Finders, keepers - Riddle-Black

Sunshine, filtered only by the lush green leaves.

Moss on the rocks and the trickle of the creek he had remembered from his youth.

People around him. A wand in his hand.

The memories of a past he couldn't change now and couldn't make amends.

The horrid taste of the potion still in his mouth.

He had foreseen the misguided British blood purists coming for him, and he had glimpsed faint impressions of the people Albus had so often mentioned in his letters. Being free, even if not free from his past, was still a dizzying sensation. Sitting in the meadow of his youth, watching as a teenager and a nine-year-old were flying in the summer sky, was a luxury he had given up all hopes on. And Albus? Albus had not changed one bit, playing with other people's thoughts until they eventually did what he had expected of them. Not being able to resist him, though, had left something of a dent on his pride.

But the old meddler (old... They were the same age.) was right when he had pointed out Tom's need for a tutor. Someone who could teach him the Dark Arts ('the birthright of a cambion' were Dumbledore's exact words) complete with their dangers, with their downfalls, with the life experience that cannot be found in any books. The self-control and the proper understanding of what price each deed would require. Effects and counter-effects on a larger scale.

Currently, the young cambion was chasing a broom-riding child, although he himself had no need for a broom. The trees then covered them from his sight, he could only tell that they landed because soon after he could hear their footfalls and their quiet hissing – the cambion and the son of a local auror were talking in parseltongue whenever they were among themselves. Their bond was so profound, as if on a soul level.

In other words, the cambion was out of reach. (In addition to having his ideals set in stone already.)On the other hand? He truly needed tutorage. He needed guidance while growing into his birthright inheritance. (You, Albus...!)

When they spotted him, the son of the auror greeted him with a cheerful hiss before remembering that not all wizards around him would understand parseltongue. The cambion just smiled at the boy, the younger one's broom on his shoulder, dressed in muggle clothes and a dementor-cloak flight harness, sporting bruises from (presumably) hitting the trees again.

"How does your new wand feel, Gellert?"

"Splendid. It seems to understand how I share the fate of its former owner," he replied with complete honesty. This vintage piece had belonged to the dark wizard Loxias in his youth... Tom had bought it in the antiques shop at Knockturn Alley, exactly because he had a sense ofcruel irony.

Six years before, the former master of the Elder Wand had felt a grim satisfaction when Albus had first written about the cambion that had been sorted to the house of the darkest wizards in Britain, then had brought down an entire school corridor in a fight with the less self-conscious children of his kin. Gellert had laughed and written back that it wasn't like cambions couldn't be controlled: one just has to make deals with them instead of counting on malleable emotions, never challenge them unprepared, and not try to touch them if not with the purpose of causing them pain. (Torture was unwise to do anyway, as all cambions are strong in magic and they remember every insult they ever suffered. And their talent for forgiveness is infamously lacking.)

Then, just the day after he had returned to the house Bathilda Bagshot had once owned and was now inhabited by the Blacks, Albus had warned him yet again about Tom being the most ambitious and stubborn man he had ever encountered. Gellert had thought his old rival / enemy / equal had been exacerbating. All of Dumbledore's warnings had been proven well-founded, however, that same day. The aged war criminal had made a very tentative notion that the neighbouring muggle widow could pick the cherries from her tree herself, instead of enlisting Tom and Harry to do the job in exchange for but some cakes she would bake. He had really just wanted to hear the opinions of a modern pureblood and a wizard-raised cambion.

In the next half hour Tom had given him a well-structured lecture about how the differences between wizarding and magicless people shape two different cultures, how their capabilities complement each other, and how muggle technology had always given ground to magical discoveries. After demonstrating this thesis on a wizarding photograph (which had been based on the muggle use of muggle chemicals, and the only difference was made by a potion used in the last stage of the film's development)Tom had continued with the theory of compensating one ability's loss with the evolution of another, and, simultaneously, the degradation of abilities that are no longer essential. As wizards have magic, they no longer depend on logic, which WOULD otherwise be an important factor of survival, and this leads to an average wizard using his head less often than a comparable muggle. This phenomenon can be observed on the individuals' level, but if it runs through generations, it leads to extremely stupid purebloods who are quick to accept another's view as their own, who are prone to make horrendous errors in the Wizengamot and other governing bodies, not to mention upholding harmful habits like inbreeding, their system of prejudice based on ungrounded fears, and their complete lack of critical thinking... At this point, Sirius had to interfere and quietly remind Tom that Gellert had merely asked why he intended to help Mrs Taylor with her cherry tree. And Tom had shrugged and went to pick cherries, summing up his speech with "because she bakes a delicious cherry tart." Gellert had the feeling he could have continued for another hour and a half with the clear intent of challenging him for a debate.

