Chapter Sixty: The Hunted Hunter
Author's Note: Erm. Sorry for the delay. You all are going to hate me for this. I'M SORRY.
Disclaimer: the HP universe does not belong to me.
Riddle had disappeared with a crack leaving Alphard and Geoffrey alone in the devastated garden. Geoffrey rose from a crouch, clutching his arm, blood seeping between his fingers. Alphard was nursing a broken nose, blood dribbling down over his chin and staining his shirt.
The two young men regarded each other warily.
"Sorry for pretending to try and kill you earlier," said Alphard in a nasal voice, offering a sheepish grin that was somewhat dimmed by the blood. Geoffrey rolled his eyes.
"It wasn't your most convincing effort. Usually you're so much better at lying," he parried. With a casual wave of his wand, he siphoned the blood off Alphard's face.
"We've got to get to Hepzibah Smith's manor," explained Alphard. "And, thanks."
"No problem. There's not much I can do about the broken nose for now, but you'll live. Probably."
"Oi, watch it, Potter," warned Alphard. "Come on, we'll side-along Apparate."
"She'll hear. She'll hear when you kill me and your cover will be blown," hissed Hermione as her Disillusionment Charm melted away.
"And that will obviously be a big problem ten minutes from now when she's dead too," said Voldemort smoothly, his grip tightening on her neck. Hermione scratched against the door, trying to make a scene and hopefully attract Hepzibah's notice, if nothing else to afford her enough of a distraction to put some distance between her and Voldemort. But his grip was tight. She struggled to breathe, and her lungs were filled not with the musty, stale scent of Hepzibah's manor, and not with the scent of Tom Riddle, but a musky, smokey scent — like burning embers in the forest. He was unfamiliar to her in the most primal of ways, and it was a relief. Had he been the Tom Riddle to whom she was accustomed, she might not have found the wherewithal to fight back properly.
But she was sinking, sinking... he dropped her limp form to the ground, and everything was spinning — she had nearly suffocated — and then, he was standing over her, holding his wand, and then everything around her was dissolving...
She is standing on a wet street. Soon she notices her feet are in high heeled black shoes, and an elegant wool coat protects her from the rain. She is standing before a gloriously lovely building, with an art nouveau facade, and when she enters the building, she finds herself standing on plush red carpeting, immersed in a room of silver and gold. She knows this place — after all, it's not been a year since she was last here. Faintly she can hear a string quartet and restrained laughter.
Everywhere, however, there is the scent of fire.
A faceless man takes her coat, and Hermione looks down to see the black dress she wore all those months ago, immortalized in her memory.
"That dress did catch my attention, I will admit."
Voldemort, at age forty, is striding towards her, in the immaculate black three piece suit and wool coat he was wearing on the day of this memory. He is all angles, all contrasts, and though he is no longer ethereally beautiful as he once was, the strangeness of him to her is compelling and tempting. Who is this man, really? This man is the in-between, this man is the long-lost man that nobody could recall. Nobody knows about the lost years of Voldemort, and yet here he is...
Even still, she knows those eyes, those shadow-colored eyes, dark as smoke and just as tumultuous.
"Why have you brought me here?"
"I was just about to ask you the very same thing," he parries, finally reaching her. This close, in this far improved lighting, she observes that he actually does have a few fine lines — frown lines. The hollows beneath his eyes are sunken; he looks weary but starving; the hunted hunter. "You're the one who brought us here, after all."
"Why would I bring us here? I don't even know how I could possibly do that," she counters, stepping back unsteadily in her tall heels, her jewelry clinking with the movement.
"Your subconscious is trying to protect something, as far as I can tell." He's striding towards her again. "Even at such a young age, you're quite powerful."
"So it's taken us here?"
"Yes. And you're going to lead me to what I want." He grips her arm and smiles, his eyes briefly flashing red. There is an ugly desperation in his eyes.
Against her will, her feet are moving. They're walking along the plush carpeting, Voldemort latched to her firmly, towards the lifts. The grate slides open and they step inside. "Looks like you're taking us to that room. I wonder...is this a sign you miss it?"
"Maybe it's a sign that you do."
They reach that floor. With legs like lead, she walks down the hall, among the brocade wallpaper and crystal sconces, until they reach the carved door. Inwardly she is screaming, begging for everything in her to stop, to not turn that crystal knob. But her movements are not her own, and with a creak, the knob is turning, and the door is swinging open.
