Epilogue: Infractus Laureola
The entrance to Slytherin changed during my last days there. A fingertip's trace in a sidewinder design now drew open the walls. What happened to Ms. Tress, I didn't know. Some said the Baron had finally carried her off and thrown her teasing portrait into the forest. More likely, someone tarnished the picture, and it was removed, hidden away in some crook in the castle.
The bustle of life at Hogwarts was mostly done for the year. Most of my class had left, and the empty rooms of Slytherin echoed with the sound of my sure tread. It felt right to be alone here, and I somewhat regretted leaving. Somewhat. My thoughts were as they'd been all day, focused internally on my coming life.
Even the leaving ceremony in the Great Hall had been a blur. No, not really. It was a distraction to which I'd paid minute attention. My hands had been filled with well-wishing clasps and awards. I'd even received a Medal for Magical Merit, said to be for my outstanding performance over the trying years. Little attention had been given to Grindelwald on my behalf, and in truth I was grateful for the inconspicuousness. The deaths of the Riddles were swept under the rugs or tossed into full closets in the Ministry's and certain professors' minds. I gave my fine performance the credit for that, rather than Dippet's protectiveness or Zwipp's favoritism, both of which I had earned anyway. The papers sensationalized Dumbledore, crowning him with laurels I wished had thorns. His expression was sometimes as pained as if they did. I met every gaze he directed at me steadily, though my insides shook slightly. But I always stubbornly turned to steel inside. He could prove nothing. I had won. In time, I'd show even him that.
I hadn't yet. He'd stopped me as I'd crossed the threshold of the Great Hall, him still standing in the brightly lit room as I passed by. His voice, rather like prickling needles scratching me, bade me stop with a single word.
"Congratulations." His tone was mild, easily being taken as sincere to most.
I turned back to him. My eyes didn't quite meet his if I stared straight ahead. I fell a sliver short of him, and my jaw tightened as I forced my chin reluctantly upward. "Thank you."
Commotion revolved around us, light revelry catching all shallow attention spans. Neither he nor I paid any notice. Some gravity kept us anchored in a calm, unmentioned, but evident face-off. His hands were wrapped behind him, no doubt residing in a firm hold pressed against the small of his back. His stance was completely familiar to me now, and the thought made me almost smirk until I realized he was similarly appraising me.
His voice was no longer hoarse from his feat six months ago; it had regained its naturally deep tone and solid cadence. It was only at certain times I noticed him taking a longer pause, at certain words lowering his voice. But the transitions were always subtle, sometimes impossible to pick up clearly. In that even sound and with a dip of his head, he now said, "Not a surprising end." At my silence, he added, "To the awards ceremony or the job offer distribution. To anything, really." His gaze turning thoughtful, a trace of warmth or sadness hinted at in his eyes. "I never questioned your talent."
Out of my mouth came, "You didn't think I transfigured the matchstick the first day of class." Then, I immediately added, "Or, as you said, you were surprised by it."
He gave a puzzling smile at that, a small one not hidden by his whitening beard. "Oh, one can always be surprised, Tom. Though, in retrospect, I would have to be less surprised that you were capable of many things that amazed me upon first meeting you." I hated the expression on his face, one of selective fondness, sadness, regret and hope. I saw only his ego in all of it.
"I'm sure you won't make that mistake again, sir." I turned to go, caught again by his voice.
He took my words seriously, thoughtfully, though didn't appear scathed by them. He simply said, "I trust myself to work on ensuring that. But I'm sure I shall make other errors; it is the way we change, which everyone decidedly has. It's good to keep that in mind. We should all learn from the past." His eyes bored into mine.
I did not flinch, though my chest tightened for a brief second. Infuriated with myself, I said with stiff pleasantry, "I concur."
"Do you?" I didn't respond to that as he added, "It's good to hear that, Mr. Riddle. Most do not. Or they don't truly. It isn't all about intelligence or talent, though they are difficult enough to bring to fruition. As is acknowledging the past."
"As is change." I softened my bluntness with a carefully carved smile. "And all of that is rather subjective, is it not?"
"To a point, Mr. Riddle." His calm tone was infuriating – I couldn't tell which was worse, his voice or his gaze. I debated as he droned on. "But the way we see things is not the only way, nor the full truth."
Truth had no absolutes; I at least wasn't afraid to admit that. I stared at him steadily, words on the tip of my tongue.
A moment of silence passed, and he quietly said down to me, "Though I think now isn't the time to preach to you. I wish you well, Tom. I always have." His upright form gave a final nod to which I mechanically responded. Then he stepped back into the lighted room. I headed down the stairs, walking away from the crowd into the shadowed corridors winding to Slytherin.
"And what wonder is Tom Riddle off to discover now?" The voice was hesitant, and I was likewise so in responding. Slowly turning in the empty corridor outside Slytherin, I saw the small figure of Annie standing before me. She was dressed as nicely as she could afford, having attended the leaving ceremony for Bill. Her brown eyes looked plaintively at me, and yet there was a sliver of strength there. I took credit for that. She slowly approached me, adding, "The Ministry wants you quite badly, I imagine."
