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December 31, 1926

Before she dares to admit it, Sarah knows the girl will die giving birth. She soothes and smiles and minds the fire, orphans singing carols in the next room, and tries to soak the grey out of those fluttering, hollow eyes. The tatters of her cape -cloak?- whisper destitution and the fevered skin rasps hunger over sharp bones. It's no way to have spent a Christmas.

Later, when a baby's cries fill the room, Sarah smoothes the blanket over thin legs. She repeats for a bruised torso, too crisscrossed with red scars for any child to see.

"What's her name to be?"

The woman flinches, as if slapped. "I have a boy."

"No," says Sarah gently, and wishes the fire could glow a tad brighter to fill that dullness in the vagrant's eyes. "You've given birth to a lovely little girl. Would you like to hold her?"

In her four weeks at Wool's Orphanage, she'd found that aspiring mothers often softened at that, shifting into sighs and endearments at the fuzzy down of baby's-hair on their palms. This one only stared as if Sarah had sprouted gigantic horns.

"It was a boy. A boy like Tom."

"No," says Sarah patiently, and wishes the baby would stop wriggling. "She's a darling girl. Do you suppose she looks like a Tom?"

Clearly, there is no getting through to the woman, because she turns empty eyes on Sarah and says flatly, "I hope she looks like her papa. Her name is Tom, after him."

So it is. Sarah sets the red-faced child in her -so frail, shaking- arms and gathers the stained sheets. The fire needs tending and a pitcher of hot water could do them all good tonight. She slips out, then shivers there. The ice gripping her bones tells her the window has slammed open before she hears the wind howling inside.

By some miracle, the room is silent by the time Sarah looks in. Little Tom -girls with boys' names are always the loose ones, Mum sniffs- slumbers on the basket cradle beside the vagrant. She frowns. The shutters are closed, but there is an unmistakable chill in the air.

"Why aren't you holding her?" Sarah tries instead.

The grey woman closes her eyes. "Bad luck...for children to be held by the dead."

A darker kind of cold washes over Sarah as she clutches the laundry. "You've come to the right place, then," she hears herself saying. "This is an orphanage, ma'am."

 

January 1, 1927

Outside the walls of Wool's Orphanage, the city is alive. Young men hurry past the wooden doors to their New Year's homes, and shopkeepers ring their bells through the morning. Cold bites past scarves of dyed wool and soft cashmere, trailing the coats of bankers and newspaper boys through the streets.

Gazing out the window, Sarah misses it. Her finger traces a frosty S on the glass.

She misses the celebrations with her family, and the merry toasts they had before employment had led her to Wool's. She misses flirting with the boys from construction who passed her during morning shopping. Maybe she even misses the woman from last night, who had quietly died over ten hours ago.

In any case, her infant daughter lies peacefully on a wooden crib three seconds away from Sarah. Tom, the mother had said. Tom Marvolo Riddle.

Odd names, all of them. Circus names, Sarah had guessed. It didn't explain the cuts on the mother's feet (or, frankly, the appalling state of her wound-inflicted body), but it made an interesting backstory for a girl with none. Squinting, Sarah sees none of the nameless woman's drooping cheeks or unfortunate eyes on the child.

"Have you been to breakfast, Sarah?" The orphanage director knocks belatedly on the door.

She glances up then, and replies, "Not yet."

The Matron takes a seat near the crib. "She's going to be a beauty, I can tell. Doesn't take after her mother?"

Little Tom stirs in her sleep, as if responding to gossip about her person. It makes Sarah smile fondly. "Not at all. The poor woman didn't make it, but she gave the girl these secondhand names before she went -the husband's, the father's. Men's names, all of them. She was so sure it was a son."

"Had a real feel for it, I'll wager." Matron's voice is wry. "And what do we call her?"

"She said Tom."

"Thomasina, then," agrees Matron, and that is that. "Now, breakfast. Laura will put her with our other infants."

 

March 8, 1931

In the canopy of the younger girls' bedroom, Thomasina reads. No one is quite sure where the heavy tomes come from, the leather-bound volumes of encyclopedia that end up in a small child's cot upstairs. Even the caretaker, who knows every valuable asset in the orphanage, cannot comprehend where the girl might have found such books.

The old chest in the loft, she'd said.

But the caretaker is certain -his keys jangle in reassurance- that he'd always kept the loft chests locked, and where had such a collection come from anyway? He remembers nothing of the sort, even if Matron had only snorted, her let the girl keep them making Thomasina's eyes light up.

She glows with it now, clutching the ratty books as if summoning starlight.

It strikes him then, how perfectly the moon shines on her sheets, illuminating the open pages the girl needs to read. A stroke of luck. Someone had forgotten to draw the opaque curtains on the far side of the room.

He hesitates, stepping forward-

But no. She could always sleep when she'd read enough.

In the morning, the caretaker passes the nearby bookshop on his way to the market. He smiles at the luck of the girl- to find her own copy of the books she'd eyed in the orphanage loft, of all places.

And if a Missing Books! notice flutters onto the ground before he can read it, the caretaker only tramples it into the mud.

 

December 24, 1932

Olivia, one of the older girls in her teens, reads a story to the children.

"-prince swept her away-"

"-true love-"

"-enchanted castle-"

The boys yawn loudly, but several of the girls shoot them dirty looks. Thomasina listens serenely, captivated by secrets in the kingdoms, magic in the Kiss, stories in the book.

"-white as snow-"

"-charmed the birds and forest creatures to do her bidding-"

"-all loved her, but for the wicked queen-"

Heads filled with silver crowns and poisonous draughts that night, the little orphan girls whispered about the parts they loved most about the stories.

 

June 27, 1933

"You think you're better than the rest of us," sneers Billy Stubbs.

He advances, in the way all bullies do, in cornering circles. Thomasina presses herself against the brick wall, and opens her mind.

There is a wave of angerhatredinterest that catches her in the stomach like a stick every time. For all her aptitude with snakes and pigeons, humans are admittedly much harder to touch. She grazes the edges of Billy's thoughts, tries to find out what he's planning to do now.

It enrages him. Thomasina realizes this too late, and swings to the side as a fist crashes towards her.

Little kiss-ass, he rages.

The thought, like dynamite cracking out an impregnable mountain, gives her entry. She scrunches up her eyes, and dips in as she needs. Her eyes open to Billy's contorting face, his lips curled back in a snarl-

"At least my mother wasn't a whore!" she gasps out.

Billy howls as she darts past him and runs, footsteps splashing the alley walls. If she can make it to the orphanage, he can't lay a finger on her. She could still shatter his bowl, though, or float his only shoes into the sewer filth.

None of the children can do this; this she has observed. None of the books -borrowed from nearby homes with a wave of her hand- mention this. Thomasina is six years old, and she knows this much.

A shout behind her spurs her on.

 

June 29, 1933

Her scalp tingles pleasantly as Sarah plaits the dark hair. She does this for every girl under ten, so Thomasina does not fool herself about being loved. She does, however, toy around with a word from Billy's memories.

"Sarah, may I ask you a question?"

She is polite, and quiet around adults that work in the orphanage. The caretaker finds her avidly reading past bedtime, and slips her chocolates for energy. Matron pats her head before chores, and assigns her cleaner tasks. It makes her unpopular with the older boys, the ones who notice.

"Of course, Tom."

Thomasina frowns. "Why do you call me that? It's a boy's name. It's Tommy Schumer's name."

"It's what your poor mother named you," explains Sarah, and bites the comb in her teeth. "She ne'r acturry shed anyshing else, you know?"

My poor mother? One day, she wants to know everything in the world, but her parents are nowhere at the top of that list right now. Billy's are, though, because that knowledge can hurt him.

