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Chapter 2 : Mr. Riddle's Stars
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“More logs for your fire, Milord?” Henshaw inquired in the dulcet tones he adopted whenever his master was in an especially dangerous temper.
Four fingers on Tom Riddle’s right hand flinched in a silent no, keeping his dusky eyes glazed on the low-burning embers in the fireplace’s grate. His face was attractive enough that it was almost impossible for any part of it to seem ugly, but his sullen features in combination with the mutilated half-light of the hearth made him just frightening enough for Henshaw to back out of the room without another word.
St. Tenebris represented more than Tom Riddle’s address. It was a physical continuation of his spirit; his mind, sieve-like, drained into the décor, the lighting and architecture, staining miles of rough white carpet runner the darkest and bloodiest red conceivable. Tom set himself to the task of padding down one such carpet as soon as Henshaw quitted his private parlor, rumpled hair falling over his forehead. The skeletal pallor of his feet upon the floor reminded him of ghosts…the ghosts he couldn’t cast out of St. Tenebris no matter how hard he tried…
Twin kid gloves peeled away to the cherry wood floor, exposing a hideous gold ring crowned with black stone. He twirled it around and around the middle finger of his left hand, glaring murderously at a multitude of Toms in passing windows as he strode with purpose to an empty bedroom.
Once inside, he tore his wand out of his pocket, its tip igniting tides of crystalline blue that rose and fell in maps, numbers, and designs spanning the walls. His eyes, bloodshot with insomnia, roved as though unattached by muscular strings; a threadbare shirt hung loose on his frame with one sleeve collapsed at the elbow. Tom stopped short, not remembering what he was doing in this damp, unused room in the first place, and raced down the corridor back to his parlor. Moments later, he accosted Henshaw in the banquet hall with a sealed envelope addressed to Miss Pomona Sprout.
“Our fastest owl,” was all he said, and then disappeared upstairs.
She came, as he knew she would. By the time he heard the telltale whispering of emerald ash beneath his mantle, two stockinged legs emerging like a young female Father Christmas, his appearance had undergone a stunning alteration. A tawny sphinx’s pelt now draped his shoulders, nary a hair out of place on his polished head, boots planted squarely in the shadows where he could be at his most ambiguous.
“Mr. Riddle?” Pomona squeaked, panning the room hopefully. He noted that she wore heron-blue robes, undoubtedly the best clothing she owned, which made him roll his eyes in distaste. Summoning her here was so easy that it wasn’t even satisfying.
You mustn’t think that way, he instructed himself, although this mental voice sounded alien, unwanted. He jerked away from it. You’ll never be normal unless you try.
It should have been simple, shouldn’t it? Tom had seen countless idiots coming by it accidentally, effortlessly. He loathed the idea of not being able to achieve something as common as love when any other mundane ignoramus could love armfuls of people all at once without even trying.
“Pomona,” he purred, taking a dramatic step toward her. Her apprehension cleared, smiling tremulously. She wore no lipstick today.
“Mr. Riddle!” Her hands fidgeted, finding their way around her collarbone, her waist, winding into her hair. She couldn’t keep still. “I didn’t see you there.”
You see very little. “You look lovely,” he told her, mouth twitching. “And I thought I asked you to call me Tom.”
He pretended to be charmed by her bashful smile, offering her a seat on the sofa and a range of savory snacks. She kindly said ‘no thank-you’ to the food, which made his civility lapse just long enough for Pomona to glean the cold, dead look in his eyes.
“Or maybe just one,” she amended, reaching to pluck an Eccles cake off the tray. “But I can’t stay long – they want me in the office at seven tomorrow morning.”
His expression now so amiable that it was impossible to believe it had ever been anything otherwise, he dropped onto the velvet cushion at her side and positioned himself so that he could pierce her with his full attention. His tongue sharpened against the roof of his mouth, an arsenal of words choosing just the right arrow to fire into her heart. “Forgive me for the lateness of the hour. I had no idea it was nearly eleven. I hope you don’t mind?”
She shook her head vigorously, waiting for him to continue. Tom was glad of this. He preferred to always be the one speaking, anyway, since his half of any discussion always comprised the intelligent half.
“Tell me all about yourself, Pomona Sprout.”
