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Chapter 4 : Beyond the Pale
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“You’ll see when we get there.”
Pomona giggled as Tom slid his hands over her eyes. His palms were humid, eyes shadowed with purplish stains today. How long had it been since he last slept?
“Where are you taking me?”
“Shhh,” he pressed, grinning widely. She couldn’t see him, but she could feel his smile and it pleased her. Her heart leapt as she wondered whether or not he was taking her in the direction of his bedroom.
But he wasn’t.
She smelled it halfway down the corridor, mingled scents confusing as she tried to extricate them from each other, match them to names. “Is that oleander?”
“You guessed it! I didn’t think you would.”
He removed his hands, looking happier than she’d ever seen him. Despite his sallow complexion – he had the skin of a preserved corpse, skin tight and coarse, muscles stretched thin from too much frozen smiling – Tom Riddle radiated intense wavelengths of joy. It wasn’t a contagious joy, one that could spread to Pomona and make her glow like he did; it was dangerous, impulsive, and one that he didn’t want to share.
A once-empty room, just down the hall from Tom’s parlor, had transformed into a forest of flowering shrubs. Pomona’s vision swam between rows and rows of greenery, razor-edged leaves sweating moisture.
There wasn’t just oleander, whose five pink fingers rapped against the window every time Tom exhaled a breath; there was rhododendron, nodding at Pomona with boughs of purple; black bryony; and daphne blooms. Cherry laurel, azalea bushes, and nightshade hung suspended from the ceiling so that Pomona felt squeezed into a very small space, claustrophobic in an ocean of flora.
“What do you think?” Tom asked lightly from the room’s doorway, doorframe shrinking around him until he was shoulder-to-shoulder with either side.
Pomona didn’t respond.
“Took me ages to grow it all. I had magic to help speed up the process, of course, but I knew how much you would love this gift.”
Pomona backed up one step. “Gift?”
“It’s for you!” he cried, every single one of his sharp white teeth displayed in a magnificent smile. “A conservatory to remember you by.”
She backed up another step. “All of these plants,” she stuttered. “I’ve been reading my new botany book, Tom, and all of the plants in this room are – aren’t they poisonous?”
“When man was spun from dirt, did he not get a little bit blemished in the process?” Tom said, striding forth with power in his gait. “What you create comes from within. It is part of who you are. You love me, and by extension you must love this conservatory because it was borne from me.”
She eyed him warily, no longer smiling. “I don’t love you,” she disputed softly. “I can’t love what doesn’t love me in return. I’m not stupid. I know you don’t love me.”
The excessive oleander made Pomona nauseous. Their scent seemed to spill out of Tom’s mouth as well when he hissed, “And how do you know that?”
She stared evenly at him, quiet.
He circled her, shoulders drawn up around his neck like a bird of prey. “That wasn’t a confession.” His voice was low and deadly. “It was an inquiry. I demand to know how it is you came by the truth that your affections, which have been thrown at me so irrationally, have left me as unscathed as ever.”
Was he only imagining it, or did her eyes fill with tears when he said those words? “So it’s true, then?” She crossed her arms over her chest, betraying her astonishment. “You really don’t care about me?”
Tom considered her coldly. “The very suggestion is insulting.”
But then his eyes, so black and snappish, thawed a little. He took a step closer. There was nowhere she could flee.
"Is this a joke?"
"I would never do you such a dishonor, my sweet." He tucked one finger under her chin, forcing her head upwards. “You are better than a token." His manic gaze heated her face, searing her arteries. “The cache of trinkets is for victims unknown to me. You are not a stranger. I’ll need more than some handheld object to remind me of you.” Tom spun around dramatically, leaves wafting in his wake. “Welcome to your paradise, Pomona. Your heaven, your hell.”
His features shimmered in a fog of aconite, tendrils of the flower reaching out to kiss his arms and waist as he waltzed by. Their condensed fragrance made Pomona feel sleepy and stupid, her movements even more sluggish than they normally were whenever she was around Tom. She was, they both knew, no match for him.
“There, there,” he whispered. “Don’t be frightened, dear. Be grateful that I felt anything towards you at all. Feel complimented. Feel honored.”
Her eyes brightened with – what was it? More tears?
“Murder,” he added, barely audible. “I feel murder towards you, and the all-consuming ecstasy of knowing it is only inches from completion.” He wasn’t blinking, pupils boring rapt holes through a spot on her throat where he could see her pulse jumping. He was closer than her own breath. “When I look at you and search your soul, Pomona, I find that more than anything, all I want is to see you suffer. To feel your whole life sift between my fingers, your memories rubbing away into dust.”
Pomona toppled into a rhododendron, delirious. She shook her head multiple times, as if that would drive him to stay away, but he kept coming closer and closer with his coal-black gaze that promised death.