"You imagine a lot," was my response. Then, relenting, I said, "Yes, they did offer me a position. I don't think I shall take it right now, though."
She didn't look surprised, which somewhat...surprised me. In an even voice, she said, "Well, at least you're not tying yourself down like Randy is. Marrying that...girl." I had to smile, for she made the word girl sound like the worst possible insult to Sammy.
In scant time, I was already well prepared to dismiss her. Locking my worn suitcase, I had no wistful glance to share. Hogwarts had been a stepping stone, a thing of mere rock which I'd dismantled and reformed inside myself. Only memories of the Chamber brought a pang of longing and desire. But it would remain and soon be fulfilled of its purpose. As for myself, I was ready to infuse the world with the purpose I'd create for myself. No weak wizards would invade me; no politicians flaunt me; no Muggles condescend. I wouldn't have to hide my studies or temper my path. I needed only myself. If anything, my surroundings so far had shown me what I wished to eliminate from my being.
Since Grindelwald's fall from a career I was sure wouldn't be highly remembered, I'd solidified my plans for my future. Wisdom I sought, power that matched the talent I knew existed within me, whether anyone else acknowledged it properly or not. In the wake of fear over being blamed for the Riddles' deaths came a rage that hadn't been diminished by the act of killing them. Simon's death had likewise been insufficient to really sate anything, and my hunger to increase my own power swelled. Reality could and would bend to my whim, and revenge was still a small ember for that desire. But it wasn't pure emotion or mere ego that drove me. It was also instinctual by now to ensure my survival. Of course, my sights should be set higher now than just that, blooming out of that bud.
Annie had been speaking, and it was with mild irritation that I tuned back to her. As politely as I could, I said, "Pardon?"
She didn't seem to take offense. "I just said it makes sense for you to take some time off...after everything that happened. I mean, I don't know everything about Grindelwald or Simon, but it had to be terrible. Even if you didn't like him, not being able to save him..." Her voice trailed off, her eyes searching.
It would have been a cute attempt, had it not been so transparent. "I thought I'd taught you more subtlety than that."
She flushed slightly, as if I truly cared how well she did. As if I ever thought she could act up to my standards. "Sorry, Tom."
She was rather like a pet. Or a living project. She was perhaps my favorite creation at Hogwarts. The little intrigue this thought aroused made me sigh and say, "You'll get your fair share of training should you go into the Ministry in a year."
Adamantly, her head shook. "Oh, no, I'm not going into the Ministry. Not right away. Probably not at all." A shy smile that made me wince on the inside sprang to her face as she added, "I want to travel and study. Like you said you might eventually. I'm – I'm not afraid, regardless of what Simon said."
A rancid scent of the past drifted by as I managed, "And what did he say?"
She shrugged, uncomfortable due to the small shred of nobility in her, which didn't want to betray a confidence. But her loyalty to me won out as she admitted, "He said you did awful things at times, claiming it was to learn. Like...like you hurt people. And animals."
I almost snorted, covering it with a cough that was so realistic she moved to pat me upon the back. I let her, not enjoying the shivers the contact brought, associating it with revulsion. "A monstrous notion," I finally got out.
She gave a little shrug. "It depends, right? I mean, I'd hate it. The thought makes me sick to even imagine. But I'd kill to help those I care about."
"Ah, but a preemptive kill is no doubt what Simon was referring to," I said casually. Leaning against the cold wall that held my namesake's chambers, I added, "Slaughtering an innocent for the sake of learning...well, some wouldn't see that as worthwhile, regardless of whether the knowledge gained could be used down the road."
"Do you?" It was a simple question, in that it was only two words long. I paused, and she persisted. "Would you care?"
"I'm more interested in hearing whether you would," I countered, knowing she'd love to think I cared about what she thought.
Indeed, after a brief struggle, she slowly said, "You showed me that the end is what really matters. When Hagrid was expelled, I – I was torn because he was my friend. I'm still not sure, but if he was a threat, well...I'd like to think I would be strong enough to stand up to him. I'd like to think that, when it matters, I'd be there for those I care about. And...and that's really you, Tom. I know you never liked being cared for – that was obvious – but...well, if you needed me, I'd be there for you. You're the only one who listened or guided me. Bill says he would do anything for me, but then he also says he would never harm another, so...well, it doesn't add up. I feel more tied to you."
"How Hufflepuff," was all I responded with.
She shuffled, her face red. "You don't have to make fun of me."
"I'm certainly not. You were saying?"
"Well...just, I learned a lot from you. I won't forget it." She gave a little laugh, admitting, "I tried some magic on my own...it didn't turn out right. During the transfiguration part, I got burned and grew scales and peeled and...some other things. I don't know if I'll try it again."
"Now, that's not brave," I said, half-listening. "What if I needed you to?"
"Then I'd do it."
My full attention came to her at that, to the stubborn courage that lurked in her slightly nervous eyes. And I felt...a measure of delight. Smug satisfaction and pride. In a teasing voice, I said, "My little pet. Perhaps you might keep watch over Snicks. He rather likes it here." I knew I had to move forward on my own. Should I have use for another companion at some point, I would find one. Both Snicks and I were ready to move on – apart.
