Gratitude owed to Heart of Spells for the excellent beta-work she has done for the story. Reviews/thoughts/criticism would be greatly appreciated, please.
"I will leave you to your lemon-drops then," murmured Severus. His eyes firmly refused to meet mine.
Severus rose to his feet quickly and fled the room. I could hear his boots clattering down the spiral staircase.
"I did not think I could hate you more, Dumbledore," Phineas remarked from his portrait. "Now I find out that I can." His eyes were glinting in malice. For once, he meant what he said. Fawkes, who usually registered his displeasure of the former Headmaster's snide comments with a trill, now remained silent. If both Fawkes and Phineas agreed on the subject, then doubtless the world should end then. I wished it would end.
"There is so much to do," I murmured. "We cannot afford to quarrel over trifles. Harry must be kept safe. The boy is depressed, Phineas. You must keep an eye on him, please."
"I will," Phineas assured me, "once I see for myself that there is someone to take care of Severus. My loyalty is owed to Slytherin before it is owed to the school."
With that parting shot, he disappeared into his frame. Closed ranks, I had often thought whenever I saw those of the Slytherin House. Their loyalty to each other and to the House overrode personal enmities, family and society. Phineas insisted on wearing his House colours. Tom favoured those of Slytherin in his Inner Circle. Severus rarely divulged information which compromised his Housemates, preferring to expose Death Eaters from the other Houses. Slughorn had not been harmed by the enemies despite returning to Hogwarts. I knew for a fact that he still received tokens of regard from those suspected of harbouring Death Eaters.
"I am going for a walk," I announced to the empty room.
Long, long ago, if I had said that, Aberforth would have asked my mother if he could accompany me. Ariana would have waved to us from the kitchen window. Now I was left with lemon-drops, portraits and a phoenix. This would not do, I told myself firmly. A walk would raise my spirits and that would put an end to the self-pity.
He had already seen me. I would have made myself invisible if I had known he would be out and about at such a late hour.
"Unusual to see you at this time of the day, Horace," I remarked politely, taking care not to smile and wishing that he would take my hint and leave me alone.
He gave me a thoughtful look before saying, "I wished to speak with you on certain matters, Albus. We can walk together to the Astronomy Tower."
There was more to Slughorn than the cheerful gourmet. I had realised that during Tom's Sixth Year at Hogwarts when I espied the scales of a Basilisk in Slughorn's potions stores. Slughorn had known then, about the Chamber and the Heir. Even so, he had coolly supported Dippet's edict to have Hagrid expelled. I did not trust Slughorn, but I knew he would do his best to see to it that his charges survived the coming war. So would Severus, but this year would leave him no time to devote to his students.
We had reached the Tower and now stood silently. I did not bother to look at the skies. I knew what I would see. The reddish cast of Mars had been growing stronger over the last few months.
Slughorn abruptly broke the silence saying, "It is your fault, Albus."
I turned to face him, incredulity and fear alternately gripping my heart.
"You know it is," he said wearily. "Time and again, I have striven to make you understand that Slytherin is the House of the unloved. You failed to see it, Albus. And you sent them all to their doom. I told you to have a care when you laughed off Charlus Potter and his cronies sneaking into the Slytherin girls' dormitories. The first Death Eaters came from that batch of students, Albus, and I could understand what drove them to it. I told you to restrain your mistrust of Tom. I told you many a time to expel Black, Potter and Lupin. No, you were brave and noble, Albus, and you were always right because you were brave and noble. So I had to stand helpless and watch the brightest of my children fall into the darkness. Now you have destroyed one more generation, Albus. Severus could have saved them given his influence on them, but he did not. Why? Because he knows they will be treated as second-class citizens if they joined you."
The house of the unloved, Slughorn had said. How true! The unhappy, the misfits, the frightened and the freaks all flocked to Slytherin. Perhaps it was this bond which held them together and rallied them to each other's aid above the calls of family and society.
Slughorn and I had had many disagreements in the course of our careers but not once had he openly accused me of playing favourites. Now he did not look righteously angry or vengeful. He looked tired, as if he had already seen the outcome and made his peace with it. Perhaps he had.
I seized the last of his tirade and said firmly, "I have never treated Severus as a second-class citizen. I trust him."
"I am sure you do." He laughed coldly. "The poor boy ruined a batch of Veritaserum because his tears contaminated the ingredients. Your trust overwhelms him, does it not?"
"Did he tell you anything?" I asked, suspicious. The plans had been set in motion and both Severus and I could not afford confiding in anyone else.
"You don't trust him even now, do you?" wondered Slughorn. "Don't answer, Albus. It was merely a rhetorical question. You have probably set him a task that nobody sane would undertake. I hope he dies cleanly."
"Horace!" I exclaimed in horror, taken aback by his words. "Don't jest about matters of death."
"I sent the boy to Tom to keep him alive and safe," Slughorn whispered. "How will I jest about his death, Albus?"