Licking the currants off her teeth, she ventured, “Maybe I’ll tell you something if you’ll tell me something.” He raised his eyebrows, which she took as permission to keep going. “I admit that I’m wondering why you asked me here on such short notice.” She scooted a fraction of an inch closer, peering up at him through lowered eyelashes. What was that emotion? He scanned his photographic memory, images of various people floating to the surface. Hope. She is hopeful for a physical verification of my regard.
He cupped his hand under her chin, corners of his eyes crinkling. “Would you believe me if I said that I’m curious about you? That I’ve missed you?”
She laughed lightly, folding her hands in her lap and brushing cake crumbs onto the carpet. “Oh, I don’t know…”
Resisting the overpowering urge to clean up the mess of crumbs, Tom deflected his concentration to her, voice sharper than he intended when he said, “And why wouldn’t you believe me?”
Pomona studied him, grin giving way to alarm when she saw that he had taken her seriously. “Oh, I just meant –”
“What did I say?” he interrupted, posture suddenly severe. She stiffened under the weight of his gaze. “Tell me distinctly, precisely what I said or did that made you not believe me.”
“I was only – I was just being modest,” the young woman stammered, sliding imperceptibly down the sofa away from him. A furious blush stained her cheeks. “Sorry. You’re very literal, aren’t you?”
Tom ground his teeth together. With heavy self-restraint, he rolled his shoulders and then his head; when his face wound up facing hers once more, she looked wary. He noticed that one hand clutched her purse as if ready to leave at any moment.
“Now, darling, don’t be upset. Although you have every right to blame me…then again, your beauty is the ultimate culprit. Any mortal man would be positively out of his senses to be sitting here next to you. How can I be held responsible for myself when a goddess is before me?”
And there it was. Her smile returned. He wasn’t safe yet, though. He needed her to be on the brink of worship, even if he despised those who groveled at his feet, climbing on top of each other to bask in his approval.
“You don’t really mean that,” she giggled, acting the part of obligatory humility.
He nudged her with his shoulder. “I knew instantly when I first saw you that you were special.” She made to speak, to wave it off with more nervous laughter, but he pressed one finger to her lips. “Don’t argue it. Confidence is far more appealing, trust me.”
Pomona swallowed, leaning closer. She pulled her hair back and twisted it behind her so that it wouldn’t be in their way, eagerly waiting.
Kiss her. She wants you to. Prove you can do it.
He jerked away, wincing painfully.
“I – wait a moment,” he pleaded, sprinting out of the room.
Pomona’s jaw dropped, wondering what she’d done. He’d clearly been enamored with her. Had she spoken wrongly? She tested her breath, frantically checked her reflection in the glass of a portrait frame. It took several seconds before her subconscious picked up on the picture frame’s inhabitant, and hurriedly smashed it back onto a small table before Mr. Riddle could return and see her reaction.
Staring resolutely at her lap, Pomona could still feel the helpless gray eyes of Merlin searching her, lips unclasping over a silver beard to yell words that made no sound. He’d been hexed silent.
She knew that painting, baroque iron frame and all. It once hung in the Charms classroom at Hogwarts but went missing in her second year. Everyone had assumed Peeves… Was it possible that Mr. Riddle could have stolen it? The idea perplexed her. There was no earthly reason why Mr. Riddle would need to steal a portrait of Merlin – whose connection to himself, beyond their both belonging to Slytherin House, was nonexistent – and furthermore, he could easily have found paintings of Merlin just about anywhere.
Why would he want that particular portrait?
Mr. Riddle materialized three feet behind the sofa, startling Pomona. Shaken and confused that she already was, his palpable intensity made her resolve to Floo home directly. She stood up, wobbling a bit. “Thank you for having me over, Mr. Riddle, but it’s rather late and I think it would be best if I went home.”
He looked shocked.
“But I –” He raked a hand through his newly disheveled hair, gesturing to the door behind him. “There’s no need, no need at all. I’ve just dismissed the staff for the night, for your benefit. I believe having them afoot inhibits you, does it not?” He nodded, eyes savage, as if that would convince her to take his projected feelings and embrace them as her own.
