If you like Eldritch, give its companion pieces a try, if you'd like to. I finally finished the Prometheus Triptych – A Rhapsody in Riddle (circa 1942), Prometheus, Prometheus, I will not bind thee (circa 1948) and I will always sing for you (circa 1976). They are linked from my profile page.
Simca: Thank you for the lovely, kind review for Prometheus. I am glad that the characterisations of Tom and Abraxas there work for you! I had worries about Riddle's characterisation there. Also, thank you for reviewing Eldritch! Tom's lack of bother about social conventions was what I thought of when writing about his reaction to Albus's sexual conflict. I am glad that part doesn't sound out of character for him when you read it! I can't wait to see how their road together is going to write itself out :)
Vanya: I am sorry for the delay in updating. I am glad that you liked the chapters so far and hope that you'll be patient with me for the rest of it too.
StellaMaris: I am glad that crochety Dumbledore works for you! He has been fun to write. I hope the coming chapter works for you.
KD613: It is great to hear that Tom's characterisation here works for you! I'm chuffed at your kind words that the fic manages to be subtle and doesn't give away too much. Thank you and I hope you like the rest of it!
Annie: I once promised you that I won't abandon the story. I am reiterating that here. The updates might be delayed though. I hope you can forgive that. Your words are as gloriously addictive as ever. Thank you! You are right in that canon Albus doesn't ever describe Tom without alluding at least once every passage to his handsomeness ;) And they were both as bonkers as march hares. You also point out the raw truth of their characters here: the lack of trust and insecurity that they both hide with their eccentricities, knowledge and power. I liked writing sleepy Tom and it's great to hear you liked that! Thank you and a happy new year!
Reader: Thank you! Writing from Albus's first person has been an interesting experience. Like you said, there's much more behind the twinkling and I'm slowly by trial and error finding out how deep a pit I've dug myself into ;) The younger Albus in canon is not as verbally condescending, I think. He was less...willing to trust than the Dumbledore of the HP era, maybe because of the fallout with Grindelwald.
Who Killed Cock Robin?
The average Englishman takes to change as well as a cat to water. Aberforth was no exception. He harrumphed, made dire predictions, turned himself into a wet blanket of such proportions that even I began to dread the day of Tom's departure for Hogwarts. Castle Albus did not aid my spirits, what with his increasingly disheartening predictions about the catastrophes that would highlight the boy's time at Hogwarts.
Tom himself tended to while his days away out and about in the countryside, taking with him an apple or two and whatever book had caught his attention that day. I was concerned by his disinclination to play the piano in the evenings, but I attributed it to his nervousness as he was on the brink of a change in living circumstances. Though he had once said that he did not like the idea of living with hundreds of students, I did not believe that. He had always appreciated an audience for his genius. Hogwarts would give him that and I knew he must be looking forward to that despite his qualms.
I was to take charge as the Transfiguration teacher for this school year. Castle Albus would be the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. With the increasing uncertainty in Europe, the tension in the Muggle world, the goings-on in Germany and our Ministry's fumbling, we knew well that it was only a matter of time before war came to our shores. The children needed a teacher who would not shy away from demonstrating what exactly they might face once they left Hogwarts. Galatea Merrythought had expressed a desire to retire. She was an excellent teacher of theory, but she could not hold a candle to Castle Albus's vast experience and knowledge in matters related to actual wand-work. Slughorn had sided with us when the matter had been presented to Dippet. For some reason, Hyperion Malfoy had also supported this suggestion and the Board of Governors had endorsed it.
The Malfoys. Tom had not spoken of them since the day Sebastian had been killed. Aberforth and I had often speculated as to Hyperion Malfoy's motives.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that Malfoy is a stooge of his," I had told Aberforth one day, while we were discussing the Ministry's unwillingness to haul Malfoy in for questioning despite Moody's demands for the same. "It is in his family's nature to seek out and forge alliances with Dark Lords, clichéd as it sounds."
"I cannot deny that their family history is unsavoury," Aberforth admitted. "However, don't you think that there might be a less than black and white explanation for his involvement? The Squib was his brother-in-law. Do you suppose that the Squib had cashed in on Malfoy's affection for his dead wife and asked him to keep an eye on Tom?"
"Why?" I asked, angry as I always became at the mention of that horrible man who had contributed greatly to Tom's lack of trust in men. "Did he want the boy brought back? Did he ask Malfoy to kidnap the boy from right under our noses?"
"Malfoy is a father," Aberforth said gently, placing a warm, calloused hand on my wrist. "He is not a good man, but he is a father. He would not harm a boy of the same age as his own child."
"I know better than to believe that, Aberforth, and so should you!" I exclaimed. "You know that this bears his mark!"
"You told me that Malfoy said no sane businessman would throw in his lot with Grindelwald," Aberforth said, playing the devil's advocate as always.
I suppressed a flinch at the sound of the name Aberforth had voiced. It was a name I preferred to avoid hearing or uttering. Names had such power over us, did they not?
"Malfoy is not sane, Abe," I said wryly.
Aberforth had simply shaken his head and left it at that. We did not have more opportunities to ponder Malfoy's motivations since September was upon us and there were a thousand nitty-gritties to be worked out because we could be assured of a smooth transition without any loose ends or loopholes that might prove to be the end of our deception regarding Tom's guardianship and my fabricated personage as the Dumbledores's cousin with Mexican roots.
