The Sugar Quill
Author: Andrea13 and Persephone_Kore  Story: A Difficult Year  Chapter: Chapter 1: Lessons
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

A Difficult Year Ch. 1

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. No undue claim nor any material profit is expected or intended.

Authors' note: We know what JKR said about Arthur having two brothers. This story was actually written before she provided that information, and we referred to entirely too many of them to take out without a fairly extensive rewrite. We'd probably miss something anyway. We will naturally be delighted with reviews on any other topic, but we though we'd go on and try to head that one off. ;)

"A Difficult Year"
By Andrea13 and Persephone Kore
Chapter 1

Rubeus Hagrid had learned many things in his one year, two months, and sixteen days at Hogwarts.

He'd learned how to turn a match into a needle, how to swish and flick properly to make something fly, and the first line of defense if you were attacked by a Dark wizard ("run"). He'd also learned he was very good at Herbology, nearly as good at Potions, and broomsticks were really not intended to be used by someone of his size. Rubeus quickly found out who was dating whom, which students hated each other, who was good to ask for a little extra help in Transfiguration, and who should absolutely NOT be disturbed on Saturday mornings (under penalty of death).

The most important thing he'd learned, though, was that the best place to learn just about anything was right here in his dorm room, talking to his roommates. After all, between them they had nearly every aspect of the wizarding world covered. Two of them had older siblings at Hogwarts, or who'd graduated recently. One was Muggle-born, and kept them all entertained with stories about the odd things Muggles did. They were all a fun-loving, slightly mischievous group.

Right now, though, they were all bored stiff.

"Let's go see if the Care of Magical Creatures professor will let us visit the animals!" Rubeus suggested enthusiastically. For the fifth time. The other boys groaned.

Xavier looked up from where he was attempting to mend a rip in his robes acquired from an encounter with an overly-enthusiastic Crup. "Let's not."

"Aww, c'mon, Xavier, it'll be fun!" Rubeus cajoled. "I hear they just got in a new shipment of grindylows!"

Reggie Johnson, who occupied the bed between the two, looked up and calmly caught the pillow Xavier tried to throw at Rubeus. "We know you think it'll be fun, Rubeus, but most of us still have scars from last time. Maybe something else, all right?"

"They'll behave fine if yeh just go at it right," Rubeus explained, apparently undaunted.

"Yes, well, we all know that you're used to dealing with deadly creatures," Xavier retorted blithely. "You live with Slytherins, after all."

"They're nice," Rubeus retorted, "an' it just goes to show that it's all in the approach." He was, possibly, getting the hang of this sort of comment.

Xavier grinned and replied blandly, "I'll keep that in mind the next time I go stake out the Slytherin dorms."

Rubeus laughed. "Well, now, I reckon some of it's in what you're approachin' for."

"If he's staking out the Slytherins," Diggle in the next bed put in, "I don't think it'll be to borrow a cup of sugar." He grinned and put down his Herbology book, scooting up the bed to join in the conversation. "Though that might be fun, just to see the looks on their faces."

"That'd probably make for some interestin' letters home."

"From them or from us?"

"Well, I'd probably hear about Tom's."

"Weird. I mean, granted, my little sister's a Ravenclaw, but a Slytherin? Too odd."

"Don' see why." Rubeus grinned suddenly. "If you're stakin' out the Slytherin dorm... well, I hear Dad and Aunt Mary thought up some thin excuses to visit early on. Are yeh sure there isn' a Slytherin girl you're lookin' at?"

"Bite your tongue! I have taste, thank you very much."

Rubeus sat up rather abruptly. "I didn' say otherwise."

"Sorry, sorry. I'm sure your mum's very nice."

"That's better."

"Honestly, Rubeus, there's no need to be so uptight. People insult my family all the time," Xavier confided airily.

"Yeah, but your family--"

"Don't say it, Johnson."

Reggie grinned cheekily and tossed Xavier's pillow back at him. "Whatever you say, Weasley."

"Aunt Mary said she wouldn' have minded havin' more children, but not as many as yer mum, Xavier." Rubeus grinned. "Says she hasn' got that many hands."

"She can have some of ours," Xavier promised instantly.

Rubeus's smile turned almost wicked. "Family legend does say Salazar was a redhead."

The other boys in the room all immediately turned to Xavier and started taunting. "So now who's the heir of Slytherin, Weasley?" "New reason to be staking out the Slytherin dorms, eh?" "I don't know if we can keep you as our roommate, Xavier."

Xavier turned as red as his hair. "Shove off, you. Every member of my family's been in Gryffindor for thirty-seven years!"

"Out of a thousand?" Reggie asked innocently.

"Can I help it if my cousin Quintus went into Hufflepuff? He broke one of the longest House-streaks at Hogwarts! No one spoke to him at Christmas for years."

"I thought about askin' for Hufflepuff." Rubeus frowned. "That's overreactin'."

