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The Edge of Reality
Deslea R. Judd
Summary: Tom has perfected his mother's pursuit of the love of others, by choosing his targets and methods with care. Every grant of the Mark is a seduction, but every seduction is different.
Other Keywords: Character Study, Death Eater history and ritual, First War, Manipulation, Grooming Behaviour, Cult-Like Techniques, Mind Games, Taking of the Mark
Word Count: Approx 4200
More Fic: On AO3 or my fic site.
Feedback: Love the stuff. On AO3 or at deslea at deslea dot com.
Tom is his mother's son.
He thinks this as he prepares for the ritual granting of the Dark Mark to his newest neophytes, eight of them in all. For all his extraordinary gifts, he thinks these ceremonies are his greatest magic of all. Certainly, they are his most intricate and exhausting.
Tom's knowledge of his mother's life was painstakingly extracted from his father's memories during their one and only meeting. (The pain was mostly his father's). The encounter was surprisingly instructive, and has shaped his methods for drawing in followers now.
He wholeheartedly supports Merope's use of the emotions of others to extract herself from her hell of a home. (Indeed, he regrets not doing so himself. In retrospect, adoptive parents might have been useful). Really, her only error was in choosing such an unworthy target for her efforts. As far as he can tell, the choice of his abomination of a father was a departure from strategy, driven solely by sentiment. It is a mistake he does not intend to duplicate.
So he has learned from his mother. Merope's insinuations into his father's mind were clumsy, and only temporarily effective. He has perfected a more nuanced technique. He has turned mere magic into artistry. An artistry woven through the human mind, culminating in the taking of the Mark.
He has heard stories of grotesque ceremonies, of torture and the ritual shedding of blood. Of midnight meetings under cover of darkness, in black robes guarded by dark creatures. The bucolic masses seem to be under the impression that his followers are motivated by mindless cruelty – both receiving it and dealing it out.
Oh, he has followers of that ilk, of course, and they are useful. But there are too few people of that kind to conduct a war, and there is a need for other skills as well. Pureblood society fancies itself as motivated by idealism and honour, and mindless cruelty is a little too crass for their tastes.
No, he thinks, as he looks out over the group, sitting under golden, streaming sun in white ceremonial garb in Cygnus Black's rose garden. The bringing of followers into the fold is far more subtle than that.
It begins with the planting of a seed. An idyllic image of a perfect world, where only the complete and the perfect have a place. Perfection, of course, is a carefully crafted construct, since true perfection would exclude them all. It is an image of warmth and light. The Marking is carefully designed to recall this idea, among the newly-Marked and witnesses alike. Indeed, he will postpone or relocate a Marking if the sky shows any hint of grey.
The next seed is the idea that such a world is an honourable thing to fight for. This particular idea is an easy one to sell. Purebloods have grown up with traditions of honourable quests for greatness. They are a relic of those times, a little out of place in this utilitarian age. Not only are they amenable to the idea, they are hungry for it.
The third seed is the hardest, and the one where many fall away. That seed is the idea that things that are imperfect - even people, even beloved traditions and laws - are dispensable in the name of a perfect world.
It is a seed planted carefully, bit by bit, and he gauges the reactions of his followers as he goes. He feels his way through each person's resistance, and if he judges that they will not yield, he moves them to the supporting stream. They will be tasked with sourcing funds or political support or intelligence. They will be shielded from the harsher realities of the work, either totally, if they reject the idea outright, or partially, if they are merely incapable of carrying it out themselves.
Those who remain must be nurtured, and this is where the Mark comes in.
The problem, for followers who accept this pivotal idea, is that their own sense of place is threatened. They have also accepted the potential for their own isolation. To ensure their continued loyalty, they must be given a new family and future, better than the one they have agreed to cast away.
When this is achieved, in his experience, they will do virtually anything in his service. Their loyalty to old laws and values and connections is either severed, or so conditional as to be irrelevant. It is a delicate exercise, carried out with an intricate blend of Legilimency and plain old-fashioned manipulation. It is magic at its finest.