"You had best come with me," Castle Albus said. "You need to settle in before the students arrive."
"Aberforth will see him off on the Hogwarts Express," Castle Albus said merrily. "That way, Pinocchio will have his chance to make friends on the train. What do you think?"
I thought that it was a very bad idea to let Tom be unaccompanied. Who knew what sorts of gangs he might come across? It was not that I did not trust him to keep out of trouble, it was that I knew he would be too overwhelmed by the world tomorrow would push him into. A surprised Tom was not a prudent Tom. We had had enough fallout from his previous brushes with wild magic, hadn't we? It was not only wild magic that I had to worry about. I remembered the clear enunciation of each Latin word when he had practised them and the fire in his eyes as the power of the word had crested deep in him.
"He will not like it if you hovered about him like an overgrown fly," Castle Albus said bluntly. "It will be worse when he realises that none of the others have a guardian with them to accompany them to the school."
I remembered my father coming to see me off on the train. He had ruffled my hair, shoved my trunk in my hands and asked me to write regularly. I remembered the times my mother had come to see me off. There had been tears, hand-wringing, kisses and fussing. I had not liked the claustrophobic feeling at all. Then there had been the pitying looks my peers had given me at the sight of my mother's display. No, the journey through our adolescent years was best travelled with those in our own age group, and I could not smother Tom with my presence on the train when it might be his very first chance to make friends.
I tried to forget that Lord Voldemort had no friends, only allies and enemies.
"Had Albus Dumbledore?" Castle Albus asked quietly.
I frowned. Of course there had been close friends. There had been Elphias, Amelia, Ollivander and many others, hadn't there?
Castle Albus held my gaze. He seemed uncomfortable but determined to make his point all the same. I felt such a pang of aching nostalgia at the sight of him. This was what I had been before a duel in Europe and winning the Deathstick had made me into what I was.
"Do you think there isn't an element of fear involved in these friendships?" Castle Albus wondered.
There was fear. There was always fear when there was imbalance of power in a relationship. Elphias, Ollivander, Bartemius, Minerva and Severus had all feared me to some extent or the other. Only one person had not. Him I had sealed in a mountain fastness and his blood I had spilt on a land that thrummed to every verse of the Himnusz.
"Why do you tell me this?" I asked Castle Albus, curious as to his motives. It was not in him to give Tom the benefit of doubt. What had then spurred him to make this observation?
"I was merely wondering," he said distractedly.
So his ponderings had nothing to do with Tom and more to do with his fears and worries about himself. I remembered standing before a man I had loved. My hand had faltered as I felt the weight of the world's hope on my shoulders. They wanted me to kill a monster. It was the last thing in the world that I had wanted. Duty so often was. I did not know how to explain it to Castle Albus, or if I even wanted to. He had to come to terms with his destiny as I had, without being subverted by another's opinion.
If the smallest part of my heart hoped for a different resolution this time, if the most naive part of me hoped that Castle Albus would not be broken down as I was, I paid that part of my heart no mind and refused to think more on it. Aberforth was right. Preaching was easier than practising when it came to some concepts. Hope was one of those.
"Welcome to Hogwarts, Percival!" Horace said cheerfully as he pumped my hand between his whale-like appendages in greeting.
"Thank you, Horace," I gasped in pain, extracting my hand from his vise of a grip. "I look forward to the school-year."
"You will change your mind soon enough once the little devils arrive!" Horace assured me, waving a hand at a House-Elf that bobbed its head and with a snap of its fingers made my trunk disappear. "I will take you to your chambers and then escort you to the first staff meeting of the year."
"Staff meeting? To discuss schedules and such?" I asked politely.
I knew what transpired at Hogwarts staff meetings well enough. It would not do to enlighten Slughorn of that now, would it?
Horace paused a moment and peered at me. "Hasn't Albus told you of what it involves? Dear me, dear me, we might have difficulties then." He scrunched his nose and then said gaily, "We will manage, I am sure. You are a Dumbledore, after all."
Sometimes, the reputation of the Dumbledore name concerned me, especially since it seemed that we were more renowned for our oddities than for our talent.
My staff quarters were right by Castle Albus's. I frowned as I thought of the reasons why I had been assigned these chambers. If Dippet had been in charge of the allocation, I might have considered it as mere courtesy of placing family together. However I knew that it had been Castle Albus in charge of the allocation. That meant there were shadowy motives involved beyond a desire to fraternise with a cousin.
The rooms in themselves had no distinguishing qualities. I suppressed a smile as I remembered the first time I had shown Severus to his quarters after he had been hired. He had taken one look and muttered, "I saw more luxury in the dormitories as a student." He must have been speaking the truth, given how hedonistic it was in the Slytherin dormitories. They said it was simply their way of combating the draughty dungeons. I did have my sympathies for them, given how draughty it was down there. I had spent one night there waiting for Severus to return from a Death Eater meeting and had nearly frozen my bollocks off. That I had to endure listening to the caterwauling of the Weird Sisters had not helped my spirits any. Severus, fresh from a dormitory existence and the loud fights in his house, was unused to the quiet in his sleeping quarters at Hogwarts and often played loud music to drown out the silence.
"I hear that we shall be having an interesting boy in the new crop," Armando said genially in the middle of the staff meeting which mostly involved the decimation of the fine port Slughorn had brought along and the exquisite pies Pomona had baked for the event, all flavoured liberally with excellent gossip.