Tom first had to stop at Knockturn Alley; he had a few errands to run before he could finally do the main thing he had meant to do today. Scowling, he appeared with a sharp crack in a shadowed alleyway between Knockturn and Diagon Alleys, wearing his dress robes from the wedding. He brushed at them a bit, and raked a hand through his hair. He squinted in the bright sunlight — where were his Knights?
He felt a stab of irritation, and, still scowling, he began stalking about, in search of them. How dare they not be exactly where they told them to be! Undoubtedly, this was Malfoy's fault: the pathetic fool probably couldn't go more than a few hours without Firewhiskey and a gaggle of adoring girls giggling around him.
Diagon Alley was nearly empty, though it appeared ransacked. Tom frowned, looking around in surprise. He had not expected the chaos of Grindelwald's duel with Dumbledore to actually reach Britain, in spite of all that the fools around him had projected.
Many windows were shattered; barrels and crates were overturned; a pile of racing brooms sat outside the sporting goods store, their tails still smoking.
"We ought to head back, he'll be here soon, and he'll not be happy if he finds us missing," warned a distinctive familiar voice distantly. Tom strained to hear, and he slunk back into the shadows as his Knights rounded the bend of Diagon Alley. They had all pulled their hoods up of their fine traveling cloaks, and were wearing gleaming masks that caught the brilliant autumn sunlight. He silently observed them. Malfoy was in the lead, undoubtedly, though certainly once he realized Tom was there, he'd edge back and look more like a follower than a leader. He recognized Nott and Avery, with Nott's lanky, awkward, storklike stature and Avery's broader one. Cygnus was bringing up the rear, nearly a foot shorter than the other boys, but walking just as confidently.
A gust of chilly air raked through Diagon Alley, bringing with it dead brown leaves and unsettling the ransacked alley. Things were changing.
He stepped out into view, and the four boys screeched to a halt before hastily offering short bows. It was part of their protocol to only offer short, unnoticeable bows, really nothing more than a subtle jerk of the head, when in public.
"Malfoy. Avery. Nott. Black." Tom surveyed them, watching them quickly take off their masks. "I rather like the costumes. Very menacing," he mused. "They'll come in handy for later. Be sure to make some for the others."
"Of course," said Malfoy immediately, in a rather oily voice.
"I have to return to my flat and change. I have an important errand to run today. In the meantime, I need one of you — not you, Black — to return to Black Manor. Potter and Alphard are dueling and I'm not confident for Alphard."
"I'll go. I could easily take down Potter," sneered Avery. Tom arched his brows.
"I would not be so sure of that, Avery. Alphard is by far the most skilled and fierce dueler of you all — but Potter's an Auror now, and it shows. Nott, I think you should go. Alphard's style is offensive and rapid-fire; he'll be happy to have someone more careful, with a more extensive knowledge of Jinxes."
"I'll go at once, my Lord," said Nott, and he turned on the spot. Avery was looking like he was having quite a difficult time of hiding his murderous jealousy, but Malfoy discreetly jabbed at him, prompting him to master himself.
"And what of us, my Lord?" said Malfoy, with another courteous bow. Tom paced thoughtfully.
"Malfoy, I need you at the Ministry — Dumbledore and Grindelwald are dueling and I want you to gather as much information as you can. I know you'll be the most efficient at this. Avery, I want you and Black to go monitor the other Knights."
They parted ways, and Tom hurried to his flat in Knockturn Alley. It was shabby, with the entrance in an alleyway so narrow he had to turn sideways to enter, and up two flights of rickety stairs with more than one trick step. He rushed to his flat, unlocked the door, and immediately began changing into his black suit. He added some cologne and combed his hair with pomade to set it into its usual gleaming, wavy style, and then stepped back to admire his handiwork. He watched himself adjust his tie, his smooth pale lips slowly spreading into a smirk. Perfect. Irresistible.
Hepzibah wouldn't be able to resist him.
Alphard and Geoffrey reappeared outside of the dilapidated Smith Manor, and Geoffrey at once stepped back, briskly brushing off his robes.
"Okay, explain, Black," he ordered immediately, peering about the scenery, as though scrutinizing it. Alphard scratched his head.
"Well, actually, I really don't know," he admitted. "Hermione's inside ... doing... something. I actually have no idea why she's in there."
Geoffrey gave Alphard a level sort of stare, one that plainly was accusing Alphard of being an idiot. He bristled at this look. "We just have to make sure Riddle doesn't stop her."
The two men looked at the Manor and then at each other.
"Well, let's go on in, then," said Geoffrey. He gestured in an over-the-top manner for Alphard to go first. "Ladies first."
"No, age before beauty — you first." Alphard gave Geoffrey a sweet smile as he nodded towards the manor. Geoffrey arched his brows.
