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Serpentine

Soft Hands

The enlightening conversation held with Ximena is rich and impactful enough to stay within the forefront of his mind for hours (perhaps years) to come. Of course, at such a conversation, it’s natural for one to feel drained. Ximena bids her goodbye and retires early to bed, disappearing away to her dormitory, book in arms.

It is of course, then when he realizes he forgot to ask her about the summer. And misplacing him. Damn.

He drums his knuckles on the table. Ah well, they have the rest of the week. Of course. Why wouldn’t they?

-

The following days are surprisingly warm to the delight of the student body. Tom’s Herbology class is even given outside, and as the professor begins his long, drawn out speech about proper climate and soil types (all things he has already memorized during the break), his mind begins to daydream.

Whom will he partner up with? His usual pick seems to have found a friend to pair up with instead of him (what a fool, that friend’s head is full of dust), and the crop of his usual partners in classes are nowhere to be seen. Figures.

Tom steals a glance to a small cluster of classmates to his left: average bottom feeders and people content with mediocrity. Nothing special about them. Any of them would be ecstatic to have him as a partner, but he’d definitely be carrying the both of them. On the other hand, they wouldn’t disrespect his choices and authority in assignments unlike the highbloods competing for high grades.

The other boys in his year no longer send him curious, cautious, jealous glances. Now they do all that with a smidgen of respect. Their support is no longer just reserved for public performance, but also within the walls of their dormitory. Seats aren’t taken up by coats and books and bags so often when he’s present. He’s allowed to sit. Precious. Cute. As if he ever needed that permission from them. But it’s good to have. It’s another door. Another possibility.

And whatever possibility he chooses, he needs company to reflect the status that will come of it.

The girls in his year which he is already acquainted with are, as stated before, at a terrible disadvantage. Brilliant though they may be, they are of little help outside academics. A boy in his second year is expected to have himself pulled together and have a proper boys group his age. It was something his previous mentor wasn’t very helpful in (though he made up for it by introducing Tom to older students). No matter, he just has to focus on befriending more boys, rather than migrating his attention to varying places as he has been doing... Troublesome.

Evan is easy. They’ve exchanged pleasantries already. He asks questions about what Muggles are really like and chuckles along with him about their stupidities. It is a test, Tom knows, like the ones he was forced to undertake when he was suspected of being cruel to the other children at Wool’s. Like these tests, Tom knows how to cheat, and he knows what the practitioner wants to hear. Evan is comfortable where he is, socially and academically. He has no need or want to be angry at any political turmoil (like Nemesis) or stale status quo rules (like Hedwig). With Evan, Tom is a content bystander, happy with the sad state of wizard affairs.

Katux Lestrange is harder. More difficult than even Ian. He looks at Tom with hardened eyes and sneers when he thinks he’s not looking. It is only by the skin of his neck that he is not called mudblood by him (if it’s not his blood, it’s his speech, his accent, his secondhand clothes and books...A multitude of reasons to pick on him.) There were honest and good attempts at roughhousing from he and his group during those first few weeks at Hogwarts, but that stopped as soon as it was evident that Tom wasn’t going to let himself be shoved around by someone who looked like he only bathed twice a month (the hygiene standard for some wizards were horrendous, it’s why he had no trouble believing Ximena’s quip about their waste.) After flicking them off like the annoying louses they are, he simply turned on the charm. Showed them just how merciful and forgiving he could be. After all, he’d been through worse at the hands of Muggles, and the lame bullying from Katux and his friends was laughable. Something a toddler might attempt when they were mad at a strict guardian: tripping him in the halls, jinxing his legs, switching out his food, making fun of his (fake) crush...This was the best they could come up with? Hilarious. When Tom was done proving himself to them, he left marks. On their skin and their mind. At the orphanage, he could only get away with things that were subtle. But here in the security of Slytherin house, where you were expected to not air out your dirty laundry, it is much easier to get away with nastier things. The other boys won’t tell, it’d be too embarrassing for them. And Tom certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone: these boys were beneath him. Not worth mentioning to even Hedwig or Ximena. He doesn’t need anyone’s pity.

Nowanddays, Katux leaves Tom to his own devices unless he needs to interact with him, only occasionally frowning when Tom inevitably steals the spotlight in class. He’ll happily group up with him for assignments and put on a whole show for the teachers because deep down, he knows that a little no-name orphan is gaining footing over him. The last time he tried to do anything was when Tom found a dead (and hexed) rat in his bed near the end of last year. Childish. They learned how to spot these elementary little traps the first week of DADA. Couldn’t the heir to a mighty house do better? Pathetic. Maybe when his pride wains down to where it should be, he’ll buck up and genuinely ask Tom for help with homework, like Dion Mulcipher has: over the summer, as a matter of fact; an elegant owl with coal black feathers had perched neatly on the back gates of the orphanage where Tom was playing, envelope in his beak. Inside was a roundabout letter asking for personal help. A hand. It was one of the better days of the summer.