"It wasn't that he was in Hufflepuff, it was that he wasn't in Gryffindor. Every Weasley had been in Gryffindor for nearly five hundred years. Our streak was longer than even those Malfoys." Xavier sighed gustily. "And Quintus ruined it. We're trying to build it back up, but it takes time."

"About five hundred years, I'd say," Reggie said with a straight face.

Xavier hit him with the pillow.

"Instead o' sittin' around insulting each other, we could go see the grindylows," Rubeus suggested brightly.

Diggle grinned from his bed and reached under his Transfiguration text. "I've still got a few Filibuster Fireworks left; we could go set them off from the Astronomy Tower!"

"Last time we did that, we lost ten points each," Reggie pointed out. "Save 'em for the girls' toilet, Dedalus."

Xavier snorted. "Oh, and that wouldn't lose us any!"

Reggie rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "The trick, Xavier my boy, is not to get caught. There's more of a time delay then; we can get away before it explodes."

"Weasleys," Xavier retorted, lifting his chin proudly, "don't play such silly pranks."

"Riiiiiiight," Dedalus snorted. "So all those stories I heard about the Slytherin Quidditch team's hair getting turned Weasley red a few years back was just a coincidence?"

Xavier shrugged. "Can I help it if someone else realized everyone looks better with red hair?"

"In your dreams, Weasley," Reggie retorted, throwing a pillow at the red-haired boy. Unlike last time, this one hit Xavier right in the face.

"Hey!" he protested, jumping up. "You'll pay for that one," he threatened direly, pulling out his wand. "Wingardium leviosa!"

Every pillow in the room jumped up in quick succession to dart directly at poor Reggie.

Unfortunately for Xavier (but fortunately for Reggie), his aim wasn't very good, and at least half the pillows plowed into Rubeus instead.

Laughing, Rubeus snared all the pillows in his massive arms and dumped them on top of Xavier.

One more important thing you learned about at Hogwarts was how to take revenge.

*****

Tom thought he was minding his own business when he was hit hard in the back and knocked sprawling.

Obviously, he thought through the haze of trying to get his breath back, he should have been paying more attention. He wasn't quite sure to what, but if he'd been paying attention, he would know that, wouldn't --

His head was knocked against the ground and he bit his tongue. Tom tried to swallow a pained noise, but it squeaked out when a heavy weight landed hard on top of him. This wasn't good....

"You should really watch where you're going, Riddle. You'd think our star Quidditch player wouldn't be so clumsy."

"What's the matter with you?" Tom gasped out. No, that was NOT up to his usual standard of repartee, maybe because he was seeing stars.... A foot came down hard on the hand that had been holding his wand, then kicked the bit of wood away.

A face came into his field of vision, uncomfortably close. He could smell his assailant's breath and it wasn't pretty. "You've got some nerve asking that after showing me up today!"

"Don't recall trying anything of the sort." Tom tried to summon his wand, preferably to the un-stomped hand, and was not excessively surprised when it didn't work.

"In Potions. I was just about to finish my Deterioration Draught, and Professor Kantle would know I was the best student in the class! But then YOU had to go and finish right before me. You're always showing me up!"

"Obviously you weren't the best student in the class, then," Tom drawled. It probably wasn't very wise to point out gaps in logic when he was being assaulted, come to think of it...

This was insane. For one thing no one had seriously tried to attack or intimidate him since he'd demonstrated his skill with hexes for a bully in third year; for another, beating him up was completely useless for impressing a teacher... too obvious... very un-Slytherin... and why was he musing about his assailant's House qualifications instead of trying to get loose?!

"Obviously you've got no common sense." The growl was emphasized by a fist smashing his jaw against the ground.

~Yes, I was just thinking that,~ Tom thought dazedly. Then he belatedly thought of fighting back and soon discovered that it wasn't helping -- he wasn't exactly weak, but he was smaller than the other boy and rather effectively pinned.

"I have to impress Professor Kantle." Each word was emphasized by a slamming of his head against the ground. "O.W.L.s are coming up next year, and if I don't do well, I'm toast."

"Might I suggest studying instead of beating classmates into the ground?" Tom suggested slightly woozily, starting to see double by now. He was rewarded by a short-armed punch to the midsection and let out a short grunt of pain.

"GEROFF HIM!" The weight on Tom's back was abruptly removed to the accompaniment of a roar from Rubeus. The relief of this was partially countered by the fact that by this point the sound hurt almost as much as having his head hit.

"Look, you bully, I don' know where yeh think yeh get off --" Rubeus apparently cut off his scolding of the perpetrator to crouch down and investigate the victim. "Tom?" He sounded a bit incredulous. "Tom, are yeh all right?"

"Never better," he croaked. "All right...once or twice."

Rubeus carefully grasped his brother by the shoulders and lifted him to his feet. Tom wondered dazedly where his potions-obsessed toast... er, assailant had gone until several blinks revealed...that the person in question...had his arms in the custody of two Gryffindors to whom Rubeus had apparently consigned him.

"Are you all right, Tom?" Rubeus asked worriedly. "You look awful."

