Ubik was much farther than ordinary apparition could take you. Even without the wards surrounding nations, the distance between Earth and Mars was simply too vast, an ordinary wizard would never make it unassisted.
Tom, in fact, never had.
The first time, Azrael had returned from the war and taken him himself. Later, when Tom had found gainful employment, he and Orion Black had used a portkey sent by Azrael to the ministry.
When he had been sent home, banished, it had been through Azrael's power alone.
This would be the first time he tried to make it on his own and he only trusted that he could make it that far, with two passengers no less, because he was who he was. Because whatever strange thing that had happened to him had happened.
However, as they hurtled through time and space, a journey that took less than the blink of an eye and yet all the time in the world, he found himself thinking just how long it had been. Once, he had been intimately aware of how muggles traversed to Ubik. It didn't take much, a letter, a sincere declaration, or even a sincere thought could be enough if words weren't possible.
But it had been so many years and Ubik was still so young then.
And even then, he had never looked too closely into the immigration process. Tom's role had been to focus on wizards, on how the British wizards might integrate with this new country. When that had quickly run into a dead end, he had instead immersed himself in research and magic.
Despite being a politician, he'd had no time for politics.
Was it still the same? Would Tom, Lily, and Harry be redirected somehow to where all the immigrants went? Would it matter that they were from Wizarding Britain or would Tom have to play at being a muggle?
In the end, it hardly mattered, as he was certain they did not end up where the immigrants typically did.
They landed gracefully, far more gracefully than they should have, and as they landed flower petals scattered beneath their feet. In the distance, he could see the mountains, a deep jagged purple, and where there had once been only desert there was miles and miles of grass and wildflowers.
The flowers still glowed like stars, a bright, burning, blue trapped in the dark fields.
And the stars above, they were still so very bright, far brighter than they had ever been in London. Even in Hogsmeade, further from the great muggle cities that never slept, they had never looked as clear as this.
Next to him, he heard Lily take a breath in, searching for words and finding none. He had told her, many times, what it looked like. However, Tom was only so much of a poet and seeing it… There was nothing quite like seeing it and knowing that one man, one… being, had somehow created all this from barren deserts.
And he wondered how they would look from the outside. The great wilderness, three humans dressed in travelling clothing, and three suitcases with all their belongings between them.
Of course, there wasn't a soul in sight to see them, of that, somehow, Tom was certain.
At least, there wasn't.
There was a loud crack behind them and then, before Tom could fully turn, a hand struck across his face and threw him to the ground.
And then a familiar voice sounded, "You fool."
Standing across from him, pale, ageless, and eternally young as ever, was Azrael. Today, there was no guise of Harry Evans though, Lily's younger homeschooled cousin. There were no glasses, no familiar clothing from familiar places, but instead the robes of a man who had been king for decades now.
How long had it been since Tom had seen him looking like this?
Lily darted in front of Tom, drawing her wand, but Azrael paid her no mind. Instead, those eerie green eyes bore down onto Tom, "Didn't I tell you that once was far more than enough?"
Tom said nothing, merely rubbed at his stinging face, however, that just seemed to enrage Azrael further.
"Didn't I tell you the kind of matches you were playing with?" Azrael asked.
He stepped forward, brushing Lily aside, and leaned down over Tom. Up close, he looked haggard in a way that Tom didn't know he could. Even when the war had been happening, in school, even when he'd first made this world, he hadn't looked so tired as this.
There were deep shadows beneath his eyes, a gauntness to his face, and something invisible within him, perhaps his limitless magic, seemed brittle and strained. It made him look older and far more alien.
"Do you enjoy this world?" Azrael asked, "Do you enjoy the stars, the sunset, the feeling of the earth beneath your feet? Do you in any way appreciate that there is a world out there for you to live in?"
"There won't be a—"
"There wasn't meant to be a next time last time!" Azrael shouted, his voice echoing against the mountain range, "And I'm sure that next time, because there will be a next time, you will tell me these same words with that same defiant, arrogant, look on your face."
Here he smiled, a bitter, almost amused thing, "Only, you will be right, but not because of you, Tom Riddle. But because the next time you try, as you always do, you will break something that cannot be mended."
