Chapter 24: Trick
The panelling was warm under his hand, and the crone-spun rug soft beneath his bare feet. Theo took a deep breath, turning his head to look down the length of the corridor, towards where dust motes danced in the green-stained sunbeams that lanced through the stained-glass window.
"Are you going to linger out there all day?"
He jumped, looking quickly to where his father stood, framed by the doorway to his study. Thoros watched him for a moment, unblinking, and then jerked his head to command Theo follow him into the room.
"You have to learn." Theo's hands tightened on the arms of the leather chair as his father's voice whispered in his ear. Thoros gave him an impenetrable look, and Theo turned his eyes away from his father towards the fire that blazed in the grate. The heat of the room was stifling, the light of the flames licking the evening shadows into cowed submission in the corners.
His father's knuckles rapped the marble chessboard that sat between them, and Theo looked down to see his white pieces glaring back at him. When he met his father's gaze Thoros pursed his lips. "This is important, Theodore." He gestured pointedly at the board. "White always begins."
Theo leaned forward obediently, his feet swinging above the floor, as he ran his eyes over the pieces. When he chose a pawn in the middle of the board his father nodded, and Theo lifted it to move it two squares forward. In his small hands the marble felt cool, the carved edges almost sharp against his soft palms.
"A nice opening," Thoros nodded, lips curving with approval. "And of course, play always starts with the minor pieces." He chose a pawn of his own, and then reached across the board towards Theo's pieces, glancing upwards when his hand lingered above a knight. "May I?"
Theo's eyes were fixed on Thoros's hands, which were long-fingered and elegant, and for some reason they reminded him of his own, even though his were so much smaller -
"Theodore?" An edge of icy steel in his father's voice, and Theo nodded.
"Show me," he whispered.
Thoros's fingers closed on a white knight. "Virtue rides to the defence of the innocent," he muttered, before moving his hand back for another black pawn. He had his son's full attention now, and he moved the bits of black and white marble deftly back and forth in a complex dance across the board. Theo could feel his heart speeding, his eyes darting across the black and white squares, trying to predict -
"And then," Thoros breathed, "they start to fall."
Theo flinched as the first pawn was smashed out of play, the little figurine's eyes rolling upwards as its body turned limp. Thoros was grinning now, every motion precise and economical, guiding pieces to their destruction. "Then of course," he said finally, "You line up your defenses."
His father set one of his knights down with a barely audible chink of marble, and Theo dug his nails into the arms of the chair as the armoured figure raised its lance and swiped the last remaining white bishop from the board.
The white queen and king stared forwards, their gracefully carved features set in calm resignation as they faced off against the remaining black pieces.
Theo closed his eyes, filled with a sense of foreboding and dread. "What happens now?"
His voice sounded childish and far away, and when his eyes opened he was sat on the other side of the board, gazing into his own eight-year-old face.
He remembered now - the close warmth of the evening, the way his father's hands had moved the pieces with such assured delicacy.
He remembered how Thoros had answered him.
"The endgame," Theo muttered to himself, and when he reached for the white queen the hand was as he remembered - a man's hand, with the long fingers that he had inherited from his father.
As he closed those fingers around the queen she tilted her head to look up at him, and as her curling hair fell backwards over her shoulder Theo realised her face was Hermione's.
"Theodore Altair," she whispered. "It's time to -"
"- wake up," Hermione whispered, her lips just below Theo's ear. She felt it the moment he came back from wherever his dreams had taken him: a twitch in the magic of the house that matched the sudden tensing of the arm that was tucked beneath her ribs.
Theo turned to look at her, hazel eyes dark in the morning gloom. "Hi," he rasped, and Hermione winced at the evidence that his throat hadn't yet healed from the burns. He lifted his free hand and drew a finger around the edge of her eye socket, his expression thoughtful. "How long were we asleep?"
"A few hours?" she guessed. "But I think we -"
"We've been here too long," Theo nodded, and began to push himself upright. "It's my fault, I -"
"No," Hermione interrupted him as she sat up as well. "No - it - I don't know what happened upstairs, and -" Theo opened his mouth, but she pressed her fingers to his lips. "I know you can't tell me." Hermione smiled, though she was thinking of Feste's words.