Tom managed a woozy smile. "Nice to know you'll always tell it like it is, little brother." He had the distinct feeling that he was floating. Was that due to a head injury, or was Rubeus actually holding him off the floor?

Rubeus directed a furious glare at the toast -- no, that wasn't right -- actually, given that expression, maybe it was.... Tom tried to shake his head and discovered instantly that this had been a bad idea.

"I think we'd better take him to the hospital wing," one of the other Gryffindors said cautiously.

"Think yer right," Rubeus muttered. "Tom, d'you think yeh can walk?"

"I've been walking since before you were born. Mostly." Tom blinked down at his feet. Yes, they seemed to be properly on the ground where they belonged. No reason he couldn't move them a bit, was there?

Rubeus appeared somewhat doubtful of this ability, but let him try anyway -- albeit without actually letting go. Tom took a shambling step forward, but didn't actually manage to propel himself anywhere. He blinked suddenly and jerked his head around. ~Bad idea. Ow. Ow. Ow.~ "My wand?"

"Steady!" Rubeus cautioned him worriedly, then looked around at the ground, scuffing a bit at the grass with a large foot.

It was another Gryffindor who handed the wand rather warily to Tom. That was confusing. He didn't think he'd seen that one before. Not just now, at least. They seemed to be multiplying or something.... "I'm steady." He managed to get his fingers to work quite acceptably and close around the wand, then peered at the new Gryffindor. "Where're you all coming from?" On second thought, maybe he should just be quiet now.

The latest addition gave Tom a look suggesting suspicion of a trick question. "We were with Rubeus."

"All of you?" He looked over at Rubeus and grinned. "That's my popular brother." He wondered if any of them would mind if he took a little nap while they finished the conversation without him...

"Here now, stay awake, Tom...." Apparently Rubeus did mind. He sounded rather alarmed. Then he lifted his older brother easily into his arms and started off for the hospital wing at as swift a pace as he could manage smoothly.

Tom could still hear the other Gryffindors. "All of us? Do you think he was seeing double?"

"Why was someone beating him up? I know he's annoying sometimes but...."

"The funny thing is it was another Slytherin!"

"I'm forever punished for my wit and good looks," Tom muttered in reply. "He was just jealous I had matching shoes."

"You're really odd when you've been hit in the head, Tom," Rubeus observed, pushing open a doorway. "Jus' stay awake, all right?"

"I am awake. I should hope it's odd. Don't really want to make a habit of this...."

"You'd better not," Rubeus informed him.

"Wasn't really trying to this time. Glad you came, but I really almost had him."

"Had 'im where?"

"Right where I wanted him."

Rubeus sighed. "Whatever yeh say, Tom. The hospital wing's not much further."

"Why are you taking me there? I'm ferpectly fine!"

Rubeus agreed long-sufferingly that his brother was in ferpect condition and kept right on going.

"Excuse me, miss," he said hesitantly, pushing open the door to the infirmary and looking around for the nurse. "Me brother's hurt."

"Mercy!" Madam Pomfrey, the apprentice mediwitch, swooped over. "Been fighting, has he? Yes, lay him there." She shook her head disapprovingly. "Should I be expecting the other one?"

"He wasn't fighting, he was getting beaten up!" Rubeus exclaimed angrily. "Other one don't have a mark on him!"

"I almost managed to bite him once," Tom corrected from the bed, blinking up at them. He directed a smile at Madam Pomfrey that would've been charming if it wasn't so unfocused and with a distinct bit of pain behind it.

She scowled. "Well, who was it? We can't have that either." She dabbed at Tom's face with something that made it mostly stop hurting, then insisted he drink a potion that wouldn't have been palatable even if it hadn't smelled like his attacker's breath.

"Slytherin fourth year," Rubeus answered, after it became apparent that Tom was too involved in trying to choke the potion down to bother answering. "Don't know his name, but me friends were taking him to a professor."

Tom thought that unless they happened across the head of Slytherin house and mentioned who had been being attacked, the likely result of this was not going to be something he would view as an improvement. On the bright side, he seemed to be thinking more clearly. Now that he was, he reflected that it was rather embarrassing to have been rescued by his baby brother and friends. Not that lying on the ground with his head getting smashed in was an improvement, but it was still a little embarrassing. No reason to be rude, though. He reached up to grasp his brother's large hand. He always felt dwarfed by it. "Thanks, Rubeus."

Rubeus squeezed his hand -- gently, which was nice of him since the fingers were still tender. "We almost didn' see yeh at all, Tom -- we just happened to go 'round that way." He sounded troubled.

Tom smiled vaguely. "Always knew Lady Luck liked me."

"You'd better be more careful, though.... What was it all about, anyway?"

"Something about showing him up in Potions." Tom waved his free hand in the air vaguely. "We didn't really have time for a long chat." His smile turned slightly bitter. "Probably didn't like a halfblood beating him. Oh, the injustice." His voice was very dry.

"Th' idiot," Rubeus muttered.

