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Serpentine

Autumn

The summer offers ample enough distraction from his upperclassman’s silence. Granted, most of those distractions are his current terrible living conditions, but beggars can’t be choosers, right? Wrong. He damn well can and will. Finding loopholes in this damn underage magic restriction is at the top of his list, followed by multiple letters to and from his other, more attentive classmates. In the background of the other children playing or talking, he’s out trying to harness more of wandless magic, like he could before all this happened to him. He plays with his own magic, trying to feel a texture. A temperature. Anything. There’s varied success: Tom is now well aware of his own magic, but only just. On boring afternoons and sleepless nights, he can gently prick his skin with it (it resembles bird feet hopping all along him). Sadly, he has yet to manage to intimidate anyone with it. At least, not without losing his sense and temper. It’s a little to start, but it’s something. He reminds himself of where he started on the hard days: not just on this but also on other things like literacy (his reading comprehension and handwriting, for example, had been comparatively abysmal thanks to the orphanage’s shit education system. Thank heavens for libraries.)

Tom refuses to stay stagnant over the summer and fall behind. The problem is that Tom also refuses to forget that he’s being ignored. Allegedly. Perhaps something happened. Perhaps she found out. Or forgot him. Is he that forgettable? Is the time and energy and a...attention that he spent on her so easily thrown away?

If he could write first, he would. Unfortunately he has no owl of his own, and no means to get one. He has no guardian to take him to any public owlery, and absolutely no real money to spend on a decent one for himself anyways (those sickles need to be saved, dammit). He could borrow one of his classmates’ owls and use them to send to Ximena instead...Alas, that’s tricky for a multitude of reasons. ‘But my letters are all read by the Abbess. I can’t disguise my words...She already suspects something strange about this school.’ Cursed woman. Tom hasn’t ever met her, and he already despises her. Would his letters be intercepted? Even if they weren’t, he can’t expect that any of his classmates’ owls would be able to make the trip to Ximena, and then come back for his reply to their owner and then fly over back home. Poor exhausted creatures, he’d be raising suspicion immediately.

Oh, he could be open about it. Ask Abbas or Nemesis for an owl to borrow in order to write to someone...Without a doubt, they would help him.

But then they would ask questions.

Is it too much to ask to keep Ximena all to himself? Surely not.

So he waits.

Everyday, he goes through the motions of his routine. He wakes, eats, plays by himself in a corner of the yard, studies his books until lunch, eats a miserable lunch, retreats to his room to read (or prepare for an adoption interview, depending on the day), fiddle with the charmed bracelet, and then sit down at dinner.

After dinner would depend entirely on whether the matron was feeling generous or not: sometimes she allowed the children and workers to gather in the main room and listen to her radio. The music and programs were a nice change of pace, but Tom likes the shows the best. The acting and suspense in every broadcast always has him on the edge on his seat for more...When he was younger, he wished he could meet the radio stars. Be their friends and go on their show. He wanted to show them his room.

But the closer September 1st comes, the more the radio talks of war.

His fellow orphans speak excitedly about it and, perhaps shamefully, so does he: none of them have any real concept of war. To them, war is a game to be played during a recess. With the old, feathered playing cards that have passed through many hands. The adults, on the other hand, speak lowly about it when they think the children aren’t listening. They are old enough to remember the last war. One of them lost their brother, another a husband, another a son. The groundskeeper of Wool’s, an older man with a heavy limp, was injured in Marne (the first and second battle.) He’s the one who worries the most, because when the broadcasts speak of Hitler, Tom sees his hands tremble.

He has to get out of here.

-

Tom stands in a field at Hogwarts, the same field that he and Ximena sat in together all those months ago. The blooming flora surrounding him are releasing thousands upon thousands of petals a second, converting the air around him into some bizzare floral blizzard. Though the wind is strong, it is not forceful. He is able to stride forward to the tree with ease.

There’s a few people around the tree, whose trunk is wide and strong. Roots and branches stretching out infinitely, twisting playfully. What attracts his attention, however, is that this magnificent tree has no leaves, bares no fruit. Instead, it holds something strange, something that he has to look at twice. Thrice. Cotton? Mist?

Ximena is one of the people around the tree, she reaches up at a hanging branch and plucks out bits of the soft, cloud-like substance. She places it in her bag, burlap, and continues, reaching high on her tip toes. To her right, he sees Hedwig, jumping up to do the same. Further, he sees Yami and his mentor. Nemesis and Lucretia. Professor Merrythought and Dumbledore.

He walks up to his upperclassman.

“What are you doing?”

When she turns to face him, there’s something off about her face, about her eyes. She’s dazed or tired. Hypnotized.

Wool gathering.

The witch continues to pick off the parts of the tree that look like Hedwig’s hair. The wind blows harder, but it only seems to affect him. He shields his face with his arms and cowers.

Tom’s clock reads 3:45 AM when he wakes up on Friday, September the first, 1939.

An hour later, the yells of the caretakers wake him up.

He rises from his bed, disoriented and still partly asleep, what are they yelling? His ears pick up the wails of one of the babies and the authoritative commands of the women who worked at Wool’s. He hears them speak to the older children, to take care of the little ones, to guide them and not let them out of their sight.

“Tom.”

Someone in the doorway, a new hire: a young woman still too new to know to be wary of him.

“Did something happen?” Sleep laces through his voice as he rubs his eyes and tries to smooth back his unruly hair.

“Tom, get dressed, take your mask.”

‘Where are we goin--“

Now is not the time to ask questions, gather your needs and come outside.

He is not one to be intimidated, especially by someone who hasn’t yet established themselves as an authority, yet something in the woman’s voice chills him. Something about the dream he had before waking changes his mind. Makes his heartbeat spike. He gets out of bed, barefooted against the cold floor, and does as he is told.

The night before, he had laid everything out, anxious for the day. His clothes and books and trunk lay neat and prim. His gasmask (old and used) lies in his wardrobe, its warped face hidden away from him.

All of Wool’s is aflame with noise. Rapid footsteps, confused children’s cries, and orders to stick together. He hates it. He hates this commotion, he cannot concentrate on what he’s doing. He messes up the buttons on his shirt for the tenth time before he loses patience and simply pulls a vest forcefully over it. Neatness be damned, he’ll just change on the Hogwarts Express--

His mind blanks. Wait--

This time, it is the matron who comes into his room, black dress sweeping her ankles. She grabs him by the upper arm with one hand and grabs his things with the other. In his hands, he has the gasmask and the bracelet, held tight. He protests, at first, and she pays him no mind. Her eyes are set ahead, fearful and uncertain. It is a look he has never seen on a person before so he closes his mouth and trots along as well as he can.

Outside, the world is dark. Awake. The children are arranged outside in lines by age, looking like little toy soldiers, wrapped in shotty coats and old hats. Each of them has a sorry excuse for a trunk: either a sack by any other name, or a worn out bag. Some of the kids his age or below are crying, while others just look tired and bemused. The older children, the ones closest to sixteen, look solemn. Angry.

What catches his eyes are the other children walking down London. Hundreds of them. Some alone, some in flocks. Some with mothers, some with only their elder siblings. Some children wear fine clothes fit for nobles and the rich. Others wear plain travel clothes or just their pajamas, wrapped up in coats. They each carry their one piece of luggage and gasmask. It is then, that Tom understands.

Where are we going?” He asks the matron in a voice he hopes will convey just how not afraid he is.

“Euston Station[1].” She sets his trunk down beside him, eyes overlooking the crowd.

All of us?

She looks at him, suddenly realizing what he means, “Tom...this is about getting you somewhere safe.

Hogwarts is safe!” He yells, surprised by the volume of his own voice, “It’s out in the country, away from everything, I’ll be safe!”

For the first time since Tom has known the matron, she looks at him with sympathy. With pity, “I’m sorry, Tom--

No. He can’t believe this. Absolutely not.

The slack grip of the matron does not go unnoticed by him. He picks up his trunk, thanking his lucky stars that he had placed a featherweight charm on it weeks ago, snaps his arm away from her, and runs.

It’s easy for him to slip between children like a snake through grass, he’s so small and used to running away from others. People don’t concern themselves with some runaway, despite proclaiming to the plurals [2] to stick together. His little feet barely touch the ground, that’s how fast he feels; time is spent mostly in the air, searching for the way out. In all the collected chaos, he can still hear her screaming after him. As if she were truly concerned for his well being. Liar.