Pomona hesitated, fingers tight around the purse’s vinyl handle. It made zipping noises as she drummed her nails over top. “I don’t know.” She glanced at the portrait of Merlin, then quickly averted her scrutiny to a carriage clock hanging from the mouth of a dead, stuffed hippogriff. Its eyes had been removed, swapped for white opals that dispensed a sort of blind, soulless mien she found quite ghastly.
Tom changed tack. “I understand,” he sighed. He twisted his body towards the wall opposite so that she couldn’t see him, making his shoulders slump. “I’m such a dreadful bundle of nerves whenever you’re around. I wouldn’t want to stay with me, either.”
She peeked around his shoulder, one hand floating in a wave of heat coiling off the fire’s logs. What was she doing with her hand? Did she plan to attack him, perhaps thinking that just because he wasn’t looking at her, he wasn’t six steps ahead of her with his wand at the ready?
No. She is concerned. She means only to touch me. He felt his palm relax, wand releasing from a stern grasp. He had been nanoseconds away from blowing her through the fourth and fifth floors, and into the sky beyond.
“No!” Her voice was quick, sweet, affected with lies. “I’d love to stay, honestly. It’s not you at all, it’s just –”
“Wonderful!” He whirled on the spot, beaming brilliantly. “Then what would you like to do?”
Pomona was so polite that she couldn’t bring herself to respond in any way other than, “Whatever you would like to do.” She gnawed on her lower lip, staring at the floor. It got on Tom’s nerves whenever people broke eye contact. To regain hers, he produced a downy stalk of monkshood with a flourish of his wand. Its indigo petals glowed faintly in the darkened room, now lifted to her nose so that she could inhale its deadly fragrance.
“They’re gorgeous,” she crooned, stroking the leaves. Her nails were stubby, chewed into mangled shapes. “What kind of flowers are these?”
His smile was so large that his eyes were tight little holes, void of warmth. He resented Pomona for being so foolish, so gullible, so easily pleased with parlor tricks. But if she’d been a challenging woman to please, he would have been doubly irritated. Tom didn’t know who he despised more – people who loved him blindly, or people who kept their eyes and ears at bay. Professor Dumbledore’s skepticism flashed in his mind, making him uneasy. He could not tolerate being mistrusted, whether that mistrust was warranted or not.
“It is merely a shadow, my dear, compared to your magnificent splendor.”
He knew all the right words to make her breath hitch. He had a thousand smiles in his stockpile and could retrieve the most effective one in a heartbeat. But he knew, on an annoyingly conscious level, that most men did not have to think about the act of smiling before engaging in it. Tom struggled to navigate what was normal and what was not in everyday banter; what was polite and expected and beguilingly Mr. Riddle. It took a great deal of work, of patience, to become himself.
He pondered this hopelessly ordinary young woman, Pomona, wondering how he could use her. Intermittent Legilimency informed him that she thought she would be the one to break through his façade, the special girl who could shatter barriers like no previous girl before her. Throughout the night, hours blurring from midnight to one, Tom molded himself into what her subconscious thoughts betrayed she wanted him to be: relaxed muscles, naughty jokes, hardy laughs – none of the gentleness or caution she would have actively expected.
They toured St. Tenebris, Tom opening door after door for her, taking her hand in his and Apparating around the grounds to see all of his favorite haunts. “What do you think?” he asked breathlessly, moonlit forehead glistening with sweat. They stood on the edge of his property, in an ancient graveyard for a family dynasty called ‘Smith’, Tom leaning against a stripped wooden fence with marshy ponds dotting a field opposite.
Pomona blinked, scrunching her cloak more tightly around her shoulders. “Of what?”
The muscles in Tom’s jaw jumped, aggravated, but he replied in a slow, deliberate voice, “The tombstones. Can’t you read them? Helga Hufflepuff’s entire bloodline is buried here.” His features distorted with frenzy. “How much do you think this cemetery is worth?”
Before she could respond, he rushed on: “Thirty thousand Galleons. The trees are all high-quality wand trees, too, and do you see that pond there?”
Pomona nodded, forehead puckered.
“Watery grave of twelve hundred goblins massacred in the Goblin Rebellion.”
Tom ignored her, nonplussed. “Altogether, this land is as close as you can get to priceless. Do you know how much money something needs to be worth in order to earn the title ‘priceless’?”