Lots of lockings and unlockings.
"Something's changed," she went on quietly, and she watched Theo's expression sharpen; could almost have sworn she saw his ears prick up. "You can feel it, right?"
Like a whisper up the spine; like a cold draft against the skin.
He looked back at her, and nodded. "Let's go."
Again, again, back to the library, following the threads of magic that curled through the old house. All around him Theo could sense the Manor stirring into wakefulness: layers of enchantments responding to his sense of urgency, calling out to the deep wells of energy that he drew on only in the most desperate moments.
The image of the chessboard would not leave him. The endgame. Hard to separate the dream from the real memory of that evening in his father's study, watching as Thoros taught him different plays; different strategies.
Virtue rides to the defence of the innocent.
As he drew Hermione after him down the main staricase, Theo recalled his father's stories of how wizarding fastnesses would cleave to their masters' every whim in the old days of persecution by muggles, and his still-tender throat tightened at the thought of the thing that had lain dormant in the wards. There was nothing virtuous about that, and nothing innocent about whatever it was guarding inside the Manor.
Theo could almost hear the echo of its whisper; of the way that it had sung to him as its dark fire curdled in his veins.
Your blood your blood your blood your -
"What's happening?" Hermione asked behind him, and Theo's fingers clenched around hers, feeling the way the bones moved under her skin. Too tight - too tight - but he couldn't shake the remembered feeling of her hands passing through his grip, and was possessed by the mad notion that if he only kept hold of her then they would never be forced apart.
"Theo." Hermione's voice cut through his thoughts as she pulled sharply against him, and he turned to see her eyes following the wavering threads of magic that sparkled on the air. "Tell me what's going on."
Theo felt the tingle of the Vow about his wrist as different layers of compulsion warred against one another, and his mouth had fallen half-open before he realised that he was obeying her.
Theodore Altair. It's time to wake up.
The name, Theo realised. He hadn't spoken the name aloud in years - since before his mother died - and a name -
"I think there was a spell," he said, still turning it over in his mind. "A spell in my name, and when I - when you said it aloud -"
One of the most elementary aspects of magic, and one of the first things a young witch or wizard learned, was that the naming of a spell shaped its effects, and that the naming of a person could shape their entire life. Theo had only discovered the full history of Tom Riddle in the months since he had been released from prison, but now he thought that there had never been a better example of the way that a name could carve a mark upon the world than Lord Voldemort.
A name. Something easy to say, but hard to forget. The sort of thing that a woman cast out of time might cling to. An old magic, complex in its workings, but elegant in its simplicity.
Exactly the sort of thing that he would expect from her.
Theo added up the years in his head: ten since his mother had died; twenty since his birth. How much longer before that?
How long ago had a girl paused before a portrait in a candlelit corridor, turning towards the echo of another time? How had this girl, this Vega; who wore the face of someone that he loved but who held herself like a stranger; become so important to Theo's mother that she had slipped an echo of her name into her son's - an echo powerful enough that when it was spoken - what, thirty years later? - it unlocked something that had stayed hidden beneath -
An obligation of the blood. Theo's spine prickled as he remembered the look on that other Hermione's face - sad and disbelieving and determined - when he had stepped through the mirror.
What was it that Feste had said? If the future were folded over the present -
But where did the fold lie, and where were they within it? Together, or apart?
His mother's voice as she read aloud to him, echoing through the years: And time future contained in time past -
"Theodore Altair," Hermione murmured, and Theo felt the magic go taut and shivering around them. He could see from the look on Hermione's face, suddenly bloodless, that she did too.
My little Theodore Altair.
Theo shook the memory of his mother away and laid his hand on the door, feeling the quivering pulse of the wood against his palm. The tremor made its way through him and down his arm to where he still gripped Hermione's hand in his, and he heard her sharp intake of breath as she felt the shock of it.
"What's in there?" she asked. "What's changed?"
Everything, he wanted to say, but the word stuck in his throat, and he had to concentrate on the feeling of her fingers threaded with his to stop the wave of nausea that threatened to overtake him before he eventually spoke. "I think that someone hid - I think if my father had had the spell to open the Department, he would have done it."
Hermione's voice was careful when she answered. "You know him better than me."