The ritual Marking is a crucial moment, the consolidation of their new loyalty to him, replacing loyalties of old. It will sustain them through the doubts and fears, through the escalating demands and, if necessary, the escalating horrors of war. It will keep him at his side.
He turns his mind to the two components of the Marking. Both must be carefully planned ahead of time; he will have only seconds to bring them to bear, and they must be brought forth fully-formed. One is physical response, achieved by manipulation of the body, with the Mark as the point of entry. The other is the manipulation of thought. The two are interrelated.
So he ticks over his neophytes, and his strategy for each. Assures himself that he has covered every detail. Breathes deeply, and summons his strength and concentration for what is to follow.
When he is completely focused and ready, he nods his head to Cygnus, standing at the dais. Urging him to begin.
"Friends," Cygnus says earnestly, "we are here to welcome new members of our family. They have shown themselves loyal and worthy and strong, and we join our Lord in welcoming them. On this day, neither our Lord nor we are Dark; we are light, embracing the world for which we all work to bring into being. When we leave here, we will return to the darkness of the world that is and the fight we fight, but now we wear robes of light, marking our hope for the future. It is this future into which we welcome our neophytes now."
As always, looking around at nodding heads in a sea of white, Tom feels a flare of pride. He borrowed heavily from Muggle religion in the design of the Marking, and it was, he thinks, an inspired touch. Purebloods have felt the deterioration of magical ritual keenly.
Cygnus goes on, "We call forth Frideswide Zabini to join our fold."
Frida rises, looking ethereal and wan. Whatever her role in the deaths of her first three husbands, her fourth bereavement has taken a genuine toll. Her hair turned white within days of his death at the hands of the Aurors. That was a year ago, now, but her grief is a palpable thing. She carries it on her skin like a mark of its own.
"Frida," Cygnus says, "join us now and share in our labours and our victories. We call on you to..."
Tom tunes Cygnus out, studying Frida as she kneels at his feet and holds out her hand, palm and wrist facing up.
Like all the women, she is a fascinating study. Men can find their way in by accident, by following their friends or family, or by searching for purpose or something to prove. For women, it is different. It is always a choice, always driven by formidable strength, and almost always undertaken in the face of opposition from kinsmen who are protective, misogynistic, or both.
He slides into her mind and searches for the familiar ache, the knot tugging at muscles deep in her belly. Crawling, gnawing hunger - hunger for him, her lost love, and hunger for vengeance. It's still there. Good.
"Frida," he says when Cygnus is finished, "will you join our family and our work?"
Frida looks up at him, her eyes gleaming. "I will. Please, my Lord."
He presses his wand to her wrist, creating the Mark there. He slips into her bloodstream as easily as he had slipped into her mind. Pushes through, up her arm, down through her pumping heart, down into her stomach. He pushes, gently but firmly through her there. Increasing bloodflow to unclench taut, contracted muscles. At the moment they fall open, he sends an image into her hurt-streaked mind. Her standing alone on a hilltop, a place special to them, and feeling that knot subside.
One day, he murmurs deep in her mind. One day you will have your vengeance, and you will know peace.
He sees the grief and the relief in her eyes as he withdraws. She will hold this vision as a hope in her heart. It will guide her and sustain her.
With a trembling smile, Frida bows her head to his hand, then rises and returns to her seat.
"We call forth Alecto Carrow to join our fold," Cygnus says, his mouth curling downwards in an unconscious show of disgust as his gaze falls on the ugly, stiff man and woman sitting together before him.
It's because of their dishonour, Tom supposes, the indecency between them that is an open secret. It has apparently never occurred to any of them that had the twins been welcomed and not shunned, they would never have turned to one another at all. They may be ugly and awkward, but they are also Pure and strong, and they should never have been excluded. To the extent that Tom feels anything about the infighting of his followers, this injustice strikes him as particularly loathsome.
Alecto and Amycus rise and kneel before him together, ignoring their separation in the ritual. It is a pointed fuck you to Cygnus. Normally this would annoy him, but the very essence of the ritual is immersion with those he Marks - a kind of calculated empathy - and today he is inclined to say fuck you right along with them.