Pomona got the sensation that he didn’t mean for her to answer his question, and so remained silent.
“Upwards of four-hundred thousand Galleons, the grand total of my collection.” Tom inhaled deeply through the nose, both pale hands clutching the wooden fence-posts. He surveyed every square inch of his estate like a Gringotts goblin would analyze his treasure, then drew back in satisfaction to loop his elbow in Pomona’s. “Would you like to see my livery of thestrals?”
Pomona laughed. “You’re a very amusing man. As if we could actually see them!”
Tom led her briskly to his stables, smirking.
After Pomona had been obliged to compliment almost every possession in Mr. Riddle’s castle, listening to him jabber about their exact value with a veneration bordering on obsession, she reminded him for the fourth or fifth time that she was expected to arrive at work at seven in the morning, only a few short hours from then.
“A dance before you go,” he demanded, entwining his fingers in hers. Pomona’s grin slid sloppily around her face, unsure when to smile, when to laugh, what to feel. Something about staring at Mr. Riddle, being immersed in his stiflingly close proximity for so long, made her forget what it was like to feel normal. She could have been someone amazing, someone beautiful, someone mysterious. She could have been an extension of Mr. Riddle himself.
His mouth, a magnet, captivated her attention when his gaze couldn’t. She loved all of the things that dripped from it; his words, while she had long since ceased to digest their meaning, sounded like music. There wasn’t a single phrase in his vocabulary that couldn’t sound seductive when formed on his tongue. Pomona’s brown eyes trailed down his shirt, the fabric drunk with sweat. She liked that he wasn’t pristine, that he, too, endured moments of imperfection. It humanized a man universally regarded as an angel.
“I would love to,” she replied in an imitation of his purr. Mr. Riddle’s teeth flashed in the darkness, saturated with blue starlight. She thought to herself that he must be inebriated somehow, the way he twirled her around the rocky, hard-packed earth. His dancing was poor, often stumbling; she delighted in it, in every flaw that escaped him.
Each flaw, she didn’t know, was perfectly constructed. Intentional. Tom helped Pomona believe that she was the only woman capable of seeing his heart. He gasped for oxygen when his pulse beat slow and steady, cackled like a hyena when he’d already heard her speeches running through her head before she uttered them, pregnant with pauses, crossings-out, and modifications until she deemed them clever enough to say aloud.
By four in the morning, she had no notions of what ‘work’ was; by five she felt she’d never been deeper in love with anyone in her life; and by six there was no way she was going to be able to go to work that day. Tom waited until seven, when she was sure to be late, to abruptly detach from her side. Pomona gaped at him, jaw slack. “Where are you going?” she asked as he spun on his heel without ceremony and walked away.
“I have business to attend to,” he answered, not turning around so that she couldn’t witness his triumphant leer. Taking tokens from others, things that didn’t belong to him, had never worn its welcome. Taking others’ time was just as gratifying. “Henshaw will show you out. Good day.”
He closed his bedroom door behind him with a dense thud. Six locks clicked into place, then silence.
Tom knew it was futile to pretend he was someone he wasn’t. He could not love her, could not admire her. He felt nothing except for contempt, brain foggy with all the infinite ways in which Miss Sprout was useless. He had sought to steal something alive for once, something still-beating, to see if their heart might change his…
There had always been a question in Tom’s head, for as long as he could remember in a colorful history of shrieks, threats, and frightened faces belonging to the staff of Wool’s Orphanage. He’d heard them whispering to each other, and had been whispering it to himself ever since: Can you truly cure a psychopath?
Or do they just get better at pretending?
Perhaps ‘something alive’ wasn’t written in Tom’s stars, after all. Perhaps he wasn’t the one who needed to be cured.
A real, genuine smile spread over his face for the first time in months as he considered all of the ways Pomona’s death could be more useful than her life. Raven hair plastered to his forehead, he swept over to a writing desk to plan – planning was essential, dictatorship in cursive form – passing a chalice of unicorn blood to his mouth and lapping deeply from it.
Perfect teeth now bloodied, lips stretched taut, he stabbed a quill’s pointed blade into his chalice and extracted it, dripping bright pearls of silver, over a diary where his dreams swiftly evaporated within the page.
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