"That's what I said. Didn't help much." Tom rubbed his jaw.

"Well, no, it's not usually the most helpful thing to say when somebody's hitting you." The Gryffindor who'd handed back Tom's wand was still lurking just inside the doorway. Tom searched his mind for a name now that he could actually focus on the face. One of the assorted Weasleys, too bad they looked so much alike....

"Well, he WAS an idiot, Weasley," Tom retorted. "No point not saying it when he's decided to demonstrate it so clearly. Not like anything I said was going to make him stop, 'cept maybe 'stupefy', and I didn't have m' wand."

"I noticed. Not quite enough of an idiot, I suppose."

"The quality of bullies around here is improving."

"Tom," Rubeus interrupted bewilderedly, "how often does this happen?"

"Er," said Tom. "What, exactly? I haven't had to be carried in before...."

"But...people coming after you. People like you."

"...Not quite everyone."

"Well, why NOT?" Rubeus asked as if he couldn't quite wrap his mind around the concept.

Weasley appeared to be keeping his mouth shut largely out of deference to Rubeus' feelings and the likelihood of being kicked out of the infirmary if he made a nuisance of himself. Either that or the awareness that Tom did have his wand now.

"It does take some effort, as a rule...." Tom eyed Weasley and thought that it might be nice if the redhead DID get himself kicked out.

Rubeus still looked baffled. Madam Pomfrey finished whatever it was she was doing with her wand and presented another potion for Tom to drink. This one, thankfully, smelled faintly of apples. "You're lucky you have a hard head, young man. Try to keep from colliding with any more floors in the future."

"I'll see what I can do about that." The charming smile was a bit more successful this time.

She seemed unimpressed by the effort. "You can go back to your dormitory. Come back if you start to feel dizzy or nauseated."

"I will. Thank you." Tom sat up carefully and stood up with no immediate ill effects. That was good.

"I'll walk yeh back, Tom," Rubeus insisted. He still sounded worried.

"I'm fine. Really."

"That's what yeh said before," Rubeus replied darkly, following his brother out the door.

"Yes, but it's TRUE this time. Hello, Weasley." Tom waited expectantly for the redhead to move out of his way on the landing.

"Hello. You'll want to take a different stairway, Rubeus," Weasley said gravely. "There's a bit of a muddle with a sponge on this one."

"A...sponge?" Tom repeated, though the comment hadn't quite been addressed to him. "What happened?"

"Well, among other things, there's a cactus in it... and a great deal of soap, for some reason. Supposedly it came up from under one of the trick steps, but I'm not sure I believe that."

Tom blinked, wondered briefly if he still had a head injury, but decided after a moment that it was just one of those things that happened at Hogwarts for no apparent reason and headed for the other staircase. "Thanks for the warning."

Weasley proceeded down the staircase in question, presumably to deal with the sponge. His story was supported by the squirt of soapy water that jetted up to the landing while Tom was looking back curiously at it. "Weird." By point of pride, he didn't lean against his brother at all as they walked down the other staircase, though Rubeus had an arm out ready just in case and whatever Madam Pomfrey had given him was making him decidedly sleepy. "You really don't have to walk me all the way, Rubeus. I can manage."

"I'd rather, though."

He sighed. "All right. If you insist. It's not necessary, though."

"I didn' think yeh'd mind that much...." Rubeus sighed. "I'm sorry, Tom. It did give me a shock ter see yeh like that...."

"I don't mind if you want to, little brother. And... I'm sorry. I just wasn't watching where I was going, or he never would've gotten the jump on me. These things happen, Rubeus."

Rubeus frowned at him. "And yeh never told me how often."

Tom shrugged. "There wasn't a reason to."

"I meant when I asked!"

Another sigh. "Not that often. A few times a year, just usually not so...physically. Mostly the troublemakers stick to just taunting. Or hating in silence, because their wit is about as sharp as their heads." A frown. "And I usually manage to catch on beforehand and make them...think twice first."

"It always seemed that people just like yeh, though."

"Most people do, but you can't be a halfblood in Slytherin without getting a few comments. And the stupid ones are always looking for someone else to blame for their poor marks." Tom shrugged casually. "It's nothing to worry about. I make them sorry later." He grinned, quick and sharp. "Or a friend does. Gryffindors aren't the only ones who can stick together, you know."

"I thought that was the Hufflepuffs." Rubeus eyed his brother sternly. "It shouldn' happen."

Tom sighed. "Rubeus, about this idealistic streak...."

"It shouldn'," he retorted firmly. "And why didn't yeh ever tell me about it? Yeh'd wanted to know if I was being bullied."

"Little brother, anyone who'd try to bully YOU would have to be much stupider than anyone I've ever met, and blind besides."

"That's not the point."

"No, the point is, you're my little brother, so of course I'm supposed to know when people are hassling you. I'm supposed to protect you. Not the other way around. I can take care of myself."

