Status: Active | Currently posted on FF.net, AO3, Quotev, GOTVG.net, and Lunaescene

Serpentine

Winter

Hattie returns, not worse for wear, from the south. Her feathers are damp from remote rains, and she croons into his hands as he scratches the sides of her face. The letter is a stiff piece of paper folded and tied closed with a piece of twine. He opens it immediately without waiting to walk to a more comfortable space (he was in the middle of the main courtyard), and reads through Ximena’s neat handwriting. The contents are surprisingly ordinary: a mention of the weather, scattered answers to his questions (‘I’m well’’, ‘hot oatmeal with cinnamon’, ‘no’, and ‘I think I’ll stay home this winter.’), and an off-hand comment on the current book she was reading though (another surprisingly ordinary sounding book, though she did not give the title.) It felt as carefully composed as his own letter. Overall, a disappointment.

It is set aside later, on a table back in the Slytherin common room, in favor of the more informative letters of his elite schoolmates. Topaz Selwyn and Abbas Yaxley are the most interesting of the bunch, avoiding topics like sports teams and girls, and sticking to wizarding traditions during Yule--As he found out from their confused writings, most purebloods had never heard of Christ or Father Christmas. A shock, to be sure, but it’s easy to adapt. The boys even speak about one day inviting him to their families’ Wild Hunt recreation. God only knows what in the goddamn that is, but Tom is excited to find out.

Hedwig sends a small postcard from the Rhineland speaking of a Wild Hunt as well (Da says I’m still far too young, but I’m going to sneak on a fucking horse anyways and go out with the rest), and asking him if muggles have hunts around Yuletide as well. There is no mention of Ximena being re-invited to her family’s home.

Next, inside a carefully wrapped package is a tin of cookies, each more peculiar and delicious than the last. It is from Nemesis, who sends her deepest and warmest regards along with a little toy knight charmed to march about and listen to his orders. ‘An early Modranicht present’ whatever that means. He sets the little knight up before him to feast his eyes on it: the metal used in his armor as intricate and detailed as a real one. He wonders how much it cost. He wonders if it made any real dent in her money budget for the holidays.

He orders it to jump off the table. It does so immediately, and clamors down on the stone floor with a moderate clang. Splayed out like a dead man. It picks itself up easily, though, and stands again, ready for the next order. Tom decides he likes it.

Sending his new little soldier around the common room to search for treasure, he decides to put off writing back to Ximena until later, he focuses on writing back to the more interesting classmates--the more important classmates. But his mind wanders, skips and saunters back to his senior...Had she really changed that much in such short a time? Gotten more and more boring? In her reading choices and personality and--

Tom gazes down at the bracelet, set before him beside his goblet of juice. Was it this that had interested him so much all those weeks ago when he accessed her during his first night? This mysterious thing with such a basic origin? Yami had said that Ximena’s own magic had changed, and such a thing in such a short amount of time is...It’s not possible is it? On one’s own? It’s not like changing one’s clothes or cutting one’s hair, surely it’s like developing height or weight over a length of time...

Something moves in the common room and he turns to search for the intruder so fast, he gets whiplash. His eyes search desperately for any sign of life--Or death, it could very well be Peeves attempting to scare him (again). But all he sees is blackness--Damn place was so dimly lit. Tom can hear his heart beating in his ears, it’s so silent. And then…

Caw.

He is met with a crow.

It hops over to him, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, with a small envelope attached to its little foot.

Tom is cautious, “How did you get in here?”

It says nothing, of course. It merely looks at him and crows again. He extends his hand out--And is nipped at. His hand retracts back, bleeding slightly. Cursing, he is tempted to swat away the stupid bird, but he stops himself.

The tin of cookies is given a second glance.

This time, Tom offers it up first: a shiny little refractive biscuit that feels like someone broke off a piece of the moon. The little messenger accepts it happily, and willfully lets Tom untie the envelope from it. There is no signature at the bottom of the letter inside, but he knows who it’s from.

I don’t trust the owls from Hogwarts. Please write to me using my friend.

The crow makes another sound at him, as if confirming that it was, indeed, the friend written about.

It’s not serious. I am not in any danger. I am not in hiding. But my letters are all read by the Abbess. I can’t disguise my words, it would be very difficult for you to decipher them.

He’s offended. He’s a very smart boy of eleven, thank you very much, he could have figured it out. Even if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind that her first letter could possibly be encoded. He would have definitely figured it out if it was. Eventually. Yes.

She already suspects something strange about this school. It took forever for another sister to convince her that owls are an alternative for messenger pigeons. Thank goodness she never leaves the abbey.

He leans back in the comfortable armchair, drinking in her words greedily. The crow has taken to helping itself on the tin of sweet biscuits. Tom does not mind or notice.

I’ve never written to a person before, so maybe she was just suspicious. It is very uncharacteristic of me to be so sociable. I don’t even know what to write. You didn’t give much in the way of prompting. That is very unlike you.

What was that supposed to mean? Nevermind.

What do you really want to say? To ask?

A lot. It would take a few pages.

What are you afraid of?

What indeed.

Tell me.

So he did.

Throughout all of his letters to Ximena that winter, he writes with complete honesty. The abridged...censored...and highly edited version of honesty, anyways. If she can have secrets, why can’t he?

He repeats a few of his observations from the book he studied about curses to her, and asks what she thinks of them in the first letters. He’ll deny anyone who accuses him of fishing for compliments on his intelligence, but validation feels good. And he would like to see if he’s on a good track with some of his theories and views.

It’s amazing, just when Ximena was getting boring to him, something happens that manages to make him keep his attention on her. Is she aware of it? Is she rationing out parts of her just enough so that he stays around? No, he’s not so hopeful or stupid as to believe that, but it is a nice thought, nonetheless. ‘Friendship takes time.’ The words repeat themselves in his mind. Friendship takes time.

The letters take time too. His questions take time.

‘What were you reading that first day we met in the library?’

Even now, he can picture the page in his mind’s eye, though the image is blurred. What did she say it was? Sonnets? Whatever it was, it had to have been a lie. Or a truth so vague and broad that it might as well have been a lie. She’ll tell him now, right? She has to, things are different with them now. He has won her friendship over many weeks of pushing for it.