Now that same cambion was walking down the hillside with the son of the auror, daring him to ask why he was wearing muggle trainers instead of dragonhide boots.

"Have you managed the Protean charm variation we talked about this morning?" he asked instead. If Tom had a weak spot, it was for knowledge he couldn't find elsewhere. 'The birthright...'

Tom hissed something to the even younger wizard, who then hurried down the village on his own, leaving the two of them to discuss a set of human hand bones that would be used as synchronized portkeys. "I got the knuckles all right, but when I added the metacarpals, those messed up the entire arrangement," the cambion sighed. "Everywhere I read that portkeys shouldn't be applied too frequently at the same space, because it destabilizes them, so I let them air out a little before I would continue."

"But you do have the knuckles together?"

"Not yet as stable as I want to have them, sir."

"It's more than all right for your portkeys to disperse in your first week of learning to create them. Tying them together with a Protean charm is an even more complex task. If you continue with the same enthusiasm, you'll get the entire fist to move together by Saturday."

"Thank you, Gellert."

"Don't overtax yourself. You'll still have a lot of time to use that bone fist."

"When you first mentioned it, it sounded so convenient." Which it was, a set of human hand bones that can be sent through normal wards to grab any object of interest, then return with the item in hand. If the keeper of the object had only warded their treasure against summoning and its place against apparation, a bone fist could still be used to lift the guarded item. Many precautions had to be taken, however. And one needed a severed human hand as the source material.

"May I ask what makes you so sure Auror Potter would approve of me teaching this?"

Tom sat down in the grass with a weary sigh, just out of arm's reach, Harry's broom by his other side. "They still cannot legally gather evidence against Crouch," he shared, "and the trials start in a few weeks."

"Does it sit well with an auror to have you charm the bones of a human hand to deliver the evidence he needs?" Though, considering what Albus had written about James Potter when he had been attending school, the auror was not only capable of thinking outside the rules, but he spent little time thinking inside them.

"Have I told you why Gringotts no longer has dragons?" the cambion asked back. "That also started as Prongs' evidence-gathering mission."

From the story that young Riddle-Black shared, under very strict confidentiality, Gellert again got the impression of a rather free-minded wizard with the soul of a prankster and the heart of a public hero. Who would feed de-aging potion to fiveGringotts' lizards just to ensure that, once they regained their size, the chaos in their wake would cover the traces of an auror searching some ancient family vaults?

He needed to get a better picture of James Potter for a reason more important than just the headache he had once caused to the goblins: Tom had convinced James to be his secret-keeper. As far as the public was informed, the old war criminal had been buried under the debris when Nurmengard had collapsed in a failed attempt of the blood purists to abduct him. 'Gellert Grindelwald survived the break-in' was safely hidden in James Potter's soul, only shared with a select few. As long as the Fidelius charm held, the old wizard could move freely in Godric's Hollow without anyone realizing it's him. But should he harm anyone or try to escape, James would alert his auror colleagues, and should the secret-keeper die of any reason, the secondary keepers like Albus Dumbledore would be able to bring even more reinforcement. That would be more than enough to subdue a fallen tyrant who had been wasting away in his own prison four and a half decades already, who had lost his wand...

"Gellert?"

"Yes, Parsel?"

"You're lost in your thoughts again. Let the past be."

"My past won't let me be."

"...I more than understand."

For a moment, they sat in silence, maybe a master and an apprentice, maybe a keeper and an escaped convict, maybe as two powerful wizards, one experienced and one without guilt. Maybe just two men, as equals as Death and Ignotus.

"Heat," Tom finally recited. "Water. Magic. Food. Truth." He paused, perhaps for emphasis. "Time."

"That's quite dense philosophy."