He knew something. He would not dare speak so without some inkling of the promise Severus had sworn to me. I knew that neither Severus nor I had confided in anyone. This left Narcissa and Bellatrix, who had been present when Severus had made that Vow.
"Narcissa," said Slughorn, who had followed my thoughts easily. "She is worried about Severus. So am I. We have been in touch over the summer."
There was nothing that I could say which would justify the promise I had demanded of Severus. I had made many a mistake as a teacher. I could not afford to sit and grieve about those. I did not have the time to. Harry needed to be trained soon. The Order needed to bolster its defences and gather its strength in secrecy since we could not afford another run-in with Tom.
"Why did you send Severus to Tom?" I asked Slughorn. It had been bothering me. I could have protected the boy.
"Tom was the better choice," Slughorn answered frankly. "You were fawning over your golden quartet. Tom respected skill and brilliance. He had a soft corner for those from unhappy families. I knew Severus would be safe with him. I was right. Tom did not involve Severus in killings or torture. It was only after Severus heard the prophecy and realised that a child would be murdered, he was stricken enough to seek you. I think it was his greatest mistake. Now he has been living a half-life for years, running your errands and eating your scraps while you offer venison and wine to your golden angels."
Hearing your mistakes listed out so plainly does not do wonders for your temper. I reined in my anger and let him rant. He had lost so many. Those of my House were being kept safe at the cost of his charges. He had the right to lament. That did not endear him to me. I had taken a walk to escape my guilt. Now there he stood, throwing my guilt into my face and daring me to accept gracefully.
"We must make the best of what we have," I said quietly. "I cannot change the past, Horace, though I dearly wish I could."
"If you could," Slughorn asked, "what would you change, Albus? Would you try to change the decision to overlook the antics and the bullying your favourite charges indulge in? Would you give Tom a chance? Would you try to save Severus? What would you change, Albus?"
"I don't know, Horace," I sighed. "There have been so many mistakes. I live with them."
"They say that Albus Dumbledore believes in second chances," murmured Slughorn.
I frowned. What was he trying to imply?
"Lucius saved a Time-Turner before they were all destroyed in your little skirmish last year," Slughorn said quietly. "He had transfigured it into his wedding ring and the prison authorities allowed him to send it to his wife for safe-keeping. Narcissa agreed to let me have it if it would keep Severus and Draco safe."
Lucius was good at Transfiguration, I remembered. His results were usually economical and elegant. He had once transfigured my duster into a yellow jester's hat with flowing red tassels. I had reprimanded him and taken ten points from his House. If James Potter had done it, I would have awarded ten points for that flamboyant creation.
"I cannot do it, Horace," I said bleakly, waving the charred remnants of my hand on which rested the ring. "I am needed here. This is war. I must keep Harry safe and try to weaken Tom as much as I can."
"You cannot win the war, Albus," Slughorn snorted. "It will kill many on both sides and drag on for years. Tom is patient. You and I both know that. Word from my former students is that he is in Switzerland to conduct discussions with several Muggles who are placed highly in their financial world."
"Tom courting Muggles?" I snorted. "He must be desperate for funds, then."
"So are you," said Slughorn placidly. "The war will drag on. Both sides will starve to death in the end, Albus."
I hated it when Slughorn made sensible arguments. How dared he assume my actions when I had been giving blood and soul to this cause for years while all he did was host parties and sit with his plump legs dangling on both sides of the fence?
"Here," he said quietly, coming over and tying a bracelet about my charred wrist. From the bracelet dangled a moon-white oval pearl.
"Press that, think of what you wish to change and hope for the best," whispered my companion, looking unusually pale-faced. There were dark circles of sleeplessness underneath his eyes. In the all the years of our acquaintance, I had never seen him so badly affected. He seemed unnerved by my stare and continued quickly, "If nothing, it may at least save someone. Narcissa would kill me if she hears that you saved one of your golden geese instead of keeping Draco or Severus safe. Despite that, I have decided. Severus will see to it that Draco is safe. And Severus himself is nothing more than your tool. He will die when you ask him to. I have to accept his choice. Goodnight, Albus."
With that, he shuffled away into the dark corridors leaving me standing under the night skies and staring at the golden bracelet about my wrist. The little pearl winked at me conspiratorially.
"No," I whispered.
A soft trilling awakened me from my stupor. Fawkes was staring at me from his perch on the railing. I remembered that Tom Riddle had been fond of sitting with his legs astride this very railing. For someone who was so obsessed with immortality, he had been quite careless with his health and safety during his schooldays. Hagrid once told me that Tom had often slipped from the railing and levitated himself back up.
"Why?" I had asked Tom once, after my heart had nearly stopped beating at the sight of his thin body stretched lengthwise over the railing. His hands had been crossed under his head and his legs dangled on either side of the rail.