He wants to write--to ask if she trusts that idiot of a mentor more than she trusts him. So many little intimacies about her he only knew from that buffoon. And he only knew those directly from the source. She had told him, once, that his guide was useful. Was she as manipulative as he, then? Back when he had started attending Dueling Club as much as he could, he had hoped to catch something between them. A passing glance or a few dropped sentences, but he never got much beyond a few little quips and comments. And Ximena has yet to duel again, so he couldn’t even look forward to that.

‘Why are you in Dueling Club when you don’t like dueling?’

Yes! That was a good thing to write, he knows it. It’s bold. Just. Rational. He knows that any person with context would be impressed with him upon reading it. Okay okay, he stops lingering on the sentence to focus on what to write next, but he can’t. Instead, he stays on that one sentence because goddamn, why doesn’t she like dueling? Tom can’t wait until he’s able to be up there himself showing everyone what he’s made of. What he’s capable of. Tom can’t wait to further prove himself to those outside the classroom. To not have to rely on the stories and recounts of teachers and students. He wants his time now.

‘Did Dumbledore find you like he found me?’

A question that holds a little more ernest sincerity. And perhaps, he hate hate hates to admit, a little more vulnerability. He already knows the answer, of course, Dumbledore told him himself, but he wants to hear her version. In her own words. Was he nicer to her? Did he also demand she stop any illicit activities like theft?

It’s strange. In a way he wants to collect her. Not keep her in a glass display case like at a museum, but collect her essence. Her thoughts and memories. Her magic. Bits of her to leaf through and study and admire. Not like a butterfly pinned down or a pretty penny polished and shined, but like an idea. Or a tune to a song. Immortalized.

He wants to see what parts of her match him.

His name, he knows, and thinks with great disgust, is common. His mind, though, is not. Not his personality or goals. Her name is not common. At least, not in the United Kingdom. Her history and personality and goals are still unknown. Being in Slytherin is one thing: a lot of people can be ambitious and resourceful and cunning and driven. A lot of people can be group oriented and self-serving. A lot of people follow their own set of rules and personal laws to a tee. But how many people can actually use that ambition properly? Be resourceful towards practical things? Not be caught deceiving while being cunning? Or be driven towards the correct things?

It bothers him that he can’t even vaguely place Ximena in a certain category of people, like he has with the rest of his classmates. She’s no fit in ‘Easy to Manipulate’. No fit in ‘Rich and Powerful’. No fit in ‘Perfect Scapegoat’, ‘Networking Ally’, or ‘Useless’. Very few people have yet to be sorted in this manner, and for them it is only a matter of time. For Ximena, he has placed her in a special box of her own. One labeled with ‘Like Me, But Not Like Me’.

Like Me, But Not Like Me.

Maybe it upsets him that there can even be someone out there on his level? Or near it? On a parallel plane from it? Maybe it scares him that this someone was so easily found within months of learning that it was magic that he can do? That this other person raised so similarly to him was already leagues ahead of him, despite only being a year older? How far will he be in his second year? The same? Further? Further behind?

Competition keeps one sharp. He knows. Yet he doesn’t want to compete with Ximena. Not publically, at least. He knows which way the professors will favor if it ever came to that. His gender and race are enough to guarantee a smooth enough ride to the top, but with her, she has already managed to gain a considerable amount up without such things. Without trying. Or seeming to try. It’s hard to tell with her.

None of this, of course, is placed in any of the letters he writes back to her. It is kept in his head to stew over in the dark hours of the night before sleep takes him. Kept on the backburner of his mind while he reads through her short responses to his questions. Each barely satisfying enough to quell the curiosity, but just enough to properly answer the question. ‘I’m not sure exactly what I was reading, I’m translating it’, ‘I don’t want people to know how I fight’, and ‘Yes, he came here on a rainy Sunday afternoon and told me I was a witch’. There are more details after those sentences, but they are too much useless information for him to bother with.

“Do you know what she’s hiding?” He asks the crow one day, his feathers shiny and black as the night sky, “Can she talk to you like I talk to snakes?”

The bird judges him with beady jet eyes and does not respond, but he lets Tom scratch it on the top of its head.

Quite possibly, he is making an entire ordeal out of nothing. In reality she is as boring as they come, and as common as the next student. But there’s something in his gut. His core that says otherwise. The same thing that goes off when he knows that an adult means him harm. The same thing that alerts him to Prefects when he is up past his bedtime in the library. The same thing that told him to make those two children in the cave pay. It says to keep talking to her.

Reading through her writings is almost alike to speaking to her face to face, save for the lack of sudden pauses and her forgetting that he’s there. They’re short, but not as short as her sentences when she speaks aloud. It is as if Ximena is amplified on paper. Without barriers or filters to mess up his reading of her speech.

And there is something else...

It is an insignificant detail. Something absolutely no one would have noticed but him, of course. It is the rare, off-handed mentions of her food. Straightforward, boring meals--Porridge, salad, gelatin. Crisps and chips and carrot sticks. Nothing as grand or as interesting sounding as the meals he witnessed her eat in his time here. Of course it’s easily excusable with the fact that perhaps the nunnery doesn’t have the means to make such meals. Of course, Tom knows it can’t be that easy.

He receives a clue in the form of a letter from Abbas, whom was speaking on an entirely different topic, “My brother always eats his favourite meals at Hogwarts, and I can’t figure out how he did it! All he tells me is that you have to teach new foods to the cooks, but nobody cooks the food! It just appears!” Idiot. That’s what you get for slacking on your Transfiguration homework.

Speaking of, Dumbledore has backed off his little tirade. Hopefully he’ll stay that way. A few days after his last tea meeting was held, Ximena was becoming more openly social with her fellow students, alleviating Dumbledore’s apparent worry, and irritating Tom. If she doesn’t have time to pay attention to him, she shouldn’t have time to pay attention to anyone. She’s a reclusive, studious, ambitious girl, it’s what he likes about her. Now, she’s never given any indication of any such ambitions, but Tom can just tell these things. Ximena definitely has some sort of goal in mind. Without a doubt. He just has to figure out what it is...

But back to the food: there is absolutely something weird about it. Suspicious in a way that is completely not suspicious at all. Ximena does not know about the kitchens. House elves here have no place knowing about those sorts of recipes. He bookmarks the thought in his mind to return to it later.