The route to Euston is memorized by now: he had done so in the weeks preceding his first day at Hogwarts. Every path, shortcut, alley, and street are mapped out in his brain like the layout of Wool’s itself. It will take him longer than a taxi, but goddammit, he will get there. Even now, as his breath hangs heavy and his heart is slamming up into his throat, and sweat is beginning to form and drip into his eyes, and the burning pins and needles prick at his feet and legs, and he’s just waiting to hear those horrific sirens, he will get. back. home.

By the time he reaches the blessed station, he has run so hard, his lungs feel about to explode, and there are pennies in his mouth. He forces himself to swallow the blood and keep going. There are crowds of children all around him, as far as the eye can see. Bumping into him, rubbing against his side, or accidentally making eye contact while searching for another. He feels lost in a sea of minnows, all staring out with wide, naive eyes, waiting to be devoured by sharks.

(Behind him, a boy cries out for his mother. The mother cries back.)

When he reaches Platform 9¾, he half falls, half pushes through in exhaustion.

Despite the early hour, the other side is as tense as the Muggle side.

Whistles and shouts command muggleborns and concerned parents to information stations. Many of the Muggle parents, and magical spouses of Muggles, are pleading at the station attendants--Why aren’t you helping? Why can’t we all leave early? Don’t you have other means of getting to the damn school?

He moves away from the entrance to a wall off to the side in order to catch his breath. To settle his heart down and ease the throbbing in his head. His trunk, though light thanks to his magic, might as well be a thousand kilograms. When he slumps down on the ground, it hits hard, but makes no noise. Tom hits hard too, hurting his tailbone in the process. Head back, resting on the wall, he shuts his eyes and tries to breathe through his nose.

The wards around us will protect us from any potential air raids.

But what about the poor people outside the platform?!

The Muggles. Yes, what will become of them? If the Germans come in and bomb London, they will be entirely at their mercy. If he hadn’t had ran, could he have…?

Tom shakes his head. Banishes the thought. He’s alive. He’s safe. He is on his way to Hogwarts. He’s alive. He’s safe. He is on his way to Hogwarts. He’s alive. He’s safe. He is on his way to Hogwarts. He’s...

Another sharp whistle. More children rush through the portal.

He and the other students are allowed to board early. The children still too young to attend, or just not magical at all stare at their siblings in a strange mixture of envy, worry, and relief. Their parents bark, furious with the attendants. What do you mean my child can’t get on the train, bombs could drop on us at any minute!

We are not a shelter for children, we are a school.

Tom finds a compartment as fast as he can and locks it. Closes the blinds, curls up in the corner, covers his head, shuts his eyes so tight that there’s ringing in his ears, and rocks. Back and forth, back and forth. A steady rhythm. In control. One two. One two. One two. The floor below him is solid. It grounds him. Will he be able to hear the bombs drop from in here? The air raid sirens? The screams? Will no more people come through the portal because everyone is dead on the outside?

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Chamberlain was supposed to have everything under control. War is a distant dream. Distant nightmare. He’s not going to die he’s not going to die he’s not going to die. He is not going to be sent away far away to strange place in a strange house with strange people who might treat him as a servant or labor horse.

Deep breaths. He’s okay. Everything will be okay. There is no war. There will be no air raids today. He’ll be allowed to stay at Hogwarts this time. Dumbledore will agree: it’s too dangerous for the muggleborns. He will be returning to his home and staying there. Among his kind. He’s just overreacting. That’s it. That’s it.

He sleeps.

When he awakens from a dreamless sleep, his neck is sore and he’s calm. He notices the train is already moving.

At 11:02 AM, he is on the train to Hogwarts, safe and sound.

Tom composes himself. He’s a strong boy of 12, something like war and air raids should never affect him. Never. He can’t get scared. Only babies and littluns get scared.

The atmosphere outside the room is lukewarm. When he walks through the aisles and the cars, he can tell immediately which rooms are full of muggleborns and which ones are full of purebloods. The usual groups of students who have a healthy mix have separated for the day. The wildcards are half-bloods, who are either comforting and keeping with the muggleborns, or desperately trying to separate themselves from today by sitting with purebloods. This gives him pause: where will he go? Back to his compartment to be alone with his thoughts? Sitting among people who have gone through the same scare as he did this morning? Listening to their tearful retellings of being separated from their loving families? Painful. Sitting with purebloods and their mocking of the Muggles and their war and then complaining about their problems? Equally painful.

A tap that’s more like a slap on his shoulder, “You look like a right prat blocking the aisle and staring out into the horizon like that, you stupid git.”

“Hedwig.” Tom blinks at the small witch, half thankful it was her that found him and not someone else, “I was just thinking.” He begins to walk alongside her.

She looks unimpressed, “Yeah, I heard Muggle Britain had some sort of scare--All the mudbloods on the platform looked like they saw the Elf King himself.”

A note to remember later. What on earth is an Elf King? “It was a very eventful morning.” To say the least. He hesitates on saying just what was going on. What would she say?

“I’ll say. When we aparated at the platform, it was like arriving at the waiting room at Saint Mungo’s. Gaunt faces everywhere. Something about bombs? What are those, anyways?”

Is she...Is she serious?

“--Oh here’s my seat, come sit with us, you look like you need a distraction.” Hedwig slips into the roomette to their left, stopping him from giving a small lecture: how can one know the bombarda spell and not know what a bomb is? Has to be sarcasm. There’s no other way.

His hand rests on the edge of the sliding door, and just as he’s about to step in, a brush of coolness runs past his back. Familiar. Safe. Immediately, his head turns, searching, “Ximena!” It comes out more excited and needy than he had wanted, and he internally cringes at himself for sounding like some giddy boy. He almost downright chastises himself for actually reaching out and tucking at the passing witch’s robes. A plea for attention. For validation. Surely she too experienced this morning’s scare? Shares the fear of war and being separated from magic with him?

“--Yes?” A blink and a passing glance at the people inside the car compartment, “Can I help you?”

Tom mirrors her blink, “--You didn’t write to me all Summer.”

Genuine confusion in her eyes. Her brows furrow and raise in surprise and bemusement. “I--Oh.” Rapid blinking, “Oh.” Perhaps there is embarrassment, guilt, regret, or sympathy. That all comes second to the sheer, blatant forgetfulness in her stance, “Right. Sorry.” Her lips press together as she sits up a little bit straighter.

“Are you okay?”

Ximena looks as if she had awoken from a deep slumber. Emerged from kilometers underwater to the light of the surface after being encased in darkness for millennia. She does not remember. Not one bit.

“Umm, I...” On the spot, she looks like she wants to ball up and hide, “Yes. Fine. Thank you.” She rushes off down the car, escaping.

A whistle, “Riddle, when you’re done yearning eternally out there, we’re available.” Oh, right.

He drags his eyes away from the end of the train corridor to inside the space where Hedwig and company sit, keeping his composure and trying to make sense of what happened. What happened? Maybe someone had shot her directly with a confundus spell just seconds before encountering him? She looked tired, she was probably woken up far too early before it was proper in order to catch this train...She was still sleepy. Disconnected. The early evacuation in her city threw her off. Yes.

Fingers snap harshly in his face.

“You still in there with us, Tom?” Hedwig demands his attention, “Stop being a dunce and intro-bloody-duce yourself.”

There are times when he wants to praise Hedwig...Other times when he wants to trip her into a pit of sharp rocks…

He bows his head politely, the way a proper boy of good blood should, and states his name and house. The girls in the compartment do the same, all except one.

Hedwig’s sister is just as Tom remembers her from last year: slender and boxy, sporting a broken nose that Hedwig proudly takes credit for. Her straight, wheat colored hair is kept out of her boyish face with a black headband. Aside from her bright hazel eyes, she looks nothing like her younger sister.

“Eric Acwellan.” She does not offer her hand.

“We’ve met before.” Tom is determined to keep pleasant but on his toes, especially after that sucker punch Ximena delt to his psyche.

“Have we?” Eric tilts her head, smiling naturally in a way that tells him she was condescending him and that she wanted him to know it.

“Stop being a munter, Eric, we all know you have an ego the size of your nose.” Hedwig pats the space next to her, “Close the door, Tom, you’re letting my sister’s superior air out.”

Tom does as Hedwig says, ignoring the discomfort on the faces of Eric’s companions and the amusement on hers. Must never have experienced Hedwig this close.

Introducing himself to the sixth years is something strange. Two of them he has spoken with in the Slytherin common room, and the other he only knows as the older aunt of one of his classmates. They all, however, seem surprised that Eric had allowed him to sit in their compartment. She doesn’t trust men. Did Hedwig tell him that?

“Happy to see you’re not keeping the company of Fawley anymore, Hedwig.” Eric begins, crossing her legs at the ankles.