"That we shall!" Horace boomed. "Tom Riddle, the Ministry's dirty little secret."
"Dirty little secret?" Pomona asked worriedly. "How so?"
I was also frowning at Horace. What had he meant by that? Castle Albus cleared his throat and said apropos of nothing, "I wonder what has delayed Ogg?"
"Albus, don't you dare change the subject!" Madam Pomfrey cut in. "Horace, elaborate, please."
"It is nothing," Horace chuckled, a tad nervously, his enthusiasm quelled by Castle Albus's glare.
"Horace?" I pressed, unable to account for the quaver in my voice.
"The Unspeakables used certain Curses on him which are...unpardonable," Horace said quickly. "It ended quickly, I heard, when Mr. Malfoy brought the matter to the attention of the Ministry officials higher in the hierarchy. They hushed up the matter."
The Unforgivables. I remembered Bode taunting Aberforth about the boy being a better sport than the goats. I recalled how Aberforth had run his eyes fearfully over the boy as soon as he had returned from prison and the sigh of relief which had escaped my brother upon seeing that Tom was unharmed.
Not unharmed, though, if Horace's carefully phrased words were anything to go by. Castle Albus cleared his throat and did not meet my gaze. This explained why he had been kinder to Tom since the debacle, despite being condescending, snide and suspicious of the boy's character.
"On a child!" Pomona shrieked. Dippet looked equally horrified. Madam Pomfrey was glaring at Castle Albus who had thrown up his hands in helplessness and was now muttering about how he had no knowledge of what transpired in the lair of the Unspeakables. Filius, who had been occupied with Pomona's pies and Kettleburn's conversation until that point, was now leaning forward and peering suspiciously at Horace.
"Are you sure of your sources, Horace?" Filius asked. "Only, I find it difficult to believe that such travesty could happen in our Ministry, where most of the Unspeakables are Hogwarts alumni, girls and boys we taught."
Most Unspeakables were former Ravenclaws. I understood Filius's difficulty to believe in Horace's words.
Horace took a gulp of his port and said quietly, "I am not going to spin tales like this without being backed by sources I trust, am I, Filius?"
There was that.
The Slytherin Head of House took a deep breath and continued, "From everything I have heard of him, I suspect that the boy might be Sorted into Slytherin. I have made it my business to enquire about his past. It has been impossible. Powerful Memory Charms and concealments are involved at every turn."
I felt a pang of worry when I heard Horace say that he suspected Tom might be Sorted into Slytherin. Truly, though, had I any right to expect anything else? Had I hoped, foolishly, that Tom might be able to guess at my fears as he had done in the wand-shop and convince the Sorting Hat to place him in a different house?
"Merely the Ministry being cautious, Horace," Castle Albus said reassuringly. "There has been interest in the boy, as you know, from quarters not very benign. The Ministry does not want trouble stirred. So they have been guarding him and those involved in his life before he entered our world."
Horace did not look as if he was entirely convinced but he nodded and fell quiet. The conversation returned to Pomona's and Filius's betting on the House Cup.
"Not placing a bet on your House, Albus?" Pomona teased.
Castle Albus chuckled and said, "Why not? A hundred galleons on Gryffindor winning the House Cup and two hundred on winning the Quidditch Cup."
Pomona laughed saying, "You are very sure about the Quidditch Cup, aren't you? I will place a hundred on the House Cup."
"Not betting on your chances in the Quidditch Cup, Pomona?" Armando laughed.
"Some battles are lost before they have begun, Headmaster!" Pomona exclaimed. "Nobody stands a chance against Filius's Quidditch team this year."
"True, true, I will place three hundred galleons on my team," Filius said merrily. "And a hundred on the House Cup."
"Horace? Come on, be less cynical of your chances, won't you, even if I admit you have little to be cheerful about?" Castle Albus encouraged.
Horace rolled his eyes saying, "Slytherin might stand a chance if Lestrange, Avery and the Blacks stopped their power plays and started getting used to the concept that Quidditch is a team sport. As it is, no, Albus, I am not wasting my hard-earned galleons on this."
Later, after Dippet had half-heartedly remonstrated with the Heads of the Houses for betting on their students, we parted. I hurried to Horace who was making for the dungeons, no doubt to retire. He kept ridiculously early hours.
"Ah, Percival, is it anything that cannot wait for tomorrow?" he asked hopefully as he noticed I had fallen into step with him.
"Tom, my ward," I said tersely. "I wish I had known more of what the Ministry Unspeakables had been up to."
He sighed but offered no words.
"Why do you think that the boy might be sorted into your House?" I asked, after a few minutes of walking in silence. We had reached his quarters. The portrait guarding his door, a half-clad gnome, was leering at us. Horace threw it a reproving glare before turning to face me.
"No other house would taken in someone as broken as the boy seems to be," he said regretfully. "He might be as brave as a Gryffindor, as clever as a Ravenclaw, as sensible and loyal as a Hufflepuff, I do not know, but it does not matter in any case, since he is broken and the broken ones come to Slytherin."
The day the students returned to Hogwarts dawned bright and clear. I took a walk with Pomona in the castle grounds and listened to her merry chatter. It considerably dampened the ache that had set in after hearing Horace speak of the Unspeakables the previous night.
"You might need some time to get accustomed to our ways here," Pomona was saying, "but you will like it well enough soon. The first few days of teaching might wear you down more than you had expected, but you will learn the tricks of the trade in a few weeks, I am sure. Keep your head up, talk to us if you need to, don't be too hard on the children and you will do well."
She had given Minerva and Severus the same speech when they had started teaching.
"I understand that you place considerable importance on the Sorting process here," I remarked.
I had always been curious to know what Pomona thought of it. She had never voiced her opinion on this while in my presence.
"Yes," she laughed, though there was no mirth in her voice. "To an outsider like you, the importance we place on Sorting must seem unusual. It is a tradition for us. A tradition that dictates the rest of your life."
Carefully, I told her, "Seems to me that a mangy hat might not be the best judge of a child's character. It does not make sense to me that a hat's decision would make the man or the woman the child grows into."
She sighed and tucked her arm in my elbow. Then she looked up the robin-blue skies and said softly, "Truer words have never been spoken, Percival. That hat has been the breaking and making of many. I have thought often that we might be better off without it. It decides our future on our flaws more than our virtues, I have noticed."
"So do you think that Horace was right when he predicted that the boy would end up in his House?"
"Horace Slughorn hasn't made a wrong Sorting prediction yet," she said wryly. "So, yes, Percival, your Tom will be a Slytherin. You need to stop paying attention to the anti-Slytherin rhetoric which is common in our castle and deal with the fact that your ward will be spending his next seven years in the bosom of Horace's dungeons where the Blacks, the Averys, the Lestranges and the Malfoys will try to convert him to their ideals of blood supremacy and what not. I hope, for your sake and the boy's, that he has a sensible head on his shoulders."
"He has an artistic temperament, Pomona," I said, barely masking my worries.
She patted my hand and said gently, "Let us hope that this is the first time old Horace has gone wrong with a prediction, shall we?"
The teachers assembled in the Great Hall for the feast. I was placed between Horace and Pomona. Castle Albus's seat, beside Armando's, remained conspicuously empty as did Kettleburn's. There, in the middle of the hall, in a place of prominence was the Hat on a stool. I tried not to look at it.
The great doors opened with a resounding thud and Kettleburn came in chivvying in the rain-drenched first years. They were shivering and huddled together in little groups, whispering and pointing out people and things in the hall, all but one. My knuckles were white on the armrests of my chair as I looked at the boy. There he stood, as pale as freshly fallen snow and as poised as a prince, the dark school-clothes becoming him as nothing else had. His eyes were not wide in astonishment nor was he nervous in the least. He was staring at the Hogwarts emblem on the wall, his eyes alit with quiet curiosity as they flicked over the motto of the school.
Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titilliandus
His lips curved in a soft smile as he read the motto. Then he turned half-about and raised his eyebrows at me. I frowned. He threw a daring look at me and then turned back to the motto.
Caper Dormiens Nunquam Titilliandus
Do not tickle a sleeping goat. It was a private joke Tom and I often spoke of whenever Aberforth flew off the handle at something we had done. Dear heavens! I half-rose with an exclamation on my lips. Horace's hand came to steer me back into the chair. I turned to face him. He was laughing and winking at Tom.
"I look forward to having him in my classes, Percival. How incredibly talented!"
Castle Albus flicked his wand once and the motto was restored. Tom had joined the rest of the shivering, soaked first years and stood inconspicuously to a side, his eyes downcast and his posture the picture of humility.
"The castle must like him," Horace remarked. "This castle, Percival, does not allow just anyone to play with it, you see."
I was reminded of that tale of the Giant and his castle. The Tom I had known had always had a bond to this castle, a bond strong enough to bend the structure's will to placing a curse on the Dark Arts position.
"He might have to be careful to keep a low profile," Horace was saying. "Our world, in wizarding Britain, is small enough and every piece of gossip reaches the corners of the country."
Sure enough, many of the first years were pointing at him and muttering in low voices. Seeing Tom's fingers clenched tightly, I knew well enough what the gist of those conversations might be. He was staring at the ceiling in a bid to avoid meeting someone's gaze. Curious, I looked around.
"The young Malfoy boy has been trying to catch your ward's attention for the better part of the last quarter of an hour," Horace said.
True enough, Abraxas, a golden-haired sun amongst the blacks and browns of the Lestranges and the Blacks he was standing amidst, was bouncing on the balls of his feet, trying to make eye contact with Tom who had decided that the hall ceiling was an artefact of significant interest and more worth his time than the rest of the people in the hall.
Armando clapped his hands to call the Hall to order. The older students settled at their tables and looked at the crop of first years speculatively, no doubt playing a game of prediction and placing bets. I used to do that with Elphias. The only time he had won and I had lost was when Aberforth had been Sorted. My brother existed to see me humbled.
I barely paid attention to the Hat's song lost as I was in my musings and I was brought back to the moment only when Castle Albus's voice boomed clear and loud in the Hall as he directed the first years to step up to the stool and place the Hat on their heads when their name was called.
The Hat took a few seconds. It always did with the Blacks. They had courage and recklessness enough to suit a Gryffindor but their roots demanded Slytherin.
"Slytherin!" the Hat decided.
There was polite clapping at the Slytherin table and jeers from the Gryffindors. I suppressed a smile. Some things never changed, did they?
There she was, as pretty as an oil-painting by a medieval master, graceful and arrogant as the Blacks all were without exception.
"Slytherin!" the Hat crowed.
Young Crouch had an argument with the Hat and was finally sent to Ravenclaw much to his smugness and to the chagrin of his Rosier cousins in Slytherin. The Crouches were a powerful Wizarding family and having him in Slytherin would have probably aided the House's chances at the Cup greatly.
Dorea Black, Adolphus and Florentin Lestrange ended up in Slytherin, to nobody's surprise, just as Alastor Moody, Charlus Potter and Septimus Weasley went to Gryffindor with vociferous joy. The Hat seemed more undecided with the young Malfoy boy. He sat there with his eyes scrunched shut and a frown between his pretty brows. Then he scowled and muttered something under his breath. The Hat placed him in Slytherin and he sighed in relief. It was just as well, I supposed. The old Manor would have collapsed if the boy had been placed anywhere else.
Casca Skeeter ended up in Ravenclaw and he had a scowl on his mulish features. I remembered what Tom had said in the wand-shop.
Tom did not approach the Hat with the nervousness or fear that the others had, nor did he have the arrogance that the Blacks had shown when it had been their turn. Instead, he walked calmly to the Hat, lifted it and stroked it once with the fingers of his right hand. Then he took his seat on the stool, daintily throwing back his cloak as he did so. When he placed the Hat on his head and closed his eyes, Castle Albus stepped close to him, wand held out in readiness as he did so. What did he expect to happen?
Then Tom flinched and his hands rose in the air as if to push back an unseen adversary. Castle Albus had already approached him and placed a hand on his trembling shoulder.
"You are of Slytherin, young Riddle, and to Slytherin you must go!" the Hat declared before falling off the boy's head.
Castle Albus steadied the shaken boy and delivered him to the care of the Slytherin Prefects. Tom shrugged them off quickly and made for a seat in the midst of an empty stretch at the table. Nobody made any move to speak to him though they were assessing him suspiciously. Most of them scrunched their noses, as if he had fallen short of their measure. Abraxas Malfoy was staring at him openly. Tom had splayed his hands on the table and had his gaze fixed on his fingers.
"You might want to have a word with your Prefects to keep an eye on him to make sure he comes to no harm," I told Horace worriedly.
Horace shook his head and said, "Percival, it doesn't work that way in my House. He needs to earn the respect of the Prefects before they will grant him protection. Nothing I say will change that and may only damage his standing in their eyes."
This was true for Gryffindor too, I knew, and I suspected that it was true for the other Houses. A teacher's protection would not get an oddball anywhere whereas as proving oneself would. I did not worry about Tom failing to protect himself. I did, however, worry deeply about how he might go about the task. And in the darkest corner of me, I had nightmares of Tom's wild magic flaring helplessly as he sought to escape his tormentors in the playground only to fail.
That night, I was restless and even a tipple of brandy failed to settle me. Giving up sleep as a lost cause, I squeezed my feet into the frothy purple slippers Aberforth had given me for the last Christmas, grabbed my wand, threw a housecoat on and left for a walk in the corridors. Long before Severus had discovered roaming the Castle at nights as a cure for insomnia, I had done the same. There was something calming about the Castle during the night, with the deserted, quiet hallways throwing the magnificence of Hogwarts into prominence against which mere mortal insomniacs were insignificant. Severus had once compared it to being alone in a large cathedral with only the faintest whispers of past chanted prayers lingering in the cold, stone walls.
I had just reached the fourth floor, with vague plans of making for the library and whiling away the rest of the night there, when I heard a distinctive voice making conversation with a portrait in the next corridor.
Tom could not give it a rest for one night before he had started exploring the Castle, could he?
It had always been so. It was during the darkest hours of the nights that Tom and I had often chanced across each other in shared territories. During those eldritch hours between twilight and dawn, we had often set aside hostilities and walked beside each other silently before parting ways at a crossroads in the corridors. Even before he had been made a Prefect, I had never taken points from him or forbidden him to stop his midnight wanderings. I had never considered him as a student, had I?
Now, I smiled at the sight of him earnestly conversing with the portrait about the magicked ceiling of the Great Hall. Softly, I took myself away and back to bed.
"Good luck!" Horace wished me as I prepared to face my first class of the year.
"Yes, good luck with the little monsters!" Pomona said cheerfully as she passed us.
The teachers of Hogwarts had, as far as I remembered, always called the charges affectionately as the little monsters. Severus, I am afraid to say, did not hold the honour of christening the children so. In fact, Severus had rarely complained about the students in the staff-room or in private conversations. The old adage that out of sight was out of mind certainly applied to him when it came to teaching. He tended to forget all about his teaching duties when he left his class-room and remained engrossed in his experiments in the Dark Arts though he tried to convince me that he only ever studied methods to repel them. I had let him keep that facade, for it was truly a pleasure to listen to his excited conversation about his work. His enthusiasm for his beloved research, I supposed often, might be the reason why both Voldemort and I had always held a soft corner for the infuriating creature. How often had I given up my nights to correct Potions assignments while he begged off so that he could return to his blessed research? I could never deny him that, given that I had claimed so much of what was his. All the same, the poor pupils might have been horrified to know that their benevolent Headmaster was in fact the person to give the pen of the Potions Professor such a dreaded reputation.