It is now later.

He tickles the pear.

The kitchens are low activity and uncrowded, contrast to how he imagined it to be. A few house elves scuttle and scurry around, mostly paying him no mind. Some appear to be a little unsettled by his presence, and others simply carry on with their day--After a curt greeting. It’s his first real interaction with such creatures, and it’s odd for him. The animals in his Care of Magical Creatures class don’t speak. They don’t have autonomy. The house elves at the Hallowe’en party didn’t speak either. They only held trays and cleaned up after messes. Here, they walk about comfortably, completely in their environment.

It isn’t until one confidently, yet timidly, asks him if he was here to cook as well, that he notices he isn’t alone. His head cranes to try and listen...

There’s another student here, humming away happily like Snow White. The smell of freshly baked bread reaches him, as well as something sweeter. He ignores the house elf, turning the corner and spotting the culprit: an older girl with mousy brown hair cut in a bob, and pasty skin. When he runs into the corner of a counter, pushing some pots over into an empty sink, she turns to him--And her look of shock is familiar.

Kowalska.” He acknowledges, and the plain faced girl smiles, a little uneasily, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just curious as to what you’re doing.”

“Oh, just baking a little.” She tips some sugar into a bowl, on-the-spot, “I was homesick.”

He can’t relate, “Can I watch?” This opportunity might prove useful, and maybe she’ll share whatever she’s making with him.

“Oh--Oh yes of course you can, um--” A hesitation, “Riddle, correct? Tom Riddle?”

His hand is extended, “Yes. You’re--”

“Ah, Elle Kowalska is fine.” She clears her throat, shaking his hand gently, “It’s a middle name I prefer.”

Curious, but Tom can somewhat understand. Out of anyone here, he can understand reservations about names.

He pulls up a stool.

“Pris? Bring me some of that butter now, please.” Her voice raises slightly to reach the ears of a house elf a few meters away.

“Right away, Miss Kowalska.” The house elf disappears. Tom’s eyes widen.

“Never seen a house elf disapparate, I see.” He shakes his head, “You’ll learn how to do that in your seventh year.” He’ll what.

“Will I really?”

She chuckles, “Of course. It’s dangerous, but wicked fun, I hear.” Another hum as the house elf reappears with a platter of butter, “Thank you, Pris! That’ll be all.”

“Pris is honored to help Miss Kowalska.” A bow, and she disappears again.

“--You’re so nice to them.” It’s out before he can control it. But Elle doesn’t appear to be upset at his words.

“Kindness is much needed these days.” A sigh as she sets the platter aside towards Tom, “I don’t like being cruel.”

He can’t relate, “What are you making?”

“It’s an old recipe from my grandmother--kołaczki.” She mixes the dry, powdered ingredients with a wooden spoon, “They’re like cookies.”

“Are they magical?”

Elle chuckles again, Tom feels like she’s making fun of him, “In a personal way, yes.” She looks up in thought, “It’s a type of old magic. So old, even some muggles can do it.” She sounds as if she knows what she’s talking about, but Tom doesn’t believe it regardless. Muggles can’t do magic. That’s why they’re muggles, “When you make food, especially from an old recipe, it has...something special about it. When you make food meant for sharing, it...becomes more than just food. Sharing food, breaking bread, is sacred. To do so under a foreign house would guarantee your safety. Families in the East share food to show love and community. To miss a meal is to miss a communion. A ritual.”

Tom blinks, “Is it really all that?”

She is determined to prove her point, “When you ingest food, you are nourishing your body: your temple. When you share food, especially food that you made or food from your culture, you share a piece of you. You nourish others around you. You’re creating a bond.” She clears her throat, “It’s why students here all eat from the same kitchen: Hogwarts wants us to be a whole. To work together as a school.” Spoken like a true Hufflepuff.

“So then, there’s magic in our food?”

A pause, “The whole ritual has magic, really.” She finishes mixing the flour, “Pass me the butter, please, Tom.”

He does so, “I’ve never shared a meal before. Not really.”

“Oh that’s a shame,” She’s pitying him, and he hates it, but he takes it, “It’s lovely. Really intimate--Hard to describe.” Her shoulders shrug as she pinches the butter into the flour.

“--Why don’t you use magic to do that?” He peers over the bowl curiously.

“I like getting my hands dirty.” A soft laugh, “Magic is good, but this is better.”

There is a small moment of silence, “It’s almost like when you use magic without a wand, isn’t it?”

Elle perks up an ear, peering at him curiously.

“You can point a wand and make your dough knead itself, but when you do it with your hands, it’s direct--Do you understand?”

A smile and a nod, “Yes, exactly.”

“Your food magicks are lovely,” Tom compliments, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were a descendant of Helga Hufflepuff herself.”

Her face burns, red bleeding into her pale skin rapidly in a way that made Tom think of radishes, “You really think so?” Elle looks as if she were reassuring herself on his statement, “I’m working on a thesis for it, but none of the teachers, save for Dumbledore, will take me seriously...” She sighs, “Maybe it is an idea for a younger generation.” A smile, “More people should be as open-minded as you, Tom.”

If more people were like him, then he wouldn’t be--couldn’t be--special. “Your words are gracious and kind.”

Elle smiles, “And such manners! I wish my little cousin could be more like you.” The dough is kneaded out on the flour-covered surface of the counter before her, “She’s over in Ilvermorny right now in her first year.”

“Ilvermorny?”

“Oh right, you’re...” She cuts herself off, clearing her throat, “Uhm...It’s a wizarding school in the States.”

The words ‘there are other schools in other countries?’ almost comes out of his mouth, but luckily they do not. Of course they have other schools! How stupid. He just never really...thought about it. No one had mentioned it to him.

“What’s it like there?”

“Strict and authoritarian, if her letters are to be believed.” Elle chuckles, but there’s a stiffness about her that leads Tom to conclude that she was worried for her cousin, “You know, it was founded by an Irish witch? A descendant of Salazar Slytherin himself.”

This interests him greatly, “No, I didn’t know.”