"What does it mean," she asks carefully, "when someone is a whore?"

As expected, Sarah gasps -the grip on the braid tightens, but Thomasina has tilted her head in preparation- and the comb clatters on the floor. Thomasina supresses the urge to levitate it.

"You shouldn't use such a word," Sarah scolds, after she fishes out the comb from under the bed. "Where did you hear it?"

"Billy Stubbs. What did he mean?"

Sarah looks uncomfortable, and blinks rapidly as she begins carefully.

"Love, there are...men who enjoy the company of certain women, but for a short time only. After that, the men move on, and these women must deal with the consequences of their own actions. But let's forget what Billy said, shall we? That word doesn't belong here any more than the rats do."

"I see."

Three years later, Thomasina pieces together the type of woman that Billy's mother was. Used and left behind, she thinks, which is uncomfortably similar to her own mother's fate. Thomasina at least will never be used or hurt, even abandoned as she is at the orphanage.

 

December 24, 1934

The first time she messes up, Thomasina is finishing the kitchen chores with Gretchen. She wafts the aroma of pecan pie -a rare treat- from the oven.

"Your pies are always the best," says the other girl wistfully.

She's concentrating on a new trick, and it's harder than anything she's ever done before, including memory pulls from Matron's head. There's a rat scurrying along the rafters, and if she can just float the vase high enough for the rat to jump on it-

The chatter is white noise in the back of her head, not important. The caretaker pokes his head into the kitchen, says something to Gretchen, who laughs.

"-can't carry a pitch-"

"-practice with the piano-"

Floating the vase is difficult with the rat's agitation. Thomasina screws her eyes shut, flooding its mind with thoughts of warmth and shadow and food. It squeaks in distress anyway as she leads it along a wooden beam. The vase hovers closer, wobbling in zigzag motions.

Her hands lift the pie onto a counter mechanically. She doesn't feel anything until Sarah's voice cuts through.

"Off to the singing room!" she fusses. "There's time for chores later."

The new voice splits Thomasina's concentration. She yelps at the pain on her burned hand, and the rat's mind instantly disconnects with hers. Like a snapped thread, the vase crashes into tiny shards in the next room. Gretchen's face registers shock, and without intending to, Thomasina picks up her did something knock over my mother's vase? 

"I'm sorry I broke it," she bursts out.

Twenty pairs of eyes turn to her quizzically, some twitching with amusement. There's something different about Sarah's face, though, as if she's worried for Thomasina's sanity.

"My vase?" Gretchen is saying, distraught. "But you couldn't have."

Then she rushes out the door, and Thomasina flinches when the wail she expects to hear rises in the next room.

"Tom, you didn't break that, love."

The sympathy in Sarah's eyes warns Thomasina that she's treading on shakier ground than usual. It reminds her of past instances when she's stepped out of line, let others know about the special talents she can use. When Sarah opens her mouth to speak, she is recalling "Thomasina says she can make my spoon choke me" and the soft hissing through the bedroom door at night. Thomasina feels dread simmer in her gut and wishes more than anything that they could just let this one go.

So Sarah blinks. "The pie smells lovely," she says.

It's not the first time Thomasina messes up, exactly, but it's the first time she tampers with an adult's memory. She learns not to do it again when, a week later, Sarah halts by the kitchen entrance in déjà vu and stares at Thomasina with eyes that turn hard. After that, the woman stops trusting her.

 

April 19, 1935

"Tom, do you fancy anyone?"

She tosses in the cot, turning onto her side to meet Lucy's eager gaze. Her roommate is pretty in all the ways a flower should be: cheeks colored, step sprightly, and blonde hair radiant like it was soaking up the sun.

Thomasina ponders. "I don't know. Do you?"

If there was any person she had to share a room with, it was Lucy. She talked more than she listened, but she liked stories, and so did Thomasina. Her roommate also loved animals, and even though she'd recoiled when she first saw Xerxes, the sight of Lucy petting her pet snake had been enough to make Thomasina's heart swell with pleasure.

She could also force Lucy to be quiet if she wanted, so she didn't mind the chatter.

"I sort of like Joey Carver," the blonde admitted. "Don't you think he has nice eyes?"

Joey has brown eyes the color of the kitchen cabinets whenever the wood got wet. He stuffed bugs in his roommates' beds and ran faster than any of the other orphans. Thomasina didn't think he was very interested in girls yet, even pretty ones.

"I think he might like you."

Lucy's eyes widened. "Honestly, Tom?"

It was such an innocent expression that Thomasina felt herself nodding. "Of course. You're so pretty." She adds, "Don't immediately do anything, though. If you wait a few years, he'll have gathered enough courage to approach you first."

There's a sigh in the darkness. "If you were this sweet to everyone else, they'd all love you."

"I don't need anyone's love," scoffs Thomasina.

"That sounds so lonely." Lucy's voice is muffled. "I've always wanted a family like in the stories, with lots of relatives and a handsome prince or something."

She remembers Sarah twirling into Wool's Orphanage yesterday, face laughing as she announced her engagement to a young tailor. The other children had fretted that Sarah might leave them, but Thomasina hadn't shed a tear.

"Like Mr. Cole."

"Like him. And I suppose we'll be calling Sarah Mrs. Cole soon." There's a pause, and then, in a hurry, "You think he'll sew her beautiful gowns?"

Thomasina frowns. "What for?"

"True love, probably. People will do anything if they're in love."

It's half a recitation and clearly not very original, so Thomasina chalks it up to something Lucy's parents told her before they died. She searches for something sympathetic to say, but by the time she opens her mouth Lucy is already rushing on.

"Like in the fairy tales, the princes go on dangerous quests to save their princesses, don't they? Then they go back to the castle and live perfect lives."

Because tension hangs in the air, she says, "I'd love a prince like that."

"No you wouldn't." Lucy snorts. "I bet you'd just want the castle."

Thomasina smiles into the pitch black above her. "I might," she admits, "if I got to be queen."

 

October 2, 1936

They burn her books at 3 in the afternoon, while she repaints the kitchen.

Thomasina shakes when she sees the encyclopedia collection in ashes, the fury rising into her throat and clenched fists. She shakes, and the stairs must shake too, because the snickering boys who are making their escape start to scream in pain. A nurse tallies three chipped teeth, two twisted ankles, and one split shin between the two culprits.

She carves their names into the forefront of her mind, and looks into their eyes to let them know who hurt them.

Not long after, the other children know, too. They must know, since every time she pads downstairs they stop whispering -no laughter since the stairs incident- and dart quick glances at her over their porridge. The silence is enough to irritate her, but Thomasina can keep her facade of calm if Mrs. Cole can.

One night Lucy's things disappear from their room, and she stops sleeping in her old cot.

Like I'm the one who destroys things, thinks Thomasina in hurtangerbetrayal, and floats Lucy's beloved porcelain doll down the hallway into her room. It is a lovely doll, though, so she keeps it intact. (She stuffs it in a shoebox and hides it high on a wardrobe shelf. No roommate will ask about it now.)

The next morning, Thomasina wakes up early for breakfast. She sips her porridge while Lucy cries about the hideous red pimples that had erupted over her skin overnight.

"It's the hormones," says Mrs. Cole helplessly-

-and Thomasina almost howls like a wolf with laughter because they're nine and does no one understand how human biology works?

Some sort of guerilla war is declared on her after that, and the other orphans begin leaving rotten food on her bed. In retaliation, she unclasps their trunks and wheels out their treasures, little mirrors and pendants and trinkets. They fit neatly next to Lucy's doll. The second wave is the gossip. That she can handle, but never again will Thomasina underestimate the power of whispers, especially not when Billy Stubbs of all people makes a mock hissing noise to her at supper one day.