"An excellent choice of robes!" Castle Albus congratulated me.
I was glad that there was at least one person in the Castle who knew what elegance was. Tom had taken one look at my canary yellow robes in the morning and promptly winced. So had Horace, Armando and Pomona.
The first class I had had fifth year Gryffindors and Ravenclaws. They were a pleasure to teach. Castle Albus had done excellently in preparing them for the rigorous O.W.L syllabus that lay ahead of them this year. Marcus McKinnon was the first to Vanish his rat in entirety. I awarded him twenty points for a job well done, patted his head and bid the rest of the class to keep trying until they achieve satisfactory result. Apart from Sigmund Trelawney, who seemed to have difficulties in accepting that Vanished rats would no longer exist, the rest of the class managed to do extremely well. I decided to speak in private with Sigmund and reassure him that Vanishing rats did not make him a murderer.
In the afternoon, first year Gryffindors and Slytherins flocked to my classroom. I suppressed a sigh when I saw the glares and scowls being traded. They had already begun, hadn't they? It was after they had taken their seats that I noticed Tom was not of their number. I frowned.
"I apologise for being late, Sir," Tom said, as he reached the doorstep of my classroom, panting slightly and out of breath.
"I hope you have a good reason?" I enquired, searching for that ideal balance between concern and sternness.
Tom passed me a note bearing Horace's seal and waited. I waved him off and he took a seat by one of the windows. I opened Horace's note and suppressed a smile at the long list of effusive words of praise. Horace was taken with the boy, wasn't he? Then again, he always had been. I knew well that Horace's soft corner for the boy had not died even after he had realised about the Horcruxes.
"Now, Transfiguration is one of the most important subjects that you will learn here. It will have a bearing on your career choices and your skill as a fully qualified wizard. You must pay attention in this classroom. Transfiguration is not an art that is easy to undo should you make a mistake." Long faces and worried eyes greeted me. I chuckled and said, "That is only window-dressing, children. It is much, much easier than people let on and I am sure that we shall have a great deal of enjoyment in this classroom." The faces brightened considerably. "Let us convert matches to needles, shall we?" I asked my class.
The Blacks were the only ones who seemed confident. Doubtless, they had revised the first year syllabus before coming here. Walburga tossed her hair and looked around smugly at the rest of her worried classmates. I chanced a look at Tom. He seemed politely interested, betraying neither apprehension nor eagerness. Quite a change from his sparkling eyes and flushed features whenever he had been overwhelmed by the excitement of learning something new when we had been in Godric's Hollow. What had changed? He dropped his gaze quickly. Ah! He did not know how to respond to me now that I was his teacher. For some reason, I found his uncertainty endearing. I would have to remedy it, of course.
"Without further ado, young ladies and gentlemen, here are your matches!" I said jovially and waved my hand. Matches appeared before the children. They looked at each other and then at me.
I Conjured a match and demonstrated the transfiguration to them, taking pride in the way their young faces showed astonishment as the match became a silver, pointy needle.
The Blacks were able to produce crooked, copper needles by the end of the lesson. I wondered why they had ended up with copper. It reminded me of Phineas. He had tended to Conjure things of copper as opposed to any other metal.
Young Charlus Potter and Abraxas Malfoy ended up with silver matches. It was progress enough, I supposed, and encouraged them to keep trying. I did caution Abraxas to keep an eye on the match, since he seemed to be more interested in glaring at Tom who sat by the window across the aisle all on his own, absently doodling in pig Latin on a piece of parchment. I tapped his shoulder and glared at him. He quickly tucked the parchment away into his textbook, plucked his wand, frowned, waved it once to Conjure a match and then waved his wand once more to Transfigure it into a glinting, silver needle. He was then peering up at me, worry poorly concealed in his eyes. Did he think that I was about to chide him for showing off? I had done it the first time, and it had done neither of us any good in the long run. If it had been anyone but Tom, I would have given them thirty points and praised their work. I took a deep breath and decided it was time I started considering the boy as my student instead of my bane.
"You had no need to Conjure a match," I told him. "But very well done, my boy, and that shall be thirty points for you. Indulge me, will you? I wish to know what you thought of when you Transfigured the match. Did you visualise the match turning into a needle in stages?"
"No," he said thoughtfully. Interesting. After a pause, he continued, "I did not imagine it changing into a needle, Sir. I imagined all the molecules of wood changing into molecules of silver. I thought of astula – firewood – becoming argentum – silver. It worked."
Interesting. Most interesting. So this explained why his spell-work had been so quick and instinctive. What an unusual way to think of Transfiguration! It reminded me of some of the ground breaking theories proposed by the Italian Transfiguration maestro, Giovanni Petrucelli, made in a Transfiguration Today issue in 1992. Many a critic had refuted his theories, for theories they were, and remained unsupported by experimental proof.
"Sir, my match is growing!" Septimus Weasley squeaked in alarm right then. I hurried to help the boy.
That night, as we settled for supper in the Hall, Horace was regaling me with Tom's adventure in Potions.
"Brilliant, I say!" Horace said. "The last one with such an instinctual flair for Potions was doubtlessly your cousin."
"I am glad," Pomona grumbled. "The boy has no talent at all for handling plants, I am sorry to report. He had a devil of a time with the Devil's snare." We chuckled at her phrasing and then she continued grumpily, "He incinerated the plant before I could stop him."
