A/N: This is it now. End of the road. Thank you, everyone, who has hung around and stuck with this story. I hope this last chapter satisfies you. Let me know what you think. =]
Harry approached the limp, pale body lying on the floor with caution, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, wand held firmly in his hand, prepared for any sudden curses.
They never came.
His robes were sodden with blood, his red eyes open and glassy, unseeing. There were no two ways about it - Lord Voldemort was most certainly dead.
Harry crouched down, tugging the Elder Wand from his ghostly, long fingered hand, before slipping it into the pocket of his robes.
"Harry, where is she? What's he done to her?"
He turned back to Ron, who was kneeling at the spot where Hermione had been, a mere thirty seconds ago. On those long, hard nights on the run, when his mood was at its lowest point, he had always concentrated on the joy he would feel when it was all over. When the weight of the world was no longer on his shoulders, when people, regardless of their parentage, could walk the wizarding world without fear of being thrown into Azkaban, when nobody had to live in fear of torture or death anymore. He had imagined it would be the best feeling in the world, but now, with Lord Voldemort, dead at his feet, Hermione gone, without them knowing whether she was dead or alive, and the tables piled high with the corpses of the brave witches and wizards they had lost on this most horrific of days...he couldn't even bring himself to feel relieved that it was over.
And the nagging question still remained - what in the name of Merlin had Tom Riddle been doing there?
Before he knew what was happening, before he even considered dealing with the mess in the Great Hall, he was sprinting towards the door, out in the to the Entrance Hall, past the solid oak doors, down the steps, tripping on a loose paving stone but regaining his balance quickly. He kept running, even though his legs felt like jelly and he hadn't slept for what felt like an eternity. Soon, he reached the large stone columns, where the gates of Hogwarts should have been. He skidded to a stop, confused. He looked around, spotting one twisted gate laying a good hundred feet from where it should have been, while the other was nowhere to be seen.
"It's over? I couldn't just sit there, I tried, but I just - "
"It's all right, he's gone, for good, just...oh thank Merlin you're okay..."
"Me? What about me? Of course I'm okay!"
Harry's eyes widened, recognising both voices. He stumbled past the stone columns, and there, standing behind half a winged boar, was Tom Riddle, clutching a girl with bushy brown hair so tightly it looked as though she might break.
He kissed her, and Harry had to look away. Something was very wrong, the tender touches, the desperate hugs, none of it added up. Tom broke the kiss, resting his forehead against Hermione's, their eyes staring into each other, oblivious of their audience. The stomach acid rose in Harry's throat, and his eyes began to burn. After everything that had happened today, after all that everybody had been through he had to walk out and find this? Tom Riddle, kissing his best friend?
When he realised that there were no words appropriate to the situation, he cleared his throat, loudly and pointedly.
Both Tom and Hermione jumped, wands drawn in milliseconds and aimed at Harry, who didn't even bother to draw his own.
"Oh...Harry!" Hermione dropped her wand and threw herself at him in a hug so fierce that Harry stumbled back with the force of it.
He tried to hug her back, but he felt numb, confused, betrayed, even.
"Hermione...what the - "
She pulled away from him, straightening her t shirt as she looked down at the ground. "This must look...I'd like to go and see Dumbledore's portrait, if that's okay? We'll explain then?"
Harry eyed Tom suspiciously, and Hermione glanced nervously between the two of them.
"Whatever you're thinking, it's not true."
"I'm thinking he opened the Chamber of Secrets and murdered Myrtle..." he was glaring at Tom now, who met his eyes with an unreadable expression.
"Well...look, I'll explain when we can talk to Dumbledore as well. It's a long story, and I'm not sure I've got the energy to tell it twice today."
"I don't under-"
"You will soon, let's go and see Dumbledore."
Harry's skin crawled as he watched her, take the hand of a man who had murdered so many people, like she was completely unaware of the fact that it had been his fault that she had spent half of her second year petrified. Their fingers laced together and Harry's fists clenched into balls at his sides.
"I promise there's an explanation," Hermione said. "Trust me, please."
Harry couldn't even begin to imagine what sort of explanation would make this situation seem all right, but exhausted as he was, he followed the pair of them silently, his energy levels far too low to even consider taking any sort of action.