Dion is much less annoying than Katux, and a lot more cheerier. Eager to please. A follower. A sheep. It makes Tom see him as pathetic, but also in a preferable light. He was the easiest to charm of the boys last year, and the easiest to manipulate into sharing secrets. He followed alongside Katux like a dog the entire first year, and Tom’s sure by the end of this year, he’ll be following behind him instead. Dion knows his place in life. Katux and the rest need to be taught.

Unfortunately, there is no one else willing to put these brats in their place. Fortunately Tom is here.

Year one was spent on laying groundwork. Exploring his options. Inserting himself into high-bred spaces. Now, year two must be spent on building his inner circle, as his old guide called it. The people which will grow to become his right and left hand men. He has to be sure they’re fit. That they aren’t inadequate in anything they do or are involved in. In society, politics, and…

He frowns. Damn Hedwig for being born a girl. She’d be more than useful. Even Nemesis (with or without her little crush) is better than both Katux and Dion combined. His theory is that both Hedwig and Nemesis feel as if they have more to prove thanks to their gender, but deep down, Tom knows that Katux and Dion are spoiled imbeciles. Maybe he could convince them (and the rest) that talented, pureblooded girls were worthwhile outside of their marriageability. They wouldn’t breach the boys group, surely, but they could be...kept around. Women can’t be knights, but they could be warriors, right?

As for Ximena, she doesn’t count. She is only a year ahead of him, sure, but even if she wasn’t (and he wishes she wasn’t at least twice in as many weeks), he doesn’t think she would be a right fit within his inner circle like the others. She’s too tolerant. Different. Evan and the rest might excuse and even welcome the first two girls, but Ximena? Another no-name nobody with the added fault of being foreign, dark skinned, and a girl? He can imagine the opposition now. He remembers the first few weeks here. He always will.

Dark and savage, I bet she never speaks because she doesn’t know how to. That was muttered by Druella herself, and Tom always found that strange ever since he witnessed her being in the same classroom as Ximena. Surely she’d have heard her speak at least once. But the confusion slowly went away as he realised that the Ravenclaw’s distaste had no rhyme or reason. She was merely talking out of her ass. Idiot. If she were going to try and talk badly about Ximena, she could at least go through the effort to observe enough to know what the fuck she was talking about. Criticize legitimate things like her forgetfulness and agonizing need to only half-explain things.

No, Ximena would have to prove herself. Just as he has been doing.

This, he assumes, will be as easy and as natural as breathing, despite her adversity to attention. He knows she’s a skilled witch, and he’s never wrong (well, almost never wrong), and it’s only right that she show lessers just how special she is. Put others in their place, the same way he does. She’ll have to grow thorns, and prove that she has a right to walk among the elite--To step on the elite.

There has to be another happening like the Duel from last year. And this time, she will not be allowed to wait it out.

He realises, of course, that this means sharing her attention and time again with people who didn’t deserve it. But he can curve that attention easily now--Their talk yesterday meant something. A strange sort of camaraderie. An alliance. He has sway. Not just with her but also with the better part (the better half) of Slytherin House. This time he won’t be shoved away into the background, he’ll remain right nearby as he should be. She’ll remain right nearby as she should be.

His mouth draws into a thin line. It would be difficult, but it will be done. He has to be sure of it. You don’t get anywhere in this world without hardwork and other people to hand you things. He just has to twist an arm or six.

Highbloods are, unfortunately, resistant to change. It’s why it’s taken him so long to fully get both Katux and Dion in his back pocket.

It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, when Evan comes at his side after the lecture, clay pot in his gloved hands. The boy asks if Tom had any partner in mind yet in a way that tells him that he already knows the answer. So be it.

Tom nods once, accepting the offer, and so Evan Rosier steps into his court.

-

Tom Riddle is a planner.

He, like many other children his age, has had his share of eruptions. Of overflowing emotions that get the better of him. But he is still a planner. Sometimes those plans are improvised or served up short noticed, but he is a planner.

Before him, there’s a good handful of notes copied from the book of curses that Ximena lent him all those months ago, including scribblings from the book of dream interpretation and the memoir from the seer. Atop the open, blank book is the bracelet, sitting pretty as if it wasn’t the cause of his torment and curiosity for the past year.

Tom has a plan but he doesn’t know what it is yet. Which is to say: he doesn’t have a plan at all and is just buying time. To pawn the bracelet on another or pretend that he found it (which, technically, he did) and give it back to her in a heroic gesture? The former, of course, sounds like too much work to plan out, he has better ways of dividing his time, but it would serve as a nice way to put down some of the prissy students that still haven’t gotten over his unknown blood status. Maybe Ximena would curse them if he framed them? How delightful.

The idea of giving it back as if he was the one who found it (again, he technically did find it and did not at all steal it) isn’t as ideal (there’s no two birds with one stone outcome that he can think of), but it’s easier. Would help solidify whatever trust he’s built up with her. Maybe she’ll even tell him why she looked so ashamed over the topic of her wand. Maybe she’ll let him hold it.

Hmm. A long shot. Still nice to think about.

The third option that he wishes was a viable one is to keep the bracelet, of course, but he’s long concluded (rather slowly over a long matter of months) that that wasn’t a good idea. The first nightmare inside the Hogwarts/Wool’s hybrid was only the start of a series of confusing, disorienting, and perturbing dreams for him--Though none of them ever gave him that same feeling as the first. They didn’t need to. They were only reminders. Reminders of what is happening around him. Of what could happen to him.