Snakes it is, she reasons.

Xerxes and Alexander slither along the floorboards and gather secrets for her. They whisper to her about hidden compartments and insecurities, embarrassing nightly functions and hoarded sweets, and she stores them up with plans on how to protect herself. It's not about terrorizing a bunch of vicious idiots, or even revenge, like Mrs. Cole assumes. Thomasina needs a reputation to keep them at bay, to provide some semblence of peace and stability for herself.

Dennis Bishop and Amy Benson, she decides, will do.

Amy had been a victim last year, crying as an older girl stole her stuffed dog in front of her. Thomasina had shattered her tormentor's glass of milk, and the girl had landed knees-first into the shards. She remembers how Amy stared with fearful eyes -freakfreakfreak- and backed away. And Dennis -well, Dennis worshipped Billy Stubbs like an idiot.

Coaxing them into the cave is easy, since I've hid your things in here is a good enough excuse for anyone. She ducks behind a hollow, pretends not to shiver when the bloated corpses she'd found weeks ago advance on the screaming orphans and-

-but leading them out is harder, mostly because Thomasina can't stop shaking either.

(When it becomes clear that Dennis and Amy have permanently lost their voices, though, she feels a rush of satisfaction so fierce it leaves her dizzy.)

Murmuring adults visit her room after that, but she shrinks from them and widens her eyes like Lucy used to do. Mrs. Cole's voice is agitated outside, but the doctors are apologetic. They always leave her alone.

Soon the other orphans stop bothering her, don't dare to ask about their possessions.

A few more things happen around that time, but none of them are memorable so much as they are necessary. She really is sorry about the rabbit, though, the way she was about Gretchen's vase. It's too bad about the rabbit, how she'd soothed its twitches and urged it on, even comforted it with treats and bedding in its last moments on the rafters, but picturing Billy's tear-stained face makes it so much worth it.

 

July 20, 1938

Thomasina has skin like porcelain, and a head of sable hair she keeps in a neat braid. She has a quaint middle name, and an old first name, and an unconnecting surname. Her room holds her books and their toys and Wool's furniture, and she herself has the knowledge of books, the language of snakes, and the ability of-

"Magic," she repeats.

The aging man raises an eyebrow, and clarifies that yes, Thomasina is, in fact, a witch.

He doesn't trust her, in much the same way Mrs. Cole will never trust her. Dumbledore is disturbed by her confessions -whyohwhy did she mention hurting them- and no doubt troubed by the stories he's heard. She even probes at his minds, but for the first time, she finds no entry.

It thrills and dismays her, and she straightens her face into a mask as he explains customs, laws, currency, supplies, locations, names-

"I like it," she says smartly. "No one else is named Thomasina."

His expression changes to surprised -no, controlled- interest and Dumbledore remarks, "I have read much geneology, and sense that your name has a ring of the magical to it, perhaps?"

"None of my parents were magical," she says, just to watch his mask shift.

"I do not doubt your conclusions." Dumbledore's voice is gentle the way Mrs. Cole's used to be. "I was told that your mother knocked on the orphanage door eleven years ago and gave no names other than your own."

Thomasina has given her mother some thought. "There were scars all over her body, bruises and welts in places no one could accidentally injure themselves in...my mother couldn't have been a witch. She wouldn't have let anyone hurt her if she was carrying me. She was weak, and she died, and I grew up in this stupid orphanage with the others."

"It would have pained her," and suddenly his face is sad, and so old. "To love and lose a child."

"Love," she scoffs. "I don't want her love, if it left me here. I don't want her magical blood, either. I've made my own way here and I'll do it there."

She listens to him finish with Diagon Alley and the Platform, nursing the horrible feeling of having revealed too much.

Her conclusions are these: Thomasina will be Marvolo and Riddle and the child of her parents, but she will have nothing to do with them. In any case, magic at Hogwarts will be the first time she will be able to shed her skin of Tom-the-freak and Tom-born-of-a-beaten-circus-tramp and simply be...Thomasina the witch.

 

September 1, 1938

Slytherin House is a rude awakening.

She realizes, to her annoyance, that at Hogwarts blood does matter and that blood purity -how stupid, who came up with that?- matters above all. Parkinson is an ugly lout, and Crabbe's intelligence level is roughly equivalent to that of a stunted earthworm.

"Your mum a witch?" a blond boy asks.

"Of course no-" she scoffs, before catching the disgusted curl of his lip. "I mean, of course. Did you think I was some trash?"

Thomasina listens to pointy, pale Malfoy -Abraxas, yes- rhapsodize on the purity of his lineage. Evidently, Abraxas's father puppetmasters half the Ministry of Magic, and has more gold Galleons in Gringotts than the other half put together-

"-and multiplied by seven," drawls Abraxas.

The Malfoy bloodline can trace its magic to the days of the Norman Conquest, and controls a lavish manor in Wiltshire that has housed generations of wealthy pureblood wizards. Thomasina feels a prickle of jealousy and thinks, despite herself, that magical ancestors lend a certain richness of image that she lacks. Abraxas says as much.

"You do know why I asked about your mother, don't you?" he says, buttering a roll of pumpkin bread.

Before she joined Avery, Nott, Lestrange, and Mulciber at the green-draped table, Thomasina might have tipped pepper into Abraxas's goblet. Now, she sees the silk on his school robes, hears the refined lilt of his voice, feels the magic pulsing from his skin, and she knows that she must be very, very careful.

"Because you knew Riddle wasn't a wizarding surname?"

"Very good, Riddle," says Abraxas, annoyed, as if Thomasina had somehow stolen his glory. "Do you know what else? I knew you couldn't be a Mudblood the instant the Sorting Hat put you with our lot...blood purity and all that. So then, game's up. What family is your mother from?"

"She..." Thomasina feels her heart starting racing. "She died when I was born. But she left me a wizarding heirloom that's hundreds of years old. Um, and, she wasn't English. The name is something Bulgarian or something and not even I can pronounce it."

"Oh." Abraxas looks disappointed, but convinced. "Well, I can see why you go by Riddle."

Then he sweeps her up and down, grey eyes trailing over her frayed secondhand robes, thirteen-and-a-half inches yew wand, and thin wrist around the dinner goblet, and he makes a noncommittal noise.

"Welcome back to our world, Riddle."

 

September 3, 1938

Thomasina the witch, as promised, is entirely separate from Tom-the-freak and Tom-born-of-a-beaten-circus-tramp. She strides down the stone corridors of Hogwarts, breath catching at the way her robes flutter around her ankles. Her wand, so light and yet so potent, is a symbol of reality that pokes sharply into her ribs.

At lessons, she raises her hand quietly. Slughorn nods, Merrythought waves, and Binns drones. Her professors call on Gryffindors who blurt out the answers, Ravenclaws who recite them, Hufflepuffs who offer, and Slytherins who deliver them in the most bored voice possible.

"Yes, Miss...Riddle, is it?" Slughorn peers at his parchment.

After a day of observation, Thomasina feels confident that she can stand out. "Yes, sir," she assures. "Mistletoe, or Viscum album, is a poisonous parasitic plant whose berries are used in common antidotes and cures."

Her voice is level, earnest for Slughorn and modest enough not to alienate the rest of the class. When he hums in approval, she grins.

"Quite right, Miss Riddle. Five points to Slytherin, and I don't suppose you have any relation to..."

"I wouldn't know, sir. I was raised in a Muggle orphanage."

Like sugar cubes dropped into tea, Slughorn's jolly expression crumbles. "Poor child!" he murmurs, and the classroom goes silent.

"It's alright." She straightens. "I read lots of Muggle books there, but...I'm glad I'm at Hogwarts, sir. Everyone has been so good to me here."