Besides, Tom Riddle, unlike Lord Voldemort, had been in his company for more than a few minutes, yet hadn't tried to murder him yet.
That was a promising start.
They reached the crumbled stone gargoyle that had once guarded Dumbledore's office, but was now lying rather pathetically on its side. They stepped through the passageway and climbed the spiral staircase, the heavy wooden door at the top opening automatically, as though they were expected.
It was silent when they entered. Eyes from every portrait stared at them curiously, glancing to Dumbledore's portrait every other moment, as though waiting for him to give them an idea of how to react.
"Take a seat," he said, waving his arm at the empty chairs in the office.
A lump rose in Harry's throat. He had not been prepared for seeing him so soon after their exchange at King's Cross, after he had found out so much more about him, after he had become so very human, brilliant and average all at the same time.
"I think, perhaps, we should make ourselves comfortable? I'm sure Miss Granger has a very long and thrilling story to tell."
Harry frowned, and noticed that Hermione's cheeks had reddened, just a little.
"It's not actually that interesting Professor."
"Forgive me Hermione, but I do feel you are rather selling yourself short. You turn up here with Tom, looking, perhaps ten years older than you did when you left school, and Lord Voldemort is lying dead in the Great Hall. I believe this will be a story of epic proportions."
He hadn't noticed before Dumbledore had mentioned it. Hermione did look older. She was no longer a teenager, but a fully grown woman. Her brown eyes looked older than that though. They looked tired, and a sense of unease lingered about them.
"Well," she began, glancing at Harry nervously. "The spell that Voldemort cast on me sent me back in time. Back to Tom's time. And...well, Tom being Tom, he worked it all out rather quickly."
"Back in..." Harry couldn't finish his sentence. Back to Tom's time would have been over fifty years. None of it added up, it was like he'd been given a bunch of numbers and was told they equalled zero.
"You have to bear with me," she said, "it's a long story."
He nodded, glancing over to the emotionless stare of Tom, trying to ignore the way his stomach clenched at the site of that neat side parting, those long, dexterous hands, and the feeling that he knew everything about you, just by looking at you.
"So, we left school, and rented a cottage, far out of sight. Tom was working at Borgin and Burke's, because that was how it had happened in my memory, not," she looked at Harry again, "because he wanted to. I made him. He had to follow the time lines. And that was the same with everything, with getting hold of the locket, getting the...cup."
Tom looked down at the floor, as though he was...ashamed of himself. But he couldn't be. He didn't know what shame was.
"Once he'd got the cup," Hermione continued, "he left. He was gone for four years."
Dumbledore nodded. None of this was news to him, nor Harry. What was news, however, was the fact that Lord Voldemort and Tom Riddle were in the same building at the same time, though one, admittedly, was now dead.
"We had an idea of splitting the body. Tom didn't want to be Lord Voldemort. He never wanted to."
"Oh and the Chamber was just a bit of a joke was it?" Harry blurted out hotly, unable to believe that Hermione was painting a picture of a saintly Tom Riddle who had never really wanted to kill anybody.
"It was a mistake. I was young, I got carried away with power. I'm sure Professor Dumbledore is familiar with the feeling...well, at least, according to Rita Skeeter he is."
Harry's stomach twisted at the mention of Dumbledore's darker beginnings.
Hermione gave Tom a sharp look and he sunk back in his seat, tapping his fingers on the arms of his chair.
"So you split the body?" Dumbledore asked, intrigued.
Hermione shook her head. "We...got somebody else. Somebody who wanted to do all the things Lord Voldemort did...would do. Oh, you know what I mean," she waved an impatient hand as she tried to get her head around talking about her past and the future in the same sentence.
Harry sat up straighter at this. Somebody else? Lord Voldemort was not Tom Riddle?
"Who?" Armando Dippet asked in his wheezy voice.
"Arcturus," Tom said casually, his voice a smooth, even, almost caramel-like sound, as opposed to a high, cold, mocking tone.
"Arcturus Black?" Phineas Nigellus had been silent until now.
"That doesn't make sense."
Everyone turned to look at Harry.
"I can speak Parseltongue," he said, and, understanding, Dumbledore turned his attention back to Tom, who had merely raised an eyebrow as though this was an insignificant point to make.
