Tom stares in silence at the Unspeakable kneeling in front of him until she looks up. Most people wouldn’t know the woman is a “she,” with her deep, hooded cloak casting shadow over her face, but Tom is the Head Unspeakable and knows everything.
Except the answer to the question he’s about to ask.
“What,” Tom says softly, leaning forwards while his hands clenched around the edges of his desk, “do you mean, the operation completely failed?”
“I mean,” the Unspeakable says, giving a faint sound that might be her licking her dry lips, “the ward-breakers opened the Potter wards perfectly and undetectably, sir, just as you said.” Tom gives a quick nod; he designed those spells himself, they ought to have worked. “And then we got inside, and—and Harry Potter was waiting for us.”
“What?” Tom asks, but raises his hand when his minion might have tried to repeat herself.
He didn’t anticipate the raid on the Potters’ house failing at all. But when he got the initial (terrible) report, he assumed it was because James and Lily Potter were at home after all. Together, they’re magical powerhouses and more than capable of facing down six Unspeakables.
But now he’s getting the report that all dozen of the Unspeakables went in at the same time, rather than splitting so that half were going into the Potter house from the back, and it was only the Potter son who was at home?
“Um,” says the Unspeakable, bowing her head and sweating some more.
“Explain yourself,” Tom says, just barely keeping the words from turning into Parseltongue.
“We entered the house, sir,” his minion says at once, her hands fisting on her knees. “Potter was waiting on a chair in the entrance hall. He stood up, greeted us as Unspeakables, and said that we couldn’t have his family’s Invisibility Cloak.”
Tom does hiss this time. Only the Unspeakables actually on the raid were supposed to know what they were seeking, and he would have said that every single one of them was loyal. How did Potter learn of this?
The Unspeakable waits until his hiss has faded away, and goes on with her story. “Of course, we didn’t engage, sir. We simply sent Stunners at him. Potter was shielded by a ward that flared into existence around him and which we didn’t even see at first.”
“How was the ward anchored?” Tom demands. The spells he developed should have destroyed every single ward in their range, whether they were inside the house or out. It was one reason Tom developed them in the first place, so that his people wouldn’t have to worry about any internal protections the Potters might have placed on their Cloak.
“It was—it was a personal ward anchored in his body, sir. From what I could see of it.”
“That’s impossible,” Tom blurts, and then hates himself for the undignified outburst.
But it is. Wards are fastened to objects because they rely on enchantments and runes that don’t work unless they’re attached to or carved on those objects. People can’t carve those runes on themselves. They can’t Transfigure themselves into warded objects and still retain independent thought and capability of action, either. Tom is aware of stories of people Transfigured into objects by others, but again, they would function like ward anchors in that case, not humans moving around with portable wards.
“He, um.” The Unspeakable clears her throat. “I saw his arms when his sleeves fell away from them, sir. He has patches of stone embedded in his skin. Woven into it, I’d say. They had the runes for the ward on them. And other spells.”
Tom stares at her. What the fuck? rings in his head like a bell.
But that’s—Transfiguration can’t accomplish that. It just doesn’t.
“Go on,” Tom says quietly.
“When he bounced our spells, there was a moment of hesitation among the front ranks. Potter waved his wand and put them to sleep—”
“Despite the sleep-resisting enchantments woven into their cloaks?”
“Yes, sir,” says his minion miserably.
“I backed off a step to assess the threat and decide how to react.” Tom suspects she was also considering retreat, but doesn’t interrupt. It would do no good. “And then all the carved lions on the walls and the banister came to life. And so did lions in the portraits. They leaped out of the walls and the posts and the portraits, and started advancing towards us.”
“Portraits do not come to life as three-dimensional figures,” Tom snaps, pushed beyond endurance.
“These did, sir.”
Tom shuts his eyes and tells himself not to hurt his minion. But in the end, only one thing will do to make sure that she’s not lying or falling victim to some hallucinatory spell or potion that Potter used.
“Show me,” he snaps, and strides across the office.
The Unspeakable has already shaken her hood back, and wide dark eyes stare up at him as Tom fastens his eyes on them. It doesn’t take so much as a push to dive beneath the surface of them. His minions learn early on to make their Occlumency flexible, so that it keeps out other people, but not him.
Tom watches as Harry Potter rises to his feet, moving with a careless grace, and, yes, patches of stone woven into his arms. Tom takes that moment to stare at them, to understand how Potter has achieved the impossible.
They’re not Transfigured, he sees at once. They’re melded, stone and flesh flowing into each other without a break.
It’s Transfiguration after all, but not turning parts of Potter’s arm to stone. He must have made them liquid, and the edges of the stone panels as well, and then solidified them again when they were attached.
Tom is so dazed with the thought of the power and control that would be needed for that that he almost misses the portraits coming to life.
It’s real. Only leonine figures leap out of them to stalk forwards, and they’re only half-size, as though the portrait frames have constrained them from growing as big as real lions. But they’re there. One of them leaps on an Unspeakable and snarls in his face, and Tom can see the warm, flowing muscle under the golden flank.
Potter steps forwards as the Unspeakables cower, all of them brought down by the predators in seconds, and smiles at one who’s slightly off to the side of the one whose eyes Tom is watching through.
“Say hello to your boss for me,” Potter says pleasantly, and then hisses, “Tell him that he’s not the only Parselmouth in the world, or the only genius, either.”
It’s Parseltongue. It’s real. The language that no one else but Tom has been able to speak since he declared himself Thomas Slytherin and killed the last of the Gaunts.
Tom rips himself free of the Unspeakable’s mind, the first time in decades that he’s done that without meaning to. His minion faints. Tom passes back and forth in his office, staring at the walls, and mastering the temptation to Apparate to the Potter house and rip it down to the foundation stones.
He has no idea how Potter anticipated the attack. How he’s a Parselmouth. How he thought of the way to anchor a ward on his own body. How he made portraits come to life and attack like that.
What he knows is that he wants to know.
Tom became an Unspeakable because knowledge called to him more fiercely than any kind of wealth. Only in the Department of Mysteries can he investigate the deepest sorceries and the most illegal magic to his heart’s content.
Except that it turns out the greatest mystery isn’t in the Department at all.
Tom shivers, remembering the challenge that Potter deliberately planted in the Unspeakable’s memory, and adds “How Potter knew Tom was a Legilimens, and knew him well enough to predict he would read his minions’ minds” to the list of things he wants to know.
Potter has all sorts of advantages over him. But he could have kept them quiet easily enough, not revealed them for all to see, or a certain portion of “all.” Instead, he flaunted them.
He wants to be chased, Tom thinks, and desire springs to life in his stomach. Perhaps he wants to be known.
He might know the kind of insatiable longing that some people feel at the sight of gold or gems after all. But the person who inspires it in him is someone he can chase down, learn, pry open slowly.
And who doesn’t seem to mind being coveted.
Tom smiles, and begins to plot his next move.