Chapter 4 : Letters and Suspicions
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As the last class of the day (Potions) drew to a close, I decided that I had had enough. Allowing myself to tune out Slughorn’s drone, I pondered a way to escape Tom’s watch. I looked around the dingy room, taking in the gently bubbling cauldrons and their curling fumes. There were no windows, as the room was in the dungeons, but there was a small door that led up to Slughorn’s office. There was no other way in or out of the room. I slumped back in my seat, disappointed. At this point, I felt a jab in my side. I turned angrily to my left and beheld a very apprehensive-looking Hufflepuff girl sitting beside me. I opened my mouth to demand to know what her problem was, but Slughorn’s voice cut me off.
“Miss. Cortes!” he barked across the room.
Without thinking, I snapped, “What!” Slughorn stared at me, and I realised that he had probably been talking to me for awhile. I stifled my irritation at Tom and the Hufflepuff and arranged my face into what I hoped was an innocent expression. “I’m sorry Professor, you were saying?”
Slughorn glared at me. “Have you been listening to a single word I’ve said?” He demanded, striding over to my desk.
I met his eyes defiantly for a moment, and then dropped my gaze in mock submission. “I’m sorry professor. I’m not feeling very well, you see.”
“Hmph. Well perhaps you should go to the hospital wing until you are sufficiently cured.” That was it! Tom wouldn’t know that I had left class early! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
“Yes, Professor, perhaps I should,” I murmured, collecting my things and putting them into my bag. I stood up and faced Slughorn. He did not look impressed. I reflected that perhaps sucking up to teachers in the past might have had its advantages.
“You will make up this class tonight at 8:00, Miss. Cortes.”
“But Professor!” I protested, unable to control myself. “There’s only fifteen minutes left!”
“Eight O’clock!” Slughorn said sternly, before striding back to his desk. Fuming, I stalked to the door and left, making sure to slam it behind me.
I suddenly remembered my reason for leaving. I scanned the hall quickly and with a thrill of triumph, found it empty. I had evaded the great Tom Riddle, for the moment. I strode down the hall, my anger evaporating as quickly as it had come. I decided to go to the kitchens to get a bite to eat so that I wouldn’t have to go to dinner and face Tom. I made my way back to the entrance hall and scanned it quickly. Seeing nothing, I darted across the stones and entered the corridor where the kitchens were located. I crept along the hallway until I came to a portrait of fruit in a bowl. This was a relatively new addition to the castle, installed in an attempt to prevent students from finding the kitchens, since the house elves were feeding whoever entered and seriously depleting the castle’s food stores. I, however, knew the secret of the portrait. I reached out a hand and tickled the pear, which turned into a doorknob. I pulled this and opened the door to the warm, bustling kitchens.
My favourite house elf, Snappy, squealed and ran to me, wrapping her little arms around my waist. The other elves greeted me warmly; I was a frequent visitor to the kitchens, and I had always treated them with respect and kindness. They were the only beings in the castle that I might venture to call my friends. Snappy brought me a plate of shepherd’s pie, and the elves ushered me over to a low table. They chattered to me as I sat, gossiping about each other and about the castle in general, asking my opinion on things such as whether or not the cleanliness of the castle was acceptable. I listened contentedly to their banter, and finished my dinner and the bottle of Butterbeer they had procured, “Especially for Miss. Maura.” I was tempted to stay in the kitchens all night.
Finally though, I decided it was time to go. They stuffed my pockets with biscuits and crackers and wished me goodnight, telling me to come back and visit them soon. As the portrait closed behind me, shutting out the heat and noise of the kitchen, I couldn’t suppress my shiver. Pulling my robes close around me, I set off down the hallway, glancing around at the deserted corridors. I hadn’t realised how much time had passed. Glancing at the clock in the entrance hall as I reached it, I saw that it was well after curfew. I moved as quietly as I could toward the dungeon hallway, but stopped suddenly when I heard a slight noise ahead of me. Poised on the stairs, I stared into the darkness below me. A shadow moved – a tall, thin shadow. Tom.