Curses are about prolonged suffering. Dreams are just dreams in the end.

Alongside the hesitance to give up such a mysterious magical object is the acute fear that she would be able to sense his lingering magic on the bracelet--Just as he had been able to sense hers (eventually), woven into the threads. Asking if there’s anyway to erase your magical trace from personal items is a red flag if he’s ever heard one, no matter whom he asks. Only guilty people want to know that. People who are hiding something.

He’s not going to be treated like a thief again. Not if he can help it.

The hour chimes and he gathers his materials neatly to head for Herbology. It’s been a week since his last long talk with Ximena, and in the usual fashion (it’s only become usual in recent times…), he hasn’t been able to catch a real conversation with her. A part of him blames Adam, and another part blames not knowing her schedule yet. He likes to blame Adam more. For reasons.

There is also, of course: Mali. Ximena’s Puff is seen with her so often, the students with lower counts of brain cells have taken to thinking they’re siblings--A thought so stupid as it is prejudiced: Mali has a clear ancestry, and Ximena does not. There is also the very obvious detail that the two look nothing alike. Mali is average height and full figured--Well fed. Tawny skin and straight black hair. Ximena is the tallest witch in third year--and possibly fourth and fifth year. She’s as slim as a stick (though more noticeably so at the beginning of the year) and has hair curls rivaling Zabini’s. To think that the two are as closely related as sisters is equal to thinking Hedwig and he are twins.

Of course, when he voices these observations, he is brushed off: of course the two dark skinned girls who are always together are related, his eyes are just funny.

Idiots.

Sometimes he takes to sitting at their table when they’re together, but he doesn’t like that so much because Ximena very clearly and obviously favors the attention and company of Mali, and to his extreme displeasure, he doesn’t blame her: Mali is a fountain of information much in the same vein that Yami is. Why would Ximena ask a little second year a question he probably doesn’t know anything about (but also has a really really good chance at knowing because Tom knows he’s brilliant), when she could turn around and ask the experienced, older, wiser witch from a distant land? One much closer to the one she calls home?

He still sits at the table, of course, because he has a right to: he’s a Slytherin, sitting along his (one) fellow Slytherin. It doesn’t hurt that Mali will occasionally indulge his own curiosity on summonings and related matter. She does not, to mild yet unsurprising displeasure, bond with him as a Puff should their snake. He expected this: when Ximena asks a specific question about a casting or incantation, Mali speaks in a low voice close to her ear: because it is a magic that is not for him.

Tom’s barely spoken to anyone in Hufflepuff house save for Elle (whom he suspects will withdraw from Hogwarts any day now) and a handful of Nemesis’ siblings (who are remarkably less talented than their youngest sister). The Puff he wants out of the bunch is Elle: though meek and a little anxious for his tastes, she’s not annoying, and has a fascinating (albeit fantasy-like) view of magicks. A view of magicks similar enough to Ximena. She has a soft reputation and image that could help him gain an upper hand with some of the less prestigious houses in Hufflepuff. The Puff he should probably try and get is a Fawley: rich, well connected, and knowledgeable. The three he’s spoken formally to are all rather good-hearted, noble witches, and really that doesn’t bode well for their survival in a post-Hector Fawley world. Purebloods need to be thick skinned and ruthless to survive in these times.

Maybe he should try for two Puffs. Nothing wrong with being greedy.

He brings up the idea in the form of wanting advice to Evan once in class. They are becoming as thick as thieves, at least in the eyes of the people around him. Tom (and he suspects Evan does too on some level) knows that this is merely a relationship of benefits. Evan obviously has a lot to offer, and Tom? Well, it's obvious what he has in his arsenal.

“All the Fawleys in Hufflepuff are full of hot air.” He says, shaking his head, “Don’t know who Kowalzski or whatever is, but they’re certainly not a pureblood from Britain.”

Tom hums, listening intently, growing curious, “What about the Fawley in Slytherin?”

“Nemesis Fawley? Naive. Raised and content to be a witchwife, I’m sure.” Evan yawns, trimming the leaves off his plant, “Our mothers were playmates as children, so I know her family well.”

He can’t say he disagrees. Nemesis seems the type to have loved playing with dollies and pretending house and dreaming about weddings. But her words on the Wizengamot--He can’t dismiss them. There’s a spark there. A spark he can grow into a roaring flame, “How are they coping?”

His partner rolls his eyes, “Hector Fawley’s resignation knocked a good few of them down, thank Salazar.” Evan’s words feel rehearsed. As if he were repeating phrases heard from his parents, “Maybe now a few good bills will pass and we can finally ban half-bloods from Hogwarts.”

Hm.

“Half-bloods?” He’s heard more than enough greif about them, but mostly the purebloods are stuck on squibs and mudbloods.

“Filthy creatures. Only a handful are able to justify their existence.” Evan glances at him, calculating, “Renounce your Muggle heritage, for starters.”

“Seems fair.”

More than fair.”

