A/N: Well, ehm. This story has grown a bit in my absence, attention-wise. Over 100 favorites and 200 follows! Whoo! Thank you all!
But I want to ask you all for honest reviews, if you can take the time to write something. What do you think of this story? No holds barred, no half-hearted praises. What do you honestly think? Is it something that you read just because it's there? Is it legitimately good? What can I do to make it better?
CrazyYaoiYandere: Hogwarts will be coming sometime... something always seems to backtrack it. It really depends on how this subplot develops as well as on your other point: the chapter length. I actually agree with you that the chapters are too short, haha, so I'm working on trying to lengthen them. I'm glad that you're so enthused about it though, so really, thank you for the review! :)
The End of a World of...
The Dark Lord sat on his throne, conjured up in the abyss of his own mind. It was engraved with serpentine curves, soft lines snaking across smooth mahogany, spiced with the cold metal of his rule. On his brow rested a crown of thin air, a crown nonetheless for its weight, its severity, its power.
A power that he knew he did not have.
It had been a difficult fact to admit to himself, once he had found himself an incorporeal being, bound to the earth only by the power of the fragments of his soul buried under troves of many treasures. He had since seen things, oh, he had seen many things. Understood many things that he couldn't have hoped to glimpse before. Learned what had eluded him for so long.
Yet, he was only a fragment of his own soul. The knowledge drew him mad, mad with rage and anger and insanity. Or perhaps it was his nature, as a mere splinter, that doomed him to that. Long gone was his charm, his cunning, the mysterious factor that drew followers to him like he was a magnet.
His hand clutched tight around the arm of the throne, pale and spindly. It was only an image of how he imagined himself, and yet, it showed a deformed, serpentine monster. An image to match the rest of his nature, the snake having overtaken the man.
The Dark Lord sighed.
How long had it been since he had tasted the pleasures of flesh? How long had it been since he had commanded respect, held the attention of all with his simple presence? Since he had felt the power of magic coursing through his veins, the exhilarating high of casting dark, forbidden magic. Oh, he could create anything he could want within his mind like this, but it was never enough to replicate reality. No, even as he sat on this throne of wood and iron, he still felt the mournful reality juxtaposed with the opulence of the mind, a chilling, desolate wind blowing through his spirit in the forests of Albania.
Wait. What was that?
A man. He could sense a man walking through this forests, a flush too his cheeks as he gripped his coat tight around his body in an effort to dispel the cold. The Dark Lord dispelled the image of his throne and palace, eagerly floating to observe the man. He was obviously a wizard, from his garb. Why wasn't he casting a spell to rid himself of the chill?
Ah. Of course. The man must have been looking for him, and didn't want to alert him to his presence.
The Dark Lord cocked his head to the side, bemused. Was this man looking for him? Why?
How could he use this to his advantage?
Llegilimens was not an option. Eye contact was impossible when the other party could not see him. He did not have enough power for it in this form, anyway.
He came to a decision. A smile ghosted his face.
"Hello," he whispered. "Have you come to find me?"
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
Al stood uncomfortable in Tom's scrutiny.
"So," the man asked, finally, after eternities had come and gone, "that really wasn't something you two had agreed on telling me, was it?"
He shook his head mutely.
"Huh." Tom eyed him speculatively. "I had a brother once, too. My twin, actually."
His head shot up.
"Had a brother?" he asked before he could stop himself for the insensitivity. But he thought it was fine, since the offer to talk had been clear in the man's casual words.
"Yeah. We used to run the inn together. My little sister too – she always tried to help around whenever she could. But it was really my brother and I who were close."
The man paused, waiting for something, and Al stayed stock-still, as if frozen. He was watching the man's face very carefully.
"Did you get into fights often?" he asked, voice clear and purposeful. It was genuine curiously, mixed with an urge to discover how to make things right again between him and Brother. They have had many fights before, but never in this world, and not when the situation seemed so precarious.
But then, Al wasn't really sure if he wanted to make up with Ed. He was right in telling Tom; he had to be. Already, this magic was scraping so close to their past, and they couldn't keep all their secrets clutched tight to their chests. This was hardly the worst of them.
"All the time," laughed the barkeeper, and it took Al a moment to remember what he had asked. "They say that when siblings are closer in age, they get on each other's nerves more. We were no exception. But you two seem to blow up at each other regardless of the age difference."
"Hmm," Al said noncommittally, and Tom inspected him closely.
"You know, I don't think I've ever met someone as young as you acting as old as you do," he remarked, in a similar tone of voice.
Al was startled.
"Your brother just left you alone in a place that you've been in what, three times? And you're not nervous at all?" He chuckled. "I know when I was a kid, just talking face to face with an adult casually seemed almost impossible, and even if it did happen, I'd be quaking in my boots. You, though, you're completely natural."