"Sometimes the wind blows, Professor, and I almost fall," he had said laconically. "Then I realise I am still alive. It is a heady sensation. Near death experiences make you drunk on life, you know. It soars through you and sets every nerve aflame. You see everything in a different light."
"An eldritch light," I had told him softly, remembering the overwhelming sensation of life and light that had soared through my veins after defeating Grindelwald. So powerful, so frightening and so right.
"Eldritch?" Tom had asked, a frown coming to nest between his brows. He must have been tired, since he would not have betrayed curiosity in my presence otherwise. I had wondered if he had just experienced one of those near-death experiences. I had never seen him so relaxed and chatty.
"Yes, unnatural light. Unearthly. Eldritch. One of my friends used to say that we see an eldritch light only moments before we die."
Tom had held my eyes then before nodding quietly. It had been the one moment of accord in our life.
Fawkes trilled again, pulling me from my reminiscing.
"It is nothing," I assured him. "We should return to the office."
I held out my hand for him. He came to me and I could not help a smile as his familiar weight settled comfortably on my blackened hand. Then I cried out in horror for his talons were digging into the pearl dangling from the bracelet.
It was that eldritch sensation all over again. Life and light and power soared through my blood until I could no longer stand it. I screamed and gathered Fawkes close to my breast just before I lost consciousness.
I woke to find familiar blue eyes glaring at me.
"Aberforth," I rasped.
"What are you playing at?" he demanded. "Showing up in the dead of the night in my bedroom with your flashy bird? Spying on me, are we, dear brother?"
I blinked twice and looked at his features again. His skin was smooth and his hair still auburn.
"What year is this?" I asked, even as I tried to calm myself. My brother was staring at me. I gathered my beard in my shaking hands and looked at it. Auburn. Twinkling through the brown tresses was the wretched bracelet. The pearl had been torn away from the clasp. And my hand was not charred anymore. The ring was missing.
"You are not drunk," Aberforth told me as he squatted before me and checked my pupils carefully. I blinked as the tassels of his sleeping cap tickled my nose. He pushed them out of the way and glared at me again. Only Aberforth could intimidate someone when he was in his nightclothes.
"What year is this?" I demanded. "Please, Abe, this is important."
"According to you, everything you do is important," he grumbled. "It is September 3rd, 1934. Now go up to the Castle and get yourself looked over by your nurse. If you don't feel up to it, sleep here on the floor. I can spare a mattress. Make your choice. I have to get some sleep before I open the bar tomorrow."
I sat up abruptly, promptly lost my sense of orientation and grasped his hand in a bid to keep myself upright. He cursed and shoved me back onto the floor.
"What have you got yourself into this time?" he spat. "For the love of God, Albus, you will be the end of me!"
Fawkes trilled softly.
"Ask that loudmouth to be quiet if you are staying," Aberforth commanded.
I nodded meekly.
Seeing my compliance, his gaze turned suspicious.
"You are not dying, are you?" he asked, uncertainty and fear flickering over his features.
"No, no, I am not," I assured him.
I did not trust anyone with my plans. I rarely ever spoke to Aberforth. We had a mutually beneficial arrangement to present a united front against a common enemy. This front hid his resentment, my pride and our shared guilt.
Slughorn had asked me what I would change.
Seeing the concern on Aberforth's face, I decided what the first change should be. I would trust Aberforth.
So I took a deep breath and began my story. I spared myself nothing as I bared my life and guilt before him. The candle in his room had guttered to a morose pool of wax and the only illumination was Fawkes's bright plumage. It cast an unnatural light over Aberforth's pensive face as he fingered the bracelet I had placed in hand.
"An eldritch night," said Aberforth finally. "The messes you get into, Albus! Your younger self is in the Castle. Sleep now. Take the bed." As I began to protest, he barked, "I need to think about what you have told me now. Sleep. I won't need the bed."
With that, he stalked over to the bedside table and lit a fresh candle before setting it on the mantel. Then he threw open a drawer, pulled out a nightshirt and a sleeping cap and placed them on the bed.
"Don't pull one of your fancy stunts," he warned me. "It is dangerous. We will see what can be done in the morning."
"You believe me?" I asked incredulously. I had never believed anything he said without confirmation from another source. If he had been the one to come up with such a story, I would have used a touch of truth potion in his tea.
"Aren't you the one who goes on about second chances?" he retorted. "I practise what you preach."
He left the room and slid the door shut. Fawkes trilled once more.
I was fifty-three years old once again. This was 1934. Grindelwald was at large. Tom Riddle had not started Hogwarts yet.
Tom Riddle. I cursed. I had been thinking of him when Fawkes had activated the Time-Turner and the device had faithfully transported me to this year.
"There is a war going on, Fawkes," I whispered. "Why did you do it? Harry! I must get back to keep him safe. The horcruxes. The Order. Severus with the weight of his vow. Oh, Fawkes, what have you done?"
The next morning saw me sitting with Aberforth in the attic of the inn.