"You need to come to terms with time," he diagnosed. "And with truth. And with the seventh one I keep forgetting."

-?-

Padfoot's gift for Tom's seventeenth birthday had been a blue Royal Enfield motorbike, complete with a number of additional spells and a shrinkable sidecar. The Potters had given him a camera that James had acquired straight from the MI6 and Lily had encased in a box that kept magic out and thus kept the electric parts working properly, although it limited the motion in the taken pictures. Albus had awarded him a gold medal labelled 'first prize of professional meddling and manipulation' and had shared that he owns a very similar item. Tom suspected that the two medals were somehow connected, but didn't yet have time to figure out how it worked.

The day after, he departed on his new bike for what would be a three-weeks long journey. He visited Peter Pettigrew in Albania and Remus Lupin in Peru, and parted from both of them with the promise they would return home eventually. Uniting four Marauders couldn't be much harder than uniting three Hallows had been.

-?-

The trials of the captured blood purists started on the day of his return, so he didn't have much time for a recount. He had to present himself as the current head of the still-remembered Slytherin family, as well as giving his own statement, and he had to catch up with James Potter's report of the recent findings. The most he could do was to hand an envelope full of photographs to his adoptive Idiot, telling him that the pictures were concealed with soul magic, so he could flip through them even during the trials, without the risk of anyone else seeing one of them.

"You're the most considerate monster I've met in my life," Sirius told him, trying it be heard in the background noise of Courtroom Ten. "I'm glad to have you back."

"So am I. Have you seen Professor Flitwick? I have a diadem for him."

-?-

"Before the trials today, the Wizengamot offers the opportunity for announcements from its members as usual," Minister Bagnold spoke up. "Regulus Arcturus Black, from the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, please."

There was a murmur. With the full moon only a day before, Regulus was still visibly pale and worn-out, his appearance clearly proving the malicious gossip about his condition. He ignored those voices and spoke with a clear, healthy tone. "Fellow magicals, as you must already have heard, my elder brother Sirius Orion Black had left our family and he willingly gave up the noble duties and responsibilities that being a Black represent. Today, in front of you all, I, Regulus Arcturus Black, declare that despite everything that had happened, and not challenging him for the decision he made, he is still my brother and he is still my closest family."

There was a confused grumble, as the audience tried to make sense of the announcement. So, would a werewolf still remain the head of a Noble and Most Ancient House? Or did he set the ground for his almost-disowned older brother to claim the title that should have always been his?

Padfoot didn't let the whispers last. He stood up from his seat, in the row for the witnesses. "Fellow magicals, hear my announcement. I, Sirius Orion Black, declare that Regulus Arcturus Black is my brother, has been in the past, and will always be in the future. I acknowledge him as the head of our family, and he has my gratitude for carrying on the burden I refused. Thank you, Reg."

There were no other announcements that day.

After exchanging a long and cheerful smile with his brother, Sirius returned to the photographs while the list of accusations was read for the first captured purists. The very first picture taken shoved the hillside near Godric's Hollow, Elder Lane, as Tom had been testing if the specially boxed camera could indeed function while magic had enveloped the photographer. The young wizard still had a lot to learn about flying with his harness, but the photograph of the green hillside was clear. The white flowers of blooming elder trees stood out in the shape of the Wand-Stone-Cloak symbol, and amidst the trees, Padfoot could make out the tiny shapes of two old wizards chatting, arguing, laughing and sometimes hexing each other.

Sirius blinked at the Chief Warlock in question, who was now wearing his traditional Wizengamot robes, with a similar envelope from Tom in front of him. Albus seemed to be much happier and care-free since that very long full moon night.

Padfoot's gaze wandered on to Regulus (he was still coming to terms with his infection, but he was in good hands) and to Tom, who was watching the court session from the Slytherin family's seat. He stood in stark contrast with the headmaster: Parsel didn't let it show, but he was still burdened by whatever had happened to him in Azkaban. He had seen something family-related, that was all he was willing to reveal so far.

With an uneasy shrug, Sirius returned to the photographs. The next few were taken in Peru, at the blackweed plantation, showing Remus, the boring alpha Juan, and a few other werewolves who were taking care of the fields. There was a shot of Moony and Parsel, the latter wearing a scuba mask to protect his eyesight from the darkness pollen. On the back of the photo, Sirius read a shaky promise that Remus would quit his job sometime, and return to Britain soon.