"I suppose you gave him a detention?" I asked.
"No, he did apologise most prettily." Pomona shrugged. "A charmer, that one, mark my words! Horace, you will have your hands full trying to rescue him from love potions by the end of his third year."
Before Horace could reply, there was a scuffle and a bang in the hall. We looked up to see an angry Tom facing a furious Alastor Moody. Who had shot the first spell? Before any of us could intervene, Alastor yelled a spell that was borderline illegal. Had he picked it up from his Auror father or his Unspeakable mother? Tom evaded that neatly and was about to cast a jinx when I waved my hand and hastily Disarmed him. Startled, Tom took a step back and Alastor pressed his advantage by shouting yet another spell that left Tom shivering and unclothed. I shouted my outrage and made to go to him. His ribs were heaving as he panicked, the chatter in the Hall amplified a thousand-fold and his eyes turned wild in humiliation and fury. Castle Albus and I sent our strongest Shield Spells towards the young Moody at the same time, but we were late.
"Absum!" Tom screamed and Moody vanished into thin air.
"Riddle!" Castle Albus exclaimed as all of us stared at the empty spot where the first year Gryffindor had been standing a moment earlier.
Horace clucked, ran past us to Tom and Conjured a thick blanket before swaddling the boy in it. Tom looked disorientated and fell limp into Horace's embrace. I shoved down my jealousy and fear at the sight before joining Castle Albus to cast runes over the spot where Mood had been standing.
"He willed the boy to be absent, to be away, and effectively Vanished him!" Castle Albus exclaimed. "Where to?"
"There will be hell to pay if his father gets wind of this," I muttered. "Dear heavens, what was Tom thinking?"
"Don't just stand there! Go talk to the boy and find that out. Horace will just stuff him with crystallised pineapple and send him to bed with a mug of hot chocolate," Castle Albus barked. "I will finish the runes here and ask the students about what started that altercation."
So it was that I found myself in Horace's quarters, shouting at Tom as my frayed nerves got the better of me.
"What were you thinking?" I scolded him as he stood there wide-eyed and trembling, wrapped in that ridiculous green blanket Horace had Conjured for him. "Do you ever pause to think of consequences? Haven't Abe and I given up enough in the last many months to protect you and keep you from the Ministry's attention? Why must you flaunt yourself again and again, Tom? Are you so fond of the spotlight that you care nothing for your safety or ours?"
"Alastor-" he began softly, his eyes strangely limpid.
"Alastor did not begin it, Tom," I barked. "I know! He has control enough not to have his wand out at the least provocation. Where did you send him to?"
"Sir, I did not-" he began again, his bottom lip quivering in a manner that reminded me most unkindly of Ariana.
"You will tell me or I shall have to enter your mind, Tom," I said quietly. "We cannot risk the Ministry after our hides for this."
"Really, Percival, must you frighten the child so?" Horace chided me. I glared at him, willing him to stay silent.
"You will have to enter my mind then, Sir," Tom said. "I do not recall where I sent him to."
I sliced through his mind as a knife through butter, wondering at the ease of passage. I could only sense turmoil, anger and shame. I dug further in, and untangled a skein of fury right back to its origin. Alastor had called him a freak and a bastard. It had started there. Tom had unleashed a Stinging Hex. Alastor had retaliated with an illegal spell. I had Disarmed Tom then. Alastor had divested the boy of his clothes. I saw the fear and the humiliation in the boy's mind, and then anger so blazing white and pure which had willed Alastor away to the most inhospitable place Tom remembered: the cellar of the cathedral where Father Sebastian had served. I withdrew from the boy's mind. He was panting in exertion and sweat made his hair cling to his brow. He did not meet my gaze. I gripped his chin. He flinched and moved away from me.
Sighing, I left him to Horace and rushed to Apparate away to that cathedral. I found young Alastor panicking in the cellar. I retrieved him and brought him back to the hospital wing. After telling Castle Albus the facts, I returned to my office and barricaded myself in, trying to stop thinking of the betrayal and acceptance in Tom's mind when I had broken in.
"Really, Percival," Horace said sternly as he accosted me on my way to breakfast in the hall, "I understand that you are new to this parenting business, but you simply cannot go about breaking into your ward's mind every time you feel like it, regardless of his willingness to allow you that liberty."
I needed coffee before I could deal with Horace or think of Tom. My night had been horrendous.
"The boy is in quite a state," Horace remarked. "He shall not be attending classes today."
"As his guardian-" I began.
"At Hogwarts, the authority of the Head of the House supersedes that of the guardian unless the Headmaster says nay. You will find that Armando and I are in accord on this matter," Horace said cuttingly.
Horace was quite protective about the little wretch. I was torn between anger, jealousy and grudging respect for the man. How dared he protect what was mine to protect? How dared he defend the boy's actions? How dared he appeal to Dippet to make sure that neither Castle Albus nor I would not interefere?
That evening, as I paced the third floor corridor, a pale, determined Abraxas Malfoy approached me. He looked dishevelled and upset.
"Yes?" I demanded, quite unwilling to be stirred out of my state of self-recrimination and the deep nursed anger I still stoked in my heart. Was I angry with Tom or was I angry with myself?
"He is ill," Abraxas muttered. "Very ill, Sir. We took him to the hospital wing. We had to. He keeps raving odd things in his fever-sleep. He says he wants the Mad Hatter. I remembered that he used to call you that."