Tom would renounce his in a heartbeat, if it didn’t mean admitting to it. He still has no proof, maybe his cursed mother was a witch, but she was just pitifully weak and that’s why his father rightfully left--

“What kind of name is Riddle, anyways?” This is why they could never actually, truly be as thick as thieves: provenance is too important to Evan and his kind. Well, for that reason and others: Tom doesn’t need friends. Not like the kind that others have. He needs friends of his own definition: loyal, obedient, and malleable. Not friends who are caring, or loving. That’s a waste of a relationship.

He doesn’t lose his composure. He continues tending to his plant, “It’s a last name.” Evan chuckles. “Could have some roots in France--I haven’t seen it anywhere else in Britain.” I haven’t seen it in Muggle spaces.

“You’d be a true foul git, then.” Indeed. He’d have to learn French.

“I never thought you would be patriotic.” This is the truth--He expects Evan to be nationalistic. Do the English hate the French again? He missed the memo. But maybe wizards are just behind on the times again. Wouldn’t be surprised.

“Britain first, Tom.”

The professor interjects as they walk by, interrupting to praise Tom’s work. He smiles.

-

In his time at Hogwarts, he has developed a couple of habits and tendencies that he is not proud of. The main ones are as follows:

One: his social skills. Oh sure, they were much improved, and growing second to none, but hell if he doesn’t internally gag every time he has to pretend to warmly greet a rude classmate or entitled pureblood. If his ten year old self could see him now, he would be both impressed and disgusted.

Two: This habit is entirely redacted, because it’s something he still is not entirely aware of, and it is something he does not at all want to admit to himself or anyone ever. Mind your business.

Three: his impulsivity. He’s a growing boy, and he needs to learn to control his impulses better. To reign in his anger or shock or excitement. Because tantrums here can’t be brushed off by explanations like ‘freak accident’ or ‘just the wind’ or ‘hysteria’. Because in those few seconds of impulsivity, he gives a brief way of insight to his real self. The one he’s been trying to fix and hide and reinvent since Dumbledore first told him about Hogwarts.

It is this impulsivity that causes him to charge directly at Ximena the next time he sees her alone.

He pins her down (figuratively, of course, she’s much taller than him, and he’s still suffering from underfeeding at the orphanage) in the corridor outside of Potions.

“Oh.” She’s surprised to see him, but the tone of voice isn’t one he hates. She recognises him. Acknowledges him.

“Long time, no see.” His voice is surprisingly casual for his currently mood.

“Ah. Yes.” She scratches the back of her neck, sheepish, “I meant to speak with you again, but time got away from me. Third year is really when the difficulty level raises.” This means much coming from her. It makes him thirst for next year.

“It’s alright. As long as you don’t forget me again.” A low blow, but he doesn’t want to waste time.

The slight flinch in her face tells him the punch landed, “I promise this time that that is not the case.” Good. “All I can really spare of my time right now is at meal times.”

Meal times where her time wasn’t all his own anymore, “I know. I understand. I don’t mind!” Lie. “Mali is great to listen to--So much to learn, and so little time.” Not a lie.

This seems to lighten the mood. Her posture relaxes, “I knew you’d like what she has to say...She calls me her little viper.” How...cute? Quaint? “Don’t mind what she doesn’t share with you, if she had a problem with you sitting in on our talks, she would have said so by now.” That he already knows. Druella is still afraid of the Native witch.

Tom nods, making sure to look shy but determined, “Do you thi--”

Nemesis exits the classroom briskly and bumps straight into Tom.

It is not a full on collision (he saw her out of the corner of his eye last minute and thankfully was quick thinking enough to step aside) but it’s enough to make him deeply annoyed. The feel of Nemesis’ soft magic was strange and sudden. Overstimulating.

“Oh I’m so sorry--Oh, aren’t you two little chatterbugs cozy?” Nemesis acknowledges them both with carefully neutrality, “Lane, Tom...Gossiping about little Flint’s new look?”

“I was talking about Mali: my Puff.”

“Just asking some questions, is all.” What timing, Nemesis, “Wondering if I’ll get a Puff.”

“Oh, I’ve dreamt of my snake ever since I was little, but I think a part of me always knew that I would have a Puff instead--”

His mind wanders--He can’t help it, Nemesis’ voice is just so bland sometimes, it fits so nicely and perfectly in the back of his mind while he thinks on other, more important things. Like the start of Dueling Club on Thursday.

Ximena has indeed stayed out of the spotlight using whatever grand methods of hers, but she will not escape this. She will volunteer herself, or else be volunteered. Against him. In a duel.

It won’t be immediately at the first meeting, of course, he still has a few things to check and plan, but it’ll be...soon. Ish. He’d like some practical experience first (lest his arrogance grow to insurmountable heights), especially because he’s sure that Willow wouldn’t let him duel against someone older than him unless he prove himself first.