Rubeus stopped walking and folded his arms, scowling down at Tom. "I won't deny yer a better wizard than I am, Tom, but yeh don't have ter act like I can't do anything. Or shouldn't. I'm not standing for yeh getting hurt just because yeh don't want my help."

"I didn't say you can't do anything. I said I can fight my own battles."

"Oh yeah? Was that what yeh were doing when that bully was slamming yer head into the ground?"

Tom winced. "I did thank you...."

"An' told me to keep my nose out of your business in the future. So next time I see that, am I supposed to just walk away?"

"That's not what I -- you didn't even know it was me at the time --"

"So I should walk over, check and see if it's you, and then walk off if it is? But if it's someone else gettin' beat up, I can do somethin'?"

This was clearly not one of Tom's better days. Now he'd managed to get Rubeus angry with him as well.... "I don't suppose you could give me half an hour to regain the ability of intelligent conversation?"

"Right now, I think yeh need a lot more time than that!" Rubeus snapped, then stalked off towards the Gryffindor common room.

Tom stared after him for a moment, then snapped out of it and made his way to his own common room, keeping alert just in case the Gryffindors had lost his overly-violent housemate. He stopped in front of a bare stretch of wall and muttered, "Swedish Short-Snout." The prefects had a dragon obsession at the moment; last week it had been "Chinese Fireball" and before that "Peruvian Vipertooth". He hoped they got over the obsession soon. No one was going to be able to remember "Antipodean Opaleye".

The hidden door opened and he slid into the common room, ignoring the called out greetings and heading up to his own dormitory.

Rubeus would love the dragon passwords. Tom considered telling him about them once the craze had safely passed.

Assuming they'd made up by then....

They would have, surely. He was being ridiculous. After all, Rubeus simply didn't stay amgru. He'd get riled up occasionally, but after he'd cooled down, he would realize he was just upset for no reason.

He was.

TOM was right, after all. He didn't need his little brother to protect him. He would have survived the beating -- stupid to get into that situation, of course, but he was hardly going to die from that -- made it to the infirmary himself, and then made the git very, very sorry. Not that he was planning to omit that last part, of course.

Tom slumped onto his bed. None of that changed the relief he'd felt when Rubeus had plucked the other boy off him....

It had been nice. But he'd thanked Rubeus for it, hadn't he? It wasn't as if he was being ungrateful. He just wanted to make sure that Rubeus understood he didn't have to WORRY about him.

...And right now, he just wanted to take a nap. He'd sort it out later.

*****

Tom lagged behind the rest of the team getting dressed after Quidditch practice. Despite his time in the infirmary, he still had aches in interesting places. He half-suspected Madam Pomfrey of leaving minor aches unhealed to discourage fights. But that would be too Slytherin of her...

Tom blinked repeatedly as he finally made it down to the dungeon corridor that housed the entrance to Slytherin dormitories. Either that last Bludger had hit him harder than he thought, or there was a Weasley sitting cross-legged on the stone floor just beside the hidden door...

"There you are," said the boy. Tom blinked at him again. There was no mistaking that flaming red hair, looking especially out of place in the flickering torchlight instead of in the perpetual reds of the Gryffindor common room. (Not that Tom had ever SEEN this room, but he knew Gryffindors well enough to know they'd plaster that awful color all over their dormitories.) Definitely a Weasley.

Definitely the Weasley who had been with Rubeus.

~Erk.~

"Did you want something?"

"I was waiting for you."

Tom resisted the urge to rub his aching head and snapped, "You've seen me. Now if that's all, I have homework to do."

"I am going," said the Weasley sternly, "to have a talk with you."

Tom sighed and half-lounged against the wall, raising one eyebrow. "Little lions are braving the snakes in their den now? I always knew Gryffindors were idiots."

Weasley's grin was vaguely alarming, perhaps because it occurred instead of something more predictable like rising to the bait. "Would you prefer to talk here or somewhere comparatively private?"

"I'd prefer to be facedown on my nice, soft bed right now, if you must know, but if you insist on speaking to me..." Tom walked off without another word and found a nearby classroom that wasn't in use. "You have two minutes, and I'm only giving you THAT because you're Rubeus' friend."

"Which is why I'm here," Weasley snapped, and without further preamble he launched, to Tom's astonishment, into a furious lecture. "WHAT are you thinking? He helps you and now you're angry with him and decide to make him miserable? He keeps insisting you're decent and all that but right now I really don't see it."

Tom blinked for a few moments before summoning enough thought away from his astonishment at the way Weasley's freckles were managing to pulsate in their own independent rhythm with his anger to formulate his own reply. "I'm hardly making Rubeus miserable, and it's none of YOUR business what I'm doing! For your information, I'm not mad at him for helping me, and if he chooses to believe so, he's making HIMSELF miserable!"

Tom firmly ignored the little voice of conscience that told him he'd planned to apologize to his brother before now. They'd switched from dragon passwords to potions ingredients already...

