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Serpentine

Poor Mary

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

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

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

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

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

-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, one day: victory.

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

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

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

"Inflatus."

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

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

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

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

"How useful." Ximena corrects, looking bored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn coot.

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Are they nice?"

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

Freak. The word echos in Tom's memory.

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

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

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

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

His heart is a hummingbird.

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

"What kind of games?"

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

"Anything we want."

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

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

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

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

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

"Ximena?"

"The flowers."

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

"The flowers?"

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

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

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

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

CAW.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctuary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Competition keeps one sharp."

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

"Wizengamot?"

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing to worry about there."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

"Who were you talking with earlier?"

"Hm?"

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

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

"Oh."

"Friend of yours?"

He wonders if his impatience is showing.

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

"How?"

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

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

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

Nothing to worry about.

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Tom wakes up, he is sweating, and gripping tightly to the bracelet.
♠ ♠ ♠
[1] "Not all Slytherins are prejudiced, but all prejudiced students are placed in Slytherin" my ass, that's lazy world building, that is. "Oh but Ravenclaws are too smart to be prejudiced" Honey, you obviously haven't braced the ugly world of academia.

So, funny story: I got stuck writing in this point of the fic, so I started writing things that wouldn't happen until wayyy later (like when they're both 16/17 years old later), and that worked out really well! Unfortunately, I didn't format this story with the non-linear timeline gimmick, so to suddenly pull that out would be weird. Looks like we'll all have to wait :'^) Lion wants me to skip to the teenage drama and angst already, cries.

For whatever reason, I can only write this story while listening to classical music. I recommend it, it creates atmosphere. Imagining Tom following Ximena around like a duckling is hilarious when you imagine it to the tune of the Turkish March.

At some point, I stopped and wondered if I really wanted to look up and mention every single faculty member and student that could possibly be at Hogwarts during Tom Riddle's term. I don't. I did it anyways. Looked into the politics of the time too. If it wasn't obvious by now, there's a lot of universe alterations...Buckle in.

Points to you if you know what flower that crow brought to Ximena! We should talk botany, all my plants are dying, help, cries.

Lots of allusions and references to other pieces of literature here, some obvious, some more subtle; if you spot them all, I commend you. I love well-read people, lmao. Speaking of-No one's guessed the mugwort/moxibustion question yet! On any site! I wonder if it'll ever get cracked!

Thank you to chickhabit13 for your kind comment <3