After some pictures of various snakes around Castelobruxo (one of them was actually a teacher of Potion Ingredients Studies)there was a pile of newspaper cutouts, and Sirius couldn't suppress a deep frown. Of course he had heard about this excurse: James had somehow discovered that the Spanish ministry was hiding evidence for the British purists, and he agreed to meet Tom there and see what they could do about it. Nobody exactly stated it out loud, but Godric's Hollow's resident dark wizard had also been taken along. The next day, the Head Auror of Spain had announced that she didn't believe what the international press had stated about Nurmengard's destruction, and warned people to stay alert. That must have been the most one could reveal about Grindelwald's survival with the Fidelius charm, while (according to James) she could have just handed the documents over to the auror and the old seer. Instead she chose to oppose them. The next day's paper had a dozen of inferi on the editorial, as they were climbing / shambling from the morgue towards the Head Auror's home.

Sirius was at a loss. Normally, he would have pulled the line at dark magic (and necromancy qualified without a doubt) but the female auror had it coming, and a dozen inferi climbing her way must have been a sight to wake up to.

There was a note pinned to the last article in Tom's handwriting. 'I know it was childish to race corpses across a muggle city, but 1, Son got the distraction he asked for (this Sirius didn't doubt) 2, I let Fourth Hallow win this time, but 3, next time I'll get gas lighters for my cadavers and see how he fares against me then.'

Sirius closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. So this was how Tom got involved. His adopted son had packed out half a mortuary (with the other half being packed out by Grindelwald) for a prank. Should he scream Tom's (and James's) head off for the idea, or rather, for leaving him out?

After the newspaper articles came a photo of magnificent summits still covered in snow, a dark building blown up by the purists, and an aged wizard with different eyes sitting on the topmost rock of the ruins. Sirius turned the picture around. 'Taken by James Potter, 30th of June, 1989.' He suspected this photograph could be a form of James willingly sharing the soul-buried information about the old wizard's survival. On the other hand, it depicted how old Gellert had nothing but his many years, a centuries-old used wand and his recently-regained freedom, and he still bore his losses with his head held high.

He blinked up to see the court's doings. Closest to him sat the accused witch Druella Black née Rosier, next to her, her husband, Cygnus Black. Sirius frowned at the unkempt white beard and bald head of his uncle. The rumours about Druella's poison might have had some truth to them. But as he was already familiar with their roles in the attack on Dumbledore and he had heard James lament long enough about the lack of evidence in general, he turned his attention back to the photographs after a few seconds.

There was a picture of James and Gellert both cuddling with Tom under a life-size turul statue. 'The cambion has lost a bet,' unfamiliar neat handwriting announced on the back side. Then, the three of them wearing nothing but swimming pants and sunglasses, labelled, 'Greater Good has lost a bet'.

Those were followed by some pictures taken at the Carpathian Turul Reserve: enormous birds as seen from the ground and from the air, sometimes chasing the photographer because the rule of no brooms in the Reserve (easily circumvent by Tom and his harness) must have been in place for a reason.

There was a Hungarian Horntail dragon snoozing in a forest, then a large lake with turul hawks circling above it. A cheerful witch and a fortress built of red sandstone – the note read, 'Sarolta's inn at Balatondelej–must return!'

A sporty-looking man was standing by Tom on the next photo, he had rare, mousy hair, and there was something familiar about him but Sirius still turned the picture around for the commentary. 'Recognize him?' No... Not until the familiar stranger grinned, revealing unnaturally long front teeth, and Sirius all but gawked at the photograph in surprise. This athletic person, wearing muggle clothes... He couldn't believe this was Peter!

But yes, he was. On the next shot, he was in his more recognizable rat form, though (again) not nearly as fat as he had always been in his youth.

The Chief Warlock announced a coffee break, and Sirius soon found himself surrounded by James and Parsel.

"Let me guess, you're at the howler the Fourth Hallow sent to Wand?" Tom smirked. "It really hurt my feelings when he called me an 'infernal, nefarious monster'. And not just that, I woke to no less than three mountain trolls in my bedroom!"

