole house was dressed up like some kind of edible gingerbread house. The potted plants had been replaced with giant candy canes and trees of peppermint, the countertops were decorated with sugar plums and brightly coated candies, and cupcakes that were apparently candles dotted every surface. It was… a lot, frankly, but who was Tom to tell Harry how to decorate? It was her house, after all, and to be honest, since Tom had never actually lived in a house before he was delighted by anything she did to it. 

 

It was a house lit warmly and well-decorated for Christmas, and Tom lived in it. From the outside, it looked just like the rowhouses in London Tom used to pass by on his way back to Wool’s; handsomely trussed up for the holidays, cozy and inviting. Tom and the other orphans could only look at them longingly, before returning to the dreary and cold brick building that housed them. 

 

By the time Tom makes it down the stairs the hot chocolate is already on the table, and Harry is carefully examining the cookies in the oven.They smelled good, but Tom refrained from becoming too over-eager to eat them; the last time Harry had made cookies they had been just this side of too salty. 

 

“Well go on, don’t just stand there!” Harry shoves him gently, removing him from the spot he’s been rooted to for the last couple minutes. 

 

Tom shakes himself out of his daze; it’s been years now, and he still isn’t quite over the fact that all these presents are for him. 

 

“Don’t you think you might have went a bit overboard this year…?” Tom can’t help but ask, as he surveys this year’s haul. He’s fairly sure a dozen more have appeared in the interim of last night to this morning. When on earth did Harry have the time to purchase all of this?

 

“Nonsense!” Harry disagrees, cheerfully. She might be a bit biased, after so many years of being subjected to the staggering amount of presents Dudley got every year, but what does it matter anyhow? Tom deserves to be spoiled, and he doesn’t have anyone else to do it. 

 

Anyway, Amazon was having a fantastic Christmas sale with one-day shipping, and Harry was a sucker for a great sale. 

 

Besides, Harry rather enjoys shopping for clothes for him. He’s the best little doll she’s never had; he doesn’t even protest no matter what she buys him! How can she not go a bit overboard, in light of that? 

 

“Now go on, pick one!” The oven dings behind her. “Oh, I really hope they’re actually done this time… go ahead and start Tom, I’ll be there in just a second!”

 

Even if that second turns into a half hour, Tom doubts he’ll even have made a dent into his presents. But he’s hardly going to complain about something like that, so he makes his way to the tree and reaches for one of the presents at the top of the pile.

 

Harry hums a tune as she prods one of the cookies, the smell of chocolate and cinnamon heavy in the air. She thinks they might need just one more minute. A half minute. Harry laments her lack of baking ability for what seems like the thousandth time today. She was an excellent cook, her time at the Dursley’s had seen to that, but Aunt Petunia would never dare to let her touch her precious baking equipment. Baking was her Aunt’s pride and joy, and she’d hardly let her scruffy and dirty niece near her baking cabinet. Harry really wishes she didn’t have to think of the Dursley’s right now. Harry hated acknowledging them in any capacity, and would prefer to pretend as if they didn’t exist and the time she’d had to spend with them didn’t happen. Thinking about all the emotional trauma of her childhood just made her angry and irritable, and today of all days she refuses to be either of those. 

 

So, Aunt Petunia can fuck off. Harry was determined to be just as good of a baker, Aunt be damned. 

 

On that note, she decides they could use a full two more minutes, and occupies herself with going through the mail that has piled up over the holidays. 

 

Most of it is junk, there’s one for Tom from his school— presumably teacher’s instructions for the new term, which he’s been getting at a steady clip— and another with the school’s emblem addressed to her. 

 

This gives Harry pause.

 

It has a wax seal, and the return address is to the Administrative Department. She shears it open with a little bit of wandless magic, examining the handsomely embroidered cardstock hidden in the envelope. 

 

Harry’s brows raise as she scans through the impeccably handwritten script. 

 

There’s not much written on it, unfortunately. It appears to be an invitation for tea with the Headmaster, set for the week Tom returns for term. 

 

Harry stares at it with apprehension. 

 

A meeting? With Tom’s Headmaster? Whatever for? 

 

She doesn’t even think she’s spoken to the man before. She can hardly remember what he looks like; an unremarkable older gentleman with glasses, she thinks. Or is she imagining the glasses? 

 

Either way, from what little she knows of him, he’s not the sort of man she could just decline off the bat. She has no reason to, anyway. And who knows what he wants to talk about? Perhaps he’s impressed with a gifted student like Tom and wants to talk future career opportunities? Further avenues of study? He seems like a man with friends in a high places— the sort of man that has all kinds of connections. 

 

It’s worth a meeting, at the very least. Anyway, Harry’s probably getting ahead of herself. For all she knows the man meets with all parents of students, and this is just her turn for a brief ten minute conversation. 

 

“Harry?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Are the cookies burning?”

 

Harry curses loudly, diving for the oven. 

 

Maybe she should just give up on baking.

 

//

 

Harry’s bad omen comes to a head when she arrives at the school for her meeting and promptly gets lost on the grounds. And her gut is telling her this is just merely the start of it. 

 

Despite this, Harry refuses to let her apprehension get the best of her. 

 

Harry checks the paper in her hands once, twice and then a third time just for good measure. She squints at it. Wait a minute, is she holding the map upside down?

 

Truth be told, this is her first time exploring the greater school grounds of Wolcroft, and she has to admit she vastly underestimated the scale of it. She couldn’t be certain it was actually bigger than the Hogwarts grounds (excluding the Forbidden Forest) mainly because it was not as open or elevated. Instead it appeared to be divided into three main campuses, interconnected by a web of stone walls enclosing all sorts of interesting areas. All the same, they had provided her a map, and she had followed it to a tee, so she’s not entirely sure how she got so lost. 

 

Harry does, in fact, have an excellent sense of direction, so when she does actually get lost she tends to quietly panic until she finds her way again.

 

Okay, okay, I took a left at the fairy fountain, and crossed the bridge between the twin lakes, and then…

 

She’d seen the building that was to be her final destination as she crossed along the tall, arched bridge, peeking out over the tops of a small grove of pixie oak trees. But after entering the misty forest, she’d been spit out in front of yet another cobblestone pass surrounded on all sides by towering stone walls. 

 

Cursing, Harry quickly checks her watch; at least she made it a point to be extremely early. But if she doesn’t find her way soon she’ll be well and truly late.

 

Mind made up, she takes the path to the immediate right, feeling as if the main university hall must be in that direction. 

 

To her dismay, when she pushes past the iron wrought gate what lays behind it is most certainly not the university. Instead it is a long, winding path cut through what appears to be some kind of shrine. But perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel; she can just barely spot another gate on the far side of the gardens. Her sense of direction is rarely wrong; more than likely that gate will spit her out on the other side of the forest— the side she originally intended to be at. 