“The school is very proud of its founder and history, it’s gotten very picky with which students to let in each year.” The dough is flattened with a rolling pin before she begins to cut into them to place on a tray, “I think they want a lot of potential under their roof to bring greater glory to the school.” Elle lays the cut pieces of dough on the tray, perfectly spacing them out evenly and neatly.

“A bit like Slughorn, no?”

A snort, unladylike and very strange coming from her, “Yes. Yes, I should say a lot like Slughorn and his little collection. He’s a perfect Slytherin.”

Yes...He is...Praising and nurturing and grooming the magical world’s next politicians, influencers, and sports stars. Funneling their fame, fortune, and prestige back onto him. He’s always the first in line because he’s allowed to cut it. Always the one listened to because he was given a podium. Always knows what cards the other players are holding because they willingly show him.

An understanding clouds Tom’s mind. Elle places the tray in the oven and lights the logs underneath with a flick of her wand.

“...No instant heat spell to make them bake faster?” He already expects a certain answer, but he baits her regardless.

“Good things take time.” A firm nod. “Anticipation makes the satisfaction better.”

Tom wraps his head around the idea, but finds himself too impatient to really absorb it, “Who taught you to bake?”

“Like most girls, I learned from my grandmother.” She sits on a stool she conjures, her hands sit folded and intertwined on her lap, palms down. “I’m told I get my magic abilities from her too.”

The sentence strikes a chord of curiosity and confusion for him, “She’s the only witch in your family?”

Elle seems a little uncomfortable, perhaps. It’s not the right word, but it’s the first word to come to Tom’s mind. “No, but she’s certainly the most powerful one.” Her voice lowers a bit, against her own will. She clears her throat but does not speak.

Tom wants this conversation to continue moving forward, but looking at her face and at the cards in his hand, he decides it’s not the right move, and instead goes back to his original mission, “Did you teach the elves here how to bake your special foods?”

“Oh yes--They’re very good listeners, and they learn quick. I’ve taught Pris and the rest all they know about kosher Polish cooking.” Elle’s chin is raised high, “Before this, my brother had to make due with English kosher foods.” She makes a face as if she had smelled something foul, “No offence intended, of course, but food from home is best.”

He’s not sure how to take offence to that. He’s English, sure, but he’s never particularly felt prideful about it. If anything, the Hufflepuff’s words are proof for him that everyone (no matter now nice) has their own private prejudices. Elle’s is on food, Hedwig’s is on blood. “None taken. Can I try some?”

Her hand rests on her heart, “My goodness, you’re so cute--Of course you can! Once they’re done baking.”

His head turns to the oven to his left, and he waits.

-

When classes resume at Hogwarts, he is surrounded by Slytherins in well and content moods, speaking to one another about the delightful Yuletide Holiday Feast that the Parkinsons hosted this year. From what Tom can gather of their conversations, somebody had poured an entire bottle of Daisyroot Draught into the punch meant for the underage wizards, which caused a hilarious scandal and a hideous humiliation on behalf of the Averys. The stories and jests are so lackadaisical, that Tom can’t help but resent their pompous joy. One would think these people had never experienced a real disaster in their lives. His thoughts are confirmed further when Nemesis catches up with him on his way to Potions, red nose up in the air and flipping her slick hair over her shoulder and showing off whatever new silver trinket hangs around her neck.

“It’s such a good thing you weren’t there, Riddle, it was a total disaster.” She sighs, “It almost ruined my entire holiday.” Nemesis...Nemesis is so smart, but she concerns herself with such stupid things. She doesn’t care what people think, but cares about what people say. She doesn’t let a mistake ruin her tasks in the classroom, but lets a damn prank ruin her entire holiday.

Hedwig says something similar as he sits by her, though considerably less cringeworthy, “I wasn’t there when it happened, thank Merlin, but I heard that Missus Parkinson cried from having her ball ruined. Several house elves were punished.”

Tom looks upon this information with displeasure. Hedwig sneezes, “Ah fuck, Eric said that I would get sick after the break--”

“A premonition?”

She snorts, taking her seat at their table, “Don’t be daft, Riddle, all the purebloods get sick after the holidays.”

Slughorn begins his lecture with a warm welcome to all the students, going on to speak about the increase in difficulty that they will soon bare through. Hedwig snorts at his speech. Tom is tempted to do the same, but he holds back. Got to keep up appearances.

The two are set to brew a pepperup potion as they continue to converse.

“I can’t believe you got to spend Yule here all by yourself, Riddle, how did you not tear your fecking hair out?”

“I liked the quiet. I could think clearly.”

“What do you have to think about? You’re eleven.”

Twelve,” an immediate correction, “my birthday was on the thirty-first.”

“Well happy fucking birthday, Riddle, let’s celebrate late by getting top marks for this damn potion.”

At this point, Hedwig’s cursing is almost comforting as it is familiar. As the fumes and steam from the hot peppers rise up from the cauldron into his lungs, Tom finds himself a bit lightheaded, as he thinks about seeing Ximena again.

-

During lunch, here’s no luck with finding her, though Tom does see and catch up with Abbas, who invites him to sit down with him, Topaz, and Ian Rosier. He lasts exactly twelve seconds before Ian asks his bloodstatus. Typical. He is suspicious, at first, when Tom tells him that he was raised in a muggle orphanage, but the suspicion leaves when he hears about Tom’s excellent grades and magicks. No mudblood could be that good at magic. Ian makes no mention of half-bloods, but Tom doesn’t bring it up.

“There’s so little respectable skill in our year, we’ve had to dig him up.” Abbas jokes, “I bet he could easily outsmart anyone--Anyone at all, just name them.”

“What about Lane?” Topaz asks. Tom’s ears perk up.

“She associates with mudbloods.” Ian’s nose crinkles, “Druella and I see it in Charms. That’s enough to write her off.”

His first instinct is to defend, but he waits.

“Baker is her assigned partner in there, you can’t blame her for speaking to her during class.” Topaz chuckles, popping a few chips into his mouth. Ian makes a face that says I sure as hell can, and frowns.

“Association means nothing.” Abbas begins after a moment of thought, “Take the Weasleys...They’re self-proclaimed pro-muggle, right?” Ian shows nothing but contempt and Topaz nods, “Yet when was the last time one of them married one? Married a mudblood? Or a half-blood for that matter?