At my offer, she threw her arms around me. I stiffened at first and then forced myself to relax. I counted the seconds until she released me, hurriedly saying, "I really must go..."
Her face fell briefly, but then she mustered the strength I had imparted to her. "I hope I see you again. Write, or something, please." Another nervous laugh came as she said, "Rip the pages out of the diary and use them for parchment. But, otherwise...it's been... illuminating... knowing you." She seemed proud of using that word.
"Illumination in darkness," I commented. Then, to give her an explanation, I indicated the shadowed corridor we inhabited.
Should I need her, I would come back, but the truth was that I desired only solitude. In the end, I was all I needed. But my mark upon her and others would live on, as a more vivid reminder of my influential presence than perhaps anything else. Yet.
I made my way to the train station at night, my thin cloak shrouding me from the world. Every purchase I'd bought or swindled throbbed as if with forceful new life against me, and my palms dampened slightly. But I was strong. I was capable. Pain was something I could take. Threats of death, ugly twists of fate, the jaws of destiny nipping at my heels like soulless imps trying to mock me and drag me down... I would mold all as I wished.
As I am now.
The room is small and dank – damp and creaking, again. All floors give way to that, one of many atrocities that bind worlds both magic and Muggle. But at least enchantment fills the air here, welcomed if dark. Especially in my room, where I stand alone. Boarded up windows of slanted style decorate the old building, vacant for an eternity until my arrival. Dust hangs in the air, grating particles that redden my eyes and nose in irritation. I ignore it; I care not how I appear now in this unlit room. I exist solely in my mind right now. My hands still tremble, chilled from the journey and fraught with anticipation.
Appropriately, my wand twitches with me, shooting quivering sparks that fade into the shadows of the dim room. Slowly, I open a bag; a small one. Lightweight.
You would think I am opening a lion's mouth with how my heart beats. But I quell both that mental image and my body's reaction, pulling out a single thread.
That is all. A piece of fabric, a fiber, worn and faded and barely longer than my spindly thumb.
I take a deep breath. Muggles would try and thrash me right now. Even Hogwarts itself, by constant and sheer irksome intrusion, would prevent me from continuing. I have no such minor distractions now. The past is merely an excuse, one to which I am not tied.
Regardless of what anyone has said.
My teeth grit, and I force my mind back upon the string. The tiny thread shakes in my palm, squirming itself beneath my skin. It burns – sears. SEARS. My body tenses, my mind receding. I have been cut a lifetime ago; razors taken to my wrists to see if the blood flowing was red and human. I shed no tears then, reached out to no hand callously offered.
I don't now. Now, I find glory in the pain of my own making. I do not pry apart the smoking skin on my hand and pull the thread out. I welcome the agony of the fiber burrowing itself beneath my flesh, knowing it will dull other pains, release me from constraints.
It tunnels deeper, threading its way beneath every layer of my convulsing being. I keel over, fingers digging into the unrelenting concrete floor, bending my body in a fetal position.
As I coil up outwardly, my center unravels.
The thread twists itself into every bit of my essence, latching on and tugging parts out. It lengthens - it blocks my inner self from reconnecting as it was before. With nowhere to go, the weak parts torn by the thread pour out. I cough, my former self coming out as clotted blood. Pain wracks its merciless worst upon me, at my bidding. My vision blurs further. Air becomes a chore to take in, and I panic, clawing my chest. But I do not yield. I wait out the hours that fill the dark night on the chilled, hard floor in a forgotten building alone.
Inner will propels me upright, and I stumble to my feet, shivering and collapsing, thinking only of the end result. My limbs stagger about as I grope in the dark, forcing my eyes to see through it, to find a piece of the broken glass that litters my floor. To find a sliver of light to see myself in, to see what pulses through my veins and tumbles out.
It isn't me. At least, not the recognizable me from the past. Red orbs against a marble backdrop glare at me with unnatural light. They have the color of blood, the essence rid from inside me. A permanent change; a shedding. A purification. I place my hands upon my flat stomach...I feel as if my fingertips can almost trace the new hardness I find inside. The threads of my life's fabric have reconfigured, diverting from my heart. I can tap into some facets of my former being, all the pain, the memories, the struggling and clawing. It all fuels my power, embedded directly in my will. But now, it has not even the littlest dilution. Other parts of me have a vacuum where once existed humanity.
I have dealt agony, and I now take it easily, for it all leads to my willed end. I will do either again, as much as I desire to or need. I prevail where others would fall; I ensure my survival where others would fearfully shudder, claiming it to be unnatural or detrimental. The face staring back at me in the cracked frame is a sight of victory. I have transformed nature – no, I have perfected it.
I will never be prone to the weaknesses of Dumbledore, never fall from "compassion" or "nobility," or such timid things clothed in glory. As I lean alone against the shadowed, fractured walls, breathing stale puffs of air into new lungs, I alone know the truth.
In the end, I will always survive.