"Alecto, Amycus," Cygnus says through gritted teeth when it becomes clear that their impertinence will be tolerated. "Join us now and share in our labours..."
He takes both their hands, one hand each. This would be impossible if they had different desires, but they do not. Years of isolation together have made them of a single mind.
He sends them a powerful vision of kissing passionately on a balcony in the streaming sun, heedless of their peers below. With some difficulty, he penetrates both their bloodstreams, pressing down into their pelvises, filling them with warmth and arousal, then releasing, dissipating through both their bodies. At the same moment, he floods their minds with a strong impression of freedom, of relief from shame. Powerfully associating it with sexual release, an antidote to the guilt-streaked climaxes of their reality.
My most faithful will be rewarded with the things they desire, and they will not be judged. The next world will be built on rules of our own.
Two jaws tremble, and two matching sets of eyes glitter with unshed tears. They clutch convulsively at his hands in gratitude as they rise to leave him.
Walter Crabbe is simple, and a relief from the wrenching emotions of the twins. He has merely followed in the footsteps of many Crabbes before him. He wishes only for the war to be over so his real life can begin. In time, he will have to be toughened up, but that day is not today. For now, Tom provides him with a fairytale ending and a sense of idyllic, rather superficial peace. His laziness with Crabbe is harmless; Crabbe is too stupidly complacent to know the difference. He needs to conserve his strength and focus for the more complex followers to come.
The Auror, Reynold Yaxley, presents special challenges. He is desperately in love with his wife, but the union is floundering. It is not as simple as a full-blown vision of Lucinda Yaxley's love restored; the marriage is too far gone for Reynold to believe it. Tom supplies an image of a very tentative hand held out in reconciliation, and carefully evaluates his acceptance of the image, modifying Lucinda's hesitant smile and stance until acceptance is forthcoming. The physical artistry is that of afterglow, the dissipation of tension and rush of warming blood through his body, but without sexual arousal to precede it. Arousal is painful for Reynold, a reminder of rejections, but resolution is a reminder of past joys.
Rabastan Lestrange's desires are as simple as Crabbe's, yet as carefully balanced as Reynold's. He prefers his own company first, a man's a distant second, and a woman's not at all. He has fathered a bastard anyway to alleviate rumours. He wants only his father's pride and a quiet life, in a world he would be proud to hand on to his son. His vision is to walk with his father, who will talk to him of inconsequential things as though to an equal, and he will feel peace.
"We call forth Rodolphus Lestrange to join our fold," Cygnus says next, with some warmth. Cygnus genuinely likes his son-in-law, as much as he can be said to like anyone.
The young Lestranges are interesting, Tom thinks, and unlike the Carrows, they must be considered separately. Promised as children, they have married to honour their parents, but lead amicably separate lives. They are indifferent lovers, using each other for release and comfort, with no pretence of anything deeper. There is no wish for children on either side; in the absence of a love match, Rodolphus is happy for Rabastan's son to carry on the family name and lands.
In his way, Rodolphus' desires are not much different to the Carrows'. He will never divorce Bella, but he would like to find a woman to love and live openly with her, and see her reflected in children who look just like them. Tom has already mined the young man's preferences from his thoughts. A willowy blonde woman with a tinkling laugh is his vision; the feeling to match is swelling pride in children with her smile and his eyes.
Bellatrix is more complicated - in his experience, women usually are. She does not want Rodolphus, but she wants to be special to someone, and it is important to her that she earns it. She mistrusts the sentimental love accorded in marriage to her peers; she has seen it too often withdrawn in favour of a younger competitor. Love based on merit, she thinks, is more worthy, more secure. And, too, if she has earned it, then she is an equal and not a subject.
"Bella," Cygnus says, looking with rather quizzical warmth on the daughter he loves but has never quite understood, "join us now and share in our labours and our victories. We call on you..."