A pause at the table. Gears turning. The talk is familiar, Tom’s heard it from many sources. Hedwig being the loudest. His mentor being the most clear-minded.

“...Huh.” Topaz is besides himself, “You know, now that I think about it, you’re right.”

And?” Ian is a hair away from being scandalized, Tom can tell.

Abbas rolls his eyes, “And, as long as people are keeping the dirty blood out, who cares who they speak to?” He bites into an apple, “Bwesuhds,” some chews and a swallow, “muggles have their uses.”

Muggles have their uses. Hedwig spoke of keeping some as potential replacements for house elves. Tom himself thought about some of the more nicer cultural works that muggles have contributed to society. What did Abbas mean?

“As what?” Topaz prompts.

“Moving hex targets?” Tom finally speaks up, cracking what he hopes will be a successful jest.

It lands successfully. Topaz and Abbas erupt in chuckles, and even Ian cracks a smile, despite himself, “Well they would certainly be better to strike than firsties.”

“Debatable.” Abbas says, still smiling, “But yes, that’s an example.” Another bite of the apple, “...Tom, you know Lane personally, right?”

A spotlight rests on him. Metaphorically, of course.

“We speak sometimes.”

“Is she a true Slytherin, then?”

There’s no need to ask what that means. Tom knows. Does she bring good publicity and honor to their house? Does she look down on her inferiors? Does she have dirty blood?

“She is as much a Slytherin as I am.”

Abbas smiles.

-

When he sees other students reunite in the Great Hall after a long winter break, they hug. Smile and cheer and embrace each other tightly. Even the Slytherins do it. Tom watches them all silently. Observing. What kind of emotions spring up from touching someone like that? How does it feel physically to touch another like that? It looks strange. Unnatural. Uncomfortable. He’d understand it if it were some sort of social requirement to be done and over with as fast as possible, but the hugs always linger. People always hold fast to the other person, often reluctant to let go.

He turns his head down from people watching and scans the room. Dinner at Hogwarts, the first night back, is chaos. A loud shouting match erupts from the Gyffindors over on the other side of the hall, and Tom jumps in surprise. Good lord, they act like a pack of baboons. What are they yelling about now? Probably some Quidditch nonsense. They’re chanting someone’s name--Vane? Cain? Doesn’t matter. Ignore them.

His eyes search for his housemate, and he finds her quick: Treating herself to a large platter of vibrant baked goods, Ximena sits alone; content in her solitary state, she is paying little to no mind to the absurdly loud commotion over at the Gryffindor table. Tom slides in next to her, giving a polite greeting.

“Mmf--” Her mouth is full, crumbs littered around her lips and cheeks, “hehwo.” A hand comes up to cover her mouth as she chews and swallows the food. Cute. How is it that he always catches her unguarded?

“Sor--” A rough cough, “Sorry. Hi.”

“I thought you were going to choke yourself there.”

“I almost was.” Her throat clears, “I guess you scared me.”

“Me?” His head tilts, voice raising high--Little old me?

“Well I suppose that’s why I’m not in Gryffindor,” a half smile, “I imagine most aren’t easily started by eleven year old first years.”

Tom sits up a little straighter, “Twelve year old first years.”

A blink, “You’re twelve?”

“It was my birthday on the thirty-first, remember?” He had written about it rather explicitly.

“Oh,” she pauses, lips pressing together briefly, “here then.” She picks up a small plate at her side and sets it before Tom, “Take some of my sweets. It’s not a birthday cake, but it’s something.”

For whatever reason, Tom hesitates before reaching out tentatively and snagging a large, round cookie with colorful sprinkles spattered on top like stars in the night sky. He takes another one, this one soft and shaped like a flat pretzel. The last one is a dark brown, cake-like cookie that’s shaped like a pig. When it hits his plate, he notices Ximena eyeing him closely. The focused attention makes his face feel warm for some reason. He likes it. Somewhat. Finally biting into the first treat, he realises that his housemate is watching for a reaction.

The sweet is light and fluffy. Melts in his mouth into a buttery pleasure. His teeth crunch the little round sprinkles, and they pop about his mouth pleasantly. It’s leagues away from the heavily sugared baked goods that he is used to eating here at Hogwarts.

“Do you like it?”

“I love it.”

She looks relieved. Shoulders relaxing, a breath leaving her mouth, Ximena returns to her own little after-dinner snack, offering up her warm mug of chocolate for Tom to dip his own treats into. He does, and though the foamy hot chocolate threatens to burn his mouth, he delights in it. It tastes bubbly and spicy and feathery, and he wants to drink up the whole thing down.

All is well.

“Do you know how to make these?” He lets the question raise up naturally, wiping a few crumbs from the corner of his lips.

“Me? No.” Her voice sounds dejected. “I can bake bread, but not much else.”

Disappointment. But somehow he thinks she isn’t lying this time. Isn’t hiding something. “Ever wanted to learn?”

Confirmation in the form of a nod, “Mmhm. I’ve been searching around back home for a baker to apprentice under, but no luck yet. They don’t want me out and about by myself, you see.”

“What a shame.” His tone is sympathetic. “I think you would be good at it.”

“You think so?” The last time she had asked him this, it ended in a strange omen of flowers and crows, so he hesitates at his next words,

“I know so.”

Stillness. He waits for something to happen again, just like last time. Nothing does. Ximena merely continues eating and humming contently as the rowdy Gryffindors start up again over Merlin knows what.

“..When is your birthday?”

“Hm?”

“Your birthday. When is it?”

“April the thirtieth.”

His eyes roll up, trying to count how long until then.

“Three months. Fifteen weeks.” Ximena cuts him off.

“You’ll be thirteen?”

“I’ll be thirteen.”

A pause, “We were born in the same year then. Why are you ahead of me?” He’s not sure how his voice portrays his emotions, but he’s sure it’s not the way he wants them to come across.

“You have to be eleven when the first term starts at Hogwarts,” she begins, “so the September first when I started, you were still ten.”

He was still ten. Still ten and oblivious to the fantastic world he was meant for. Still ten and trying to be adopted. Still ten and alone. His little fist tightens. Something like bitterness rises in his throat.

He stuffs more cookies into his mouth.