All he has to do is make sure Ximena arrives late. Which is something he’s still trying to plan and figure out. She is either as punctual as a Swiss watch, or she just doesn’t show up to Dueling Club at all. He’s read on different spells and potions that alter the victim’s perception of time, and while that seems the safest way, it’s also the hardest one: gathering ingredients for a potion that he could be expelled for using on another student isn’t exactly something he should be spending time on. As for the spell, he cannot find the incantation written in any book (smart authors), and he hasn’t been able to swing by the sections restricted to those in his age bracket.

Option two is easier. Though more can go wrong: he can distract Ximena well enough on the way to the meeting that she miss the cut off time by just a few seconds. Perhaps that would be an opportune time to reveal some carefully scripted babble about the location of the bracelet? He can see the stumble in her step now. The look of shock and hope on her face. The utter feeling of gratitude. All come before the dread and anxiety of realizing that they had walked into the hall late.

Oh that attention she’ll bring: someone as non-confrontational, punctual, and unassuming as his classmate walking in late as if she had all the time in the world? With him walking beside her? It would be like arriving to one of Slughorn’s parties dressed to the nines without an invitation! Unheard of! No student would dare!

Then of course, there is Adam: who has established himself as someone who always does such a grand job of showing up unannounced. Such as in about seven seconds.

“...and--Oh, your nose!”

Tom’s fingers reach to see what she could be talking about (what could have been the miraculous thing that took her out of her rambling), and they touch wetness. Come away with blood. Bugger. He hasn’t had a nosebleed in a while.

“I can fix that,” Nemesis is quick to point her wand at him, and he would happily let her conduct whatever spell it was she has planned, if it wasn’t for the unsure look Ximena cast her way. Did she doubt her ability?

“--It’s fine.” He holds out his hand firmly, stopping the spell, “I’m fine. Thank you. I’m used to them. I just need some tissues,”

Ximena ruffles through her bag to presumably hand him something to stop the nosebleed with, but is interrupted by that terrible, loud, booming American voice.

“Oh golly, Tom, you’ve got yourself a massacre in your nose?”

He did not give him permission to call him by his first name, seniority be damned. He does not vocalize this, of course, he merely blinks in shock at Adam’s sudden appearance, and more so when he brings out a clean, white handkerchief from a pocket, “Here, I get ‘em all the time. Mama says I have enough blood to stock my own blood bank.” How gruesome.

Hesitantly, Tom takes the offering from the Yank’s hands, pressing it to his bleeding nose, “Thank you, Miller.”

“Don’t mention it, you look like the floodgates were opened up there. Dry air, am I right?”

The blood was starting to drip down his chin. Damn. Tom tries for a little chuckle.

“Miller! Right in the nick of time, how heroic.” Nemesis quips, eyeing the tall, sixth year boy.

He rubs the back of his neck, “Me? Heroic? Gosh. You sound like my mama.” Tom refrains the urge to roll his eyes. “I was just passing by, the common room was getting a little overheated. Something about a debate, I think. They've been going at it for three hours now.” Something obnoxious, probably.

“Glad you’ve joined us.” Nemesis speaks for herself (and maybe Ximena, unfortunately).

That ridiculously beautiful smile again, “Happy to be here! You cats are alright.” A glance at Ximena, “Did it work, by the way?”

“Ah, um, yes. It did. Thank you.” She clears her throat.

“Happy to help.”

It’s during these times, he’s happy that being nosy while also being a young boy is excusable, “Everything alright?”

“Should be! ‘Mena’s just having trouble with some Divination assignment, so I chipped in my two knuts.”

“You take Divination, Miller?”

“Sure do. Pretty good at it, if I do say so myself.”

Was that what they talked about at Hogsmeade? Figures Ximena would ask about academia. One of the houses she could have been in was probably Ravenclaw, if any. But what they talked about (regarding academics, anyways) isn't important. What interests him is that she's having trouble in any subject.

“Scrying is often difficult, so I appreciate the help, of course...I’m much better with palms, though that’s not really the same.”

“Yeah? Could you read mine?” Adam extends his hand out expectantly, palm up.

Oh there was that dreaded stain of red on her cheeks again. If her skin wasn’t dark, she’d look like a piece of hard candy.

Forever passes by. Ximena clears her throat and carefully takes Adam’s hand in hers before pressing down her index and middle finger in the center of his palm, “Oh.

Tom tenses.

“I, um.” She licks her lips, a small gulp, her fingers move, “You have many friends, and few enemies. You’re honorable. Affectionate.” Tom can practically feel the burn on her face from here, “You-you, you’d...” Her lips press together, “I can tell you’ve never held hands with a girl before this.”

Adam smiles, “That’s amazing, Ximena.” Oh for fuck’s sake.

Tom wishes that Hedwig were here so he could eagerly await what lovely thing she had to say to break the mood, but Nemesis speaks instead, “She’s the first girl you’ve held hands with? How romantic!” Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s not romantic, it’s weird! She’s too young for him--

Ximena sputters out something that sounds like English, but got lost on the way out of her mouth. Adam laughs, the perfect picture of boyishness, “You think so? I wouldn’t know about that stuff. I think it’s a bit sad if she’s the first girl I’ve held hands with.”

“I don’t, I don’t know, um, about about that uh, either--” Ximena’s hands stiffen as if she were holding a mole instead of Adams hand.