"Enough," Lily said, pointing her wand straight at Azrael, "Back off."
Finally, Azrael seemed to see both her and Harry standing behind her. He blinked slowly, almost as if he hadn't expected them, and then took a graceful step back. Lily didn't lower her wand an inch.
"Lily," Azrael said, and on his lips her name was like a prayer, something soft and sad but still spoken with a flicker of hope, "There's no need to be afraid."
Lily's wand didn't lower and when she looked at him…
Lily had never taken Azrael's existence, or his involvement in her life, particularly well. Oh, she'd tolerated his infrequent appearances as well as his history with Tom. She tolerated him at her wedding, she'd tolerated meeting him at the trial, and she'd tolerated him when Tom had called for him when they'd gone after Bellatrix and her ilk.
Now, she had agreed to enter Azrael's domain, to live in a world where he was a king. She had suggested this path herself.
However, she had never liked him, never made any pretense that she had.
But last time they had seen each other, they had been on friendly enough terms. She had made small talk with him, some passing conversation, and wished him well on his way back to Mars. Now though, in a single instant, Lily made it entirely clear that there was nothing between them.
That there never had been.
And Azrael stared at her as if her eyes alone had ripped out his heart.
"I will not hurt him," Azrael said hoarsely, "Please, put down your wand."
Lily's wand didn't lower an inch.
Slowly, Tom stood, reached for her arm, and gently lowered it, "Lily"
He shook his head, trying to convey his words through an expression alone.
He had deserved that. They were in Azrael's territory now. And if Azrael truly meant to hurt him, a simple wand would not stand in his way. If he'd truly meant to hurt Tom, then Tom would be far more injured than he was.
A single blow, a few angry words, that was a price Tom was more than willing to pay.
Lily holstered her wand but continued to glare across at Azrael. Her voice was toneless as she asked, "What right do you have to judge him?"
By the look on his face, it wasn't a question Azrael had been expecting. It wasn't one Tom had expected either. He gently squeezed her hand, a quiet signal to stop now, to let whatever was festering in her mind go.
Lily didn't listen.
She stepped forward, hand now pointing out towards him, "You must have some idea what it would take to drive us here. And yet, here you are, just the same as always, and the first words out of your mouth are to blame us."
Tom opened his mouth, about to interject that, actually, Azrael had warned him very clearly not to play with time a second time.
However, Lily beat him to it, "No, him, I don't even warrant enough notice to be blamed for anything, do I? Then again, I don't think I ever did. I'm only worth noticing when I'm not living up to your ineffable expectations."
Lily opened her mouth, about to say more, then closed it. She stared off into the distance, crossing her arms, and appeared to be attempting to reign back in her temper. Or, if not her temper, then whatever words were boiling on the tip of her tongue.
Azrael just stared at her as if he had never seen her before.
"For what it's worth," Lily said idly, looking at the towering mountains rather than any of them, "Whatever it is Tom did that offends you so very much, I'm more than sure I would have done the same thing."
Azrael swallowed, opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally he said, "That was not what I meant."
"Save it," Lily said tiredly as she finally looked back at him, "I'm guessing Tom wasn't supposed to bring us to an empty field?"
"He remembers where the city is," Azrael said slowly, glancing at Tom as he mentioned him, "You can't miss the registration center. If you do, anyone will be able to direct you to it. They'll see you sorted out."
Azrael spared Harry a glance. She was staring at him, not quite glaring like her mother, but her gaze was cold and assessing. She made no motion to greet him or move towards him, her fists were clenching and unclenching, restless and in search of a wand.
Azrael turned his eyes reluctantly back to Tom, "I'm sorry I—I should not have greeted you that way."
Unspoken was the sentiment that they would talk later, without Lily, and that Azrael would say whatever it was he wished to say uninterrupted. Lily would be thrilled, no doubt, as Tom had no intention of keeping that sort of thing a secret from her.
Of course, knowing Lily, she'd known that already. She'd feared and known that coming to Ubik would mean entrenching Azrael even more deeply into their lives. She'd come here regardless.
"Yes, well," Lily said shortly with a strained smile, picking her suitcase back up, "It's been pleasant as always, Azrael."