"Harry was a horcrux," Dumbledore explained, and Hermione's hand shot to her mouth in shock, her eyes wide. "As such, he inherited a few of Lord Voldemort's more...special talents."
"Arcturus spoke Parseltongue. That's what took the longest, but Hermione was adamant that he learn it."
"Learn it?" Harry asked. "You can learn Parseltongue?"
"You can learn French if you really want to, though I don't see why you would," Tom said, his nose scrunching in distaste. "I taught him almost everything I knew," he continued. "The horcruxes damaged him far more than they ever damaged me. I had two, he had...five, in the end. He took a lot of potions, cast a lot of dark magic, and not all of it worked out as he intended, hence the unfortunate nature of his looks..."
"So," Dumbledore said, putting his fingertips together, his blue eyes piercing through them, despite the fact that he was only an oil painting. "Lord Voldemort was not Tom Riddle? Yet you still had horcruxes?"
"I made two before I met Hermione. The ring and...the diary. They've both been destroyed, I understand?"
Dumbledore nodded. "It seems you found a different way to live forever."
"A potion," Tom explained. "Hermione didn't want to return to her friends an old woman, and so, eventually, we invented a potion. We took apart the theory of the Impediment Jinx, it's suspended us as we were when we first took the potion. We're not invincible, but we're young."
"You're going to be young...forever?" Harry asked.
Hermione shook her head. "I just want my life back. Once I should be thirty, then I'll stop taking it."
"You can't let the secret get out," Dumbledore said. "Death is the only certainty in life. You can't take it away."
"Of course not," Tom said. "And apart from that, everywhere would be so overcrowded there wouldn't be any room to breathe. This is simply for Hermione and myself."
"So if you didn't make a living from ageing solutions," Dumbledore said, "how did you?"
Hermione smiled for the first time. "The Standard Book of Spells."
Dumbledore nodded, his lips curved into a smile as though it had been the answer he expected. "Of course. There was never a Miranda Goshawk at Hogwarts, but nobody ever looked into it."
"It couldn't have been anybody else," Dippet said assuredly, "the two brightest students Hogwarts has seen in almost a century, of course they wrote the most important set of text books in the curriculum. Of course."
Hermione blushed slightly and looked at the floor.
"Hang on," Harry said. "I still don't understand. Tom's not Voldemort, so it's all right that he killed Myrtle and framed Hagrid? It's all right that he killed Hepzibah Smith?"
"Of course it's not all right," Hermione said sharply. "But he's spent over fifty years putting his own ambitions aside and just risked his own life to save the entire wizarding world, so I think he's redeemed himself, don't you?"
Harry said nothing. He couldn't deny that she had a point, and the steely glare and sharp tone that he often associated with Mrs Weasley told him that arguing was not advised. Even so, he had spent his entire wizarding life believing that the man sitting on the other side of the room was the man who had killed his parents, had tried to kill him several times, and was responsible for more evils than it was possible to imagine.
And here Hermione was, telling him that it was Arcturus Black.
"Arcturus," he said suddenly. "Isn't he related to Sirius? His uncle or something?"
"I'm afraid so. And, though I had never considered the possibility before, it seems only natural that Arcturus would take that path," Dumbledore said solemnly. "I imagine a manticore attack was the only way to make the victim unrecognisable?"
Tom shifted in his seat, his eyes flicking around the room. "He was a muggle. He'd been hit by a car. He was almost dead. We...finished it. It didn't take much to make it look like a manticore attack, he was in a pretty bad way."
Dumbledore nodded, while Dippet's eyebrows had risen high on his forehead.
"So what happens now?" Hermione asked. "Do we tell people? Or do we just keep him hidden?" She looked up at Dumbledore's portrait, her eyes willing him to give her the answer both she and Tom wanted to hear, while Harry merely watched, unconcerned with whatever the verdict may be.
"Well, you can't very well cast a memory charm on everybody in the Great Hall, can you?" Dumbledore said. "And besides, the witches and wizards of our world need to know the full story of how they were saved. I'm not saying they'll believe it -" there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he surveyed them, "but they need to be told. And both you and Tom need your lives back, I presume?"
"Yes," Hermione said, sighing in relief as her face broke into a smile. "No more hiding."