"You're just a late bloomer." Nemesis claims. Tom resists the urge to roll his eyes.

"I guess you could say that." A chuckle out of the older boy, he finally takes back his hand and turns his attention back to Ximena, “Can you read tarot cards, ‘Mena? My sister taught me, maybe I can read yours?”

Ximena shakes her head, and Nemesis coughs suddenly, as if a fly flew into her mouth, “Your Muggle sister knows how to read tarot?”

“Oh yeah, lots of Muggles can.”

She looks flummoxed. As if a fundamental truth in her life was just proven wrong. Tom didn’t think wizards knew what tarot was.

“Wizards use tarot cards?” Tom's voice breaking the silence feels strange after going so long without saying anything. He can feel the dried blood on his lips crust and crack with the movement.

“They are...temperamental and notoriously difficult to decipher, but yes.” Nemesis clears her throat, and her discomfort is so evident on her face that Tom wonders if she’s going to skew her face that way permanently, “Could you...could you teach me? There’s not a lot of wizards here that know how to do it properly.”

If there was anything revolutionary about Nemesis asking a Muggleborn for help in magic, Adam doesn’t show any sign of noticing. His smile is consistent and bright, “Sure!”

Tom tosses a quick look at Ximena for any signs of jealousy. He finds none. She is as reserved as always, hands folded in front of her, lips in a thin line. Thinking. That makes sense, it would be silly to be jealous over a sixteen year old boy giving lessons to a twelve year old.

Ximena’s throat clears, “I thank you for your offer, but no. I’m fine.” Her hands fold neatly in front of her, “Tarot cards don’t like me.”

“Ahh, got a history?”

Tom raises a brow, glancing at his schoolmate.

“Mm. Something like that.”

“Are you cursed, Lane?” When the question leaves Nemesis’ lips, he can see the corners of Ximena’s frown.

“Whoa there, that’s a bit personal ain’t it?” Adam intervenes, hand out, sounding a little uneasy. Nemesis blinks her response.

“Is it? It’s just a question, are you not allowed to talk about curses in polite company back in the States?”

Lord in heaven, no.” He’s aghast, “You can ask people if they’ve got curses on them, but it’s bad manners to ask whether you’re on the side of a fascist or not?”

Nemesis looks uncomfortable again, just as she did the other day in the library, “The climate here about that is...It’s complicated right now. It's just customary not to talk about it...Didn't anyone tell you?”

“I know as much about magic politics as a dog knows about kettle corn.”

A blink. Adam laughs, elaborating, “I don’t know anything about the history or process, but I sure do consume it.” A fair enough comparison, if not...stupid.

“They don’t teach you that sort of thing?” Nemesis asks.

“I mean, not like y’all here, I guess.” He scratches the back of his neck, “Heck, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about people’s family lines, fortunes, and histories in the last three hours, if I’m being honest with you.” This catches Tom’s attention: apparently Gryffindors can be just as prideful about magical heritage as Slytherins. “Is that just a highblood thing?”

“Well--Yes, I suppose it is.” Nemesis folds her arms over her torso, “Every pureblood heir in Britain is supposed to read this manifesto of sorts, I’m not allowed to know the name of it, being, well, the seventh daughter.” She sighs, part bitter, part resigned, “From what my eldest sister was allowed to tell me, it lays out...rules. Family lines. History. It’s why it’s so hard to argue with so many of them, they have every date and name ingrained in their memory like their own mother’s face.”

“Even families like the Weasleys read it?” Tom speaks up, hooked onto Nemesis’ words.

“They’re supposed to, being one of the oldest and purest houses, but no. If what I overhear during parties is true, then no self respecting Weasley would ever be caught dead with that book in their house. Heir or no.”

Tom knows Ximena enough to recognise the contempt in her face. She loathes the idea of grooming children like that, obviously. As for Adam, it looks as if he’s taking Nemesis’ words seriously.

“That’s so...so…” Effective? Useful? Pragmatic? “All you highbloods are such wet blankets.” Ah. “Can’t you let your kids be kids?”

Nemesis blinks, “What do you mean?”

“Don’t y’all play? Sports or board games or something?”

“There’s Wizard’s Chess and Gobstones, if that’s what you mean.”

It isn’t, if the look on Adam’s face is anything to go by, “Real games. Not stuff adults play.” He sighs, gesturing to Ximena, “What’s that game you said you liked? Pirates or something?"

"--Buccaneer."

The name rings a bell for Tom: he's seen it on display at a few department stores on the way to church back in London. A board game, if he's correct. A few of the orphans talked about pooling their money to purchase the game last year, but Tom wasn't interested in those things anymore.

"Yeah yeah, that one: there's no strategy to it. No war parallels or skill involved, it's just...chance. Just colorful, stupid fun. Don’t y’all have stupid fun? Or is every one of you trained to be a little politician by the time you’re eight years old?"

Nemesis frowns, feeling cornered, like there's too damn much to explain to him, "That's a mixed bag."