-

The one thing Tom did not look forward to when the school started up again after the holidays, was his weekly meetings with Dumbledore. True, they often prove informative, but he was beginning to debate with himself on whether the information and free sweets was worth the scrutiny he withstood from him. Christ, it was like the man had him on trial for something he didn’t even do--Or for something that wasn’t even that big of a deal. Petty theft of a few loosey goosey items belonging to awful children at the orphanage is hardly anything to hold over the head of a child for the rest of his life. The situation with Billy and his damn rabbit is another matter entirely, but it’s not as if he hung Billy from the rafters. He’s above murder. And Dumbledore doesn’t know about that anyways, there’s no way he would know. And yet...

It does seem as if Dumbledore is overly concerned over him. It was that moment, that one moment back at Wool’s, when they first met, when Tom demanded that he tell him where to get a wand of his own. He knows it. He should have been patient. He should have stayed silent and polite the whole way. But he couldn’t help it. How could he? For so long he had been wanting an answer to his questions. A means to get ahead. Above everyone else. A way to be sure he was never stepped on again.

And because of his loss of temper, he has an exceptionally powerful wizard on his damn tail every second of everyday. Well, that’s an exaggeration. He at least keeps him under watch during his lessons, and their weekly tea. Both times where Tom feels at his tensest. Most like he has to put on some type of performance. It’s like Dumbledore is playing a strategy game with him, though he does not know the rules.

These thoughts, he shares with his guide a few weeks into the new semester.

“It is a little noteworthy that Dumbledore has taken care to make sure you’re adapting well to Hogwarts specifically.” He pauses in his essay writing, “I think he sees something of himself in you.”

“He sees himself in me?”

“Think about it: you’re both exceptionally gifted warlocks, both a little mysterious, and let’s face it, Tommy, you’ve both got a little ego too.”

Tom scowls a little. He had thought that he did his hubris well. Not once had he done or said anything to show that he was the least bit arrogant or proud. Not at Hogwarts, anyways.

“Don’t look at me, like that. We’re Slytherins, having an ego is somewhat of a requirement.” He chuckles, “Of course, what separates us from the Gryffindors is that we know we have an ego. Most of the time.” The younger boy can agree with that. Most of his housemates have some sense of self-awareness, but many others do not. “Anyways, don’t think he’s attacking you or anything. I think you just interest him on a personal level. There’s not many orphans in the history of Hogwarts with your history. Or lack of one, really.”

Gee, that makes Tom confident about his situation.

“Your surname is an interesting one, you know. Riddle. A mystery. An enigma. It suits you.” He shifts his weight to his elbow, bent on the table, “It’s curious. I’ve never heard it among wizardkind or muggles.” Tom doesn’t know how to feel about that. “Luckily it doesn’t hurt with your popularity. I think it enhances, it actually.” He leans back in the armchair, “I’ve heard Shafiq and Kingsley muttering about it, actually--”

This is news to Tom. Shafiq and Kingsley are seventh years: a group of students he has had no real access to, or chance to acquaint himself with. They were speaking about him? Name dropping him in their conversations? Tom compresses the need to preen visibly, it would be bad for his humble orphan image.

“--you’re a character straight out of legend. You could be anyone. A scion of an ancient house, a mythical hero...Sure, you could be some muggleborn nobody, but that’s not as exciting.” Eye contact and a raised brow, “And not as realistic.”

Salazar Slytherin would never allow a muggleborn into his house.

“I feel so ordinary, that’s hard to believe.”

“I mean it when I say you’re going to do great things, Riddle. I have an eye for these things, I told you and Lane remember?” A scratch under his nose, “Speaking of, what have you brought Lane?”

Huh?

“What do you mean? Why would I have bought her something?”

Merlin, Riddle, it’s no wonder you haven’t gotten anywhere with Lane.” His guide’s criticisms are completely unwarranted. He’s gone plenty. “Nothing for her birthday? Not even flowers?”

Oh. Does he always concern himself with the troubles and lives of boys more than four years his junior? Doesn’t he have finals to study for? Besides, Ximena doesn’t want anything. She told him herself a week or so ago.

“She said she didn’t care about her birthday.”

“Women say that all the time, Riddle! It’s a test!”

Ximena once tested him on a DADA review, but it wasn’t really something issued personally (she was helping another first year with it, and their lunch table ended up becoming a small study group). But this? A test of what? They aren’t married. And birthdays don’t really mean anything outside of becoming older and stronger. There are never any parties at Wool’s whenever a child has the privilege of knowing when they were born, and instead there is maybe a song and maybe a little game. But only if the child is well loved. No gifts. No cake. No creating lasting memories. What’s the big deal?

“Why is she testing me?”

He expects something like ‘to see if you’re worth it’ or ‘to see if you’re genuine’, but his mentor continues to disappoint and surprise, “I don’t know, Riddle, women are crazy.”

Tom thinks the opposite sex has strange methods of going about things. But so far, they’ve been very efficient in their studies compared to the boys he’s spoken to. He really needs to speak to different boys.

“I think you’re overreacting.”

He looks offended, “I see you’ve never been on the bad side of a woman scorned on her birthday, Riddle.”

When would he have had the opportunity to?

“You need to trust me, Tommy boy. I saw it last year, she was real upset on the day. Crying. Found her in the Astronomy Tower.”

Something like experience tells Tom that she wasn’t crying about people forgetting her birthday. Every emotional birthday he has been through has been a result of...Remembering where he is in life. How far away he was from adoption and leaving Wool’s. Of course the other children and adults wouldn’t care or know about his date of birth. Nevermind that some of them were alive when his mother gave birth and died on the steps of that awful place. Why would anyone remember it? Or celebrate it.

“Was she okay?” Concern is laced through his voice perfectly.

“Dunno,” shrug, “she wouldn’t say anything. Just weeped. Ruined my perfectly good new robes too.”

Tom coughs suddenly, feeling like something crawled into his throat and died.

“Whoa there, breathing right, Riddle?” His guide pats his back, half soothing, half rough. It makes him stiffen up at the contact.

I’m fine. I’m fine--Thank you.” Tom lets the bewilderment wash past him to try and focus on the conversation, “So she was that upset, then.”

“Oh yeah, it was pretty bad. She’s a clinger, so you’re in for some softening up if you ever want to get close.” He jests, lightly smacking Tom’s shoulder.