Tom again tunes Cygnus out, as Bella kneels at his feet and holds out her palm. Her head falls back, just a little, shoulders spread wide, her throat a long and elegant line down to sloping breasts. Submission in every line of her.
"Bella," he murmurs, "will you join our family and our work?"
Bella's eyes don't leave his. "I will," she says, in a low, breathy voice, too low to be heard by their audience. "I beg you, my Lord. Make me yours."
The meaning is unmistakable.
It isn't the first time that a follower has issued a sexual invitation. Such invitations must be handled with care. He has been accepted in the Pureblood world on merit, but as a half-blood, he is still an inferior by lineage. An ill-judged liaison could see him cut, even now, even after many years established. Tom has indulged, but only rarely, and usually followed by judicious application of the Obliviate.
If female attention is risky at the best of times, it is a loose canon at a Marking. Respond less powerfully than she desires, and the Marking loses its motivating impact, and might even humiliate and alienate her. Respond more completely than she desires - take flirtation to kissing or kissing to more - and she will become self-protective and withdraw. He cannot count on her thoughts for guidance. Her mind may be at war between social expectations, marital fidelity, and desire, and she herself may not know exactly how far she is prepared to go.
Pressing his wand into her wrist, he slips effortlessly into her mind and her body. Presses his way slowly through her flesh, through her blood, pushing open blood vessels in her breasts. Filling them with warmth. Arousing her, first subtly at the sideswell, then weaving delicate trails of warmth around her areolae. Carefully gauging her mind for any sign of resistance.
There is none. Her breathing is slow and deep. She is aroused, but in a rather deep and decadent sort of way. Sinking into him as he is sinking into her.
Help me do this, Bella, he whispers in the depths of her mind. I need someone strong like you. Someone special. He pushes down into her pelvis, into the soft tissues there, spreading warmth and pressure and pleasure. It takes a special woman to stand at my side and fight. In her mind, he takes her face between his hands and kisses her, deeply, slowly. He can taste her, as though he's kissed her before, though he's never laid a hand on her. You can be special to me, Bella. He says it over and over, holding her mind on him as he floods her body with the ripples of climax after silent, still climax.
When he finally pulls out of her mind, she clenches, trying to keep him there.
It is the clenching that does it, pulls him out of his focus on doing the job. It is a response, a real response. A response to him, not just to the images he planted in her head.
He wonders, with a chill, if she knows what he has done to her mind.
He is still pondering it when Cygnus brings the ritual to a close.
"You didn't have to seduce me into it, you know. I know exactly what I'm doing."
Bella says this, rather loudly for his tastes, as he takes his turn dancing with her at the celebration afterwards. He draws in his breath and tries to pull away, even as she clenches his hand with hers.
Even as he begins to rapidly calculate the best way to contain the damage, he sees in her eyes that she knows what he did, that her thoughts and feelings were all carefully constructed by him. And that - astonishingly - she doesn't mind.
Hot on the heels of this realisation is the realisation that the room has stopped moving. Every person but them is absolutely still.
He sends forth his mind into Reynold, then Frida, their closest neighbours. Their eyes are open, but they might as well be asleep, for all that they are aware of what's going on around them.
"How..." he begins.
There is the sound of a clearing throat behind them. Tom whirls around. Rodolphus is leaning, unperturbed, against the grand piano.
"Rod and I have a mutually beneficial relationship." Bella's voice is suffused with warmth.
"Very admirable of you." His voice betrays good humour as he turns again to face her.
Rodolphus says casually, "See you at home, Bells?"
"Eventually." Bella's gaze has not left his.
"Be a love and cast the Finite for me?"
"Of course, darling."
The Floo roars into life behind him, and then Rodolphus leaves them, in a crowded room yet alone.
Tom says with some mirth, "You know, Bella, if you wanted to seduce me, you could have done it without freezing half of your kinsmen to the spot."
"I thought it only fair. After all, they watched the last time."
He says, all innocence, "Why, Bella. It was all in your head."
She steps in closer. "And that, my Lord, is the problem." She says my Lord as though it is a private joke between them, something murmured warmly between deep, molten kisses.