"Don't even TRY to blame it on him! If you're not mad at him you're giving a bloody good impression of it, which isn't any better." Weasley folded his arms and glowered. It was really a very good glower, possibly learnt from a parent who found it necessary to cow multiple very Gryffindor-y offspring on a regular basis.

"Oh, and YOU'RE the expert on our relationship?" Tom snorted and crossed his own arms, giving the patented unconcerned look perfected from facing any number of idiots on a regular basis who claimed he was a lower life form because his father was a Muggle.

...Idiots like the one Rubeus had pulled off him.

"Of course not," Weasley retorted rather unexpectedly. "I'm just the one in this room who's actually been talking to Rubeus for the past few weeks."

Tom's teeth ground together. "So he sent you here to yell at me? Very mature."

Weasley gave him a withering look. "You don't know him any better than that?"

"Then you're down here without him knowing anything about it, so you don't know what you're talking about." Tom glowered. His glower wasn't bad either. "Maybe you don't know as much as you think you do."

Weasley appeared undeterred by the return-glower. "I know what I'm talking about," he said angrily. "I know what happened, since I was there, and I know for some reason you're barely speaking to each other since, and I know Rubeus is miserable about it but HE is certainly not going to come back and apologize and say he'll be careful never to do anything nice for you again."

"I never SAID he should apologize! I thanked him for helping me. HE'S the one who chose to get insulted when I said I could fight my own battles! I've only been doing it for the past four years."

"And you were doing such a good job," Weasley replied dryly. "What's he supposed to do, check if it's you getting hurt and walk away if it is?"

That sounded rather familiar.... "Do all you Gryffindors read a manual or something? Honestly! I've taken a few knocks before and I'll do it again. I get my own back. I appreciated the help at the time, but I don't need my little brother and his friends to protect me!"

"You make it sound like you think he's conspiring to humiliate you or something! If you're not mad at him, why aren't you talking to him?"

"Rubeus couldn't conspire if his life depended on it. Why do you think he ended up with YOU prats?" Tom growled and sat on a nearby desk. "I'm not not talking to him."

Weasley looked exasperated. "All right. But considering you're in different Houses, even if you aren't trying to avoid him you end up avoiding him unless you try not to avoid him. I have a cousin in Ravenclaw I can barely find when I am looking for her."

"I thought all you Weasleys were in Gryffindor. Family pride back to the Middle Ages or something."

"She's on my mother's side; you can tell she's not on the Weasley side, she's a girl. And you're avoiding the point."

Tom glared at him. "This is none of your business. I don't interfere with your family."

"You would if you had a good enough reason," Weasley retorted, accurately enough. "Your brother is my friend; he's unhappy, and I still think it's your fault." He sighed. "And I don't think that's what you actually want. If it is, there's not much point my being here."

"Of course I don't want him unhappy," Tom snapped. "But I know my brother. I've known him for longer than YOU have. If he wanted to talk to me, he would."

Weasley sighed again and went over to perch on another desk nearby. "I currently live with him. He thinks you don't want to talk to him."

"Well you can tell him I DO, then."

There was a brief silence.

"Is there any particular reason," Weasley asked after a moment, "that you couldn't tell him this yourself? I mean, it's probably not all that convincing if you're sending it by messenger."

Tom closed his eyes and let out a long, drawn-out sigh. "Weasley, I'm tired, I'm sore, I have ten feet of parchment to write, and I have Quidditch practice AGAIN in the morning. You, as you just pointed out, LIVE with him. Pass the message on, and I'll talk to him as soon as I have the bloody TIME!"

"All right, all right." There was a definite grin in the voice; Tom slitted his eyes open suspiciously and noted that the grin was also quite visible. "Just so long as you're actually going to do it. I'll tell him."

"Thank you."

Tom expected Weasley to leave then. He thought Weasley was leaving until, halfway to the door, the Gryffindor paused and flipped his wand into his hand -- apparently it had been up his sleeve. Tom barely had time for a frantic rush of adrenaline and mental curses at his own carelessness -- and to start to grab for his own wand -- before Weasley said quickly, "Amelio" and some of the soreness dissipated. Not all of it -- he'd have been really shocked if a second-year had managed that -- but....

Weasley pocketed his wand quickly and held up both empty hands placatingly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you."

"Ah...you didn't. ..Thank you." Not that Tom would have admitted if he'd been startled -- not to a bloody Gryffindor, and a second-year, for that matter! -- but still. He knew his manners, at least. Tom flexed his arm and reluctantly admired the work. Not bad for a second-year. "You're pretty good at those."

Weasley smiled ruefully. "Fourth of seven brothers. I have a lot of practice."

Seven? Weasley families WERE as large as the jokes. Tom shook his head. "Well...tell Rubeus I'll see him around." Tom slipped his wand casually back in his pocket.

"I will." Xavier Weasley really did leave this time, and Tom slid off the desk and made it into the Slytherin dorm without further confrontations.

Rubeus was eavesdropping on some third-years' shared homework for Care of Magical Creatures when Xavier made his way back into the Gryffindor common room. "Rubeus?"