“I cannot begin to convey the immense gratification your loss will leave behind,” he confided cheerily, twirling the stem of a rhododendron leaf between thumb and forefinger. “But I am not evil, darling, and it would be ever so unsavory for me if I didn’t claim you fully as my own before I killed you.”
Pomona’s breathing was coming out in sharp, deflated gasps. He’s serious. He means to kill me. He’s going to try to murder me! Her brain’s jumbled wires fired off in every direction, attempting to reconcile the charming Mr. Riddle who bestowed flowers and smiles so liberally, with this deranged madman.
“I’m the one who’s going to have to live with this memory, after all,” Tom elaborated, plucking flowers at random and waving his wand at them so that they burgeoned into double, triple, quadruple the amount. Pomona couldn’t get their perfumes out of her dazed senses. The door was so shrunken, so far away…
“Your permission is the only thing that remains to be dealt with.” Tom bent in half to kiss her hand. “In order for this experience to carry a long-lasting euphoria, you must go to your death willingly.”
“What?” Pomona sputtered. “If you think you’re going to just slaughter me in your house without a fight, you’re – that’s not even insane because you’re so far past insane – there’s no word for what you are!”
“You don’t understand,” he argued, hands knit together in a plea. “Tell me what your price is. I can give your family money, so much money. They’ll have more Galleons than they’ll know what to do with. Jewels? Jewels for your lovely sister, perhaps? And a house –” He extended his arms, black hair wild from dampness. “Your parents can have this house. I’ll give it to them.”
“For my death, you would give my parents St. Tenebris?” she replied flatly.
He crooked a finger. “For your willing death.”
“I’m certain my parents would rather not live here if it’s only a consolation for my no longer living at all.”
“In that part, you have no choice. You will die one way or another.”
Pomona seized a rhododendron and smashed it to the floor, soil and shattered clay pot ruining Tom’s pristine shoes. “Then I will die fighting, taking as many pieces of you with me as possible.”
Tom laughed. “Take as many pieces of me as you want. More will remain behind, I assure you.” His laugh turned into a scoff, eyebrows clinching together. “I don’t understand why you’re being so stubborn. You ought to be grateful for all the attention I’ve paid you, the visits, this conservatory. Everything. Don’t you see how much pain you are causing me, just by being alive? I must blot you out, Pomona Sprout. The world will not right itself until I do.
“My problems will evaporate, the whispers will fade, my life will be normal – but only after you are gone. Your death, my dear, my heart, my love: Your death will inject me with fresh life. It will bring to me what I so desperately need. Give me your compliance and know that it is appreciated. Give me your compliance, and know that it could not have been better spent on a more valuable cause.”
By way of answering, Pomona tipped over three more plants.
“Very well, then,” he sneered. The malevolent grin had wiped from his features, leaving behind marble coldness. “Breathe your last, if you can spare it while running. I shall give you one minute’s grace to fear as you have never feared before.”
He turned his back; Pomona stood paralyzed, convinced that if she fled he would only attack her from behind. But then Tom proceeded to hum to himself, bowing his head deeply to drink the flowers’ fumes. It was only when she realized that the song he was humming to himself was a backwards count from sixty seconds that Pomona tore out of the conservatory, down the corridor, and out of St. Tenebris.
Her legs had become rubber, bending pliantly under her weight as she took flight down a never-ending lawn. The wind knotted her hair, resisting her swift movement as though working with Mr. Riddle to make her slog in slow-motion. Couldn’t she move faster than this? When had her ankles gotten so weak?
Ferocious winds and lashing gray rain chased her into the forest, shrill whistle of a faraway train screaming over her heavy panting.
This can't be happening. This isn't real.
“Why do you run?” Tom Riddle’s voice called out, making her shriek. Tears cascading down her cheeks, Pomona scratched her hands on tree bark and stumbled, headlong, into a dried-up riverbed. While launching herself off of the stones to gain traction, she overturned them. From out of the dark, dank earth, a misty black mass rose and took the shape of Tom Riddle. More stones overturned under Pomona’s scrambling shoes, releasing ten other boggarts who instantly assumed the form of Tom, as well.
Twelve Tom Riddles pursued her, identical down to the taste of flowers on their breath, and she didn’t know which one was real.
“Don’t be scared,” one of them warned as he advanced on her. “That will make this all the nastier for you.”
Pomona shot yellow sparks at it, but the boggart – or Tom – did not retreat. She’d never learned how to attack boggarts. She was defenseless.
One of the Toms gestured at them with a swipe of his arm, making the clones disappear. Their voices remained behind for a long moment, chilling Pomona to the marrow with high, manic laughter.