If Abraxas snorts at the emotion in her tone, the sound is drowned out by the sympathetic sounds of the Hufflepuffs behind her. Seeing the Gryffindors' faces soften, Thomasina can smugly think to herself, self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

September 4, 1938

Her trunk is battered, bound with ropes of dust. Now, Thomasina balances A Beginner's Guide to Transfiguration on her knee and breathes in.

Magic floods through her mind like the most natural thought in the world. On the release, her wand channels a blast into the trunk, where shabby ropes tighten into leather coils, its frayed ends smoothing into a supple grain. She huffs in satisfaction, warm with the knowledge that she belongs, at least.

From her bed, Lucretia Black calls, "Very good."

Thomasina isn't sure how to deal with Lucretia. Blood politics aside, Abraxas may have belonged to the rich and connected Malfoy family, but Lucretia hailed from The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. Even before the girl opened her mouth, the capital letters were practically tumbling out.

"Thank you," she says, politely.

Lucretia slips off her silver sheets and glides -glides!- over. "Do you do much magic at home?"

Everything about the Black girl is a lesson in pureblood etiquette. Thomasina watches the fluid toss of mahogany hair, the dismissive smile that persists through verbal exchanges with any Muggle-born student. She sees, and she elects to keep the poise, grace, and strength of the eyes.

Eyes are important. Lucretia Black meets every gaze evenly, and hers speaks volumes about power and old magic and birthright.

Thomasina shrugs, says, "Some."

"I do. My father lets us practice with his wand during the summers." She mentions a younger brother -"Orion, he's nine"- and brags tactfully about the privileges of being a third-year. "We get Hogsmeade weekends, you know. Although...don't expect you'll be going. Students need signed permission slips."

"Hmm."

Lucretia stares, and irritation mars her fine Black features. "You've really never done any spellwork before Hogwarts?"

It takes Thomasina a moment to recognize the envylongingdiscontent. She smiles slowly at that, then turns her back on the third-year girl. "I need to finish my Charms essay now. If you're done talking about your family, you can go."

She can't see Lucretia Black's expression, but she probes, and the thoughts aren't freakfreakfreak or even little kiss-ass but entitled prat.

Thomasina laughs, and adds Capital Letters to her title.

 

December 25, 1938

Christmas Eve comes and goes, and Thomasina is grateful that she can stay at Hogwarts. She remembers Abraxas telling his friends about the geese and chocolate fondue the Malfoy house elves served every year. Apparently the Manor hearths roared with a golden light that bathed every morsel in a glow-

"-so bright your dreams are full of stars," sighs Abraxas.

It's a change of mood for the entire school, in fact, from unusually amiable Gryffindors to a pleasantly jovial Dumbledore who could've given Slughorn a run for his Galleons. Thomasina neatly scribbles notes in her texts, and turns in cauldron after starchart after doorknob/mouse after essay. She smiles at her professors and charms her peers, a never-ending scroll of favors tallying in the back of her mind.

1. Two weeks into term, Flint misplaces his Charms textbook. Thomasina spies it resting on a back shelf, and offers to lend Flint her tattered copy. His look of gratitude is priceless, she thinks, reading his brand-new edition under the table.

2. Nott has a stomachache after the Halloween feast. She knocks on his dormitory with a draught from Slughorn.

3. Palmer Parkinson's sister sprouts acne due to O.W.L. stress, but that's nothing. Thomasina is very good with pimples.

And so on.

The Great Hall is alight with twelve soaring-so-tall Christmas trees when she enters, and a lump rises into Thomasina's throat. She's never seen Malfoy Manor, and Wool's Orphanage is the only other place she knows, but Hogwarts has to be the most beautiful sight in the world.

When she feels watched, Thomasina turns to see Professor Dumbledore at the end of the gleaming table.

"Merry Christmas, Professor," she says, taking a seat.

It's the damnest sensation of sitting an exam. Thomasina can't beam at the faculty like she wants, must speak warmly of Slytherins and Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors during dinner, and almost stabs the fork into her tongue when lying through her teeth about Ignatius Prewett.

"Oh, he's a wonderful student," she laughs. "I'm still trying to learn his secret to perfect marks in Arithmancy."

"My dear, a first-year and thinking of Hogwarts' hardest course already?" The bemused voice is Headmaster Dippet's, to her delight.

He pours a goblet of cider, Dumbledore following suit. She shares exploits of her first semester -nothing too outrageous, nothing too tame- and tones it down with serious talk of academics. Thomasina is very aware of her shabby robes and dearth of childhood stories. It proves useful.

"Did you never dream of a world of wizardry?" Dippet asks, and she straightens.

"Not until Professor Dumbledore fetched me," she says honestly, and a bit fervently. "I don't have money, or family, or many things, but I'll do anything to make Hogwarts a better place. Back at the orphanage...well, the Muggle children bullied me, sir. Now I just want to learn all about this world and look out for all my new friends."

By the time the Headmaster drains his goblet, there are tears in his eyes too.

 

March 30, 1939

The girls in her dormitory murmur in sympathy when she wakes up to bloodied sheets.

"Oh, that'll be your monthly bleeding," says Bulstrode.

Thomasina sits on a Hospital Wing cot, shivering as she sips the potion stored for first-year girls in her shoes. The cramps in her stomach are light, but she sulks at the injustice of being a girl. Mainly she blames the orphanage and Mrs. Cole for never preparing her. The older girls talked about it enough, yes, but...

The Hogwarts Healer bustles by, arms heaped with fluffy towels. "Feeling better, dear?"

"A bit, ma'am."

"Just think!" encourages the older witch, strapping a vial of pink liquid to a bedpost. "You're old enough to have children now. Isn't that exciting?"

Thomasina blanches.

 

June 20, 1939

At the orphanage, life is a dull, crackling teapot, and not even reports from Xerxes and Alexander can make it gleam. Thomasina curls her fingers, devouring books of magical theory as she works to find Potions shortcuts, Charms enhancements, anything.

It's all too damned light, though, and the beginner spells no longer interest her. The assigned reading is done, her scrolls have dried, and the other children are off-limits.

You will return them to their owners with your apologies...

Thomasina rolls onto her back, gazing at the moldy ceiling above her. She had given the things back, of course, doll and pendant and sailboat back to Lucy and Jenny and Joey on Dumbledore's orders. She wonders if he finds it ironic that the children won't touch their trinkets, maybe out of fear that she'd cursed them.

She sits up so suddenly the cot twangs. Curses. There's an idea.

 

September 15, 1939

"Tom," says Druella hesitantly. "As your friend, I feel obligated to mention this."

Her roommate's hair twists experimentally in the lamplight. Pin between her teeth, Thomasina winds the golden curls into a chignon before muttering, "Invoco schema!"

Her wand stroke is soft and agile, and to her relief Druella's hair locks into place, blonde shining gold and a soft strand slipping loose. Her classmate looks lovely enough with plaited hair, but Thomasina is pleased that she can match some of a salon witch's talent.

"How did you get that?"

Thomasina considers boasting -temporary reward- and modesty. "I invent spells sometimes," she shrugs.

It was true. While other students had seen professional Quiddith teams and met Daily Prophet editors over the summer, Thomasina had focused on her spellbooks in the orphanage, studying Western spellcasting -note: Latin- and wandmaking -relation to movements?- while scribbling nonstop. Returning to Hogwarts had given her a chance to hone her inventions with practice.

"Beauty charms?"

Druella's bemused expression makes Thomasina smirk. "Well, would you buy them? Sickle for three hair-shine charms? Two for a set of five detanglers? Merlin knows Midgen could use a few straightening charms-

"Great Salazar!" laughs Druella, throwing up her hands. "You'd be richer than Malfoy."