His words are not appreciated. They are close. Or at least, closer than she is to others, he would like to think. Granted, she’s never done anything like cry into him, but he doesn’t want that. Amy Benson was a messy, ugly crier. She clung to Dennis Bishop in that oceanside cave for dear life, snot coming out of her nose and salty tears streaming down her wrinkled face. They got what they deserved.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to...at least remember the date. Get a chocolate frog or a bookmark? He’d have to get it from somebody, he has no money--

“In fact, here,” The older Slytherin digs into his pocket and brings out six sickles, “have one on me.” The silver coins pour into Tom’s open palms, his eyes wide and glistening,“That should be enough for some flowers, yeah?” Daft idiot, this is enough to feed him for two months.[1]

In the end, Tom decides on pocketing four of the sickles to save up for later (how much do you need to have to open an account at Gringotts?) and using the remaining two for something simple: a package of saltwater taffies and nice looking wrapping paper.

The sweets are acquired via owl, through some fancy shop Hedwig suggested when he asked about where to get good candy. The shoppe, as it turns out, is in Nice. That explains the price, he was expecting something like that. Still, when Hattie comes back to him with the most luxurious little paper package, he can’t help but be impressed and captivated by the shining gold details on the design that dance and shimmer around the light blue box like eels in water. A part of him wants to indulge himself and eat the whole box, but he refrains, and instead eats another helping of hotcakes with chocolate sauce. The saltwater taffies are tucked into his school bag for later.

The wrapping paper is made. Under guidance of Nemesis, he turns the plain butcher paper into a jewel toned green shade with a lovely shine. A bright, cool color, but not obnoxious. He lays it out on a table in the library next to the gift, Nemesis at his side.

She eyes it with a little gleam in her eye, “So what are you up to with this, Riddle?”

Honestly, he’s not sure. Investing, mayhaps. “Wrapping a gift.”

Her amber eyes sparkle, “A gift? For whom?”

It’s not like her to be nosy. At least, not with others, “Lane. It’s her birthday on Sunday.” The cuts and measuring on the paper start. This has to be seamless. Perfect.

“Oh.” She watches his little hands carefully folding over the wrapping paper, “Want me to teach you a auto-wrapping spell?”

“I would like that very much, thank you.” That honestly sounds like a useless spell, but he wants to know it anyways. He wants to know everything. “Not for this, though.”

“Why not?” Her pitch raises up a little, “It would be much faster. Instant. Easier.” She clears her throat, voice returning to normal, “No risk of papercuts!”

“Thank you for your concern, Fawley. But I like doing some things by hand.” He lays his eyes on her, offering a gentle smile, “It makes it special, doesn’t it?”

For a split second, her lips purse before breaking into a grand saccharine smile, “Yes. It does.”

-

April 30th is a colder than average Sunday. Mist hangs in the air and rolls onto the grounds, covering the courtyard and open corridors in a cool fog so thick, you can’t see three meters in front of you. Prefects and Professors keep the spaces clear for the most part, but since it’s Sunday, there are not many students out and about. Most of them are in Hogsmeade, and the rest are in their testing classrooms for the start of the end of the year exams.

Quiet murmurs and conversations hang loosely in the Slytherin common room. When Tom returns from breakfast, he nods his greetings at a few classmates on his way to the dormitories when he spots the familiar mop of curls he’s grown to know well.

He halts.

Frozen. It is definitely not terror or nerves, he finds he can’t speak aloud. Reach out to her. Go and simply give her the neatly wrapped present (tucked away in his school bag). Not even a little hello.

In her own little world, Ximena pays no mind to the eyes on her. Humming softly under her breath and reading through the open book on the table before her, she is an image of studious peace. A Ravenclaw by any other name. His body stiffens when she rises up from her seat and wanders over to the little library to her left, a few meters away.

This is his chance.

He is quick and nimble just like Jack, and the gift is taken out of the bag and left on the table near her workspace. Right beside her parchment and inkwell. He hides--moves to the other side of the table, sitting nonchalantly and reading through a spare newsletter. Ximena returns from the bookshelf absolutely none the wiser and sits herself down quietly with a new book.



She doesn’t notice the gift.

Aggravated, he’s tempted to ask ‘oh, is that yours?’, but impatience has never gotten him anywhere. How could she not notice the gift? It’s right there! It’s bright green! It stands out like a gnome in a vacant garden! For a moment he thinks he sees her eyes flicker to it--Is that a smile? It’s hard to tell. But Ximena only picks her quill up, taps out excess ink, and continues writing whatever assignment it was she was working on (Tom saw some quip about bezoars, so perhaps it was potions). His fingers tense around the paper in his hands the longer she goes on without acknowledging it. He blinks sweat off his lids--It’s not even hot in the room, it’s just a lot when you’re trying to see the look on someone’s face while not letting them know you’re looking at them.

He moves it. With magic, of course, he’s never needed a wand to do little things like that. Nothing fancy like flying it into her face painfully, just a little nudge. A little flutter...There! She saw it now! ...She glances away again, the little grin on her face plain as the green interior of their shared common room. She is ignoring it. She is pretending she doesn’t see it. She--

Hedwig trots up out of nowhere (where in God’s name did she come from?) “Hey, free gift!” Her voice travels loud and far, it almost makes him flinch. The cotton-haired witch picks up the package which she helped select and shakes it violently, turning it over in her hands, inspecting it in such a comically exaggerated way that Tom wants to rip it from her grasp and run away.

“Oh, this is for you.” Fuck’s sake, “Here.” She passes it onto Ximena.

“Mm?” A relaxed blink as she takes the assaulted package gently, “Who’s it from?”

“What, you need me to read for you now, slag?” Hedwig shakes her head, hands on her hips as she walks away, mumbling, “I have to do everyone’s job around here, I swear to Salazar--

To Ximena’s credit, she isn’t bothered by her junior’s words or actions, she simply continues to keep that content gaze on her face as she reads the carefully written out label on the parcel, tucking a curl behind her ear.

“Hm.”

When she starts opening the package, the tension in his hands do not cease. Every little moment she does to insure the paper does not rip is as carefully choreographed as the performances in an opera house. Meticulous and detailed (something he can appreciate)... It’s the kind of care and attention only a mother can give to tucking a child away for bed.