“No!” she shouted, firing a curse at Riddle. His face contorted into a ruthless mask, flinging the curse right back at her. She rebounded it with a Protego before inflicting a full body-bind curse.
He deflected it without missing a step. “Stop!” he bellowed. “Enough!”
Pomona charged through the trees, hurling hexes over her shoulder. They blazed past Tom in streaks like shooting stars, flooding his skin with beautiful incandescent light. He marched with grace, with importance – a warrior in search of conquest.
Pomona tried with no avail to Apparate. What charms had he performed on his property? What sort of magical precautions had he taken that morning, knowing what twisted events were in store for her? No way to escape… For a moment, Pomona knew what it was to be trapped inside one’s own skin.
“Stop running!” Tom roared, slicing trees in half with spells. Some of them he yanked out of the ground, rocks and dirt crumbling from their serpentine roots, to create channels in the dirt like that of an earthquake. “There is no sportsmanship in drawing out a kill that is rightfully mine! You cannot evade me. You cannot prolong the inevitable.”
“No!” she rasped again, Tom’s fingers clenching a fistful of her hair. Closing her eyes, she raced onward. There was an audible ripping noise as Mr. Riddle tore the follicles right out of her scalp, standing there dumbfounded with Pomona’s blood-tinged roots hanging over one wrist.
“Get away from me!” she screamed at him, casting every spell, every jinx, every incantation she’d ever learned during her time at Hogwarts. Nothing worked. He anticipated every spell she uttered, even the nonverbal ones, as if he could read her mind.
Tears of agony welled in Tom’s eyes. “Just – DIE!” he shouted. “Please! I can’t take this burning –”
His whole body shook, rolling with seizures; his eyes swiveled into the back of his head so that only the whites shone, foam gurgling at his lips. He moaned in torment as invisible flames scorched him from the inside-out, clawing at his heart. Tom hit the ground so hard that he sent leaves floating all around him, an invisible fire charring his organs. There was a fleeting image of hurtling through space, disconnected from earth, and when he opened his eyes again Pomona was standing above him, cloaking him in shadow. She could not move, could not speak. She could only watch.
His eyelids fluttered, one hand slithering through decaying leaves and cracked dirt to swipe at her ankle. “Please,” he murmured. “Please.”
His skull pounded with the noise of her labored breathing, the eyes suspiciously full, the lips rubbed over with too much red. “Wipe that off your face,” he muttered, still spread-eagled on the forest floor.
“It’s blood,” she retorted, spitting on him. “Here. You can have it back.”
He hadn’t noticed the gaping wound on his arm. One of her jinxes must have hit its target, and she had been close enough at the time for refracted spatter to coat her mouth. “Ahh,” he remarked dispassionately, examining the injury. “Odd. I don’t feel a thing.” He flicked his wand absently, still speaking in a mildly curious tone. “Stupefy.”
Pomona plummeted face-first into the dirt next to him. Tom breathed a sigh of extreme relief.
“At last. At long, longest last.”
Tom rolled onto his knees to appraise her still, terrified body. Her eyes were stationary but her heartbeat thundered in her veins, making her pressure points bulge like a bloated carcass.
He had warned her, hadn’t he? He’d gifted her with a warning from the start, a message that plainly said you’re next. Everyone knew that begonias meant ‘beware’. It was Pomona’s own fault if she chose to disregard this. He had warned her, and she hadn’t listened, and now in delicious irony he had transfigured the girl into a begonia herself.
Tom smiled in satisfaction, wringing his shirt over her grave to shower the plant with a steady diet of his blood. “Wipe your mouth,” he advised, using his thumb to blot one of the blood droplets from a green leaf that might have been Pomona’s arm, kidney, or liver. He rejoiced at the sight of her – helpless, leafy and green with a head of fiery orange petals. The scalding flames within cooled instantaneously, the balm of murder appeasing some god who lived in his heart; a god with an appetite for sacrifice.
“Pomona will thrive after all,” he assured the plant affectionately, standing up to clap the dirt from his hands. Tom tilted his head back and laughed darkly to himself, eyes fixated on a patch of robin’s-egg-blue sky. It was such a lovely, lovely day, ripe with opportunities.
“And Pomona will sprout.”
A/N: At his crux, Voldemort is a psychopathic serial killer who will use any means, any justification, to rack up victims. Before he decided to rinse the magical world free of Muggle-borns, he must have satiated his thirst for taking lives in smaller ways, like this. Originally I had planned for Pomona to make it out alive, but I couldn't resist turning her into a plant because in my mind, Voldemort's first downfall in Godric's Hollow puts a nix on his old spells and she transforms back into a person - the earthy, dirty, plant-like person we know from canon. Which means that she got that way by being a flower for a few decades.
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