 

Despite the time, she finds herself walking across the stones at a moderate pace. She hasn’t had much time to truly appreciate the school grounds as much as they deserve; perhaps she’ll wander about after her meeting with the Headmaster, maybe even until school lets out so she and Tom can return home together. Much like Hogwarts, Wolcroft certainly has many curiosities hidden within its labyrinthine depths. It’s all too easy to overlook the breathtaking magic of it all if one doesn’t stop to admire it. 

 

Why is this garden blooming in winter? She wonders curiously, as she examines a vibrant amaranth flower. The other gardens she saw were inhabited by pixies, fairies, and other magical woodland creatures that can keep nature in bloom despite the weather, but this particular fragment of the ground has no such creatures to speak of. In fact it doesn’t seem to have any creatures at all. Even the distant chirping of birds has dwindled into silence. But what it lacks in animal diversity it certainly makes up for in architecture. 

 

Dotted along the path and the hedges of heather are large stone structures of varying size and composition. The one she stands in front of has the geometric pattern and vibrant crimson and cyan coloring that makes her think of the tribal dress of the Aztecs in Tom’s history book. And the one after that, well… she’s no expert, and she’s not as fixated on the subject of ancient civilizations as Tom certainly is, but she’d have to guess maybe Hindu or Javanese. 

 

Maybe this is some sort of sanctuary for worship?

 

All the shrines had various items that she assumes were placed there as offerings; flowers, burning incense, arrays of fruit and herbs. They were all fresh as well, with some incense pillars still burning. The place was clearly well tended. 

 

Perhaps they use it during classes? That would certainly explain the well worn path. 

 

She really ought to learn more about what, exactly, they study here at Wolcroft. Tom can be rather evasive on the subjects when he wants to be, and the vague class overviews she gets from the teachers are too broad to be helpful. For example, she knows Tom studies Ancient Magics, but what exactly is Ancient Magics? It sounds benign, but knowing this school that’s rather naive of her to think. 

 

She vows to gather more information on the subject. She could even try to pull aside one of his teachers while she’s here; it is the start of a new term after all, surely it’s not so unreasonable for a parent to want to hear more about what their child is learning— 

 

Harry gives a yelp as the toe of her heel gets caught on a rock, tumbling face first onto the ground.

 

Well, that was ungraceful. She laments with a scowl, quickly dusting herself off and examining her outfit for dirt. Fortunately the ground is arid and dry with winter, so it comes off easily enough with a few pats and a quick cleaning charm. All the same, Harry is deeply aggrieved. So much for being a worn path— oh, there’s nothing she hates more than looking frazzled and unkempt, especially when she’s going to something important! 

 

A high flush rises up her neck as she furiously combs her fingers through her hair, hoping it’s salvageable. The tips of her ears burn miserably at the thought of appearing sloppy or messy in front of someone like the Headmaster; it’s an old wound that reminds her far too much of her childhood spent in tattered and unwashed clothes. The cringes she’d get from strangers, the way all the children at primary would sit as far away from her as possible, holding their noses because the Dursley’s refused to have her wasting their bath water. The day they finally started letting her bathe regularly because the school principal had called them in to tell them they’d had to shave her head because she’d given the other children lice. Snape’s expression when he’d bypassed Hagrid and walked into the cottage to see her covered in dirt and grime, lying on a filthy, soot filled floor. 

 

Its fine, she tries to calm herself, it was just a little tumble, it’s not as if a bit of dirt on her was going to give her fleas. 

 

Don’t think about them, she reminds herself, pushing the thoughts of the miserable and awful Durlsey’s aside. They’re not worth the effort of remembering. 

 

Something glints in the corner of her eye, and she turns to see a shiny, obsidian plaque centered on the shrine beside her. There are characters in a foreign language engraved onto it, but it’s still plenty shiny enough to work as a substitute mirror in dire circumstances. It’s with no small amount of relief that she steps onto the altar and catches her reflection on its lustrous surface. 

 

She breathes out a sigh. Her hair, miraculously, is still perfectly in place, pinned out of her face and tumbling down her shoulders. 

 

Harry quickly looks down at the strands to make sure they’re free of dirt and debris, and when she looks up she finds herself completely frozen. 

 

There, in the reflection, is someone who isn’t her.

 

She wants to scream, but finds herself paralyzed. Either by fear or by magic she can’t quite tell. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart thumped loudly in her chest, beating frantically against her chest, furious for air. 

 

It wasn’t even just someone. 

 

It was some thing.

 

Her eyes very slowly creep upwards. The sun, which was out in full, seems to grow wintry and dim, like the world around her is being dragged away, taking the light with it. The frigid air seems to grind to a painfully silent halt. Reality, in this moment, turns to dust. The world grows still and empty. There is no whisper of sound, and yet the silence screeches in her ears. The sound of distant bells began to ring, somewhere off in the distance. 

 

Harry doesn’t understand how, but she knows.

 

This is death.

 

She doesn’t know how long she stands there, but it could very well have been an eternity come and gone. She stares into the abyss and stares into her own eyes, and somehow they are one in the same. The presence she feels and the eyes she stares into are at once alien and alarming and yet wholly familiar. Like looking into a pool of slightly swaying water, sometimes her reflection is familiar, and others it is distorted into something disturbing to look at. 

 

Harry is still paralyzed as her reflection reaches for her. 

 

It crosses the barrier of obsidian and the veneer shatters. A creature from beyond the veil crawls out of the stone; black smoke drips off its form, melting in the air like ink in water, carrying the smell of ash. Its depthless eyes are the only defining feature she can comprehend with clarity, and even then she would not be able to describe what she sees when she stares into them. If fear were a color, she thinks it must be this. The smoke turns to limbs, many of them, grasping towards her. 

 

Every fiber of her mortal being is telling her to move , but she can’t seem to get her body to cooperate with her. It’s like she’s not even there anymore, like she’s gone off to somewhere unfathomable, where a creature like this can reach its hands out to her, stare into her eyes and show her something beyond. 

 

Fingers dripping in darkness reach up to her face, slowly, deliberately, perhaps even venerably. Like she is the sun, the first peel of light in an otherwise barren universe. 

 

She can feel nothing on her skin, but she knows tendrils of gloom envelop around her. Harry does not look away to see if its limbs have truly reached her— she cannot look away. She just stares, unblinking, as it stares back. Its mouth opens. She wonders what it means to do; kiss her, as dementors do? The kiss of death? Or perhaps it means to devour her, pull her into a world beyond? What would await her there, she wonders. It looms closer, and Harry thinks she might be leaning closer as well, no longer in fear but in exaltation, enlightenment, even, and then— 

 

“Are you a patron of Yama?”

 

Harry sucks in a cold, shattering breath of air. 

 

She crashes back into the world. 

 

She blinks once, twice. Takes another sharp breath. Foreign characters stare back at her; etched into a great obsidian plaque at the altar of a shrine. 

 

Harry turns to the side, where the voice has returned her to this tether of reality. 

 

A woman stands at the base of the stairs, off to the side. Her expression is pleasantly neutral, perhaps even a bit amicable. Her short dark hair glistens in the wind, tan skin warm in the light. 

 

Harry swallows thickly. Her mouth feels dry and parched and uncomfortable, like she’s forgotten how to use it for a moment. Like she’s forgotten how to be human.