"I must steal a Time-Turner from the Ministry," I said. "It is the only solution."
Aberforth fixed me with a stern glare. Why my younger brother acted as if he were the elder was beyond my understanding. He had been in Hufflepuff and still had scared the living daylights out of his peers from other Houses with his duelling skills. My mother had once said that Aberforth must have scared the Hat into sorting him into Hufflepuff.
"If you are not there, this Draco cannot try to kill you," he said. "So your Severus won't have to kill you to keep his vow."
"Abe, it is not as simple as that," I groaned and rested my head on my hands. "Time-Turners are plagued by paradoxes. You cannot just change the fabric of time just as you please."
"You have done it," he retorted. "And here you are. Now be a good boy and don't do it again."
Was he channelling our mother? I looked at him suspiciously.
He smirked and said, "Your bird is intelligent, or so you keep saying. If that chicken wants you here, then maybe there is a reason."
"Fawkes is a phoenix," I muttered. "Do I call a goat a sheep?"
"You can call a goat a phoenix for all I care." He shrugged. "Now, from what I understand about your Time-Turner lecture, you cannot be in two places at once."
"Yes." I nodded, relieved. "So you see why I cannot afford to be here. I must return to my year."
"We can kill the Albus in the castle," he suggested solemnly. I knew him well enough to know that he meant it too. I did not reply.
"Why did you pick this year?"
"I think it is because of Tom," I answered thoughtfully. It had been plaguing me all night. "I had been thinking of him, you see."
"Doesn't a Time-Turner retain the traveller's actual age?" he wondered.
"It was stolen from an ongoing experiment in the Mysteries Department," I mumbled, looking at my restored hand pensively. "Then it was transfigured twice. Who knows what charms have been tampered with?"
"Albus?" my brother chortled. "You are obsessed with stealing from the ministry, aren't you?"
"I must return, Abe," I said quietly. "I cannot abandon Harry now. The boy needs help."
He drew in a deep breath and said, "You are here now. Any Time-Turner we use cannot restore you to your previous age. Now why don't you go see what this Tom is doing before we take any drastic measures? You said you had been thinking of him. So the device has sent you to the time it thinks you should meet."
"He is not old enough to attend school yet," I told him. "He must be eight years old now. Why would the device want us to meet now?"
My brother sighed and pinched his nose. Then he said flatly, "I have to open the inn, Albus. Eat your toast, transfigure your chicken into a proper goat and then check on Tom. We will talk in the evening. Yes, yes, I will keep an eye on the Ministry channels to see if you can get a Time-Turner."
I knew that no further discussion would be encouraged right then. I nodded and started nibbling on the toast. He took his leave. I decided to borrow my brother's best suit and shoes. His taste in clothing was so staid and I nearly charmed the jacket into a lovely shade of purple before thinking twice. Aberforth had always raised hell if Mother added a touch of colour to his clothes. I did not want that, not now. So I dressed myself in the dull clothing, threw the Invisibility cloak on and crept down the stairs. Fawkes had vanished right when Aberforth had mentioned transfiguration and goats in the same sentence. I was not worried. Fawkes was better at taking care of himself than I was.
London in the early 1930s was a determined city leaving behind gas-lights for electricity and horse-drawn carriages for motor vehicles. In 1931, Ford had opened a new factory in East London employing hundreds of labourers and saving a generation from poorhouses.
In the September of 1934, the city was still flushed with the successful conclusion to the Commonwealth Games. There were rumblings of unrest and persecution filtering through the ministerial channels. Yet the common man in London was thankful for being spared the unemployment and economic troubles that plagued the rest of Britain. This would soon change.
I decided to walk from Charing Cross to the nondescript orphanage. Taking in the long-forgotten smells and sights of London before the war, I was wallowing in my nostalgia and regrets that I did not pay attention to my path. I was torn away from my musings by a wave of wild magic.
I rushed in the direction of the source, my wand at the ready. Which poor soul was he playing with now? Yet, even as I ran, I could not help wondering at the uncontrolled nature of his magic. It seemed an outburst of distress and pain. He had always had such perfect control. In fact, this was the first time I had felt his wild magic. It was undirected and harmless.
The magic led me to a small square plot. Perhaps it was one of those recreational areas designated by the corporation. A dozen or so boys were standing in a semicircle, facing away from me, jeering and throwing stones at something at their feet. A cat? Boys had often thrown stones at Minerva while she walked the grounds in her transfigured form.
"What is going on?" I demanded, tapping the shoulder of the nearest boy. The oldest among them looked sixteen and the youngest about seven.
They took one look at my tall form and ran away. The magic ceased. I looked down and cried out in horror. It was not a cat. It was a naked boy. His ribs stuck out painfully against his bruised skin. There were numerous cuts and burns on the pale torso. One hand was shoved into his mouth and he was biting hard on it. I could see the blood trickling onto the dusty ground. The other hand was cupped protectively over his genitals. His eyes were closed tightly and his long legs were clamped together. I was transported to the play-ground where Ariana had been found abandoned after the Muggle boys had finished teaching her their lesson.