“I’m not an idiot.” Hedwig crosses her arms, “She was getting annoying anyways,” A look towards Tom, “she has it bad for you, you know.” He does not. The surprise must have shown on his face, because Hedwig laughs at him, “Merlin, Tom! You could see it from the moon! Too distracted by Lane?”

“Don’t feel bad,” one of the girls, a Lestrange, speaks to him trying to sound comforting, “She’s pretty, sure, but that family won’t take you far.” A sad, albeit condescending look crosses her face, “The Fawleys are a lovely, proper group of Purebloods, yes, but they’re weak.” The other girls in Eric’s group nod their heads, “It’s a shame, really, I had hoped that she was the first in her family to be placed in Slytherin for a reason.”

Tom blinks--Nemesis is only twelve. Talented or rich or not, she still has time. Has she really been so easily tossed aside and forgotten? She’s a child. A child of proper background. If it can happen to her, can it happen to him?

“What happened?” He asks.

“Her uncle resigned, didn’t you hear?” One of the other sixth year Slytherins, a Travers, says, leaning over, “Her whole family’s a bit of a target of ridicule right now. Try not to bring it up if you can help it.”

Amazing. All this talk about ostracizing a twelve year old girl because of something completely out of her control--Something that has nothing to do with her.

“Serves the lass fucking right for bragging about it and shoving her family’s status down everybody’s Merlin-damned throats like bloody sausage.” Always the sensitive one, Hedwig, “And serves him right for leading us all like fecking sheep to slaughter, what a gormless cock up! Acting as if everything’s sunshine and daisies while we have a bloody imperialist on the loose.”

“Now now, Hedwig, doesn’t Grindelwald’s ideal world match up with that of our family’s?” Eric’s smile is wicked.

“I didn’t fucking know a goal of that nonce was to give you a proper cock.” Hedwig sniffs, “Daddy will be so happy to finally have a boy.”

Eric can’t help herself--She laughs, it sounds like she’s on the verge of hiccuping. The other students in the car grow more uncomfortable. Tom is indifferent to the sisters’ babble, but is on edge about what was said about Grindelwald. Will the wizarding world be pulled into war too?

“Well...Wouldn’t it be nice to not hide anymore?” One of the girls asks meekly, looking around the compartment at what she probably hopes will be agreeing faces, “Take the world as our own?”

“And do what with it, Dorea? Hunt Muggles like your deranged cousin campaigned for? Further divide up magic blood based on the amount of inbreeding one has and not skill? Set the punishment for being a squib as death?” Eric scolds, tsking her little head, “The most noble and ancient house seems to be lacking in teaching about politics.”

Dorea’s expression is a mix of embarrassment and anger, “I just meant--”

“We know what you meant.” Eric interrupts, “I admire your intentions, just as, I’m sure, we all do here,” The other girls and Hedwig nod in varying degrees of conviction. Tom mimics them. “But terrorizing half the magical world with such abhorrent and violent acts is...Unpleasant. As I’m sure your parents and other relatives have discussed.”

The girl halts in her anger, thinking over what the other has said, before nodding and settling back down. Tom marvels at Eric’s cool and concise control over the compartment. Over her friends (allies?) It’s attractive.

“Besides,” Eric continues, “some muggles are quite useful, I’ve found. Outside of being footstools, I mean.”

All of her friends have their mouths open in shock. Hedwig rolls her eyes and looks unimpressed.

“You--You mean you’ve seen a muggle up close before?”

“Is it true their skin is oily and sticky?”

“Oh you didn’t look them in the eyes, right?”

Tom is, to say the least, befuddled. What the hell did these girls think a muggle was other than a magicless human? Some kind of slimy troll? How have they never seen one?

“I’ve interacted with them on occasion...Pathetic creatures, really, but some of them are talented.” The gasps from the sixteen year old girls are unreal, “Those ones are usually the ones descended from squibs, of course.

The girls nod, agreeing with her words. Tom looks to his right at Hedwig, who mouths “every fucking day, it’s like this” at him.

After the treat trolley passes the first time, Eric spends the rest of the train ride discussing her encounters in the muggle world. Of sneaking out and observing and studying. Of obliviate spells, toying, and near discoveries. It is a strange and fascinating train ride, to say the least. He is torn between correcting these highblood’s assumptions about muggles and simply shutting his mouth and nodding along. He doesn’t need to rock the boat. He just needs to find the captain and take their place.

“I think the worst, the absolute worst part of their culture are their photographs: they don’t move.”

“What?”

“Weird!”

“--Muggles have photographs?”

“Yes they do, you stupid chit, did they drop you on your damn head as a baby?”

Dorea looks highly offended and on the verge of an emotional outbreak. Amusing, but it makes Tom uncomfortable to look at her. He turns his attention to the world outside instead, lamenting at the light shower of rain that had just begun moments ago. Oh, he doesn’t let something as trivial as the weather dampen his mood, it’s just that he’d prefer to be able to see the outside scenery more clearly. It would help him see any oncoming planes.

Luckily, the train arrives with no trouble. No danger. It takes everything in him to not immediately speed off the train and platform. Instead, he composes himself and rises up alongside Hedwig, her sister and the rest, and calmly gets off the train. Dignified. Not at all like a firstie. He’s above all that. Yes. When the horseless carriages come for the students, he does not marvel at them like other second years do. He takes his amazement silently and climbs on, listening to others discuss how nicely the weather cleared up.

His homecoming is glorious and joyous. The moment his eyes take in the castle again, his arms are pure gooseskin. The September chill enters through his lungs as he breathes in that magical air and filters it through his heart and veins throughout his whole body. Nothing will ever beat that first perfect thrill he felt the first time, but the second time is...well, a close second. He was home. He was safe.

-

“A new student?”

“Two.”

“From where?”

“America. One of them’s an Indian! Oh, no, sorry Acarya, not that kind of Indian, I know--”

“They sure picked a shitty time to come over, do you think their parents will withdraw them now?”

“Not bloody likely, Hogwarts is the best education you can get.”

“Can you see them? Abbot’s damn hat is in the way.”

“Ya, he looks like a right tosser.”

“He’s American. That’s sexy.”

“It’s repugnant.”

“Do they have Quidditch in America?”

“Yeah, but they call it something else.”

The commotion attracts little attention from Tom until he hears how unusual it is to receive a student like this who was not going into their first year--It would be all the more unusual if they had arrived during the middle of the term, and obviously that is not the case. It has half his attention, but none of his care. The only alternative to listening in to others chit chat about the new non-first years at Hogwarts is listening to those who are old enough to reason what’s happening in the Muggle world right now.

“What do you think will happen to the German and Polish Beauxbatons students?”

“I can’t imagine they care--The students that is. I would have aparated out of there instantly the moment I realized what was happening.”

“Will the school close?”

“Maybe. Maybe this is the first of many foreigners coming into Hogwarts.”

“Great. More filth.”

“Oh Flint, don’t start up with that nonsense, Acarya will hear you and hex you again--”

The actions of Muggles are strong enough to make a grand school of sorcery close? To displace the lives of witches and wizards who surely have more power than any gun or tank or spray of mustard gas? Impossible.

He wishes he had more of that drink Ximena gave him on the train back in July. Actually, if he were going to be wishing for things, he might as well wish that she actually turn to look at him. She’s six chairs down, across the table, biting her fingernails. Is she nervous too? Does she hear the talk that the older Slytherins are spouting? Look at him, dammit. Look at him.

Dippet rises from his seat, and Tom knows the first years are about to come in. He watches them curiously, wondering if he looked as small and frail as they did just the year before. The two older students are already at the front, side by side, not speaking, sticking out like posts in an empty field. It reminds Tom of the children who are left among the littluns during team picks for boxball--Because those are the ones picked last due to some kind of impairment rather than being too young to understand the game being played. These two students don’t look impaired, but they could be stupid. Only time will tell.

The sorting begins, and the hat sings his song. By now, the novelty has worn only a little off, and only because Tom finds the song annoying. Dumbledore calls up the first student--First years first, as is their right. The Sorting Hat divides them up surprisingly even between Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. In an odd turn of events, Slytherin gets the most. Useful additions to his house, one can hope.

Finally, it’s time for the two teenagers. The first name is called, the girl, and Tom pays little attention, as mildly curious as he is. Would she take longer to sort due to her age? Or are the hat’s all-seeing mind reading powers so good that it can look over everyone’s minds, regardless of development, and see which house they would do best in? He vaguely remembers his own conversation with the hat because it wasn’t a conversation so much as a brief touch with an all-seeing entity that immediately saw fit to place him in the best house.