As quietly as I could, I moved backwards up the stairs and into the entrance hall. I didn’t hear anything from Tom, so I continued slowly up the marble staircase, listening intensely for any noise behind me. When I was three floors up, I decided it was safe to run. I took off, flying up staircases and through tapestries, banging through doors, narrowly avoiding Peeves as he vandalised the charms classroom, until I arrived, flushed and breathless, on the balcony at the top of the astronomy tower. I collapsed against the cool stone, feeling the sharp breeze caress my hot cheeks. I dropped my bag and let myself slide down the wall until I was sitting on the ground.
As I caught my breath, I seriously considered going to the headmaster, Professor Dippet, for the first time. I didn’t really know what Tom meant by following me, but I was definitely disturbed by the books that I had seen in his room, not to mention the fact that he had killed his own father and grandparents. I was on the verge of rising and going to Dippett’s office, but then something Tom had said came back to me. “Even if you did tell that bumbling old fool, do you really think he’d believe you? The word of a delinquent, trouble-making little girl against the word of the Head Boy?” It was true. I had been in trouble one too many times for Dippet to take my word over Tom’s.
Feeling defeated, I leaned my head back against the stone and looked up at the stars. Why would anybody in their right mind believe me over Tom? And then it came to me: Dumbledore. The transfiguration teacher was the only one who didn’t seem to fall for Tom’s tricks. I still didn’t think he’d believe me if I barged in on him in the middle of the night though. But if he received an anonymous, rational note requesting a meeting…
Quickly, I dug in my bag for a quill and parchment. Balancing the inkpot precariously on my knee, I began.
It is urgent that I speak to you regarding Tom Riddle. I have some information that is very disturbing. Please meet me at the top of the astronomy tower on Thursday at midnight. Please do not mention this note to Professor Dippett, as I doubt he would take what I have to say seriously
I didn’t really know what else to say in my defence. I didn’t want to describe everything that I had seen in a letter, in case it fell into the wrong hands. It would be better to talk to him in person anyway, so that he would be able to see that I wasn’t lying. I sincerely hoped he would come, and that I would be able to escape Tom long enough to get up to the tower.
Feeling slightly nervous, but determined all the same, I tucked the letter into my robes, hoisted up my bag and crept back down the staircase, across the hallway, and into the owlery. Slipping slightly on the dropping-strewn floor, I searched the lofty perches for my owl, Shadow. He was pure black with bright green eyes, and he had been with me as long as I could remember. He was fiercely protective, and he tended to be rather violent at times. I couldn’t see him, but his warm weight suddenly dropped onto my shoulder. He squeezed gently with his talons and hooted softly. I stroked his silky feathers, and then tied the letter to his leg. “Please behave. I need him to trust me,” I murmured softly. Shadow hooted reassuringly and took off out the window.
Suddenly, the door behind me banged open, and my heart leapt into my throat. I whirled around and faced a very annoyed Tom Riddle. We stood and stared at eachother for a moment, me too terrified to do anything, he probably too angry. He clearly was not used to having to work to control people.
He opened his mouth and closed it, and then suddenly strode toward me. I backed into the wall, feeling the open window at my back. He raised his hands as if to grab me and I flinched, shutting my eyes tightly, waiting for his rough hands to seize me. But they didn’t. Slowly, I opened my eyes and stared into his pale face, only inches from my own. His expression was calm, but I could see anger smouldering behind his eyes. His hands were raised still, as though he had forgotten about them. He was breathing hard through his nose, as though he had been running to find me, and it made his voice quaver slightly as he spoke. “What did you do?” He spoke jerkily, as though preventing himself from screaming at me. He put his hands on the window-frame behind me, trapping me between his arms. He stared down at me, his dark hair falling elegantly into his eyes.
Unable to stop myself, and still feeling strangely triumphant, I blurted, “I sent a letter. About you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” That did it. He grabbed me and threw me into the middle of the owlery, where I landed sprawling on the hard stone. I scrambled to my feet, but he was at my side before I could dart through the door. He grabbed my arm and I screamed, “Let me go! Help! Help! He-”
He slapped a hand roughly over my mouth and held me to him, hissing in my ear, “Shut up! If a single person comes up here, I’ll make sure you never yell again!” I struggled madly, trying to get loose so I could scream some more. He drew me deeper into the tower, and I discreetly reached for my wand in my back pocket. I was ready for him when he threw me to the ground again and yelled, “Silencio!”
“Protego!” I yelled at the same time, whipping my wand around at him, and his spell bounced harmlessly off of my shield. I stood up slowly and faced him, knowing I couldn’t beat him in a duel, but determined to fight anyway. I walked slowly sideways, trying to get past him to the door, but he moved with me. “Get out of my way, Tom,” I said firmly. He smirked. And then I felt as though I had been hit in the stomach by a raging hippogriff. His nonverbal spell threw me back to the ground, and I grasped my stomach, gasping for breath. Nothing seemed to be permanently damaged, so I got shakily to my feet and looked back at Tom.
He hadn’t moved, and he was still smirking. Oh how I loathed him! “You can’t beat me, Maura,” he said, moving slowly toward me. I stood my ground.
“I already have, Tom. That note was to Dumbledore, telling him everything.” His smirk vanished. “That’s right. He’s the only teacher that you haven’t brainwashed. He’s probably reading it right now, and plotting how to cart you off to Azkaban!”
In the ringing silence that followed, he stared at me as if seeing me properly for the first time. The silence spiralled horribly for what felt like hours. When I couldn't stand it anymore, I licked my lips nervously and lowered my wand slightly. “So…so you don’t need anything from me, I’ve told you what you want to know. I’ll just…I’ll just go.” I tried tentatively. He didn’t respond, he just kept staring. I moved slowly to the left and he followed me with his eyes, but otherwise didn’t move. I passed him and walked slowly toward the door, never turning my back on him. He lowered his wand, but didn’t turn around. I took a deep breath, and then made to dart through the door.
“Crucio!” I heard him shriek, and then all I knew was blinding, agonising pain running like wildfire through my body. I screamed, twisting and writhing on the ground, no longer aware of where I was or even who I was. And then it stopped. I lay panting on the floor with my eyes tightly shut, feeling my body begin to relax. I felt my wand pulled from my limp fingers, and heard the swish of robes as Tom knelt down beside me. I turned my head away from him, laying my cheek down on the cool stone. He leaned over me and pulled my hair away from my sweaty face, letting his fingers trail gently across my neck. He leaned down to whisper in my ear, “Don’t ever try to lie to me Maura. I can always tell. You didn’t tell Dumbledore anything in the note you sent him. I know you didn’t tell him what you saw.” My eyes snapped open and the room slowly came back into focus. “Now,” he continued softly, stroking my hair. “When and where did you ask that muggle-loving old fool to meet you?”
I felt my heart stop. How did he know everything? And how the Hell was I supposed to get out of this? I did not want to get hit by his torture curse again. I hadn’t thought he’d use an unforgivable on me, but he’d proved that nothing was sacred. I thought about it, buying time, and reasoned that if Dumbledore showed up to the meeting the next day and found me absent, he would know that Tom had something to do with it. I decided that under no circumstance would Tom find out the place or time of the meeting. I cleared my mind and tried to block my thoughts, straining to remember what little I had been taught about occlumency.
I groaned and rolled onto my back to look up at him. “Tom,” I whispered, grimacing as if it hurt me to speak. I gestured weakly with my hand, beckoning him closer. He smirked and leaned down, putting his ear to my lips. I took a deep breath and whispered, “Fuck you.”
There was a moment of absolute silence. Then, without warning, he wrapped his fingers around my throat. I gasped and clawed at the backs of his hands, but he wouldn’t let go. “Tom!” I gasped desperately, panic raging through my veins. “Tom, please!” My lungs were screaming for air, and black spots were appearing before my eyes. Tom looked crazed; his eyes were wide and furious, his teeth bared in a permanent snarl. His wand lay forgotten on the floor beside us. I reached my hand desperately towards it; it was only inches from the tips of my fingers, but I felt myself rapidly losing consciousness. I raised my eyes pleadingly to his, letting him see all the hurt and pain and confusion and lonliness that I felt. “Tom, why are you doing this?” I managed to choke out, and I thought I saw a brief flash of compassion and uncertainty flit across his face before I lost all consciousness.