"Black, I am not even three weeks older than you."
"Just bloody well go, Potter. Enough chatting," Alphard snapped, and he jabbed Geoffrey in the back with his wand.
"Watch it, or I'll break your other nose."
"Har har. Is that a reference to my two-faced nature?" Alphard asked dryly, as they cast Disillusionment Charms on themselves.
"No, I was just being silly — but you're right, you are two-faced. Almost forgot."
"How could you forget when I nearly killed you?"
"You didn't nearly kill me, you were just pretending."
"Maybe. Or I was really planning on—"
"Shut up and focus, Black. We've followed Riddle here, then?" Alphard was taken aback by how quickly Geoffrey caught on, and he wondered if Hermione had filled him in on her past in the same way she had explained everything to him. A stab of possessiveness stung him, and it was unexpected: I thought this was our mission, he found himself sulking.
"Presumably, but there's always a chance he went somewhere else first. You look in the windows for him; I'll wait here."
"And what do I do if I do find him?"
"Absolutely nothing — just make sure you're not seen."
Tom turned on the spot and Apparated to a road nearby Hepzibah Smith's manor. On the way, he grabbed a fistful of weeds and Transfigured them into a bouquet of lush roses, and began his walk, his fine black shoes crunching on the dirt-and-stone road beneath him. It was late afternoon, now, and the autumn sun was setting the fields around him aglow. For a moment, he stood there on the road, letting the breeze toy with his hair a bit. He closed his eyes, inhaling the sweet, crisp scent of autumn. Everything was slowly coming together... there was a stirring in his veins as his heart began to race. He was coming closer and closer to his goal...
He soon reached Hepzibah Smith's crumbling manor; the gates protecting it were bent and barely clinging to their rusted hinges, and there was an ominous shriek of a crow as Tom pushed past the creaking gates. The little path leading to the front of the manor was gravel, but so cracked that it was barely visible through the tall grass. He knew this path well — he had been working on Hepzibah for quite a few weeks now, after all. Her life was in utter disarray but one could be sure that she would have plenty of rouge on when he showed up.
Normally, he was more cautious. After all, he was brilliant and shrewd beyond his years. Normally he would have noticed the extra magic in the air, tingling up his spine, and he would have heard the sharp intake of breath as he reached the front door. But he was too focused, too filled with adrenaline at the prospect of acquiring the things he had longed for for so long.
The open door reveals not the hotel room where she gave herself to Tom, but instead, an opera house. Hermione turns back to look at Voldemort, who looks intrigued.
"I wonder..." he murmurs. "Go on, then."
"You've got no other choice, darling." He nudges her and she finds, again, her feet are moving against her will. There are hundreds of people in the opera house, all of them faceless, and the walls tremble with the undulating voice of the singer.
Hermione knows this place — she came here as a child once, with her parents. Her eyes widen as she recognizes the aria, for two reasons: the opera she saw that night was Samson et Dalila, but also, this aria was the one on the radio that day at this hotel, with Tom...
Redis à ma tendresse
les serments d'autrefois,
ces serments que j'aimais!
Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!
Verse-moi, verse-moi l'ivresse!
She remembers now the meaning behind those lyrics, remembers how meaningless and empty they sounded to her as a young child — yet how filled with meaning they are now! Repeat to my tenderness the promise of old times... Those promises I loved...
They walk down the aisle, towards the stage. The opera singer is belting out the lines, each more incisive than the last. The pain is not emotional, it is physical, as though a wound or lashing. She alights upon the stage and pauses there, to look back at Voldemort. The bright stage lights are blinding, but he is visible, his angular features cast in high relief from the stage lights, his black hair gleaming white, his skin alabaster, his eyes the deepest darkest black.
"Did you ever feel for me?" The question is out of her mouth before she can contain it. Voldemort looks up at her, cocks his head to the side. "Never mind. You'll only tell me what you think I need to hear, to get me to act how you want me to act. You think we're all puppets — you think you can control us. And you do," she is saying incredulously, her voice choking. "You find the strings connected to us, you toy with them, tugging and pulling, and you do control us."
"I did feel for you. I had never found a person so compelling before. That is the truth."
Hermione turns away and steps fully onto the stage; the lights are too bright and suddenly, she is standing in a world of white. Slowly, the world reforms around her.
"What are we looking for? Why are we here?"
"I don't know anything about the Veil."
"Liar. You've spent years researching it!"
"You've got the wrong Hermione. I know nothing of the Veil. Truly."