"What did you do, Tom?" Padfoot queried, making sure every other witch or wizard had already hurried over to the buffet. "I thought he was your idol!"

"Tom started on his 'muggle inventions are important for wizardkind' lecture again," Prongs began. "Ge... Fourth Hallow just got down to making Nu... his home somewhat habitable again. Tom suggested to add an elevator. They disagreed. Tom sprayed the stairs with... What is it called?"

"WD-40," Parsel replied with an innocent smile. To Sirius this didn't bode well. "I prepared the staircase with a sticking charm before applying it, and after thoroughly spreading an entire flask I added a set of spells to make it magic-resistant so that it wouldn't be easily removed."

No, this definitely didn't bode well.

"I might have added a few goblin charms Professor Flitwick shared with me," Tom finally admitted. "It starts spreading when somebody tries to vanish the protected item – the stairs, in this case. Gellert was furious at me presenting a challenge he cannot solve."

James nodded. "But you should have seen them when Albus arrived and not e... Oh, it's nice to see you, Mr Black."

"Auror Potter, Sirius, Mr Riddle."

"I'm Riddle-Black," Tom corrected him immediately. "May I congratulate on your release, sir."

Sirius just blinked at the newcomer. Had old Cygnus Black been released while he was gawking at Tom's photos? But really, him being Druella's victim had gained him some support and compassion.

"Thank you, Mr Riddle. Now, noble gentlemen, I believe we were all witness to Mr Riddle announcing..."

"Riddle-Black!"

"...announcing his intent to marry my daughter Bellatrix."

"I think she declined," Sirius immediately reminded him.

"She didn't say no," Tom grinned.

"As her fiancé, you'd be expected to stand by her side and offer your support," old Cygnus Black pointed out.

"It's nice of you to expect Tom to die of his wife's poison just like... Ehm," Sirius finished his sentence with a series of coughs. "Sorry, Uncle Swan. You look good today."

James was the only one to keep up a serious face. "With Sirius almost disowned and Regulus being a werewolf, there's a good chance Walburga Black will leave the Black fortune to her nieces instead of either of her sons."

"I can totally imagine Andromeda being her number one beneficiary," Tom remarked, then grinned viciously at Cygnus Black's pained expression.

"I'm sure you understand I'm talking about Bellatrix. As much as I adore little Draco, I don't want his father to inherit all the family fortune," Cygnus stated. "And I think you, my noble gentlemen, don't wish for him to gain more influence on the Wizengamot than what he already has."

"We're making no promises, uncle." Sirius's tone was cold and final.

"Yes, we aren't," Tom added. "But you can tell Bella that I don't care what her choice would be."

James quirked an eyebrow. "Parsel?"

"Bella said she would sooner kiss a dementor."

-?-

It still surprised Sirius when, in the middle of Bellatrix Black's trial, Tom stood up and voiced his objection.

"Fellow magicals, while you're obviously correct about Belly Bella pointing her wand at me and saying the incantation of an Unforgivable, you're forgetting the most basic element of magic. As I have already told her right then and there, the intent behind her curse was completely missing, and because of that, the cursing didn't occur."

There was a loud murmur from all around Courtroom Ten.

"Maybe in a similar situation, the wand of the accused could be required to demonstrate its last spells, but as we all remember, the wand in question was destroyed in an oncoming fight. I'm not saying she wasn't among those who invaded Hogwarts, attacked the headmaster, and then intended to use the place for strictly prohibited magic. But is there one of the witnesses who had seen me under her curse?"

Silence.

"I object the objection!" Auror Alastor Moody entered the central area. "Mr Riddle-Black left out relevant information. He has been trained to fight off the Cruciatus curse."

"With all due respect, I object your objection to my objection, Auror Moody," Tom replied. "According to Act XXIII on Auror Recruitment and Training, no event that has occurred in the top-level auror training rooms can be used or referred to in court. Thus, the training I received is inconsequential in the legal sense."

Albus Dumbledore, Chief Warlock, rose from his seat. "Mr Riddle-Black, do you understand your statement makes all the difference between Bellatrix Black receiving only four to eight years instead of a life sentence?"