Before I knew it, I had already knelt beside him and taken him into my arms. Quickly, I took off my cloak and covered him up.
"It is over," I soothed the child. "They won't harm you again."
His eyes shot open and I gasped as familiar dark eyes roved over my face silently beseeching reassurance of his safety.
"It won't happen again," I promised.
"Mrs. Cole says that every time she rescues me," he rasped and that broke my heart into wretched little pieces. I should have tried to succour him all those years ago. He had saved himself with power and control when nobody else had saved him.
He was now trying to move out of my arms and his long legs struggled to obey his whim. With a deep breath, he murmured, "Thank you, kind sir. I must be going now."
He wiped his bleeding hand on his thigh. His other hand had not yet moved from its protective shield over his genitals. I did not even want to speculate on why he felt that necessary. Fear and anger were coursing through me. Without pausing to think twice, I scooped him into my arms, stood up and apparated back.
We ended up right in the middle of my brother's goat-pen. He toppled out of my hands and landed heavily on the wet earth. A goat which eerily resembled Aberforth himself nudged the boy's nose.
"Why, yes, honoured to meet you, Billy," he murmured softly.
I knelt beside him and tried to help him up. He shot me a curious look before accepting my hand.
Somehow, he managed to embody quiet dignity despite his injuries and nakedness. Then he fixed me with a piercing stare and asked solemnly, "Am I down the rabbit hole?"
I waved my hand and changed my clothing into the usual flamboyant, vibrantly coloured robes. He took a step away from me, shock flitting across his features before he schooled himself into composure, and he said, "You must be the Mad Hatter."
Then he promptly fainted.
"Albus!" Aberforth shouted as he walked to the pen with his long strides. The wards must have alerted him. He stared in shock as I ran my wand over the boy's body to diagnose his condition. "Albus, you are forbidden to molest young boys in my goat-pen!"
I shot a glare at him before returning to my task. Aberforth snorted and came to join me. He saw the boy's body and gasped.
"Albus!" he hissed, his voice breaking over the syllables of my name. His hand came to grip my shoulder and he fell to his knees beside me. We were once again in Godric's Hollow, weeping over Ariana after the Muggle boys had finished their fun with her.
"He is not Ariana," I whispered, trying to keep my voice calm and even. "He is stronger, Abe. Nothing will happen."
Aberforth fingered the rosary beads about his neck and did not loosen his grip on my shoulder as I carefully healed the boy. Aberforth had turned to religion for solace after our sister's death. I had turned to the halls of academia. Now, once again, we were united by the ghost of Ariana as we willed the boy to pull through.
Two hours later, we faced each other across Aberforth's cot where the boy had been tucked in.
"He heals fast," I murmured.
"Albus, the child has survived seven or eight years of this. His magic knows that he needs to heal fast if he is to survive."
True. I told him, "It worries me that his magic was wild, Abe. It did nothing to help him. I knew him as someone with complete control over magic and mind."
"Wild magic messed with her mind," Aberforth said softly.
Ariana's magic and mind had been destroyed by her ordeal at the hands of those boys. It had been the flare of her wild magic which had alerted us to her distress that day. I shifted in my chair. Tom was stronger, wasn't he? Tom was not Ariana.
Aberforth fingered his rosary beads. I gripped Tom's slender fingers and willed him to wake up sane and whole.
"Sir?" A slender finger was tapping my knuckles. "Your brother says you have to wake up."
I shot to my feet and stared at the boy standing before me. He had quickly drawn his hand away, panicking at my sudden reaction, and was now shooting a desperate glance towards the kitchen from where I could hear the banging of pots and pans. I sighed in relief at seeing him up and about.
"You are better, then?" I asked taking in the sight of him in a cream shirt and plain black trousers. Aberforth must have shrunken his clothes. The boy looked older than his eight years. I decided to get a nice orange suit for him. It would become him much better than these staid colours.
"Yes," he said firmly. "Your brother asked me to fetch you."
I hurried into the kitchen and sat down at the rickety table. Aberforth set a plate of steak and kidney pie before me, muttering all the while about brothers who eat decent folks out of home and hearth. I helped myself to a slice and relished the savoury taste, turning a deaf ear to his grumblings. Aberforth was an excellent cook.
Tom had followed me into the kitchen and was now sitting at the table and quietly peeling potatoes. He did that with an adroitness which betrayed long practice.
"I am keeping you," Aberforth declared as he set a plate before Tom with a large slice of the pie. He shoved the potatoes and the peeling knife to the side and pulled for himself a chair beside Tom.
"I am not a goat, sir" Tom pointed out.
I had always thought that Tom's politeness was a facade to the darkness within. Now I was doubtful. The boy had been, for that all he knew, abducted by a stranger and he had no reason to be polite.