They are standing in the Department of Mysteries. It is empty of the Veil. Hermione turns to face Voldemort, feeling oddly triumphant. She crosses her arms over her chest, regarding him. "You caught the wrong timeline version of me," she continues. "I haven't researched the Veil yet."
"Nonsense — one mind, one same mind. I put the bracelet on you — it should work," he says furiously. Hermione looks down at her wrist, where the lovely bracelet that Tom had given her before the wedding is twined round her wrist. His eyes turn red, and his face contorts in rage. "Crucio."
But his spell bounces off of her. This shocks them both. The ground below them shakes, enough to feel like an earthquake. Hermione nearly topples over and grapples for something to hold onto, but the floor cracks in enormous crevasses and then they are falling, falling, falling — into darkness.
Alphard watched Geoffrey's footsteps in the grass, then, taking his turn, he bolted around to the back of the manor. There was a kitchen garden in unbelievable disrepair, with more weed than any recognizable, edible vegetables, and then a rickety door nearly rusting off its hinges. He held his breath, creeping along the dirt path towards the door. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins.
What am I doing?
The inner question came unexpectedly, and gave him pause. Alphard froze. He'll kill me. The pure knowledge of his own death, the recognition of its approach, was alien to him, for he was truly such a young man in so many ways. He was recognizing this now, perhaps in full for the first time. His mouth went dry as his throat began to close up. I'll die. He had said so many times he was willing to die to create a better world, but suddenly that prospect seemed so much closer, so much more salient, now, of all times.
He'd be hit with the Killing Curse; Riddle wouldn't bother torturing or playing with his food. He wouldn't have time. And then what? What would come after death?
The world felt quite too large, suddenly, as he thought, in racing images, of all the things he had not yet done, all the regrets, all the people he was surprised to find he truly loved. This might be my last day — no, my last minute — on earth.
He began to back away.
If I foil Riddle's plans, he will kill me.
Is this actually worth dying for?
He longed to scream at the unfairness of it all. The right answer, the brave answer, was of course a resounding yes. But his heart was providing a different answer entirely, and he was wrought with the urge to find a sympathetic ear. Wasn't it understandable that he didn't want to give his life? Was it truly so evil of him to question whether this cause was worth his life?
For Hermione, she had lost everything - only that was enough to make her willing to give everything to chasing, hunting, and ending Voldemort. But Alphard still had everything.
But would I have everything?
...If he left, he would have to give it all up. Riddle would murder everyone important, and Alphard would have to go into hiding. He thought of the briefest glimpses he had gotten in Hermione's mind of his grown-up nephew, the nephew he would one day save from the Black family.
Toujours Impur. No matter his choices, he was casting off his last vestiges of identity with the Black family. If he fought Riddle as planned, he would be betraying Purebloods. If he abandoned them, he'd be betraying them as well.
"No." He couldn't breathe. He couldn't make the choice. Alphard turned away from the manor and fell into the tall weeds, the leaves crunching under his knees. He rocked back and forth.
He couldn't make the choice.
Betrayal. Or death.
Panicked, Alphard fumbled for his wand as a new realization hit him: he didn't have to make this choice. There was a third choice, wasn't there? He wasn't fond of thinking in this way, but the fact was that he had never really had any choices: his life had been a course set by those before him, edited by those around him. He had always relinquished control, either by choosing to not make a choice, or by choosing the path of least resistance. His parents and family had molded him into the perfect, entitled, cruel-hearted, bigoted Pureblood son — and then Hermione had ripped all those seams, resewing him back together, a new person but forever stitched faulty and loose. He no longer was certain of what he believed in.
You have the power in your hands.
Alphard looked down at his wand. His hands were already weather-beaten from years of Quidditch and rough-housing; how much older would they look in five years? Ten years? Thirty years?
You can choose your own destiny.
The blood was rushing in his ears. Alphard rose to stand, and turned on the spot.
He reappeared not far outside of Hogwarts; it wasn't difficult to find his way back into the school grounds. Students were practicing on the Quidditch field, and Alphard felt a painful rush of nostalgia for what he had lost, what he had been forced to forsake. He turned away from the sunny pitch, to the shadows of the Forbidden Forest, and melted into them.
It didn't take long to find the spot. Alphard stood in the little clear patch where the original Knights meetings had first been held. This was where I died, he told himself, turning round to observe his surroundings. This was where they took everything away from me. All my freedom.
He had been doomed the moment he met Tom Riddle, and Hermione had only further doomed him.
Alphard had no goodbyes to say, no memories to cherish in his last moments. This was his choice, and this time, he was leaving for good.