"You mean his father."

"Well, that's how the wizarding world works, isn't it?" The blonde grimaces, meeting Thomasina's dark eyes in the mirror. "Really though, Tom, why are you doing all this extra work outside of school?"

And Thomasina is reminded again, sharply and without preamble, how much her magical-household peers take for granted. For her, the chance to do magic is a waking dream, and for her, every knut is a valuable addition to a nonexistent fortune.

"...I mean, are you going to do this for a living? You don't have to, you're pretty enough with a stellar record, and even unconnected halfblood is alright for most families if you've got those things."

"Druella," Thomasina says slowly. "What. Are you talking. About."

"Getting married. What else?"

What else? Her mind freezes a little, the various possibilities of this-magical-career and that-magical-career withering down like petals on a dung heap. It couldn't be right, since several of their textbooks had been authored by women, and shouldn't there be women in the Ministry too? Maybe the trophy wife path was only for well-bred pureblood daughters. She rephrases her theory politely.

Druella looks at her. "Of course it's an honor," she says. "Only the best marry into the top families. With fortunes like theirs, no pureblood wife needs to work."

"What if she did? Say, as a Head of Department in the Ministry or at Hogwarts -something important, I mean."

The thoughts, like a bucket of sand, fall over and begin to teem. "That's...that would be seen as sort of improper," says Druella helplessly. She fidgets. "Tom, that's actually what I was trying to talk to you about."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, you know how we were talking about marriage, and how your record was important? Tom, so is reputation."

"I'm not worried about my-"

"But what about your profile outside of academics?" says Druella Rosier, who's a year ahead of her. "The pureblood parents start planning matches for their children before they even graduate from Hogwarts. It's all about how you look in school, the people you associate with, and Tom-"

She says flatly, "Too many boys, not enough girls."

"Yes."

There's a moment of silence, and Druella breaks it.

"I know it's not my business, but...why aren't you friends with more girls?"

Thomasina stares.

-they're not as competitive in the classes-

-Lucretia Black doesn't like me-

-I'm not really friends with Avery and them anyway-

"Because I'm scared of approaching them sometimes," she says, and lowers her eyes. "But Druella...you can help me with that."

 

January 5, 1940

At Slug Club parties, Thomasina shops around for...well, whatever they are. Some she chooses for their restlessness, and offers the chance to share profits in a Hogwarts-wide sales scheme. Others are conveniently related to important officials in the Ministry. She chats with both girls and boys.

She knows what they see: a Slytherin second-year, but at the top of her classes, and her smile is quite contagious.

Samsonia Knight from Hufflepuff helps her sell over two hundred hair styling charms before Thomasina gets bored. She cuts a reasonable deal after that. As business founder Thomasina will keep sixty percent; Samsonia and her friends can split the rest.

Thomasina toys with using Dumbledore's words, especially as he passes the two girls by the loo one day.

I shall know whether it has been done, she imagines. And be warned: thievery is not tolerated at Hogwarts.

"...um, so, sixty percent?"

She gives a sad little smile to Knight. "Or something like that," says Thomasina. "I don't have any parents to spend it on, orphan and all that."

 

November 26, 1941

During their fourth year, her body changes in subtle ways that leave her robes draping in unexpected areas.

"Lestrange, what are you all gossiping about?"

Thomasina tucks the hair behind one ear, fully aware of what the Slytherin gang was sniggering about. She pretends to read a passage on werewolves while the footsteps pad closer and closer to her cushioned bench.

His breath tickles one ear. "Still reading? Merlin's beard, Riddle, it's the middle of Saturday."

She shuts the book, uncertainty rustling her insides. Lestrange's attentions were not...unwelcome, exactly, but Thomasina resented the physical attraction that she felt would better translate to platonic respect. Her wand sits in her palm. Don't forget, it warns. Remember how I am better than you in every class.

"It's also the middle of my assignment. I don't see you championing that."

Lestrange huffs, and a fluttering part in her gut notices his flashing, dark eyes. Dangerous eyes, even as they turn hazy in a grin. "When did you become so...different?" he muses, pacing around her couch. "Before you let us sit with you at mealtimes, and did your homework in our dormitories. These days all you do is research."

"I've been learning," she says quietly.

"Oh yeah?"

"Dark magic," utters Thomasina, and watches him frown, back away slightly. "I've learned all the beginner jinxes and defense tricks, and I'm developing new curses to use against anyone I consider an enemy. Do you know who I mean, Lestrange?"

Poor buffoon, he looks Confunded as his glance flicks from her wand hand to the library book. He blinks, and recognizes a label from the Restricted section.

"There are people," she tells him, "who consider themselves entitled to certain privileges due to accidents of birth. You may know some of them."

The words Mudbloods purebloods heirs-and-heiresses bullies-and-you hover in the air between them, too fragile to stir.

So Lestrange mutters "Good luck with your homework" over one shoulder and disappears into his rooms. Later, Thomasina wonders if she went too far with the intimidation tactics -she doesn't want to be brutish, after all. But she's made perfect marks for years, and established friendships with everyone of any use in the castle, and still it's not enough. Lestrange proved that much, and the furtive ogling tells her he won't be the last.

Thomasina Riddle evaluates her options.

 

December 14, 1941

"So," says the faceless student.

"Grindelwald," agrees Thomasina, and folds the Prophet under her towering stack of library books.

 

December 16, 1941

Abraxas is lounging on her favorite couch in the green-lit common room, so Thomasina swipes her wand silently.

The nonverbal charm wriggles the cushions into the air and onto the ground, where the thirteen-and-a-half inch wand draws a circle. Smiling at Abraxas's pout, Thomasina settles herself onto the pile of cushions from her favorite couch.

"You bastard," he groans, and shifts to an upright pose.

"Jealous, Malfoy?"

He smoothes the blonde hair out of his eyes. "Pity. I was going to offer you a real treat too."

"Oh?" She taps her wand. "Not an embarrassing accident to get Dumbledore fired? I would drink Crabbe's Potions exam for that."

In his own time, Abraxas would extend the invitation, she is sure. Thomasina has arranged meticulously to receive the offer, dropping a series of quick smiles and hair barely-touches that not even he would think to piece together. Her friend is cleverer than the rest of his gang, and Thomasina appreciates that, she really does.

"I was thinking..."

Say it.

"...would you like to stay at the Manor with my family this Christmas?" he asks, oblivious to her internal triumph. "Father's heard quite a bit about you -he keeps track of the Slug Club, pulls a few favors for Dippet, that sort of thing. Nott and Goyle are coming over too, so you wouldn't be the only one."

"I'll be the only girl, though," says Thomasina.

"Well, yes." Abraxas flushes, his pale skin coloring. Quidditch has put lean muscle on him, but he still shows embarrassment like a small child.

"I don't mind."

Their eyes flicker over each other warily, flames crackling in the late evening lull.

"Well," says the Malfoy heir, as he stands up to regard the girl on the ground. "It's a fully staffed mansion. Of course you won't mind it."

Thomasina pulls up the corner of her lips, and does not watch his figure retreat towards the boys' dormitories. Her friend is as good an option as any last resort, and the company of his powerful wizarding family cannot possibly hurt. She turns the wand in her fingers. She still needs more options.

 

 

December 26, 1941

"So that's your great-great-great-"

"That's Brutus Malfoy," says Abraxas, sounding bored. "This is much better. Our sitting room is behind that screen, let me show you..."

As promised, the mansion glitters with goblin crafts and imported foreign treasures. Even so, the Manor retains a distinctly European feel about it, a fusion of lush oil paintings and gilded chandeliers. She follows Abraxas into a spacious parlor.