"Professor Chief Warlock, I do." With that, Tom sat back to the Slytherin seat next to his adoptive father's brother, but still eyeing the curly-haired witch in question. Even with the sedative potions the aurors had forced down her throat, she was giving him murderous looks, mouthing that she would castrate him one day. "You will try, on the day you give birth to my firstborn," Parsel mouthed back confidently.

-?-

As they expected, the next coffee break started with Cygnus Black running down his nephew's adopted son, but before he could have said a word, the Head of Slytherin, Horace Slughorn pulled them all aside into a soundproof alcove. "Riddle-Black, you really surprised those who don't know you well enough!" the chubby professor started, hinting that, unlike those others, he understood the cambion – which wasn't the case by far, but Tom felt it would be petty to point that out.

"Professor, it's nice to see you again."

"Tom, dear. Cygnus here is saying that he's very happy to welcome someone of Slytherin's blood to his family, are you not, Cygnus?"

The poisoned wizard gaped, as if trying to start a tirade about a filthy half-blood blemishing the always-pure bloodline, but Professor Slughorn didn't allow him the opportunity. "I've seen you fighting through six years, and in the teachers' room I wasn't the only one making bets that the two of you would get married one day. The fact that you've both had time fallouts also means that your fates are bound on a level we ordinary wizards struggle to understand."

Again, Cygnus took a breath to interject, but he was hushed, again. Tom leant against the wall of the alcove, feeling the buzz of the anti-eavesdropping spells against his skin. He wished Barty Crouch, in fact the both of them, overheard this discussion.

Meanwhile, Professor Slughorn continued."You saving Bellatrix from a lifetime imprisonment means she'll be in your debt when she's released. And her parents," here he poked his fellow Slytherin wizard, "will be forever grateful. Isn't that so, Cygnus?"

The poison-weathered wizard nodded with a grave grumble.

"Do we have your blessing, then, sir?" Tom looked the wizard, daring him to speak his mind. "Do you allow me to marry your daughter Bellatrix Black on the day of her release?" From the corner of his eyes, he could see the potions professor nodding vigorously.

"Rumour has it you're a cambion," Cygnus Black finally remembered an excuse."Your kind doesn't reproduce."

"I'm fertile," the young man assured his future father-in-law. "And there are ways around physical contact. I won't die a virgin, and Belly won't, either."

"I have one condition," Bella's father huffed after some rumination. "Your children will carry on the name Black. None of your Riddle nonsense."

"As both the parents would be Blacks, that's not a sacrifice on my part," Tom agreed. "Now, excuse me, sirs, I think the Chief Warlock is looking for me."

-?-

Officially, nobody but the Head Auror knew why Severus Snape wasn't among the accused. He had provided essential information about the purists, that's what the Wizengamot was told, although he hadn't even seen the documentation had 'provided' before the trial. James Potter smirked at him, without saying the obvious facts aloud: that he was acting on Lily's strict orders and that now they stood at a double life debt. Besides, the potioner had a troll-proof alibi for the morning those papers had been liberated from Spain.

Snape appeared like he would have preferred a life sentence.

-?-

"Tom, my boy, a mutual friend of ours is worried by a vision about you."

It was the end of a long day, and Tom longed for nothing but a good night's sleep, unbothered by any human, in his own bed after three weeks of travel. They apparated to Godric's Hollow, then continued the discussion.

"Professor, Gellert has seen my future wife casting a castration spell at me while she's in labour. I have a minimum of six years and nine months to learn a counter-spell. Lemon drops, sir?"

"Just one, please. I was about to offer you the same."

The two wizards settled on a bench in the village's main square, facing a graffiti on a wizarding guest house. The sketch depicted a very embarrassed-looking skeleton, trying to cover his (bony) crotch with (bony) hands. It wasn't hard to guess which episode of the local folklore the drawing was referring to. Somebody wrote a hint by the structure's window, nevertheless: 'most reluctantly'.

"Poor Death," Albus Dumbledore nodded in the graffiti's direction.

"Somehow he reminds me of a wizard who couldn't get into his own, freshly reconstructed castle, because of some slippery stairs," Tom Marvolo Riddle-Black mused aloud, wondering why that handwriting appeared so familiar. "Did you manage to get around the WD-40?"