"Yeah." Theo exhaled the word, squaring his shoulders and staring down the door. "And I know that he was fucking obsessed with that place."
"Hidden in plain sight," Hermione murmured thoughtfully. "Right under his nose the whole time." She laid her hand next to Theo's, and he watched her eyebrows crease together as the magic licked at her palm. "Maybe he was afraid," she continued softly, turning her eyes up towards his. Hearing the question, the nudge, in her voice, Theo smiled ruefully down at her.
"Maybe," he agreed, taking his hand from the door to run the backs of his knuckles down her cheek, finally coming to rest at the side of her neck where he could feel her pulse beating, fast but steady. Whatever was in there, whatever his name on her lips had released, it was one step closer to that strange girl in the gallery the night before. Theo could hardly bear the thought that he might lose her, that somehow she might be taken from him. It seemed insane to remember the way her hands had passed through him in the gallery, when the warmth of her skin under his fingers was somehow more real than anything else that he had ever known.
"Promise me," he heard himself saying, before his mind had even caught up to his voice. "Promise me that whatever happens, you'll find a way back to me."
"I -" Hermione paused, biting her lip, and then surprised him by tugging on his arm, grabbing at his collar with her other hand to pull his mouth down to hers. It wasn't the answer that he had asked for, and yet Theo surrendered himself to the kiss, trying to tell her everything that his vow to her meant that he couldn't put into words.
"I'm here," Hermione said, a little breathlessly, once they finally broke apart. She leaned her forehead against his shoulder, and he felt her lips move against the fabric of his shirt as she spoke. "Wherever I end up, I'm here now, and I will find a way back." She leaned away, and Theo was somehow unsurprised to see that her eyes were swimming with tears when she looked up at him. "Will that do?"
"I suppose." He touched her cheek again, marvelling at the way it fit inside his palm.
Her dark eyes searched his, and then she closed her fingers around his wrist. "Whatever it is that you can't tell me, I trust you," she said. "Can you do the same for me?"
Theo felt his throat tighten. I'm sorry, she'd said.
And here, now, with her in his arms, was there anything else to be done?
"I trust you, Hermione." He ran his fingers across her cheeks again, by now knowing her face as much by feel as by sight. Come back to me, he thought, but he only swallowed hard, and returned her tight smile, before, unable to think of any other way to delay, he pushed the door open.
Immediately Theo was assailed by the eerie quiet of the library, bathed in the strangeness of the late morning light. Nothing had moved since the night before, but he could feel magic seething through the room like a powerful itch beneath his skin.
Hermione's voice sounded faint, oddly muffled as Theo surrendered to the powerful draw of whatever spell it was that had twisted into life. He followed the thread of it past his father's desk with its mounds of papers and towards a narrow set of shelves that sat half in shadow at the far end, where his hand rose as though controlled by a string to lift a thick volume from the shelf. Its spine was worn threadbare, shining glue and yellowed paper showing through, and -
"That's a muggle book," Hermione said, sounding far more scared than she had in the hallway. "Theo, why is there -"
He could hardly hear her over the sound of blood rushing in his ears as he gazed down at the page that had fallen open. He couldn't even see the neatly folded parchment that had marked it, because his eyes had caught on the words, and his breath left him in a noise that sounded like a sob.
A man must have a mind of winter, or have been cold a very long time -
"A mind of winter," Hermione breathed, reading over his shoulder. "Isn't that what your -"
"A muggle poem," Theo said. "All those years, and it was from a muggle poem." He threw the book to the floor, hardly caring that pages scattered, that the few scraps of parchment that had been folded between them fluttered on the air. "What is this?" he demanded. "Is this whole thing just designed to - to fuck with us or -"
"I don't know." Hermione was shaking her head as she snatched at his hands before Theo could drag them through his hair. "I don't know but we have to - we have to know what it is."
Theo froze, blinking down at the whirl of papers on the floor before he bent to pick up the parchment that had fallen free, which he could see now was a sealed packet addressed to -
"Theodore Altair Nott." Hermione's voice quavered as she read the writing, and Theo didn't bother to hide the way his fingers shook as he ran them across the letters of his name.