"Are your parents occupied today?"

He throws back a careless glance. "Oh yes, I forget to tell you. My father will be hosting guests from the Ministry tonight."

For the past several days, Malfoy Manor had been a flurry of house-elves and satin tablecloths, a whirlwind of floating dusters and shrinking hedges. Thomasina would curl on the guest four-poster with her books, inhaling perfume from the sheets. The thought of why the Malfoys were redecorating hadn't even crossed her mind.

"How...hospitable."

"Indubitably so." Abraxas sinks into an arched armchair. "Ah...want to sit down, Riddle? Help yourself."

So she does.

Dinner is the first time Thomasina sits closer than seven yards from the Malfoy adults. This family, she learns, is constantly away from the Manor to conduct business, host social charities, shop antiques, attend ladies' teas, bribe officials-

"-to pass the Muggle Resettlement and Befuddlement Statute, of course," announces Mr. Malfoy, while Thomasina privately thinks, yes, because this family needs more land.

-and to-

"-scout out matches for my Abraxas," says Mrs. Malfoy stiffly.

The peas scoot around her porcelain plate, and her silver cutlery flashes light from the warm lamps in the dining room. Thomasina watches the older wizards and Abraxas's mother chat, tedium washing over her like a odorous smog.

To her left, Nott spears a slice of simmered veal, and regards the conversation with boredom. Goyle, the hulking fool, is trapped between a bearded wizard and a fantastically violet-robed official representing the Department of Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The visitors are fat and thin, bald and bespectacled, but all male.

She decides yes, I will change this, and smiles at them.

 

December 27, 1941

A knock on her door, and Thomasina sits up. "Hello," she calls.

Today Mrs. Malfoy wears an azure gown with lace cascading along the skirts. She reminds Thomasina of a statue, all grace and cool-eyed expression, as the bed dips.

"Your stay has been enjoyable, I trust?"

The translation hovers between them, and Thomasina assumes that even Crabbe's residue charm could detect your stay is over. She toys with facades and settles on a sweet face with flushing cheeks.

"Lovely." Her voice is eager. "Your gardens...they're like paradise."

The high, tinkling laughter is just as real. "I have no doubt you can appreciate hours of manicuring. Where did you say you came from, dear?"

"Hogwarts."

She hides a smile as Mrs. Malfoy's features flash irritation for half a second. The life of a pureblood daughter, at least in the past century, has consisted of grooming for marriage. This Thomasina knows. It doesn't even end the way she'd like, with power only over subservient house elves and a spoiled son.

Maybe an occasional Housemate, she thinks dryly, as the woman sighs.

"I assume you're interested in my Abraxas."

The sudden change of topic throws her off, but barely. Thomasina looks startled. "No! Not for anything...we're close at school, is all."

"Close," Mrs. Malfoy says smoothly, "can mean a number of things. Yet what do we know of your family background, except what Abraxas has written? Maybe we can address your ambitions, given such a heritage like yours. I would so love to know about anyone who is so...close to my son, as you put it."

Thomasina can inhale the air and choke on tradition. She drops the veneer and looks at...Dumbledore, for all she cares. "I'm not trying to marry into this family," she tells the mother gently. "Abraxas will marry an heiress with a family tree as a fortune she'll never have to earn. He'll be highly successful in the Ministry, and she will host pretty tea parties for the rest of her life. I have no interest in this sort of life."

Maybe she did, and briefly entertained the idea, but now Thomasina squashes it in its larva stage.

The lovely woman is still regarding her, eyes bottle-green, and she realizes her courtesy is reflexive now, filtering any words that cannot be said.

"I make a good student," she says, delicately, instead. "And know a lost cause when I see one."

 

September 15, 1942

Last year's haze of confusion has finally passed, and Thomasina delves into her advanced coursework with a new and vicious vigor. Professors lecture on the importance of O.W.L. scores, boys take over Quidditch teams, and Hogsmeade brims with news of Grindelwald's escapades.

Some days, she thinks Dumbledore's face contracts in pain when the Dark wizard is mentioned. Thomasina pries with her mind -Legilimency, yes- but as always, draws blanks.

"Can curses be embedded in Transfiguration spells?" asks Avery.

She wonders if Dumbledore's sharp glance had veered in her direction, but relaxes when she realizes he has only eyes for Avery. He had volunteered to ask her question, of course. A Prefect and potential Head Girl could ask no such thing in public.

The professor's gaze is tight, the unsmiling hard look he reserves for Slytherins and the ambitious in general. "The Dark Arts are not my specialty," he reminds the class, as if Thomasina could ever mistake him for a nonconformist wizard. "Perhaps Professor Merrythought could better advise you on how to protect yourself from such spells."

-which is, of course, no answer at all.

Avery, to his credit, does not cast a worried glance to Thomasina, but looks ahead. "I understand, sir."

Incidents with leering boys and stuttering admirers do not apply to her, not even when her dormitory girls complain about unnecessary overtures and bullheaded crushes. Lucretia Black, now in her final year, has taken to joining the fifth-years and gazing at their silvery ceiling. Stars and galaxies sparkle above them, a tricky bit of charmwork Thomasina had managed with flexible wandwork and a lightheaded focus.

"Thinking about a husband yet?"

The girl is not pretty, but compensates with stylish dress robes and no shortage of lash potions. She stares, glum, at Transfiguration homework.

"No," snaps Lucretia. "Please do not ask me again if I am getting married this year."

Thomasina puts down her quill, setting her Defense essay to dry on the nightstand. Truth be told, Lucretia's friendship has been less important than she'd calculated, even accounting for the Black name. The seventh-year, a fine student, is being exploited like a pawn by her Ancient House.

"Ignatius Prewett is a kind fellow." Her voice is composed, eyes intent on The Arte of Advanced Mind Magicks. "I've heard that he respects a woman's decisions in the classroom and at home. There is something to be said for his upbringing."

"Too poor."

Lucretia stares at a revolving planet, turquoise spitting cobalt sparks. "Marian has a point. The Prewetts are purebloods, but..."

"They're hardly poor," says Thomasina, a bit testily now, because she has no obligation to help this beautiful girl with no choices and a huge fortune. "Just because the Blacks can afford to rent Malfoy Manor for a day doesn't mean that everyone else is poor. The Prewetts live comfortably and are well-connected."

And if that doesn't wipe the despair off Lucretia's face, then, well-

But she blinks once, and says, "Yes," and Thomasina knows the Blacks will have another bachelor to consider.

Classes swell precariously with hope and schemes and ink, and her mental scroll of tallied favors grows longer by the week. There is Avery with his hopeless romantic feelings for Thomasina's friend in Ravenclaw, Lestrange with his -(thank Merlin, renewed respect)- desire to learn Dark curses, Flint's insecurities about his spotty face, Goyle's desire to prove something to his family, and oh, how the list goes on.

At the bottom, of course, is Abraxas's need to overstep his father's shadow.

Thomasina studies parseltongue -"Yes, that's the thing I do"- under the duvet at night and thanks her self-made stars that she has no family to weigh her down.

 

October 2, 1942

The past year and month have exhausted her. Hours of pulling strings and keeping up homework assignments stretch Thomasina's nerves like peeling vines, but she keeps her eyes ahead. She is reminded of an old Muggle encyclopedia entry for Anne Boleyn, the courtier who became an English queen through tireless dance and chase. She too had persisted through years of determination.

Admittedly, her plans are more sticky as a woman. Thomasina concedes this, because the inconvenience will not stop her.

Slughorn beams at her, and introduces Ministry officials who hesitate at her identity. For Merlin's sake, she sulks. A penniless orphan boy is making his brave, brave way in the world, but a girl is simply after a rich husband. The alumni network is too junior anyway; Slughorn cannot have been teaching for long at his age.