The Master of the Elder Wand shook his head, but winked in his usual, merry way. "No, but an alchemist friend of mine did. He's the one who made the gold medals for us. Dear Nicolas has a reason not to particularly like Gellert, but he called those stairs the first real vocational challenge in the past four hundred years."

"I'm pleased to hear that." He could only imagine what 'a reason not to like Grindelwald' might have been. And, apparently, the fallen wizard's exuberant self-assurance had finally gotten trimmed back by an alchemist whom he had deeply wronged. James would call it justice, Springscales would say it's time and truth combined. "But why do I have the feeling you want something from me, professor?"

"See, Tom, Professor Warren was under Imperius for at least half a year. She doesn't feel up to teaching Defense anymore. I managed to convince her to return at least in part-time, but I need someone for the position."

"And you want me to recommend the next Defense teacher? Professor, Moony might be willing to teach for the fun of it, but he's in no need of a salary, and I doubt the parents would be happy with a werewolf. Peter, well, he can return to Britain anytime now, as his promise to find the diadem has been fulfilled, but he met a squib girl in Albania and she's a bit reluctant to move. In fact, Peter says the entire Fountain from the Department of Mysteries would be needed to change her mind. And Gellert is a sensitive old man whom I adore but cannot imagine as a trusted teacher for just everybody."

"That's why I pleaded with Myrtle Warren to stay one more year so that you could learn into the task, as well as finish your education."

"...What."

"Tom, my boy, you could be the best Defense teacher Hogwarts ever had. You're talented, you have insight, the topic comes naturally to you. I assure you, Hogwarts and its seven years of students will provide you with all the challenge you might be seeking."

"Professor, no. I have my plans for my future. I want to complement the Siriusly Enchanted Objects with tools that are magical from the beginning – Marvolous objects, like my inkwell, like the dementor-cloak flight harness, and for that, I have three very knowledgeable tutors in addition to the training I receive from Gellert."

"Three knowledgeable tutors?" Dumbledore frowned. "Have I ever heard about them?"

"Yes, you most certainly have." With that, Tom took the inkwell from his pocket, uncorked it, and, careful not to spill its contents, put it aside. The glass jar was important, but the most invaluable part was the black stone hidden inside the unsuspicious cork. "Let me introduce them to you, Professor, although you might have met them already. They've been around ever since that full moon we joined forces." He held the Stone in his palm, and turned it around three times. "They've set quite the standard in terms of magical objects, don't you think?"

The first spirit to appear, a proud man with a thin, nail-like moustache and dagger-shaped beard, however, spoke against Tom turning down the offer. "For a true achievement, you will always need true motivation. Take this advice from your own ancestor, Tom. Accept that position to teach."

"But Cadmus!"

"Your ancestor is right," said another man, sporting a peculiar, square beard. "If you fight just for yourself, you'll fare no better than I did. Work for the benefit of an entire wizarding generation."

"But Antioch!"

"You will still have the summer holidays to chase your personal dreams," the third one added. He had a smooth face and a friendly, reassuring smile. "And what better place for ideas than a castle so densely filled with magic?"

"But Ignotus!"

"You heard us," said Cadmus Perevell.

"Don't forget, you'll have your own daughter's future to be mindful of," added Ignotus.

"And don't you back away from the challenge!" finished Antioch. "Put your courage together and say yes!"

With a defeated grimace, Tom put the Stone back into its cork cover, and plugged his inkwell. "Professor, I'm still not sure if this is a good idea."

"No, but I am, Tom. It took me long enough to accept, but do you know how the saying goes? Keep your friends close..."

"...And your bodyguard, even closer."

"Exactly. Lemon drops?"

-?-

'My deeply respected Hallow,

Thank you for your timely warning. I have blocked Belly's castration curse, and I'm proud to inform you about the new addition to the family and enclose the first photo of Delphini Black. Lily says she takes after me, but I'm not sure. Do you think I cursed off my own father's nose three hours into my existence?

Tom the Marvolous,

Godric's Hollow, 18th June, 1996.

P.s. Please GG, rescue me from this pit of do-gooders! Or at least drop by whenever you have time. We'd be honored. – Bella Riddle-Black.'