He blinked, and Tom did as well, as he was almost certain it was the first time she'd called him that. She normally didn't address him at all or, if she did, it was by his title or the false name he had given her.
It was also a clear dismissal.
Azrael nodded his head forward once, in acknowledgement, with a small and bitter smile. And then he was gone.
They each stared at the place where he had vanished, listening now to the eerie silence of the wilderness.
Finally, Harry spoke, "Is he our enemy too now?"
"No," Tom said in assurance, "No, he's just… concerned. That's all."
Harry seemed unconvinced, giving him a dry look. Tom made sure to smile back, picking up his suitcase, "Come on, you heard him, I'd better apparate us to the city. God knows how long we'll have to stand in line."
It turned out Tom's intuition had served him well.
When they arrived at the building, it was, as Azrael had noted, unmistakable. Oh, it was a very impressive and regal looking building (new too, from what Tom remembered), but more than that there was a line out the door and around the block.
It was filled with haggard, tired, people of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of languages each spoken by dozens of ethnicities. Many wearing torn clothing, several families with children far too thin, haunted tired eyes glancing towards the front of the line wondering if it would get any closer.
Tom, Harry, and Lily were by far one of the better dressed groups and by the look of it the only ones with magic. And yet, they were not necessarily the best dressed. As they settled into position in the line that didn't seem to move, Tom noted that those who came out of the building were often far better dressed than them.
And they did not look like the bureaucrats who worked here.
It was well known, in the ministry, that sometimes to get something important done in a timely fashion you had to grease the wheel, so to speak. If you needed some permit or another to open your own shop or patent some invention, and you didn't want to wait a year and a half, then it was all about paying off the right clerk.
Except, this nation had been founded on taking in refugees. When Tom had first arrived, no one with money would come to Ubik. Why go to Ubik, another planet, when they could go to America or somewhere a letter might reach, and relatives might travel to? Oh, there was idle curiosity, growing more and more, but the idea of class… It had been absurd.
They had all come from nowhere and nothing.
And Azrael would never have allowed for it. He detested that sort of thing and while he didn't want to deal with politics he also wanted his people to play fair. And in a society that openly accepted magic, surely, material wealth couldn't have the same kind of impact. And if any country had to have this down to a system, then it had to be Ubik which was always swarmed by immigrants.
Though he supposed it was the middle of the night, and given that the line was moving, it seemed to open full time. Nothing governmental in Wizarding Britain was ever open twenty-four seven. Perhaps, when it was day, the line would begin moving faster as they moved out of the graveyard shift.
Regardless, a few hours in, even in the middle of the night, it felt as if they had only moved a few feet. Harry had finally fallen asleep, resting against her suitcase with one of her sweaters for a blanket, while Tom and Lily sat on their own suitcases.
Lily pulled a sandwich out of her trunk and passed another to Tom. She smiled at him wryly, "Thank god I brought these, I just had this terrible feeling that there'd be nothing to eat."
Tom, obviously, had not thought that far ahead.
"That," Lily said, "And that there'd be no currency exchange. I suppose that's one benefit of still being on the gold standard, a galleon might not be a galleon out here but at least it's solid gold."
He hadn't thought about that either.
They ate in relative silence as Lily looked out at Ubik. She eyed the floating lanterns, the paved streets, the strange, foreign, architecture with runes that she'd thus far only seen in Tom's basement.
Tom eyed the changes.
It had grown. Of course, it had been growing all the time when Tom first came. He had come when it was only a shell, a dream, designed by Azrael and somewhat by him. Later, when people flooded in, it had always been expanding.
It shouldn't have surprised him that it would grow so much in the decades since he'd left.
He wondered if anyone recognized him. He'd been a minor diplomat, an assistant to the real diplomat, and it'd been so many years. He didn't think he'd warranted that much attention, no matter what he had been involved in.
As it was, he took the fact that no one had come out to accost him, that Azrael hadn't even bothered to recommend a disguise, as a good thing.
"It's different from how I imagined," Lily finally said.
"Oh?" Tom asked, he wasn't sure if he'd given any particular impression of what Ubik had looked like. Of course, words couldn't do it justice, but he didn't think he'd made it seem like anything it wasn't.