"Oh, hullo Xavier. You look happy."

Xavier shrugged. "Ran into your brother." All right, so waylaid would be the more accurate term, but who was counting?

Rubeus blinked and sat up straighter. "Yeh talked ter Tom? What did he say? How'd he look? What -- wait a minute, yeh ran into him and yeh're in a GOOD mood?"

Xavier caught a dirty look from one of the third-years and beckoned Rubeus to move the conversation a little further off. "And I thought my brothers could be unflattering?" He grinned as they settled into a different set of chairs. "He's all right. Bit overworked, said something about having to write ten feet of parchment between Quidditch practices, though of course I'd just as soon he missed a few of them. And he said he'd talk to you as soon as he had the time."

A broad smile immediately wreathed Rubeus' face. "Really? He said that? He's not--I mean, I thought he was busy an'...well..." Rubeus shook his head, but the pleased smile remained. "He talked ter you just ter tell yeh that?"

"We-ell... to tell the truth I stopped him and asked why he hadn't been talking to you for a while. Seems he didn't think you wanted him to, some such nonsense."

Rubeus narrowed his eyes. "Yeh mean yeh ambushed him? TOM?"

"I'd hardly call it an ambush," Xavier protested. "I saw him, I spoke -- what, am I not allowed to start conversations?"

"Of course yeh are, but...Yeh just happened ter see him?" Rubeus asked suspiciously.

"Well, no, I did look for him, I admit." Xavier shrugged.

"Yeh did ambush him."

"I did not. One attacks from ambush. I am not," Xavier said with dignity, "a total idiot."

Rubeus snorted eloquently.

"Look, you were both being idiots not talking to each other, so I went and told him that," Xavier said impatiently. "In case you missed it, I said he thought YOU didn't want to talk to HIM. Misunderstanding all corrected, life goes on."

"Ter tell the truth, I'm surprised he told yeh any such thing."

Xavier blinked. "Why?"

"Well, yeh know. He does talk ter me -- most of the time -- an' Dad of course, but other than that, not so much about that sort of thing ter anybody from other Houses. We're exceptions on account of bein' family."

"Maybe I get to be an exception on account of being a family friend?" Xavier suggested with a cheeky grin. "People love confiding in me, you know. Do it all the time."

"Scary thought," Rubeus said cheerfully, "but probably useful. And... thanks for clearin' things up, then." He frowned and lowered his voice. "I'm still not plannin' ter stand by if...."

"I know." Xavier shrugged. "Who could? But I'd still be mortified if, say, Arthur had to rescue me from somebody my own year. Doesn't mean I'd be mad at him," he added hastily, "but it would still be embarrassing. Or does Tom embarrass?" A mischievous grin. "There are those who say Slytherins can't blush."

"Isn't Arthur the six year old? I'd be embarrassed too!" Rubeus sighed and ducked his head. "He can blush. That don' mean I want ter MAKE him. I just...I still don' know why anyone WOULD do that, especially ter Tom..."

"Worse, Arthur's three. And Mum's pregnant again, did I tell you?" Xavier shrugged. "And likely they're jealous or something. I doubt most people are as fond of him as you are, given that's a near impossibility for anybody but your parents. Still no excuse, of course."

"Yer gonna have another brother? That's great! It must be nice havin' such a big family. I'd love ter have more brothers, but Aunt Mary can't really, so..." Rubeus shrugged. "I didn't say they had ter like him as much as I do, but there's a lot of difference between that an' smashin' his head against the ground..."

"I know there is." Xavier sighed. "I wouldn't do it, obviously, so I can't really explain it."

"I guess not." Rubeus frowned heavily. "He didn't even tell me, though. Do your brothers keep things like that from you? Or you from your little brothers?"

"Well, I haven't anything like it to keep secret, and I suppose if anybody were keeping it from me I wouldn't know as long as they were doing a good job of it, would I? I...don't think any of us would, though."

Rubeus sighed gustily and leaned back in his chair. "I didn' think so."

"On the other hand, it might not necessarily come up."

"Well, I never right out asked him if he was getting beat up by his own bloody housemates, but--! I never thought about it. Aunt Mary's family is older than Hogwarts. His father might've been a Muggle, but Tom's a bloody good wizard. I mean, MY mum--" Rubeus cut off his words abruptly and mumbled again, "I just didn't think of it, that's all."

"It's hardly your fault if you grew up with the only two decent Slytherins -- I'm kidding!" Xavier ended on a slightly exaggerated yelp as Rubeus looked up with knitting eyebrows. "Mostly. Though I will say it's a mite creepy thinking they're really descended from, well, Slytherin. Seriously, though -- the ones who're truly nasty about that sort of thing will say they can't stand incompetent Muggle-borns or half-bloods, but those're really the ones that bother them least, because they think of them as examples to prove their point."

"So the real problems are the ones who don't say anything, they just start hitting? Yeh don' even know who ter watch for then!" Rubeus shrugged. "I never thought about Slytherin being creepy. I just grew up with it. Aunt Mary's friends were mostly from Slytherin, and they seemed nice."