"Perhaps you'd like to teach, Tom?" Dippet suggested, and Tom looked up at his former Headmaster curiously.
"Will I be allowed?"
"Oh I should imagine so, and Hermione, you'd be an asset to the staff, I don't doubt!"
Again, Hermione's cheeks reddened. "Thank you Professor," she said quietly. "We'll consider it."
"What's to consider?" Tom asked abruptly. "I want to get out of that damn cottage. I want to come back here."
"Will parents want him teaching their kids? You said they might not believe the truth."
"There are very few people who were ever of the opinion that Tom Riddle and Lord Voldemort were one and the same. And after today I don't think anybody would dare question where his loyalties lie."
"Where do they lie, exactly?" Harry asked, speaking directly to Tom for the first time.
"And I think that's good enough for all of us," Dumbledore said, in a way that suggested that Harry was not to argue. "I'm very proud of you Tom. And you, Hermione, and of course, you as well, Harry. You have all risen far beyond what was ever expected of you, and I cannot think of three people better suited to leading our world into a new era."
A lump formed in Harry's throat as the day's events slowly sunk in. Now, he felt the relief he had been waiting for. Now, he felt hope, jubilation and an odd sense of calm, that he assumed was due to his tiredness.
"So..." Harry began, his face twisting as he broached the awkward subject. He looked at Tom, who was watching Hermione intently. "Are you two...like..." he couldn't bring himself to finish his sentence. His stomach tied itself in knots and he knew it would take a long time for him to be able to accept Tom as a...well, technically he was a hero.
"Yes," Hermione said simply. "He's not Lord Voldemort, Harry. He's his own man, and he's a good man."
Tom's eyes narrowed, as though he didn't like being described as a 'good man'.
"Right," Harry said tiredly.
"Harry, I've spent over fifty years with him. I know him. He's not dangerous. Not remotely dangerous."
Fifty years was a long time, there was no denying that. He had always trusted Hermione's judgement before, and now it was going to take a huge leap of faith to be able to accept these new circumstances. He was helped, of course, by the fact that Tom had just strolled right into the Great Hall, his first concern being the younger Hermione, then killed Lord Voldemort, right in front of everyone's eyes.
"Harry," Tom broke the silence. "She's the only person that's ever mattered to me. I'm not going to do anything that would make her angry or upset, and that pretty much covers every aspect of world domination. Not that I'm interested in that. You saw what happened to Arcturus, only a fool would chase a goal like that."
Harry surveyed him curiously. He was, as Harry knew all too well, an expert liar. But Hermione was no fool, and she certainly wouldn't spend fifty years being a fool. Tom leaned forward and whispered something in Hermione's ear, and she smiled.
Suddenly, Harry was reminded of the last few moments of Voldemort's life, when Tom had whispered in his ear, while hundreds of witches and wizards looked on.
"What did you say to him? Before you killed him?" he asked.
"Who?" Hermione asked, looking between Tom and Harry. "Voldemort?"
"Yeah, he said something to him."
Tom shifted in his seat. "It doesn't matter."
Both Harry and Hermione stared expectantly at him, and he fidgeted.
"I'd just seen him torturing her. And he'd just cast an insanely difficult spell very badly, I was worried, all right?"
"What did you say?" Harry persisted.
"I told him if he'd done any lasting damage I'd bring him back to life so I could tear him limb from limb and kill him again. Are you happy?" he crossed his arms over his chest, staring determinedly at one of the few spots on the wall that wasn't covered by a portrait of a previous headmaster.
Oddly enough, Harry was happy. As bizarre a threat it had been, it was strangely heartfelt, almost (and Harry felt entirely wrong for even thinking it) romantic.
Hermione reached out to place her hand on Tom's, and he glanced at it, then laced their fingers together in one smooth movement.
"I believe there is a feast starting shortly," Dumbledore said, his lips curving into a smile. "Go, enjoy it."
The three of them got up, and as they left, Harry heard Dumbledore say something to Dippet.
"No wonder he was so upset whenever I called him Tom."
Harry smiled, and followed Tom and Hermione, who were still holding hands (and the image didn't bother him as it had half an hour previously) down the spiral staircase and out into the corridor.
Now Dumbledore mentioned it, he was rather hungry.