"He did good work," Lily said, "It looks old. Nothing like the Jetsons at all."
Ah, she must have thought that somehow, knowing what she knew, she would have been able to tell what no one else had. That Azrael wasn't king of an ancient civilization at all, that there had never been Martians, but instead only a great con performed by the greatest wizard who ever lived. Who, of course, turned out not to be a wizard at all.
She was right. It wasn't futuristic in the way muggles always envisioned the centuries to come. There were no shining glass domes, no steel buildings of any kind. The architecture, while distinctly not European, had that same look of ancient European cities. Everything was carved from stone, painted only by runes, without a hint of neon or fluorescent lighting in sight.
"It's very impressive," Lily finished, as if she felt the need to say something.
It was, especially now, that he had not seen it in person in so long.
Before long though Lily spoke again, "I've never understood why you're friends with him. At first, when you first spoke about him… But then I met him and every time I've met him since I wonder what you could have possibly seen in him."
"Lily," he said but she shook her head.
"He thinks he's better than you," she said with a wry and bitter note in her voice.
"He is better than me," he responded with a sigh.
"No," Lily corrected, "He's convinced you, and you've convinced yourself, that he's better than you. And every time he shows up, it doesn't matter what you've done or what you're trying to do, he always brings it up."
She gave Tom a dull look when he opened his mouth to argue, "Don't think I haven't noticed just because I've kept my mouth shut."
"When have you kept your mouth shut?" Tom asked in amused bewilderment.
"You invited him to join our club—"
"Which you were fully against—"
"And after I said my piece, I put up no further argument," Lily said, holding her hands in mock surrender, "But Tom, now that we're here—I know he's a busy man, but I also know he'll somehow make time for us regardless, and if I have to hear him say some smug condescending holier than thou speech one more time I will punch him in the teeth."
"You really dislike him," Tom said, not for the first time.
"I really dislike him," Lily repeated dully, "And he's not your friend, Tom, not really."
"Well, that's too bad," Tom said slowly, trying not to let it show how her words affected him, "Because with him off the table, Minerva too now that I—that we—well, he was the only one left."
"You have me," Lily said earnestly, "You'll always have me."
Tom wasn't sure what to say to that. He'd meant his own words as a joke. Hers though, they were anything but, as earnest as she herself always was. From the moment she first entered her office to when he'd told her the worst of himself and she showed up the next morning.
He would not always have her.
Both her and Harry, one day, would leave, and Tom would still be here.
He smiled all the same, "I'll keep that in mind. For what it's worth, he is a friend it's just… complicated."
"Right," Lily said, as if she knew that was what he was going to say.
With a sigh, she looked out at her surroundings, "You know, somehow, I always knew I'd end up here."
"Oh?" Tom asked.
"I think it was after you told me, well, everything. I went home and thought to myself that one day I'd be here, leaving everything and everyone behind. That was the price of being involved in your life," she said.
"I hope you don't regret it," Tom said softly.
"I don't," Lily said, "I don't even miss it that much. Well, maybe give me a few days but… This is fine, we packed everything we needed."
"And you?" she asked Tom in turn with a knowing look, "You've left more behind than even me, I think. Do you regret it?"
"No," Tom said, though is voice was suddenly hoarse, "No, I—I should have given up on that place ages ago. I thought I had, in fact, only to realize I was gripping it so tightly. Funny, if you'd asked me when I was in school—"
He'd have insisted that the wizarding world could go hang. And yet, he'd stayed, even with danger to life and limb he'd stayed.
And now they would never go back.
"No one can say you never tried," Lily said, "Although I'm sure plenty will try."
"Oh, they'll say more than that," Tom said darkly. That fire… Well, it could be blamed on a number of people, so perhaps not everyone would flip their lid. The Order though, somehow Tom just knew they'd figure out exactly what had happened.
Tom was sure he was going to be the topic of conversation at their little meetings for some time to come.
"But on the bright side, we won't have to hear it," Lily said with a bright smile.
And somehow, for some absurd reason, that actually was uplifting.
Author's Note: In which I continue to delight in the irony of Lily and Azrael's tense relationship.
Thanks for reading and reviewing. Reviews are much appreciated.
Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter.