Previously on 'The Redemption'... Cho plays nurse and Tom meets Miss Hepzibah Smith.
Chapter 41 - Compartmentalise
Cho strolled down the darkening street, pulling her coat tighter around her as the frost bit at her cheeks and nose. It did occur to her that apparating would have been much more efficient but Cho loved the fresh air, especially when she was cooped up inside St Mungo's for most of her day.
Making a turn into a paved driveway, Cho approached the door and knocked in rapid succession. She heard a muffled "Coming!" from behind the door before it flew open to reveal Arlene looking uncharacteristically frazzled.
Cho smiled, embracing her friend in a tight hug and noting that her vibrant red hair was lightly scented with smoke.
"Hello Arlene, how are you?"
She ushered Cho in, shutting the door with a snap behind her.
"I tried cooking, it's safe to say that Henry is now on his way home with takeaway from the pub."
Cho hid her smile, downplaying her amusement as she surveyed the kitchen with dirty dishes and blackened pans resting in the sink.
"Well, other than the failed cooking attempt, how have you been?"
Arlene scrunched up her nose as she plopped onto a chair and invited Cho to do the same.
"Same old. The old geezer of an editor at Witches Weekly once again insisted that I'm out of touch with what the modern woman wants. As though he is an expert on the matter, having never been a woman himself and having absolutely no inkling on how to communicate with one."
Cho laughed. Having met the editor one time when she accompanied Arlene to a work function, she could confirm that he wasn't the nicest man she had met. He was arrogant and condescending to all the guests, even insisting that Cho couldn't possibly be a Mediwitch, or at least a competent one (Cho had to physically restrain Arlene from throwing herself at him and hexing him till next year at the comment. Cho had just sent him a tight lipped smile and excused herself from his presence.).
"Well at least on the bright side, he'll be dead soon?"
Arlene chortled, the familiar sparkle in her eyes coming back to life. "True. How has your week been? Hopefully better than mine?"
"Good," replied Cho, hedging around the elephant in the room and practicing what she hoped was a neutral expression, "Tom was sick the other day so I stayed overnight to help him through his fever."
Arlene Stevens was not a conventional, traditional woman of the 1940's by any means. She did not take her husband's surname when they got married, she did not care for polite chit chat or gossip. She never even pressed Cho for answers throughout the entire time she knew her, despite the fact that she must be dying to know.
Which is why it surprised Cho somewhat when she screeched out a well-timed "You did what?!" at the very same time that Henry came through the door, 2 large paper bags in hand.
Instead of looking alarmed at his wife's sudden state of disbelief, he ducked down and kissed Arlene on the forehead before enveloping Cho in a one-armed hug.
Cho smiled back at Henry tightly, her cheeks flushing from her friend's dramatic overreaction to her words.
"It's not like that Arlene - strictly nurse duties, I promise."
"Are we talking about Riddle?" inquired Henry lightly, beginning to rustle in the cupboards to find some clean plates.
Arlene rounded on her husband, fire in her blazing emerald eyes as she snapped: "You knew she was meeting Riddle?"
Henry shrugged, a sheepish expression on his face "Sorry darling, I didn't realise it was a secret."
"It's really not a big deal Arlene. I visit him at the shop sometimes and one day, he wasn't there so I asked Mr Borgin. I went to check on him to make sure he was okay."
Arlene did not look placated in the slightest. "That's the thing Cho - it's not your job to make sure he is okay. There was a point in time when we were at Hogwarts that I thought you were good for each other but it's time to move on."
"You don't understand - it's complicated-" hedged Cho, the flush in her cheeks deepening as her anxiousness grew.
Arlene reached across the table to clasp Cho's hands in her own. "It's complicated because you allow it to be. Henry and I don't know what happened in 7th year and it's alright if you don't want to tell us but we want to look out for you. It's clear that you both separated for a reason. And if that reason is because he did something to you-"
"He did do something," admitted Cho quietly, "But it's not as terrible as what he will do."
Arlene exchanged a look with Henry behind her, silently conveying the thought that they had all along. They had both theorised for months what really happened after that disastrous quidditch match. They had wondered why Cho seemed to have appeared from thin air with no known relatives except for an odd friendship with Professor Dumbledore when she first arrived. They noticed and gathered every odd mannerism or turn of phrase she uttered that seemed so out of place.
"Cho," started Arlene gently, turning back to her friend "You know you can tell us anything right? We're pretty much family at this point."
Cho exhaled a deep breath, meeting Arlene's eyes that were so trusting. She met Henry's gaze over Arlene's shoulder, where he had the softest smile on his face. These were her friends, and they were the only family she had known since coming here. For the longest time she had compartmentalised them from the truth. She thought that if they didn't know, the horrible part of the world that would come to be won't be able to touch them.
But maybe she needed this - the honesty, the advice and maybe even the encouragement to do what was right. Or perhaps before that, making the decision to do anything at all.
Finding the initial words stuck to the roof of her mouth, Cho tried her best to recount her tale, starting from the day she came across the Room of Requirement.
It was oddly liberating to tell her story, thought Cho as she entered her own home three hours after her conversation with Arlene and Henry.
They had been largely silent as she recounted her tale - how she got there, what happened with Malfoy and how she came to wake up in the hospital wing during Christmas. She had tried to be as vague as possible about who Tom would become but it was apparent enough by the way Henry's eyes darkened as he pieced together his suspicions with what has transpired.
"You cannot possibly think of continuing to see him again," said Henry, looking towards Arlene for support.
Arlene bit her lip, rubbing her eyes as though exhausted from much more than her poor attempt at cooking.
"Do you truly think you can change his mind?"
"I don't know, but I think I should try."
"But why are you trying? Is it out of duty, or love?"
Cho's first instinct was to blanch at the candidness of Arlene's words but something about the night of secrets being told made Cho reconsider her words.
"Tom owes it to himself to try to become a good man. I know he has it in him - I've seen it. And I want to help him realise that he's capable of more good than he thinks- not out of duty but because I truly do care for him."
Arlene smiled softly, "Well then there's your answer."
Tom had spent the last few weeks at Borgin & Burkes with some of the most interesting developments to his plans since his conversation with Rowena Ravenclaw's ghost all those years ago.
It turned out the woman named Hepzibah Smith was more useful than he had perceived her to be. Tom originally had positioned her to be a wealthy witch with a substantial amount of artifacts in her possession but little did he know how valuable she was, beyond her wealth.
It was oddly sunny afternoon, the rays of light meandering its way through the grubby windows of the shop. It was fairly quiet as it usually was in the late afternoon and Tom was almost ready to begin merchandising the new stock that had come in through the last few days when he heard the telltale tinkle of the door bell.
Hepzibah Smith ambled in through the doorway, flashing Tom a wide smile as she giggled girlishly. Tom bit back a grimace at her choice of robes that resembled an overly decorated tiered cake and directed a polite smile in her direction.
It did not escape Tom's notice that Hepzibah visited every week without fail ever since they met weeks ago. It was always conveniently during his shifts and when the shop was cleared of most of its customers and onlookers. More often than not, she would bring trivial trinkets in order to get evaluated just to make conversation.
Tom was aware that Miss Smith enjoyed his company more than proprietary required. He did not return the sentiment and tried to keep her at arms length so as to not encourage it but she was persistent in her pursuit of his presence.
Normally, a sharply worded rebuke was not out of his vernacular but he was under the careful watch of shrewd old Mr Borgin and Mr Burke so for now, he let the woman drivel and drone as she pleased.
Today she had brought a neatly packaged brown paper parcel full of homemade sugar cookies and was busy sliding it across the countertop as she directed a saccharine smile in Tom's direction.
He gave a polite nod in her direction. "How are you today Miss Smith?"
She looked flustered, her full cheeks ruddy with colour from her short walk here. "Very well thank you, my dear."
Tom saw his co-worker William smirk from his peripheral and he fought the urge to hex him on the spot.
"Do you need assistance with anything today Miss Smith?" asked Tom pointedly, pretending not to hear the barest hint of a snigger that William fought to hide.
Her pallid expression fell for a moment, clearly unwilling to let Tom go so soon after coming all the way to visit him. Making a split second decision, Hepzibah leaned her ample bosom across the counter, her overly sweet breath fanning across the side of Tom's face.
"Can you keep a secret, Tom? Will you promise you won't tell Mr Burke I've got it? He'd never let me rest if he knew I'd told you, and I'm not selling, not to Burke, not to anyone!"
There was something in her tone that piqued Tom's interest, a tightness of her pale hazel eyes that betrayed genuine worry that Tom would spill her secret.
Tom preyed off secrets, relished in the truths that others told him while he gave them nothing in return.
He softened his expression into a deliberate smile, the perfect caricature of gentlemanly charm as he nodded in agreement.
"Of course Miss Smith, I won't tell a single soul."
AN: I'm guessing you're all seeing what's going to happen here with Hepzibah? :P As always, thank you for your continued love of this story - I really do appreciate it :) (PS. The line "Can you keep a secret Tom?... is from JK Rowling, albeit in a slightly different context to when it is being said to Tom here in this story)