At two minutes, the hat calls out Hufflepuff. Noted, will probably be forgotten. His housemates have had little to nothing to say about said house, good or bad. ‘They’ve got good heads on their shoulders, but warped priorities’ according to his guide from his first year (who, speaking of, is seated a few chairs down from him, commenting lewdly about the appearance of the newly sorted girl. Animal.)

The boy is called. Tom can’t register his name clearly, it feels like Dumbledore’s mumbling it...Last name is something with a Y perhaps. Are his ears ringing?

Hedwig, sitting immediately to his left, gestures with her chin, “My cousins on mum’s side wrote to me about him coming. Says he’s an annoyingly happy wizard dumb as a box of chocolate frogs.”

Gryffindor is called out triumphantly.

“Sorting Hat confirms it.” Tom comments, earning snickers and laughs from his housemates sitting around him. All derive humor from his words save for one.

Ximena stays gazing, lost in thought, straight at the new student.

-

His and the other second year boys’ new sleeping quarters aren’t much different from the ones last year. They enjoy one less flight of stairs to climb up in the mornings, and a nicer view of the Black Lake where the water was clearer (one can see the last bits of sunlight dripping from the surface). Tom’s bed is no longer oddly placed to the side of all the others, but rather collected alongside those of his yearmates. He sleeps next to Evan Rosier.

“What’s all this talk I hear about Muggles going to war?” he asks him the first night, laying on his right side, head on his palm.

A pause, “It’s not a war yet. And it’s not all Muggles. Just a few.”

“Hm. Think it’ll get bad?”

Tom calculates. Both members of House Rosier that he has had the displeasure of meeting have had very straightforward opinions of Muggles. Evan (from the current conversation and passing observations) seems a bit more level-headed.

“...We’ll see.”

“My mum said it looks like the Muggles will exterminate themselves. She looks forward to it, actually. Holding a bet with my dad about how long the war will last.”

How unpleasant, “Do they know what caused the conflict this morning?”

“Not at all. None of us do.”

When he tucks himself in that night, Tom dreams of sheep roaming Hogwarts.

The first day back is like sliding back into an old routine. A soldier coming home from war, perhaps. Or perhaps not, considering the current circumstances. September the 2nd is filled with a divided Hogwarts, with half the student body tense and the other as lackadaisical as usual. He spots clusters of them crowding together whispering, the tense half that is. Goldstein. Merkin. Kowalski. Elle is not as bright as she was the day they spoke in the kitchens. Her eyes are red and tired. She and the others speak of withdrawing from school.

Saturday is turning out to be a slow day. Passing like a migraine. Against his stomach and good sense, lunch is skipped. The hall is lively and irritating where he usually sits, and morbid and dreary in the other areas. To be overstimulated or understimulated. Bad question. He just wants a clear mind.

He does not avoid lunch because he’s afraid of seeing Ximena. That is ridiculous.

Instead, he opts for a small study session. Books have always been a lovely distraction, even back at Wool’s when he could barely read, and all the material available was falling apart and full of mold. There is no war when you read through potions ingredients, mage history, or transfiguration charts. There’s no war. No war.

Hedwig joins him in his trek, speaking offhandedly about her Potions mentoring with Yami (It’s embarrassing to need help from her, but hell if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so fuck my pride, eh?) It’s fascinating to him that she could put aside her hubris like that (he had been thinking it impossible for purebloods to do so), not to mention people’s lack of teasing her about it (the lessons aren’t exactly a secret, he hears Mulciber and Lestrange gossip about it before bedtime occasionally). Yami is an exception, it seems. Not proof that blood traitors are just as skilled, but a mere exception.

“Is the only reason she’s...a blood traitor that she sympathizes with Muggles?”

Hedwig sniffs, “The details are a lot more complicated--Pureblood fucking politics are rarely as bared and simple as black and white, you see.”

Of all the things he thought he’d be learning at magic school, politics wasn’t even on the list. He wonders if he would have a better understanding of it all if he had skimmed through a few basic politics books before his first year, “Oh?”

“Here in Britain, most see her as a blood traitor, including me and my family. Willingly seeing Muggles as human is the dealbreaker for most.”

“So is it a checklist?”

“Of sorts. You can have feck all to do with Muggles n mudbloods, but still be a blood traitor if you, say, don’t follow the traditions laid out for your family and class. Things like oaths, marriages, religious obligations...Real ritual nonsense like that.” She cleans a bit of dirt from under her fingernail, “Back in Southern Asia, the Acaryas are the pinnacle of what proper purebloods should be. Expect it’s the same in Northern Africa as well.”

“Muggles are more accepted in those places?”

“Salazar no--They just use them as personal servants and nursemaids. Can you imagine? Having a Muggle bring up witch young? My mother would have a heart attack.”

“...Isn’t that violating the statue of secrecy?”

A snort, “Wizards don’t often follow the laws they help enact. ‘Sides, most of them are squibs or Muggles not in the know. Memory wiping is handy when they do see something, though.”

It doesn’t sound like a very happy existence, “Sounds miserable--Does that really classify her family as blood traitor?”

“Maybe if it were just that no, but the biggest offence is that they’re matriarchal. Women in charge, as I think it should be--Full offence, you men are all ponces.” He can’t really argue against that, though he knows he’s the exception, “Warlocks don’t like that. Damn sausage party is already angry at Missus Zabini’s campaign to gain a seat in parliament. Proper witches stay home to bear and raise proper magical children.”

A witch in the Wizengamot?...That sounds like a dream, Riddle. A wonderful dream.

Dream indeed.

They start the descent down the moving stairs, “You’re alright with Acarya’s matriarchy, then?” What’s the damn problem.

“I am. But they don’t honor ancient blood rites or treaties. No long standing loyalty with that family. They’re as dangerous as a bogart in the dark. At least I can rely on a Black to look out for me thanks to old contracts--”

A voice is heard as an older student slips forcefully through he and his classmate, cutting her off, “Oop! ‘Cuse me, guys, gotta get over to DAH-DAH, haha.” The yankee accent, as thick as his hair, would hurt if Tom were more pretentious. Or elitist. Luckily that’s why he has Hedwig around.

“We’re at the top of the stairs, ya fuckin idjit! You could have pushed us over and splattered us on the ground like cake batter! Maybe take your head out of your ass before I shove my foot up it, stupid tosser!”

The American boy laughs, already meters away--Likely taking Hedwig’s scolding in stride, had he heard it.

A student a few feet away chuckles, “Honestly Acwellan, physical violence? Are you a witch or are you a Muggle?”

“Shut up you knob, don’t you have an asshole to go shove your nose into?”

Tom had forgotten how delightful it was to see bigger students cower at a small little girl. The older Gryffindor who commented on Hedwig’s speech slips away, cowarding.

“Afraid of heights, Hedwig?”

“Afraid of Americans, more like.” She sneers at the foreigner’s distant form, “Little git.”

Little is not an adjective that Tom would use for him, “I’m sure it was an accident. We’re both fine, right?”

Hedwig rolls her eyes, “Morgana, Tom, you’re too nice. How are you a Slytherin? Did the hat really make a mistake or something?”

“I hear Hufflepuffs and Slytherins are more alike than meets the eye.”

“Ya, and grass is green.” She snorts, turning a corner with him, “At least you’re not dead from the neck up: I’ve noticed you gathering up a little boy’s club.”

“Something like that.”

“Oh, now you’re going to try and claim that they’re all your best mates? I’m not daft, you know, you are in the best house for a reason, despite your shortcomings.”

“What else could they be?” What sort of ambitions could a mere boy of twelve have?

“An investment.” Sharp. “Insurance.”

This is why he speaks to Hedwig. Shame she’s not a boy.

“Oop! Sorry!” The distant yell of the transfer echos through the castle. Are his lungs that powerful or is he just close because he got lost on the way to DADA?

God, I hate that stupid plonker. No fucking way his voice is like that, you know, it’s like hearing a terrible actor try to be American.” Hedwig is always full of critique.

Tom spares a thought at the new student, who was previously strutting around like a giddy labrador all over the moving staircases. He’s never knowingly interacted with any Americans, so it’s hard to say just how exaggerated the boy’s accent was. How long was he supposed to be staying here again? If his accent is fake, then maybe it’s some kind of prank or joke he’s trying to pull. He hears they have the strangest sense of humor across the pond, “You’ve met Americans before, then?”

“Mum and her side of the family.” Hedwig almost sounds personally offended, “Freak. He needs to stay away from me.”

“Never thought I’d see the day someone would get under your skin like this--Have you gotten soft over the summer?”

“Sod off, Tom.” Fair.

They part at the library entrance.