"Billy thinks you are a goat, and you guessed his name right," my brother said firmly. "So that is that, then."
Tom's lips curved upward before he quickly averted his eyes to the pie.
"Mrs. Cole will be worried," he said quietly. "Father Sebastian too."
"Who is Father Sebastian?" Aberforth asked.
"The priest at the seminary nearby, sir. He lets me feed the pigeons and read his books whenever I visit him." Tom's face had a pensive cast to it as he glanced at the window. "They will be worried, sir. Mrs. Cole often locks me in and canes me whenever I make something unnatural happen, but she does care."
"What are the unnatural things you can make happen?" I asked, all thoughts of second chances evaporating at his admission.
"I don't get wet in the rain," he said. "The Sunday roast is burnt when I am grounded. Those who hurt me fall ill." His composure fell away abruptly and he whispered, "That is all."
"And?" I asked, knowing well that he was withholding something. "You were about to say something more."
His eyes flashed and he said, "That is all I can tell you, sir."
Aberforth said hastily, "Albus, let the boy eat. He needs some meat on his bones."
Had Tom killed a rabbit? Had he tortured a child into madness? What if the other boys had been ganging up on him for something he had done to one of theirs?
"Tom?" I called him.
He met my gaze unflinchingly. I sharpened my thoughts and probed the boy's mind. Confusion, determination and hope. His eyes widened in fear as he realised what was happening and a burning harpoon of anger pierced the blanket of my mind over his. The next thing I knew, a scowling Aberforth was helping me back to the chair. Tom was glaring at me.
"What did you do?" he asked coldly. "Whatever it is, please don't do it again."
"If you had told me-" I began my retort.
He cut in saying, "Why would I tell you? I don't even know why you have brought me here or who you are." To his credit, he looked more puzzled than angry.
"That is enough, Albus. Tom, eat up," Aberforth growled. I rubbed my forehead. Tom shot me a curious glance before obeying my brother.
"It is the tastiest pie I have had, sir," Tom said a while later.
"Call me Abe, my lad," my brother said. "I will write to your Mrs. Cole. We can go and see her next weekend, if that suits you, eh? Albus won't try his little games on you, I promise."
"Yes, Abe," Tom gave in, after giving me a nervous glance. "I promise to work for my food and board."
"My brother brought you here, didn't he?" Aberforth asked. "So he can pay for your food and board. You just keep my billy goat company and enjoy your stay."
He reached across to ruffle the boy's hair. Tom bit his lips and stayed stoically still until my brother's hand moved away. Since I was sitting across the boy, I saw the brief flash of panic over his features.
"What about me?" I asked.
Tom looked up at Abe. I had never seen Tom so relaxed with anyone else. Well did I remember Walburga kissing his cheek on St. Valentine's Day in 1940 and ending up in the hospital wing for a fortnight. Of course, Aberforth would achieve the impossible. I glared at my brother.
"You," Aberforth pointed a spoon at me, "are helping me with the dishes."
Tom did not laugh, but his eyes shone in mirth as he looked at my woebegone expression.
"It took me the better part of an hour to calm him down after he woke up here and panicked," Aberforth muttered as we sat by the fire with glasses of mead. "You should have at least told him that you were about to apparate. You scared the child out of his wits. And what were thinking when you used your mind tricks on him like that? He is eight years old, Albus! You could have destroyed his mind."
"He likes you," I remarked.
I did not want to talk about the foiled Legilimency. It had become second nature to me to probe others' minds to check the veracity of their words. Aberforth was right. Murderer or not, Tom was still too young to be subjected to battles of the mind. However, I told myself, it had been necessary. I had to find out what Tom had done. Victim he might have been when I had discovered him, but I knew well how resilient he was. Besides, he had repelled my mind easily. I spared a moment to wish in vain that Harry had been equally talented at closing his mind. Poor Severus had been nearly driven out of his wits by their lessons.
"Albus, you must promise me that you won't go foraging in his mind," Aberforth growled. "I have given you a second chance. You will give him the benefit of doubt. He has no reason to trust strangers. How can you expect him to confide in you? He is not hot-headed. He is weighing his choices and options. As of now, he trusts me more than he trusts you. That is wise of him since he knows you are the one who abducted him and tried to rifle through his mind."
"Abducted?" I spluttered. "I was saving him!"
"Yes, make that clear the next time you play the knight," Aberforth retorted. "The boy thought you were one of those rich perverts who kidnap children off the streets. He was frightened out of his wits when he woke up naked and saw you by the bed. It does not help that you look immoral."
"I look immoral, do I?" I asked, scandalised. He smirked and I quickly changed the subject not wanting to hear why he thought so. "The boy is wary about predators."
"Yes, Albus." Aberforth sighed. "He is as flighty as a colt. Albus, for all we know, he might be hiding memories of that sort. You are not to break into his mind. Even the most resilient can break if pushed too far. I know what you do. You break people and then comfort them with your hugs and touches so that they remain indebted to you. Don't touch him. Don't touch his mind."