Adam sighs, like maybe he feels he’s gone a little too far, or like he’s afraid he hurt Nemesis’ feelings, “I mean...and don’t take this the wrong way or anything...The way things are in your little Wizengamot, I’m not surprised at the state of it all.“

This statement has little effect on Tom, or even Ximena (whom Tom is positive agrees with Adam), but Tom can tell that the words seize Nemesis like a cruel grip on her throat.

The older boy reaches over to cover Nemesis’ hand with his and squeezes, “Don’t lose sight of what’s important.” He lets go, turning towards Ximena and Tom, “See ya, pals.”

As he walks off into the corridor, a pair makes their appearance: Evan and Hedwig stroll up with timing a little too perfect, eyes narrowing at Adam’s back.

“The fuck was that about?”

Ximena chuffs. Hedwig eyes her as if she had insulted her grandmother. Evan greets them all neutrally.

“We were just talking.” Nemesis mangages to say, sounding contemplative.

“Aye, talking, that’s what me n’ Rosier were hearing.”

Tom raises a brow, “Eavesdropping, Hedwig? That’s not like you.”

“Sod off, Tom.”

Evan clears his throat, “Merely concerned over our fellow Slytherins mingling with a...Gryffindor.”

Ximena’s lips form a thin line. This conversation is not going to a very nice place at all. She excuses herself silently, shuffling through Hedwig and Evan.

“Something I said?” Evan knows better, and his voice shows it. His little grin shows it.

“Forget Lane, she’s blinded by love.” Hedwig scowls at Nemesis, who is looking more and more like a mouse by the second, “What the fuck was that talk all about.

“Nothing. It was nothing.”

“Certainly didn’t seem like nothing.” Evan’s stance is vulture-like, “New American mudblood criticizing the traditions of his betters?”

“What in Merlin’s balls were you thinking telling him about the bloody book? It’s illegal to have it! He could go off talking about it to fecking Dumbledore!”

“It’s not illegal to have, just to make copies of!” Nemesis bites back, sounding like a mouse equipped with a sword, “He wasn’t being insulting or anything--”

“That’s not what we heard.” Evan interrupts, eyeing Nemesis up and down in a way that reminded Tom of the way distrusting adults would eye him back at Wool’s.

“Well you heard wrong, then. We were just having friendly conversation, he’s really very nice--”

“--Fawley, for fuck’s sake, stop fraternizing with him! You’re already at the bottom of the rung here!” Hedwig scolds as Nemesis cowers only in the slightest, “It’s bad enough that Lane fancies him, but now you’re asking him for help?” That’s...a bit hypocritical, isn’t it? ”What’s next, are we going to let him into the bloody Slytherin common room now?”

“--I am not above asking for help from someone who knows what they are doing.” She maintains eye contact with Hedwig, “And neither should you.” Bold. Interesting. Is Hedwig’s potions tutoring finally stirring up trouble?

“Ya, but from a mudblood? At least ask a half-blood, for fuck’s sake.”

The slimmer witch turns her head up and away, refusing to argue further.

And you,” She points at Tom, who looks not dumb at all in shock at her accusation, “Letting Lane go about flouncing after him! Never thought ya for a passive snake.”

Tom blinks, “..I’m not her keeper.”

“How very modern of you.” A monumental eye roll, “If you had man’d up and told her ya fancied her, she wouldn’t be trailing after him like he was the best thing since sliced fairy-bread. Shit, I bet you can’t even tell me a single personal fact about her!”

Evan raises a brow crossing his arms, “Didn’t realize this was going to be a war council meeting on how to phase the Yank out of the life of our fellow Slytherin.” Must have only thought it be a ‘war council’ meeting on berating Nemesis and speaking ill of the Yank.

Tom feels a headache coming on. Hedwig takes his silence badly.

“All this time, and you can’t even tell me her favorite color? What music she likes? Her baptismal name?”

Tom scowls, annoyed with her criticism, “How do you know what a baptismal name is?” Or what Christianity is, for that matter.

Hedwig scoffs, “I read.” Liar. But he won’t call her on that.

“What do those things matter?”

“Really, it’s no wonder she likes that bugger Yank so much over you, they actually talk about themselves instead of just academia.”

Tom takes extreme offense to that: he’s obviously still (still?) Ximena’s preferred person to speak to...obviously, he’s the closest thing she has to a friend. A best friend. Surely. And they talk about personal things! Deep things…Beyond that sort of surface level nonsense. That’s more important, right? What they spoke about in the common room is infinitely more intimate than things friends talk about.

Nemesis clears her throat, braver now that the heat was off of her, “I know...as a boy, things like favorite color or food or even just tastes in clothing is silly, but,” Her fingers fiddle together nervously, “that sort of thing is noticed by girls. We like it.

He glances at Evan for confirmation, but he only shrugs helplessly (honestly, what was he expecting), “Druella goes mad whenever Cygnus notices her new earrings.”

“It’s not about great grand gestures.” Hedwig nods, “It’s repeated acts. Mum gets on the pig’s back[1] when Dad brings home her favorite flowers.”

This information is, of course, contrary to everything he’s ever noted or learned about affection. Is he out of touch?

“Perhaps it’s just not meant to be?” Nemesis offers, fingers lacing together, looking adequately and gently apologetic.