While his classmate goes for private tutoring (her relationship with Yami has considerably grown, it seems, but Tom can still see resentment in Hedwig’s face when she mentions it), Tom searches for distraction in the library. He finds his book fast enough (Westcar Papyrus) and finds himself a lone seat at one of the only clear tables in the library. Halfway through a story of finding a green jewel lost in a lake, he gets the very odd and very sudden urge to look up to his right.

His heart jumps up at the sight of her, sunlight streaming in through the window behind, creating a golden halo atop her dark hair and around her witch’s hat. She’s walking towards his table. Tom shuts his book to leave. He’s mad at her. Or upset. Or distressed. Or all three wrapped up in one. How could she forget? They had spent months together. Hours in each other’s company, silent or speaking. Memory problems be damned, there has to be some sort of damn curse on her--

The weight in his pocket grows heavier, as if reading his mind.

Fuck.

The sound of wood scraping against wood, Ximena has sat down before he could make a dramatic escape. Before he has time to think over what his almost revelation was implying.

She sits across from him, to his left, with a heavy book, just as she did the first time they spoke to each other. Her face up close is much the same, but not. The previous curves of baby fat on her face are slowly waning away into sharp, angular cheeks and jawline. It’s...nice.

His head whirls back to his book so fast, he swears he felt whiplash. No, he is ignoring her. He’s mad. His still little fists tighten and tremble with emotion--He can’t even properly ignore her because she does not notice him. She never does. Never wi--

There you are.

Her head, and his, switch upward, searching for the owner of the voice, lightly baritone and sweet. Happy.

A tall, slender framed teenager is walking towards their his table. Bright faced and boyishly charming in every sense of the word. He is at Ximena’s side in an instant, leaning close with a hand on the back of her chair (close to her shoulder) and another on the desk (close to her hand.) Yankee accent as thick as his hair.

“Jesum crow, you walk fast for such a little lady.” He’s acting as if he had ran here, but he’s not out of breath, “You dropped your book on one of those damn staircases, I almost broke my neck returning it!” He laughs, as if his near death were a joke, reaching into his robe pocket and pulling out a small paperback to hand to Ximena.

“O-Oh.” He is much too close to her, he can tell, “Thank you, um.”

“You know, you really should pay more attention, I was yelling and whooping n’ hollering after you. Head in the clouds?”

“--Something like that.” Her fingers wrap around the book protectively, using it as a divider between herself and the American.

“Figured. Got that look in your eye, y’know?” Finally he retreats, moves back, “See ya around.”

“Good-bye.” Her voice is quiet. Her eyes stay lingering on his figure as he walks away.

Tom clears his throat.

Black pools on him.

“--Oh.” There was that tone again, “Oh, I--” She drops her book (again) on the table, and sets her hands down, “I--I’m sorry.” The phrase is new and fresh. It brushes up against his bruised feelings, “I’m just...Hello.” Scatterbrained. She’s gathering her thoughts, “...This summer was terrible.”

He can relate, “You forgot me.”

“I didn’t, I just...You slipped my mind. I misplaced you.” Misplaced. He likes that word better than forgotten. It implies he has a spot in her mind. In her heart. “I...It’s hard to explain.” Her eyes go to the people surrounding them. Lack of privacy?

He doesn’t know what he sees in her eyes, but he likes it. It’s the only semblance of power he holds over her. Guilt? Nevermind that she holds something heavier over his own head.

“...We’ll talk about it later?”

A sigh of relief, “Yes. Later is good.”

Tom is most definitely not elated at this. He is not joyous that they are speaking again and that she did not forget him. His shoulders loosen up. Tries not to look vulnerable, though it would surely only aid him.

He changes the subject.

“...What do you think of the American?”

“Which one?”

The one you just talked to.”

Caught off guard “--He’s interesting.”

Tom crosses his ankles, “Interesting?”

“Oh you know. Different.”

To him, he looks about as ordinary as every other background student at Hogwarts. Ximena hums lightly and nods. Her presence is calming, he forgot what a good effect it has on him. Tom continues, “It’s hard to talk to him, I hear. Has a lot of students crowding around him just wanting to hear his accent. Might not get a chance to learn his name, it seems.”

“Oh I actually met him this morning at breakfast.”

Well,

“He sat down next to me and we talked the whole morning--I actually missed my Ancient Runes class.”

Well well,

“I, um, I think he’s very sweet. I’m going to watch him try out for Quidditch this week.”

Well well well,

Tom clears his throat, straightening up, “I see. What’s his name again?”

“Adam.” Her response is so quick, he swears it almost knocks him off his seat.

“His family name,”

“Oh, Miller.”

“Muggleborn?”

“Yes.”

It’s not exactly news that Ximena is alright with muggleborns, but it does hurt his reputation if he’s seen being close with her while she willingly associates with them. He’ll have to see what he can do about that, “I’m glad he’s nice. Don’t need any more arrogant lions.”

An amused exhale as she slips a snack from out of her bag (bread, if his nose is correct), “That’s funny.”

He’s glad he’s funny, “What is?”

“That you say that...We were talking about it earlier: He said he was very confused at how seriously everyone here takes their houses. Apparently Ilvermorny treats them as little more than sports teams. He’s enthused about breaking through all the house barriers here.” Her knuckles press up against her cheek and chin, “He wants to change it”

“...”

“I heard about what happened last year with Lucretia. I’m not sure where she found the courage, but...I really think she’s started something big. Something wonderful.” Her thumb rubs the side of her index finger, “All the houses speaking together and mixing. Perfect harmony.”

“...”

“I don’t know, it would be nice. To speak openly and often to others outside my house. Him especially. I like him. I don’t think I would have been so alright with our talk if it wasn’t for Lucretia.”

“...What do you like about him?”

“It’s...nice to not feel like the only one who doesn’t belong, you understand?” She rips off a chunk of the hot bread she snuck in the library, “I feel alike to him. It feels good to be seen with some kind of familiarity. Some kind of memory. As a person. Not a novelty.” Her eyes return to Tom, “I remind him of a neighbor he had back home.”

“Does he remind you of anyone?”

A pause, “No.” Another pause, “Maybe.”

“Maybe…?” He tries to lead.

“He feels like a memory of a memory. Of a dream.” Her lips press together a tad before she bites into the bread, “...Like I met him once, in a previous life.”

“You believe in that stuff?” His tone is not condescending.

“Something like that.” A well known phrase, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence [3], right?”

Right.

-

On September the 3rd, England is at war.

Tom had been hoping to leave that nonsense behind him. That it wouldn’t come following him into his sanctuary. Ink should not bleed into stone. Blood should not bleed into stone. But it has. It’s seeped in like tea in water, dying the air around him red.

He had heard the news early in the morning, on his way to lunch. And curse curse curse his stupid curiosity and need to know everything that’s happening around him, because he ceased on his path for the sole purpose of checking out why the goddamn was Chamberlain’s voice ringing through the halls. Stopped in front of a classroom, he peeked in and saw a large number of students all gathered around the oldest radio he’s ever seen. Walking in was natural, of course, he had to figure out what was going on. And as he did, more of the classroom made sense to him: the maps on the walls, the movie posters, the modern gadgets....So this was the Muggle Studies class? Quaint.

More students had flooded in behind him, pushing him forward towards his prime minister’s voice.

“...I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany...”

His heart leaped into his throat. It remains to this hour.

The rest of the day passes not like a migraine, but like a fish swimming through mud. Slow and thick. Like a dream.

He’ll...He’ll be able to stay at Hogwarts now. Safe from the bombs. The air raids. The panic. The death. For as long as this war rages on, he will be safe. Here. Home.

This, he repeats to himself. Through every class. Every hour. Every spare moment he has. If he says it enough, it will come true.

For a moment, he considers thanking a God or two. Thanking Merlin? That’s what the others do, right? Witches don’t have Gods, they have each other. They have their magic.

Tom can work with that.

His train of asking, reassurance, comes to a halt as he enters the Great Hall for dinner. Another day (another hour?), another crowd.

A happening is occuring again. At the far left side of the hall, where the Gryffindors sit, is a cluster of students of all years, all houses, all blood. He worms his way to the front and is only partly surprised when (of course) the source of the commotion is the new boy himself (Ximena standing right near him) fiddling with...Is that a...Is that a gramophone?

“What is that?” Druella sounds horrified, not just at the prospect of a Muggleborn being anywhere near her, but also at the contraption that said Muggleborn brought out.

“A phonograph, hon.” If the Yank can hear the condescension in her voice, he doesn’t acknowledge it, “You use it to play music.”

“That thing is an instrument?” A Gryffindor prompts looking at the device as if it were to explode.

He laughs, melodic and short, “I guess it does look like a horn, doesn’t it? But no, no it’s not an instrument.”