So she replies, "Nice to meet you," and forgets their faces.

Thomasina looks in the mirror and sees a sufficiently fair face. She believes, objectively, that Lucretia Black overtakes her with stronger sculpted features, that Druella Rosier's milk-and-roses complexion exceeds her own dull, underslept paleness. It does not seem to deter her admirers.

One of the Hufflepuff boys grabs her wrist after a Quidditch game.

"Wait, it's Thomasina, right?"

She instinctively smiles, and turns to him, autumn sun in her eyes. The soft light pulses over his shoulders and flashy Cleansweep 6, which she recognizes as a hot new model from the boys' catalogs. It fits with his strong jaw, windswept sandy hair.

He's not a terrible nuisance, not until he rushes, "Can I call you Tom?" as if being attractive gives him the right to address her like Mrs. Cole.

(It doesn't.)

She extricates her arm. "I'd prefer Thomas, actually," she says, to watch him turn pink.

"Oh no!" the boy protests. "I didn't mean to call a boys' name. It's just that, well, I heard Professor Dumbledore talking about you to the Headmaster before class one day, and that's what he called you, so I assumed that it was what your friends used-"

Alarm must cross her face, because he palms his forehead and groans.

"No! Ergh, I've messed up, haven't I? I'm not saying Dumbledore's your 'friend' or anything...shit. No, I mean. You're a great student and all, but no one thinks you're doing anything other than your studying to get those marks, I definitely don't-"

Thomasina cuts him off. "It's fine."

"-and this is going all wrong, isn't it? I really was just going to ask you, if it isn't too much trouble with classes and everything, since I'm done with O.W.L.s, if you'd like to, I dunno, get something to drink at Hogsmeade next weekend?

It sets her teeth on edge, and the Slytherins would surely laugh until tears flooded the dungeons, but Thomasina forces herself to laugh clearly.

"My pleasure," she tells him, and sees his face shatter in relief.

The Three Broomsticks is a bustling place, and a horde of pink-haired witches jostles her as she approaches the booth in the corner. Two overflowing mugs -jugs!- of butterbeer sit on the wooden table, and she slides onto the wooden bench. He looks up, as if surprised.

"Oh, hello."

"Hello," she says dryly.

It takes approximately fifteen minutes before they can graze the topic of Dumbledore again, and by that time, Thomasina's instincts are rattling in the soles of her feet, as if to drag her back to the library. She sips her butterbeer and gives Higgins an expectant look.

"It's nothing, really." He coughs on the foam. "He just talked about your progress in school, things like that. Why?"

"Really."

"Okay, okay." Higgins holds out his hands, almost in surrender. "He was talking about your...influence, but Dippet wasn't buying it. Don't worry about it, okay?"

Thomasina doesn't worry about it, not even when she steers the conversation towards Quidditch. While he prattles on about swerves and feints, she distractedly thinks about Dumbledore. If he was going to Dippet with concerns about her, then, well. That was no good at all. After another obligatory ten minutes, she thanks the Hufflepuff for his time and turns to leave.

"Wait, you want to do this some other time?"

She laughs at herself internally, and hesitates for him. "I wouldn't want to bother you."

"No, it's fine!" Higgins practically leaps up. "All I have to worry about is Quidditch practice, anyway. We could go somewhere else..."

"I wouldn't have the time either," Thomasina says quietly. "There's classes, Prefect duties, my O.W.L.s, and I still have to, you understand, look after my Housemates. Someone has to keep the mean old Slytherins in check," she can't resist adding.

Even after shaking off the boy later, she can't help but think how troublesome the Slytherins are behaving lately, actually. Abraxas complains loudly about the matches his mother keeps owling him to consider, and Bulstrode gets caught by Dumbledore for sneaking out at night. Lucretia Black frets as if worried for Thomasina's future, and her little brother Orion has no doubt been recruited by her to do the same. Everyone has so many problems.

"My sister says you should come to Grimmauld Place this Christmas," he recites, hurrying to catch up.

She dumps the books -Legilimency through the Ages and Memory Therapy clatter from the top of the stack- and sweeps back her hair. "Your sister's been nagging, hasn't she?"

Orion is a quiet boy, but he's clever. His understanding is not the invasive flavor, but of observation and human empathy. He crosses his thin arms -what do the Blacks feed him? Purebred potato shavings?- and goes for a brave look.

"She's just worried."

"Well, that's very kind of her," lies Thomasina. She returns a beautific smile. "I'll talk to her about it."

Naturally, more important things get in the way, and there's hardly any time to address a distraught bride-to-be who lives in a completely different dormitory. She does have Prefect duties, much to her own surprise, since strolling the halls at night has its own peaceful calm.

"Can you believe my mother?" demands Abraxas, breaking it.

"Hmm."

"She wants me to talk to Parkinson's sister!" he continues, ignoring her raised eyebrow. "That git! As if anyone in his family could be good-looking."

His voice echoes in the empty corridors, lit only by flickering torches. Their wandlight traces the outline of stone tiles, lethargic painting denizens, a classroom door. Thomasina lowers her lumos tip and turns to him.

"Palmer resembles a very toothy troll," she agrees, "but his sister is an improvement."

"Dreadful, only?"

Thomasina pauses by the classroom. "Oh. Very good, Malfoy. You're taking your O.W.L.s this year too, then?"

A noise or other is muffled, and it's coming from inside the Ancient Runes room, she thinks. It could be anything from a late-night house elf to a stray first-year with a squeaky voice and wide eyes, shivering in his pajamas. Then again, Thomasina muses, it could be her imagination.

"What is that?"

If Abraxas heard it too, maybe it's Peeves setting a trap for them, or Grindelwald wandering into the castle, lost. She giggles at the thought of a Dark wizard bumping his head on a Runes podium.

"I don't suppose that's Parkin-"

She holds up a hand. Thomasina takes a slow step to the wall, and presses her ear against it. The hall is silent, and as she waves her wand it's the easiest thing in the world.

When they back away, the wall is rippling with clear blobs, like a sheet of melting glass. Chunks the size of apples turn transparent, and soon the Prefects can see two undulating figures inside the classroom, silhouetted rather obviously by a lamp on a desk.

Air brushes the skin of her neck as Abraxas steps closer, and sniggers quietly.

"You couldn't light it properly?" he suggests.

Thomasina flicks her wand, and the wall melds back into stone and mortar. "You can always look at Goyle's magazines if you have an itch," she says, and smirks as his face alternates between four different emotions. "I take it you remember the Summoning Charm?"

They pass the couple in the classroom -not their first, or the last- and trek towards the Astronomy Tower.

"Anyway," says Abraxas, "She's probably a cow."

 

October 18, 1942

"They're not even that wealthy," says the blond Prefect in disbelief. "I am not looking into the Parkinson offerings."

"He's sitting behind you."

"I don't care," complains Abraxas more loudly, possibly to note the way Thomasina's eyes flash a warning. "If any of my descendents every marries one, I am turning him into a cow."

 

October 20, 1942

"That Orion boy is quite sweet, isn't he?"

Druella Rosier grimaces under the weight of the books, her manicured hands on Pensieves and Potions: Extracting the Truth in Law Enforcement.

"He's young," agrees Thomasina.

Another library book lands in her roommate's arms.

 

October 21, 1942

"Thomasina," begins Lucretia, when she waves at the Herbology professor and hurries out. "I meant to ask you earlier-"

"I can tutor your brother in Potions," says Thomasina graciously.

"No, not about that." The other girl might shuffle her feet, if the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black ever shuffled their feet. "First, let me apologize for being so cold."