“Maura,” an unfamiliar, worried voice said softly into my ear. I was vaguely aware of something soft beneath me, and the flicker of candles against my closed eyelids, but I couldn’t move or respond. I heard a shuffling and the clinking of potions bottles beside me, and felt a gentle hand on my forehead. A bottle of potion was tipped into my mouth, and I felt a few drops trickle down my throat. I tried to swallow, but felt pain shoot through my neck. “Please, just swallow this.” The voice said, with a note of desperation, but I couldn’t. “Shit.” The voice continued. “I know you can’t hear me. Well maybe you can. Shit, I’m losing my mind, I can’t believe I’m….” I heard the bottle clink as it was set back on the table. Fingers wrapped themselves around my wrist, checking my pulse. I could feel my heart beating, but it felt like it was going in slow motion. The hand held mine gently, and as I was slipping back into sleep, I distinctly heard the whispered words, “I’m sorry.”
Much later, I opened my eyes and beheld a familiar green canopy above me. I took a few deep breaths and tried to swallow again. It was really painful, but I could do it. I went to move my hand up to my throat to massage it, but found that it was still held by the one who was taking care of me. Carefully, I tilted my head down slightly and saw that my saviour had fallen asleep with his head on the bed beside me, his fingers entwined loosely with mine. All I could see was the back of a guy’s head with jet-black hair. I leaned back on the pillows and surveyed the room. It looked slightly familiar. There was a low couch, a dresser and a desk with books on a shelf above it. I knew I had seen it before, but my foggy brain couldn’t place it.
I felt my companion beginning to stir. I smiled as he lifted his head and looked at me bleary-eyed, but when I saw who it was, the grin slipped from my face. “You!” I tried to say, but it came out as more of a croak. I pulled my hand out of his and brought it weakly to my throat, but even that small amount of effort sent the world spinning again. His sleepy look vanished, and his eyes, widened. His lips parted as if he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t. For just a moment, emotion was visible on his face. I saw guilt, relief and pain all fighting for dominance, and I could have sworn his eyes became brighter.
“Maura,” he managed to say reaching towards me, but I flinched away. His look of relief was replaced with sudden cold indifference; his mask was back in place. He withdrew his hands and applied himself to the mass of potion bottles on the bedside table. Selecting one, he opened the cork and held it to my lips. “Drink,” he said shortly. I pressed my lips together. I didn’t trust him. He closed his eyes as if praying for patience, and for a moment, I thought he might hit me. But he didn’t. His blue eyes opened and regarded me. He lifted the bottle and held it before my eyes. “This is a potion to help ease the pain in your throat, and make it easier for you to breathe. By all means if you wish to keep your pain, continue refusing me.”
I glared at him with all the hatred I could muster. I tried to say, “It’s your fault!” but I couldn’t even make a sound anymore, and the effort made my eyes water.
A tiny smirk graced his lips, but the hand that wiped a tear from my cheek was surprisingly gentle. “Just drink it,” he said softly, with the tiniest hint of pleading in his voice, and it was that more than anything that made me part my lips. He tipped the potion into my mouth, and I immediately felt a soothing, cooling sensation engulf my throat. I began to breathe more easily. “Good,” he said, putting the empty bottle down and selecting another.
“What’s that one for?” I croaked.
He raised his eyebrows. “Must you question everything? Just drink it.” He held it to my lips, and reluctantly I swallowed it. After several more potions, he left me, telling me to sleep. He extinguished the candles with a wave of his hand, and without a backwards glance, left the room.
I was left in darkness, with only the sound of my breathing for company. I didn’t quite believe what I’d just witnessed. What was Tom doing? First he tried to kill me, but then tried to heal me? Even though he was the one who had hurt me in the first place? It didn’t make any sense! And why had he seemed so concerned while I slept, and so relieved when I awoke? It was as if he actually cared…
My still somewhat foggy mind returned to what I had seen in his memory. After he’d murdered his family, the look of horror and guilt he’d had on his face had mirrored the one he’d had when I woke up. Was it possible that Tom Riddle actually had regrets? Could he really be sorry for all the things he’d done?
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