Hedwig snorts, muttering something under her breath that might have been ‘ya, you’d like that--’, but he ignores it.

“Regardless of Riddle’s little...affliction, I do believe keeping the American mudblood around can only bring discord to the school.” Evan cuts in before Tom has a chance to defend himself against Nemesis (he doesn’t have a crush, dammit), “Not to mention that Mali girl...Sitting all the time at our tables? Puff or no, it’s not a good look. A Gryffindor thought it was alright to sit next to me and Katux the other day. It was horrid.”

At this, Tom tilts his head, “Were they Muggleborn?”

Merlin no, but soon they might be.”

“Afraid of a few mudbloods, Rosier?” Hedwig teases.

“Hardly. I just want them to know their place. We can’t all be as tolerant as you.”

Hedwig? Tolerant? Has he heard her speeches?

“It’s called being fucking polite, you stupid plonker. Were you raised in a barn, or have you always been a daft cow?”

Evan chuckles at Hedwig as Nemesis looks uncomfortable.

“I like Lane. She keeps out of the way and knows when to shut up. I’d hate for that to change thanks to the mudblood’s influence.” Evan declares, resting his chin on his knuckles, “Better to stop the leak while it’s still a leak, right? Before the flood happens?”

“--Can this diabolical plan happen after he teaches me Tarot?” Nemesis pipes up, hopeful and pleading.

“Oh shut it, Fawley, just have Dmitrieva owl her cousin for lessons.”

“I actually agree with Fawley on this.” Evan declares, glancing at Tom to see if he would catch on to what he was going to say, “Milking out all the information from him before any plans to ostracize would be ideal, as disrespectful as he is.”

“Come on, Rosier, information from a mudblood?”

“...I hear his mother is the scion of a powerful family.” Tom speaks up, chin raised, “A squib of a squib, perhaps? I’m sure he knows more than his...demeanor lets on.” More than once, people have said Adam was an idiot, but Tom’s yet to see any real proof.

Hedwig looks at him in disbelief, but Evan smiles approvingly, “I knew you were smart, Riddle. Katux owes me five sickles.”

“I’m surprised Katux had enough brainpower to know what a proper bet was.” He counters quickly, hiding the grimace at the thought of someone speaking down about him. He’ll have to put Katux in his place again soon…

“Well his parents are cousins, so you’d be correct.” Hedwig sneers.

“Tsk tsk, Acwellan, half of all pureblood houses have married cousins.” Evan’s tone isn’t disgusted, but it certainly isn’t offended. Tom suspects he’s just keeping up appearances. It’s an answer fed to him by parents meant to be repeated, he’s sure. Just like everything else that comes out of his mouth.

“Ya, maybe with you disgusting Brits, but certainly not with us.”

Oh, Tom can see the flare in Nemesis’ eyes at that, but as she opens her mouth, Evan secures a hand on her shoulder firmly and pushes her down, “Now now, my dear grandmother is Irish, as a matter of fact--Not that you needed reminding.”

Hedwig flinches, grimacing. Hm. He’ll ask her about that later.

“I thought we were past fighting about Irish or British citizenship.” Nemesis holds her chin up high, throwing a half-hearted glare at Evan, “My family worked to keep the divide strictly within Muggle borders, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, we know all about your family, Fawley.” Hedwig brushes her off, no doubt wanting nothing more than for her to stop talking, “But back to the point--

“We will keep the houses from mingling, yes?”

“Interrupt me one more fucking time, Rosier, I fucking dare you--”

Tom tunes them both out.

Houses uniting...This was wanted. To be able to slip past the barriers that others couldn’t get through. Reach out to people in other houses and now...Well, it’s not backfiring exactly, but it’s not going as smoothly as expected. What were Evan and Hedwig even really angry about? Hedwig cares not for race nor house, but blood is important. Evan is tolerant of outside purebloods, but abhors the idea of letting a Gryffindor sit down beside him at lunch. What the hell is the damn problem?

He rubs his temple, headache growing steadily. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Tom feels he’s performing a balancing act, where one action must counter the last. Where everyone has to be happy. This is, of course, absurd, not everyone can be happy at the same time about the same situation. But that doesn’t mean he can’t force happiness on them. Make them content with what he gives them.

Lucretia and he will just have to try harder to make them see the light.
♠ ♠ ♠
[1] Getting on the pig’s back is apparently an Irish saying meaning something like ‘on cloud nine’ and I have no idea why.

Sorry not sorry about the late update because y’all don’t leave reviews :v Except those who do, y’all know who you are, and I would kill for you.

Ughh, trying hard not to introduce too many names that you need (“need”) to remember, but at this point, it’s worthless. Tom has too many damn people in his in-club, y’know? I’ll try to input reminders periodically so people don’t get /too/ confused.

Also, writing in Tom’s POV, even in third person, is exhausting. Expect for there to be occasional interludes of other character’s POV, just for a change of pace. Not sure who I’d pick first, but it’s between Dumbledore, the matron, or Hedwig atm.

Also ALSO: been thinking of changing the title. Serpentine was something I picked out of a hat because I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take the story in (if any). Now I’m thinking of naming it...idk, something less pretentious.