So jealous.

"Nothing's certain, but my parents are talking to the Prewetts, and I...I like him, even if he's in Gryffindor. Did you know, I'm terribly afraid of the idea of childbirth? If I could, I'd never have children and just travel the world with Ignatius."

Yes, I knew.

"So please try your geneology!" pleads Lucretia. "I could help you. It'll improve your chances for a good match, imagine! Your mother left you an heirloom, right? I'd start there."

 

October 21, 1942

Sinking into the bubbles, Thomasina closes her eyes and inhales the scent of lily-scented bathwater. She does not want a marriage and the scent is horrible.

 

October 28, 1942

Jets of green and red light blast across the classroom, and Professor Merrythought ducks with a yelp.

"Wands down, everyone!" she shouts.

Grumbling, a couple of Gryffindor boys glare at their opponents before lowering their wands. The room tallies two broken statues, five upended desks, one shattered mirror, three sizzled books, and at least half a dozen sore fingers nursed in mouths.

Duelling Club is an entertaining enough lesson, especially when Thomasina holds her footing against Crouch, who forfeits while panting on the floor.

"You'd have gotten me," she tells him, and helps him up.

The students brace themselves for another round, exchanging partners as requested. She grips her wand, a list of spells marked safe for school running through her head. Traditional hexes and blocks do not bore anyone here, not even Lestrange. No one is, say, a challenge for her, but the sensation of magic thrills her in all its forms.

Professor Merrythought claps her on the back afterwards, and the Headmaster even drops in for a friendly inspection.

"It is a Duelling Club, after all!" he jokes.

Dippet paces around the back of the room, poking at broken artifacts with his wand as students hurl colorful wandfire at each other. He shakes his head and gives applause too, possibly leading Professor Merrythought to grit her teeth. Arm raised to block a jinx, Thomasina hears-

"That's enough, everyone! Wands down, the Headmaster has a few words he'd like to say to you."

A few streams of blue crash awkwardly into a shelf, toppling a miniature spiralling staircase to the floor. Silence greets Dippet's little coughs.

"As you all may know," he starts, and everyone looks at each other and sits down, "The idea for this duelling exercise came up a while ago between myself and Professor Merrythought."

Thomasina blinks patiently as he adds, "And Professor Dumbledore" as if it's a surprise, as if no one had ever browsed the archives on Albus Dumbledore and found...implications among the earlier reports of his family history. She thinks she's pieced it together, why he never looked at her with anything but distaste, like she's something chewing the leaves off his house plant.

"...the Dark wizard Grindelwald, as the Prophet tirelessly reminds us, is terrorizing his way across Europe. We thought that preparation in real-life scenarios would do you all very good, and look how well you've been duelling!"

"But sir," interrupts Travis with a pained expression on his face, "won't Grindelwald just torture us before the count of three?"

Even the Slytherins snicker at that, which she supposes is the equivalent of awarding a hundred points to Ravenclaw. Legs crossed on a chair by the window, Merrythought's face takes on a smug expression. Poor Dippet just looks bewildered.

"Well, no, Dark wizards do not generally observe such courtesies," he explains rapidly, "but as students, you ought to keep them in mind...yes, Hopewell? In the back."

The barrage of questions flusters both adults, in time, with only that finesse of testing nerves reserved for schoolchildren in their late teens. Thomasina is almost enjoying herself as Lestrange cackles with laughter at her right and the door bursts open to reveal-

"Good afternoon," says Dumbledore, and does that stupid twinkling again.

She sulks internally as the auburn-haired wizard takes himself to the podium, where he solemnly gazes around at the faces. His robes sweep -billow!- as his arms fall open.

"Forgive me for my threatics," he says, almost sadly. "I do not usually barge into lessons with such flair. Excuse me, Galatea-" Merrythought waves her permission. "-as it is my honor, and admittedly not pleasure, Headmaster-" an eager nod "-to inform you of the dangers we face, in these times more than ever."

A pair of lucid blue eyes flicker over Thomasina's. She listens attentively to his introductory message before he pauses.

"Can anyone tell me the threat we collectively face?"

A hand raises.

"Gellert Grindelwald," says the boy, as Thomasina predicts he would. It amuses her to no end, how history's most powerful Dark wizard has his name rattled off a mousy boy's tongue like alliterative trivia on a Chocolate Frog card.

The Transfiguration professor turns to her, gravely calling, "Ah, Miss Riddle. You disagree?"

No shit, she thinks.

A hundred and one and then two more possible replies race through her head like roaches scattering from a light, and Thomasina struggles to think. "We face intolerance, sir," she finally says. "When a powerful wizard makes up his mind -and he obviously has- about a person or a certain group of persons, he does not take kindly to being opposed. Maybe he even recognizes traces of himself in the opposition, and they feed his impulse to destroy. The greatest threat isn't Grindelwald or any Dark wizard, sir. It's what happens when those with power decide to close their minds to anything and everything they've decided they don't like."

Her voice is innocent enough, and afterwards the Slytherins have a good chuckle in the dungeons.

"Dumbledore's face," chuckles Lestrange, tracing lazy fire circles in the air. "I thought he would freeze over hell when Dippet gave you twenty points for Slytherin."

"That wasn't a bad answer either," adds Nott. "Very deep, my friend."

 

October 31, 1942

The Hallowe'en feast is merry in the Great Hall, but Thomasina sits in the library. Alone, she touches the raggedy leather cover of a geneology archive.

She thinks of the Bloody Baron and the Grey Lady -there's a story there, she senses- swarming around Hogwarts with all the other dozens of ghosts, trapped in the eternal revelry. Even with the occasional hostility from Dumbledore, she didn't mind any of the castle's offerings, really. Oh, there was the pureblood fanatical lineage nonsense with her House and the Quidditch madness, but Hogwarts was her home.

(Had her mother, Marvolo's daughter, loved Hogwarts too?)

The book is dry under her fingertips. Wizarding Surnames 1900-1930, it reads. Maybe it references her mother, a pathetic witch who'd abandoned her infant daughter. No wonder she'd been alone, wandering the bitter cold streets of London on New Years Eve.

Her father, though...back when Matron still worked at Wool's, when Mrs. Cole still braided her hair at night, they'd let slip details of her mother. She wasn't as pretty as you, dear, they'd say. Looked nothing like you. Fancy you do take after your father after all.

A plain, desperate woman, then. A handsome man who'd not bothered to save her, even pregnant and destitute. Maybe he was dead too.

(Had he studied in these aisles, here, Tom Riddle?

If so, the faculty had clearly found him utterly unmemorable.)

Besides serving as bargaining chips in marriage, though, how will the identities of her parents help her? Yes, she is intrigued about the rare parseltongue gift, and her odd names that are quaint and male and pointing to the past. Yes, it would be good to know.

But what matters now is that she will never end up like her mother, or poor Lucretia Black, married off for family gains. She thinks of Abraxas Malfoy's father and the sheer power he holds. For all their gold and influence, they will never have her talent with magic or people, nor her imagination. How would the Parkinsons, the Flints, the Lestranges, the Rosiers, the Blacks, the Malfoys react to see a halfblood -woman!- at the head of the Ministry?

Like Dumbledore. Oh bother, he's a halfblood too.

Dumbledore must positively seethe to see Thomasina, Keeper of Bullying Orphans' Possessions and Orphaned Girl Incapable of Love -ohwhyohwhy couldn't she be a predictable and normal person like everyone else he was used to?- rise high above his Gryffindors to success. He scorned her for who she was, the way older pureblood society snubbed her for what she was and what her parents weren't. She'll prove all of them wrong, of course, and that -that will be a real story.

The unopened book is dusty on the table.

Her finger twitches.