All of my anger vanished leaving behind only bleakness. I scarce remember rushing to the hospital wing, shoving Slughorn and a Slytherin Prefect out of my way before kneeling by the dear, wretched boy's bedside. There he lay, prone and pale, as delirious as the lunatic Muggles had thought him to be, his fingers clawing at the sheets and his lips forming two sentences over and over again.
"I did not start it, Professor, but the Mad Hatter won't believe me, will he? He never believes me."
"I am here, Tom," I whispered, running my gnarly fingers over his forehead and kissing his brow. "I am here now. I am so sorry."
I sat up with him that night, and the two nights that followed. It was on the third morning that his fever broke and he fell into the limp sleep of the exhausted. Madam Pomfrey sent me away from his bedside. Castle Albus decreed that I owed him two days of classes since he had been the one to handle my course in my absence. I agreed numbly, as I agreed numbly to anything everybody said. Horace had been taciturn with me initially, but on seeing my misery, he had thawed enough to give me a few reassuring pats. Pomona had been the kindest. She would often sit with me by the boy's bedside. She agreed readily to let Aberforth know of the events here, since I did not possess the courage or the fortitude to speak of how I had doubted the boy to my brother. Better that he thought me a coward than a traitor to my own belief in second chances, after all.
When Tom opened his eyes wearily that morning, his gaze clouded and suspicious, I bent to kiss his brow and clasped his thin hands in my own and whispered that I would never, never doubt him again. I hadn't realised that I was babbling and on the verge of crying until his slender fingers came to my lips bidding me to quiet.
"Sing with me?" he asked softly.
I nodded. I would have agreed to anything right then, to be granted forgiveness and another chance. I finally understood Severus then.
"Who killed Cock Robin?" Tom asked in a harsh, broken tone.
I realised what he was up to. I gazed at him, imploring for mercy, but there was none in his eyes. He would not spare me, no more than he would spare himself.
"I, said the sparrow," I whispered. "With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
I had Disarmed the boy, denying him his right to protect himself. Had I at least stepped in and protected the boy then, I might have forgiven myself. I had not. Instead, my first instinct had been to protect Alastor. Why, despite all that Aberforth had said to convince me, did I still think of Tom as a lawless predator instead of the young, insecure boy he was? Why did I still fail him despite fancying that I understood him well enough?
"Who caught his blood?" Tom continued.
"I, said the fish, with my little dish, I caught the blood."
"Who will make the shroud?" Tom demanded, coughing and sweating profusely, yet staying intent with the force of his will.
"I, said the beetle, with my thread and needle, I will make the shroud."
Tom smiled wanly and continued, "Who will dig his grave?"
"Damn you, Tom," I said brokenly, and then pulled the sweat-sodden, fever-warmed mass that he was to me, cradling him against my chest and burying my face in his dishevelled black curls. He began laughing hysterically, then his fingers clawed into the skin of my arms and then he finally broke into sobs that made his thin body shake like a leaf in a gust of wind.
"Not again," I promised him earnestly. "I shan't doubt you again."
"Don't lie," he said. In those words were held shadowy tales of a hundred tales of embitterment and betrayal. "I know when you lie. I always do."
I rocked him then, for there was nothing else that I could say to make him believe me. And the darkest part of me feared that he was right. I did not trust him even then, did I? After his sobs had died, he hiccupped and began mumbling softly the last verses of the wretched nursery rhyme.
"All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin."
"Why is this so difficult?" I wondered aloud.
He laughed at that, weakly, and his eyes, red-rimmed with weeping and exhaustion, met my tormented gaze for a long moment before he said, "I like to think that it is because you are mad as the Mad Hatter."
I thought of Father Sebastian. I thought of the Unspeakables and what they might have done. I thought of Alastor's namecalling and how I had prevented Tom from protecting himself. I did not dare think of what method he might have employed to protect himself. I kissed his forehead and replied sincerely, "That may be true. Will you be patient with an old madman who does want the best for you despite his many failings in the role he foolishly decided to take on?"
Tom tugged my beard, his gaze skittered away from mine, and he said in a soft murmur, "I am here, aren't I?"
"Good," I said, my voice thick with emotion. "Good."
After he had slipped into exhausted sleep once again, I rocked him softly and cried into his mop of sweat-drenched curls.
I had not cried over Ariana's breaking or Father's death. I had not cried at my mother's funeral or even during that fateful day in Godric's Hollow when three quarrelling boys had plucked a little girl's life. I had not cried over that monster who terrorised Europe. Now I cried, for Tom and all that he was, and for my inability to protect him even from my hypocritical self.
External Source Text:
Himnusz – the Hungarian national anthem.
Who Killed Cock Robin? – a nursery rhyme.
Pinocchio – a children's novel by Carlo Collodi.
The tale of the giant and the castle – a short story by Oscar Wilde.
I'd love to hear what you think of the story. I never fail to get pleasantly surprised each time I hear from you.
(Unlikely to be relevant, but my acads have started for the semester and the updates might be slower.
In the meantime, there's something for your amusement: How do you like your blue-eyed boys? Set post-1998, it is mostly about Minerva cursing the men who made her, finding that life goes on and that e.e cummings is very, very applicable to her life. You can find it on my profile's list of stories. Have at it if it is to your tastes!)