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AN INNOCENT TEA
He'll probably be late—young Serpent. That's what they called them in my day. We were all Badgers and Lions and Serpents and Eagles. It was so much easier back then—we were more innocent somehow--more open, more honest…
The old woman smoothed the fabric of the tapestry by the hearth. The fading colors looked duller still to her rheumy eyes. The intricate stitchery showed the final stage of a unicorn hunt, the poor creature surrounded by men with spears and nets--wild-eyed, bleeding, desperate. Muggles could be so cruel, even in their artwork.
"Hullo, Professor Merrythought. I hope you don't mind that I'm early."
She turned to the shadow framed in the doorway.
"Not at all, Riddle. Have a seat, won't you." The elderly professor rang a little silver bell on the table. A house-elf appeared immediately with a tray laden with a tea pot that could have served dozens, egg-shell thin cups and saucers, and a two-tiered plate filled with dainties.
They sat on the flowered loveseat, its arms and back draped with crocheted doilies, and he offered to serve them both. She knew her aim with the spout would be chancy, so she gave in graciously.
He poured and passed silently, leaving her to strike up the conversation. This she did, and they talked of the mundane--school matters, his hopes for the future, her own plans for retirement—savoring the spicy Darjeeling, the rich tartlets, the buttery scones.
She knew him well: tall and slender and naturally elegant, though with the occasional hint of crudeness as befit his youth and sex. Tom Riddle had pulled himself up from a very shaky childhood in the slums of Muggle London to become the apple of every teacher's eye and a shoo-in for Head Boy when his time came.
Now he was surveying her sitting room with the same avid curiosity he brought to her classes.
"What are those, if I might enquire, Professor?" He was gesturing at the north window.
She tittered into her napkin. No student she had ever invited to tea had noted her collection of dried herbs. Trust Tom, the most sensitive and canny young wizard she'd ever taught, to be drawn to the things closest to her own heart.
"My mother was a breweress," she replied. "She had the most wonderful garden. Those are some of her favorite plants—feverfew, henbane, spiderwort, columbine from the colonies. I lacquered a few of them to remember her by." She sighed. "But you cannot long preserve the vital force in wax or amber, can you, my boy?"
She had meant this last as trivial rhetoric, a warning the despairing old toss at the young to blunt their reckless enthusiasm, She was taken aback at the warmth of his response.
"But it is possible, isn't it?" he blurted eagerly. "To prolong life, I mean. Magic can do just about anything, can't it, Professor?"
Her heart went out to him suddenly, this earnest young man, undoubtedly considering a career in the Healing Arts or some such selfless profession. She wanted to reassure him, but knew she could not.
"I have taught Magical Defence for many years, young man, and before that, Potions, and, except for the Philosopher's Stone, which many believe to be little more than an old hag's tale, there is no way to lengthen one's days in the mortal plane indefinitely."
"What about unicorn blood?" he asked, gesturing at the tapestry.
She was not surprised at his familiarity with that ancient preservative--the blood of an pure and innocent beast. For as long as she had known him, Tom Riddle had evinced an encyclopedic knowledge of the wizarding world, despite his deprived Muggle upbringing. Some said he ate, drank, and slept in the Hogwarts library.
Her voice quavered a little as she answered him. "That is an extreme measure, and, in my mother's day at least, was banned as an ingredient in potion-making."
"For the love of the majestic beasts, I suppose."
"No, because unicorn blood is so potent an agent, it is the rare witch or wizard who can long survive its effects. And to slay such a creature does violence to the very foundations of the magical world."
"Is there nothing else? No other way?" His dark eyes seemed to bore into her clouded ones. She felt a supreme force of need emanating from him, tugging at her mental barriers--and her heartstrings. He must have family, she thought--someone he loves, someone who is gravely ill—dying perhaps...
She drew in her lips. There was no way she would allow the dread word horcrux to escape them. "No," she murmured, "none."