"I suppose it would be odd to know somebody descended from any of the other Founders too, really. But then, I suppose if you're used to it...." Xavier shrugged off the issue. "Say, what did her friends think about her marrying a Gryffindor?"

"Well, I was a baby at the time, so I can't really say what they said THEN. Dad said they both got teased a bit, but everyone seemed ter think it was a pretty good match by then...what with Tom and me in the picture, an' all."

"Well, that'd make sense." Xavier stretched. "Look, I'm glad you two are going to be speaking again, but while I may not have ten feet to write I do have to go study Transfiguration."

"All right. Try ter sleep a little too." Rubeus grinned at his friend. "And thanks."

*****

A flash of gold -- there!

Without really thinking about it, Tom angled his broomstick towards the flash, leaning forward to increase his speed. The wind rushed by him, whipping at his narrowed eyes until they teared. Still, he kept his sight on the flash. Closer...closer...

His fingers closed around the Snitch, the wings fluttering against his palm. It tickled.

He whooped aloud and held his hand aloft. "Got it!" he cried triumphantly.

"Nice going, Riddle." Brekkon, the team captain, flew over and took the Snitch from Tom's hand. "You caught that in record time. Be sure to do it against Ravenclaw! All right, let's try that drill again, Chasers! But this time--Who's that?" He peered down to the field, where a large figure was stumbling across at a run. "Isn't that your brother, Riddle? What's a Gryffindor doing at our team practice?"

"I'll talk to him, Brek. Relax. Just keep a hold of the Snitch for a while." With that, Tom angled his broom downwards. What was Rubeus doing running out in the middle of Slytherin Quidditch practice? He knew Weasley said Rubeus wanted to talk to him, but still...he knew better than to run out in the middle of another House's practice...

Tom touched down on the grass lightly, just in time to get nearly bowled over by his little brother. "Tom! Tom!"

"Easy, Rubeus. You know you can't be out here n--What's wrong?" He suddenly realized that his brother was crying, great fat tears streaming down his broad face. Tom felt a chill pass through him. Please let it be a problem with one of Rubeus' pets. The only other thing that would send him into hysterics like this was...

"It's Dad, Tom! Professor Dumbledore jus' got an owl from Aunt Mary. He's--he's sick. Bad. They're n-not sure if he'll m-m-make it!"

"WHAT?!"

He was exaggerating. He had to be. An image of strong, tall Tavish Hagrid swam in front of Tom's eyes. His mother had always been frail, but Tavish seemed...invincible. Nothing could be seriously wrong with him. Rubeus was just exaggerating.

Rubeus was also nearly incoherent with grief, so he wasn't much help in answering his brother's question. Tom reached up to pat his shoulder reassuringly. "It'll be all right, Rubeus. I'm sure he's fine." He had to swallow hard to clear the lump out of his throat. Tavish WOULD be fine.

"B-b-but what if he's NOT, Tom?" Rubeus sniffled, wiping his face with one large hand. His eyes were damp and shadowed. "W-what then?"

Tom opened his mouth to answer, but found he had no idea what to say.

*****

Adi: Yay, Adi review! We're happy too. :) And yes, they're utterly adorable. They do it to make us write about them. Thank you very much for telling us you find our bizarre story ideas, once written out, to feel natural! That's a high compliment. And you know, Rubeus is just the sort to adore a basilisk, isn't he....?

Toby: Glad you like both series. :) Especially the characterization -- getting that to feel right, we think, is one of the real keys to a successful AU. PK seems to find Tom's potential in some other set of choices/circumstances much more fun to write than the Voldemort version. And, well, here's the next installment. :)

Frankie Beeblebrox: We've written several for this series and may eventually come up with more. :) Tom and Rubeus as family are just a lot of fun to write. We think circumstance -- and other people's choices -- are contributing a lot in this case, but we also are trying to show where the boys (Tom in particular) have potential to go another way anyhow. That is one of the themes we really like in JKR's work. (And there's a reason we had Tavish and Mary joking about nature/nurture. And note on which sides. ;))

MrRobertsIII: Thanks for saying what you liked! The letters were one of Andrea's delightful inspirations. And Dumbledore is fun to write sometimes; glad he seemed right to you! As for the Chamber... well, you'll see.

Barb: Glad you enjoyed it. Rubeus isn't really much for broomstick flight, though -- now, flying creatures, something big enough to ride, that's more his speed.

Beck: Here 'tis. We're having a lot of fun with Rubeus in this.

Elsha: Thank you so much. We do try to keep the characterizations and make them feel right -- it does seem like the real key to making an AU work. And it's half the fun, really, taking them and trying to figure out what stays and what changes. Or, in the case of minor characters like Mary and Tavish, trying to figure out what fits with the little we already know and will make a good story! Tom as a teacher... sounds like fun. Give him fifty years and picture him teaching Harry, how's that one? :)

//
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