"But I shouldn't pry. Especially considering what had happened last time you told me something you probably shouldn't have."
"It's okay," Al said, and it really wasn't. "Brother shouldn't have gotten that upset." And here, a trace of bitterness crept into his voice, "It's not like no one else knows anyway."
"Then why tell me?"
Al looked him, confused because the answer was just so obviously simple.
"Because you could help us. We've never had any problems with asking people for help before. So in return for your assistance, it would only be fair to share some trust with you. It's equivalent exchange."
He could see Tom open his mouth to make a hasty retort, but then something seemed to have caught his interest and a more curious expression rested on his face.
"Equivalent exchange?" he asked.
"Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return," Al recited, easily recalling the days of endless memorization drilled into their heads by Teacher. "To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. It's the first rule of alchemy, and governs to the world around us too."
Again, the fish-gaping expression, before settling into a more wary look.
"You know alchemy?" Unspoken was the accusation: but you only learned about magic a week ago.
The words hadn't been a slip of the tongue.
"Yes. Where we're from, everybody knows about it. I think it's different though, from the alchemy that you know in the Wizarding World."
The bartender mulled that over for a good while, before speaking again, words carefully spoken and drawn out.
"I think we're entering dangerous waters here again," he said.
"It's okay," Al repeated simply.
The friendly barkeeper's face turned stormy.
"It's not okay. I can't take advantage of you like that for my own curiosity; if your brother doesn't want to tell me, then you two better discuss it, not to behind his back and tell me now."
Oh. Now Al understood. This was about his age. Well, that was fine.
"Okay," he said, standing up from the stool he had been sitting on. "I'm sorry for the trouble we have put you through." He made a slight bow. "It was nice talking to you."
He was making his way to the door that would lead to the public area of the inn, when a hand grabbed his shoulder.
"Wait." Tom's voice betrayed his confusion and worry. "Where are you going?"
Al stared at him, startled. Where was he going?
"To the river," he answered honestly, after thinking it through for a moment. It was where he always went after he and Brother had a fight. There was something about moving water...
"Alone?" Tom was dismayed.
"No," he lied. "Brother will meet me there." Maybe.
"You didn't agree on that before he left," Tom said evenly, and Al conceded the point to him.
"That's true. But I can take care of myself until we meet up." Even after a year, he wasn't used to dealing with adults so concerned over his young age. In Amestris, it had been heartening, but here, with his real body, it seemed to happen so often it made him feel claustrophobic. Where had the freedom of travel and journey gone? He was sure that in Amestris everything hadn't been so restricted.
Tom was incredulous.
"You're what, eleven years old?"
"... I'm twelve." Or eighteen, depending on if you counted the years of regained memories and the soul, rather than the age of the body.
"Look, just stay here until your brother comes back. I can lend you some books, or a room if you want privacy. I'm sure your brother will be back soon."
It was unlikely. Brother had only ever found him by the river when something happened. He wouldn't be thinking like Tom was, of a child who shouldn't wander the streets alone. He too, was used to Al's older, capable self.
"Sorry, sir," Al said. "But I really doubt that he'd be looking for me here."
He pushed his way out the door, and ignoring the glances of the other customers in the inn, started making his way to the river.
Then, remembering the letter from one Mafalda Hopkirk with a sudden clarity, turned around.
Tom was relieved to see him. He had been waiting out the front entrance of the inn, craning his neck to find the boy, and Al felt guilty for the worry he caused the man.
"Sorry," he said for what felt like the hundredth time, once they had reentered the inn. "But I really just came back to give you something."
He pulled the letter from the pocket, the entire reason why they had begun their journey to the Leaky Cauldron last morning. Of course he was the one who had it; it didn't seem surprising to him at all that this entire time, Ed had completely forgotten about it in favor of the plots that meeting with Moralt Bulstrode had inspired. That stuff was infinitely more interesting than the tedious duties of everyday life, after all.
"This is it."
He watched anxiously as Tom unfolded the letter and read it. Every second that the barkeeper's eyes steadily roved the paper seemed like an eternity. No, it wasn't that this was a "tedious duty of everyday life." It had been an unpleasant task their mind had been deliberately ignoring, because the reception of this letter would determine such a large part of their shared future.
At last, Tom looked up from the paper.
"You're going to Hogwarts," he said blandly, as if not quite believing the words himself. "And you're going to live here during the holidays."
Tom hadn't known either?
"Well." He seemed to be at a loss for words. "Well, like I said earlier, there are plenty of rooms here."
"Your Ministry of Magic is weird," Al informed him somberly.
Or maybe it was just wizards in general who were strange.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
"But I –"
The man was confused. Good. It was time to strike.
"Have you ever felt powerless, Quirinus? Have you been condemned by society, trapped in your own body and helpless to stop it?" The Dark Lord's voice softened. "Betrayed?"