"You are the one who ruffled his hair," I pointed out, while chewing over what Aberforth had said. He might be right. I remembered the way Tom had been shielding his lower body even when he had been out of his mind with pain. My brother had given me a second chance. I had not even given Tom a first chance.
"What will I do now, Aberforth?" I sighed.
I could not return. I did not know which charms were used on the experimental Time-Turner which had brought me here. So how could I bewitch another Time-Turner and make sure that I ended up in my own timeline? My age, my charred hand and the ring. I could not return. Now what would I do with Tom?
"I am keeping him," Aberforth said firmly. "I won't let another go Ariana's way. I think you should stay, Albus. The boy can ease your guilt and he needs a father-figure."
"Aren't you the better choice for a father-figure? He has no reason to trust me, like you so helpfully pointed out."
"Being a father-figure is a punishment, Albus. You can toil to win his trust. Billy and I are the indulgent uncles."
I decided to ignore the connotations of 'Billy and I'. It would only serve to give me nightmares. Being a father-figure to Tom? He had killed his father in my timeline. He was the last person on earth to need a father-figure, wasn't he? Then I remembered how his dark eyes had sought reassurance when I was trying to soothe him in the playground. I remembered Ariana. Second chances.
"What about the Albus in the Castle?" I frowned at my restored hand once more. "Abe, this is a paradox."
"Shut up and drink your mead," Aberforth told me. "I will see that proper arrangements are made."
I had borne the brunt of making decisions all my life. It was a relief to have someone else telling me what to do.
"Very well, then," I agreed, finishing off the mead. "I am going to bed now."
"Godric's Hollow," Aberforth decreed, as he stood by the kitchen window and watched the boy who was watering the vegetable garden.
I slammed my porridge spoon on the table and hissed, "No!"
"It is the only place which is safe enough, Albus," Aberforth told me sharply. "The Castle Albus will never come there."
Aberforth and I had fled Godric's Hollow after Ariana's funeral. He had come to Hogsmeade and I had escaped to Flamel's residence in France. Neither of us had returned to Godric's Hollow afterwards.
"You know it is the only choice, Albus," he insisted. "It is for the greater good."
"Don't throw my words back at me!" I shouted. "I cannot return there. I will not return there. The boy can go back to his orphanage and I can hide myself in Africa. Anywhere, except there."
"How many folks have you cajoled and blackmailed into facing their darkest nightmares, all using your greater good theme?" Aberforth demanded. "Albus, this is no longer about you. This is about the boy. You can give him a home and try to change his future. If you let him return to the orphanage, you know what the end results shall be."
Tom was a survivor. He would lash out before he was harmed. If he returned to the orphanage now, he would come to Hogwarts as he had been all those years ago - closed off, sadistic and power-hungry in a bid to protect himself from the world. It would be too late to do anything then.
"Look at him," murmured Aberforth.
Tom was singing softly now. His voice was high and clear. It reminded me of Elphias Doge's voice before his puberty had set in. The verses he sang evoked memories of my mother and Sunday masses. Perhaps his Father Sebastian had taught him the song. Tom singing of heaven and hallowed fathers? It was incongruous, to say the least! Yet I could not help noticing that the serenity on his features became him well. My mother's old piano-forte was still in Godric's Hollow. A picture of Tom's slender fingers coaxing soulful music out of those ancient keys flashed in my mind.
"A fine singing voice," Aberforth said. "He has a good head for music."
"Isn't it one of your hymns?" I asked Aberforth.
"It is the Lord's Prayer. He knows quite a few," my brother told me. "He was singing Ave Maria earlier in the morning. It seems both Mrs. Cole and Father Sebastian are Catholic. Tom told me that he likes the songs though he doesn't believe in Gods and angels. Reminds me of you."
"Perhaps irreverent Irish lays may be more to his taste," I remarked.
"You are not teaching him Leprechaun ballads!" Aberforth snapped.
The boy had finished watering the plants and was now making his way up the path to the kitchen door. Aberforth fell silent and I sipped my tea.
"Good morning!" I greeted the boy as he entered the kitchen. "Would you care to accompany us on a little trip to our old home?"
Tom looked at me suspiciously before shifting his glance to Aberforth. My brother assured him, "No, Tom, there is nothing to be worried about. You have my word that we are not drug peddlers or child molesters."
Tom nodded and said quietly, "I would like to send a letter to Mrs. Cole before we leave. Would that be against those secrecy laws you spoke about yesterday, Abe?"
"Albus, help the boy write his letter, won't you? I will go down to the inn and put up a closed sign."
Tom looked uncomfortable after Aberforth had left. I told him gently, "I apologise for yesterday. I did not mean to harm you."
"It is hardly the first time someone has harmed me, sir," Tom replied flatly, his dark eyes wary and focussed on me as if expecting me to assault his mind once again. "May I write my letter, please?"
I conjured a goose-feather quill, an inkpot and parchment from thin air and set them before him with a flourish. He eyed my wand sceptically before drawing the parchment to him. Then he looked at the quill and the inkpot in bewilderment.
"Do you suppose you could make a pencil appear?" he asked me.
"Aren't you a bright boy?" I teased him. "I am sure you will learn how to use the quill."
He pursed his lips and did not look at me again. I cursed myself. I should have kept in mind that the boy was only eight. He was not the self-assured, arrogant teenager who charmed Hogwarts all those years ago. Tom was eight, he had badly suffered at the hands of that gang, he had been abducted and now he was in unfamiliar surroundings alone with the man who had tried to break into his mind.
He shot me a triumphant glance then. He had managed to write a sentence with only a few ink blots marring the letters. I could not help admiring his resilience.
Smiling, I conjured a pen and placed it before him saying, "Well done, Tom. Here is the pen you wanted. Mrs. Cole may not appreciate the blots."
He did not thank me, but took up a fresh parchment and began writing with the pen. The boy was still peeved with me, wasn't he? I had to keep myself from pinching his cheeks. Cheeks. The boy needed to put on some weight. Eight year olds were meant to be chubby and cute and dressed in colourful clothes. Ariana had been very pretty at eight with her bright red frocks and pigtails.
"We must get you clothes, my boy," I said happily, carried away by my thoughts. I tried to imagine how he would look like if he had some meat on his bones and a ruddy complexion. I frowned. Tom had never looked very healthy. It was the clothes, I decided. He needed colourful clothing. "Blue, purple and red. We need to buy you a toy unicorn too. It helps you sleep better, you know."
The scritch-scratch of the boy's pen stopped. I looked at him, concerned. He was staring at me rather fearfully now.
"Yes?" I asked.
He shook his head quickly and returned to his letter. Sighing, he massaged his right wrist and transferred the pen to his left hand before resuming his writing.
"You write with your left hand?" I asked, startled.
He looked up at me suspiciously before saying, "I can write with both hands."
"Talented," I remarked.
"It was necessary," he replied, pensively staring at the words he had written. "I needed to complete my homework. My right hand was fractured after...a fall. The teacher would have caned me before the school assembly if I didn't turn in the homework. I had to learn to write with my left hand that night."
Unbidden, a flare of pity coursed through my blood. Who could be cruel enough to cane an eight-year-old child before an entire assembly? Little wonder why Tom had been maniacal about his privacy in the earlier timeline.
"Were you caned often?" I asked quietly.
He twirled the pen once before saying, "I was rarely caned in the school. It was at the orphanage that I was punished often. They believe I make unnatural things happen because a demon possesses me. They believe if I cry out loud enough, the demon will be expelled from my body." He twirled the pen once again. Then he said, "Abe told me that you cannot beat the magic out of someone."
"Abe is right," I said gently. "You are very magical. No amount of beatings or canings is going to take that from you. It was your magic which brought me to you yesterday, you know."
He nodded, still deep in his thoughts. I asked him what had been bothering me since I had rescued him, "Why didn't you harm the boys who were throwing stones at you?"
He flushed before dropping his eyes to the floor.
"You want the answer. Won't you look into my mind, then?" he demanded.
I tried to keep my voice even and gentle as I said, "I told you I am sorry for what I did yesterday. I am not going to look into your mind."
His eyes darted up to hold my gaze for a mere second before they flickered over to the dirty dishes in the sink.
"Mrs. Cole took me to an asylum last week. They injected something which made me very ill. Mrs. Cole said I was frothing at the mouth and kicking everything within reach. " His voice broke and he whispered, "I was weak after that. The boys don't usually pick on me, sir. They know better. After I was brought back from the asylum, it has been difficult. They know I cannot do anything to resist. I was trying to protect myself yesterday. It didn't work."
I had heard of drugs being used to induce convulsions in mental patients who were committed to Muggle asylums. I recalled the punctures in Tom's wrists and thighs before I had healed him. How could anyone be cruel enough to put a mere child through that? Now I understood Tom's passion for using the Cruciatus curse on Muggles.
"You are not returning to them," I swore. "What they did was wrong but fate will punish them."
"Is wanting revenge wrong, then?" he asked me. His face was emotionless and his fingers were splayed comfortably on the table top without betraying the least amount of his tension.
I could not tell him about good and evil. Father Sebastian's preaching had not made an impact on him. I knew Tom well enough to realise that he would not see in shades of mere black and white. He saw the world in eldritch colours.
"I think it is wrong," I told him carefully. This would be important, I knew. How I wished that Aberforth was here with us! He seemed to know how to answer Tom's questions without making the boy withdraw into himself.
Tom held my gaze fearlessly and said, "I don't know if wanting revenge is wrong or right. I only know that revenge feels good."