Tom shoves that comparison right out of his head.

An eternity passes before finally the jewel colored paper is fully unwrapped, and the gift is out in the open, bared before her like a humble offering to a god--And God, even the way she picks it up and inspects it is careful. Like she were handing robin’s eggs or fine china. It opens up with a soft puff of powdered sugar, and rather anti-climatically, she pops one into her mouth. Does she like it? Does it please her?

A noise of delight.

“You want one?”

He’s actually startled that she addressed him, his guard must have been high up. He relaxes his shoulders as he contemplates her and her outstretched hand with the little decorative bag of taffies. Tom can’t speak, suddenly, so he nods, feeling dumb, and reaches his small hand inside the bag.

-

During lunch his final week, he plans to sit amongst a few Slytherin elites. He doesn’t want to wade through their spoiled ramblings on their summer holidays, but he does want to know more about said holidays. He makes a beeline towards the Slytherin tables, at first, when he notices another student: sitting stray and content, off to the side.

A moment’s consideration.

His path deviates, and he walks firmly towards the lone student, determined.

“Excuse me? Prewett, right? Might I sit with you?”

Ignatius Prewett is, in the end, no one. Middle-class, pureblooded and Gryffindor, he has set his sights on a more impossible pedestal than Ximena: Lucretia Black. That’s cute. And interesting. She’s a pureblood Slytherin a bit more tolerant than most (which perhaps isn’t saying much while also saying everything), and whose pedigree doesn’t show as blatantly on her skin (luckily for her pretty pale face, the last case of kissing cousins in her direct line was five generations ago). When asked, Ximena described her as “pleasant but egotistical”. His guide was more crude, going with “all members of house Black have madness in them, it’s what you get when you lie in bed with cousins; even the good ones like Lucretia are a little batty”.

He remembers Cygnus Black from his first night at Hogwarts: unpleasant with a temper, and wary of him. It took a few weeks of proper speech and excelling grades to convince him that he was worthy of being spoken to. It took mere hours to show him that he was his superior in intelligence and skill. Thus, placing him securely in his pocket for later use.

It is later. He asks him about his opinion on Ignatius one evening in the common room. He is not disappointed.

“Prewett?” A sneer, “I’ve seen how he looks at Lucretia. Doesn’t know how to mind his damn eyes to himself. House Black has no need of blood like his.”

That’s a little bold, “All this you got from looks?”

Cygnus backpedals, “I know what a look leads to, Riddle.” He clears his throat, “Lucretia is bright young woman from the most noble and ancient house. She needs to have company that reflects that.”

Tom smells Cygnus’ need to justify himself. He pushes, “Prewett is pureblood, though, is he not?” From a long standing dynasty.

“Certainly not as pure as we are.” He huffs, jaw clenching, “Besides, he’s a Gryffindor. And Gryffindors have no business speaking with Slytherins.”

What nonsense. Ignatius, while not exactly prime wizard material, checks off more than enough requirements for being worthy of a highblood.

“So, what you’re saying is, not all purebloods are equal.”

“Exactly, Riddle.” Cygnus nods, satisfied with the conversation, “You’re smart. I wouldn’t be surprised if you yourself had a little Black in you, somewhere.”

“A high compliment.” Tom inclines his head ever so slightly, “Thank you, Black.”

Next, he speaks to Lucretia. She’s found in the library one afternoon studying Ancient Runes and sneaking honey-pumpkin cracker jackers while the librarians aren’t aware. She is guarded, at first, but she soon melts at the mention of the Gryffindor boy.

“Prewett is different.” She plays with the quill in her hand, “Gryffindors are so brash and awful, you know? It’s like speaking to rowdy children. But him? He’s just so...” A vague hand gesture, “He is...He is what Gryffindors should be. He could single-handedly bring true glory and nobility to his house.” A sigh, “It’s just hard to speak with him outside of class, you know?”

“Why?”

“You know why!” She exasperates, “You’ve been here long enough, being in different houses is like being on different sides of a war. You can talk but you can’t talk.

An exaggeration, but still accurate, nonetheless, “But we’re not at war. And you’re both purebloods, what’s the problem?”

What would people say?

Good lord, is she serious? What would people say? Her family has limitless power, money, and influence, and she’s worried about what others will say? Nemesis herself told him that a member of house Black would never step foot in Azkaban due to their damn status. Stupid girl.

He could say something motivational. Something inspiring. Something about how true love will find a way. Will conquer all. Will power through. He doesn’t, of course, that’s not who he is.

Instead, he leans over in secret, “I can help.”

His plan is simple, but a long wait. When discussed with Lucretia, she gives him that guarded look again. That look of distrust and doubt, but his words move her eventually. Spark something like determination or hope in her. Of course they do. They can make anyone believe in him. In his ideals and dreams.

And all he asks in return is a simple favor.
♠ ♠ ♠
[1] I tried looking up how much each unit of wizarding money is worth, and got nowhere. Joanne is useless at math again u.u I can relate. So instead I leave it up to interpretation: Is the mentor so stupid rich that he has no idea what the real value of money is? Or is Tom so poor that such a little amount of money could feed him for two months? Maybe both.

I watched AVPM for the first time with Lion, and the first thing she says is that the way Draco is in that is how she sees Tom in this fic. I can’t unsee it. cries. This chapter took a long time to upload because she wanted me to read it to her in person, and she only just got here this week.

Trying to balance out romcom tropes I know people are fond of, and also actual plot. I’ll probably have a dilemma on whether to not to shoehorn in the classic potions partners scenario. Because how could I not?

Wanted to take a moment here to thank everyone who hearted, subscribed, watched, followed, kudos’d, bookmarked, rec’d, and favored this story on all the sites it’s on. Y’all are silent, but I still appreciate you regardless. I hope this story is building up to what you wanted it to be. I also thank those who added me to their fav author’s/watch/etc. Hope my other works satisfy y’all o/

Fun fact about this chapter: it’s the opposite of chapter six! It was growing too damn long, so I chopped it in half. Yes, that means that chapter eight is written, but it’s being heavily edited. Y’all will still have to wait 2-4 weeks u.u Unless there’s some reviews? Cries, I can’t believe I’ve sunk to bribing for comments.