“Did you get Headmaster Dippet’s permission to bring this in the school?”

“I didn’t think phonographs were bonafide illegal contraband in this here country.”

Well no, but if his classmates’ stories ring true, then bringing in something as Muggle and electric as that would make Druella’s worry justified.

A Hufflepuff speaks up, “My mum has one of those! It’s like a radio!”

Something like understanding filters through the hall.

“Are we going to listen to a broadcast?”

“Is it on the Muggle war?”

“How strong is your owl to have carried that all the way here?”

Adam chuckles at all the questions, “Y’all here are as fascinated by this thing as my grandfather was--And that’s saying something.” He tinkers with the inside a bit, Tom can hear clinks, “You all need to learn how to have fun.”

“--Fun?

Similar exclamations shoot up in the small crowd.

“Yeah. Fun, you eggheads.” A spark. In the device and in his eyes, “You’re not as behind on the grind as Ilvermorny, thank Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but at least half of you need to let loose. Blow your wig a little.”

An uncomfortable silence on behalf of the Muggleborns and half-bloods, but Tom knows he’s talking about the uppity highbloods who are currently torn between jeering more at him or curiously watching. It almost makes him sneer to see that it was the purebloods who were gathered the closest to the commotion. According to his docent (well, former docent, really, he has no need of a guide in his second year but--), radios were still new and rare in magical households. Resistant to change, most purebloods stuck to live music and physical newspapers (nevermind that there were still complaints about using photographs in said papers).

“How are you going to get that thing to work?” Ignatius prompts, standing next to Lucretia.

“Magic!” Boisterous laughter. Hilarious.

A squeak. The flat disk on the device moves. The hall jumps and gasps collectively, even on the side of the few lucky enough to have witnessed how one of these actually worked (the matron had one, once, before a trio of older boys broke it when Tom was six. His only memory of it working was listening to Turandot one winter afternoon)

“Aha!” He sits up, triumphant.

“--Is that it?”

He holds a finger up, and Tom finds himself envious and impressed at how well and long he can capture people’s attention, “Wait.”

His hand guides the needle over the wax record at a speed that makes the entire hall still. The needle drops.

Thump. A few precious seconds of silence. Sand spilling gently onto the floor. Low bass. Easy, lackadaisical plucking. Brass in harmony. Music. The sound rips through the student body like a knife through paper, shocking his classmates as if they had been dipped in ice water. Melody light and airy, it is vaguely familiar. A sound he has only heard in passing. On walks past barbershops and slums and flats where young people live. Tom finds he does not dislike it.

“Wh-What on earth is this?” Druella’s shrill voice sounds almost afraid of a little noise.

He’s sure that the Yank’s smile is going to make him famous one day, “Jazz.

Abraxas Malfoy, a seventh year Tom hasn’t had the pleasure of speaking to personally, steps forward, “Is this what...Muggles listen to?”

“All the snazzy ones yeah. It’s pretty big with wizards back home too. Some prefer swing, but that’s a little wet for me.”

“...Swinging?” That’s Nemesis’ voice.

The smile widens, “Oh boy, am I gonna have a juicy time with you all.”

There’s little more conversation after that. The music catches the attention of passing ghosts, who linger and tilt their heads at the strange new sound. Purebloods and sheltered half-bloods slowly find themselves tapping, bopping, swaying to the beat. It’s infectious, this jazz. He spots the other transfer, the girl, towering over a few of her housemates, staring at the commotion with a mix of wonder and amusement. A few Muggleborns have taken to actually dancing, clearing up a small space to jerk and twerk their legs out and about, causing more than a few exclamations from the purebloods.

“What are they doing?” He hears Abbas and Weasley ask, both in entirely different tones.

“They’re dancing, you ponces.”

“...Together? Just them?” Again, said by more than one wizard. In entirely different ways. Scandalized. Fascinated. Horrified. Curious. It confuses Tom until he remembers last year’s Hallowe’en: witches dance in circles. In groups. Hand in hand, switching partners, distance kept, one long dance. He didn’t find it strange at the time, it was a holiday. It was probably just some kind of tradition. Just like everything else.

“It’s like watching gorillas doing a mating dance.” Evan comments beside him, “How fun.”

The Muggleborns pay the whispers and comments no mind. They are entirely in their environment now, with the music many of them grew up listening to in their households. Many of them are quite skilled in their dancing: they move and turn with such expertise that it feels like they’ve been doing it since forever. It makes him want to try too.

“You wanna dance?”

Tom’s head turns in time to properly see Ximena sputtering at the Yank’s invitation. A quick denial, red dusting on her cheeks, just barely appearing on her brown skin. The girl next to her, the Muggleborn Ravenclaw from that Charms class once upon a time, slips in instead, hand extending to grasp Adam’s, “Show me what you got, Yank.”

More laughter, “Alright Martha, let’s go.”

First name basis? How uncouth. He’s been here for a day and a half.

The two move loosely but in sync with each other. Buzzing bees whose feet prick and sting at the ground below them, preferring to stay in air. In movement. Ms. Baker is not a bad dancer, and Adam--He’s rather phenomenal. Tom looks at him and he sees that Jazz itself is in his soul. His skin.

Eyes to Ximena again.

She’s relieved, he can tell. Attention like the kind Adam and Martha are receiving is the opposite of what she wants (but perhaps exactly what she needs). When she looks at the two together, there’s a certain wistfulness there. Nostalgia. A ghost of a smile. Amusement. She hugs her book to her chest tighter. Yearning?

Does she wish to dance too?

By the time the song ends, and the record is flipped, there are something like dance lessons happening. The easier-going magicians from magical families are trotting along like clumsy horses to the instructions of Adam and other Muggleborns and half-bloods. The Blacks, Yaxleys, Rosiers, and the rest openly (loudly) hate it but they do not leave. They stay and watch. Watch and learn too, as they leer.

They miss the king’s speech to the nation. Thankfully.

-

Dippet makes no move to console any of the students. There’s no talk or explanation as to what’s going on with the war. Undoubtedly, there’s questions, from both staff and students alike, but no word is given. And really, isn’t this just confirming what others here have taught him about magical authority? The Muggles’ business is their own. We’re not involved. Neutral. Only Muggle Britain is at war with Muggle Germany.

Disgusting. Understandable. Still disgusting.

The closest thing to comfort is given by Dumbledore, of all people, at the end of his next class (and to all his classes, Tom assumes). Though he speaks vaguely about the transpiring events, it is direct. It is to all the people within the classroom. Help will be given if asked.

Liar.

He’s the first to leave the classroom in a huff. If he stays any longer, he’s liable to try and hex his professor.

“Tom! Tom!” Nemesis. He turns, easing up the scowl on his face, “Oh goodness, you walk fast, in a hurry?”

“--Yes.” In a hurry to leave.

“Going to see Lane?”

That...might actually alleviate his mood. Her voice, he’s found, eases headaches. Her explanation for her behavior over the summer is bound to be interesting as well, he hasn’t had time to meet with her or memorize her new schedule.

“Do I look lovesick to you?” He jokes, flashing a smile at her. He remembers what Hedwig told him about her. He wonders if it’s true. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was, it would be useful, actually.

“I wouldn’t know, I have no frame of reference.” She clears her throat, “Your free period is next, correct? Might you please go over some charts with me for Astronomy?”

He’d actually be alright with that. Charts are lovely. He might be able to see just what the hell was the big deal with her family’s so called downfall. If the minister for magic was an idiot, why did that bleed into the rest of his family's faults?

The two of them walk side by side to the library, deep in the tallest sections, for their publically available star charts. From this high up, the students down below look like little beetles with a singular horn or tusk (their required hats, of course). The migrating books’ flight paths are well below his and Nemesis’ position.

“Never been up in this section, have you?”

He looks back from his leaning position over the smooth banister: the fading sun sprinkling in through the glass dome atop the both of them, “I’ve yet to clear the first floor, actually.”

She pulls out a large flat drawer with graphs and maps, sifting through them for the right chart, “That’s pretty ambitious. Most just jump and pick which areas to go to.”

He’s not like most.

“I found it, come here--I think I saw a table nearby...”

The small, oak table that she had spotted is taken. Oh, it’s big enough for all four of them, but well.

What do you mean Muggles have technology that could harm wizardkind?” Druella.

“I wasn’t aware that you grew deaf over the summer, did you spend all your time with Black’s tongue in your ear?” Yami.

Druella might as well be a steam engine with that look on her face. Nemesis looks ready to try and find another place, but Tom’s curiosity is more important than her discomfort with confrontation. It’s been a while since he’s spoken with Yami, regardless.

“Debating outside of Model Wizengamot?” His tone is teasing, but everyone can tell that he’s trying to placate the two witches (if they’re being honest, the only one needing placating was Druella).

Stay out of this, Riddle--

“Ah, Riddle. Fawley. Sit.”

Yami commands the table as the eldest and the one with most composure. Nemesis does not deny her senior’s request, and she chooses a spot besides Druella who looks irritated that she chose that spot. Tom plops down beside Yami: it's not often she extends an invitation like this to him.

“You should be nicer to the underclassmen, Rosier, don’t you want to make prefect someday?”

“You shut your dirty bloodtraitor mouth, Acarya--”

A sharp turn of her neck, Yami’s gold jewelry jingles, her eyes narrow at Druella, “Do I have to call your brother here? I’m sure he’d be proud of your words and very interested to know what you were up to this summer.”

The red in Druella’s face drains, making her milk white like the glass ball Tom had found in DADA last year. The impossible is done. She’s shut up.

The fifth year speaks to him and his yearmate, “Do you think the war will affect us here at Hogwarts?”

Slytherins are not usually so direct. How off putting.

“G-Grindelwald is so far away--”

“No. The Muggle war. Not Grindelwald.”

Nemesis swallows. She’s walking on cracked ice.

“I...I don’t know enough about that situation.” A safe answer, “What’s the name of Muggle Germany’s leader again? Herr Hitler? He seems...powerful.”

Druella snorts.

It’s Tom’s turn to speak now.

“It will affect many of the students. It’s impossible to hide from war.”

It is the answer Yami is looking for, if her face is anything to go by.

But Druella disagrees. Disagrees so clearly, that she reaches out to a passing student, browsing through atlases:

“You, Indian girl--”

The transfer, the girl, turns around with eyes ablaze. Her brows raise a little at the sight of their group, or rather, at the sight of Druella.

“Hon, if you call me Indian one more time, I’m going to have to cut your pretty little droopy face off.” She gives a cloying smile, “I have a name. Use it.

Druella snaps her mouth shut. Yami appears amused. Nemesis plays with her hands. Tom watches carefully, alert.

“Oh now, don’t let your friend’s rude little mouth ruin the party.” She opens outstretched hands as she leans over the back of a chair, “As for you two, I’m Mali.” When she says her name, it almost sounds like Mary, “Or are you also stuck on calling strangers by their last names?”

“It’s, it’s just a form of respect.” Nemesis feels nervous around this girl. How interesting.

“Ah. How cute. Stick to Mali, please.”

His yearmate clears her throat, “Nemesis Fawley.”

His cue, “Tom Riddle.”

“Pleasure. What are y’all doing on this fine afternoon?”

“Just some studying. Some friendly debating.” Nemesis says, fiddling with her fingers nervously, hoping the tension in the air would disperse, “You’re the new American right? The calm one, not the uh, other one. We’re not fond of him.”

“Oh Adam? Yeah, I can see why. He’s amusing. Kind of stupid, though.”

“Most mudbloods are,” Druella purses her lips, trying to recover. Tom can see Yami roll her eyes. “But was he this much trouble back at Ilvermorny?”

“Oh I’m not from Ilvermorny.” Mali corrects.

“Wait, what do you mean you’re not from Ilvermorny?”

“I mean I’m not from Ilvermorny.” Mali repeats, looking like a cross between amused and annoyed, “You didn’t think it was the only magical school in North America, did you?”

“The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland only has one school.” Nemesis states, confused.

A little roll of the eyes, “Your whole countries combined are smaller than the size of Texas. It makes sense for there to only be one for all of you. Your population is what...forty million? US is one-thirty.” Mali clicks her tongue, “Besides, I’m not allowed there.”

Yami’s face has a look that says I knew it. Druella blinks away her confusion, “But some of Ilvermorny’s first students were Indi--You’re a pureblooded witch, why wouldn’t they allow you in?

Mali looks at Druella as if she were looking at a toddler too stupid to understand how their own legs worked, “Times change. I’m not wanted there thanks to good old MACUSA. Adam’s only allowed in because his mother’s some scion of a powerful family...Actually, as I understand it, MACUSA is working to keep girls out now.”

Druella blinks, taken aback. Nemesis is staring down at her hands on the table.

“Don’t look so surprised, it happened to Hogwarts too, briefly.” At her words, Tom looks to Yami for confirmation, as do the rest in the group.

“During the Muggle Hundred Years War.” She recites, “There was a small span of such chaos and confusion that the headmaster at the time thought it best to only accept young men into Hogwarts so as to help protect Scotland and the school. It was only about seven years, but it happened, nonetheless.”

A sneer comes onto Druella’s face at being upstaged by Yami on intelligence. Yami ignores this.

“I like you,” Mali declares, smiling, “I didn’t have a chance to to talk with you in Alchemy earlier. Acarya? I know your sister.”

Yami visibly tenses.

“Her name’s Yama, yeah? Heh, not too original there with names.” It was a purposeful tease, “But of course, I’m sure it means something better in your language.”

“Get to the point.”

Tom’s eyes move from one witch to the other, wondering what was going on.

“I’ll get to it later--When the kids are away.” A wink. She takes her leave.

Yami sits and waits for a few seconds. Then stands up straight from her chair, almost throwing it down from the sheer speed at which she rose, gathers her books, and follows behind furiously.

“--Did she just call us kids?” Druella squeals out, huffing, “How dare she, that-that absolute savag--OW!

Tom flinches. Druella’s nose is broken again. Did he do that? Must have been concentrating hard on it--Or maybe it was just luck (he wasn’t feeling particularly angry at her). Perhaps Ximena is hiding somewhere nearby?

Nemesis comforts Druella and escorts her to the hospital wing. She tells Tom she’ll see him later.

He’s left alone in the library.

He frowns, what the hell was that?

More and more, Tom becomes convinced that it’s impossible to be aware, to be knowing of everything that happens around him. He breaches a border of knowledge, only to be faced with ten more to break through. What’s worth knowing? Something that might end up being meaningless gossip? Should he narrow down his thirst for knowing to only a small niche like some kind of Ravenclaw?

Mali...He’s never spoken with her before this. Seems more composed than the other American. Too malicious to be a Hufflepuff, if that tone that she spoke with Yami was, in fact, malicious. What else could it be? For what reason does someone dangle information like that if not for blackmail? For bait (bait which Yami readily took, he’s never seen her in such a state)?

Hedwig had once called Yami radical...Brought up by non-magic blood. Nursed, clothed, and watched over by some Muggle. Or some poor son-of-a-bitch not magical enough to be considered a witch. Is that so radical? So lenient towards Muggles as others want to think? Leaving them to labor instead of killing them actively? If he’s not mistaken, that was the sort of talk that Abbas and Topaz were spouting only a few months ago...Talk that even Ian Rosier was willingly (conditionally) open to...Something’s amiss...

Tom takes his thoughts for a walk, placing back the unused star charts and meandering out of the library towards the front courtyard. Letters aren’t enough to keep in the know over the summer and winter holidays: there’s so many nuances missed simply because he’s not there in person to witness it. How would someone tell him about what happened in the library in ink and paper? ‘Rosier and Acarya arguing. Nemesis tries to quell. Rosier brings female Yank into it and gets a nasty slap of reality. Female Yank baits Acarya successfully and Rosier gets her nose broken.’ Terrible. He’ll have to pull at Hogwart’s gossip mill to pick what’s true and what’s nonsense--Or hire his own little spies to gather information.

When Tom reaches the main courtyard, he stands still, eyes forward and focused intensely on the single figure out before him, a few meters ahead. Though she is bulked up, back to him, little more than a silhouette, he can recognise his senior. He could find her in the dark or pick her out of a crowd of millions. Strange.

Seconds pass. A minute. Two minutes. Neither of them move.

He steps forward.

A crow rests on her bare finger (isn’t she cold?), happily accepting her little scritches and pets. If his mind isn’t paying tricks on him, she’s speaking lowly to it. Little coos and praises? Or telling secrets?

“Good afternoon, Ximena.” He’s snuck up on her again, he can tell by her little jump.

The crow flies away.

“Oh, hello.” Her throat clears, “I thought that was you.”

Blink, “I didn’t surprise you?”

“No, ah, you did.” Evidently, “Subconsciously, I mean: I sensed your magic.”

It’s oddly satisfying that she could recognise his magic signature, “Really? From how far?”

“Ahum...Hard to say...Maybe a few meters back?”

Did she know how long he was standing there just watching her? “Is that normal?”

“For me, it is.”

Noted.

“I’ve been practicing sensing magic myself!”

“What have you found out?”

Much. But not enough, never enough, “You don’t need physical contact to feel magic, but it helps tremendously.”