"How so?" he demands, careful not to touch her. Not yet. He'll fuck her, of course - that isn't a question - but he hasn't decided whether to Obliviate her later.
She runs long, elegant fingers down his arm and draws his hand up into hers. Places his hand on her waist and presses up against him. Her throat is long and white, a column with that rich full mouth at the peak. So close that he can feel the heat of her as she says in a low, breathy voice, "I want you to do it again, but this time for real as well." She lets that sink in, then says, eyes dark and deep and wide, "I want you to fuck me from the inside out."
"Oh, fuck," he groans. He's never done it, has no idea if he even can, but the idea is possibly the hottest one to ever enter his brain.
Her lips are already parted, and now she presses urgently into his mouth, swallowing his groan. Drinking it in hungrily. He thinks she'll drink from him like that, and that thought sees the last of his already-minimal resistance fall away. His hands are deep in her hair, pulling at pins, catching big handfuls of curls. His long fingers are feeling their way down the ridge of her breastbone, then straying to her curves. He tries to do what she has asked, and can't.
"The Mark," he gasps, tearing his mouth away from hers, and, understanding immediately, she lifts her wrist to his lips. He sucks hard on her there. Focuses with all his strength, and then suddenly, he feels the Mark give.
He rushes through her. Rushes to her breasts, flooding her with warmth. Experimentally, he touches her with his hands, trying it out until he has it mastered, doing them both at the same time. Then he begins in earnest, fondling her, using pressure against counterpressure from within. He is dimly aware that she is limp in his arms, making deep, rasping sounds of pleasure.
He has always been a good lover - he is good at everything - but fuck. This is like being a fucking god.
"Good?" he says to the boneless woman draped over his arm. Mostly because he knows the answer.
"Fuck," she says, grasping at his shoulder and pulling herself up. "Yes."
"You want more?"
"I want it all," she hisses, and clamps her mouth greedily over his.
"You'll have it all," he rasps, feeling behind him for something. Anything. Finds a side table and turns her around, hoisting her up. "Every last drop."
She gives a high-pitched whine at that, needy and shameless, back arched and breasts thrust high, legs spread as wide as they'll go. She grinds her hips against his and feeds furiously on his lips. She shivers against his pressing, probing fingers. Her hot, swollen flesh is full and firm. He peels back drenched knickers, and she parts for him, lips falling open, gleaming and slick, her scent invading his nostrils.
He slides his fingers inside her, pressing her clit with his thumb, and she wriggles on the table, shifting inside, trying to get him in just right. She shivers and moans, twin arousal and frustration, and he goes into her body and finds the spot. Floods her with blood, swelling tissues, creating the friction she needs. Her kiss is filled with gratitude.
"I'll be special to you for real one day, you know," she says breathlessly against his lips as she tugs open his robes. Her fingers are shaking, and they transmit desire and urgency down the length of his cock.
"You already are," he says recklessly, spreading her legs wide apart. Right this minute, getting inside her is the single most important thing in the whole damned world.
"Liar," she says with warmth as he fills her. She arches and grips his shoulders with deep, pressing fingers, wrapping her thighs around him with all her strength. Gasps as he shoves into her as far as he can go. He's in her blood, washing through her, down to where they're joined. Pooling deep in her pelvis. Him holding her holding him. It's fucking incredible. He can't believe he never thought to do this before.
But then, he's never had a woman see through his methods before, either. Much less want him to use them anyway.
Already he is calculating how to keep her at his side.
"You want to be special?" he demands, grasping her face hard with both hands as he grinds deep inside her.
"Yes," she bites out.
"Then earn it. Be the best damn soldier I've ever had."
He means it. He won't have her on sentiment. That was his mother's downfall.
All the tension goes out of her suddenly. "I can do that," she whispers. Then, shivering, her arousal coming up all over again, she leans in and kisses him, hard. "You know I can."
"Then you'll have it all," he rasps. "We'll have it all."
He no longer knows where manipulation ends and reality begins, but really, they're the same thing anyway.