 

“I— ah, I’m sorry?”

 

“Yama,” she repeats, tilting her head in the direction of the shrine. “Sometimes referred to as Yamaraja, or Yima. He is revered as the god of death, and the guardian of directions, in most Hindu derivative cultures.”

 

Harry stares blankly. “Oh.” She scratches her cheek. “Um, haha, you see I actually just tripped earlier and was using the reflection to make sure there were no twigs in my hair…”

 

The woman blinks, clearly not expecting this response. “I see.” She recovers gracefully. “Are you a University student here? I’m afraid you appear unfamiliar to me.”

 

Harry shakes her head quickly. “I’m actually a guardian to one of the students here. His name is Tom Riddle, and he should be in— 

 

“Sixth year primary, yes.” The woman cuts her off, surprised. “He’s in one of my classes. A truly excellent student. You are his mother, then?”

 

“His guardian,” Harry corrects. The woman frowns curiously, but Harry continues before she can speak; “Harry Riddle. And yes, he is quite studious, isn’t he? I despair for him sometimes; I try to get him into other extracurriculars, but alas, my efforts usually fall short…”

 

“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Riddle. I am Professor Caithe— I teach Necromancy here.”

 

You’re Professor Caithe!” Harry blurts out, before she could stop herself. The woman looks amused. “Sorry, it’s just, oh, Tom talks about you all the time. You’re his favorite teacher— although don’t tell the others I said that!”

 

The Professor smiles behind her hand. “Well, I am thrilled to hear it. He’s one of my favorite students; so gifted, and such a hard worker. I suppose I have you to thank for both of those?”

 

Harry waves that off quickly. “Oh, not at all, he’s always been like that, even before we met.”

 

Professor Caithe tilts her head. “All the same, Necromancy must run quite strong in your family, for him to show such innate talent.”

 

Harry isn’t entirely sure how to respond to that. “Is that to say Necromancy is a hereditary trait?” 

 

“There is a strong correlation, yes. There are surely some families in which Necromatic talent manifests without fail. My own family has been able to trace our Necromancy abilities back to the time of the Umayyad Caliphate. However, much like magic there are times when Necromancy abilities show up or disappear without much reason.” 

 

“Ah, I had no idea. Perhaps Tom is a special case, then? You see, I’m not a Necromancer.”

 

The Professor merely blinks at her. “Perhaps not by trade, but your powers are quite obvious.”

 

Harry’s stomach drops, as her face loses color. “Is that so?”

 

The woman nods. “I’ve never sensed such energies from this shrine, before. It was so powerful I could feel it across campus. Not even the most talented of my students have been able to draw such power from this shrine; even I myself could not. My university students and I come here once a week to pay our respects to these shrines, and I’ve never witnessed any of them have such a strong reaction as Yama had to you.”

 

“R— Really?” Harry laughs uneasily. “I had no idea! How odd. I just got lost, you see. I’m on my way to the main university building for a meeting with the Headmaster.”

 

Caithe frowns. “That’s entirely on the other side of campus.”

 

Harry’s nervous laughter continues. “Is it now? I have a horrible sense of direction!”

 

That’s not true at all. It’s so false, in fact, that it is yet another peculiar circumstance piled onto so many peculiar circumstances that Harry can no longer believe this was all just an accident. Something greater was at work here, and she was terrified to find out. 

 

“It is rather easy to get lost on the school grounds, if you don’t know your way.” The professor agrees, although she still does not look quite convinced. “Shall I escort you there?”

 

Miss Riddle dismisses her concerns with an easygoing smile. “I should be alright from here. I should just use that door on the far side and follow the path to the right, no?”

 

Caithe blinks a few times. “Yes, that’s correct.”

 

“Excellent! I’ll just be on my way, then. I’m late enough as it is… If you’ll excuse me.” She gives a polite half curtsy, and then is delicately but doggedly picking her way across the rocky path. 

 

The dark-haired professor watches the perfectly pinned coiff of vermillion hair disappear out the other side of the garden with a look of vague disbelief. She turns to the shrine of Yama, which has grown oddly cold with Miss Riddle’s departure. 

 

“How positively odd.” Caithe murmurs to herself. 

 

She’s not even referring to Yama’s reaction, although that too was anomalous. But rather, how exactly did Miss Riddle manage to find her way into the professor’s garden of shrines? She was not exaggerating when she said this place was on the opposite side of the school from the main building. It was, in fact, extremely far and difficult to get to from the main campus area, and that was entirely intentional. The shrines and the adjacent graveyard were for the university students only, and were guarded accordingly. Beyond just the convoluted path to get here, there were all sorts of subtle wards charmed to turn unwitting people away. 



Caithe walks up to the now empty shrine altar, tracing her fingertips across the familiar characters etched into the stone. The shrine had been all but a beacon of light earlier; if magic was visible in the spectrum of light, it would not be unlike a giant flame rising from across campus. To someone like Caithe, trained in the arts and quite sensitive to dark magic, it had all the subtlety of a bludgeoning. She was hardly the only person on campus— student or professor— to notice such a presence, but she was the one versed in this particular god. She knew immediately which shrine had activated. Imagine her surprise then, to see a completely unfamiliar young woman at the altar, staring up at the shrine with a feverish and empty gaze. 

 

If she’s honest, she had half expected to find the younger Riddle. 

 

It wouldn’t surprise her in the least to see Tom had snuck into the garden of shrines during his free period to further study the ancient gods, and had accidentally awakened one of them. That it wasn’t To Riddle, but Harry Riddle that did so… 

 

“Where have you gone, I wonder?” She sighs, dropping her hand. 

 

The statue is cold now, almost barren. Caithe cannot tell if the lack of energy emitting from it is a good sign or a bad one. 

 

//

 

How do I get this thing to stop following me? Harry thinks, panicked.

 

She is entirely alone on a walled path leading to the main administration building. Almost entirely alone. 

 

There is a… a thing here with her. 

 

Harry reluctantly glances behind her, where a creature bathed in shadow stops the exact moment she stops walking. 

 

Harry wants to run away. She wants to rip apart the anti-apparition wards around the school and run home, crawl underneath her bed and pray it doesn’t follow her. She wants to run to the other side of the earth. But none of those are solutions to her current predicament, and Harry has never been one to run away from things. 

 

(Most things. Things that do not include existential life crises, like possibly being some kind of god.) 

 

She takes a deep, shuddering breath, and whirls around to face this thing head on, wand in hand. 

 

Her first impression, unfathomably, is that it looks a little harmless. 

 

It’s not, and she knows it. This is some kind of ancient god from a bygone world. Some horrifying creature of such power it is worshipped as a God of Death. 

 

Right now though, it sort of looks like a dog. All of its limbs are folded beneath it as it peers up at her with its big, glowing and hollow eyes. They seem to burn into her very soul. 

 

Harry should be terrified right now. She should be screaming bloody murder. She should be throwing every curse she knows at it and then some. 

 

And yet, she isn’t.