“And to see colors?”

“--I haven’t gotten that far yet”

“It’s nothing to be upset about.” He begs to differ.

“I feel left behind.”

Something like helplessness shows on her face, like she wants to comfort him, “I understand. I do. I--” A press of her lips, “Those things that purebloods take for granted. The skills and knowledge...It’s awful.”

It is. It’s bad enough to be shunned out of your heritage for the first 11 years of your life, but to then have it be used against you? When you’re already so much more skilled than those who were raised with it? Unbearable.

“I knew you’d understand.”

The helplessness stays, but her concern is replaced with a bittersweet smile, “I wish I didn’t,” and then, “I wish you didn’t either.”

He feels warm.

‘--I noticed your resting magic...I mean, I didn’t notice it, is what I want to say.”

She nods, “I always try and hide it. To help go unnoticed.”

Always hiding. She never changes, “I see. Can I show my control?”

Eager. He’s too eager. She nods again, “Please.”

Tom can’t sit still. He brings his hands out of his robe pockets and out of his gloves (the cold wind immediately makes him want to dig them back into said pockets), and flexes his fingers. Flexes his magic.

He feels tingling at first, starting in his chest and shimmering outwards to the tips of his hands. He’s not sure what it feels like, but it’s good. Comfortable. What color did she say it was? Black? Is this what black feels like?

Her palms come up from under his own outstretched hands, but they do not touch skin. His magic palpitates anyways. Hers reaches out and touches his.

A rush of joy to his head makes him dizzy as if it were blood. He remembers her magic as if it were hours that he last felt it. He wants to grow familiar with it. As if he had grown up around it. Spends everyday around it. It’s something to look forward to. To aspire to.

He wants to dip into it like stepping into a pool, but he doesn’t. She’s only doing this because she feels guilty, and he hates that, but he’ll take it. Take it but he won’t push his luck. Instead, he forces his magic to stay still. To stay skimming the surface of hers like a lily pad over a pond. Barely touching. It’s hard. Temptation is dangling right in front of his eyes but what would he have to win? A few moments of curiosity satiated? And what would he lose? What little trust he has from her?

Damn.

“Your control is amazing.” Her compliment swells his pride, “You did all this in just a few months?” Of course he did. Only he could do it. “You’ll be a maester of control in no time.”

He knows. But he still likes hearing it from her.

“Hey, ‘Mena!”

Water recedes. Her hands lower. His hands feel the September chill again.

Adam’s voice is extremely recognizable at this point, and just as irritating. Mena? Too familiar. He’s barely known her for a week. Tom waited at least a month to try using her first name. “See, Hedwig, told you I’d find her--”

Tom blinks at the smaller witch, more than dwarfed by the tall Yank, “I thought I fecking told you to not call me that, you disrespectful arsehole.”

Ximena blinks, “You were looking for me?”

“Tom, actually, but he’s usually where you are.” Thanks, Hedwig. “This bloody fuckwit has the nose of a fucking bloodhound, I guess.”

He does a mock salute, “Anytime, kitten.”

Tom doesn’t need to be on high alert to sense the power spike in Hedwig’s magic. As she begins cursing the transfer out, Adam turns to Ximena and he, and speaks to her only, “I was looking for you too! Though not to find little Gat over here.” A head gesture to him, so he’s Gat? What is that? Some type of creature? His classmate seems confused as well.

“Wh-what did you need?”

She had forgotten to reel her magic back in again. He tries to nudge her arm or side, to try to remind her, but...

From beside her, Tom can feel her magic fluttering nervously and...bashfully. He looks from the transfer to her and back--There’s...There’s no way.

Adam smiles bright, and the shade of red that blossoms on Ximena’s face could dye miles of fabric. It’s the same blush that appeared on Lucretia’s face when Ignatius was mentioned. Tom takes that thought and shoves it in the rubbish bin.

“I’m feeling stuffy. I gotta get out of these walls--What’s that little village you all go to? Hogshead?” His elbow is offered, creating a barrier between Tom and his friend.

“Hogsmeade.” Ximena corrects, taking his arm gently and quietly, “I’ve never been, so I can’t say I can show you around.”

“We’ll explore it together.” Adam’s voice carries genuine good hearted intentions. Tom wants to kick him as he walks her away from the spot.

“Oh sure, go on ahead, good fucks, we’ll be just fine!” Hedwig calls, but the two don’t appear to hear, “Tough break Tom, guess she likes older men, ya?” She snorts.

“...It’s distasteful.”

“You’re jealous.”

“He is practically an adult, and she a child!”

“You’re jealous.”

“Sixteen and thirteen! He’s sick.”

You’re jealous.

I’m right.” Tom corrects.

Hedwig snerks, “You’re jealous.

His mouth twists into an unpleasant, sour scowl. Looking out for his friend and fellow Slytherin is not a sign of jealousy, Hedwig was just really growing to enjoy the taste of drama. “Say what you like, but that is inappropriate.”

Hedwig rolls her eyes, “Don’t muggles have age gaps in relationships too? Malfoy’s rumored to be engaged to an eleven year old.” Her arms cross over her chest, “My own parents have a seventeen year age gap.”

Good god. “Not all muggles have arranged marriages or are upper class.”

A blink, “Oh right, I forgot about that: marrying for love.” She hums, “A distant dream!”

“...How old is your mother?”

“Nosy little git, aren’t you?” Merlin, why is Hedwig like this? “She’s thirty-four.”

“Then your father’s fifty one?”

“On the nose, Nosy.”

“...So then, she had you and your sister when she was...Twenty-three and eighteen?”

“You’re good at this.”

“...Your father was thirty-five when your sister was born--No one saw anything wrong about this? No one in your family?”

Hedwig looks bored with the conversation, “Why would they? It’s how all the good purebloods marry off their daughters.” A yawn, “Need to groom them into being their ideal wife, yeah? Rumor has it they found someone for my sister. Some teacher at Durmstag.” She rolls her eyes, “I give him ten minutes at the first meeting to turn tail.”

Tom gives him two, “It’s very old fashioned.”

“Wands are made out of wood.”

He allows a chuckle to escape his mouth, “Point taken. Wizards like tradition.” And marrying off young daughters to men twice their age, “I forgot that.”

“Well don’t. You’re one of us. You have to start acting like it.” As if he hadn’t caught onto that by now, “You’re gonna have to take on a young bride too, I bet! Since you act so posh.”

The thought almost makes him nauseous, “Would my future bride just be turning two, then?”

“Bloody hell, no, she’s not even an itch on her father’s bollocks!” Hedwig cackles, “That’s another thing you have going for you Tom: You don’t have to be afraid of who your parents engage you to, just who your heart wants.” A glance out at where the two exited, “Or rather afraid of who your contemporaries hate.”

He stares out as well, “Hm. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh right, the whole reason I found Sir Overcoat [4].”

A look.

“It’s one of the words for mudbloods n squibs in America. Means ‘magic coffin’.”

Because magic dies when it sprouts in a mudblood or squib, “--Did he tell you that?”

“Ya. Said he prefers it to mudblood. Freak.”

Indeed, “So what did you need?” Hedwig is rarely if ever scatterbrained.

“Professor Dumbledore asked for you. Something about tea?”
♠ ♠ ♠
[1] Euston Station was the place where JK originally wanted 9¾ to be, but she mistook King’s Cross for it. Smh, Joanne.

[2] Plurals is a modern way of saying minors, but I thought it worked here.

[3] This is a quote by Carl Sagan. My dad likes to use it when I’m wilding.

[4] ‘Chicago Overcoat’ was American slang in the 1930s meaning coffin. With such lame terms like ‘no-maj’, I figure it makes sense.

 

A conversation between me and Lion:

Lion: If Ximena and Harry were in the same time, would she like him?

Me: Uhhh, he’s too pretty, she would think he’s nice but overrated

Lion: Draco would have a crush on her

Me: Oh God

Lion: Some mommy-issues shit, because she looks like the nanny that raised him

Me: Help

 

The term ‘wool gathering’ is actually borrowed from Lion’s short story of the same name, which I hope she will one day publish to the web!

A big personal thank you to aspiringcynic on FF.net for continuing to leave lovely long reviews on each chapter! If you have a moment (and enjoy the idea of Tom/Padma), please check our her story ‘The Naga’s Bride’, I’m addicted. Another thank you to MintyFresCloud on AO3 as well! Your serial comments on my story inspired me to update a lil quicker!

And, of course, thank you again to NeonCupCakeAvalanche on GOTVG for your lovely reviews and to KishiWolf on Quotev, who was the first to leave a comment on the site that first saw this fic be born!