The parchment glowed at his touch, and the wax seal - two stars, he thought, disbelieving - dissolved to nothing. He looked up at Hermione to see that she looked as shocked as he felt.
"I guess - I guess we know why your father wasn't able to give Voldemort the spell," she said, with what looked like a vague attempt at a smile. Theo heard the hesitation in her voice, and when he lifted his gaze to hers he knew that she was remembering Thoros's last words as they had left Azkaban.
A mind of winter, Theodore. Do not forget what you are.
"He knew where it was, though." Theo swallowed. "He wanted me to find it."
Hermione bit her lip, but she didn't disagree, just watched as Theo slowly, carefully, unfolded the parchment.
He glimpsed faded lettering in an antiquated hand; some diagrams that looked like those that Narcissa had stolen; and knew, deep in the core of himself, that they had found what they needed to reopen the Department of Mysteries. When he passed them to Hermione she hummed softly, her brow creasing in concentration, and Theo took advantage of her distraction to quickly read the note that had been tucked into the packet, written in that same neat but looping cursive that he now recognised as a more florid version of Hermione's handwriting.
I knew that your father could not be allowed to share this knowledge with the Dark Lord, and so I hid them away where only you could find them.
I am sorry for what is to come, and sorrier still that it cannot be prevented. Everything that will happen has already happened, for there is only this one life that we are given, and we must bear the consequences of our choices by living it. I cling to the hope of one day seeing you again, and find consolation on page 74.
Nothing is ever really lost, my love.
Still feeling as though he might wake up any second, Theo bent to pick up the tattered book, turning the pages with clumsy fingers until he found the page the note suggested.
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost -
The words sent something cold sliding down his spine, and his vision doubled for just a second - the dank scent of stone filling his nose, thickening in his throat - and then he was back in the room.
"What's that?" Hermione's voice made him jump, and wordlessly he turned the book towards her, watching as her eyes darted across the words.
"'- ever the spring's invisible law returns,'" she read aloud, thoughtfully. "You know, I think my dad used to read me this one."
Theo's laugh sounded hollow even to his own ears. "Well at least that makes more sense than my father having this."
"Hidden in a muggle book," Hermione mused, closing the book and running her hand over the cover. "You know," she said quietly, "it's so weird, but I feel like I -" She stopped mid-sentence, face creasing, before she made a soft exclamation, and her hand fluttered upwards to clench in in the empty air above her heart. "Oh."
"What?" Theo demanded. "What's -"
"The warding," Hermione answered. "Didn't you feel it - the warding just -"
There was a crash from somewhere else in the Manor, and then a cacophony of voices echoed up the stairs. The sound of heavy footsteps - and then the library doors were thrown open to admit a flood of Aurors, headed by Roger Davies and Ron Weasley.
"Wands down!" Davies yelled, brandishing his own, and Theo obeyed, lowering the wand he was barely even aware of having raised as he saw Hermione do the same from the corner of his eye.
"You're trespassing," he said quietly. "This is my property, and I -"
"Don't even try it, Nott," Davies spat. "You're in enough trouble as it is."
"Trouble for what?" Hermione seemed to bristle next to him, and Theo caught himself just before he reached out to lay a hand on her arm.
"Perverting the course of justice," Ron said from behind Davies shoulder. "Absconding the jurisdiction of the Wizengamot and -"
"Wait, what?" Hermione shook her head, nose wrinkled in confusion. "We've only been gone a couple of days."
Davies barked a laugh, but Theo saw Ron's face turn a few shades paler before he cleared his throat, and spoke quietly. "You've been missing for seven weeks."
Later, when the dank scent of old stone fills his nostrils and the cold fizz of magic threads through his veins, Theo will remember the words.
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost.
His fingers will close on empty air, where there should have been a hand. Around his wrist something golden will shimmer, and as his vision blurs he will try and focus on the fading light.
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again.
Her voice, when she calls his name, will sound very far away.
A/N: I've been missing decidedly longer than seven weeks, and unfortunately cannot say how long it will be before I update again. To everyone who has read this, and especially those who have reviewed, thank you. You make it a little easier to grope my way back to the path. If you are interested in the poems, they are The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, and Continuities by Walt Whitman, with a smidge of Four Quartets by T S Eliot thrown in for luck.