Quirinus Quirrell looked down. He couldn't meet the Dark Lord's gaze, even with his inability to see the spirit.
"I... I heard you were good at manipulating people," Quirrell said weakly.
The Dark Lord remained silent. His work was done here. He could have said many words, many words such as It only feels so because I am right, or Do you wish to exist outside the limits of others? To be more?
The man finally looked up, his eyes wandering in the dark and somehow, instinctively, landing them upon the Dark Lord's own face. It brought a thrill of pleasure to be recognized so, and the Dark Lord repressed it angrily as soon as it came to him. The follower should be to one to be pleased for his attention, not the other way around.
Still, he reveled in his moment. A moment of regained glory.
Quirrell smiled, a hesitant, weak smile. It would do.
"I accept," he said.
And so the pact was made.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
The implications of Mary Anne's words had nettled Ed. She was right; being away from work didn't look good at all, considering what the situation was already like. Storming away like that would make it only worse, but somehow, he couldn't bring himself to care.
Frustrated and feeling restless, he paced down the street hurriedly despite the frigid air, ignoring the looks the other pedestrians were giving him.
He didn't want to dwell on the issue anymore. There were other issues – like the wizards. And Al.
The thought of his younger brother brought a sinking feeling to his heart. The argument.
He quickly reorientated himself and let his feet guide him to the Thames River, where his brother was sure to be. Most likely at a park, where he could get close enough to touch the water. So. That's where he'd check first.
When he didn't find Al at the first park – the place with the highest probability of being Al's destination, considering all variables such as distance – he wasn't worried. He simply checked the next suitable site. And then the next.
By the time he had been through almost all the potential areas, he was frantic. Every time, he hoped that Al would just be there, that he had just walked a little further away than normal –
Ed struggled to calm his racing heart. Where else could Al be? It was a big city. He could be hurt. No, no, he couldn't think like that. What other places did they both know, and it would be reasonably nearby to the Leaky Cauldron?
… The Leaky Cauldron.
He supposed it was worth a try.
"Al!" he burst in through the door, already calling his name before he had properly entered. "Al, are you in here?"
Panic flooded him when he couldn't spot his little brother at the bar. But only a moment later –
"Sheesh, I'm right here," Al said, walking in from an entrance labeled "bathroom." The annoyed attitude disappeared disappeared when he saw Ed's face, to be replaced by worry and confusion. "What's wrong?"
Ed stared a him dumbly.
"What's wrong? You – Why are you still here?"
The confusion crystallized into sudden understanding.
"Oh, you mean not by the river," he said nonchalantly, with an odd look of relief. "Tom didn't want me to leave. I'm only twelve, you know." The way he said it made his disdain for his age clear, as well as a pointed reminder towards Ed about the age difference. He knew that Ed didn't tend to think things through – not the common sense, more adrenaline-filled decisions anyway.
Ed's anger deflated immediately. "Al, I –" He glanced around surreptitiously, immediately grateful that they didn't have an audience. He returned his gaze back to Al, and took a step forward, about to speak, though not quite sure what –
"I also showed Tom the letter," Al said offhandedly.
His jaw dropped.
"You – you – what?"
"I showed him the letter. He seemed to take it well." Al shrugged.
Now he knew Al was messing with him. Maybe the words were true, but...
Argh. Why did he have to have such a frustrating little brother?
"Alright, alright," he said, sighing. "So Tom kept you here. And you showed him the letter. Anything else?"
He had this terrible, ominous feeling that there would be something else, something so utterly horrendous and terrible that –
"Nothing," Al replied brightly.
"Oh. Right. Um." He glanced around, noticing the fading light out the window. He suddenly felt exhausted, drained. "Do you want to go back to the house?"
Al had a strange mixture of trepidation and sympathy on his face.
"Ed, I showed him the letter."
"What?" He blinked owlishly. The letter? What did that have anything to do with...
Ed scowled. This was the drop, the third dreaded thing that he had feared. Not simply a letter at all, but a determination of their fate. "So do we just want to crash here for the night, or what? Get our stuff later, then?"
Al's eyebrows furrowed. He wasn't happy with it either. "Tom said there were plenty of rooms, so I suppose it would be fine."
Silence. He remembered the reason for the argument they had earlier.
His little brother looked away petulantly. "I'm not going to apologize."
"You don't need to."
"It was... It was stupid. It wasn't worth getting angry with you." Ed couldn't meet his eyes, remembering Mary Anne's words. The incident. That. He didn't want to think about it. It was his little brother that mattered. "If I'm ever acting stupid again, tell me, alright? Give me a good knock to the head."
They smiled, a private smile between brothers. They understood.
There was too much change, too much strangeness in this new world, to not be united. They were brothers. That was all that mattered.