 

And she can’t help but find her astounding lack or reaction telling in and of itself. 

 

So instead of hitting it with a bombarda, that may or may not work but will absolutely serve to enrage it either way, she tucks her wand away. She takes another steadying breath, opens her eyes and tries to meet its gaze as calmly as possible. At its full height, it would tower over her and might even be triple her size. Sitting on its haunches, it is only slightly taller than her, perched on the path like a massive, inky black gargoyle. The creature is humanoid in shape, although she’s not sure if it could be considered bipedal if it has more than one set of legs. And arms. It has a lot of limbs. More than she can properly discern. A somewhat elongated jaw with massive teeth. She can’t tell if it is wearing some kind of headdress, or if the horns protruding from its skull are indeed part of it. Harry doesn’t know. She’s never met any deities before. She’s hardly even met that many magical creatures.

 

Yama, she thinks to herself. Tom’s teacher had called him Yama, the God of Death. And… directions? 

 

Harry swears to look it up as soon as possible. She knows Tom has multiple tomes on Ancient History and the many deities in their pantheons. She has never been more thankful for Tom’s erudite tendencies; she’d pointed out at the time that the school supply list had only mentioned one of the five books Tom had wanted to purchase, but Tom had insisted he wanted all of them for supplementary purposes. Harry was all for the pursuit of knowledge— especially when it had nothing to do with murder and torture— so she hadn’t batted an eyelash at his request. Thank Merlin she’d let him. 

 

In the meanwhile, Harry did not have access to those books right now (or the internet, unfortunately) and she was running late to an important appointment, and the god was right in front of her, and she couldn’t just sit here staring at it forever.

 

Hesitantly, Harry took a step back. Then another, and another.

 

Yama merely watches her, as she slowly backs away from it, still facing the god. Her shoes get the better of her again, and she nearly trips walking backwards like this. By the time she steadies herself, the creature is gone.

 

Harry breathes in sharply. The hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

 

When she turns around, Yama has appeared directly behind her.

 

She barely manages to withhold her shriek of fear, clasping both hands against her mouth. Her knees feel weak. 

 

“Okay, sneaking up on me, not cool .” She manages to get out, gasping loudly for breath. 

 

Harry doesn’t even know if this creature understands English, or any human tongues at all. She braces herself with a hand against her chest, where her heart is threatening to give out on her. “You’re really not good for my blood pressure, you know that?” She sighs out, reminding herself to breathe.

 

Yama does not respond.

 

“What do you want from me, anyhow? Why are you following me?”

 

Her questions are met with silence.

 

Well, we’re off to a great start, aren’t we. She thinks, irritably. She’s trying to be civil here; the least the creature could do was give her the same courtesy.  Assuming, of course, it even knew what she was saying. 

 

In all fairness, Harry was only being civil because she had no idea what else to be. How was one supposed to act in this situation? Harry had enough problems as it is; she didn’t need some kind of god of the underworld thrown in on top of that. 

 

“I can’t deal with you right now.” Harry says, with a calmness she absolutely does not feel. She checks her watch: she’s gone from impolitely early, to impolitely late and at this point she’s going to go from impolite to just plain rude, and that’s one thing she just can’t stand for. 

 

The headmaster. Right. Okay. Let’s just focus on getting to this meeting at a time that isn’t completely unreasonable and work out what to do from there? 

 

So Harry quietly channels her inner Hermione, focuses on one task at a time, and marches her way to the administrative building, gods of the underworld be damned. 

 

She passes a few university students who don’t even give her a second glance, despite the horrifying shadow dogging her steps, and Harry can’t help but let out a breath of relief. At least it appears she’s the only one who can see it. That’s a good sign. Maybe she’s just going crazy? She wonders what kind of life she lives, that she’s hoping she’s just losing her mind right now and none of this is real. 

 

Harry finally manages to get to the headmaster’s reception desk, after dodging every mirror and reflective surface in the building and keeping her eyes fixed dead ahead. 

 

A cheerful older woman with thick glasses and a pleasant smile greets her at the desk as if nothing is amiss. As if Harry can’t see a dark shadow fall over her, three times Harry’s size. 

 

“Are you here for the Headmaster?” She asks, politely.

 

Harry nods miserably. “Yes, and I’m afraid I’m horribly late. My deepest apologies; I hadn’t expected the grounds to be so confusing…”

 

“That’s quite alright— frankly, I can’t believe I didn’t see a request for an escort… we don’t usually force people to attempt to wander their way through here.” The receptionist says with a genial smile.

 

Yet another odd and positively convenient turn of events. Harry can’t help but think. Is the universe conspiring against her today? It’s starting to feel like it. 

 

Harry’s hunch seems to prove correct after a few minutes waiting in the reception area with a cup of tea in hand. 

 

The receptionist has left her to go fetch the Headmaster, leaving Harry all alone with a plate of biscuits, a cup of tea, her distressing thoughts, and a long forgotten God of Death. She is very studiously refusing to look to her left, where Yama has seated itself on the couch next to her. What is her life? She can’t help but despair. She’s sitting here on a plush sofa drinking tea with some kind of oddly docile but still monstrous creature sitting at her side. Harry can’t help but hope this is just a bad dream. It’s starting to be just as surreal as one, frankly. 

 

This is of course the point where a person who is decidedly not the receptionist comes to fetch her.

 

“I’m afraid your meeting with the Headmaster will have to be postponed for a later date,” a familiar voice says, and just the sound of it makes Harry want to hurl her teacup at the wall.

 

Instead, her brow twitches slightly as she drops it back onto its saucer with just a bit too much force. She refuses to look at him, her focus remaining on a pastoral painting on the opposite wall. 

 

“Oh, you don’t say?” She replies pleasantly, with an iron smile that could slay puppies. 

 

Gellert usually adores being the bearer of bad news, but he’s trying to stay on the good side of this particular walking calamity these days. Not that this plan seems to be working out for him.

 

Harry turns to him with an expression so frigid he honestly wonders if the room has gotten colder, or if that’s just his imagination. He gives a discreet sniff; and is it just his imagination, or has the room started to smell slightly like dark magic? 

 

“This is just a completely arbitrary and unfortunate turn of events, I imagine.” She remarks coolly, brow raised. 

 

He crosses his arms, leaning against the wall. “Unfortunate? Perhaps. But it’s hardly arbitrary.”

 

“And has nothing to do with you, of course.”

 

“Why, Harry, do you think I’ve conspired this turn of events for a moment of your company?” Gellert pauses. He’d meant it as a joke, but on second thought, that rather does sound like something he’d do. From Harry’s nonplussed expression, it’s clear she thinks the same. 

 

He shrugs. “Believe it or not, I actually have little to do with this. The Headmaster was called away moments ago for urgent business.”

 

Harry appears skeptical. “Urgent business of what kind?”

 

At this, the man’s expression turns grim. “Nothing you’ll appreciate, I’m sure.”

 

Harry just frowns at him. “Are you being intentionally vague, or just trying to annoy me? Either way I’ve had a pretty shite day, so either tell me or don’t tell me.”

 

He gives a humorless laugh. “I see your patience is quite thin today.”

 

“It’s been a trying day.” Harry deadpans.

 

“It’s not even noon.”

 

“You’d be surprised how quickly things can go to hell.” 

 

The blonde man chuckles bitterly. “Oh, I’m sure I have some inkling.” He shakes his head. “Either way, you’ll find out in the evening news.”

 

Harry’s frown deepens. The news? That’s rather alarming. In all honesty Harry doesn’t really read the news in this timeline, mainly because she’s too lazy and just googles things when she gets to the office. After being enlightened to the duplicity of an alternate timeline however, she’s started at least attempting to do so by getting the paper delivered daily. But that’s normally in the morning… she’s not entirely sure why there’d be an evening edition, unless of course the situation called for it. 

 

“Well, I suppose I’ll just have to contain my expectations until then.” She shrugs. 

 

“Frankly, the Headmaster’s abrupt departure might be a blessing in disguise.” The Dark Lord remarks. “He’s not a man to be trifled with, Harry.”

 

“I’d expected as much, from his many accolades.” He had nearly as many as Dumbledore. 

 

Gellert’s mouth thins, as if he has quite a few choice words but isn’t certain he should say them. Harry merely observes him with an intrigued eye; she doesn’t think she’s ever seen him so uncomfortable. Except perhaps for the time she had burst into tears. That had been more of bewildered horror; his expression now is pensive, and somewhat wary. 

 

“He’s much more dangerous than you’re giving him credit for.” The man says, at length. 

 

Harry chokes on a laugh. “ You, calling someone dangerous? That’s rather ironic, don’t you think?”

 

Gellert merely nods. “Yes, it is. And it should speak to the severity of the matter. I would hardly warn you away from someone if I myself did not consider them dangerous.”

 

This effectively gives Harry pause. At the very least, she appears to be taking his words with serious consideration. “Are you… not on friendly terms with him, then?”

 

“We’re amicable, but I would never call us friends. I doubt he has any. He is, by and large, the most dangerous man of this century.”

 

Harry remains silent, watching him with bright and wary eyes. 

 

He pushes off the wall, walking closer to her. His hand is warm but urgent where he places it on her arm. “The next time he invites you over for ‘tea’, make any excuse you can to get out of it.” He says, voice low. Harry’s eyes widen. “By some stroke of luck you managed to avoid him today, but I can’t imagine you’ll get such a reprieve again.”

 

Harry swallows with difficulty. “... Right. I’ll, er, keep that under advisement.”

 

“I’m serious, Harry.”

 

“I know you are.” She agrees, and if she is shaken by his words she puts on a good show of hiding it. Either that, or she’s more aware of her powers than he thinks she is. “I’ve no idea why you would bother to warn me of him, but I can imagine you’d only do so if it was of the utmost importance and with no small amount of political gain involved.”

 

His look turns a bit exasperated. “Is it truly so difficult to imagine that I might hold the slightest shred of fondness for you?”

 

“Only if it serves your purposes to say so.” Harry retorts with an amused look, removing herself from his grip. “At any rate, I thank you for the warning. I’ll be sure to heed it in the future.”

 

However, Gellert doesn’t let her move too far, tightening his grip on her arm. Harry frowns down at the offending appendage. Isn’t it horribly rude to touch a woman without her permission in this era? Well, it’s rude either way, and for a Dark Lord the man is usually surprisingly polite.

 

“Are you feeling alright?”

 

Harry’s gaze travels back towards his face. “...Yes?” 

 

He searches her face, as if looking for some sign of malaise. “You look a bit pale.”

 

“Do I?” Harry feigns ignorance. “Like I said, it’s been a trying morning. Perhaps I just need to rest.”

 

“Perhaps.” The man agrees reluctantly, releasing her. “Well, be sure to take care of yourself. And stay safe.” 

 

Harry frowns at him. What an odd thing to say, especially coming from this man. “Of course. You as well.” 

 

//

 

Yet another unfortunate (and rather ominous) meeting with a certain Dark Lord not withstanding, Harry has more pressing and urgent matters at hand. The Headmaster is far from her thoughts currently; so is Gellert, if she’s being honest. There is a god that’s still following her around, and apparently doing terrible things to her constitution. 

 

She’s been avoiding mirrors, but she looks into one now in the powder room. 

 

As she had suspected, Yama is there behind her, the color of obsidian, oddly iridescent in the powder room lighting. 

 

She does look a bit pale. A bit feverish, too. She can’t imagine it’s coincidental that she’s begun to feel a bit under the weather immediately after being followed by some wayward creature of the abyss. 

 

Harry sighs, blotting her forehead with a tissue. “How long do you intend to follow me, seriously.” She complains, sparing a glance at the creature behind her. This is terrible for her complexion. 

 

Yama continues to stare at her with its sable eyes, unblinking and unyielding. 

 

Harry eventually looks away. Getting into a staring contest with a creature that doesn’t technically have eyes is an idea doomed to fail. 

 

“You can’t follow me around forever, you know.” She shakes her head. “Don’t you want to go back to your nice, cozy shrine? It looked like a nice place. Much more comfortable than following me around, I’m sure.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Yama has no response. 

 

Harry glances up at it in the mirror. 

 

Curiously enough, she notices the diety’s attention appears to be elsewhere. It appears to be interested in something on the other side of the door, large slate horns turned off to the side. Harry follows its gaze to the doorway; after a moment, she realizes she can hear the murmurs of people on the other side. A great deal of them, all swelling over one another to create an unbroken din permeable through the door. 

 

She exits the washroom to find the main atrium appears filled with people who hadn’t been there a few minutes ago.

 

Intrigued, she follows the low drone of voices into the administrative building’s main entryway, finding it packed with people.

 

She recognizes the uniform they all wear as Wolcroft’s. If she recalled correctly, the trim of the exterior robes denotes the years; gold is university, silver is secondary school, and white is elementary. The majority appear to be around her age, with gold trim on their collars, but there are students of all ages milling about the room.

 

Harry stares at them in confusion; where did they all come from? Is there an assembly of some kind? 

 

“Harry?”

 

Harry whirls around, shocked. “Tom?”

 

It really is Tom, looking just as surprised as she is. He pushes past the crowds, making his way towards her. 

 

“I’d heard from Professor Caithe that you were in the administrative building.” He says by way of greeting. “She said you had gotten lost on the way; that’s rather unlike you.” He ends, with a frown of concern.

 

Nothing ever slips past this child, does it?

 

“Ah, yes. I’m feeling a bit under the weather though, so I guess my sense of direction wasn’t as up to par.” Harry digresses, smiling sheepishly. 

 

Tom is still frowning, but seems to take her lie at face value. “You do look a bit pale. Why did you come, if you were feeling ill?”

 

“Well, I could hardly turn down an invitation from your Headmaster— 

 

Tom’s eyes widen. “The Headmaster called for you?”

 

“Yes, but he ended up being called away on an urgent matter, so our meeting has been postponed.” 

 

“Urgent matter,” Tom repeats, underneath his breath. His eyes narrow thoughtfully. “Did he say what?”

 

“No, there was no other explanation. At any rate, why are you out of classes? And what’s going on in here?” Harry segues smoothly, reluctant to speak further on the Headmaster.

 

Tom stares up at her, blankly. “You haven’t heard?”

 

Harry blinks. “Heard what?”

 

“Estonia just declared war on Germany. They’re saying it’s going to be the Second World War.”

 

“What?”

 

//

 

In the quiet solitude of the antechamber, Gellert takes a moment to compose himself. No one is there to see the briefest glimpse of unease filter through the most terrible Dark Lord of the era. 

 

He never knows what Headmaster Pershing is thinking, but usually the man’s enigmatic motivations instill within him a vague sense of intrigue and curiosity, not pervasive disquiet. The man’s next move is impossible to guess; the chess board in his mind is set twenty paces ahead of the current board— no, perhaps even more than that. Gellert has always wondered who the man would be playing against, in this analogy; an unknown adversary? Or perhaps even the universe itself? 

 

At any rate, Gellert doesn’t even bother trying to guess the man’s motivations. The man is not his master; he is under no obligation to tell the Dark Lord anything, in the same way Gellert is under no obligation to reveal things to the Headmaster either. When it is mutually beneficial to do so, they share information. These days more often than not their goals appear to be aligned, but that hardly counts as an alliance. 

 

All the same, a little forewarning about this would have been welcomed. 

 

As it is, Gellert will have to be doing a lot of reorganization of his own plans, and he has to wonder how much of that was intentional by the Headmaster. After all, there was no real reason not to tell Gellert he was planning on starting a war with both the Red Army and the Nazi Party. Unless of course, he had intentionally meant to keep the Dark Lord out of his plans.

 

Well, it’s not as if there was any lost trust between the two of them. He wasn’t enraged by this turn of events so much as he was exasperated and mildly irritated. 

 

The Dark Lord combs back his hair with a wary hand, straightening his suit jacket as he surveys himself in the mirror above the floo; not a hair out of place. With an outward expression that speaks to both danger and assurance, his own inner turmoil is impossible to read from the surface. The man spares one last look across the room to the high arched windows, where Tallinn all but glows in the light of twilight, the tall medieval spires of its skyline gleaming gold in the low sun. Beyond the glowing sea, past the distant sun burning through the horizon, in the towering fjords of Finland lay a school he hasn’t seen in years. The light in this part of the world is oddly nostalgic at times; he couldn’t quite say what it was about it that made it so fundamentally different than any other. But there was an indistinct but unmistakable quality that reminds him of his feverish and restless youth. 

 

With one last look he heads down the hall, towards the meeting he is now officially fashionably late to. 

 

He wastes no time throwing open the doors with all the pageantry one would expect from a great Dark Lord. He catches someone in the middle of a speech off guard, startling the room into silence as all heads turn to look at him. None dare to speak a word against him, and most won’t even hold his eyes. Their fear is potent and revolting in the air. It’s disgusting, really, that these distinguished and powerful figureheads are too scared to even meet his gaze. 

 

Behind the tall, ornate double doors lay a gilded room of the modern and luxurious art deco style. Exotic tapestries, ornate velvet upholstery, crownings in chrome and gold. Exactly the sort of extravagance he would expect from a castle entirely of Headmaster Pershing’s design. The incredibly long marble meeting table was just this side of meretricious; it had gilded seats for at least two dozen, and above it spun an intricate and sprawling chandelier of pure emerald. This lavish castle was far more the embodiment of Pershing’s tastes than his head office at the school or even his mysterious cloaked tower. Gellet would, in fact, even venture to say that this was where the man felt most at home. 

 

He was aware that the Baltics were Pershing’s stronghold, but he rarely visited the area, as Pershing is easier to find when he is acting as Wolcroft’s Headmaster or as himself in his tower. Perhaps this was where Pershing spent his leisure time? Truly, how was Gellert to know? 

 

The man himself was seated at the head of the table, wearing a face that Gellert did not see often. A strong nose, with piercing eyes under heavy brows, creating a stern and somewhat severe look no matter his expression. 

 

It’s not a face he particularly recognizes, and yet he knows precisely who it is. 

 

Should he have expected any less, truly? 

 

Obviously the man wouldn’t be participating in the meeting as a school Headmaster— a mere attendee.

 

The entire table turns to him as he enters; a heavy and expectant silence presses down upon the room. Unsurprisingly, Pershing is the only one who dares to meet his gaze head on, and hold it indeterminably. 

 

“President Degurechaff.” Gellert greets calmly, not missing a beat as he takes the seat left empty for him across from the man at the opposite head of the table. “My apologies for my untimeliness; I’ve just finished a… small errand of some importance.”

 

The other man knows precisely what he speaks of. “Ah, yes. I hope you conveyed my sincerest condolences.”

 

“But of course.” 

 

This was answer enough for Konstantin Degurechaff, the President of Estonia, former Prime Minister and President-Regent, who gave him a light nod in response before returning to the matter at hand. 

 

“The time to act is upon us, my friends.” He began grandly, as he met the eyes of each and every one of them with a penetrating gaze. 

 

Gellert recognized all the attendees as influential wizards from across the world. He even recognized the form of his old headmaster squeezed into the many seats on the sides of the table, furiously trying to avoid Gellert’s gaze. Frankly, Gellert felt his fear was the only one at the table that wasn’t warranted; if he’d wanted to kill the man for his actions against him, he would have done so long ago and they both know it. He is both intrigued and yet unsurprised to see there were no non-magicals at the table. He’s never been entirely sure what Pershing’s plan for the world is, but he knows it at least aligns at the most basic level with his own; a world order defined by wizards. 

 

Pershing has always been a monumental and riveting speaker; now is no exception. 

 

“Today is the dawn of a new world order; the fruition of all our efforts. I stand before you not as a President of a country, but as an equal and comrade in arms in our fight for the rights of magicals all across the world. The journey before us is long and arduous, but I have every confidence we’ll emerge victorious.”

 

Gellert can’t help but wonder how many times he’s delivered a speech just like this one, to a different but not entirely dissimilar audience, in this same grandiose and awe-inspiring tone. Pershing has the kind of unflappable confidence that can only come from decades of experience. Gellert can’t help but wonder how many times he’s waged a war like this. Again, he’s too good at it to be anything but experienced. He knows the man was deeply involved in the first World War, but who’s to say how many other, much smaller ones he’s been involved in? For all Gellert knew, he could be the instigator of every war to ever be waged in human history. The way he discards personas and rebirths himself into new ones, he really has to wonder just how old the man truly is. How long has he been Konstantin Degurechaff? Has he always been him? Is that his original persona— if he even has one, at all? 

 

Pershing continues on with his speech as Gellert sits and muses, pacing around the room with grand gesturing and riveting inflection. 

 

On that note, why must he be a man at all?

 

Perhaps he’s just feeling a bit of mysterious whimsy, or has just had quite a bit of exposure to branches of magic both arcane and mystical as of late, but he is truly starting to wonder if Pershing is not even human at all. Maybe even not of this world. He’s always had an unknowable aura about him, something both compelling and yet impenetrable. Like the deep, calm waters of the arctic ocean off of the Finnish coast, the surface appears tranquil and serene, but beneath the opaque surface lies nothing but ice and danger. 

 

Not unlike Harry, now that he thinks about it. 

 

He truly can’t imagine that to be a coincidence. 

 

//

 

“So, you’re King Yama, huh? I guess I’ve been kind of disrespectful.” Harry muses, idly. “Sorry about that.”

 

The dark, looming shadow by her side says nothing. 

 

The city beneath her is grey and cold; not a soul is in sight, and even the automobiles have disappeared off the streets. Everyone has heard the news by now, and has been frightened into their homes. Harry doesn’t blame them. Even she, with a somewhat cohesive picture of the future, feels wary and ill at ease. Then again, after triple checking the internet and even conspiracy sites, she’s fairly certain Estonia did not start the second World War. Actually, she hardly knew anything about it, so she had to do a lot of research. The research wasn’t as rewarding as it usually was; even though there was plenty to learn online, she no longer had any real way of knowing if it applied in this new universe or not. 

 

Harry had to admit that she felt a bit glum knowing her super-awesome cheat powers (aka the internet) were no longer as powerful as she thought they were. Now she could only fully rely on the woefully lacking resources of this era. 

 

This whole afternoon had made her want to pull her hair out in frustration. Even all the magically summoning books in the world couldn’t compare to the efficiency of typing out a question into a search engine, so the process was slow and trying. 

 

All her furious searching over World War Two had turned up nothing useful, but at the very least her researching of Yama bore better results. 

 

Yama was an early deity of Rigvedic Hindu origins. The worship of Buddhism quickly spread his name across most of the Asian continent, as well as many islands across southeast Asia, making him one of the most prolific and widely known deities of death. Harry was far from surprised to hear that.  Of course, mythology and reality were two separate ball games, and while Harry now knew quite a bit about his history she still didn’t know what it meant that he was here now. The muggles of the internet had nothing useful on the subject, and as it was turning out, neither did the magical world. 

 

Harry gave a long sigh, as she sprawled out on the floor of the library, surrounded by Tom’s ancient magic textbooks. Little did she know she was exactly mimicking Tom’s position from a few days earlier; listless and helpless and frustrated as she tried to pry ancient information out of books that were unforthcoming. 

 

She was even using the exact same textbook Tom had been rifling through. If she had been in any mood to be observant, she would have noticed that the pages on Carthaginian gods and in particular, Baal-Hammon, were bookmarked and worn thin. As it is, she has the textbook opened to a page far into the back of the book, where Hinduism is covered. 

 

“Tom is due back from his friend’s house any minute now, and I still haven’t found anything.” She doesn’t know whether she’s whining to herself or the God beside her. In some ways, she wonders if there’s even any difference. 

 

She tilts her head, to where she thinks the massive form of King Yama is staring down at her, in a way she thinks is somewhat patronizing. If she were an ancient and immortal deity, she would definitely be lamenting getting stuck with a human like her. 

 

Harry sighs gustily. “I wish you could just talk to me, you know? Even a nod or something would be nice.”

 

It was so frustrating, having the being right here beside her without any way of communicating to it. 

 

It’s been hours since she’d met up with Tom at his school and he’d begged her to let him go to Margaret’s house, and she really ought to start dinner. There was a good chance he’d just say he ate at Margaret’s, but Harry felt she should at least make the effort anyway. She and Tom had been quite close recently. Ever since she’d returned from her trip he seemed to have a heightened maturity to his actions; a lot like the little adult she had originally expected him to be. He still whined and complained like any normal child, but he also listened to her when it mattered, and had stopped acting out. If anything, she almost felt as if he was on his best behavior. Or perhaps he was just being more conscious of her and had more self-awareness? 

 

At any rate, despite the horrifying news, she had no real reason not to let him go— and anyway, the timing had been fortuitous. 

 

She was certain he was over there slyly prodding Margaret’s family into unknowingly slipping information to him, but frankly she didn’t care. He was safe over there, as there was no way Gellert wasn’t in Europe currently, and if he sniffed out any inside information that could only be of benefit. More to the point, him being out of the house gave Harry an indispensable opportunity to have some alone time with his books. 

 

Anyway, as absolutely bewildering and unfathomable as it was, Harry actually had more important problems than a World War. 

 

There was a god standing beside her, and she had no way of figuring out anything about it. 

 

Books were great and all, but would really be great would be to just be able to talk to the creature right beside her! It was right there! She’d even reached out to try and touch it, and had found that it was both corporeal and yet intangible. It was a lot like putting her hand in front of dense mist; it had an odd bit of density, but could not be picked up or moved by her fingers. It had taken her a couple hours to be able to look at it without flinching at the sight; even now, she felt uneasy and unsettled having something so alien dogging her steps. 

 

But the more she thinks on it, the more she wonders why she’s not freaking out about it more. She wants to say it’s just because she’s so used to outrageous things happening to her at this point in her life, but the excuse seems a bit flimsy. 

 

Her eyes slip shut as she lies flat on the ground, a wandering slice of cold sunshine crossing through the window pane behind her. 

 

When she opens her eyes slightly, the presence in front of her seems almost overwhelming. Just like it had been at the shrine earlier— something so consuming even the light seems to be dragged away in claws of darkness. She wonders what it says about her that she doesn’t run away from it. She didn’t run away from it at the shrine, either. 

 

“... Harry?” 

 

Harry turns to see a familiar boy standing in the doorway. His face is wan and his expression is pulled tight at the edges. Harry assumes it’s from the grim news about the war. 

 

“Oh! Tom!” She sits upright quickly, a little embarrassed to have Tom find her just lying here blankly staring at her own two hands. Just how long was he standing there? 

 

A quick glance at him confirms that he doesn’t seem to notice the eerie figure next to her at all. She imagines his reaction would be a lot more explosive if he had. At the very least, his eyes would be drawn to it, but if anything he seems more preoccupied with the familiar textbook by Harry’s leg. Harry isn’t sure if she’s relieved or discouraged to see she appears to be the only one who can see this god. 

 

Fortunately for Tom, Harry is too busy feeling uneasy about her own secrets to notice how quickly his face pales when he discovers her so close to one of his own. His Ancient Magics textbook is open next to her— it’s a minor miracle to see it’s not open on any of the pages he’s dog-eared. 

 

“... You’re reading my textbook?” He manages to swallow down most of his hysteria at the sight. 

 

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Harry laughs, a bit nervously. “It was just lying on the bench so I thought I might give it a go. Just wanted something to… take my mind off things, I guess.”

 

He seems to take her blatant lie at face value, nodding slowly.

 

“How long have you been here?” She runs a hand through her hair, which probably looks like a mess right now. “You’re back pretty early.”

 

He shrugs. “I didn’t want to miss dinner.” He walks forward, holding out his hands. 

 

Harry is touched. He came back just to make sure they could have dinner together? How exactly did I manage to end up with such a well-behaved kid? She can’t help but think, wryly. She can’t imagine her trial-by-fire parenting skills had much to do with it. 

 

“Well then, what did you want to eat?” Harry asks, as she takes his hands in her own.

 

Tom pulls her up easily. She can’t help but belatedly notice how much bigger he’s gotten in the past year alone. He’s growing up so fast. 

 

“I don’t know. Pasta maybe?” 

 

Harry doesn’t let go of his hand, and Tom doesn’t pull it away. 

 

Harry will never admit it aloud, but in the privacy of her own mind she can admit she’s holding on so tightly because the warm palm in hers is the only thing here right now that’s reminding her how it feels to be human. 

 

//

 

“Funny, you know, I saw you just yesterday at tea time, and at some point in the interim you managed to declare war on the whole world.”

 

“There’s no need to be so dramatic, Gellert.” Pershing chastises with amusement, reaching for his cup of hresvelg blend. 

 

He’s in a better mood than usual, Gellert notices.

 

He doesn’t know what it means. He’s never seen Pershing in any kind of mood but capricious. Not when they’re alone, at any rate. Pershing wears all kinds of masks in front of other people; the gallant general, the noble knight, the charismatic leader of a revolution. Right now, still wearing President Degurechaff’s face, he appears in good spirits. Perhaps even eager. 

 

He supposes after such a bracing and rousing speech, it would only be natural for that energy to carry forward. It wouldn’t surprise Gellert in the least to find Pershing to be the kind of person who relishes in the dramatics of war. 

 

And yet here he is chastising me for being dramatic. He thinks, with an internal eye roll. 

 

 “This war was a long time coming— inevitable, one might say.” Pershing continues, setting his cup down after a long sip. 

 

“I can hardly disagree, but I was surprised, to say the least.” After a beat, he adds, dry as a bone; “I hadn’t realized you liked to spend your time as President Degurechaff. I hope I’ve never said anything to offend you when you’re wearing this persona.”

 

“Oh, what can I say, I do like to enjoy some light democratic leadership in the afternoons on occasion.” Pershing replies, wholly unapologetic. 

 

Not that Gellert expected any less.

 

Then he laughs. It’s the second time Gellert has heard it in less than a month, after years of speculating he was some kind of creature that was incapable of humor or amusement. “I hope I haven’t offended you too deeply, my friend. To be frank, the decision was spur of the moment.”

 

Gellert blinks. 

 

Excuse me ?”

 

“I had intended to wait a bit longer. But the fancy struck me quite suddenly, you see.”

 

“Surely you jest.” He says, faintly. 

 

As someone who had lived through the last excruciating World War, he could never imagine so callously deciding on another. He would have thought the same of someone like Pershing— formerly known as General Paul von Hindenburg, one of the best leaders of the Imperial Army, widely considered to be unmatched by any other soldier in the Great War. Someone who had seen the totality and inescapable cruelty of war firsthand was not someone he would have imagined to be so cavalier at the idea of starting another. 

 

Gellert looks down at his own untouched cup of tea before him. It was steeped for just slightly too long; rather unlike Pershing. The dark surface ripples slightly. His own reflection is murky and unreliable. Still it is wholly and undeniably human in form. What does that mean though, really? 

 

Perhaps he truly has spent too much time in the darkest of obscure magics lately, if he’s questioning the humanity and veracity of everything and everyone around him. 

 

That being said, he’s always had his suspicions about Pershing. Suspicions that have never been outright confirmed, but never even remotely denied. 

 

The man stands then, surprising him out of his musings. 

 

He walks over towards a handsome wooden console nested between two stained arched windows. In the dim dusk light a golden instrument shines brilliantly on the table. Spindles of light crease around it in iridescent arcs. Scattered prisms hover in the arms. Pershing moves to stand before it, setting his cup aside. 

 

“Do you know what this instrument is?”

 

Gellert furrows his brows. “An astronomy instrument of some kind.” He hazards. “Forgive me, it was never one of my favored subjects.”

 

Pershing chuckles. “I confess it has never been one of mine, either. Far too entwined with Divination for my tastes.” He looks as if he means to reach out and touch one of its swooping brass arms, but thinks better of it at the last moment. “This is a magical astrolabe from the hellenistic era.”

 

Gellert looks on with intrigue. He’s always been fond of antiques. “You’ve kept it in excellent condition.”

 

“Of course. It’s still fully functional.” He remarks casually. 

 

Gellert is taken aback by that. “Truly?” 

 

For a magical artifact to retain such abilities for so many centuries was impressive. Even the strongest of enchantments could hardly hold for more than one or two. 

 

Pershing nods. “Yes. It’s said that Thanatos himself blessed this astrolabe with his divine emblematic powers.” 

 

“Is that so?”

 

Perhaps he is being overly paranoid, but the name of the bygone Greek god only seems to raise a heightened, subconscious suspicion that he feels he might have had all along. 

 

“Who is to know, truly?” Pershing laments, wondrously. “So many arcane and inaccessible secrets lost to the unforgiving grip of time… it makes you wonder just how much humanity has abandoned to the sands of infinity, does it not? All the achievements and sacrifices, the glory and desolation, forfeited to an endless cycle.”

 

His words hang ominously in the still air of twilight. Still and stoic, doused in a glorious gold, Gellert doesn’t even bother to fool himself with the veneer of humanity. 

 

“I wish to break the chains that bind us, my friend.” 

 

What us does he refer to, Gellert wonders? 

 

He doesn’t pull out his wand, but only because he knows it would be a pointless endeavor. Pershing is not the type of man— the type of existence — that could be conquered by a mere wand. Perhaps not even by magic or creation at all. 

 

At any rate, despite the very real reality of his questionable mortality, Gellert still can’t say he finds Pershing to be particularly threatening. At least not to him. 

 

HIs curiosity is piqued. “Is this to infer that you cannot break them, but they can, in fact, be broken?”

 

“Nothing in this life is impermeable, nor immutable. Not time, not death.” He says this quietly, as if he is no longer talking to Gellert, but to himself. 

 

He reaches out again towards the astrolabe. His fingers hover over an orb of light; the opalescent shine seems to grow bright and overwhelming in response.

 

“The fabled god-shattering star has arrived at the edge of the dawn line. What new world it will herald into the planisphere is anyone’s guess.” His smile is eager— zealous even. “To miss this opportunity would be a fool’s folly. The time for war is now.” 

 

A powerful force streaking through the sky, blazing a path to a new and unseen world. It sounded rather pedestrian and theatrical. Gellert was hardly one to put any stock in Divination (excluding the blood magic branches) or the stars, and yet he can’t brush this particular prophecy off in the same cavalier manner he has all the others. 

 

Mainly because he thinks he’s fairly sure he’s met the god-shattering star herself, and can’t help but think that this particular prophecy— as sensational and uninspired as it might sound— is entirely true.